The ball rolled towards me and stopped a few inches away from where I was leaning on a parked scooter. A little kid, measuring not more than 3 feet from the ground came running, picked up the ball, looked me up, gave me a smile, and went running back to his band of brothers, waiting on the other side of a broken wall, in the park, on a day that was just cool enough to warrant long sleeves, but not before dropping a bomb whose effect I am still reeling under. "Thank you Uncle" was what the lilliput uttered. It wasn't the fact that I had received an undeserved acknowledgement for which I haven't even lifted a finger for that had me dumbfounded. Well, he came, he saw, he took and he ran. Sure, I have received my fair share underserved applause and attention through these years that I had seldom worked for, for which I rarely felt necessary to raise a hue and cry about honesty, integrity, morals and ethics, and return the adulation and awards. It wasn't about the first part - Thank You - at all. It was about the fact that the kid grossly over-estimated my physical stature, wrongly attributed an undeserving age and completely misappropriated a much maligned title - Uncle - to it. Nothing in the lexicon on youngsters Websters is a phrase more deadlier and more harmful for the psyche as the term "Uncle", arguably, next only to the other curse word that is avoided like the plague in the younger circles - "Brother". Yes, I completely understand the growth process, both physical and psychological, and very well know the association of the right words and the right words to the right relationships. But somewhoe, this term "Uncle" is like a runaway term, a renegade, a mercenary, a gun for hire that could and would shoot at will, with scarce care or concern about the feelings of the person, it is going to inflict the pain upon.
"Uncle" is such a loosely used word that doesn't adhere to the formalities that usually govern the general rules of relationships. It doesn't obey the laws of nature and is bound only by the special theory of relativity. While the rest of teh relationships enjoy diplomatic immunity (and therefore adhere to the strict standards that come with the turf), so as not to be confused with something else (like, calling one a dad, a brother, a sister is tied to the physical laws of nature and nomenclature, and therefore a dad cannot be confused with a brother), the term Unlce is covered under no such jurisdictions, enjoying a free pass that crosses (tresspasses is more like it) boundaries, limits and in times like above, sense of human dignity and decency. Uncle? What the .... did I do to deserve that abhorrent title? I didn't grow a pot-belly. I didn't have grey parts in the mustache, side-locks or in the rug above. I don't wear heavy set of glasses (well, not at that time that I had interacted with the kid at least, I took them off for wiping the goo that usually gets built up (for reasons unknown) in the area adjoining the nose bridge). I didn't have any shirts, slacks that were stitched up by the nearby tailor (as a matter of fact, I always wear the most worn out jeans and a T-shirt, that is at least one size less, and always barely covers the belt buckle, even if it comes at the cost of belabored breathing) - what did I do wrong to deserve, to warrant, to earn, such a cruel and a demeaning epithet? And the thing was, I was still referring the ones a little elder to me as Uncle. When did I graduate from "boss", "hey", "guru" to "Uncle" all of a sudden, without my knowledge, and almost certainly, without my effort?
Change is inevitable, goes the cliche. But growth is strictly optional. And I made sure I didn't grow at all! Where did that come from - no where? thin air? Knowingly or unknowingly, the kid has certainly set the marbles in my mind rolling. Am I growing old? Am I looking old? or Am I already old?
Granted, the kid is still a kid and might not be aware of the different ways of greeting and treating people, based on age groups, and also considering the possibility that this kid might be a bit mentally challenged or a little slow in availing his faculties, there is still an odd chance, however remote and however far-fetched, that the age process might indeed be catching up to me and I am slowly becoming yet another unfortunate statistic of the dreaded WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) phenomenon that generally dictates the aging principles. The face, which serves as the index of the mind, might be doing a double duty and also acting as an age indicator with a ticking time clock, pasted right on the forehead, indicating the miles put on the already worn out body, just like the odometer in regular vehicles, only this has no way of turning the miles back, even in the hands of an expert mechanic. Age is just a number, someone said. Well, that number is haunting me like a nightmare now, refusing to be shaken off, like an ace-detective or a smart police dog on a hot trail. I even entertained the possibility of size here. I was certainly a lot bigger than the kid, perhaps even bigger than his dummy daddy at home, who, to my misfortune, is the only benchmark he knows, that separated "hey" and "Uncle". Well, I certainly remembered the days when I was that kid, playing in dusty playground, chancing a glance once in a while at the elderly ones, sitting on stationed bikes, on the fringes of the playground, treating themselves to a deep smoke or a loud joke occasionally. I took every possible chance to be like them, to be around them, and by God, to be one of them.
I wanted to wear long pants, smoke filtered cigarettes, holding them ever so lightly between the middle and index fingers, flicking the ash just in the time for the next puff, sit on parked vehicles, and comment in a hush tone on the skirts that pass by. And so, during our play times, when the ball happened to roll towards them, I put my hand up for volunteering for the job, ran quite quickly to gather it, but also say "Thank you Uncle" evne though those lazy asses never even bothered to acknowledge my presence, leave alone, my small token of (underserving) gratitude. And in the off chance that somebody did notice, they nodded their heads and quickly shooed me off. I don't particularly remember them to be miffed at being called Uncle, nor were they sulking beyond reasons of sanity, just as I am, right now. They were absolutely fine with being termed that and I had no trouble obliging to their request. Now that the tables have been turned on me, and I am on the receiving end this time (of such barbaric discrimination), I don't understand why it was troubling me so much. Could it because, I held, cigarettes, jokes, parked vehicles and lewd comments, as the yardsticks of "Unclehood"; that I am still miles away from that point and the time I would be known as Uncle henceforth to the world, would be when, and only when, I am at the business end of a finger length filtered cigarette? Was it some psychological protection (cover) that I was hoping for, to impede the rapid progress of the aging cycle, that until and unless I smoke, I was to remain forever young? The Freudian concepts and the Jungian philosphies were driving me to the brink of insanity.
To hell with it, I said, as I walked into the near-by store and bought some smokes. It was a Catch-22 till now - no cigarettes - no growth, no growth - no cigarettes. Since the kid came along and resolved the deadlock, entirely without his knowledge, I might as well welcome the new statushood, in ringed exhales of deep puffs.