The monkey’s (Bonnet Macaque to the foaming-at-the-mouth naturalists) exterior calm belied his cruel intentions. I should have known better. Monkeys in Chittoor, back in 1984, were omnipresent. They stole your utensils, ransacked your kitchen, terrorised kids, and violently shook innocent boy’s head( who was reading a book in the verandah). Yes, the last one featured yours truly. I used to be a firm believer in the saying ‘leave the monkey alone.’ So when a group of monkeys descended on our terrace, my mom ran inside the house and locked the door. She reailsed that I was still lounging outside, in the lawn, reading a book. And, she warned me, “Dei come inside! The monkeys are all over the place.”
I closed the book, turned to look at her and smiled one of those patronizing smiles, and said, “Mom, if you don’t bother them they won’t too!” and I continued lounging, watching the Alpha male lead his group: they climbed the compound wall and ambled towards the gate. Alpha sat on the wall at the gate and watched his subjects trickle out of the house. He was a handsome, well built monkey and appeared, from what I saw, to be a good leader. He was chewing on something. Some food that he had stored in those sacks near his throat (yes, Macaques do that.) He was glancing around and his gaze rested on me. The hair on the back of my neck stood erect. Time stood still as I stared at his moist, dark eyes. And he climbed down from the wall.
“Dei! Get inside da!” My mom said. Of course she wouldn’t step out and come to my help. But I wasn’t worried, I mean, I left him alone and he should return the favor. The only thing that bothered me was ‘what if this monkey was a book-lover?’ And you know how book lovers are. If you carefully observed them you’ll notice the unmistakable similarities between them and monkeys.
He took a step towards me. Alpha didn’t look agitated. On the contrary, he looked like he just walked out from under the Bodhi tree. He was composed and even serene. Despite the constant, reassuring thoughts I manufactured in my head and my mom’s incessant ‘Dei’ my heart started banging against my ribcage. Something told me I had to do something to keep Alpha at bay. My mind raced: should I stand up and growl to show him who was the boss? Should I just say ‘shoo’ ? Or maybe I should go prostrate, for it serves two purposes; it can be a message ‘I am your subject Alpha! Accept me. Take me! Whatever. And, lying prostrate it is very easy to play dead. I had read somewhere that animals don’t harm you if you play dead. I found that nugget of truth a little too hard to digest. So what if the animal doesn’t believe you are dead? You will be, eventually, all right but hey!
Now he was even closer. A few rapid strides and there he was sitting right in front of me on the ground. He just parked his monkey ass down as if he ran out of ideas on what to do next. I realised I had masterfully moved my feet and now was sitting in a fetal position. My mom said ‘Don’t look into his eyes!’ So I looked away, at the Kanakambaram plants that were in bloom. And epiphany struck. I recalled what Dr. Venkatesan used to tell kids just before he jabbed those evil syringes in their butts. ‘Be calm. Say Ram, Ram.’ And, if the kid still wailed, the legendary Doctor slapped the same bum on which he’d just administered the injection and said, “Didn’t I ask you to chant Ram, Ram?” I don’t know why I recalled it at that moment but the connection was made. Lord Hanuman loved to chant Ram, Ram. Thereby chanting Ram’s name can tame this tresspassing monkey?
So I started slowly at first “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram…” Alpha appeared bored. And he yawned, exhibiting his arsenal of teeth. My heart skipped a beat and I desperately wanted to pee. The chanting of Ram’s name wasn’t helping. Now, as a 12 year old, I believed in god… only on the days of my exams. Otherwise, I didn’t give too much thought about such lofty questions like ‘are you a believer?’ All that mattered was that I had to pass my exams. And of course the prasadam at the temples. Despite that I was upset that the chanting didn’t work its magic. I wanted to kill Dr. Venkatesan.
Alpha walked behind the chair where I couldn’t see him. I heard the tearing of papers. My book. I loved that book, ‘So What Happens to Me’ by Chase. It had a beautiful cover. That of a young lady, scantily clad, educating boys like me on what the future held for us. Of course that cover was covered another newspaper cover. The Hindu’s Editorial. Most excellent book cover material I’d say.
My mom was now screaming some gibberish. And I was actually a little relieved. The idiot wanted my book. I hated Alpha. That was that, I thought. And I was all set to get up and leave when I heard my mom making really strange noises. She was shaking the iron grill gate violently. I really didn’t understand why she was panicking over the loss of a book!
And Alpha climbed on my chair, held my hair with both hands and shook me like I was a rag doll. So ‘Ram, Ram’ which I was still chanting became ‘Rambambambambam’ like from this song.
Next, I thought, he was going eat my ears or just pluck my head off and keep it as a trophy. And he stopped, just like that! Jumped down, and as he walked away, he looked back. It was like he wanted to say, “We need more people like you.”
That was the day I decided that I will be an atheist forever.
She waited to die in his lap. She waited for three whole weeks. And when my father returned to find that he didn’t get his usual welcome at the door, I saw his eyes well up with tears. I knew something had changed in my home forever. We would never be the same again without Rosy. She died in his arms, just as he had carried her when she first arrived home, thirteen years ago.
Rosy coming into our lives was as dramatic as her exit. My father first saw Rosy as she was being cornered by a gang of street dogs. He rescued her and brought her home. “Only for a little while, until we find her a nice home”, he said. I was thirteen.
Rosy, was a rock star. As a little pup, a boy – a punk – accidentally discovered her. The boy’s noisy, obsessively patriarchal family ran a snack bar near Lakshmi talkies in Chittoor. The prodigal son, who would throw plates of food at his mother if he didn’t like the preparation, or hit his elder sister on a lark, had strangely picked up the little fur ball from a litter of 6. If their daughter had brought home the dog, the burly, ruthless father would have thrown the daughter and the pup out.
God knows why the heartless punk wanted to adopt Rosy. Whenever I walked Micky, I would see ‘the son’ with her. I was bewildered as to how a boy who throws food at his mother could be good with a little pup.
One day ‘the son’ found another dog. A male. By now I realized a dog was just another plaything for him. His father didn’t even bat an eyelid. “I already have two bitches, what I am I going to do with this third one”? He appeared to have told an inquisitive neighbour. So they took Rosy in an auto, and left her somewhere near Kanipakam. A good 12 KM away from Chittoor.
The next day, Micky and I found him walking a new pup. I could tell Mickey never liked ‘the son’. I guess, dogs are more concerned about whom they hang out with than us.
I asked him about Rosy, he gurgled and said, “We abandoned her. We always wanted a boy.”
With sheer horror in my eyes, I went back home and told my parents the story and my folks were stunned. More so my mother. When I was born, my mother wished for me to be a girl. It was her way of coming to terms with a loss of her four year old daughter, who died before my birth.
I believe my sister was a lively, little intelligent girl whose pretty life was snuffed out because some pharma company didn’t bother testing their drug properly. Back then, there was no Barkha or Arnab to bang their fists on the table, look you in the eye from behind their perch in the idiot box, and dramatically hiss, ‘Will justice be served? Time will tell. We will take a small break now, don’t go anywhere!’
I don’t think mom loves me any less but somehow I think Rosy coming into our lives, filled that soft spot for girls that she has. That night while serving me dinner, mom said, ‘I hope the poor dog is alive.”
What happened next morning blew my mind. My father, after his morning walk, came back with Micky. And, Rosy.
Rosy had walked all the way back into Chittoor, to her masters’ home. But the poor darling didn’t know just how degenerate humans could be. The son and the father collected stones and tried to hit Rosy out of their way.
Mickey was an eight-month-old, feisty German Shepherd when dad carried a frail and wounded mongrel in his arms into our living room. Rosy had off-white fur that was accentuated by small patches of tan. Micky probably accepted Rosy because he was still young and before long they became great friends.
Rosy exuded an aura of maturity and grace. She was a correcting, stabilizing influence, whereas Micky was prone to consistent displays of impulsiveness and naivete. Micky chased butterflies and garden lizards in our backyard. Rosy knew better. Micky picked fights with the street dogs, and Rosy always touched noses and made friendships. Micky was the brat and took things for granted. Rosy was a survivor and was happy to just be.
Micky was a high energy, adventure seeker, which meant he would regularly runaway. The daily routine started with, Rajamma, our maid, forgetting to latch the gate, then Mickey would scurry out, followed by us running behind him leaving a trail of my mother yelling at Rajamma in the background. Mickey was an imposing pooch. Big enough (and menacing enough) to scare people out their socks or patta-pattis.
So, when were doing our routine with Rajamma and Micky, Rosy would sit in quiet repose, watching the drama and probably thinking “hmm…how dumb can a dog get”?
By evening dad would be back home and the sound of the gate opening then meant, Rosy yelping with joy, running to the door, doing an “x marks the spot” by circling him and swishing her tail until both would settle down to do their nosy-nosy routine. While this tribal ritual continued day in and day out, Micky and I filled the frame as enthusiastic extras. I am sure Micky was wondering about Rosy and thinking “how boring can a dog get”?
By the time we moved to Chennai, years later, Micky was no more. He died of throat cancer. God knows how he got it. I still suspect the Vet was on drugs when he established the diagnosis. All of us were sad, Rosy included, but there wasn’t much anyone could do. And it was a quick death. In the sense, it didn’t drag on for weeks on end. From then on, it was just Rosy and us.
It was in Chennai that my dad became closer to Rosy. He walked her. Bathed her. He had just retired and had a lot of time. I had just started working. I was 26 when Rosy left us. I practically grew up with her.
And here I was lying next to her fragile body, desperate to see her eat or drink. Mom was numb, just waiting for dad to be back from his journey, which seemed to take forever. Rosy was prolonging her pain just to see him for one last time. We knew this but the vet gave up and told us to put her to sleep. We fired that vet.
Those two weeks are still so clearly etched in my mind. For the sound of every foot-step in the room, she had just enough energy to open her eyes slightly, thinking maybe father has come.
I would lie on the ground, next to her, look into her eyes and touch her nose. It was mostly dry but just to reassure me that she is alive, she had a little moist look in her eyes and as I stared into them, those beautiful brown eyes told me a million stories. I was constantly frustrated that I couldn’t do anything more to help her ease her suffering. Finally, after what seemed like forever, my father arrived and when he didn’t find Rosy at the doorstep, I swear at that moment I heard his heart crumble.
I could have hugged my dad, picked up poor ole Rosy or held on to my mother. But I just stood there, just like old times, filling the frame like an extra. This time without Mickey. I wished he were alive. He would have pacified them just by being himself. It was a terrible sight. Dad just drowned in the couch in the living room and stared at the Gods in our pooja room.
In the wrong side of sixties, he was not exactly agile but he jumped to his feet when he saw Rosy. She had heard him and while we were all in the living room, she called upon herself every last ounce of life she had and dragged herself into the living room.
Father let out a strange noise, ran up to her, and collected her in his arms, and buried his face in her fur to muffle his sobs.
Ten minutes later, lying on his lap, she breathed her last. She waited to say her last good bye to her best friend. I don’t know what part of my father stopped living from then on.
My father wanted to give Rosy a decent resting place, but that was hard to find in Chennai. One of our friends suggested the land adjacent to the Kotturpuram fly-over. After much hesitation, my father consented. The other problem was that none of the auto guys were ready to go on a funeral procession of a dog. Despite offers of large sums of money that is.
We found a kind auto-rikshaw driver who agreed to take Rosy’s remains. So we boys took her away in the auto. My parents were inconsolable. As the auto drove away from the gates of our apartment complex in Alwarpet, I turned back to see my parents standing on the road and crying.
My father never brought the topic of having another dog again. I tried convincing him that my nephew, who was a toddler then, might want a dog, but my father was unshakeable. He just didn’t want another dog.
As for me, I moved out of Chennai and never really thought of getting a dog. But when my daughter was born, I remembered Rosy.
I have been thinking about it for a while now. If I am getting a dog, it is going to be a girl. And, you know what I am going to name her, don’t you?
An exaggerated version of a true story, as told to me by a friend who chose to remain anonymous. Yeah. You’ll know why he did so after you have read this story.
He threw our clothes, splashed some kerosene on them, and set them on fire. We stood there, standing by the edge of the irrigation well, and watched. He finished burning our clothes and turned to us. The only thought that was running in my head was ‘if he hits me, I can’t raise my hands to defend myself: my hands were busy defending something far more important.
Raghava Reddy was an ancient man. Some said he was 60. Some said 80. But from when I knew him, I was 14, he had been the same: lanky, dark man with a 100,000 wrinkles. I don’t think he even changed his clothes in all those years: he was always clad in a white dhoti and a white baniyan. The dhoti was always wrapped up and knotted way above his knees, exposing his underwear: the world-famous Patta-patti (now known as ‘Bermudas’).
Reddy’s paddy fields offered a magnificent vista from our backyard. A wooded area, guarded by ancient Tamarind trees that rose thousands of feet above the ground separated his farmland and the row of houses in which we lived. We, the kids that lived in the row of houses on Pagadamanu Street, in Chittoor, practically lived in that small patch of wilderness between Reddy’s farm and our backyards. We caught garden lizards and made them smoke beedis. We made up stories about the ghosts that lived in the Tamarind trees. And, we also once in a while, crossed over to Raghava Reddy’s farm, either to steal mangoes or swim in that massive irrigation Well.
The ancient Well’s walls were paved with granite and a winding staircase lead you to the water. The water was a brilliant translucent green. You could count the pebbles on the bed of Well, standing at the top. A couple of decades back, we were told, Reddy rescued a Turtle and gave it asylum in his well. It was still around. Flapping its fins? I think it’s called fins. Yeah, flapping about in the water or basking on the steps, sunning itself.
The reason Reddy never let kids swim in his Well was his Turtle. He feared it seemed, one of us would, for the heck of it, kill it or something. I understood his fear. We tortured garden lizards and something as exotic as a Turtle was an exciting prospect. However, we never got around laying our hands on the poor animal. When we were swimming he hid in a crevice, on the wall of the Well. Underwater. We always had a lookout posted when we were swimming in Reddy’s well. We took turns to do guard duties. But that day, that simmering hot day, Nanda couldn’t resist it. He just jumped in. When asked ‘What the fuck are you doing here?” He said “Reddy must be sleeping. It’s two in the afternoon!” And before one of us could climb up – we took our time debating who should replace the deserter – Reddy was onto us.
His glazed eyes stared at us. His wrinkled hand was shaking. He had tied a towel around his head. His gray stubble stood out like nails. If one had to pick a word to describe him, it has to be ‘parched’. He plucked a branch from the Neem tree and moved towards us. The searing conflict in my head was ‘If I did make a run for it, dash through the backyard, what was the guarantee that P won’t be around in my house. P was my neighbour and classmate. Yeah. I had the hots for her and if bumped into her now, in this state, she’ll in no time, realise just how happy I was to see her, without me having to utter a single word.
I turned to Partha and whispered “Can you get me clothes, I will wait in my backyard?” If I had a choice, I would not have asked for help from Partha. Only a week back, he had mixed some tablets in the Sambar. In his grannny’s funeral lunch. Some twenty of them suffered loose motions.
He said, “Sure ra, of course I will run into your house or mine naked and ask your mother, or mine, to give me clothes. That’s what friends are for, right? Read my lips. Go make love to a goat or some suitable animal!”
I was crestfallen. Raghava Reddy was a few seconds away. Some boys had already started running. Partha, who was about to take off, stopped and said, “Listen, this is the best I could do. I am sure that thing is big enough to cover your modesty. Now, this old fucker is closing in. Run!” and handed me the turtle. I don’t know when he caught it and I don’t know why I took it. It was the situation I guess.
And I ran. The slimy, slithery thing stared at me. He had eyes just like Reddy’s. I ran across the farm, jumped over the thorn fence, to the wooded area, and screamed into our backyard. Reddy was far away. He was too old. Too slow.
I was gasping for breath. I instinctively covered my modesty with the Turtle, while I was looking for something appropriate, something that was not a living thing, to replace it. Leaves? No! I spotted an old newspaper in our vegetable garden. It was too fragile. Too sunned out. It was bleached. It would crumble if I touched it. I was cursing myself and the damn Turtle started wriggling. And the backdoor opened. P stepped out, she was in mid sentence talking to my mother in the kitchen when she saw me.
I had my mouth open. I had a Turtle between my legs. And it didn’t look pretty at all. Screw pretty. It looked like I had discovered my fetish at a very young age. P made a strange noise. Turned and ran out. I just stood there watching the girl of my dreams storm out of my life. I was going to tell her what I felt for her in the next few days.
I dumped the Turtle in our Well. Reddy came for it a few days later and took it. He was happy, according to mom. He almost cried it seems.
I wanted to let things cool down a little. So I waited for a week before I knocked on P’s house. After what seemed like 20 years, the door creaked open. And there she was. Her eye brow was arched as if saying ‘WTF?’, as she digested the fact that it was me. Her beautiful lower lip quivered and that mole, right under the lip… oh my god.
Her cat walked out. She purred and rubbed herself against my leg. I was about to open my mouth when P snapped at the cat “Pinks! Get in here.” She picked Pinks up and held her against her face and growled “If you go anywhere near him again… I am warning you!”
‘It was an awkward moment’ would be a glorious understatement. It was more embarrassing than your dad catching you, you know, performing acts of self-love. It has happened to one of my friends, trust me.
I just walked away. I caught Partha standing outside home. He kept staring at me.
“WHAT??” I screamed.
He burst out laughing.
Mothers spoke about him in hushed whispers. When they fed their babies. “If you don’t finish your lunch, Elikunji will take you away.” We debated “Does he exist? Or is it just a maternal conspiracy to make the babies eat?” But, somewhere in the dark corners of our minds, a nagging question kept us on tenterhooks: what if he is for real?
There were too many small stories, snippets, trivia that contributed to the larger-than-life outlaw called Elikunji. First, the name: Elikunji in Tamil meant ‘baby rat or rat’s penis’ depending on how you look at it. Conversations with old men on Pagadamanu street confirmed my doubts. Elikunji was vertically challenged. He is only 3 ft tall, said some old men. The deaf Iyer next door had a different take. “He is as elusive as a rat,” he said and farted aloud. I pitied the Easy Chair he was sitting on.
Life in Chittoor was not exactly romantic. There was talk of ‘Boochandi’ the bogeyman who took kids away and ate them. And, there were the spirits and ghosts stories that abounded. Parents fed us all kinds of stories to extract discipline. However, Elikunji was top-drawer. He had two hearts for starters. And just when you gulped that enormous fact down, they said “…and that helps him in jumping from any height. Any height, you know?” Every time I heard that bit I used to ask “Can he jump from the LIC building in Chennai?” LIC building was world famous in Pagadamanu street, Greamspet, Chittoor, thanks to me and my younger brother.
“Of course he jumped from the LIC building, the police were after him and he was cornered on top of LIC. And he just jumped. Straight on the top of the Chittoor bus that was passing by on Mount road.”
Elikunji apparently was a legendary fighter. He could beat up 100 men, while having tea and masala vadai, and reading Eenadu.
Now a part of me didn’t take all this seriously. But as a ten year old, you are bound to give in to some level of fantasy. Days rolled by. One day a huge fight broke out between two neighborhoods. Konda mitta vs Greamspet. Goli soda bottles flew. When they exploded, the pins in them delivered a nasty surprise. Swords flashed. I was watching the street fight from my friend’s terrace. My eyes fell on one short guy. He was armed with a bicycle chain and he was devastating. He whirled around like a hurricane, delivering deadly blows. Despite his short stature, he jumped up to execute his ‘dichha’ (head-butt).
The fight lasted for about ten minutes before the Police came and stopped the party. The road in front of the municipal school was littered with glass, shoes, and what not. That’s not the story anyway. The cops were chasing a bunch of guys and I saw that short guy climb up the school wall and onto the next-door bungalow’s terrace. He did it with feline grace. The cops chased. They barged into the house and were climbing up. The short guy knew it. He just stood there on the terrace wall. His face was serene. I thought he had a smile on his face. I thought he saw me. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment and he just raised his arms for balance and somersaulted! He landed, rolled a little and was on his way towards Konda mitta.
“I saw Elikunji today.” I whispered to the boys during the lunch hour. Little Flower Convent forbade any mention of such unchristian, sinister names. The boys stopped eating. “Fuck off!” M.P. Venkatesh said. “You are in fifth standard. Not LKG. Grow up!” He added. I wanted to punch him. Velayudham, though, was interested. “What do you mean you saw Elikunji?” So I told him. The others brushed it aside. Even I forgot about the whole thing.
A few days later, Leela our maid broke another news “Phoolandevi surrendered!” I didn’t understand. So Leela told us about the legend of Phoolandevi. “Can she jump? From great heights?” I asked. The next day on the way back from school I stopped by at the snake-charmer’s house. He had two cobras dancing. The snake charmer was rehearsing. He was blowing the traditional ‘nee-nee nee-nee nee-nee-nee-nee’ snake tune. I was transfixed. I didn’t notice him until he was right in front of me. I don’t know when he arrived but I was face-to-face with Elikunji. I stared at him. He stared back. My knees shook. I felt cold. The Snake Charmer’s tune was hitting a crescendo. And Elli patted my face and walked away.
“Do you know who that guy is?” I asked the Snake Charmer. “Kutti Raja.” He said, packing his snakes in a bamboo basket. “Are you sure?” “Sure about what son?” “His name…” “Well I didn’t father him. I only know by how people around call him!”
After a couple of weeks, our maid Leela broke the story, “Elikunji was shot dead. They had to shoot at both his hearts otherwise he could have escaped!” I was tempted to ask why didn’t they blow his head away? But there’s nothing more sadistic than killing the moment for a story-teller. So Elikunji died.Or did he?
I couldn’t sit through my classes at school. After school, I went to the snake charmer. He was drinking arrack from his Pumpkin shell flask.
“Want to see the new arrival? She is a bombshell.” He asked. He was referring to, well, a cobra. I shuddered and said ‘No.’ And I asked him for directions to Kutti Raja’s house. He was perplexed but he gave me the address. It was somewhere near Pratap Talkies. So I walked.
Behind Pratap Talkies, in Kondamitta, in a small lane was his house. I reached the lane. Drummers were in full swing. Funeral drummers. A bunch of guys were dancing. So it was true. Tears welled up in my eyes. I waited till the funeral procession passed me. The pungent fragrance of Pannir lingered on. One of the fire crackers that the guys from the procession were bursting, suddenly woke up and did its duty. “Phat!”
Strong wind from the Murugan temple hill side picked up. And an arm fell on me. “Watch it kid. Those can hurt you.” He said pointing to the failed firecrackers. “You never know when they come to life!” He said and winked.
I stared at him. My heart was thumping away like a Guindy race horse.
“What’s your name?” He said.
I told him my name.
“What’s yours?” I asked.
“Is that your nickname?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I know your real name… Elikunji, no?”
He stopped, waited for a truck to pass and helped me cross the road.
“Go home. Your folks will be worried.”
“You haven’t answered me…” I said.
“You haven’t asked me anything!”
“For you, I am.” He said.
My feet refused to move. It was as if my legs had a mind of their own, and they hated me. A wave of dust blew right through me. I rubbed my eyes and opened them to the captain of the Srinagar colony team alighting from his car like a Telugu movie hero: he gave a nonchalant kick to the door to close it, adjusted his Royban shades, surveyed the surroundings, and finally stood in front of me and cleared his throat. As if I was blind and didn’t notice this colossal personality. My legs were shaking and I wanted him to not see my fear. It was important to let the opponent know that I wasn’t scared. I wanted to tell him “I had nothing to do with it. You may want to talk to Partha.” But all that came out was “blahidjusta phobein. Igloo miyanka wrath.” Even my mouth had a mind of its own.
By this time, his entire team was behind him. I looked back to see if Partha was around. It was a very ambitious thought. He wasn’t. None of my other team mates were around too. It is amazing how people disappear when the shit hits the fan. It was all up to me now, to play the brave guy (that I was not!) and salvage whatever little pride I could: mine and the team’s.
There was a heated discussion raging between the captain and Srinagar colony’s team. I thought of escape but one look at the sheer automotive power at their disposal, the thought perished saying ‘oh nice try Albert!’ At 4 ft 5, I was not exactly the fastest sprinter in town. My opponent, the captain, stood a humble, imposing 6 ft 2. Game, set, match: genes.
He walked towards me, in slow measured steps. I could hear the mud crunching under his awesome Nike shoes. Gift from an uncle in the USA I was sure. I looked down at my Khelchandra shoes. They cost 100 Rupees. I had a theory that all the discarded truck tyres were used to manufacture Khelchandra shoes. I imagined a street-smart north Indian fellow living in a slum, right next to the yard where they dumped those tyres. One fine day he woke up with this genius plan and before long Khelchandra became a rage. Well it was a rage in Chittoor at least. I shouldn’t be complaining my dad said. ‘Always think of people without feet, when you think your shoes are shit.’ Years later, I modified it to reassure guys who complained they never got laid: “Every time you think, ‘god, why don’t you get me laid!’ think of all those guys without the equipment to get laid.’
“Where’s your team ra?” The captain hissed. His hands were in his pockets. I was waiting for the knuckleduster to fly out in a flash and effect a jaw smashing punch.
I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know…” And all those interrogation scenes from Tamil and Telugu movies played in my head.
“…you will have to kill me to make me talk!” I added.
“Haaaan? Wha-aat? Do you losers want to play one more bet match or not, find out and let us know. Will you?”
I was stunned and disappointed that my resistance was not needed. Something was wrong here.
“Joolo hewaho?” I babbled. And continued… “A match?? bet match? Again!?” I said and started laughing and crying at the same time like Kamal Hassan in Sagara Sangamam.
The captain was not amused.
“You think this was a fluke? We will beat you, you want to bet??”
I paused. This was real. Not one of those day dreams that I suffered from, especially when i went to science class without finishing homework, and JK was about practice his right-hooks on me. This was indeed a miracle.
“Next match, will be a bat match. A brand new Tusker. Are you guys game? Are you man enough to rise to the challenge?” He said. I wasn’t sure if he was saying ‘bet’ like a north Indian or if he really meant ‘bat’.
I waited for his team, standing behind, to go ‘halleluzah’ and said “Again?”
“Wha- what do you mean again?” he said.
I clawed my way back to the right side of the cliff and managed “Bat- I mean bet match? again? Sure. Of course. Bet matches are healthy. We should do it more often.”
With that, he swiveled on his foot, opened his car, and before getting in, he let his Royban slide a little on his nose, looked at me, and said “Get used to losing… losers.”
I watched the caravan motor back to Vellore road. They disappeared in a haze of dust. And I said to myself “Sure.”
One week later, we played the bet match. Not with a Tusker, but with a BDM bat.
“God knows how it went missing. Mother promise, we were going to bring a Tusker but yes, this time you will have to make do with a BDM.” The Srinagar captain told Partha.
“No problem. It’s about winning ra, not the rewards.” Partha said, tugging at the BDM bat which the Srinagar colony captain had difficulty letting go.
As the crestfallen Srirnagar colony was ready to get back home, Partha shouted at the captain “hey how about a Tusker, next week?”
“What if we had lost again da?” I asked Partha.
“You really think we would have lost something that was ours?” He said, and winked.
We sold the two bats, Tusker and BDM, to Suresh used-bat-dealer par excellence. I made 100 Rupees. In the next couple of years, Partha and I sold close to 20 bats. Mostly Tuskers.
Someone stole Niall O’ Brien’s kit and that inspired me to recount this story
The match was, how do I put it… ah!, tantalisingly poised. It was a ‘bet’ match. We were playing for money. Not for a ball or bat. The money at stake was 110 INR. Each player contributed 10 bucks. 10 bucks was a lot of money then. I am talking 1986/87 here.
The Greamspet team, our team, was chasing and the Srinagar colony boys were all over us. Two wickets to go, ten overs remaining, and some 90 odd to get. Parthasarathy, my first friend, neighbour, and captain of the team was a worried man. I was curious.
‘Machan only ten bucks da, relax.’ I said.
‘Yeah but my dad had only 15 Rupees, for the entire month. And we have two weeks to go. And I stole ten.’ He said, throwing the abdomen guard (which we all shared as we couldn’t afford to buy one for each team member). It was April. Our holidays had just started. A breeze was picking up in the Arts college ‘B’ ground. B ground was for kids. The town team didn’t let us play in the main A ground. I could understand his plight. His father worked as a peon in the Taluk office and his salary hardly helped in making ends meet. Most of us from the Greamspet were in a similar situation. I took money from my dad to buy Bata shoes, but bought some cheap brand to save some money, so I could play in the bet match. Whereas, the Srinagar colony boys were rich. They drove to the ground in a car. We walked through the fields of Godugumur to reach the ground. They got an igloo box that iced their Rasana and water. We had to stand in a line near the tap, inside the college, to drink water. So losing to them within itself was very painful. To top that, we were losing our “hard-earned” money. One more wicket fell. Partha was furious. “Lanja kodukulu” he kept swearing. The last batsman walked in to take strike and Partha’s eyes lit up.
“What if we run away?” Partha said. I was not very comfortable with that idea. It was a lame idea. Plus, we had a team reputation to safe guard. The heat was unbearable.
“Forget it ra… all of them have fridges in their homes is it?” I asked.
“Who the fuck cares? You should drink from that pot, which my mom got from Cuddapah. Better than a fridge.” He said.
My eyes fell on Srinagar Colony’s kit. A Tusker bat lay against the wall. Spanking new and glowing in the afternoon sun.
“That’s an oil bat no? Tusker? How much is it ra Dabur?”
His eyes became glazed. He licked his lips and said in a gravely voice “yeah.” I didn’t quite understand for a moment and when I did, I said “No way Dabur, machan, I am telling you… what if they give a police complaint?”
“Did I say I am going to rape their sisters? I just want that Tusker bat, which is better looking than all of their sisters.” And thus, a plan was hatched.
Our last batsman took it upon himself to offer fierce resistance. He blocked everything, classic Dravidian defense and all. Partha wasn’t amused. “Thikka lanjoduku! What a time he picks to be a hero!” He briefed the rest of the team, in the meanwhile, on what the modus operandi was. My knees were shaking by the time he finished. The captain of Srinagar colony was a rowdy fellow. And, they had Hero Majestic mopeds and a car to chase us down.
The last batsman was playing his defensive game so well that, when he was on strike, the non-striker sat down, and chewed on grass. With 2 overs left in the game and plenty of runs left, the fielders also sat down. This prompted Partha to walk to the pitch and propose a ‘win-declare’ which meant we give up the match voluntarily. But the rowdy fellow also turned out to be a sadist fellow. He said, it seems, ‘No. I want to earn the money. I don’t want gifts.’ So Partha came back determined more than ever before to steal the Tusker bat.
‘Vaadi philosophy lo naa sulli! Dengaayra baat ni’ he said. It roughly meant ‘Insert your member into his philosophy. Steal that fucking bat.’
Finally, with three balls to go, our last batsman got out, ironically by way of ‘hit-wicket’. And the 12th man, who was guarding Srinagar colony’s kit, screamed and ran to join his mates in the victory celebrations. Partha pounced on that small window of opportunity. He picked up the bat, ran into the forest department nursery, which was right next to the B ground, and was back before one could say ‘sulli’.
They were still celebrating. It was a rare victory for them. Beating the Greamspet team was a stellar achievement in those days. Especially for Srinagar colony because this was their first ever victory since they had formed the team. I moved next to Partha who was relaxing, sitting under one of the many trees that encircled the ground.
“What are you going to do with the bat? Don’t tell you stole it to score a moral victory?” I asked him.
He laughed and said “Ngotha machan, I want money. You know Suresh from Darga chowk? He deals with used bats. I will get at least 250 Rupees.” That was a princely sum. “I’ll give you ten plus fifty, sixty Rupees, ok?” He offered.
“Yeah. Assuming we get out of here alive.” I said.
The Srinagar team crowded around the two captains. As was the tradition, both captains signed on the scorecards that each team maintained and shook hands. And Partha took out a bunch of soiled ten rupee notes and handed it over to the winning captain. They cheered and screamed, as our team watched. The last batsman whispered to me ‘that was the only way they could have gotten me out.’ I threatened him that I would crack open his skull if he uttered one more word.
The Srinagar team now raised stumps and bats as their captain walked away. He acknowledged their victory salute, and screamed, more to us than to them, ‘This is just the begining. Aaahhhhnnn!’
I chuckled and thought ‘Yes, we’ll have to loot your entire kit. This bat is just the start.’
Partha started to walk back to us. My heart started bouncing and banging against my chest. My mouth went dry as the Srinagar team took their kit bags, and loaded it in their car. One by one, the Hero Majestic mopeds trooped out. The captain drove the car. As he passed us he gave us the finger. Partha also gave two fingers.
We waited till the car and the mopeds turned on Vellore road, outside the college’s gate. And we broke into a cheer.
Partha ran into the nursery and came back with the Tusker.
“I told you ra, it will be easy.” He said.
“You never told anything like that!” I said. As I was dreaming about all the things I was going to do with the sixty rupees, I noticed Partha stop in his tracks. The car was coming back like a hurricane. He was driving right through the ground. Clouds of dust billowed up. Behind him were the Hero Majestic mopeds. Partha turned around and bolted in the opposite direction. [will conclude in the next episode]
Somewhere from across the hills abutting the Chittoor Arts college grounds, the Lapwing’s shrill call pierced the peace of our cricket match. “’Did-yoo-doo-it! Did-yoo-doo-it!” It questioned. I ambled to the bowling end. Scratched my calf with my toes and took my position as the umpire. L. Ramesh, self-proclaimed ‘pace’ bowler adjusted his spectacles and waited as Farooq took guard. He took his own time. He took a bail out and rammed it into the ground, to mark his leg stump. And then, took about half an hour to place the bail back on the stumps, thumped his hands on his sides, dusting them. He studied the field, multiple times. I was almost dozing off when Farooq’s “LEG STUMP EMPIRE!” woke me up. I never quite understood why some people called an umpire an ‘empire’. I shook off the grogginess and nodded.
He was taking a middle stump guard but I didn’t want to grow old waiting for him to change his guard, again. So I said ‘Perfect anna! leg stump, bang on!’ And then, Farooq took his stance and started banging the bat, behind his feet. I was almost expecting water to gush out of the hole he had managed to dig. So Praveen, I mean, Farooq was finally ready to face the bowler, L. Ramesh.
Farooq, claimed he had made it to the Ranji probables. Now, that is big. For someone from Chittoor, forget being a part of the Ranji probables, being part of the district team itself was a big deal. But this man, did it! He had played at the highest level: a level no cricketer in Chittoor could dream of. At least in 1989. Which meant that Farooq, was a fixture in the town team. My dream team.
I had toiled for three years now. Carrying the mat and nailing it on the pitch before matches and practice sessions. Watering the pitch and getting the the 25000 ton roller to even it out a bit. Lugging around the ‘kit’. Yes, I had done it all. I did all of that because just talent alone didn’t get you a place in the Town team. You needed the blessings: Raju’s. Reddy’s. And of course, that of the ‘Ranji probables’ man, Farooq.
Only a couple of days back, Reddy, the Town team captain, had told me “We need a medium pacer. Back up bowler. I am thinking of you.” I cried like Kapil pa ji that day. But if I pissed of Farooq, there was no way I could get into the Town team. Forget Town team, I would be banned from playing book-cricket with my own self.
Paceman L. Ramesh screamed in and bowled a beautiful yorker that smacked Farooq on his toes. Ramesh didn’t even appeal. He just ran to deep midwicket celebrating. The fielding team was obviously delighted and ran behind Ramesh. It was not often that a college team had the town team on the mat, as Shastri would have put it.
Ramesh, the bowler did a victory lap and came back and suddenly remembered he hadn’t appealed. “How-how-how-how…” He went. I was almost starting to dance to his song when he finally appealed “…HOWZAAT! Empire?”
I stared hard at Farooq. Right after he was thumped on his toes, Farooq performed a foot-shuffle that would have done Michael Jackson proud. Farooq had hopped away from the stumps and proceeded forward and was now standing almost in the middle of the pitch. Tapping the pitch with his bat and checking the bat’s inside edge. He was sending a message!
Ramesh’s appeal was getting over-board now. He was sounding like an evangelist that had just gifted sight to a blind man. The fielding team, sounded like a thousand congregations. And then Farooq looked at his watch, looked at me and said “Can we play the match please? I am wasting my time here.” Now, I wanted to play for the town team, very badly, yes! But I thought to myself, ‘I would be playing with this condescending prick!’ I wasn’t being all self-righteous and all, but I had had enough of these guys taking me for granted.
That bird, the Lapwing, flew over us , screaming ‘Did-yoo-doo-it! Did-yoo-doo-it’
‘I just did.’ I thought and slowly lifted my middle finger and shouted ‘You are out!’
A look at the news should tell you how the so called Maoists have embarked on a highway to self-destruction. No, I don’t know enough about their philosophy or why they took up arms struggle. Not because I don’t care. Because it doesn’t make sense. It probably did until the economic reforms started in the early 90s I don’t know. Probably. But now, it doesn’t make sense to blow up rail tracks and kill cops. And civilians.
When I was a school kid in Chittoor, in the early 80s, I was mesmerized by the ‘Annalu’ (as they were referred to in A.P.) I used stop by our school walls and read the Radicals Students Union graffiti. “Viplavam vardhillali” (long live the revolution) was ubiquitous. So was “Dunney vaadidhey bhoomi” (he who plows the land, owns it.)
We never saw them Naxals. They were not as active and brazen in Chittoor as they were elsewhere. We only saw their graffiti and listened in rapt attention to some fantastic stories about how they ran a parallel government in Warangal. About how they never harmed civilians and ensured justice was served to those that deserved it. About those intrepid young men and women that jumped into a train and sang songs of revolution, distributed pamphlets, and urged the passengers to join the revolution.
There was a romantic desperation attached to them. They were outlaws but we kids respected them. They inspired awe, not fear. We sat around while the elders argued about how, when doctors and engineers became naxals, it was a sign that something was terribly wrong. And there were the movies. “Erra Mallelu” (Red Jasmine) (1981) is what I distinctly remember. It made me feel guilty that I was able to eat three meals a day, wear decent clothes, and call something my home. I was eight! Too young to realize that Communism, just like religion, preyed on your guilt. It makes you feel responsible for a stranger’s infirmity. This haunting song from Erra Mallelu, a smashing hit, sums it up pretty well. It attacked the usual suspects: business people, “western” civilization, the rich, and religion. And yes, it made me feel guilty.
Despite a flawed ideology that was based on philosophies that were given up even by the lands that gave them to the world, the “annalu” enjoyed respect. One of the crucial reasons why it was so, was probably because some of the leading writers from modern Telugu literature, including Sri Sri, Varavara Rao, and K.V. Ramana Reddy, stood by them. But I don’t think that kind of support persisted. I don’t think the Maoists of today enjoy or care about such support. To me that’s an indication that these guys lost the plot somewhere along the way. I could be wrong. You may find some answers in history. Or maybe you won’t. I am not an informed, political analyst. I am just trying to understand when I stopped respecting them and started fearing them. And I don’t think I want to know. It doesn’t matter. Does it?
It was five in the morning. It was a balmy October day and the trees stood still. The town of Chittoor was pregnant with expectation. Chiranjeevi’s Raakshasudu was releasing that day. The Chiru fans’ association had arranged for a special show. Quite a few people I knew were going for the special show. I wished I knew someone that would get me inside MSR movie hall for that show but I wasn’t lucky. But, that didn’t dampen my spirit. Srinivas and I were ready with our star: a bamboo and cardboard affair with an assortment of Chiranjeevi’s pictures stuck on it. That was the tradition then. If you were a real fan, you installed a star (no matter how small) in the movie hall. On day one of the release.
I have to tell you about movie stars and their fans in Andhra Pradesh. Guys were fanatical about their heroes. In 1984, fans of Superstar Krishna created a record of sorts by erecting the biggest star for the release of Kanchu Kagada, outside Srinivasa movie hall. The imposing star made of bamboo and gray paper stood more than 25 ft tall. I don’t think that record was ever broken. If that wasn’t crazy enough, they showered rose petals, money, and what not when their beloved star appeared on screen. The movie hall would erupt and explode what with hundreds of fans screaming. I know of people that were injured when a one-rupee coin hit them. Fans would take over the balcony, the high price ticket area, days on end. It was easy to shower flowers and coins from the balcony. If you were one of those budget types that chose to sit in ‘First Class,’ well, a coin or a coconut just might hit you.
Altercations broke out between fans of different stars quite often. Chiru vs Balayya was the most debated topic. All fans had the numbers on their fingertips. How many centers recorded 100 days? Fuck the 100 days, what were the collections? Oh! Balayya’s fans forced the movie hall to run the movie for 100 days! He can’t dance! Chiru is dark! Balayya wears high heels to hide his short stature. And so on. I know a guy that broke his nose because he forgot Balayya’s fans outnumbered us and yet, he commented on Balayya. Pow! Came the punch. We kids called it ‘Mukku Pachhadi’ (Nose Salad) in Chittoor.
Srinivas and I biked it to MSR Movie Land, on his dad’s ancient Hercules bicycle. He sat in the ‘Carrier’ behind the rider’s seat, holding to our ‘Star’. And I pedaled hard. By the time we reached the movie hall, it was already six. There were a million stars occupying every nook and corner of the movie hall’s facade. We ran like our lives depended on it. The special show crowd was already there. The show was about to start.
‘We’ll get tickets for the evening show. Don’t worry.’ Srini said. I was disappointed nevertheless. What kind of fans were we! But what can a couple of 12 year olds do? We had trouble finding a nice spot for our tiny star. It appeared tiny now. There were bigger, better stars. Some even had serial electric bulbs that blinked as if mocking us.
Just as we were climbing a wall to reach the massive billboard that faced the road, a security guard screamed ‘Get the fuck down you bastards!’ And he pointed a stone at us. As I slid down the wall, I slipped, and hurt my leg. The skin on my knee peeled. It was white one moment and in the next, it filled up all crimson. I bit my lip and faced the security guy and said, “Fans…fans association. They asked us to put this star.”
“Of course, why don’t you convince me you are Chiranjeevi himself? And, what star are you talking about!?” He said and laughed. I hadn’t noticed, but Srini had dropped the star and it was crushed beyond recognition. The special show crowd had trampled it. I stared at Srini for a moment that lasted forever. He was devastated. He adjusted his spectacles a million times. And we both broke down. The tears broke free, washed my face. The special show started. It was just the two of us. We were about to leave when we heard the security guy screaming at us.
“Park your cycle. Do you have money?” He said.
We were perplexed.
“Don’t just stand there like idiots. Get in. Sit on the floor in front of the front row. All for two bucks! Now!”
We paid the security chap and parked the cycle. We flew through the tiny opening in the Iron grill gate. I almost tripped and fell again. That’s when I noticed that the cut on my knee was bleeding profusely. The security guy signaled to the usher guarding the Entry door. And, we walked in and squatted on the ground, right under the huge screen, next to a bunch of gypsies. They were smoking beedies. Some were chewing scented tobacco and spitting all over the place. One gypsy woman was trying to feed her wailing baby. We didn’t care. My knee hurt a lot. But as the lights went off, and the screen came alive, I felt no pain. We didn’t let our hero down. That’s what mattered then.
When we were riding back home, I asked Srini
‘Do you think all this trouble was worth it?’ I was sitting at the back and he was riding.
He mulled over it for a moment and said,
‘There’s a price for every experience. And what you get is a priceless memory.’
I honestly don’t know what the heck he meant, I mean, not too many 12 year olds spoke like that. But that line stuck with me.