The ramshackle bus rattles like a broken toy but manages to reach us to our stopover for the night. You don’t expect a Volvo in this godforsaken area. And even if we did find one, we couldn’t have afforded its exorbitant fare. Unemployed broke guys we are- my childhood buddy and me. And now we are homeless too. Our fathers threw us out of home two days ago, just like that.
We stretch our tired limbs, pick our backpacks, and start walking. Ah, what for a hot meal and bed.
‘The bus driver raved about the chicken curry in a dhaba* in the main market, Apoorv,’ Dev drools.
‘Oh yeah, your daddy is Paytming the bill naa,’ I kick his butt.
Ayeee…he fakes a cry. Drama king.
We march on. The town is not far.
Tomorrow we travel to Mumbai. A friend has promised to connect us with a director. But there’s no guarantee he would give us work. With our meagre resources, we can’t survive very long. We must find work soon.
But for now, we need to find a place for the night.
‘The town looks so beautiful with its neat and tidy roads. The residents have maintained it rather well.’ Dev has a keen eye for old architecture. He’s impressed with the neat rows of houses on both sides of the street.
A tiny leaf floats with the soft evening breeze and lands at my feet. I pick it up and roll it between my fingers as we look around the town.
‘Yes, the town is peaceful. But a little too peaceful. Didn’t the bus driver say this street is alive till late at night? It’s not even night, and all the shops are shut.’
‘Looks like it’s their weekly off,’ Dev speculates.
‘But there must be someone around. At least the dhaba should be open. Let’s explore the town further,’ I nudge him. He shudders as if I am making him a bali ka bakra*. Huh! It’s not a ghost town. Arre shut up, I have not forgotten you. I growl back at my protesting stomach.
We cross the main street. To our amazement, even the playground is empty, the swings still. This silence is eerie indeed. Now it’s giving me the creeps. Where have all the residents vanished? Did we make a mistake coming here?
Wait, what’s that rumbling sound?
‘Listen, brother!’ We run towards the burly man, relieved and happy as if he’s a messenger from God. He’s pulling down the shutters of his shop.
‘You won’t get any room in any dharamshala* here. All the rooms have been rented by a political party. All the townsfolk have gone for a rally in the neighboring town.’
Political rally! Aha, the dole-outs are too tempting to ignore. The 500-rupee note and daaru-murga are old hats; nowadays it’s a free toilet, free gas cylinder, TV, cycle, laptop, and the whole works. I manage to smother the jibe just in time. We can’t afford to offend him. We are famished.
‘Bhai, can we please get some food? We haven’t eaten anything since morning. Listen.’ My stomach growls back obediently.
‘No dhaba open tonight. Everybody shut their shop early because a famous religious guru is also coming to address the rally. They couldn’t let go of this golden opportunity to get his darshan* and ashirwad*.’
Dev looks at me, his eyes gleaming all of a sudden. I know that look so well. His Eureka moment. Didn’t Shakespeare say all the world’s a stage? We’ve found our stage too. The empty town square beckons us.
We plead with the shopkeeper to reopen his shop and give us some bread and namkeen*. A hot meal can wait. We have work to do.
Ouch! The bones creak. Did they make the cement platform extra hard especially for city guys like us? We open our eyes slowly. Damn the harsh sun. But never mind. What looked like a deserted square two days ago is bustling with people. People make us happy. We can’t do business in empty towns.
Two boys are monkeying around on the merry-go-round in the playground. A woman is lighting a lamp under the banyan tree and mumbling prayers. A few men are whiling away time at the tea stall. Such a placid town it is.
‘Hello! Don’t you guys have any fun in your lives?’ I find myself muttering.
‘But we’ll make sure they have some fun…the kind of fun they love. The kings of entertainment are here,’ the grin threatens to spill out of Dev’s thick beard. I glare at him. We can’t ruin our image before we have even started building it.
Some children stare at us from a distance. Curious yet cautious. We raise our hands towards the sky as if praying to God. And then towards the children, as if to bless them. The elders tell them to bow before us with respect.
We know our job, dudes. The experience of five years can’t fail us. The get-up, the props, the screenplay…everything is done with precision.
Baal dhoop me safed nahi kiye hum ne*. Dev winks, rubbing his bald pate. We are good to go.
Don’t they say atithi devo bhav*, the guest is God. So friends, countrymen, welcome your new friends, philosophers, and guides.
Lights, camera, action.
It’s been just a fortnight. We own the town square now. Well, in a way.
From the meagre tent we set up initially we now have a hut, complete with mattresses, utensils, and plenty of food; all thanks to our newly acquired followers.
Burrrrp! The food is delicious. Well, not as good as Mom’s, but it’s better than what we cook. The townsfolk are quite generous. Delicious meals, fresh fruits, choicest sweets…everything is here without asking. God bless them.
‘But no chicken curry’, Dev howls.
‘No way, Baba Devanand. If you have forgotten, religious gurus are supposed to be shudhh shakahari*.’ He sprints away as I chase him with a stick, laughing.
‘It used to be so much fun, the childhood days.’ He mutters, a little pensively, as we collapse on to the mattress, panting.
‘And then we grew up.’
A heavy silence falls between us.
‘The public owes us all this. Aren’t we doing our best to keep them entertained?’ Dev changes the topic. Afternoon nap times are not meant for such wistful conversations.
But I can’t help nodding, even as we doze off.
Our music and drama teacher has trained us rather well. Our early morning bhajans have enamored the townsfolk. They gather here in droves for their daily dose of religious discourse. YouTube is a real boon for us poor entrepreneurs. And Dev is a pro when it comes to mining gold from the wild web of the internet. Our freshly minted gyan* of the Vedas, the Shastras impresses even the most cynical old men and women.
Evenings see entire families prostrating before us, seeking our wisdom to solve their family feuds. Such dirty family secrets come tumbling out…Ram, Ram, Ram.
But we have perfect solutions.
‘Do you pray to Hanumanji? I ask as the devotee narrates his problem.
‘Yes. Every week.’ He nods.
‘21 rupaye ka laddu*, Babaji.’
‘Make it 51 rupees next time. All will be well.’
‘Babaji ki jai ho*.’ He falls at my feet in reverence.
‘Next.’ Dev calls.
The crowds are surging with each passing day. Word of mouth publicity travels faster. Business is booming. The men we hired to manage the everyday affairs of the ashram are a big help. Now Dev and I can concentrate on preparing better content for the daily sessions. It is hard work, I must admit. My old man was right. Success doesn’t come easy. We had never studied so many books in school and college as we have done in the past month. But it has paid back. And how.
We earned our first lakh yesterday. Wish I could show the money to my old man. He always taunted us for our passion, called it bhandgiri*. He and his typical middle-class mentality…huh. What does he know about acting? And how he screamed at me for quitting that two-rupee job of a clerk for the acting contest on TV. I haven’t forgotten anything.
That arrogant producer-director should also see our performance. He had humiliated us and thrown us out of the contest as if we are dumb asses.
Wait for us Bollywood, apna time bhi aayega*.
One, two, three…twelve. Dev counts the notes and stashes them away in the cashbox.
‘Our revenue is falling, Apoorv. We need to think of a new business plan or we will go bust very soon.’ His broad forehead is furrowed with worry.
The YouTube content is exhausted. Novels aren’t much help, either. The hafta* of the police and local administration has increased to a daily cut. Our dwindling coffers remind us of our sparse bank accounts, not so long ago.
‘Time to exit?’ Dev has always been chicken-hearted.
‘Naah, not so soon. The stage is still ours.’
The crowds are unmanageable. The police struggle to control them. But those serpentine queues are lengthening.
Crestfallen people from neighboring towns and villages are flocking over to meet their revered Baba Apoorvanand one last time before he attains salvation. His guardian deity gave him darshan* in his dream. The messengers of death will arrive to escort Babaji to God’s abode at midnight, two weeks from now.
The last act of our play has begun.
‘Yayyy! The collections have shot up again, Apoorv. We’ve outdone all our previous weeks’ earnings. Why didn’t you die earlier, dude.’ Dev is ecstatic.
The bhakts* have overwhelmed us with their generous offerings. Fruits, sweets, clothes, money, gold-silver…there’s a virtual deluge of gifts.
Now don’t ask why. I know what you’re thinking.
Babaji is going to leave this world, so why offer him these material objects? And he’s a saint, beyond these worldly attractions. This is only moh-maya*.
Arre bhai*, Babaji is their only means of communication with God. After all, heavens don’t have a free Jio hotline number which they can call any time. Babaji is the one who will convey their requests and prayers to God. So all these offerings are for their God, understand?
It’s a real circus now. Samosa*, jalebi*, tea-sherbat, fruits, clothes, toys… stalls for everything have sprung up around the ashram almost overnight. One enterprising young man is offering a laminated photograph of Baba Apoorvanand with a packet of prasad…free, free, free.
So many unemployed people have found jobs. The town’s economy is booming. And all because of two mere actors who were jobless themselves, until a few weeks ago. From job seekers to job creators…isn’t that some achievement? The prime leader would be so proud of us.
As the day of Babaji’s impending demise draws closer, the roar of bhajan-kirtan booms louder. It’s shaken the local politicians out of their slumber. They also want a piece of the pie. The MLA is doling out money from his fund to erect my statue and rename this street in my honor. All he wants in return is sharing the stage with me for 10 minutes. Politics and religion are a deadly combination for success in any elections.
Some media-savvy youth take selfies and videos with the Ashram in the background. Facebook, Twitter, Insta stories mean instant fame.
The preying noses of reporters have also picked up the scent and descended upon the town in droves. It’s lights, camera, action time for the public now.
‘How do you feel about this shocking news?’ Mics are thrust in their faces as cameras start rolling for the live telecast. TRP compulsions, you know.
A few TV channels want to capture live the last moments of Baba Apoorvanand. Dev is in talks with them. He’s managing the marketing and promotions quite deftly. Our coffers are overflowing.
The youth are prepared with fully charged mobile phones. Nothing like a Facebook live, you see. They don’t want a ‘battery low’ in the middle of live-streaming.
TV studios are buzzing with furious inputs.
Babaji has taken a bath and worn new clothes for his final journey.
Babaji has come out for his last discourse.
Babaji smiled at his followers.
The face of Babaji is glowing with inner joy.
Babaji this, Babaji that… the tickers sprint across the blue screens. The nation wants to know the last thoughts of Babaji; a prime time news anchor thunders. 125 million excited viewers are riveted to their TV screens.
‘Have you cross-checked the plan, Dev? Why’s the vehicle driver taking so long to arrive? And our hide-out? Is it ready? He’s not going to ditch us naa?’
‘I’ve been calling him every five minutes, Apoorv. His phone is unreachable.’ He goes out mumbling something under his breath.
I am getting jittery now. If not for this inordinate delay, we would have driven away to safety hours ago. Damn the crowd. I didn’t anticipate it to skyrocket on the last day. And the omnipresent cameras. Swarming over the entire main street like vultures. They’re scary.
Isn’t this the right moment to die though- doing what we always wanted to do- performing live for a rapturous audience, cameras flashing? But…
The crowds are getting restive. It’s way past midnight.
‘When is the Baba going to breathe his last?’ they shout. They feel let down. Had they paid for this disappointment?
The newspaper journos have deadlines to file reports, TV crews have to share live feed from ground zero. Our phones are buzzing for clarifications about the delay.
‘Cheaters. Call them out. We want an explanation.’ Our bouncers grapple with the rampaging mob. It is barging towards the ashram.
I look at Dev’s ashen face. We dial 100.
What can we do? We are trapped between the devil and the deep sea. It’s better to spend a few months in jail than being lynched by the furious mob.
The sirens are booming. The police have promptly arrived to capture the wily criminals before they make their grand escape. So unlike the filmy police.
As the police escort us to safety, we turn back for the last look. The exit from this vibrant stage is making my eyes wet. I blink hard and raise my hands once again. Habits, they say, die-hard.
The blankets are smelly, the mattress full of bed bugs, meals are basic prison food. But we are content.
The booty is safe in a faraway stash.
We will be out in a few weeks, the lawyer has promised.
Do we have any regrets?
Many cherished memories too. The way we transformed the staid main street into a happening place…it’s earned us many fans. The big bosses- you know who- have sent feelers. Our art deserves a bigger stage, dudes.
Mumbai, are you ready?
Bali ka bakra- sacrificial goat
Babaji- holy person, saint
Daaru-murga- alcohol and chicken
Darshan- seeing (or meeting) a holy person
Baal dhoop me safed nahi kiye hum ne- we are experienced people
Shudhh shakahari- pure vegetarian
Veda, shastra- Hindu religious scriptures
Hanumanji- a Hindu God
Babaji ki jai ho- Hail Babaji
21 rupaye ka- worth 21 rupees
Bhandgiri- cheap acting
Apna time bhi aayega- our time will come soon
Hafta- weekly payout
Bhakts – followers
Moh-maya- worldly desires
Samosa jalebi- eatables
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Pixabay
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