Friday, April 22, 2011
Farewell to Thee Charles Lindberg- Life and Times of a Warrior Friend- To My Children 11
They all called him Thacchu. I don’t know what does Thacchu mean. But some pet names have such strong impact on the people who listen to it. Musicians, boxers, wrestlers, film stars, local goons, sports stars and underworld mafia dons and so on have such pet names. Pet names are given by parents, most of the times. There are cases in which people get pet names when they are in schools. Friends give very affectionate pets name to their friends depending on the character they reveal in these relationships or in their general physical look. My parents did not give me any pet name but I got one when I was in school. Thanks to my obese nature, my friends called me ‘Baby Elephant’. Now when I look at the kids in the metro cities mostly boosted up with artificial nutrients, I try to compare my ‘fatness’ with their fatness. I was nothing. But in a village where most of the kids looked several years smaller to their actual age and impoverished, even if you didn’t have a pair of tusks and a trunk, just a pair of chubby cheeks would have naturally gained that particular pet name for you.
When I reached high school, someone gifted me with a shirt which had the pictures of cats all over. So the first day I wore it, someone hailed me ‘Cat’ and that stuck for some time. There are some pet names that do not stick at all. As the time passes, pet names too vanish. Then you regain them when you are in a professional situation; in an office or field. If you are stingy, you get a name, but then it is not a pet name. It is called a nick name and nick names are often considered to be insults than appreciation. But there are nick names that are caused by the special abilities shown by people in their professional situation. For example, if a police officer is extremely good at cracking cases of kidnapping, he would be called by a name like ‘bacche wala’ or whatever. And the person who carries this nick name proudly listens to anyone who qualifies him with his nick name. Also when you are too nosey about others’ lives, you cannot go without getting branded by a nick name.
In my childhood most of the friends had nick names. And now if you take out those moth eaten, sepia turned, black and white photographs from those days, especially those farewell photographs of primary schools, you would rather find a galaxy of animals, creatures and aliens than friends with proper names. There in that corner you see Arun, the giraffe, in the front row you see, Johny, the Cat and so on. This frozen zoo from the yester years is presided over by one headmaster, who often goes universally with a nick name like ‘thresher’ or ‘thrasher’, and another galaxy of aliens and animals who look like your teachers. A school, in that sense is a place where names are invented for special purposes. Some stick some don’t. If a name sticks, then you should be assured that the person who goes with that name continues to highlight those qualities in his later life too. And at times I wonder how a boy who had a nick name like ‘Shinto, the divine’, later appears in your life with a divorce paper in one hand and proposals from a few other women in the other hand. Some change radically and radical changes are absolute changes.
In our village everyone called him Thacchu and he was not a terrible boy with any special ability to beat people or something. He was good at running and during the school annual sports meets, he got several cups for different kinds of races. And nobody knew why he was called Thacchu. He took it for granted the way others took it. But I did not call him by this name. Somehow, I was very close to him during my upper primary and high school days. I did not want to call him by that name because his original name was more appealing to me and that name suited to his personality. Strong and agile, his name original name was Anil Raj. And I called him Anil Raj and he responded to that name. Perhaps except for the teacher who called out names from the attendance register none actually did care to call him by his original name. Villages are like that. Everyone is known for his or her physical or intellectual attributes. So you have stock characters in any village. You have a Raman who is going around to help people, a Krishnan going around to read the palms of the luckless people, a Tulsi climbing coconut trees, a Sreedevi who had gone mad, a Santa with loose morals, a Kinkini who was a village belle, a Sivan, who was thug in the junction, Sathyan who was a handicap.
But one day I too was forced to call Anil Raj with a different name. I called him Charles. And he instantly liked it. There was a reason behind it. We were in the eighth standard, still were in knickers with a side bulge on the left or right front side as most of us were not familiar with the concept of using underwear, and all of us were realizing our male characteristics, often feeling horny at the sight of the teachers' unconventionally cut blouses and occasional glimpses of the navels and so on. In the Malayalam text, there was one chapter that related the story of Charles Lindberg, a man who first flew an indigenously developed aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean. You should know that our only way to the world was bits and pieces of information like that and our internet was imagination, which had several times better bandwidth than the present ones. So the moment we came to know about Charles Lindberg, we all were excited. We were excited that extent that we all decided to become pilots then and there. Last week we had taken the decision to become a footballer as we had learned about Pele, the Brazilian footballer.
Changing decisions, once the bell rang for the usual recess, Anil Raj rushed out of the door and straight away went into the courtyard of the school where after the assembly hours, the physical education teacher spent time with his boys playing badminton and volleyball. Anil Raj ran in between the courts and nets and huffing and panting, I too ran behind him without thinking why I was chasing him. In childhood, as you might have noticed, the kids really don’t need any reason to run. They are like dogs and crows who keep trotting even if they are not expected to do so. I went behind him and he did not stop. He climbed the stairs and I waited downstairs. Then I saw him coming down with his lips pointed to make a whirring sound and hands spread on either side of his body. He came like a bird and then like an aircraft. Actually he was so moved by the story of Charles Lindberg that he had already assumed the personality of the flyer. I understood it. He came and landed near me. And he told me that he flew across the Atlantic Ocean. I jumped aside to avoid a group of dolphins passing by. I smiled at him, hugged him and called him ‘Charles Lindberg.’
After rechristening Anil Raj as Charles Lindberg, I tried to get validation for my proselytizing efforts by going around and telling friends about the recently taken place historical flight across an imagined Atlantic Ocean right down there in the school courtyard. They called me ‘Cat’ and left me to my imaginations. But somehow, everybody’s Thacchu, and my Anil Raj allowed me to call him Charles, a further shortened form of Charles Lindberg. When someone else tried to emulate my affection for him he growled at them like a tiger and scratched them with his rough paws. It was then I carefully looked at his face. It is said that in everybody’s features, there lies the features of an animal or bird. That’s why caricaturists and mimicry artists could attribute birds’ and animals’ character to the well known personalities. With fear and anxiety thumping inside my chest as I had never seen Anil Raj in such a fury, I looked at his face that day and found his face resembled that of a wild cat. When he pouted his lips, on either side of his cheek there appeared three lines each which looked like whiskers of a cat and his eyes were one shade gray than the brown or black eyes of other children. He deserved the name ‘cat’ than me. And he just did not like anybody calling him ‘Charles.’
Anil Raj came from the neighborhood. His father was an army man and they were four siblings; three boys and one youngest sister. It was rumored that Anil Raj’s father came back from the military, became an alcoholic and married another woman in another village. His mother toiled day and night to bring the boys up. Father visited them once in a while and there used to be fights at home. The whole neighborhood knew about it but in villages family fights were just regular events. You would miss them if you don’t listen to the noises of people abusing each other verbally. Women came out on the road and fought with other women by scratching and pulling down their waist clothes. In these sessions of abuse, they brought out several stories about their extra marital affairs, escapades and romances etc. But none cared. The next day you could see the very same women who fought like two ugly animals going to the market as if nothing had happened in the previous evening. Men also fought and when they fought someone lost a tooth, someone gained a bruise and all these things were the background score of the village life. Nothing really mattered though everything mattered in different ways and fell into the plan of a larger scheme.
Anil Raj used to take refuge in his friends’ places or he used to come around in our place and we went out together to the radio workshop where other guys joined us to listen to popular music. In one of the chapters earlier, I had talked about the history of Radio in our village. The gulf boom in late 1970s and early 1980s had brought several National Panasonic stereo cassette players in our village as there were many men who had gone to the gulf countries as laborers. These cassette players were brought for repairing in a shop run by a young man whom all of us called ‘Podiyan Annan’ (Podiyan means Small). He repaired anything under the sun and he had these two huge stereo boxes in which he played music on request. We used to hang out in his workshop that he ran from an old house and learned the songs by heart. Some of my friends used to bring cassettes from their homes to sell to podiyan annan and the money was used as pocket money. Podiyan annan in turn recorded songs with a fast dubbing system and sold those cassettes to local clients and made some extra money. People were enamored by the technology and Podiyan Annan was always in great demand. Once when we got our cassette player for the first time, sometime in 1984 Summer, I took it to his workshop as it was not working however I tried my tricks. He just looked at it and pressed the pause button. Then it worked. Pause button was the problem, which I could not understand at that time. These days, pausing is a daily game, right from music to chat to sex.
Anil Raj and I spent several hours in that old house where we met other friends. But he was slipping away slowly. When all of us reached tenth standard (school final) we were either drifting apart or were trying to concentrate on our studies. After the tenth standard a few of us went to the pre-degree college in a near by town called Varkala and some of us became wage laborers in workshops, construction sites and so on. It was very painful to know our friends drifting away to the worlds of hardships and different experiences. Several threads were snapping and several threads were getting knotted. But the old ones always reminded you of the golden days that you had spent together; those were the days that you came to know about your manhood. You taught each other about the secrets of bodies. You read a lot of rubbish on sex and imagined that everything was true.
But once you are back from your work place or from your college classes, we did not feel any difference between each other. We went to the school ground where elder boys played cricket wearing pads over their lungis. That was the funniest sight I had ever seen. There was a full fledged cricket club in the village. But none of them wore trousers or a pair of jeans. They all wore the traditional lungis and played cricket. Of course things changed later with the arrival of a new generation. We used to spend our times in the school ground watching cricket players running between stumps and the bowler coming from the urine shed end. We joked, sang songs and planned our futures. But things were not happening the way I had expected.
Something was happening in the village. And I came to know one day when I was coming back from the second year pre-degree class (Standard Twelve). I saw Anil Raj standing in the middle of the road grabbing the neck of a local goon. When we were in school this guy was a local terror. He collected money from all the vendors who sold things in the market. He even extorted money from his mother who was a vegetable seller in the market. That day, Anil Raj was finishing his legacy for some reason. I had never seen Anil Raj so brutal and arrogant before. He hit him hard. And the other guy cried. Blood was oozing from his forehead and nose. Anil Raj asked him to run and he ran. He ran behind and kicked him. He fell on the asphalted road and bled. I was shocked and numbed. I could not do anything. Anil Raj raised him by the collar and hit him several times till he begged for pardon and ran like a dog.
I was standing near the ration shop where shell shocked women and old people stood watching the gory sight unable to react. Like me they too were witnessing the birth of a new local goon in Anil Raj. He walked towards me. I was cringing from inside. But he came and grabbed my right hand. With his left hand he opened his shirt and showed me his left nipple. It was bleeding. “Look Johny, that bastard bit me here. I gave what he wanted.” I could not say anything. The bite was the other man’s last ditch effort to save himself. But that bite had infuriated Anil Raj like anything. I could not believe what I had seen. I asked him what had happened to him in the meanwhile. He said nothing. He asked me to go and he entered an alley which hardly people used thanks to the presence of a small forest filled with snakes in the vicinity.
Slowly, the grapevine in the village brought the news of the establishment of a gang in our village. It was called ‘The Company of 18’. I tried to figure out the meaning of the name of this gang. I need not have gone much further and I could have gone out of my home and asked Anil Raj himself. But now he was more reclusive. He was not seen much out in the street. He stopped meeting me. But there were always young boys around him, protecting him and passing information to him. My friend Sunil Lal joined the company as a formal member and once in a while, while coming back from the temple premises where I used to go to meet my friends, girls and to catch some television news, sometimes I met Anil Raj and Sunil Lal and they told me the story of their new gang, which had already started terrorizing not only the villagers but also people in the other villages.
The Company of Eighteen meant nothing but a gang of eighteen people. But the membership was not limited to that particular number. Many became core group members and many became just side kicks. The Company of Eighteen also meant the general age group of the people who were involved in these gangs. All over Kerala state such gangs were becoming operational at that point of time. There were not too many job opportunities and gulf also was becoming less lucrative. Films like Rajavinte Makan (Son of a King), Abhimanyu, Aaryan and so on were projecting Mohan Lal as a young well meaning man turning into an underworld don. It could have been the filtering effect of Deewar or Zanjeer of Amitabh Bacchan. But in 1980s Mohan Lal was making waves in the Malayalam film industry as a wronged young man. He played the roles of a well educated victim of the system. He played the roles of a jobless young man with a lot of dreams and also he played the roles of underworld dons. He gave the hope to the young boys that if they organized themselves into gangs, they could achieve whatever they wanted and also they could take revenge on people and the systems that made them so and in the process they could have proved themselves innocent by clarifying their philosophy in life.
Anil Raj and team were the victims of this outlook. They formed themselves into the ‘Company of Eighteen’ and they found themselves to be holding very strong power over the villagers. The gulf returnees entertained them with costly drinks, cigarettes, porn movies and clothes. Whoever wanted a dispute to be settled, invited the gang members to involve in it and in return they received money. As the name and fame of the gang grew local police also became alert. Once Anil Raj was arrested by the Police. The local politicians were waiting for an opportunity. The Congress men went to the police station and bailed him out. To counter this, the left parties supported other gangs in the other parts of the village. So the gangs fought between each other for political and personal issues.
The major attraction for many youngsters to join these gangs was easy money and access to women who were living alone. Anil Raj once told me about his escapades with many women in the village who entertained him in the midnight hours. But he was not that kind of person who would have done anything for carnal pleasures. However, he was as rebel without a cause. Rich people from neighboring villages invited him and his gang for fighting with their rivals. Like football teams going to play in other villages, this gang under the leadership of Anil Raj went to far away places to fight for others. When they came back some came with broken jaws, loosen teeth and eyes with dark patches. They were becoming really famous. One day I was told that Anil Raj was invited to Mumbai to join underworld. And it was true that he had left for Mumbai. The rest of the gang was waiting in the village to hear from him. Most of the gang members were my school mates and they respected and loved me for that. They passed information to me and shared stories with me whenever they could spend time. Several times they invited me to drink with them and hang out with them but I was afraid of doing anything in open. Besides, inside I was a coward and could not have stood a hard blow from any thug coming in the darkness to wreck revenge upon my friends while I was there with them.
All the gang members practiced Shoto Kan karate. They invited one master from a far away village. The master came and he was a tailor by profession. He taught the boys the techniques of martial arts. I too was pursuing the same course but in a different dojo, where Sempai Siva taught martial art for spiritual uplifting. Sempai Siva later became a yogi, initiated by a Guru, he went all over the world to spread the teaching of the yogi who initiated him. I met him several years after in Trivandrum airport lounge and he was impressed by my body at the age of forty and when I told him that I still practiced karate he hugged and congratulated me. He gave me a signed copy of his own writings about spirituality before waving good bye to each other.
Soon, my village had several boys with black belts. They were literally ruling the village. But they were all for me if I was in trouble. The interesting thing was that when my family shifted to Trivadrum for facilitating our education in better colleges, our house was taken by these gang members on rent. We couldn’t have done anything. They used our old house as their centre of operations but the moment we wanted it back they vacated the house without raising any objection.
I remember an incident where they showed their loyalty to me. I was pursuing my pre-degree and to become an all rounder I was learning music and tabla. Students used to get concession tickets in private buses. I had to spend fifteen paise for going to the Tabla class. One day while coming back from the tabla class, the conductor refused to give me concession ticket. He demanded full ticket from me. I refused to pay. There was a bit of push and pull in the bus when it reached the main junction of the village. My house was near the last stop and the moment the bus reached the last stop, to my surprise I saw the bus surrounded by sword wielding youngsters on their cycles. I realized that someone had seen me having a ruckus with the conductor at the market junction and he had gone to the gang’s adda by his cycle and before the bus reached the last stop they were ready to take the bus driver and conductor for insulting their ‘friend’.
I had really a tough time in dissuading my ruffian friends from injuring the poor conductor. He was doing his duty. But the fraternal loyalty felt was so intense on that day that they were planning to kill that poor conductor for my fifteen paise. Anil Raj called the conductor out and asked him to apologize to me. He did so. But later on I came to know that the conductor was my sister’s friend’s brother and they belonged to a very poor family. To support his sister’s education the boy had to stop his studies and work as a bus conductor. Now it was my turn to apologize to him and without my friends knowing I went to him and said sorry for whatever had happened.
Anil Raj came back from Mumbai. Nothing had happened to him. But he became more and more recluse. As time passed I left for Baroda and my friends were getting tired of their own activities. They wanted to live a life of dignity. But the past had come to haunt them. Those youngsters who were insulted by this gang were getting ready to strike back. Many went into jails for different charges and came out as living vegetables. Anil Raj went to the Gulf countries and he was jailed for bootlegging. Once he came back, other guys with better physique and better intelligence had taken the lead of the village. Things had already changed. Boys were anymore allured by the heroism in the streets. They burned CDs and made money. They talked a different jargon than the ones we used to talk when we were youngsters. Anil Raj found it difficult to cope.
He was a refined man, once he told me during one of my visits from Delhi. Anil Raj told me about his life and his sentiments for people. While talking about the follies he laughed at himself. He spoke of the insults and injuries he had suffered in lock ups and jails. He did not mind getting beaten up by his rivals as he could fight back. But unilateral tortures were insulting for him. He pined for revenge but he was a spent force by then. He could not fight against the police and the strong systems of the government. The politicians who had used him once for their ends were not giving any damn to him. Many people who were afraid of him during the days of his glory now did not give him any weight. They started avoiding him. He could see all these things and he was learning to live with and in shame.
For the first time in his life, Anil Raj told me about a love affair he had in the village. Nobody knew about it. Perhaps, his close associates knew about it but I did not know. When he related the story I knew the girl in the plot. She was my student and was a god fearing girl with a very soft conduct. I could not have imagined her falling for the charm of a village villain. “Yes, she was in love with me and she waited for me. I thought I could marry her but things were not happening the way I wanted. I was in jail in gulf and here she had to get married to another man,” he said. “Do you feel hatred for her?” I asked him. He did not say anything for a long time. Then he lit a cigarette and looked into my eyes. His gray eyes glinted as his yellowing teeth. “No, I don’t. I don’t hate her. But I don’t understand why she could not wait a bit more?” The question lingered in the air for sometime. I told him something this effect that for a village girl however educated she was it was difficult to wait for a lover who was languishing in jails in some gulf country where penal laws are stringent. He did not say anything for sometime.
Anil Raj got married to another girl, as expected. Often, it is said that when you get married you become a refined man. But it does happen only in rare cases. You in fact ruin the life of a girl. I did not know this girl. Still I do not know her. But next time when I met him, Anil Raj was a shattered man. He did not resemble his former self at all. His elder brother had become a chronic alcoholic. His younger brother had gone to some gulf countries and was trying to rebuild his life after his stint in the gang. The youngest girl was married to a good family and was leading a good life. Anil Raj was alone though he was married.
Last time when I met him, it was dark. The electricity board had shunted power for an hour or so. We were standing in the junction as in the old days, but this time a bit more matured and in our late thirties. We could not see each other in the darkness. We lit cigarettes. “Johny, have I done anything wrong to you?” he asked. “Come on man, you have not done anything wrong to me. You were always there for me whenever it was needed,” I told him and jokingly reminded him of the bus incident. He eyes glinted in the darkness. And in silence we deeply dragged at our cigarettes. “Do you know, this is my last attempt to regain my life? I am going through a very terrible time Johny,” He said in a slow and low voice.
“I think I am having some illness which is not curable,” he said.
“What kind of illness?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. Then he added that he was waiting for a Visa to go to a gulf country and if he gets it he would be a changed man.
We smoked and stood there for a long time. The current was taking more time to come back and light up the streets. And I had to leave for home. Anil Raj also sounded tired and wanted to go and rest.
We shook hands and parted ways. He went into the alley where once the Coir factory stood. I walked ahead.
Next morning someone shook me up and told me ‘Thacchu has gone. He hanged himself last night.”
I just could not believe it. I did not go to see his dead body. Perhaps, I knew I was the last person whom he confided with and he had not told me too many things. But I felt he had said farewell to me forever.
Common friends told me that he had some terminal illness that he contracted while living in Mumbai. Some people told me that he was depressed because he could not marry the girl whom he loved. Some people said that he did not like his married life. Someone said he did not have children because the custodial tortures had rendered him impotent.
Anil Raj was gone. And he was standing there in that junction with me last night.
Even today I cannot refer him as Thacchu, which had become a by word for terror in my village. I always called him Anil Raj.
May be if everyone had called him Anil Raj, he would not have become a goon. But that is just a speculation.
I forget all those sword wielding gory episodes from his life. But I remember the day he flew his flight across the imaginary Atlantic Ocean at our school courtyard.
Farewell to thee Charles Lindberg.