Read the prologue here.
He hears the drumbeats before he sees them. His heart, which has been aflutter since the morning, now thumps into a vigourous rhythm of its own. He feels the air- electric- causing goosebumps on his body. He feels the tautness in his muscles. The air is tinged with excitement. He can smell it. They can all smell it. The drumbeats get louder; the chanting, harsher. He runs to his balcony.
But he is not the only one.
Every balcony, every window in every house is occupied- waiting, watching. From the north end of the street, it appears. A curtain of red gulaal, shimmering and shimmying in the sunlight, hides it. The drumsticks rise and fall in tandem, rise and fall on their chests. The chanting rises in tempo, rising still, as more voices join in and finally reach a crescendo- their ululation shaking the foundations of heaven itself. Finally it breaks through the crimson veil- a procession of a hundred men, women, and children- a juggernaut of sweating coloured bodies.
Goti runs screaming from his house, and dives headlong into the sea of coloured masses. Jets of cold water welcome him, flooding his mouth with the metallic taste of the “organic” colours. He responds in kind, wielding his pichkari* like a spear. Within seconds, he looks like something a unicorn may have expelled after food poisoning.
Holi had arrived in Bysack Para
The procession moved ahead. Goti and his friends stayed behind, trying to decide where to go next. Dhela, who suffered from Chronic Selfietitis, was busy trying to get a good angle as he herded them from one point to another, trying to get that perfect “Holi Beginzzz” groupfie for his Facebook album.
“Let’s go to Bordi para,” said Khemtu Modon, his hair bright pink from three packets worth of gulaal.
“Bordeaux,” Angrez corrected him.
“Abey, you bastard sahaab, take your English and shove it up your ass.”
“It’s French, actually,” Angrez persisted.
“Nobody cares,” said Dhela, phone safely wrapped in plastic and handprints all over his bare upper torso, “But we all know why Khemtu wants to go to Bordi para”
“Oh yes,” said Goti, sniggering, his teeth white in contrast to his green face, “Khemtu loves himself some juicy Chatterjee mutton.”
Angrez smacked his lips and mimed salivating like a dog.
“Nothing about her, okay,” said Khemtu, acting all gentlemanly, though he was not above cracking the same ribald jokes on others.
“All this talk of mutton-shutton is making me hungry,” said Goti, a vegetarian at home and non-vegetarian at heart, “Let’s go to Grand Lane. I heard they have got chilli-chicken this time.”
Grand Lane, actually Grant Lane, was a glorified stretch of potholed street, fighting for its territory with the ever mushrooming pucca* houses on one side and the asbestos roofed slum huts on the other. Once, long ago, it was flanked by two drains that actually did their job. Forced into voluntary retirement by the residents, the drains now served as a Montessori school for mosquito larvae and other netherworldly children.
Even though it had only been an hour since the revelry had started, Grant Lane was already awash with colours, the actual ‘lane’ submerged at places under puddles of pink and green water. Foreign, and even some local historians, who claimed that Indians were never known for their military prowess, that India was like the sickly kid with braces in the playground of war, had never been to Grant Lane, Burrabazar, during Holi. If they had, they would have learned a trick or two about guerrilla warfare. They would have been ambushed, slapped, dunked, and stripped of their clothes before they could even say ‘Namaste’.
The boys, keeping this in mind, threaded their way through the street, carefully trying to stay out of everybody’s way. Men and women played Holi with such ferocity that they would have put seasoned pehelwans* to shame. Shouts of ‘Bura na mano holi hai’ (Don’t mind, it’s holi), the official tagline of the festival, could be heard now and then as people took this opportunity to work through their repressed feelings. Nilima Kaki used it to get up close and personal with her young neighbour, Shiuli. Raman Kaka used it to spank his boss’s son. Amidst the mass of grappling bodies, Murli Kaka, formerly of House 53, and Roshanara chachi of House 24, were lost in their own raasleela*. When Kaka applied gulaal on her, caressing her cheeks with the softest of touch, she blushed, the red gulaal paled in comparison to the crimson that had crept into her cheeks. Alwar Chacha, who was watching the whole drama with the interest he generally reserved for a India-Pakistan cricket match, would suffer an increase in his blood glucose levels the following day. Unfortunately, Mansood Chacha, Roshanara’s husband, saw the whole thing too and lost no time in pouncing on Murli Kaka along with his friends. There was love. There was war. And everything in between. The boys finally made it to the end of the street where Young Youths Society, the local club, had erected a stall serving chilli chicken, cold drinks, and bhaang for free. It was a way to recruit more members and edge out its primary competitior, United Youths Council, thus establishing its dominion as the biggest club of Bysack Para.
“What are you freeloaders doing here?”, asked Karim bhai, after Angrez had asked for four plates of chilli-chicken. He is 43, and has been a member of the club for twenty one of those years, “M.I.A when there’s work but present for the free food. Have you ever attended a single club meeting?”
“We wanted to,” explained Dhela, “but our mothers would have none of it.”
“Ask your mothers to make chilli chicken for you then. When was the last time you ever took part in any club business? Look at UYC, all the young boys in their area make a beeline for the club in the evening while boys of our area would rather spend their evenings under their mothers’ pallu*. Arey, studies and education are important but so is working for the society. How many times have I asked you boys to help us extort funds for festivals? Thousands, but you don’t even show up.”
“Arey Karim bhai, don’t you know? These boys are all but UYC-wallahs in name,” said Bablu, waltzing in from behind. Goti swore under his breath. Bablu was the hero, the rising star, the heartthrob of the tripartite area of Grant Lane, Sethia Road and Makhan basti, collectively known as Bysack Para. Girls were known to compose love letters for him with their blood. Even boys who swore by Mia Khalifa in their private moments, were known to doubt their sexual orientation when they saw him. Goti had been one of those boys, but that was before he heard reports of Bablu pursuing Mira.
“Bablu bhaiyya*, what are you saying?”, asked Goti, pretending to be shocked and hurt by the allegations being levelled against them.
“You can’t pull wool over my eyes, Goti. My sources have told me that last weekend Angrez and you were playing for UYC in a cricket match.”
“What! Is this true?”, thundered Karim Bhai. When Goti and Angrez remained silent, he shook a finger at them, “Traitors, all of you. Bastards. Dogs. Vibhishan*. Here I am feeding you chilli chicken with my own hands and you happily spit on it. Termites, each and every one of you.”
“But you haven’t fed us chilli chicken, yet,” Goti pointed out.
“That’s how much your loyalty is worth? Oh God! What will today’s kids grow up to be?!” he lamented loudly, which was cut short prematurely, as he rushed to welcome a potential recruit who had ambled in the stall, looking to quench his thirst.
With Karim Bhai out of earshot, Goti rounded up on Bablu, “You couldn’t keep your mouth shut, could you Bablu bhaiyya?”
“Bura na mano, Holi hai,” Bablu said, smirking. “And let’s face it, you did sell yourselves.”
“We didn’t sell ourselves,” said Angrez, “We go to school with a few of them, and they asked us to substitute for a couple of injured players.”
“I bet that the fifty rupees, which each of you received afterwards, helped too”
“So what if it did?”
“Yeah, you are right. You didn’t sell yourselves. You gave yourselves away on discount. Gentlemen, have more self-worth.”
Goti opened his mouth to speak, but someone chose that very moment to hop onto his back and smother him with colours- their filthy fingers scraping the insides of his mouth.
“Who the fuck-” he swore, ready to come to blows with his attacker.
“Ooh Goti babu is angry”, said the tall lanky boy, displaying his khaini* stained teeth.
“Puchke!” asked Goti, unsure if it was his friend from primary grade, under all that colour, “How long has it been? Two years?”
“Three”, answered Puchke. Puchke Ratan was once the Huckleberry Finn of Bysack Para. Wild, uncouth, and foul mouthed, he had been kicked out of three schools before he was fourteen- at which point he stopped going to one. Back in those days, Goti and his friends regarded him as something of a role model, a legend; the boy who had broken into the bastion of adults, the boy who had all the good stuff. He had introduced Goti to his first smoke, his first liquor, and the magic of adult magazines and their ‘dynamite’ ladies, as they would call them. But with no widow Douglas to take care of him, and his own mother too busy with five younger siblings to care for, Puchke Ratan became what Huck was not allowed to. He fell in with some older boys of the Para, who were part of a bootlegging ring, and they, looking to bolster their gang, quickly recruited him.
Stiff hugs and handshakes were passed along.
“So how have you all banjos* been?” Puchke asked, grabbing a plate of unsupervised chilli chicken.
“Good, good,” the four of them chorused. “What about you?”
“Surviving,” he said, tearing into a chicken leg. “Not all of us can be babus like you.” There were some forced laughs at this, followed by sputtering small talk.
“What are the five of you doing- talking during Holi?”,asked Bablu, who had slipped away in the meantime. “This is what people are supposed to do.”
And he upturned a bucket of coloured water on the five of them. All of them launched into another bout of frenzied Holi- taking part in some ‘harmless’ and ‘good-natured’,private property vandalising, which included, but was not limited to, painting penis-themed abstract graffiti art on walls; throwing water balloons through the kitchen vents of the houses, residents of which had refused to play Holi; spraying Bronco, Mr.Namkhana’s Spitz with colour when it tried to bark at them through an open window; and smearing the faces of unsuspecting people, especially kids, with Dhela’s special silver colour which, he guaranteed, would need kerosene oil to remove. Half an hour and thirty three spazz pictures later, they were back at the stall.
“This was the most fun I’ve had in day,” said Puchke. The bucket had done the trick. The old camaraderie was back, “Remember that time we gave Ramanji’s white Maruti a new coat of paint?”
“Rainbow colour,” they all reminisced and laughed.
“So, Goti, where is Mira?” asked Bablu, “Is she putting the colors on someone else today?”
He smirked at the obvious displeasure he had caused. Goti felt the chimneys in his ears hissing out smoke. Bablu had been openly contemptuous of his relationship with Mira, and over the past couple of months, had left no stone unturned to win her over. He knew Bablu was trying to bait him and he considered taking him on. He had his friends by his side. Though there was that slight problem of Bablu having a larger number of friends. Then there was the question of his dignity. Thankfully, Dhela’s voice spared him from taking a decision on this moral dilemma.
“Who are those?” asked Dhela, pointing to a group of people standing at the far end of the stall.
“A weird bunch, the whole lot of ‘em,” said Khemtu.
“Because we all look normal as Alok Nath,” said Puchke, “It’s Holi, banjo*. Everybody looks like they crawled out of a circus. What do you expect?”
“No, I mean, there is something off about them.”
Goti could not see how. Sure, some of the taller ones were too hairy for comfort, almost like a bear. The tiny ones seemed to be without pants- their leathery rumps in full display- but naked children were dime a dozen in and around Kolkata. “Must be a jatra* party”
“No no,” said Khemtu, “Look at that guy with the ink black colour on him. He has horns.”
“It’s called a mask, genius”, said Bablu. “They must be from another neighbourhood. I will go talk to them.”
They watched him go and tap one of them on the shoulder. He turned towards Bablu, mouth crammed with chilli chicken. The others followed suit. Now that the boys had a clear view of the faces, it was obvious that the masks had been made by very skilled craftsmen. The features were very realistic.
“Where did they get those masks?” Dhela wondered aloud. “Looks phoren and shit.”
Bablu, it appeared, had trouble communicating with them. He threw his arms around, wildly gesticulating and gesturing, which his audience followed with rapt attention- his arms, that is, not his words. Two of the tiny ones were all of two feet, wearing identical inverted masks, with the mouth at the top, and eyes at the bottom. They dropped the bhaang pot that they were fighting over and inched closer to Bablu, watching his limbs with hungry mask-eyes. Or were the eyes made to look like that? The boys could not decide.
Every time Bablu dropped his arms, they jumped about like puppies trying to grasp them, drooling like one too. Each time, they missed by a few inches. Not one to give up, they quickly scurried up one of the bamboo poles, forming the skeleton of the stall, moving not unlike a cockroach.
Bablu, with his back to the pole, had not noticed them. He was too busy getting his point across. Both of them leaped from the stall roof, aiming, it seemed, for his head. One of the monkeys missed, and landed face-flat on the ground. The other dropped lightly on Bablu’s shoulder, who was shocked into jumping ten feet into the air, before realising what had happened. He turned towards them, laughing and pointing at the tiny idiot clinging to his arm. They all started to laugh too and then stopped as the thing, for now they were sure it was a thing, opened its mouth much wider than humanely possible. A forked serpentine tongue wrapped itself around Bablu’s arm and for a brief moment, they glimpsed rows upon rows of sharp glistening fangs. A wink of the eye, a snap of the mouth, and with a sickening crunch, the upper half of Bablu’s arm came loose in its mouth.
“Hot damn, this one should get me 100 likes,” said Dhela, as his phone went clickety-click.
Meaning of starred words
Pucca- Refers to dwellings made of stone, brick, cement or timber, rather than mud.
Rasleela- Dance of love, associated with Krishna and Radha. The closest contemporary meaning would be courtship.
Pallu- The loose end of a sari that is sometimes worn over the head. Here it stands for overprotected.
Bhaiyya- Used at the end of a male name to convey respect. Literal meaning, elder brother. The feminine form is Didi.
Banjo- Shortened form of a slang. Not the musical instrument
Written by Rohan Sarkar
Illustrated by Arghya Das