Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Half Pant years

Year 1977. I cannot remember the month. Baba sitting in front of the big Phillips radio. His diary is in front of him. A fountain pen beside it. He is listening intently to the broadcaster. I am fiddling with my short buttons and trying to get his attention to my immediate problem. He turns around to look at me as he registers my presence.
Tell me, he says. I need a haircut, I say. Go, take money from Ma and have your haircut tomarrow, he says and turns his attention back to the radio as the broadcaster is now droning about some Jagjivan Ram.
Oh, I know it is all about that mother of all elections happening all over India. Baba has taken three days leave from the office to sit at home and dutifully note all the developments in the diary. Every morning I received The Hindu first as he had to be in office by 7.30 AM and that lazy newspaper boy never arrived before his departure. So, curt and familiar instructions were left with Ma that I was not to leave the paper in disarray and that it was to be left in a dry and cool place untouched by me and my brother’s filthy hands. He would have included Ma’s name in that list too but for the fact that she did not read English at all. But I managed to read the latest Ranji Trophy scores by heart before I neatly folded back the paper for him to devour this evening.
I go to Ma and tell her about my immediate financial need and she ruffles my hair and tells me that it is not large enough and the haircut can wait. I am getting fed up.
Actually, it is not for the haircut that I am worried. I have lost Sridhar’s Tennis ball and he has already given me an ultimatum that I dare not disobey. Sridhar is two years older to me, his Tamil is full of swearwords already, he has a penchant for keeping me bowling to his horrible batting for hours together and most importantly my father reports to his father at work. So Sridhar has to get his ball back and I am willing to tell lies at home to enable that. Actually, my fault. I never should have imagined in my head what happens when Vijay Amritraj plays a short ball from outside the off stump to the leg side and that too on a driveway at the edge of a hill in Nilgiris. That was the fourth Tennis ball I personally lost in the last three months. The lie was because I was generally tired of hidings from either of my parents.
On my way back from the kitchen I can hear the broadcaster droning – Congress (I) – 43, Janata Dal – 61, CPI-M – 5, etc. My father cannot even hear me now. His pen is flying over the diary pages as he writes away. The results of the election, I presume. I turn into our bedroom at the far end of the house. My brother is curled up asleep. It is only 8 PM but he is sleeping. He is always sleeping. If he is not sleeping then he is tagging along behind Ma. Oh, he is always hungry when he is awake. My share of biscuits also go to him these days.
I open my Social Studies textbook to show Ma that I am studying. I start to dream about Bahadur rescuing my Class teacher on horseback during a fire in my school and me rescuing Pramila from the same fire. Bahadur is the beloved comic book hero and Pramila is my beloved. My reading table becomes the playground through which Bahadur rushes through on horseback with Ms. Manimala, my class teacher. I am following him on another horse with Pramila behind me. Very romantic and thrilling stuff! Enter Ma.
She spots me with my rubber riding my pen and me mumbling the appropriate running commentary and goes ballistic. Now, she hails from rural Howrah, a district adjoining Calcutta in Bengal. Some ten years ago she shifted from Bengal with Government Servant husband but instead of progressing from that milieu in Howrah, she has happily stagnated at home since then. So, her language and the abuses also carry that rural Howrah feel and with matching decibels! I hurriedly put the pen and rubber away before she can cause any more damage to the situation and pick up my Social Studies textbook again.
Ma wakes me up from a dreamless sleep at my study table by my left ear. This is an old scene. I cannot stay awake beyond Nine PM if I have my textbooks in front of me. My mother feels that I cannot grow up to be the great scientist or Professor that I am supposed to become if I have not studied till ten PM. I have learnt to be tolerant of this ‘pull by the ear’ concept. I am ordered to come for dinner. I loll towards the dining room. Baba is still with the broadcasts. Even now I do not know whom he supports because he did not go to vote as all the neighbouring uncles and aunties did. We did not have our names in the Voter’s list. Why, I do not have any idea. He never discusses his politics with us, the rest of the family. I sit for dinner. It starts to rain outside. Typical weather of Nilgiris. Ma is waiting for Baba to come and sit at the table. She will serve him and only then the eating shall start. She calls out to Baba. I can hear his grunt of assent. Baba is fond of good food. Ma makes reasonably good food. So, Baba is never late at the table. But today is something else. He has more things on his mind than just his stomach. At last, I can hear his chair scrape and simultaneously the volume of the radio go up.
Baba is at the table. Ma serves him his dinner. Bhaat, Begun Bhaja, Dal, and Moti fish fry. Simple and yet hugely effective for me and Baba. We both love the combinations. Baba relaxes after the first few gulps. Ma is also calm. I can sense Baba’s happiness. My first question pops out by itself, ‘what happened, Baba’.
Baba patiently starts to relate to me and Ma about Jaiprakash Narayan’s crusade against the Emergency misrule by Indira Gandhi. He tells us about the emergence of Jan Sangh, the apex Opposition party pitted against the Indira Congress. He tells us that India is moving into a new era with this change and who were the leaders those who were responsible for this change. I had heard of Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, George Fernandes, Atal Behari Vajpayee and others before too. But I did not know the specifics and I had no patience with The Hindu frontpages. The Back three pages were far more interesting. But now the cobwebs in my mind cleared. Baba is quite descriptive while telling us all this. He also tells us of a new era dawning in West Bengal where the Left Front was coming into power. He told us about a very dynamic barrister who shall be looking after Bengal, Jyoti Basu. I was quite impressed with these new names and mentally told myself that my new game would consist of all these characters.
Presently, Baba stops to listen to some more results coming over the radio. Ma tells him to eat and then sit and relax in front of the radio. He glowers at her. She shuts up. I am through with my meal and Baba also finishes. Ma waits for all of us to finish before she starts her meal. This is customary. I have never questioned this system. While Baba is finishing he tells me that if Janata Dal comes to power then he will buy me that Fruit cake from Lingam’s shop. Ah! The cake means far more to me than any Janata Dal Victory. I only ask him by when is Janata Dal expected to win. He smiles. I can see who he supports now. I go off towards my bed. I can still hear the faint noises of the radio from the living room among the pitter patter of the raindrops. I sleep off.
I wake up next morning to find my brother, Rajat riding me. I push him away. There is a bright sunshine outside. The radio is still on. Baba is on the verandah having his Tea and talking to the next door neighbour Mr. N.K.R.S.Rao. Mr. Rao is waving the Indian Express Firstpage to Baba and Baba is reeling out facts and figures from the diary. Very animated talk! Rajat has pushed my toothbrush into the water tank. I spank him. He starts to cry. Ma arrives, retrieves my toothbrush and takes Rajat away from me. I put the brush into my mouth and stand listening to the political debate happening outside. Baba no longer has that Bengali accent in his English but he retains the slow and deliberate cadence of the speech. In any debate his style of speaking always proves very effective. Mr. Rao falters in his extempore debate. Baba has won a small battle of his own and also the Tea is over. He comes back inside. Ma tells him that since he has his leave today too, it is prudent that he goes to the market for the fish and vegetables. Baba gives her a dirty look. She goes away grumbling. Baba sits down with The Hindu. I sit down on the floor in front of him with my glass of Horlicks and try to read the back page of the paper. I am a fast reader and there is not much to read on the back page. I finish and wait for Baba to turn pages. But he seems to be taking his time. I rush off to the radio. It had started wheezing for lack of care in tuning. AIR is back in full bloom. I hear that Indira Gandhi has lost the election. Baba also rushes from his chair near the verandah. The newsreader is good, Barun Sen, if I remember correctly. There is a lot of statistics told. I do not understand that but I can feel a suppressed excitement in me. This is my first exposure to politics, my new game. Now there was something that I could understand beyond my books, cricket, football, tennis and Pramila!

Chapter 2
I have no inclination of what Mr. Balan will say when he calls me into the school library today. It has been a pretty boring day for me today. Gavaskar was toiling his way to a fruitless century against the Pakistanis in an uneventful drawn test match somewhere in Pakistan. Baba tells me that he is the most self serving player in Indian Cricket. I cannot believe that but I cannot discard what he says too! Anantharajan, my hero in class has not invited anyone to a fight today. The English class has passed without Ram Sir committing grammatical errors while teaching us. Sharmila’s shirt did not pop up from her tuck – in for me to glimpse her bare back. So no luck there too! Oh! Back to Mr. Balan. Now, Mr. Balan has never taught me, he being the primary school teacher looking after those ABCD fellows. But he has always struck thunder whenever he has happened to cross my path. All because I have heard from Sridhar that during Volleyball practice Satish of 9th Standard was hit on the face purposefully by him for not being able to lift the ball correctly. I know it is true because I trust Sridhar to tell me the right things. Mr. Balan sees me entering the library and gestures me to get over to where he is. Mr. Balan looks a bit like the Amar Chitra Katha wolf, only with a lot more curly hair than any self respecting wolf would have. I sit at his desk. He folds the notebook that he has been correcting. He looks at me with suitable horrific facial expressions geared to increase my heartbeat to extreme levels. He speaks up in his malayali tones, “Sujit, have you ever stood in an election or do you know what an election is”, he asks. No Sir, I meekly answer. ‘Well’, he says, “it is like all your friends select who they feel can lead them best if they have to choose a leader”. I could not get what he meant to say. I knew what an election meant in great detail through Baba’s efforts but I was not about to tell Mr. Balan that. He continued, if you put in your candidature for such a selection from your class VII A, I will see to that you are supported enough by other students in the class to become the Class Monitor. Ah! So this was the issue here. Last year I was not able to become the monitor because Ms. Sakina, my Class teacher did not like the way I interrupted her during class. Also, she had caught me writing I love you in Pramila’s notebook. For Ms. Sakina these were not the characteristics of a good leader. A pity, because I was at the forefront of every activity in class. Cricket team Vice Captain to Murali, Football team goalkeeper, Hockey team forward a la Govinda, I sang all the Hindi solo songs and even some Tamil ones that were put up by the Orange House. I acted in all the plays and even directed some that came my way. This I picked up again from Baba who had to convert our living room into a rehearsal stage two months every year before the Durga pujas. I was already reading the ‘Thought for the day’ in the morning assembly. I had still not broken any test tube in our Chemistry Practicals that had started this year. My handwriting still won prizes every year monotonously although I was starting to go bad. But Ms. Sakina still did not select me and gave the honour to Shaktivelu who came first in class and did nothing else. I happened to be second in class.
So, I was ripe for a fair competition and that has been noticed by Mr. Balan very well. He tells me how this election is going to take place fifteen days from now. He tells me that I have to canvass for myself within my class. I ask him as to how I am going to do that. He tells me that I should be preparing a list of future achievements that the class should be doing and my help in getting those achievements. I am also to prepare a list that speaks about the disciplinary and cleanliness measures that I shall introduce in Class. I listen to him intently. This is new to me and I do not want to queer my pitch by saying that what discipline and cleanliness can I achieve!
I wait for Baba the same evening. Baba is seemingly late. I get a little bit impatient. Ma is feeding Rajat and the pranks he is making is irritating me. I sit down with some linseed oil to re-oil my bat. The strokes this afternoon were not really thumping. It must have been the tired wood of the bat. I can hear Rao uncle shouting at the gardener. If Rao uncle is back then Baba must be really late. Baba is always home before Mr. Rao. I start to rub the linseed oil into the surface of the bat. The conversation with Mr. Balan does not leave my head. I cannot understand that I will get my Classmates’ votes on the basis of promises for the future. I always thought that one always becomes famous on the basis of past deeds and performances. But Mr. Balan must be telling this to me on the basis of something that he already is aware of. Baba can sort out this issue of mine but I do not know when I can see him. I have rarely waited for him in this impatient manner.