Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lagaa, Chunar-i mein Daag

 If it's already 2.00 in the morning, let's not go off to sleep. Let's just laze around Lanka for some more time till it's around 5.00 and then catch the sunrise on the Ganges. Maybe can take a cutter on hire and row upstream as much as we can, have tea at Assi and come back to our rooms? Parking our bicycles can be an issue that early, can’t it? Have to take a chance, I think, and who’s gonna steal these old cycles after all! Have you been towards DLW ever? No? How about trying that road? And jilipis for breakfast! You have money? Maybe around Rs 50, which is a lot. I have around ten bucks myself. 

So we slowly kept riding our bicycles on a road previously not taken. It was a moonlit night and the streets were deserted. The road led us out of Varanasi, through the Diesel Locomotive Colony and then on to some rice fields and sleepy villages, with the trees resembling humongous lizards standing guard like sentries. He was a couple of years older and obviously at the age of 22, someone who is 24 or 25 is respected for those extra summers. And anyway he is god to me. Has given me refuge in his room, plays the esraaj at 3 in the morning, can cook sooji with milk, sing Manna De’s songs more soulfully than I had heard before, and is an excellent shoplifter. Our shoplifting was limited to cooking oil and milk, and mostly for the adventure of it all rather than a real need. The girls, though, preferred stealing only greeting cards from the nearest Archies Gallery. We didn’t like the owner so nobody really cared much.

As we rode on, on this unknown road, we started discussing the favorite topic of most guys that age: women. We had both fallen in love many times by then, and although I had never succeeded in holding on to any relationship, he had achieved something that I could only dream of. He had had sex. That was the singularly most fascinating thing in my eyes then, and I had a secret feeling that if I was seen hanging around with him, it might work as a lucky charm for me.

‘Rhima is bold and pretty direct. She swept aside my indirect hints, looked me straight in the eyes and asked “so, do you wanna sleep with me?”’

I listened in absolute rapture and could see Rhima very clearly that night. Maybe the full moon helped.
There was not a single other person on the road and our raucous laughter must have traveled over the shining paddy into the sleep-laden houses and messed with some everyday dreams.

And then he told me about Menon’da (a Malayalee from West Bengal, hence the appendage hanging from his surname) and how he brought in L.Subramaniam to his life. And about Dr N. Rajam, who heads the Music Dept at BHU. I was surprised to know that she is a Hindustani classical violinist.

‘I was in love with her daughter once,’ he added nonchalantly. On meekly asking if she too faced the same fate as Rhima, he merely let out a mirthless laughter. What an enigma he was!

Suddenly there were headlights in the distance. They were almost a mile away and didn’t seem to be approaching us. As we were getting curious about what they belonged to, the headlights vanished. Must be a bus that stopped somewhere. We will soon find out. They appeared again, now closer, and disappeared. What could it be? It happened several times and each time the lights seemed closer than before. Suddenly I felt, all these years of stoically denying spooky was about to change. It was clearly not human and the creatures of the night were ganging up against us in a sinister plot about to culminate in something horrid.

The dinosaurs started moving and looked more menacing than ever.

When finally we realized it was a sand truck tackling the dunes and gradually trying to reach the road, we looked at each other and laughed, but our faces were ashen. We picked up our parked bikes from the side of the road and started off again. When had we stopped? We didn’t seem to remember.

 And then there was a milestone that read “Chunar, 10 kms”. Chunar??? Looking back today, it seems the joy we felt then was almost like the joy of having found lost treasure while looking for ruins. Chunar Fort was a day trip from Varanasi, about 35 kms away, so the prospect of making it on bicycles was too tempting to resist. We were always told it was built by Sher Shah Suri in the 1500s, but wikipedia says it was built long back by King Vikramaditya. By the time we reached the western bank of the Ganges, it was still dark and the fort on the other side of the river loomed large, looking unassailable, reminiscent of all the battles, as two weary plotters sat panting on the sand bank, planning a siege, waiting for the sunrise and the morning ferry service to start. Probably due to our exhaustion, we ruled out the idea of swimming across and using monitor lizards to climb up the straight walls rising right up from the river.

We took the first boat across, and it seemed a normal custom to be ferrying your cycles on boats. 

The mossy stones of the fort, if you place your palms on them, tell you a lot of stories from over the years, of love, battles, defeats, and deceit. Some were desecrated by tourists who wanted to etch their love in stone. Through one such stone we got to know that a certain Dinesh of Mirzapur loved Mala in 1978. I wonder if they ever had a chance to unite.
The huge white structure at the top of the fort had a beautiful view of the river and a cold marble floor that served as a welcome bed to us. It was probably built by the East India Company in the 1800s.

By the time we started on our way back, it was about 12.30 in the afternoon and we were weary from staying up for more than a day. The idea was to take the GT Road this time because it wouldn’t be potholed and deserted. The prospect of riding 35 kms didn’t look very attractive. Carrying water while riding was an unheard-of concept because plastic bottles weren’t still in vogue and we didn’t want to be caught dead carrying water bottles like those school kids. All the water we had was from the taps at the fort and some at the dhaba serving thalis for lunch. And under a harsh sun, with hardly any respite from foliage unlike the other road, we were soon out of breath and things started looking pretty dry after we crossed Kailahat and Sahasapura. Near Narayanpura, we spotted this huge irrigation canal that had a lot of water gushing through, tumbling eastward in a tearing hurry. Should we? Within minutes we stripped to our briefs and jumped into the water, and now that I look back, thinking how we dived in, I wish there was a third-person camera held on our lives all along. Not quite like Truman, though. Wouldn’t it be nice to rewind and replay the beautiful moments and fast forward all the rest? If given a chance, I would bypass the part in which we were dog tired. My memory serves the same purpose today, wiping away reels of tape that makes no sense archiving.
Holding on to the rods on the concrete embankment, we allowed the water to make us young again. The current tugged violently at our outstretched legs and I almost wished this water went downstream towards Assi, carrying us like playful banana trunks throwing caution to the wind.

Although we had walked around naked in the hostel corridors, especially in the Rajneesh wing of Gurtu Hostel where Soumitro started the trend, being naked in broad daylight on the road was a first. We took off our sodden briefs in full public view as a busload of passengers cheered on. It was for a very brief moment, but a huge life-changing milestone, almost instrumental in my choice of a career many years later.

We came back to some chicken and rice cooked by his classmate, who was upset with us for having gone without informing. And then it was time to catch up on some sleep and we didn’t need to be reminded. 

Today, when I gyrate to the music and slowly take off my clothes at bachelorette parties, I still draw courage from that first day that I had bared myself to an unsuspecting audience of Mirzapuris. If the mustachioed men could take it, these Mumbai girls wouldn’t flinch at all. And somehow, I can’t seem to recollect the first time I made love any more. Women have been generous with their love and money, but I could not find a Rhima like he did. Her vivid face from that night still comes to me, looking deep into my eyes and asking, boldly, “do you want to sleep with me?”

I wish I knew how she looked like in real, but I somehow already seem to know.