As I potter about in the bedroom of my brother-in-law’s apartment in the sylvan Bukit Batok suburbs in Singapore, I spot a tan broad-rimmed suede hat (you know, the kind that cowboys wear) on the wall. I have never seen my brother-in-law sporting a headgear, nor is he known to be adventurous in matters sartorial.
My curiosity is stoked, but I can’t ask him because he is not at home. I ask my niece who says that all she knows is that it has some childhood association. I make a mental note to ask him when he returns.
In the evening, as we treat ourselves to some chilled beer, I pop the question.
He takes me back to his school days. He was in Class III in a Calcutta school. The School’s Annual day is also a children's day out. After the big event, his parents took him and his sister to the New Market for a little bit of shopping. As they were coming out, his eyes fell on a tan broad-rimmed hat with a red feather stuck to it. The boy imagined himself wearing one and riding a horse in the wild west. He wanted one. He asked his mother.
She negated the proposal with a firm ‘No’. He turned to his father, No luck. He then did what any seven-year old in his position would do: he stayed put, started screaming and throwing tantrums. He refused to move unless his demand was met. The parents would not relent. They walked on. He did not move. He thought that after a while, the parents would give in.
How wrong he was! They walked briskly, dragging his sister along, but not looking back even once. When they were nearly out of sight, he realized that his Satyagraha was not yielding the desired results. He decided to give up his protest. But not before taking a pledge to buy one for himself when he could.
That reminds me of my boat. When I was a kid of eight, my father had taken us one evening to the All-India Exhibition. There were potato-peelers and coconut scrapers, boiled egg-slicers and vegetable shredders, bedsheets and garments, saplings and grafted plants, and, of course, toys.
One stall had a one-foot deep hole of about five-foot diameter which was filled with water. Several tiny metal boats in bright colours were floating on the surface of the water, a few of them spluttering and busy moving about. On closer look, I espied a tiny bowl with some oil and a burning wick in it.
I badly wanted one of them, but was not bold enough to make a request to my father. I made a feeble representation to my mother who told me why it would not be bought: children should not be playing with fire; or water, for that matter. The real reason, now I know, was that my father would not like it. He was careful with the hard-earned money and would not waste it on such trifles. All I could do was to lump the desire.
Three decades later, we (my wife and son) were at a fair in Trivandrum. It had rained in the evening and there were puddles. Negotiating puddles with a shopping bag and an umbrella, with a four-year old in tow, is not an easy proposition. So we had to avoid stalls in front of which water had collected.
As we walked past one such stall, I heard a splutter that triggered off old memories. I turned back quickly, and before I knew it, I was in the stall. My purchase was done in a jiffy and I was out of the stall as fast as I had gone in. After that, I could not wait to get home. I told my wife that it was a toy for my son.
When we reached home, my son was sleepy, but I was in a hurry to commission the boat. As my wife got busy in the kitchen, I filled the large plastic basin with water, placed the boat on the surface, poured a little oil in the bowl and lit the wick. The boat spluttered and moved. My son’s face lit up too.
In a week, my son got fed up with it and like all young boys, was happier with newer toys. But not me.
I did not know that my wife had observed that I was taking much longer than usual in the bathroom. Till one Sunday forenoon, when she caught me red-handed. I was in the bathroom playing with the boat.