A DIRTY STORY, VIPIN SEHGAL
While it is true that everyone has a collection of cringe worthy experiences, it is also true that some, like myself, have more than their fair share of memories which induce an involuntary YEECCCH reaction, and make my whole being quiver with disgust. What you are about to read is an absolute first for me. For reasons that will be obvious soon, I have never spoken about this to anyone, by which I mean no one. Given the nature of this episode I implore you not to speak about this. Ever. Please. Especially not with me.
During the late 50s and early 60s all of us in the Senior Boys’ portion of our boarding School, the others being Senior Girls’ and the Junior Co-ed schools, were required to wear Khaki from top to bottom, with the exception of socks and shoes, of course. The change in Dress Code only occurred on special occasions such as for the Guest Night Dinners, when we had to deck ourselves out in Navy Blue suits and Maroon ties, and for trips to Mussoorie (Muss for short), that required us to wear all white, topped with a Maroon blazer. Although, looking back we now consider those as halcyon days. It is also true, however, that while living those days we knew our boarding School as a prison, where we were rewarded with a temporary parole in the form of a trip to Muss, according to the following regimen:
- Second Saturday of the Month – Good Conduct Boys, the goody two shoes who had not picked up a single black mark during the preceding month;
- Third Saturday of the Month – All boys except those gaited, ie. serving the second most severe punishment, first place in severity was held by rustication; and
- Fourth Saturday of the Month, as well as on all the above Saturdays – Prefects, the warders amongst us prisoners.
A bonus of Saturday and Sunday mornings was not having to jog twice around the Back Pitch, a total of 440 yards, or a quarter mile before breakfast. Another bonus of not having to jog was not risking a Prefects’ kick in the rear for jogging too slowly. On Muss Saturdays, following breakfast, at around 9:00 AM we would assemble in our classrooms, where our Class Master would check our Cash balance in his Register and dole out 5 Rupees, if the account was not overdrawn. With the 5 Rupee note (which became 10 Rupees in my last two years) grasped in our hot little hands we would gallop out of class, and head towards Muss as fast as our legs and stamina would allow.
The looping, winding road to Mussoorie would be filled by flocks of school boys in white, wearing the Maroon blazers looked like waves of tulips in groups of anywhere from 2 to 6 boys, with a few individuals in solo flight. We had no eyes for the hamlet of Jharipani, nor did we glance at the Raja’s Palace (Fairlawn Palace). Not for us the beautiful, lush vistas of the Doon Valley. As we entered the No Man’s Land beyond the Palace informal competitions of overtaking each other started, accompanied by insulting shouting matches.
“What’s your rush Chimpu? There are no girls waiting for you in Muss!”
“What do you know about girls Fatso? Looking at your waddling, you’d be lucky to reach tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself.”
This general expression of the giddiness prompted by being out of the confines of the School, and the excitement of the attractions awaiting us in Muss continued till we reached the gates of St. George’s, and the start of Barlowganj that signalled we were finally out of reach of the School. Upon arriving in Barlowganj, and in acknowledgement of our having reached civilization, the horsing around, and loud bantering with other groups stopped, as we renewed our focus on the objective of reaching Muss as quickly as possible.
The main street of Barlowganj was pretty dull and held no charms for us, except the flat of it provided a breather before the steep climb ahead to Wynberg Allen’s and beyond. Once past Allen we could almost smell Muss. In no time we were at the hairpin bend to Kincraig, and then up to the blessed Bus Stand. The whole trip usually taking approximately 45 minutes. We stopped at Picture Palace just long enough to check out what was playing there and in Jubilee, its twin theatre below on the lower level.
For me the next bit was the best part of the trip, getting to sneak a peek into the window of the Golden “English Wine” Shop, where I would passionately ogle the 17 years old owner’s daughter, minding the Shop as well as two of her younger siblings. Having been conditioned by Hindi film family dramas, her devotion to the siblings made her the perfect wife material in my lustful eyes. Oh, if only she would glance up and notice me salivating outside. Unfortunately, I couldn’t linger, and risk making my desires obvious to my mates – I would never be able to live down the consequent merciless teasing.
Another of life’s ironies, more than 60 years later, I accidentally found out the Wine Shop lass grew to fame as the nymphomaniac of Muss. She was married off to a much older Seth, and ended up eloping with a young man below her station. The fugitive couple were sighted in Nepal, and were deceitfully brought back with promises of all being forgiven and forgotten. Alas, once back in Mussoorie the young man was beaten by the Police to within inches of his life. The young lady was restored to her older husband, whence she gave birth to a couple of daughters. Ultimately, she decamped with her daughters to California where they started a successful restaurant and Yoga business. Not all love stories have a lived happily ever after ending.
As mentioned earlier, in retrospect my time at School was truly idyllic. The only regret I have is my blindness to the historic and architectural charms of Mussoorie and Landour. We were just delirious at being released from school grounds, and nothing else intruded on our single-minded focus on the films and food on offer. Given the cocksure blindness of youth, that was being wasted on us, the Queen of the Hills was the pearl cast before us swine. Not for us the genteel charms of Landour, or the wonder of George Everest’s Hathi Paon estate.
Had it not been for an unexpected late snowfall, when the Headmaster gave us a day off for a mid-week trip to Muss to see the snow, I wouldn’t even have visited the premier tourist attraction – Gun Hill. Even this was thanks to it being too early for the opening of the Hill Station’s season. The Cinema Theaters were yet to open, and there was precious little to do so, grumblingly, we forced ourselves to climb up to the summit of Gun Hill. Other than this rule proving exception, in all my years at School we hadn’t even checked out the complete Camel’s Back Road, leave alone the Summer palaces, the film stars’ villas, the best seller writer’s Chalet, or any of the other remarkable places. If it weren’t for the regular, illuminating columns of the great writer, and raconteur par excellence Ganesh Saili, I wouldn’t have realized the extent of my loss. Each of Ganesh’s articles in the Garhwal Post chide me of my folly in having missed out on so much heritage and history.
Up until being anointed Prefect, all us, Philistines had a routine that we followed religiously on the Saturdays’ trips to Muss. The first stop was Fancy Novelty Store to buy a large Egg sized hard candy called, appropriately enough, Turkey’s Egg for two annas. Fortified with the huge candy firmly in one side of the mouth, that resulted in a massive cheek swell with the profile of a late-stage pregnancy, we made a beeline to one of the four movie theatres, the other two being the Rialto on the Mall, and the short-lived Majestic, itself a reincarnation of the defunct Roller-Skating Rink at the head of Camel’s Back Road. Each theater played an English film at 11:00AM, timed perfectly for our arrival. The movie ticket used to cost 1 rupee and 4 annas, and the movies themselves used to last till about 12:30PM, just long enough for the Turkey’s Egg to finally dissolve away.
The end of the morning show saw us ravenous boys, disgorged by the theaters, heading for one of two eateries of choice – Sindhi’s for two hot pooris and a bowl of aloo sabzi in tari for 1 Rupee and 4 annas, or Neelam’s for Chicken Curry with Naan costing 2 rupees and 8 annas. We wolfed down the food over an earnest discussion on the choice of Hindi film to watch. The discussion continued until consensus was arrived at, unless the film starred Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Saira Banu, or Sadhana which resulted in instant unanimity, naturally. After wolfing down the food we charged for the Hindi film show that started at 2:00PM, giving out at around 5:00, allowing us enough time to get back to the School Covered Shed for roll call at 6:30 PM.
After the Hindi film show, depending upon the location of the theatre in relation to the School and the state of our finances, some of us stopped off at the semi underground Bengali Sweet House for their indigenous concoctions such as Rasgullas or, if feeling particularly wealthy, at Chic Chocolate for their eponymous confections. Following which we would run helter-skelter downhill, focused only on making the Roll Call on time, else there would be hell to pay from the Prefect on Duty.
There was nothing unusual about the start, and the middle of this particular Saturday. I had gone up in the company of Chat and Maddy, and had followed the same routine in Muss – Wine Shop, Turkey’s Egg, English movie, aloo poori at Sindhi’s, Hindi film, Rasgullas at Bengali Sweets, and the sprint back to School. The first hint of something being amiss came in the form of a gentle rumble in my stomach just as we arrived near the gates of Bala Hissar. The rumbling in my stomach gathered force as we pounded down the steep stretch to Barlowganj. By the time we reached Barlowganj the agitation induced by running downhill transformed the churn in my stomach into an explosive and relentless force. The main drag of Barlowganj provided no relief, the structures were back-to-back on both sides of the road, leaving no gap to dive into and lower my pants.
The roiling in my stomach gave no respite. I could sense the situation was desperately getting out of hand. Darkness started to appear in front of my eyes. I was tiptoeing in a frantic effort to keep my thighs together tightly. The storm in my stomach reached Gale Force 12. I lost awareness of everything except that I was going to pass out any second. As we rounded the St George’s gates my sphincter finally gave up the unequal battle. Sweat had already broken out on my forehead, tears were running down my face, and a warm liquid mess was running down my thighs, legs and, into my shoes. There was a God awful odour in the air around me. I still don’t know what my predominant feeling was, embarrassment or relief. Probably both in equal measure. As the full impact of the occurrence hit me, the first thoughts that crossed my mind were:
No, no, not that again, nix that please!!
O Holy Mother Earth please swallow me up a la Sita.
Since white pants were the perfect colour to bring out the best in shades of yellow and brown, that were forming and expanding on my pants, my next instinct was to take my pants off, and throw them away as far as possible. My sanity was restored by the mental image of me walking naked waist down, my shoes squelching, with the excretions stuck to my bare thighs and legs.
Chat and Maddy continued to walk on either side of me, silent, staring straight ahead. Next thing I know, there were Messers Dina and Luther walking up towards us, taking their evening stroll. Mr. Luther, who always looked serene, looked at me without a change in his expression. Mr. Dina on the other hand, who always carried a quizzical expression, on observing the condition of my white clothes went into the extreme quizzed expression mode. His mouth fell open, looking askance at me he superfluously asked, “What happened to you Sehgal, you see (Mr. Dina was simply incapable of uttering a sentence without adding, “you see” to it. ‘You See’ also became his Nom de Guerre)?”
Without missing a beat, I responded “I vomited Sir” and continued on my way.
Yeah, right. Vomited? Through my rear end? Sure!
What else could I say?
Would “I shat my pants, Sir,” have been a more acceptable response?
To my eternal gratitude, and to their credit, throughout this not once did Chat or Maddy laugh, make a smartass comment, or leave my side, in spite of the malodorous fumes surrounding me, the surreal persona staggering about between them. Without a word, they became my wingmen, one on either side of me. Reminded me of having read somewhere, that geese take charge of an injured member of the flock by flying on either side of the incapacitated bird, providing the necessary support to a safe landing.
Once we got close to the Rajah’s Palace Chat finally broke the ice by positing “Vomited through your arse Tota?” I looked at him, and he busied himself by checking the ground beneath his feet. I glanced at Maddy, and he was staring intently into the Doon Valley. I couldn’t hold it any longer. I simply burst out laughing. Both of them joined me in a demented release of pent-up emotions. The tension relieved, I got over my embarrassment and started walking confidently past staring eyes, staring back defiantly. The wonder for all the starers was my having joined in the laughter, all the way into the dormitory bathrooms, where I finally got to wash up the mess, and put on a change of fresh, clean clothes.
In the prevailing fratricidal Boarding School ethos, the norm was to pounce upon the smallest weakness, flaw, or misstep, exaggerate and weaponize it, much like twisting and squeezing an empty toothpaste tube, thus maximizing the mockery of the poor, hapless object of derision. For me the wonder remains that through my stay in School, not once did anyone mention my malodourous debacle, at least not to my face. Was there, after all, more than a vestige of humanity in these rough and tumble, heartless creatures? Did they instinctively know to draw a Lakshman Rekha, that would not be crossed in the tormenting of a fellow student.
This is not to imply that my popularity went up overnight, or that I was no longer taunted for other shortcomings. No matter the provocation on my part, no one ever brought up my very public explosion, not even as an oblique hint. Thank goodness for that more than a small mercy. A very long overdue and sincere Thank You from the bottom of my heart to my contemporaneous Boys for turning a possible lifetime trauma into a laughable memory.
This also a humble homage to the gentle Chat, Ajoy Chatterjee, who left us too early. It has been my great good fortune for having experienced such camaraderie under pressure, of standing by your friend through thin and stink.