Chipmunks & squirrels

Chipmunks & squirrels


Hearing Dr Shastri, our training director, call us ‘India’s ambassadors’ was a peacock feather in our cap. He was addressing 20 of us completing the six-month course for tourist guides in New Delhi in the early 60s. Honing up our perception of India’s heritage, from architecture to classical dances, made me realise that there was more to dances than watching Vyjayanthimala ta-ta-thayya on the big screen.

Donning the mantle of an envoy for a 20-year-old graduate like me was ecstasy. Each sightseeing assignment was thrilling; a quiet Japanese couple one day and a twittering crew of Lufthansa air hostesses the next, there was never a dull day. But in summer, I had to lounge in the Tourist Office waiting for some mad Englishman in solar hat to turn up to look at the library steps where Emperor Humayun had slipped and kicked the bucket. About Rs 18 for a day’s trip was a princely sum; I could now afford to dine in swanky restaurants, and strut about Connaught Place with a lady on each cuff-link.
Not all trips were hunky dory; once I was at Jantar Mantar with a Texan in a 10-gallon hat clicking squirrels eating their brunch. “These chipmunks are cute,” he commented. “They are squirrels, not chipmunks,” I quipped, “Chipmunks sing, squirrels don’t.” He stopped talking to me.

The bulk of tourists were older yanks with little interest in our culture, but they had fat wallets. The Europeans were younger, better informed, and did not splurge. Good things in India are not allowed to last long, and soon tourism was being hijacked by dollar-grabbing privateers. Sadly, many ambassador colleagues were spending less time at the monuments, and more inside selected shops for extra money.

However, not all dollar chasers were bad eggs. Bachhittar Singh, the ju-ju man, was an exception. He targeted old Yankee ladies waiting in the limousine outside a monument for her colleagues to return. Bachhittar donned a grand saffron turban, his tilak, like his eyes, was awesome; in one hand he concealed the ju-jus; aromatic flowers, coloured stones, pieces of sandalwood, and in the other, the almanac and a mala. He approached his target gently and said, “You look like queen, madam.” dropping ‘THE’ before queen. The legend has it that once he was hit by a book hurled at him by a dame because Bachhittar said, “The queen”. Apparently, the lady didn’t like the British monarch.
He would then offer her the ju-ju and add, “It’s free madam…you no pay…now please close eyes and think of a colour… Done?... Was it blue? Yes?... You calling it fluke!… Ok, now think of a number… Done? Was it four?... Right?”

Spot on. Soon her hand would be in his and Bachhittar would talk about what happened in her past and how dazzling her future is, often referring to the almanac for effect. When the caravan of limousines departed, Bachhittar could be seen counting his dollars all the way to his mobike. Curiosity once made me invade his privacy. He was having tea in Qutub Café. I asked him the secret of his guessing the colour and the number right. “Jesseji,” he replied, “if I tell you my trade secret, you will be in my business and I’ll be in your seat in the car. Have a samosa.” Bachhittar is derived from the Sanskrit’s vichitra; he was indeed a strange man. On my way out, the manager at the desk whispered, “Sir, he is a hypnotist.”

Once I had a film delegation from the Soviet Union for sightseeing. An actress named Lilya was the interpreter because none of the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Georgians, Latvians and Russians seated in the bus spoke English or Hindi. The lunch was at the Annapurna at Janpath. I skipped the meal to meet a friend nearby.
When I was returning, I noticed Boris, the cinematographer, talking animatedly to a confectioner on Janpath. “I want eat, eat, no eat,” he was saying and the shopkeeper was pointing towards a restaurant. When Boris spotted me, he repeated his demand for ‘eat, eat, no eat’. “Wait, I bring Lilya,” I said. But suddenly, the guy in the next shop popped his head out and said, “Cool it gentlemen. He wants a chewing gum.”

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