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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………

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