Thursday, May 28, 2009

Healthy bribe

From my early childhood I was very fond of reading books. I had studied in Gujarati medium up to class eight and then in English medium. So naturally, I was fond of Gujarati books from early on. I was a member of the school library and I used to read short stories, novels and later progressed to Gujarati translations of Jules Vern’s ‘The Messenger’ and such other books. My entire family was fond of reading as such, but my elder brother in particular, was an avid reader- even now he is. He too was a member of an English library and was heavy into Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie. He was always after me to read one of the English books, but I didn’t show any interest. He insisted that he was not against my reading Gujarati books but if I started reading English books, a whole new world will open for me, but to no avail.

When all his attempts to convince me failed, he tried another trick. He offered that if I finish one Perry Mason book, he would give me one big Cadbury chocolate. I was very fond of Cadbury. We were a middle class family and Cadbury was almost a luxury. I was tempted. I started reading one Perry Mason book but could not go beyond three- four pages. After a while he asked me if I had read the book. I told him I could not make head or tail of the book. He was visibly disappointed. I felt guilty.

Next, after a day or so, He added a ‘Barna’ table tennis bat on top of Cadbury If I finish one book. Now this matter was suddenly serious. Cadbury was one thing and a ‘Barna’ was something else again. I was a good and keen table tennis player and had made my name in the school for my game. ‘Barna’ was the best available bat at that time and was every good player’s dream. But I also knew that my brother could not afford it. He had stretched himself too far. Hence I must make another serious and sincere attempt for his sake.

I started again with new determination. I took it slowly, reading a paragraph twice when I could not follow the gist. I closed the book often when my attention wavered, only to start again after sometime. Slowly I began to grasp the story. Even though I did not understand meanings of many words and legal terms (they were too many to refer dictionary), I began to understand the theme and story in general. When I was a little more then a half way through, I was hooked. I just could not put the book down. I finished the book and asked my brother for another. He did not have to bribe me any more. I told him I would settle for Cadbury. But my brother kept his word and in due time got me a ‘Barna’ bat.

Ever since, I am hooked to books. Of course, as time passed tastes changed. In my twenties, I was heavily into James Hadley Chase. Later still, I was into P. G. Woodhouse, Ken Follet, Sheldon to Wilbur Smith to Ludlum and others. Now at sixty five, I am a voracious reader, and reading a variety of subjects, thanks to my brother.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The smoking adventure

It was in late fifties, I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I had my first tryst with cigarette. One boy in our class used to smoke occasionally and brag about it. So one day we four friends decided to try it out. It boomeranged miserably. We went to a cigarette shop and our expert friend, Nalin, was entrusted with the task of procuring cigarettes for all of us. We found a partly concealed corner and started our great experiment with the fag as it was fashionably called at that time. As luck would have it, one of my father’s close friends was passing by and saw us doing what we were doing. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him. Uncle wasted no time and went straight to my house and informed my father of what we were doing and where we were. Uncle knew the parents of other boys too because we all lived in the same locality. But he preferred to go to my house only, God bless him for that.

My father was a man of virtues. He never thought of alcohol, smoke, betel and such like. What is more, he never knew what betel or betel nut tasted like. He was a simple, straightforward and a very short- tempered man, but highly respected. We were all very scared of him.

So uncle told my father to catch us red handed. But my father told him to wait for my return and meanwhile share a cup of tea with him. When I returned, my father confronted me with uncle’s accusations. It was so sudden and I was so scared that I didn’t have time to think. Because of all the stories I had heard since childhood of his strictness and punishments mated to my elder brothers when at fault, that I thought he would throw me out of the house. Without thinking I denied the charges and said I was not there at all. My father told my uncle that if I say I was not there then I was not there and that uncle must have mistaken some other boy for me. However, he profusely thanked uncle for his concern. A little shaken, uncle went away. I heaved a sigh of relief.

The moment uncle was out of sight and earshot, hard came a slap on my face. Father was livid with rage: “ The moment you opened your mouth I knew you were lying. I protected you simply because however close a friend he (uncle) be, he is an outsider and I did not want to disgrace you in front of him. You have damaged years of our friendship. This slap is not because you smoked but because you lied. If I had called your lie then, you would not have ever been able to meet uncle’s eyes.”

Then came a gem of a line which neither I, nor anyone else in the family expected from my father: “Look here, I can understand and even appreciate your need to experiment at this age. But when faced, have courage to speak the truth. I don’t expect you to come and tell me of your own that you smoke, but when asked I certainly expect you to admit and face consequences. Whatever you do, do it without being scared of outsiders.”

Even at that immature age, I was impressed. As I grew, I began to understand and appreciate that one line: “ I can understand and appreciate your need to experiment
at this age.” Every time I remember that line, I wonder at the thought and understanding behind it. That one line has taught me how I should treat my own children.

However, a few days after this incident my elder brother informed me that father had doubled my monthly allowance for me to go for a good brand if I wanted to smoke. That was my father. I must have smoked hardly four-five times after that. I tried to continue, but couldn’t. Not because I had become virtuous all of a sudden. But for the fact that all adventure had gone out of it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Vanishing act

It was early sixties in Calcutta. I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old then. My elder brother owned one Italian Lambretta scooter. He had taught me to drive the vehicle. Occasionally when he had time, he allowed me to drive and himself occupied the pillion seat. My father didn’t know this and we were scared that he would find out. So my brother had warned me not to touch the vehicle when he was not around. But sometimes, when he was in office, I used to take out the scooter and give rides to some of my friends. I was on cloud nine on such trips. It was adventure.

On one such occasion I took out the scooter and went to my close friend Mahendra’s house. Mahendra was paper thin and light weight then. We used to tease him about that in school that his wife will have to carry him around. So we started from Bhowanipore to Lansdowne road to Rashbihari towards Gariahat. When we approached Gariahat crossing, we wanted to cross the tramline and go straight across the road. There was traffic and noise and we were moving fast as we wanted to beat the policeman controlling the traffic. At the same time I was talking to Mahendra and driving. I didn’t notice a small pebble stone lying on the tram track. When we were crossing tramline in speed, front wheel of the scooter passed without trouble. But the rear wheel came upon the pebble stone and because of the speed and momentum the rear wheel jumped at least four – five inches above the track and came down heavily. Fortunately, I could control the vehicle and speed across.

Meanwhile, I noticed some people gaping and some shouting from three – four sides. I didn’t realize that they were shouting at me. When I crossed the road I asked Mahendra if he was all right. There was no reply. I cut the speed and looked back. No Mahendra there.

Actually when we were speeding and crossing the track, Mahendra was leaning a bit and talking something in my ear. He was not holding on to anything. Both his hands were on his knees. When the rear wheel jumped, Mahendra’s bum jumped higher and before his bum could settle on the seat, the scooter sped from underneath. Instead of the seat, his bum settled heavily on the road. Because of traffic noise, I didn’t realize this. Actually people were shouting at me to stop. When I realized this, I parked the scooter and went back to fetch him. Mahendra was in pain but was cursing and laughing at the same time along with a few who had seen this freak accident from close.

I don’t know where Mahendra is now but hope he is telling this story to his grandchildren same as me. And of course, I hope he has gained enough weight to keep his bum firmly in place and more so, because his wife doesn’t have to carry him around.