Monday, January 25, 2010

An Alternate Reality

Kiki was Toolie’s bigger and badder brother: in size, insolence, impudence, and good old Punjabi brazenness. Toolie himself was hard to pip in any of these departments, so Kiki must just have gotten an extra copy of them badass genes.  

Perhaps to cut all this down to size, someone in the family decided that Kiki must join the army. So Kiki applied for the Short Service Commission of the Indian Army that lets you serve for five years and then decide. Kiki got selected and was posted to Madras where he started boot camp. A few weeks later Toolie, Amar and I decide to visit him from IIT.

His outpost was many kilometers away and the visiting hours were Sundays, between 10 and 12.  So one Sunday morning I get out to Ganga hostel to borrow Pranish’s Yezdi. As the only one with a valid driving license, I ride. Amar piles in behind me and Toolie behind him.  

There was just one catch. The rear wheel hub assembly of the motorcycle was missing a lug nut, so in theory the wheel could come right off, anytime. Toolie assures us that this shouldn’t be a problem since he would personally check on it, as we ride along. The man kept his word.  Every kilometer or so, he’d lean over to one side to examine and certify the state of the wheel.  It was a different matter that each such inspection quadrupled the risk of keeling over; one that he so gallantly sought to contain in the first place.

We reach the campus, dismount and walk in. We spot a guy jogging by with a large log of wood on his shoulders and his arms drooped over either end. It must have weighed at least 30 pounds. One look at his tortured face tells us that this was no Black Cat training schedule or some other field-martial derring-do; he was just copping punishment — military style.  After this sobering introduction, we move on to find the visitors area and see Kiki waiting for us.

“What took you all so long?” he exclaims, looking at us with the gratitude of an earthquake survivor pulled out of the rubble after two days. Kiki had been in boot camp for a few weeks and it shows.  

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here", he starts. "The guys here are crazy. They are Jats from Rajasthan, man. I mean, these guys were stripping and eating a camel with their teeth and bare hands a few weeks ago, while I was eating a dosa and sipping a shake at Nirulas in Connaught Place!  How am I supposed to keep up with these guys…” 

Kiki talks a lot. Like a bluesman, his tales convey his unremitting misery at the camp. We try changing topics to make him feel better. Our unfettered easy life at IIT just rankles him. 

“You guys have no idea how good you have it,” he proclaims. “Do you know what music they have over here? They have one English album in this entire place!  And guess what it is, Toolie?  It’s Paul Fuckin’ Anka. From the 1960s, man!” Kiki actually puts on the record to demonstrate his anguish. We lean back and take a listen. The complaints continue to flow thick and fast.

My heart goes out to him, even as my mind wanders back in time...  

I congratulate myself for standing up to my dad, years ago, in refusing to attend the follow-up physicals after clearing the National Defense Academy exam. Those old conversations play back in my head.

“You must go for the interview”, says dad. “This is the NDA. You will be an officer at twenty two! Do you have any idea how long it normally takes to become an officer in the army?”

“But Daddy, they make you toil all day. And the interview is in Allahabad — in June.  It's forty three degrees in Allahabad."

“Listen to me! You don’t know what you’re talking about. I worked in the Defense Ministry for 25 years. The NDA boys were always on top. Do you know that you can retire with a half-pension after 15 years? Where else can you do that?”

“But Daddy, did you know that they have an ambulance waiting at the NDA physicals?  Shamsheer told me… I think it’s because they ask you to jump off an eight-foot wall and a few boys actually dislocate their kneecaps! They test your body Daddy, not your brain!"

“You just shuddup! You think you are the most intelligent fellow around and the NDA boys are all bloody fools. Just because they don’t come from your stupid St Josephs School!  Let me call Periappa... tell him what a bloody idiot you are….”

Periappa (uncle) had served for decades at the Defense Services Staff College in Wellington. A week later, he would send me a beautifully hand-written letter confirming my status as a bloody idiot, while exhorting me to join the NDA. I still remember this Hollywood line — Vijay, you will join the Academy as a boy, but you will come out a man!

I still have the letter somewhere. Manhood, meanwhile, has thankfully managed to elude me. Watching Kiki now is supreme affirmation of my decision to ignore that sage advice years back.

Meanwhile, Kiki brings me back to the present. “Toolie, get me some music when you get here next time, OK?” he says.  We’ve started to head towards the door to take our leave. 

“When are you guys coming next?  Can you come next Sunday?” he implores. “Curly, just remind Toolie to get me some damn music!” was the last thing I heard as we left.

That visit put a new perspective on my IIT experience. Deep gratitude for my station welled up within me. I stopped bitching about the mess sambar and dosas for two straight weeks.


  1. I remember our visit to Kiki's boot camp vividly.
    On one such visit, Kiki introduced us (not by choice!) to a couple of his seniors who then told us in a monotonous voice how the officer's training in the Indian Army was the best thing that could happen to anyone.
    The story I still remember is Kiki describing the sheer number of pushups they had to endure. Apparently, one day, one of his colleagues was asked to do several on a road in the mid-afternoon heat of Madras -- and when he got up after, there was no skin on his palms :(
    And, we at IIT, still complain about filing ....

  2. Did not know about Kiki/boot camp. But was this Toolie's inspiration to do pushups at every opportunity ?

  3. Curly: All I can say is my IIT life has been dull and boring compared to yours. Or, a more benign explanation is that your writing makes that life more colorful than what it really is.

    Keep writing.