The most fantastic gift that I ever received was also the cause of one of the greatest miseries I have ever experienced.
I was around ten years when I went to Barelly in Uttar Pradesh to spend a week with an aunt. Her husband was then a Major in the Indian army, and they lived in the Cantonment. I was amazed to see the picture-postcard neatness of the cantonment town. Its wide avenues lined with eucalyptus trees, smartly dressed jawans on spanking green Atlas bicycles, bungalows that seemed straight out of English story books, an orderly who made ice cream at home, and his queer machine with a handle for whisking the cream while it was being frozen: everything about the place was wonderful. I was puzzled by the fact that without exception, trunks of all the trees in the cantonment were painted white. Who did this, and why? When I asked my cousin, who was slightly older, he replied airily, ‘One of the basic rules of the Indian army is to paint everything stationary and salute everything moving.’
Another thing that I noticed, not without a deep tinge of envy, was my cousin’s sporting kit. He had a cabinet full of cricket bats and balls, stumps, hockey sticks, badminton rackets and a few footballs, which lay at the bottom, deflated, unloved, and uncared for. Such a treasure trove was unimaginable by me, and without doubt, by any of my friends. Even a football was a luxury for us. In the free periods in school, we generally played football with small rubber balls. It would have been an interesting sight, the whole class of thirty odd boys running after a tiny ball, which was scarcely seen. It was mostly hidden by us, just as the queen bee is hidden from public view in a beehive.
On the penultimate day of our stay, when aunt asked me what I would like to have as a gift, I felt just as our rishis would have felt when benevolent gods asked them to name the boon they needed. For me, there weren’t too many things to choose from: it could either be a cricket bat or a football. Which one? Chandu Borde or Chuni Goswami? In the end, Chuni Goswami won, I opted for a football.
Back home, a brand-new fully-grown football (size no. 5) instantly raised my stock among friends. I was a hero, the only individual owner of a real football in the whole school, someone who couldn’t be trifled with, rather, who had to be treated with reverence. I started enjoying my days under the sun; I could extract a chewing gum or borrow a storybook from my classmates at will.
A few days later, one afternoon, I left the football behind under my desk while leaving school. I realised my mistake soon after reaching home and rushed back to the school with my friend Swadesh. The imposing iron gate of our school had been locked and the shadow of the banyan tree in the compound had become long; our conscientious Ghurkha watchman refused to let us in. Swadesh and I begged with him, but his face was as impassive as ever.
After some time, when he saw me in tears, his heart melted. We ran to the classroom … Not a speck of dust had shifted in the room since when we had left it, but there was no sign of the football. The world crumbled around me in that forlorn empty classroom. I knew that my days of glory were over. A dream had come true without my asking, and I lost it because of sheer carelessness. It was devastating.
But as I left the school compound, rays of the setting sun met my eyes and someone told me from deep within that life was much bigger; that a football was not something worth being upset about. I was a little sad for a couple of days, but that was about all.
The most fantastic gift that I ever received was also the cause of one of the greatest miseries that I have ever experienced. And the experience taught me quite early in life that happiness and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. And at the end of the day, neither matters much.
[This story appeared in The Statesman sometime in 2007]