THE SIMPLETON – No ‘A’ in this

THE SIMPLETON – No ‘A’ in this

”And the winner is Ravi Khanna.”

The voice boomed from conical horn speakers proclaiming the judgment.

The ‘mohalla’ Diwali celebrations were in full swing and the youth organizers had put up this ‘word challenger’ competition. Ravi and Bhola had come head to head in the final round. The results and announcement of the winner were in progress.   

”As per what had been decided, the winner picks the punishment for losing. On winner Ravi’s request, a bucket of ice water will be dumped on the loser Bhola.”

There was a buzz around the packed compound. Everyone on the temporary stage and the grounds were shocked when they heard this.  But as per the deal, it had to be carried out. An aluminium bucket of ice water was organized from the neighbouring restaurant. Bhola slowly walked to the stage and stood in embarrassment. With a big smile spreading from ear to ear, Ravi lifted the aluminium bucket and overturned it over the bowed head of Bhola. As the iced water hit him the shame of this action shocked Bhola to reality.

He had landed at this juncture because of his name. Bhola – a simpleton – the local buffoon.

He used to have sleepless nights when he reached teenage and the realization hit that he was really not stupid but his name had automatically put him in that bracket.

Ravi a rich neighbour’s son a few years older than him, who was an England return, highlighted the difference in the spectrum of comparison.

Ravi was a ’pain in the neck. Many people had a much lower opinion of him.

24/7 snooty and always going out of his way to be nasty, he never missed an opportunity to ridicule people. Everyone agreed that he was very articulate but loathed him because of his nature of running down people.

He loathed Bollywood movies and made it clear to all that he was only entertained by Hollywood. In his opinion, Hindi cinemas were only for the riff-raff, uneducated, and rabble of society.

The simpleton Bhola was his target practice. As Bhola never defended himself or fought back the digs he got from Ravi, the bullying escalated. Everyone felt pity for Bhola but nobody wanted to cross swords with him and the insults continued. 

English was Bhola’s favourite subject and though he did well in school and junior college, his self-confidence was depleting due to the constant mental prodding from Ravi.

At the ’mohalla’ Diwali get-together one of the events was a friendly stage competition on maximum dictionary words that could be got for a prompt in a fixed time.  A head to head fight had culminated in Ravi and Bhola clashing with each other. 

The prompt word was ’EMOTIONS.’ 

Ravi had pulled a coin from his pocket and tossed a coin. Bhola had called and had lost the toss.  On Ravi’s request, Bhola had gone first. 

Ready, Steady, Go — Click!

“Affection, joy, love, passion, anger, pride, rage, remorse, thrill, desire, grief, happiness, sadness, shame, sorrow, 

sentiment……….concern.” Click-click.

He managed to get quite a few words but before he knew the ’minute’ was up.

A check was made to be sure that all words given were in the dictionary. The final tally was noted

Ravi followed and his knowledge of the dictionary gave him an upper hand in blabbering out long words which zapped listeners. Click!

“Despair, empathy, excitement, fervour, sentiment, sympathy warmth, agitation, ardour,’ commotion, despondency, disturbance, ecstasy, elation, excitability, inspiration…..” He carried on, “Melancholy, perturbation, responsiveness, satisfaction, sensation, sensibility, sensitiveness, tremor…………. Vehemence, vibes, zeal…….. Affectivity.” Click Click.

A search began in the dictionary and pages were flicked to check the authenticity of his words that had been recorded on paper. The number was noted.

The ’phoren return’ had won with a big margin and with his bloated ego asked for this ice-water bucket act to ridicule the simpleton. This was the proverbial ’last straw on the camels back,’ for Bhola. 

As weeks passed, he started working on a plan to hit back. Armed with his father’s piece of silver, his late uncles shared trivia and with all his grit he was now on a warpath.

Click. ”One, two, three, four……. twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty- eight……….thirty, thirty-one……… seventy-five, seventy-six…….. eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine……..ninety-nine, one hundred.” Click Click. ”One minute forty-five seconds.”

He heard voices in his mind. “Not good!! Start from the beginning. Focus and faster recital. This would be the key to winning.”

Practice, Practice and Practice.

He started again. 

Click. ”One, two, three, four…….. Thirty, thirty-one………. sixty-five, sixty-six……. eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four, eighty-five, eighty-six…….ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four……One hundred.” Click Click. ”One minute 33 seconds!! Still not good enough.”

He had to be more clear saying the numbers and be……. Faster.

Bhola’s father was a middle-class white-collared employee in a watch factory.

With a meagre salary, he just scraped through life and managed to educate his three children in state-run schools.

He was a movie buff and over the years had engrossed himself watching loads of Hindi movies sucked into the glamour and glitz of this untrue world.

Probably, the three hours he spent in the larger than life land engulfed in eardrum straining sound and music took him away from life’s realities and hardships.

His favourite movie was Sholay and as a great fan took every opportunity to watch it over and over again.

Over the years he must have seen it at least 30 times mopping up bits of information unseen and unheard by other moviegoers like — MYB 3047 was the number of the motorcycle with a sidecar (that Jai and Veru hijack from the Parsi gentleman) in the song ‘Yeh Dosti’ or that Gabbar Singh’s father’s name was ‘Hari Singh’ (picked up from a court scene background Hindi dialogue — Gabbar Singh vald Hari Singh……..)

He must have paid for them from his pocket not more than six times for cheap tickets in blood-sucking ‘khatmal’ (mosquito) infested theatres but the rest of the viewing was at no cost in open-air theatres of Bombay streets. (Thanks to Ganapati and Dusherra mandal organizer’s night-street screenings)

Sometimes he did not even mind seeing it in reverse screen lip-syncing dialogues like ‘Kitne Aadmi Thay’ as he sat on the opposite side of the white curtain from where the projection from spools happened.

In later years whenever Doordarshan screened them in their Sunday Hindi Movie slots he just kept watching it with craning necks at a neighbour’s house doorsteps or shop windows of TV showrooms to add on to the tally.

So when he retired, his office friends collected money and gave him Sholay memorabilia. It was a duplicate so not of great value apart from the silver in it but for obvious reasons was priceless in his eyes.

At his death bed, he handed it to Bhola with the strict instructions to guard it and use it only in a dire situation. Bhola decided the time had come to use his dad’s silver. The situation was dire !!

As he practised again with the commitment of a marathon runner, he continued recitals of his counting keeping a tab on an old handheld stopwatch.

(Phones with clock apps had not yet arrived)

Click. ”One….. Four………eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…….thirty-eight, thirty-nine…….. sixty-six, sixty-seven……. One hundred.” Click Click. ”One minute eleven seconds.”

”Much better but you need to target one minute. That is the challenge.”

His dad’s younger brother was streetwise. With no classroom education, he had educated himself with a trove of trivia which he loved sharing with Bhola his favourite nephew.

While riding a cycle, Uncle was accidentally killed a few years back on the roads of Bombay. He had preached to Bhola, ”Where there is a will there is a way.” His mantra was that life itself is a teacher and observation with the presence of mind is your tool. ”You do not need to educate yourself only in school and colleges.”

He always insisted that knowledge in bits of information however trivial was much better than the lack of that information.

Trivia was not that easily available.

(WhatsApp had not yet arrived)

Bhola had decided that he would be using a ‘number trivia’ that his uncle had shared with him to win this ‘war’ against Ravi.

Click. ”One….. Four……. thirty-eight, thirty-nine……. sixty-six, sixty-seven…….. ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine……. One hundred.” Click Click. ”One minute. Pheeeew!!” He did it.

Just a few more repeat practices and Bhola felt he would be ready for battle with Ravi.

Now he just needed the following to engineer Ravi’s fall into his trap.

  1. Opportunity around a huge crowd — he was confident Ravi’s arrogance would provide it.
  2. Trick to make sure Ravi took the test first— his dad’s silver would provide it.
  3. A challenge — he hoped his uncle’s trivia would come in handy in this test and took a gamble that Ravi had not come across this information.                         

And finally,

  1. Victory — his grit and the practice over the few weeks would take him there.


D-Day came on New Year’s Eve when the ‘mohalla’ boys had organized a midnight dance party in the locality. Quite a few people had gathered for this well-organised function with funding from the local goons and shopkeepers.

Food was plenty and music wafted in the air. 

On some petty pretext, Ravi started an argument with Bhola and the conversation again moved to his superiority in the English language. Sensing that this was the right opportunity Bhola grabbed it and challenged him loudly to another ‘word challenger’ competition. 

A big crowd of curious neighbours, local big wigs, and a few esteem educated guests of the evening gathered around them in anticipation of what would follow.

This time Bhola challenged him again for a duel of words within a time scale. Oxford dictionary would be the point of reference. Ravi agreed.  An Oxford dictionary and a stopwatch were quickly produced from somewhere in the locality. (Wikipedia and smartphones had not yet arrived)

This time Bhola put out a few requests —

The words should not have the alphabet ‘A’.

The target would be a maximum number of words in ONE minute.

A toss of a coin would be the decider for who would go first.

The difference in the number of words between the winner and loser to be paid @Rs 10 each word by the loser to the winner. 

Highly overconfident Ravi agreed to all the conditions. Both got onto the stage.

Happy that it was moving in the right direction Bhola extracted a silver coin from his pocket and passed it to Ravi. 

He asked him to flick it and stated that he (Bhola) would call heads or tails. Grabbing the coin Ravi expertly flicked it and in that instance, Bhola called, ”HEAD.

All eyes on the stage fell on the coin as it swirled, twirled and landed with a clink. It was a HEAD – King George’s head to be precise.

Bhola thrilled with his win of the toss, bent, picked up his coin and confidently slipped it into his pocket a warm smile spreading in his inner mind.

As winner of the toss, Bhola decided to give the chance to open the word duel to Ravi saying he would follow the second.

So far so good. The action was rolling as per Bhola’s plan. 

The duel began with ready, steady, go, a click of the stopwatch and all eyes and ears on Ravi. Mike in hand he started confidently trying to unnecessarily show off his vocabulary by using unique words.  The conical horn speakers magnified his voice. “Monimolimnion, Snozzcumber, Phyllophyllin…… Sogmire…..Boondoggles, — — Flummox — — Humplecrimp……..” He was struggling as the barrier of not using the alphabet ‘A’ shackled his thought process.

It was a mammoth task for the local scribe who was frantically scribbling the words that spewed out from Ravi’s mouth.

As seconds ticked Ravi froze and words came out much slower than he would have liked or was used to. As he heard the click-click and the announcement that one minute was up he was informed that he had rallied a score of 42.

Ravi was still confident that he would win even against Bhola with this performance. 

“How could a ’desi dehat’ know more English dictionary words than a well-read ’phoren’ return?”

A search began in the dictionary and pages were flicked to check the authenticity of Ravi’s words that had been recorded on paper.

Five were not found even after checking and rechecking them. They did not exist in the dictionary

An argument erupted as Ravi insisted that they were valid Roald Dahl words.

”Snozzcumber, Scrumdiddlyumptious 

Humplecrimp, Sogmire, Zoonk.”

He repeated them with spellings confident that they existed.

They were Dahl’s words appearing in ‘The BFG’ but alas they did not exist in the ‘Oxford’ Dictionary

Ravi argued, ”This dictionary must be a very old publication.” The argument did not stand, as it was the latest published Oxford dictionary – second edition — 1989.

Another eight words were disqualified as they had the alphabet ‘A’. Exasperated he had to settle for a final tally of 29.

It was now Bhola’s turn and as soon as he heard ready steady go, and a click of the stopwatch he started confidently. ”One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…..’ Everybody’s ears pricked up and eyes opened up in astonishment.

“Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven……. fifty-two, fifty-three…….”

He continued reciting the numbers as practised, ”seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven….. “ and as the 59 seconds moved to the final second in the minute and the sound of a double click sounded he slipped in, “ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, hundred.”

Ravi stood aghast. He realised that his hubris had taken a fall.

The simpleton had scored over him ticking all boxes of the conditions just by articulately reciting out the numbers — One to Hundred. No one needed to check these words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Importantly there was no alphabet ’A’ in any of them.

It was a fair victory. The result was obvious and Bhola was declared the winner amidst great fanfare and hurrahs from the large crowd.

A difference of 71 words had made Ravi Rs 710 poorer (a decent amount in those days) with incalculable loss of face.

For Bhola New Year was not far away but the last few hours of the old year had already brought him immense respect in his Mohalla along with Goddess Laxmi !!

Importantly by this win his morale was boosted.

For all those who are still zapped — Fathers piece of silver — a replica of Amitabh’s, both side King George headed, Silver SHOLAY coin.

Uncle’s Number Trivia —The first number with an ’A’ in it is — one hundred and one.

Language purists might argue and bring to attention that this is not correct as the word ‘and’ is not a number, and therefore there’s no ’A’ in the numbers one through to nine hundred ninety-nine. The first number to fit this bill should be — One Thousand. Bhola would not argue on this. He was not greedy and for now, was happy to go only till One Hundred.

After all, he was not a purist. 

He was just ’Bhola -—- the Simpleton.’
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