Friday, July 06, 2007

The Fascinating Triumph of Rakesh Belal

I bet you’ve seen Rakesh Belal. He is ubiquitous. An 18-year-old dropout, the sort found in trackpants and a fake Nike t-shirt outside shantytown video parlours and ramshackle gyms anywhere across the country. But this is not how we found him. It was the summer of 1996, and we were setting off from New Delhi railway station, going to Ghazipur for Muharram. We were in our compartment, when we noticed a boy, scavenging for food. The innocence of his face captured Mom’s heart. She gave him something to eat, and Dad gestured at him to come inside. Once with us, he settled down as if he had always been part of the family. When the train moved, Mom and Dad found it hard to send him away. And soon Rakesh Belal was en route to Ghazipur too.

Belal was not his real name. He was Rakesh Singh from a village in Uttar Pradesh called Hauwwapura. He had no clue where it was, but knew that the nearest city was Agra. His father’s name he gave as “Jungli Singh” — which we later found out to be Jungani Singh — and his mother’s name was Shanti Devi. His father was dead and his mother had left home. He had lived once with an aunt, but she ill-treated him, pushing him to leave home. In Delhi, he found refuge at a constable’s home, but was mistreated there too. Having fled that place as well, he was caught later by the authorities and thrown into a correction facility — an abysmal institution, where the rooms were cramped, the food miserable and the older kids were vicious to the younger ones. Finally he escaped, and that’s when we found him on the platform.

Before Belal, we had once tried adopting a street kid whom we named Jalal. He ran away 11 months later, after a tiff with our servant. My parents were heartbroken. They looked for him everywhere, and tried filing a complaint at the local police station, but were told that they had no locus standi to report his going missing since they had never reported finding him in the first place. This time, we were better prepared. We had Belal photographed, and filed an FIR stating that we had found him and requesting that we be treated as his legal guardians until the police found his real ones. Of course, the FIR was a formality. The police never did anything.

With paperwork over, Belal’s initiation into our family began. Initially he was very conscious of his non-Muslim antecedents. He would resist our Muslim habits like eating non-vegetarian food, or mouthing Arabic phrases for pleasantries or for cursing. But he had little choice. The first debate arose on his name. Mom was too unhappy with “Rakesh.” After much deliberation we yoked an Arabic “Belal” to his Hindu “Rakesh” name. But this made me question our own socio-religious and racial politics. Why didn’t we name him Ali or Hasan? Why did we choose Belal for him? Belal was one of the revered associates of Prophet Mohammad but he was a black African who was rescued from slavery by the Prophet himself from a local tribesman Ummaiyah. Belal had an unusually melodious voice and Prophet appointed him as a Muezzin at the first Islamic mosque in Medina. Many resented Belal’s proximity to Prophet and one day some compatriots complained that there were too many pronunciation errors in Belal’s prayer call or Azaan. The Prophet heard them out, smiled and ordered someone else to give the prayer call next morning. But the legend goes that the next morning the sun just wouldn’t arise. Worried, people queued up at the mosque only to hear that Allah has decreed that the sun won’t come up till Belal gives the prayer call. But Belal remained an African slave. He was not the progeny. And we being the progeny couldn’t name an outsider with a progeny’s name.

Soon Belal overcame his inhibitions. He started enjoying non-vegetarian food, started participating in religious activities, and started showing comfort and familiarity with Muslim habits. Mom and Dad got him admitted to a local government school. It made me question our motives again. I recall when it was time for me to get admitted to a school, Mom left no stone unturned (to use a cliché) to get me admitted to an “English-speaking” school. It was unthinkable for her to compromise on her children’s education. However, the same urgency was not shown when it came to Belal’s education. They were happy admitting him to a Hindi-speaking government school. One evening I snuggled up to Mom and asked about this discrimination. I could see the discomfort in her eyes. She paused, composed herself, and with a motherly assurance said, “Son, this is the best we can afford for him as of now.” I made an uneasy peace with our charity.

Belal started growing in our household. He would call Mom, Mom and Dad, Dad. He would go to school like a regular kid, would love watching television, would eat what we ate, and went where we went. But he remained an outsider. He never got the same acceptance from our relatives. Sometimes it would bother him. He’d ask Mom as to why the extended family doesn’t treat him as one of them. Mom would cuddle him and say we treat you as son and that’s all that matters. That would assure him but the discomfort remained. His status remained quaint. He was not a servant but he was not family either. Days passed and he grew rapidly. Soon he was the tallest in his class. His interest in studies waned. He cleared his sixth grade exam but failed in the seventh grade. There was general disappointment at home but no sense of gloom as it would have been had any one of us would have failed. A repeat attempt next year again resulted in failure. By now he was completely off studies. He dropped out of school, made strange friends, remained away from home for long hours, and had generally no explanation for his absence, started stealing money from Dad, and became rude and indifferent in his behaviour. He started questioning our motives and often in his fits pointed out our discriminating bits. Our relationship plummeted. When confronted he’d maintain a dourly silence that exasperated us even more. Often it would result in me thrashing him. Later, I would regret it but I didn’t have the guts to go up to him and apologize to him. One day during one such session he lost his cool, caught me by gruff and pinned me against the wall. There was blood in his eyes. He could have killed me. It took three people to pull him off me. That day I realized he has grown up and cannot be subdued by physical violence.

Then one day we got a phone call from the local police station asking whether someone called Rakesh Belal lived with us. My father nervously admitted yes. The officer reported that he is in their custody. There is complaint against him for video piracy and stealing CDs from a shop where he worked at Lajpat Rai Market. We had seen this sudden surge of video and game CDs at home but had no clue as to where did he get them from. But I guess we didn’t care either. One day Mom did ask him and he muttered something about rejects from the shop where he worked. And that was it. Dad in a very obsequious manner apologized to the policeman, explained the circumstances in which the boy grew up, begged for clemency, and assured him that this would never be repeated. The result was that the policeman let go off him after a couple of slaps and kicks. But Belal was shaken. He came home as a frightened boy. Mom and Dad made best use of this opportunity to get him back into the fold. They made him pledge that he will shun his bad habits, reform himself, and will restart his studies. Belal applied at the National Open School for the tenth grade and started his second innings with us.

His interest in technology grew. He would fiddle around with the computer and play stations for long. Soon we found that he was running a play station repair shop in our mezzanine floor. Around this time he also got introduced to the Internet. He’d idle time searching for gaming software even pornography. One day my cousin told him about Google Earth and thus became his search for his roots. He’d search for Hauwwapura endlessly but would find nothing. Then one day during a Goggle search he typed Hauwwapura and chanced upon an entry that mentioned a town Karawali. Before we knew he was aboard a bus to Agra and then to Karawali. When he reached Karawali he couldn’t find anything resembling close to his memory. Disappointed he boarded back on the bus to Delhi. As the bus moved he turned towards his fellow passenger and asked him whether he knew a certain Mansingh (his uncle) in Hauwwapura. The fellow passenger said yes and led him straight to his ancestral house. On May 26, 2007 at 9 pm, eleven years after we found him on a railway platform, we get a call from a triumphant Rakesh Belal. His opening words were, “Mummy! I found my house. I am standing in front of it.” My Mom had a smile on her lips. My Dad tears.

Belal became a hero in his village. The news spread like wildfire and soon people from adjoining villages poured in to have a look at this wonder boy. Three days later he came back to Delhi with photographs and stories of his reunion. There was jubilation in our house. We all huddled around him willing to hear every word he had to say. He said the people in his village were awestruck that even Muslims can be human enough to bring up an orphan. I chuckled when I heard that. I don’t know how fair we’ve been to Rakesh Singh but he has grown up with us. His triumph is ours and we share his newfound happiness. He still stays with us and perhaps will forever. Rakesh Singh has got a compartment in his tenth grade exam but there is hope now.

Dan Husain

PS: An abridged version of this tale was published in Tehelka dated July 06, 2007.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dastan in Pakistan

Pakistan offers an unusual experience for Indians. It has a flavour different from India; we savour it, and yet it is not different enough to alienate. A chance to visit Pakistan is always welcomed.

Though I have visited Pakistan twice before, I debuted as a professional on this trip. It began with a chance conversation with Usman Peerzada at the Bonn Biennale Theatre Festival at Bonn this summer. I had just finished my performance as part of the Agra Bazaar troupe and had reached the Opera House for my dinner. As I walked past the delegates in the foyer to the corner where the buffet was laid out, I heard Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi singer and a fellow performer, call out my name. He said, "Come, let me introduce you to this gentleman." The gentleman was Usman Peerzada, CEO of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop group which organizes the World Festival for Performing Arts in Lahore every year. Usman briefed me about the festival, his passions, his family, his father, and everything that inspires him. He extended an invitation to me and we bid good bye with a promise to meet in Lahore this November.

So on November 08, 2006 at approximately seven in the evening I stepped into the probing tentacle connecting the airport terminal with the airplane. As we, a group of eleven people, walked out of the magnificent Allama Iqbal International Airport's building on to the driveway, the air was redolent with excitement. We turned around to look at the airport's façade and I must admit I have not seen a more tastefully done airport in the subcontinent. The volunteers to receive us were warm, smiling and at once made us feel at home. There is one thing in particular I've noticed about Pakistani people. They give an awesome reception when once they get to know you are an Indian. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I start feeling guilty that we may not reciprocate such warmth when they'll visit us.

The drive on The Mall was pleasing. I've often heard comparisons between Lahore and Delhi. Well, partially they may remind of each other but I think Lahore reminds me more of Bangalore. We call Bangalore a city of gardens and that what Lahore is. However, the canal really makes Lahore unique. Like the aorta it pumps character in to the city of Lahore.

We drove straight from the airport to the Al-Humra Cultural Complex. The open air theatre is a sight to behold. The red brick building, reminiscent of the Colloseum in Rome, was draped in banners, posters, coloured flags. The adjacent premises had camps erected as performance spaces but the most happening spot was the Food Tent. Dining out there was like what they say in New York – if you stand at Times Square for ten minutes, you'd probably run into people from all races. The festival's edition this year has 700 artists participating from 40 countries. And that was palpable when we stepped into the Food Tent.

The Peerzada's are a family of exceptionally talented people but what really makes them stand out is their unique skill to pool in their individual talents into a formidable enterprise educating, performing, supporting, promoting arts and culture in Pakistan. They're truly the cultural ambassadors of Pakistan. We were greeted by the blue-eyed handsome Imran Peerzaada. His silver locks and charming smile immediately arrested us and put us at ease too. The next couple of hours saw us running into all the Peerzada's including the sisters, and the next generation that includes the indefatigable Aleena and the handsome and charming puppeteer Shehriyar. Over the last weekend I have firmly come to the opinion that the Peerzada's have some secret recipe, a magic potion, which keeps them fresh, high-spirited and charged 24X7.

The performance that we brought to the festival is an adaptation of an Irish play by Brian Friel called "Aristocrats." Sabina Mehta Jaitly, our director, adapted the play into the Indian context – a Muslim Taluqdari family – and rechristened it as Mirza Bagh. The play unravels the highs and the lows of the landed Muslim aristocracy in post-partition India. Our performances were slated for the 10th and 11th November. And with bated breath we opened the play on the evening of November 10th. But when people came up to us and said they loved the play, we felt redeemed. Though I didn't know many in the audience but some were introduced to us. One was Salima Hashmi, Principal of Beaconhouse National University, author, painter, curator, the list is endless. She doesn't need any introduction in Pakistan. It was a privilege to meet her and I was particularly excited as I may get to play Faiz Ahmed Faiz's role, her father, in a play when I return to India later this week. There can't be a better person than her to acquaint me with the great poet.

I also met Shahnaz and Fakir Syed Aijazuddin. Shahnaz has been in correspondence with friend and fellow Dastaan-performer, Mahmood Farooqui, in India for over a year now. Shahnaz has been working at translating the epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza into English while Mahmood and I have been performing Dastangoi in India for the past year. Thus it only made sense for us to meet and spend time together. They graciously invited me to their magnificent house for dinner and I had one of the most memorable evenings in Lahore at their place. We talked about everything that was dear to our heart and parted on the note that we have to get together again next weekend with a little Dastangoi mehfil or baithak of our own.

Besides, acting my other passion is poetry. With few friends I run an online writers' community called Caferati. However, what started two years back as a very local endeavour has mushroomed into a fledgling international community of writers and poets and we have three wonderful writers from Lahore as members of this forum. Back in India we have a Caferati practice that we meet at least once a month and share our writings. I thought it was perfect for me to utilize this trip to Lahore to meet the fellow Caferatians. So, I called up Sajjad Khan, a brilliant upcoming writer and asked him to organize the read-meet event. Come Sunday afternoon and I walked into his house with my beautiful cousin Nida, a graphic designer and a photographer, to be greeted by seven exceptionally talented young Pakistani writers. We sat over Sheesha and coffee and read and heard some heart-moving poetry.

I have been in Pakistan for just five days but I seem to be having the most memorable time I've had had for long. When we segregate people for long, the lines between fact and fiction blur. Our curiosity leads us to lap up any information thrown at us and in order to know the other, we start relying on anything offered – second-hand accounts, hearsay, stories, etc. and we create as what Amitava Kumar calls "textbook enemies." We can deconstruct this enemy only if we encourage people to people contact. That is the only way to see the human in the other.

Murtaza Danish Husain

November 13, 2006

Lahore, Pakistan

PS: A variant of this piece was published in the November 17, 2006 edition of The Friday Times in Pakistan.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Painting

Palette knives, multitudes of them, tenderly smudge a viridian sky in my dreams. I wake up with a start. The stark white canvas stares at me. Ah! My masterpiece – my Self-Portrait, my Sunflowers, my Last Supper – still awaits me. I do not know when I became a painter. I don’t even pretend to recollect it. Failure is nostalgic, success amnesiac. So, we take it that I’ve always been a painter.

My house overlooks a T-junction. It is at the mouth of the T-junction, overlooking a street. The street is, as any other street would be in a mofussil town in India. Faceless, splattered with patches of brown – cow dung flattened by tires, human steps, and the oppressive heat – flanked by flowing sewer, littered, and cattle squatting randomly. And then all sorts of vehicles to transport humans – cycles, carts, rickshaws, autos, taxis, lorries, cars – stifling its slender shape. Finally, completing the picture are the ugly shops, with their soot-covered tarpaulin awnings, lining its both sides with greedy shopkeepers spilling out on the pavement with their cheap wares. The Bazaar.

I sit here wondering what should I paint. And then the epiphany strikes. Oh damn those viridian skies and swaying green grass! Why not paint the bazaar in front of me. So, I pick my sable, palette, mahlstick – all the paraphernalia at my disposal and start painting the scene across my window. It takes me days but I am seized by this vision that the street throws at me. Slowly and painstakingly I capture the street. It shifts, changes colors, throw varied images but I wait everyday for the afternoon – just that right hue – to start work on my painting again.

After many tireless afternoons, I do finish my painting one-day. It is a snapshot of the world outside my living room’s window. But something is amiss. The painting betrays me. I keep standing, staring at the painting, a sable caressing my cheek as I wonder what must I do to transcend this painting into an extraordinary one. Ah! How about an accident. Yes. Perfect. I show an accident in the middle of the street. I immediately get to work. I paint a head-on collision between two cars. Smashed with their bonnets crumpled. Next to the cars a body lies covered with a white shroud and an anxious crowd next to it. Morbid but I guess I’ve got what I wished. I leave the painting on the tripod to dry.

Days pass by. The painting adorns my living room. I marvel at my creation. But soon it becomes another fixture in that room. I am no more seized by the morbidity it paints. I become oblivious to its existence. I don’t even look at it as I go about my chores.

Then one afternoon a bang wakes me up. I immediately rush to the living room’s window to see what has happened. But what I see shake the wits out of me. The scene outside is an exact replica of my painting – the street with a head-on collision in its midst. They’ve laid down a body next to the cars, as it was in my painting, and covered it with a white shroud. The crowd surrounds the scene. There is chaos. I am transfixed. Did I paint the future?

It takes me a while to gather my wits. I am still shaken but I decide to go down and check this mess out. I rush out on to the street and run towards the accident site. Everyone is rushing towards the accident site. No one knows what happened exactly. I reach the spot. The crowd has swelled now. I jostle my way through and reach the helm of the crowd. I ask a person or two but they just shrug and keep staring at the body. Finally, I muster courage and bend down. I look around at the faces. They’re as eager to see the face. I lift the shroud: Dad.

© Dan Husain
April 22, 2006

PS: I saw this dream fifteen years back.

Monday, March 13, 2006

At The Threshold of Cinematic History

“I am fed up with this perpetual auditioning business! If they are so fucking dissatisfied with me why don’t they just show me the door?”

Sonny sat there in the studio with a glum face. Jaw line hardened, he exhaled smoke. He felt his ribs burn as he exhaled. The studio was deserted. Only one bulb shone. He could see his shadow fall across the floor, ending where Francis’s shoes were. This was turning out to be a harrowing experience. He could cope with poverty. Often he had to borrow money to reach an audition venue. But that was fine. It didn’t deter him because he believed in his ability as an actor and was certain that one day he’d get both recognition and money. The dream kept everything alive. However, this was not remotely close to what he envisaged about his life as an actor.

He was very young when Dad divorced Mom. Mom moved in with Granny and since then it has been a tale of survival and subsistence. Mom had to do odd jobs to keep the family together. Sonny found school boring and sought pleasure in school plays and theatre. Finally, he dropped out of school and took up acting as a career. He had early disappointments but an entry into Actors Studio affirmed his faith in his abilities. His tutor there was supportive of him, believed in his dream and taught him finer aspects of Method Acting. The apprenticeship at the Studio fructified into two award winning stage performances and a contract for a movie. This was followed by another movie, though it wasn’t a box office success, it got him critical acclaim. Perhaps, that acclaim got this audition for him.

But now it was heading nowhere. He has already been auditioned five times for this role. He would have welcomed this rigor otherwise. But they were screen-testing him with scenes where he couldn’t really showcase his talent. They were deliberately offering him meek portions: scenes where his role was marginal. The grapevine was abuzz that nobody – right from the producer, the studio heads to the fellow cast – wanted him. The other day when he finished the audition someone quipped from behind the camera,

“Hey midget! You’d be better off as a prop on a stage!”

He wished he could spit on that person’s face. And then the other day he had a fellow cast patronizing him.

“Sonny! A rejection doesn’t mean you’re a bad actor. Maybe you don’t fit the bill!”

They all thought he was meek for the role. They thought only an established actor could do justice to this role. The only person who believed in him was the director, Francis, who stood in front of him right now consoling him and encouraging him to not give this up in a huff.

“This is ridiculous. These people don't want me, and I don't want to be around when they feel this way. Besides, I think they might be right. I think they want a movie star which I am absolutely not!”

“Sonny! I am aware of all this! But I am the director. It’s my vision in the end. And I assert that you’re the best suited for this role. Leave this to me!”

“But how long can you hold fort? Everyone is against me! Right from the producer to the fucking clap-boy! They snigger and sneer at me and to make things worse, I screen-tested on a scene that didn't really allow me to show my chops! I beg you, Francis! No more auditions, no more screen tests. I can live without this part!”

Francis leaned forward and patted Sonny’s shoulder.

“Cool your heels Sonny Boy! Just do your bit and leave the rest to me!”

Five days later Alfredo James Pacino got the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Godfather”. The rest is history.

© Dan Husain
March 7, 2006

PS: Excerpts taken from Pacino’s interviews and articles written on his struggle to get this role.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Secret Treasure Hunt

This is the first short story that my daughter has written. She is eight years old and lives in Detroit, Michigan, USA with her aunt. She sent me this story on e-mail and requested me if I could put this on my blog. The pictures are taken from the internet.

The Secret Treasure Hunt

Once upon a time in far away land there lived a girl named Sabat. Sabat’s parents were so poor that they did not have a lot of food. But Sabat had everything that she wanted. But the thing she liked most was her friend Madison.

Sabat and Madison lived next to each other. They also helped each other like getting water from the river, doing homework and all the other stuff. Sabat always thought that she was missing something but she didn’t care.

One hot day, Sabat and Madison planned going to the forest. They got everything they needed and put them in their backpacks. Madison had secretly got a map from her mom’s trunk and took it with her. When they were ready they started walking in the forest.

Madison had stolen a treasure map from her mom’s trunk. When Madison came back she showed the map to Sabat. Sabat said, “Lets go on a treasure hunt. It will be much more fun than just walking around and looking at the forest.” So they headed for the secret treasure.

Madison and Sabat followed the path and did what the map told them to do. Sabat and Madison had a little trouble finding their way but they knew that they could do it.

Madison told Sabat that there were some other girls whom she knew that lived in the forest. “Great!” Sabat said, “Maybe we can live with them for a while.” Madison also told Sabat that they knew where the secret treasure might be.

Sabat said that she also knew these girls who lived in the forest and knew where the treasure might be. Sabat said that the girls’ names were Lindsay, Mary G, Mary R and Kirsten. Madison was so shocked that these were the girls she knew.

Since they knew the same girls they went where they lived. Now they didn’t need any directions because they knew where to go. While they were walking something jumped out from the trees and scared them. It wasn’t an animal, it wasn’t a creature, plus it wasn’t a big giant monster. It was just Lindsay, one of the girls they were friends with.

Lindsay said that she could take them to the girls since they had moved to other side of the forest. Now Madison liked this because she always liked it when people helped each other. So on and so on, as you know they came to the other side and met other girls.

Kirsten jumped and came running to Madison and Sabat. They ran to her to and when they reached each other they gave each other a big hug.

When they were done hugging they stared the treasure hunt. They followed the yellow path in the middle of the forest. Then they stopped because the map told them to stop. There was no stop sign so they crossed a yellow line they heard creepy noises.

Lindsay quickly said, “Oh! Oh! Its the boys.” “The boys!” Sabat said. “This is not good”, Madison said. But the girls kept on walking, they weren’t afraid at all. Even though they heard noises they still weren’t afraid at all. Madison and Sabat saw the boys sneaking at them. So they told the girls and the girls saw the boys. The boys saw the girls.

That’s when the boys said their names. There names were Mitchell, Matthews, Pace, Arya, Noah and Casey. The boys looked up at the map really curiously. Then Mitchell came up to us and took the map. Then the boys said, “Ha, Ha! You can’t get this map back from us. We’re too strong.”

The boys ran away with the map. When they were gone the girls thought of a plan. The plan was that the girls should team up together and try to get their map back. So they can find the treasure. Soon the girls agreed with the plan and tried to do the plan.

Madison, Kirsten and Sabat teamed up together with everybody and they tried to get their treasure back. But one of the boys spotted them. The first plan failed. Then they thought of another plan.

The other plan was to sneak up on them and get the treasure back. When they tried that they failed again because another boy spotted them. When they were all together in the middle of the forest something started twinkling and in front of them appeared a nice little fairy. The fairy said, “Hi” and told her name. Her name was Mrs. Byrd. Mrs. Byrd said that she was going to help the girls. She raised her wand and said these magical words, “Bobbidi Bobbiddi Boo.” When she was done the boys turned into frogs. The girls and Mrs. Byrd lived happily ever after in the forest.

© Sabat Zahra Husaini
February 14, 2006

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


We were a handful. Mud-laden our feet and hands, we would play under the gray skies till our parents would shout from the mound in anger and ask us to return to home. There was something about the way the earth smelled then. It just won't let us leave the fields. Though Ammu would shriek at the sight of an earthworm,


And Paltu would pick it up and thrust it in her horrified face, I would hate this bit, but we would still continue playing in the fields.

Ammu was buck-toothed. She had unhealthy, lice-ridden brownish hair. Dark and skinny she looked unclean even after a bath. Often, Uncle & Aunt joked that she wasn't their daughter. A chamaar was about to throw her on a garbage heap when they took pity on her and bought her for five paise. Ammu's big innocent eyes behind the specs would well up with tears. Her voice choked she would not know what to say. Then one of the ladies of the house would take pity on her and hug her.

"No Sweetheart! You are our daughter! These are all lies to tease you up. These are evil people. Do not listen to them!"

A smile would immediately break upon her face.

She wasn't the eldest among we cousins though she was the eldest girl. Paltu was the eldest. He had his skinny legs dangling out of his unfitting pair of shorts. Rains always brought in hordes of those yucky open sores on his skin. He constantly had his nose dripping. Grayish mucus just peeping out of his nostrils and would often be scolded for this. Paltu was funny. He was a joker. He would contort his body in unusual ways and had a talent of speaking in a nasal voice. His jokes were silly but the way he told them to us; it was so funny that we would laugh till our stomachs would hurt. But Cheenu was too young to understand our jokes. He was four. So he would just imitate us laugh.

All four of us would normally meet once a year for summer vacations. The end of the summer vacation would see rains coming in and the last couple of weeks of our vacation were one mud-filled adventure. We would chase frogs. I was very afraid of them. But it was fun aiming at them and hitting them with little stones. Then we had these helicopter like insects flying all around. Initially, we were very afraid but Paltu showed us that there was nothing to be afraid of them. They were not like those horrible yellow wasps that stung hard. Then it became fun to hold these tiny things from their tails and see them attempt hard to fly-off. Their wings buzzing hard. We would catch them and then drown them in the pond water. But the best were jugnus. They would just lit up the whole hedge near the pond in the night. We would go catching them. And then put them in a glass jar and then compare as to whose jar lit most. It was a sight to see four sparkling jars in the pitch darkness of the night. But we often got beating from our parents for this adventure.

"Idiots! One day one of these will get bitten by a snake and that will be the end of all their adventures!"


Adjoining our house lived our family cousins. They were two brothers – Dulaare & Pyaare. One was 15 and the other 14 respectively. Our lives were knotted together. Though we would hate them but somehow we could never break free from their hold. It was very frustrating at times. However hard we tried we only found ourselves held firmer in their grip.

Toilet and bathroom were two separate entities in villages. Bathrooms were normally a space cordoned off by a mud wall at the edge of a courtyard – the corner where the kitchen garden will be. Though, it was a kitchen garden but one seldom grew anything there. It only had wild bushes, weed and few odd trees. A perfect hideout for us. Toilets were normally shacks away from the house towards the fields.

Once we were playing some ball game. And the ball landed in Dulaare & Pyaare’s back garden. Paltu went to fetch it but he heard their sister taking a bath. She was 16. He became curious. He started scaling the walls to peep in. However, Dulaare caught him. Both the brothers dragged him out to the fields. Intimidated him, beat him, threatened him. Paltu was terrified. He was afraid of the beating he would get if people at home get to know. Paltu begged them to leave him. Both brothers smiled at each other. Finally they had this worm under their thumb.

“All right! We will! Only if you agree to follow everything that we say from today!”

Paltu didn’t have a choice. He gave in. And thus began his tale of woes.

Once Grandpa was taking his afternoon nap. Dulaare sneaked in and poured some water in his fancy plastic jootis (shoes). When he got up and slid his feet in his shoes he was surprised. The shoes squelched.


It was a scorching June afternoon. He was bemused.

“It hasn’t even rained!”

Then Pyaare meekly uttered.

“I saw Paltu going past your bed with a lota brimming with water.”


That was it. Paltu thrashing time. Then once while Grandpa was sleeping Pyaare came and tied his foot to the bedpost. Such similar mischief continued and Paltu always had to take this blame. We all knew he was innocent but we didn’t dare speak against the two brothers.

They didn’t even spare Ammu. They would make her work like a servant. They would order her to make tea or fetch water for them. And Ammu would quietly do what was told to her. Once while she was sleeping the two brothers collected a handful of cockroaches and released them in her hair. She felt something crawling on her face and woke up shrieking. It was a sight seeing Ammu run around the courtyard, her head moving violently trying to shake off all the cockroaches. When Ammu’s mother took this us with Dulaare & Pyaare’s mother – an ugly screeching woman – she retorted,

Mere rajkumaaron ko kuch mat kaho! Unhone kuch nahin kya! Paltu ki harkat hogi! Wahi yeah sab karta hai!”

And given how Paltu used to thrust earthworms in Ammu’s face, it was very plausible. Paltu thrashing time again.


But there were times when peace reigned in. We would all sleep outside in the courtyard next to Grandpa and he would regale us with fancy tales. These tales took us to lands and times we could only imagine.

So, on one such similar night we were pestering Grandpa for a tale. We’ve had a hard day. Paltu was again victim to our cousins’ wily pranks. We’ve had people shouting all over the place – people shouting within home, people shouting across homes. Acrimony. We were all tired. And perhaps wanted to escape the day. We were pestering Grandpa for a tale.

“Please Dada! Please!”

Even Dulaare and Pyaare joined the chorus.

Dada smiled, “Ok! The here it is!”

“Once upon a time, when our world was very different, only the birds lived here. Once they were summoned by the great bird-god, the Simurgh. He sent his special messenger the hoopoe to the birds. Simurgh lived at this legendary circular mountain, Qaf, circling the earth.

It was an honor to be summoned by Simurgh himself but the journey was filled with dangers. There were chasms and forest of fires, where flames went up to the sky, to cross. Then there was the Dead Sea. It was a desert of salt stretching till eternity. No bird could fly across it. And even if they managed the thirst would kill them. Finally, there were these monster birds – flying reptiles – that looked out for soft fleshy birds to feed upon.

Most birds on hearing the invitation chickened out. They spoke of prior engagements and being busy. They were petrified of undertaking such a journey. Hoopoe was disappointed.

“Well! I didn’t know Simurgh had such cowardly followers! I thought everyone would be willing to go!”

The birds bowed their heads in shame. The chief bird looked hard at the assembled crowd.

“It’s a matter of shame. Will we let down The Great Simurgh? If none would go then I would go alone!”

On hearing this some courageous birds step forward.

“Chief we would go with you!”

Finally, 30 birds embarked on this perilous journey. They encountered all the dangers they had heard of but they were prepared. They flew hard almost till their strength gave away. But they flew.

However, when they reached Qaf they found nothing. There was no Simurgh. It was just a desolate mountaintop. No God, no fancy palatial mansion, no breathtaking scenes. They were disappointed. They turned towards hoopoe and asked,
“Where is The Great Simurgh? There is nothing here? Did we undertake this perilous journey for nothing?”

Hoopoe smiled.

“You are The Simurgh!”

The birds were confused. They looked at him befuddled.

“Simurgh! Means ‘Si’ – thirty – and ‘Murgh’ – birds! By undertaking this dangerous journey and overcoming the obstacles you’ve become what you came looking for! You are The God that you sought!”

We were enchanted by this tale. Our eyes lit up. Something inside got triggered that night and we slept with smiles on our faces.

A few weeks later a story started doing the rounds that there was a ghost in the mango orchard. Few people had seen a white apparition glide through the orchard late in the night and when someone approaches the orchard it vanishes. Everyone was excited about this ghost business.

One afternoon while we were playing pithoo, Paltu aimed the ball at Pyaare and it hit him hard. He took offence and caught him by the scruff.

Kechue! Saale! Just because this is a game you think you can hit hard!”

Arre! I don’t need to hit you under a game’s pretext!”

Chup be! Kutta zabaan ladaata hai!

Main nahin darta kisi se!

Dulaare hits Paltu hard against his face. We could see blood drop at the corner of his lips.

Itna hi bahadur hai to raat mein Aam ke Baagh mein jaake dikhla!

Haan! Wahan bhi jaa sakta hoon!

And they both burst out laughing.

Geedad! Saala! Kahta hai wahan jaa sakta hai!

We all just stood mute as Paltu held on to his bravado.

Theekh hai Kechue! Aaj raat dekhte hain tu kitna bahadur hai!

And thus our fate was sealed.

We spent the whole evening discussing how will we do it. We decided to leave Cheenu out of this. At night when every one will be asleep we’ll take three sticks and two lanterns and walk down the mound towards the mango orchard. The plan was that first we’ll hid the lanterns behind the bushes and just watch the orchard from the mound. Once, we spot the ghost Paltu with a lantern and a stick in his hand walk towards the orchard while we will stand on the mound and watch. If anything untoward happens, we will shout. The ghost perhaps may get scared and run away.

At night we made sure everyone was asleep and sneaked towards the edge of the mountain. The air had a nip. The faint aroma of a freshly washed earth was in our nostrils. We were nervous. We held each other’s hands and moved forward. Our senses were heightened and even the wind rustling would make us alert. We slowly reached the edge of the mound. Our lantern flickering at bare minimum. We kept them behind the bushes, huddled and kept staring at the orchard.

Suddenly, we saw something white moving within the trees. Ammu almost screamed but Paltu covered her mouth. I was shaking. I clasped tight Paltu’s arm. Paltu stood up like a warrior. His hair blowing in the wind with a lantern in one hand and the stick in the other. He was nervous too. His legs were shaking. But he hid his nervousness and instructed,

“Stay here! And if you see something unusual – SCREAM!”

We sat there holding each other tightly as we saw Paltu walk nervously towards the orchard. Finally, Paltu was at the edge of the orchard. The flickering light from his lantern rooted at a spot. Then the light moved again. Now the light would appear intermittently as Paltu walked amidst the trees. Suddenly, we saw something white stealthily creep up towards the light. And then…

We sat trembling. The flickering light titled and then burst brighter. We saw Paltu entangled with a figure. Ammu was transfixed. She forgot to scream. I stood there watching nervously. A heap of dry leaves caught the flame from the lantern. We could see now. Paltu had pulled the sheet off the figure.


I shook Ammu.


Ammu broke out of her daze.



By now Pyaare has stepped out of the shadows and they were beating Paltu with his stick only. One brother was kicking him while the other was thrashing him with the stick. Paltu was valiantly fighting them. But he was losing. He looked towards us and shouted,


And then Ammu yelled. Her voice piercing the dark night.


Ammu picked up her stick and ran towards the orchard. Ammu’s war cry startled the two brothers. For a minute they stopped beating Paltu and looked towards us. Ammu, brandishing her stick, was running down the mound towards them.


They both were bemused. Paltu took advantage of this and hit one of the brothers in his crotch. He went rolling on to the ground. Before the other brother could react Ammu had reached there. She swung her stick and hit him on his head. He staggered. By now Paltu kicked him and he too was reeling on the ground. Paltu was kicking one brother while Ammu thrashed the other with the stick. They were writhing in pain.

By now people had started stirring. They’ve heard our screaming. I was still standing at the edge as everyone came running towards me and saw the spectacular scene of Paltu and Ammu thrashing the two brothers.

They were amazed to hear that Dulaare was the ghost and both brothers have been stealing mangoes from the orchards. They rushed towards the orchards.

Grandpa stood next to me. He put his hand on my shoulders, smiled and said,

“So, you’ve finally stepped across the line in your mind! In the effort to find the ghost, you’ve found yourself!”

I looked up and smiled back.

© Dan Husain
September 26, 2005