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No Time For Catcalls

he mid 1960s arrived, and swollen with funds our municipality took the plunge and started a post graduate college. While the new building came up, Summer House served as a base to start classes. Its upper floor atop the rabbit-warren of Kulri bazaar was hastily partitioned into classrooms, with interesting results.

‘This is a two-in-one class!’ Professor Vijay Krishna Uniyal, our English teacher, boomed. Chuckling, he would add: ‘Learn some history too while you are at it!’ dropping his own voice to a hush as the sound filtered in from the next classroom.

Our college proved to be a boon for our local merchants, traders, artists, faith healers, antique dealers and for those wanting to move on in their stalled careers. Among the last group was Austin McGregor. He had been a ticketing clerk in the State Transport Corporation for years on end and attended early morning classes in the hope that it would get him a promotion. Four years my senior, I met him a few years down the road, perched on a stool behind the metal grill of the booking counter next to our spanking new edifice.

‘Oye! Kala-angrez aa gaya!’ the catcall sliced through the morning air like a knife through butter. There was no ignoring him as he seemed to be getting quite a kick out of it.

My fault, in his eyes, was that as a young local from a small hill station, I had no business becoming an English teacher. I was only twenty three years old at the time.

‘Ignore him!’ Professor Sudhakar Misra, my Guru and later colleague comforted me, casually mentioning that Austin’s name, as entered in the attendance register was, believe-it-or-not, Austin William Benjamin Makepeace McGregor. What a mouthful!

Dear Reader, you have my word of honour that is exactly what he was christened by his parents at the Methodist Church in the summer of 1940. It’s inscribed in the Pastor’s long-hand in the church register.

Oh how the tables had turned. Now the boot was on the other foot. I had the perfect answer to his catcalls.

‘How do you have such a long-winded name? Where did your parents get it from? Which tombstones in the Camel’s Back cemetery did they steal the names from?’

That crushed him. The catcalls ceased. We went on to become good friends and life moved on.

Over the years, I have noticed how in Landour, Mussoorie if you were to find someone dressed in formals, you could safely presume that they are going to one of three things: a funeral, a housewarming or a wedding. It was at a wedding reception one day that I bumped into Austin all dressed up in a white linen suit.

‘Arrey! I hadn’t seen you for such a long time, I thought you must have joined your ancestors in heaven by now!’ I teased. He refused to take the bait.

I persisted (with those catcalls of long ago still resounding in my ears I just could not let go): ‘Did you crawl out of your coffin? Or did you steal these clothes from an old grave?’

‘Sssh! Kala angrez!’ he whispered like a conspirator. ‘Don’t breathe one more word about this suit! Looking for something decent to wear, I found this wedding suit at the bottom of an old tin trunk. It was in such a mess that I had to take it to Bandbox, the drycleaners in Dehradun. The boy at the counter, he stared at me, sizing me up and shook his head saying:

‘Bahut mehnga padeyga dry-cleaning! Ja apney sahib koh pooch kay ana!’ (It’ll be really expensive to dry-clean! Go ask your Sahib first!)

‘Stepping out, I slunk around a nearby lane, avoiding all eye contact with the bill babu. Half an hour later, I returned as if I had gone home to get the Sahib’s permission. I grabbed the clothes and ran away as fast as I could and that’s what you see me wearing today. Now wipe that silly grin off your face and not a word more about my clothes.’

I guess sometimes you have to call it quits.. even catcalls!