Bohag (Part 2)

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About Niladri

Niladri Chakraborty writes fiction and poetry. His writings have been published in The Assam Tribune, the premier English daily of North-East India and Twist and Twain. To pay his monthly bills, he works as a Training Manager in an MNC and often double-hats as a Mindfulness Facilitator and Capability Coach. He lives in Kolkata with his wife, son and daughter and loves going back to his hometown, Guwahati, in search of stories. Cycle of Clichés is Niladri’s debut novel.

Part 2

The performance came to an end in a while. Then followed a series of welcome speeches one after another, by the Chief Guest, the Guest of Honour, the President of the organizing committee and a few other eminent locals for almost an hour, until the Master of Ceremonies finally read out the list of events for the day from a bunch of papers.

The hazel-eyed vocalist (in my mind, a name had formed by then – Bohagi) and her fellow performers, including Birinchi and Nisim, sat in chairs forming a small circle a few yards away from the crowd. They were complimenting each other for the great show that they had put up. It was embarrassing to realize amid the crowd that my eyes followed Bohagi involuntarily. Elderly people walked up to her and complimented her for her rendition. Didn’t they notice her eyes? They might have seen her for a long time, perhaps since her birth. But then, if they could notice her voice and walk up to her to compliment on her rendition, why not her eyes? She spoke to everyone looking into their eyes, tilting her head slightly on her left and with the full and wide, all-welcoming smile. I wondered how everyone else spoke to her so casually, so naturally! It wouldn’t be easy looking into her eyes. If she looked back into mine, she might be able to see deep beneath my clothes, scan through my skin, my tissues and bones, my blood, through the air that filled up my lungs. She might simply make her way into the deepest depths of my existence. I might feel naked in front of her despite the tee-shirt and the pair of bedtime pyjamas I was wearing. Deeper within, however, I was gradually getting conscious of a yearning growing stronger with every passing moment: if only she looked into my eyes. Just once.

The setting is different from your mainstream Bollywood cinema, right? The location isn’t the swashbuckling suburbs of Mumbai or your elitist Delhi or the filthy lanes of Banaras or the high-rises of New York. It is the city at the eastern corner of the country, which despite being overfed by concrete buildings, protest marches and red-soil hillocks, and shamelessly growing bulkier, bigger and uglier every passing day, due to the unhygienic diet of victim-narratives and a drooping camel-hump of bloodstained tales of insurgency, holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of people like me, who had left it decades ago for other cities with the hope of better opportunities, but still secretly harbour the yearning to return to it someday. I bet, there isn’t a single mainstream movie with these settings. Think of it. You’ll know why on earth I feel compelled to tell you the story.

Oh the story! Where were we? At the Bihutoli. And I had just had the first full view of love. Birinchi had seen me during the performance, and so when the troupe was all settling down forming a circle at a distance, he gestured to me to join him. But how could I? I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. I gestured that I would join him in a moment, and then hurried back to our apartment.

I put on a pair of blue jeans and a kurta, combed my hair, sprayed Nisim’s Park Avenue on my armpits, chest, around my neck and shoulders, drank a glass of water, put on a pair of leather sandals and Deuta’s black dial HMT wrist watch, told Ma that I would be with Nisim and returned to the ground. Al in a jiffy.

I also wanted to wear a phulam gamosa around my neck, like people wore mufflers during winter, but then, I would need to find one from the heap of clothes and other stuff in the wardrobe. Things were in a mess in the wardrobe Nisim and I shared. We hadn’t organized it since we moved in to Guwahati, despite Ma reminding us repeatedly.

I walked back to the ground with hasty steps, but as soon as Nisim, Birinchi and their gang came into view I slowed down, as if I wasn’t too inclined to join them. Actually, I wanted to be noticed by them before I dropped in to be a part of their group. I mean, wouldn’t it be a bit odd to show up in a gathering of strangers without any introduction? Fortunately, Nisim saw me and smiled. I smiled back.

“Come Puali, sit here,” Nisim waved at me as I reached closer and offered me a chair to sit. For a moment, the troupe took a pause in their conversation. They looked at me at once, perhaps to take a glimpse of an unwanted intruder into their closed-group chat. Urban formality was as much alien to the boys and girls of the troupe, as it was to me then. ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’ were yet to find comfortable tongues to rest on in our part of the world. ‘Thank you’ as well. I didn’t feel inclined to thank any of them when they shifted their chairs a bit to accommodate mine in the small space after Nisim and Birinchi’s. In fact, I felt that I needed to match up to their show of indifference. So much so that I even half-turned myself towards Nisim, as if we were going to talk about something very important. So my back was almost facing the other six members of the troupe. By the standards of social etiquettes, I have cultivated over the last eight years, that gesture was nothing less than insolence. But in the troupe, nobody really bothered. I wanted at least one of them to be bothered. I wanted Bohagi to tell me to sit properly. I wished her to smile at me while I complimented her on her performance. And to keep looking into my eyes, when I looked into hers.

“Finally, you woke up, huh? I thought you’ll miss out all the fun.” Nisim said, as the introductory line of our all-important conversation. Didn’t he have anything else to say? He could give a compliment on the way I was dressed or introduce me to all others with something like “Meet my brother Neelim, a great batsman and a great storyteller.” But then, why would he? He still considered me a puali, the little one of our house. In age, personality and stature! And then he did the thing I hated the most when I was decked up. He ran his fingers through my hair, almost dishevelling my hair-do. He did this almost every morning when I got ready for school, or at times, when I dress up for some important occasion. He knew how every time it took me so long and so much effort to flatten a few arrogant streaks around the crown on my scalp, otherwise standing straight like devil’s grass. Instinctively, my left hand reached out for those streaks and I kept pressing them until I was satisfied. I could never find out what sadistic pleasure Nisim derived out of that act.

Anyways, now I had to save myself from two significantly high-stake defamatory accusations. I was neither a late-riser nor a little one at fifteen. I didn’t want Bohagi to form a bad impression about me, even before we had spoken once. But before I could say anything, Birinchi shot the next one: “Hobo de! No one’s looking at you, okay. You don’t have to show off your style.” And he said it quite loudly too!

What were these guys up to? I had to defend myself or leave the place at once. But I couldn’t get into an altercation as well. Everybody perceived those as silly banters. Pulling-one’s-leg sort of. Everybody did those. Especially to their siblings and close friends. But in most cases, the victim would instantly come up with something wittier, more lethal as a response. Opinions mostly. I hunted for one while taking my eyes off theirs, and then a panning glimpse of Bohagi and others to gauge their reactions. They were too engrossed in their own banter to pay any heed to ours.

“No way. Never. He is good, but not the best. Just because he has height and long curly hair, doesn’t make him better than Saarook, okay?” said one of the other two boys in the troupe. I knew this boy. His name was Kexob. He was Birinchi’s room-mate. He had fairly long middle partitioned hair that fell upon his forehead, much after the hair style of Shahrukh Khan. He was shorter than I, somewhere between four feet eleven and five feet two. I thought he had some strange obsession with light blue denims. In the three or four times I had seen him before, he was wearing the same shade of jeans. Also perhaps, it was only a pair of high-heeled, thick-soled, brown boots that he had for shoes. It was well-maintained and the cream of its polish always shone against the backdrop of the green grass of the ground.  He didn’t play cricket with us, but sometimes, he would come to the playground to collect the keys to their room. Sometimes, he also asked for money from Birinchi to buy groceries, vegetables and fish. Most of the time Birinchi would tell him what to buy. Rohu fish, as it appeared, was their common favourite. I was yet to explore the market, but what I had gathered from Birinchi and Kexob’s brief interactions, was that someone called Bihari Rakesh sold the best local Rohu and Katol fish at the market. There were probably a few more fish sellers by the name Rakesh in the market and perhaps they spoke other languages – Assamese, Bengali, Nepali, Boro etcetera, but then it was Bihari Rakesh, who sold the best fish. My eyes instantly fell on Kexob’s feet. No, he also owned a pair of Kolhapuri chappals.

“At least he’s better than your Jotin da, okay?” said the girl next to him.  I was kind of eavesdropping into their chat, which was mostly subdued by the sound of loud blabbering coming from the sound box placed just behind us. The guests were still delivering their words of wisdom on Bihu as a festival and its importance on our society. One of the guests hailed Bihu as the most beautiful of all regional dance and musical forms across the sub-continent and that only Punjab’s Bhangra could match up to its grandeur. Another guest stressed on the fact that the true spirit of the Bihu festivities could be felt only in the lush green paddy fields of our villages, where people celebrated it out in the open, without all the technical gadgetry, pomp and glamour of the stage-Bihu. He also lauded the organizers for their effort to replicate the village-style, open Bihu and encouraging the participation of local talents rather than inviting big stars to perform on the inaugural programme. Another guest, the last one, in an emotional speech, rued about the commercial aspect of the present-day celebrations as against those he had witnessed and used to be part of as a ten-year-old. I think this man, just like me, was too overwhelmed with feelings for the voice of Bohagi. He was all praise for her, so much so that he went on to sprinkle a few snippets of her biography throughout his speech. From his speech, I gathered that Bohagi’s name was Maina, and that he had known Maina since the moment she was born; that he was her father’s childhood friend and they rose in business together; that Maina would someday grow up to become one of our best singers; and that he would make sure that talents like Maina’s were always promoted in the right platform. His was the longest speech, and as it appeared, the emcee, the other guests and the general audience had become impatient by the time he finished. People had already started dispersing, with only the guests and the emcee looking at him with an unblinking gaze, waiting for him to say the last word. The emcee didn’t spend a minute to thank the guest, except for a smiling “thank you, Khogen Tamuli dangoria for your kind and encouraging words”, before offering a quick two-minute Vote of Thanks to the others and the audience. He concluded that the next round of activities, the sports events, were already underway in the Railway Police Force grounds, and that the Fancy Dress competition would start here in the Bihutoli stage sharp at four in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the friendly banter within the gang had now turned more intriguing. It was obvious that the girl’s comment didn’t go down well with Kexob. He seemed to be obsessed with the acting skills of Jatin Bora, Assam’s version of Bombay’s Shahrukh Khan just as much as to his light blue denims and brown boots.

“No bad words against Jotin da, okay? Did I say anything about Solomaan Khan? No, na? Then why are you dragging Jotin da here?” retorted Kexob and I could see his ears turning red.

“It’s Salman Khan, by the way,” I couldn’t help looking around. It was Bohagi, well, Maina’s voice. Soft, buttery. Gohain! Every sound she uttered, kind of, melted as they made their way to my ears. She spoke in English.

She noticed that I’d turned to see her, following her words. For a moment, our eyes met, and she gave a smile. Full and wide. All-welcoming. I couldn’t hold back mine.

That was perhaps the moment when I realized how easy it was to make new friends. I hadn’t known before that smiles could turn strangers into friends.

“Itsh da shame, bai da vay,” Kexob shot back, and well, in English. He meant, as I perceived, “it’s the same, by the way.” Like most of the people from our region, Kexob also mixed up his ‘sh’, ‘s’ and ‘ch’ sounds while speaking in English or Hindi. And his voiced ‘th’ sound was more akin to the hard ‘d’ sound!

“You tell me, bhaiti, Solomaan or Solmaan, aren’t they same?” Kexob turned towards me and put me on the spot.

I had to make an opinion. Oh God! Smiling was the key. Smile now led me to my weakest link: opinion making! I wanted to look at Nisim. But it would look so odd. Like I was really a puali. I was already under the pressure to prove that I wasn’t one and that I wasn’t a late-riser either (I was yet to figure out what made early-risers wiser than those who woke up a little late…say around eight o’clock in the morning). Anyway, I stole a quick glimpse of my all-knowing elder brother, just to see if he was paying any heed to the conversation. He was indeed. His furrowed glance was fixed on me, his lips slightly gaped, smiling. I had to say something. Something that would supersede Kexob’s opinion. But his frown had the simplicity of a five-year-old. He actually couldn’t listen to the difference of the two sounds: Solomaan and Salman. So I couldn’t hurt him either.

“Both are same…but…it sounds a bit funny…I mean when you say it,” I could see this forming in front of me, but before I could give it out, the girl next to Maina, scooped in:

“Bhaiti, first of all, you tell me, who’s better? Bobby Deol or Shahrukh Khan?”

Why the hell was she calling me bhaiti, small brother? I was neither small, nor brother. Not at least to that girl. She appeared to be the same age as me, or perhaps a little younger. It was just that her breasts were bulging out of the red blouse she was wearing, and her cleavage was the biggest distraction at that moment. She had beautiful, round brown eyes. And when she smiled, dimples formed on her cheeks. She was as fair as Maina — wheatish to be precise — but then, Maina’s eyes — nothing matched up to the beauty of those! Heavenly! Well, let me get a better word for them: celestial.

“Obviously Shahrukh,” I didn’t have to think twice on this. Shahrukh was the best. Nobody could beat him in romance. Ever since I had seen the trailers of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on TV, I longed to watch it. That was almost six months ago. Deewana was the first of Shahrukh’s films that I had watched. I had liked it so much that for about a month I would get into a singing trance whenever I went out on the roads riding my bi-cycle. My bi-cycle, a Hero Ranger All Terrrain Bike, transformed into Shahrukh’s dart bike in my imagination, whenever I hummed:

Koi na koi chahiye, pyar karne wala
Koi na koi chahiye, humpe marne wala…

Someone I need to love me
Someone I need to die for me…

And then came one super-hit after another – Baazigar, Darr, Anjaam. My friend Biswa and skipped playing cricket to watch all of them. Our love for Shahrukh cemented the utilitarian camaraderie we had developed since we were toddlers.

At the Bihutoli I recalled the single point of concord Biswa and I had about Bollywood actors:

There are heroes – actors – who do a lot of stuff while they think they are acting. Like doing abominable copies of western dance steps or beating up a gang of thousand rogues single-handedly or taking ten minutes to die on the lap of their mother, brother or wives, after thoroughly describing how he is feeling at death or even singing gloomy-faced songs while drinking on the road. Shahrukh can do all these. That too, much better than all his peers, but then he can also act. He can get himself beaten up by others in his films and even die pitiful, bloody, swift deaths. And all these make him, well obviously, a better actor. And then, womenfolk are gaga about his acting with eyes. The entire world tries to emulate his signature arm-spreading, backward stooping move, so common in most of his song-scenes.

God! I could have said all these! I should have actually. But then I realized that the moment you pause in your conversation, someone else would interject. And if you wished to continue your point, you had to raise your voice louder than everyone else to be heard. I was learning this, but it was my first time. You’re not always perfect at things the first time.

“See I told you, even he agrees. Saarukh is better. The best,” quipped in Kexob.

I believe my words provided him with the support he needed to engage in the debate over who was the superior actor: Bobby Deol or Shahrukh Khan.

“What’s your name, bhaiti?” he asked me, putting his arm around my shoulder, “Definitely, you must have a better name than what your dada just called you.”

“Neelim,” I said, kind of, meekly. With a smile. I saw Nisim and Birinchi getting up and walking towards the back of the stage. They were going for a smoke.

Then followed the most embarrassing question: “Which class do you read in?”

Asking about class or grade you read, is the easiest way of finding out the age of school-going folks. When you tell someone, which class you were studying, they would do their mental math and conclude whether to consider you one among them or to label you as a kid. And this was one question you couldn’t tell a lie to.

“Class Ten,” I said.

“Which school?” came the next one from the girl just next to Kexob. She had almond eyes. Like all of our tribes-people have. Smiling almond eyes. She was munching Uncle Chips.

“One that has navy blue pants. I don’t know the name though, as I’m new to this place. But I think that’s where I’m going to go.” I said.

“Are you Bengali? By the way, my name is Nazreen. I’m in HS First year,” this time it was the girl with dimples. She needn’t have to flaunt her seniority by mentioning the class she studied in. Her seniority anyway oozed out through her cleavage.

“My father is Assamese and mother, Bengali. So I’m both,” I said. I thought it was smart to put it that way. The navy blue trousers in the school uniform symbolised my mother’s mother tongue, and the burnt orange one, my father’s. I wanted to study my father’s mother tongue, because it would guarantee permanent Assamese-ness to my existence, but then I didn’t like the burnt orange trousers. Also I loved reading and writing in English more than either of my parents’ mother tongues. So I chose the school which had navy blue trousers as their uniform, that is, the Bengali medium school and study Alternative English for the board exams. It was too complicated to explain. And I thought, nobody would even understand.

“Aami tumake bhalobaashay – that’s what you call I love you in Bengali, right?” Nazreen said again, “I have so many Bengali friends in college. But they never teach me the language. They always keep talking to me in Assamese, jana? Sometimes, I feel they are trying desperately to become Assamese, you know,” she said with some weird enthusiasm. And with her enthusiasm, she stooped forward so much so that I could now see her cleavage deep down. I took my eyes off to save myself from the embarrassment of getting noticed and misconstrued in the first meeting with these people as a pervert, but I felt Kexob was ogling at it, because Maina, who sat next to Nazreen, pulled her back after she had a quick eye contact with him.

Ekou nohoy de. He’s just like my small brother,” Nazreen half-turned towards Maina and said that pointing at me.

“And you, son-of-a-sow! How much do you have to see these two,” she now turned back towards Kexob, taking him by surprise, “It’s all your making! Don’t you know this? And still? Now every day when I go home after college, all that my Dadi does is point at these two and tell Ammi that I was getting out of hand. I am actually getting out of hand! Literally. And I am just in HS First year!” said Nazreen, almost cupping her breasts with her palms and giving mock-furtive glances at Kexob.

Kexob was visibly embarrassed.

“Anyway, tell me na, is that how you say I love you in Bengali? Ami tumake bhalobaashay?” Nazreen assumed her usual self and asked me.

“It’s aami tomake bhalobaashi. It’s toh…maa…kay and not tumake.” I tried correcting her.

Toh…Tomakay, like this, right?” she circled her red lips with her finger, to show them forming the letter O.

“Yes, and then Bhalobaashi…it’s ee at the end,” I said, further correcting her with the last syllable. Teaching language to slightly-older girls who were beautiful, red-lipped, cleavage-showing, and dimple-cheeked was fun!

But I thought, nobody understood the gravity of that moment more than Kexob. Raising his head, with a furrowed gaze, hair dropping on his forehead, he came forward, lifted Nazreen’s chin with the tip of his finger and said, “Aami tomakay bhalobaashi.” His ‘sh’ sound didn’t get mixed up with his ‘s’ sound now. He was such a true fan of Shahrukh!

And then the other girl with almond eyes and whose breasts were not that great to look at, well, if I have to put it that way, for those were still shaping up, burst out, “Wow! Nice! Aami tomake bhalobaashi! I’ll have to find someone to tell this to. Sounds nice, right?” she turned towards Maina and said, as if trying to get an agreement from her.

“Whutzit…umm…aami tomakay bhalobaashi?” Bohagi repeated after her, rolling her beautiful hazel eyes, trying to tell the sounds from her memory. By the time she said bhalobaashi her eyes were fixed on mine.

“Yes, yes that’s right. Aami tomakay bhalobaashi,” I repeated after Maina, hardly able to contain my excitement. In a slightly accented voice, in the Season of New, Maina spoke love! And then she smiled. Full and wide. Warm. I felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead. Hope was at work: If Spring comes, can Summer be far behind?

This is an excerpt from the novel, Cycle of Clichés

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