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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tales of Moni - Chapter III

Bombay, the fourth most populous city of the world, is the city of dreams, a city that can make a millionaire out of a pauper, and yet a city with an underbelly that can swallow you whole without even belching after ingesting you, as the locals put it, "Khaake dhakaar bhi nai leti!" The city that never sleeps, a sobriquet earned on account of its fast paced life and the ever-bustling crowd, no matter which hour you happen to chance upon it, has been a fatal attraction for many and also been the elixir that made several non-entities a part of day-to-day folklore. Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan & Sachin Tendulkar are only a few examples in this star-studded city that smells of fish at any point of time in the day or the year.. Yes, that is the first overwhelming experience people get when they visit this city - the smell of Bombil - or the Bombay Duck  - a fish that is dried and salted before it is consumed, and hence fills the entire city with a pervasive stench, along with the other varieties of sea-food, and especially if you are anywhere near Crawford market, it is so strong that you can get high on it. Be it through Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena, Dawood Ibrahim and the underworld, or Govinda, Mithun and the other film-stars of Bollywood, Mumbai, as it is now called, after the Koli goddess Mumbadevi, has always been a constant source of enchantment for people all across India. A city that is made up of 7 islands and is the commercial and the entertainment capital of the country, Mumbai could well be the most sought-after place in this country for all, from the eager, bursting adolescent raring to take on the world to the drooping middle-aged man whipped by the rigours of time, an eternal lure for many ambitious millions.

"Call it Bombay! It will always be Bombay for me!" said Moni, full of passion and emotion, like someone who has been greatly wronged in love. He landed there for the first time in 1996, the year it was re-christened as Mumbai, by the Shiv Sena. There were anti-British sentiments involved in the re-christening, a pan Maratha sentiment, in that Bombay needed to be eliminated, as it reeked of a smell worse than that of fish - that of colonial residue, although it originated from the era of Portuguese colonisation  (meaning the good bay in Portuguese). "Call it Bombay, or you're not getting my story!". Hence, we will call her Bombay from here on. He first heard about her when he was really young, playing in the tea gardens of Dibrugarh, he would meet older children who had gone to study in public schools. The tea-garden employees and their children were hardly in contact with the locals; and they had an entire social set-up of their own. There was not many really good public school in Assam (Mount Carmel being the best), so most of the kids from the tea-estates went to Public Schools like St. Edmund's Shillong, St. Paul's Darjeeling, Lawrence School Sanawar, BCS Shimla, Doon School or Mayo college Ajmer, where they stressed the importance of social etiquette, forms of ball-room dancing, and dressing  appropriately by wearing jackets complete with a cummerbund around their waist. The girls were taught several skills as well, like tatting with buttons, cross-stitching, embroidery, etc. Thus it seemed like it was a complete colonial set-up oozing with colonial residue! Once they completed their schooling, the would go on to good colleges in Delhi, Kolkata, Pune or Bombay, and it was when they came back for their vacations that a young Moni would meet them and interact with the culture they had assimilated while in their respective cities. "I always found the Bombay crowd to be the coolest", said Moni, reminiscing about the first time he had heard tracks by Queen and some of his favourite bands, Radio Gaga and Walk Like an Egyptian in particular. They would throw pool parties at their houses, and a 12 year old Moni would go and hear these songs and be really impressed, aiming to go to Bombay to study some day. Whether it was the song, 'Ai Dil Mushkil Jeena Yahan' or all the Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar movies aired all across India on DD - 1, the only TV channel in operation then, Moni was always fascinated by the idea of being able to one day visit Bombay, so when he actually got a chance, he just took his back-pack, booked a train ticket, and went! It was for his graduation, for which he did not even have a confirmed seat in a college when he reached there. After running around for a week, he realised that it was too difficult to be able to get admission in Sydenham, or any other college without knowing someone powerful or influential, since he was already late in applying. So, he sat there on a bench in Marine Drive, looking at the sea trying to climb on to the land, its tentacle like waves just not influential enough to climb on to the land and take possession. He decided to walk up to a minister's office and take an appointment.

He got in touch with the then health minister's office and went in and waited there for 5 hours. He sat on a bench in the corridor outside the main office, as the khaki clad peon with a khaki cap on his head and a white handkerchief sticking out of his pocket walked in and out of the office. He was offered some tea, which he accepted, and then got into a conversation with the peon. After almost 2 hours of talking, the peon told him that he would get him an appointment with the minister, which he did a couple of hours later.. He entered the room, which had a red carpet with patterns of grass embroidered on it, and a table in the far end, where a bespectacled guy in his late forties was sitting, reading some files and drinking a cup of tea. It was around 4 o clock in the evening when Moni entered the room, asked if he could walk up to the desk, pulled one of the wooden chairs with the nylon crisscrossed pattern netting for a seat, and explained his situation. The minister looked at him, his spectacles at the end of his nose and still pointing towards the file he was reading. He took them off, wiped his lips with the back of his palm and listened, increasingly amused at the fact that a total stranger had come all the way from Assam and come to him to seek help with admissions. He wanted him to get him a seat in any college in Mumbai, just like that! No contacts, no references, no relationship - just walked into the office with a file full of documents and a heart full of expectations. The minister took his papers and said he would look into the matter when he had the time. Within two weeks, he got a call from Sydenham, asking him to submit his documents and pay the fees. Thus begun his tryst with that wonderful city, with a small yet the first of his many adventures in the city.

His Thukpa had arrived in the meantime, extra soupy as he had ordered it. It was May and the Delhi heat was getting unbearable, with people dying in the heat wave, with even some air-conditioners giving up in despair. Thankfully, the one at Rosang was quite effective, although customers kept walking in and out, letting the heat in, swirling in and entering us through our nostrils, the first organ to sense the invasion. When the door opened again, Moni looked towards it to check if a cute girl had walked in, and was disappointed that it was only a guy with a laptop bag on his shoulder, who was there to order some momos His focus went back to the Thukpa as he continued his story. He had been in Bombay for a year or so when he met some juniors from Bhutan, a tiny country to the north of India well known for its picturesque landscape, peace-loving culture, and their king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, famous for his coining of the term ‘rgyal-yongs dga’a-skyid dpal-‘dzoms’, which translates to Gross National Happiness, a term he used to evaluate the quality of lives of his subjects, as opposed to the GDP, which was his way of showing his his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Moni used to hang out a lot with the Bhutanese crowd, and was quite comfortable in the city by now, and used to show the guys around and take them to his favourite hang outs around Colaba. He used to even stay as an illegal guest in the International Students Hostel, as he used to pass himself off as a Tibetan or a Bhutanese student. Once they were sitting at Gokul - Asia's largest selling bar at that time, opposite Bade Miya. There were three of them there - Jigme, Dorji and Wangchuk - along with Moni. Once they had had a few beers there, they picked up 5 bottles of beer and started wallking toward the Gateway of India. The sat by the sea near the gateway and started rolling a joint and drinking the beer, when some cops arrived at the scene. Moni was done with his beer by then and rolled his bottle towards the sea, but Jigme and Dorji still had their bottles in their hands. The cops started asking them where they were from and what they were doing there. "Charas peeta hai?" they asked them, noticing the joint that Wangchuk was holding in his hand. "The sad part was that none of us had any money in our wallets except me, and even I had only 50 rupees", said Moni, chomping away at his Thukpa. This essentially meant that they couldn't pay their way out of this mess.

Wangchuk was a cute looking guy with an innocent face. but known to do crazy things like smashing an aerosol can and asking his friend to light a fire as soon as he smashed it. He nearly burnt his eyes as the flame erupted and went straight for his face. He put his hand across his eyes just in time and ended up with a burnt forearm and a thin horizontal burn mark on his forehead that didn't go for many months after that. His girlfriend was a petite Sikkimese girl whose local guardian was Danny Denzongpa. She was Hera, the faithful, always by Wangchuk's side, waiting for him, tolerating all his nonsense; she loved Wang, as he was called by his friends, very much. Dorji was a stout guy, about five feet eight inches, almost as tall as Moni was, but was built like an ox. He could bench weights of 100 kilos, worked out regularly and played football. Although all the Bhutanese guys played football, Dorji had played for his school and for the university. He was never with the same woman for more than three months and loved rising bikes and cars. He had a CBZ that he would rip down Marine drive in the evenings, along with some of his racer friends on their bikes. Jigme was the quiet one. He never spoke much, except when he was required to, and would sit and read philosophy books, and had read everything from Plato to Derrida to Wittgenstein. He had an extremely well-endowed girlfriend from Chandigarh who was quite his opposite. She was Aphrodite, about five feet five and with a body to die for, and she was a complete flirt. She dated Jigme, but rumour had it that she had been around with almost everyone in that group, except Moni. Moni, of course knew about this, but since Jigme was not very appreciative of any conversation that portrayed her as a flirtatious character, he never brought up the topic when he was with him. He did find her attractive, and all his friends would often tease him as the only guy who hasn't been with her, but Moni had his principles, or at least he had a few of them. "I am a man of few principles, but when I have one, I have one!" he'd say, even as he watched the other guys take turns taking Jigme's girlfriend out, while Jigme stayed seemingly oblivious of this, immersed in his books. Moni even suspected that he knew, especially when Jigme sometimes spoke about Kierkegaard's ideology about women, that it is only in a negative relationship with a woman that a man can truly arrive at the realm of essence and ideality; of how if you got a woman, then you became the general of an army, but if you didn't get the woman you loved, or especially if she cheated on you, you became not just a mere general, but a hero, much like Achiilles or Alexander!

There were two cops, one fat and chubby with a pot belly that made it impossible for him to look at his own toes without bending forward, and another malnourished looking guy with a lathi in his hand. It seemed like one ate all the food while the other just sat and watched, by the looks of it. They looked a lot like the ghati version of Laurel and Hardy, and Moni would have laughed out loud if the situation had been any less serious. They put all of them in the patrol van, which Laurel was driving and drove them all around Bombay that night. they even picked up a petty thief on the way, slapped him on the head a couple times, because he had been pick-pocketing a lot of late, and then let him off at another gully nearby. "He must have been a local informant or something", said Moni, checking to see if a cute girl walked in this time. It wasn't this time either. It was just one of the cooks coming in for his shift. "Nepal ke ho?" Hardy asked them, taking them around the red light areas, inside the network of small roads and by-lanes, as the prostitutes stared into the van, looking at who these oriental guys in the van were, throwing kisses at them and biting their lips, trying to entice them. One of them even pulled her blouse down a little bit for a better view. Wangchuk's father was the police chief of Bhutan and he knew how to deal with cops. He had also studied in Calimpong during his school years, and could therefore speak good Hindi too. They asked him if he had ever been to one of these brothels, and he said he hadn't. "Randi ke paas nai jaata hai toh phir kya karta hai? Gullfreynd hai kya?" Hardy asked. They somehow managed to answer all the questions without being able to piss the Hardy off. They drove around all night, patrolling the city, and then dropped them off at daybreak. They still had one bottle of beer in their hands, and the cops wanted them to throw it away. Moni asked them to keep it if they liked, or to let them take it with them, as he did not want to waste it. "Paisa bhi nahin hai. Jugaad karke khareeda. Phenkne mat boliye. Aap hi pee leejiye chahiye to" he said. "Padhai karne aata hai aur jugaad karke daru khareedta hai binechot! Pee isko abhi! Gatak daal saara ka saara abheech!" Hardy made Moni gulp down the entire bottle in one go, and whacked him on the butt with a lathi while he did it, before they let them go. This was Moni's second encounter with the Bombay Police. (To be continued…)