The Sand Timer

Strange happenings await an Indian family on a holiday in the Canadian Rockies.

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.

Bow River and the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course

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.

The Observatory

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.”

Sanson’s World

“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.  

Lisa and Chhaya

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-touristin-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.

David, the Raven and the Sand Timer

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.

Status quo

We could be greatly off the mark when we take for granted the ‘needs’ of those who we try to alleviate out of their misery.

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.

Status quo

“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.”

Please Share it with Victor One

The sudden death on a train journey of a distraught Microbiologist knowledgeable on Chinese Bio-Warfare initiatives, leaves unanswered questions and a bagful of worries for an Air Warrior.

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.

“Pilot?”

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…”

“Please share it with Victor One.”

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 Magic Dadu.”

“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.”

Mosquito Army of the Nazis

Rambo and I

An air warrior uses his wit to steer clear of an almost unavoidable street-fight.

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

A young couple inadvertently weaves a story to swap their special moment of happiness with unfounded unpleasantness.

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 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 Tarnished Golf Trophy

A moment of weakness on the course torments a conscientious golfer…

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

A street urchin shares a lesson in patriotism with an Air Warrior. (Now an international award-winning short film)

The Upper-Class Waiting-Room at Tundla Railway Junction had been invaded and taken over by the party workers making arrangements for a High Tea for their beloved leader before his departure for Delhi. The respected representative of the people was having lunch with a local businessman and, in all probability, would be arriving at the station in the nick of time. He might just have three minutes to spend with the workers toiling in the Waiting-Room. That would be good enough for some of them who’d be content with getting a glimpse of him; the luckier ones would have the honour of touching his feet and getting photographed with him.

The members of the Youth Wing had, within minutes, dragged and re-arranged five of the seven sofas in the room to make a temporary VIP Enclosure for the revered man and his entourage. They were conscientious comrades; rather than littering the room, they had piled up empty sweet boxes and oily paper bags which, a few minutes ago had contained hot samosas and kachoris, in a corner. They had neatly arranged eatables on disposable paper plates on a big table by the window. For the VIP and his close aides, ceramic plates had been loaned from Jai Bhole, a tea vendor on the Station. A noisy 1.5 tonne air conditioner was failing miserably in its mission to cool the room. Wrappers of Parle G biscuits went flying and started littering the room when an enthusiast turned on the fan at high speed. It was switched off instantly and the wrappers were collected and consigned back to the garbage heap in the corner. 

The smell of fried snacks was vying with the characteristic smell of phenyl mixed with Pan Parag emanating from the washrooms. A cheap room deodorant sprayed by a thoughtful volunteer was failing to dominate the competing odours. The sight and sound of the room was repelling––unwelcoming, at best. “Should I sit in the waiting room or occupy a bench outside?” I wavered even as I stood in the door and eyed a vacant sofa.

A volunteer in spotless white khadi kurta, pyjama and tilted Gandhi cap, who appeared to be the leader of the team, solved my problem a bit crudely. “Sir, Netaji would be arriving soon. I’ll be grateful if you could kindly stay out of the Waiting Room until he is gone.” Although he said that with joined hands, I could feel the coercion neatly embedded in his appeal.

In the few seconds I took to get the import of his words, he saw the Air Force logo on my aircrew bag and did a volte face. “Oh my God! I am so sorry, Sir. I didn’t know you are from the Services. Why don’t you join us for the High Tea? I’ll spare you a garland. Netaji will be pleased to be welcomed by a fauji.” He was politeness personified.

His face fell when I declined and turned to leave. It didn’t bother me whether the regret writ large on his face was feigned or genuine.

A bit rankled with what had just happened, I parked myself on an isolated bench. It was hot and sultry. Mercury must’ve shot beyond 40º Celsius that afternoon. Even in shade, I was sweating at each pore. A chilled Coke did 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 City of Joy, a book that I had read a dozen times over. It turned out to be a vain effort at diversion. Even my favourite music on the Walkman sounded cacophonic.

I experimented with numerous other techniques to be at ease, including Anulom-Vilom, but failed. I had shut off myself from the surroundings and was cursing the weather and the flies that were troubling me, when my attention was drawn by a conspicuous movement nearby.

I had not realised when the shoeshine boy came and sat a few feet from me. I felt he had been there awhile. He was a skeleton of a teenager. His face had the contours of thirteen and lines of thirty (exaggeration intended). He seemed to have lived those intervening years in just a few months. His loosely fitting tattered pants were secured around his thin waist by a twine; patch repairs at the knees being the perpetual trademark of destitution. A button-less shirt bared his bony chest. His attire hoarsely proclaimed his poverty. I had almost ignored him when my sweeping glance staggered at a conspicuous glow in his sunken eyes.

“Polish!”

Cheerfulness on his face contradicted his plight and kindled my interest in him.

He was toting a wooden box, which he adjusted on the ground and spoke just one word: “Polish!”

Overcome by an impulse to alleviate his sorry state, I accepted the offer, although my shoes were spotlessly clean. I had decided to pay him more than what I thought was his entitlement.

Saleem was his name.

Slowly and meticulously, he arranged his cans of polish, bottles of dyes, shoe-cream, pieces of rags and shoe brushes. He pushed a pair of overused slippers towards me to place my feet on, while he worked on my shoes. Very soon, he was engrossed in his work. He paused every now and then, and with the air of a renaissance artist, critically examined 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 milatry-man.”  And then, without waiting for a reply, he added, “Only faujis maintain dresses and their shoes so tidily.” I guessed he was creating grounds for a 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. It amazed me no end that even in that dismal state of being he was daring to hope. I didn’t realise when 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 with me at the receiving end. I was all ears––I had asked for it.

The minute hand had traced 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.

The Shoeshine Boy

I slipped my feet into the shoes and drew a Rupee-50 note from my wallet. I held the crisp note between my index finger and the middle finger and extended my arm for him to take it.

“Keep the change,” I said, thinking that that would be enough to bring a cheer to the wretched soul.

The boy stepped back and thrust forward his polish-smeared palms to decline the offer. His hesitation led me to believe that he was expecting more.

“How much more do you want?” I asked grudgingly. I was expecting him to come up with some sad story to gain sympathy.  

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 the faujis, who sacrifice their lives for us on the borders.”

I didn’t know where to look.

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.

Not too far… in the Upper-Class Waiting-Room, I could hear the volunteers chanting, “Zindabad! Zindabad!

[“The Shoeshine Boy” has been made into a short film (eleven-minute). Click here to watch the film. The film won two awards at the Kashi Indian International Film Festival Awards KIIFFA – 2022 –– For the Best Story (Group Captain Ashok K Chordia) and for the Best Actor (Shaktee Singh) in the Long Short Film Category]

And the award goes to …