Vijay Matheswaran is a PhD candidate at Wichita State University. He blogs at chairoom.wordpress.com
There was something about monsoon evenings that Philip Thomas couldn’t put his finger on. The staccato drum of the raindrops on the roof, thunder rumbling overhead, the wind caressing his face with cold spray: it was paradise, or so he believed. And that called for a drink.
His daughter, Devika, was not easily taken with his portrayal of such evenings. “Rubbish,” she said. “You say that about winter evenings, too.”
“I do? Forgive me, my dear. I’m growing old, and one tends to appreciate the world more as a geriatric.”
Devika told him that that was hogwash, too. “The weather is just an excuse for you to sit at the Gymkhana with your cronies and yap about the war over a bottle of scotch.” Nevertheless, she never tried stopping Philip as he left the house each evening after tea, tweed coat on his back and umbrella slung across his arm. The mannerisms of war veterans perplexed her.
The porch at the Gymkhana was strangely bereft of people for a Friday night, but Philip didn’t mind. He resented the boisterous youngsters who often dropped by on weekends, their noise and drinks, in equal measure, spilling well beyond their tables. He made his way to where his friends were seated.
“Ah, Phil, old boy! You’re right on time!” Subbu, his booming baritone echoing around the empty portico, waved him over. “Rajesh here just joined us for a drink. Tell him about that day in ’71. Tell him why they pinned the Vir Chakra on you.”
“Oh, that’s an old tale,” said Philip dismissively, but his weak protests were shouted down by the rest of the gang. Laughing, he lowered himself gingerly into an armchair and poured himself a drink, before launching into a tale he had recounted hundreds of times before and relived, in his head, all the more.
“Pakistan had hit most of the western front the previous evening. Starfighters, Sabres, Mirage IIIs, they got the whole jing-bang lot.” A few of the group nodded, bethinking that fateful night.
“The audacity,” said Ajmad, another one of the gathering who had served with Philip. “You would imagine the Paks wouldn’t have the nerve to do something like that.”
The remark elicited a few guffaws before they quieted down, prompting Philip to continue. “About two days later, we took off on a sortie to bomb the airfields at Tejgaon. There were four of us, Subbu, Ajmad, myself and this chap named Pankaj, flying Hawker Hunters. We were escorted by four MiG-21s from Hashimara.”
“Fat lot of use they were,” interjected Subbu. “We ran into a flight of Sabres on the way back.”
“Well, you had the MiGs with you. Shouldn’t have been much trouble.”
“The bloody jokers lost us, Rajesh! The Sabres were on to us in no time! Philip, go on, tell him the rest.”
Philip tossed a few salted peanuts into his mouth before forging ahead. He didn’t need to recollect the details; the scenes were as fresh in his memory as the day they had occurred. “So here we were, four Hunters, our escorts nowhere in sight, and two Sabres diving out of the sun on to us, guns blazing,” He took a sip of his drink before continuing. “Subbu and I pulled a hard, fast break to the east.”
“One of the Sabres stayed with us, pulling a very tight turn,” said Philip. His hands hovered above the table, palms flat and two fingers jutting out, depicting the airplanes. “He manages to get behind Subbu. We were flying a finger-four formation, and I was slightly astern of Subbu.”
“That’s when the Red Baron here pulled his stunts,” Ajmad threw in, thumping Philip on the back.
“Very basic manoeuvre,” said Philip modestly. “A high speed yoyo. I pulled up, rolled and made a diving turn. The Sabre was right in my sights. I squeezed off a burst and the poor chap’s fuselage turned into a great big fireball.”
There were a few cries of “Attaboy, Philip!” and some clapping before they hushed down, allowing Subbu to speak. “Saved my life, he did. Another few seconds and the Sabre would have reduced my aircraft to a flaming wreck.” Subbu raised his glass in Philip’s direction.
Philip waved dismissively. “It was nothing. Just doing my job,” he said, rather quietly.
There was general applause and calls for more liquor and more anecdotes from the war. Ajmad put an LP record on the jukebox, and the sound of Mary Hopkins crooning ‘Those were the days, my friend’ filled the evening air. They sang along, full throated and loud, much like the idealistic young rabble they had been fifty years ago.
Philip Thomas walked home later that evening, nursing a warm glow in his stomach and a pleasant feeling in his head. From the talk or the scotch, he wasn’t certain. He knew he would get an earful from Devika for turning up late, but he didn’t mind. His thoughts weaved like fighter jets diving through clouds and, at this moment, he saw no reason to shoot them down.
“You intend to what?!” Devika was incredulous as Philip explained the previous evening’s decision to her.
He could not fathom why his daughter was getting so worked up.“It’s quite simple. Ajmad, Subbu and I, we felt there wasn’t any adventure in our lives, unlike the old days. So we…”
Devika’s held-up palm cut him short. “Let me get this straight. You and your gang want to rent motorbikes and drive around the subcontinent?”
“To say subcontinent would be an exaggeration, dear. We’re only riding from Coorg to…”
“Are you stark raving mad?”
Philip had expected Devika to demur, but had not anticipated such a strong reaction. Him pointing out that they were planning to rent Royal Enfields, good sturdy motorbikes, did not seem to appease her.
“A bunch of 70-year-olds going on a road trip. Perfectly viable. Go ahead, I won’t be a cog in the wheel.” Philip could almost reach out and wring the sarcasm from her remark.
“I’ll leave you to plan your excursion then. I have a coffee plantation to run,” called Devika, letting herself out of the wooden cottage. Philip heard the door slam as she left.
Devika found her father crouched at the dining table as she entered the house at dusk, poring over yellowed maps, pencil in hand. Books with titles like ‘The Great Indian Road Trip’ and ‘Explore South India’ littered the table. Philip looked up as she dumped her bag on the sofa and walked up to him.
“Good evening, dear. How was your day?”
“It was alright, Papa. What’s all this?” she gestured to the maps spread wide.
“Just a little research,” said Philip. He beckoned his daughter over to the empty chair adjacent to him. “Take a look. This will be our route.” He traced his finger along a circuitous red path marked on the map.
Devika sighed, exasperated. “You’re not even going to try and be pragmatic, are you?”
“It’s only a trip, dear. Perfectly harmless.”
Shaking her head in annoyance, Devika made her way to the stove, putting on a pot of water for tea. From the kitchen, she continued to try and persuade her father that the expedition was an inherently foolish one, while scanning the newspaper for interesting articles. Philip, sensing that his best defence lay in silence, pretended to be engrossed in his maps.
“Oh, look at this,” Devika read out. “Government pulls the plug on Telegraph service.”
“Is that so?” Philip glanced up, his expression a mixture of curiosity and befuddlement. “I wonder why.”
“Regained your hearing, have you?” Devika taunted scathingly, placing a cup of tea at the table for Philip, before turning back to the newspaper. “It was inevitable. With telephones and the internet, no one really needs to send a telegram these days.”
“All the same, it is rather sad.”
Devika looked her father curiously. “And why is that?” She was puzzled as to why the demise of India’s telegraph service would affect her father.
“Ah, another old story,” said Philip with a dismissive wave.
“Tell me. I’ve never heard this one.”
For a while, Philip was silent, rocking his chair. He wondered how he should phrase his tale; it was not one he ever recounted. “Your mother was in Calcutta before the war. I’d been courting her a while.”
Devika nodded. She only knew vague details about her parents’ marriage and their lives prior to it. It bothered her now that she had never made an effort to ask.
“She’d just won a place at Presidency College,” Philip continued. “When I got orders to report to a forward air base, your mother came to Howrah station to see me off.
“We never mention it, but war, it’s a frightful business. All of us were mortally scared. You didn’t know if you were going to make it back or not.”
Philip paused, gulping down his tepid tea, before resuming his account. “I didn’t want to leave like that; with things unsaid, uncertain. I was going to ask your mother to marry me.
“Of course, amid all that tamasha of loading the luggage and finding one’s seat, I couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask her. Perhaps it was the trepidation of rejection or the apprehension of not coming back from the war. I can’t really say.”
“You just left?”
“Yes, for what could I do?” Philip’s tone conveyed the helplessness he had felt that night, decades ago. And yet, the memory bought a smile to his face. “It took me a while to gnaw away at that fear. The night before my first sortie, I sent her a telegram. The operator thought I was a lunatic. I must be the only man in history to ask a girl to marry him through a telegram.” Philip reclined in his chair, his eyes hazy, and his mind playing out fantasies on the pretext of what could have been. He found it ironical that a war hadn’t torn them apart, but a speeding truck one foggy winter morning had.
“How come you’ve never mentioned this among your countless war tales?” said Devika, her tone hushed, a hoarse whisper almost. They hardly ever brought up the subject of her mother.
“It’s not the kind of war tale one has a predilection for,” he said wistfully. Standing up, he kissed his daughter goodbye before donning his coat, picking up his umbrella and stepping out into the rain.
Amid the high teas, suppers and bridge nights that constituted Coorg’s prosaic social calendar was the annual lantern festival. The torrential rains of the monsoon assured that it never took place on the same date every year, but on the closest rain-starved evening to the end of July. Nevertheless, any attempts to move the festival to the drier winter or summer months were put down vehemently by purists. This year it was on the last weekend of July, the meteorologists’ promise of a clear, cloudless night sky holding good.
Devika adored the lantern festival. She loved the chatter that enveloped the estate as each little store tried outdoing the other, the dull glow that emanated from each stall and the general feeling of festivity. She picked out an ornate orange lantern shaped like a pagoda from a tiny stall before buying a tub of popcorn and making her way to the edge of the estate. Finding a secluded spot, she made herself comfortable, munching popcorn and dangling her legs off the edge of the cliff. Behind her, the crowd had begun lighting their lanterns, the flimsy paper structures rising into the air.
She spotted Subbu among the teeming crowd, flitting like a moth from one stall to another. As always, he looked jovial, decked in his customary trousers and tie and indulging in revelry. Waving in her direction, he began making his way towards the edge of the plantation where she was seated.
All through the years, Devika had never comprehended the man. She knew her father had saved his life back in the war, and that Subbu adored Philip, but she couldn’t get how he was always so upbeat, so chirpy. A personality that blithe seemed like a farce to her. And now, after learning that the motorcycle trip was as much his idea as Philip’s, she resented him all the more.
Subbu sat down beside Devika on the coarse grass.
“Beautiful evening, isn’t it?”
Devika agreed that it was. “I’ve always had a predilection for the lantern festival.”
Subbu merely nodded, not offering an opinion. Together, they watched countless paper lanterns take to the sky in quick succession. They rose into the night air, diminishing into little pin pricks of light among the stars.
“I didn’t think you would be here tonight,” said Devika, turning towards Subbu. “I expected that you’d be hunting motorbikes to rent along with my father.”
“Philip has it all sorted out. I believe he is going to join us shortly.”
Devika shook her head in exasperation and put down her bag of popcorn rather forcefully. “How far is this going to go, Subbu? All this talk when you’re knocking back a few drinks at the Gymkhana, it’s perfectly fine. But it’s a whole different matter when you propose to go ahead with an idea as crazy as this.”
Subbu did not respond immediately, tinkering instead with his lantern. He set about lighting the wick, watching it get buoyed upwards by the hot air inside it. Gently, he relaxed his grip on it, letting the lantern drift upwards and join countless other spots of light that illuminated the night sky.
“There’s a fine line, you know,” he said, returning to his spot beside Devika. “A fine line between being young and being young at heart. And if you can’t be the former, you’re going to have to be the latter.
As you grow older though, it seems to me like one begins doing an elaborate balancing act, toeing that line. Sometimes it’s just simpler to fall, whichever side that may be.” He rose again and held out his hand. “Come; let us light up that lantern of yours.”
They heard the staccato thump of a Royal Enfield engine as they ambled along towards the gate. The sky was now bereft of dancing paper lanterns, adorned only by the stars. Most of the crowd were melting away slowly back to their lives.
“Subbu! Devika! Over here!” Philip called out, waving his arms frantically. He was seated on an olive green Royal Enfield motorbike, its massive fuel tank gleaming in the moonlight and the engine growling like a caged tiger.
“A beauty, isn’t she?” said Philip as Subbu and Devika drew near. “Oozes power, this one. Ajmad should be here anytime now. He’s riding the other motorbike.”
“So we’re all set for Sunday then?”
“Yes, Subbu, all set,” reiterated Philip. He turned to his daughter, who had been observing stone-faced all the while. “Hop on, dear. Let me give you a ride home.”
Devika stood rooted to the spot. She glanced at her father’s hands on the handlebars of the motorbike. Old, knobbly hands, mapped with veins. Hands that had thrown a fighter plane into a shrieking dive. Hands that had pulled a trigger to save a life, hands that had pulled a trigger to take a life. Who was she to say they couldn’t go another round?
Philip noticed Devika looking at his frail hands and he worried. Frail hands that had sent a telegram professing undying love, feeble hands that had held her as a baby. Hands that had buried a father, mother and a wife. He worried that his ageing hands only told her this half of his tale, this half of his story.
Devika nodded, walking slowly to the motorbike before hoisting herself onto the rear seat. Together they roared down the dusty track, into the moonlight.
(cover photo credit: pxhere)