Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Inscrutable Vernon Paul

I first met Vernon Paul way back in the 1980s - when I was studying Engineering at Osmania University. My senior and good friend Krishna introduced me to two youngsters at the Arts College canteen - I now forget who the other one was - but one was Vernon Paul. They were all Sainikpuri boys. Krishna said Vernon was a fine cricketer and he looked the part. Athletic, sprightly and strong of build, Paul, was the quintessential city boy with his faded jeans, T short, sneakers kind of casual wear (which he carried all his life). Round it off with a head of curly hair hair, a rugged and handsome face and a perpetually charming smile and that's Vernon for you. One that most boys respected and that I am sure many girls loved.

After that short meeting I met Vernon again when he joined the Law College at the University to do his LLM. I was past my prime as a cricketer and had little interest in playing for the University. That year there was much mischief in the selections. The selectors dropped players of the calibre of CV Anand and Mahesh Raje, who had both proven their worth in earlier years (soft targets) and included a couple of their own - names which we can safely omit. Vernon was picked to represent the University for the first time.

But we could not see this injustice happen. I spoke to the 'selected' team and said that though everyone deserves their place, some injustices have been done and we knew it as cricketers. The fact that the selectors disappeared after signing the paper and were untraceable was proof enough of mischief. Anyway I said that as a team we should ask for re-selection - all those who were confident of making it would still be selected anyway - so should have no problem. We signed a petition and took it to the Physical education department. The Director, Mr. Ranga Rao was not amused and said he could do nothing - the team was selected. I asked where the selectors were and why they had made such glaring omissions and selections. He said nothing - the petition was signed by all 15.

But next day he called me again and said he was not going to do anything about it. I was surprised. I asked why. He said he had got a letter saying that I had coerced the team into signing - one of the members was quite happy if there was no re-selection. No guesses - it was Vernon - who did not want to miss his chance of being a University player. I was upset with him. I told the Director that in such an event I would not play at least. The newspapers carried the story that senior players were not playing the big Inter Varsity tournament. But then our good Prof. Shamraj called me and told me that he understood my position but the University could not afford a bad name. Play the game and we will do something next game. We lost the match and that ended that story. I told my friend Srinivas Babu who was also hoping for a spot in the squad that I did not want to meet Vernon Paul ever again.

Nothing could not be further from the truth. Vernon kept popping up all my life after that.

In my first job at Kolkata after my MBA, I went to a movie with my crazy friend David from the YMCA. Guess who I meet wearing a jeans and that famous white t shirt - Vernon Paul. Hi Hari, he says and chats and we split. Of all the places.

Soon after Shobha joined a finance company in Begumpet and guess who the Law Officer was, Vernon Paul. Of course much water had flown by then and no grudges were carried. Vernon was polite and courteous as always and I always made it a point to say hello to him.

That season we needed good players to play for MCC. I asked Vernon if he wanted to play. He was more than ready. By now we knew that Vernon loved his Old Monk rum and loved it  bit too much. he had an old Bajaj scooter which was well equipped. Those days there were no drunken driving checks so we all partied late, drank till we passed out and still rode our bikes back home. The team had many party boys - Chandra, Paul, Ram, Suri, Pavan, Subbu, on occasion the Jaisimha brothers, Raj, Sanjay, Sai. The idea was simple. Try and win the championship and have fun while doing it. We celebrated after each game, some place or another. The third game, our championship plan was in threat. We were chasing 118 at Gymkhana and were 96 for 8. In walks Paul, who joined us after lunch, his left handers gait all over the place, ice and Old Monk in his veins. It was a grassy field and the ball would not go - 22 runs were like 80 runs in another field. Two hoicks by Paul over mid wicket for sixes and we won! Easy as that! A true match wining performance. That entire season Paul's scooter carried the booze for victory celebrations, from his army quota. There were times when Paul would come fully sloshed and we did not know how he would get back. He'd go back even at 3 in the morning and wake up with no memory of what happened at all.

That year we had a famous celebration for New Years at Paul's place. He offered us his place as no one was home. Music was set up, booze, food. The boys and girls were dancing (also known famously for the famous quip when one of the girls asked what the plan was - well we party till morning, wake up, put on our clothes and go home!. The lady was shocked and we had to convince her that no such business was on the cards. All dancing was happening under the kindly eye of a Jesus photograph. At 12 sharp as celebrations erupted, the pelmet of one of the windows crashed on Ram's head. There was some bleeding but what a start to the New Year. I don't think many of us would forget the day.

We won the championship that year! Paul missed the victory celebrations. He had moved to Mumbai as Branch head. So he is missing in the pictures.

Then I moved to Mumbai to work. I called Paul (landline, no mobiles then.) Generous as he always was he invited me to stay with him. He was a PG in the RBI Quarters at Worli. I somehow made it to his place and realised that he had a room for himself but he shared the place illegally with one smart aleck RBI staffer who sublet the place. Anyway the RBI chap was not too happy with my coming and I was not pleased with his morning throat clearing noises so I moved out the same day and joined the dormitory. Paul however stayed in touch. He was branch manager for a finance company, with one pretty assistant. Soon he came to me with an issue - what to do with her - its delicate. Anyway, the issue was handled well. Paul disappeared from my life once again. But now I knew he was addicted to booze - he always had a bottle with him. But he still looked handsome and fit, happy and joyful. As was in evidence the women still loved him.

For my bachelor's party, the usual suspects showed up in Mumbai. Ram, Koni, Ranjan and Don showed up and we first hit Mondegar's to prime ourselves up for the night. Guess who's drinking next table alone? Vernon Paul. Vernon decided we should have a good time and took us to some pubs downtown and we finally split at 3 in the morning. I called Paul next day and asked how he had gone back home. He said he did not - he just found some car in a compound and slept on its bonnet! I thought Paul was more or less done.

I got married and moved into a flat in Nerul - a three bedroom condominium of which we occupied one room. I got a call from Vernon one fine day. 'Hari I am in Mumbai, can you put me up? I am married.' Congrats I said. Where are you? Oh, we are waiting below your office. I went down. What the hell was this. There I see the prettiest girl I ever saw in my life - his wife - she was really pretty and gentle and a completely devout young woman from MP. And there was one other lady who did not look innocent at all. Turns out he comes with his old friend from college (the other girl) who now has a job in Mumbai and his wife and he wants to stay with me. I called Shobhs and told her. As we walk towards the taxi Paul pulls out his quarter and takes a swig. The poor bride is mortified. She does not know where to look All Paul does the  next three days he stayed with us was drink and sleep. The friend went away thankfully after a day. Then Paul left too.

When we returned home to Hyderabad his mother called. His wife left. We met Paul and tried to talk some sense. He was hopeless - did not understand what we were saying. Like a child he would not figure out what might have gone in the poor girl's mind. But I did not misbehave with her. I only drank he'd say. I never gave any money - what will she do? We realised Paul was more out of touch with reality than we thought. For him life was a good time - a drink, some work, some more drink, a walk, live one day to another. That's all. Be happy in the moment. We planned to go to her house in MP. We even went to the railway station. But we came back.

The divorce shook him.

I did not see Paul for another five years. One day he landed up at my office. Still looking the same but now a little worn. I took him out of the office, he was smelling of rum. He said he had been to Nepal. He was distressed after the divorce and he lost his job. He found another and lost his pain in work. But he had suffered a huge heart attack he said. He had almost died. Now he needed a job. He also had some money - could I keep it? And some house papers? I told Paul that I would not.

He did not look like he was in great shape. But then I had to do my bit. Our teammate Rajan was working with Tata Tele. I asked him if there was a job for Paul. There was. Paul not only got a job but in a superior position to Rajan's. Rajan never forgave him for that. Paul settled down in his job, went back to drinking and settled down in peace. He still stayed with his mother who would worry about him every time we met her. But one way or another there was peace.

Then one day I get an emergency call. Paul had gone to Vijayawada on office work and came down with immense pain in his calf. There was a blood clot in the veins and he was brought under observation. At the hospital he looked cheerful with all the tubes and machines beeping and running in the ICU. His mother was close to tears. Paul was happy as usual. Luckily nothing dangerous happened and Paul was in good spirits. He survived.

During those days Paul would call and drop in suddenly at home. He came home after my first novel got published. He bought a copy and read it. He said he liked it. Then he quit his job. And wonder of wonders found another. But by now he was losing it a bit. Drinking was too much. He was not his usual natty self. But the cheer remained. The Bajaj gave way to a Kinetic.

Paul lost the next job too. Then things became more and more murkier. He would call me from different numbers and say he was being followed. He feared being killed. He wanted me to keep his money and papers. He would not tell me where he lived. He said he had been attacked in a train. His flat was rented to some Nigerians. He liked the girl. I hoped he was not into drugs. But he'd talk in a hallucinatory manner. Once he said he was kidnapped and chained at home. He luckily escaped after seven days he said. Could I save him?

He came two times after that. Once with his mother and brother. They looked well off. He looked shabby, drunk. His hands would shake when he spoke. But he still smiled as usual. If he never lost one thing it was that same smile from the first day I met him - 25 years ago. He saw Anjali and got her a Cadbury chocolate. How are you Hari he'd say with genuine warmth that made your heart crack. You could see he was going down. I am sure his mother could see it too. He just never understood the world.

Paul came one last time, a year ago. He came on that Kinetic which was in bad shape. He was in his shorts and t shirts, still rakishly handsome. Stinking of rum. Rugged, strong Paul looked a bit weak finally. But he still smiled, the same innocent, guileless smile, as if the world will take care of him anyway. He again told me of his danger, how I must visit him near his new place in Mehdipatnam. He remembered Anjali and before I could stop him went on his Kinetic to get her a chocolate again. And then he left, smiling big as usual.

That was the last I saw him. He called from different numbers and told me his stories. Of threats, of danger. He would still ask me to keep all his money and papers. I don't trust anyone, he'd say. What if I take away your money I asked. Take it, he'd say. Who better than you. I knew that I might not see him ever again. Paul was already half a step  gone and there was nothing I could do about him. I told Suri that Paul told me of these threats and asked him to check if there was any truth. Suri said that the information was that Paul was mistaken. His people were not out to get him.

The other day our team mate from MCC called. Paul had died he had heard. I was not surprised. But I was not sure. Surely he'd turn up at home one more time before he left. He'd been popping up all my life in the most unexpected spaces. But then Ram came home yesterday. He said he saw the obituary. Vernon was no more. It's confirmed.

Vernon never really understood the mechanics of this world. Of money, of relationships, of jobs, of living. it was like a huge holiday, like something out of a book. A life of white t shirts and faded jeans, sneakers and curly hair, music and booze. I wish he'd continued like that fully - wonder why he got into the money and house issue. But I'll miss the smile, that guileless smile, that genuine warmth and child-like demeanour. And I'll miss his sudden calls, his sudden appearances, his gentleness. I wish he had had more peace in this world in the end. He never asked for more really.

We, his old team mates, planned to visit his house this week. Perhaps we should aptly raise a toast to our bar man - of Old Mon k and Thums Up - one last time. Well played Paul. You were a champ. And the next time I drink beer in Cafe Mondegar, I will certainly look over my shoulder for you my friend.


Anonymous said...

Thoda lamba hogaya!!

Prasanna Kumar said...

He indeed played very well Hari sir. I have a similar character in my life too. The lad is still around tho. Raise a toast from my side also. :)

As always another fantastic write-up from you, the real life story glued me at 3 AM, just could not stop reading all of it. :)


Harimohan said...

Thanks Prasanna. Paul was an unforgettable character.
Yes, will raise on toast on your behalf too!

Harimohan said...

Dear Anon, frankly, I feel this was too short a tribute for Paul. There's much more to him, many layers.

A few hundred words are way too less to get a glimpse of the entire life of a loved person.

KP Nukala said...

Nice episode. Did I meet him? Pl include me in the party any case.

Anonymous said...

Rip paul

Harimohan said...

Sure Prasad garu. You're on.
Don't think you met him. he played for MCC in the 1994ish period.