‘Yes Rustom, I am fully aware that my dentures fell out and Golden Duck almost stepped on them. I am also aware that I was drooling all over myself. That was the whole point, stupid!’ I said in righteous indignation. My indignation is always righteous.
‘You shouldn’t have tried to stand up, Rao. You can’t walk! I’m sorry you embarrassed yourself, Rao.’
‘Rustie, you dimwit. You don’t get it, do you? I didn’t embarrass myself, I embarrassed Golden Duck. Look at his pathetic face as he walks away with his pathetic wife. He will now sit in his car and sigh like Meena Kumari a few times. The image of me helplessly collapsing to the ground will linger in his mind for a bit. Then he will say something deep to his wife like he has seen Hollywood heroes do, and drive away with a lump in his throat, feeling guilty for leaving his 90 year-old father in this luxurious shithole. He will spend tomorrow whining and feeling sorry for himself under the guise of feeling sorry for me, before he goes back to stealing diapers from starving Ethiopian children or whatever it is he does.’
‘Your son is the CEO of a bank, Rao.’
‘Same difference. Ha! Look at his face. Gold, Rustie, this is gold! Ah. Now let’s focus on today’s mission. Quick, let’s duck into this room here before some idle Shastri comes along and starts reading Paulo Coelho to us.’
‘Do you really hate it here, Rao?’
‘Oh no, I love it! I love it as much as Richards loved hitting sixes, but who wants Golden Duck to know that? Let him sulk. Now, Rustie, everything must go as per plan.’
With this, I systematically proceeded to hammer down my well laid-out plan into Rustom’s thick Parsi skull. I had waited for this moment forever, or at least since Cinderella had stepped into the Bhavan. But not helplessly, mind you. Bajirao doesn’t wait for fate to happen to him. He happens to fate.
It had been several years since Golden Duck first dropped me at Anand Bhavan, luxury home for the elderly, despite owning a bungalow large enough to house all of Hadlee’s 431 victims, complete with pads and helmets on. I love it here, but I can’t say the same about all the other players here. Most of the others here behave like tail-enders following-on on the fourth day, waiting for the finger to go up. They are retired from their jobs and retired from life. They get through days getting pushed around on wheelchairs by those annoying, cloying, condescending Shastris dressed in white. They get fed that bland goo by them, they get pills pushed down their throats by them, they get addressed in first person plural by them, and worst of all, they get endless hours of self-help, spirituality and pseudo-philosophy read to them. I’d rather listen to the real Ravi Shastri meaninglessly babble on about what speed the ball is moving at than listen to these clones of his bullshit about conspiracies of the Universe.
But I am not a tail-ender. I am the guy who goes in to face Joel Garner, survives and also hits a six to top it off. It is however, difficult to keep the spirit up in this depressing company. I myself would’ve succumbed to the routine if it weren’t for that one spot of heaven in this dull place: the girls’ wing. Like everywhere else in my life, this place also has about half a girl for every million guys that camp out here. But like everywhere else, that hasn’t come in the way of me working my charm. After the wife returned to pavilion a couple of decades ago, I must say that I have met with significant success in the ladies’ department. I can easily say that I’ve had the most number of Geeta-talks, children-story-exchanges, wheelchair-walks and even hand-brushes at the Bhavan. Few of the guys here manage to have any sort of rapport with the girls’ wing, what with the Shastris treating us like babies. In a day, there are only two opportunities to mingle: lunchtime and evening walk-time. Even during lunchtime, the idiots roll us in to the dining hall into two separate blocks. Only few of us have ambulatory powers, and few among those who do have the social skills to have meaningful interaction with the opposite sex. Physical handicaps have never come in the way of my tremendous will power, but let’s just say there was never enough motivation for me to really go after any particular mark.
That was until the arrival of Cinderella. I still remember the day she was first rolled into the Bhavan. With great skill, I had hoodwinked a Shastri who was bent on unleashing some Classical music crap on me to make it to the TV room to watch India play Australia. One wrong move and I’d be discovered. And yet, when she first caught my eye, I mindlessly rolled out of the room onto the veranda in plain sight. She rolled down the covered walkway towards the central lobby, half her face covered with shadow. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Shiny silver hair covered more of her head than I’d seen on any other pretty young thing over 75. The wrinkles on her face were in perfect symmetry. The bags under her eyes hung nice and high, and her eyes looked like they had never had cataract. She wore a pink something with flowers on it, which went perfectly with her fair, cutely crumply skin. The moment I set eyes on her, a new light had come into my life. I felt like a Kapil who knows exactly how many balls he has to score the winning runs.
However, it wasn’t meant to be easy. Cinderella had some affliction that severely compromised her memory. She wasn’t very good at remembering things, which meant that making an ‘unforgettable’ impression was going to be harder than usual. I had to make use of every window available – lunchtime, evening walks and special occasions like birthdays. I made a great start, with a couple of great lunch-time looks and smiles, and a fulfilling conversation one evening when I managed to lose my Shastri and ‘unwittingly’ veer into girl territory. We talked for a whole minute about the horrible food they served in the mess. There was a confusing moment there when I thought she was actually praising the food, but that was mere detail. The important thing was that we talked.
Things seemed to be going well, until that fateful day when I met my nemesis, Batra. This Batra was some sort of high-ranking army chap. High-ranking a-hole, if you ask me. Clearly, he’d forgotten that it had been several decades since he had retired from the army. He wore that stupid flat cap, and crisply ironed white shirts. Many times he even wore a tweed jacket to impress the girls. The fact that he could walk straight was a major advantage for him. Several times during the evening walk, I pretended to have forgotten my sweater or have a headache and dispatched my Shastri to fetch stuff from my room. Once rid of him, I would wander over to the girl zone to unleash some smooth-talk. I’d roll across the 200 or so meters with lightning speed (in no more than ten minutes) and approach my mark, only to find that bastard Batra already pushing Cinderella’s wheelchair around cracking old jokes. When things got out of hand, I knew I had to take drastic steps, and took my faithful non-striker Rustie into confidence.
‘Cinderella? Her name is Sindhu, I think. Rao, are you sure you want to play these games in your old age?’ Rustie said stupidly.
I suitably admonished Rustie, reminding him that it is actually him, his father and his entire family that is old, and I am the youngest guy around, at least at heart.
My first move was the classic ‘Retired Hurt’ routine. One afternoon, I got Rustie to invite Batra over to my room for my famous masala tea as a gesture of friendship. Batra, however, got one extra secret ingredient in his masala tea that day. When I zapped over to see Cinderella in the evening, as expected, Batra was already there boring her to death. The three of us stood there chatting for a few minutes, when the ‘masala’ kicked in. Suddenly, Batra’s mood changed, and a sudden energy seemed to take him in its grip. ‘Er, would you excuse me?’ he said, his thoughts obviously on other urgent matters. ‘Oh, why won’t you stay and tell us more Kashmir stories?’ I said, not letting him leave us. Finally, he had to flee the scene abruptly in search of the nearest bathroom, and I had a long heart-to-heart with Cindy about emotional stuff. I told her how much I regretted the loss of my walking ability, and she empathized. She said her health was improving, and if god wished so, maybe even I could regain the ability to walk someday.
Batra wised up and made his move. He must have pulled some strings, because I got assigned a new permanent Shastri called Sudhir, a particularly persistent fellow. No excuse would work with him; if I forgot my sweater or my pills, he had them on him; if I asked to be left alone for some rest, he would be lurking in the vicinity making an escape impossible. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and asked me endless questions about everything including cricket. As much as I like to discuss cricket, I much prefer to do it with young girls under 85 and not pesky boys. Nobody goes one-up on Bajirao, though. Slowly but steadily, I got Sudhir interested in war history and convinced him that he must learn from that reservoir of knowledge about wars, Batra. His desperate request to the warden was seconded by me, and the next day, Sudhir was following Batra around. Soon, he was transferred to an orphanage.
Our war continued for months, sometimes with me having the upper hand and sometimes with Batra causing me some trouble. Little did he know, though, that while I kept him engaged in this silly game of one-upmanship, I was silently preparing for the final slog. I had got to know Cindy pretty well, and our evening chats were now a regular feature. Her memory was definitely a problem, and she often smiled at me as if she had seen me for the first time. While it was a consolation that Batra faced the same problem, it made the Dance all the more important.
The Dance was an annual event, where all the residents, boys and girls, got together in the assembly hall, cut a cake, and theoretically danced to a live band. Only a few men, who could walk, could even make as if they were dancing. Relatively, a larger percentage of the girls were mobile, making the sex ratio much more balanced. As expected, they had announced the Dance this morning, and today’s evening walk was going to be the first opportunity for us to ask the girls to the Dance. Lately, Cinderella had begun walking, which had lulled Batra into a false sense of security, me being confined to the wheelchair. He didn’t know that I had an ace up my sleeve.
Just before walk time, Batra got called urgently to the warden’s office. There was a call for him. It was an emergency. Somebody was trying to reach him urgently, but his mobile was ‘switched off’. Rustie had executed the plan to perfection so far, and it was time for my grand entrance now. I sent my Shastri to fetch my reading glasses (which were firmly lodged out of sight in the gap between the wall and the cupboard). Slowly but surely, I swished towards the girl zone. There she was, rolling down the walkway, looking as youthful as ever. This was my moment. I wasn’t going to waste any time in asking her. Of course, she would express surprise and point out that I cannot stand up, let alone dance, at which point I would pull out my ace. I would tell her that she had changed me. I would tell her that since the time I’ve met her, I have started believing that I can walk, and by the time the Dance came by, I would be dancing like Javed Miandad on the pitch. She would express both thanks and disbelief, at which point I would seal the deal by getting off my wheelchair and standing tall on my own two feet, bowling her over.
You see, I have regained my ability to walk long ago. Sure, it’s a little painful and tiresome, but now this disability thing is really just an act for the benefit of Golden Duck. I would hate it if that bastard saw me run around in this place and go home feeling ‘happy for me’. I have never really felt the need to walk around, until today, when it is going to be put to the best use possible.
So there she was in front of me. The scene proceeded almost as rehearsed, except I gave my emotional speech about walking first, and saved the Dance request for last, after I’d unveiled my magic act. By the time I gave the speech about will power I had her eating out of my hand. After a perfect build-up, I prepared to get up, slid a little forward in my chair as she looked on wide-eyed, when disaster struck. I saw Batra almost sprinting towards us from the warden’s office. That however, was not the disastrous part. From the opposite end of the grounds, at a distance, I saw Golden Duck coming back into the Bhavan. How could it be? In hindsight, maybe I overplayed my hand today; he must have come back to see me in a rush of sympathy. I had to make a snap decision. Do I choose Cindy, or do I choose my status as poor old Dad? It was the toughest decision of my life, and I had about 4 seconds to make it. I will never forget what happened next.
It was a few months after the Dance, and I was sitting in the TV room with Golden Duck at my feet, watching a re-run of the 1983 world cup final. From the next room came the sounds of a heated argument between the couple about who nags more. They didn’t seem happy. On screen, Garner dispatched a stinger towards Sandeep Patil, who skilfully raised his bat and let the ball safely sail towards first slip. ‘Well left’ I said to Golden Duck as I patted the left wheel of my wheelchair, ‘Son, sometimes leaving the ball can be a very important skill.’