Don’t know why but my roommate, Sashikanta Majhi, has been just a wee bit too chirpy, lately. That’s aside from his usual humming and his table-top tabla while doing his assignments. Like I said before, I let him make all that din without giving him a tap or two on the knocker, because he does our homework and all.
As to his sudden chirpiness, sometimes Sashi seems unable to stop chattering and then after a while, he falls strangely silent, seeming to withdraw into a shell, replying only in monosyllables if you happen to ask him anything. Moody Sashi. Probably passing through his pubescence at last, I say to myself. I’m happy I’ll finally be able to share the dog-eared issue of Hustler that I got from Surya out at Tapti, the magazine now tucked under my pillow. Sashi is as straight-laced as they come. And he doesn’t even have shoes.
Oui, Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse, these are like gold around these parts. Even the ones we have around, stained and smattered, the pages crinkly and hardened crisp with multiple DNA. Sometimes on weekends, the magazines are split into three or four sections and loaned out for short durations. You’ll get to hear doors being banged on and cries like,”Hey, Ranga, what’s takin’ you so long, man?” The guy inside, in the midst of his performance, will shriek back,” Srini, You stupid SOB, leave me alone now! Oooh! Aahhh! Arghhhhhhhhh!……..phew! There, now you can have it, buddy, its all yores.”
And to think that I have a complete Hustler! That’s Platinum! Since Sashi is showing the early signs of puberty, guess I’ll just sneak it in under his pillow tanight and go out for a stroll for a while. Sashi is still a virgin, I could give that to ya in writing and you could take it to the bank, I swear.
But about his moody spells, I can’t actually blame the guy. An enormous family back home, living so far below the poverty line that the Tonga trench must seem like a hill station. All of them back home seem to be somehow muddling along while they place all their tiny bets on their star, Sashikanta. I’m certain that they see him as someone who’ll graduate and one day come back home, a savior. A messiah, who’ll yank them out of that Kakurgachi slum and drag them into a spacious apartment in Ballygunge and into the ranks of the middle classes.
Sashi once described to me the scene at home, when he returned for his summer break, last year. His father (the postman, remember?) vacated the only cot in the one-room shack, for Sashi to sleep on during his entire two months home. Fish became a more frequent part of the dinner menu than it usually was (which was once fortnight) and the best piece was always reserved for Sashi. A week before the start of the second semester, Baba brought home a whole Hilsa one day and Sashi got to have the fish eggs, fried exactly the way he liked them, and the ‘jora peti’, the flesh around the stomach walls of the Hilsa fish, which is especially tasty. Sashi loved tomato chutney and just enough was prepared, only for him (tomatoes were expensive, Rs1/- per kilo). In the nights, Shantanu and Shibu would huddle at his feet and listen, rapt, to all the stories about hostel life in his institute.
“Ekhon bhaalo korey, mon diye porashuno kor, torao boro holey okhaney jabi portey. Aami toderke pathabo, bujhli?” (Hey, when you guys finish high school, you’ll be going there too, no worries, I’ll see to that, OK?”
“Shotti?” (Really?) Wide-eyed and awestruck were both young brothers as they huddled in even closer, hugged his legs and rested their chins on his knees,”Bolo, aaro bolo na, Dada, kub bhal lagche shuntey,” (Don’t stop, please tell us more about the place, Dada.)
The two months had whizzed past and when it was time for him to return, one blistering hot day, Sashi was walking home past the hockey grounds next to the Jolojog, at the corner of Jogodyan Lane and Ramkrishna Samadhi Rd, when he heard the familiar voice, “Aaj ashben na, kemon? Amar boro chele kal phire jachche. Tar por ashoon. Masher shesh to holoi kal na porshu, maine petei aapnake ferot dibo. Amar kotha ta rakhoon, please, kemon?” (Please, not today, OK? My eldest son is going back to school tomorrow. I swear I’ll square up your account then. Let’s do this after he leaves, OK? Bear with me for just a while).
Sashi turned his head toward the voice but didn’t slow his pace. He kept on walking past. His father’s bicycle was on it’s stand, in the shade of a neem tree at the far end. It’s handlebars were weighed down by mailbags and the spring-loaded carrier clamp behind was stuffed with small bundles of envelopes of all sizes, each bundle tightly wrapped with coiled jute string. And there was his Dad, facing someone in the shadows. It was a hefty character, sitting on a charpoi (a bare wooden cot) under the same neem tree, drinking something from a glass. Sashi didn’t stop to listen to the rest of the exchange but hurried on as otherwise, his presence might have been noticed and that would embarrass his father.
I remember him finishing his narration and falling silent, gazing down at the floor. I stood and crossed over to his bed, sat down next to him and put my arm round his frail shoulders. They shook, as the tears started flowing.
“Jani na perey oothbo ki na. Ora shob amar mukher dike takiiye aache,” (Don’t know if I’ll measure up. They are counting on me so much). His voice was a whisper of plain anguish, sagging under the burden of his family’s expectations of him.
“Hey, come on, bud. It’ll all turn out ok. You’ll see. You’ll show the world what Sashikanta Majhi is made of, I swear. Now wipe your eyes, I got sumpn ta show ya.” I reached over and brought out the dog-eared issue of Oui. As he sniffed and wiped his nose, Sashikanta’s eyes fell on the cover girl. “Ogulo koto boro re baba.” (Gosh, they really are big). He was referring to the baobabs on the cover of course. And I couldn’t argue with him on that. Goddamn, the nipples were big as hand grenades.
“Now you just relax with that mag while I go get myself a coffee. Don’t hurry, take all the time you need. I won’t be back before the mess hall opens for dinner. I gotta go check out Raghu’s pin-ups over at Krishna Hostel. And don’t soil the pages please, OK? They already have all the DNA they can handle. Any more and the magazine will be walkin’ on it’s own. Just keep the mag at a distance all the while, thank you kindly.” With those sage words, I shifted my CG to Krishna Hostel to eyeball Raghu’s stash of pin-ups.
Maybe Raghu’s cache has bigger grenades in them. Or even bunker busters.
Takes a lot ta surprise me these days.