7

Its All About Sammy

A few years ago I first visited the land of the Star Spangled banner. I had re-connected with a close school friend, Buddy, after a gap of a mere half century. She was class topper in every subject and extra curricular activity. After graduation, she went to the US for further qualifications, and settled there. My holiday plans were excitedly discussed, and we both looked forward to spending quality time together.

Rather an irritating fly, in our present ointment, which sadly couldn’t be swatted away, was Sammy, Buddy’s husband. They had met while both were students in the U.S, and married soon after. Sammy was the original grass-roots scholar, from the wilds of obscure erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. Buddy’s father had been a ‘Boxwallah’ of yore, working for a Multinational company. The couple was as alike as dhal and rogan josh.

Sammy, if you blinked while crossing him on the street, you might not register his passing. This little person, eyes, small and beady, glinting behind rimless glasses. He was the self-proclaimed Fount of all Wisdom, firmly ending every discussion with, “I know because, ‘They Say’!” This, “They Say,” I eventually learnt, alluded to Uncle Sam. He seemed as ashamed of his bucolic Indian roots, as much as he struggled with assimilating mainstream Yankeehood, down to his painstakingly nurtured, execrable Yankee twang. This slipped ever so often, to straw-sucking, original bucolic Hinglish!

Sammy had two favourite pastimes. Increasing his wealth and guarding his health. His parsimonious nature may have been from a frugal childhood. But caring about his health was his special passion. I oft wondered how Buddy married him, he was such a self-opiniated bore. Within a few months of getting back from my U.S holiday…tragedy struck. Buddy passed away, losing an overnight battle, with a hitherto undetected malignant tumour. I had kept in sporadic touch with Sammy. So, when he came to India a few months later, he wanted to visit Bangalore. Remembering Buddy’s affectionate hospitality, I instantly agreed. That is the rest of my story.

My frail, elderly mother had been dragged willy-nilly into Sammy’s proposed entertainment. I threw her way, various proposed topics of discussion with him—Indian politics, classical Indian music, and his remaining connections to India. Sammy had decided that our city was not his scene.It was polluted, the sky shrouded in a grey haze, garbage heaped all over the roads, traffic a killer, and more of the same. His opinions about Bangalore were amazingly out of line. Considering his Indian home base Gurgaon, was an arid, unsafe, moonscape, lurking with hirsute, testosterone-overloaded examples of Indian male-hood, strutting on potholed roads leading to glass-encased office blocks. I decided that I might do better to take him out to nearby coffee growing country. Then on to Mysore, a classic heritage city. Concluding with a climb up to the Blue Hills of Ootacamund, where he might still be able to snatch some glimpses of the erstwhile British Raj.

Hotel bookings needed Sammy’s Passport information. He was aghast that I had asked for such high security details online. How was I to know that the world, their wife, and their pet parrot, were waiting for a chance to hack this information from the Web? “Now you even know my actual age!” he joked. I wasn’t able to read his humour, “You don’t look a day older than eighty” I wrote back! Sammy arrived. Getting down from the cab, smiling widely at me, he said, “Cummon, give me a hggg!” Duh? Stood I, deciphering his Americanese a few seconds later, to mean “Hug.”

The day after Sammy’s arrival, I ticked off the first item on his tourism agenda, taking him to our local club, having also invited some friends to make up the Sammy entertainment committee. Dress code was jacket and trousers, shoes and socks too, I had warned him. Sammy emerged from his room, looking dulcet, in a deep rose-pink, hand-knitted , woollen waistcoat. I surreptitiously looked down to his shoes, hoping that I wouldn’t be in for a further shock, in finding his feet in socks to match his pullover. They weren’t! He looked expectantly at me, I tried ignoring that pullover! ‘Rose pink,’ when on the shady side of sixty? He also had, slung snugly across his chest, a bag of ‘briefcase’ proportions, that most tourists to Third World countries consider a necessary accessory. As he rather lacked in inches, this accessory flapped knee length, rather than trendily hip high. “Why phor that?” I asked. My Hinglish was immediately understood. “Oh! My bag? I always carry my passport on me when I travel, plus a few medicines, a hand towel and a change of clothes. It isn’t safe to leave an Amrikan passport in my room in India. Since his present room was in my house, chemists were a dime a dozen all over Bangalore, we were going in my car, and no rain, nor a flood forecast for the next few hours, the bag was wholly unnecessary to complete his charming ensemble! I let his implied insult wash over me. I pithily informed him that there was nobody at home who was desperate to nick his passport. Adding in my inimitable, best diplomatic style, that with that bag slung over his shoulder which announced, ‘tourist’ ripe for rich pickings, he might as well have slapped a label on his forehead written ‘U.S.A Citizen,’ ! He pretended not to hear me! We ordered our drinks. What needs must Sammy do? On a cold January evening, he asks for it on the rocks. This addition to his drink had an unfortunate effect on Sammy’s delicate constitution. The next morning he awoke with a tickle in his throat, and no amount of ginger infused beverages or, rinsing his throat with saline gargles, helped. A day after, he woke up saying that he might need to consult a doctor before his tickling pharynx turned worse, or the bug decided to emigrate to his lungs!

Keeping in mind the dire possibility of cancelling our entire trip, scheduled departure for the next morning, my fingers went into over drive. I fixed an appointment with a reputed GP. Sammy heard the doctor was female, and immediately announced that she wouldn’t suit him. I asked him if his throat and lungs felt shy of being examined by a lady doctor. After a bit of humming and hawing, it was revealed that his plumbing too was playing up. Not to worry, said I matter-of-factly, to a by now very squirmy Sammy. A common complaint for men not exactly on the threshold of youth! He paled, as if I’d dealt him a blow to his solar plexus. Verdict? No biopsy, no throat swab for culture, in fact, no life threatening drama. We returned home, and a shattered Sammy retired to his room, without eating even a morsel of the khichdi that my mother had made. He said that he was quite exhausted after the morning doctors’ visits, and needed to recuperate. Considering that it was I who had done all the running around at various doctor’s clinics. I stared. He ignored. Sammy awoke from his recuperative siesta, and after drinking a cup of restorative ginger infused tea, wondered if we could think of postponing our departure by a day, as he hadn’t been able to sleep very well the previous night. I took the reins firmly in my hands then. No, we couldn’t postpone our departure, not least because I had planned for the house painting to begin when we left, that our hotel rooms were all booked and paid for, and, but left unsaid, that my mother had by now run out of topics of conversation.

Departure day dawned. The hired car arrived, the baggage loaded. The foot wells in steerage were packed to the gunwales–with bottled water, home-made sandwiches, hygienically packed and branded Indian snacks, et al. I had made a bit of the back seat my nook, leaving the best seat in the house, the front one, for an honoured guest. Sammy reached the car, had one look at the seating arrangements, and threw a fit. Now what, I thought.
“Why am I being seated in the front?” whined Sammy.
“Because, it’s the best seat in the house,” I said.
“But I want to sit in the back with you, so we can chit-chat, and I can do some reading.”
“Well, there’s no leg room in the back, neither space on the seat, as you may have noticed. You can read equally comfortably in front. Besides, I’m not really a ‘chitty-chatty’ traveller.” And saying so firmly, our travels, and my travails, commenced.

Sammy sulked, and sat in the front seat, I relaxed and lounged in the back. We had barely traversed the city when, travelling through a seedy locality, Sammy told the driver to stop at any Restroom. Ah! Sammy’s plumbing again, I guessed! Sammy returned, I didn’t ask him about the condition of the Restroom…some things are better left unasked in my country! We continued, till we stopped for a coffee break, and drove on to coffee country. He approved, and how, about the verdant and hilly district.
“I’m looking at blue skies, breathing in rich, fresh air, for the first time since reaching India!”
I shrugged, looking relieved, that Sammy approved of my motherland.
“Now my lungs will clear up, and I’m sure I should soon feel better.” So, it was all about his health, and nothing more!

In hospitable Indian style, my friends and relatives invited Sammy to visit and share meals as well. They said that they would also show him the local sights. But my hopes of handing him over to friends, for entertainment, were dashed. Sammy didn’t want to do any ‘sight seeing!’
“I like people, I like interacting with people, what’s with looking at scenery and views?”

In translation this meant, that he wanted to continue his verbal diarrhoea with my friends, relatives and countrymen, and which ailment he didn’t want treated. His was not a bubbling personality, nor was he famous. So what prolonged interaction could he expect from my friends, all them strangers to him. I had envisaged this trip to also be a culinary experience for him, along scenic drives. His opening lines at eateries would invariably be, “I hope the food wont be spicy, or have too much oil?” “Do they make it fresh for customers here, after we place our orders?” This last query, after he had ordered for a portion of lip-smacking biryani, a dish that normally takes some prolonged cooking.
I hastily informed the hovering waiter, in the local lingo, “This customer is an Indian, but believes that he has attained Nirvana as he left our country, and now is as American as his bag announces. Do please get him his order, as you normally cook it in your kitchen.”
Before Sammy could ask me, I translated my dialogue with the waiter, explaining to him that I had passed on, his specific dietary restrictions in minute detail, to the Chef! I did not expect to go to Heaven anyway.

Mysore was next. Worse was to follow, after reaching our modest, but squeaky clean hotel, late in the evening. I desperately needed to hit the sack. I was exhausted with our travels within coffee country, and preempting Sammy and his high NRI, critical expectations. The hotel where I had booked us our rooms, did not measure up. He came to meet me in the lobby for dinner, looking decidedly unhappy, a frown pinned on his face.
“I don’t like this hotel. My bathroom has naphthalene balls in the wash basin and shower areas. Can you call ‘Housekeeping,” and have them immediately remove the poisonous balls?”
“Hmmm! ‘Moth balls.’…So?” I distractedly responded. I failed to understand that I was treading on dangerous ground. Of Sammy’s blind faith and belief in the ‘they say’ horror, of breathing in potentially fatal naphtha fumes.

I, casually, “The moth balls are placed, just to prevent cockroaches from climbing out of the drainage. If you don’t like having these in the bathroom, just flush them down the toilet.”

Sammy, ominously, “Must I do so myself? And then how do these get disposed off after flushing?”

I, silkily, “This being a small hotel, the housekeeping staff would have long since gone. As for the route taken of the usual contents of toilet bowls, I will have to enquire from the local sewerage board about their city’s underground sewer maps.”

Saying so, and Sammy not noticing the last but one straw on this camel’s back, I marched with him to his room, yanking his room key from his nerveless fingers, my fast vanishing cool, already at boiling point. I strode into the bathroom, picked up the moth balls, and threw them down the toilet bowl.
“Now, Sammy if you wish, you can search for another hotel. I don’t want dinner. I am off to my room. I need to sleep!”

The next morning, he appeared at breakfast. Very much in residence, I disappointedly noted. The moth balls had not done their job! He didn’t move hotel. I added, that if he wished he could move, but I would not. Later, he accompanied a cousin and I, on our tour of a select few museums and monuments. He was not impressed. He did not evince more than a passing glance at the beautifully sculpted Italian marble statues, of the erstwhile Mysore Royals, that dotted the City Squares and heritage buildings. I soon gave up, and decided that we may as well move up and on, to the Blue Hills of the Nilgiris.

Sammy’s day, come rain or shine, couldn’t commence before noon. You see he had this set routine which he strictly adhered to, including a few visits to the toilet. I humoured him, even if I felt that half my own day was over by noon. The car was loaded and awaiting our arrival. There was another valiant attempt at an announcement by Sammy, to nobody in general, but to me in particular, at the commencement of our journey to Ooty.
“I don’t know why you insist that I sit up front, in the most dangerous seat in a vehicle. When Buddy and I used hired cars during our India visits, we always sat together in the safe back seat.”
I quashed this feeble try, with a “Well, I am not Buddy, and we could switch seats, I will move up front, to the dangerous seat. Lest you begin to think that I have evil plans of your speedy disposal under mysterious circumstances!” I had actually, had a few fleeting dreams of just something like that happening, to cut short a trip with this trying man. But Sammy wasn’t to know that. Our Bangalore house painting was not over, so I had to carry on.

We reached the Ooty Club…..a beautiful Englishy island in the haphazard town that now constituted Ootacamund. In the delightful garden and flower beds, werecplanted vibrantly blooming flowers, trailing climbers of white wisteria, yellow rambling rose and the pale, sweetly perfumed, mauve of lavender. The skies were blue, the evening crisply chilly. Finally, the food in the Club’s dining room, served by impeccably uniformed, and well-trained waiters, met with even Sammy’s reluctant approval. I looked to just vegetate in these surroundings, book in hand, lolling in front of a blazing log fire. But fate intervened. As we were about to retire for the night, I had a call. My mother had fallen and suffered a fracture. Surgery was scheduled by noon of the following day. It was a six-hour journey to Bangalore. So I explained the situation to Sammy about wanting to reach her bedside before she was wheeled into surgery. We had to leave before daybreak…about five in the morning. Or else, he could always stay back in the Club, and return later to Bangalore, as scheduled?
Sammy said that he would like to be in Bangalore to help me out. He could rush though his routine and be ready by ten the next morning
I told him I was leaving by five in the morning, and arranging for a Club approved cab for him to travel later, at a time suiting his convenience. Sammy blanched, he gulped, but agreed finally to my suggestion. Next morning as I was leaving, Sammy called from his room.
“Are you ready to leave already? I was thinking. How can I let you travel alone to Bangalore, under such circumstances? Also, is it safe for me to later travel alone, in a strange cab?”
That straw had finally broken this camel’s back! Hanging on tenuously to my temper, I hissed.

“The cab company is guaranteed by the Club. Whether the driver might have this fatal attraction for your charms, Sammy, he has to guard his reputation. So, all things considered, I guess you will be alright. He might just make a few passes at you!”
Sammy was ready and packed in ten minutes. We set out for Bangalore, and home together!
The trip had been thankfully, cut short. I helped Sammy pack and moved him to a hotel for the night. We parted friends, since he wasn’t aware of how close to nearly getting strangled he often was, during our travels. Sammy returned home, not necessarily to his roots, soon after that trip.

Sammy’s Utopian adopted country isn’t as rosy anymore without sheet-anchor Buddy, but he’s back there, living his lonely nuclear life.
I recently had a call from him.
“Hey! Guess what? A college friend of Buddy’s, now settled and retired in Australia, has asked me to join her and her husband over Christmas, on a road trip through Oz and New Zealand?   ”
The poor, unsuspecting souls……..

3

His Last Hurrah

As the Bard might have said, he entered this world, a mewling, puking infant…but he hasn’t stopped since. He has a perpetual scowl, his eyebrows seem never to get enough of each other, they are always meeting above the bridge of his nose. As for his lips, they emote, and out of his mouth pop his latest grouse against, and these are myriad, the world. “What did my father leave for me, for my future? Neither land, nor legacy, nor lucre! Just education!” Yes, he was educationally qualified, but found no suitable employment. I refer to Full Stop, my grandfather’s Last Hurrah, his sixth and final child.

Thereafter began Full Stop’s quest for that perfect job, commisurate with his status in society, as also one which had to be tailor made for him. Nearing seventy today, he’s a trier, he is, he sporaidically keeps hunting for that job. He never really felt any need to find work. He’s all his life been in the enviable position of being a ‘kept man.’ Kept in clover, kept with a suitable roof over his head, kept with clothes and more on his back, and kept with three full and square meals daily. He has large hearted and generous siblings, all of whom contribute to this existence. From his dual SIM Card cell phone, his idiosyncratic ways, his irresponsible responsibilities, and his crass disloyalty to them, collectively. They do, only because he is the cross that their beloved eldest sister has to bear, by her own self-inflicted guilty admission! He is there, because she is, the mantle protecting his moving shadow. Sadly, but not surprisingly, this fact hasn’t even remotely struck him, he doesn’t have deducing powers. From cradle to grave, he thinks that it is his god given right to have his family take care of him. The cherry on the cake was, when very recently this very sister underwent a life threatening surgery. Full Stop was told that while pre-op tests were being run, he had to do the hospital patient’s night shift for two days prior to surgery. All he had to do was watch television in her room, and ring the bell for Nurses if required. The day of surgery dawned, and Full Stop was in a very delicately shattered situation. All of us were in various stages of nervous anxiety, while he tottered out of his sister’s room, saying that he hadn’t been able to sleep a wink the previous two nights by his sister’s bedside. He was on the brink of a total collapse. The diagnosis? He had irresponsibi-litis, and was summararily told to take himself home. He lived, and laughed himself to his next layabout day! I wouldn’t be human if I say that I would like to be that fly on the wall for his rude awakening in the not too distant future, when this gravy train dries up! Even angels are human, and have a shelf life.

Barely a few years after his umbilicus was cut, than he became an uncle, to his oldest sister’s daughter. So, as the youngest of six siblings, this new entrant, quite stole his thunder, by being the first grandchild to his father. Full Stop barely had three or four years to bask in the limelight, before the arrival of this, his first niece. No sooner had she arrived, barely a year on, came his other sister’s daughter. Never mind that there is photographic evidence, in Kodak Black and White, of a boy aged about four or five years, lying on a bed, working his furious way through a half litre of milk,fingers wrapped firmly around the bottle in contented bliss. In the same frame is a little girl, his toddler niece, looking on in amazement, it seems, to see this hulk, drinking milk out of a bottle, and slurping it too. Full Stop was indulged at every turn, is what I am getting at, never deprived. Well, Full Stop never quite succeeded in whatever he turned his hand to, and every failure of his was usually laid at the door of his mother, who he was convinced, neglected him entirely, because his older sisters had chosen to get married and steal his thunder, by presenting his parents with their first grandchildren. As for his father, that kind and and loving man, who never turned anyone away from his hearth and board, even if this good nature left the old man with very little to leave as legacy to the Gen Next, nobody minded. Barring Full Stop. Later in life, he usually graced the home of his oldest sister, or one of her long sufferring progeny. He expected all this as his right from each of his siblings, solely because this was how it was meant to be. He was living on their charity, only because of the love and gratitude that they harboured towards their parents. Sadly he never thought so, he didn’t have that much intelligence, just native cunning.

In Full Stop’s early years, his first passion was cricket, close upon this game’s heels was his second, whining. By the time Full Stop plodded through school, scraped into university, and eventually graduated, even if not quite suma cum laude, to his passion for cricket and whining, was added his obsession for body building and Marxism. His scowl rarely slipped, nor his grousing. Many a time did he land a job. It was no secret that it wasn’t his qualifications that got him this, but the earnest behind-the-scene pleadings of a kind relative or family friend, calling in a favour. At his job interview, he would lay down his terms and conditions. Among others, these were that he should be permitted to play cricket matches whenever he was called upon to do so by his team. Also that he be permitted to attend those body-building classes where he was honing his eight packs to dethrone the Mr.India of the day. If the lazy layabouts at work muttered and grumbled to him about having to earn their minimum wage and pull their weight, he would be Karl Marx himself, fighting for their laggardly Cause. Small wonder then, that within some weeks, he would call it quits, and announce to the family that he could not take any more of his employers whims and expectations. Rarely was he sacked, he would throw his resignation in their faces, or so we were told. It was at one time his burning desire to find himself a pretty heiress to marry, so he too could add to the gene pool of the future generations of his illustrious family line. This scheme of his, was thankfully nipped by the family, unanimously and smartly, in the bud.

To get to the present. Life was good for Full Stop. He got to watch television till the wee hours of the morning, slept, woke up refreshed about noon. A quick shower, then, laid out on the dining table, breakfast at around 1 by the clock. In his trail would be an unmade bed, clothes piled higgeldy-piggeldy around his unswept room, pools of soap suds and water on the bathroom floor, his used plate and dirty dishes in the sink, and the half read newspaper in an untidy heap near the couch. There were some tasks that perforce, he had to perform. One of these being walking the family dog, with strict admonitions never to ‘take it past that garbage heap around the corner.’ This was also the time for his evening smoke, shooting the breeze with passing acquaintances, cribbing to them about his lot in life, slave-driving ex-employers, an uncaring and unhelpul family and the prospects of a likely job. By which time he would have unthinkingly walked past the out of bounds garbage heap. Unluckily for Full Stop, he was once actually jerked out of his nicotine high, by the sounds of agitated canine yelps, interspersed with angry porcine grunts. Before he could blow another smoke ring, he saw trundling at great speed towards him and his canine charge, a very irate mamma pig. The earth shook beneath her cloven hooves, an assortment of rotting fruit and vegetable peels hanging drunkenly from her head and stuck at random over her body, her udders swinging wildly, did not deter her determined charge to save her grunting piglings from sure deccimation. She thundered towards man and dog . Full Stop, jerked into self preservation mode, first yanked up by its collar, the by now hysterical dog, and then shot off his starting blocks at goodly speed. He was unfortunately not fast enough, and felt the thud of a snout at his heels, the tearing of cloth, and the sting of a smart nip at his ankles. Her maternal instinct assuaged, the pig ran out of steam and slowed to a stop. By this time dog and man were a speck on the horizon. Full Stop got home, expecting to be rewarded and praised for his heroics with the irate porcine. Imagine his dismay that he not only got an earful at home, about jeopardising the life of the loved dog, but was actually ticked off at his irresponsible actions. Now, he was angrily chastised, the family had to bear the expenses of getting him medical treatment. That much for gracious and loving relatives.

So, Full Stop, seems to have taken a vow to teach the family a lesson they will not forget. Anytime he’s asked to run an errand or shoulder some family responsibility, his reply is, “I may not be able to help out. You see I have a job interview in the offing…”

One sample was enough, then god threw away the mould. It takes all sorts to make this world, no less than The Lotus Eater, whose name is Full Stop…

8

Of Jeeves and Jayammas

In a time and age when domestic help is soon going to be as Jurassic as the man on the moon, it might be hard to comprehend the life and laid-back times, many of us enjoyed in our childhood. In cacophonic harmony, living under the same roof then, were large families, oft spanning a few generations. While the head of the family might have been Master of the House, it was his wife who was the Grande Dame, chatelaine and original multi-tasker. In the kitchen, she would deftly manage household finances to feed the large family. Quick-fixing broken hearts and soured romances, not always of teenage members of the family, was her forte. She would do this with one hand, with the other encompassing the aggrieved soul in an understanding, soothing hug. So too, was her intervention in internecine conflicts between different generations. To aid in this Grande Dame’s ministrations, was a loyal band of dependable domestic staff, who themselves had often served generations of the same lineage. Hence she had time for all.

So it was, when my mother married and joined her serving officer husband, from the sheltered confines of her earlier upbringing. Her husband’s ‘batman,’ was as proud of serving his commanding officer, as he was of showing the new Madam the ropes. Bakshi, was a pure vegetarian, and a teetotaler, so as Comptroller of the Household, he was the nonpareil. Top of the guided tour, in order of importance, was escorting the memsahib to his master’s cellar. Short of saying ‘Open Sesame,’ his demeanor said it all. There lined up, in many neat rows, were the choicest of whiskeys and a variety of other premium liquors. His expression rapidly turned lugubrious, as the new madam looked puzzled and wondered what the fuss was all about. Recovering somewhat, he loftily informed her that said dusty bottles, had been lovingly collected over a period of many months, to be served at their first post-wedding party. As this speech was delivered in pure bucolic Hindi, most of it went over the bemused bride’s head. Without missing a beat, my mother realizing the error of her ways, understood enough, to praise Bakshi and thank him for permitting her to be privvy to such a prized collection. Her reputation restored, he was somewhat mollified, and thereafter was her mentor and guide.

But Bakshi had his hands full, as he had also to round off the corners of Rama, the young wet-behind-the-ears ‘masalchi’, or sous chef, who had accompanied the bride’s baggage. I suspect that Rama was shanghaied, willy-nilly by anxious parents, into accompanying their daughter, as an interpreter, interlocutor and chief bodyguard, as apparently his cooking skills left much to be desired. Whatever be the case, Rama soon picked up the language, so promoted himself up the ladder as the interpreter. Along the way somewhere, his basic knife skills improved, as did his cunning improvisations at presenting menus fit for a king, and the many friends who gathered at this court. After my arrival on the scene, these two stalwarts ensured my wellbeing and safety with sometimes questionable, but sure fire remedies. A family friend’s burly son, the only apple of his parents’ eye, turned out to be a closet sadist. His punching bag was this much younger and punier me, who he periodically shook and pinched, punched and kicked, for the sheer joy of it. Unable to bear seeing this bully at work, my self appointed bodyguards took matters firmly into their own hands. One evening at the park, while I enjoyed the vertigo highs at the swings, one of my bodyguards engaged my attention, pushing me faster and higher, all the while keeping a weather eye open for my friend’s parents. Under cover of my squeals of joy and laughter, the other, in the twinkling of an eye, whisked the little sadist behind a convenient bush. Here the varmint was shaken till the teeth rattled in his head, his ears were twisted, and for good measure, he was informed with a sinister hiss, that should ever he lay his hands on me again, or complain to his parents about what had just transpired, he would be immediately fed to the crocodiles. These gentle charms must have done the trick, as much to my parents’ surprise, as I suspect, to his. My burly friend never again came to within an arm’s length of me. Bakshi served my father loyally and our family, lovingly. And in course of time, retired to his village. Rama however, was a constant and loyal member of our family, seeing me through thick and thin. He was the repository of many of my childish fears and secrets. Of the time, soon after I had learnt driving, how I had scraped my father’s shining black car, while taking my gaggle of classmates, for a breathtakingly dangerous drive around the town. Swearing Rama to secrecy, and entreating him not to reveal that I was the guilty perpetrator. He matter of factly produced a tin of Cherry Blossom Black, lighly smeared this over the tell-tale scrape, and hey presto, temporarily saved my skin. Till much after I got married and became a mother, Rama knew where his loyalty lay. At table, after everybody had helped themselves to the food, he would sidle into the dining room, as he thought, unobtrusively. He would then proceed to serve me the choicest pieces of chicken, lamb, or any of my other favourites. I was always on his first and favoured family member list. Such love and loyalty is rarely seen today.

In much the same manner, in our extended circle of family and friends, we had other retainers of Rama’s and Bakshi’s ilk. A friend had this driver, who, when she was taking her infant child to the doctor one rainy afternoon, quickly exited the car at their destination. Running smartly across to a passing pedestrian, he whipped the umbrella out of this individual’s nerveless grasp, and ran back to open the car door, shielding mother and baby from the downpour. My friend thanked her driver, saying how providential it was that his friend with the umbrella happened to be passing by. Looking surprised, he said that he didn’t know the person from Adam, but he was sure that his master’s family had more need of the umbrella than the stranger.

Then there was this other driver, Ponnaiah, who, had been elevated from being the estate tractor driver, to driving his manager’s car. For as long as he was in their service, Ponnaiah could never quite master the fine art of synchronizing gears and the clutch, while keeping the other hand, and one eye, on the steering wheel and the road. If he had to shift gears, there would emanate an agonizingly guttural grind, from deep within the innards of the gear box, and when the car did a few bunny-hops, it was understood that he had slipped the clutch. As soon as the occupants shrieked in fear, you could be sure that the steering wheel having proved slippery, this heralded a dangerous veering off the road shoulder, a short cut down the snaking hill road, to the road below. As major damage to life and property was rarely revealed, Ponnaiah reigned numero uno, as town and country Chauffeur. One holiday with my aunt and cousins, saw some of us going to the nearest big city, for a bit of retail therapy and a whiff of good polluted air. Since I had by then been driving for a few years, it was with a sense of frustration that I sat next to Ponnaiah, and coped in silent anguish at his driving. My aunt and her sister, my mother, were engrossed, in deep conversation in the back seat, tearing some unsuspecting family member to shreds, no doubt. Ponnaiah and his tractor were the fastest wheels on the estate, scattering flora and fauna off the narrow dirt country roads. But, not so, on the big, bad highways. He was so unsure and slow, it felt as if we were driving backwards. Unable to bear the pace any more, I asked my aunt for permission to take over the wheel. She readily agreed. Thereafter began Ponnaiah’s introduction to a real driver’s world. He clutched the edge of the car seat, while his hair flew in the whistling wind, from the open window. He applied imaginary brakes when he was sure I was going to crash into the vehicle in front, or was overtaking it, with no room to spare, or so he thought. His eyes periodically popped out of their sockets, at a spurt of speed here, or closed tight in fear there, when he thought we were in imminent danger of meeting our Maker. We reached home, in one piece, with the back seat occupants surprised that it was such a short, smooth ride. I did say that they were engrossed in a talking competition on the trip, did I not? Ponnaiah could only totter out of the car, with a weak shake of his head, and a new respect for this chit of a girl, proving to him what one could do with a car.

Now we come to our childhood’s surrogate mothers, our nannies, or as they were affectionately termed, our ayahs. In those parts of the country, since most feminine names ended with “Amma,” the ayah’s were any one of these. Chellamma , Krishnamma, Jayamma, Sampoornamma. You could take your pick, but they were all totally dedicated to their charges’ well being. Our parents could relax and leave us in their able hands, any time of day or night. They would scold us very rarely, had infinite patience, and could calm a fractious toddler, with a soothing song or an interesting distraction, in the twinkling of an eye. Guilty mothers never felt, guilt, when they left their children in their responsible care. They could be sure that the children would be gently reprimanded, in loco parentis, never punished, and coaxed and cajoled to follow their daily routine to the letter. In fact, my own chidren, used to often wait impatiently for us to go to our “grown-up parties,” as our departure heralded the advent of many an enjoyable game. Of hockey, football or cricket, with the Captain being their ayah, and the other team members made up of a motley collection of domestic staff and their children. It was not surprising therefore, when on some of our unexpectedly early returns home, we would find the kids playing cricket, with the wizard spin bowler, their ayah, sari hitched high up her legs, a crafty expression on her face, bowling that off-spin. Or the usually lofty butler, wielding a hockey stick, an upturned wicker-work wastepaper basket over his head, the Goal Keeper of that game. On another occasion, while their mother was at office, she got an anguished call from her children’s ayah, babbling incoherently over the static of the obsolete telephone line. After calming the ayah’s hysteria, the mother finally understood that she was to return home immediately, as one of her charges, while fighting her level best to worst her brother in battle, had actually bitten him. The sibling was bleeding, and had to be taken for treatment to the nearest country hospital. It took many seasons for the sister to outlive her formidable reputation of being a ‘biter.’ These then, were our comrades-in-arms and companions respectively, through a happy childhood.

They don’t make them like those any more, sadly. Their mould was broken. Nobody patented their tribe, nor did their descendants, rightly want to continue in uneducated servitude. Those times have passed into the hazy memories of our childhood and youth. The Jeeves and Jayammas of today are transient. Here today, gone tomorrow. If they are available at all!

0

Exodus

An old Post…in memory of a beloved father!

Coffee Berry Tales

The parents had temporarily migrated to the cooler climes of their country seat. We had made our home together in the city. So, I was on my own till their return, at the end of their mandatory two months.

My father, now a nonagenarian, and a retired Indian Army officer, who had seen action in World War II, was naturally of the Old School, and spent his time between his coffee plantation in a neighbouring coffee growing district and our home in the city. For his two month sojourn, my father packed more files & documents, usually in triplicate, than the Honorable Central or State Government Ministers & their entourage’s combined laptop memories!

The day of my parents’departure was a sight to behold. My father, always carried two large, unwieldy soft-top suitcases, each securely fastened with a railway travel type chain, complete with 9 lever [original] Godrej Navtal lock. Also,approximately…

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14

Family Medley

The sun’s rays heralded a new morning, rising earlier and earlier, as the Up Country summer heat increased by the day. Then would come the loo, that fiercely hot, moisture-sapping dust storm, which blew at periodic intervals through the Northern summer months, lowering the searing heat a few notches for brief periods, through this season. Exams over, my school closed for the summer holidays.

Just as I would begin thinking that we might get baked, broiled and fried, out would come the iron trunks, leather suitcases, canvas bed rolls, the sweet smelling wicker food basket, and namda-lined iron ice-box, from their annual storage. These spelt preparations for our long train journey for the annual holidays, to my grandparent’s home.

My friends would chatter excitedly of going up to the cool climes of one of the many hill stations peppering the Himalayan foothills. While into our army-issue iron trunks would be packed warm woolens, shawls, raincoats, and umbrellas, to their  puzzlement. They always wondered why we were packing warm wear for summer months. At the height of a blazing Northern summer, we would be chugging homeward bound, into the middle of the fragrant South West Monsoon rains, which first wet the Southern Peninsula. And in the thick of the Western Ghat ranges, our home district nestled, among cold monsoon winds, heavy rain, leeches and the all prevailing mist and damp. During the long train journey south, we shared what we had, ate the deliciously strange foods that fellow travelers exchanged warmly with us along the way, and finally arrived, to a rapturous welcome by Family. Our first halt was always at Mysore. Grandparents, uncles, aunts & cousins, my maternal family medley, who never failed to all come to meet us at train journey’s end.

The head of the family was the Patriach, my grandfather, long since retired from forest service. Now he was a wizened little man, but in his hey day, a lithe, ruddy complexioned athlete and an excellent shot. Diabetes and fading eyesight non-withstanding, it didn’t hamper a sharp memory, or a naughty chuckle, seated in his favourite spot. An Easy Chair, usually reserved for the Master of the house, strategically placed under the curve of the staircase, where he could keep a watchful eye on the entrance gate. His favourite dog, a Tibetan Terrier, erroneously named Pepe, stretched near his feet. He would recount hilarious incidents, family secrets, delivered in stage whispers, to a rapt young audience, usually about his wife’s vast family. Then there was his never ending repertoire of jungle tales, of his many years in the forest, which would have put the Brothers Grimm to shame. Of how, during his years of Service, living in isolated hamlets, deep in the jungle, my grandmother just needed to tell him that the larder was out of fresh supplies, so it had to be simple fare at table that day. Going out with his rifle, within the hour, he said he would return with fresh venison, plump jungle fowl or succulent partridges! He just might have single handedly contributed to some part of the decimation of the fauna that roamed our dense jungles, such a good shot was he. We would hang on every gory detail of his hunt, lapping it up thirstily. These, and a myriad other tales entranced us, for many years, his three oldest, and I suspect, favourite grandchildren. Memories of my gentle Thai, my grandmother, are of an ever smiling, untiring cook, slaving over the smoky kitchen fires, churning out vast quantities of the most mouth watering and varied fare. She had expert, unerring measuring spoons for fingers. Her cooking was always just a pinch of this, a dash of that and for the final gastronomic pop on your tongue, she seemed to throw in a secret ingredient, a handful of love. She was asthamatic, but after the midday meal, while most of the house slept, and we kids played silent games so as not to disturb the siesta, Thai would be seen settling down, wheeze and all, to cook somebody’s favourite snack, laborious in the making, but melt-in-the mouth delicious. I always associate with my Thai the fragrant heady scent of a special local jasmine, Mysuru Mallige. If I got the waft of this, I knew my grandmother wasn’t far behind. She may have been a slave to an ever hungry Family up to the evening, but thereafter, she would have bathed again, redone her hair, and with freshly laundered clothes, smelling sweetly of fresh mallige, my Thai would join my grandfather. He too would be changed into clothes suitable for going out, looking point de vice, walking stick in hand, they would enjoy the evening air with their daily visit to the neighbourhood temple. Back home, they joined the family for gossip sessions, or often, a drive to the ‘City’. Mysore of those days, was as much a half-way watering hole, as today, between our native Kodagu and Bangalore. At any given time, this venerable couple’s home would seat at table a complement of ten resident members, give or take a few. Always welcomed were relatives and friends who dropped by, for a visit, or to stay. Not only was the pot never empty, but even the rooms seemed to expand, to feed, sleep & accommodate all. It was unthinkable to turn a visitor away, during meal times, or for a bed for the night. In later years, I wondered how often my grandmother might have herself gone without many of the treats she made for us, probably even a stomach full, on account of unexpected guests. Her warmth and smile rarely slipped.

The bread winner of this Mysore household was “Madam,” my oldest aunt, a divorced single mum, whose life story had all the makings of a good film. Married soon after her SSLC, or ‘O’ Levels, she had a nightmare of a marriage, to a very iffy man, definitely not kosher. He came from a family with close connections to Croesus. Combined with that factor, and with a family of four younger children, can you blame my grandfather for eagerly marrying off the eldest? Divorce was a bad word in those years, but they reckoned without this gutsy mother, pushed to the ends of matrimonial trauma. My grandparents provided my aunt and her two children, sanctuary, after she finally walked out on her husband. She went on to complete her college education, landing herself several good Professorial jobs at University, and this brought in the much needed bacon. Hence came her “Madam” title. Madam had a smile that made the Mallige bloom, warm and beautiful. It seemed to encompass her entire personality. I don’t remember ever seeing her in the dumps, no trials and tribulations in her life fazed her, other than her personal OCD. It’s a miracle that she’s surviving to this day with her skin intact. If one wanted to discuss anything of urgency with her, one had to ensure that we caught her before her ablutions, or we could easily forget about her for the next couple of hours. What she did in the confines of the bathroom, only she and Freud knew. It must have been the stains of her marital past on her psyche and her personality, which took her bath so many hours, trying to vainly scrub these away. Her daughters and I were close in age, especially the older, quieter, and very charming one. To this day, she remains the sister to me that I, as an only child, never had. Her sibling, my younger cousin, was a brat, one of the two apples of our grandfather’s eyes, the other being my mother. Vivacious and artful, this cousin, from as far back as I can remember, managed to coax and cajole more pocket money, treats and favours, than the two of us. Much to our chagrin. Anyway, we both would get even, by locking up the Brat in dark rooms, leaving her out of our escapades, sending her to Coventry, sneaking on her, and various other lovable methods of torture. After all, we too were children. My mother, who must have been the more poised and personable younger sibling, was intelligent enough to win herself a scholarship for her college education, and was quite my grandfather’s unabashed favourite child. He was probably proud of this daughter, his “Princess Margaret,” who was the first graduate in the family, and that too a girl. Apparently when my mother and aunt were young, and my aunt would hear her father referring to my mother as his Princess Margaret, my aunt would counter with, “In which case, I am Queen Elizabeth!” Madam Queen Elizabeth, has long done with teaching. Retired, she lives with her daughter and her family. She keeps indifferent health, age has shrunk her and so she doesn’t get out of the house. That smile is intact, she is content enough, but has not got over her OCD, trying to scrub off her deepest demons, spending long hours, and vast quantities of water, in the bath.

Two brothers, younger in age, came after my mother. Mundane personalities, maybe interesting enough, as the older ran away to sign up in the Army. Some of us thought it was to escape the disciplinary rod of the Patriach. The younger of these, also left home, to try his luck in the Mecca of Bollywood, known in those days merely as Bombay. He did well for himself, joined an airline, and now lives in a plush apartment in a tony Mumbai neighbourhood. Their immediately younger sister too lived a sheltered life with my grandparents in Mysore. Her most daring escapade being a long drawn out , secret love story, which started while she was in junior college. This romance culminated in her marrying her sweetheart, soon after she graduated. She proceeded to follow her husband to where he worked, and was kept busy, at fairly regular intervals, bearing and rearing four children, my younger cousins. These cousins including my uncles’ children, were additions to our grandparents family in later years, by which time, I am convinced, us three  ‘senior’ cousins had firmly wormed our way into our grand parent’s hearts, establishing the ‘favourite’ tag!’

Full Stop, was the sixth and final child of my grandparents. A boy, born a short couple of years before us favourite grandchildren. But for this interesting personality’s story, you may well have to wait a while.

17

Taken For A Ride

I live in a city that has abysmal public transportation. So for public transport travel the choices are very limited. It is each person’s choice. However, a black and yellow option is most easily available, if you can ignore the sting in it’s tail. You might love it, or hate it, take it or leave it, use it or not. It is the scrouge of our city, as also sometimes its saviour. It is a lean mean fighting machine that it’s drivers think they have mastered. This road hog, sporting the humble bee’s colours, is that three wheeler, the autoriksha, or ‘auto’ as our city’s residents term it. A necessary evil………

The autoriksha driver is a breed apart. Many are not aware that once the documentation is complete, and the drivers are handed the licence to thrill, the aggressive Achievers among these, needs must go through the ultimate, unlicenced test of fire, the Autoriksha Driver Finishing School. This free spirited institution has its own unique set of rules, with a rigorous curriculum, which has to be followed to the letter. First the meek and mild starry eyed Freshers are singled out. The Senior pupils at this acclaimed institution take the wet-behind-their-ears, under their wing. Freshers with such alarming traits as adhering to lawfully drawn up traffic rules and speed limits, unrigged meters, of displaying politeness to passengers, and with good manners and acceptable social behaviour, are quickly identified. And taken firmly in hand. The qualities mentioned are ironed out forthwith.The lessons dinned into these bewildered newbies is that such traits will never take them down the path of financial success, or help them climb any transportation ladders. One must understand that many of the pupils enrolling for this Finishing School, usually are already mean, deceitful and dishonest. They cannot help it, as its in their DNA. Basically, these students are given the finishing touch. To break every road rule in the book, to be rude, selfish, and preferably ill mannered, towards fare paying passengers. If the Freshers have an existing criminal record, then they are given bonus marks. While connections to the slimy and the corrupt of the political class, immediately help them pass with a summa cum laude. The Autodriver is now ready to hit the road. Helas! As the Frenchman would say.

Can you fault me then, unless pushed, to try not to use an auto? However, there are those rare occasions when I am forced to. It was a hot and dusty typical Indian summer afternoon. I had been waiting an age for an auto to stop to pick me up. Every potential empty auto would cruise past me, as if I was invisible, or else stop briefly, and ask where I needed to go, in their usual sign language. Just as I would gather myself to gratefully get in, he would open throttle and zoom on, narrowly missing a few of my toes, with that typical click of the tongue and shake of the head indicating he would not oblige me. Quite at the end of my tether, there suddenly appeared another of these monsters. He stopped, I looked. He raised an enquiring eyebrow, but I was quick. Before he smoothly shifted to the next sentence of silent, sign language, I leapt nimbly into his vehicle. I had seen many news items put out by our city’s guardians of the law, stating that if an autoriksha refused to ply to the destination of the passenger, we could report him to the nearest police station, and he would get his just deserts at the hands of the police. But one had to first get the details of the perpetrator isn’t it, prior to filing such a complaint? I looked closely at the space where the driver’s details and photograph ought to have been clearly posted. Sure it was there, a grimy, much thumbed document, the relevant details all but obscured, with a photo that definitely bore not the remotest resemblance to the driver plying this vehicle. It was then I noticed that the driver had been staring at me in an impatient manner, with the enquiring eyebrow still enquiring. I shifted from neutral, and told him where to drop me. He shifted to first gear, noisily released a reluctant clutch, and told me to get off, as he was not going to take me to my destination, since he was going the other way. I sat tight, and resolutely told him to then take me in whichever direction he was going. He glared, I sat tighter. He spoke, I was overcome by deafness. He then started his auto, and I gave his uncompromising back a triumphant grin of victory. He spun his vehicle around, and with a mighty splutter, we were moving, in quite the wrong direction to my home. Within a few moments we had picked up good speed and were going at a merry lick. I told him that he was taking the wrong route, he was deaf to my words. With the wind whistling through my hair, the teeth rattling in my head, I had to make a quick decision. Whether I should, in true Bollywood style, scream, “Bachao!” “Bachao!” at the top of my lungs, to any or all of the passers by of a metropolis’ disinterested public, or throw myself bodily out of the auto. Evil Knevil must have been looking at my reaction in the rear view mirror, taken pity on me, or gotten plain bored with the game. I didn’t need to take a decision. He stomped on his brakes, surprised, I was thrown forward, and lay, a quivering blancmange, on the auto’s odoriferous floorboard. Before you could say, “Auto Raja,” I shot out of his vehicle, and showed him a clean pair of heels. Phew! That one sure was a close call…..! I left behind me an evil, grinning auto driver who had enjoyed taking me for that ride!

In spite of my no-autos resolve, once, at the end of a tiring train journey, in the days before “OLAs” and “UBERs,” I perforce had to take an auto home. I climbed in wearily, and wilted into a corner. I spun the driver my usual yarn about having a problem neck, in a vain bid to touch a sympathetic chord in his inner self. This was just so that he would not consider every pot-hole and speed-breaker on the road, an obstacle race to zig around or zag through. This driver was made of sterner stuff. He stuck to his guns and the gas pedal, and let his baser instincts take on the city’s abysmal roads, literally head on. As luck would have it, my city was in the throes of a Rally of political Rallies, with elections round the corner. Every short cut the auto driver took was jammed with honking, gas-belching vehicles. Even the ultimate dare devils, autorikshas, seemed vanquished. But, ‘Oh! Ho!,” “Oh! No!” not this driver. He could squeeze his machine through the slimmest of grid-locked openings. Between my unheard, weakly uttered, breathless, “Slow downs!” and “Look outs!” the bit was firmly between his teeth, and he seemed to be riding hell for leather. I scrabbled in my bag for my mobile, and speed dialed my daughter. And then looked up to see in front of me, what seemed like six lanes of traffic, on a two lane road to nowhere. The empty pavements beckoned, and I thought that I may as well get down, and foot it home, since I was near enough to my house. The driver seemed to have read my thoughts. To my utter horror, that very moment, with a determined and expert swing of the handle bar, he drove onto the pavement. And away we careened over the pave stones, swinging past lamp posts, letter boxes, dustbins and the odd terrified pedestrian. The squawks from the phone dangling limply from my fingers, reminded me that I had called my daughter, but for what, I couldn’t quite remember. Help maybe? Anyway, in a rapid and breathless staccato, as I hadn’t drawn up my Will, I told her that since I was surely on my way to meeting my Maker, I wanted to settle my affairs. Then, having fairly distributed my prized possessions between my children and grandchildren, I ended my call with, “Remember, my diamonds are only to be shared between the girls!” Satisfied, I resigned myself to my inevitable end!

In later years, my family never allowed me to forget the memorable experiences I had had on my autoriksha adventures. Thankfully, with the advent of the city’s Metro rail, those nightmarish trips were a thing of the past. Now if I needed to use public transport, I traveled in the clean airconditioned coaches of the Metro, or the city’s comfortable buses. And those autos? To keep my hand in, so to say, I sometimes do catch one, to be taken on the occasional ride!

11

Mah Jong Maharani

The Indian Republic was in the making, only a couple of years around the corner. Maharajah’s proudly ruled and strode their vast acreages, bedecked in royal finery, unconcernedly flaunting the trappings of their lineage, their hauteur, their wealth. It was expected, since they were born to rule, their subjects born to be ruled. Genetically allocated classes, as clearly defined as night and day. The country had seen the tragedy and viciousness of Partition. The legacy left behind by the descendants of the Founding Fathers of a Trading Company. A Trading Company that owed allegiance to their liege, Emperor of the World, ruling over an Empire, living in a cold damp and distant land, spanning Continents, across oceans far away.

Into this landscape strode officers and men of the Armed Forces, squadrons, regiments and fleets recently unshackled from the erstwhile British yoke. Heroes of their native land, guardians of their freedom. Swash-buckling air force princes of the skies, dashing army olive-greened fighting fit officers of the cavalry, the infantry and the artillery, and often bearded, uniformly outfitted naval officers, in dazzling whites. All wined, dined and feted by grateful locals. Could you then, blame the wives, girlfriends and daughters, reunited with the heads of their families or the loves of their lives, after many years of deprivation and war, not to socialize to giddy heights in a recently emancipated country? In the uniformly named Cantonments, where life seemed to be a garland of heady parties.

In a post war era, where the locals all scrambled to see and be seen, with members of the armed forces, could royals be left far behind? The scene was the scorching plains of the Punjab, that land of fiercely handsome Aryan warriors, without whose deterring presence our country would have definitely been entirely overrun, many centuries ago, by invading armies from lands far away. The scent and taste of freedom was heady, to be savoured. Yet the genteel patina of Anglo Saxonian habits had not undergone the metamorphosis to ethnic crassness. Heavy Privy Purses of the royals, had not yet been snatched away by an imperious, dictatorial Brahmin Socialist. Rulers of many small Principalities, and bigger Princely States, rode exorbitantly priced Arabian equines, or were driven in luxuriously bespoke English, German and American motor cars, partaking the evening air of their fiefdoms. The better heeled in the pecking order of such royals, often took to the ozone rich air of the skies, to survey their lands. They piloted their dinky, Arial single engined planes, with or without accredited pilot’s licenses, usually with alluring female co-passengers. This, for the sheer devilry and testosterone highs it afforded them, and to keep ennui at bay.

Deeper in the southern reaches of this continent, closer to the equator, the sun burnt its inhabitants to a darker hue. Wars were not heard of here, just minor squabbles & skirmishes between non-descript royalty. More so, as the fertile plains were agrarian, where there were no marauders to fight off, so one was not of an especially aggressive bent of mind. But to every rule there is an exception, in this case, the exception was a small pocket of a startlingly different ethnic group of Southerners, inhabiting a hilly hideout in the Western Ghats, close enough to the Southern Indian Malabar coastline, as the crow flew. They might have been the Gauls of Uderzo and Goscinny fame! These people also belonged to a martial race, the men tough and good looking, lighter of skin, heavier of nose, many sporting fierce mustachios. The women, as luscious as the oranges that grew in abundance on the hill sides of the fragrant coffee, pepper and spice plantations, that supported the home economy, while most of their men folk chose to either fight for King and Country, or else to tend their plantations. Their traditional clothes bore familiar similarity to inhabitants of the desert kingdoms bordering the Sahara, their features often akin to the Alexanderian Greek invaders who had tried in vain to cross over the North Western inhospitable mountain ranges, but who had been driven back by the bitter winters that protected our land. These people worshipped a Mother Goddess, after whom their land enriching nodal river was named. Their economy rode on what they harvested from their soil. These tribal clans worked hard, celebrated harder. They hunted the teeming wildlife of bison, boar and deer, that inhabited their richly forested land, at times for trophies, more often for the table, unabashedly washing down this hearty fare, with copious draughts of alchohol, which was always an important part of any commerative occasion, be it weddings, christenings, festivals, funerals or wakes. It all called for hearty eating, generous drinking & much merriment. The genetic origins of this hill tribe, remains a mystery to this day, though a myriad theories abound.

The tale unfolds here about just such a dashing air force officer, from the hilly hamlets of coffee country, with his young wife, as dazzlingly beautiful and charming, as he was handsome. If he was a dark, broad chested man of singular good looks, she was a petite, beautifully turned out young woman. Along with the other wives and families of the Armed Forces scattered around the battered Punjab plains, life was never more exciting. But after the initial excitement of the women making new friends, of swapping strange recipes between the kedgeree of dissimilar ethnic groups, and complaining about always-busy husbands and lazy domestics, there really was not much else to do to occupy the rest of the day. Which was when the petite young wife, stepped in, and held undisputed sway. She had been recently introduced to that intriguing game, Mah Jong, and in the process had earned the affectionate sobriquet Mah Jong Maharani. Before long it was discovered that unlike the stern and silent players of Bridge, or the squabble mongers of the Rummy group, the Mah Jong players had very connival and amusingly noisy gatherings, ‘Punging’ and ‘Konging’ their way to ‘Mah Jonging.’ These gatherings were enjoyed over piping hot beverages, by ‘Dosas’, ‘Iddlis’, ‘Samosas,’ or that decadently evil ‘Devil’s Food Cake,’ served with the mandatory tin of ‘Nestle’s’ double cream. Life was a dream.

MJM was undoubtedly highly intelligent, but even she was not immune to her fan following. She was a striking woman, and carried her clothes with panache, was always aware of her appearance. Life was exhilarating. She was young, had that certain cache and all the right connections. She managed to make most of the other officers’ wives pale into dowdiness. Actually most of them were, dowdy, I mean. To give her her due, while she enjoyed being a kind of fashion icon, nothing pleased her more than taking in hand some of these simple officer’s wives, most from sheltered backgrounds, and turning them from dowds to debutantes.

In later years, with the passage of time, these were the memories that sustained MJM. Of scaling the giddy heights of being trend setter, of how people would remark on the cakes she baked, her famous parties, the manner in which she carried off her clothes…yadda, yadda yadda. But fast forward to the new century, more than fifty years on, one had to be singularly Narcissist to believe in kind hearted young kids, now grown adults, who remarked about the passage of time hardly touching her since their last meeting, in the late ’60’s? Not displeased by this fondly blatant white lie, MJM, would, with a near coquettish shrug, half heartedly demur with her complimenting admirer.

Alas, MJM was now on the shady side of eighty, and had convenient amnesia when some thoughtless lout asked her age. She insisted that she didn’t need glasses, to either read, or when she was at social gatherings. Thus, it was often that she was seen screwing up her eyes to focus on a familiar face, standing unreasonably far away from her gaze, sticking to her explanation that the sun was too bright. In more intimate gatherings, she would participate with a permanent smile fixed on her lips. Those who knew her, understood, that this meant she wasn’t able to hear a word of the conversations swirling around her. But, oh no, who said that she might benefit from a hearing aid. However, she still looked elegant, wore her clothes with that certain air,and had grown old gracefully. Not giving in to the temptation of hiding her greying hair under an improbable shade of auburn, or even a burnt sienna!

MJM no longer played Mah Jong. Her eyes were a bit rheumy, her pace had slowed down, but her smile still dazzled. She said that she had long ago forgotten all the wonderful Mah Jong ‘hands,’ and was now content keeping her brain sharp, solving those cunningly devious cross words that the daily newspapers carried. In our circle, she remained, the Reigning Maharani………