During the then Bombay Presidency of India in 1949 that sprawled across western India, before states were carved out by linguistic divides, Vedanthachary was the only student in the Sangli Engineering College with a peculiar hairstyle that only girls sported. The tuft made Vedanthachary stand out from the rest. This kind of tuft was rare, even in those days, when the knot on the head was a common sight in India among orthodox Brahmins; they certainly were visual aberrations in the university campuses. And even in the Hindu temples where Brahmins chanted mantras to the magical wave of their hairdo, this style was increasingly less in vogue.
The tuft was much in evidence on Vedantachary’s head barring the only occasion when it disappeared from view was when this engineering student donned an English county cap in his vain attempts to get into the college’s cricket eleven.
This outgrowth we were talking about, found an unlikely fan in a pretty young woman from the Mediterranean coast. For Cynthia De Costa, a daughter the Portuguese Aide de Camp to the Governor of Goa and the only womanstudent in the faculty, this knotted tuft had a fatal attraction. Her shapely curves and glowing, fair skin attracted many a young man, but what attracted her was Vedanthachary’s attitude towards her. This boy, like his tuft, was not one that went with the ordinary and had a peculiar variation in the sense that he looked her straight in the eyes and discussed gyro-dynamics without letting his eyes rove over her bosom or hips as the other boys did. Cynthia even offered to plait his tuft neatly like her little Goanese girl assistant back home, which our Veadanthachry declined with a feigned politeness.
The young man’s father, Raghavachary, was the Shirasthadar, an euphemistic British colonial term for a head-clerk, in Tanjore Collectorate. Almost all of what little he could collect under his dilapidated old table, from the public seeking favour from the collectorate, went to build the capitation fee to admit his only son into the engineering college in remote Sangli, a Princely state of Maharashtra. With caste-based reservations becoming increasingly the norm in southern India, boys from the ‘forward community’, a hyperbole for Brahimns, had little hope of entering professional colleges in the then Madras Presidency, which in the year 1948 were few and far between.
For the young Brahmin from Tanjore, these were the days when he was looking to play the most English game called cricket, the charming woman in Portuguese-ruled territory came somewhat handy. The only other matter of great interest to our Vedanthachary, besides gyro-dynamics that he often discussed with Cynthia, was to somehow get into the college cricket eleven. Stanley Gonzalves, the son of the Governor of Goa, was the college cricket captain, and happened to be Cynthia’s first cousin.. This was another reason for him to shed his oriental inhibition towards the female of the species and to keep meeting Cynthia time and again. Here was a chance for his ingratiating himself to the cricket captain utilizing Cynthia’s services to that end.
Vedantachary’s mother often used to remind him that he was a direct descendent of that mathematical geniusRamanujam who rose from being a minion on the British Raj’s clerical desk to become an undisputed arithmetic expert from the east. Ramanujam’s genius, after all, lay in his mastery of numbers. We are not sure if the genius transferred through the genes to our young hero, but the boy certainly did realize that cricket was a game of numbers, eleven, to be precise. In the fond hope that one day or other his college team will fall short of the magical number eleven, catapulting the Tanjore boy into the playing team. Vedantachary was present without being invited, at every match his college took part.
Dame fortune did not bestow her smile on him for a long time. But the wait did not go in vain, and she chose to travel to Goa on the day he unrelentingly went to the local railway station to see his college eleven off as it went to play the Goan tournament. As luck would have it, only ten turned up at the platform, and Stanley, at a loss for numbers, drew the master of gyro-dynamics into the train as it chugged off. There he was, without his gear or overnight bag, but inducted into the college cricket eleven. His dream was coming true.
Vedanthachary was almost a stranger to the rest of his team except that he used to bowl to other members on the sidelines when the team was batting. With not much in common with the lads, the young man spent his time discussing the importance of nuclear Physics in future space travel with Cynthia, who happened to be traveling on the same train. We must remember that no space ship had been launched those days when our Vedantachary was performing the art of orbiting the potential of gyro-dynamics on the one hand and Cynthia on the other, as the passenger train trundled on the meter gauge that linked Hubli with the sleepy town of Londa.
Alas, Dame Luck had second thoughts about awarding a college cap on a cricket-loving gyro-dynamics expert. The eleventh man landed at the eleventh hour, and Vedantachary’s ambitions of making his début appearance in the college eleven became short-lived. The spoil sport landed in Goa by bus, exactly minutes behind the train. Vedantacharywas stranded without accommodation; Cynthia came to his rescue, offering to take the dejected boy to her house, equipped with a handy guest room. Unaware of Cynthia’s weakness for his tuft, dejected in cricket, the young man broke down. As Cynthia hugged him to her enormous bosom to console him, he accepted innocently, not nursing any thought of a romantic development that would follow.
With cricket an elusive dream, Vedantachary tagged on to Cynthia’s desire to see an avant-garde French film, complete with the obligatory bedroom sequence of long footage that the continental aesthetics of the day warranted. It did not help our man’s inhibited Eastern psyche that both the performers in question were the female of the species and not between a man and a woman, as one would have ordinarily expected. Cynthia, however, did not seem to have any qualms over the visual exhibition of what would have been punishable in India under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code with rigorous imprisonment of either description not exceeding ten years, with or without fine.
Cynthia’s left hand crept behind the back-rest of his seat and gently rested on his left shoulder. She almost let out a cry when she firmly caught something that felt like an insect between her thumb and forefinger. She offered to rescue him from being bitten by what seemed to her like some insect under his shirt.
The young woman lost interest when she realized that the colonial censors had chopped off abruptly the engaging bedroom scene. It took almost the rest of the entire running time of the movie, which Cynthia too, seemed to have lost interest in, for Vedantachary to explain to her the philosophy behind the holy knot of Lord Brahma in his sacred thread that nestled under what would-have-been a cricketer’s shirt.
The Governor of Goa had apparently failed to see eye to eye with the mainland Portuguese government, in the matter of cinematic presentation of the French bedroom behaviour of two women and had eliminated most romantic parts of the lesbianism sought to be expounded by the film maker. While this caused a little discontent in the heart of a young daughter of one of his key personal staff, yet it provided the opportunity for a young Brahmin to expound on the virtues of the sacred thread.
Vedanthachary spent his substantial oratorical skills in explaining to Cynthia that the insect she claimed to have found on his left shoulder inside his shirt was in reality a knot that was indicative of his ethnic superiority as a Brahmin. He did his best to convince her that he had become a blessed twice born once the sacred thread was mounted on his left shoulder. He also carefully failed to mention that the two sets indicated his marital status of being wedded to Alamelu, who still remained virgin in Tanjore awaiting the arrival of Vedanthachary’s engineering degree.
Things came to an intriguing head that night when Cynthia came into the guest room dressed in a cancan skirt, popular in Europe in the forties. Her father arrived with her in an impeccable dinner suit. The young man from Tanjore had turned down her invitation to join a charity ball, in part, on account of his unfamiliarity with dancing of any kind, and in part being averse to displaying his tuft in a largely western society. Citing a severe headache, and feigning fever,Vedanchary retired to bed, hoping to be at ease.
It was almost midnight when he heard the knock on his door. In walked Cynthia, and resting her hand on his forehead in what seemed like her eagerness to find out if he was running a fever. She pushed him into a sitting positionon the bed in the process, and casually mentioned about a middle-aged Anglo-Indian who tried to plant a kiss while they were dancing and how she had given him a slap. This tactic, used by female world over to take a conversation towards an acceptable romance had the very opposite effect on our young man, who quickly visualized his father slapping him for his association with a white girl. Brahmin notions of conjugal relations meant, she was an untouchable as well. The excuse of ill-health came in handy again for Vedantachary. Cynthia left the room reluctantly, closing the door behind her.
This is where the assumed celibacy of the direct descendant of the mathematical genius Ramnujam deserted him. Urged by a desire to digest the receding hind of the Portuguese beauty and to watch her through the keyhole as she moved towards her room right across the corridor, he darted to the door and applied his right eye to the keyhole, his left eye firmly closed with such contortions of the body, which would have done any dedicated Hollywood cameraman proud.
He could see her taking out the room key from the handbag, insert it, half opening the door and standing frozen in thought for a few seconds. She then closed the door, locked it again, put the key back in her handbag and started walking towards the guest room where our hero was glued to the key whole. Now it was his turn to be frozen till her body came close to the keyhole and blocked his vision. He opened the door after a measured delay, such as would take for a lad to get up from his bed and to reach the door.
Cynthia seemed nervous and agitated. She claimed that she had misplaced her room key and the main door was locked and that there was no way of her getting into her room again until her father came back from the Charity Ball. By now Vedanthachary knew that the key was inside the handbag she was clutching to her bosom. He gave a vacant stare at the bag in the fond hope that the key would be extracted by the magic of his stare, much as his earlier Vedic ancestorBharadwaja Maharishi, a sage of Hindu mythology could have managed with his mystical powers. The woman on the other hand, mistook that he was attracted by her pectoral sumptuousness, put her purse on the table and rationed the exposure of her ample bosom by adjusting the buttons of her blouse. It was here that the distant ancestor Ramanujam’s genius blossomed in the young man’s otherwise unproductive brain. He asked her whether she could find a screwdriver so that he would try to open the lock. She obligingly left the room to fetch a screwdriver from the car shed, leaving her handbag where it was. .
At this juncture, Vedanthachary must have created a world record in running, in what would be called potato gathering in Cynthia’s convent in her school days. He collected the key from the handbag, ran to her door, opened the lock with her own key, pocketed it and, in holding the doorknob, he made the door appear locked. All this he did in a time worthy of Guinness record.
When she produced the screwdriver he performed a miracle, at least as far as Cynthia was concerned, by letting the door open at the first thrust with an implement, which was not intended to perform such feats. She then thanked him as insincerely as possible, went inside and closed her door.
Back in his room, Vedanthachary was not sure whether he had done right as her handbag stared at him and seemed to shout ‘Coward!’ at him.
For the second time that night, the genetic influence of his ancestor the Great Ramanujam came into play. He remembered the key was still in his pocket, put it in the purse that mocked at him and picked up the courage to go and knock the door across the floor.
Cynthia opened the door with a broad smile, appearing like an angel from heaven in her silk negligée and, said, “Yes?”
Now it was Vedanthachary’s father Ragavachariar’s turn to emerge as an apparition with his sandal raised above the head, brandishing the footwear which was the correct parental weapon of the ancient Brahmins against adolescent delinquency of offsprings. The young descendant of hoary morals lost his nerve and speechlessly produced her handbag from behind, with the deftness of a sleight-of-hand trickster, only to face a door banged as she snatched the bag away from him.
The whole of the next day he could not find Cynthia in the house. The following day Vedanthachary took leave of her father and boarded the train to Sangli via Londa, to trace back the ordained place in the hostel at Sangli. It was in the Panjim station that he had his last encounter with Cynthia De Costa. She surprised him by walking towards his window and apologized for not being able to meet him the whole of the previous day. The genes of the mathematical wizard in his Aryan blood came into play.
“I am sorry for what I did yesterday.”
“You mean what you did not do?”
“One set of three threads means a bachelor. Two such sets mean that he is married”.
He pulled out and showed her his two tiered sacred threads.
“That is all right. How did you manage to open my door?”
“With your key.”
“How did you get it?’
“From your purse.”
“How did you know it was there?’
“I was watching you through the keyhole when you put it inside the purse.”
She started laughing and planted a kiss on his cheek as the train whistled and pulled off.
It is fifty years past and Vedanthachary`s eldest son is settled in the US and has married a black American widow with two children. The daughter is working as a consultant in England and has married an Englishman who came to mow her lawn every Tuesday, a very inauspicious day of the week, according to late Raghavachary. Alamelu, our Vedantachary’s wife, is the president of the local women club. The members are having a kitty party in the hall. Vedantachary has retired as Chief Engineer of the state and is in the Puja room, performing his floral offerings and chanting mantras in the best fashion of his ancient clan.
To her eager visitors, Alamelu shows a Christmas card with an inlay of Cynthia’s close-up, proudly telling her friends about the Portuguese girl who was head over heels in love with her husband.
Inside the Puja room, Vedanthachary, with same old tuft that attracted Cynthia, is chanting Bhagawad Geetha. The tuft has gone gray, though.