To hell and back – Part 3

The day ended exactly like the way it had started. Seven of us huddling in darkness.

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Atleast, we all remembered to carry torches. Except Guru, since he was already on a path of enlightenment to his professor’s house. Bonda carried a pen torch that was enough to light up a button hole. Neil had a torch with some stock of Eveready batteries that were purchased by his grandfather during independence. I carried one that never failed to switch off at the right moment. Jeeva was the only one who had a massive torch that brought some dignity to this trek. Bobby had a decent one as well. And Aslam’s torch had conked in the rain.

So, we switched on our torches and entered into an argument that was long due. Jeeva flashed the torch at Bonda and yelled. Bonda yelled back flashing his pen torch on Bobby’s eye, rather pupil. Bobby punched Bonda on his chest. Aslam intervened, and calmed Bobby down. And turned to Bonda and gave him a punch from his side, that was twice Bobby’s might. Guru quickly slipped into a dark corner to remain inconspicuous. I kept fiddling with my torch to get it working before I picked my victim. This torch pointing game went on for quite some time, till everyone had finished flashing blames on each other. Soon, we realised that we were wasting precious energy on this pointless argument. So, we switched off our torches and continued with this fight in darkness picking an approximate blind spot, and hurling abuses at it. 

Bobby blamed Bonda for forgetting his bag.

Bonda blamed Bobby for his selfish long drawn photography breaks.

Guru concluded that this was a stupid idea to begin with.

Neil turned philosophical and blamed destiny.

I blamed my shitty luck. 

Aslam blamed everyone.

And Jeeva blamed his brainlessness for being a part of this shameful gang.

The only bright spot that remained was the deadlinelessness of the situation. We had already screwed up. We could think of nothing better to do, than remain in our positions and scream at each other. Which we did till the sounds of the jungle started getting louder. Strange sounds from every corner merged into an eerie cacophony humbling this petty scrap. We started feeling the wetness in our underwears. Now and then a cold wind would tingle some forgotten body part. And we started coming to terms that we have to move our asses, if we still want to keep them. 

There was a brief silence that made everyone believe that someone around was developing a plan. 

I heard the rumbling of a plastic cover. I was trying to decipher this familiar sound. It was Jeeva who was rummaging his bag to pull out some boiled eggs. This idea seemed great to our blank heads.

Soon, everyone attacked the packet like Darwin’s salivating dogs. The eggs that were planned out for next 2 days disappeared in 2 minutes. My hunger humped my ego aside, and I dived right in. Ok, I admit that boiled eggs never tasted so tasty before. 

Neil used this replenished energy for giving a small motivational speech, in a feeble defeated voice “We can do it guys come on. We’ve covered half the distance. Let’s finish it off guys. This is the test of life. We will not give up. Let’s go…..” or some such nonsense.

Nobody budged. And Neil quickly returned to the eggs that were fast disappearing.

We had just flung ourselves on a cluster of bushes on the left of the railtrack. There wasn’t even space for squatting. We just leaned on them with our bags on the back, sinking into it gradually, deforming ourselves to stand in peculiar poses, stuffing our faces with egg. It was thorny and we were bruised all over, but we were learning to vulnerably succumb to it. 

A whooshing sound that could have nothing but a snake, instantly kicked us all back into track.

Jeeva fished out a rope from somewhere and said “Ok. I’ll lead. The rest tie this rope around your waist and follow.” We got into our positions behind this self-appointed torch bearer. The balance trustable torches were assigned to every alternate member in the queue. And we were back on this eternal journey to nowhere. 

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What was worse was that, earlier we could atleast stop to see things around, but now the vision was strictly restricted to that ring of torchlight on those monotonous railings. We held our torches, tightened the rope on our waists, and relied on a mysterious force to pull us along. And walked like immune donkeys on semi-effective anaesthesia.

To keep himself going, Bonda strung together names of all his favorite gods and composed a meaningless prayer with a lifeless tune. And we all marched to this irritating chant.

Nobody had a perfect idea of how much we had covered, and how far we still had to go. After a few steps Bonda felt that we had walked over 5 kilometers, and Jeeva vouched that it was not more than 500 meters. We had to find methods to keep our bodies disengaged from the mind. And fool it to keep it going. 

“I’m fainting”

“I think I’ll die”

“Aojboaffvapsda”

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh”

“Mummy Daddy ki pasand. Bhaiyaa Bhabi ki pasand.”

“Vicco turmeric nahin cosmetic….”

“Tip tip barsa paani…I am your papa johnny”

“Humse kya bhool hui jo ye sazaa humko mili…..”

“HARE aknanaihipaiop RAMA askdnakne KRISHNA bmxncvnhsef ALLAH aihdaisc JESUS aksdkahad NAAM bhjmkbfasld HAI uabsdouasfas SHAHENSHAH”

“Twinkle twinkle little star…”

“FUCK YOU ALL”

We garbled anything that came to our mind to continue this journey in a state of mindlessness. I guess we were slowly turning mad. We walked mentally spell-checking our epitaphs, weighing our chances in heaven and picturising the various reactions of people when they get to know the news.

a-night-of-batsSuddenly Jeeva stopped and took off his jeans and strung it on his shoulders. The wet jeans had ruptured his skin. Jeeva resembled a ragpicker in this get up. Jeans on his neck, an oversized bag on his back, a dripping underwear on his bottom, and a piece of sleeping mat on one of his shoes. But at that moment even Russel Peters couldn’t have made us laugh. Seeing him, we realised that we all suffered from the same condition. Our thighs were severely wounded, and the idea of exposing it to the cold wind, seemed blissful. In a moment we all stripped down to our undies, and ungeared ourselves to complete the rest of this torment. Neil however took a little more time to aptly undress for this occasion, still managing to find his own style statement in the hour of desperation. He tied back his hair. And buckled his belt over his long shirt. Flung his jean on the neck, and casually tossed back one half over his shoulder, to make it seem like an impromptu stole. And ramp walked like he was in a show that had ‘Spartacus’ as the theme. 

Bobby carefully scrutinized his thighs to find any traces of blood, so that he could repeat his fainting act more convincingly this time. Fortunately, the leeches and his denims were kinder to the rest of us.

And after this brief makeover, we resumed that painful parade in our liberated uniform. 

Now and then, we would wait for Jeeva to replace his shredded sole with a fresh cutting of the sleeping mat. Eventually he had no more mat to cut, and slowly moved on to sizing down every other mat that he could lay his hands on. We walked with alternating interruptions of Jeeva’s sole changing pit-stops and Guru’s squeals, everytime he spotted a twig that resembled a snake.

For sometime, Neil kept us engaged with some story of a fashion show that he had participated in. The story was disjointed and meaningless, but noone bothered to clarify. To everyone around, it was only a reassurance that we were still a part of this world. We were still alive. We could still hear. We were still walking. It was just comforting to hear a human voice around, to assure us of our existence. 

We subjected ourselves to this unique test where on one end, Neil’s humdrum was putting us to sleep, and on the other the rope that was tugging us on our waists refused to let us slip into his lullaby.

We endured this torture for about six hours, and in the dying minute of our lives, we suddenly spotted salvation. Jeeva flashed the beam on a railway board that read “Yedakumeri”.

(Oh yes!! This has a part 4. I tried my level best to edit out as much as I could, but I couldn’t. I have too many stories to tell. Not because they are worthy of narration, but just for the sheer pleasure that I’m still bloody alive to tell it.)

To be contd…..

The little I know about Malgudi

I must be having a world record for entering into arguments. Somehow, on one topic, I have never found another point of view. That Malgudi Days is undoubtedly the best piece of work created for Indian television. 

I can imagine the nightmare Shankar Nag must have gone through to even gain the confidence to take up this masterpiece and convert it to film. 

That decision involves messing around with the million Malgudis that people might have formed in their own little heads. Albert Mission School might have taken various forms, Lawley Extension must have resembled some locality close to their home. The casting was complete in the head with faces of people they knew who fit the bill. 

Though the book took care to detail out every little nuance of the characters and the place, it still had blank spaces to make the audience fill it up with their own props.

It had become too real to remain unreal. 

To finally put a definite picture to this little town, that was only missing in the Indian map, was too risky a task.

That was not the only sensitivity that Shankar Nag had to deal with.

Malgudi was a small little town somewhere in South India, but he wanted to make a serial that reached the entire country, which would mean that it had to be in Hindi. Though the novel was in English, he now had to make them speak Hindi.

Then he must have thought in his own head, then if people can relate to the characters speaking in English, they could very well do so, even if they spoke Hindi. 

He perhaps made the most sensible decision in his life, to make the characters speak Hindi in a South Indian accent. And thankfully not the caricatured version of it, that Mehmood popularised in ‘ek chathur naar’. 

The characters of Malgudi, now found their own language, a simplified version of hindi, that had its own sweetness.

I have been such a fan of this series that now I have gathered some unverified trivia on it. Everytime I met anyone vaguely associated with this masterpiece, I have quizzed them endlessly on their experiences.

Apparently, Shankar Nag was very cautious during the making of this entire series. 

Earlier, when RK Narayan lent his story ‘The Guide’, to be made into a film, he was extremely unhappy with the result of it. The Dev Anand Starrer turned out to be a super-hit, but was anything but that to the writer. It was commercialised and reduced to such an unrecognisable form, that RK Narayan then swore to never again part with anymore of his stories.

Meanwhile, Shankar Nag had a more genuine interest. He just wanted to present these beautiful stories in as exact a form, as it was in the writer’s head.

But the precedent had already been set at mediocrity.

He had a very tough time convincing ‘The once bitten, twice reluctant’  RK Narayan to believe in him.

After a lot of haggling, RK Narayan decided to give him a chance. Shankar Nag took RK through every single scene, and kept him informed on every single move he made throughout the making of the series.

This respect reflects in every scene.

There was no directorial input that threatened to steal the limelight from the story and its characters. Shankar Nag had the supreme wisdom to realise that these stories need no further value addition. He understood that his only role was to do complete justice to the story, and nothing else.

It’s surprising as to how he managed to unfold every scene at such a languid pace and yet wind up in the prescribed 20 odd minutes.

Every time i watch it, I pick up something new. He always kept his backdrops busy. His backdrops said everything else, that might have been an interference, had it been in the book. He cleverly borrowed characters from the other stories and put them in the backdrop, in a manner, where you could expect a story on them sooner or later.

A street urchin running past with an old cycle tyre. A bunch of jobless guys congregating to discuss on some useless topic. A mad man chasing a bus. A peddler sharpening knives. A street performance by a monkey and his troop.

Shankar Nag narrowed down on Agumbe as the location for shooting the entire series. Now, Agumbe had far more trees than needed. And Shankar Nag wanted to recreate the streets in the novel, and so asked his art director (the under-rated John Devraj) to cover up the trees with plaster of paris to look like poles, rather than fell them down.

I’ve even heard that he has cancelled shoots only because a prop used was not right, like a coffee cup. Shankar Nag cancelled an entire schedule because he felt that the coffee cup in that dingy hotel didn’t look authentic enough.

The casting of Swami has its own tale. Over a hundred kids landed up for the audition, and Shankar Nag instantly took a liking to Manjunath. He was certain that in Manjunath he had found his ‘Swami’. He decided to instantly sign him on.

Later, that night he discovered that Manju didn’t know a word of hindi. Shankar Nag pondered over the problem. He realised that he could not let a language barrier defeat the much needed innocence he saw in Manju. He didn’t want a duplicate Swami. He went ahead and cast him much against the advice of various others.

In fact, Manju had no clue about the story. He was far too young to understand the hugeness of his character. He had no clue that he was going to play one of literature’s best written character. Shankar Nag kept him away from all the pressure, just to preserve his innocence. He would give Manju the Hindi lines the previous day to rehearse, but never explain the story to him. 

Another story is that during the making of ‘Swami and Friends’, Manju had to stay for a prolonged period of time at Agumbe. After some time, Manjunath fell home sick. Shankar Nag decided to indefinitely postpone the shoot than force an unhappy child to proceed with the shoot half heartedly.

Manjunath came back to Bangalore and started attending school regularly. Shankar Nag patiently met Manju every other evening after school hours, and generally chatted with him about the day, never mentioning anything about the shoot.

It was only after Manju voluntarily said that he wanted to shoot again, Shankar Nag decided to resume the shoot.

 

It’s probably this purity of thought that makes this serial rise above all, to such a status, that even writing a blog on it is scary.

‘Swami and Friends’ went on to win various awards in the country and abroad. I recently read in an ‘Interview with Manju’, where he says that the biggest award he got was RK Narayan telling him that ‘You are exactly the Swami I had in my mind’.

 

That is a statement that could move anyone to tears.

 

What’s probably bigger is those million Malgudi fans echoing together ‘This is exactly the Malgudi, we had in our minds’.

 

Thank you Shankar Nag.