In an old story, most probably by the celebrated novelist, H. G. Wells, a detective is struggling to solve a whodunit? He sits outside the house where the murder had taken place and scratches his head. How could someone murder a person in the house and take the body away without any soul noticing him? He keeps asking the man: “Did you see anyone coming in and going out of the house this morning?”
The befuddled owner of the house keeps replying: “Sir, I have been doing gardening outside this house since morning and not a soul went in or come out, “
How then could this happen? Someone must have gone in and come out, dear friend! Elementary! Look at these skid marks in the snow; someone has obviously dragged a huge sack through the snow, can’t you see?
“I swear sir, I saw no soul.”
On repeated questioning the owner says no one other than a postman went in with a big sack and came out with the same sack.
“There you go,” blurts out the detective.
It turned out that the murderer, in the garb of a postman, walked in with a big sack, apparently full of letters and parcels, murdered someone, stuffed the body in the same sack and dragged the corpse out safely and disappeared in the wilderness.
Postmen in a way are invisible. You see them come and go but other than shuffling through the mail – junk or otherwise- we don’t notice them, much less greet him, at least in India. He is a silent worker.
In the good old days in Mumbai, the postmen used to deliver mail twice a day and sometimes thrice in a day. The volume of letters was so huge. He used to ride on his trademark bright red bicycle, zoom in unobtrusively, and go about delivering the mail. It sounds funny today but they actually used to throw the letters through the permanently open front doors, ring the bell and lyrically shout, “Postman”, and then leave as unobtrusively as they arrived.
Unlike today, I remember the postman used to wear a genuine smile on his face. The other types of postmen were the ones who specialized in delivering telegrams, and then there were those for delivering “Registered Posts” etc.
A postman who brought only the telegrams belonged to a special creed. He would come, ring the bell and hesitatingly hand the telegram to the person and then wait, fiddling through other papers. If the telegram brought bad news he could see it plainly on the face of the reader and quietly walk off with a sympathetic shrug or throw his hands heavenward. But if the news was about someone getting a job or someone clearing an important exam he would wait till he was rewarded with baksheesh. Brilliant face reader, you see.
Back in the sixties, the famed IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) had sprung up at five locations. Financially and technologically assisted by developed countries like USA, UK, Germany, and Russia, it was a dream for young ambitious boys to get into one of these. The IIT entrance exams were a great leveller for the egos of top students. The results of the entrance exam were often a rude shock for the students who had always topped their class in school. Sometimes boys who were mediocre in schools scored well in the entrance exam and vice-a-versa. But it was worth a try.
Coaching classes for IIT aspirants were few, not like the mushrooming IIT coaching classes we see these days. Agarwal Classes was the one that specialized in coaching brilliant nerds for the gruelling exam. Ironically, the much sought-respected Agarwal Sir himself never went or could not go beyond Inter Science level. A great leveller in itself, one might add.
Their tuition fees were steep by the standards of those days. The admission to Agarwal Classes too wasn’t a cakewalk – one had to have achieved something at the First Year Science level in the college.
St. Xavier’s College where I had enrolled for my First Year Science was one of the premium colleges to go to. Only crème de la crème of boys and girls who passed the matriculate exam with good results gained an entry into this college.
But being a student of such prestigious college alone did not qualify one for admission to the coveted Agarwal Classes.
Along with the application form for the IIT entrance exam, a mandatory ‘no objection’ or similar certificate, attesting that the applicant was a bonafide student of the college, was required from the college principal.
The cocky clerk at the Xavier’s college office got so tired of dishing out the no objection certificates that when my turn came up he asked me derisively, “How many buggers want to go to IIT?” Almost anyone who was anyone at St. Xavier’s had asked for such a certificate!
But noticing my beseeching eyes, the clerk had a surge of pity, and he handed me the certificate, mumbling something that was not audible to my ears.
I went up to the tiny but impressive admission room of Agarwal Classes at Dadar TT, where a big imposing looking, mustached clerk asked, without even looking at me: “Kaaleej mein kuchh naam vaam kamayaa hai?”
The only reason that Agarwal Classes accepted me for the coaching class was that I had scored the second highest marks in one of the college exams in Physics.
So, in I went to the hallowed precincts of Agarwal Classes along with a few of my nerdy friends from my school.
Going through the training was not smooth sailing for most of us. Out of all the subjects I got my best scores in English! Agarwal Sir’s attack on the self-esteem of the students was legendary. He would insist that the students complete their voluminous homework without fail or else he would make the errant boy or girl stand up on the bench like the punishment meted out to primary school children. The imaginary sound of our ego plummeting to the ground with a loud thud was enough to make us work harder and harder. The novel clobbering tactics contributed to our eventual entry into the IITs.
“I didn’t have a clue how to solve this problem” as an explanation for not doing the homework, would have satisfied the strictest of the headmasters, but not Agarwal Sir. One had to show the number of pages filled with “Tries” for that problem in order to occupy the bench along with those who “Tried but did not get it”. Or else “stand up on the bench”.
Incidentally in the parlance of professional rugby league games, when someone scores a goal he is said to have successfully scored a ‘try’. So it was a bit of intellectual rugby by the referee Agarwal Sir.
Most of us at Agarwal Classes withstood all the tantrums and attacks on our self-esteem and stayed on course to finally take the entrance test. I can bet my last penny that none of knew if we would make it.
Fast forward to the week that the results were to be announced. The successful guys were to be informed by way of humble letters in the mail.
It was perhaps the first or second week of June that everyone waited with bated breath for the postman to arrive with the letter inviting the crème de la crème for the viva voce.
Everyone at my home was tense, not saying much but hoping that Rajen would make it. Bhai was not particularly a religious man but I am sure he must have prayed to Saint Sai Baba out of our sight. Baa took all this a bit more stoically “ So what if it does not happen? God may have something better for Rajen” – the eternal truth for all mothers.
My much older sister – Motiben – went on a positive and alluring proposition. “If you get into the IIT we will all go to Gaylords at Churchgate and have pineapple cake with coffee” That was like the ultimate treat for us. What a way to delightfully confuse my already confused mind.
If I don’t get it – God’s wish. If I do – pineapple cake with Coffee at the Gaylords!
God, I have done my best so please have mercy and let me have the cake and eat it too.
Come the first week of June. Bhai, my father, declared it as the ‘Rajen’s week’ for the momentous event that might take place. I tried my best to stay composed.
Bharat Shah, my brilliant classmate at St. Xavier’s college, living near Matunga Station and I had spent a lot of time trying to crack the sample entrance exam papers. I went up to him but found him to be as casual as ever. “Kuchh nahi hotaa hai, yaar” were his cryptic words. It could mean anything – stay normal!
Now the focus was on the postman who did rounds of the buildings around our buildings, often, twice a day. He better not be Invisible like in the H. G. Wells story.
First day: 9:30 AM I positioned myself at our second floor balcony and practised my yogic stare at the wide entrance to our building complex. Everyone else in the family stayed in the background. They were the cheerleaders and I was the batsman to face the fiery bowling for the next week.
I stood there like ancient debt for an hour or so when Bhai sighted Magan Kaka across the building – still at his home.
Magan kaka was a bank employee so it was a strange sight to find him at home at that hour on a Monday.
Bhai made a questioning sign at him and he almost shouted back with glee, “Bank holiday today, Bhikhubhai”
My goodness! So it must be a Postal Holiday too.
For heaven’s sake, down with these holidays! We just have too many of these.
The rest of the day was spent playing an indoor game of carom with my younger brother. I just could not pocket any coins. In between the shots my mind kept racing to the next day – a non -holiday.
Everyone in the family went back to their respective normal routine.
Next day – a Tuesday! It brought fresh set of hopes. There were no mobile phones or even a landline phones at home so there was no question of calling up other friends to know their fate – thankfully.
I was back at the balcony at 9:30 AM. Through the corner of my eyes I confirmed that Magan kaka had reluctantly left for his office at the Central Bank at BB Dadar.
Here he comes on his bright red bicycle – almost as unobtrusively as the postman in the H. G. Wells detective novel. But no big sack of letters with him. The bag looked much smaller.
It can still accommodate my letter from IIT – I kept my hopes alive.
He cycled in and parked it near the gate of Narendra Villa, our building complex, and went in.
Good Lord! But what is this? No sooner did he appear to go into the building than he came out, smiling as if he made a mistake and shaking his head. He headed straight to the opposite building with the name Narendra Niwas, a similar sounding name.
Gosh! So there are no letters for any of the cosmopolitan residents of 12 apartments at Narendra Villa today? How evil can this postman be?
But wait. There still is the afternoon delivery. Great!
I didn’t care where the postman went in other set of buildings. No other boy had taken the IIT entrance exam test in those building. Who cares?
The second delivery sometimes did not happen if the postman was on leave or there were not enough letters to distribute so it was futile to anxiously wait for the postman in the afternoon. God willing – the admission letter may just land when it was least expected – in the afternoon delivery.
Wednesday dawned. My anxiety levels had reached a fair degree of crescendo.
“Don’t lose hope, bachaa. It will come tomorrow, Thursday – Sai Baba’s auspicious day.” Bhai had great faith in Sai Baba in particular.
But why does God want me to wait till Thursday? I was not on happy terms with God. Do it today and get it over with, dear God, if you exist. I promise I will observe all future Wednesdays as auspicious, along with Thursdays. Just make the postman deliver the letter.
“My diabetes is under control, Magan bhai.”
Bhai exclaimed in delight – I turned and saw him holding up a small test tube with the right color to the ever-visible Magan kaka across the building.
Magan kaka acknowledged the joyous news with a faint smile and that was that.
O dear Magan kaka, why don’t you leave for office now?
As soon as Kashi Ram, our servant finished mopping of the floor I took up my vintage position in the balcony.
There was a wedding function in the open space between the building and a huge pandal (temporary structure) had been put up that blocked my view from the balcony.
It was very painful – not being able to watch out for the postman from up there. It seemed he loved to remain invisible to me.
I hurried to put my slippers on, rushed to the ground floor and waited near the entrance. All this was quite silly. The postman would surely deliver the letter if he had it with him in his bag, even if I did not go to the ground floor to receive him with a garland. Strange, what high anxiety levels did to a level-headed boy like me.
Without any conscious effort my mind was getting absorbed into the soothing music of a shehnai blaring out over the music system. But today it proved to be a distraction, for I missed the postman completely. He would surely have come in but not to our Narendra Villa at all. I would have missed him in the melee of guests milling around.
The irritation is akin to Tendulkar getting out if I rushed to the loo while watching the match live on the TV. If I had kept a constant watch on his play he would not have gotten out. Agonizing, isn’t it?
By the time Wednesday ended I almost felt like the forlorn old father, waiting for a letter from his daughter, settled in some distant city.
“Tomorrow is Thursday – Saint Sai Baba’s day. Have faith you mortal!” I comforted myself.
Motiben came home from work in the evening and smiled at me. Every time I saw her I was reminded of that promise of pineapple cake and coffee at the Gaylords. Is it going to happen at all?
“Dane dane pe likhaa hai khanewale kaa naam” – they say. So if God knows he would ensure that few specific coffee cups and a pineapple cake had ‘Naiks’ scribbled on them.
I slept surprisingly well that night. Maybe my Bhai’s faith in Sai Baba acted like a soothing balm to my mind.
What would Bharat be doing there? Had he received the good news, or he too was waiting for the letter?
Thursday – the big auspicious day dawned.
I got up early and got ready for the big event.
No postal holiday, no Magan kaka hanging around, no big pandal today to block the view of the postman.
Jai ho Sai Baba! I sighted the postman as he actually made his way into the small entrance of Narendra Villa and did not turn back like the other day. My heart, beating fast, I tried to keep my walk towards the door of my house as normal as possible not to betray my anxiety. Before I even reached the door, the doorbell rang with the familiar lyrical phrase – “Postman!”
I sprinted and opened the door. He was there with a letter in his hand. Finally – I made it! Wow!
But wait. This was an inland letter from Torangam – my mother’s village. “Hey Bhagwaan, this is too much of a test!” I snatched the letter from his hand and slowly made my way into the house where Baa hastily tore open the letter and read it with bated breath and smiled.
God is merciful after all to some one, I thought. Baa learned that her father had recovered from a life-threatening illness.
God is partial at times. The great Sai Baba brought succour to Baa – and thanks for that! – but I was left in the lurch.
‘Rajen week’ was drawing to a close. Did IIT office really send out the letters? Did they have the list out yet? What if the letter doesn’t arrive today or for that matter even on Saturday?
My heart sank as the morning delivery time neared. But often hope flares up at the most unexpected moment.
Would that be today? Baa had kept the basic ingredients of laapsi – a deshi sweet of broken wheat made to mark a joyous event.
That was a leap year all right but the leap had taken place already on Feb 29. Would I be able to leap all the way to Powai?
Of course, the comforting thought was that it would not be the end of the world for me. “Manzeelein aur bhi hain”. Yes, there certainly are more alternate goals – like enrolling once again at St. Xavier’s for Inter Science and then working hard to get into some prestigious university for the prized Engineering degree.
The postman did enter Narendra Villa, came all the way to our second floor and delivered a couple of letters to Shahs, smiled at me, waiting at the door and nonchalantly climbed down the staircase.
Smiled at me! Damn this ultimate perversion! Caused me no end of pain.
I watched him slowly make his way down through the winding square staircase up from above – a sight straight out of a Hitchcock movie where the escaping murderer runs down a circular staircase of a huge building. Remember Teesri Manzil?
My patience was running out. One way or the other let me find out. Am I in or out?
“Where are you going, Rajen?” Baa asked me as I put on my shoes and shot out of the house.
I did not bother to reply to her – not fair to her. Poor Baa, the laapsi still in the final stage of cooking! Bhai sat calmly in his favourite chair, sniffing tobacco.
I met Bharat. If he was troubled, he did not show it.
“Bharat, the merit list must be out at main building of IIT at Powai. Let us go there tomorrow and find out once for all.”
Bharat instantly agreed as if mechanically activating Plan B. We decided to reach the Powai campus in early morning the next day, Saturday.
Saturday – the climactic end.
Assuming that the list was out and available to anyone, we set out in the local train from Matunga to Vikhroli. The bus ride from Vikhroli to the entry gate of IIT felt like eternity. Then there was a long walk in silence from the main gate to the main building.
Jaldi, jaldi, please.
As we entered the main hall there were about a dozen boys straining their eyes, looking at the grand list on the notice board to see if they had made it. Soon we found some space near the notice board to stand and the final assault on our future began in the right earnest.
Joy! Both of us found our names in the list!
I rubbed my eyes, checked and re-checked that it was my name on the merit list number 144. Yes, it was my name all right – Naik Rajendra Bhikhubhai, staring at me
Suddenly the full impact of my future, unfolding in front of my eyes dawned on me.
The pineapple cake with coffee at Gaylords was now a reality. I could imagine an overjoyed Motiben, feeling proud of her brother. And of course, the laapsi meal waiting for me at home!
Little did I realize that the gate to the future had merely opened up but life would continue to demand unimaginable levels of skill and performance at every stage of my career and I had to live up to the name of IIT for eternity.
Happy and exhausted, we made it back to Matunga. Bharat’s gait did not show any extraordinary spring in his steps – he had been so confident of making it.
I walked back to Narendra Villa, wondering how I would break this exciting news to everyone.
Motiben opened the door and exclaimed aloud, “You made us proud Rajen!”
“How do you know, Motiben?”
“Oh, the postman delivered the letter today while you went on your pilgrimage to Powai!”
So the postman finally did an H. G. Wells on me. Invisible, when it mattered the most to me.
“We are going to Gaylords tomorrow – do you want to come along?”
Almost blushing, I said: “Yes, yes, yes!”