When my dad was posted in Jullundur cantonment, we stayed, quite incredibly, in eight different houses, one after another. At one point, we lived in a long barrack that had been divided up to accommodate several officers’ families. The year was 1960 and I was about nine years old then. My brothers and I studied at the Garrison Children’s School. Since it was quite close to our house, we used to walk to and from school. One of our neighbours was a Captain P. His elder son, Santosh, was my elder brother, Caesar’s classmate, while the younger one, Raj, was mine. Santosh was a cheeky fellow who was always up to some mischief. Raj was quiet and withdrawn. A couple of weeks after shifting into our new digs, we went on a short holiday to our uncle’s house in Behala, Calcutta. One afternoon, Dad took Caesar and me to Chowringhee to buy a few things. On our way back, we took the tram that went from Esplanade to the Behala terminus. We sat down in the front seats. Pretty soon the tram filled up. At every stop, more people seemed to get on than off, so that pretty soon the tram was jam packed. Try as he might, the conductor could not reach the front seats. At the Behala terminus everyone got down. From there we had to take acycle rickshaw to our uncle’s house. After we alighted, Dad started walking towards the tram depot office.
“The rickshaw stand is there”, I pointed out.
“I know, but we have to pay for our tickets”,he replied.
“But we’re not in the tram now”, I objected.
“Just follow me”, he said.
We entered the tram office to see lots of employees sitting round at their desks. Dad walked up to a chap who looked like a conductor because he was wearing a shoulder bag.
“What can I do for you”? the man asked.
“We’ve just got off a tram that’s brought us here from Esplanade. The tram was over crowded so the conductor couldn’t collect our fare. I’ve come to pay it”.
The conductor couldn’t believe his ears. Anyone who manages to get off a tram or bus without buying a ticket consider themselves rather smart, but here was someone who was obviously different.
“It’s alright, sir, it doesn’t matter”.
“You don’t understand. It does matter”, said dad firmly.
But sir, how do I know you were even on a tram? Rightly speaking, how can I take money from you for a ticket?
“I see. So you probably think I’m a lunatic who goes round buying tram tickets”. There was a hint of annoyance in Dad’s voice.
No, no, sir, I didn’t mean that.
Right then, let me tell you, I’m an Army officer. My name is Major Sarkar and I insist on paying the fare.
The conductor stood up in a sweat. Just then a senior looking bloke ambled across and asked my dad if there was a problem. Dad explained the position to him.
“Normally, sir, we couldn’t oblige you”, he said, “but seeing as you’re an officer, we’ll do as you say”.
Then he rounded on the hapless conductor and said, “You stupid bugger, give sir the tickets”.
The conductor hurriedly opened his bag, peeled off three tickets and handed them to Dad, who paid him the fare. Dad thanked them and we walked off. As we neared the door, I heard the conductor say, “Ooree baba, these Army people are very honest. Not like civilians”. At that moment, I could not have wished for a better accolade for Dad.
As we trundled home in a rickshaw, Dad said, “Listen to me carefully, both of you. When you grow up, I don’t care if you don’t earn a lot of money, but you must be scrupulously honest. Have you understood”?
Yes, we’ve understood, we said.
When we returned to Jullundur a few days later, I appeared to have forgotten my promise. An old man, rather absent minded and myopic, used to come every morning and lay out his wares on the ground outside the school gate. These consisted of boiled sweets, toffees, lollipops, peanuts, dal moth, churan and other such delicacies. During the mid morning break, he would be surrounded by children buying things from him. For three paise, you could get a goodish amount of anything that caught your fancy. And three paise is what Caesar and I got every morning.
One morning, during the break, Santosh told me, “Let me show you a trick”. He went to the old man and bought a packet of peanuts. After a minute or so, he went back to the man and said, “Where are my peanuts”?
“I just gave them to you”, said the hawker.
“No, you didn’t, you must have given them to someone else in the rush”. The man handed him another packet of peanuts. “See, how simple it is”! said Santosh. “Wow! You’re very clever”, I said. But it didn’t seem right to me.
The next day, Santosh asked me to follow his example. “I can’t do it”, I told him.“I won’t be able to pull it off”.
“Of course you can do it. Don’t be a sissy. I’m challenging you”!
That settled it. I followed Santosh’s instructions and was rewarded by two packets of boiled sweets for the price of one. I felt elated.
When I returned home that evening, I gleefully told Mom that I had played a successful prank on someone.
“What prank”? she asked, smiling innocently.
I told her, leaving Santosh’s name out of it. The smile left her face. She looked at me in disbelief and said, “Are you telling me that you are a thief”?
I was horrified. Me, a thief! It had never occurred to me to consider my actions in that light. I had only done it for a lark.
“I’m not a thief, Mummy”.
“Of course you are. You have deprived an old man of his hard earned money. Shall I tell your father about it”?
I shivered with apprehension. If she told Dad, he would thrash the daylights out me.
“Mom, please don’t tell Dad”.
“Alright, I won’t. So what do you propose to do about it”?
“Mom, I still have an unopened packet of sweets. I could return it to him tomorrow”.
“No, you can’t do that. By tomorrow, the sweets will be sticky and spoiled”.
“What should I do then, Mom”?
“I’m sure you’ll find a way”, she said and left the room.
The next morning, I received my three paise and left for school in a sombre mood. The packet of unopened sweets was in my pocket. I had decided what to do. During the break, I hung round the old man, watching the swarm of children that besieged him. I had to wait for the right moment. When the crush of bodies was at its peak, I forced my way between the boys and girls and held out my hand to the old man.
“Here’s the three paise for the sweets you just gave me”.
He looked at me in surprise.“But I didn’t give you any sweets”, he said.
“Of course you did”, I insisted. “With all this pushing and shoving andeveryone speaking at once, you must have forgotten”.
“Are you sure”? he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. Here, look”, I said, taking out the sweets packet from my pocket and waving it in front of his face.
“Alright, if you say so”, he said, taking the money reluctantly.
I squeezed my way back into the open and felt a surge of relief pass through me. “Crumbs”! I said to myself, “I’ll never do anything stupid like this again”.
When I got back home from school, I told Mom what I had done. She was overjoyed. She hugged me tight, then gripped my shoulders and held me at arm’s length. “Listen to me carefully”, she said. “When you grow up, I don’t care if you don’t earn a lot of money, but you must always be scrupulously honest. Have you understood”?
I felt a wave of déjà vu engulf me. Hadn’t I heard this before in Calcutta?
“Yes, Mummy”, I said, “I’ve understood”.