It wipes off sweat from its forehead. The wasp. Sitting in her home on a tree trunk. Power goes. Fan stops,TV too. Irritated, she comes out.
Bright, hot sun all around. And then, she sees a patch of shade. She quickly flies there, looks up. A dark cloud, covering the sun. She smiles. She looks at the cloud the way you look at very few people. Then, she feels a sudden urge to reach out and tell the cloud it comforted her. So, she flies up. Up and up. But the cloud is too far. She cries out, “Cloud. Oyi, cloud.” But the cloud is too far. Doesn’t hear. She tries to fly further up but her little wings won’t carry her. Disheartened, she descends.
Just then, the cloud sees her. Something about her draws him to her. He comes down. Down and down. So down, he reaches little Pintu’s terrace. Pintu, standing on the terrace gets all wet. Clouds are water vapours, after all.
So, cloud comes down. Wasp sees him. Smiles. “Thank you cloud,” she says, surprised at the tear in her eyes.
“Why cry?” asks the cloud.
“I tried talking to you but you were too far.” she says.
“Oh, no worries,” cloud says, “My friends are air and water. Say anything to the air and it will take your message to me. I will say it to the water and it will bring my message to you.”
The wasp smiles and then, makes a sad face. “But my friends are butterflies. They can’t fly up to you.”
Cloud too goes sad. The butterfly comes along. “What happened?” she asks the wasp.
“You are my friend, but you can’t take my message to the cloud.” says wasp and makes a sad face again.
“You worried for this?” the butterfly asks, then says, “Flowers are my friend. And their friend is fragrance. So, you tell me your message. I will give it to the flower and the fragrance will take it to the cloud.”
The wasp smiles. She hugs the butterfly. “Careful,” says the butterfly, smiling, “careful with the sting.” They both laugh.The cloud too smiles.
So, the cloud now sends his messages through the water and the wasp sends her messages through air and fragrance.
Mathematics period. The Mathematics Teacher in class. (Do note the capitalisations – it’s not without a reason, but that for a later post). Some copies being distributed so everyone on their feet moving about – between the teacher’s desk and their own.
I sit with X. X has gone to get his copy. His notebook lying on the desk. I sense an opportunity.
Now, this X is a friend. But is also the guy who beats me 9 times out of 10 in Mathematics. Big deal? Big fucking deal. And he beats me 9 times out of 10 in overall score. Yes, till he didn’t leave the school, both of us would be either first or second in class – me being second, you guessed it, 9 times out of 10.
So, the moment X leaves, I pull out my fountain pen and write, “X chor hai” on his notebook. An act of pure spite. A kiddish way to get back at a competitor you can’t defeat. Also, I wrote with my left hand, so that handwriting could not be matched.
X returns. Sees his notebook, complaints to The Mathematics Teacher.
Now, I had a curious dynamic with The Mathematics Teacher too. Good words from her meant way more than good words from any other teacher. Perhaps because she was so tough to please. Perhaps because dad always glorified maths as this super cool subject every self-respecting human should excel at. Also because she always took great pains to answer all my questions – and my questions too arose from an interesting place. Somehow, I had heavily bought into the idea that all I needed to do to become a famous mathematician was to falsify any of the theorems taught in school. So, any new theorem or method taught, I would think of conditions when it would not hold. And that popped several questions in my head. And I would stand up and ask. And she would answer them. Am sure most of those questions would be pretty absurd. But she never seemed irritated and never discouraged any questions.
But I digress.
So, X goes to The Mathematics Teacher. She looks at the notebook and says, “Everyone bring their pens here. Check whose ink colour is this.”
And my heart sinks, the ground crashes beneath my feet. Why ink colour? Why?
“Ma’am, shouldn’t we match the handwriting?” I protest, not knowing that I had just given away.
“No,” she says, “Handwriting can be changed.”
So, the ink colours were matched. And it was mine. She just said, “Why do you say that? What has he stolen of yours?” and then let it go.
I now remember I used to write in Blue-Black ink by Chelpark – it had a distinct hue. Perhaps that prompted her to match ink colours. Or she would have done that anyway- no way for me to know.
But that’s how, yet another battle ended – between her, the defender of all ancient mathematics theorems and I, the challenger, only desirous of breaking in any one of them. The result, the same as always – me trudging away with my tail between my legs.
So, I am standing at a paan shop – one of those large shop-front variety that you find in Western India (different from the humble khokhas/khomchas that dot the North). A gentleman walks in, puts his hands in his pockets and several coins fall. One lands on my foot.
A fairly common occurrence – my standard protocol would be to shake my foot to drop the coin and step aside so that the gentleman can pick it. That’s how I would react, that’s how I have always reacted – it’s such a small thing – programmed in my head like press the button, bulb glows.
But, I bend down, pick the coin and hand it over to the gentleman. It happens so instinctively, I am amazed at myself.
And then, I remember. Some ten days ago, I was at Nazeer’s. Ordered food at the counter, time to pay. Wallet out, coins fall. One lands near the feet of the gentleman standing besides. He steps aside, bends down, picks the coin and hands it over to me. I smile and thank. End of the story.
Only, the story didn’t end there. It somehow seeped in my subconscious and changed one of the most automatic patterns in my head. The gentleman doesn’t know. But his little act just made me more civil.
Like the good in you finding its way into someone else and making him slightly better.
Note: This was written exactly a year ago, give or take a week, in a different context. An excerpt of a larger piece. But this part talks about the first friendship I built. A friendship across an age gap of 50 years that lasted 23+ years. Till he passed away. Years later, I got a feeling I saw him in a market in Noida. I knew I saw him. Can’t explain how. I still feel his presence sometimes. Allow me to build some preamble.
My earliest childhood memories are me in an all aluminium rickshaw with bags hanging from its side going to Spring Dales School, Pilibhit in my Nursery. They gave me a really colorful handpainted report card, with columns, subject names, scores in colored sketch pens on a yellow chart paper. Very beautiful. I think it also had a picture of flowers pasted on it. I stood first. A few years later when I could understand, I saw that report card and felt proud. Mom told me I had only gone there for a month or so and that disappointed me.
Then, I remember police line scenes with my maternal grandfather. A towering man, with sword like moustache and a voice so powerful, it would freeze your blood if it talked to you in anger. We clicked immediately. Much later, I tried to rationalise it by thinking that perhaps I was the only boy in his family – he had six daughters, he also had a couple of sons none of whom survived and I was the eldest son of his eldest daughter – the first of his grandkids. I liked his gun. I liked how he told me that one should never lag behind in the matters of food. And will eternally love him for the fifty odd times he showed me the legendary Bachchan song, “Mere paas aao mere doston” from Mr Natwarlal in cinema theatres in Badaun – we would go to the hall whenever I wanted to see the song again, he would tell the theatre guy that the boy wants to see the song, we will enter the hall mid movie, watch the song and then leave. Rinse and repeat. I never got tired of seeing the song. He never got tired of showing me the song. Till the theatres changed the movie.
I loved how he talked Urdu poetry with me – a kid barely able to pronounce his own name but just happy with all the affection. And, he would take me to the barracks where I would play doctor to the innumerable cops, I distinctly remember me sitting on his office table using my plastic doctor’s set – using stethoscopes and thermometers and injections on sundry cops. The doctor’s set had other equipments too, none of which I knew and none of which I used.
Images with him fill my mindspace. There are some images from Shahjahanpur and Lucknow KG Medical College when dad fell severely ill and everyone had lost hope. Must have been a traumatic moment for all of them. I dont remember much or the severity as I spent most of the time at his place in Badaun.
He’d gift me a gun almost everytime. And he’d get something or the other everytime he came home. I saw him fire a gun and that segued into my first trysts with smoking, as the only thing I noticed about the gun was the trail of smoke. I was his bright shining puppy and he was my first friend. Interesting that it was across a massive age barrier. I think we loved each other as men.
He continued talking Urdu poetry with me from the days I started walking upright. And he never explained it till I asked him to. He expected me to understand. And that made me push harder and ask for help if I could not. There, he treated me as an equal. He also loved to quote Ram Charit Manas. And he had a big scar on his back. Whenever I’d see him without his shirt on, I’d want to touch that scar. I think I did too once or twice when we slept in the same bed. Or maybe not. I loved his sweaty smell but I hated his blanket. It pricked me.
Much later, as a teen I’d spend bulk of my summer vacations at his place. He’d wake me up at 4 and take me to really long walks. We’d walk some 7-8 kilometers, from his home to roads to fields to the bridge on the river Sot (called Laal Pul – I’d wrack my brains everytime to figure why it was called Laal Pul but I never saw anything red). In class VIII, I told him I wanted to learn Urdu and he taught me to read and write it. I can still read and write Urdu though might need a quick 5 min revision to identify all letters.
They say I’ve inherited his height and voice. Perhaps the dark hard face too. And that scares me. He died of throat and lung cancer when I was in my first term at Ahmedabad. They didn’t tell me he was gone till a month and a half later when I merrily returned home in the term vacation and innocently asked where he was. I also remember him lying on his sick bed in AIIMS, a pipe going through a slit in his throat, his booming voice had left him. That was three months ago, in mid 2000, when I had just been selected to Ahmedabad and was waiting to join.
We had our share of adventures too – like him fighting off a pack of twenty growling, snarling, salivating stray dogs with his stick in a dark night on a deserted street with me tangling behind his knees. But all of that for another day.
Of all the wonderful friendships I have and have had, and I have been very lucky with friends, this, the first and the longest lasting has to be up there at the top. Wherever you are, my friend, hope it is as fun as you always made everything, hope the Urdu poetry still flows and hope that voice still booms.
Yes. You heard that right. There is nothing called chicken a la poos. Not in the least a French dish.
Does that make you smile, chuckle, open your eyes wide or fall off your chair? Good. You are one of the small tribe that gets ‘Chhoti si Baat’ jokes.
But don’t despair if this exotic sound French preparation doesn’t ring a bell yet. It’s a situation you would have faced. In some way or the other. At some time or the other. A smartass hijacking your date and walking away with your girl.
The genius of Basu Chatterjee is not just in inventing a faux French dish but also, how he named the characters. Nagesh is the smartass. Everyone has or has had a Nagesh in his life (am sure it works for hers too, any insights be welcome). Check this out if you don’t believe me:
And then, the reposte. How Chicken a la poos comes back to bite Nagesh in his ass. Not everyone gets such a sweet revenge, but something one must aspire for.
Oh, and don’t miss the legendary line: “Auraton ki kayi kharidariyan aisi hoti hain jo har kisi ko nahi batayi jati hain.”