‘My naana-ji was a pehalwaan,’ he announced proudly, ‘Rustam-e-Punjab‘. This had us all in splits. Nobody comes to a post-grad hostel and talks about the physical prowess of his maternal grandfather. Everybody just knows it without ever having been taught. But he somehow didn’t. He was a ready-witted, hard-core fauji kid who was born with the knowledge of the birds and the bees! Yet, curiously enough, he continued to retain a child-like innocence in many areas and could have you surprised with his apparent naivety. He was full of incongruities. My barrel-chested pal took equal pride in his bulging biceps and his baby-pink cheeks. He would confidently wear shirts with embroidered pockets over neatly-ironed formal trousers and army ammunition boots. His conversation would invariably be spiced with shocking profanities but he would blush if ragged about a girl! The undisputed arm-wrestling champion, his robust build concealed a gentle heart. He hated quarrels and acrimony of any sort, especially amongst friends.
He was good with the English language like all fauji kids. Had an ear for music. A thorough-bred Punjabi youth with an eye for ‘aesthetics’! He had a god-given flair for noting the tiniest peculiarities and oddities in the behaviour of those around him and revelled in making jokes about them. The razor sharp wit spared nobody. Yet the mischievous twinkle in his eye was entirely harmless and purely good natured. A repository of adult humour that was most certainly, not for the weak hearted. Definitely not for a ridiculous prude who had received his school education from nuns! He thrived in the company of men. Women made him edgy as he had to reign in his ribaldry.
A gourmet whose shoe-string budget unfortunately restricted him to the insipid mess food. But he was not the one to take his culinary misfortunes lying down. He would routinely fish out a hair from his food and would then proceed to merrily discuss the possibilities of its origin. He would enjoy his food with exaggerated relish and slurps seemingly oblivious of the retching evoked in those sharing his table by his obnoxious descriptions. And one could not put it beyond him to have planted the hair in the first place to ruin everybody’s meal. But once in a blue moon, when he could afford it, he would go buy a chicken and spend hours cooking it with masalas and rice on the two-penny exposed element electric heater at peril of being caught in a surprise check by the hostel warden. Heaters were not allowed to the hostellers. His love for food surprised me.
An imaginative guy who could see no merit in wasting his creativity and mental energies on the obsolete research on dogs and rats by the likes of Pavlov and Skinner. Who could fault with him? I was the typical conformist ardently pursuing the middle class goal of a ‘sarkari-naukri’ and our lives took us our different ways after university. As I saw more of real life and humans I realized what a gem we had in our Hercules. I would recall his bawdy jokes and marvel at his comic timing. I would relive his mad fury at the f***** censors for clipping all the delightful visuals in the foreign film while letting the cinema owners retain them on the posters to con the poor expectant student audience. I was thankful for his having gotten me into weight training to manage a respectable physique in the nick of time! His blind loyalty to all his friends. I thought of him often.
We had parted suddenly without even exchanging addresses. But I knew the town he came from. As is with life, a decade later I got posted to the same town. It didn’t take much to trace him out and I discovered my pal like I had never really known him. A warm affectionate simple hearted ready witted man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of life and his dreamy existence with music and aesthetics. We discovered red wine and English classics together, spending many a leisurely evening watching movies, having peanuts with wine. We led the raid on Aqaba with Lawrence of Arabia. We battled the fascist Italian army with ‘Omar Mukhtar’. We beat all odds and raced the hardy mustang, ‘Hidalgo’ against the Arabian steeds of the Bedouin riders to win the 3000 mile desert race. We mourned the tragic fall of the ‘Last Samurai’. We ruthlessly avenged the cowardly attack on the ‘Godfather’ with the suave Michael Corleone. When we tired of the movies we would laugh at the worn out jokes about our days at the university and the curious tribe of people who stayed there. It was all like yesterday.
Once when we got down to recalling all the idiotic movies we had seen during the days at the hostel, I recalled ‘King Uncle,’ a Jackie Shroff starrer in which the actor sports a funny moustache and walks around with an exaggerated eccentric air. I suddenly hit upon the idea of calling him ‘King Uncle’. I went on to modify his picture in my phone contact list and placed a clip-art crown on his head. The uncrowned king of wit now had his crown! He didn’t find it particularly funny but didn’t bother to protest too loudly. Ever since, every time he calls his picture appears on the screen with him grinning sheepishly from under his ridiculously large crown and I feel tickled to see him so for no reason in particular.
I got posted out after a year but this time round the friendship endured. We would meet less often but would instantly connect with each other’s lives. We have kept the mundane out of our friendship, focusing on the good things of life- nature, music, food and wine. This is about an evening spent together at the Tikkar Cottage.
I had got dropped at the T-point on National Highway 73 and was waiting for him when he appeared in his rickety LPG powered Maruti-Alto. I looked suspiciously at the cylinder in the hatch. ‘Is this contraption safe?’ I wanted to know. ‘Aw, I’ve been driving this darling for a decade now, without an incident,’ he said in his characteristic fauji style. ‘Looks its damn age,’ I mused. ‘What’s in these bags,’ I asked, pointing to the large polythene bags on the rear seat. ‘Nothing much, a bottle of red-wine and some stuff I got to eat.’ I noted with satisfaction the saplings he had got for planting in Morni. He can be amazingly naive on occasions. I had told him this absurd tale about it having been made compulsory for all tourists to carry saplings for plantation in Morni, and he had bitten this impossible bait. He said he had got two for safe measure! I smiled at the kind of leg-pulling this successful prank would have inspired in the good old days, but somehow his disarming trust killed the humour in the situation.
I readied my camera to get the leopard if he were to decide to show up. We were off with a sudden lurch that shook every tired nut-bolt of that poor old maid. We were meeting after a long interlude and there was a lot of catching up to do. He discussed his plans for his academy and I cribbed about the monotony of being tied to a desk-job. I had cribbed about the stresses of the field-job on the earlier occasion and he had nodded with equal sympathy! He drove his car at a punishing pace making it a point not to slow down while negotiating the rough patches. He cranked the gears and pumped the pedals violently as the car groaned on the sharp gradients. ‘It’s a 1000 CC engine,’ he proclaimed, ‘they don’t make the Alto with this engine anymore.’ I kept my fingers crossed and the ‘Darling’ got us to the Tikkar Cottage without any major event.
The caretaker was waiting cheerfully at the parking and lugged our bags up the sharp slope to the cottage above. I asked him to remove the saplings safely for planting in the forest area. We had tea with pakoras and went for a short walk along the Deora trek route. I had once tricked him into doing the entire 5 KM trek and he had broken into a frightful sweat as we negotiated the sharp climb to the Tikkar tal road. He had later told me that he had been advised against such tests-of-stamina by a doc and I had solemnly promised myself to outgrow the childish habit of pulling pranks on unsuspecting friends. So we restricted ourselves to a leisurely stroll. We settled down in the verandah waiting for the sun to go down before we uncorked the wine bottle. He had brought some giant-sized jamuns and fresh-from-the-tree mangoes as snacks! He had rock-salt and black pepper for the jamuns, a connoisseur, who left nothing to chance. ‘They are the produce of the Military Farm and are the juiciest jamuns one can find.’ ‘We usually have peanuts,’ I pointed out, objecting mildly to the unconventional choice of snack. ‘Fruit is good for skin,’ he informed me. I was tickled to remember the endless jokes about his pride in his pink-complexion. Some people never change.
It was winters and we had the cast-iron fireplace going with the smokeless charcoal kept stocked at the cottage for the purpose. The warm red glow of the charcoal is infinitely more pleasing than the oil based heat radiators we use at home. The fireplace occupies a place of pride in our cottage and has been sourced from a 19th century foundry with considerable effort.
I had carried my laptop and we argued over the movie for the day. I wanted to watch Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Redford’s adventure about a mountain man combating the elements and the Indians in the Rocky Mountains. The film had a haunting background score. My friend wanted us to watch ‘Austrailia’ that was closer to our favourite genre of ‘Epic movies’. We finally settled for his choice and watched Hugh Jackman ride across Australian deserts driving the cattle droves and bored ourselves with the mumbo-jumbo of an aborigine magic man. It was not much of a movie but we got stuck on the quote, ‘All you have is your story.’ We philosophised about the stories of our lives till we ran out of wine and had to seek recourse to Tikkar Cottage’s plentiful stock of Scotch. The quote, strangely enough, has stuck with me ever since and it does get me thinking about the journey of life. How we tend to waste the best years of our lives in mundane pursuits that don’t add up to anything. Would I like the story of my life if the almighty were to put a sudden stop to it?
We got up to a lazy morning. We had some hours to go before we embarked on our return journey. I fished out the kites that my pal, the Scribe, had bought for me. I had once had this fancy notion of introducing kite-flying to Morni. An eco-friendly sport that would be a hit with the tourists. Curiously, Morni does not witness any kite flying though it has the perfect weather for it with an all year round breeze that any kite-flyer should love. Kites, however, are very hard to get by in this age of i-pads and facebook and all we could manage was a couple of poorly prepared kites with three reels of thick tailoring thread to serve as kite string. The actual kite string or ‘Dor’ is prepared by coating the thread with manjha- a mix of powdered glass, colour and wax and is crucial to the expert manoeuvres by the veteran kite flyer. Also, there was no ‘charakhri’- the wood-bamboo spool for winding the kite string that helps in preventing the string from getting entangled. The kites had been lying at the cottage for quite some time and I had not mustered the confidence to try my hand at kite-flying in front of my daughters, lest my inexperience in this sport of yesteryears be exposed. Today was a perfect day to give it a shot and I produced the kites before my friend. I had already made him commit that he was an ace kite flyer and had heard him spin some yarn about his kite flying days in his naana’s village. How he would gladly wring the neck of that scrawny scamp who discovered his hiding place for his kites and had made off with the booty. He surveyed the kites with disdain and promised to get me the real stuff when he visited his nana-ji’s village. He then got down to business. He tied the centre of the Kamanih (the bow-shaped, flexed bamboo rib of the kite) at the point that it crossed the Tillah (the stiff central rib) with a double chord. He then tied the other end of the thread to the tillah at a point just above the tail to form an equilateral triangle. “This triangular chord is called the Talaawaahn,” he told me. He then placed the kite on his head and pulled it down gently from its head and tail thereby flexing the tillah rib around his broad head. I expected the bamboo to snap any moment but it survived the pre-flight check. He then tied the talawaahn with the thread and asked me for ‘Kanih’. I was to hold the kite from the sides of the Kamanih at some distance, while he held the kite line taut. I let go the kite with an upward thrust and he pulled in the line expertly to get the kite airborne. It came crashing down shortly thereafter and he cursed the poor quality of the kite with the choicest abuses. He is tenacious, however, when it comes to such idle pursuits and had the kite soaring after a couple of false starts. The kite had caught the upper currents and was tugging furiously for more line (dheelh) but we had run out of the cotton reels. We watched the kite dance against the serene blue sky as it settled for a point above the rocky cliff needing only an occasional wristy tug (tunh-kah) to keep its nose up. I tried my hand at it and panicked when it suddenly started tumbling listlessly down the sky, I having inadvertently taken it out of the air current. ‘Jhaph kha rahi hai,’ he warned me and instructed me to pull in the line sharply to gain altitude. He cursed loudly when the thread got entangled around his feet. The ammunition boots had now been replaced with somewhat more respectable ankle-high shoes with a zipper to the side. We flew the kite for an hour or so, unmindful of the amused glances of the construction workers working in the vicinity who had stopped their work to enjoy our capers. He got the kite down and we stored it carefully. It was well past noon and we had to get back to life after an idyllic holiday.
The drive back was uneventful. I had forgotten all about the LPG cylinder in the boot and we talked all the way back to the point where my vehicle was waiting for me. We promised ourselves a repeat trip before the rains and headed home.
P.S. My friend was true to his word and got some fabulous old-world kites complete with charakharis and dor. He still doesn’t see what was so funny about his naana being a pehalwaan. He has since retracted from his earlier claim over his grandfather having been conferred a title but still insists that he was a famous wrestler who had won several cross-border wrestling championships.