“Dad, do you know that once Muhammad Ali, the American boxing legend was denied service in a restaurant because of the colour of his skin? Not just that… he was abused and racist slurs were flung at that sporting sensation… on that man who had won an Olympic Gold Medal for his country. He had felt so demeaned by that incident, that he cast his Gold Medal into the Ohio River. What a shame!”
Colonel Anirudh Sharma sensed a dash of rage in his teenage son’s emotions as Dhruv shared his discovery with him. Discussing news and related facts was a favourite pastime of the father and son duo. This one was triggered by the news of the unfortunate death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops and the ensuing demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter Movement. Dhruv’s curiosity to know more about racism had led him to read the autobiography of the boxer.
“Do you think Ali’s action of consigning the coveted medal to the riverbed was justified?” Dhruv sought his dad’s opinion but wouldn’t allow him to speak. “Forget Muhammad Ali… what do you think about our own sportspersons, social activists and veterans, who congregate at Jantar Mantar at the drop of a hat, and show eagerness to return their awards and medals?” The boy took in a lungful of air and carried on, “I feel, Ali acted on impulse, and in isolation; our people do it in groups; with forethought and elaborate planning. Unlike Ali, many people who do so, appear to do it more for optics than for a genuine cause.”
Anirudh wasn’t sure of how to respond, because he thought there weren’t straight answers to Dhruv’s questions. It wasn’t a case of black or white; there were the grey areas. In any case, he wasn’t inclined to club the armed forces with the social activists. For him, the armed forces were a different breed. Period. “Son, um uhm…,” he cleared his throat to buy time to organise a few thoughts before presenting them.
The Colonel himself was a decorated officer in that he was a KirtiChakra awardee. The peace time gallantry award was conferred on him in recognition of his selfless service under perilous circumstances. As a company commander, he had led a raid on a terrorist camp on the mountain slopes in Poonch District. In daring close-quarters-combat he had killed three infiltrators and captured two others. His left eye was damaged by a shrapnel when a grenade exploded by his side. It left him with a partial loss of vision. He also broke his femur as he fought the terrorists. The surgeon’s effort to fully restore his leg was in vain. As a result, although he could stand erect, there was difficulty in walking and running. He had developed a perceptible limp. That notwithstanding, he felt fighting fit and could do everything which a Shape One officer could do. But the medical authorities opined otherwise; they declared him fit only for desk jobs. On promotion to the rank of a full colonel, he sought premature retirement from the Indian Army. He was averse to the idea of performing staff duties in low medical category.
An impatient and enraged Dhruv kept shooting arrows, the last one of which pierced deep and caused Anirudh anguish. “Dad, you never seem to take a stand. Okay! Tell me, what would you do in a similar situation?”
The father took a minute too long to muster words to express his yet-to-be-organised thoughts.
“Dhruv! Papa! Where are you both? Enough of your meaningless dialogue. Please stop it now. Will you? I am ready with sweet corn soup, pasta and garlic bread. Dhruv, please come and help me lay the table for dinner.” That was Sushma calling from the kitchen. Her intervention naturally relegated the discourse to a position of lesser importance. It got pushed further back––to another day in the future––when after dinner, the father and son got engrossed in watching the telecast of the highlights of the second day’s play of the first cricket test match between India and England. That notwithstanding, Dhruv’s parting shot had flagged off a train of thoughts in Anirudh’s mind. Little did he know that he would recall this conversation with the youngster with a sense of déjà vu the very next morning.
The day started rather early for the veteran. He had been invited as one of the guests of honour at a function organised by the Delhi Chapter of Social Cause Group at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) as a part of a series of events to felicitate war veterans. He left home early with enough cushion time to cater for the usual traffic snarls on the way and, equally importantly, to find a vacant parking slot at the IHC, which again was a time-consuming activity on certain days. It turned out to be one of those good days; the traffic density on the elevated Barapullah Road was low. It was an unusually hassle-free drive. He reached the IHC comfortably––fifteen minutes ahead of his planned arrival.
He parked his car opposite the gate behind the IHC Complex and was organising his thoughts for the felicitation function when an ivory white Range Rover screeched to a halt inches away from him. Nonplussed, he looked up to find a tattered Tricolour clinging on to a corroded brass flag staff attached to the side of the vehicle. Three men in crisp white khadi kurta and pyjamas stepped out and walked up to him. They were giants with shaven heads, each stood about six feet above the ground and must have weighed in excess of 90 kilos. Maybe, a hundred. Their biceps were struggling to get out of their rolled-up sleeves. Their looks could have easily won them roles in any Ramlila––of course, on Ravan’s side. The man who appeared to be the leader, donned a thick gold chain half hidden in the folds of the meaty dark skin of his neck. Without introduction and with faked politeness he asked Anirudh to remove his car to create space for their SUV.
Anirudh narrowed his eyes and contorted his brow to show doubt. Meanwhile, the driver who had until then been sitting at the wheel and honking, stepped out of the monster SUV. The limp Tricolour fluttered once as he banged the door and began walking towards his colleagues. The pot-bellied driver with a greatly displaced centre of gravity seemed to have inveigled his 48-inch girth into a pair of 42-inch Levi’s jeans. The hulk took small, measured steps like a pregnant duck to join up with his cronies.
On reaching the spot, he tried to reason out and convince Anirudh to concede what he called their request. He must have done a masters, if not a doctorate, in the art of wrapping a threat in polite gentlemanly language. Anirudh was immune to intimidation of any kind. Let alone acceding to their request, he displayed utter indifference––an act which did not go well with those men. One of them, who was chewing paan, pointed at the big white letters: A-R-M-Y, displayed prominently on Anirudh’s windscreen and said, “Aap faujiyon ko to janata ke pratinidhiyon ka samman karna chahiye.” (At least, you men in military uniform must respect the representatives of the people). That turned out to be a vain attempt at taming the unbending officer and extracting obeisance from him.
The nerves at Anirudh’s temples began twitching when the four blocked his path. Tempers flared further when an uncompliant Anirudh adjusted his red regimental tie and said, “Please make way, I am in a hurry.” Then, in a flash, he recalled and revised his Krav Maga lessons. His instinct told him; he might need his unarmed-combat skills in the very next instant. He felt confident of taking on the four goons together, physically. In his calculation, the crooked schnooks he was dealing with were far less agile and far less harmful than the armed terrorists he had despatched to hell in the Poonch encounter. The only thing playing on Anirudh’s mind in that instant was the possibility of his lounge suit getting sullied; since a scuffle seemed imminent. He did not want to appear dishevelled in the Auditorium where he was going to be honoured publicly.
Divine intervention prevented a nasty situation from getting nastier. A car parked next to Anirudh’s moved out leaving a slot vacant. Grudgingly, the people’s representatives drove their monster into it. Of the four men, the one chewing paan seemed most rankled by the peaceful outcome of the tussle for those few square feet of no-man’s-land. He stared at Anirudh as if to commit the officer’s face to his memory to settle the score later.
If looks could kill, Anirudh would have been a dead man.
Stein Auditorium was filled to capacity. People were awaiting Shri Shatrujit Sahay, the honourable Minister of State for Defence; popular patriotic Hindi song tunes were playing in the background. Colonel Anirudh Sharma was welcomed by one of the organisers and led to his seat in the front row by a young usher draped in shining white silk saree with Tricolour borders. Incense sticks burning in the four corners filled the hall with the aroma of sandalwood and added to the solemnness of the occasion. The Minister arrived on time and the proceedings commenced, and moved on with clockwork precision.
Shri Sahay had served in the Territorial Army and was a veteran paratrooper. When he did speak, words flowed from his heart. The Honourable Minister showered lavish praise on the Armed Forces in general, and the three officers, in particular. “We acknowledge with gratitude your acts of sacrifice and devotion to duty… your love for the country….” His diction was perfect; he also recited poetic verses written by Shri Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. Three war veterans were felicitated in a well-coordinated ceremony; Colonel Anirudh Sharma was one of them.
Despite the minister’s stirring speech, Colonel Anirudh’s mind slunk off to the parking lot, revisiting the unsavoury incident of a half hour ago.
Hardly had he uttered that expletive under his breath, when an announcement drew his attention, “We now welcome Colonel Anirudh Sharma, Kirti Chakra, to the podium to say a few words.”
A man in clean white khadi kurta and pyjama came and stood smiling by Anirudh’s side to escort him to the podium. Anirudh recognised the man. He was one of the goons who’d argued with him in the parking area. Paan juice was still oozing out of the corners of his mouth.
Anirudh gave him a blank look when their eyes met. Through the rest of the programme, he saw the men in khadi floating around the VIP. One of them handed over a silver salver to the Minister to be presented to Anirudh.
“Janata ke pratinidhi (representatives of the people)… how can the followers be so different from their leader,” Anirudh looked at the Minister and his men, and wondered. For a split second, a sad smirk appeared on his lips and vanished.
Time flew. Soon everyone stood up to recite the National Anthem and it was all over.
Back in the parking area, Anirudh was enraged to see the shining brass Army crest fitted on his car’s bumper, smeared with dirt. A fuse blew in his head when a closer inspection revealed that it was a familiar dirty red colour. He looked around to inflict appropriate punishment on the likely culprit. The tsunami in his head subsided instantly because he found that the 4-Wheel Drive monster with the tattered tricolour had departed.
“A people’s representative will continue to stand on his own two feet and serve the people,” Anirudh regretted as he wiped clean the brass insignia and drove out.
Muhammed Ali, racist slurs, Olympic Gold Medal, Ohio River… the men in white khadi, Shri Shatrujit Sahay’s speech, the smeared Army crest… the questions posed by Dhruv––Anirudh’s mind kept perambulating those thoughts as he drove home slowly. The behaviour of the men in khadi dominated all other thoughts. “Does India deserve the Army it has? Like Ali, should I consign my insignia to the Yamuna-bed and be done with my past?” Unpleasantness stewed in Anirudh’s head as his car entered the Barapullah Road.
His chain of thoughts snapped when he was hailed to a stop by a lady standing by a parked car with flashing hazard lights. She looked hassled.
“Sir, my car has flamed out. I need to get a can of petrol from the nearest petrol pump. Can you please help me reach there?” She said in one breath when Anirudh rolled down his window.
She was in her mid-thirties. As she settled in the seat and belted up, she said something, which dowsed the fire raging in the veteran’s head and reset his thought process. “Sir, I have been calling my friends for assistance for almost an hour. Even though they were not in a position to reach me soon enough, I couldn’t dare seek help from any passing vehicle.” She continued, “You know, it is so difficult to trust strangers after the Nirbhaya case…. I felt so relieved when I saw ‘A-R-M-Y’ on your windscreen and the shining brass crest on the bumper of your car.”
Dozens of times in the last seven years I have woken up in a pool of sweat. I owe that miserable state of my being to the repeated recall, in my dreams, of some incidents that took place during my maiden visit to Canada. A family excursion in Alberta in the Summer of 2014, which was expected to be fun and adventure, had turned out to be anything but. One can pop pills to take care of disturbed sleep or the occasional loss of it, but there is no remedy for people relating your behaviour to the lunar cycle and the oceanic tides.
The ordeal began soon after our touchdown in Calgary. We had joined our son, Mudit who was then working with Jacobs. We, meaning: Chhaya, my wife; Renu, her sister and her husband, Squadron Leader Devendra Goyal; another sister, Seema and her chirpy daughter, Shivani and, of course, I––the six of us. As was the plan, Mudit was driving us through the exotic countryside. We had traversed more than a thousand and five hundred miles of the wilderness––driven across Jasper and Waterton National Parks savouring some of the most awesome landscapes on the earth. The beautiful Waterton Lakes almost waylaid us into putting aside our itinerary and camping for longer than we had planned. It had been a fun packed tour until we entered the Banff National Park, and things took a gentle turn in a different direction without anyone realising.
A cable car ride had landed us at the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. The view from the gondola was awesome––the Bow River meandering by the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course was picturesque and a treat not only to the eyes but to this golfer’s soul as well. Far in the north, the Ghost River Wilderness dominated the landscape. It was scenic, albeit with a dash of unattributable eeriness.
The Observatory––a room merely ten feet square––was perched atop Sanson Peak. Its walls made of stones of irregular shapes and sizes seemed incapable of withstanding a gust, let alone a mild tremor. Cold mountain breeze caressing the walls made shrill whistling sounds of varying pitch as it encountered gaps in the structure. There were large glass windows for tourists to get a good look at things on display.
Inside, on a water-stained wooden floor, was a crudely assembled cot. A casually popped pillow on a ruffled blanket and crumpled linen, gave the impression that someone had been sleeping in the bed until a few minutes ago. An unvarnished wooden table and a cane chair were the other items of furniture vying for the crammed space. An old newspaper dated September 10, 1926; a roll of measuring tape; a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling; a bucketful of charcoal; an empty pail; a pair of worn-out ankle boots without laces; a large axe and some gardening implements and tools; casually hung garments, and a slouch hat and a lantern pegged on wooden pillars––everything in the cabin, and the manner in which they were laid out, bore a stamp of frugality and rusticity. There was a characteristic musty smell quite similar to the type one experiences in the masonic lodges and museums. Shivani was quick to name it: “Sanson Odour.”
Separated by a few miles from the nearest human habitation, that dwelling with its odds and sods was clearly a century behind the present times. It could well have been the location for the shooting of a Rudyard Kipling film; just waiting for, “Camera!” and “Action!”
Until we had gotten a glimpse of the objects inside the room, I was invested in the idea of seeing the usual paraphernalia that one finds in any observatory––barometer, maximum-minimum thermometer, weather cock, plotting charts, pencils, erasers, pens, inkpots, rulers and the like. What we saw was a tad less expected. Besides, the dated objects, and items of clothing and furniture, the Observatory had an engaging history which we were to discover next.
“Hello, I am William Sanson. You can call me Bill.” A bespectacled man in his mid-seventies introduced himself as the caretaker of the Observatory. His appearance and demeanour suggested that he had followed a toilsome routine in life. His enthusiasm contrasted his wrinkled face and his tired eyes peering from behind thick cylindrical lenses held in place by a broken frame balanced on his bony nose.
“This Observatory is dedicated to Norman Bethune Sanson.” Bill announced with verve. “Sanson was the curator of the Banff Park Museum from 1896 to 1932. During his tenure, he travelled extensively through the several National Parks in this area collecting specimens for the museum. His love for animals made him take additional charge of the Banff Zoo. The weather station on the peak was erected at his behest and later, in 1948, named in his honour. He made more than a thousand trips to the peak in his capacity as the park meteorologist until 1945, when he was 84 years old.”
“Are you related to Norman Sanson?” Mudit asked Bill when he paused for a breather.
“Oh yeah! I am his grandson. I was nine when I first climbed this peak with him.” Bill’s chest swelled and his voice brimmed with pride. “Like him, I too have served the Queen’s Own Rifles, and ever since I retired, I’ve been looking after this place.”
Bill spoke with great reverence for his grandfather. He almost sang, “Norman Sanson was fully devoted to this Observatory. His work, and the flora and fauna of this area, meant a world to him. Everything here, living and inanimate, reciprocates his love to this day. And, lemme tell you, some of them animals and birds still call on my grandpa and spend time with him.” There was a core of weirdness in the way he referred to Norman Sanson as if he were still alive.
“In the twilight years of his life, Sanson went visiting people he cared for, and presenting them his cherished belongings as souvenirs.” Bill pulled out a gold chain from the pocket of his waistcoat. “This was his parting gift to me.” At the other end of the chain was a gold watch. Engraved on the cover, in cursive was the name: “Norman B Sanson.” It was a covetable antique.
“Working alone all the time, didn’t he get bored? No telephone, no radio, no television––how did he spend the parts of his days when he was not recording any observations?” Shivani was curious.
“Sanson had a lot of other things to do. He used to read technical journals, and write reports and articles for a local newspaper. Besides, he did take occasional breaks from his work. One of his favourite pastimes was to run down the slope to a location called Point Bravo. He used to boast of completing a round trip to Point Bravo in exactly 87 seconds. It is interesting how he timed those shuttles … oops (there was an interruption). …just watch out!” A squirrel appeared from nowhere and distracted Bill. It started frolicking on the window sill.
“Lisa! You are up to your tricks again!” Bill admonished the squirrel as a father would, an errant child. The little thing was unmindful of Bill’s scolding; and, as if to tease him, she stood on its hind legs and began dancing.
We clapped for Lisa, for providing us unadulterated entertainment. Left with little choice, Bill condoned her behaviour with mock annoyance. She came running when Chhaya waved a bread crumb at her. We were enjoying her antics when she suddenly leapt and cowered into a crevice to evade a large bird that had swooped down to prey on her.
“David! Stop it! Will you!” yelled Bill. It sounded like a military word of command. Then he snapped his fingers and twisted his tongue and twittered in an unusual way. His utterance can at best be reproduced on paper as: “Tschulk! Tschulk! Tschulk!” And, lo and behold, the bird glided down and landed on his outstretched arm. It was massive with scary eyes that glistened in the sun.
“He’s David, the raven. He’s a big bully, keeps scaring Lisa and plays pranks on people. He lives here; guards the Observatory and gives company to my grandpa. He even does errands for him.” Bill introduced the raven to us as though he were a member of the Sanson family and turned his head to address him, “Come on baby, now stop being naughty. Last week when you did something funny, you lost a talon and broke your neck, almost.” With great care, Bill inspected David’s bandaged foot. He brought his mouth closer to the bird’s head and pretended to speak in his ear, “Now, say hello to our Indian friends. If you are well behaved, they might show you the Great Indian Rope Trick.” He winked at us and tittered, baring the gaps in his decaying teeth.
“Caw! Caw! Caw!” David obeyed and nodded several times. He seemed to be trying to get acquainted with each one of us, individually. It was fun. We thanked Bill and prepared to leave. I continued to engage him with questions while we waited for the cable-car. I stopped only when Mudit drew my attention and said in our mutually understood sign language, “Hey Bro, how about sparing poor Bill. He has other guests to attend to.”
Our next halt was at the Bear Mountain Motel where we had planned to spend the night. It was going to be a long three-hour drive to the Motel. When the wheels rolled, Squadron Leader Goyal recalled the visit to the Sanson Peak, “What a man! Sanson performed his duties with utter disregard to his personal comfort. I am mighty impressed. We hardly come across such dedicated people now a days. The Observatory had Sanson’s aura; I could almost feel his presence inside it.”
“It used to take several hours to cover the treacherous trek; and he used to make it to the top two to three times a week. Hats off to him,” added Seema.
“It must have been so difficult during the winter season with snow all around,” wondered Renu.
“Lisa amused me… she was so cute,” came in Chhaya. “Poor thing had to run away…. And that crow… hey Bhagwan (Oh my God), it scared me too; his eyes were as big as golf balls.”
“Mom, it was a raven… same family as a crow, but much bigger,” Mudit corrected Chhaya.
“Masaji (uncle), as always, you were in your element. With the interest you displayed, I thought you were working on a scholarly paper on the Observatory,” Shivani nudged me naughtily.
Chhaya poured hot coffee for all of us when Mudit pulled up by the roadside to take a break. Shivani found time to copy Bill’s bird call: “Tschlack, Tchhuluck.” Instinctively rest of us followed suit. It spread like a contagion with everyone trying to reproduce the sound. Although hardly anyone succeeded, we had fun taking turns.
What happened next was not something very unusual. A raven landed on the bonnet of our Volkswagen. We were half amused and half amazed because David was still on our minds.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! It’s David! Look there! A talon is missing on his left foot, and… and there’s the bandage too” Shivani shrieked.
It indeed, was him. It was David! Now, this was extremely unusual and intriguing––how and why would David fly a hundred odd miles behind us? Flabbergasted and not knowing what to do, we tried wooing David with our versions of Tschulk. Some of us even raised our arms for him to come and sit on, but our collective efforts did not impress the raven. He appeared rather, rankled. Then, with clear disdain for our overtures, he walked a few steps on the bonnet and, very lazily spread his large wings, which must have measured close to five feet from tip to tip, and beat the air with them. Despite his massive body, he took to the air effortlessly. Through the sun-roof, we saw him orbiting overhead for some time before he was gone.
David remained the subject of our discussion until we reached the Bear Mountain Motel.
Once there, at the Motel, everyone rushed to their suites to freshen up. I stayed back in the lobby to complete the arrival formalities. A few tourists were waiting for their turns at the reception, so I picked up an information brochure with a road map of Alberta from a kiosk to put my time to good use. I had barely opened the glossy pamphlet when I saw someone walking towards me. He was a mountain of a man, reminded me of Richard Kiel, who has played Jaws in many a Bond film. His face was partly covered by the visor of his baseball cap. His eyes were masked by large sunglasses. Salt and pepper stubble covering the rest of his face and the speed at which he was closing in on me, eliminated the remote possibility of recalling a past acquaintance or encounter with him. I thought, in fact I was almost certain, I didn’t know the man from Adam. He stopped inches from me. I could smell butter chicken in his breath.
“Jai Hind Sir-jeee!” He stood erect and saluted. “What a pleasant surprise seeing you here in Kneda (Canada),” he beamed. “Sergeant Dhillon… Logistics Squadron, Jalahalli, Sir. Do you Rumember (remember) me?” With the answer beautifully embedded in the question, he saved me the trouble of sifting my memory to place him.
“Of course, I remember you, Dhillon,” I spoke a half truth and held his extended hand and shook it. His appearance had changed so much since we were together in Jalahalli a dozen years ago that there was no way I could have recognised him. The warm hug that followed was long enough for me to travel back in time and return with some vivid memories.
“I am delighted to see you, Dhillon! We are visiting our son in Calgary. Just been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. And, what are you doing here? Visiting your brother?”
“Sir, after hanging my uniform, I moved to Edmonton with my family when my brother-in-law found me a job as a manager at a gas station. With the blessing of Vahe Guru and your good wishes, now I own two gas stations and have stakes in a couple of motels in Alberta. I am here with Flies with Falcon.” Dhillon introduced me to his business partner who belonged to the first nations community. His forefathers had lived in Canada for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Flies with Falcon, Falcon for short, had a good build; his body was oozing out of his tight-fitting tee. He wore a Buddha-like smile and appeared to have attained Nirvana.
“How has been your trip, Sir? You must be enjoying the long drive?”
“Of course, of course! Being on the road with Mudit has been a dream come true. We have been stopping off and on, savouring the landscape and clicking pictures––it is awesome countryside. The drive from the Sulphur Mountain Observatory to this place was particularly interesting––a raven that we had come across at the Observatory followed us, and re-joined us, when we took a break en route.”
“A raven followed you? Is it? Sir, do you know, such animal behaviour portends something?” Dhillon was at his mischievous best, “It could be auspicious or ominous.” He failed to hide his impish smile.
“Puttar, are you trying to scare me?” I joined Dhillon as he burst out laughing.
“You know Sir, I don’t believe in such things,” Dhillon took a step back. Then he tried to involve Falcon who was sitting quietly, “But Falcon’s grandfather reads animal behaviour and foretells events. Maybe Falcon too can analyse this raven’s actions.”
I knew Dhillon was joking but Falcon’s countenance changed. His smile vanished and he went into some deep thought. Before he could say something, Dhillon hailed a waiter he seemed to know personally, “John!”
John greeted us with a smile, “Hello Mr. Dhillon and Mr. Falcon! Long time! I see, you have an Indian friend today.” Then looking at me, he said, “Welcome Sir! What can I get you?”
Dhillon ordered coffee for the three of us, and before John left, introduced him to me, “Sir, John is the oldest staff on the rolls of this Motel. He serves people heartily, and he knows this place like the back of his hand.” Dhillon continued after John was gone, “This guy is in his late seventies, and like most men his age, a bit talkative. He is notorious for hallucinating. And, he claims that he is visited occasionally by his dead wife and some other people.”
It was the same old Sergeant Dhillon I had known back in the Air Force––working like a horse, but not missing an opportunity to tell tales and to gossip.
“Raven… yes, yes raven! So, Falcon, why don’t you tell us something interesting about this raven’s behaviour?” Dhillon returned to where he had left.
Falcon began without a preface, “As Dhillon has told you, it is true that this type of interaction with a raven portends a meeting. It is a meeting with an absolute stranger. It’ll leave a lasting impression on you. Stay calm if, and when, it happens.” He saw the puzzled look on my face and allayed my anxiety, “But, don’t you worry, I don’t see no harm coming your way.”
Hardly a word was spoken over coffee. Dhillon and Falcon left me with a cluttered mind.
I remained quiet at the dinner table. I didn’t feel like talking to my people about Dhillon and Falcon. I didn’t want them, the ladies in particular, to have a sleepless night in anticipation of a possibly ominous meeting with a stranger.
“Masaji is so quiet. He’s missing Bill, David and Lisa,” Shivani noticed the change in my behaviour in the span of an hour. I responded with a feeble smile.
After dinner, we congregated in Mudit’s suite to spend some time together before retiring for the day. The idea was to talk about the day gone by, and discuss the itinerary of the following day. We were enjoying Italian Fish, a card game introduced by Mudit. That’s when I excused myself for a routine after-dinner walk, “I’ll be gone for about a half hour. Would anyone like to join me?”
Just as I had intuited, none accepted my offer. Shivani came up with a counter, “Come on Masaji, it has been long since you hung your uniform. Why don’t you take life easy now? Just chill! You are on a holiday. You can resume your military routine when you are back in Delhi. Isn’t spending quality time with the family more important than sticking to mundane routine?”
“No rain, no hail, nothing can stop him from following his routine, and that’s what keeps him going,” Chhaya came to my rescue. Then, addressing me, she said, “Shona, we are all tired and want to crash now. Please return soon.”
“Bro, did you realise, lately the SUV has been pulling to the left? Have you checked the air pressure in the tyres? And what time do we plan to leave tomorrow?” I asked Mudit as I prepared to leave.
“Aye Captain! I have got the tyres charged and have cleaned the SUV. We plan to leave by eight if Shivani is up by then,” Mudit took the opportunity to pull Shivani’s leg. “All okay, Dad. Don’t worry, enjoy your walk.”
I stepped out of the suite, not knowing that adherence to my routine that evening was going to buy me anxiety of a lifetime.
The Bear Mountain Motel is a classic 1960’s style motel. The wood and masonry architecture and drive-up parking is a favourite with the travellers. The drive-way is lined with street lights which stand ten feet tall. They are there mostly for decoration; they also provide a little illumination.
I had taken barely a dozen paces into the walkway when Bill, David, Dhillon and Falcon forced a re-entry into my cranium. My mind strayed in an altogether new direction. And, if that was not enough, I saw John, the waiter, returning from room service with a tray balanced on his gloved palm.
“So, John, what’s up?” I said when he drew near. It was meant to be a polite stand-alone question. I had no intention to go further than that.
“Yep! Doin fine! Thanks Sir,” he replied. but didn’t stop at that. “Going out for a stroll at this late hour?” He continued softly but with falling inflection which made me think that his question was loaded with more meaning than conveyed by the words he had spoken. And sure enough, he cleared my doubt, “Beware Sir, we are close to the Bear Mountain. It’s home to the grizzly bears. Occasionally an inquisitive cub strays this side, followed by caring papa and mama bears. Normally they don’t do no harm, but they scare the living daylights out of people. And, sometimes…(pause).” John remembered something and stopped in his track. “Sorry Sir, I left the oven on in the kitchen. I can smell over-baked bread. I must rush before it burns.” He pirouetted, the tray still balanced precariously on his palm, and sauntered towards the cookhouse. I could hear the clinking of cutlery in his deep pockets until he turned the corner at the end of the building.
John wanted to say something more before he ran back to the kitchen. Perhaps he wanted to say something more about the wildlife. Or, did he have something else to share? Or, was Dhillon’s opinion of John, about his habit of hallucinating, playing on my mind? Did this guy want to tell me about his dead wife? I wasn’t sure.
It was a creepy feeling. I continued walking regardless.
Two days to the full moon, the moon was shining brightly. Constellations of stars were moving innocently on their assigned paths and yet, were contributing to the coffers of the godmen all over the world. I had not seen so many stars in the Delhi sky in the twenty-five years since I dropped anchor in India’s capital city. The LED screen near the gate flickered; it indicated, “40º F.” There had been a drop of about four degrees since I had stepped out. I could feel the cold air touch the inside of my lungs. A thin layer of mist had started forming and it hung lazily a few feet above the head. I pulled the collar of my leather jacket and adjusted my balaclava to mitigate the chill that I was experiencing. My hands dug deeper in the pockets of my grey flannels, seeking warmth in their cosy corners.
With the fall in temperature, the layer of mist thickened and obscured the moon and the stars. The sky was now the colour of wet aluminium. There was no indication where the moon was. And although it was still quite bright, the shadows had disappeared. Street lights too, appeared dimmed.
Mind, as is its wont, began revisiting the day’s events. In the process, it awakened the child in me. I couldn’t resist, and blurted out fairly loudly, “Schulk.” It was an inadvertent utterance. I looked around shyly and then made an attempt, a deliberate one this time, to improve upon my previous performance, “Tskuck! Tschulk! Tschulk!”
I thought, I had got it correct and was celebrating the little success with ecstasy when rustling of leaves in a nearby tree drew my attention. It was not just any bird; it was a raven gliding towards me. I froze when it landed a few feet from me and, even in that poor light, I could see its bandaged left foot.
It was David yet again!
He released something that he was holding in his claws. It made a soft metallic sound as it hit the concrete surface. I stepped back and started observing his next move. He nudged and rolled the metallic thing towards me. Not knowing his intentions, I took another step back. At this, he nudged the thing towards me several times more; and with greater force each time. When it was very close to me, he hopped back some distance, and cawed softly. Out of sheer curiosity, I picked up the object. It was kind of an hourglass, much smaller, though. Delicate glass bubbles filled with sand were encapsuled in a slim brass cylinder with a window. More appropriately, it was a Sand Timer rather than an Hourglass.
Mystified and unsure, I put back the thing on the road and rolled it towards David who, very promptly, nudged it back towards me. I saw him nodding his head when I picked it up again; his eyes glowed in the ambient light. I was uneasy holding the Sand Timer. I took a deep breath to get a sense of control over my body and mind. I thought it would be the end of the matter.
I couldn’t have been more off the mark on that count.
In the deep breath that I had just taken, I got the whiff of a very familiar odour––it was the masonic-lodge-and-museum kind of smell. “Sanson Odour!” Shivani’s words reverberated menacingly in my head. I realised, that the palm of my hand holding the Sand Timer was wet. I consigned the little thing to my pocket and removed my glasses that had become foggy due the sweat that had evaporated from around my eyes.
I was rummaging my pockets to find a tissue to clean my glasses when the eeriness and the uneasy calm of the night was broken by approaching footsteps. My glasses still in my hand, I could only see the silhouette of a man in the distance. The decibel of his patter rose as he neared me. One hand in pocket; he didn’t move the other as he walked; his feet hardly left the ground as he kept closing in. Having cleaned the glasses, I could see more clearly. He was tall; must have been a few inches over six feet. He wore a slouch hat and a military kind of tunic with brass buttons and patch pockets with flaps and a broad leather belt; his trousers were tucked into his long boots. He toted a natural leather bag slung across his shoulder. In that sorry state of mind, I forced myself to believe that he was a Motel guard on the beat. That thought gave me a false sense of relief which didn’t last long.
I said, “Hello,” and found myself groping for words to continue.
“Hello, how’s been your trip to Canada going?” That question from that stranger didn’t surprise me because, I guess that-I-was-a-foreign-tourist–in-Canada was writ large upon my face.
“It has been going great; we have been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory this morning. It was a memorable experience.”
“I go there often. In fact, I was there this afternoon too. I reached there after you had left. Bill told me that some very inquisitive Indians had been to the Observatory. He was floored by your keenness. Are you from the forces?” He spoke in a low toneless voice as he sat down on the culvert by the side of the gate.
“Yes, I’m an Indian Air force Veteran. Now I write for a living.” I said proudly. “Do you also have a military background?” I enquired.
“Yeah, kinda quasi-military. I retired long ago. And, I too used to write. They know me as Seer Altitudinuos.” He spoke slowly and was unintelligible in parts.
He fumbled in his tote bag and dug out a crumpled packet of cigarettes. He tapped it so that a filter-less cigarette popped out. He offered it to me.
“Thanks, I don’t smoke.” I declined politely.
“Hope you don’t mind if I do,” he said and started looking for a light in his bag.
I was momentarily blinded when he struck the match to light the cigarette held in one corner of his mouth, Gregory Peck style. Then, in the illumination caused by the match held in his cupped hand, I got a glimpse of his face for the first time. In the darkness surrounding it, his bearded face looked like a dangling Guy Fawkes mask. And, in it there was an uncanny resemblance to a face I had seen in many pictures through the day.
He looked exactly like Norman Bethune Sanson and that resemblance stunned me into disbelief which lasted a coupla seconds.
Was I hallucinating?
Not knowing how to proceed, I became quiet. I could feel beads of sweat appear on my forehead. Inside my balaclava, my scalp felt wet. Then on, each minute became something heavy and tangible trying to push the one before it. The man’s eyes, and those of David, glimmered every time he took a drag on his cigarette. Both looked sinister. In between, he took a deep swig from his hip flask and swirled it in his mouth. In that foggy night, the only thing that could be heard was his laboured breathing and my heart thumping against my rib-cage, struggling to break free.
It may have been five minutes or, maybe fifteen; I don’t know how long. I had lost the sense of time. I guess, the man was able to divine my thoughts, because he did make a conscious effort to involve me in conversation. But my mind was elsewhere and my entire body felt deprived of sensation.
Just then, I heard a soft “Tschulk” and at the same time saw David trot and take a small flight to perch on the man’s shoulder. I stood like a statue watching everything. I felt hypnotised.
A gentle tap on my shoulder jolted me out of my trance.
It was Mudit, and by his side was Shivani. “Dad, are you alright? We’ve been watching you sitting alone, quiet and motionless, on this culvert for the last ten minutes. You came out for a half-hour walk but you’ve already been here for more than an hour.”
“I’m fine. I was just enjoying the quietude of this place,” I lied as I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. I found that everything around had been swallowed by the fog. There was no trace of the man, or of the raven with the bandaged leg.
I collected myself as the three of us walked back to our suites. The Sand Timer felt heavy in my pocket. I secured it in my shaving pouch before slipping into the bed by a blissfully sleeping Chhaya.
For obvious reasons, I have a very poor recollection of the rest of our trip.
On the first opportunity thereafter, I googled for Seer Altitudinuos, and discovered that that was Sanson’s pen name. My curiosity led me to take a closer look at the Sand Timer. Inscribed on it, in neat cursive, was the name “Norman B Sanson.” My surprise knew no bounds when I timed it with the stopwatch of my iPhone, and discovered that it clocked exactly 87 seconds––the time Norman Bethune Sanson used to take to make a round trip to Point Bravo.
He was engrossed in tightening the bolt on the wheel-hub of a bicycle kept upside down. I had to go very close to him to draw his attention. He jerked his spanner a last time and spun the wheel to test if it had been fitted properly. His oil-smeared hand held and felt the rotating tyre, even as he lifted his head and looked at me through the spokes of the wheel. His eyes did the talking, “Yes, what can I do for you.”
“This bike has not been in use for two years; now, it feels heavy, and is very noisy. I want you to oil it and grease it; and adjust its chain, reset its gears and align its wheels. The brake shoes have become brittle, might need a change. And… just see if anything else is required. I want it to run smoothly.”
He tilted my MTB on its side stand so that the rear wheel was airborne. Mechanically, he pushed down the pedal, spun the wheel and checked the brakes and the gears. He also felt the sag in the chain. His inspection was complete when he lifted the ultra-light bike a few inches and dropped it, and let it bounce a few times on its tyres. “There’s practically nothing wrong with your bike. It just needs servicing. There may be a need to change some ball bearings.”
“How much time will you take?” I asked him. On my to-do-list was the purchase of a few items of grocery and some knick-knacks from Gupta General Store across the road in Indra Market. I was in no great hurry, yet I looked at the screen of my mobile phone and pretended to be short of time.
That apparently illiterate cycle mechanic sitting in Noida’s D-Block Market, must have held a Master’s Degree in Customer Psychology. Effortlessly, he demolished the non-existent urgency of my need, “Sir, I have a puncture to repair and some odd jobs on these two cycles. Your cycle is third in the queue. Servicing alone will take an hour. If, while at it, I discover some minor faults, rectification of the same may add to the time. He looked at the cracked screen of a vintage model of his Nokia phone and said, “Sir, it is ten now. Even if I leave all other work and take up your cycle on priority, it’ll be about 11:15 by the time I am done with it.”
“Please make sure you complete everything by 11:15. I have some commitment at 11:30,” I laid false emphasis.
The urgency part didn’t seem to bother him, “Sir, do you want me to use Chinese ball bearings. They’re cheap, but there is no guarantee whether they’d last even a month. The Indian ones are a bit costly but last at least three years of regular use. Also, do you want me to paint the tyres with this tyre paint? Not only does it make the tyres look as good as new, but it also softens the rubber and adds years to the life of the tyres.
“Use the Indian ball bearings and paint the tyres. How much will be the total cost?”
He made some silent calculations; his lips moved without uttering a word. Then he came out with the result of his calculations, “Sir, servicing costs rupees two hundred and thirty. The cost of the paint and the ball bearings would be about thirty to fifty rupees. All included, it’ll cost you less than three hundred rupees. Your cycle will fly.”
“Okay. Go ahead. I’m off to Indra Market. Do a good job and finish it in time.”
“Sir, this Chinese Covid has made life really very difficult. It is worse than being from hand to mouth. Could you kindly pay me a hundred rupees in advance to enable me to buy some tyre paint and ball bearings?”
I hesitated but, unmindful of my reluctance, he presented his open palm. Years of hard work had rendered his skin rough. It had developed deep cracks. The cracks and lines on his palm were filled with oil, grease and mud. It would have been impossible for the best of the palmists to discern which were the fate lines and which were the cracks.
When I paid him a hundred rupees, he requested me to save his mobile number, and call him and confirm readiness of the cycle before returning to him. His name was Ramkumar.
Just when I turned to leave, he hailed his little daughter who was teaching her sibling Hindi alphabet from a tattered book. She must have been barely nine years of age and her little brother, five.
“Laxmi, my child, come here! Let Munna read alone for some time. You sit here in my place. Don’t let any customer go away. I’ll be right back.”
My phone rang when I had bought my stuff and was about to leave Gupta General Store after settling the bill. It was Chhaya. “Shona, are you still in Indra Market. Please check with that embroidery wallah, if he has completed my work. The receipt number is L-7348 dated June, 27, 2021.”
“Gool, please wait a moment. Let me note down, else I’ll forget it.”
I borrowed a ball pen from Guptaji sitting across the billing counter and prepared to note down. Rather than asking for a piece of paper to jot down the number, I found it easier to fish out an economy pack of Dettol soaps, which I had just bought, and find some white space on it to note the receipt number.
“Okay Gool, go ahead. I am noting… L- 7-3-4-8… please repeat the date… okay, it is 27th June. I have noted the receipt number; will check at the embroidery shop. Anything else? Okay, then… love you… bye!”
Timing was perfect. It was 11:00 by the time I was through with my to-do list. On positive confirmation from Ramkumar, I walked towards his open-air shop. On reaching there, I took a test ride and found that the work had been done to my entire satisfaction. “How much do I pay you, Ramkumar?”
“Sir, two hundred and seventy-five rupees. Please ride it for a few days and let me know if you want me to adjust anything––the chain, the gears or the brakes.”
It was when I had paid Ramkumar and was about to leave that I saw his kids again; this time on, from close quarters. I realised that, Ramkumar and the kids were oblivious of the Covid Protocol, their clothes, hands and faces were dirty. They weren’t wearing masks and looked wretched. Swept by a gentle ripple of pity, I gave Ramkumar a fifty-rupee note to buy face masks for the three of them. Then, I called the kids and gave the economy pack of Dettol soaps to the girl. “Laxmi, you must wash your hands with soap and teach your little brother to do the same.” I thought that was the least I could do for them.
Two days later, I was back in Indra Market to pick up Chhaya’s embroidery work. Since I was there, I walked into Gupta General Store to buy some more soaps. It was a matter of chance that while Guptaji was preparing the cash memo, I looked at the pack of Dettol soaps I had picked up from the shelf. My surprise knew no bounds when I saw, scribbled on the pack, in my handwriting was the number “L-7348” and the date, “June, 27.” Guptaji was candid when I questioned him about the pack bearing the number scribbled by me. “Sir, Ramkumar, the cycle mechanic who sits across the road in D-Block Market, brought it to me the other day and begged me to exchange it for a kilogram and a half of broken rice.”
Whoever said, “What’s in a name…,” was absolutely clueless about the psychology, and the art and science of naming. I bet there’s everything in a name. Everything! Else, why would Indians perform elaborate religious rituals while giving names to their new-borns. Ask me! And, I’ll tell you what’s in a name; none knows it better than I do.
In some weird state of mind, Mahabir Prasad Shukl, a Final-Year Mass Com student from Darbhanga, called me, “Sampain.” Mind you, he is very particular about not writing an ‘a’ at the end of his family name, Shukl. He explains, “It is to ensure that my name is pronounced properly. Exactly as it is written and read in Hindi.” Now, just watch––one so particular about his own name wouldn’t care a fig about mine. His colleagues, including his girlfriend Partibha, who knew that communication was the handicap of this Mass Com student, understood that when he said Sampain, he actually meant: “Champagne.”
So, that name, Champagne has stuck with me. Actually, this guy must have been high on the cheapest of the cheap country liquors, else what similarity did that Gen-Nexter find in me, an unkempt street dog and that bubbly French wine of the same name. Ever since he gave me that oh-so-European name, people have been expecting a much sophisticated behaviour of me.
Earlier the students used to call me Jhumru, a name given by a Management (General) under-grad of Jhumritillaiya domicile. Back then, with a name that brimmed with affection, they cared for me. They tossed leftover rotis, puris, halwa, eggs, biscuits, and what have you, towards me without expecting anything in return. Some students who were governed by their hearts bought food specially for me. Oh my, it was such carefree existence; I cherished that life. Trust me, it was the envy of every dog in the area, as also of some freshers on the University Campus. Now, in my avatar as Champagne, they expect me to behave and perform acts like that guy who lives on the farmhouse yonder, and who travels in shining cars sitting in the lap of a glamorous girl who comes to the campus, more to show off her parents’ stinking richness, than to study. Not that I can’t do what he does, but I am averse to bartering my freedom for bread crumbs. It is certainly not a case of sour grapes. Just that I have some self-respect and I live for it. Period.
Agreed, I am a dog, and I lead a dog’s life. But then, that’s my destiny. And, if I may say, “That’s my choice, too.” Let’s be very clear. None has the right to mess with my name, and my life. That guy who re-christened me, actually ruined both.
The more I have thought about this name business, and the treatment meted out to me because of it, the more miserable I have felt. So, one day, after much deliberation, I took a big decision. I even consulted Laila and Shera, the other guys who share the territory with me, and they too thought, enough was enough, I needed to pay back this Shukl guy.
What best can a dog do to punish a guy? Bite!
So, I was determined to take my revenge upon Shukl. A near perfect plan was afoot. I had chosen a date, a time, a place and the manner in which I was going to dig my sharp canines through his Levis Jeans into his right calf. It was going to be a day before the Convocation, in the evening, in the sports ground where he would be taking a walk with Partibha. I had heard him tell his beloved that that’s when they would plan their party to celebrate their degrees. Laila and Shera would help me corner him.
That dude, he thought he was too hip; he’d remember my bite for life.
On the D-Day, everything had worked as per plan and with clockwork precision. A cheerful Shukl with a smiling Partibha stepped out of the Radhakrishnan Hall exactly at 5:00 pm. He had a document folder in one hand; the other hand rested on Partibha’s shoulder as if she were his property. She was looking into his eyes coyly. Or, maybe she was pretending to be coy. There’s a basis for that doubt; I had seen her behave even more coyly in the presence of three other guys (of course, with one at a time). That doesn’t really matter; now she was with him. She had a bottle of Fanta in her right hand. From the moisture collected on its outer surface I could make out that it was chilled. In the other hand she was carrying a box of Dominos Pizza. Under normal circumstances, a piece of it would be thrown at me once they are through with their snacking. They walked lazily towards the sports ground; to its farthest corner, to their favourite bench from where they’d have a good view of the ground.
Laila and Shera had taken positions and had nodded readiness.
“Hum soch raha hoon ki, kal party me tumko propose kar doonga (I think, I’ll propose to you tomorrow in the party),” suggested Shukl, with a big smile.
Partibha became even more coy, nodded, “Theek hai, Ham Anita, Nusrat, Neena aur Gopal ko party mein inbhite kiye hain. Cake bhi arder kar diye hain. Saath mein samosa le ayenge (Okay, I have invited Anita, Nusrat, Neena and Gopal for the party. I have ordered a cake too. In addition I’ll get samosas.”
Listening to Partibha, I started wavering. “Should I harm this guy just a day before he plans to propose to his sweetheart?” I asked myself. But then my dog-sense told me that Shukl deserved the punishment I had decided to inflict on him. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, nodded at my colleagues, and moved closer to the two love birds.
I went over my plan again. It was time. I could hear the gears change, and the cogs move in my head. I had bared my teeth and was about to strike when Shukl said something which made me give up my plan for good, and change my opinion about the guy. “Hum Sunil, Arjun, Arif aur Akriti ko bulaye hain. Thode aur snacks le ayenge. Aur soch rahe the ki Sampain ke bina party adhoora rahega. So saath mein Sampain bhi le ayenge (I have called Sunil, Arjun, Arif and Akriti. I’ll get some more snacks. And, I was thinking that the party would be incomplete without Champagne. So I’ll get Champagne along.”
Creative Writing Course with the British Council is the best thing that has happened to me since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, it is one of the most satisfying courses of instructions I have ever attended.
I have been writing for some time––I have published a book and have been posting articles and short stories on my blog, Road Much Travelled (www.akchordia.com) for nearly two years. This course was an eye-opener; I realised how little I knew about writing. It was indeed, a humbling experience. Having done the course, I feel much powerful. Now, I have the tools to pursue my passion with much greater satisfaction. The joy of writing will be different, hereafter.
The curriculum had been structured keeping our needs in mind. And, in the time available, it was covered exceedingly well. The method of instructions was exceptional––Ms Ananya Banerjee devoted time and attention to each participant. She had answers to all our questions, and as a teacher, she was always extremely encouraging and inspiring. The exercises and assignments kept the interest alive all through. She took pains to check and give detailed and valuable suggestions to improve our writing skills.
Thanks to Ms Banerjee’s guidance, the ‘improved’ version of my short story assignment was liked by a film maker––may soon be a short film. I guess I have already begun reaping the benefits of investing time in this course.
There is, but one regret––if only I had undergone this Course some years ago, I would have had the pleasure of writing for a longer period in life. Better late than never! At sixty, I still have some time to go.
Thank you, Ms Banerjee! Thank you, British Council!
Sometimes, children are cranky; they cry. At times, they do so for justifiable reasons, on other occasions, there’s no apparent reason for their behaviour. Parents feel obligated to do anything to calm them. They have their own ways of dealing with situations. Succumbing to difficult demands or paying ransom each time is not a good way of dealing with them. Here are three tried, tested and proven ways of handling situations, particularly when there is no just cause for wailing. Needless to say, these approaches must be tried as a last resort; only after one has tried to pinpoint and resolve a genuine problem, if any.
The Kush Approach
This approach entails skilful use of the mobile phone camera to zap an unsuspecting kid. It works with an assured one hundred per cent rate of success when used for the first time. With innovativeness parents can re-use the technique multiple times until the child gets to know the trick.
As a first step, a cranky child is apprised of a serious side effect of crying. He is told that crying ‘without a valid reason’ deforms the face. While the child tries to get the import of what is being said, pictures of some animals––say, an ape, a dog, a cat, a donkey or a cow etc––are downloaded on a mobile phone. This downloading of pictures can be done much in advance. Then, using the same mobile phone, a close-up photograph of the crying child is clicked. He is told that he looks like an ape (or a dog etc.) when he cries. He is urged to stop crying because, the parent could say: “I do not want you to turn into an animal. I’ll be very sad if you turn into an ape and… and what will your cousins, friends and teachers say? Oh my God, … please stop crying.”
Then, with theatrics, he is shown the downloaded picture of an animal. Seeing himself turned into an ape or a dog etc, stuns a child into disbelief.
Named after my grandnephew, Kush, I discovered this approach when one day, during a family get together, he caused a pandemonium for bizarre reasons.
This is another very effective way of dealing with a child crying for no apparent reason. It has an assured success rate of close to a hundred per cent in the first instance. Its effectiveness erodes considerably with every use.
This technique involves crying and wailing much louder than the child. When a parent, or better still, someone known to the child, cries more loudly than the child, the child invariably pauses in wonderment. That pause is often sufficient to break his chain of thought and to stop his wailing. Children who stop crying under such a spell, normally do not resume crying again.
Named after my jeweller friend Puneet Bagga, I discovered this approach when I saw him calming a child in his showroom.
The Kartik Approach
This technique involves approving a child’s reason for crying, taking him into confidence and then suggesting the idea of postponing his crying to a later point in time.
As a first step the parent agrees with the child that his reason for crying is justified. The child appreciates someone empathising with him. Then he is given a suggestion that he could as well indulge in an activity which he likes e.g., playing carrom, eating an apple or drinking milk chocolate (these are not the activities he is wailing for) and could rather postpone his crying to a later point in time. In this exercise, first, the child gets a bit confused and then, in most cases agrees to pursue an activity deferring his crying to an opportune moment later, which never comes.
This technique works on the elementary principle of: “Deferred agony is lost agony!” The success rate could be as high as 80% depending on the oratory skills of the parent.
Named after my grandnephew, Kartik, I discovered this approach when one day, I saw his father Ravi, using this technique effortlessly to calm him down.
The Transit Camp at Guwahati was a heavily guarded fortress in the insurgency prone east. I had arrived there from Tezpur a day in advance to board the early morning Sampark Kranti Express to New Delhi. Thanks to the mosquitoes, I hadn’t slept a wink through the night. Besides, my mind was 3000 miles away in NOIDA where Mudit and Chhaya were awaiting me––it had been six long months since we’d been together. Annual leave was a precious commodity for those serving in the exotic east.
I arrived at the station a half hour before the departure time and headed for the train parked on Platform Number 1. My reservation was confirmed in the AC First Class compartment. A faded reservation chart was pasted clumsily at the entrance of the bogie. I strained my eyes to read through and locate my name in the list printed on recycled paper using a dot-matrix printer. There was no rush, and as it appeared, I was the only passenger in ‘C’ Coupe. Quite a few berths in the other coupes were vacant too.
Once inside the coupe, my hands developed their own grey cells––they got down to arranging the bags under the berth and spreading the sheet and the blanket. Once settled, I pulled out from my bag, the crumpled draft of an article: Warfighting Sans Bloodshed. I had been working on it for the past three months. My duties as the Senior Logistics Officer at Air Force Station, Tezpur had kept me sufficiently busy to devote time to that article. With none to talk to in the coupe, I was determined to edit and complete it before reaching Delhi. My thoughts ran errands in many directions as I continued to settle down. In doing so, I lost track of time. It was therefore natural that I did not hear the guard blow the whistle; I did not notice the diesel engine sound its horn either. Like me, my senses too had been furloughed.
I suddenly became conscious when the wheels rolled with a jerk and a tall man stumbled into the coupe. He lost balance, fell and lay spreadeagle on the floor. I was taken aback.
“Easy!” I said instinctively and helped the man lift himself to the seat in front. He was elderly and frail; in his early eighties, I guessed. And he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos, even with the clothes on. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer fountain pen peeping out of his oversized coat pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in some kind of scholarly pursuit.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time,” he collected himself and forced a smile on his pale face. If at all, the effort deepened the furrows in his wrinkled cheeks. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses with cylindrical lenses to focus his gaze on something beneath my berth. He was reading my name printed on my duffel bag.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he showed off as his discovery because that was my rank two years ago; I had earned a promotion in the intervening period.
Inadvertently though, he had pricked me with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?”
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my punctured ego. “I am a skydiver… the next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The tone, more than the content of my reply, must have amused him, for he chuckled wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that led to a bout of uncontrollable cough. I patted his back and gave him water to drink. That gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad!” He was grateful for a cup of tea I poured for him from my flask.
He had barely regained his breath when his phone rang. He riffled through his coat pocket to find his phone. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. Nonetheless, he accepted the call. There was a distinct dash of indifference in the way he responded. It was either an unknown caller, or someone he didn’t wish to speak to. His face turned red as he listened to the individual at the other end. He cupped his mouth as if to prevent being heard, but it seemed he was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon (I am not Victor One),” his lips quivered. His large nostrils grew larger, and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like little grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Dadu)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers (Stop calling me from different numbers).” He disconnected angrily and mumbled a barely-audible sorry when our eyes met.
I gestured an it’s-alright.
He wiped the beads of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. Then there was prolonged silence except for his deep breathing and the rhythmic rumbling of the wagon’s cast iron wheels.
He was professor-like; seemed perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets for his ticket when the conductor arrived. And, when he did present one, it was an invalid ticket––it was for the Rajdhani Express of the previous day. Without ado, he paid a hefty fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool (I am becoming forgetful),” he announced to nobody in particular.
He started a monologue on Warfighting Sans Bloodshed when his eyes fell on the sheaf of papers kept by my side. He amazed me by the depth of his knowledge on the subject.
“Heard about HAARP?” He asked me and, without waiting for an answer, repeated the abbreviation, one letter at a time and expanded it too. “H-A-A-R-P… High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.”
“It was a secret American Project, a weapon system way ahead of its times. I know a little about it. But I understand that it had turned out to be unwieldy, unviable and a drain on the US Defence Budget. They had decided to scrap it and hand over the site to a university… (I paused groping for the name) … I think, … it was the University of Alaska. I am not too sure of the present status of the Project.” I was unsure and shrugged my shoulders humbly accepting my lack of knowledge.
“You are quite right. It was a rare bheapons programme bheech, if accomplished, bhould habe given the Americans aaneemaghinable pabher to dhominate tha whorld (It was a rare weapons programme which, if accomplished would have given the Americans unimaginable power to dominate the world). Like deesrupting human mentaal processes, jhamming communications, impacting bhethor anywhere in tha whorld,… and maaach more (Like disrupting human mental processes, jamming communications, impacting weather anywhere in the world… and much more). Now Chinese…,” he paused abruptly, looked around and left it at that.
The following hour was spent in what I call polite-meaningless-conversation. My half-hearted effort to know who he was, got stymied each time by his arguments on a variety of subjects: Hypoxia… Foreign Policy… Unmanned aircraft… Electric cars… China… Biological Warfare. There was a core of weirdness in the way he hesitated talking on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the adjoining corridor.
Something was troubling him.
At Katihar Junction, I stretched my legs and arms and prepared to fetch hot tea from a tea-stall on the Platform. “Would you like to come along for a cup of tea,” I made an offer.
“Sorry, I habe jhoint pain (I have joint pain). I bhud like to seet hear (I would like to sit here). Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too (Why don’t you get a cup for me too),” An artificial smile bared the gaps in his yellow teeth yet again.
I didn’t mind doing that small favour and walked away with the flask in my hand. I was oblivious of an intriguing request that would follow sooner than later.
The door of the coupe appeared closed when I returned. My repeated gentle knocks and ‘Hello Sir’ through the slits in the small side window were responded by silence. The door, which was not bolted from inside, slid ajar when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer and writing something on his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. He did not pick it up. I thought he had dozed off. The pad too slipped and fell. I couldn’t help read the short note as I picked it up and placed it on his berth.
Written in laboured cursive handwriting was an incomplete and unsigned note which read: “Dear Squadron Leader, I don’t have much time. I have recorded a voice-memo on my mobile phone. Please share it with Victor One. He…”
The man was dead.
Gears shifted and cogwheels began rotating faster in my cranium––eagerness to reach Delhi and be with the family; this dead stranger in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… the identity of Victor One. Who on earth was this Victor One? My mind felt cluttered.
First things first. I secured the man’s scribble pad, and pocketed his phone before seeking assistance of the Station Master and the cops. They found nothing on person of that lonesome man, or in his baggage, that could reveal his identity. The body was taken away for post mortem and I was made to sign a declaration.
“Sir, we’ll call you as a witness, only if it is really necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again which had been delayed by fifteen minutes.
Next morning, the headline in The Times of India read: “Dr Shantanu Bhattacharya Dies in Sampark Kranti.” A two-decade old photograph on the front page had striking similarity with the passenger I had met on the train the previous day. The subheading read: “Dr Bhattacharya (83) was convalescing in Baruah Sanatorium in Shillong after undergoing psychiatric treatment at AIIMS, New Delhi.” A boxed item aroused my interest: “On condition of anonymity, a close associate said that lately, Dr Bhattacharya, a less known Microbiologist, had been hallucinating about the quantum jump in Beijing’s Biological Warfare capabilities and that he had been claiming that he had found a counter to some of the Dragon’s bio-weaponry. He even feared abduction by the Chinese; was paranoid. The Scientist had gone missing from his Sanatorium late last Friday. His disappearance was kept under wraps as the intelligence agencies were trying to rule out foreign hand.”
I re-read the news item which said: “Codenamed Victor One, Dr Bhatta was popular among his colleagues as MagicDadu.”
“If the man I met in the train was Dr Bhattacharya, and if Dr Bhattacharya was codenamed Victor One, who do I handover the recorded message on the phone, and the scribble pad to?” I was utterly confused.
My curiosity led me to explore Dr Bhatta’s phone. It wasn’t locked but the sim was missing. Knowing that his end was near, he had erased all the data on his phone except a voice memo. I couldn’t make much sense of the garbled message: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. (Dear Victor One, I trust you only) Nobhody ailse (Nobody else)… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy (the Chinese are training a mosquito army)… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis (they have learnt the technique from the Nazis)… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered I have discovered…. They bheel abhduct mee and keel me (They will abduct me and kill me)… Uh! Obhar hown peepal habe bheetrayed me (Our own people have betrayed me)… uh… uh… (long pause) uh…(stuttering)… (silence).”
“Why would Dr Bhattacharya record and send a message to himself?” I was even more puzzled.
My confusion climbed another notch when a newspaper cutting fell from Dr Bhatta’s scribble pad as I flipped its pages to see if it contained anything worthwhile. It read: “Nazis planned malaria-carrying mosquito army.” My train of thoughts was interrupted by Chhaya, my wife, who had laid the table for lunch, “We’ll have to clean up the utensils and dishes for the next few days. Guddi will not be coming to work; she is running high fever. In fact, almost her entire chawl of about 300 dwellers is down with some strange symptoms… I don’t know what’s happening…,” She sighed. “Mrs Manchandani was saying that it is a new breed of malarial parasite, much deadlier, spreading like an epidemic.”