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May 12, 2011


It was another Saturday. During the Physical Training session, our Teacher told us that a troupe of acrobats will be giving a performance for us.

As it was, Saturdays used to be enjoyable. There would be a prolonged and relaxed Physical Training session, Head Master’s address and then our P Competition. There was an old Behda (Terminalia Belerica) tree in the playground, which had thick snaky exposed roots spanning several feet and with several holes due to years of use. If you aimed for one the P would travel underground and appear several feet away from you. Depending upon discharge, it could emanate five feet away or twelve. Nice subject to compete for! After this session, there would be a crafts class and then a period which usually featured magicians, acrobats, bicycle travelers, sketch artists and similar such who had trotted the whole country and wished to share their experiences.

As a custom. we used to be seated in rows, but not today. We were made to seat in a circle and the acrobats were to perform in the center. Unlike other troupes, this troupe had a number of members – Male and Female. They were all said to be from China, a friendly neighboring country that was discussing Panch Sheel (five principles for good living) from our book and were travelling from village to village, school to school presenting their skills. However, they were in no mood of playing at length the acrobatic show. Instead, they took out Tops from their gunny bag and started spinning them one by one. In the beginning, the size of Tops was about my fist, then my head. Finally, they reached a size of full-grown red Pumpkin. The spinning chords graduated to ropes. The elder troupe member started placing the spinning tops on to our palms, then a taut string held by two of the performers, on the head of one of their girls who brought them down one by one via her forehead, nose, neck, chest, stomach, legs and finally toes. The tops on the string were thrown about, afloat and around and caught back to rest on the string while still spinning. In all, there must have been about thirty odd Tops of all sizes, shapes and colors, spinning at a time, every top immersed in its own separate world. We were speechless. ‘This is what the Top Spin is!’ – we all thought.

 

The troupe disappeared in the thin  air and nobody saw them in the town after that performance.

Naturally, everybody of us started dreaming of becoming a Top-Master, or Spin-Master. The only top I had was of a size of a ground nut. This was a scale model of a Top some relative had gifted.  It could well have been a drawing pin. Unquestionably, it was useless for any of the tricks I saw that day.

I started my mission alone. I surveyed the shops to find if they sold a Top. None had any.  “It is not the season or vacation time” was the explanation. I started begging with the senior friends if they had any. One of them spared one which was battered on one side, of a very soft wood, but had a good steel pin. I had no idea then that this Top would eventually become my trade mark and a surefire instrument for pulling my leg in any verbal quarrel.

Next Sunday, I started very early and went to the newly opened timber mill which had a section for fixing steel rims over timber cart wheels. It was an amazing experience to watch steel rims being hammered from steel ingots, then heating them in coal and cow dung cakes, the manual work in preparing hard timber spokes of cart-wheel section, meticulous assembling of these sections, covering the perimeter of assembled cart-wheel with white-hot steel rim, dipping it immediately in a temporary water puddle and whoosh … steam volcano.

“Want a cart-wheel?” Somebody in a scarlet coloured beard and moustache asked.

I blushed and said, “No, a simple toy Top.”

“No chance when we have enough cart-wheel orders. It is racing season. Don’t you know? Go buy it in a shop. Or bring a chord strong enough to spin the cart-wheel and I shall give you one of these free”

“There are none in the shops!”

“Is it?…. Let me see…. Do one thing. Get you wooden top fabricated from ‘That person’. I shall then fix for you the steel pin.”

‘That person’ was a carpenter who was turning wooden cots and tables. He was squatting, holding his manual lathe between his feet and his wife operated it with her hands. I watched him for a few minutes. He had also crafted a rice pounder, a shallow utensil, a big spoon and a doll.

“Want a cot?”

“No, just a simple toy Top” I said.

“No chance. Too busy; since the snake breeding season is on and people want cots pronto. But you can do one thing…See that timber stall there? Bring a cube of the size you want your Top and I shall make one for you”

‘That timber stall’ was a giant timber depot, not a baby stall. It had huge piles of logs and neatly sawn blocks that nobody could have held in his grip. I wandered and wandered around, hiding from the watchman and looking for a small cube. The watchman caught me eventually.

“Want a log?” He made fun.

“No. Just a cube about this size for my Top,” I showed him my fist.

“Ha, Ha. Not here kid, this is a teak wood depot. Not Top-Wood depot”

“So, what wood do I need for my Top?”

“Any jungle wood, which is hard and dark.. almost black…Acasia, Khair, Tamarind. Not this expensive variety meant for furniture and roofing…. Go to a fire wood depot. You can have waste wood there”

“And where is that?”

“Vegetable market! Where else?….Why don’t you try with ‘That’ cart wheel factory?  They always have cut pieces.”

“But he told me to come here”

“Naaa….Go there.” He closed the subject.

I went back to the cart-wheel factory, this time however hiding from the red beard. Indeed there were blocks of size I wanted and of dark colour. I picked one when the red beard came running.

“Drop that. That is for the wheel centre… What did I tell you? Go there!”

I recited to him the lathe-man and depot-man story.

“Is it?” He said thoughtfully. Then said, “You were told to search it in the fire-wood shop, right?”

“Yes”

“And where can you find the fire wood?”

“In the vegetable market!”

“Wrong! Go to your house. You use fire wood for your stove or not? You will find it there. No need to go to vegetable market.”

Perplexed with all the confusing reasoning, I must have made a stupid or sad or both face. Because the red beard picked up a piece of red wood, threw it while hollering to the lathe-man asking him ‘to do what I was telling him to do’ and smiled at me.

“Get it turned. Bring the top here to fix the Pin”.

Lathe-man was now compelled to turn out my Top. He did it, after all his pending work was over, constantly complaining that his turning tool will need double sharpening tomorrow because the wood was too hard. Once completed, I held the top in my hand, not believing my luck. It had such beautiful red and brown grains spanning the periphery and a bitter scent of freshly turned wood. Must be Acacia. I would need the rope to spin it, not chord, I thought. It was a good two pounder Top.

“Cant make any smaller with this lathe…What are you looking at?…. You got the best top in the world without paying a single paisa!“ said the lathe-man.

This payment part I had not accounted for until now.

The Red Beard gave the top to his assistant for fixing the Pin and then told me to hold his finger. He took me to the back of his workshop where a kid smaller than me was playing with five or six Tops. None had any Pins. He asked me to wait there until he fixed my Top. I went near to the kid but he took no notice. Immersed in his own thoughts he was crudely spinning the Tops one by one and making circles with his fingers replicating the motion. I clapped, started imitating him, but he did not even look at me.

“Dumb and deaf; but fond of Tops just like you. He can play for a whole day like this” Red Beard said watching me.

“He should go to school?”

“School? He can not speak!”

“So what? Let him come”

“That would be too much for him. He does not recognize we parents, leave aside others”

I tried to touch the kid in a friendly way. He promptly retracted himself.

“You can come and play with him, when you have time. He is Rehman….. I suppose you are not paying me anything for you Top.”

He handed over my Top. I thanked him and inquired about the price as if I had money in my pocket.

“Leave it, leave it” He said.

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The household was on fire when I returned back. Nobody knew about this errand. My friends had told Grandma Tai that they had seen me near the Behda tree in the morning, but not after that. Nana Uncle was searching for me the entire day but had no premonition that I would be around Red Beard’s workshop. Most of Tai’s friends had concluded that I had been abducted by the infamous “ghost of the Behda tree”.

Nobody wanted to look at my precious Top. Nobody had any interest in my project; not even the fact that I had not eaten anything for the entire day. Instead, as a punishment, I was banned from visiting the Behda tree; on school days as also on holidays and during vacation! Quite a sacrifice!

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I carried the Top in my bag the next day to school. The pin was so sharp, it tore my bag at more than a few places. Friends were wonderstruck by the sheer size of the Top. They immediately banned this Top from all competitive games.

I was proud of the Top eventhough it became a museum piece. I had to use for competitions the borrowed, weathered Top which soon became a laughing stock, because either it would not spin or spin according to its whim like a drunkard and would lose each and every competition.

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I did not forget my promise to Red Beard and visited Rehman when ever I went that side. He never showed any signs of recognition until after he was some fifteen years old. He had by now acquired a perpetual saintly smile.

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The India-China war broke out not much after the Chinese Top Spinners had visited our school. Naturally, people remembered them in every heated discussion. Some called them spies, some said they could have come from Indian North East Frontier region and not from across the Chinese side. Nobody talked about their spinning skills.

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Image Credit : Google Images

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(Readers are encouraged to read about Autism. I am now convinced Rehman was Autistic.)