When I was in boarding school in Kolkata, I had a classmate called Sunil Sharma (name changed). He was aka and indeed better known as Lord Belchfart or BF for short. He had this unfortunate propensity, sometimes, to b and f in quick succession. It was a lethal combination. As it was also a near soundless performance, it had the element of surprise and laid low many an unsuspecting boy who ventured too close to him. On such occasions, the only sound was the sound of silence; BF was a silent killer. Nevertheless, he was a very popular boy, always ready to help anyone in difficulty.
Although we had become immune by then, my classmates and I got round him in the dormitory one day and asked him what the problem was.
‘It’s my stomach. There’s something wrong with it,’ he said.
‘I’ll say there is,’ I agreed.
‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ asked Rakesh Jagtiani.
‘What can I do, yaar?’
‘Don’t say yaar,’ scolded Nikhilesh Banerjee, ‘you know jolly well that we aren’t allowed to speak a word of any language other than English.’
Our teachers also insisted that we speak and write impeccable English. Our diction had to be spot on, too. We learned that Thames is pronounced Temz, (Samuel) Pepys is Peeps, two pence is tuppence, clerk is clark, Gloucester is Gloster and so on.
‘Alright then,’ said BF, ‘what shall I do, chaps?’
‘Good question,’ said Gobind Gangwani, who didn’t know the answer.
‘I guess you’d better see a doctor,’ suggested MJ Akbar (M J Akbar is now a well known writer and journalist).
‘OK, I’ll see one in the summer hols.’
‘But what’ll we do till then?’ queried Subir Ghosh.
‘I don’t know. Surely you can’t expect me to seal my er…rear.’
‘No, you’d better not,’ I said. ‘That may be the way out, if you see what I mean, but not the way out of the problem.’
‘And it’ll leave you with only one opening, as it were,’ said “Rat” Mukherjee, trying hard to keep a straight face.
‘Well, I’ve been to Nurse off and on,’ said BF defensively, ignoring the jibe, ‘but I don’t think it helps.’
‘Of course it does, you chump,’ said MJ, ‘Nurse takes good care of you.’
This was true, for without our kindly school nurse, Ms Biswas’s ministrations, BF’s condition could have had explosive consequences.
‘And now, if you’ve quite finished making fun of me,’ said BF, ‘can we change the subject?’
‘Of course we can,’ said Subir, quickly putting a friendly arm round his shoulders, ‘we’re only playing the fool.’
‘Wasting time as usual, I see,’ said someone behind us. It was Alan da Silva, our classmate and resident saint.
‘Rats!’ said Rat, ‘he must have been hiding behind that door.’
‘Come and sit down, Alan,’ said Gobind affably.
‘It’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I cannot linger,’ said Alan. ‘As for you lot, you might like to discuss current affairs, to know what’s happening in the wicked world around us. And now, I must go and pray.’
‘Off you go then,’ said Rat, not unkindly. ‘We shouldn’t dream of keeping you from your prayers.’
Alan shook his head sadly and wandered off. We were not sorry to see him go.
‘Right then,’ said MJ, ‘let’s talk about prayers… I mean current affairs.’
‘Ask me anything,’ said BF.
‘Do you think Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or go to the Irish republic?’ I asked.
‘Since your nickname sounds like the capital of NI, the answer should be obvious,’ grinned Marutpal Bhattacharya.
‘On the other hand, since you have a lot to do with air (Eire), you might consider the Republic’s claim,’ laughed Rakesh.
‘So what say you?’ asked Gobind.
The answer was obvious. But was BF going to be difficult? He was.
‘It should go to the Republic. Ireland for the Irish!’ said BF, echoing the IRA’s rallying cry.
‘What!’ we cried, our Protestant leanings coming to the fore.
Although there were hardly any Christians in the school, our Principal and teachers did their best to imbue us with Protestant Christian beliefs and ideals, by means of daily devotions, chapel and introspections, coupled with evensong in Thoburn church every Sunday.
‘After all, what is the UK without NI?’ protested Rat, himself a Protestant.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean what I say. The UK minus Northern Ireland is equal to Great Britain. I’ve been paying attention in class, you know,’ he smirked.
He was right, of course. We added this nugget to our mine of information.
‘OK, enough fooling around,’ said MJ, ‘let’s think of a way to make the best use of our friend.’
‘But I already have my uses, you know,’ said BF, a trifle piqued.
‘Like what,’ we asked eagerly.
‘If you want to go through a crowd, take me along. I can easily make a way for you.’
‘That’s true, but why should we want to go through a crowd?’ asked Marutpal.
‘You never know when you might want to,’ he muttered darkly. ‘India’s full of crowds. Too many people roaming around.’
‘I think we can do much better than that, if we put our minds to it.’ said Marutpal. We went into a huddle and quickly came up with a solution. We would use BF as our secret weapon on the sports field.
Since we hadn’t yet been allotted our Houses ie Warne, Henderson, Laidlaw and Thoburn, we could form our teams pretty much at will.
And so it came to pass that BF was elevated from relative obscurity to become our star performer.
In football, he would get as close to the opponents’ goalmouth as he could without being offside. The unfortunate custodian, shifting slightly to ensure an uninterrupted supply of oxygen, would sometimes concede a goal.
In cricket, BF could take singles comfortably, as there were no close in fielders. When he was at the non striker’s end, the umpire would step back several paces. This would impair his judgement and often result in doubtful lbw decisions going in favour of the batting side. While fielding, BF, the keeper, would crouch just behind the wickets. Needless to say, many batsmen were stumped or run out.
One Sunday morning, we got together and talked about the people who had come to see us the previous evening. Saturday was visiting day, when relations and friends could come and meet the boarders.
‘What did your mom bring you?’ BF asked me.
‘She didn’t come,’ I said. My parents were not in Kolkata at the time.
‘Never mind, Gora, mine did. She gave me a box of sweets. We’ll share them this evening.’
‘That’s awfully good of you,’ said Nikhilesh.
BF was nothing if not generous.
‘So what did your mom say,’ I asked politely.
‘Oh, the usual stuff. But she also said that my Uncle Shyam has done a runner once again.’
‘Gosh!’ I said, ‘I hope he’s not going to do anything silly this time.’
‘You mean top himself? Course he won’t. He’ll be back soon. He can’t live without Aunt’s cooking for long.’
‘Your aunt should serve him plain rice and dal when he returns. That’ll teach him a lesson,’ said Rat.
‘Or drive him out for good,’ said Rakesh. We all laughed.
‘Let’s see what happens,’ said BF. ‘Mom has asked me to keep Aunt company for a few days during the hols. It’ll be fun to be with my cousins again.’
‘What do they feel about their dad’s absence?’ asked MJ.
‘Oh, they’re pretty chuffed. No one to tell them what to do.’
After a few days the school broke up for the summer vacation.
We said our goodbyes and left for home.
When we returned at the beginning of the next term, it was to shrieks of delight that we greeted one another. We exchanged the news about what we had done and where we had been during the holidays.
Then BF gave us the glad tidings, or so he thought, that he had been cured.
‘You’re having us on,’ I said in disbelief.
‘No, it’s true,’ he insisted. ‘Uncle returned just after I went to Aunt’s house. He took me to a posh doctor who prescribed a course of treatment for me. It worked like a charm. Now I’m perfectly well.’
‘There goes our not so secret weapon,’ mumbled Nikhilesh.
‘He’s been nobbled,’ groaned Rat.
‘What rotten luck!’ complained Subir.
‘I think the best thing to do,’ said MJ, ‘is to pretend that nothing has changed. Let’s see how far we can carry the deception.’
We agreed. It was all we could hope for in the circumstances.
Then I asked the obvious question.
‘I say, I don’t think we can call him BF any longer.’
As we struggled to find a solution to this weighty problem, help came from an unexpected quarter.
‘Course you can,’ smiled BF mischievously. ‘I remain BF. Belly’s Fine.’
We cheered in relief.