When I undertook to allow the armed forces to train me to become a good staff-officer (Read Learning ‘The Ropes’ At Defence Services Staff College At Wellington, Nilgiris – Part I’ and ‘Part II’), I also took it upon myself to let go of all that used to keep me in high spirits. It was a tough decision but I was going to prove a point to me; which was that even though I was a proud member of fauj, Sikh religion and hailing from Punjab, I could do without the elixir of life. Suddenly from an irresponsible vagabond I stepped into the sober though somewhat sombre world of the nek aadmi.
Accolades started flowing in a-plenty. In addition, I also became the butt of many jokes. I sought refuge in the friendship of SK Sharma, an Air Electric officer and a Brahmin with a keen sense of humour.
Do you remember the Catch 22 logic of Yossarian’s friend Orr who had a bucktoothed smile due to crab apples in his cheeks? He used to carry rubber balls in his hands. So when anyone teased him about having crab apples in his cheeks, he used to tell them that he had rubber balls and they were not in his cheeks but in his hands! Well I tried the same logic for my perennial sobriety, through my friendship with SK Sharma. Whenever, anyone told me that I was wonky, I used to point towards SK Sharma and say that whereas I had recently become a teetotaller SKS had been so from the time of his being at his mother’s knee onwards. In this ingenious manner my friendship with SKS helped me ward off many barbs targeted at me.
Our friendship had just begun to bloom when the blow stuck us. Sharma and I used to go by our four-wheelers (cars) anywhere and everywhere and had sold off our two wheelers (scooters and mobikes). Since we didn’t indulge, we had the spare money for the fuel and we had just begun to enjoy ourselves in our combined world of puritanism. The blow that stuck us was that the Government of India, without consulting SK and I, suddenly raised the petrol prices from Rupees 10.50 a litre (in Tamilnadu) to Rupees 13.25 – an almost 30 per cent increase.
The next evening, since it was his turn, I waited for SK to pick me up from my house in Castle Quarters to go to WGC (Wellington Gymkhana Club) to play billiards. He arrived at the appointed hour but instead of chuckles of laughter and sunniness that used to herald his arrival, I noticed that he was competing with an Egyptian mummy for years of lifelessness. I got into the front left seat of his car and we arrived at the club. Nothing was said between us since the news had killed our enthusiasm almost totally. He played the first shot and I noticed that he offered me an easy in-off followed by red potting and promise of many other geometric possibilities.
I applied sufficient chalk to the tip of my cue and took my stance for what I hoped would be a long break. And it is precisely at this time that SK chose to break the agonising silence of that evening.
“Have you heard the bad news Sir?” he asked.
“Yes” I replied icily so as to cap all further conversation until I had completed my break of at least 30 points.
“I am afraid” he continued with determination, “It is going to affect us the most.”
I had no choice but to break my stance as the Tsunami was almost at my door-step. I put the handling end of the cue down and my look asked him to explain.
“Well Sir” he explained, “Both of us don’t smoke, drink or have any such vices. In order to offset the increased cost of petrol, all that the drinkers, for example, have to do is to cut down an equivalent amount of their drinking and they land up with the same expenditure as they used to incur earlier. You and I have no such cushion.”
I was immediately reminded of a dialogue from a Smita Patil movie that went like this: “Nangi kyaa dhoye kyaa nichode?” (A poor naked woman doesn’t have enough to wash and squeeze out)
We quickly finished the game that SK once again won easily. He dropped me back home and I changed and drove my own car back to WGC. Ordering a series of drinks at the bar had become for me a matter of life and death. A Brahmin with his simple wit had put an end to my short-lived abstinence; I was already preparing to offset the next fuel price hike.
By the time I left DSSC I had adequately prepared to offset fuel price hikes for the next decade or so!
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