If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 13 June 2009

A gift of misery

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]


  1. Delightful read as ever from you. The army description made me go back to my childhood. Having grown up surrounded by army men and cantonments(my father was a major and Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan who attained martyrdom during Mumbai attacks in Nov08 is my cousin) i could feel the place as i read.

    Though there is an age difference between us (you mentioned you daughter to be thirty which i am) your memoir had familiarity with which i could relate to.

    You have rightly summed up-happiness and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. And at the end of the day, neither matters much.

    Sorrows are equally imperative, since only sorrows can make you value happiness.
    And do you write for Newspapers?. Not surprising at all. Take care.:))

  2. Dear Sir,

    The story as usual was a treat to read. Simple yet very touching. Apart from the fun that it gave to me while reading it also has taught me an important lesson once again.

    Ever since my mobile phone got stolen last week, I was feeling a bit disturbed and frustrated. Just the way you might have felt after you lost your football.

    Now after reading your story I do feel a lot relieved. Life surely is much bigger than a mobile phone set or a football:)

    We tend to forget these simple things in our lives. Thanks for reminding it once more.



  3. Santanu, I came here by way of Sucharita's blog.
    That's a very beautiful recollection. Thank you.

    And I apologize if this is a double post, as something went wrong the first time I tried to send a comment.

  4. Lovely, though most people take years to achieve that detechment you achieved in a single sunset, if they achieve it at all.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. Dear Anirban and Zillionbig, I feel both proud and humble that I could touch a chord with you, although in different ways, with this little true story of my life.

    Zillionbig, In response to an earlier post, you said you like my writings about Kerala. Pl try this short story:


    Dear Seanag and Peter, many thanks for stopping by and of course, for your kind words. I do hope you will come back.

    Regards to you all.

  6. This is a very nice article. Yes, you are so very right in saying happiness and sorrows are two sides of the same coin. Surprisingly, we have many such incidents happening in our childhood that gives us an indication that how life would be and how we should best live it. However, we seldom tend to remember it. I wonder why though. Is it something to do with our personalities?

    I am sure it is. I have started feeling very strongly, that though we are tremendously well read and well versed about all the philosophies in life but when it comes to putting them in practice, our performance is terrible. Lately this has been bothering me to a great extent so much so that I am tending to go into a shell and that is not making me happy.

    Many thanks for the post nevertheless, it reminded me the essence of living life.

    Best regards

  7. Sir,

    This brought back memories of my first wallet that I lost in school. It used to be my brother's and it was old and the leather was scarred but I used to hero worship my brother so much that the wallet was the greatest source of pride and joy. I still think of it and can't believe I lost it. You are right Sir, when you say that happiness and sorrow are two sides of a coin. There seems to be a very fine line between the two. It is very easy to cross over at times. The knowledge that in the end nothing matters much will only come from maturity and experience I suppose!


  8. Very bittersweet! But it is a lesson to today's younger generation that you managed to resign yourself to the loss so quickly. Today's kids would probably have gone home and demanded an immediate replacement.

    BTW, I have tagged you at Past Continuous. I will be very interested in reading your version of the tag.

  9. I was tagged by Sucharita for Four points and thereby I visited your blog only today. You write very lucidly. I only repent not knowing you earlier. If you may find sometime visit my blog. Please continue with your creations.


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