Monthly Archives: January 2015

Closed Spaces – Sand In My Teeth

There was something about the air in this place that never got us enthused. The moment we finished unpacking we began wondering where we would be going next. Usually, we behaved as if we were going to spend the rest of our lives in the new place. Though, of course, we knew better.

While Ma hung up the curtains with Parminder, my father gently unpacked the glassware and crockery from wads and wads of newspaper and straw that he himself had packed in the last station.
This was his job, his alone.
While Ma wrapped the dinner set, tea set, beer and whiskey glasses he would sit down with a bottle of beer, on a Sunday morning listening to Radio Ceylon and carefully lay them in crates.
Then when he unpacked them in our new home, with a very high success rate he would ask,
“And why is it our glasses don’t break?”
We would always chorus back, “Because you are an Artillery Officer. Artillery Officers are smart and their brains are not in their feet, like the Infantry’s.”

The trunk stencilled ‘Curtains’ was as important as the kitchen trunks. The moment the curtains were up, we were home! It was always so exciting!
Then Ma would take out the photos and pictures and put them up. “This one somehow doesn’t look quite right in this drawing room. Where shall we put it?” she would ask.
Carrying it from room to room she would decide that this time it should be in the study, or perhaps in the hall.
By evening, with the lamps on, the pictures up, the cushions all stuffed and welcoming, the curtains drawn and the rest of the world shut out we would wait for my father.
“Welcome home, Daddy!” we would yell, and then the four of us would once again make a new home.

My father would begin with inspecting the trees in the garden.
An Officer before us had planted the fruit and vegetables we so enjoyed and someone else would enjoy what my father took so much pain and pleasure in planting.
The cycle carried on with no difference at all in the level of enthusiasm.

But this time, as I said, it was different.
There was a certain listlessness and a feeling of being truly in transition. Even after drawing the curtains the world wouldn’t stay out.
Parminder said the beginning was just not auspicious.
We had arrived in Ranchi in the dead of night.
There was a curfew on and our train drew into a quiet and eerie railway station. We had driven through a ghost town littered with burning cars, tires and buses. While my father had sat in the front with the driver of the Jeep, we sat behind clinging to Ma.
Parminder followed with the trunks in the one-tonner.
“How long are we going to stay here?” I whispered. I already hated the place.

Officers’ Quarter 4C was a yellow non-descript house, one among four in a compound which was heavily guarded.
The MES (Military Engineering Service) was not at its most imaginative. Maybe they thought that a square block of brick and mortar would make it easier for its occupants to leave without looking back.
It was on the outskirts of the Cantonment but we were well protected with serious Hindu-Muslim riots raging outside.
There were strict instructions not to step outside our compound walls. Once in a while an Army Patrol went by and asked our Guards if all was well and on other days an Officer came by with the supplies.

The nights, however, were terrible.
The wailing and screaming in the far distance would make my brother whimper.
In the evenings, my father with Ma by his side would go to the terrace and look at the fires all over Ranchi.
“It reminds me of Lahore,” Ma would say, shaking. “This is terrible. The haze! Oh God, it’s Lahore again!”

In the three months that we were in Ranchi, we went into town only once when I needed a pair of shoes.
It was such an expedition.
All dressed up to go and buy shoes!
It was not much of an outing though, with no one on the streets and only a few shops open.
All the signboards in English had been vandalised and re-written in Hindi.
The Hindu-Muslim riots were over, it seemed, but the anti-English language riots were in full swing.

As we drew up near Bata someone threw a stone and shattered the windscreen.
Ma stifled a scream and my brother began to cry. I, for one, didn’t want shoes anymore.
“Angrezon ki aulaad! Number plate Hindi mein likhon!”

So we stayed within our compound with only our neighbours, the Chatterjees and the Brars for company and the Adivasi woman who came in to clean the three houses in the compound as the fourth was unoccupied.

She was thoroughly frisked every morning by the Guards and then allowed in.
She would stand there, staring without seeing, when the Guards touched her all over. Her baby wrapped up and slung on her back looked like a black, shiny doll.
He slept while she swept the floors, washed the clothes, drank her tea or cleaned the vessels.
Sometimes she slung the cloth, baby and all, on a branch. Even then it didn’t move.
Only when she put his head in her blouse could we see the head bob up and down and his fat hands press and push. Then with a gurgle and burp he was done.

The very first visit we paid to the Chatterjees was quite strange.
And Ma decided that Mrs Chatterjee was, for lack of a better word, different.
We had waited in the living room where there was a couch and two hard chairs. In a corner were a brass diya and a wedding photograph of Mrs Chatterjee.
She looked very pleased.
It seemed as if it was taken only yesterday. Then there were four big photos of a baby with lots of kohl and one where you could see right away that it was a boy.

The other strange thing was there was nothing to show in their house that they had been anywhere.
Maybe they were civilians. Usually an Army house can be read like a map.
If one had been to the Northeast, spears were definitely put up in a cross. A driftwood arrangement meant Assam, phulkari tablecloths told you about Punjab and wooden elephants-in-a-line came from down South. Mirror-work cushions meant Gujarat while pretty, white embroidered tea linen meant the Convents of Lucknow or Madras.
They had nothing!

Two girls about my age peered through the curtains and smiled at us, but made no attempt to come out.
The first rule of good Officer-like upbringing is that the baccha log always come out and wish the guests.
Mrs Chatterjee came out with a baby in her arms and her thick, long hair was open.
Not tied up! Open hair was as good as wearing nothing.

“Hello, hello! Welcome to Ranchi! Sorry, I was in my bath.”
What was she doing having a bath when she knew we would be calling?
“A cup of tea, coffee?” Looking at my brother and me,
“Some juice for you?”
“Let the children play outside,” Ma smiled at the girls still hiding behind the curtains. “And I’ll have some tea.”
Mrs Chatterjee held me back with one hard hand while holding her baby with the other. “No! The children will not play. These girls,” pointing to the two behind the curtains, “are naughty. They are being punished.”

My brother and I sipped juice, getting fidgety.
Mrs Chatterjee was telling Ma how Elsie, the adivasi girl was not allowed in their house.
“Only outside work. Outside I say. She is Christian! I asked her where her husband was. She doesn’t say a word. I tell you she is not married. That black thing on her back is a bastard!”
We were quickly sent back home as whatever Mrs Chatterjee was saying was clearly making Ma quite uncomfortable.

It was quite the opposite in 4A where there was a Sikh Colonel, his wife and four children, Timmy, Simmy, Kimmy and Jewel.
They were a wild lot who had been everywhere. We spent a lot of time together as there was nothing else to do.
Our cars were in the same garage.
My brother and I would get into our red and white Herald, with me behind the wheel in sunglasses and a scarf whereas Timmy would get behind the wheel in his father’s car, with his sisters.
We would then race the parked vehicles.
They always won, because they were four of them and they could shout louder, “We WIN! We WIN!”
Parminder Singh and their Anoop Singh would also join in. “Come on! Come on! Baby,” Parminder would yell.
Anoop would hoot.

On other days when Timmy was bored he would come by in his chappals and shorts with his shirt never quite in and his long hair never quite done. Through his two missing teeth he would suck in his breath and half-yell half-sing his favourite Shammi Kapoor song:

Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche har zabaan par,
Sab ko maaloom hai, sab ko khabar ho gayi!

“Go bray somewhere else,” Parminder would chide him.
Sometimes we could hear him running at breakneck speed with his mother behind him, with either a slipper or the Colonel’s baton.
If she were not really up to it, Anoop Singh would, in a couple of long strides, catch him and hand him over.
He would then be brought in for a court martial. “Sardarjee, what have you got to say for yourself?”
Timmy would then have to confess to pulling Simmy, Kimmy or Jewel’s plait or having said a bad word.
(‘Idiot’ was allowed but ‘Bloody Fool’ was certainly not) With three sisters what else could one do?

Timmy said that Mrs Chatterjee was a witch.
“She is not Joyshree and Maithali’s real mother. Their mummy died and then …” pausing dramatically, “their daddy got married again.”

Without any fear he would go up to their veranda and yell “JOY-SHREE, MAITHA-LEEE!”
“What is it?” Mrs Chatterjee would snap.
“We’ve come to play.”
All the while I would try and get a glimpse of her feet. Everyone knows that witches have their feet attached backwards!

With Ma in our veranda and Timmy’s mother in hers, Mrs Chatterjee had no choice but to call out the girls.
“Come back in exactly 30 minutes. Otherwise I shall fix you.” She was always saying that. “I shall fix you.”
But Joyshree and Maithali were quite unused to playing.
They would stand around awkwardly, clutching each other and die to get home in exactly 25 minutes.

Timmy also said that the well at the back was full of Muslim blood. “Who told you?” I gasped.
“I know. I know. Anoop Singh and the guards killed 10 of them yesterday and threw them in.”
“How do you know they are Muslims?”
“Oh! I can recognise them anywhere. They have red flaming eyes and purple tongues!”
I never went to the rear of the house after that.

Once, when my father and I were going for a stroll around the compound, I told him about the well.
“Daddy why are Muslims bad people? Why do you sleep with a gun? You want to kill them, don’t you?”
When I told Timmy very smugly that my father, yes my father, had told me that were only bad Indians and good Indians, Timmy didn’t agree. “You’re a baby that’s why your Daddy has told you this stupid fairy tale.”

“I’m going to stop you from playing with that boy Timmy,” said Ma. “He is filling your head with such stories.”

I then turned to the Chatterjees, first a bit hesitantly, and then a little more confidently.
But not once did Joyshree and Maithali come to my house.
They carried the baby the whole day. If he cried even once, Mrs Chatterjee would come and first give a tight slap to the girl who was carrying him and then cooing, take him away.
Even when their father returned home he would just carry the baby around, while Mrs Chatterjee would complain and complain about this and that.

“Why does your Daddy listen to her?” I would ask.
“You came first. Doesn’t your Daddy love you?”
“No, he loves Biswajeet. He’s a boy,” they would say.
“So?”
“We are just girls,” Joyshree, the older one, would tell me. “He’s special!”
“What’s special?” I persisted.
“He’s our brother.”
“So?” I had one too.

He was nicer than this cranky, soo-soo, potty baby.
At least he played.
This one just lay and stared at the wall or slept.
In fact, one day I pinched him when I found myself alone with him.
He was so shocked that he just looked at me.
I quickly glanced around and not finding anyone there, I pinched him again and this time he screamed and screamed.
I got quite a fright myself and hurriedly moved away.

“What happened? What happened to my little prince?” Mrs Chatterjee had asked in her baby voice, which she reserved for him. I was safe as long as her little prince could not speak.
But in my nightmares Biswajeet, all of six months, would be sitting up in his cot with his kohl-smudged eyes. Podgy and fair in his diapers, but in a man’s voice he would say,
“She! Yes, she is the one.”
Rocking each other Joyshree and Maithali would intone, “Never underestimate the power of little boys. Never ever!”
I would protest and I would deny my crime but each night they would throw me out of the compound to the mercy of those men who wanted us to speak Hindi or worse, to those purple-tongued Muslims.
“Naah, he’s not special,” I said. “He’s just a baby.”

“Were you happy when I was born?” I probed Ma.
“Was Daddy happy too? Were you happier when my brother was born?”
“I’m going to stop you from playing with those Chatterjee girls.
Their mother and her stupid ideas,” said Ma.
“When are we going to leave this God-forsaken place?”
Elsie stopped what she was doing.
She had heard Ma say this again and again.
With a jerk she adjusted the lolling baby and looked at Ma.
“What is this Memsahib? All the time you say, ‘When we go out?
When we go out?’
Who told you Memsahib, that it is different outside?”

Elsie was feeling very good these days.
She smiled a lot, flashing her white teeth.
She certainly had taken her revenge on Mrs Chatterjee.

A few days ago everyone in the compound — that is the Brars, the Guards, the Orderlies and us — had heard Mrs Chatterjee screeching, “You bitch! You Christian thief! Is this what those foreign priests taught you?
Stealing! Stealing my best silk sari! Hiding it with your baby!! What you think? I can’t see? I am blind?
Arre, I have big, big, Bengali eyes! You bitch, you…” She beat Elsie on her back and shoulder.
Elsie just flung the sari in question at Mrs Chatterjee who had nearly toppled over.
“Sahib diya. Sahib khush tha!”
Mrs Chatterjee shrank before our eyes and was suddenly half her size.

Then like a panther Elsie strode over to our veranda and picking up the broom, calmly began her day’s work.

********

Parukutty Amma – Sand In My Teeth

It was only two days ago that we had returned from Madras.
As the car had approached the house Ma had begun to shriek. I had cringed in the back seat holding on to my baby brother and had looked at my father in utter disbelief.
“Even Daddy doesn’t know what’s happening!” I thought, suddenly petrified.
Ma had to be dragged in and within minutes my father was on the phone asking if we could change our house on compassionate grounds.

Yes, I remembered the day.
The day everybody said that everything had changed.
I had been in the sandpit and Parukutty Amma, with my brother hoisted on her hip, was near the guava tree. She was coaxing him to drink from his bottle.
We had been but a few days in Trivandrum and everything seemed new and unfamiliar. Even our baby was fretful and cranky.
Parminder said that perhaps he missed Anjali because Parukutty Amma was so different from the cheerful, chatty Anjali. She rarely smiled but did her work well because Ma was always saying,
“Thank God, we found someone for the baby.”

She had no time to tell me stories of her village. There were no tales of little boys who never washed their hands.
Parukutty Amma looked like a brown sparrow with a tight little bun, always doing this and that and that and this. Her afternoon nap, when she spread out her mat on the veranda floor, was taken as seriously as her duties.

“What are you making?” Ma had asked me as she approached the sand pit in her white salwar and blue and yellow flowery kameez.
She had looked so pretty and warm on that morning.
Who was to know what would happen next.

Her dupatta, as usual, lay flung somewhere.
She would put it on only when Parminder came in or when we had visitors.
“Too damn hot!” she would say and remove it immediately.
“Cakes!” I had announced, “Come and have some. They are warm and freshly baked.”
And then her eyes had moved to Amma.
“What are you doing?”
I think she was surprised at seeing the burning twigs in Amma’s hand. There was no response. With her eyes closed Amma was waving the twigs around my brother.

In the next few minutes so much happened.
Ma ran to her and almost snatched the baby,
“Don’t you try anything funny. We don’t believe in all this!”
Amma gave up whatever she was doing and flung the twigs at Ma who recoiled with the baby in her arms.
For a moment it looked as if Ma was rooted to the ground then suddenly she turned and ran, along the way pulling me to the safety of our new house.

“You ignorant Punjabis,” Amma had watched us cower, fearing something we did not understand.
“I was only asking the Gods to make your child drink milk. Don’t you know boys are fragile creatures? They need special care. You disturbed my prayer. I curse you! And beware of the curse of a woman who leaves her young ones everyday to look after your spoilt ones.
You all,” she said through clenched teeth, “will never be happy here.”

With my brother still in her arms and me clinging to her kameez, Ma collected Parukutty’s little bundle of belongings and half threw and half kicked them out.
By now the baby was wailing and I could hear myself whining.
“Leave my house,” she screamed, her hair quite undone.
“Now! Otherwise I will call the Military Police.”

Parukutty picked up her things very calmly and left. It was almost as if she had never ever been there.
Ma had then sat down on the steps, drained of all her strength.
Her chest heaved and her breath was short and raspy and she had broken into ugly sobs.

“Ma,” I had begged. “Get up. Let’s go inside.”
But she had sat there with my brother in her lap till my father returned from work that evening.
When she did go in, she continued crying till we had to call the doctor.
“It’s just post-natal depression.
These modern convent-educated types have the luxury of this depression, you know. It’s a Western problem. Call her mother. She probably finds it too much. Baby, no ayah, new language.”

Ma, who had always gone around drawing open all the curtains in the morning now sat all day in her nightie keeping out the bright sunshine. Her mouth always sour and unbrushed.
She did not touch either my brother or me. In fact, when I went to her she looked at me with a vagueness that frightened me.
And more than once she had screamed, “Get out! Get out!” on seeing me. The betrayal was incomprehensible.

My father, with Parminder, tried managing it all but it was getting impossible. He was advised to take some casual leave.
“The change will do her good,” they all said.

A plan was made to drive to Madras and spend a week with Ma’s cousin, an army doctor.
On the morning of our departure I had watched my father get her into her travelling salwar kameez. She had looked just like my doll, limp and lifeless.
“Go bring your Ma’s comb and help me do her hair,” my harried father had said.
“Which sandals do you think Ma would like to wear?” I had busied myself folding things, putting them away.
After all it was such a long time since someone had needed me.

As the car had left the gates of the house, Ma had turned around.
I remember waiting anxiously for her to burst into tears but instead she had smiled at us,
“Sweetie, do you want a sandwich and some juice?”
There was a long silence in our car.

In the company of cousins and family Ma had played Ludo and she had gone shopping for buttons and ribbons with Aunty.
She had said that she was going to take out her sewing machine once we got back. In the mornings after I had helped oil massage my brother and had put him to nap, I would get down to my crayons and drawing and Ma would read her magazines.

My uncle had given her a talking too. “Come on! You are an Army Officer’s daughter. An Army Officer’s wife! Pull your self out of this self-pity business.”
Yes, Trivandrum had seemed very far away.

Everybody was so busy talking about it but nobody could tell me what was happening, except for Parminder.
He had come to fetch me from school on his bicycle where I had spent the morning chanting
“Tree-vaan-drum, Kotta-yum, Kooochi,” while Sister Melanie walked between the desks with a ruler,
“Louder, louder, faster, faster,” and so we had carried on, “Tree-vaan-drum, Kotta-yum, Kooochi,” till the bell rang.

Upon our return home I had busied myself setting out my wooden bright pink and blue tea set and invited Parminder to join me for a cup of tea.
“Sugar?” I had mimicked Ma.
“Three teaspoons,” Parminder Singh had replied.
Pretending to stir I had handed him a tiny cup.
Slurping, Parminder delicately held it in his large hands and said, “Good tea.”
“Why didn’t Anjali come with us?”
“She couldn’t because her family is in Wellington.”
“How come you always come?”
“I am a soldier. I go where my Officer Sahib goes.”
“Don’t you have a family?”
“Yes, I do in Punjab. I have a father, mother, two brothers, one sister and a wife and a munna. A little boy just like this one,” pointing to my brother who lay in his cot sleeping.
“Why aren’t they here with you, Parminder?”
“How can they be with me? Who will look after the land, the fields, the crops, the buffaloes?”
“Another cup?” I asked politely.
“Yes, yes another cup of your delicious tea, Memsahib.”
I had taken mine and settled down. “So what do you think is wrong with my Ma?”
Parminder had continued slurping.
I had repeated my question, desperately wanting an explanation.
“It’s these damned Madrasis,” he had burst out.
“Madrasis?”
“These short, black, thin people, they are Madrasis. Eating fish and rice. Arre, eat roti, daal shaal, meat. What is this fish and rice?
And coconut oil! My God! That coconut oil makes me want to vomit.”
“Is Sister Melanie a Madrasi?”
“That thin black sadi-bhooti, that sour puss with glasses? Who stands with a ruler when I come to fetch you? Of course she is Madrasi.
We Punjabis, we are seede saade bande, very straightforward people you know. Not like these too, too clever Southies.”
“Am I also Punjabi?” I had asked wanting very much to be like Parminder Singh.
“Arre, hasn’t your Daddy told you. You are a Punjabi. A good Punjabi from Kapurthala. And I tell you, that Madrasi ayah did jaadu-toona, on your mother.”

So overnight, upon our return from Madras, as soon as Ma had been dragged in shrieking, we left the house with the big, airy rooms and the shining, red oxide floors.
The house, which everybody said we were so lucky to have found.
The house with the large windows from which the sunlight streamed in and the dancing dust which I tried so hard to catch.
We left the rambling garden, the guava-laden groves and the frangipani trees.
The house and the walls that held the curse of Parukutty Amma.

********

Coup d’Etat – Sand In My Teeth

“Stop staring!” hissed Ma.
The girl had her eyes closed and her head was on his shoulder while he read his book. He held her hand on his thigh. I watched fascinated as his thumb massaged hers while he continued reading.
Dragging my eyes away, I whispered, “She’s not wearing anything underneath, is she?”
She made herself comfortable, squirming a little and then having found just the right position, sighed and kissed his ear lobe.

My father, who, till now, had been going through the newspaper and looking out of the window, suddenly got up.
“Want to stretch your legs?” he asked my brother who readily agreed. And then pulling me up, not giving me a chance to reply, he took us out of the compartment into the corridor.
“What cheapies!” exclaimed my brother.
“So you were watching,” I was surprised.
“Of course, I was. But not like you. With your mouth open!”
My father peered into the next compartment and invited a young Major, who was travelling with his wife and baby, to come out and stand in the corridor with us.
“We’ve two Germans with us,” I proudly informed him. He poked his head in, wished Ma and then, glancing at the Germans, hastily withdrew looking quite embarrassed. She must be all cuddled up with him, I smiled to myself.

We were on our way to Delhi. Leaving Ahmedabad behind, the train meandered through Rajasthan.
“We’re keeping good time,” my father said to the Guard who tipped his cap at him.
“Yes, sir. But when we come to Haryana Sir, kuch na kuch to hoga.”

Outside, the waves of heat swirled through the parched countryside. The buffaloes seemed the most comfortable, standing in muddy waters with just their heads above. They nonchalantly chewed cud and watched everything go by. Approaching the pond was a serpentine line of women ablaze in colour, carrying earthen pots. Oh to be in a tub of cold water or better still, under a strong shower and have the satisfaction of watching the red sand wash away.

Just this morning, the Germans had got on board with their enormous haversacks.
They were quite relieved to see that we spoke English. He was a doctor who had finished his Military Service and she was a student of architecture.
The ice broke within minutes of his ordering a thali for lunch. He suffered a nosebleed and my father got out at a station to get him some ice.
“That’s adventurous of you,” Ma had said watching him dip his chapatti into a red hot Rajasthani curry. We were eating our homemade sandwiches!

They had toured Rajasthan and after a break in Delhi were heading for Kullu.
They said what they had really liked about India was the gentleness of its people. “Always smiling,” said the doctor. “With so much poverty, still smiling.”

I’d never really seen foreigners that close.
On Janpath, bargaining for clothes or the better-dressed ones at the Intercontinental where Ma’s Delhi friends invited us for coffee. We never saw them in our Cantonments and some of the places where we lived were unknown even to Indians…..

The girl must have come from a good family to be a student of architecture.
But she wore this strange pyjama and a sheer cotton bandhini blouse. She was very thin but strong, as she managed to lift up her huge haversack all by herself. Her silver jewellery, her greasy hair all crunched up with what looked like a knitting needle made her so different from anyone I knew. She was a hippie and I liked her all the more for it.
She stroked his hair, kissed his earlobe, lit a cigarette for him, jumped up and pushed her haversack onto the berth above, revealing that she hadn’t anything on underneath and didn’t once look at us and wonder what we were thinking.
Watching them as discreetly as I could, I lost myself with the rolling of the train in a dream of carrying my own rucksack somewhere across the world with a man like this German. Her flat chest had given me some hope.

The train drew in at Rewari.
People got off. People got in. The guard blew his whistle. The train blew its whistle. But we were still in Rewari. There were no more passengers on the platform but it was teeming with young, loud, raucous, and aggressive boys.

“What’s happening?” We could hear the Guard being questioned. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“You are not moving because we are not allowing you to move,” replied a boy with particularly bad skin, who was walking about rather importantly. This was followed by a great deal of laughter.
A pack of them approached the train windows. The bogey door was hurriedly shut and then the passengers banged shut their individual compartment doors.
“Put down your glass windows,” rushed in the Guard. “But don’t put down the wire mesh windows. You must be able to see outside. These boys set a train on fire last week.”

A train on fire!
One of them saw my fear and came near me as I struggled with the window, in panic. Stroking my arm, he murmured something that I did not understand. But his look made me recoil.
My father lunged at him but he merely stepped back, out of reach and looked mockingly at us. Pulling the jammed window down my father snapped, “Don’t sit here.” I moved closer to Ma.
The Germans were bewildered. “Where are the police?”

Hearing a foreign voice one of them shouted out to the others, “Oho! Oho! Look here! We have a firangi here. Arre! A Goddamn firangi!” Then putting on what he thought was an American accent, “Want to give, baby? Arre, give, give!”
A call from his friends distracted the lout and he moved away.

“Why isn’t the train moving? What the hell is happening?”
We were told that some of the boys were lying across the tracks. Their college was on strike and they wanted to travel ticket less to the next station. Some of them whooped and jumped onto the roof. Others screamed expletives and thumped the sides of the train. And we were all locked up, waiting for the train to move.

I avoided looking out of the window so that I would not make eye contact.
Ma said that would only encourage them to misbehave further.
“You!” he pointed to the German girl. “This is not for you” pointing to his crotch.
He was clever enough to keep his distance and yet could be seen clearly.
“You look like my younger brother. No hips, no breasts.” She turned her back to him. Not understanding a word but understanding it all. “And you!” he pointed to me, “I’ll come back for you in a few years.”
I cringed.

My father sat impassive with his fists on his knees.
The enormity of his rage was there in his clenched jaw and expressionless eyes. By now they were all rolling with laughter and a few others were standing outside, looking at us and urinating in full view. The first boy moved on. We could not see him but could only hear him. “This is for you my love. My beautiful Bobby. My Dimple Kapadia.”

A terrible roar brought us all to our feet.
The Major in the next compartment was getting his rifle out of his bedroll. “I’ll kill you, you bastard! I’ll kill each one of you bastards! Talking to my wife like that!”
“Arre chutiya! Robh jamana fauj mein, idhar nahin!”

The Guard who had been trapped in our bogey and my father, who had rushed into the next compartment, tried to calm him down.
“We’ll use the rifle later,” my father told the Major.
To the Guard he yelled, “Start the damn train. So what if they are lying on the tracks. Run them over.”
“But Sir, each time we start, they pull the chain!”

The boys outside saw the argument inside and thumped the train.
They pulled at the doors and windows trying to get in. The Guard blew the whistle. The train let out long hoots and with a violent jerk, which sent us sprawling, it started.
They began pelting us with stones.

Ma pushed both of us down but one came crashing through the window and hit her. Shards of glass flew through the cramped space of the compartment. We shrieked. The boys were so excited with the mayhem they had caused that they rushed towards the train holding on to the bars of the windows and trying to get a foothold on the doors.

The train gathered momentum.
It gathered speed. Outside the boys kept thrashing at the windows.
I watched my father and the Major open the windows and with the rifle butt and their shoe heels grind their fingers till they gave up and fell away.
They yelled at their mates who had managed to get in, to pull the chain.
Other passengers tried preventing the boys from doing so. There was pandemonium.
“Use your gun,” said my father with unimaginable coldness. “Use it!” This was a man I had never seen before.
This is what he must be like when he went to war.

The Major took aim. With his ruddy complexion and brown beard he was a burly cheerful giant when we had met him in the corridor.
It had been easy to picture him laughing with a steel glass of lassi in his hand, seated on a tractor. Maybe his brother had inherited the land….
He crinkled his eyes and fired. Everyone fell away.
There seemed to be a space around him and his weapon was simply an extension of him.
Everybody’s eyes seemed to be on those solid hands that were moulded to the rifle.

Those outside let go, preferring to fall off from a speeding train rather than getting shot.
The Major fired again.
The hooligans inside quickly and quietly sat down, hoping to disappear amongst the passengers. But the irate passengers were not going to be bullied any more. They were all rounded up and bundled into the toilets, which were then locked from the outside.

It was over.
The horror of the past few hours was suddenly and immediately over. All it needed was a gun.

The hooligans suddenly turned meek….
“Sorry Sirji! Sorry Sirji!” they begged from inside.
But when they were handed over to the Railway Police, at the next station, they turned insolent and threatening again.
Making obscene gestures at us, they swaggered off,
“We’ll be back after a cup of hot tea with our chachas!” The policemen pushed them along, looking sheepish.

From then onwards until we reached Delhi, someone or the other kept coming into our compartment to thank and congratulate my father and the Major for handling the situation so well. Others just came to stare.
A middle aged man, resplendent in his white kurta pyjama, silver and pearl rings on his pinkie fingers, suddenly appeared. In a voice that was as greasy as the cold pakoras sold on the station, he said, “Myself, Shukla. Harish Chandra Shukla.”
With an elaborate Namaskar and more than a lingering glance at the girl’s bandhini blouse he made himself comfortable on our berth and appointed himself our social secretary.
“You!” pointing to a man who was still deciding whether he should come forward.
“Say what you want and move on. Others are waiting, bhai.”
To another passenger he declared, “Colonel Sahib has had tension day, now let him rest.”

With everyone back in their seats he turned to my father
“You military people must take over, sir. This country is going to the dogs. Just because these boys are supporters of the local MLA they create havoc every other day. They want to travel ticket less to the next station. Nobody can touch them. Nobody! Arre! Three police officers have been transferred in the past year. Sabki pant utaar di.”

Then he turned his attention to the two foreigners.
“Where are these people from?”
Upon learning that they were Germans he exclaimed,
“Germany! What a country! Your Hitler was such a great man. May God bless us with one!”

Bonking in Poona – Sand In My Teeth

“Come on, men,” said Lydia cycling furiously.
“Coming, coming,” I panted after her.
Behind us, Parminder Singh was losing his patience.
“Ma ne keya seega chetti aana, baby.”
This was really irritating. No matter where we were, Trivandrum, Ahmedabad, Dehradun or Poona, Parminder Singh always said, “Ma has asked me to bring you home as soon as possible.”
Now here was the prettiest girl of my class, Lydia Quinn, all golden hair and blue eyes inviting me to her house to see her pet squirrels and I had a nagging Sikh soldier pedalling behind me.
An 11-year-old didn’t need a chaperone!

Of course there were days when Parminder was a sport.
When Ma and my father were out in the evenings and the uniform had been set for the next day. With no more chores to be done, Parminder played hours of Monopoly with us.
“Piccadilly! I want Piccadilly,” he would go on and on.
He had heard of Piccadilly from his cousin Kartar Singh, who was a bus conductor in London.
Dipping his potato chips into ketchup, the otherwise cool-as-a-cucumber Parminder would go about building houses, hotels and collecting rent with maniacal determination.

Piccadilly stood for money, ambition, power and distant dreams.
The possession of Piccadilly in Monopoly allowed Parminder to have it all.
This tall, broad-shouldered 36-year-old Sikh from Jalandhar district had always wanted to be a fauji. One was either a farmer or a soldier in his family. The smarties went to Ludhiana district to do
‘bij-ness’ and the bolder ones who could live without their mothers went far away to ‘Valait’.
“A good Sikh can go anywhere, fight anyone, do anything but not live without his mother.”

So for Parminder Singh it had to be the Army.
It gave him respect, which he was acutely aware of since boyhood, witnessing the welcome his village bestowed on returning soldiers. And better still, it allowed him a two-month annual leave to visit his family.

He came back with stories of the village pehlwan who drank five seers of lassi, and how his farts and burps could be heard till the next village. And the time when he went to see his prospective bride who had wanted a soldier husband. He had been so relieved to see that she was ‘dudh jaie’, milky white, when she revealed her hand through the curtain.

My brother and he often hand-wrestled while I was referee. Occasionally, Parminder would allow my brother to win.
“Must drink some of that Bournvita,” he would say. “I’m losing my touch!”

But today he was being a grump and coming in my way.
He didn’t seem to understand the importance of Lydia Quinn.
Lydia had fascinated me from the day I had joined school. So did Tracey Merriman, Ingrid Free and Daisy Robson. They were truly different from anyone I had seen in my last six schools.

One day, at Break, I offered Lydia my ham sandwich which she had been eyeing, and asked her when had she come from England to live in Poona.
“I’ve always lived here, men,” she said taking a big bite.
That, I guess, explained why she didn’t have an English accent.
Now I was going to her house. I had only seen the English in films. To think I was being invited to her home!

Enid Blyton wrote in her books, which I regularly devoured, that your hands and knees had to be clean before tea (this tea was a big thing with them) and I was all grimy after school.
God! I worried. Will they all turn up their noses at me?
“How do you do Mr Quinn? How do you do Mrs Quinn?”
I practiced as we cycled up the Prince of Wales Road, coming to the end of the Cantonment where we turned into a by lane.
The bungalows were no longer white washed with neatly trimmed hedges and lawns. They seemed instead, to be divided and subdivided with rotting plywood partitions. Old furniture lay piled in corners of scraggy gardens and the washing was also strung up, in front.

Were we going in from the service entrance?
Oh no! Her family believed in Dogs-and-Indians-not-allowed.
Nana had told me that during the days of the Raj, even the rich and educated Indians were not allowed into the clubs and homes of the British. I was quite comforted that Parminder was with me. Maybe I should prepare some sort of speech, like Mahatma Gandhi.

Lydia swung into a drive and screeched to a halt on the gravel.
“Hi men,” she waved to a man sitting on a broken chair in his vest and shorts, with a pair of garden shears by his side.
“Hi Lyds!” he answered, pulling the grey hair on his chest.
“Hi,” he grinned at me, not bothering to stand up.
Parminder stood at the gate leaning on his cycle, observing it all.

We entered the house from the kitchen.
So I was right! She was bringing me in through the service entrance.
“Hi Grans,” Lydia said hugging an old, dark lady in a frock. “What’s cooking?”
“Chicken curry, men,” said Grans.
These people seemed quite nice, I thought, what with being so affectionate with their staff.
No SolaTopees and no whips in sight. Yes I know that India was Proud-and-Independent but Ma always said, “Old habits die hard.”

Lydia seemed a good, humble English girl. “Come! Come! I’ll show you Chip and Munk.”
Meandering through a messy house, with children everywhere, we came to an enclosed verandah.
Lydia’s room. Where was the chintz? The eiderdown? The stuffed toys? This didn’t look like anything out of ‘Woman & Home’! In a big cardboard box were two squirrels, fat and happy to see Lydia.
Jumping on her shoulder and then onto her head, we ran out with them into the garden, squealing and laughing.
Mongrels, parrots, partridges and rabbits all lived in the great, big mess of the Quinn house.

“Where are your parents?” I asked nervously.
“You met my Dad outside and my Granny in the kitchen. Mum will be coming any minute.” And sure enough in walked a pretty English lady in a printed frock and a string of pink beads around her neck.

“Mummy!” screamed Lydia.
“What for you shouting, men?” said the English lady. “What for?”
Lydia and her siblings were neatly divided into two colours. She and her younger brother looked like Mummy. While an older sister and brother looked like Granny and Dad.
Quite confused, I cycled back with Parminder Singh. “What a strange English family,” I said.

“Angrez!” snorted Parminder Singh.
“These are no Angrez. There were bad Indian woman who did bad things with Angrez men. Even the grandmother was wearing a frock! Queen of England, if you please.”

Poona had the Anglos, “Things were so good when the British were here, men. We’re leaving for Australia next week, men.”
“Ya, go go you Tommies!” the Marathas would say.
They themselves had all directly descended from Shivaji, that warrior you know, who was the only one, this side of the Deccan, who fought those bloody, temple-breaking Moghuls.
“Hindu buggers,” laughed the Parsis,
“Arre British toadies,” said the others
“Can you imagine they gave up their surnames because the British found it easier to call them by the jobs they did? Sodawallah! Saala!”

Poona was such a delicious chutney.
Everyone laughed at each other and had a great time.
Marzipan sandwiches; Rajesh Khanna movies; Knock-Three-Times belting away at Jam Sessions. Oh! Sister Christine, what would you have done?

Then I learnt that everybody was doing it.
Doing it.
At first I thought only the Anglos did it. What with their morals and all. Then I learnt they all did.
“Lucy Cooper bonked Derek last night in the club bogs, men.”
“Nooo,” said Lydia, “Can’t be, men! She’s going around with Johnny.”
“I’m telling you men,” insisted Tracey.
“What? What?” I blurted, not understanding a word. “What’s bonked?”
“Stupid!” they giggled.

In the evening I met my Army friends at the club.
Samir knew it all.
He was two years older than me and read James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter.
“Samir,” I whispered during Hathi Mere Sathi, “what’s bonked?”

Samir drew back as if he had received an electric shock. Then composing himself, his Adam’s apple popping up and down,
“Why do you ask?”
I explained the conversation at school and after a thought he said, “Remember Champ and Leila, when they were joined together, that’s bonking.”

Yes, I remembered that well.
Champ had got on to Leila and then somehow they were back to back and Leila was yelping. The Orderlies were laughing their heads off and I don’t know why but Samir’s mother was so embarrassed she kept pushing me inside.
All I had wanted to do was separate the two because poor Leila was in such pain.
“You will do no such thing,” said Samir’s mother literally dragging me in.

Okay, so that was bonking.
But Lucy and Derek in the club bogs, back to back with Lucy screaming seemed quite difficult to believe.

“Oh come,” I said.
“People do it too.”
“Oh yeah who? Anglos?” That explained Lucy and Derek.
“Them!” said Samir, pointing to an unsuspecting middle aged couple deeply engrossed in the film.
“Nooo. How do you know?”
“Them, them and them!” said Samir waving his arms about till he got a knock on his head from an Officer seated behind.
“Shut up, boy.”
“Sorry Uncle,” said Samir.
Then whispering he said, “Him too!”
To imagine them all back-to-back, with all the aunties screaming was quite terrifying.
We watched Rajesh Khanna in silence.
“But why Samir?”
“For fun, man.”
“Fun?” I was incredulous. “Fun!!”
“Yes! Fun! And when you want kids.”
“Kids!!” This was getting worse.
“Yes, how do you think you came about?”
“SAMIR!!” I yelled forgetting where I was.
“SSSHHH!”
“Not my Ma and Daddy. Okay I KNOW! NOT MY Ma and Daddy.”
WHACK.
“Oh yeah?” I glared at the Officer behind me. “I know what YOU do.”

••••••