Thursday, April 21, 2016
When I woke up in the morning I saw the family was having a mini conference. My mom looked sheepishly at me. "Did you sleep well?” I nodded numbly. Actually I had gone to bed with a racing heart but then had succumbed to sheer fatigue.
Then my father spoke. “I will come to school with you. I must speak to the Principal. What kind of security do they have that children can be kidnapped right from outside their gates?"
Nooo! My heart cried out. That’s not necessary! Why can’t we let this be? But of course I didn’t say a thing.
The principal was a youngish bespectacled guy and he happened to be in the foreground of the school, in front of a 10-feet-high statue of a welcoming Jesus. He was wearing a white cassock and had a few books in hand.
My father strode up to him. “Father, I need to speak with you."
My father narrated the entire story to him. “How could you let a child get kidnapped right from outside your gates?"
The principal looked my father straight in the eye. “There was no kidnapping. These three boys ran away from school after lunch. They didn’t come till the school got over. Their class teacher reported the fact to me last evening itself. All the rest is just a cock and bull story."
My father was aghast. He turned to me. “Is that true?"
I looked down at my shoes, tears already beginning to well up.
“I asked, is that true?!"
My father gave me the tightest slap I have ever received in my life.
He turned to the Principal. “I am so sorry, Father. No, in fact, I am ashamed. I got completely taken in by his story. Can you believe it, Father, he gave the same story to the inspector…that too inside the police station?!” The Principal just looked at me and laughed.
My dad was beside himself. He gripped my right ear and led me up the path to the school gate. We were going back home.
My brothers were at school (a different school) when we got back home. My father quietly narrated what had happened to my mother. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She twisted my ears, and gave me the spanking of a lifetime. She just wouldn’t give up. She was not only angry but utterly humiliated.
My father finally calmed her down. “Now we have to do one more thing,” he sighed heavily. “We have to tell the cops."
We walked – just the two of us – to the police station. The senior inspector was at his desk surrounded by his assistant and a few constables. He looked up curiously. My father sat down and narrated the sordid story while I intensely examined the tiles on the floor. When he finished, the inspector tilted back his chair in disbelief. He looked at me and then he looked at my father. “You know,” he said, "I have been a policeman for over 25 years. I have investigated hundreds of cases and softened up the hardest criminals. And can you believe it, I got taken in by this eight year old boy?!” He shook his head. “What a story. What details. Do you know, right this moment, I have two guys asking everyone in and around Reay Road if they have seen that sardarji? And, God forbid, had we found a sardarji fitting that description do you know what we would have done to him?” He let out a deep breath. "Phew!”
Then he turned to me and gave me a searing look which could freeze you in your step. “You… You are either going to end up here one day or may be you will become a writer."
I reached home dog tired around 6 pm. Not only had we walked a lot, there was the added weight of guilt and anxiety.
My mother was waiting by the door, worried sick. We lived at King’s Circle and I usually came home by 4.30 or so. “Where were you?! Why are you so late?” she screamed at me as I staggered home. “Where have you been? Why are you looking so dead-beat?"
She shook me up. I could see her worry had transformed into fury. I didn’t know what to say. How could I tell her I had walked out of school at lunch and wandered over all the way to Reay Road? No way.
“I asked you something. Why don’t you answer me?!” She was really furious.
“I was kidnapped,” I sobbed.
She was stunned. “What?!! What did you say? You were kidnapped?! What happened? Tell me what happened!” She held me by my collar and shook me. Her eyes were wide with residual anger and surging anxiety.
Now there was no going back. “There was this guy outside the school gate,” I stammered. "He offered me a sweet. And then I don’t know what happened. I started walking with him. Then we walked to an Irani restaurant on the main road near Reay Road station. The restaurant had green walls. There he gave me a cold drink and after that when he went to pay the bill I slipped out and ran. I walked all the way from Reay Road station home."
By now a small crowd had gathered in the house. My two older brothers, neighbouring kids and their parents. They were all firing away questions at me.
“How did he look?”
“How old was he?"
“Was he tall or short?”
“What was he wearing?”
“Did he do anything to you?"
And I had answer. I had to provide details for them to believe me.
“He was a young sardarji. Not very tall. He was wearing a baingan-coloured turban and light green shirt. (Baingan is Hindi for aubergine. I had filled in violet in my alleged kidnapper’s turban). He was wearing worn brown shoes. No, he wan’t wearing spectacles. No, he didn’t do anything to me.”
Now the inquisitors were even more puzzled. Why would anyone kidnap someone, make him walk on a public road all the way to Reay Road, offer him a soft drink, then let him escape so easily? “But just look at the little fellow. He looks so shaken and tired. He is damn lucky to have escaped."
Dad was called up at his factory and he came rushing back in an Ambassador cab. The excited circle of inquisitors quietened down. Now it was dad’s turn to ask the questions. He looked at me and spoke softly. “Tell me everything. Right from the beginning."
I took a deep breath and repeated the story all over again, filling in an extra detail or two. Dad asked a few supplementary questions just to get the details right. Then, with a sigh he got up. “We need to report this to the police."
My heart leapt into my mouth. Police? I gulped.
“Yes,” said dad. “You were lucky to escape. Some other kid may not be so lucky. The police should nab this guy. Come on, wash up and change your clothes. You are coming with me."
I nearly died. “I am so tired!” I fussed. "I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to rest!"
My mom’s heart melted. She looked at my dad. “He’s been through a lot. Does he need to go?"
“Of course. The inspector would like to ask him questions. How else will they find their man?” He looked to me, “Come on, get ready."
It was dark by then. My dad, I and a neighbour walked to the nearest police station. My heart was beating furiously. Weaving stories to mom was one thing but to a police inspector…?!
The senior inspector was a fifty year old, heavy-set man with bushy eyebrows and a thick moustache. He heard out my father then turned to me. “Don’t be scared, son. Tell me everything. Every small thing. Don’t leave out anything at all. There have been reports in my area of some kids who have been kidnapped. He is a bad man. We need to catch him. You understand?"
I nodded. And then he asked the questions and I answered them to my practised best. Even I was surprised at the finer detailing that flowed out spontaneously from my mouth. It was almost as if I wasn’t speaking but words were just popping out by themselves. The Inspector’s assistant took down pages and pages of meticulous notes.
Then it was over. The senior inspector, heaved himself up from his chair with a sigh, and walked round to where I was sitting. “You have been a brave boy,” he said patting my head. Then he turned to my father. “I must say your son has an excellent memory for details. Half the folk who come here don’t remember a thing. They waste our time hemming and hawing. Fortunately for us, he is sharp."
We three – my dad, our neighbour and myself – walked back home slowly. Each of us was drained by the events of the day. All we wanted to do was have a quick dinner and go to sleep.
But I didn’t know there was more to come. Had I known I wouldn’t have slept that night.
I was probably eight years old then, studying at St Joseph’s High School at Wadala in Mumbai. It was one of those lazy summer days at school that seemed to drag on and on and on and the entire class seemed enveloped in the thick stupor of boredom.
When the bell rang for the lunch recess, we boys dashed out of the class in a whoosh of relief. After a quick lunch from our three-compartment lunchboxes, we headed for the water fountain. What, no water?! This was crazy! What would we drink? And sure enough, just because there was no water our throats actually felt more parched than ever before! I was with two friends, Yagnesh and Prasad. Yagnesh was a sweet, conservative Gujarati boy and Prasad, well, he was the oldest amongst us, having dropped a year. Prasad was taller than Yagnesh and me, and, though not very bright, he certainly was more confident and street savvy than both of us.
The three musketeers went around the school to see if there was a stray tap we could drink from. No such luck. We were angry and frustrated ...and thirsty. Prasad suggested we get out and look for water in some shop outside the school. We rambled out of the school gates, turned left and started asking around for drinking water. Apparently some pipe had burst and there wasn’t any water…or at least that’s what the shopkeepers claimed. So we walked further down ...and then further.
Everything was happening as if in a dream. The hot stuffy afternoon, the glistening tar roads, the random disinterested people on the roads and time moving lazily, very lazily. And there we were, three school kids, in our blue shorts and white bush shirts, walking down the road, away from school, talking inane stuff. It really was as if we were in some kind of suspended animation. At one point Yagnesh chanced upon a still-lit cigarette stub on the road. He picked it up and took a drag then passed it to Prasad who took a really deep drag then passed it to me. This was happening almost in the middle of the road and suddenly it dawned on us that we would get a hiding if some one from our families saw us smoking. We looked around furtively to check but there wasn’t anyone. We stubbed out the cigarette and moved on.
At some point, Prasad suggested that since we had come so far we might as well carry on to his dad’s shop which was “pretty close”. We would definitely get water there. Yagnesh and I shrugged to say, “Why not?” When we approached the Wadala suburban railway station, Prasad took a right turn which brought us to the road parallel to the railway tracks. And we walked and we walked. Nobody thought of school, and, after a while, nobody spoke. We simply followed Prasad.
Suddenly I looked around and saw a sign outside an Irani cafe. Gosh, we had reached Reay Road! I think that was the first time I started getting anxious.
A while later we found ourselves at his father’s shop. His father dealt in iron scrap and his shop was right on the main road. It had a small, low entrance painted in turquoise blue leading to a slightly larger cubicle, leading further on to a much larger warehouse where all the scrap was stocked. His dad was a tall, roughly-built practical man from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. He wasn’t too pleased to see us. “What are you doing here?! Why aren’t you at school?!” he yelled at Prasad. Yagnesh and I huddled by the door. Prasad may have been scared too but he didn’t show it. “There wasn’t any drinking water at school and we were soooo thirsty! What could we do? The padres should have thought of us kids, no?” The father was still gruff and upset but then here were these thirsty little kids who had walked all the way from Wadala to Reay Road just to have some water! It’s not like they had played truant to watch a movie! He gave us some water to drink from a red matka in a corner and shooed us away. “Go back to school!"
We came out and abruptly realised it was almost 4 pm! School was over! We were really worried. We had run away from school! We would get a spanking not just from our parents but from the school too! How could we have been so stupid?! But Prasad was reassuring. “Why should you worry? First of all they wouldn’t have missed us and I am sure nobody even knows we were not there after lunch. And even if they do, what have we done wrong? We were thirsty and we went out to drink some water. Only we got late. Is that a crime?"
Yagnesh and I nodded weakly but as we walked home our feet were tired and our hearts heavy.
But neither of us could have known what would happen next...
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
My maternal grandfather spent his entire life in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. A high caste North Indian Brahmin by birth, he had a peculiar problem: he could read Urdu and Farsi and English but he could not read Hindi! He could speak it, he could understand it but he couldn’t read it. The Devanagri characters simply left him baffled. When we kids would go out with him we would tease him. “Nanaji, read that sign.” He would shrug and say “Beta, main Hindi nahi padh sakta.” (Son, I can’t read Hindi.) He could read the Hindi numbers, he could read bus routes, he could read some signs on shops in Dariba or Khari Baoli but if you gave him a Hindi newspaper he would sheepishly return it to you unread. If someone wrote him a letter, he would hand it over to his wife who would read it out to him. But his Urdu was marvellous and his calligraphic Urdu handwriting would have been the envy of an industrious maulvi. He would write his accounts in a parchment paper sewn-notebook, beginning from the last page, writing right to left. Black ink, print-neat handwriting. If some official work had to be done, he would manage using his top-notch English skills. He once told me most of his dreams were in English. Be that as it may his sense of humour was largely Old Delhi Urdu-ish – wry, fatalistic, sarcastic or building on a witty play of words and puns. His laughter was deep but not loud; his eyes would sparkle, his mouth would tip a trifle to the left, his belly would wiggle like a jelly pot though the laughter itself would be more a rapid series of guffaws then a roar.
But the most amazing experience was of my Nanaji doing his pooja. He would roll out a square rug near the living room window and open out a creaky wooden book stand. He would slowly put on his battered spectacles over his large ears and gently unwrap his Ramayan from the rich silk cloth it was wrapped in. Next he would patiently fold away the silk wrapper keeping it neatly to his left. After that he would place the Ramayan on the stand and bow his head in reverence. And then he would slowly open the last page of the book and start reading his Ramayan – this Ramayan was in Urdu and so he read it backwards, beginning from the back of the book and reading right to left!