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The Patiala Quartet

By Neel Kamal Puri

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Michael was, of course, a man of action. He was ‘Michael on the Cycle’ at this stage, but later on in life, he would graduate to being ‘Mike on the Bike’. Even on the bicycle, he managed to speed around as though he were trying to shake off a swarm of bees. And zip around as he might, they were always there, just behind him. That was probably the reason he could never really stop. He pushed himself nervously to go on. It was on one of these fly-high trips that he made friends with a bunch of kakas.
‘Oye, what bike is that?’ they yelled out to him, as he went past them once, and then again.
‘Just an ordinary geared thing my father bought for me,’ he replied with obviously feigned nonchalance.
‘Can I take it for a spin?’ one of them asked. And then each took a ride on it, patting the saddle in appreciation afterwards.
‘Runs well,’ each one told him. ‘But Patiala just does not have the roads for a beauty like this one. Maybe, we can all go on a cycling trip in winter.’
Michael valued their acceptance of him because he really did want to be one of them. He was a thin, gawky boy and could not have bullied his way into their midst. His bright yellow bicycle with its turned-down handle was the ticket, and he made sure of keeping it with him at all times, just in case he needed to whip it out at the first sign of being denied entry. Boys on bikes were the only kind of friends he would ever really have.
Michael acquired a peculiar gait which, everyone presumed, was because he was most often seen on wheels than on foot. His mind was always driving his body into a pump-at-the-wheels motion, even when he was not astride his bicycle. He would bunch his shoulders forward in an attempt to grasp the non-existent turned-down handle, while his feet tapped out an awkward pedalling rhythm on the ground—a thump downwards, followed by an exaggerated lift-off. Of course, he could never really get anywhere walking that way. And one could well have applied that to his whole life.
Like his thick-tyred bicycle wheel, which turned on its axis, he was quite content to do the gehri—a derivative of a Punjabi word that indicates a round trip ending at the starting point. His was really a small world, meeting up at both ends. He spent every evening of his young life going round the block in top gear. The only time he did apply the brakes was on those horrible nights when his father beat up his mother. The wind in his sails would suddenly drop and he would bunch his shoulders still further together. During these times, he did feel that he should be doing something about it. Yet, the moment always escaped him, because his preoccupation with speed carried him just a fraction beyond it. He could only survey the aftermath, the damage.
When he woke up in the morning after nights like this, his mother was never there to serve him breakfast. She would just melt into the night and mysteriously appear at his maasi’s house the next day. And that was where he would head at top speed. She would be there, his mother, talking to his maasi in whispers. They would shush each other into silence when they saw him.
And he would say accusingly, ‘You didn’t give me any breakfast.’
His mother would look stricken and immediately want to make amends: ‘You want to eat an alu parantha, beta? A scrambled egg?’
Violence in the house necessitated some sort of an escape, howsoever brief. Myriad vistas opened up for Michael. There, engrossed in a book would be Monty, whom he could draw outdoors with a masterfully executed ‘wheelie’, a mid-flight lift of the front wheel of his cycle, achieved with a sudden, but calculated application of the brake. Or he could simply gawk at the rows of books on the shelf with a sense of wonder. He could even play with the mongrel, which invariably strayed into the backyard of the house. Besides, he could gorge on the alu parantha with the generous dollop of butter melting on it. And so each such moment passed, till his father, popularly known as Lalli, did it—yet again.
He did not quite know how to react to his father. It was from him that he had acquired his penchant for speed. All his own feats on wheels usually paled into insignificance when his father scoffed, ‘Oh, that? It’s nothing. I could change into a different set of clothes while riding my bike.’ And though that might sound like a lot of hot air to most other people, Michael was quite willing to believe it because it set him a standard to aspire to. It was this same father, though, who beat his mother. Ought he to just reject him as the measure of all things, the boy wondered, or should he interpret the violence as only one more aspect to the life of adults? People in town took Lalli with a pinch of salt, of course. There were far too many stories about him and the authorship of most of these could be traced back to the man himself. The favourite one was about Lalli, the bandit. The story went that young Lalli had once held up a train with the right honourable purpose of looting it. Unfortunately for Lalli, this particular train had already been robbed once. Therefore, the sum total of the plunder came to a mere seventy-five paise—an amount that could, in those days, buy the most expensive fabric for a shirt and pay for the most exclusive tailoring available. Yet, those seventy-five paise constituted the only money he had ever really earned, if it could be called that. The rest of his money—and there were vast amounts of it—had simply been inherited, one half of the family legacy going to his brother. If there were any sisters, they had gone out of the reckoning long ago and had just dropped off the family tree. Even if they existed, no one knew about them. The two brothers got it all. Of course, the legacy had taken a long time to come to them. Their Old Man Sekhon refused to die. He played lawn tennis every day, setting out for the courts in the still-scorching, early-evening summer sun or the warm afterglow of winter afternoons. He played tennis on tough, unwrinkled legs. His white beard seemed to be the only hostage to time. That being the manifest, upfront indicator of age, many were fooled into believing that Old Man Sekhon was not likely to live long. But all those pretty, young things who took their chances and decided to start living with him from time to time, in the hope that he would die one day and leave them all his wealth, never really got there. He simply outlived their aspirations. Each of them got tired of watching out for that elusive end, fearful of fading into once-upon-a-time beauties with no options left.
Lalli resented each one of these women who came into his father’s life though he should have had nothing to complain about. His father had set him up in a huge house and ensured an endless supply of money. But he would drop in on his father at odd times just to catch him in the act.
‘Came by to see if you are all right,’ he would say, since any expression of disapproval might have choked off the money supply.
‘Of course I am all right,’ his surprised father would snap back. ‘What did you think had happened?’
When Old Man Sekhon did finally die many years later, all the gold-diggers had dropped out of the race, leaving Lalli and his brother as the sole inheritors of his assets. The only other beneficiary was Ruby, the last of the old man’s series of companions.
Lalli, the more flamboyant of the two brothers, had always made extravagant use of the family money. But his splurges in the marketplace had very little to do with any domestic need. His purchases usually ran into a series. If he started buying cameras, for instance, he kept on acquiring one camera after another. Or it could be key chains. Having bought one, he would bring in a whole assortment over the next couple of months. Their house was bursting at the seams. Every table surface in sight was choked with bone china and cut glass because nothing came in ones or twos. As a result, dusting and cleaning the house every morning was a slow, laborious process. The two servants would bring out the cleaning rags from the storeroom, lift every vase, table lamp and figurine, wipe it clean and carefully put it back in its place. Michael’s mother would go into the kitchen and make breakfast, while the servants applied themselves wholly to hunting down the dust.
It was in the midst of this plenty that Michael grew up. But unlike his father, he was content to purchase in singles. So, the yellow bicycle remained, till his legs grew much too long to push at the pedals. The brief interlude between the cycle and his black Yezdi motorcycle was the most uncomfortable period in his life. He felt a hole in his being and did not quite know what to plug it with. He tried to focus his energies on eating, but soon figured out that the hole was not really in his stomach. When the bike arrived, it was ‘watch-out-here-I-come!’ once again. People in town learnt to recognize the revving sound and scurried out of the way. They glued themselves to the pavement till the bike had gone past. But in spite of the near-clear roads, Mike managed to pepper his life with a number of accidents. No one knew whether this was a way of staying away from college and from the bees that very nearly got him, or merely his family history catching up with him. He really should have been his father’s clone. That might have made things easier.

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