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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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!