The year 1991 was an important year in the Barua household in Shillong. It was the year America continued its attack on Iraq. It was also the year when the Indian government launched a series of economic reforms, which came to be known as liberalisation. Liberalisation, as Nikita Barua’s schoolteacher told her, meant that the Indian economy was now open to foreign investment. Both of these events had an impact on the lives of the Barua family. The family cats were promptly renamed Scud and Patriot after the ballistic missiles used in the Gulf War. This was Colonel Barua’s attempt at allying his semi-retired sedate life with larger global forces at play. Mrs Barua didn’t object too strenuously – she had reared cats for far too long and knew that no self-respecting cat ever responded to names given by an inferior, two-legged species.Scud and Patriot treated their new names with contemptuous indifference, only choosing to respond, if ever, to the generic call of ‘meow’. Liberalisation, on the other hand, had a slightly more tangible consequence. Mrs Barua finally unwrapped what had threatened to become a family heirloom – a bar of Camay soap brought in by an NRI relative and stored away for use on an appropriately momentous occasion.
That day in the summer of 1991, Mrs Barua unwrapped the bar of Camay and ran a finger gingerly over its baby pink surface. “We can use this – now all this will have Indian versions. No point holding onto it,” she said. Mrs Barua felt a pang of disappointment as she handed the five-year-old soap to her 15-year-old daughter, Nikita. This was not how Camay was meant to have been used in her imagination – like just another sodium stearate compound. No, she had imagined a ceremonial unwrapping of the hallowed bar in the envious presence of the constipated Mrs Jolly. The envious presence was mandatory in this daydream; her being constipated at that specific point of time was negotiable, though Mrs Barua’s close associate, Captain Hussain, had assured her that Mrs Jolly’s condition was chronic – a fact that reinforced Mrs Barua’s belief in the existence of divinity. “Ah. I always knew it. There is a god,” she bit out with heartfelt joy, after conclusive confirmation came in through Captain Hussain’s and the Jollys’ common general physician, Dr Mitra.
Mrs Barua was not the vicious sort, and to have an adversary felled by stubborn bowels was as far as she would go in her plans for vengeance. Colonel Barua, who often philosophised on issues facing humanity, averred that it would escape many calamitous events if only it shared his wife’s world view. “Imagine a world which settled for constipation as the ultimate weapon of retribution. There would be no invasions, no wars. George Bush would wish constipation on that Saddam bugger and that would be the end of it.” these musings, often made in the company of a large bottle of rum and the two cats, were greeted with a brand of unflappable feline indifference. At times like these, Colonel Barua was assailed by bouts of deep introspection; he wondered if getting a dog would be a better plan.
Mrs Jolly was Mrs Barua’s chief adversary over a series of events spanning a decade. Most of these events had their roots in a game of luck patronised by both ladies. You may know it by different names: tambola, housie or bingo. It was the weekend ritual of the Barua family; every Sunday afternoon, they would depart for the Shillong Club. Colonel Barua would take himself off to the bar for a goblet of beer, Nikita would sit in the library and read Stardust and Mrs Barua would scamper off in ill-concealed haste to the ballroom. It had been many years since the ballroom at the club had actually seen a ball; it was now the venue for the weekly round of tambola – a game, which comprised a bunch of people furiously and frantically scratching out numbers on paper tickets. These were called out by an announcer, who randomly picked them from a bag of little wooden blocks with numbers inscribed on them. The ditty that accompanied the calling out was as important as the number. “Watch your daughter at 1 and 8 – 18.”“Clickety Click – 66.”
The game had minor cash prizes and one major prize for the person who completed the entire ticket first. The minor prizes were for completing a single line first – top line, bottom line and middle line. The major prize was called Full House. A player announced the completion of a line or the card by shouting, “Yes!”, once the winning number was called out. Seasoned players knew the tambola lexicon inside-out, and used that in pre-emptive strikes – ambushing the announcer mid-sentence to stake their claim. Mrs Jolly, a stout woman, would jump to her feet and bark out thrice, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The elegant Mrs Masjid would simper, “Yes” in a prolonged drawl, and shrug a shoulder in delicate indifference to the final outcome. Mrs Barua always raised her arm while hollering, “Yes!” and kept it raised till confirmation of her win came in. At which point, she would bunch her hand into a fist and punch the air.
Over the years, as luck would have it, the Full House frequently became a fight to the finish between Mrs Jolly and Mrs Barua. It was almost as if every alternate Sunday, Lady Luck decided to be either a slightly flatulent Punjabi housewife or a slightly fatuous Assamese schoolteacher. Everyone else in that ballroom was a bit player.Colonel Barua and Mr Jolly took turns at calling out the numbers. Mr Jolly’s thick guttural accent made him largely indecipherable to everyone but his wife – an advantage keenly resented by Mrs Barua. The Colonel, on the other hand, was a big hit, as he intoned in his musical baritone: “Men get flirty at four-zero – 40.” This pronouncement had Mrs Masjid break into coquettish cackles. “Anirban,” she would drawl. “Really now!” Mrs Barua never seemed to notice or care; Sakina Masjid was no competition. At the most, she won bottom line and that too, rarely. ***
Nikita sniffed at the pink Camay, and said, “Are you sure we should even use this? It doesn’t even smell that good anymore.” Mrs Barua was about to dismiss Nikita’s qualms but was interrupted by the maid running in to say, “Sir’s aunts are at the gate. Where should I bring them?” Mrs Barua’s heart plummeted to the deep recesses of her stomach, as she wailed, “Oh no! Again these people have shown up without informing. And at lunch time?”
The ‘aunts’ were from Colonel Barua’s side of the family. His mother’s first cousins – his only living connection, he said sentimentally when they first turned up unannounced, to a dear parent he lost in his youth. But in the five years since that first visit, his sentiment was wearing thin and his wife’s patience was equally threadbare. The aunts had developed a propensity to show up at meal times and then stay on for a week. While most would call Anirban Barua a large-hearted man, the depths of his heart came a poor second to the depths of his aunts’ appetites. No ailment of old age was sure-footed enough to catch these merry septuagenarians off their feet – cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, did nothing to thwart their all-consuming passion for consumption.
The aunts waddled in – they had individual names, but the Barua family had long forgotten them. They now constituted a generic blob of lard, a bottomless apparition that ate its way through their dining table. Mrs Barua was suddenly glad that the lunch was vegetarian, but the carnivorous aunts were equally sudden in discovering a passion for paneer. After two bowlfuls of paneer, the aunts then declared that in spite of the light lunch, they would need a nap to sleep off the travel.
“Is there soap in the bathroom?” asked one of them peremptorily. Nikita fished out the frayed packet of Camay and gave it to her, making sure not to look at her mother. The aunts grabbed the soap gleefully and exited in a hurry. Mrs Barua had long reconciled herself to the loss of the Camay dream, and so, chose not to react. In any case, she was distracted by a more crucial concern. She hissed, “Anirban, you find out when they are leaving! Tomorrow is the last Sunday before a two-month tambola break. I am not going to miss that for these freeloading gluttons.”
The Colonel, who had braved two wars fighting off the Chinese and the Pakistanis, longed for the peace of a battlefield. He said cheerily, “We will take them for lunch to the club. It will save you the cooking as well.”
Mrs Barua considered the option, and said grumpily, “They like to eat at noon, otherwise they get acidity. I am not missing my game to sit with them. You have to announce. What to do?”
Nikita chipped in, “Order heavy snacks in the ballroom. They can have soya chicken. That should fill them up.”
“Nothing,” noted the Colonel sombrely, “will fill those two up.”
Mrs Barua, who usually disagreed with everything her spouse said, for once, was quick to nod her assent.
And then, it was Sunday afternoon; in the intervening period, mutton curry, pulao, fruits, porridge and cheese omelette had made their appearance and disappeared rapidly. As the aunts settled into the ballroom, an order for soya chicken, fries and roasted peanuts was placed. Colonel Barua took his place at the console. Mrs Barua blanked out the aunts and focussed on the tambola ticket in front of her. She exchanged a stiff smile with Mrs Jolly who had placed herself in her favourite corner. Not many people were aware of this, but it was likely to be Mrs Jolly’s last appearance at the club. In a month’s time, she moved to Agra. Mrs Barua knew – and the anticipation of a final duel made her fingers tremble.
Colonel Barua’s baritone rang out then: “Downing Street – Number 10”, “Independence – 47”, “Not so sweet – 16”.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Mrs Jolly’s trademark barks rang out.
Mrs Barua was unflustered – it was bottom line, a minor prize. But her nerves soon gave way as the afternoon played out in a nauseating loop. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” rent the air, as Mrs Jolly claimed a majority of the winnings. The aunts were, by then, on their third helping of soya chicken. Mrs Barua looked at them resentfully – they were bad luck charms.
Colonel Barua, in the meanwhile, had begun to feel a bit queasy; the aunts waved their half-eaten chicken bones periodically in encouragement of his calling out skills. His wife had not touched her drink and sat stone-faced. The air was heavy with dire premonition, and the next few days of domesticity didn’t bode well for him.
It was time for the last game of the season, and so the winnings of the Full House had been trebled to a thousand rupees. Mrs Jolly sat up straight. A predatory smile flashed briefly as she looked at Mrs Barua, who sat, inexpressive. Colonel Barua cleared his throat – the aunts gave him a joint thumbs up with a chunky piece of soya chicken each. He started, his rich timbre taking over the ballroom. Only Nikita noticed the slight wobble in his voice.
The minor prizes went in a blur. Mrs Barua was perspiring, Mrs Jolly sat grimly with her brow furrowed in concentration. And then, the moment was upon them – it was time for the Full House. The entire room went quiet; all you could hear were the sounds of pencils scratching across paper. Find the number and attack with practised swipes of your weapon. It was a battle – and adrenaline surged through the room.
Nikita noticed her mother was breathing heavily. She gesticulated to Nikita that she had only one number left to claim the full house. Her eyes blazed with excitement. The Colonel droned on. The aunts chomped on, until all that he could see were gigantic mouths in his line of vision. It was in this haze that he called out the next number, “Two fat—”
Cries of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” rang out. Mrs Jolly stood up in triumph and cried out, “Yes. At 44.” Mrs Barua paled and silently vowed never to play tambola again. This was a crushing defeat, a decimation; even chronic constipation could not make amends. She berated god silently and wondered if the karma of her previous birth had finally caught up with her.
Colonel Barua then shook his head in mild confusion. “44? I didn’t say 44!”
Mrs Jolly sneered, “Yes. But everyone knows: two fat majors – 44.”
Perplexed, Colonel Barua said, “I never said two fat majors. I was going to say two fat aunts – and the number is 8 and 8 – 88.”
The two fat aunts, oblivious to the drama, turned their attention to the fries, which they declared had been cooked in substandard oil. Mrs Barua wasn’t listening. She could only hear, “and the number is 8 and 8 – 88.” She stood up waving a wobbly fist, and said, “That would be me. Yes!”
A constipated silence ensued, and then Mrs Jolly tore her ticket into two and walked out, never to return again. Mrs Barua looked across the room at her husband and felt giddy-headed for the first time in her marriage of two decades. Colonel Barua felt intuitively that this could be the right time to ask for a dog. The aunts chomped on merrily on the substandard fries.
And that is why, the year 1991 was an important year in the history of the Baruas. Mrs Barua went on to become a playing legend in inter-club tambola circles. It is rumoured that Mrs Jolly never played tambola again. The aunts found themselves in the position of being favoured relatives, and on their demise, even had a framed photograph in the living room. Colonel Barua never did get the dog, but continued to retain naming rights for all felines that his wife adopted.
The Shillong Club became the only club in the tambola circuit to have the phrase, “Two fat aunts – 88” in the announcer lexicon. Curious etymologists spent time writing rival theses on the origin of the phrase, trying to find a socio-political basis for its existence. The truth though will remain hidden in the interred bones of soya chicken eaten on a summer day in Shillong in 1991.
Naomi Datta, 37, grew up in Shillong and majored in English Literature before moving to Mumbai in 1998. She is a television producer and presenter who has worked with CNBC TV18 and Times Now. Her debut novel, The 6 pm Slot (Random House India), riffs on Indian television news and was published in 2011. Currently she writes satirical pieces on cricket and Bollywood for Thenewsminute.com.
In the spring of 1998, my father caused a minor stir at a local handicrafts festival after taking a tumble inside a 10-foot rolling barrel ride. While he was still falling, he clutched the left breast pocket of his stonewashed shirt, the contents of which were a State Bank of India diary, some loose change, and a Your Answer to Cancer fridge magnet he’d received at a hospital while on a human-interest story beat. The stir occurred when he accused the barrel operator of not turning the ride off immediately, leaving him and his belongings to all roll together in a goofy homemade rendition of the Large Hadron Collider. The next time my father threw a fit, I was much less embarrassed. It was summer and we were in a government parking lot in his quaint, disaffected home town.Two separate developments had precipitated our visit to Beed.
The first was Uncle Sajjan’s decision to quit his job at Savage — New Delhi’s foremost alternative underground magazine. Savage had made a name for itself for changing form every fortnight, sometimes condensing all its content into a hasty scribble on a town-hall announcement board, other times, taking shape as a stray comment on a controversial forum about neonatal care. Sajjan had decided to leave it all behind and to return to Beed, my grandmother in tow, to start a glow-in-the-dark textile business.
The second was the re-commissioning of Beed’s state transport buses, which had been responsible for such travesties as the Great Pedestrian Pile Up of 1992 and the River Dives of 1995 and 1996, the victims of which had been transported to various neighbouring cities and had subsequently spawned vast and ultimately pointless murder investigations. One of these newly-resurrected wild buses had charged through the walls of my father’s boyhood home, sent my grandmother Ujwala crashing into the arms of a steel cupboard, and had finally come to rest in the vegetable patch in the garden.
“Why did you have to leave her alone like that?” my father said, when Sajjan broke the news over the phone. Sometimes there were no answers to his questions. Father later confessed that while the idea of his mother being hurled into five-inch-thick reinforced steel had given him pause, his equilibrium had really been disturbed by the thought of scores of unwashed masses pouring out of the bus into his home, handling the relics of his childhood and wiping the unseemly contents of their noses on the curtains his father had bought in Rangoon while the Japanese were at the gate.
This was important for my father. For too long, a cloud of inadequacy had hung over him like another cloud that was different in composition but equally tenacious in intent.
After the death of my grandfather, both brothers had wanted to take their mother to their respective cities.
Sajjan had painted a delicious and rosy picture of New Delhi, which, my father contested was not only a terrible city but also a popular mistake. Sajjan, playing his part, had shot down his brother’s case for Mumbai on the premise of the city’s turbulent history of water shortage. Ujwala’s feeble voice had been steamrolled by intense lobbying for each city.
It was an utter fraternal impasse. My grandaunt Teju’s voice had then emerged through the cacophony much like Sajjan’s neon T-shirts would, years later, radiate through the darkness of dance clubs and cineplexes.
“We shall split your mother into two,” she had said triumphantly.
Despite secretly hosting a major chemical imbalance in her brain, Teju had fared quite well living alone in her crummy little apartment that sat over a kick-boxing gym. Now, although her suggestion had been literal and therefore quite impractical, it was assumed that she meant Ujwala should spend time in both cities to determine which would be the more suitable permanent residence. Father’s eyes had met his mother’s in that moment, long enough to see the glint that betrayed she had already made up her mind. So when a few weeks later — after having spent an adequate amount of time in Mumbai — Ujwala decided to move to New Delhi, my father was disappointed but not surprised. Ujwala’s explanation about her decision had fallen on my father’s deaf ears. My father was also literally going deaf. Sajjan’s call for help and his inadequacy in keeping grandmother safe meant that my father was right all along.It was because of this notion that my father stood two feet taller than usual when we entered Beed General Hospital. We found Sajjan slumped in a sofa seat in a dark hospital room. Sajjan himself, however, burned like a young star. The warm glow of the button-down oxford shirt from his summer collection illuminated his person and also the book that Ujwala sat reading in the bed. It might have been the shirt but from where I stood, it looked like seeing us there had made her face light up. There was no way to ascertain this.
“How are you, Ma?” father asked.
She smiled and moved to scratch her plaster-covered leg, and the way her hair fell over her face reminded me of eating summer sweetmeats on a dusty street corner. I smoothed my hand lightly over my uncle’s shoulder. He woke up with a start and instantly smiled, in the way only uncle Sajjan could. Father motioned to Sajjan to join him at the far side of the room which served as the art corner, but mainly consisted of portraits of rural women drawing water from various sources.
“How is she doing?” asked father, folding his arms.
“In a manner of speaking, she is surprisingly okay. But in an entirely different and more long-term manner of speaking, it seems like she doesn’t like any of this,” Sajjan whispered.
“That’s not ideal,” said father.
“Oh, but you know, women her age are prone to churnings of the mind and soul,” Sajjan explained.
“Get me out of here. It’s too quiet and everything is white and the evening nurse won’t stop talking about her inverted nipples,” Ujwala interrupted, for the first time revealing the true troubling nature of hospitals to us all.
“Ma, did you forget what happened to the house?” Sajjan said.
“It’s an indigent’s paradise.” There’d been no time to repair the damage rendered to the house by the wayward bus. Father knew this was his moment to shine and wasted no time towards this end.
“I’ll fix it,” he said, self-actualising, effusing the white room with the kind of confidence it had never seen and could only feel dissipate. The room seemed to regard father with a wary eye, as did my grandmother, who had temporarily abandoned her grouse with her caregivers. I could feel the air thickening with fraternal tension.
“But,” Sajjan said quietly, “they haven’t even moved the bus out of there.”Inside the state transport commission’s simultaneously bare and luxurious office, father was a picture of quiet assuredness. He sat clutching his favourite hemp bag, themed in the whirling ocean motif — the one where a small army of gods played tug-of-war with thousands of demons and instead of a rope, they made do with a really long and gifted snake. (Aunt Teju, who was prolific from the start, had designed the bag and passed it on to father along with a special two-visor cap that was originally engineered for a planet with two suns.) We’d been waiting an hour for the director to arrive and the tedium was driving me up the wall. When a peon announced the director’s arrival, father smiled vaguely and nodded his head. I took this to mean that he hadn’t heard a single word.
Outside of home, where it was necessary to engage in dialogue with bank clerks, salespeople and poor children, father would try to read lips and often laugh at misread comments, and smile widely in the face of abject sorrow.
As the director took a seat behind his needlessly plush oak table, I couldn’t help but think his face belonged in a dungeon or in the wallet of a war criminal. But not here; not so close to the oak table. Father must’ve been thinking similarly because when he spoke, his voice was devoid of all mirth.
“You need to move your dinosaur out of my house,” he said.
“Dear sir,” the director sang, “we have already passed a motion to compensate you for your losses. The bus driver has been strictly reprimanded. He languishes, as we speak, in his hovel, finding himself without the steady job that the state provided. Wheels are in motion, sir.” “I need the wheels under the bus to be in motion. We can’t start constructing with that thing in there.” “Kind sir, as you know, March marks the beginning of month-long Holi celebrations in Beed. Any work, I’m afraid, will have to wait until April when our revelling employees return from their festive sojourns,” the director said. “Where do you expect us to live until then?” “Gentlemen, the state is ready to provide premium single-occupancy accommodation at the nearest circuit house for the aggrieved. For a maximum of two weeks. Gratis.”
Father’s inspired campaign for self-esteem reinstatement had met a formidable hurdle. As we made our way out of the treacherous labyrinth of defeatism, I could sense something building inside him.
“This is a fucking terminus for incompetence,” he hissed, flying through the parking lot on the fumes of impatience, fishing in his khaki pockets for Sajjan’s car keys. He’d parked the blue Honda adjacent to a compound wall, but to our consternation, it was now boxed in by a maroon Toyota. “How badly would father have to react before someone moved the Toyota?” I asked myself. The answer came in a gust of rage and spittle that turned into a blinding storm, which engulfed us in its arms and bent the constraints of time and
space, and deposited us miles away, where we landed on rubbery feet and stared dumbly at a broken home.
Sajjan was there, too. Father was speaking. “The last time I got this physically disturbed,
I was a particularly inept paralegal and I was flying in a helicopter with the state transport minister when he wasn’t yet the state transport minister. I vomited out of the pilot’s window and rained half-digested buttermilk on the city.”
“The same minister who is responsible for the little death mobile sitting inside our house, isn’t it?” Sajjan said.“Was Ma sleeping when you left?” Father smiled. Sajjan nodded. He had, after all, taken up the state’s offer and found a room for himself and my grandmother at the circuit house. “The paint is abandoning the wall like a sinking ship. I like that,” Ujwala said, as Sajjan put her to bed. “I never want to meet a bus again.”
He was now, certainly, completely deaf.
Neil Pagedar is a writer and film-maker based in Mumbai. He has worked on documentaries and also writes screenplays. Having dropped out of formal education, he went on to study film-making in Minnesota. He is currently working on a TV show and his first novel. Pagedar is also a hobbyist musician.
"Yes Rustom, I am fully aware that
my dentures fell out and Golden
Duck almost stepped on them.
I am also aware that I was drooling
all over myself. That was the whole
point, stupid!” I said, with righteous
indignation. My indignation is
“You shouldn’t have tried to stand up, Rao. You can’t walk! I’m sorry you embarrassed yourself, Rao.”
“Rustie, you dimwit. You don’t get it, do you? I didn’t embarrass myself; I embarrassed Golden Duck. Look at his pathetic face as he walks away with his pathetic wife. He will now sit in his car and sigh like Meena Kumari a few times. The image of me helplessly collapsing to the ground will linger in his mind for a bit.
Then he will say something deep to his wife like he has seen Hollywood heroes do, and drive
away with a lump in his throat, feeling guilty for leaving his 90-year-old father in this luxurious
shithole. He will spend tomorrow whining and feeling sorry for himself under the guise of feeling sorry for me, before he goes back to stealing diapers from starving Ethiopian children or whatever it is he does.”
“Your son is the CEO of a bank, Rao.”
“Same difference. Ha! Look at his face. Gold, Rustie, this is gold! Ah. Now let’s focus on today’s mission. Quick, let’s duck into this room here before some idle Shastri comes along and starts reading Paulo Coelho to us." “Do you really hate it here, Rao?”
“Oh no, I love it! I love it as much as Richards loved hitting sixes, but who wants Golden Duck to know that? Let him sulk. Now, Rustie, everything must go as per plan.”
With this, I systematically proceeded to hammer my well laid- out plan into Rustom’s thick Parsi skull.
I had waited for this moment forever, or at least since Cinderella had stepped into the Bhavan. But not helplessly, mind you. Bajirao doesn’t wait for fate to happen to him. He happens to fate.
It had been several years since Golden Duck first dropped me at Anand Bhavan, a luxury home for the elderly, despite owning a bungalow large enough to house all of Hadlee’s 431 victims, with their pads and helmets on. I love it here, but I can’t say the same about all the other players. Most of the others behave like tail-enders following-on on the fourth day,
waiting for the finger to go up. They are retired from their jobs and retired from life. They get through days by being pushed around on wheelchairs by those annoying, cloying, condescending Shastris dressed in white. They get fed that bland goo by them, they get pills pushed down their throats by them, they get addressed in first person plural by them, and worst of all, they get endless hours of self-help, spirituality and pseudo-philosophy read to them. I’d rather listen to the real Ravi Shastri meaninglessly babble on about what speed the ball is moving at, than listen to these clones of his bullshit about conspiracies of the universe.
But I am not a tail-ender. I am the guy who goes in to face Joel Garner, survives and also hits a six to top it off.
It is, however, difficult to keep one’s spirit up in this depressing company. I myself would’ve succumbed to the routine
if it weren’t for that one spot of heaven in this dull place: the girls’ wing. Like everywhere else in my life, this place also has about half a girl for every million guys that camp out here.
But like everywhere else, that hasn’t come in the way of me working my charm. After the wife returned to pavilion a couple of decades ago, I must say that I have met with significant success in the ladies’ department. I can easily say that I’ve had the most number of Geeta-talks, children-story-exchanges, wheelchair-walks and even hand-brushes at the Bhavan.
Few of the guys here manage to have any sort of rapport with the girls’ wing, what with the Shastris treating us like babies.
In a day, there are only two opportunities to mingle: lunchtime and evening walk-time. Even during lunchtime, the idiots
roll us into the dining hall into two separate blocks. Only a few of us have ambulatory powers,
and even fewer have the social skills to have meaningful interactions with the opposite sex. Physical handicaps have never gotten in the way of my tremendous willpower, but let’s just say there was never enough motivation for me to really go after any particular mark.
That was until the arrival of Cinderella. I still remember the day she was first rolled into the Bhavan. With great skill,
I had hoodwinked a Shastri, who was bent on unleashing some classical music crap on me, to take me to the TV room to watch India play Australia.
One wrong move and I’d be discovered. And yet, when she first caught my eye, I mindlessly rolled out of the room and onto the veranda in plain sight. She rolled down the covered walkway towards the central lobby, half her face covered with shadow. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Shiny silver hair covered more of her head than I’d seen on any other pretty young thing over 75. The wrinkles on her face were in perfect symmetry. The bags under her eyes hung nice and high, and her eyes looked like they had never had cataract. She wore a pink something with flowers on it, which went perfectly with her fair, cutely crumply skin.
The moment I set eyes on her, a new light had come into my life. I felt like a Kapil who knows exactly how many balls he has to score the winning runs.
However, it wasn’t meant to be easy. Cinderella had some affliction that severely compromised her memory. She wasn’t very good at remembering things, which meant that making an ‘unforgettable’ impression was going to be harder than usual. I had to make use of every window available — lunchtime, evening walks and special occasions like birthdays.
I had a good start, with a couple of great lunchtime smiles, and a fulfilling conversation one evening when I managed to lose my Shastri and ‘unwittingly’ veer into girl territory. We talked for a whole minute about the horrible food they served in the mess.
There was a confusing moment there when I thought she was actually praising the food, but that was mere detail. The important thing was that we talked.
When things got out of hand, I knew I had to take drastic steps, and took my faithful non-striker Rustie into confidence. “Cinderella? Her name is Sindhu, I think,” Rustie said stupidly. “Rao, are you sure you want to play these games in your old age?” I admonished Rustie, reminding him that it is actually him, his father and his entire family that are old, and I am the youngest guy around, at least at heart. My first move was the classic ‘Retired Hurt’ routine. One afternoon, I got Rustie to invite Batra over to my room for my famous masala tea as a gesture of friendship. Batra, however, got one extra secret ingredient in his masala tea that day.
When I zipped over to see Cinderella in the evening, as expected, Batra was already there, boring her to death. The three of us stood there chatting for a few minutes, when the ‘masala’ kicked in. Suddenly, Batra’s mood changed, and a bout of energy seemed to take him in its grip. “Er, would you excuse me?” he said, his thoughts obviously on other urgent matters.“Oh, why won’t you stay and tell us more Kashmir stories?” I said, not letting him leave us. Finally, he had to flee the scene abruptly in search of the nearest bathroom, and I had a long heart-to-heart with Cindy about emotional stuff. I told her how much I regretted the loss of my walking ability, and she empathised. She said her health was improving, and if god wished, maybe I could regain the ability to walk someday too.
After that, Batra wisened up and made his move. He must have pulled some strings, because I got assigned a new permanent Shastri called Sudhir, a particularly persistent fellow. No excuse would work with him; if I forgot my sweater or my pills, he had them on him; if I asked to be left alone for some rest, he would be lurking in the vicinity, making an escape impossible. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and asked me endless questions about everything, including cricket. As much as I like discussing cricket, I prefer to do it with young girls and not pesky boys. Nobody got one up on Bajirao, though. Slowly but steadily, I got Sudhir interested in war history and convinced him that he must learn from that reservoir of knowledge about wars — Batra. His desperate request to the warden was seconded by me, and the next day, Sudhir was following Batra around. Last we heard, Sudhir was transferred to an orphanage.
Our war continued for months, sometimes
with me having the upper hand and sometimes
with Batra causing me trouble. Little did he know, though, that while I kept him engaged in
this silly game of one-upmanship, I was silently preparing for the final slog. I had gotten to know
Cindy pretty well, and our evening chats were now a regular feature. Her memory was definitely
a problem, and she often smiled at me as if she had seen me for the first time. While it was a
consolation that Batra faced the same problem, it made The Dance all the more important.
The Dance was an annual event where all the residents, boys and girls, got together in
the assembly hall, cut a cake and theoretically danced to a live band.
Only a few men, who could walk, could even make as if they were dancing. Relatively, a larger percentage of the girls were mobile, making the sex ratio much more balanced. As expected, they had announced the event this morning, and today’s evening walk was going to be the first opportunity for us to ask the girls to the dance. Lately, Cinderella had begun walking, which had lulled Batra into a false sense of security, with me being confined to the wheelchair. He didn’t know that I had an ace up my sleeve.
Just before walk time, Batra got called into the warden’s office. There was a call for him. It was an emergency. Somebody was trying to reach him urgently, but his mobile was ‘switched off’. Rustie had executed the plan to perfection so far, and it was time for my grand entrance. I sent my Shastri to fetch my reading glasses (which were firmly lodged out of sight in the gap between the wall and the cupboard). Slowly but surely, I swished towards the girl zone. There she was, rolling down the walkway, looking as youthful as ever. This was my moment.
I wasn’t going to waste any time in asking her. Of course, she would express surprise and point out that I cannot stand up, let alone dance, at which point I would pull out my ace. I would tell her that she had changed me. I would tell her that since the time I met her, I had started believing that I can walk, and by the time the dance came by, I would be dancing like Javed Miandad on the pitch. She would express both gratitude and disbelief, at which point I would seal the deal by getting off my wheelchair and standing tall on my own two feet, bowling her over.
You see, I regained my ability to walk long ago. Sure, it gets a little painful and tiresome, but now this disability thing is really just an act for the benefit of Golden Duck. I would hate it if that bastard saw me run around in this place and went home feeling “happy for me”. I had never really felt the need to walk around — until today, when it was going to be put to the best use possible.
So there she was in front of me. The scene
unfolded almost as rehearsed, except I gave my
emotional speech about walking first, and saved the dance request for last, after I’d unveiled my
magic act. By the time I gave the speech about willpower, I had her eating out of my hand. After
a perfect build-up, I prepared to get up, sliding forward in my chair as she looked on wide- eyed.
Then, disaster struck. I saw Batra almost sprinting towards us from the warden’s office. That, however, was not the disastrous part.
From the opposite end of the grounds, at a distance, I suddenly saw Golden Duck coming
back into the Bhavan. How could it be? In hindsight, maybe I overplayed my hand today;
he must have come back to see me in a rush of sympathy. I had to make a snap decision. Do I
choose Cindy, or do I choose my status as poor old Dad? It was the toughest decision of my life,
and I had about four seconds to make it. I will never forget what happened next.
It was a few months after the dance,
and I was sitting in the TV room with Golden
Duck at my feet, watching a rerun of the 1983 World Cup final. From the next room came the
sounds of a heated argument between a couple about who nags the other more. They didn’t seem
happy. On screen, Garner dispatched a stinger towards Sandeep Patil, who skilfully raised his
bat and let the ball sail safely towards first slip. “Well left,” I said to Golden Duck, as I patted the
left wheel of my wheelchair. “Son, sometimes leaving the ball can be a very important skill.”
Ranjeet Bhide lives in Bengaluru and works as an investment banker. The iim ahmedabad graduate also dabbles in theatre as a playwright and director. Bhide has just completed his first novel, The Case of the Missing Intelligence and is looking for a publisher. He blogs at Secret-apple-sauce.blogspot.in.