Tuesday, August 11, 2009


(The elements' story- really trashy, 'tear jerker' is a bloated understatement for this!)

‘This collapsible canvas tent stretched above my head is a colossal web of deceit’
The thought troubled Bablu, as he lay on his threadbare ‘charpoi ‘, with the milk-white palms of his hand resting on his chest.
The collapsible canvas tent, with infinite perforations on its vast surface through which peeked countless blazing eyes, appeared a sham.
‘The eyes are not eyes at all!’
Not the flashing eyes of restless little children playing peek-a-boo from behind the punctured tent, but rather, a giant octopus with a beaming torch-light gripped in each of its several tentacles, gyrating obscenely to the nocturnal music of the universe from behind the canvas mask.
The eyes are not eyes at all…
“You know what they say about your mother’s eyes?”
“No Chachi…what do they say?”
“Two shallow cups of cheap country liquor!”
“Chachi! Please…don’t!”
Bablu felt his ears burn.
The woman went on.
“And know what they say about her lips?”
“Ma’s lips? Why? Ma’s lips are like…like a pair of orphans, blinded with red-hot pokers, abandoned on the busy highway.”
Bablu’s words came out in hurried spurts.
The woman sneered.
“Really? Blind orphans? Even with the layers of garish red rubbed on to them? And did you ever notice the way they appear swollen after she….”
“Stop chachi! Stop! I beg you! Please leave!”
Bablu felt a familiar searing pain in his chest. He fixed his eyes firmly on the ground as the woman started moving away from him. She smelt of the soil, the soil flecked with dust and grime, suffocated with non-recyclable polythene packets and thick glass bottles frothing generous amounts of green fungus at the mouth. Her brown skin appeared well-oiled, it was gleaming, like polished wood. The big vermillion dot on her forehead was the very celestial disk stamped on to the sky, poised to drop beyond the horizon with a mighty plonk!
She turned back once, as Bablu had sensed she would.
“Come with me darling. You know I would keep you happy…”

Bablu closed his eyes and pictured the torch-welding octopus shadow-dancing in the night-sky. But this time, the familiar jingle of fake gold bangles took over the rest of his senses. The wrists of the octopus glared a lurid shade of crimson and red…and its eyes…
The eyes were two chalices, cheap aluminium chalices overflowing with equally cheap country liquor, and men with blood-shot eyes were cupping their soiled palms greedily to get throatfuls of the elixir.
And the octopus?
The octopus was beaming, its garish red lips, stretched in a wide inviting smile…..

In another one of those seedy hotels in Suder Street, on a ridiculously familiar crumpled velvet sheet, under the lazily-rotating fan pasted haphazardly on a screaming pink ceiling, Bonhi went about her duty silently.
No more helpless shrieks.
The Padma river with its slippery banks, the Padma river with its teeming fish, the Padma river with the helpless muzzle tied to its face like a massive fishing-net….and the Padma river that had watched, as a twelve-year old Bonhi had been held roughly by the soft nape of her neck and thrown on the stiff wooden cot….that Padma river of her memory had long dried up. Now it was, a blazing desert.
Now Bonhi would simply shut her eyes and feel Bablu’s curious little fingers scavenging the contours of her body even as she lay on the velvety bed of a client. Now she felt no shame. Just occasionally, a sigh of sympathy would erupt within her, for those men who screeched their cars to a halt before her voluptuous frame and gave an enquiring nod. In that nod, Bonhi glimpsed vestiges of a dying man choking on mouthfuls of sawdust, kicking his dead camel in petrified disbelief as he sinks deeper and deeper into the sands of the desert….
Now she smiled, as she felt Bablu reach out two chubby little fingers towards her in the dark.

“Neeraj bhai! You need a haircut, you know?”
Shomir was grinning from ear to ear, and Neeraj, as always, felt the hostile gale of phony optimism blowing from the direction of the young man’s voice, from the direction of his rotten flute.
A haircut?
As if he cared!
He would not spare a ‘paisa’ for foolhardy Life that came immaculately groomed in stiff white collars, polishing its boots vigorously with polish of the blackest shade, only to be shoved, stamped and kicked in a cramped public bus!
Neeraj gave a snort of disgust as he felt the young man gazing lovingly at his own reflection on the still surface of the pond and trying to convince himself that it belonged to someone else.
“Come on now Neeraj bhai! Just because you are a cripple doesn’t mean that this is the end of your life!”
Neeraj stared down at the two stumps that had once extended into two perfectly agile limbs.
But of course! What would you know about this filthy immobile existence? look at me! I am a stagnant pond with nowhere to flow! Once I had the flow of a fish, in my sturdy little brown boat, I would infuse the rippling Dal lake of my adolescence with the very spirit of my being, screaming-
“Cabbages to sell! Fresh juicy cabbages to sell!”
“Neeraj bhai! What happened? What are you screaming about? What cabbages?”
Neeraj felt ashamed at the sudden lapse of self-control, and turned his face away.
“Now look here bhai. You shouldn’t lose heart. Right? Look at me! You can make a blockbuster movie on my goddamn life! See how the script would roll- a hard-hearted father who seems to have assisted his docile wife in the act of procreation only to beget himself a manager at his shop to do his accounts day and night without pay or rest; a son who grows up to detest those very astronomical units creeping and crawling on the walls of his father’s room which now threatens to trespass into his hallowed territory; the son therefore constructs his own little parallel world in the blissful holes of his flute, only to have his world crushed under the wrathful heels of his father’s boots. So what does the son do? Does he cry and mope around? Does he give in to his father? No! Absolutely not! This hero’s world might have been crushed to splinters, but his heart soared to the tune of the unheard- it shivered in delight to hear the soft bursting of clouds, the rhythmic ruminations of a cow chewing cud, the flirtatious touch of faded silk against stiff iron grills. So the hero cried out to the pigeons- ‘did you call me to join in your flight?’, and in their incomprehensible nods, he found the meaning of life….!”
Neeraj trembled with anger.
Do not give me your lie-infected life! Do not give me that! Do not!
“You think I didn’t try to make a career of my music? Of course I did! I rubbed my heels off on rough rude pavements, sliced opened my forearm while trying to board a running bus, won for myself shameful freckles and zits upon constant exposure to the merciless sun, and still, appeared in my best of forms when I glided into the sparkling music companies! I was flushed in the face….flushed with the intoxicating feeling of euphoria. Victory seemed but a few baby steps away… But you know what? They all turned out to be the same! The filthy little… And the worst part is that, they all speak my father’s language! The despicable language of profit and loss! They don’t feel music, they hammer it into parts and particles and sell them by the kilos! So I said- ‘No thank you sir!’ and left. Everyone knows why I came to live here in this slum. I came to live life on my own terms! Yes sir! Only that!”
Lies! Lies! Lies!
Neeraj felt his head burst.
Argh! Pride! The pride-in-a-vacuum! The dirt of the slums would never brush his heels, for he would forever glide over it…glide over it with leisurely flapping of his wings.
And Neeraj? Where had his pride taken him?
‘You are the pride of this revolution! You are the fiery youth of our Valley!’
The pride….the youth…all culminating in the grand finale…..
The army men, the weeks of torturous interrogation and finally, being rendered a cripple for life….
Now I am a stagnant pool! Come to me all you weeds, I would make a blanket of you and shroud myself!

Shomir appeared annoyed when he left Neeraj’s shack.
He had been there with a set purpose. He had expected the cripple to help him. After all, Neeraj was the only man in the slum to whom Bonhi would fly in her so-called moments of distress.
‘Hah! As if we don’t know what sort of consolation she seeks from the cripple! A cripple! A cripple alone has the power to satisfy a whore? Is that it? I will show her….’
Drug-induced desire that he would puncture into his veins….
She had rebuked him once- “You want to sleep with me? Ha! First get money to feed yourself! You think you are too good, don’t you? Let me tell you how good you are…you are as good as that street dog’s backside!”
And her gurgling laughter had hacked down his chiffon wings. He had felt the grains of earth touch his feet. He had recoiled in disgust.

“So? The flute-player had come to you again?”
Neeraj didn’t need to look up. He could tell what stood before him.
A thick black cascade of hair with the bottle-green plastic comb stuck on to it, dark caterpillar eyebrows that would huddle up in moments of deep distress, the unmistakable stench of soil…soil specked with dust and grime.
“Dhoritri. Don’t do this to the….”
“Don’t do this to whom? To that worn-out-whore of Birati? To that vulgar woman who sells her flesh by the kilos at street corners? From where does these sudden spurts of sympathy come, huh?”
Neeraj sighed. This happened every night. With tiring precision.
“I have absolutely no sympathy for her! Why should I care for a whore? Don’t I have enough troubles of my own? Who is she? Huh? Who….who is she?”
In a sudden burst of anger, Neeraj had flung an earthen pitcher towards the door. It crashed at the threshold…There was no water in it.
He now pushed open the tiny window beside his cot with the end of his crutch, and started screaming-
“Wretched whore! Does this slum look like a hell-hole for you cheap women? Get out of our lives! Get out!”
Dhoritri stood smiling by the shattered remains of the pitcher.
The oil on her skin gleamed as she said softly-
“So, if you hate her so much, why don’t you help the flute-player?”
“Me? But why…”
“Of course you! Everybody in this slum knows what the whore has in her dog-eared heart for you! She would eat the dust for you! Walk on a carpet of needles and shards of glass for you! “
Neeraj clasped his burning head in his palms and kept shaking them in fatigue.
Dhoritri continued-
“I know of course what pleasures you must have bestowed on her….after the first act, anything else could be expected of you!”
“Dhoritri! Please go away! Why do you keep coming back? Why can’t you leave me alone? And what first act are you talking about? Had I not done that, what would have become of our….”
“Stop! Not a word about my son! He is my son, and I will take him with me! You will see.”
Neeraj felt his hands shaking violently. Dhoritri was not done yet. She looked back for a last time and muttered under her breath audibly-
“All that I need to do is make Shomir sprout his wings….and fair too. The man has his grain of wrath. The whore had humiliated him once, snubbed his advances. But ah! Revenge! Only I could spur him to that! He was too flighty for a deep and profound thing like revenge! So now, he would have his revenge, scar her painted face perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t care. He will have his Bonhi….and I will have…”
So saying, she left.
Ah! Dhoritri….she was gone now.
Leaving a trail of dust and crumbled mud.
“Lean on me!” she had whispered into Neeraj’s ear the night he had been robbed and left on the floor, clawing at thin air for support. Then, pressing his ear on her bosom, he had heard the steady roll of the drumbeats of the earth, the vibrating throbs within the heart of her being.
The daughter of a sweeper, Dhoritri had never been alone. Her seven siblings had dived in with her in the painfully joyous scramble for space in their one-room shack. And here, Dhoritri had been the great rock of strength….
That strength Neeraj saw in her now…the malevolent strength of a woman who never forgot a hurt, who never forgave a wrong.
That strength…..the strength that made her return to this slum and haunt its lanes and by-lanes even after six years of her death….

Bablu was thinking again….
I could have been born anything…a flower, cow-dung, the curl in mother’s hair….
But would it have bothered me still?
The acrid words of Dhoritri chachi sped back to his mind as though they were waiting in ambush for the opportunity-
“You know Shomir? But of course you do! The young boy, the flute-player! The one who is hardly eight years elder to you? Now eight years is hardly a time gap, don’t you think Bablu? Such a guy could easily be your brother….so….he is your brother’s age, don’t you think?....And would you like it if your mother were to creep in to his cot in the dead of the night when you are asleep and in your dreams, smiling perhaps….so, would you like it if the whore were to creep into the bed of your brother and to caress him and love him…love him more she loves you? Would you like it if in that moment, she whispered in his ears- ‘Shomir! I love you so much!’, just as she whispers into yours?….”
“No! stop! Stop! Stop! Please chachi! Don’t say such horrible things about my mother…please! You are a liar! A liar!”
“We shall see….”
And Dhoritri chachi had vanished, leaving ten-year old Bablu to his living fears.
Bonhi had often warned Bablu against talking to Shomir. She had called him a boy of ‘bad intentions’. But now, doubt started snaking its way into the perplexed mind of the boy. Life at the slums was hard. It opened up windows and razed down walls to expose things that one did not want to see. Here, a boy of ten was expected to become a man of sordid experiences. But Bablu was still swimming effortlessly against that tide…
Bablu knew what his mother did for a living. But she had always come back to her little Bablu, taken him in her arms and shut out the din of the world. And now, she would divide her love?…give it to…to Shomir! The boy who would play his flute and incite the other slum boys to chant ‘son-of-a-whore!’ whenever Bablu would pass by him.
His mother could never do this to him!
In his little man’s mind, Bablu had declared a permanent war with Shomir.
“I would snap his wings in two and bring him down one day…”

Flute music reached her ears as she made her way home.
The flute that would elicit airy fetters…
Fetters that would fly to Bonhi, clasp her wrists and feet, and drag her to him.
Ah! The conquest would be done!
Shomir smiled.

“No chachi! I don’t want to go anywhere with you! Please leave me alone!”
Dhoritri appeared desperate.
“Come with me Bablu. All your false beliefs…all your faith in that whore will be wiped clean.”
“Stop calling my mother a whore! Stop calling my mother…”
“She is NOT your mother!”

Bonhi had felt the familiar fangs of force upon her. That old galling taste of coercion- of aged men forcing themselves into a helpless girl as her shrieks sprang off the pulsating floors of the Padma and diffused in the night air….
No more, she thought.
Shomir felt a jolt of shock as Bonhi pushed him hard against the wall and with a flourish of her bejeweled wrists, broke the lighted lantern over his head….

The hut was on fire.
It was steadily gaining momentum.
Bonhi had to escape.
But wait!
Through the smoke….who was that?
Bablu was standing a few steps away from the burning hut…from Bonhi.
“see…see her….she loves him so much that she has dived right into the fire to try and save his life!” Dhoritiri was hissing into Bablu’s ears.
“Bablu! Don’t worry! Don’t be scared. Go get some help…fast! I need a blanket to cover myself…go…fast….Bablu?”
The boy was standing transfixed on the ground. He barely moved an inch. A single tear was sliding down his cheek.
This is even better, thought Dhoritri gleefully. The whore would see the betrayal of the one person that she thought loved her! And now that bablu knew the history of his birth…..ah! What a death it will be for the whore! Now it was all coming to a head. Neeraj’s betrayal too! It had torn Dhoriti’s heart when after her death, her crippled good-for-nothing husband had given away their son, Bablu to that whore to keep.
Why? She had asked him again and again. She couldn’t depart because of that one act of betrayal.
Neeraj could have tried suffocating the musty pages from his dairy under the weeds of his immobile existence…but some things would forever defy death….
Like Dhoritri…
Or, like the memory of the eighteen year old Neeraj from Kashmir accompanying his uncle to Calcutta on his carpet-selling trips. Carpets they had sold under the scrutinizing gaze of the sun, and when the sun had been substituted by blinking street-lights, the boy had knocked nervously at the door…the door that he had pictured in his infinite obscene little dreams. No particular door really…but the door that would be opened at a half-knock by a buxom woman in garish paint, who would pull him in and concretize his lonely dreams with lightening dexterity….
But what stood shivering before him, was a stick-thin frame of about seventeen….Bonhi they had named her. He had been her first client. The ‘client’ for her was then, akin to some divine court of law at whose altar she had broken down, crying bitterly of her state, of the ‘men by the Padma’. The young Neeraj had been shocked, muted, the only expression of his extreme discomfort.
‘Why is she is doing this to me? Is this a ploy to extract more money?’
He had pictured his friends back at home, jeering him when he would recount his first ‘failed’ attempt….
No! Neeraj could not bear that. And here was this girl still weeping, asking him to help her…to give her ‘a better life.’
A better life?
“Hah! So, by donating our child to that whore, you feel that you have put to right whatever she expected you to mend that night? Ridiculous!” Dhoritri’s eyes had transmuted to a menacing shade of red.
“Maybe not quite. But yes, in my crippled capacity….yes! When, after so many years, I met her again here in the slums, I observed her closely. It was the same girl, now a woman. But there is another reason too….That night, when the young helpless girl had broken down so completely and recounted her horrific experiences to her uninterested audience, what the audience did not fail to notice in her tone, was the unflinching pride of a woman. This woman, I knew, would consume herself, but never let her loved ones burn…she would not ….”

“The Birati slums are on fire! Help! Someone call the Fire Brigade!”
People thronged the bridge that ran over the slums. Thick black smoke ascended the sky with increasing urgency. Down in the slums, tress, shacks, brick and mortar, all sizzled and melted…..and in that, in that flame, a little boy was found clasping the frame of a woman.
“You are my mother! You are my mother! I am so sorry, I doubted you….”
“But why Bablu?”
Bablu didn’t say a word….
He simply clasped on to Bonhi’s body and continued weeping in wisps and burps.
Neeraj the cripple stood at a distance by his shack. “Wretched whore”, he muttered.
And smiled.


Anurag Mazumdar said...

the tent part is awesome...strong visual imagery!!

RBC said...

Hm, I see this is the rewritten version. You've introduced Bablu as the conclusion-maker. This is good, and the story works well, but you've stepped on the gas too soon. Pacing in a story is important. If you start on a high pitch, as you have done here, you run out of steam before the conclusion, and the reader gets deadened to the 'tan-taraaaa' stuff. Better to start slow and calm (or at least calmer) and build up. Some spots of stillness enhance the overall effect of the ka-booms. Also don't twist the language for effect all the time. the occasional twist is decoration, the constant twist is indigestion. It also clogs the action. If i were to edit this, i would tone down the beginning a bit and make the language overall much clearer and easy flowing.

RBC said...

But having said that, its still a rocking story.