Fancy Fair

Preparations would start a week before. Ashish Dey, our senior and enfante terrible had a Fancy Fair commemorative bath exactly 4 days before the event. The southern part of the dormitory knew that for Ashish a typical body wash day comes after every 2 months. He explained convincingly that very morning while puncturing a zit on his face, “on a time continuum it is like shaving daily”. Ashish and a few of our “house” seniors made note of all the desirable items the juniors wore for work throughout the year. Leather belts, Terricot shirts (was a rage then), Stylish Mocassins, Sneakers, handkerchiefs, socks, ties and blazers to mention a few. In the days leading to the fair they would routinely accost the noted owners of such items to build their trousseau for the occasion. They would try these new things on, look at themselves in the mirror, sing a song, smile, and talk late into the night as the D-day approached. We proffered to this tradition by wangling a tie or a sneaker from our juniors. In our case, since the authority was far from absolute, this transaction was an acrimonious one and involved calling names and spewing threats aplenty. The grand day cometh, we trudge down our respective hillocks, pockets brimming with false paper currency for the day. Girls School descends from the steeper slope. For Junior School a less steeper, albeit a more disciplined one. For the Senior Boys, a relatively longer raucous trek down to the valley. The layouts of stalls were identical every year with little changes here and there. We look out impatiently towards the valley swathed in the mild afternoon sun, with stalls dotted across its green. Ribbons cut, we enter. To the left is “Lucky Seven” run by Mr. Chimwal. Mr. Pande ran a roulette wheel beside it. Walk along the pushta to the left, across the still visible 100 meter finish mark chalk, and one comes across little food eateries run Italian family style by our former teachers from Junior school. “Dahi vada”, “Gulab Jamun” and “Chole Chaat” are the fares on offer. It is meeting time with our former teachers at Junior School, and a strange inexplicable ego trip too. Driven by loyalty and some unknown bond, we decide to spend our first buck on Miss Tomar’s stall. I make a mental note of the fact that Miss. Sahni still wore unsuspecting maroon polish on her ear gorging nails. Delicacies savoured, our favourite old school teacher’s acknowledged, it is time to move to other things. “Panikkar, bring in the rest of your classmates too” came the refrain from Miss. Thapa as we left. We usually dug into the food first, then played the sundry money games and as we got down to the last few coupons had ice-creams near the juke box. By this time, the eyes very slyly start trailing our counterparts from the girls school as they inched their way towards the cricket pavilion. This was the usual pattern which could be broken by an unprecedented rush of luck on the “Roulette” or “Lucky Seven”. Junior school folks with their limited allowance are the first to run out of money. They divert their attention to gainful begging from friends or become cheerleaders at other events. Games that were openly meant to fleece the unwitting students had an aura of respectability to it. Mr. Naqvi and his real world assistant Mr.Das, for example manned a game station which included throwing a ping pong ball into an Aluminium bucket that was impossibly angled. The ball, understandably, would not stick in. The kids from Junior School, having lost all their money in such games, were taking devious delight from watching others walk into the trap. We tried to keep a safe distance, but then Mr. Naqvi sent a few flacks to round us up for this sham. Another stall people visited out of purely obligatory reasons is Mr. Shukla’s “Treasure Island”. As our Housemaster, a visit to his stall was obligatory, although losing money there was never an imperative. His brother, affectionately called “Junior Chol” was lazing somnolent on a chair beside. This adventure game comprised of a fancy scenery of hills and rivers, mud made, gaudy green painted on a wooden board, atop which little flags were hoisted. I stopped for a moment to take in the dreariness of its annual journey to the valley every year from Mr. Shukla’s garden shed. Everyone was bored, no one was playing for treasure, but Mr. Shukla looked suitably sporting. Arguably the busiest stall in this fair. Mr. Chimwal, who ran the “Lucky Seven” counter was a class act. Years later when I saw the movie “Casino”, the Robert Di Niro character reminded me of him. A lifelong affair with Mathematics put paid to a budding career in the gambling industry. There he was, goading, taunting, thumping the desk, cheering and shouting as hooligan like as the kids surrounding his stall. A roar of delight ripped through the valley as soon as big money was made out of the “Seven” bet. The other hotspot was Mr.Khanna’s roulette. He routinely used to ban people who won regularly at his wheel. If there was a secret behind the way he spun the roulette, only a few people knew it. If you won big at his wheel, the follow-up history periods in school will not be as pleasant. That will be like his hand behind your neatly shaven head, a wicked smile on his face, the odour of tobacco all encompassing, as he explains the historic moment when Louis the XVI was to be Guillotined. Everyone’s idea of fun, and for the victim, a sense of overwhelming Déjà vu. I never understood why they used two Roulette wheel stations in the fair, but Mr. Pande operated the second one. This one was more equitable. You could spend all your money here and for every loss you will see a sly grimace form up on his face even as he counts up all your money and stacks it away. Mr. Bagchi had a monopoly over the coconut shy. The balls were from the cricket season last year. The coconuts were placed about 30 feet away perched on iron hinges. This was a favorite with Jharipani locals because they could take away coconuts in sacks with their accurate throws. That is, till the time Mr. Bagchi clamped a ban-order on them. From among students who won coconuts, the ignominy of carrying two sets in their hands was too much to bear especially with increasing attention being diverted towards the Juke Box and the girls therein. The only time I won it, it stayed in my hands till a local guy unburdened me of the ugly thing. Mr. Pant’s Housie stall near the Juke Box was a very nice place to start conversations between girls and boys. In our class some guys had been paired with girls from the other side. When they found each other, it started off with gingerly “hi’s” and hello’s” between Housie number announcements. Then there were sidekicks who bent over, arms around the guys who were chatting up girls. Taking in bits and pieces of conversation, spreading them around, buying Mazaa for the girls all the while trying to look important to the whole event. The music is already blaring from the “Juke Box”. No, it was not a place where you slotted in a coin to hear the song of your choice. In OG lingua, “Juke Box” meant a maroon cloth hung along all the four sides, taking up a part of the cricket pavilion. So a box it was, with a gramophone LP player in the corner belting out Kenny Rogers, Michael Jackson, Boney M and Cerrone Love in “C” minor. As the girls and boys made their way to the Juke Box, their hangers on followed clicking photographs, pretending to talk, actually talking, and then serving ice creams as they come. Then there are “heroes” who just love to blaze the dance floor, displaying their wares as if no other such opportunity will arise. With the pairs, they are now trying to find little corners for themselves, talking idle, “I did not see you during the chemistry practicals last week”, “when are you girls going to Mussoorie?”, “I love Gabriela Sabatini, do you?”, and an occasional “I like/love you”. A hand touched, a smile exchanged it was enough to last till the next meeting, which will probably be in Platform Number one of Dehradun Railway Station when they depart for their respective homes for vacations. Still others found more intimate corners where they promised love and commitment to each other and sealed their affection with more than handshakes, but about that, another time. Shaken up hormones, subdued by propriety and juvenile first steps in the mating game, synchronised by rehashed music – that was the Fancy Fair Juke Box atop the cricket pavilion. As evening sets in, students, their pockets empty, teachers, their stalls wrapped up, talk in groups informally as they move towards the Cricket pavilion. The cupid stricken souls move their ways but have eyes still for each other. The Juke Box is now a flurry of activity as it prepares for the raffle draw. A hollow metal cylinder with a handle is cranked, the chief guest fumbles inside to pick up chits. Lucky raffle owners are awarded, Cameras, Table Fans, Torch Lights, Pressure Cookers and Vacuum flasks accompanied by the sound of loud applause. Fancy Fair had ended. As we tread up along our hillock, I cast a longing glance at our glorious valley green. The setting sun had cast long eerie shadows of Oak Trees through the middle. Will the valley ghosts from times past celebrate their Fancy Fair tonight? – Manoj Panikkar (1991)
This piece was written by Manoj Panikkar on  November 03, 2008 on his blog. It was shared by him on the Oak Grove School, Mussoorie page on October 24, 2019.
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