I sat down at my favorite tea shop, the morning’s newspaper crisp in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The day’s banner headline was a poignant one, for a change: Tiger Pataudi, the Nawab of Cricket, had died, aged 70.
I had seen him once, thirty years ago, at the Bombay Gymkhana Club, where a friend had invited me to tea. Mansur Ali Khan (as he was known, after Indira Gandhi had stripped the erstwhile rajas of their titles and privy purses) entered the veranda and sat at a nearby table. He was alone, terrifically handsome and possessed of an enormous presence. Perhaps nobody else felt a thing but I for one was in total awe of his silent splendor as he simply sat there amidst the wickerwork furniture. Such are the sources of legend. No wonder the photographs and the news, sans internet, of exploits on the cricketing pitch and sporting antics off the field, held an interest for the public that needed no deeper explanation. I felt a pang of loss. Another gentleman of the old school was gone. RIP.
The cigarette, in my other hand, king-sized and filter-tipped, came out of a packet finished in gold that did nothing to diminish the lethal nature of a dirty filthy habit. I had been clean for some moons and this was a moment of weakness, but there’s many a slip twixt the lip and the tip.
Suddenly a friend appears, borrows my newspaper, as yet unopened, introduces me to his companions, Rani, Danya and David, then casually observes: “So?” meaning the cigarette, still unlit, as I light his cigarette with my lighter, which I carry for just such occasions.
Introductions complete, I ask my newly met friends for permission to smoke. “I don’t mind,” says Rani. Sure? “Yes.” But then, inexplicably, one thing leads to another. “Why do you smoke?” she asks. “You don’t need it,” suggests Danya. David, bless his soul, is sitting on the other bench, out of earshot and as nonchalantly courageous as the late Tiger Pataudi who continued to face the ball and captain India, even after the loss of an eye (but that’s another story). In the end I gave the problematic cigarette to my friend who had by then finished reading my newspaper which I still hadn’t had a chance to read.
These three wise youths are Peace Corps veterans, freshly returned from two years of selfless service in Armenia, now taking the long route back home: India, Thailand, and points further west.
Initiated by President John Kennedy in 1961 in the M.A.D. years of the Cold War, the Peace Corps is still active, the Vor on Terrer notwithstanding. Its declared purpose: “To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” You can trust lawmakers to pen scintillating prose.
The Peace Corp was best known in India for Lillian Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s mother, who served here in the 1960s when she was herself 68 years old. In Armenia today, the oldest volunteer is aged 84, I was told. Of some four score volunteers in that country, the under-thirties and the over-thirties are evenly, though not equally, matched. Any US citizen with a college degree can apply for the opportunity which calls for a two-year commitment. Many of the Peace Corps workers are return volunteers who’ve signed up for another stint outside of their normal comfort zones.
I was happy to meet with these guys. During the brief encounter we squeezed off a few snapshots, thanks to the on-board ‘idiot button.’ Danya accepted the ‘guest photographer’ slot, demonstrating she’s ready to upgrade from her point-and-shoot:
My friend and neighbor Hari arrived on the scene, grand-aunt to Rani and hostess to the trio. It was time to move on. As they say, Day by Day with Ramana. And thank you guys, I’m still clean 😉