Updated: Feb 28
Still remember that day when my father, myself and others were looking at the atlas to locate ‘Uruguay’ - my first international assignment was finalized in Uruguay and I have no hesitation in accepting that I had not heard of the country before that.
I was both excited and a bit nervous while travelling to this unheard, unexplored, mystic country in far off South American land.
This was my first abroad trip for work, so initial few weeks in Montevideo was busy in settling down, understanding work, sorting out logistics, and exploring the culture and place.
Those were the days without social media, mobile phones and a very few Indians in the country. Also, language was a big challenge, as not many knew English.
Soon, reality started kicking in. Days were busy in office, but evenings and weekends were difficult due to loneliness, longing for family and friends. Coming from busy Mumbai to much quieter Montevideo, with very few friends, thousands of miles away from family was getting on my nerves. This assignment was so important for my professional growth, but loneliness was increasing, and I started thinking of returning back within few months of reaching there. I started expressing it in office and subtly exploring if my work can be done by someone else.
On that eventful evening, I was taking a stroll on the beach-front, close to my apartment singing an old Bollywood song. Just out of nowhere came a loud voice “mujhe bhi ye gaana pasand hai”. I could not believe my ears - on this remote corner of the world, walking by ‘Rio de la Plata’, somebody appreciating my singing in Hindi. I turned around to an elderly gentleman, sitting on the bench with his walking cane, lying on the sand.
I greeted him and we started with introductions. His name was Kishore Kapitan – head of diplomatic mission from South Africa to Uruguay, a person with Indian roots. He was born in Gujarat, India but the family shifted to South Africa when he was very young. He was part of the freedom struggle with Nelson Mandela and joined administration when country got independence. He had a limp in his one leg but with a very heave voice with bass, I was impressed with him in just few minutes. He mentioned that his wife is also around, walking on the beach and we continued to talk regarding Indian songs, my assignment in Uruguay, about India and his Indian roots. There was so much to talk that we dint realize that it was already an hour past and we were interrupted when Prabha ji, his wife came to us. She also had Indian roots, but not born in India. She was a very affectionate lady, fond of cooking new international dishes. Three of us spoke for another one hour sitting on that bench on Marine Drive on the Montevideo beachfront.
This initial meeting on the beachfront was the beginning of a new relationship and I used to frequent their place (not too far from my apartment) every week. I started calling them Kishore Bhai and Bhabhiji, although he was of my fathers age but with Gujarati, ‘bhai’ goes very well. They had no child. We soon became like family – now I wanted to stay in Uruguay, with my newly found guardians.
They introduced me to couple of more Indians in the city. I also started taking along some of my office colleagues, from India, to their house. Weekend parties at their home became a new norm. While they had big social circle in Montevideo, our get together became their source of connecting to their original motherland – they had left and never lived their, but indeed missed it, deep within them. We used to talk about everything ranging from culture to politics to movies to songs to religion.
He had a unique style of sharing learnings and philosophy of life with real life examples and analogies which youth can easily understand. I still remember that witty line – “in a foreign country, browse local books but don’t wish to buy or own anything, as you won’t understand language and will make a fool of yourself”. It was so important and relevant in that open culture :-).
He used to share that though he represents South Africa, but many locals in Uruguay ask him about current affairs and culture of India. Sometimes we helped him prepare for some of his presentations on Indian culture. Quest for all things Indian, led him to discover a street named after Jawaharlal Nehru and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Montevideo. He used to take pride of his Indian roots and ensured that we visited all those places. He also found out Rabindranath Tagore’ connection to Uruguay, which many people don’t know. He used to talk with pride about his meeting with Tara Gandhi, a descendant of Mahatma Gandhi, and how they spoke in Gujarati.
Prabha bhabhiji was fond of cooking and for weekend parties, she used to prepare Indian dishes for us. Many times, I called my mother in India to get recipes of north India dishes. Bhabhiji got a new challenge which she was thoroughly enjoying though, to somehow get matching Mexican spices and experimenting with Indian tastes.
They had a prayer room in their home. That Diwali is so very fresh in my memory, where amidst all those shlokas, I performed Puja, being only brahmin in that group. And later we enjoyed firecrackers, for which he took special permission from government.
Once I fall ill and they used to visit me every day, till I got well. He and bhabhiji used to drive me around in Montevideo and nearby cities. I used to join them for monthly grocery shopping, they even took me to some diplomatic parties, cultural events. I could not have asked for more in my first ever abroad trip.
When my assignment ended in Uruguay, I was very sad to leave the country, only because of Kishore bhai and bhabhiji. They came to see me off to airport and with wet eyes, we bid adieu.
We stayed in touch for few years after that but suddenly stopped hearing from them. Tried through various sources to get in touch but could not. They had left Uruguay and with every passing year, intensity of my attempts also faded.
I am a firm believer in god, around 18 years have passed since then, but still believe that Kishore bhai and bhabhiji were angels of lord sent for me. My stint in Uruguay, helped me professionally and I owe it to my guardians there.