SlingShot

June 25, 2012


I was visiting my Aunt’s home. She introduced me to all of her six children except her second son. I later came to know that he was a certified outcast. So much so, that nobody in the house cared for his daily routine, what he did in school, where he spent his time, had he eaten well or had he visited the loo in the morning. This was very different from our household. Agreed that my poor Aunt had no time to look after each and every child since they were in abundance; at least she could check whether they took bath every day. When I told her that, she was a bit surprised, but said, “Why do you not spend a few days with the Number 2? Then you may understand.” So, I was posted with Number 2 as an understudy. He was not happy. He did not understand why I was encroaching on his privacy and tried to shunt me off several times. But Aunt was persistent. So he let me tag with him after a couple of days of ragging. I just went where ever he went.

He used to get up late; I was at his feet when he got up. What he never missed before starting from the home was a handful of peanuts in his pocket and his Slingshot. Peanuts I could understand, but slingshot?

He filled his pockets with peanuts today also.

“Why Slingshot?”

To answer, he caressed it lovingly to the extent it looked weird.

They had a shed outside the house for storing firewood, like all other houses used to have those days. He took me there and took out a Passing Show cigarette canister. Instead of a lid it had holes pierced around the periphery at the top, through the holes wooden sticks crisscrossed. Inside the can, was a small bird, with a straw bedding. Be fed a few pea nuts and it ate them.

“Thank god it is vegetarian. Some would just not eat peanuts. Then I have to go look for a larva or two. That I do not like.”

I was taken aback when he retrieved a few more of similar cans.

“See, this is special. I had run out of cans. So this one is two tiered.”

Indeed it had two birds, fist sized, one above other.

“The one at the bottom must be cursing you. It is covered in shit.”

He laughed. “It is ready to fly anyway” he said, then carefully released both. They faltered, but soared in sky anyway. They must have thanked their fate. Others were still locked up. Painstakingly, not allowing them to fly away, he took them out, cleaned the cans and replaced the birds one by one, with clinical precision. I was petrified and surprised at the same time – because; there was this parrot and a bat which were not very kind to him.

“Their time will come. Some may die.” He said with a solemn face, “Before I’m through with them”.

“Where did you get them?”

“Injured the mother with the slingshot and came away with the little ones. Some came my way themselves….You climb a tree and there are nests everywhere. You can pick them in any numbers. Try some time… Afraid?”

This was all unbelievably cruel. I shuddered, but made up a brave-face.

We went to meet his friend. He had a monster slingshot. I could not even hold the wood crafted Y in my hand. My hands appeared like baby-hands in the company of that slingshot. The rubber sling was a good foot and a half long.

I actually got a demonstration. We stood below a tree, Number Two spread some peanuts, waited for the birds. Parrots they were. Then he aimed, pulled the sling up to his year and shot a small marble at breakneck speed. Although he did not put one down, he put a sure chaos in the flock. The flock flew away with an ear shattering cacophony as if the parrots had seen a snake.

Number Two and his friend were calm. No exhibition of joy, or sorrow.

“Just a pastime, you know” Number Two said.

I could not sleep well that night. The canisters, bats, parrots and their noise filled my dreams throughout the night. However in the morning, I was at Number Two’s feet before dawn. I had to learn to make a slingshot. I could have used it for other purpose.

Not much raw material was required – a ‘Y’ fork, cut pieces of bicycle rubber-tubes and a leather holder for the marble.

Having learnt the method, I told the aunt that I was going back to my place. She said it was very early and she expected me to stay on.

Number two said, “Are you going away because of me?”

I said yes with gesture and no in words.

“Pity. I was starting to grow fond of you. Even thought of cutting my hair and taking a bath every day, like you do….I have other pastimes and other friends too…You have not explored our village and surroundings…”

“Nothing to do with you, really,” I said looking down. Now I was not very sure if I wanted to leave in earnest. But Aunt released the tension, saying in an understanding tone,

“I shall tell somebody to book your ticket for tomorrow, and cook a sweet for you today”

That settled we went out. Number two showed me the famous temple, the pond, the river and the fishery. He was carrying the slingshot, but did not take it out.

“I do not visit these places these days. I find them boring. Actually, everything is boring. The school, the family, the town….”

“…….”

“I can release the birds, if you want”

“That would be good.”

“Stay. And I shall release them…If you want the sling shot, you can take it. A little practice and you could master it.”

I said I did not want it, although I would have loved to have it.

“I can kill rats with pointed twigs. There are so many, you can barely sleep during night. Or during Day…Stay, and I can show how….”

I left their place the next day.

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Back home early, Grandma asked me how was I going to spend the entire vacation. She had hoped that I shall be gone for a month and was planning for her own vacation. I said I shall lie low and not be a menace.

Instead, I scouted for a ‘Y’ branch and found a crooked one. Instead of bicycle tube, I went for a truck rubber-tube. It was difficult to find and shape, but it turned out better, as expected. With Grandpa’s old Chappals, the leather holder was crafted.

With all the friends out-of-town on vacation, and grandma already angry at me, I could not show the creation to anybody. I started practice. It was indeed very good, except that the crooked ‘Y’ slung the marble to hurt your holding fingers ones too often than the target. I could not find a way to overcome this. It was vocational risk.

The D-Day came when I saw a giant chameleon perched in our verandah. Too engrossed in changing colours for no obvious reasons, it was unaware of me or my slingshot.

This was a test. I aimed, pulled the sling full. Then released the tension and put the slingshot down. Can’t do it….Second try….Can’t do it. Then I started to ward off the chameleon. It was not interested in moving away. May be there was his girl-friend hidden somewhere I could not see. Finally it turned to me and started moving its neck up and down. One step closer…Two steps closer…What was it doing? Am I your prey, foolish?…One more step closer.

I aimed, pulled the sling full, then thought over and readjusted the tension to half and released the marble. It hit the chameleon face on, but only so that it fell over and ran away.

“Did you kill it?”

“No grandma”

“Good. I did not know you had sling shot. This is what you learnt at the Aunt’s place? Good you came back…..Go practice it on the lemon tree and kill some lemons instead of lizards….If you want sherbet.”

That was a damn good suggestion. It had not crossed my mind until then. Lemons and Amla’s were better targets than birds, bats and chameleons. They did not dare threatening you.

I hung the slingshot on a peg after a few days. It remained there, as a crude sign of creativity than a failed weapon of mass destruction. I went to Aunt’s place the next summer. Number Two had given up his bird collection, but had started disappearing from home for days together. His family did not seem to worry much about this, except for a mention or two with moist eyes. He did not pay heed to my arrival or departure neither he cast a look at me during my whole stay.

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Image Credit : Google Images

Red-haired Ghost

May 31, 2012


Vallabh became my friend when I was in fifth grade, although I knew him a couple of years earlier.

Next to our school playground was a farm that belonged to government agriculture school. It always had sugarcane plantation and we never knew what went on behind the cane wall.

On a day when I was waiting at the playground for my friends to join me, I noticed the sugar cane crop harvested and the farm suddenly had a desolate look. I saw a boy with a loosely draped turban, loose collarless cotton shirt and baggy half pant. He must be very disturbed. He was pounding the earth relentlessly for no clear reason. I yelled at him and asked him what was wrong, invited him to come and play with my friends. He did not take notice. Next day, again, the scene was the same. Today, he had a stick and he was poking the fence tirelessly.

In a few days, his anger subsided and he smiled at me. Encouraged, I returned the gesture. He then invited me to come and visit the farm when I had time, but during daytime, so that he can show me around. We agreed for a fine morning and I met him at the main gate. Although the farm appeared smallish from outside, it sprawled and had a nice, straight, red mud road up to the skyline. There was a lush green plantation on either side of the road.  The trees, vegetables and the earth smelled good. He showed me all the farm and filled my pockets with baby brinjals and tomatoes, saying

“Take these home, it is my last day on this farm”.

“Why?”

“Our lease for the Government farm has expired and we will become farmless and homeless in a few days. I am Vallabh, by the way”

“Then? What will you do?”

“We will be moving to a hut and our own land. No problem there, except that it is barren”

“Why were you so disturbed last week?”

“I have to join the school now, because I shall not have any work at home or farm. This is not what I want. Schools must be boring compared to farm labor”.

“This must be true”

I told him where I lived. His family shifted to the new piece of land.  He kept visiting me; usually when they took their bullock cart to weekly market. He indeed joined the school, but admitted to first standard, since he had no formal education until now, although he had the entire math commerce in his head ready to explode. The teacher used to seat him along side another grown up boy, son of a grocery shop owner, who only knew how to write broken letters but not an iota of math. Vallabh got alienated from the other students except me very early, but carried on none the less.

He took me to his new farm. It was quite far away to walk. It was uncultivated until then and therefore large stones were strewn around, the color of the field muddy grey.

Vallabh and his clan dug a well and installed an ox driven water rig. Within no time, a couple of years at the most, his farm was green, courtesy good rains. Papaya and plantain trees started bearing fruits. The ginger, their speciality, in addition to cereals started yield. His farm then became my regular abode for outing on weekends. Vallabh ensured that I never returned empty-pocketed from his farm.  However, there was a strict custom that the visitor was not allowed to touch the trees or plants. I would be asked to stand by when Vallabh or his family members plucked the fruit or vegetables. You could ask for anything, in any measure, but were not allowed to use your hands. That was their job.

There was a problem. You had to cross a stream and a very large mango tree before you reached Vallabh’s  farm.  With weathering, the jet black rocks in the stream had been carved by perennial water in to crevices and puddles. As the saying went, this was the water nymph hang out. Not one, seven of them. Naturally, they did not wear any clothes. If you went by, or swam in their pool, they would curse you. As such, nobody dared to disturb them during day time. Who knows when they will feel like taking bath in the open?

The stream was also said to be a watering hole for tigers. Tigers being nocturnal, and they were in abundance those days, nobody ventured that side after sundown.

Vallabh agreed that there indeed was Tiger menace and he had heard their calls a few times, they used to circle his farm too to see if they could lay paws on the cattle.

The mango tree – just before we reached Vallabh’s farm – was breathtaking in size and shade. I used to sit under its shade every time I visited Vallabh’s farm, whether I needed rest or not. At the least it was a Pee-Stop.  Vallabh said once that this tree was their property, even though disputed. He would always see me off under the tree.

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I was just waiting for summer to arrive. The mango tree had a full blossom this year. While I could, I gathered the fallen baby green mangoes of this tree every now and then. But the ripe ones! Aha! Wait until summertime!

When the mangoes were nearly ready, each was a mouth-watering kilogram sized fruit. On an occasion,I plucked a few with Vallabh watching wearily, brought them home and publicized the news within my friend circle.

Most of them friends went to visit the mango tree the next day…..and came home panting. Some fell sick. Some were delirious.

All of them had seen a ghost with red hair and red clothing atop the mango tree.

I did not believe in this. How could a ghost suddenly appear? So, I went and surveyed the situation  braveheartedly, although from a distance, possibly a kilometer. And indeed, there was a red-haired and red-clothed ghost moving atop the tree. I ran home.

Days went by. The news had spread like jungle fire. Nobody dared to even look at that tree, leave aside going near to it.

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I went to weekly bazaar one day and met Vallabh there. He was tending to his bulls and the cart.

“Did you visit our stall?”

I said I have not.

“This is the first time I have brought our mangoes for sale”

He picked a ripened mango and gave it to me. “Just taste. The flavor is so cocoanut like!”

I tasted that ghost mango. It indeed tasted like cocoanut. I preserved half of it for taking home.

Then I noticed the person selling the mangoes in loud voice.

“Who is that?”

“That’s my father. Who else?  You have met him several times”

But something was different about his father. We bid good buys with Vallabh requesting me to come to farm for a day. I said I shall try.

Couple of days later, my grandma inquired about wherefrom I had bought that cocoanut mango.

“That was Vallabh’s”

“Go get some for the relatives that will come to visit us today”

“I am not going”

“Why?”

“I have to pass by ghost-tree. You remember that red-haired ghost stories?”

“Since when did you stop visiting Vallabh?”

“A few weeks. Since the ghost appeared.”

“Fine. If you are not, I have to go myself.”

Closed door! I took the money and shopping bag and started walking towards Vallabh’s Farm. It took an hour more than usual. I watched the mango tree from all possible angles. The ghost was on leave today. Scuttling the tree by half a kilometer, and treading the stream at the most dangerous place, I somehow reached Vallabh’s place.

After I collected the mangoes, I told him about the ghost stories.

“Oh, that. Those rumors about ghost I have spread.”

His father came out. Now I noticed that his hair was red. Watching my wide eyes, he said,

“I know the red hair and beard look awful. I won’t color them hence forth”

“ No father. You have to color them again next summer. Otherwise the red-haired ghost will disappear”

He laughed and said, yes, that was true. Then he took out a red shirt and red pant from under the nearby hay-stack and said that he will preserve those too for the next summer, just in case.

Horse and Plays

September 5, 2011


My mother was a classical singer and all her talent was wasted in the small town she was living in, except for the musical plays that were performed every year during Sharada Fest. Dramas with women dressed as women and women dressed as men! That year I was vacationing at my parent’s place, was allowed to sit next to her and watch her sing playback for the main character in the play Kulavadhu, a take on Ibsen’s Doll’s House.  While she was singing, I kept watching the character lip-sync-ing with great effort and requesting my mother from the stage not to deliver difficult or extempore movements.  I was chatting with her in between when there was prose on stage, and she suddenly asked me if I would like to recite a poem on stage the next day. With the enthusiasm gained out of watching the full fledged play in action, I said, why not?

The next day, she took me to a make-shift auditorium created for the purpose. A few children performed; some grown-ups too. Without notice, she and her friends took me to the stage, the curtains were raised and I was told to recite the poem. I could not start… although I was putting in all the effort in to my vocal chords. A minute, two, five….the curtain came down and I started in a loud voice….the curtain was raised…..the voice again left me….curtain down….and I started the recital confidently.

‘Enough, enough” somebody said and took me away from the stage to my mother.

‘Next year perhaps?’ She inquired in a voice that understood.

‘But I was doing my job’ I said.

‘I know. When the lights come on and curtain is raised, you lose your voice. That is why I sing playback. I too am afraid of stage and lights.’

My father did not like this stage fright story. In a stern voice, he asked her not to encourage me ever.

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I came back from vacations, firmly concluding that the stage was quite exciting provided you worked at the back. During the next Ganesha festival, I decided that Drama it will be – but from backstage. We friends discussed this in detail.

‘Where will we find a script? And what play will it be?’

‘Let us try Robin,’ That was our favorite character.

‘Making bows and arrows should not be difficult.’

‘I have a felt hat. All we have to find is a feather.’

‘I have two swords’ I said, leaving everybody drenched in excitement. These I had found in our Delivery Room Boxes. ( https://rajeevne.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/theatre-of-my-own/ )

So, Rob-in-Hood it was. We created a stage in our verandah, the arms were collected and we went straight to the final rehearsals. We started collective scripting in our heads from the story we had heard here and there and were narrating the actions as they came to our mind. By the end of the day every other character was finalized, except for Rob’s fiancé and wife. After discussion, we decided to delete her part altogether when somebody said,

‘Who needs women in battles anyway?’

Nobody was ready to play Rob either.

‘Rob would need to ride a horse, and nobody knows how to’

‘And who will spare a horse for the play? And how many horses are there in our village? There is only one Tonga!’

‘Why not tell Robin’s story instead, without any acting? That will save us from the horse’

All except me decided that Robin was no piece of horse. My unwritten script fizzled in a day. Notwithstanding, I tried my best with the one and only horse-cart owner to spare us the horse for the play. All he did was laugh uncontrollably.

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Our fifth standard class was shifted to the old(est) school building without any fan fare. This was rusty, leaky, aged building. Next to my bench near the window, the paint had peeled and I could count at least twenty five coats of paint, white over blue over green and repeat. Outside, there were hedges and a nondescript playground. Laborers were removing overgrowth and erecting a stage.  Watching them was interesting pastime in between the lessons. The rain showers had stopped pouring a few days ago and the festive season was in the vogue. The stage completed, the laborers started creating a stadium like structure out of the bamboos they had brought in cartloads.

“Drama, Drama” Somebody yelled in the class, “Our Teachers’ Drama.”

As if on cue, all of us went to supervise the structures erected. Some climbed onto the stage and started acting. Some became mock-spectators. I remembered my first day on stage and quickly went back stage only to find many of our teachers gathered there and having a heated discussion between their biddies and cigarettes. They hooted me out as soon as they saw me. Teachers smoking, yelling at each other with choice abuses! What a play can corrupt a man into!

Interested as I was, I kept listening to them, albeit from a safe distance. The main area of their concern was the drapery of characters called Hiroji and Shivaji. It had not arrived.

Shivaji? They will also need horses! They did not discuss horses, though, but other trivia like head gear, the decorative robes, swords and all that.

Next day I asked our class teacher as to what they had decided about the horses? He did not understand a thing, and said, ‘What horses’. This was not well taken by us. Shivaji and his army without horsees was impossible to enact, same as Robin. We then pleaded with the Teacher playing the character. He also dismissed us summarily. What a letdown!

Then I offered my swords and they leapt at them. These were indeed used by Shivaji and Hiroji…or may be others. In bargain, the swords were polished smooth.

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The play ‘Kareen Tee Poorva” was staged thrice. Once – for Men only – late hours, Once – for Women only – afternoon and lastly on Saturday afternoon, for us school going children.

All we did was waited for a horse hoping that at least one of our teachers had a brain to listen to us. But none had. Slowly we got absorbed in the play, not that we had much to absorb but for two comedian soldiers, the heroin who spoke like men do and the hero who spoke in a feminine voice. Shivaji came on stage without horse and our small community demanded in loud voice for a horse. This was promptly noticed by the Head Master who came walking to us and inquired if we knew the difference between a play and reality.

He left only when we promised that we will not ask for a horse.

First Books

August 13, 2011


I think Bhagwadgeeta was the first book I was introduced to, because Grandpa Anna would not settle for anything less. I just mugged it up with Anna as a teacher, and was sent for a competition of Geeta recitals. Aabajee Deshpande, the examiner, was a staunch Geeta lover and used to distribute copies free to many a muggers like me. Not many had participated in this first competition.

14th chapter was the subject matter. Aabajee let us recite the whole chapter, and as soon as I thought I had finished the exam, he started quizzing by reciting a stanza at random and I had to complete. Then he started reciting the second line of a random stanza and I had to recite the first. Then he started giving one word clue and let me complete the rest. It was interesting (for him), I completed everything well and Aabajee declared that I stood first.  Sudheer was second, who eventually became a good friend.

I came back home tired. Anna came after some time and inquired if I did well. I said I had secured the first rank. Pleased, he said there would be big function and I shall be felicitated that evening. The function was fine, but the prize was not. Because I was presented with a copy of Bhagwadgeeta, of which I already had two copies. I cribbed a lot about it. Anna simply said, “You do not need any prize than that”.

The next year, Sudheer stood first, and I was second, with first chapter as the subject. Aabajee however declared that this year there were Prizes galore, in addition to the Geeta copies. He fiddled with his dhotee, came up with one rupee coin and said,

“Go to the market, buy any books you like and bring those to me. These will be handed over to you in the evening function.”

Sudheer had also received the grant and we proceeded to the market. The book shop was by the street and the books were exhibited on military cots outside the shop. To this day, I did not have any books other than those in the curriculum. Looking at these, I was astounded. How can these be called ‘books’ when they have Kings and Queens and mythological figures on their cover pages? How can they be in a large, readable font than those we read in the class? How can a book have so many artworks when the books were supposed to have only one or two? How can they have attractive covers but unreadable titles?

I must have spent an hour or so in just awe. Sudheer, in between had selected his and had already disappeared.  I was really perplexed as to what to choose and how many to choose. The shop keeper came to the rescue.

“How much money you have?”

“One rupee.”

“Stole it from somewhere? Let me see it.”

I showed him the coin, but did not let it go. He inquired as to what was my name, who was my father, where did I live and a barrage of such questions. When he was satisfied that I had not stolen the Rupee, he selected some books of his choice and dumped them in front of me. Naturally, I was not satisfied. He amassed a second choice bunch, which was also not to my liking. Tired, he said “Choose whatever you want” and went behind his desk.

I had some solitude once more, and I started selecting the books, based on cover colours, that is, discarding.

The final list had Panch Tantra, Aesop’s stories and a book on astronomy.

“Why do you need that blue book with stars? You will not understand a thing there. I also do not.”

“But this is what I want.”

The shop keeper gave me a tired look, and said, “You can have a few more. One Rupee is not yet over.”

Back to square one. I then selected Sim Bonga and Bhilla Veer Kalinga.

“That is it.” The shopkeeper said, “You can have one volume of Kalinga, not all.”

“Fine, I will buy all of these with green and black cover, man with a dagger”

“One volume of Tarzan!”

“But you said a few more”

“You have exceeded one Rupee now”

I handed over my precious one Rupee to him, and he handed me the bundle. “Come again for Tarzan,” he said. I did not need this invitation. I was already hooked.

The transaction over, I remembered that I did not know the way back to home. Sudheer had brought me here and he had gone a long time ago. Crying at my ancestors, the shopkeeper closed the shop and escorted me first to Aabajee and then my house. He did not forget to ask if I indeed belonged to this house, and I was not a thief.

Back home and when the smell of the new books had withered, I understood that buying a book you had liked did not necessarily mean that you will read it immediately. Further, you may not be able to read a book which you have received as a present and that even if you did not understand a word, a picture tells a story better. You have your imagination running wild without the help of words.

I started really reading/ comprehending most of these books, including the blue book, in Standard five or Six. Aunts were enthusiastic earlier on, but got fed up of reading to me the books I had purchased, particularly when I started buying books with every paisa I received or saved and I had mugged up all the stories by listening and still wanted somebody to Read these to me. When the words finally came to me, they were better than pictures, sometimes worse.

I encroached upon Grandpa’s book cabinet and declared one of the shelves as ‘my library’. This included Garibaldi, Agarkar, Tilak, Kalidas, Gandhi, five or six different sized Geeta and even a book called Shrusht Shakti Shastra (Physics- in short). There was also a book on Physiology, with funny pictures, which was promptly removed by somebody and I did not find it afterwards. None the less, I had leafed through it all before it vanished.

The blue book was a revelation. That was when I started deciphering it bit by bit, simultaneously gazing at stars while alone and imagining beyond the drawings and the written word.

Top

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.)

Sandals

April 15, 2011


All the family members agreed amongst themselves that I needed Chappals. The valedictory function for primary school was looming at large.

My entire childhood until then was spent running in thorns, nails, mud, water, grass, stones, creatures and insects. Nobody around me- my relatives or friends – really cared for the look of my body parts called feet.  When alone, or when the classes were boring, our favorite pastime used to be picking out from feet those foreign objects or the scales that looked like a second rhino skin. Winters used to be horrible. Although I was forced to dip the feet in lukewarm Sol (Amsul/Goa butter), the next day the feet would be full of scale again and full of blood oozing out of the cracks. But I did not care. Footwear was an expensive luxury. Not that I did not try at Grandpa’s pump shoes, but they must have been a size twelve, difficult to even carry for single step.

Along with the fourth standard exam we had appeared for a surprise scholarship exam. Grandpa Anna and Granny Tai were a touch too confident that I would bag the scholarship. They had also hatched a plan to buy a rubber slipper for me, which was a novelty and fashion those days, so that I look presentable at the function. I had overheard their open door conference, wherein the tempo was being built around the possible prize I might secure.

On a sunny Sunday, I set out with Anna, holding his walking stick, in search of suitable footwear. We stopped innumerable times. Whoever met us came to know that I was going to have new footwear. Most of them pleaded to Anna that it was really not necessary. My heart bits skipped during every such discussion, because it revolved around the result of scholarship exams. I inquired as to why we could not postpone the purchase until the results were out. But he wanted me to look good at any cost. We scavenged through a number of road side leather shops. Nobody had a tailor made kids’ footwear. All the artisans promised that if we order, they can deliver a made-to-order one. But the price was prohibitive. Finally we arrived at a lane of Sindhi shops that had come up recently where the rubber slippers were hanging from the ropes everywhere.  Thankfully, these slippers also were above size seven, one and a half times oversized. We ended up buying potatoes and came back home with a sack on my shoulders hung over Anna’s walking stick.

Next day, Anna took me to my Parent’s town where a fare was on. Anna requested my father to urgently find footwear for me…. Repeat of the same story. I accompany my father, he tells everybody why I needed footwear, I skip beats, we do not find anything and finally return home with a sack of onions on my shoulder.

My mother viewed the proceedings for a day and then requested my father to let go the purchase, since I was getting nervous. My father then said that I should not worry about the cost and announced that he had already placed an order for a chappal with a vendor and I should go and give measurements. So, I went.

Looking at me, the vendor said,

“Chappal is no good. I shall sew a belt at the back so that the chappals do not slip when you walk”

I shrugged and said, “Uncle, you are free to do whatever you think is fine for me.”

He looked quizzically at me, took measurement on a paper and said,

“Lighten up, this is your first chappal, right? I am going to use the best quality leather. What color do you want your chappals? Sandals?”

I did not lighten up, but said, “Red should be fine.”

“Men’s sandals do not look good in red. I don’t have red leather.”

“But I need red.”

“As you please.” He closed the topic.

He had not committed a date for delivery. I was on vacation, had no other business; therefore I visited this leather shop every day. When there was no progress for a few days, first my father and then Grandfather accompanied me to the shop. As if by magic, the next day, he showed me the rough cut. But that was all. Anna had to visit a few more times and tell the sandal-smith the urgency involved before the final trial piece was ready. It was around size Seven, one and a half times oversized.  When I complained, the vendor said,

“That is not for you to decide. Your father has ordered this size, so that you can wear it for a year more… And there is this belt at the back. What difference it makes?”

It was red, but inked red on black. Funny red! But it was my choice and I could not protest. For added value, it had horse shoe on its heel and another steel piece at the toe.

“This will stretch its life further.” He said.

I tried it. Neither I could walk straight, nor could I walk in one plane. The Sandals were biting the feet at several places and the leather was extremely stiff. They were terribly noisy because of the horse shoes. The heavy duty horse shoe nails had pierced the sole right through and were worse than thorns. In all, my feet, gait and walk appeared funnier with the sandals than they actually were.

“You want them or no?”

“Definitely not,” I said and ran home.

But in the evening, my father paid the dues, collected them and brought home the packet while returning from duty. He promptly informed Anna that his responsibility was over.

“Try it,” he said, “And what is this stupid color you have selected? We will have to paint them black ones the function is over.”

“I have tried and they are fine,” I had to say, bowing to him and to the fate.

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The function was in Hindi school. This was the first time I was visiting this building. The auditorium was quite oppressive with all the students filled to the brim. I was glad that the function was on a working day and none of my family members could attend it. I was escorted by Anna’s friend.

“What is that you are holding on to your chest?” He asked.

“My sandals,” I said.

“Sandals? Let me have a look.”

I had to wear those and parade in front of him.

“What a fine craftsmanship and antique design…Not from our town, definitely…. How I have longed for such footwear.”

He introduced me to his son Kanti, who was in the same boat as I was. He was from Hindi school, same fourth standard as I was. We established an instant rapport when we both insisted to his father that we sit at the very back. Here was a huge gathering from all schools, ours the Marathi, the Urdu and the Hindi; also the co-ed schools and the girls’ school.

The results were announced. As expected, I did not receive any mention in the list. The scholarship went to a girl student from Girl’s school. Further she got a prize for bagging 100/100 in maths. In the end, we were called to receive a bouquet for we had topped the Marathi the Hindi school respectively. We went, collected the bouquets and were happy that something came our way.

The function over, we started walking back and then I remembered about my sandals. I had deposited them with Kanti’s father while I went to collect the bouquet. He did not remember any such a thing.

We went back and waited until every boy and girl left the premises and then took a thorough look at every nook and corner. Kanti’s father then went to the organizers and told them about my sandals. They said they will spread the news, it was a small town and nobody can hide a new sandal. Kanti’s father asked us to go home and said he would wait a little longer to see if somebody was honest and returned the sandals.

On our way back, I and Kanti were worriedly discussing the Girl who had scored more than us. We were sure that she will be in our class in the intermediate school, since there was only one school in town. We decided then and there that we will not allow her to top once she is in our school. Still, if she tops, then?….well, we had no answer.

Although they were obscene and therefore distinguishable, the thief did hide those Sandals well. They could not be traced. Although I prayed inwardly that the Sandals may never be found, I, Kanti and his father kept a strict vigil on each and every walking and parked footwear in the town for a year or so, but to no avail.

Anna was quite flustered when he knew about the lost sandals, not so much about my performance, but he took it well in the end, when Tai said that they were utterly unlucky for me and it was good riddance.

Anna did not force me to wear footwear afterwards. Later on, I myself requested for it when I was ready for high school. There was no problem having thick skin over delicate skin or some thorns embedded for spice; actually it was better than constantly worrying about the price of the Sandals.

Delivery Boy

March 15, 2011


We had many relatives and they had many relatives.

There were a couple of traditions.

First, all the children would complete the elementary, primary and middle schooling at our place no matter what their relation was with my grandfather Anna. Those desirous of high schooling would go to the district place Yavatmal, with another grandfather. If the pupil survived this phase, first two college years (Inter as the exam was called then) would be completed at Nagpur at yet another grandfather. If you wanted still more, you would be shipped to Varanasi. My grandfather himself as also his brothers were all from Benares School. So was in the next generation. This tradition ended with my generation, around 1950’s since there were a few high schools and colleges opening at various towns, one started by my own grandfather. Girls in the family usually did not survive beyond Yavatmal phase and declared eligible for marriage. I see such a bonding between my uncles and aunts because of this tradition. Such closeness is seldom seen in the other families. When they meet, they quickly go back to the memories of their school days, just stop thinking about the present tense or what is happening around them this very moment. What a camaraderie!

The second tradition was that all the pregnancies and deliveries, at least the first few of all the newly weds, would take place under supervision of my grandmother Tai, in our house. We had a special delivery room reserved for this purpose, may be because Tai herself had nine living children and her husband had fourteen brothers and sisters all together. Like it was common in other households too, sometimes the delivery room had two beds – one for the earlier generation and one for the next, mother and daughter or daughter in law and mother in law at the same time.

No wonder Tai was bent upon training me as a Delivery Boy. As if the school exams were not sufficient, this additional training and responsibility was simply too much when entrusted to me. Not that I could complain, because nobody could complain when Tai requested with a sweet in her hand and a sweet in her phonetics.

The aunt in question was to deliver in June-July. For that matter, most of the marriages and deliveries those days took place in this June-July season for the obvious reasons that I would understand later in my life. This aunt was dear to me. Instead of arriving a month in advance of the D-Day, she wrote a letter to my grandpa that she would arrive a good three months before.

“Why so early?” was my immediate question to Tai. “While she went with her husband, did I not tell you that she would not stay there? Why did you send her in the first place?”

“This is not in your hands, dear. Only Gods decide when she will deliver.”

“I had told you not to send her. Did I not cry that time? And did you not? You would not listen. Now, when I have settled with myself that she is not ‘from this house’, here she comes again in seven eight months to stay for six months? You people are insane.”

“Guard your voice and language.  There is nobody in this house except you and me. I do not even talk to anybody for days on. What difference it makes to you if she stays for a few months or years? You have your room to yourself and keep quiet.”

“But I am learning to ride a bicycle. She always laughs at my mistakes. She always sends me to marketplace again and again.”

“Now, not us, but YOU are insane… I shall tell her not to tease or trouble you. Go pick her up from the bus stand.”

My guess was correct. As soon as she arrived, she put her bags in my room and threw me out with all of my belongings. This was her room before she went with her husband. So what?

I tried not to come back from school in time that day. But with the onset of the darkness, my courage failed and I had to return. What I saw was normal. Both Tai and her daughter were crying together. They had started crying in the morning as I remembered, and the scene was still not over.

“Food.” I yelled.

“Under the steel basket, in the kitchen.” Aunt replied. She was taking charge of our house?

But what a snack! The same I had missed for seven-eight months. Aunty’s favourite too, but never cooked by Tai after aunty went to her husband. At least one plus mark for her arrival.

Come evening the next day, my friend Nana arrived to teach me the bicycle. This was everyday routine these days. Many of my friends had learnt to ride bicycles on their own. However, Tai had not liked the idea in the first place, although I had advocated a several advantages to her. She had agreed on a few conditions only when I had told her how I felt inferior in comparison to other friends. These were agreed as follows:

– Thou shall not learn or ride it unless I supervise you.

– Thou shall not fall down or get injured.

– Thou shall learn under an accomplished teacher.

– Thou shall not ask for a new bicycle as soon as you learn to ride.

I agreed to everything, because none had bicycles those days and they were available on rent any way. Tai would sit out and curse her destiny the whole hour when I was practicing. She now handed this responsibility to Aunty. Aunty had no pastime anyway and was whiling her time away in gossip with Tai or her or Tai’s friends. Nana had instructed me not to look at her and concentrate on learning. He would be holding the cycle carrier while I treaded on Half Pedal. One day, however, Aunty started calling me loudly to stop, while I was riding. I did but fell down, injured my knee and got angry as to why she stopped me. She beckoned me to her and handed out a one paisa coin. When I enquired why, she said that I had successfully passed bicycle rider’s test. Nana came then from a distance laughing and said that I was riding on my own the whole evening and he was just pretending to help me as he was told by Aunty. The paisa was my prize for the graduation. “I was carrying it with me all these days. You took a long time. But that is fair, because even I do not know how to ride a bicycle” Indicating her fat stomach, she said, “Now I am relieved. You can rush to the hospital on bicycle if there is an emergency.”

The emergency arrived like other emergencies in early rainy season, riding on a dark night, when it was raining and lightening cats and dogs. In the beginning, Tai asked me to go and call neighboring women. Nobody came – not even opened their doors for me. This done, she started with the usual stuff that I am a grown up, responsible person and it is time to show my true character. I knew when she uttered such words. I told her to just speak out my sentence. Aunty had started to whimper by now. Simultaneously, she was trying to laugh in between and her eyes were as if pleading with me. I had no escape.

My umbrella was not functional, as usual. Tai readied the lantern. When she saw the state of the umbrella, she quickly brought a folded blanket for me to done, covering my head and back. ‘Ask for Kamal. Ask for Kamal there, the nurse. Tell her the utensil has broken.’

I started my long journey to the hospital. I was cursing all the Aunts who came to trouble their nephews, all the husbands who married wives, all the husbands who dumped their wives at their in-laws, the rain god, the mud god, my family for not providing me chappals or sandals, the people who thrust unnecessary responsibilities on kids like me, the neighboring lady who always came to us in the morning and never went unless she had downed cups of Tai’s tea, the lady who always said that my Aunty was her daughter, not Tai’s, their husbands who were hiding in their houses when I, a little, helpless, poor and what not kid was trotting to the godforsaken hospital.

Thanks to the anger and my loud cursing, I reached the hospital quickly than I had expected. It was totally deserted. I wondered if anybody except ghosts occupies that building at all. But there on the floor, was a man sleeping soundly under his rug. I had to create a lot of noise and throw stones that were hard to find in the mud before the watchman in the verandah finally woke up.

I asked for Kamal, he said ‘She is in Nurses’ Quarters, not here’ and quickly covered his face again. This time I increased the size of stones and he had to oblige, but not before telling me that I am the devil incarnate’s son. So be it.

We went to Kamal’s quarter. The watchman knocked the door only once when she came out running as if she had telepathically understood what the scene was.  She inquired what was the ‘mother’s name’ while packing her case, to which I blurted out my mother’s, then Tai’s. She laughed and said she knows who the ‘mother’ was any way since she knew the dates by heart. She requested the watchman to go with us. He promptly refused.

So it was me, the lantern and Kamal walking, back to house in that idiotic rain and thunder. She was saying something soothing and assuring that I did not understand. It was an alien language. But it felt good. She said she knew me, had seen me in the house when she had come to check up Aunty earlier on. Then she said that I shall have to work throughout the night and help her. I said I am already sleepy.

But I had to help.

Warm water cold water towels towels jug scissors this that grace of god light a lamp sit outside old clothes coal at least call somebody else ginger turmeric difficult difficult telegram tomorrow write the correct time but where is sweater ok now muffler sweets medicines dispose rubbish and chord god is great nice kid tea now…..

It went on and on with background music from Aunty. I did not know when I slept of exhaustion, but it was daybreak. Tai woke me up quite late in the morning.

“What?”

“Get up Dada, you have a little brother now,” Said Tai.

“I hate him and Aunty and You.”

‘That’s fine, but why not have a look first?”

I opened my eyes. Tai had held a bundle very close to my face. Must have been sleeping, this thing, because it had it’s eyes permanently closed and like old men.

“This is the ugliest of my brothers.” I said, “And why so red-faced?” Aunty laughed heartily in the distance.

By afternoon, cables were sent to relatives. Neighbors started arriving to greet. People praised Aunty for her grit, patience, courage and so many things that were and were not required in delivering the baby.

I inquired if I can have a few days off from school. Tai refused. In the days to come, the house was full of relatives. Aunty’s husband had come, so had Grandpa. They kept coming, there were a lot of helping hands and most of them conveniently forgot that I was also a member of the house. I was convinced that Kamal was the one who was the real hero and not Aunty and we two smiled at each other when somebody praised Aunty in our presence.

The after-months were not bad because then the ‘bundle’ started to look like a human incarnate, started recognizing me, and because Tai cooked a different sweet almost every day.

Aunty departed at last with her husband. Like others, he also did not recognize anybody else’s efforts in delivering the baby. Further he asked what we were to present to the new kid on the block. I handed over to him my only saving, the one paisa coin that Aunty had given to me on my graduation. ‘That is all?’ he asked cynically.

Aunty presented a nice Saree to Kamal and offered a hug for me while promising to come back at the earliest opportunity. I kept distance. Who would welcome the annual, mandatory responsibility?

Kamal  and I went  along well until she was in our town. Why we would not? Because we quickly understood that rainy seasons and this delivery business was not the exceptional but a regular feature. I had lost interest from the very first, once I knew the labour involved in it, but Kamal and Tai used to be enthusiastic every year for the new arrival as if it was their first.