FROM THE FAMILIAR TREE
Past the huts and eateries clustered around the big Peepul tree, the road went wider and double-laned. Further ahead, past the gate of the Journalism Institute-its main building designed like the bow of a ship-the road started to go down. The descent was gradual and stretched straight down to the hostel for the students of Journalism, in front of which the road rose again. We were about to cross the gate of the Institute when two girl students walked out of the building which was ship like.
‘Brace up for the items.’ Kunal said.
He crossed arms at his chest and started to hum a Hindi song. The girls continued with their conversation and walked past him and towards the Peepul tree. Then a security guard came out.
‘Sir what do you want?’ He said in Hindi.
‘I do not want you.’ Kunal said.
‘You are engineering students?’
‘No. We are students of the goddesses you have in here.’
Then the senior guard stepped out.
‘Yes. What are you doing here?’ He said.
‘The best I could have done.’ Kunal said.
‘Please do not bother them. Please leave.’
‘I bothered no one.’
‘I have seen enough like you loitering around.’
Kunal stepped closer to the senior guard and slung an arm around his back.
‘Listen sir-You enjoy the sights all the time.’
‘Please leave sir.’
‘Be generous and give us outsiders some chance.’
The junior guard smiled.
‘We know how things change inside of you when one of those beauties strides past you at night.’ Kunal said.
‘That I do not know.’ The senior guard said.
‘Then you have a problem with your thing.’ Kunal said.
‘Sir I have no problem. No-No that is not true.’
The senior guard looked down in embarrassment.
‘That means something does change?’ Kunal said.
‘Nothing changes and nothing is the problem.’
Kunal was laughing and clapping.
‘Please leave sir.’ The senior guard said.
Kunal patted his back and we resumed walking. The smiling guards went inside the gate. Kunal turned again and again to see the girls who he could no longer see.
‘You will never change.’ I said.
‘Change is not what I need.’ Kunal said.
He hummed the same song he had hummed earlier.
‘All this comes from inside of me.’ He said.
The humming resumed.
‘Like the volcanoes. From inside.’ He said.
‘That is a wretched comparison.’
‘Have you met more likable man than me?’ He asked.
‘No one has asked me that.’
‘You need confidence to ask this question.’
‘You have that confidence?’
‘Of course I have.’
‘Yes-Yes you have loads of it.’
‘Be honest, is there someone who would not like me?’ He asked. This question was not an extension to the amusing exchange with the two guards earlier and then with me. It was asked in all seriousness. The answer to it mattered to him like if he was the most likeable man I and others had met mattered to him, and what opinion people held of him mattered. It was like he needed a reassurance that he was what he believed he was.
‘No I do not think so.’ I reassured him.
‘That is what I thought.’ He said.
‘Does your girl in college know about your adventures here?’
‘Every girl knows it. No big deal.’ Kunal said.
‘That is fine.’
‘I am Lord Krishna as all of us are.’ He said. ‘She knows I am that. What I lack is a flute.’ He made a flute with his hands and hummed bad flute music.
‘She likes you?’ I asked him.
‘She has no other choice.’ Kunal said.
‘That is so good to hear.’
‘You think I cannot impress a girl?’
‘I never said that.’
‘I have what it takes to impress a girl.’
THE first time he showed me his girl coincided with the college authorities announcing the dates for the annual festival. We were sitting across each other on a table in the canteen, so that we could pretend a conversation. She was on to our right and looked beautiful and I told him so. Sitting there he talked of things I have never heard him talk about, asked vague questions and pleaded with me to answer them as I wished to, smiled, drank back to back cups of tea and blushed once when she caught her glance and returned it with a smile. That charged him up. He explained to me her smile doing this and doing that to his miserable heart. Then he maintained a smile all the time, blushed, thumped the table, hummed songs, drank more tea and explained some more effects she had on him. In whatever manner he worded those effects was something which when you look back at or discuss with a friend years later, you are seized with a desire, borne out of embarrassment, to destroy it from the past. But in this case all that talk, if you could slip into his shoes, was a rollicking chapter from a book of lyrical poems.
DOWN IT GOES
‘YOU know we talked for hours on phone last night.’ Kunal said now. ‘She has enrolled for some dance class. I cannot explain her excitement. She behaved like a child. You should have heard her talk on phone.’
‘I thought you talked every night.’ I said.
‘We used to. Not now.’ He said.
‘What has changed?’
‘Drop it. That is not important.’
The excitement in his voice vanished. We walked in silence.
‘How do you like Suchet?’ He asked then.
‘He is fine. Why do you ask?’
‘I just asked. He is flying these days.’ He said.
A wind has come and we descended with the road. On to our right was a vast green wasteland. There were few huts scattered around and in front of the huts and enclosed with hedges was some tilled earth, but mostly it was a wasteland. On the right and beyond the hostel for Journalism students, the chestnut forest sprawled all around, ending in the line of blue hills. It had rained in the morning. We reached the bottom of the slope. Folding our trousers we walked through the puddles of rain water.
THE red canvas held high with bamboo poles was our backstage. The sun passed through the canvas roof and it was red inside. Outside, Suchet, Dipti and some other actor were performing “The Marriage Proposal”. I was part of the festival management team, and was helping the host with his microphone when Kunal walked in and sat on the chair behind me. He was still in the costume he had used for his performance an hour ago. We could hear the actors walk on the wooden stage.
‘You do not want to watch it?’ I asked him.
‘No. I have had enough.’
There was a loud cheer for the actors when the play ended. It had been a good show. Then the actors appeared at the left exit. The actor who had played the Father went out once more. Dipti and Suchet had an animated talk and then hugged. They walked inside, still talking, sweating and laughing, and stopped in front of Kunal. He had put on his goggles, big for his thin sunken face. His right leg was slung on his left knee. His arms rested on it as if he had been waiting for long. He sat there in blue shirt with white frills on the sleeves. He did not look up to them.
‘How was it?’ She asked Kunal.
There was no immediate response. He removed his goggles and folded them. He hung them on his collar.
‘Good job.’ He said and shook hands with them.
‘Was I anywhere near him?’ She asked Kunal.
‘Do not say that. You were better. You will always be better.’ Kunal said.
‘He taught me all of it.’ She said. ‘He has been splendid.’
‘This is not true.’ Suchet said. He patted her back.
Then their friends stormed in and huddled around them. Kunal did not participate in the discussion about the show. He just looked at Dipti. She kept a smile on, and shook hands with Suchet at the compliments she received. The sun colored her red and it was hot in there.
‘Excuse me.’ Kunal stood up. He put on the goggles and walked through them to the far end of the backstage. No one noticed him. That is except me. He made a clearing on the canvas wall, and ducking in a little, went out in the sun.
The festival ran late into the hour after it grew dark. Wasim waited for me to return from the road where the truck-carrier was parked and to where, along with two others, I had hauled the canvas and the bamboo poles. Wasim shared a room with Kunal in the hostel.
‘Where is Kunal?’ I asked him.
‘In the bakery.’ Wasim pointed across the bus-parking grounds. Under a weak bulb in the shed of the bakery, I spotted Kunal. When I was relieved of my duties, we went over. I sat on a small stool and Wasim beside Kunal on the marble slab. Kunal was reclined against the wall and had pulled his legs on the slab. He was drinking from a bottle of cola. The bulb overhead shadowed most of his face.
‘You did not attend the full fest?’ Wasim asked him. Kunal held the bottle close to his mouth as he replied.
‘It was a rotten fest.’
‘I think it was good.’
‘You are free to think that.’
‘What is with you?’
‘There is nothing with me.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘This is a nice place.’ Kunal said.
‘You left in the middle of the play.’ Wasim said.
‘I had seen their rehearsals.’ Kunal said.
His answers were fast and curt.
‘You know everyone is talking about them.’ Wasim said.
He laughed and slapped Kunal’s leg.’
‘Bas*ard planned it right.’ Wasim said.
Kunal stood up and placed the bottle on the counter.
‘What do you think about Suchet and Dipti?’ Wasim asked him.
‘I do not think about them.’ Kunal said as he paid for the cola.
‘Can we leave?’ He turned to us.
‘You do not want to talk about it?’ Wasim said.
‘There is nothing to talk about.’ Kunal said.
We started for the hostel.
Sachet ran to us at the hostel entrance and then everyone crossing us asked him about Dipti. The deserved compliment on his performance came after that. The hostel looked like crowded streets of a town where some intriguing news had reached well before the newsmaker. When his seniors asked him, he was embarrassed and tried to dodge the questions and to act ignorant, but with his batchmates who surrounded him in front of his room, he was fine and animated. The hostel inmates were standing in the galleries and there was much noise. Suchet had returned to hostel for a quick shower and a change of clothes. There was a dinner with her to go to. Kunal listened to him some more and then went inside his room. The noise and the talk about the new couple continued unabated in the hostel, even after dinner was served.
Kunal spent that night and the coming weeks at the house of a school friend. By bus, that place was an hour’s distance from college and to our surprise he began to commute from there. In the campus he roamed around alone and acted aloof among friends. Then he started to bunk the classes, almost every other day, and when he attended, he would be in the hostel for a short time, to wash the used clothes and pack the fresh ones. Then late after dinner he would leave in the last bus on the route. Talking to me on phone one day he said that he was just fed up of the food and the atmosphere in the hostel and thus, needed a change. You could not have reasoned with him after that.
His friend’s house was roaring in some celebration when Wasim went to see him one Sunday. In a flat of two small rooms and a smaller hall, there were cramped almost thirty men and women smoking weed and drinking straight from their bottles. The music was bad and loud and thus the glass windows and doors had been shut. There were men staggering and floundering all around the rooms and women, laughing and swearing out loud holding their weed-joints and, according to Wasim, God knows what. He had never seen such scenes and used worst words to describe them. But he said that Kunal was not mixing up with the degraded crowd and sat in a corner, sipping from his drink. Kunal had said that he was not into drugs but Wasim was worried.
Wasim’s concerns did not end with that. Once on the breakfast table he told me about Kunal’s backing out of the idea of forming a Music-Band. The festival had helped to unveil some good musicians. Suchet was a decent guitarist and so was Wasim himself. Praveen was a trained singer. Now Kunal on drums would have been enough for the start. Even the warden had agreed to unlock the old gymnasium for their practice sessions. The idea of the Music-Band was not an overnight one. It had been in their minds since their batches commenced and now, as per Wasim, was the time to materialize it. But Kunal who had been the main force behind it all had backed out. When Wasim had asked him the reason behind his sudden shift in interest, Kunal said that joining a Music-Band would be an utter waste of time.
On an evening he had been to college, I met him in the hostel as he came out of his room. He had a big packed bag beside him. Wasim was standing out as well.
‘What is this?’ I asked Kunal.
‘Bas*ard has packed clothes for a whole month.’ Wasim said.
‘Are you vacating the hostel?’ I asked Kunal.
‘No I am not.’ Kunal said.
‘Are you still clean?’ Wasim said.
‘Trust me man. I am clean.’ Kunal said.
‘It is tough to resist.’
‘You talk like an elder brother.’ Kunal said.
‘But he is right.’ I said.
‘I understand,’ said Kunal.
He pulled the bag on his shoulder.
‘I have to go now or the bus leaves.’ He said.
‘Can’t you stay for the night?’ I said.
‘No. I cannot.’
‘Fine. Let me come with you to the stop.’ I said.
‘OK.’ Kunal said and we left.
We walked in dark to the bus-stop and all that time Kunal tried to explain the advantages of living outside. He was not as cheerful as I knew him to be but he was fine. We waited at the stop with a group of peasants.
From the college’s main gate Praveen came out. He was with two of his friends and noticing us, parted with them, and walked over to us.
‘Kunal, man did not see for a while.’ He said.
‘I was not around.’ Kunal said.
They shook hands.
‘Got to know you won’t join the band.’ Praveen said.
‘You will be better without me.’
‘No. We needed you.’
‘That is not true.’ Kunal said.
He received a message on his cell and attended to it.
‘You should have ignored the whole Suchet thing.’ Praveen said.
‘What Suchet thing?’ Kunal said. I saw his face tighten.
‘You know how it works bro?’ Praveen said.
Kunal stared at him.
‘This morning a girl fancies one man, in the evening it will be another. That is how it is.’
Kunal stared at him.
‘You should let Suchet have the fun with her. I am sure if Suchet was in your place he would not have acted like this.’
‘That is not-’
‘But then no one blames you either.’ Praveen said.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It is sad to see you like this. We are not accustomed to.’
Then a murmur rose among the peasants. The bus had appeared at the bend. Praveen shook hands with Kunal and left. There was a rush to get in the bus. Kunal waited for others to get in.
‘Please be honest.’ He said to me.
The peasants had climbed in.
‘Is everyone talking like him?’ He said.
‘I cannot say.’
‘Is it possible?’
‘Yes. It is Kunal.’ I said.
He climbed up. He did not wave to me but stared at me with his straight face. Inside the bus glowed a purple zero watt bulb. He kept staring at me with his still purple eyes.
He returned to the hostel the next evening. I heard him shout and laugh at someone. Coming out, I saw him making a joke of warden’s nose and clapping hands with one of his friends. He saluted me as he strode to his room. Wasim was sleeping inside and waking him up, Kunal said he had been going over his decision all night long and had realized he had been a fool, an absolute fool, and was now eager to join the band. Then he ran up to the third floor to Suchet’s room and arranged a practice session that same evening.
Wasim told me later that Kunal was electric on the drums. He was better than during his performance in the festival. They had a good session. He said Kunal returned for his love for music, which was not true and I did not break his misconception that Kunal had returned for something else which was more important and personal to him than music.
WE had come up the slope and our hostel was visible now. In a room to our right a group of children repeated English alphabets after their teacher.
‘So are you never going to tell her?’ I said.
‘You want my small story to end?’
‘You listen to me.’
‘I won’t. I talk to her on some days and that is enough.’
‘Yes and sometimes we talk for hours.’ Kunal said. ‘Please drop this topic. Please drop it. You know, we have started a Music-Band.’ Kunal said.
‘Yes I know that.’
‘Fine I forgot.’
‘How is it going?’
‘Good. We are doing well.’
It began to rain. Our destination was too far for us to run to it. No other escape from the rain was possible. We had to walk in it. Kunal removed his shirt and tied it around his waist.
‘You must do it too.’ He said.
‘I do not want to.’
‘The bus with nurses will be coming soon.’ He said.
He was right. We had not walked more than two minutes that the bus showed up coming from the other direction. The Nursing Institute was two miles down from there. Kunal climbed the divider and looked in the windows as the bus crossed us. Some of the nurses turned their heads from him, some forced a smile and some, even giggled.