Moni did not know how it ended, for that is all that he could take, as he looked at the cigarette that had burnt itself to the butt, leaving a long trail of ash that still stuck to it; he had forgotten that he even had it in his hand. He could barely feel his feet as he looked around, with the look of an abandoned dog, a similar vulnerability stamped upon his face; and then the blood gradually started flowing back to his head, as he flicked the cigarette with a sense of vengeance he had not known since school days as he walked off, even as the first rays of the sun were just about beginning to show and as people started climbing out of bed for their morning walks and jogs. He could not take his mind off what he had just seen, and did not know if he would ever be able to face Jigme again without betraying himself, especially if he were sitting arm-in-arm with Naina, with that look of Achilles upon his brow. He did not know how he would react when Andy came back and boasted about his 'feat' in the hostel the next day, the way most guys did, using the most demeaning terms about the girl they had successfully managed to get cozy with. He was furious and thought he would shove Andy's head down the shit pot and press it down with his foot, like he had done once during his school days. Yes, that is exactly what he wanted to do right then, venting all his fury till Andy choked and coughed and begged for mercy; like he had then with Rakesh, in St. Paul's Darjeeling, an event in his life that defined his life in a way. This was before he was lured to the charm of Bombay, the very charm that he now cursed as he walked back to his hostel, defeated at the sight of his friend's girlfriend cheating on him. This was way further back in the reaches of time, when he still had hair on his head, curly and thick, almost Afro-like, except it was thinning even then, during the days when all the big boys would come back for their vacations from their public schools and play golf and tennis in the tea estates, have mad cocktail parties that Moni used to go for, parties where bands from all across the north-east would come and play - bands like Mojo & the Great Society (the erstwhile name of the Soulmate singer-guitarist Rudy Wahlang), Shiva, Crosswinds, Skinny Alley - Moni used to hang around with girls from Sophia's, guys and girls from Xaviers and Elphinstone. "They were pretty cool in their own way, back in the day. It was nothing compared to what happens in parties nowadays, but it was pretty cool for the 80s" Moni mused, and then he briefly paused his story as he went to spit the Shikhar into his white wash basin that was now a Shikhar-stained maroon in the centre with a white halo on the periphery. These parties were where he had learnt to love Bombay - the city that never slept; he was awed by the mere possibility of such a city's existence, where people went out at night and there were cars and auto rickshaws on the street till the wee hours of the morning, that there was something like that out there to look forward to - the neon lights of Bombay had spun a web around his imagination. As he looked at all the college-going crowd smoking cigarettes, going to pubs, and dancing to songs like Glenn Frey's 'The Heat is On', Moni's notions about life were just beginning to form, lost without a care, being pinched on his cheeks by girls he would spend endless nights dreaming about, dancing with them and living a surreal life, complete with the sprawling solitude of the tea gardens, broken every now and then by the sound of a solitary elephant searching for its pack; and then school would begin again, and he would head back to Darjeeling, a beautiful town situated in the upper reaches of West Bengal, almost cut-off from the mainstream culture of the state and turbulent in its own way amongst slogans and protests of a separate Gorkhaland. "I left school after tenth, and never went back". Moni now had his head comfortably perched on a pillow, as he seemed to fade further and further away into his memories, going over the prints ever so carefully stored in his dark room, cleansing them, processing them, picking the best ones out to be shared. School was a lot of fun for Moni, as it is for most others- an age without care, where the smallest of emotional bumps felt like avalanches, bringing down mountains of beliefs and reshaping them into new ones. There are indeed few emotions that can stand up in stature to the chemical imbalances in an adolescent mind.
One such character that seemed to have left a prominent mark in Moni's life was Ian Myers, the rector of St. Paul's, Darjeeling, whom Moni had called a motherfu**er on the day he had last set foot on the campus, before he had turned his back on the campus forever, to never go back, and thereby closed a beautiful chapter of his perpetually adventure-filled life. Ian Myers was a very 'proper' man. He would smoke a cigar during his classes, wear a tweed coat all the time, and was good at dramatics and phonetics and all those things Moni used to run away from. His class was where Moni first encountered the phonetic symbols of the IPA, and where he was forced to articulate the phonemes of English properly, like a gentleman ought to. His batch at St. Paul's was, though, one of the most notorious and yet one of the most united batches ever, and Dr. Myers would urge them to let go of their bestial characteristics and learn to transform themselves into gentlemen from the 'ragtag population' and the 'chokra boys' that they were. Moni and his friends, though, had no intentions of becoming gentlemen, since they knew this would involve becoming a reflection of Myers himself. His friends were mostly guys from Nepal and Sikkim, and were always like wild horses in their school days - they fell, they fought, played in the mud, cut themselves just to be able to skip PT, and so on. They would, understandably, also always get into trouble. Hira was the only exception. He was an all-rounder, always good at everything he did, the best spinner in the school cricket team, an excellent swimmer, a part of the school football team, and also one of the toppers of his class. With this exception, all the other 'chokra boys' were always either kneeling down outside some classroom or being put through some other forms of what the teachers thought was teaching them a lesson, but what for them was just another means of amusing and entertaining themselves, calling each other names and cooking up stories about which teachers had affairs with each other, and which of them had incestuous relationships with their mothers.
Niranjan Sharma was the pick of the lot. "He was the craziest amongst the whole gang", in Moni's words. Niranjan was a Meitei guy with his hair grown up to his ears, was athletic and had an entirely whacky sense of humour. He was always making people laugh and pulling tricks on the unsuspecting, and was always entertaining to say the least. They used to enroll themselves into the chapel choir and the prayer group in order to be able to miss the morning assembly, as they could just go and kneel down on the chapel benches and fall asleep for half an hour, pretending to be in deep conversation with the Almighty. This was infinitely better than having to stand in assembly and follow the everyday drudgery of speeches and rigorous drills. They would have turns at the chapel, where each person had to go and read out verses from the Bible and talk about what it meant to them. This usually was only a check-mark activity with nothing special to look forward to, and most of the students would just spend it kneeling and dozing away as the poor soul with the task to deliver his speech would grunt and groan through the sermon. However, once it was Niranjan's turn, and he spent an entire week rehearsing his verses, from section to section, imitating various personalities - from Elvis Presley to Clint Eastwood - no one was spared. They used to be in three sections - 8 A, 8 B and 8 C. "8 C was the naughtiest, since they were the farthest away from the staff room. 8 B was kind of moderate, and 8 A were the watchdogs, and they always had a couple of sentinels posted to inform the others of when an ill-fated teacher was to come and try to educate us." said an enchanted Moni, his eyes still far into the story, as if he could still picture Niranjan prancing around and performing in front of him while they waited for the teachers. He would go from section to section, standing on the teachers' tables and jumping on to chairs, reading out verses from the Bible, making sure he was perfect for his turn at the altar the following Wednesday. He was an awesome impersonator and did a really good job of reading out the verses, as he would start off with his "and the Lord says..." delivered like Elvis Presley's spoken lines in the middle of 'Are you Lonesome Tonight' or like Eastwood in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly'. People expected him to be quite entertaining when his turn actually came, but they were nowhere close to expecting what actually transpired when that Wednesday finally arrived. They were made to wait about 5 or 10 minutes before Niranjan finally decided to appear, walking in impersonating the bursar of the school, his hips moving forward and backward as one foot dragged behind the other. the students muffled their laughters and Moni literally had to bite into the song book to prevent himself from bursting into hysterics right there. Niranjan had parted his hair in the middle, like the bursar did, and wet his hair with a liquid that was still dripping from his head. They thought it was water, maybe oil at best, but it was only when he came closer to them, as he gyrated up the aisle, that they realised that what was dripping from his hair was the liquid from a bottle of Camel Glue (the one that is available in those blue bottles with black caps)! Niranjan Sharma walked up to the pulpit, cleared his throat, and started off, "The Lord said... hahahhahahhaha" No one knew what he was tripping on that day, and no one knows yet, but what happened there made the entire chapel burst into a chorus of laughter, Moni being the first one to explode! Niranjan would say a few lines and then start laughing hysterically, go on a little further and continue guffawing away, till the chaplain actually got up, pulled out a can stick and thrashed him till he realised he just couldn't bring him to stop laughing. Moni got a piece of the cane too, as he was rolling on the floor of the chapel, in between the benches, holding on to his aching abdominal muscles as he laughed away, even when he felt the cane on his buttocks, for that didn't make a difference at all... (to be continued...)