02 October, 2010
Tales from the Katta
It was a very large and old banyan tree. This was a nook of the city that had been forgotten by all save those who patronized it. The tree itself ran almost horizontal to the ground which was quite unlike most banyans. It had an embankment built from a date early into the last century on one side of it. The roots hung from a side and curiously had formed a wall shutting out the sight. from one side. One of the hanging roots also had so turned from the ground that it formed a long bench parallel to the embankment on a side. It was broad and strong and on this Sridhar anna had nailed a plank creating a table to the ones sitting on the bank. Well who is Sridhar anna? He was the man who ran a panbeedi shop beside the tree under its shelter. At the other end his boy kept boiling & serving chai. The shop was called Sri Durga store after a goddess who angrily stared out of a faded photograph. Nobody remembered this place by her name and called it Anna’s katta. I guess that’s why the goddess looked angry. It was my firm belief that when Sridhar anna had started this store and put up her photo she had smiled for a few months. Then as her name was gradually usurped her expression had staged a change from petulance to this now furious visage. People stopped here for a chai, a smoke, some pan or simply to take a breather and unwind in the pacy grind of life. The hanging roots of the tree somehow managed to capture time and slow it down temporarily if not stopping it altogether. In the evenings the place did look like it existed in a time warp. The steam from the chai mixing with the blue haze of cigarette smoke curling upwards & disappearing into the tree with the naked bulb giving a hazy glow from behind the smoke; a play of shadows and light that was quite unique, even eerie.
The tea was always good & served with a hospitable smile. This and the friendly chatter of Anna had made the place popular amongst its patrons. Given a while at such places everyone becomes a nodding acquaintance. After all man is a social animal and people being people love to talk. The English in England had their pubs and we had our katta's. There were many like me who gathered here.I was a writer and a free lance reporter for a few local publications. They called me Reporter here & having not volunteered anything more was not asked either. Let me introduce you to the motley group of regulars here. Chotu & Badey are drivers for a couple of sahibs or corporate executives. Chotu driver was actually a huge man but because his employer had a tiny hatchback he was Chotu. Badey was a tiny man less than 5’3” and frail but because his employer had him drive an imported 4x4 SUV he was the bigger wheel. Those three there are engineers. Two of them worked in the maintenance services while the third was in sales. The sales fellow is called BB or Bol Bacchan. The service engineers are addressed as HD & CD; Hard Disc & Compact Disc. There was one guy who was called Alibaug because he had a bungalow there that he rented out to weekend holiday makers. There was even one budding politico. He always wore spotless Kurtas that remained spotless till he started on his pan’s. Once he had begun and started spitting those long red jets periodically he always managed to retain some stray spots on his apparel.His time to go would be indicated by when the collar around his kurta would get completely speckled. He had perfect red teeth and coincidentally had a name ‘Sule’ which translated in English from the local lingo would be "Fangs". He loved it when someone addressed him as Sule bhai..or Don Sule…people jested but he took it seriously. Along with Anna and his boy, we were the 8 pm regulars. But what elevated this place from the ordinary to the spectacular was Nana. Nana was of an age that was certainly older than Anna and barely younger than the tree.
Nana was undoubtedly the star here because he was a storyteller par excellence. Rare was a field that had not experienced the presence of Nana at some time or the other of his checkered long presence on this earth. All Nana needed was company and somebody to prod him and he would begin. To me he was a material mother lode and many of his remarks & tales had found a place in my writings. Always would I ask his permission and he the generous spirit would say expansively “likho bhai” ( write brother ) had I been educated I would have written them myself and he would uproariously laugh. His thin gnarled body, wavy grey locks and mischievous twinkling eyes belied the richness of his voice and the infectious laugh. Never did he have to refer back to a line when he was in full flow. I would tell Nana that I wanted to include his name in the credits but he always refused. "Reporter bhaiyya mujhey ek chai pilaa dena aur Sridhar se ek charminar packet lana". He smoked those ghastly unfiltered cigarettes. He lived on tea, fags and his audience. I asked Sridhar once on what does he do for a living and Sridhar anna had replied that once in a while he closes a deal of a property and the commission sets him on course for six months at least. He used to be in the film industry and worked as a junior artiste for 6 decades. There was a time when he had written scripts and made a lot of money, bought a house. But he never married and went to the local whorehouses that stripped him clean and gave him the booze. The booze stayed with him till he had to sell off his flat and move into the one room he currently occupied.Now he just slept there or sat here under the tree telling stories, thankfully He doesn’t touch alcohol these days. Sridhar said that there is one unique feature of Nana that is laudable. He has in all these days of knowing Nana never ever found him bitter or envious of anybody. He accepted his fate with a smile and kept telling stories.
There is a sound Nana would make like he is clearing the throat after a sip of chai and dramatically mouth one word. Then almost like magic , he would very articulately weave a story around it. All of his stories were in the first tense that had Nana as an observer or someone around. These were the best. There are times when we have challenged him by giving our own words and Nana has been equally adept after 5 minutes of deep thought and a cigarette to pick up the gauntlet. Nana’s best feature was that his stories were short and crisp. On some occasions he would leave a story for the next day and never ever repeated it. If you happen to miss it, ask the guy who was present. Nana would not open his mouth on the same topic once he had told a story. I had toyed with the idea of carrying a portable voice recorder and it had only partially worked as more than Nanas voice I was focused on the gadgetry and had stopped listening. Replaying the tape back, it had captured a lot of external noise from the tea stove and cars honking. Nana’s atmosphere was created by his audience who hung on to his every word. Their rapt attention, their saucer eyes, the hoots of laughter all of it added up.The atmosphere was missing in the recording...gone.
The First Deadly Sin : Lust
Today had been a busy day and I was late reaching the katta. Barely had I collected my cutting chai, taken a sip and lit my smoke when the familiar sound emerged from Nana’s throat. I sat down to listen; my attention rapt. Vaasana ….Havas…Lust said he and paused. The word dropped like a bomb in the generic silence. No one can fault Nana on his timing. The expressions of the people around changed from shock to curiosity to even a lip smacking glee as they gathered around.
Did I tell you about the encounter with…this was another standard way in which he began a story…OK.. He uttered the word with a deep dramatic sigh.
During those days, I was working on the sets of Razia Sultan. The movie was the pet project of the Hindi film, director Kamal Amrohi. Now this was towards the end of year 1981 or thereabout where Kamal sahib had begun the film. It was a love story between the first female ruler of Delhi Razia and her Abyssinian slave Jamal ud din Yakut. Abyssinia…now what is that asked Chotu to Nana…It’s a country in Africa …Modern day Ethiopia I interrupted and Nana nodded. Ethi eti…Chotu gave up and as if he liked the sound of Africa better repeated it thrice more, bobbing his head vigorously each time…Africa…Africa…Africa. The others too solemnly nodded as if that explained everything. Kamal sahib had signed the mega star Dharamendra for the role of the slave and Hema Malini the dream girl for the title role. The lead man was fair so he was coated with boot polish to make him look dark like an ..Abyssin…African. Nana continued the narrative with the popular continent rather than going deeper into the country within it. He was just warming up. The single word “Lust” had piqued the interest of his listeners that allowed him the luxury of the buildup. I was the assistant to the AD - assistant director, Jitendra Singh who was in charge of filming songs.
It was a normal day like any other. My boss was having a look at all the extras who would line up behind the star Hema during a song sequence that he suddenly stood stock still. I could not understand what had happened or caused this reaction. I just saw a group of pretty women in costumes standing at a distance as quiet as a bunch of women can be, sipping chai from cracked glasses. With that Nana looked down at his own glass and took a sip. He continued “What’s the matter boss? Nothing... he muttered and walked away. It was an outdoor shoot and though Kamal sahib didn’t like to shoot outside his studio, for some of his fantastic visionary ideas he really had no choice. The sequence demanded the queen to be walking around near a river musing on her own with her slaves and maids. The song would play in the background. In those days movies never stuck to a schedule as directors considered themselves artists and if one lost a particular light the unit packed up. This was one such day that a pack up was announced.
The crew and cast had started drifting about. While putting the equipment away I saw the AD, my boss talking to one woman at a distance behind a tree far away from the rest. Something about their conversation and the manner held my gaze. They looked as if they had known each other from long back and were tentatively approaching a conversation, they were leaning towards each other indicating a deeper mutual interest. The equipment house was near the spot where they stood. I casually picked up the bag and moved to keep it in place, the AD’s back was to me. It was here that I got a first good look at the woman. Later I came to know that her name was Zainab. She was a clear complexioned, dusky, full bodied woman with a very fetching smile and a row of teeth like 32 pearls. Their shimmering was directed at the AD. As I turned to have a final glimpse of them, the AD had her hand in his and was whispering something in her ear. Now this surprised me a great deal, he being a man with a clean reputation and was married with two children. So what was happening here?
“Locations”…Nana paused in his story… he took a drag of his cigarette and the tendrils of smoke gently wafted out of his nostrils, eyes distant into the past giving him a dreamy look “Funny things can happen on locations” he said coming back to the present. Away from one’s own cluster and familiar beats, men and women are braver in facing their wants. The supposed Jain may sneak away to have an omelet, the teetotaler outside his environs may enjoy a good peg and the responsible family man who may have never dared may just enjoy a dalliance. So what is this I asked him and he said “Opportunity” or “Security” or “The thrill of the forbidden”. This is not universally applicable but our line, said Nana is like that. Months on end at locations away from our families some needs remain un-sated. There is a worm in every man which is wriggling inside. This wriggling is properly and probably restrained in ones own area but outside…he paused …the belt is off.
I asked around the set and found that Zainab too was a married woman, married to a rickshaw driver. But her family had aspirations for her and our AD used to be her neighbor back then. He was a Hindu and been out of work and Zainab could never give him the time of the day. Years passed, he married settled in , she married and her husband bought a rickshaw. But in Mumbai the endless struggle to survive for one’s own & fulfill others aspirations, people tend to neglect their own youthful dreams. Away they sometimes peek through.
They would lunch together and touch each other for the smallest of reasons."Look here" and an elbow is grabbed , “See” she would say allowing her fingers to remain on the small of his back. It was building up the heat. Two days later had to arrange a shot on the river bed, I had set about most of the equipment only to realize that the tripod had been forgotten. I came to the equipment hut to find it unlocked from outside, so I pushed the door but it didn’t budge. I was about to start back when I heard muffled sounds and cries of pleasure and then a scream. I quickly walked away to see the AD come out look about to the right and left. He was followed by Zainab with her hair strewn about and her face carrying the flush of being thoroughly made love to. He grabbed her by the hips one last time and kissed her as she wrapped her arms around him and thrust herself into him.
Throughout the shoot they were at it whenever they got the time. Once over a drink I asked him “why?” and he looked at me for a long time and said “it’s here, we wanted, we took”. “What happens when you go back?”. Nothing says he…I am a family man she has a family …I knew her from back then but community being different we would never have been together without problems. This is the best. She also understands this. So yeh kya pyaar hai? ( Is this love?) I asked. " Nahi re Chootya he said...Masti...Majaa... Havas (Lust)…Nana pointed to the small scar near his lip and looked around and said you all know how I got this? I was totally drunk with the AD and asked him so its OK if you go back home to find the pizza delivery boy having kept your side of the bed warm in your absence with your wife. That’s when he gave me this.
Ha Ha Ha Ha…he laughed uproariously. The majestic manner of the strut of the AD when he heroically described his lust like a victorious conquest was replaced by a fear that made him lash out. Nothing happened after that and then we came back to Bombay. But after that day I never got a job on his set ever again. When someone say’s Lust in a stylish manner, my hand goes to this small jewel he said fingering that mark and smiled. When we dispersed the mood was reflective and somber, quite different from the one in which all had gathered to hear a tale of lust. There was a point that had been made here in this tale on the first deadly sin… would get it soon enough on reflection thought I walking on home.