Las Vegas-United States.
It was a Thanks Giving day. At 6-30 in the morning I started with a friend in a Ford truck. Destination-Grand Canyon. A drive of about 7 hours with brief halts.
Though the heater was put on and I, fully equipped with winter wear, the desert chilly wind was beyond my endurance, perhaps of my nativity of a tropical country. It was my 2nd long drive on a freeway; the first one was from Los Angeles to Las Vegas a few days earlier, when I set my first foot on the American soil.
The Ford was speeding at 80 mph on the glass like freeway through the desert, never giving me the impression that we were at that speed. There was nothing to watch on both sides of the highway except the serene and placid rocky mountainous terrain and the speeding cars either way.
We took an exit and had a brief halt at a small restaurant for our first morning coffee and with in next one hour we were at the Hoover Dam.
I was excited to be at the site of the very dam, which was known for its work of art and engineering superlatives. Though it was only 8.30am, many tourist groups had already gathered with their guides explaining them its history and marvels. One group was from an Asian country and I followed my friend to hear its guide. It was like a recorded speech.
"To day the dam celebrates its 60th anniversary and it is a testimony to our country's ability to construct monolithic projects in the midst of adverse conditions. This was built during the depression when thousands of men and their families came to Black Canyon to tame the Colorado River. It took less than 5 years, in a harsh and barren land, to build the largest dam of its time. Now, more than 60 years later, this dam still stands as a world-renowned structure and has been rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders. But, mind you more than 100 people died during its construction. You will be interested to know that this project was influenced by two men who were not engineers- one was an artist Allen True and another was an architect Gordon B. Kaufmann who also designed the Los Angeles Times Building…"
"You heard that? Gordon B.Kaufmann!"-
It was a whisper in my ears. With a surprise I turned aside only to find an American in that group and appeared to be listening to the guide with rapt attention. "Did he or who did?" was my immediate suspicious reaction.
"The dam was built in interlocking blocks…."
But I heard no more and continued my visit of the dam with my friend and proceeded towards our destination. I adjusted my watch at the middle of the dam to the Arizona time.
In another four hours drive, we were at Williams and lodged ourselves in a hotel, and moved to a restaurant for a quick lunch.
The group, which I had seen earlier at the Hoover dam, was already there. My friend had gone to the rest room and I was watching the group to find whether any one was from my country.
" You see, that Hoover dam was influenced by Gordon B.Kaufmann", I saw that man with a coffee cup in his hands. "By the way, my name is also Kaufmann- To Canyon?"
"Yes, I am a tourist from India" I said. "I know, I know?" he said sipping his coffee. "How does he know" but I didn't attach much importance. It might be my physical stature.
"See you soon"
He left with his coffee cup and joined the group, which was about to start to the canyon. I thought it was a friendly and routine gesture of an American.
My friend returned and we proceeded to Grand Canyon, which is located at 60 miles from Williams.
Though my friend was talking, I was inattentive and was only thinking of this American whose name was "…Kaufmann"
I heard this name some time back somewhere and where…?
I was totally engrossed in recollecting that name and where I heard it.
"Yes, that’s it-I got it"-
For a moment I shuddered with fear…
It was the first week in the month of September, when I went to Madras to obtain my visa from the American Consulate for my maiden visit to US. The visa was stamped in my passport and I spent the evening in shopping for my impending journey the next week.
By 8 PM, We started to return home in a taxi, as a heavy rain started all of a sudden with a downpour. Though the screen wipers were running, the road was not at all clear. The driver was speeding never minding the ankle deep water accumulating on the Mount Road. Suddenly at the Cathedral road junction, the taxi stopped with a sudden application of brakes and a scream and there was a sound of a thud. Someone had fallen on that isolated road who was hit by our speeding taxi. My nephew and myself shouted aloud to the driver to stop the taxi, but that irresponsible driver proceeded with a greater speed. He dropped us at our residence and immediately vanished on getting his fare. But I had my own fears as to what would be in store for us in the remaining night and the next day. The otherwise would have been a pleasant visit to Madras, might end in a fiasco.
The next morning I read in papers, that one ‘Gordon B. kaufmann’, an American tourist was hit by a speeding car and succumbed to injuries and died in a hospital and efforts were on to trace the culprit.
My lips dried up. Though I was not directly guilty, I should have stopped the driver with out moving further.
"What are we to do now, Report to the police?
"No, not at all- after all, that is the mischief of the taxi fellow. Why should we go round the police when some one else was guilty?" My nephew was not serious enough. I could not relish what he said but I had no option, because I didn't at least remember the taxi number and the procedural delays with the police might hamper my ensuing visit abroad. So we refrained from reporting to the police. But the best option would be to postpone my visit by four to six weeks to watch the progress in the case, which I did and finally I started in the first week of November.
And here I was, on way to Grand Canyon, but this ‘Kaufmann’ had shaken my otherwise pleasant journey. I tried to forget to whole episode at Madras, yet I was in a confounded state. We reached the Canyon by 2 PM. There was a documentary on the Grand Canyon in the IMAX Theater and we preferred to watch it to understand it better before proceeding to the Canyon.
The show was about to begin and a feeble voice from my back whispered ‘Hello, you liked the Canyon?’
I turned back and I found this "…Kaufmann’ occupying my back seat with apparently a glee in his face.
I was disturbed. I gave a lifeless smile and turned to the screen. The show commenced and concluded with in ˝ hour or so and we rushed to the Canyon before it was dark and stood at a vantage point, watching the colourful Canyon rocks.
The group from Asia was already there and its guide was explaining, again like a recorded speech.
"These Canyons were formed millions of years ago with changing brilliant colours at the changing light of the sun. The Colorado River rushes at the bottom, about 1,850 feet above sea level. The sides of these Canyons are made of rocks, cliffs, ridges, hills and valleys of every form. Many of the ridges have weather carved lines, which make them resemble Chinese temples…"
It was not audible due to the whistling wind, and I was also not interested, because I had seen the documentary earlier. Abruptly I heard that ‘familiar’ voice from behind.
" You see, the Canyons are 1,850 feet above the sea level. So we are now 9,000 feet above the sea level, which is why it is very cold" He was not wearing gloves and rubbing his hands.
I could express only a pale smile. I thought of getting rid of this person and I turned aside without a word and moved closer to the rim at the vantage point to enjoy watching the colourful Canyons. But it was already close to darkness and I couldn't see any colours except the red and lavender-brown. I was bending as far as possible at the rim wondering at the depth of the Canyon and how the Desert Archaic people lived within the Canyon reaching back more than 3,000 years. Suddenly, I turned back with a hiss like sound and found that ‘Kaufmann’ behind my back with both his hands close to my neck evidently trying to push me into the Canyon. I cried for help and I couldn't find my friend. My voice was very feeble and not audible even to me. I struggled hard to push him far away and in the melee he was thrown to the side of the rim and he lost his balance and had fallen down deep into the Canyon.
Within a second he was out of sight down below. I was shivering with breathlessness and cried again for help. This time my voice might have been audible and the tourists gathered around me. ‘What happened?’ I had no answer except to search for my friend who was not in sight for a few moments. He came through the crowd and was almost shaking me.
"What happened you fool?" He was demanding. Again I had no answer. He almost dragged me to the Ford and started the car for our return journey to Williams. A few yards away the bus which carried the Asian tourists was also about to start. I asked my friend to stop the car, rushed to the bus and got into it. I searched to find out whether this ‘Kaufmann’ was seated. But I couldn't find him. The tourist operator demanded ‘Hey, who are you?!’
I asked him whether a tourist by name ‘Gordon B. Kaufmann’ was in the group. He said ‘NO’
My whole body trembling, I got down from the bus, got into our car, which my friend had speeded off in immediately.
I narrated the whole episode to my friend and he laughed at it. ‘You are really a fool’
"Am I a fool? Was it real or only an illusion? What happened to the case of the tourist who died in an accident at Madras? Did the police catch the culprit? Who was this ‘Kaufmann?’ And why was he after me? Was he after my nephew also? Did he really fall into the Canyon? Would he again…"
I had no answers.
But superstitions have always held sway in the lives of ordinary people, and for such people irrational thinking once a while has become a way of life and I am no exception.