I don’t know why we called him Pathan. His real name had nothing to do with it phonetically, orthographically or lexically. No did he have the tall sturdy built of that mountain breed. Our Pathan lived bang opposite our house in Ernakulam in the sixties, and he was a fat man, totally out of shape. I remember an episode when my friend came home to copy some notes she had missed. She waited in the verandah which was used as our study room. I went in to get the note book. Suddenly, I heard her shout AIYYOOO!! My mother and I ran to the verandah to find her with her little hand covering the eyes and her lips drawn back in disgust. “Aiyyeeh Aiyeeh” she kept saying.
“What happened Chithra”, asked my mother?
She pointed to Pathan’s house, and with the other hand still over the eyes, she said “A lady is standing there without her chatta (the upper garment the Kerala Christian women wear).
Amma & I looked across to see Pathan standing on his verandah, clothed only in a huge turkey towel around his waist, well oiled for a bath and swinging his arms.
I’ve never seen amma laugh so helplessly.
So, you can imagine what Pathan looked like. Perhaps, it was because of his awkward size and shape that we children were so uncharitable as to make him the butt of our jokes and object of pranks.
Pathan’s double storeyed house had identical long verandas on the ground and first floors and we could see them from all the rooms from that side of our house. Once, when my brothers were home for summer vacation, one of them came up with a bright idea. It was past 10 o clock at night and my parents were away in our native place, which meant that the telephone which was kept in their room was free for our use or misuse.
As per the plan, one of them picked up the receiver and gave Pathan’s number to the operator. We could hear his telephone ring. With the lights off in our room, all of us watched his house. His telephone was kept in the extreme end of the upper verandah. We watched excited and tense. The phone kept ringing and ringing. Then the lights came on in a room inside and the verandah. We saw the door to the verandah open and Pathan came out, looking comical as he tried to walk fast. He took up the phone and hollered into it.
“Hello hello araanathu? (Who is it?)
“Can I speak to Mr. Baxter?” said my brother in a highly sophisticated accent.
”Sarry. Wrong number”. With great delight, we watched him bang the phone and walk away muttering.
My brothers waited for him to close the door to the verandah, and then switch off the light in his room. They gave him enough time to get back into bed and called again. Again the phone rang for a long time, then lights were switched on, door was opened and Pathan walked again towards the phone.
“Can I speak to Baxter?” This was another brother who outdid the other in the accent he put on.
“I told you there is no Baxteru here. You have the wrong number”, he screamed into phone and, and hearing him from where we were, we siblings dissolved into silent laughter. I remember tears were streaming down my face in sheer ecstasy.
The poor guy went back to bed. And then, another brother took up the phone. He could hardly control giggling when he gave the number to the operator but was cool when he asked for Baxter.
This time, what Pathan said cannot be written here. Repeating what he said would be a violation of my undertaking as a blogger not to pollute the blogsphere with obscenities.
And we saw another figure appear at the door. It was Pathan’s son, his exact replica in size and shape but younger of course. Apparently he was disturbed by all the sounds and Pathan’s loud obscenities.
“Enna appa?” he shouted. Perhaps it was the silence of the night which exaggerated all the sounds. And those people had loud voices too.
“Some ****** is playing a prank on us. They are asking for some bloody (mildest version of the real word he used) Baxteru”.
“Keep the phone off the hook appa”.
“Yeah. That’s an idea” he said.
And thus came to an end a supremely entertaining session for us.
We repeated this a few more times. But once, after banging the phone down, he stood on the veranda for sometime, looking in our direction in the dark. My brothers then decided that it was time to call off this game.
Looking back, I wonder why he didn’t try tracing the call. Maybe he wasn’t aware it could be done – and I’m sure we too weren’t aware it could be done. Phones were a pretty new and rare thing in our part of the world in the early sixties. I shudder to think of the consequences if the calls were traced to our house, and the hiding that’d have followed!
Or maybe we wouldn’t have got that hiding. Maybe we’d have been let off with a warning only. My father too had a terrific sense of humour, and he too had had a couple of mild brushes with Pathan for the latter's habit of blasting the Suprabhatham from his radio early morning and waking up the entire neighbourhood.