For some reason I can’t quite put together, I woke up today chuckling over some dreadful pranks a niece of mine and I engineered in our younger days.

One summer while I was visiting India (this was years and years ago), she told me of the tyranny of her school headmaster, a beast whose cruelty was exceeded only by his stupidity. This man, we reasoned, must be punished.

Skillfully using all the supplies we could scrounge from her father’s office, my niece and I fabricated a very convincing letter from the Rotary Exchange, notifying the villainous headmaster of a soon-to-arrive exchange student by the name of Bruce Jones. Bruce, the letter explained, was a specialist in underwater basket weaving, at which he excelled despite terrible disfigurements that included a clubfoot. His academic aptitude, while low, was balanced out by his prowess in extracurricular activities (the exact nature of these was left somewhat vague). Best of all, Bruce was to arrive within a few days–surely the headmaster had arranged for accommodations?

With great relish, my niece and I posted the letter. The phone in the headmaster’s office rang the afternoon it arrived.

“Yes, hello,” he said distractedly. Clearly we’d caught him just as he was regretting getting out of bed that morning.

“Hello,” I responded cheerfully. In the background, the noises of an airport–calls for flights, the din of milling passengers, the sound of push-carts being rolled around–provided clues that I could be none other than the unexpected Bruce Jones. (These convincing sound effects were simulated by my two nieces and, once she caught on to what we were doing, by their mother, through means of a megaphone crafted out of cardboard, a loud ceiling fan, a magazine rack, a laundry hamper, and some other odds and ends.) There was a long pause at the other end of the line, so I took the initiative.

“My name is Bruce Jones, and I’m an exchange student. I’m supposed to be picked up here at the airport by someone from–” at this point I deliberately massacred the school’s name in my best attempt at a Texan drawl. (The Rotary letter had indicated that Bruce’s origins were in Tampa, Florida, but we weren’t assuming the headmaster was an expert in these matters.) I heard a thin wail. “Damned puzzling business,” the headmaster fretted. “You see, we weren’t expecting an exchange student…”

Bruce Jones had no patience for all the chitchat. “So is someone going to pick me up, or not?” The accent had shifted a little toward the Midwest, but the impatience remained Southern.

“Well…” As the headmaster hesitated, a leprous beggar accosted Bruce Jones. “No! Get away from that! You can’t have my bag! Oh my God…he only has two fingers…”

“Look,” the headmaster managed. “I’ve got all the teachers in here and they’ve all assured me that none of them has been in touch with Rotary about anything like this, and…”

“What’s that?” Bruce yelled over the suddenly louder airport noise. On cue, several airplanes landed noisily somewhere in the vicinity of the cardboard megaphone. “I’ll just wait here in the front of the airport for someone to pick me up. Bye!”

I learned later that the headmaster had commandeered one of the teacher’s cars and had driven to the airport himself. Finding no one matching the (rather vivid) description of Bruce Jones provided in the letter after an hour’s search, he apparently wrote to Rotary bemoaning the abduction and assured them that future exchange students would be kept track of more carefully, if only some earlier warning could be provided of their arrival (I imagined the closing of this missive: “Sorry about the mix-up and assume you are also sorry about same. Thanks etc G. Kapoor, Headmaster”). I have no idea whether the Rotary Exchange responded to his heartfelt note.

All this ruckus was not without precedent. Many years before my niece and I had developed the sophistication required to pull off Bruce Jones, we snuck up to the roof of her father’s house during a garden party and discovered a dead rat. Appropriating a length of clothesline for the purpose, we swung the grisly thing among the chattering guests below. A few confused souls were seen sniffing the air as the monstrosity narrowly missed them, until someone caught sight of it and let out a loud shriek. Everyone charged indoors as the servants chased after the offending mass, while my niece’s father bellowed, “Drop that dead damned rat!”

We’d taken the precaution of locking the door to the roof so that our fun wouldn’t be interrupted. “Dead…Damn…Rat,” we chanted, swinging the rat in an ever-increasing arc of fetor. Then tragedy struck: I miscalculated my swing (it wasn’t easy to maneuver the putrid thing, since pieces of it were falling away at an alarming rate) and it struck a window, falling noisily apart as the sounds of horrified screams emanated from the house below where the guests had taken refuge. Dreaming that we might be able to get ourselves out of this mess somehow, we quickly pulled up the clothesline and set about burning it to destroy the evidence (the smell of melting nylon didn’t do much to counteract the stench of the rat’s scattered remains).

Pranks are an art form, and I’ve worked with the master. Even just a few years ago, ostensibly at an age when we should no longer derive fun from such activities, my niece and I disported ourselves by dropping grapes upon unsuspecting Bollywood stars from a hotel balcony in Mumbai. As I recall, we managed to peg Aishwarya Rai with a little morsel of fried fish. Luckily for Aishwarya, we didn’t have access to a Dead Damn Rat, but one learns to improvise.

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