WHEN I PAID CASH TO KALMADI
( He sat behind a cash counter and returned my change. I thanked him. Suresh Kalmadi smiled . It was a flawless transaction).
By Sanjay Jha
He sat there behind the cash counter of the new-born Poona Coffee House dressed usually in spotless white shirts, which contrasted with his jet-black hair and well-groomed beard in stark Bollywood style, where in double hero leading roles, Amitabh Bachchan would wear a black trouser and white jacket and Shatrughan Sinha would don exactly the reverse. He personified a hirsute character with a penchant for the grizzly. PCH as it was popularly nicknamed was situated right opposite the Deccan Gymkhana bus-terminus, in the heart of the Pensioner’s paradise city. Pune was a sleepy city that snoozed at every available opportunity like a spoilt puppy; the joke went that outside restaurants at 1 pm in the afternoon the signboard read: Closed for lunch. Suresh Kalmadi’s PCH was amongst the first to protest against that comatose-like reputation. It buzzed like a bee on some bubbly at all hours of the day.
I used to always wonder how people could count rupee notes and coins of different sizes without even looking at them; Kalmadi possessed that same mechanized efficiency. The masala dosas and filter coffee were our usual favorites, and although Fergusson College road had some neat hang-out joints for the sophomore types, PCH was also popular with the middle-class family crowds. Kalmadi smiled at regular intervals and mingled occasionally with the customers, frequently marshalling his resources with a loud order. The disciplinarian streak of the defense-services type was apparent even then in the erstwhile Air Force officer . As his business prospered Kalmadi diversified into the next level, the emerging novelty—-Chinese cuisine . In those days, on all dates of any significance—birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, marriages, going to a Chinese restaurant was akin to making a social statement. It meant you had arrived. If I am not mistaken, Kalmadi’s Chinese expedition was called Shaolin, probably inspired by the famous film , the 36th Chamber. The American chop-suey was a particular hit , as it seemingly combined the best of Occidental and Oriental by something actually quite accidental ( as we were to discover later). The fried omelet had a delicious aura about it as it spread itself on a rising hill of fried noodles.
My father had begun to educate me in handling monetary transactions, and in the absence of credit cards, I was the family’s scapegoat for the settlement of bills. The fact that the others in the family were awful in arithmetic gave me a legitimate responsibility. So when I paid cash to Kalmadi, he smiled at me as I counted the change to ensure that my Professor father was not being short-charged. He wasn’t. And Kalmadi grinned even wider through the bushy rainforest slopes of his cheeks as he saw that I was happy with my reconciliation. Before long, he had become a prosperous owner of petrol stations, the huge-in-demand Maruti dealerships, and had made a bungalow in the hills that many called as Pune’s White House. He then hustled his way through various sports federations, brazenly assuming suzerainty of multiple bodies, usurping authority and seemed resolute in extending his formidable reign till the cows come home, till the CWG happened. Then the chickens came home to roost.
Kalmadi’s mesmeric change in fortunes was largely on account of the swirling ambitions of local chieftain of Maharashtra politics, Sharad Pawar, who perhaps saw himself as the next YB Chavan in the making and was looking for a talented local lieutenant in his pilgrimage for gratification. For a long-time Pawar and he shared the classical Mahabharata inspired guru-chela equation, where mutual trust , unflinching obedience and fierce loyalty superceded even the impregnable grains of truth and honesty. At that point India was witnessing a political churn, and it was appropriately termed as the age of aaya-Ram gaya Ram. Defections, horse-trading, new formations, and the rise of coterie-groups was the norm. But Pawar and Kalmadi soon went their separate ways, splintered by their own political goal-posts and short-term benefits, but by then Kalmadi had already imbibed some of his mentor’s adroit Machiavellian ways. It was to armor him with sufficient ammunition for the more treacherous waters off the Yamuna in Delhi in subsequent years as he strode off from his tranquil fortified base of Pune to complete his unfinished agenda.
Pune might have become a market-researcher’s favorite destination of a model middle-class city , but it continues to have a small-town’s simplicity. Even today, despite the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, Punekar’s get an inferiority complex when their Big Brother from 160 kms away is in their town. Delhi held an even bigger mysterious halo of power, the magnetic appeal of a stately establishment. Thus, in the local Pune constituency from where he got elected , Kalmadi became a near-titanic force, the dominating voice of a city that was seeing a commercial revolution on account of education, IT, retail and real-estate investment . It is hardly a surprise that in recent times Pune has seen several dubious land scams, insidious terrorist breeding, rising crime against women and the rise of shadowy sleazy characters like Hasan Ali.
They say you should never forget your roots, those humble origins and nondescript milestones of your past . As Kalmadi , at an age when you are supposed to be playing a doting grandfather , suffers the ignominy of spending many a nights in confinement ( even if in air-conditioned comfort ) , I am sure he will reminisce those early days in PCH when he sat behind the cash counter in immaculate white. When the savory smell from the kitchen wafted onto the dining hall where customers waited with bated breath for their fresh idlis. When only small change mattered. And everything reconciled.