The First Time
It is 1989. Sachin Tendulkar is still a zygote and Babri Masjid is erect. ‘Greed is good’ is unheard of and towns and cities across India carry their unique flavor. It is a rather big world unconnected by social media. But two boys, both 14 years of age and living in an old city of the Raj, the city of Allahabad are connected by one single dream. And one afternoon they decide to fulfill the forbidden. What was their dream and will that be achieved? After all, there always is The First Time.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that it is always the forbidden that attracts. And Bubai and I were living in the same universe.
‘Are you sure this was your dream?’ With all my weight on ‘this’, I questioned Bubai again. In a span of 360 seconds I asked this question thrice, my emphasis shifting from ‘sure’ to ‘this’, finally unsettling at the word ‘dream’. Bubai was 16 years old and a month younger to me. Pink and white chart paper lay insignificantly between us, unlettered and rolled-up. Bubai had purchased it. He said he would gift it to his father for his sketches. I knew that he was lying. I knew that he will make a diagram of how human cell functions, bold and neat and present it to the class to be pinned on the classroom wall. His name written with unusual curves, thickening and thinning at ends, the letters tied together in what was called ‘joining-handwriting’—very convent and colonial. Bad calligraphy but good enough to draw anger and depression in me. Sudipto Bhagat: Class X-B—the thumb pins placed in all four corners of the chart paper with Bubai’s diagram and name on it, mounted on the classroom wall, reinforcing my diminutive status as an average student further. For the past eight months in the class, my only contribution was, well, an inappropriate whistle for which I was appropriately caned by the Hindi teacher and which marked my baptism to the back benches. Bubai aka Sudipto Bhagat was the leader of the back benches. An accidental whistle had brought us together.
I saw the rolled-up chart paper again. Lying unattended between me and Bubai, it was but a dead paper. Soon Bubai’s hands would work on it and my future humiliation will be ensured. I again went back to the class room where Sudipto Bhagat was shining in the glory of his diagram—‘The anatomy and functioning of human cell’. Every possible colour in the milky way was put into service by this great synthesizer of art and science. The maverick, Sudipto Bhagat for the class was the bastard Bubai for me. I could see my face turning red and his pale when the fair and fleshy biology teacher patted on his back. 24-year-old Ms Dass was no less than Steffi Graf for us, serving on our desperate, convent-educated adolescent hormones. Titillating beauty played with us through her racket. We saw her on clay, on grass, on hard turfs and on turfs we didn’t understand. It was 1989. Sachin Tendulkar was still a caterpillar. And all our testosterone was guided on her. We were still virgin to cricket onanism. And making love to Steffi Graf. All at the same time. Miles away and available only on Doordarshan.
The chart paper fluttered, kissed by hot winds. The sound of the paper was now the only noise there. The old railway track, with its shining iron smelled hot. An old block of stone laid parallel to the railway track. Me and Bubai and the chart paper were seated there. Our back to the pond. Our front to the pond. In between there ran the old railway track. It was June in North India. The cloudless evening sky looked dirty and dusty. Our mohalla looked dirty and dusty too. Perhaps sleepy as well. In this part of the country boredom and heat stretches afternoon siesta. Our old mohalla was nestled calmly in the city of Allahabad. Still and dead, Bubai called it. Calm, said our fathers. We never said yes to our fathers. Our was a constant no. But it was building our friendship. And now Bubai’s dream was taking it to new peaks.
The dream came to me again. How is this possible?
The dream question agitated Bubai now. He threw, not glances, but sharp abuses at me. Every one of them inedible. Soon they became inaudible. I could see grey smoke behind him. The sleeping railway track had a visitor. The source of the smoke now visible from my end. The approaching fury of diesel engine silenced Bubai’s words. His mouthful of expressions now read only through his lips. Words were lost in the rhythmic clattering of iron and steel. Wheels on tracks, with of course coaches over them, passengers inside them and also on top of them, with of course no God over them, sliding lazily in anticipation of the approaching station. The rail bogeys one by one, smelling of dust and the urea discharged, gathered in their journey. The moving bogeys used and abused by their several hundred inhabitants passed both of us, with their faded red grunting their old age. The oldest Varanasi-Allahabad 1024 Down Passenger was crawling on the narrow gauge, a desperate attempt to reach the station, only a kilometer away. Linking the two old cities, the train seemed like it had itself travelled a time warp. It looked tired and bored. The meaningless faces staring behind the bars of the window were in fact meaningless. Life on a train is a mirage. The seen movement is actually static. The passengers deposit their destiny in the train compartments. Their life is governed by two colours—red and green. Signal up, you stop. Signal down, you go. Simple and dangerous. Few of the bogeys had their exteriors plastered with vomit, few had juices of betel juice and gutkha deposited, neatly. Phlegm and other useless juices adored the lower half of the bogey. The train with its expectorations mimicked a marauded soul, a moving body of shame and defeat, condemned to live.
‘A christ like persona, crucified by its users. Abused and tormented. But reaching the destination’, was Bubai’s verdict on the passing train. This was his way of pronouncing his intellectual verdict on me. My part in it was to remain silent, and listen. Bubai knew the world at 14. At 14, I knew only him.
‘How can a passing train resemble Christ? I was still searching the answer for this deep Jesus-on-the-track philosophy when my mind was read by this 14 year old, who as a matter of fact, was a month younger to me.
‘You have too many questions in your head,’ raising both his hands and making an imaginary brain Bubai continued on me. ‘Too many questions will make you always seeking for answers. Any fool can fool you. Drilling the answer in your ear and opinionating your brain is like opening one’s fly and peeing. Easy and relieving. Anand don’t let anyone else answer you. Create your own answers. Pee on their brain. Don’t let them show their thing to you.’ I hated god for making my forehead and brain and cells and tissues transparent. For how else would Bubai come to know that my brain is a vast lavatory of commodes—sized differently and shaped like a question mark. A sequence of question marks waiting to be peed upon by answers. To be filled by other’s filth. I imagined too many of them pissing on my brain. And in my mind. The smell of urea from the railway track completing my dreaded imagination. I withdrew myself from this olfaction and resolved to have my own answers for my own questions. But for this one I needed to know from Bubai.
‘How come you and I have the same dream,’ my question continued. It was again met with clear abuses from him. Mother and sister were avoided, coming as we both were from family which was feudal and ego soft at the same time. The rest were pitched against each other’s genitalia. Male and female anatomy shaped in untutored words, packed in the most libertarian expressions and delivered with ease. Awakened and agitated as I was from words coming from Bubai’s mouth, I discovered at the same time the multi-use of our very own genitalia. Abuses make us unlearn biology and sociology. I learnt my first lesson there and then, beside the old railway track. The chart paper still fluttering between two 14-year olds.
‘But how could this be true,’ I came back to dream, rephrasing and not repeating the dream question for fear of inviting Bubai’s wrath. ‘How could this be true, that you and I had the same dream’. I smiled sheepishly at him.
‘I’m not lying buddy,’ he said, in a defeated, defensive tone. ‘I saw it yesterday night before muezzins call and they say that at that hour all dreams are but a shape of dreams. That they are reality.
‘And embraced with sleep we see these realities as dreams, but in reality they are reality and these dreams are not dreams,’ I played around with words, teasing Bubai, smiling at his situation.
And I wanted to give my consent for his dream.
‘Let’s do it then. Let’s make our dream come true’. My response evoked, for the first time, a question in him.
‘Not here, it’s dirty and smelly here. Half of this country is constantly moving and crapping. Only two muscles work here. Esophagus and sphincter. Eat and shit.’
Saying this I laughed aloud at my conclusion. But Bubai was not amused. He was too preoccupied to make this dream come true. Me and him together.
Bubai looked around to ensure that no one was listening to us. We could see the back of the train now, dissolving in to the destination. The rest was as it is. An evening in a small town. A tableaux. Stillness profound. The green muddy water of the pond made a noise. The floating buffalo sinking deeper made the small waves. No one noticed them, except us. There was no one to disturb the boredom of the evening except our idea of ‘doing it’ now.
‘Let’s do it in the park.’
‘Not safe. There are very strange people these days visiting the park in the early mornings and late evenings. They wear these funny khaki Bermudas, useless white shirt and make some stupid gestures while greeting each other. A namaste with one hand, lying horizontal to the body, open palm inverted close to the chest. Their presence is frightening, Bubai let’s not go there’
‘Don’t worry we’ll shape them some other day. Let’s think of an isolated place, right now.’
‘The old Masjid,’ I shouted at my discovery.
‘Yes. Let’s do it there.’
Our baptism to manhood was to happen at a sacred place. We were thrilled. Also because Razia stayed there. We both knew it and we both ignored it in front of each other. She was our undisclosed obsession. After the Masjid proposal we went quiet. Razia did that to us all the time. A silent orgy. A quiet orgasm. A muted passion.
‘Ok.’ I interrupted my own thought.
‘I have a rupee with me. We can get the ‘thing’ with it’
‘This is the first time. Don’t you think that we may need more? We might spoil the first few ones.’
‘We might actually. How much money do you have? Bubai asked restlessly.
I had a five-rupee note but I lied to Bubai.
‘Well, I don’t have any paisa with me right now.’
‘And you saw such a big dream with empty pockets. We have to manage with three only. Let’s go and get it.’
My five rupee note was intact with me. I was going to meet my dream. The evening was still. And boredom was giving its approval. The world could not have been more perfect. However not better than being a ball-boy to Steffi Graf at the Wimbledon grass court. Graf could wait till I become a man. I consoled myself. It satisfied me.
‘So Anand we’ll be grown up boys today’. Fisting in the air, Bubai proclaimed our coming rebellion. With the system. With the body. With the age.
As always I pedaled him. The lazy intellectual never cycled when I was with him.
‘It is only the first effort that needs the force. The rest is driven by friendship,’ he turned and winked at me, sitting on the cycle bar and describing his cycle theory of friendship. He was being naughty. And I understood that. He knew that too.
Making straight lines and semi-circles I pedaled myself, the cycle and Bubai to the shop. The ‘thing’ was to be taken from here. It was decided since Bhaiyya Lal, the owner of the shop was blind. His blindness would make us invisible to him. Only sound. An anonymous voice is the most powerful. It creates religions. It makes immortals. It preaches and sermonizes. It miniaturizes us. For now it would only help us get our ‘thing’ without being seen by Bhaiyya Lal. The 64-year-old Bhaiyya Lal was Bhaiyya for entire mohalla as he had 13 sisters, all younger to him. At the time the 13th was born, his mother’s uterus died. And with it Bhaiyya Lal’s mother too. Brother to 13 female voices, all calling him simultaneously made him Bhaiyya for the rest of his life. His wife called him Bhaiyya Lal. His kid called him so. The entire mohalla echoed the brotherly love they had for him. I was sure even a visitation from outer space would address him the same. Bhaiyya Lal. He was a man surrounded with mohalla myths, other than his sisters. Some said he pretended blindness, so that he can gaze directly into every woman visiting his shop, which otherwise the Bhaiyya syndrome would not have allowed him to permit. And the women know it. His blindness was his alibi to trespass the brotherhood, forced on him. Others said that his wife always ‘faked’ with him and so he decided to fake his blindness. A blind eye watching his wife’s supposed soirees. Whether he caught her red-handed or he was caught red-handed watching her was between him and his wife. ‘A cataract gone crazy’ was what my father said. I accepted his theory. It comforted me to negotiate with a blind man, for now. It was the last time I agreed to anything said by father.
Dough and flour carpeted his shop. A 10-feet by 12-feet of dark, cold space. The dirty transparent jars were arranged symmetrically on a wooden plank. This must have been the wood of the very first tree ever felled by humans. It had turned into grey black, with its corners blunted. Smell of mustard oil dominated that of camphor which in turn was dominated by cheap incense sticks which overpowered the stale smell of the entire shop and which in turn were subdued by instant and strong smell of affordable, but luxurious bathing soaps wrapped in colours of red, orange and green, all having esoteric English names, Lux, Vigil, Liril, Rexona. Made no sense but the entire country was foaming in ecstasy . His shop was therefore a museum of ‘odours’ and his own stench, the curator, moving to every corner of the shop.
Rice, wheat, grain, sugar, tea, toffees, battery, torch, candles, matchbox, chain, lock, the wick of the stove lamp, VIP underwear, Rosy bras and panties, cheap handkerchiefs, cheap perfumes, the shop had it all. And of course our ‘thing’ also. The shop was Neanderthal to a complete man. Half evolved but capable to meet the basics. Eat and fuck. And clothe.
The eagerness to feel our dream was now above everything else. The cycle stopped and now was the decision time. The cat was waiting to be belled. The doubt was who brings the bell. It was decided that I should go since the ‘thing’ was funded by Bubai. I had to make myself useful for this dream. I volunteered, though it was all decided by Bubai. He waited on the bicycle, still sitting on the bar, waiting. It took me exactly 120 seconds and a lot of stammering to purchase, what we wanted. What we desired. What we dreamt. When I finally reached the cycle, walking briskly from the shop I was shivering with excitement and fear. But I was victorious and the spoils of the battle—a battle between doing and not-doing, was there in my pocket. In my shirt pocket, lying miles away from the sleeping five-rupee note. I looked back at the shop. The figure of a blind man wandering in his familiar territory besotted me. A blind man had become my liberator, unknowingly. A guilt thunder bolted me and vanished. I moved forward, clutched my cycle, smelt Bubai’s coconut greased hair and pedaled hard for Masjid.
There was an old well in that old masjid. And it was dry. The last time any bucket was thrown into it was before Mahaveer dhobi’s young wife jumped into it. Mahaveer now stood at 95 years. His wife was sixteen when it is said she became possessed and jumped in to the well. She died, barren. It was said that the well had dried ever since, that the well was visited. Kids were told and shown phantoms around the well. The aged were themselves the authors of the ‘dhoban folklore’. It was left to the young souls, stretched and restless to inhabit the area around the well. Dry sachet of country made liquor, littered the place along with empty gutkha packets. Condoms were also seen, squeezed, mutilated, torn. It added to the rustic sexuality of the place. Abandoned and aloof. Nothing attracts young hearts and curios minds more.
‘Anand the time has come to make our dream come true.’
‘And take this truth into several evenings and afternoons and mornings and night in which we will be together.’
The pledge was now taken. No one can move back now. I took out the packet from my shirt’s pocket and gave it to Bubai.
‘Who first. Me?
Bubai sat down, I followed. The silence followed us too. The emptiness of the place made us nervous.
And we lit our first cigarette.