By Munawar Alam
Soon after India opened up to privatization and open-door policy in 1992, the government had a huge investment program of rehabilitating and modernizing the various ports, along its over 7,500 km coast line. This included privatizing some of the port activites, to improve efficiency and leverage private funding.
The Bank geared up to assist the government in its program, sent a reconnaissance mission with a team of port and transport specialists, to discuss the program and plans, for future lending. I too was part of that team, visiting Goa, along with Mr. Murugan, Mission Leader, an Indian who had worked abroad in port sector, with immense knowledge, and Juan, a Chinese transport specialist, well versed with the Bank’s operations. I arrived in Goa one day earlier than them, as I went straight from Delhi, while others arrived from Manila.
I checked into a nice five-star hotel on a beach, right on the Arabian sea. These were some of the luxuries we enjoyed working for the Bank. Whatever the reason at that time, I was the only guest. I don’t know why? Maybe it was not a tourist season. The rooms were great, and the big place was deserted.
It was sunny and humid, so I was preparing for a bath. Neatly stacked were the crisp fresh towels, in the closet. When I plucked the first towel, I saw a dead cockroach between the stacks. I was horrified, and called the housekeeping staff and complained. The house maid came quickly to my room, almost in tears, apologizing profusely and requesting me not to complain to the management. I could have not complained, but then I thought that this is a five-star hotel, and if I don’t complain then this laxity will remain. So, I went ahead and complained to the management. A young and bright lady manager came over and apologized.
As I had all the time with me in the whole of afternoon and evening, I went out around the hotel in the surrounding areas to have a leisurely walk and enjoy the scene, when it was a little cooler. It had little shacks, villagers were playing, doing their daily chore. Some of them were keen to know more about me and wanted some friendly conversation, or so it seemed, in broken English. All seemed to be fine and casual.
I continued my leisure walk, along a narrow path in shadows of the hills on one side. A little later, I met with a group of boys who asked me where was I staying, and wanted to know even my room number. I told him the name of the hotel, as it was the only hotel in that area, but did not give them the correct room number. They seemed to be too intrusive, but did not sound alarming. So, I continued.
After almost one hour of stroll, I was hungry and sat in one of the shacks, almost 150 meters from the hotel and ordered my dinner at about 1830 hrs. While I was waiting for my dinner, a group of boys came and sat across the table on the bench. Two of them were also who had asked me my room number. They again asked me the room number. I again gave them a wrong number.
They looked at each other, and spoke in their own language which I did not understand. They were five of them. After some conversation amongst themselves, they looked at me, said, “ok, have your dinner and we will meet after that,” and walked out.
At that moment, I sensed something wrong. I saw them standing outside the corrugated shack, busy in battle-conversation. My adrenaline was rising. I debated what to do – I had ordered food – should I wait and eat – or should I run. I thought that they may be after me for my money. I in fact had told them if they wanted money, they can have it. But they did not say anything.
Racing in my mind on what should be my next move, I slowly stood up, not to make any noise, had to walk past them trying to remain un-noticed, and made a 100 meters dash. Quickly they saw me running and ran after me, the whole lot of them. This was my run for life. I was faster and ran straight to the hotel, and shouted for the guard, “help, help.” But there was none. I reached the porch and went straight to the reception, looking back, and panting now. Thankfully, there was a receptionist.
“Those boys are chasing me, and I don’t know why. Stop them right away, and I want you to call the police.” Breathless, I instructed the person and ran up to my room on the first floor. There was some reluctance and while running upstairs, I saw that the local guys had approached the reception and were having some words with the receptionist.
From my room, I called the reception, gasping for breath, quite angrily and perturbed, “what is the matter. Why are these guys chasing me, and you have no protection for the guests? Where are the guards?”
Just then my room bell rang. I peeped from the spy glass, and saw the attractive young lady, the hotel manager, outside. I tried to look if no one else is there with her, and cautiously and slowly unbolted my room, while the safety latch was on.
“Hi, I am sorry at what happened now. But are you really interested in making a police report?”
“Of course, and why not. After all these guys are after me for no reason,” while opening the door, to allow her in.
The manger explained that a few days ago, there had been kidnapping of a young village child, and the kidnapper resembled me, as the police portrait of the suspect had been shown in local TV, asking help of villagers to report to the police of any suspect. And since many of the villagers work in the hotel, they know the room numbers quite well. So, when I told them a wrong room number, they were suspicious, and guessed me to be one of the kidnappers, moving around in the area for another hunt. Therefore, they suspected and were after me.
However, I was not convinced with the story. But I refrained from making a police report. I learnt a lesson to be extremely careful while I am on my own and in a place that I don’t know.