Taking a cue from that lovable scamp Dennis the Menace, as boys we seldom ventured out without a slingshot. Secreted away in a grimy pocket, it was as integral a part of us as a cowboy’s six-shooter, giving us a macho feeling and symbolising our infinite capacity for mischief.
During our holidays in Munnar a catapult was indispensable for outdoor-loving boys in pursuit of jungle fowl and wood pigeons. Though we never succeeded in bagging any, the thrills of the chase did enthrall us, what with our pebbles zipping uncomfortably close to the quarry.
Having had a foretaste of the far-from-cordial reception that awaited them, vicious mongrels stayed well out of range of our slingshots. So did vermin and other gatecrashers from the wilds. The mere sight of the “catapult brigade” and its budding snipers was a deterrent to them.
In the boarding school in Tiruchi, however, catapults were strictly banned, making us covet them even more. Spiriting one past the lynx-eyed prefect was fraught with grave risk. A common ruse was to hide it in the back of one’s shirt since the prefect usually frisked only one’s pockets and shirt front. But those caught paid dearly: they received “six of the best” that left them with a painfully sore posterior and, even more agonising, their prized catapults were confiscated. But, given the resilience of boys, replacements soon appeared—rubber strips could always be “sourced” from an unguarded bicycle’s tyres while the search for leather pouches sometimes left a boarder’s shoes literally tongueless!
The out-of-bounds mango tree next door drooping with fruit bore the brunt of our marksmanship, or rather lack of it. The delights of munching green mangoes laced with salt far outweighed the risks involved, and even threw up a sharpshooter who excelled in cutting just the stalks with each shot without damaging the fruit—a feat few of us could match.
Inevitably, we landed in trouble. Our fusillade of stones sometimes clunked down on passing buses baffling the crew or, worse, on a hapless pedestrian’s pate. An indignant victim once stormed into school. He appeared unhurt except for a bruised ego and perhaps a slightly dented cranium. The prefect, his arm ever twitching to wield a cane, promptly lined up six suspects, including yours truly—all looking like lambs for slaughter. Mercifully, we got away unscathed as the complainant couldn’t identify us.
However, an irrepressible co-accused—whose skull had often been softened by falling mangoes—remained unrepentant.
“Like me, that guy was in the right place at the wrong time!” he chuckled, giving the familiar phrase a jocular twist.
Nowadays catapult-toting boys are a rarity, modern technology having given them more useful gadgets to lug around. So maybe the day isn’t far off when the slingshot, my constant boyhood companion, will be catapulted into oblivion!