All for business

Monday, 27 June 2022 | Krishan Kalra | in Guest Column

Krishan Kalra Kishan Kalra


It was my first visit to Khartoum.  The change from the cool climate of Zurich to this blistering desert town was quite a shock – albeit a mild one compared to what awaited me later in the evening.  After checking in at the hotel, I called my agent and we went through the usual business of visiting government offices, aid agencies and some local industrialists.  One of the big guys graciously invited us to his house for dinner.

We sat in the courtyard of a haveli and drank good scotch. It was an open house where several people ambled in, had a drink or two and left after paying their obeisance to the feudal lord.  We had started at seven, but there was no sign of food even three hours later.  Considering that I had to start work early the next morning, I begged forgiveness for my bad manners and enquired about dinner.  Of course, said my kind host patronisingly and clapped twice for the flunkies hovering around nearby. In due course, a huge round platter was brought in and placed on the central table.  It was full of several bowls – most of them meat dishes – and in the triangular spaces near the edge were kept chunks of hard French bread.  No plates, no spoons, no forks, no napkins.  “Bon-Appetit” said the Sheikh and promptly tucked into the bowls nearest to him, dipped pieces of bread into the gravy and started licking his fingers.  I was too hungry to protest – and perhaps somewhat sozzled too – so I followed suit.

So far so good; as we ate my host kept on telling me about each dish – goat meat, chicken, venison, beef… I kept nodding approvingly.  Suddenly he dipped a piece of bread into one of the gravy-filled bowls and proffered this luscious juicy morsel to me “Here, take it, this is the best venison you will get anywhere in the world,” said my benefactor. It was with great self control that I stopped myself from throwing up. For over ten minutes I had watched him putting the same fingers into his mouth and licking them, and here he was dipping them again into a bowl and inviting me to accept this delicacy from his hand. I hesitated, till my agent nudged me with his elbow and quietly insisted that I accept the offering. Left with no choice, I gulped down the filthy morsel and tried to drown it with a big swig of whisky.

The evening eventually ended at midnight and we left after much good-byes and promises to meet again, so that we could pursue the joint venture discussion.  Just as we drove off, I literally shouted at my agent and sought an explanation for making me eat muck.  It was then that I was told why it was important to accept that virtually half eaten morsel from the host, refusing which would have meant instant stoppage of any future business transactions.  He also narrated what was in store next. I was told about the Gujju Bhai who had visited a few months earlier with a big proposal for a much bigger Sheikh.  Naturally the party for him was in greater style.  They all drove several miles into the desert and there, in an oasis, beautiful tents were pitched – complete with carpets, air-conditioners, fine furniture, chandeliers etc.  There was good music, beautiful belly dancers and all other trappings for a truly Arabian night. As the main meal began – after hours of drinking – a full roasted goat was brought on a massive platter and placed in front of the host, who proceeded to carve out the two eyes.  One eye each was placed on a thin slice of bread; the host then ceremonially held them in each hand, offered one to his chief guest and raised a toast. Our pure vegetarian Gujju didn’t know what to do.  Like me, he was also told by his agent the consequences of his not going through this ritual.  I believe, our friend snatched the eye staring at him, threw it into his mouth and washed it down with several glasses of whisky. Back in his hotel, he started throwing up and didn’t stop for three days! That was my last visit to Sudan and the end of our plan to set up business there. 

(A veteran of the corporate world, the author now does only voluntary work in various spheres. Views expressed are personal)

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