Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 7

Some nights, the phone rings at, say, 2.30 am. It can only be him. It never occurs to me to not pick up, to keep sleeping. I reach out. I say ‘hello’. I go to the balcony.

Anything could happen now. If he is on his sixth peg, it could be a simple: yaar Juhi yaar, ye gaana sun yaar, tu ye gaana sun”. If he has had his much cherished, “a sloooow drink”, maybe he has had it two or three times, that same slow drink, then the night has to expand a bit to make room for his passion. "Ye Muhammad Rafi ko sun comrade, wo koi orfinance nahin la raha yaar, bilkul nahin, wo koi press statement nahin de rahaa…”... “Geeta Dutt kya kar rahi hai yaar, western disturbance kar rahi hai, haan, western disturbance… east mein bhi disturbance kar rahi hai, west mein bhi disturbance kar rahi hai… comrade Juhi ki kali, Geeta Dutt ko sun…”.

Then, follows that which makes the heart fuller and the wind extravagant. Chupke se mile pyaase pyaase, kucch hum, kucch tum, sighs Geeta Dutt. Or Rafi goes, Tum to dil ke taar chhed kar…. And since midnight makes one unafraid of hyperbole, I can say every time, every song, this is the most intoxicating moment of my life.

He has placed his phone next to his laptop on which the song is playing via You Tube. I can hear it clearly, and along with it I can hear his fainter accompanying hum. After such song, what digital critique?

With him I have grown up singing, Aankhon mein kya jee, and Tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet pe yakeen kar…. But most of all, it’s thanks to him that my earliest political memories of JNU gain a certain poise and gravitas. For it is he who brings into that world of impassioned left activism, the existential question of the enigmatic Narda.

It was the year when I had just joined University, some 25 years back. The police had arrested a Kashmiri student from one of the hostels. Angry and ablaze with slogans, all of us gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s residence protesting the student’s torture and demanding that he be released. The then PM, Chandrashekhar, said something to the effect that the police could not be expected to do their questioning with love. “Ab dekhiye, police pyaar se to poochh taachh keragi nahin”.  Livid, exhausted, full of our own solemnity, but pleased to have made a point, content to have forced the Prime Minister to engage and generally alive to fight another day, we piled into a van.

I found myself squeezed next to a young man with smoky eyes, who, after preliminary introductions, a couple of comments on the situation, and a few pleasantries, solicited my views on a matter of import: 
"Yaar, ye Narda hamesha nahaati kyun rehti hai? Kya chakkar hai? Mandrake kabhi nahin nahaata, Narda saara time nahaati rehti hai”. 
This was true – the beautiful princess of the comic series did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time disporting by the swimming pool while Lothar and Mandrake confabulated about villains. The question is still up for answering, and often comes back to haunt our midnight conversations, a quarter of a century later.

I then found out that I had just had the pleasure of meeting the very popular ex-Students Union president. Unaffiliated to any party, his had been an independent left union, which had resigned on the issue of reservations for OBCs (the larger student body did not agree with what they saw as the union’s pro-reservation stand). His election campaign had been a triumph of imagination-capturing. “I will change you, you will change me, the whole will change itself”. It had created a western disturbance.

The western disturbance continued to create itself over the years, and it continued to rain, over many activist speeches, public lectures, pamphlets, and articles in the newspapers & magazines he wrote for and edited, and these days, Facebook posts as well. With him, stream of consciousness becomes something like breathless waterfall of consciousness. He writes of solitary trees, thirsty wells, and how our loneliness outside prison is derived from the loneliness of Soni Sori inside the prison. He asks us to identify with the collective suffering and join the resistance in its myriad forms. He writes of Camus and Ghatak and Rosa and Dostoyevsky. He writes “notes from the zigzag”, on Maila Aanchal, Sahir Ludhianvi, Werner Herzog and Walter Benjamin. Irom Sharmila, the anti-Sikh riots, Nandigram, tribal land struggles, the Gujarat carnage. Of humanism in journalism. Of dark times, true loves, bad hangovers.

“Laughter as life-affirmation; obscenity as liberation; caricature and parody as rebellion”, said he. What I gained was a liberating irreverence about both my cherished ideals and passionate hates. The politically correct and incorrect both were a treasure house of sublime laughter, “there is no suffocating morality or immorality…”, because after all “Chal Juhi, vyabhichari naari, chal, bulawa aaya hai, Gautum Budhha ne bulaaya hai”...

So profoundly political a creature obviously did not inhabit a small circle of concern, and his empathy took in all – Phantom’s Diana along with Mandrake’s Narda. On a summer evening before the union elections, a leader from a rival political formation passed by his room to get water from the communal water cooler. How could he help but slow down near this political hotbed of a room, to hear what was going on within? What was going on in the room was something akin to Majaaz’s Hum pee bhi gaye, chhalka bhi gaye. Possibly the political adversary strolled by, jug in hand, once or thrice. His perambulations were noticed and our hero emerged from the room full of rum and caring inquiry. “Are you alright, my friend? Tell me, are you the Ghost Who Walks? Are you? Tell me, are you really Phantom?” And as the adversary hastened away, he pursued solicitously, “How is Diana, yaar? Is Diana alright? You take care of Diana”…

Back from, perhaps, a trip to the Narmada Valley or Bastar, he would enter with a beret on his head, part Dev Anand, part Che Guevara. At times he’d be silent, at times prone to pick a fight, his demons restless. But never such that a trembling song couldn't pick up the weight of it all. Wo hamare geet kyun rokna chahte hain?, and the singing itself would become an intervention that brought peace. Or maybe he’d come with an Asha Bhosle cassette, “Ye suno yaar, total Jean Paul Sartre gaana hai, Godard hai Godard. Aa chal ke tujhe, main le ke chaloon – is se achha kya manifesto chahiye comrade?”

If, after the booze was finished, an unexpected hidden half bottle came out of smug and happy Rohit’s bag, he’d pounce on it, put it on a hip and wiggle his bottom. We’d laugh and shake our heads and sing more. Feeling much better, we’d go off to Ganga Dhaba for the last dregs of dinner, scrounging in respective pockets for loose change. “Aadhi roti kha lenge yaar, share kar lenge yaar… haan… Jesus was a sailor, he walked upon the waters, sailor tha wo yaar, sailor…”.

In the morning, we’d meet in the library and he would cry out in best Hindi pulp title style: Aur, Hangover ke Saudagarrrr….

For nearly two decades now, I have been wished a Happy Swami Shraddhanand Diwas every New Year and warned against keeping an Akshay Trititya vrat on every birthday. One day, we meet on the heels of my having written an admittedly gushing article after a heady trip to Vrindavan. He has published it in his magazine. Aur, vyabhichaari aurat! Tu kya kar rahi hai yaar, ye Brij ki galiyon mein nange pair mat naach yaar, tu ye gobar vobar lep rahi hai kya, chappal pehen, chappal pehen… Tu to Meena Kumari thi, tu Meera kab se bann gayi yaar. Dekhiye comrade, saree pehnein, baal khule rakhein, bansuri par naachein, chappal pehenein, savdhaan rahein, aids se bachein.” On his 3rd peg, he thanks all women like me for keeping men like him from becoming “frogs-in-the-well in a quagmire of Albert Camus shadows”. On his 5th, he offers to pay my rent (since I’m currently jobless). In the dawn, all the bottles finished, he assures me that the people united shall always be victorious, gives me a friendly warning to keep no Dhanteras fasts, and then, thanking me for my cooperative attitude, leaves. The house continues to beam and sing Thandi hawa, ye chandni suhani

Sing on comrade. Fall like a leaf, beat your wings. Soar like Rafi’s voice. The world has need of your heady, wounded fire. Merry Karvachauth.

(PS: Ye Archimedes hamesha nahaata kyun rehta hai?)

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Travels within myself: Connaught Place, circa midnight

The dog comes zooming in urgently from my right and vanishes straight into the wall between two shops. Astonishing as it is, it does not feel impossible in this witching hour. The white colonnades of Connaught Place are gleaming in part moonlight, part neon-glow. Light is falling almost everywhere. The lamps in the inner circle shining on locked up cigarette stands; the oranges and yellows of ads brightening up closed shutters.

In this crowd of light there is a solitude of people. In the last block, there was a guard on night duty, eating a late dinner with his back turned determinedly towards the world – which wasn't there. In the next block, there is another guard who has befriended a homeless man and they sit on a shared blanket swapping desultory stories, as one who cannot go to sleep and one who is not allowed to. In this block, there is only the dog. Or was, till he vanished into the wall.

As suits a midnight mystery, the solution of the dog's vanishing act is even more enigmatic. Between the two shops in A Block is this narrow entrance to a corridor, which we have never spotted in 25 odd years of roaming the inner circle. It is more astonishing than the vanishing dog. Maybe it only appears at night?

What is happening is that the city is opening up to me. More and more they will appear now, as i roam around with only risk and release for companions: the corridors, the doorways, the tunnels, the apertures, and pipelines and gaps and secret holes in the wall. Just this now, it has opened up in a narrow and long portal that leads to a speck of light at the end of the tunnel.

Alone, at about 11.45 at night, i don't have the confidence to enter it. I will come again when we both have more light. It will lead, i know, to some backyard between the inner and middle circles, with restaurant bins, fire escapes, and maybe a Peepal tree. And to a dog resting content, having reached his destination.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 6

Tara came into our lives – which were unfolding like the unhurried alaap of some all-night classical performance – like Shammi Kapoor playing the drums. An American research scholar visiting to experience India, she sucked enthusiastically at the straw of us. With her smile, questions, earrings and accent equally bright, she sponged up local political debates, academic gossip, university course structures, activists’ passions, friends’ lives, professors’ opinions, group dynamics, dhaba coffees, and late-night rums.

On some somnolent morning, with the koel providing background music to several unshaven youth sipping at the news of the day, Shuvi and I would be figuring whether to brush our teeth first, or put on music first, when the door would burst open. Tara would enter like a happy typhoon. Our room was her base during this visit, and she kept her sleeping bag and clothes there, while traversing the city and beyond with a comb, toothbrush and kaajal in her pocket. Her ‘hiii’ entered every lazy, class-bunking crevice of the morning. Our pace of becoming upright on our beds would quicken and we’d switch on all senses to receive her full flavor. “TK is leaving for Chaibasa today”, she’d beam breathlessly at us. “She says I can come along too” (pulling out her sleeping bag). “There’s a train in a couple of hours” (taking off her clothes). “I’ll be gone for a few days” (pulling off her undergarments).

At this point Shuvi would sit up yet straighter, wearing a persona so solemn that only an 18-year-old could have conjured it, her face eloquent with respect for the serious business of travelling to the Indian hinterland to search for Indian Reality, and her demeanor designed to say: I find nothing unusual at all in my roommate’s friend taking off all her clothes in front of me, happens every day. Like the rest of us, Shuvi too had figured in some inchoate way that in this new life, some things made you seem establishmentarian, and would not do. Before we had quite fathomed the landscapes of ticketless train travel, political hotbeds, and going off alone to be with utter strangers that Tara had drawn up for us, she’d be gone with an energetic “bye darlings!”. We loved her.

I watched with interest as a parade of young male activists from Delhi’s radical circles came calling to my hostel for visiting, picking up, dropping, or otherwise engaging Tara. They tended a lot to blank verse in Hindi. Off she would go, leaving behind a trail of feminist positions, applied political theory, vigorous debate, self-reflexive questioning… and in her place would blossom notebooks filled with poems titled “Upon your leaving”, or “Yesterday, she said…” and, of course, “Silently I celebrate my defeat at your hands”.

On the average drinking evening, Tara could be counted on for some stunning singing and essential insights into international academia, such as what Jacques Derrida’s accent sounded like. On one such evening, Raghav graced us with his presence (remember: He who felt that anyone who didn’t lend him a pen was a property-loving bourgeoise?). After three typically silent pegs, consumed as he slunk in a corner of Naga’s room, he decided to bring some much-needed sharp and penetrating insight into what clearly seemed to him like a vapid, futile discussion.

He put down his glass with a dramatic bang. Drew himself up to his full 5-feet height. Marched across the room to Tara. And astonishingly managed to assume a posture that was both a pugilist’s crouch and the chest-puffing stance of one about to declaim meaningfully. Then, he narrowed his eyes critically and sneered, “American academic, eh? American academic?” And, having left us with this path breaking insight, walked off, muttering “American academic!” Par for the Raghavian course for us, this was Tara’s first sighting of Raghav. We turned to her for comment. She beamed with delight: “It is a very remarkable young thing”, she declared.

On an early such occasion, the niceties of using the male hostel loo were introduced to Tara. She was uncomprehending but enthusiastic. That day, both she and I needed to – as we had taught her in our most elegant, classical Hindi – do susu. It was Naga’s room and he guided us down the corridor and beyond the single palm languishing near the toilets. He was like the lead hunter stalking the savannah. He was full of advice, strategy, admonition, warning and threat. “Now, stand near this plant”, he said as Tara gazed giggly and wide-eyed. “Take it seriously or I’ll get into trouble”. She gathered herself soberly. “I’ll go in and if no one is inside, I’ll call you. Then, if someone comes while you are in the loo, I’ll cough. Just stay inside and only come out when I say so.” Tara nodded soberly.

We went in and bolted the two cubicles. Naga stood guard. At this point, an unfortunate young man did come in to use the open urinal. Naga duly coughed. And in its most delightful, mellifluous, American-accented avatar, Tara’s voice sang out, “Nagaaaa, does that mean you don’t want us to come ouuuut???”

And that explains why a young man from 1991 is still standing there, frozen in mid-arc, in the ground floor loo of Kaveri hostel…

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 5

It is a full moon night.

What choice does it have?

Down a midnight road devoid of people or traffic, a tall metallic ladder is rolling along in aluminium harmony. It is the kind electricians use to reach high cables, with two ladders joining up to make a platform on top, and four wheels beneath. Two people are pushing the contraption along. They are not electricians. They are Dev and Siddharth.

Nor is the man perched on top of the ladder an electrician. He is, in fact, playing the flute. Krishnaji is the silent presence amid our babble. He is several years older than us and – to my newcomer’s eyes – infinitely wiser. He is doing his PhD at the same glacial pace as much of the rest of the campus, but manages to bring style and dignity to the performance aided by an impressive moustache and a slow-burning smile. By and large, in our liquid evenings, no one pulls his leg.

A fine connoisseur of Hindustani classical music, Krishnaji is now playing a night raag. Looking back on the occasion 25 years later, I see clearly how this was exactly the right thing to do: play the flute, at midnight, when high on grass, atop an electrician’s ladder, pushed by similarly enthused friends, on the enchanted roads of the university. It’s astonishing nobody had thought of it before.

We are all sitting at Ganga Dhaba, as the ladder approaches. Those who have not managed to collect enough money to get their evening’s drink are drowning their sobriety in tea. Those who have finished their quota but have not actually passed out, are nursing their drunkenness – that razor sharp clarity on what should be done about the burning issues of the day which only a 4th peg can bring – also with tea. Rohit is desperate for a non-veg dinner but the dhaba extends itself only to eggs. I’m consoling him with adapted Kishore Kumar songs. “Meat na mila re mann ka”, I offer. He cheers up and counters with “Raat haddi ek kabab mein aayi...”. Subroto is convincing people that he personally saw a girl from Ganga Hostel come to the dhaba with a flask and say, “Bhaiya, do cup chai daal dena... oopar tak bhar dena”. A group of students is playing Antakshari in the distance. Brisk sales of bun-omelettes and coffee, couples returning from the late night movie at Priya cinema, a pamphlet being composed, motorcycles parked near the footpath...

And all the time the ladder approaches with its musical burden.

At this point, higher reality intervenes in the shape of a tree. An inquisitive branch cranes its neck to see what the commotion is all about and Krishnaji gets entangled in it. History does not record if he cries out but Dev and Siddharth move on, unaware of the contretemps above. We don’t know what combination of falling and scrambling brings our flautist down to the earth, but when he limps his way to the dhaba it is evident he did not fall gently like the quality of mercy. Dev goes off towards the dark hinterlands of the dhaba in a vague but determined quest for Herbs That Heal – he is sure they are there somewhere. Siddharth sits silently, and nods gently and often. Useless suggestions are made. The night falls on arranging how an injured Krishnaji should be delivered to his hostel room.

The next morning has a certain charge to it. It seems that Krishnaji has actually given the world a chance to – if not laugh, then – chortle gently at him. At around 11.30 or so, various shapes and sizes of freshly-bathed, hungover, hungry, caffeine-deprived, class-bunking, library-pretending bipeds start homing in on the library canteen. Soon Krishnaji appears on the horizon, a couple of band-aids in tow. There is a lull, and then someone asks casually and with screaming insouciance, "kya, Krishnaji, suna hai kal raat kucch ho gaya? Gir-vir gaye kya?"  

Krishnaji closes the matter with a one-liner: “Nahin saathi, wo, kal hum prakriti ke kucch zyaada kareeb aa gaye thhe...”