All names and incidents in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone or anything real is purely coincidental. Historical details are however real and pains have been taken to re-report them as correctly as possible.
Greased face, slimy hands, torn shorts, bare feet, he stealthily went around the crowd in front of the theatre. He was so small – he came up to hip level of most people there – that he was hardly noticed other than by those in immediate vicinity. However, the cop on duty there already was up to his tricks and had chased him many times with his danda. Yet, so determined was Chikoo to sell his five tickets in black that he came there again and again with his barely audible whisper, as he went around the crowd like a fruit-fly over garbage: Dus ka tees, dus ka tees.
He was named Chikoo because his father, now in jail, used to sell the fruit by that name on the foot-path, in a basket. He was in jail because an upper class woman purchased Chikoos from him and when she bent down to take the paper bag with the fruit, her gold-pendant broke and fell into the basket unknown to her and also to him. Later, she lodged a police complaint and the pendant was recovered from Chikoo’s father. The police beat him up black and blue and then marched him into a court and he was sentenced to 15 days of jail. Chikoo’s mother delivered him in the absence of her husband and everyone called him by that name because she sold Chikoos on the street in the absence of her husband and then came home to look after him. Also, he was very cute and Chikoo in slang meant a very cute boy.
A man made eye contact with him and he signaled him to follow him. They went behind the Chai-wala khokha on the side of the theatre and there two tickets and sixty rupees exchanged hands much before the policeman with the danda made his appearance.
The remaining tickets were sold in two lots of one and two respectively. Suddenly, Chikoo had 150 rupees with him whereas in the morning he had just 50. He went confidently to the cop, signaled him to follow him and near the chai stall gave him 50 rupees for allowing him to go about doing his business whilst keeping up the appearance of chasing him away every now and then. This was part of the game and Chikoo, at the age of six, had learnt it well.
Everything in Bombay (the name was changed to Mumbai, some twenty years later) worked on Black, Chikoo thought. And he was right to quite an extent. Black was the way of life in Bombay, later Mumbai and everyone was happy. Everything was available at an additional cost and Chikoo was to learn in his later life that everything meant everything. Very soon Chikoo had found that bigger money than what he made in front of the cinema halls could be made on the Bombay Central Railway Station by buying tickets of the long-distance trains and then selling them in black. Here, his assistants were not just the police guys but also the railway booking clerks.
His father, an upright man, had disapproved of his illegal ways but, after spending 15 days in the cooler, for no fault of his, he had started looking at societal norms afresh. In any case, it took him the entire day to earn fifty rupees. Whereas his son, at the age of six, was making that kind of money in an hour’s work: half an hour in the queue to buy the tickets and half an hour in the police protected environment to sell them off. Chikoo’s father was happy that Bombay was a safe city since police was involved in everything and actually facilitated all kinds of business.
They still lived in the slums but thanks to Chikoo’s earnings, life was becoming better for them. They – his father and mother, one brother and a sister – were as happy as they could get under the circumstances.
One day, in the summers, his father was selling Chikoos on his allotted space on the pavement when an SUV driven by a rich kid, barely sixteen years old, went amok and ran over several of them on the pavement. His father was amongst the three who were killed on the spot whilst five others were admitted in the hospital with serious injuries. One of them succumbed to his injuries later.
It was an incident that shook the conscience of the city. In later years the city, which called itself the financial capital of the country, got used to periodic acts of terrorism such as bomb blasts. However, in that year, since it was the first major incident in the city, it was really shocking. Bombay was unlike Delhi at that time. Its police used to be compared to Scotland Yard in its efficiency. Delhi had its share of Billa, Ranga cases but Bombay was considered safe. The politicisation of police, criminalisation of polity and parochial tendencies hadn’t yet started showing their ugly heads.
The clout of the rich and influential was such that the legal wranglings continued for quite some time till the incident was off from public gaze. After that, the culprit got away lightly because of, as orchestrated in the court, his being a juvenile. It was rumoured in the media that palms were greased at various levels. Chikoo’s mother’s lawyer, who was also the lawyer for other victims, got them some money out of court. However, it came out in the media that he himself made many times more money than the victims. This is almost invariably the case in law-suits in India. In the olden days – of say, barrister Mr. MK Gandhi – law was a very reputed profession and there were any number of Hindi movies in which the lead actors would become lawyers. Nowadays, Hindi word for lawyer – Vakeel, that is – used in a very pejorative manner and there is a popular saying that if you come across a snake and a lawyer, you should kill the lawyer first.
If the year 1984 was bad for Chikoo, it was even worse for the country. On the 31st October of that year, the third Prime Minister of India after her father Jawahar Lal Nehru and Lal Bahdur Shastri, was assassinated by her security guards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh when she was walking from her residence to the adjoining Congress office for an interview with British actor Peter Ustinov. The assassination was in retaliation for the Indian Army, at her orders, storming the Golden Temple (founded by the fifth guru of the Sikhs Arjan Dev in the year 1604) to flush out the armed followers of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, accused of waging a war against the state.
The year and subsequent years saw the transition of the Indian society from peace-loving to a society in turmoil. Indira Gandhi’s successor was her elder son Rajiv Gandhi who too was assassinated, five years and 32 days after becoming the PM, on 21 May 1991, by Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Dhanu, a member of the Sri Lankan militant organisation called LTTE or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Rajiv Gandhi, of course, lived through the Bofors Deal Kickbacks scandal and allegations of black-money. As big time corruption scandals became a routine in India, there was a cartoon by RK Laxman (India’s most loved cartoonist who died on India’s Republic Day in 2015). In this cartoon, a petty thief in handcuffs is being led by a cop who tells him, “Your bad luck is that you stole fifty rupees; if you had stolen fifty crores, I could have been your security guard.”
Indeed, that year, when Chikoo was caught by a new cop in front of the cinema, he told him, “Chhodo sahib, bahut chhota black kiya hai, koi Bofor nahin kiya hai.” (Leave it, Sir, I undulged in very petty black, I am not involved in any Bofors deal).
Rajiv Gandhi’s successor was his erstwhile Finance Minister VP Singh who was sacked by him for going after black-money in such an obsessive way that he didn’t even spare his party, Congress’s, main fund contributors: the industrialists. He was then made the Defence Minister, which was considered a safe bet. However, here too he uncovered the Bofors Scandal and became an embarrassment to the government. He joined the Janata Dal and as Prime Minister, he took up the unfinished agenda of the earlier Janata Dal PM Morarji Desai in setting up the Mandal Commission in 1978 to identify socially or educationally backward classes in India so as to provide them with seat-reservations and quotas in educational institutions and jobs. This led to widespread protests and even self-immolations by anti-reservationist students.
Caste based hydra was, however, let loose in the country and its pinnacle was on 6th Dec 1992 when the Babri mosque was demolished by Hindu Kar Sevaks since they believed that the mosque stood at the same spot in Ayodhya, which was the birthplace of God-king Rama (or Ram Janambhoomi). This led to large-scale riots in the country. The most violent of these took place in Mumbai in which nearly a thousand people died mostly belonging to the minority community.
Just as the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi had once said, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind“, these riots were followed by retaliatory Mumbai bombings (12 of them) on 12th March 1993. This was the first time in the world that serial-bomb-blasts were perpetrated.
A total of 257 people were killed. Chikoo’s mother, brother and sister were amongst them.
Chikoo was just 24 years old when this occurred. His world was shattered. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a happy place as he had imagined where people paid underhand just to see their favourite movie or go comfortably by train especially during overnight journeys. He was alone in the world and everything looked black to him.
After the cremation he sat on a rock near the sea, aimlessly throwing pebbles into the waves, when he saw a man approaching him. He wasn’t in a mood to talk to anyone and he hoped that the man would just go past him. To his annoyance, he saw that the man sat on a rock next to his and also started throwing pebbles into the sea.
After about ten minutes, this man spoke as if he was speaking to the sea, “I can be your friend.”
He too replied in the same manner, “What do I require a friend for?”
And the man insisted, “Everyone requires a friend.”
In the ensuing silence Chikoo realised that the man spoke a fact that had started haunting him. He asked, “What do I have to do to become your friend?”
“We can discuss over tea.”
They went to a way-side tea-stall. The man’s story in patches was that he belonged to a governmental anti-terrorist organisation and in the aftermath of the Mumbai blasts it was decided to clamp down on and track the movements of certain organisations that were inimical to national interests. SIMI or Students Islamic Movement of India had been identified as one such organisation. Though it was founded in April 1977, it is only after the Babri demolition that it started country-wide violent protests and landed up on the wrong side of the police and anti-terrorist organisations.
Chikoo was scared in the beginning. But, all that the man wanted was for him to keep his eyes and ears open in his chawl and surroundings and report any untoward things going on. He asked how do I report? The man told him that one of their operators would pick up information from him along with tickets in black and pay him for the information much more than the black price of the tickets. The first time pass-phrase would be ‘black milega kyaa?’ (a question that nobody buying tickets in black ever asks) and his reply would be ‘nahin seth mere paas to green hain‘ (the actual colour of the tickets). His next pass-phrase would be given with the money for the tickets.
He told the man that it appeared dangerous to him but the man said they would take care of his protection. He agreed.
Initially, he would supply them with information about suspicious persons and happenings such as suspicious call at the local STD booth or suspicious meetings of a few of them and they would pay him; the information and money exchanging hands at the chai-wala place at the cinema. He noticed that the money was more substantial than what he was used to for selling tickets in black.
One night, he had an upset tummy and kept going to the toilet every now and then. As usual there was no water and whatever water was kept in a tin there had got over. The stench was therefore unbearable. So, past midnight, when the nature’s call came again, he ambled across to the sea and sat on his haunches in a small clearing between the rocks. He saw a flashing light approaching from the sea and when he looked towards the woods on the shore, he noticed another answering flashing light. After what appeared to be eternity, he saw a fishing boat beaching on the sand. Some people came from the woods and helped in shifting the boat’s cargo. It was unusual for a fishing boat at that hour. Also, he observed that the cargo wasn’t the usual fish-catch but wooden boxes. He was curious and followed them in the woods. There were six large size crates (more long than wide) and he noticed that holes had already been dug in the ground to lower them and cover them with sand and soil.
The next day, at the matinée show itself, he passed the information to one of the operators. They laid a trap and on the next night, at least two men smuggling arms and ammunition were caught red-handed whilst taking out the crates from their holes. The others ran away. These two men were also later killed in an encounter whilst making a bid to escape from police custody.
This made big news and although Chikoo was very scared, he was happy to have got a huge sum for the information.
With the newly acquired wealth, Chikoo’s lifestyle changed. He was an occasional drinker; but, now, he started drinking regularly. It helped him get over his fear of the happenings that he had become part of as also to forget his family that he had lost. The bar that he used to frequent was a dance bar and he loved those voluptuous dancers who danced there, especially those who came near him, brushed their bodies against his, and seductively took his money and hid in their bosoms with knowing smiles and winks. He had seen the re-run matinée show of the dacoit movie Mujhe Jeene Do and everytime a dancing girl came near him, he imagined her to be Waheeda Rehman and himself to be the dacoit Sunil Dutt.
Her name was Rehana. Chikoo knew that most of them, if not all, kept fictitious names such as Rehana, Asma, Shama and Shabana. One was even called Madhuri, named after the actress at her peak at that time. He had seen her Khalnayak with Sunil Dutt’s son Sanjay Dutt with its super-hit song: Choli ke peechhe kya hai? One month after Mumbai Blasts, Sanjay Dutt was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, in April 1993 and that made sensational news. Charges of terrorism were dropped later but he was convicted of illegal possession of armaments. When Sanjay Dutt was first jailed, in Chikoo’s circles, it was talked about that whereas the father had police after him in reel life only (Mujhe Jeene Do), Sanjay had police after him in real life. Anyway, Chikoo wasn’t interested so much in the life of Sanjay Dutt as he was in Rehana, the bar dancer, who had started showing more than routine interest in him. They had started meeting covertly in the day time whilst in the evenings and nights she performed her acts at the bar. One afternoon when they made love in his room in the chawl, Chikoo noticed that it was more than sex; she appeared to be in love with him.
He won’t have even dreamt of sharing this information with his shady contacts. In a world of extreme scare, danger and intrigue, she provided him with love, the greatest feeling on earth. At his young age, when he could get a lot of things which were denied to many people, love really had fascination for him. She soon fell into the habit of cooking for him and washing his clothes and he loved it when she would take a morsel of chapati in her manicured hand, wrap it around his favourite bheendi subji, and put it in his mouth. Suddenly, he had a home and he thanked God for the gift of Rehana in his life. Once or twice he had tried to find her real name and she had countered it with: “Kyun Rehana nahin pasand aapko? Rehana ko to Chikoo bahut pasand hai.” (Why, don’t you like (the name) Rehana? Rehana, however, likes (the name) Chikoo a lot). He had given up.
He was still supplying his contacts with information and they were still giving him money for it. Gradually, he felt that there would be no harm in sharing his life with Rehana since, in any case, very soon they had decided to get married. The day when they first talked of their marriage, she teasingly asked him what he would name her after marriage and he had equally jokingly responded: “Bheendi”.
And then, one day, it happened. She said that he must meet her people and propose marriage and she would make sure that they would accept. When he enquired about her people, she said she was an orphan like him; but, she had brothers and cousins who would be only too delighted to meet him.
He wanted to accompany her to her place but she said that traditionally the man visits the woman’s house and they would wait for him with bated breath.
As he came out of the chawl that evening, a black cat crossed his way. His mother was a great believer in such bad omens. But, he was in a hurry. All throughout the journey to her place by an auto-rickshaw, he kept thinking of her abundant charms, the way she tickled him when she caressed his ear lobes and even inserted her little finger inside, her wanting him again immediately after they made love, and her sleeping in the crook of his right arm.
When he got down from the auto-rickshaw and paid the driver, he noticed that Rehana wasn’t living in a chawl but in a house that was more than a little distance from the other houses in the area. But, then, she had been a bar dancer for several years and he reckoned that she could afford a house. On closer look, he found that it looked more like a dilapidated house. He was having second thoughts about entering the house but then a kindly man opened the door and ushered him in with, “Aa jaao Chikoo, aap ka hi intezaar hai.” (Come in Chikoo, we are waiting for you).
There were only men in the room, some five of them, and he thought he had seen one, in a skull cap, sometime earlier. One of them addressed him heartily: “Daro mat; hum tumhaare azeez hain.” (Don’t be afraid; we are your dear ones).
And that’s the time when he recognised the man in the skull-cap. He was the one who came out of the boat with those crates many years back on that dark night and wasn’t caught in the raid.
Suddenly, he was mortally scared and he made an attempt to flee. They caught him, there was no escape. They confronted him with proof of all that he had done in the last several years.
At the end of it, they carried him to an upstairs room and that’s where they put acid in his eyes and said, “You are proud of these eyes with which you observe things. Well, today onwards, you will see nothing.”
Suddenly, his world became black. Gandhi was right, after all…an eye for an eye….
Chikoo gradually learnt to survive as a blind man. There was no money in selling movie tickets in black after the advent of multiplexes. There was no money in selling train tickets in black after the online bookings and many people choosing to travel by air. He sat the whole day in the same spot that his father used to sit at, selling Chikoos. In his spare time, he liked to grope his way to the rocks next to the sea behind his chawl through his constant companion: a white stick. He loved the sound of the waves and gentle drenching of his face. One day, he felt a man first approaching and then sitting on a rock next to him and joining him in throwing pebbles into the sea. “I can be a friend”, he said and Chikoo recognised the voice. He kept silent. The man continued, “With your eyes gone, you can be even more useful than earlier since no one would suspect you. You can hear and feel and tell us about any suspicious activity.”
Chikoo sighed and said to himself: I thought I was the one who was blind.
© 2017, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.