I think of Zakynthos.
Sunday, October 29, 2023
Wednesday, February 08, 2023
Somewhere to the west, behind me, a single-line
railway cuts across town from north to south. Late last evening, and again just
now after the sun has passed its zenith, the cracked two-tone moan of a diesel
loco rose behind the bungalows of the Civil Surgeons and the Additional
District Judges. Diffused by distance and the trees that surround this space,
it is a far lost lament circling towards the sun. In starkly contrasting mood,
a young neem tree in front of me sways and shimmers happily in
the afternoon sun and breeze. Roseate parakeets swoop and squawk between the
I look up into the branches of the guava tree, and a black-hooded oriole
chatters right above me. A wood-dove erupts from a mango tree on my right,
flies a pointless circle round the garden, then vanishes into the foliage fifty
yards away to my left. How pleasant it is that birdsong here is louder than the
traffic. How pleasant that even on a working day, my phone has not rung once in
the last hour, so I can use it to take photographs and record my musings. How
very pleasant to sit here in a green-gold mental haze, with “no deeds to do, no
promises to keep”. I sigh in pleasure, and settle myself even more comfortably
into my chair in the shade of the old guava tree.
In the middle distance a furry dog shakes itself luxuriously, then jumps up on a verandah ledge and drapes itself lengthwise for a siesta. A flight of pigeons clatters up, then resumes its circling. From some green hideaway, a coppersmith barbet briefly tolls its triple note, a sound that I had hitherto associated only with the long hot afternoons of pre-monsoon summer. Now, in the chill of a retreating northern winter, it seems strange as a familiar tongue in a foreign clime. But still it lulls me further into this pleasant trance, just being, observing, floating on the slow current of the drifting day. Somewhere inside me the querulous voice of my weekday self rises in familiar rhythms, only to be summarily swamped by the surge of idleness. Which is also the voice of reason, for on this day, in this fairy-tale moment, there is nothing that I have to do, nowhere that I have to go, nobody I have to meet. A rare backwater on the stream of my unexciting life, where the absence of obligation offers placid enjoyment. “I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep / Let the morning time drop all its petals on me …”
P------t, proper in his dark blue sweater and trousers, looking faintly disoriented as is his wont, approaches with small measured steps. He bears a tray with a cup of tea and a small bottle of mineral water, which he sets down on the chair next to mine. He is about to enquire what else I need, but I smile and thank him and wave him away. This moment, this mood, is not to be spoiled by speech. The sun is slipping farther. The birds are still loud, still insistent. The parakeets are the noisiest, spoilt children shrieking and screeching as they zigzag between the trees. A pariah kite mews and cheeps as it glides down into a nearby tree, giving away the location of its nest. A smell of earth and wood-smoke rises behind the bungalows. Chulhas being lit in preparation for tea, as working people find their way home? There is a hint of sharpness on the breeze now as evening sidles in, an edge even in these last days of a fading winter.
Mynahs, grackles, finches, rollers, all tune up their parts against the
backdrop of the parakeets. A faster train approaches from the north, a higher
longer note indicating an electric loco, and Dopplers its way to the south.
More auto-rickshaws moan their electric threnody as office-goers ride
homewards. The long light laps against the Circuit House, washes the trees a
warmer shade, pours shadows over the grass, softens the edges of my vision's
frame. The shadows of paired kites pass over the sunlit grass, as their circles
descend with the fading of the day.
And now, as the birdsong subsides, as only the parakeets remain, to perch on the top branches with loud chatter, the usual evening sense of sadness settles like mist upon the vista. A nightjar strikes up in a far corner. I sip my tea. A gentle giant, bespectacled, comes over to ask me to move to the eastern lawn. That one is better maintained. The western side is comparatively unkempt. I find it more attractive, but the undergrowth might provide cover for snakes. Surely it's still too cold for them to emerge? But why take chances .... I hoist my day-bag and cup and step forth for sunnier climes. The open lawn on the other side of the House will bask in the setting sun for nearly another hour, long after these trees have furled the western grounds in soft shadow and frogs have taken over duties of the orchestra pit from the birds.
One gap remained, one sight unseen. Fourteen years ago I spent a month in this faux-colonial edifice, in the room almost under the stairs. Morning and evening I would walk or sit on the lawn, and every time I would see a family of four Indian grey hornbills. Large ungainly birds, they would perch on the higher branches, or hop about upon the thicker ones like a kindergartener who needs the loo. Their flight was slow and clumsy, alternately flapping heavily and gliding between one tree and another. They never perched on buildings or poles.
On this visit, I looked for them but caught only a brief glimpse of one
in silhouette, that too on a tree outside the huge grounds of the Circuit
House. Sitting in the gathering gloaming on the eastern lawn, I read up on grey
hornbills. Their life-span is thirty years or more, so the same family could
well be around. But nary a sight of them have I had so far.
But wait! That repeated call from the depths of the banyan tree? Like a
large pariah kite trying to imitate a car horn? Surely ...
And in a moment of joy, first one and then a second hornbill bursts
forth from the behind the trailing roots of the banyan and flies away to the
east. A sighting. And a farewell.
Patiala has fulfilled a promise.
Monday, January 02, 2023
“Barrraaaa … ter-raaatt!” Sardar Karnail Singh bellowed across the paddock. And twenty sad OTs, Officer Trainees, held on to the reins in quiet desperation as their lives were speeded up an unwelcome notch. We had all been told to lightly spur our horses upon Karnail Singh’s command, so they would move from a sedate trot into a canter, the burra trot. We all took to heart the part about “lightly”, and barely brushed our heels against our horses’ flanks. In hopes that they would miss the memo and stick to the rather comfortable slower pace. No such luck. The horses were far better trained than their riders, and after several seasons of Karnail Singh’s dulcet tones echoing round their ears, they understood his orders thoroughly. Wherefore the horses broke into a canter. And several OTs, I am sure, broke into a sweat.
For a brief spell, I was actually exhilarated by the
sensation. Fingers knotted in the reins, knees clamped tight around the horse,
I fondly imagined that I cut a fine figure. Or at the very least, a less sorry
figure than U---- S---, who on the very first day of riding class had fallen
off a stationary horse and broken his collar-bone. And as usually happens in
such circumstances, I became careless. My grip on the reins must have
slackened. The first I got to know of this was when my steed suddenly
harrumphed and broke into a full gallop. A gallop! With a rider who had mounted
on his own for the first time, only four days prior! What the … well, here
again, I must confess, the fault was largely mine.
There were a few horses in the stables that were
earmarked for the special category of plump, despairing, dewy-eyed lady
officers who almost broke into tears when they entered the paddock. These were
the placid, even-tempered steeds, usually no more than 11 to 12 hands high, who
seemed to maintain the same speed regardless of whether they walked, trotted or
cantered. Then there were what one might term the horses of the general pool.
We gentlemen officers were supposed to try our luck with these. And there were
three horses that were in a class of their own. Nobody, or almost nobody,
wanted anything to do with these. One was the strangely named Budstar, a white
army remount who was born to lead. She had impeccable manners and the general
air of a tolerant regimental colonel. The problem was, she stood more than 16
hands at the withers, and the ground seemed very very far away for a poor city
boy stranded astride her. (I can vouch for this, because eight years later I
was misguided enough to mount up on her for what was meant to be a gentle walk
around the suburbs of Dehra Doon but ended as a wild never-ending gallop across
ploughed fields, including some cauliflower crops that caused chaos in the
squadron.) A second unpopular horse was the aptly-named Touch-Me-Not. This
gelding combined all the loveable qualities of Thomas Silverstein of
Leavenworth and Freddy Krueger of Elm Street. On the first day itself he had
lashed out with a two-legged kick that narrowly failed to decapitate our friend
Tali Temjen Toy. But apparently even the most contrary horse can find a rider.
Rajesh Singh grew up riding horses around the Police Lines in Patna. He was
confident enough, and actually a good enough horseman, to adopt Touch-Me-Not as
his regular mount. And our resident vet from the Indian Foreign Service, Ramesh
Kumar - tall, gangly and experienced - quite liked surveying the horizon from
the exalted height of Budstar.
Which left the third horse that nobody wanted to ride.
Dara. A handsome muscular deceptive son of Belial with a coat like gleaming
milk chocolate and a twinkle in his eye that sometimes changed into the glint
of scheming evil. Guess who set his heart on riding this good-looking rogue? Oh
well. I was much younger then, but I was also much much more foolish, out of
all proportion to my youth.
So it came to pass that I found myself astride several
hundred kilos of rocking horseflesh, accelerating rapidly but not quite
smoothly past the line of the other horses. I barely registered a look of
horrified surprise on the face of a fellow officer as we appeared at his elbow
and then vanished ahead of him. In those few seconds that seemed to last
forever, I squeezed my knees tighter and tighter until my entire lower half
seemed clenched in rigor. I pulled on the reins until I was sure my fingers
would be cut off. All to no avail. Dara thundered on. And I realised that my
situation was about to become more dire.
The riding paddock at Charleville is set in a hollow
at the bottom of a hill. The gate from the road is on the only open side. The
other three sides are the natural enclosure formed by the hill slopes, but …
BUT! … buttressed in local granite to a height of twenty feet. And Dara, mad
bad Dara, completed the gallop down one side of the paddock, left the line of
the other horses far behind, turned around the shortest side … and headed
straight for the stone wall at a rate of knots! I was doomed. I knew it. Inside
my stalled brain I could hear a distant yammering. And still I kept up my
futile pull on the reins, and still I squeezed my knees tight until my
circulation gave up the fight. The stone wall seemed to jump closer. It came
into focus despite the bounce and rattle of Dara’s galloping, until I saw the
cracks and dimples made by the chisels, the little clumps of grass between the
edges, the line eight feet up where my head would probably be smashed open ….
Until at the last moment Dara heeled over onto his
right, like a motorcycle banking into a tight turn, and the wall fell away on
my left. My mind went blank with the realisation that I was not going to die a
strange and horrible death between a horse and a hard place. The relief lasted
only for a split second. I realised two things simultaneously. First, that
while I would probably not die, I might be crippled. Because Dara was now
galloping along the outer wall, and so close as to crush my left leg or at
least my left knee against the stone. Second, that the distant yammering was
not just within my head. Sardar Karnail Singh, now in my field of vision, was
bellowing across the paddock “Aise, sahib
… AISE !!”. as he sawed his hands
alternately in front of him. Adrenaline lit up my brain. I realised that Dara
had literally got the bit between his teeth, and the only way to get it back
against the tender part of his mouth and re-establish control was to pull the
reins left and right alternately. Which I did. Immediately. With more strength
in my numb fingers and forearms and aching shoulders than I would have thought
It worked. The thunder faded. The rocking subsided.
Dara slowed, first to a canter, then to a trot. He ran off the circular sandy
track beaten by the hooves and finally stopped on a patch of wild grass and
weeds. Harrumphed, snorted long and loud, as if laughing at my discomfiture. I
swear he looked back at me, over his shoulder, and all but winked in glee
before he returned to cropping the grass. I was too dazed to even pull his head
up. From somewhere far away I could hear a friend calling “Good show!”. Karnail
Singh, with uncharacteristic kindness, shouted “Saab, utar jaaiye”, that I could dismount if I wanted to.
But I did not dismount immediately. Instead, I pulled
Dara’s head up, slapped him on the neck, tapped my heels into him, and walked
him slowly back to the corner where the syces
waited. Only then did I dismount, in style – first pulling off the riding hat,
then my little fingerless leather gloves, then making a great show of patting
and stroking and reprimanding Dara, before I finally swung off and dropped to
the ground. My apparent savoir faire
was the subject of my friends’ grudging admiration later. Even Karnail Singh
held off from his usual refrain of “Sahab,
kya kar rahe ho, ghodey ko kharaab kar dogey!” What are you doing, you’ll
ruin the horse.
Only I knew the real reason for my apparent
nonchalance. My legs had been trembling so violently that I knew they would not
have supported me if I had tried to get off the horse immediately.
Friday, December 23, 2022
Thursday, December 22, 2022
Sunday, June 06, 2021
When I checked in the
morning, I found that Badosa had won. Ba. Do. Sa. The names provided one reason
to stay tuned to this minor match in the French Open. This girl from Italy, the
other from Romania. Bogdan. Bog. Dan.
They belie the clunkiness
of their names. Both are lean, athletic, high-cheekboned. Muscular, even, with toned biceps that put to shame my own amorphous arms. Why did I watch the
match almost all the way through? Perhaps because, as I near the end of my
first career, I empathise ever more with the honest trier. Neither has the game
to win a Grand Slam. They will earn some money on the journeyman’s circuit,
grinding it out, occasionally hitting a great shot or playing a great point,
doing 15 min sets of shuttle runs every morning until their knees ache and
their lungs burn. They will never see greatness. After a few years, they will retire
from the circuit and look for other lives. The most obvious option would be
tennis coaching, or at least something to do with sports and fitness. They
could even try modelling. But who knows? Bogdan might be learning to play the
cello. Badosa may have a degree in films and communication. Their lives are not
limited to the red clay arena. Or perhaps they are. Who knows?
The match went against
form for a while. Badosa is ranked 34 to Bogdan’s 102 (best – 59), she has
reached the 4th round at Roland Garros where Bogdan’s best is the
second round, she has earned twice as much money this year. And she is 5 years
younger than her opponent, who is 30. She also has one more singles title than
Bogdan. Who has none. Badosa obviously has the better game. More power,
accuracy. Better shot selection, too.
But all that forsook her
in the first set, where Bogdan played percentage tennis, with a more solid backhand.
In fact her backhand is her stronger side. Not one of her forehands had explosive
power or line-searing accuracy. A couple of Badosa’s shots showed class, but
she made too many unforced errors. She went down 6-2.
The second set see-sawed,
went to a tie-break. The cameras zoomed in on the women. Bogdan, all cheekbones
and eyelashes, was impassive. Only her bright grey eyes showed some emotion,
and once she shouted at herself. Badosa provided more drama. Chic black
wrap-around skirt occasionally flapping in the wind, the slim steel danglers in
her ears shimmering when she tilted her head, eyes determinedly averted from
her opponent when they sat court-side between games. She muttered, grimaced,
raised her arms skywards. And clawed back into the match, taking the tie-break
7-4. One set all.
The third set was off-piste.
They held serve, then broke each other again and again. Each time Bogdan took
advantage of Badosa’s erraticism and ground her way to a game point on her own
serve, the Italian (born in the USA, she was born in the USA) produced a good
point, sometimes a great shot, and muscled back into the set. But again, Bogdan
ground close enough to seal some of the break points. Somewhere inside, I was
rooting for Bogdan because she is older, she has less time left, she is the
lower-ranked underdog. But I could see the writing on the wall. Bogdan was
tiring. She didn’t run around her backhand to finish off loose returns. Was she
unsure of her forehand? She did not go for the kill even when a flank was wide
open. Still playing the percentages, but they were no longer in her favour.
Because Badosa was back in her zone. Hitting deep, hard, wide. A couple of times
she left Bogdan standing.
It showed in the way she walked back to her chair. Lithe, confident, almost feral. Like a cheetah on the stalk, knowing that it will take just a last burst of speed to take the prey. And it happened. Bogdan, subtly tired and just a little unsure after the break-backs, tried too many drop-shots. Too slow. Too high. All in the backhand net corner. Badosa ran them down, killed them. Then Bogdan put a couple into the net herself. After 4 all, after 2 breaks apiece, after 4 deuces, Badosa held serve. And stalked to her deuce court to receive.
I knew what was coming. I switched off the TV. The match vanished. The players faded.
I could not bear to see either of them lose. I am too invested in the pain of the journeyman.
Friday, January 06, 2017
In the first week of a new year, Om Puri is dead. At the age of 66. I wonder what Naseeruddin Shah will have to say about him. Did they even remain friends after the ’80s?