Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Oldest Patron and the Lost Wodehouse


The author must take this opportunity to thank P.G. Wodehouse for providing him with so potent a story telling technique as Mr. Mulliner. Many people have narrated fables, starting from Aesop down. But none has done it as Wodehouse has. I bow down to thee, maitre.


It was on a sweaty, steaming Chennai afternoon that Arjun, and I walked in to the tea shop. The tea shop was a local landmark, not just because of the tasteless, insipid tea that it served, but for a person everyone knew merely as the Oldest Patron.

The Oldest Patron had been a fixture at the tea shop ever since anybody could remember. Some say that he was there, at the very same seat, when Mangal Pandey stormed Delhi in 1857’s war of independence. Other more honest people have spoken of how he once condemned Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten roundly for their ineptitude, while sipping on hot tea.

The Oldest Patron was a gifted story-teller. He had a story for every moment – stories which ranged from the sublime to the crass. He had a story to tell everyone – whether they wanted to hear it or not. This story is a story about one of his stories.

Arjun and I ordered glasses of tea and settled down near the chair that was, as always, occupied by the Oldest Patron. The Oldest Patron turned a kindly glance towards us and went back to downing his fifth glass. We sunk deep into the comfortable chairs and began to wait for the glasses of tea. Arjun lit a cigarette thoughtfully and began to puff away meditatively, prolonging an already pregnant silence.

It was I who broke the silence.

‘Do you know that ass Shankar?’

‘Yeah…who doesn’t? He’s so weighed down by the moolah he can hardly walk’, said Arjun.

‘Well, he just got himself a new bike.’

Arjun was not too surprised. It was just the kind of thing one would expect Shankar to do.

‘Oh well…’, said he, in the resigned tone of a man who dodged tickets in PTC buses everyday.

‘That’s not what’s stunning and mind-numbing!’, interrupted I, ‘ The egg-head could have sold his old steed for a cool 40,000 rupees. But he chose to dispose of it…’

Arjun jumped up with a start.

It is always a terrible shock for a man who has thirsted for a tricycle and never got one to hear of men who throw their bikes into trash cans.

‘Er…okay, not exactly disposed… he gave it away to his friend’s sister-in-law’s cousin’s husband’s brother-in-law’s driver. It turns out that the bloke had been admiring the bike after dropping the friend’s sister’-in-law’s cousin’s husband’s brother-in-law at his place. And the old chap espied him giving it the covetous eye. He gave it to the driver for a song! Payment deferred…’

‘Payment deferred?’

‘Payment deferred. Pay when you want…’

Arjun buried his hands between his head, or rather the other way around, and began to groan.

The Oldest Patron, who had till then appeared to be engrossed in his tea, woke up with a start.

‘Heh Heh, m’lads. This chap has thrown away a bike. A mere motorbike. A plaything for an idle hour, and nothing more. I remember back when Hanif Mohammed’s team toured India…’, started the Oldest Patron.

Arjun and I had seen this happen too many times not to sense the danger. We’d seen strong men literally tied to their chairs for hours listening to the Oldest Patron’s stories. We tried to sidle away, telling him how we were expected back in college any minute and how our professor would impale us if he did not see us back in class within the next three minutes.

But the Oldest Patron had a glittering eye that was last seen in the person of the ancient mariner. And it was that he put to use upon us when he began to unravel the story…

‘To come back to the story before you curs so rudely interrupted me… Back when Hanif Mohammed’s team toured India, there occurred a strange…occurrence. I was then a wee lad, and I did something a lot stranger. I THREW A P.G. WODEHOUSE BOOK INTO THE TRASH CAN…’

A stunned silence enveloped the tea shop as he uttered these words. Words, which in itself, were sacrilegious.


No comments: