Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Navy Days - The Influential Khalifa

In early December 1990 I reached New Delhi to take up my appointment in Naval Head Quarters. Heavy East winds had already started to blow over NHQ. On reporting, I was allotted accommodation at the Naval Officers Mess, Kotah House situated in the exclusive South Delhi area of Pandara on Shahjahan road. The Kotah House from the outside gave an appearance of all royalty and splendour but the insides were in dire need of repairs.Kotah House had been declared a heritage building by the government and as a result no repair could be carried out by the navy. The main building housed the state rooms and a few VVIP quarters. However the bulk of the accommodation was located around the main building and was affectionately referred to as the ‘Stable’. Originally they were the stables of the Maharaja of Kota.

On completion of all the in coming routine I was allotted a cabin in the stable. I collected the keys and approached the cabin with great anticipation as it would be my abode for the next one year. After depositing the luggage in the main room I decided to inspect my quarters in greater detail only to find that the rear door had only one part and the other was missing. Further scrutiny revealed that two windows and one ventilator also had left this cabin very long time back along with the stable boys of Kota. The cabin gave me a feeling of being ‘Outdoors’ while being ‘Indoors’. One night of this ‘Indoor cum Outdoor’ arrangement was sufficient to cause a severe nervous break down even amongst the toughest of sea goers.

The next morning I had to be literally thawed and then woken up by the civilian bearer Manga Ram to give me a cup of tea. There were more surprises in the offing. I noticed a long time resident cat occupying the spare bed with authority and confidence and giving me ‘you are the intruder’ look. To add to my woes, I found the geyser was not functioning. The icing on the cake came in the form of extremely dull lighting and an over cast sky.

I said to myself that god had played a trick on me and everything would be normal in due course. That’s when the door bell rang. The mess Khalifa had arrived to give me a haircut. Khalifas if you have noticed have an uncanny knack of striking conversation and keeping you engrossed in their narration. They have many interesting stories, anecdotes, galley rumours, gossip to tell. I had once the privilege of having my hair cut by a Khalifa who was also a potential movie script writer. That was in 1971 on board INS Kavarati. There was no way one could escape the narration as the cutting went in tandem. If you stopped paying attention or did not ask relevant questions he would stop the cutting and hold you in ransom.

In a very short period of time the Kota Khalifa had presented his credentials and was busy clipping away. As any long time resident of Delhi would do, the Khalifa also narrated the names of all the VVIPs he knew and how he was their trusted hair stylist and cutter. He also made a very important policy statement which came naturally to him being in Delhi for many years – he said “make no mistake, in spite of knowing all the big wigs of Delhi, I treat every one from “Sentry to Mantri” alike. If my hands were not caught in the sheet which covered me, I would have clapped endlessly in admiration. As the cutting finished and entered into the head massage phase, we touched upon various national issues and finally settled down to long discussion on mechanics of work. Under the influence of massage one kept agreeing to what ever he said and he always had the last say. The discussion ended when he said “Sahib, there is no work in the fouj” unable to grasp this complex Aristotleish statement I sought more clarification to which he said “Sahib, work should have a start and finish point without which it can neither commence nor end, Fouj me kam kabhi start huva khabi katham hoga kissiko pathanahi”. I really do not know with what purport he told me this philosophical statement, but it did leave me unnerved for a long time – was all my work aimless?

Having reached the payment phase the conversation also became lighter and more down to earth. He enquired if  I had settled down in my cabin. All my pent up anger came out and PG Woodhouse would have said, to quote “He was like a bottle with full of fizz not interested in who uncorked the bottle, as long as there was a chance for the fizz to come out”. I fizzed forth all my complaints to the barber.

The hair cut and massages session ended and I tipped the Khalifa more than usual, fully knowing that barbers are very influential and well connected people and the most important thing in Delhi is to be connected. While packing up his instruments he casually asked “Sahib, where did you come from” and I said “Vizag”.He suddenly stopped what ever barbers do after a hair cut and became very attentive and posed the next question “Are you with the bade Sahib” meaning the Chief of Naval Staff designate who also happened to come from Vizag.I gave him a smile but no answer. The all knowing, influential and philosopher Khalifa departed saying “Samajgaya sahib”.

After a hot bath in my neighbour’s cabin and a good breakfast I settled down in front of my cabin, reading TOI.

Few hours later my reading was interrupted with the arrival of a tallish stern looking gentleman with an unmistakable military bearing. He caught my attention and said “Sir, I am Hardit Singh, the Chief Steward of the mess and I have come to apologise for mistakenly allotting a sub standard cabin to you – we have prepared another cabin for you and with your permission I will ask these two boys to shift your luggage to the new cabin”. He gave the necessary instruction to the boys and wished me a happy stay in Kotah house.

I was totally bowled by this sudden windfall. Unable to contain my curiosity as to what caused this sudden change of cabin I asked “How come this change all of a sudden” For the first time the stern looking Hardit Singh dropped his guard and permitted himself a half smile and said “I have my own source of information, sir” and walked away in the general direction of the barber shop.

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