When I was in engineering school, for a while I had a Singaporean Chinese student, Bu Hung, as my neighbor in the hostel. I didn’t like him and I don’t know why I didn’t like him. I just didn’t like him. I found it repugnant even to enter his room which, to my heightened senses, always had a musky stale alien smell inside that I couldn’t quite place my finger on.
No one ever went into Bu’s room, except maybe the other Chinese student we had, this one from Malaysia, with a Chinese mom and an Indian dad, named Fong Shu Krishnan. Fong Shu had the worse of the two worlds, ebony skin, a Dravidian snub nose and thick lips and shifty slanting eyes that openned only in a very thin slit. No one had ever seen Fong Shu’s pupils. I didn’t like Fong Shu either.
Maybe my dislike for both these guys had something to do with the tension I had felt as a little kid cowering inside our flat with our windows blacked out, during the 1962 war with the Chinese. That must have left an unconscious stigma inside me, against anything Chinese. An early form of PTSD..PCSD (Post Chinese Stress Disorder).
An infuriatingly cheerful bloke, Bu tried his best to fit in, though. And he went on trying, right till the very last week before we all went our different ways into the big bad world. I remember that last evening with him very clearly. It was a Saturday, we were going to bid IIT goodbye with a movie at the OAT, a massive tiered, open-air amphitheater that was used for events and movies.
They were showing that John Wayne starrer, Brannigan, a cop movie. For some reason, I was late and when I entered the OAT, it was pitch dark. That old Shivaji Ganesan/Jayalalitha song and dance clip which served as a sort of hors-d’oeuvres before every movie at the OAT, had just begun. ‘Andi mandi niramu, tarara tarara tarara, ta ta’, sang Shivaji Ganesan, while the obese Jayalalitha peeked coyly from behind the trunk of an unfortunate mango tree, her eyelids so heavily rouged that she could barely keep them open.
Jakes, M.Tech(Civil), had brought in some great Palghat hash and it was going around, I knew, and I was looking forward to a toke or two. There can be nothing more mind-blowing than watching a movie stoned. Even a shitty Sovexport film would look awesome.
There were puffs of acrid smoke rising from scattered clumps of students sprawled around all over, but I couldn’t find my buddies in the dark. Brannigan was about to begin and already guys behind me were screaming, “Hey, Bong, sit down you m—er f—er”, “Bongolini, you are not transparent, get your ass down on the cement.” I gave up and sat down right there. Not the end of the world. I had a half finished reefer stuffed with hash in my pocket which I promptly lit and started taking deep drags to gain immediate altitude. I rose faster than the new Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by then. Off to the left Julie Fernandes, (2nd yr, aero), was lolling, and boy, could she loll. Portugese oomph and Konkan stoomph jostled for space within her. She suddenly threw her head back and laughed at something her boyfriend, Janardhan Reddy, had just said. The two had themselves covered with a blanket and once in a while, the portion directly above Janardhan’s crotch seemed to come alive from within. January nights can get a bit chilly, even in Chennai, I tried ta tell myself.
To my right, Nandu, Shiva and two others I didn’t recognize, probably outside students from Loyola or Guindy, were waiting patiently while one of the outsiders emptied a cigarette and started filling it with weed from a tiny plastic bag. I didn’t have to look far to locate the source of the plastic bag.
A few tiers up, well in the shadows, there were three dark figures hunched over a tiny assembly line. One had spread the day’s edition of the Indian Express on the concrete. On it, he took stalks of Trichy grass out of a large plastic bag and separated the twigs and seeds, leaving a neat pile of sticky leaves in the middle. The guy in the middle made small portions out of pile and the third guy filled those portions into tiny plastic bags and then sealed them with a candle that glowered forlornly to the side. Trichy weed has to be stored fresh and moist. It loses quite a bit of its potency if it is allowed to remain open and dry up. And lastly, peeking from under the thigh of the guy in the middle was a growing pile of Rs1 notes and assorted change.
To the far left, beyond the canoodling Janardhan and Julie, sat a group of guys in veshtis (loose Tamil wrap-arounds). Bathed and clean shaven, they spoke in hushed tones and had holy ash smeared in horizontal parallel lines on their foreheads. One looked like he was carrying text books from the library, tucked inside a sling bag.
None of the veshti-clad group smoked and when a sudden gust of wind drove all that hash and weed smoke toward them, you could see a lot of wrinkled noses and disgusted looks. We were all high, albeit at varying altitudes, while they were firmly on the ground. We looked at them in scorn and they looked back at us in horror. They are all CEOs and venture capitalists now. And we? Let’s talk about sumpn else, okay?
There was a brief silence while Palnyappan at the projector room changed reels and then, the much anticipated ‘srrrrr’ of the movie reel started and the massive curved white concrete screen exploded with those jumbled dots, dashes and countdown numbers which finally gave way to the NFCB certificate that jerked and sputtered while the huge banks of speakers on either side woke up with beeps, burps and brakakaks. When the MGM lion came on, he looked emaciated and his roar seemed to end in a spluttering cough. I tell you, he looked as stoned as we all were.
Now that I could see pretty clearly in the dark with light from the flashes on the screen, I sensed someone sitting right next. It was Bu Hung. I groaned inwardly but still, out of politeness, said,” Hi, Bu. Hey, I was just thinkin’. When you get married and have a son, why not name him ‘Well’? Of course he’ll have ta live up to it. I’ve heard Chinese are really little down there.” He shrieked with mirth and only stopped when someone chucked a bag full of empty peanut husks at him from behind, with a ‘Cock up, Bu’ and a ‘Boo, Bu’. Bu went on chuckling and giggling under his breath till John Wayne shot the first bad guy.
When the lights came on at intermission, Bu took out a couple of cans. He opened one and held it out to me. I was famished. Hash does that to you. I sniffed at the can. Smells quite appetizing, I thought, but with hash, everything tastes fantastic. Bu passed me a plastic spoon and soon we were both wolfing the stuff down.
It was only when I was smacking my lips and reaching into my pocket for a Charminar that my eyes fell on the label on the cans. In bold letters, was the word ‘Shé’ and just below in parentheses, ‘Stir-fried, banded Krait’ and below that, was the taste, ‘Sechwan Style’. I groaned. No, actually it was more like ‘glugrrooooshilly f–k’. It was no use. By then the snake was swimming through my elementary canal.
“Bu Hung, you f—in’ slit-eyed Chink son of a bitch, you want ta kill me?” I screamed at him and promptly got pelted with empty cigarette packs, match boxes, sandwich wrappers and one torn flip-flop, from behind us. “Shut the f–k up, Bong!” someone yelled from an upper tier. A girl giggled. Feeling like a schmuck, I sat down.
I never did follow what happened in the second half of Brannigan. I was busy imagining a serious stomach ailment that wasn’t actually happening. I was in fact, feeling quite fine, in spite of having eaten a sizable portion of one of the world’s deadliest snakes, the banded krait.
I wonder where Bu Hung is. I owe him an apology. It has been 46 years since that evening at the OAT and if there is one thing that I have learnt, it is that what might seem completely alien to me, could be perfectly normal to someone else.
And therefore, today when my eyes fell on this Huffington Post article with the pictures of pigs in the International New York Times, their faces neatly blacked out, I didn’t bat an eyelid. The article is about a growing demand for ‘organic’ (anti-biotics free) pork and the INT, which is published from the Islamic majority Malaysia, had blacked out the pigs’ faces in these two photos. Pigs are ‘haram’, as per Islam. The photos promptly created a firestorm of indignation from all over the non-Muslim world. Frankly, they looked pretty ludicrous to me too.
This blackened-pig issue comes at a time when Malaysia, which is deemed to be a ‘moderately Islamic’ nation, is already in the news for all the wrong reasons. Remember the most recent controversy over the use of the word “Allah” in the Bible? Lets face it. All Islamic nations believe that God needs a helping hand and Malaysia is no different. It’s ‘religious police’ started confiscating copies of the Bible because they used the word Allah to refer to God. A court ruled, last October, that non-Muslims could not use the word Allah to refer to God. Thereafter, an appeals court said the term ‘Allah’ must be exclusive to Islam.
Most practicing Muslims will tell you that pigs are a health hazard. Their meat is fatty and causes all sorts of round worms, hook worms and tape worms inside the stomach. Some even go a bit further, to state quite confidently that pigs have a ‘bad moral character’. That pigs love to wallow in dirt and filth and love eating shit. That they are lazy and that they burp and fart all the time.
I don’t have to tell you what I think of all this. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know by now, but I’ll give you a hint just the same. I love burping and farting. And giggling, after. But maybe giggling is passé and I’ll just say ‘oink’ the next time.