I was a teenager in middle school during the early nineties. At the time, weekly visits to the school’s computer “lab”, essentially two aging IBM computers that were shrink-wrapped in thick plastic, meant taking my shoes off and queuing up to see a disinterested computer teacher typing simple functions in a screen that resembled the end credits of “The Matrix”.
I was aware that the scene from Terminator, in which the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls off his eye, was executed with the help of a computer. I witnessed how on-screen computer geeks were zooming in to photographs in Hollywood movies with this thing that shared its name with a not-so-loved rodent.
I wanted to know more about technology, I was eager to learn. Unfortunately, in the internet-deficient and smartphone-absent early nineties, being tech-savvy was an extravagant indulgence. My school could barely afford two outdated computers. As for owning one personally, well, at the time, the latest IBM cost more than my Father’s half-yearly salary.
This is where Arcade Uncle gave me a ray of hope, a refuge. Arcade Uncle, of course, is the neighbourhood shopkeeper who had rented a couple of large tower-like coin-operated arcade game machines that mostly played Super Mario or Contra. I was a science-fiction enthusiast, and these modest machines were my portal to the world of technology and my passageway to another world.
Every weekday, after school, I would drop my bag at home and run to spend at least an hour at Arcade Uncle’s Elysium. For an hour, I would have a voice that would be heard, that would make a difference. Nothing mattered when my hand was on the greasy joystick of the arcade game. Not the fact that my father, an engineer, wanted me to spend more time studying Science rather than English, neither the matter that some of my 8th-grade classmates had already started attending IIT-JEE coaching classes.
I wasn’t alone. We arcade gamers had our own expanding clique and Arcade Uncle was the gatekeeper of our sanctuary. He understood us, he understood his games, he understood his shop. Arcade uncle made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
A black sheep of his family, Arcade Uncle couldn’t pass his PSU exams and would not even dream of taking the IAS test. He didn’t have a professional undergraduate education and it took him 5 years to complete his BA. degree via the correspondence route. He was pot-bellied, and never dared to try to join the army. Surrounded by condescending family members who were Civil Servants, Soldiers, Engineers and Chartered Accountants, Arcade Uncle drowned his sorrows in a cheap second-hand video game console he bought from Palika Bazaar.
He was aficionado of the arcade game world, though, and knew all the tricks of the trade and much more. He had spent hours sweating over every little detail in the 8-bit world.
When we got stuck on the same level for over a fortnight, Arcade Uncle would drop subtle hints, just like a game show host. Whenever a kid playing Mario saved the princess, Arcade Uncle would gift him a free Pepsi.
Arcade Uncle knew the attention was in the details. He placed the small yet efficient desert cooler at a distance, so that the loud noise of it’s rotating blades would never superimpose the melodious 8-bit tracks that the games had. He would keep the Pepsi chilled in the refrigerator and the veg patties crisp in the hot case.
The smartest move Arcade Uncle made was to start selling daily groceries. Never had teenagers been so enthusiastic about walking to the neighbourhood store to fetch milk and bread for their family. It was their excuse to spend an hour or two with the arcade games, and a few one-rupee coins to get this trustworthy delivery service didn’t harm the parents. It was a win-win situation for both mother and son.
Soon, the Arcade store became the most successful business in the neighbourhood. Uncle was making so much money that he bought the property, and the one next to it, and expanded his multifaceted shop. He had become a miniscule-scaled Walt Disney and we would attend the roll call at his tiny Disneyland with one-rupee coins in our pockets everyday.
Today, arcade uncle is in his late 60s. His son is a software engineer in the U.S. and his daughter is an accountant in Australia. He follows, a system – does yoga in the morning, buys groceries in the evening, and watches some silly comedy show on T.V. at night. His shop is let to a bank, and his rental income is much more than the pensions his proud and arrogant brothers and cousins members get.
Every now and then, when his wife is abroad is visiting the children, uncle takes out his 8-bit videogame console and connects its audio-visual wire with his old non-digital 12-channel Sony TV. He plays Mario and Contra for hours and hours, probably because he is, and always has been, a child himself.