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……..

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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…

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………

12

Dusshera Devi

I was away on a break from my humdrum existence. I was still floating on cloud nine, having recently returned from a long holiday in the Land of Hope and Glory. In that country, as in most of the developed world, everything worked like clockwork. Right from the time when, if you called their police for help, or just by dialling ‘911,’ for any other sort of emergency. It was a given that you received a response within minutes of your call. Government mandatory documents or payments are online. No time-wasting tramps to government offices, begging and beseeching the powers-that-be, to release the requested documents to us as the bonafide applicants. All transactions are lucidly transparent, and the exact amount is expected to be directly paid online into government accounts. Ho! Hum! If such practices were followed in India…then life would be really boring, I am guessing.

I put away my memories of recently visited rose-tinted economies. Sigh! Unfortunately, I was forced to make a visit to one such den of Indian inequity,the Regional Transport Office. This department is second in line in infamy, only to the top-of-the pops-land-deals Department of Revenue. Girding my loins, I resolutely set out that day. A less doughtier soul than I, might have had second thoughts on entering the hallowed portals. Not me. I reached my destination. Before me stood this multi-storied, decrepit building, complete with it’s ubiquitous embellishments of peeling plaster, fungoid paintwork,and broken windows and drunken doors hanging rakishly askew, on their rusty hinges.The building had “government office” writ large upon it, in invisible ink.

I needed to visit a department on the top floor, and not seeing a lift, I trooped up the narrow, winding staircase, with broken and chipped treads.En route I was accosted by dubious looking men, asking me,”Medaam! You want DL renewal, RC book updation, address proof, change of address yaanyting alse, I can do.” These were the “Yaygents”, in the local language, “Agents”, if you like, in the Queen’s English.They were the life blood of such offices. If you wanted any routine endorsement done on your Transport Department documents, these were the Fixers. They completed the job in under the given time-frame…for a hefty commission. Multiple visits were unnecessary, nor rubbing shoulders with the milling millions. Short of changing your country of birth, your ethnicity or your face, everything else was taken care of. Sweeping the dubious aside, I continued my climb. I meandered past grimy walls, pan stained corners, garbage strewn spots, even a locked door, with a sign proclaiming it to be a “Public Toilet.” Fleetingly I wondered why the powers-that-be wasted their time in hanging such a sign.In most instances our noses lead us unerringly to such public conveniences. As to why these toilets, meant for the public, needed to be locked, that was beyond me. By the time I reached the third floor, I was hot, and very nearly, bothered.

On an earlier visit to this office, I had handed in a document for renewal. Sweating humanity, all male, milled about me. Various ripe odours assailed my nostrils. Of the great unwashed, of sickeningly overpowering, locally manufactured, “Old Spice,” cologne, or of what somebody might have eaten earlier that day, for breakfast! I stood in the scraggly line, an apology for a queue, to break into which, many of my countrymen take pride upon themselves to frequently do. There is no such thing as “your personal space” in public spaces, in our country. Maybe because our population exceeds a billion, maybe because our’s is a true democracy, and “your space” also belongs to the “publics,” again, as said in local parlance. I had all my supporting documents for the renewal, neatly compiled, pinned together and had gone to the correct department and the exact counter, to hand it over for processing. My turn came, the self important ‘Case Worker’ behind the counter looked up, then beyond me. He saw that I was not accompanied by any likely looking ‘Yaygent,’ and promptly lost interest in me, as I was not a potential contributor to his secret retirement fund. Mr.Self Important leisurely engaged in light-hearted banter with a loitering colleague, answered a call on his mobile, solicitously enquired of his caller, “Thindi aiyata”, which would loosely translate into, “Hello! How are you?” He ignored me. I stood my ground. He eventually decided I had been made to wait a fair amount of time, and curtly asked for my documents. Handing them over, I waited. He read. The next moment my papers were flung back across the table to me. In thunderous tones I was informed that as my documents were not properly pinned together, I was merely wasting his time, apart from preventing him from carrying on with his work. I realized that my mouth had fallen agape at this unexpected tirade, so I hurriedly instructed my jaw to shut it. I gathered the by now scattered pages, to rearrange the sheets. I was trembling at this unwarranted censure, trembling with rage, at a public servant’s shameless greed and frustration at my not being his pigeon for easy plucking. In loud and very clear tones I demanded what Mr.Self Important thought of himself by his outrageous behaviour, considering his pay packet was the fruit of my hard work and taxes. Since by then I had exhausted by meagre command over words in the local language, and yet having many mouthfuls to spew at Mr.Self Important, I continued, in full spate, in English. I informed him that his job was to serve us, the members of the ‘Publics,’ for which he was suitably compensated, and not to bully us in a bid to reduce us to quivering blancmange. So there! You could hear many pens drop in the hushed silence that followed . The motley office staff craned their necks to see which mere woman had dared raise her voice against powerful Mr.Self Important. A man with an air of being the Supervisor, apprehensively emerged from behind the nether regions of a dusty cupboard, a file folder in hand. A lone fellow sufferer from the outer ring of fellow applicants was heard saying, “Yes Saar! Aall these peoples are the same, not satisfied with their pay, they want us to come through Yaygents, yand then they can get their commission.” Heads swivelled, Mr.Self Important turned a visible shade of puce, looked around shiftily, and tried retrieving his earlier blustering self important position by pushing a few pens and papers fussily around his table. On his Supervisor’s advice, he sullenly handed me my receipt. Bout One to Mr.Self Important.

I had waited patiently for a week, extended this to ten working days, and after a wait of three weeks and no document, I had embarked, a second time earlier this morning, upon this fact finding mission.  The extended festival week end, of one of our Indian festivals, Dusshera, had concluded recently. Ironically, this was the festival symbolizing the triumph of Good over Evil. Embodied by the Goddess Durga Devi. On this visit I headed to the top of the food chain, to the office of the head honcho of the Transport Authority. His fluttering minions were largely ignored. I knocked, and walked into a large official, opulently decorated room. I was pleasantly surprised at the courtesy shown me by the government officer. Reading through my letter of complaint, the boss was most apologetic. After hearing me out, he rang for a senior assistant staff, ordering him to escort me back to the concerned department, have the staff there look into my problem, and report back to him without delay. Quite mollified, and inwardly exulting, I set forth to get justice and my work done. The flunky, my letter now in his hand, ushered me solicitiously out towards our new destination. In the corridors of power, many supplicants there were in our path, who upon seeing Big Boss’ flunky, fluttered around him, making breathless, earnest enquiries about their own pending jobs. With a regal dismissive wave of his hand, saying “Later, later. Saar has ordered me to escort this Medam to get her important wurk done first,” the flunky swept them aside. We proceeded to our destination, with a determined section of the die-hards hot on our heels. We reached a room, that looked familiar. It was Mr.Self Important’s department. I was invited into the holy of holies, faintly protesting that I was quite comfortable on the other side of the counter, in the supplicants enclosure, meant for lesser mortals of the helpless public. The flunky wouldn’t hear of it.”Remember Medam, that Saar was very particular that your wurk is satisfactorily completed?” I adjusted my halo, and walked into the den of iniquity. I looked curiously around for Mr.Self Important, and thought we passed a familiar, but cringing figure, now resolutely turning his face away from us. On closer examination the hallowed precincts of this department looked even seedier, if that were possible. Mismatched, ancient wooden office furniture, work tables, complete with baize green table cloths hanging to the floor. How convenient I thought. Maybe the origin of that term, “under the table,” for ill-gotten gains, must have been coined at just such a place. But one would have to be a very brave soul to have the temerity to lift the cloth off such tables, to peek into the treasure troves lying beneath! To get back to unraveling the mystery of the return of my document. I was hurriedly offered a chair, by many of the staff. I had concluded by then that that Mr. Self Important and his cronies had decided to teach, in the first bout, this mere woman, a lesson in harassment. My Self Addressed Envelope, a part of the required supporting ‘documents’ in my original application, with my completed form, was ‘found’ under a pile of papers, and displayed to me with nearly an exultant ‘abracadabra.’ Feigning ignorance of ever having made my acquaintance, Mr Self Important tried explaining to me that the Transport Department had not delayed returning my papers on schedule, by postal delivery. “See Medam,” said he, pointing to my envelope, “Look, look! It is saying here ‘Door Locked’!”  I understood that this legend explained to me, meant that there was nobody at my home address to sign and take delivery of the letter. Since my stamped envelope was merely for ordinary postal delivery, and did not require a signature in acknowledgement, I was stumped for words,at their quick-thinking reply, to absolve themselves of any wrong doing. I asked for my document, and hastily signed a paper saying, “Hand Delivered to Consignee.” With my precious paper safely in my bag, and in silken tones, I fired a parting salvo at the bower, scraper and hand-wringer, now handing my document back. “Sir. My mobile number is written on this envelope, along with my address. So was there any reason that I could not be informed over over the phone about the document being ready?” Bower-Scraper was not fazed at this nugget of obvious information. Not missing a step, and in admiring tones he replied, “Medam you are great!” In wonder, I thought, “Full marks for chutzpah!”
Dusshera Devi triumphed. She had won the Final Bout. The winner’s bell was ringing.

9

A Memorable Mumbai May

It was sweltering, it was humid, was cacophonic, frenetically pulsating, and jam packed with humanity, as the city was always wont to be. It was Mumbai in May. All of the above compounded in magnitude, to a cool Bangalorean.

Working the corporate ladder however, meant a move to the financial capital of India. And so there was J, my son, on a typical Mumbai day in May, frantically looking for parking space in the southern heart of old Mumbai. His little burnt sienna automatic runabout, having survived the brush-in with a rashly driven motor bike, way back when she was new *, had also been relocated to this metropolis, from his airconditioned home town. J lived in less fashionable suburbia, close to his work place, and the south of the city was not quite so familiar. There seemed to be Mumbai Traffic Police ‘No Parking’ signs at every likely roadside parking spot. The remaining spaces abutting apartment blocks, had their self designated ‘Visitors Parking Only’ for ‘Hill View’, ‘Rajat Mahal’, ‘El Dorado,’ and similar, inappropriately named apartment blocks, none of which even remotely connected to their so-named buildings. As if by magic, in this tony locality, on a decent stretch of road, J found parking for his humble Herbie, under the cool shade of a welcoming Banyan tree. Anxiously scanning the surrounds for any discreetly concealed ‘No Parking’ signage, for the Mumbai traffic cops were a notoriously efficient force, his relief knew no bounds at having found suitable space close to his appointment. An hour later, work done, he stepped onto the road, hurrying to get to the car and back to office. Up ahead were the welcoming arms of Lady Banyan, overhanging that neat stretch of empty road-but devoid of his parked car!
A few desultory customers were hanging around the grimy chai cart parked on the pavement under this tree, shooting the breeze, sipping tea. A mangy cur was investigating the spilling contents of a malodorous cardboard carton, serving as a dustbin. It was overflowing with used plastic tea cups, biscuit wrappers, and suspect edible leftovers, swarming with flies. Nobody had noticed his vanished car. He walked ahead, asked some auto-rikshaw drivers if they could help him trace the whereabouts of his car. With a laconic twist of his head, and a wholly evil grin on his face, one of them enquired,

“Had you parked your car under the shade of that large tree, some way back from this spot?”
“Yes, yes!” Replied my son eagerly, hope swelling his anxious breast.
Another chicken for the police plucking, illustrated the man’s expression.

“There is a yellow line along that curve in this road. And this is Mumbai, mere jaan. That yellow line means ‘Parking Prohibited,’ with no exceptions. Your’s is not the first parked vehicle falling foul of the law!”
“So, now where should I look?” my son almost wailed.

“Arrey yaar, tenshun matt lene ka! Thoda aagey janeka. Vahan ek pulis tation milega. Vahin- icch pulis gaadi tow kiya hoga. Phaine bharney-ka, aur gaadi chuda dene-ka, utna icch. Kaam khatam!”

Taking the cue, J increased his pace, striding ahead, having deduced that the helpful advice, translated from the local Hindi dialect to mean, “My friend, don’t stress. Walk a short distance ahead till you reach a police station. Your car would have been towed there. Pay the fine, and have your car released, that’s all. Work over!”
A small dilapidated, but sturdily built building, circa pre-independent India soon loomed ahead. A low wall surrounded this structure, confining the fairly ample yard within, bursting at its seams with dead and dying, dusty, dilapidated and rusting vehicles, variously awaiting the sentence of the long arm of a painfully slow judicial system. My son thought that most of the original owners of the ‘impounded’ vehicles must have long gone to meet their Maker. A white lettered sign reading ‘Police Station,’ marched stridently over a flaking red painted background. Peering over the wall, there she was, his orange Herbie, one of the latest occupants of the cluttered area. The car displayed a wheel clamp, like a badge of honour, and a few new scrapes and scratches on her body. He walked hesitantly into the holy of holies, to meet the lowly of lowlies, the junior most policeman in the pecking order of the police station. That worthy who guarded the outer perimeter, to the inner power centre.
A desk stood dead centre of this room, flanked by two faded, grimy plastic chairs. A fly ridden Notice Board, displaying photographs of various offenders of the law adorned the rear wall, cheek-by-jowl with a likeness of the Father of the Nation, and the mandatory pictures of the ruling political party head honcho. A two Way Wireless Hand Set stood upright at the table corner, chattering away incoherently to itself, largely ignored by the denizens of law. One of these, occupied the chair behind the table, along with his not inconspicuous paunch. His peer, perched precariously on the table edge, was giving him, by all accounts, a minute description of the latest run-in with his ever-vigilant wife, the previous night. That harried woman apparently had not swallowed the friend’s reason for his late return to home and hearth. She had smelt the odour on his breath, of the couple of quick shots he had been generously served in that seedy little back alley unlicensed bar. She had also not missed the suspicious scent of jasmine on his clothes. She, his wife, who couldn’t afford to adorn her hair with flowers, while he wasted his money on buying tokens for some cheap tartlet? An appreciative guffaw from his corpulent companion greeted this anecdote. This man was minutely examining the contents of his wandering fingers, which had recently explored a facial orifice. My son simply stood, a mute spectator, totally ignored, waiting for one of them to notice him. It was then that he looked along the dim recesses of the far corners of the room. There seemed to be many members of the human species, sprawled on the floor. Both men and women, flouting different laws, who, not commanding the wherewithal of paying the penalty fine, now cooled their heels to sober up or mend their erring ways, in the confines of the police station.
A hesitant, “Ahemmm,” alerted the two constables to my son’s presence in their midst.

“Vot you vant, vai are you standing there?”said Constable Proud Paunch.
“Sir. Sorry for disturbing you. I can see you are busy. But may I please have a word with your good self?” responded my son, in an appropriately servile tone and manner.
“Taal me, vot is the problem?” I cannot vait the whole day phor you to esplain me the matter.”

My son, bending respectfully forward, in a rush, launched into the said problem of his towed and impounded car.

“Ah! So you are owning that illegally parked car? Do you not know that vaicles cannat be parked at your conveyance anywhere you vant?” Saying which Proud Paunch started scrabbling around for what my son thought might be his ‘Fines’ Receipt Book.
Picking up a grimy note book, he licked his fingers, and turning the pages reached the last entry pertaining to J’s crime.

“Lat us see now, vai yore car vas tow-ed.” So saying Proud Paunch, his raconteur colleague and I, trooped out to inspect J’s car.

“Car documents?”
J hurried forward, pipped-open his car with the remote key, and leaning into Herbie’s innards, opened the glove compartment with a flourish. Empty. He scrabbled about, peering under the seats, delving into every crevice and cranny for the papers. All squeaky clean, with nary a hair out of place, and no papers. Horror slowly dawned, he had given the car recently, for servicing, and not put the documents back.
In slow motion, sweat now streaming down his face, his shirt sticking clammily to his skin, J turned back to the upholder of Mumbai’s traffic rules. He explained the reason for no car documents, upon which, Proud Paunch, smote hapless Herbie with his Receipt Book, and barked.

“Tinted glass windows, out of State registration plates. No documents. Vat you mean by all this nansense? And do nat tell me that you have just recently driven in to Mumbai, I will nat listen to you. Aall will be lies, lies, lies!”

J’s mouth had opened to say exactly what he had been told, by the now very irate mind reader. He quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and holding his peace, squared his shoulders.

“Saar. Vokey! Show me your Driver’s Licence.”

In slow motion J took out this sacrosanct pan-Indian ‘Proof of Identity.’ In trepidation he hoped for a bolt of thunder to strike down his Nemesis, while handing it over.
Nemesis scrutinized the licence, his eyes opened wide, the eye balls bulged, a button on his shirt almost popped, as he swelled visibly in disbelief. As if from a distance, J heard the roar.

“Expired Licence! Expired two months back, two months? Have you no civic responsibility? I will put you behind the bar in my Station, and throw away the key! Do you hear me?”

Since Proud Paunch’s voice had by then pitched up some considerable decibels, not just J, but the entire locality would have heard the diatribe. There were a not inconsiderable number of the guilty criminal inmates and sundry passersby, enjoying this unexpected Matinee, and for free. J thought that if Proud Paunch did not have an apoplectic fit, he himself was sure he would suffer one.The policeman stormed back inside, with J scuttling behind.Settling back into his favourite chair, eyebrows raised, Proud Paunch began the negotiations, with the well worn opening line.

“Vat you vant we should do? I will book you phor many serious offences, you will have to pay a big amount in fines. Your car needs to remain here.You have to produce all proper documents, but in any case, we will be booking a case against you, for such a such offence, under Section…and……….” his voice suggestively trailed into silence.

J waiting with bated breath, wondered why there was no further conversation. It suddenly dawned on him, that he had been presented with a hot hint, and he had to bite the bait.
The parleying began.

The prevailing inflation was crippling. The present government had done nothing to help ill paid officers of the law, make a decent living. He had hoped to have bought himself that snug little cottage in his village. But that was a distant dream, as how was he expected to produce the money to pay for it. His monthly pay packet barely lasted through the month. And then there was the small matter of paying the local Councillor to put in a word about his tranfer to the Central Business District. It was supposed to be El Dorado for the police.

“Sigh!” but I am a hohnest officer.” What am I to do…….you tall me?”

They went back and forth, and finally after many hours, for that is what it seemed to J, both sides arrived at a happy figure. Notes changed hands, one minute in my son’s out held fingers, the next whisked under the table, like a Houdini’s sleight of hand. Obviously, Proud Paunch had had occasion to practice this art regularly for many years. Thereafter the policemen’s entire demeanour changed. He solicitously offered my son many bits of seriously sage advice.

“Drive slowly. Do not run a red light, or break any other traffic rules. Next policeman will not be so kind as me. Sunna?”

He heard and left. J wearily extricated his car from the dusty confines of the station yard, after chasing away a few street dogs who were catching forty winks under it’s shade. It was past 1 PM, and he was to have been back in office hours ago.His head was splitting, as much from the sun as from the events of the day. Hunger pangs emitted sonar pings from the innards of his digestive system. He needed a long cool drink, and some food to help sooth the gripes of acidity. He was driving into Mumbai’s suburbs. Many famous Bollywood stars and cricketers had palatial mansions in this area. A small “Multi Cuisine” restaurant caught his eye. He knew that the fare that they offered their hungry customers would be high on refined flour, swimming in oil and loaded with taste enhancers, and taste of neither robust Anglo Saxon, Satvik Hindu, nor true blue Asian cuisine. He was beyond caring. He was fortunate to find a small deserted side road to park his car. He walked wearily into the cool, dim restaurant interior and ordered his meal.
Quite a while later, headache gone, his frayed nerves combed back into place, and with a gentle, contented burp, he walked out to finally drive back to work. He knew he would have to give a very convincing explanation to his boss about how a minor appointment could be stretched so long into early evening. Anyway, the alleyways afforded more secluded parking, but he seemed to remember parking his car much closer to the lunch place. Ah, maybe he overshot the road. He turned back, retracing his steps, and saw the post box at the head of the road that he had parked his car.But this was a one way, narrow street.

“Was the ‘One Way’ sign there earlier?” thought J.

He didn’t remember noticing it! He turned into this road, and thought that his eyes were playing tricks on him. Or maybe that recently imbibed thirst quencher was, well, rather strong. But no, his eyes hadn’t played tricks. Horror dawned-his car was gone, vanished. Not even a farewell drop of oil marked the spot he had parked her. This time round Mumbai’s traffic police had thoughtfully chalked directions on the road surface,about the Police Station which now imprisoned his car. His Herbie’s adventures had beaten all odds.
The tale provided me good entertainment at parties for the rest of the year….!

* My post, “Madame Siddons”…featured an earlier anecdote about Herbie.

14

Her Incredible Journey

In many a person’s passage through life, certain circumstances, certain happenstances, certain individuals, or even certain of god’s better creations, stand apart. These come and they go, much like meteors.

They sometimes leave an indelible mark on our psyche. One such unique creation was Patch.Dog Running

Being a family of animal lovers, we had recently suffered the heartbreak of losing two similar members. A Daschund, ‘Frankfurter,’ he of Teutonic-Dravidian origin, and ‘Jigme,’ who was a gentle Lhasa Apso. Not directly in the line of succession to the benevolent tribal chieftans reigning over the Himalayan ranges of our country, but Jigme was regal enough, nevertheless. Franky looked proudly Aryan, and understood Tamil, as he was tutored by his loving Tamilian caregiver. He routinely responded to party tricks such as, “Prangee, pilate kondavva!” A loose translation from the Teuto-Dravidic tongue being, “Franky, bring your plate!” Or, “Prangee, po-lamma?” “Franky, shall we go?” etc. And Jigme? Well, he spoke the lingua franca of my neck of the south Indian woods, the Queen’s English. So conversing with him needed no interpreters. I resolutely informed the children that I was emotionally drained by our losses. Hence, no more canine additions to our family.

Destiny had other plans. My teenaged kids and I had noticed this bag of bones, from time to time, sidling out from the building under construction next door. With her udders not quite sweeping the ground, her hip bones jutting out above her tail, the two sides of her belly very nearly concave, each miserable rib on her could be counted. The poor creature couldn’t have been more emaciated if she’d tried. She was more white than black, with black patches smudged at random over her dull lifeless coat. A black nose, a white muzzle, two apprehensive toffee brown eyes under beetling white eyebrows, peeped at the world through the black patches on her face. She had recently littered, and my interested teenagers correctly assumed that her pups were housed somewhere inside this building. She was the understudy to the building’s Watchman, on twenty four hour duty. Not a strange vehicle, nor any stranger, could use our road without this black and white fury shooting out of her shelter, chasing them off her territory. She took her duties very seriously, and all in exchange for inadequate handouts of food thrown erratically her way, with the accompanying kicks that were a given, from her usually inebriated owner. Her motherly instincts were strongly atavistic. She scavenged for morsels all the time, everywhere, any time, in struggling to ensure full bellies for her brood. In her search for nourishment and scraps she was ably assisted by my kids. I hardened my heart to cringingly appealing toffee eyes, choosing to ignore the many plates of food that I knew my two children secreted out of the house. “Feed her if you must, near her building, but not near our gate,” was my war cry. “I don’t want her stepping inside. Not another dog.”

And then one day folks it was, Show Time! That fine morning, Patch, for the kids had named her so, trotted to our gate, with her eight, yes, eight, plump pups hotly in pursuit. A prouder mother was never seen. No wonder she always looked starving and emaciated, she had given her all to her babies. By this time of course, my children had fed and nourished Patch back to some semblance of caninehood, and her pups too were not forgotten. It was amazing what a difference just regular meals, over a couple of weeks, could make to a dog. Patch had flesh filling out all those concave hollows, and smoothing over her rib cage. Having weaned her voracious puppies, her figure had nearly returned to that of a curvaciously fit canine. She was a transformed personality. There was a sheen to her previously lusterless coat, not only because the kids had introduced her to her first bath. These ablutions were initially fraught with apprehensions about its success. Patch was convinced that she was being led to the slaughter, and growled, howled and barked blue murder. After squealing her way through every mug full of water, a rigorous scrub down with a medicinal soap and anti louse shampoo, Patch and the kids emerged in wet triumph, a gleaming, squeaky clean whiter than white dog, and decidedly bedraggled humans. What was also revealed was her doubtful lineage. Some Dalmation?

Dalmation Patchs' Incredible Journey PIJAssociated to the many black spots under those layers of grime and dirt! That rangy stride, was there a hint of a hunting hound? She was an interesting potpourri. Patch was now refreshingly huggable, and got a lot of those from our family. A newly acquired swing to her gait, her eyes unhesitatingly looked every human in the face. Her tail, which appendage had emerged from between her legs with her new found poise, was held high, like a standard. Patch’s ‘make-over’ was complete. Or was it? It was then that we noticed that all things being equal, there were a few inherent flaws in her genes. Patch didn’t quite have 6/6 vision, in fact she had a decided cast in one of her eyes, which gave her an eternally enquiring gaze from a tilted head. Also, no amount of calcium syrup with which we thoughtfully augmented her diet, had succeeded in making both her ears reach to the skies. One ear flopped down, while the other remained disreputably aloft. But that smile, oh that grin, that split her long muzzle in two, nothing could beat that.

She had by then, decided that our family needed being taken under her wing. She had to only see one of us, and a smile lit her up like a lighthouse. If any of the family chose to visit in the neighbourhood, Patch was our self appointed outrider. She would jauntily lope ahead, tongue lolling out, chasing a lowly stray out of our path here, flushing the odd bird, that dared to stray into our path, there. Once my mother had gone visiting a neighbourhood store, to reach which, she had a busy road to cross. No amount of firm admonitions made Patch return home. She resolutely ignored my mother ordering her back, pretended instead to investigate an interesting scent, and then did an Usain Bolt across the thoroughfare, adeptly avoiding all vehicles, and disappeared around a building. Shopping over, my mother emerged from the shop, to discover a long suffering dog, waiting patiently outside the store, to escort her home. Fellow mongrels she chose to totally ignore, choosing to believe that she was born to the Purple, and so for her they did not exist. But if a dog with an obvious pedigree was being walked, that always reduced Patch to a fawning, grovelling cur. She was a shameless social climber, who loved rubbing haunches with rich and famous canines. She performed for their edification. She pirouetted, she cavorted, did a belly up, a coquettish flick of her fore paws, a few steps to the front, a quickstep back. Her repertoire was endless. Everybody knew Patch was ours. “Uh huh? Since when?” “Oh! Never mind.” But the dog walkers, they all loved her obviously sycophantic antics with their charges.

Resignedly, I faced facts. It was high time to put an end to Patch adding her periodic gifts of puppies to our locality, apart from them eating us out of house and home, inspite of officially belonging to the alcoholic watchman next door. I called up the local Animal Shelter, with a request to them to send their ambulance for the pick up of a mother dog and her pups. No, I didn’t have any dark and dubious intentions. I merely wanted Patch neutered, reunited with her watchman, and the pups put up for adoption. The pick up day dawned, with the kids darkly muttering, sotto voce, whether they would ever see Patch again. Dog Mongrel and Girl PIJAnd I secretly hoping that some kind soul visiting the Animal Shelter would fall hopelessly enough in love with Patch, to adopt her. Mother & pups were shoved willy-nilly into the ambulance, and I was assured by the driver that after another pick-up of an injured cat elsewhere in the city, they would drive straight onto the veterinary hospital and animal shelter, which was about ten kilometers away.

The friendly staff at the animal shelter had been informed that Patch should be returned to our neighbourhood only after she was fully recovered from her surgery, which meant that she should be away at least about two weeks. Imagine my surprise when, after barely a few days, my mother called me up at work, informing me that a dog, looking suspiciously like Patch, was seated expectantly outside our front gate? Quite irate at the Shelter having flouted my express request, I called them up immediately, set to do battle. On my enquiring of them the reason for releasing Patch so soon after her admission, I was emphatically informed that they had not done anything of the sort. In fact a few of her pups had been adopted, and they were in the process of scheduling her surgery. Patiently I requested them to get to the bottom of the confusing business. Within a few minutes, I got a very worried Shelter staff calling me, to say that Patchs’ wire-meshed enclosure and cage door were securely shut and locked. It housed a vanished dog! Her remaining pups were in their cage, but no mother dog nuzzling them there. While back home, my mother was petting and feeding choice scraps to a smiling black and white ‘Dalmation,’ with a face-splitting grin and a furiously wagging tail. “Elementary, my dear Watson!” Patch had obviously clawed and climbed her way out of a 6 ft high, wire meshed,secure enclosure, without a backward glance at the gene pool she had abandoned to their fate. Houdini had escaped from the confines of the Animal Shelter. A place, where she had been taken to in a vehicle, as opposed to being walked there. She had then traversed miles of a large city’s bustling roads, circumvented strange scents, stranger sounds. Dodging traffic, hostile canine street packs, cruel humans, she had headed to her sanctuary, her family, our house, much like a homing pigeon with an inbuilt GPRS, but safely home she had unerringly reached.

I was as putty in Patchs’ paws after her incredible journey. Quickly we completed Patchs’ official paper work. A generous wad of crisp currency notes changing hands with her watchman owner, was all it took. Easy peasy. Patch was now legally our’s. We were a complete family again.