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     Volume 5 Issue 111 | September 8, 2006 |

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Common Cold


Neeraj Sinha

"Say who do you care for…?”, asked the Professor perched on his high stool as I entered the lobby area in a common friend's house where we had gathered to while away the weekend.

“Mostly myself”, I said without meaning to sound profound.

The professor was not amused and gave me the looks that he probably reserved for the back benchers in his class who were not going to make it to the next semester. But he did not rest at that for I had by the casualness of my remark, stirred the deeps within him.

The wise one cast the drink he was holding in his hand, aside. This by itself was a remarkable gesture, given the general reputation that the great Professor and his drink could never be parted. He then launched into a long tirade against people who did not have the time to take up a cause, adding that there was no hope for the country if the younger lot were not willing to come forward 'and share the burden'.

We knew the Prof was getting emotional when he took out his specs blew on it and began to wipe unseen particles of dust from the lens. This was a clear sign that a long drawn speech on the virtue of virtues and viciousness of vices was about to begin. Just then an angel among the crowd of onlookers drew the big man's attention to the passing drinks trolley. Like a man who had suddenly discovered a reason to live, at least for the next few moments, the Prof took a deep sigh, strolled across to pick up a large one, and settled down in a quiet corner to contemplate the country's fate in splendid isolation.

The professor, if you don't know him, is a many hued personality and while he combines in himself many roles, there is a virtual consensus among his students that the original intent when he started out at the University, was to teach History. It is widely believed that he did teach some kind of History in his classes though the lessons that he drew from the past inevitably changed with the times to match the change in dispensation. Sound, practical philosophy, which made for sound common sense. The Master never carried any hangover from the past nor did he ever allow the truths of history to cloud his sense of judgement.

“History is like whiskey…”, the enlightened one had once explained. “Feverish expectation…, before you begin. A mild high when you are in the midst of it and a desire to quit it all and sleep once you reach the inevitable end!”

Meanwhile, the party at the friend's was now peaking with everyone seemingly having a good time. I had happily lost myself in a crowd of like minded revellers who were discussing figures and statistics with the help of a foreign magazine which left little to imagination. It was while going to get a second helping for my friends and myself, however, that I got ambushed again. The professor emerged from behind a wall that I had assumed to be safe and immediately set himself upon me.

“Ah my friend…, we meet again. Come, come sit down here…!” I unsuccessfully tried explaining that I had an urgent business to attend to at the bar table across the room.

“So…have you decided who you really care for…?” I gathered my wits as I lead another aborted attempt to tell him I couldn't care less who I cared for as long as I was allowed to make the journey this instant to the far corner of the room.

“Sit down, sit down”, he said with an air of finality reminiscent of a dour looking headmistress with a cane in her hand. “Now you tell me…”, the wise one went on, “What Darius III, Puru, Chares, Theagenes and Memnon of Rhodes stand for?”

“Islands, perhaps in the Baltic sea…”, I suggested given the difficulty quotient in pronouncing these names. By now I was getting extremely impatient with our scholar in waiting, who had just accepted a tall glass of sunshine from a passing waiter enhancing my sense of deprivation.

The great Historian of our times, however, was not about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He sensed that his moment of truth, and indeed mine, had come. With a great flourish, almost rehearsed to perfection for impressing first year students in lecture theatres, the Master got up, staggered a few steps and then stood erect to explain that the names he had just taken, all had one thing in common.

“Not one, but two things in common, my dear fellow. All these names…”, the scholar corrected himself.

“These are all names of kings and military commanders, important in their own right and powerful in their own times… but they were all defeated in the battle field by Alexander the Great. These are not mere names…”, the Great one paused for effect, looked around and said, “in these names lie hidden the faces of the losers of History!”

Exhausted by his effort, the History Teacher sat down. Drawing his glass close to his lips, he took a deep, satisfying sip and then fixing me with his gaze repeated the question that had been tormenting his soul since evening.

“The victors Oh Master”, I cried out loudly, “I care for the victors…”, as the answer dawned on me in a flash.

The wise man toasted his triumph by raising his glass with unsteady hands. The cocktail of fluids in his system were now beginning to have an impact. “You are not as dense as some think you are, are you…?”, the Prof said as I moved on.

He had had his little victory, but I had learnt my lesson well. The bar was closing down and I didn't want to be consigned to the list of losers that evening. I hurried on to bag one last glass of the bubbly and savour that one moment of victory like Alexander the Great!

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