So often we decide about the needs of people we try to help. We presume and take for granted their requirements. Sometimes we could be greatly off the mark. “Status quo” illustrates this aspect of our lives.
“Status quo” is a short story (a 3-minute read) based on one such real life experience during the Covid pandemic. It has been-shortlisted among 700 others (out of nearly 4,80,000 entries) for a Creative Writing Competition organised by ‘Blooming Kalakar’. The story is now available for reading, comments and rating.
Strange things happen when an Indian family visits an observatory atop a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. A meeting with a raven and its interpretation by a member of the First Nations (a native Canadian) leads to great anxiety. A weird encounter follows, and leaves the author with a nightmare for life.
The Sand Timer is a short story (a 15-minute read) shortlisted among 700 others (out of nearly 4,80,000 entries) for a Creative Writing Competition organised by ‘Blooming Kalakar’.
The story is now available for reading; following is the link:
The Transit Camp at Guwahati was a heavily guarded fortress in the insurgency prone east. I had arrived there from Tezpur a day in advance to board the early morning Sampark Kranti Express to New Delhi. Thanks to the mosquitoes, I hadn’t slept a wink through the night. Besides, my mind was 3000 miles away in NOIDA where Mudit and Chhaya were awaiting me––it had been six long months since we’d been together. Annual leave was a precious commodity for those serving in the exotic east.
I arrived at the station a half hour before the departure time and headed for the train parked on Platform Number 1. My reservation was confirmed in the AC First Class compartment. A faded reservation chart was pasted clumsily at the entrance of the bogie. I strained my eyes to read through and locate my name in the list printed on recycled paper using a dot-matrix printer. There was no rush, and as it appeared, I was the only passenger in ‘C’ Coupe. Quite a few berths in the other coupes were vacant too.
Once inside the coupe, my hands developed their own grey cells––they got down to arranging the bags under the berth and spreading the sheet and the blanket. Once settled, I pulled out from my bag, the crumpled draft of an article: Warfighting Sans Bloodshed. I had been working on it for the past three months. My duties as the Senior Logistics Officer at Air Force Station, Tezpur had kept me sufficiently busy to devote time to that article. With none to talk to in the coupe, I was determined to edit and complete it before reaching Delhi. My thoughts ran errands in many directions as I continued to settle down. In doing so, I lost track of time. It was therefore natural that I did not hear the guard blow the whistle; I did not notice the diesel engine sound its horn either. Like me, my senses too had been furloughed.
I suddenly became conscious when the wheels rolled with a jerk and a tall man stumbled into the coupe. He lost balance, fell and lay spreadeagle on the floor. I was taken aback.
“Easy!” I said instinctively and helped the man lift himself to the seat in front. He was elderly and frail; in his early eighties, I guessed. And he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos, even with the clothes on. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer fountain pen peeping out of his oversized coat pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in some kind of scholarly pursuit.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time,” he collected himself and forced a smile on his pale face. If at all, the effort deepened the furrows in his wrinkled cheeks. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses with cylindrical lenses to focus his gaze on something beneath my berth. He was reading my name printed on my duffel bag.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he showed off as his discovery because that was my rank two years ago; I had earned a promotion in the intervening period.
Inadvertently though, he had pricked me with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?”
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my punctured ego. “I am a skydiver… the next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The tone, more than the content of my reply, must have amused him, for he chuckled wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that led to a bout of uncontrollable cough. I patted his back and gave him water to drink. That gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad!” He was grateful for a cup of tea I poured for him from my flask.
He had barely regained his breath when his phone rang. He riffled through his coat pocket to find his phone. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. Nonetheless, he accepted the call. There was a distinct dash of indifference in the way he responded. It was either an unknown caller, or someone he didn’t wish to speak to. His face turned red as he listened to the individual at the other end. He cupped his mouth as if to prevent being heard, but it seemed he was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon (I am not Victor One),” his lips quivered. His large nostrils grew larger, and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like little grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Dadu)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers (Stop calling me from different numbers).” He disconnected angrily and mumbled a barely-audible sorry when our eyes met.
I gestured an it’s-alright.
He wiped the beads of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. Then there was prolonged silence except for his deep breathing and the rhythmic rumbling of the wagon’s cast iron wheels.
He was professor-like; seemed perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets for his ticket when the conductor arrived. And, when he did present one, it was an invalid ticket––it was for the Rajdhani Express of the previous day. Without ado, he paid a hefty fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool (I am becoming forgetful),” he announced to nobody in particular.
He started a monologue on Warfighting Sans Bloodshed when his eyes fell on the sheaf of papers kept by my side. He amazed me by the depth of his knowledge on the subject.
“Heard about HAARP?” He asked me and, without waiting for an answer, repeated the abbreviation, one letter at a time and expanded it too. “H-A-A-R-P… High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.”
“It was a secret American Project, a weapon system way ahead of its times. I know a little about it. But I understand that it had turned out to be unwieldy, unviable and a drain on the US Defence Budget. They had decided to scrap it and hand over the site to a university… (I paused groping for the name) … I think, … it was the University of Alaska. I am not too sure of the present status of the Project.” I was unsure and shrugged my shoulders humbly accepting my lack of knowledge.
“You are quite right. It was a rare bheapons programme bheech, if accomplished, bhould habe given the Americans aaneemaghinable pabher to dhominate tha whorld (It was a rare weapons programme which, if accomplished would have given the Americans unimaginable power to dominate the world). Like deesrupting human mentaal processes, jhamming communications, impacting bhethor anywhere in tha whorld,… and maaach more (Like disrupting human mental processes, jamming communications, impacting weather anywhere in the world… and much more). Now Chinese…,” he paused abruptly, looked around and left it at that.
The following hour was spent in what I call polite-meaningless-conversation. My half-hearted effort to know who he was, got stymied each time by his arguments on a variety of subjects: Hypoxia… Foreign Policy… Unmanned aircraft… Electric cars… China… Biological Warfare. There was a core of weirdness in the way he hesitated talking on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the adjoining corridor.
Something was troubling him.
At Katihar Junction, I stretched my legs and arms and prepared to fetch hot tea from a tea-stall on the Platform. “Would you like to come along for a cup of tea,” I made an offer.
“Sorry, I habe jhoint pain (I have joint pain). I bhud like to seet hear (I would like to sit here). Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too (Why don’t you get a cup for me too),” An artificial smile bared the gaps in his yellow teeth yet again.
I didn’t mind doing that small favour and walked away with the flask in my hand. I was oblivious of an intriguing request that would follow sooner than later.
The door of the coupe appeared closed when I returned. My repeated gentle knocks and ‘Hello Sir’ through the slits in the small side window were responded by silence. The door, which was not bolted from inside, slid ajar when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer and writing something on his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. He did not pick up it up. I thought he had dozed off. The pad too slipped and fell. I couldn’t help read the short note as I picked it up and placed it on his berth.
Written in laboured cursive handwriting was an incomplete and unsigned note which read: “Dear Squadron Leader, I don’t have much time. I have recorded a voice-memo on my mobile phone. Please share it with Victor One. He…”
The man was dead.
Gears shifted and cogwheels began rotating faster in my cranium––eagerness to reach Delhi and be with the family; this dead stranger in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… the identity of Victor One. Who on earth was this Victor One? My mind felt cluttered.
First things first. I secured the man’s scribble pad, and pocketed his phone before seeking assistance of the Station Master and the cops. They found nothing on person of that lonesome man, or in his baggage, that could reveal his identity. The body was taken away for post mortem and I was made to sign a declaration.
“Sir, we’ll call you as a witness, only if it is really necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again which had been delayed by fifteen minutes.
Next morning, the headline in The Times of India read: “Dr Shantanu Bhattacharya Dies in Sampark Kranti.” A two-decade old photograph on the front page had striking similarity with the passenger I had met on the train the previous day. The subheading read: “Dr Bhattacharya (83) was convalescing in Baruah Sanatorium in Shillong after undergoing psychiatric treatment at AIIMS, New Delhi.” A boxed item aroused my interest: “On condition of anonymity, a close associate said that lately, Dr Bhattacharya, a less known Microbiologist, had been hallucinating about the quantum jump in Beijing’s Biological Warfare capabilities and that he had been claiming that he had found a counter to some of the Dragon’s bio-weaponry. He even feared abduction by the Chinese; was paranoid. The Scientist had gone missing from his Sanatorium late last Friday. His disappearance was kept under wraps as the intelligence agencies were trying to rule out foreign hand.”
I re-read the news item which said: “Codenamed Victor One, Dr Bhatta was popular among his colleagues as MagicDadu.”
“If the man I met in the train was Dr Bhattacharya, and if Dr Bhattacharya was codenamed Victor One, who do I handover the recorded message on the phone, and the scribble pad to?” I was utterly confused.
My curiosity led me to explore Dr Bhatta’s phone. It wasn’t locked but the sim was missing. Knowing that his end was near, he had erased all the data on his phone except a voice memo. I couldn’t make much sense of the garbled message: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. (Dear Victor One, I trust you only) Nobhody ailse (Nobody else)… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy (the Chinese are training a mosquito army)… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis (they have learnt the technique from the Nazis)… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered I have discovered…. They bheel abhduct mee and keel me (They will abduct me and kill me)… Uh! Obhar hown peepal habe bheetrayed me (Our own people have betrayed me)… uh… uh… (long pause) uh…(stuttering)… (silence).”
“Why would Dr Bhattacharya record and send a message to himself?” I was even more puzzled.
My confusion climbed another notch when a newspaper cutting fell from Dr Bhatta’s scribble pad as I flipped its pages to see if it contained anything worthwhile. It read: “Nazis planned malaria-carrying mosquito army.” My train of thoughts was interrupted by Chhaya, my wife, who had laid the table for lunch, “We’ll have to clean up the utensils and dishes for the next few days. Guddi will not be coming to work; she is running high fever. In fact, almost her entire chawl of about 300 dwellers is down with some strange symptoms… I don’t know what’s happening…,” She sighed. “Mrs Manchandani was saying that it is a new breed of malarial parasite, much deadlier, spreading like an epidemic.”
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
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-benevolentHanuman 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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
didn’t return; instead came the Floor Manager.
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.”)
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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.
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. 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.
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!”