Rambo and I

It all happened on a day when my immunity to honking in Delhi traffic dropped momentarily.

I was driving to my office in Subroto Park. As usual at 9 am in the morning, the traffic on the airport road near Dhaula Kuan was moving at a snail’s pace. Everyone on the road seemed to be in a great hurry. Scooters and motorbikes were moving like free electrons in the little spaces between the bumper-to-bumper moving mass of buses and cars. The car behind me seemed to be in greater haste than all others. The driver’s hand seemed to be glued to the horn in perpetuity. Unfortunately, there was no space to allow him to pass.

It just happened that the planets were not aligned favourably for me at that instant on that day. In fact, I am certain that they had conspired to make me feel ragged by the blaring noise. So, otherwise always unmindful of the etiquettes of the drivers sharing the road with me, I responded with a comical gesture. I rolled down my window, and with my hand, signalled the car behind me to go over my car.

Did I infuriate the man behind? May be, I did, because I saw an enraged being in the rear view mirror of my car.

Sometimes weird thoughts come to one’s mind when one gets ragged. It was one of those moments for me. “Why wasn’t he born a few minutes earlier than he did?” I wondered, “He would have reached in time everywhere, all through his life.”

A crooked smile broke on my face.

Did the man behind see my smile? Did it add fuel to fire? From what followed, I have reasons to believe that my spontaneous, silly and uncalled for action and the smile, which in retrospect, I feel I could have avoided, had caused a volcanic eruption. He had seen my face as I looked at him in my mirror. But like a child, I was oblivious of the consequences of stoking a fire.

I saw the first ominous signs of what was to follow when he overtook my car on the first opportunity. He was a hulk of a man with long hair that covered his entire mane. A metallic hairband––like the spiral binding of the notebooks I use––secured them. He wore a thick gold chain around his neck with a heavy looking pendant––Hanuman or some other deity. His left ear lobe had a large diamond stud.

He must have been a member of the Gold Gym for many years. In the slow moving traffic I got a glimpse of his muscled biceps revolting to break free of the tight sleeves of his black round-neck tee shirt. I couldn’t miss the large tattoo depicting a dagger peeping out of his short sleeves.

He removed his large sized Ray Ban goggles as his car crawled past mine and gave a stare that crucified me. Almost! Then his eyes turned into slits as if he were taking a dim view of my actions. He must have been watching many of those western classics, the Clint Eastwood kinds, I thought. We were a few feet apart and separated by two toughened glass panes, yet I heard the crushing sound of beetle nut between his teeth.

Was he planning to chew me? Hallucination!

I avoided his gaze and hoped it was all over.

Far from it, it was just the beginning of, should I say, an ordeal.

Massive fenders and the picture of a not-so-benevolent Hanuman on the rear pane of his car seemed to say, “Boy, better don’t mess with me.” They looked intimidating when he stopped his SUV in front of mine near the main entrance to the Headquarters of the Western Air Command at Subroto Park. Everything on his car’s number plate was obscure except the number 1111––it was a VIP number. I got a glimpse of a tattered tricolour lying limp by a flagstaff on the bonnet of his elephantine car.

VIP

I needed no more introduction of the man who stepped out of the car and stood, arms akimbo, by its side gesturing me to come out. He was wearing cargo pants with camouflage print.  A broad black canvas belt was a formality around his slim waist. The bottoms of his trousers were casually tucked in his more-than-ankle-high boots.

He was a Rambo of sorts.

I quickly evaluated my two options––to fight or, to flee.

Talking of the option to fight…

Attacking first, I had once knocked out an opponent taller than I was. But that was as a schoolboy. Much later, in service, I had trained hundreds of paratroopers and the Garuds of the Indian Air Force. More than a dozen years later, some of the close combat techniques that I had taught my pupils lay embedded in my mind. But I doubted if my fighting abilities at sixty would match this menacing man’s in his late twenties. The red juices of Banarasi Paan oozing from the corner of his mouth and sliding down his lower jaw confirmed that he was not what he appeared to be. He was certainly not a Rambo. He was a youngster, managing his affairs using his appearance and perhaps, his connections. Yet I didn’t want to risk the seven implants that I had just got to regain my ability to bite and chew. At over Rs 2.2 lakhs paid to CLOVE Dental, my mandible had suddenly become precious. It was in my interest to avoid a physical fight.

Needless to say, to be able to conquer the enemy without fighting is the Art of War.

Talking of the option to flee…

I recalled that once Bruce Lee was asked by an interviewer, “What would you do if you were actually cornered by a goon?” The legendary actor and Kung Fu master had said something to the effect that he would find an escape route and run away. The Western Air Command with its gate manned by armed guards was just about fifty metres away. But this man stood like a wall in my way. Besides, having overused my knees during my days as a paratrooper, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to outrun him, even if I could dodge him once.

The time was running out, as I opened the door of my car gingerly; I did not want to be trapped in my car. Was there a third option?

Even at that moment of extreme peril to my being, my mind took an errand to an incident, some forty years ago. We, as first term cadets at the National Defence Academy, had failed to produce a variety entertainment programme, in the given duration of time, for the send off party of the graduating seniors. So a cadet sergeant had taken us to task. An hour of intense physical activity (front rolls, push-ups and crawling in the battalion area) under his supervision had made us all realise that there was an actor lying dormant inside of all of us.

It was a Eureka moment; it was another moment of reckoning; it was time to awaken that actor in me.

Without a second thought, I ran into this guy who was preparing to pounce on me, and held him tightly (as different from hugging warmly). “Long time! When did you return from Siachen?” I asked. And then without looking him into the eyes, I continued, “Are you posted in Delhi now? Army Headquarters? How is Pammi? …And the kids?”

Then I held his limp hand and shook it firmly and let off a second volley of questions: “You ass, you don’t feel like staying in touch. You are in Delhi and you haven’t even called me? If I had not seen you today and waved at you… (a pause for effect)… you would have gone away without meeting me. Very bad!” I admonished him with fatherly affection.

The giant looked absolutely dazed. My stun-grenade had had the desired effect. Before he could regain consciousness, I emptied my last magazine of rubber bullets on him: “Why are you looking so puzzled? Aren’t you Chow? Major Chowdhury? …(another pause for effect)… Son of Brigadier Chowdhury? Don’t you recognise me? I am Group Captain Chordia? Ashok uncle, your dad’s NDA course-mate.”

It must have been a stupendous performance, a great monologue indeed.

The body language of the man suggested that he was still in absolute confusion. “Sir, I am not Major Chodhury,” he said meekly. My father is a primary schoolteacher in Greater Noida….” It was my turn to listen to him. I released him from my embrace and gave him an innocent look.

To cut the long story short, we parted with another hug after about five minutes. It was definitely a genuine and much warmer hug this time. And, in those few minutes that we spent together, he told me that he was one of the the general secretaries of the youth wing of one of the major political parties in Uttar Pradesh. He was a property dealer and ran a construction business too. He offered me his services (including his political affiliations), if I needed in the future.

Epilogue

Six months later…

I received a telephone call. “Sir, I am Manoj… Manoj Sharma. Do you remember me; we met on the airport road when you mistook me to be Major Chowdhury? Can you help me with getting some documents attested by a gazetted officer? I promise, they are genuine.” I willingly obliged my young buddy with that little favour.

(Author’s Note: Although fictionalised, this story is based on a real encounter.)

Candlelight Dinner

It was their big day.

In the forenoon, Gurinder and Pammi had finalised the deal for the two-bedroom flat overlooking the Yamuna in the Supernova Towers right next to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary Metro Station. Their ears had made a ‘chitchat’ sound when they had come out of the lift on the breezy 67th floor. Oops! It was like taking a small hop flight in an aircraft. The balcony provided an awesome view of Delhi. The meandering Yamuna with its green banks; metro, resembling a toy train; the Delhi-Noida-Delhi Expressway, the miniature cars; the Lotus Temple and what have you––an enlarged Google map.  Only two flats per floor meant sufficient privacy. Their offices in Sector-127 would literally be at a handshake distance––no more pulling hairs in the unruly traffic. They had reasons to be euphoric about the deal. It was a-dream-come-true.

It called for a celebration.

So very relaxed, they spent the evening whiling away their time in the DLF Mall of India. At 8 pm, they were at L’affaire. From the open-air restaurant on the seventh floor of the newly commissioned hotel in Sector 18, they would be able to see their soon-to-be Sweet Home.

With a gloved hand placed neatly and deliberately on his red cummerbund, the magnificently accoutred burly durbaan, bent at his waist to welcome the two. He opened the door gracefully to usher them in with a smile that looked absolutely out of place on his rugged face with thick black eyebrows and sideburns, and a handlebar moustache.

A smartly dressed floor manager smiled at them from behind the counter near the entrance; he was busy talking on his mobile phone. Despite his smile, he was visibly hassled. Only five tables were occupied by customers; there wasn’t much rush. Subdued light and Kenny G’s Songbird playing softly in the background were providing the perfect ambience for a candlelight dinner they had fantasised through the afternoon.

They had barely settled in their chairs in the far end of the restaurant when a young man in whites, in his early twenties, came running to their table. Although dishevelled, he wore a smile, and a genuine one in that. He had a small crystal-glass flower vase in one hand and an ornate candle stand in the other. His greeting––“Good evening Ma’am, good evening Sir”––turned out to be an exercise in apology as he almost stumbled and placed nay, slammed his wares on the table. Mumbling an apology, he made a couple of clumsy attempts to light the candle. And before one could say, Jack Robinson, he was gone.

Gurinder and Pammi looked at each other. “Did we bargain for this sort of service when we chose to dine her?” They seemed to say. And before they could exchange any words, the man returned. With two glasses filled with water on a tray. He was still in some kind of hurry––he managed to spill some water on the table.

Another genuine “S-O-R-R-Y.” But Pammi was furious. Her lips quivered as if to spew some harsh advisory. But he had vanished again before she could vent her anger. Gurinder took charge and signalled her to calm down. “Let’s not spoil our evening. We’ll not tip this guy and will never return to this joint,” he said.

Their minds were on a different trip when the waiter returned with the menu. They ordered food half-heartedly. They observed that there were only two waiters serving all the guests in the restaurant. They were like butterflies fluttering from table to table, taking orders and serving. This made Gurinder and Pammi feel deprived of their rightful services.

It happened so gradually….

The flickering flame of the candle consumed the dreams the two had woven through the day. Like the black smoke of the candle burning silently between them, their aspirations got lost in the thin air. The silhouette of Supernova Towers, which was looking so charming when they had arrived on the terrace, lost appeal. The switch over from their discussion on their dream house to the subject of deteriorating quality of food and services in restaurants happened quite naturally. Kenny G too, lost its charm.

At the end of the dinner when the waiter suggested a layout of desserts, Gurinder declined rudely and gestured for the bill to be produced. In a huff he pulled out his wallet and even took out his credit card and waited impatiently to make the payment.

The waiter didn’t return; instead came the Floor Manager.

With hands joined in a namaste and a disarming smile he approached the table. “Sir, today four of our staff have been injured in a road accident. They have been taken to the hospital; nothing serious but they will take some time to be fit and join duty. Since we could not provide you with proper service, as we would have wanted to, the food is on us. You needn’t pay the bill.” Then with a pause he added, “In fact Sir, the wife of the waiter who was serving you is also indisposed; he was on leave. But he surrendered his leave to help us tide over the crisis. He is a very sincere guy; full of initiative. I hope he looked after you well? Thank you for visiting us. We hope to see you again! Good night Ma’am, good night Sir!”

(Author’s Note: This story is inspired by the Forum conducted by Landmark Education where they teach: “Actions are actions (they are meaningless); ‘we’ attach meaning to them.”)

A Goof and a Tarnished Golf Trophy

They were beginners.

They had purchased old; second hand golf sets with assorted clubs with worn-out grips and dilapidated bags. They played with old balls, reserving the new, and the better ones only for the putting greens. They used the oldest ball in their bag, on the fifth tee for the fear of losing a good one in the water hazard. They had not been exposed to the wisdom of playing with a new ball.

They could strike a ball clean from the tee––not muffing it––just about fifty per cent of the times. But only on half of those contacts, the ball would take a decent flight and land in the fairway. A mini celebration would ensue every time their approach shots from within a hundred yards range landed on the green––that happened as rarely as the solar eclipses. They took, on an average, not less than two and a half strokes on the putting green to hole out. They played for honour; betting only once in a blue moon with breakfast of eggs and toasted bread with jam and butter at stake. Ignorant of the rules, they played with consensus until one of them picked up an old out-dated booklet of golf rules from a street vendor, which they referred only when a dispute remained unresolved for a few days.

Amit Ahluwalia (Alu), Anil Jain, Gopal Phanse and Biswajeet Ghose had been bitten by the golf bug. If they had their way, they would spend their entire lives on the greens. But wishes don’t have wings. Gupta Law Associates (GLA) kept the four young lawyers tethered to their workstations through the week. Nonetheless, their weekends were devoted to golf––it was a ritual they never skipped. Winning or losing the game was less material; they would do ‘anything’ to snatch an opportunity to play.

Anything!

It was far easier to plead and convince a judge presiding over a criminal case than to persuade Harsh Gupta the seventy-nine year old Chairman of Gupta Law Associates (GLA) to spare the young men for a few hours on a workday even for their personal errands. Being spared to play golf––there was no chance whatsoever. How Alu sold the idea to the old man is a guarded secret. But suffice it to say that at the end of their seven-minute interaction, Harsh Gupta had not only agreed to field a team to represent GLA in the HH Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Golf Championship at the JWGC, Mysore but had also sanctioned all their expenses including a sleeve of golf balls and a tee shirt each. The old man had possibly calculated the net gains that would accrue to his law firm by way of publicity due to the presence of his emissaries in Mysore amidst what he considered an elite crowd.

With a registered handicap of 18 and actual performance no better than 24, none of them stood the remotest chance of making the cut at the end of the first round. Winning a prize in the Stableford format on the final day was out of the question. They knew their limitations well. Yet their urge ‘just to play’ another round was rather strong.

In the first day’s fixtures their names appeared together in a four-ball. In that, Alu saw an opportunity and a ray of hope. He came up with a scheme. He suggested that they played exactly as they played on their parent golf course in Bangalore––changing the balls on the putting greens and conceding short (one grip length) putts. That would give them the advantage of a few strokes and a possible chance of making the cut. He also suggested a ‘rolling’ mulligan that could be availed discreetly on any hole. “I’ll ‘manage’ the caddies,” he added slyly.

“But that would be unfair to the other golfers participating in the tournament,” protested Jain.

“You are right,” reflected Alu. “But that’s our only hope to qualify and play another round. In any case, with our known performances, none of us will win a prize tomorrow even if we were to qualify today. A little manipulation will not harm other people’s chances of winning a trophy.” Then, after a pause for effect, Alu continued, “Jain, if you avoid being Satyawadi Harishchandra for a change, all of us could enjoy another day of golf.” He looked at Ghose and Phanse who extended tacit support. Unsure and reluctant, Jain also gave in.

To cut the long story short, at the end of the first day’s play, all four of them stood somewhere on the leader board entitling them to play the final round the next morning. That evening they enjoyed the gala party hosted by the organisers. How they had made the cut was forgotten soon enough.

Gimme!

For the final round they were put in different four-balls. Everything changed––no mulligan, no ‘gimme’. It made no difference to them because they had achieved their aim of playing another day. Scores didn’t matter anymore. In fact there was nothing to write home about when they submitted their scorecards. They wanted to set course back for Bangalore as soon as possible but then, as a mark of respect for the organisers they decided to stay back for the prize distribution.

They sat in the last row cracking occasional jokes, eating plum cakes and sipping fresh fruit juices. The announcements being made as a part of the prize distribution ceremony were falling on their deaf ears so that when the name of the runner-up for the prize for the Stableford Net Score (handicap 18 and under) was announced they didn’t monitor it. Anil Jain’s name had to be called thrice before he could register and respond to the call. He had to literally run to the podium to receive his trophy. The sense of winning a prize dawned on him only a half hour later when, on their drive back to Bangalore Alu demanded a treat for Anil’s ‘achievement’.

Next morning in the office: Harsh Gupta felicitated Jain in the presence of the office staff. There was a high tea to commemorate his win at the golf tournament. “It is GLA’s achievement,” said an elated Gupta. There was a photo session with the trophy. And then…

And then came an exuberant Alu. “Congratulations, Bro!” he said with a broad smile as they shook hands and hugged. “Great game! You have been hitting well over the last few days. I knew you would win a prize….” Despite Alu’s effort to be innocuous, Anil felt that every word he uttered was loaded with meaning. “Am I imagining things,” he wondered. A smirk on Alu’s face laid that doubt to rest––Alu was mocking him. Anil also sensed indifference in the way Ghose and Phanse greeted him on his maiden golfing success.

In the evening, when Anil returned home his wife, Sheela wiped the already glittering trophy clean with one end of her dupatta and placed it proudly in the glass showcase in the drawing room. Ideally, that should have been the end of a not so pleasant chapter for Anil.

Not really….

That day onwards, whenever Anil looked at the trophy, rather than getting a sense of fulfilment, it only depressed him. Golfing with his buddies was not the same either––he began seeing meaning in whatever the other three guys said. Carrying the burden of ‘that’ maiden golf trophy was becoming increasingly difficult for Anil until one day it became absolutely unbearable.

Sheela looked at the trophy and said, “Anil this golf trophy is tarnished.” Then turning it over, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, this is real silver. It must be 200 grams. This will require repeated polishing…. I don’t mind you playing more often if you win trophies like this one….” While she continued with her monologue, Anil was stuck with one word: “T-A-R-N-I-S-H-E-D.”

Anil couldn’t bear the guilt of unfair play any longer. The next day he called the Secretary of the JWGC, Mysore and expressed his desire to return the trophy. His lips quivered as he cited his reason for returning the trophy. Mr Madhavan was, first, shell-shocked, and then, touched by what he heard. Collecting himself he said it was fine so long as Anil regretted his action; he didn’t have to return the trophy. After a little ado, he agreed to take back the trophy and present it for fair play to a deserving player in the next tournament.

At the prize distribution ceremony of the HH Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Golf Championship next year, Madhavan made a surprise announcement; that of award of ‘Fair Play Trophy’. Without citing any name he spoke about Anil’s confession and called some Dr Sanjay Dixit to receive the trophy––Dixit had been selected by a panel of judges for the honour.

Amid loud clapping, euphoria and standing ovation, Dixit came to the podium and received the trophy. Then with all humility, he returned it to the Chief Guest saying, “I thank the organisers for finding me suitable for the ‘Fair Play Trophy’. But I would not like to take home a ‘Tarnished Trophy’.

For a long minute, there was pin drop silence. And when people spoke again, the ‘Tarnished Trophy’ had become a talk of the town. After much thought the General Body of the JWGC decided to place the “Tarnished Trophy” in the foyer of the Club––with its brief history cited below it.

Now, the trophy inspires players with a conscience, to be loyal to the royal in them.

(Author’s Note: The resemblance of names of persons and places mentioned in this story to real persons and places is incidental).

The Shoeshine Boy

On a summer afternoon, several years ago, I was stranded at a railway station awaiting a train. It was hot and sultry. I was sweating at each pore. A chilled Coke had done little to mitigate my misery. And then, there was this nagging pain in my ankle due to an injury sustained while jogging. I tried to sink into the City of Joy, a book that I had read a dozen times over. It was a vain effort to take away my attention from the weather and the pain in my ankle. My favourite music on the Walkman sounded cacophonic. I was grumbling to myself about the weather when I felt a human presence in my vicinity.

I did not realise when the shoeshine boy caIMG_4022me and sat a few feet from me. He was a skeleton of a teenager. His face had the contours of thirteen and lines of thirty. He seemed to have lived those intervening years in just a few months. His loosely fitting pants were tattered and torn; patch repairs at the knees being the perpetual trademark of destitution. The button-less shirt bared his bony chest. His attire hoarsely proclaimed his poverty. I had almost ignored him when my passing glance staggered at the sight of a conspicuous glow in his sunken eyes. Cheerfulness on his face contradicted his plight and aroused my interest in him.

He was toting a wooden box, which he placed on the ground and gestured to polish my shoes. Prompted by an impulse to alleviate his sorry state, I accepted the offer, though my shoes were spotlessly clean. I had decided to pay him more than what I thought was his entitlement. Slowly and meticulously he arranged his cans of polish, bottles of dyes, shoe-creams, pieces of rags and shoe brushes. Soon he was engrossed in his work. With the air of a renaissance artist, he stopped every now and then to critically examine the effect of the strokes of his brush on my shoes.

I kept aside my book. For now, I had before me, a library of some of the finest thoughts in the world recorded on the face of the little boy. Finding me interested, he chirped, “Sir, I am sure, you are a military-man.” Without waiting for a reply he added, “Only faujis maintain dresses and their shoes so tidily.” I guessed he was creating grounds for a handsome tip, an act, quite expected of a street urchin.

“What’s wrong with your health? You look so weak,” I changed the topic.

“I have just recovered from a long illness. They say it was tuberculosis. I have gone through hell. But, thank God! During my illness, I have lost only the muscles. The bones are still intact. In a matter of days, flesh will grow on the bones, and I will be fit again.” Unknowingly, the boy had challenged an air warrior’s ability to endure suffering. The pain in my ankle disappeared.

“It is terribly hot,” I meandered.

“But sir, for poor roofless people like us, it is better than the rainy season or the winter …” There was reason in his judgement, which I accepted readily. I could now bear the sweltering heat. Thereafter, it was a monologue. I was all ears––I had asked for it.

The minute hand had travelled a semi circle, when he gave finishing touches to the shoes and presented them for my inspection. I accepted the pair with a nod of approval. My mind was still moving along its own set of grooves. I drew a Rupee 50 note from my wallet and placed it on the boy’s polish-smeared palm, saying, “Keep the change.” I thought I had done my bit to bring a cheer to the wretched soul.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lightning in the clear sky on that sunny afternoon would not have surprised me as much as did his reply. “Sir,” he said, “Kindly keep the money. I will go to hell if I accept a single paisa from faujis, who sacrifice their lives for us at Kargil.”

Despite much ado, he refused to accept the remuneration. In a last ditch effort, I took out my most valued possession––a beret badge, which was presented to me as a souvenir by an officer of a friendly force after a successful military operation––and pinned it on the pocket of his shirt. With a hand raised in a mock salute and a guileless smile that spread from ear to ear, the little patriot accepted my gesture of gratitude.