Monday, June 16, 2014

Orthopedic Adventures

A tale from the past.
New Delhi, circa 1987.

ELLO!” ANNOUNCED THE CHEERY VOICE of my friend Kailash through the office phone, “I’ve had an accident.” I congratulated him, sighed, and wrote an application for half-day’s leave.
      Kailash collects accidents like stamps and coins. His prized accident occurred years ago as a result of which he lost his memory, and he created a sensation by asking his mother to introduce herself. The memory returned promptly, however, after – as I suspect – she walloped him therapeutically over the head with her handbag.
      This time he was driving along the Ring Road, fast asleep. His subconscious mind, busy screening him a dream as well as controlling the car, probably failed to take into account the essential circularity of the Ring Road. Injuries were trivial – fractured ribs, a broken leg, and total absence of amnesia.
      The last one was worrying though. It meant I was in for a slow-motion rendering of each lurid detail. But when I reached his home I found him in bed reading the book the Complete Yes Minister, too absorbed in it to talk. I reminded him that Yes Minister was too hilarious a reading material to go with broken ribs.
      But having peculiar tastes in such matters, he impatiently changed the subject and asked me to get him a pair of crutches. His earlier pair was worn out, he said, and in any case, out of fashion.
      In those times I had a racing cycle on which I used to go everywhere very fast indeed – my average speed was 30 kilometers per hour, sometimes even touching 50 so I could easily keep up with the flow of traffic without having to give way to motor vehicles.  So I cycled fast to Netaji Subhash Marg, Delhi’s crutch street. With a variety of models on display, choice was difficult. Finally I settled for an orthopedic masterpiece in anodized aluminum, which I thought Kailash’s personality. The problem was transporting them.
      The store did not make home deliveries. So I took a decision and tied the masterpieces to my racing bike, tips pointing straight ahead like gun barrels. The visual effect was neat; it was difficult to tell the crutches and my silver painted bike apart..
      The sight of a bearded and bespectacled Madrasi zooming on a racer fitted with a streamlined contraptions fired popular imagination. Some stressed on the aesthetics and called it a “disco bike.” Some thoughtful people saw it as a symbol of the existential predicament of the Delhi cyclist and said, “Arre dekho! These days cycles come with built-in crutches.”
      The only ones who seemed to attach any ominous significance were the police. Delhi was crawling with them then as it is now. At one junction, traffic had been held up for a VVIP motorcade. As it was usual with me, I edged the cycle through the traffic emerged at the very front, my crutch barrels pointing straight ahead. As I freewheeled to a stop, a policeman leaped down from the kerb, sten-gun poised, and studied my bike and its appendages  carefully. In the tense moments that followed, I could almost see the officer’s prefrontal cortex working furiously. The intrepid cop finally understood, relaxed and eventually scratched his nose with his trigger finger as he looked around for more potential terrorists.
      That evening I handed over the crutches to Kailash. “Thank you,” he said, and returned to his reading. He had graduated to Yes Prime Minister and his ribs were still in place.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How I attended the Wrong Wedding

HIS HAPPENED THIRTY YEARS AGO when I was working in Delhi. I had never attended a North Indian Hindu wedding. So when our office clerk Yashwant Singh invited me for his daughter’s marriage, I readily agreed.
      So on a cold January evening, dressed in my best I went to Laxmibai Nagar, (a government residential colony in South Delhi), only to discover that there were three baraat ghars (Hindu wedding halls) in the locality.  I tried the first two and was directed to the third ghar.
      The baraat (the wedding procession) was just going in. The bridegroom was seated on a white mare, a little boy squeezed in front of him. Entwined in tinsel, a “note-garland” lay about his shoulder, in crisp new currency notes of two and five rupees, its locket a single one-rupee note. Ahead, a dozen youth were dancing bhangra to a band.
I followed the party at an uncertain distance.

      I looked around for familiar faces from my office, but there were none. A group of ladies were waiting at the door of the ghar. Then it dawned on me: I am from the bride’s party. Shouldn’t I be with them? But all men seemed to be on the bridegroom’s side. I tried standing equidistant  from both the ladies and the gents. That way no one could accuse me of breaking any taboo by standing in the wrong group.
       Then the scene became lively. A fight had begun, so mildly that at first it seemed part of the ceremony. Rapidly it became business-like. The dancing youth were now kicking and punching each other, screaming expletives of high voltage. Elders rushed about with folded hands, begging for peace.
      “Pagal hain sub!” (madness!) said the bridegroom in anguish, surveying the unorthodox way his marriage was being celebrated. As I watched, a hefty young man lifted the bridegroom off the saddle and carried him away.
      No, not to be thrashed, assured an old gentleman standing beside me, and explained this was a traditional custom. He then looked at me carefully. [Mustn’t ask silly questions.]
      “Aao! Khana khao!” (dinner ready!) bellowed one of the elders over the din. Instantly the fighting stopped. Everyone casually raced inside, where a buffet was waiting.
      As I was swept in with the crowd, I tried to catch a glimpse of Yashwant Singh or anyone else I knew, and got increasingly confused. At the end of the hall stood a pair of thrones, decorated with plastic flowers. The bridegroom was seated in one, in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker. The bride’s throne was occupied by a ceremonially dressed boy! Must be another traditional custom I thought. [Gay marriages were unthinkable in the 1980s, and are still illegal in India.]
      Hungry, I wedged my way through the seething mass of humanity and grabbed a plate. As my belly got filled my mind became clear: I was certainly attending the wrong wedding. Providential, I thought, happily munching a chicken leg. Yashwant Singh’s family were strict vegetarians.

hile having ice cream, I overheard a conversation. The thekedaar (contractor) and a guest were discussing the menace of strangers who came in just to eat. The thekedaar was describing how the other day he knocked the wind out of one.
      The badmaash [rogue] was suited, booted, wearing tie, vie . . . !” he recalled with relish. I fingered my jacket lapel and tie nervously. Clearly there was no safety in being well-dressed. I got this horrible feeling of being watched. Indeed, a gentleman in an elegant blue suit and gold rimmed spectacles was staring at me. I sat on a chair and contemplated my next move.

        A loud crash from the crockery section indicated that the fight had resumed. Swear words exploded once again. Everyone except the bridegroom went to watch. Taking advantage of the confusion I swiftly walked out. All was well, except that the spectacled man was right on my heels.
      He got into the same bus as I did. Once the bus started moving I became brave. What the hell can he do now? I sat down firmly beside the man in the elegant blue suit and gold rimmed spectacles and asked him, “Whose marriage was it?”
      The gent shrugged. He didn’t know either. Nor did he seem to consider it necessary to know.