I think Sashi is possessed. By a song. You know, the Engelbert Humperdink number, ‘Tell me Quando Quando Quando’. The song embedded itself two days back and he has been hummin’ a squeaky, out-of-tune version of it constantly ever since. It crept into his skull like that thick green soupy plague in The Ten Commandments. Thereafter, it hasn’t needed any particular situation or context to spill out of his tongue. He warbles it out in a thick Bengali accent, like rosogolla syrup, oh yeah. ‘Bhen bhil you shay you’ll be mine, tell me kando kandooo kannndoo’.
Now it’s no skin off my back, wantin’ ta hum a toon and all, accent or no accent. Sashikanta Majhi is my room-mate at engineering school dorm and my relationship with Sashi is a delicate one, like the one the CIA have with the Pakistani ISI. I’m itchin’ ta kick his skinny bottom but I have to control myself. He has many uses. Like doing my homework for me while I’m at the Blue Diamond cinema with Sandhya Ramanujam, 17, BA-Fine Arts, Stella Maris College. Iyengar girl, so big-chested that her CG is somewhere there up front, a full six inches beyond her body. Engineering students turn her on, what can I tell ya. But that’s enough about Sandhya Ramanujam. Please, this one is not about Sandhya Ramanujam, people. Baobabs have no place on this piece. Namah Shivayah, Nama Namaha.
Back to my roomie, Sashikanta Majhi. A dainty, neat and tidy pipsqueak of a higher secondary board topper from Kakurgachi, Sashi’s squeaky voice sounds more like when you’re opening a door whose hinges need oiling. Against Engelbert’s deep baritone, Sashi’s squeaky Quando is infuriating. Especially when I’m trying to decipher what in the effin’ hell how ‘viscous dashpots’ work, for tomorrow’s periodical test on vibrations.
Perios are bloody important. 30% weightage on overall scores. I’m preparing tiny chits that’ll fit into my shirt cuffs, no problem. My shirt cuffs are specially retrofitted. Like ejectable wing-pod fuel tanks for the Mig-23 interceptor. The chits can be made to peek out of my cuffs and retreat, smoother than Cesar Cardinale’s stilleto did, in that Harold Robbins book, Stilleto. Sashi doesn’t need shirt cuff chits, he’s brilliant. He is a goddamn walking shirt cuff chit.
Sashi’s father is a postman at Kakurgachi and postmen all over have this feeling of kinship. Naturally therefore , the postman here reaches him first, with the monthly Money Order from Dad. If on any particular month, Sashi asks around if we have received our MOs yet, it means his father hasn’t been able to send him any money for that month. Which happens often. It means 30 days of ‘plain toash’ (plain toast) for breakfast, sambar/rice for lunch and dinner for him. We try to pay for his chicken biryani and bread pakoras on the Saturday OAT movie nights or omelettes for breakfast but Sashi shakes his head with an embarrassed ‘thanks’. Fortunately, the tuition and hostel fees in this institute are so heavily subsidized by the government that getting by with very little is not difficult. If you don’t have many vices. Sashi doesn’t have any. He’s a teetotaller, has just two pairs of jeans and T-shirts and a pair of well worn hawaii flip-flops round off his attire. For the dorm, he has a pair of white kurta-pyjamas for the hostel dorm.
Just when I’m about to tap him on his knocker with my slide rule to encourage him to shut up I’m tryin’ ta concentrate, Sashi breaks into a spirited “dhinga dhinga nika nika, dhinga dhinga nika nika” and as his singing reaches a crescendo, the balls of his palms thump the table top, while his stubby fingertips play the tabla on it. Jesus, this guy is one chirpy SOB. Sashi switches to his loud ‘dhinga nika…’ routine and table tabla when he has just been able to solve some mathematical issue in relation to the next day’s submissions. As he nears the answer, Sashi’s falsetto and tabla gets louder. I can’t do nothin’ about it. Like I told you, I need the pipsqueak for my assignments and homework.
Sashikanta Majhi is a deeply religious boy. His side of the room is bristling with pictures of deities, all situated around the side of his cot where he puts his head. Placing someone near your feet is sacrilege in Hinduism.
I’m a late riser. Like, if I’m up fifteen minutes before the Turbomachines class begins, I’m early. However, once in a while I happen to come awake at five and continue to just laze in bed, pretending to be asleep. Sashi’s day starts a half hour prior. By five, already bathed, he quietly eases open the door of our room so as not to wake me up, and goes for a walk in the hostel garden in just a dhuti. Chennai, even at five in the morning, is warm and strolling around the hostel garden, bare-chested, with only a dhuti on is not a problem. For us guys, that is, and for the gals at Sarayu Hostel, wouldn’t we want ta see them similarly attired. A dhuti is a thin white cotton fabric, the male equivalent of a saree. Problematic when you have no underwear and are looking at dirty pictures. It looks more like a tent then. Now don’t get me started on that, OK?
Sashi returns after ten minutes, his arms loaded with jacobinas, violets, thistle and sunflowers. He deposits them next to him on his bed and proceeds to string them together in tiny malas (garlands), all the while chanting softly under his breath, “Namah Sooryaya Chandraya Mangalaya Budhayacha ….”. Every time he reaches up to drape a mala on one of the deities, he clasps his hands together in supplication, head bowed and a deep, distinct ‘Ommm’ escapes from his lips. ‘Om’ is a deep drawn-out incantation that is normally delivered right from the pit of the stomach, in the beginning and the end of a Hindu prayer. It has great meaning to it, but I’m not the right guy to tell you what that is. The only Om I know is spelt ‘ohm’ and is a unit of electrical resistance. The other one is a French guy saying ‘home’. Or a French guy himself.
His prayer done, Sashi lifts his head and looks up at Ma Saraswati, then Ma Laxmi, Shib thakur, Ganesh thakur and so on, from one to the next, all freshly adorned with his flowers. I’m not very sure but every once in a while, I think I see his eyes misty and wide, trembling lips mumbling words that don’t sound like a shlok but like him trying to converse with his God. Then, finally, with a sigh, he backs off the bed and goes and sits at his table, opens his text books and quietly starts reading, as the first rays hit our window sill.
I cannot stop being amazed at how different I am and also how envious. At a boy who is dirt poor, has just one change of clothes and excels in class. No taking off to the movies, no girlfriends, not one stoke of hashish rolled in a beedi, or a slug of hooch. No Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath. And still, I have never known anyone that I have wanted to be more like. In contrast, the walls on my side of the room are bare, if you don’t take into account the Mumtaz blow-up. And the pin-up of Jacqueline Bisset stepping out of a swimming pool. Parveen Babi had been there but Sukumar, final year electronics, a few doors away, has taken her on loan for a few weeks. No problem. Jacky Bisset isn’t really mine either. I got her from Mady Giri, M.Tech first year IE, up at Kaveri hostel. Mady has one of Aruna Irani in a rustic costume that he’s willin’ ta pay you to take away but there still aren’t any takers. I’m expecting Helen any day now, from Popsie Ramachandran out at Krishna hostel. Sashi is of course oblivious to the posters. Whenever I install a new one, he just shakes his head and gives me a shy retiring smile, like ‘oh, boys will be boys’.