I first met him under a peepul tree, my favourite, because it sheltered me from sun and rain, and offered me a seat to rest on, and also held out the hope of imminent homecoming.
And this was in the town of Chinsurah that was once held by the Dutch; they left their signature in the divisional commissioner’s bungalow, the circuit house, and the Gustav fort — it survives still as the district court house, the original moat surrounding it now reduced to several discrete ponds.
At the end of classes each school day, I waited, at least three quarters of an hour (often longer if classes dissolved early) under my peepul, for the company bus to pick me up for the five mile trip home. Every once in a while older girls of the school nearby, or those from the Mohsin College (to which our school was attached), would tchk tchk at my plight in imagined sympathy. Little did they realise that I had a large number of birds, several stray dogs and the chai wallah for company.
The tree had long lost its trunk but stood, in mature and verdure glory, on sturdy secondary roots. It marked the deltaic crossing of the roads that led to the Balika Banimandir, and the one that circled the central maidan and then meandered past the town centre, known as the ghari ghar (clock tower).
The elderly men of the locality, seeking the company of their equally elderly friends — all very lonely — had got the triangular island on which the tree stood, lovingly encased in a low brick wall, no more than a foot and a half tall, by subscription. The chai wallah would dutifully set up his samovar there at four-o-clock for their consumption, and the elderly men, some very old, would take their seats one by one on the short, brick rampart.
It was, at a very rough guess, about a couple of hundred metres from my school gate, quite a distance in the glaring summer sun and torrential monsoon rain, but the bus driver (Dulal-da, or Chacha, and sometimes Badyi-da) insisted on the spot for three irrefutable reasons. One, our school was off the route, approached by a narrow lane, blind at that, in which the bus couldn’t reverse without bloodshed. Two, girls from Banimandir had to be picked up from a spot just a little down — they were the weaker sex, after all. And three, the inviting ginger-laced chai and lambu biscuits from the ubiquitous vendor awaited him before he picked up the girls form the farthest point of his round trip.
The year was 1957 (the bicentennial of the battle of Plassey and the centenary of the Mutiny), the very year I had joined the Chinsurah school. It so happened that it was also the year of the second ever general election in independent India. I was still rather wet behind the ears (having just turned ten the previous November) and didn’t think of waiting in front of the girls’ school — a far better prospect for older boys — in the pleasant company of girls.
Our teachers were called up for election duty and had to attend orientation training at the court house every week day. That meant my wait for the bus was even longer. For that the headmaster had given me a carte blanche to sit in the library to read, or borrow books on my own, but never more than one at a time. That made the long wait under the peepul less of an ordeal. I also used to carry a small rubber ball, not more than an inch and half in diameter, that enabled me to play catch-ball against the nearest convenient wall, if and when I found the book boring.
The boy materialised from nowhere and startled me as I was engrossed in a particularly enjoyable game for I had caught the ball one hundred times and was still counting.
“Why play alone?” he asked me in Bengali, though he didn’t look one. He had an unkempt head of hair, large eyes, a hooked nose and was smartly dressed. Some palatal defect made his speech a bit difficult to follow at first encounter. Then he asked my name and I asked his, and we were friends before we knew it.
I didn’t quite catch his first name; it sounded something like Aristotle or Asteroid, certainly a bit curious. Without my asking, he volunteered to explain the seeming oddity.
“My family name is Aratoon; we are Armenians from Calcutta.” I wasn’t a bit wiser after this needless elucidation.
That evening I asked my all-knowing dad about it. At his behest I asked Aratoon, when I met him next, to write down his name on the back page of my rough book. A-R-I-S-T-I-D-E-S, he printed, as if that made things as clear as the sky that afternoon! My father took down a tome from the shelf and flipped through it to show me. Aristides, a brave general in the war against the Persians, and the most honourable man in Athens. “He was roughly a contemporary of Buddha,” my dad said, “and a Greek… many Armenians have Greek first names.” He also explained Ari’s peculiar speech defect. “Orthodox Armenians of India have inbred for far too long. They were likely to show up birth defects.”
“You’ll get it as you grow older,” he said, when I asked him to explain inbreeding.
Continued to http://wp.me/p1dQVh-iM
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