Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Maharaja of Marine Plaza

5 year old Veer was not enjoying the game anymore. He was finding it difficult to keep his lips from pouting, and in spite of the rain, it was becoming increasingly impossible to fake the tears as rain drops. Any minute that impish brat Rani would squeal out - "Veeru is crying!" and they'd start their blasted little dance around him, "Veeru kitna chhota hai, veeru kitna rota, veeru vada pao khane ka, nadaa kholke dikhaane ka".

Hate that Rani. She really thought she was the queen of the chawl or something. Beastly. It was all her fault. And there she was, at it again...

"What what whaaaaat? Your baba is what???"

Veer braced himself, stood straight to his full height - all 3.5 feet of him, and said with as much conviction as the last 5 times, albeit a bit droopy with tears. "My Baba is a King".

The kids exploded. Some rolled in the mud with laughter, others hugged each other and guffawed till the tears ran from their eyes. The women of the chawl looked up from their fish baskets and smiled. The grime grinned from the dark cement. The stench smirked.

Veer ran home. Hating everybody.

Aai was sitting on her haunches in her faded green work sari, sunning shrimps. She looked up warily from her basket as Veeru burst into the sun streaked enclosure outside their kholi. "Go slow you crazy fool. If you slide on the fish don't come crying to me, crybaby".

It was too much for Veer. Aai too? He started scouring the chawl for Baba. There he was, smoking his last beedi before getting on for work. They looked funny together, Aai and her Pathan husband. When Shera had come to Mumbai to escape the war in Afghanistan, nobody had expected sweet little Jyoti bai to fall head over heels in love with him. Or for that matter, the exotic Pathan to give her a second glance. But obviously something happened, and before 6 months were up, Jyoti bai's tummy started swelling.

Of course Shera married her. And of course everything was normal at the chawl after that. But somehow, Veer had become the product of some unspoken contempt in the neighbourhood. Veer was too young to understand why Aai kept her distance from the other fisher folk, and why baba looked so different from the others. Nor could he understand the mild ridicule he always felt sting at the back of his neck. And now that he had that one chance to be first among equals, Baba was not willing to come out into the open and tell everyone the truth.

The problem was this silly promise Baba had taken from him. Why couldn't he just tell everyone else that he was a maharaja, and stayed in the chawl only as a disguise? But Veer figured, he couldn't. The disguise wouldn't work would it, if everyone knew? And enemies were everywhere. Baba would've kept it a secret even from Veer except for that resplendent gown and turban Veer spotted one day in the trunk. So soft, so silky, so unbelievably rich. Veer had just put the turban on his own head, which had of course promptly swallowed half his face, when Baba walked in and grinned at his predicament.

Picking him up in his arms Baba had told him the most incredible story. About palaces and queens, chandeliers and palanquins; about intrigue and war, and secret tunnels and escape hatches. Breathless, Veer had heard him out - how his own Baba was actually the emperor of a vast kingdom, and was in hiding right now. And how Veer must swear to secrecy, otherwise the entire chawl's life would be compromised. Veer was allowed to occassionally peep into the trunk and stroke the turban, but not much else. In excitement and thrill, little Veeru had made his breathless promise to Baba. Never ever to speak a word....

But to see Aai sitting in that dirty green sari, when SHE was the real rani, not that snot nosed brat outside. And baba, in his torn bandi, smoking a beedi when hukkas could be laid out for him on satin cushions. Veer couldn't keep his word. He simply couldn't.

Not that he minded life in the chawl; it was the only one he'd ever know. But surely Aai and Baba missed their days in the palace? Could he do nothing about it? He was small, but he was smart. The other day when Pappan's kite got stuck on the tree it was Veer who'd retrieved it without damaging. And even Rani, who was 2 years older, and a smartass, came to him with her problems in english. Veer had the best grasp on english in the entire chawl. Grown ups included.

Veer decided something had to be done. Kallu was the only solution. But Kallu was mean. He was a bully and always laughed at everything the kids said, just because he was 13. Kallu behaved like he knew everything better, although Veer had seen the tea stall owner - who employed Kallu - hurl abuses and humiliate him in public. But Kallu continued to behave like the dada. And the kids had no choice because there was no one else old enough to give adult advice and young enough to be one of the group in the entire chawl.

The rest of the teenagers had either run away, or were in some strange homes, or had died. So Kallu it had to be.

Veer went looking. Kallu was not at the tea stall, but his wire tea tray was missing too. Which meant he'd gone on an office delivery. Which meant he'd not return without a smoke. Which meant Veer could very easily find him behind the Colaba fish market with those awful boys.

By the time Veer managed to slip and slide over the slime of decaying fish and reach the empty shack at the back, Kallu was pleasantly stoned. Being the youngest of the dubious clan of ‘beedis’ as they called themselves, Kallu was the least bothered about cops, raids and beatings. As a result, he enjoyed his smoke most leisurely. When Veer huffed his way to him he found Kallu alone, grinning like an idiot.

“Vee vee!” Kallu belched. “Kya re?”

Veer started without preamble. “Kallu, I need help”. Kallu looked quizzical. Veer almost never approached him and if he did, it was with much feet shuffling reluctance. This forthright open faced request was new.

“Kya be” said Kallu again, narrowing his eyes.

“My Baba is a king. And nobody believes me.”

Kallu sprayed out ganja smoked spit contemptuously on the dirt floor, "call the king to come and clean this!" he smirked. Veer waited patiently. He was getting used to this.

When Kallu's remark did not evince the sort of distressed tear burst reaction he was hoping for, in order to get the pest of his back, he shuffled reluctantly out of the shack.

"Allright. I'll help you. But you've got to convince ME first. I don't think your baba is a king. I think he's a terrorist. A runaway. A refugee. A bomber. If you can prove to me that that red bearded weirdo is a king, I'll take care of the kids in the chawl. They'll all be bowing and courtesying to him from tomorrow. Deal?"

Typical hateful Kallu swagger. Even when he was interested in doing something, he managed to make the other person feel like he was doing him a favour. And this one was an out an out favour, so it was pretty certain that by the time the entire deal was over, Veer was meant to be feeling dizzy with gratitude.

Veer wished he could've smacked Kallu across the head like he'd seen the tea stall owner do. He swallowed his pint sized pride and agreed. "Deal".

"Ok so how do you know your baba is a king? Where is his palace? Who are his subjects? Why does he live in the chawl? Where does he hide his crown? Why are his kinsmen not looking for him? India doesn't have kings and queens and neither does Afghanistan. So where did he rule?"

The line of questionning was getting a bit too complicated even for clever little Veer. He looked up, a puzzled frown creasing his forehead. "But his palace is right here," he clarified. "That's where he goes every evening. Why do you think he stays at the chawl by day and goes out by night? So that nobody spots him. And I've seen his crown - well, its not really a crown because it doesn't have those jagged edges. But its silky and red. And he has a gown that goes with it. Haven't you seen him leave the chawl with that packet? That's what it contains. He goes to his palace quietly and talks to his courtiers and tells them how to run the kingdom. Then he comes and hides in the morning so that the enemies don't spot him. His kingdom is this entire area. All of Colaba and Cuffe Parade and Marine Drive..." Veer prattled on, but Kallu was beyond listening.

Kallu's expression was reflecting more and more incredulity. He was beyond laughing as well; he was genuinely non plussed now. Veer sounded so convinced. And it WAS true that Shera only left at night. With a packet under his arms. And returned in the morning with the same packet.

Kallu was beginning to feel uneasy. Obviously Veer had no clue what he was talking about. All this king nonsense was total rubbish. But these were unsure times. An Afghan in the chawl, leaving each night... where did he go? What did he do? How did he make a living? How come none of them had ever asked? That silly Pandu did come for rounds every week, but the lesser said of these Mumbai cops, the better. For god's sake, they had not even managed to nab the 'beedi' gang with ganja yet. And they'd catch a terrorist. Right.

"Come lets go". Kallu had taken a decision. On the pretext of Veer, he'd follow Shera tonight. If Shera spotted them, he had Veer as a shield. Surely even a terrorist would not hurt his own child. And then Kallu would be a hero. The papers would talk of his bravery. Vilasrao would throw a party in his honour. There he'd meet Ritesh and the other stars. Shah Rukh Khan would come and shake his hand. Maybe Priyanka would give him a kiss on the cheek like she'd given that loser Hrithik in that junk film....

They waited way past sundown. The tea stall owner hired another boy and swore under his breath that he'd give Kallu the beating of a lifetime when he came to collect his pay. Aai stopped wondering where Veer was and decided it was futile to worry, the boy would be fine. Rani trooped around the chawl wanting to tease Veeru a bit more and finally fell asleep sulkily in her mother's lap.

Veer and Kallu hid, although there was absolutely no need to hide. But they had already gotten under the skin of their sleuthing roles, and hiding and skulking around was integral to that.

Finally around 8p.m., after a frugal dinner, Shera left the chawl with his customary packet. The Afghan had long legs and walked briskly and the two kids were trying not to get noticed. So they kept losing him, and by the time they reached the long Marine Drive stretch there was so much traffic and so many headlights that Veer totally lost his bearing. Afraid that the pest would get hit by an oncoming car and spoil the entire plan, Kallu finally hoisted him up on to his shoulders and gave chase. The gentle jog and the split point lights splintering into his eyes slowly hypnotised Veeru into semi slumber. And he missed keeping his eyes on his father's rapidly receding figure.

Suddenly Shera dashed into a maze of dark alleys curving like arteries behind the main stretch of the sea-facing boulevard. Kallu couldn't keep track of where the Afghan went. He wasn't about to give up now so he hailed a taxi. He had mastered the art of dodging taxi fares when he'd reached his destination. The driver looked at him disgustedly. He could spot a runner from a mile and had little hope of a decent fare, but he took the risk anyway. There had been no business since morning and this might just buy dinner.

"Chalo" Kallu commanded imperiously. "Kidhar" came back the bored but valid drawl. Veer giggled. He loved it when someone, anyone, took Kallu's trip. Taken aback and suddenly feeling just 13, Kallu stammered "Marine Drive". The driver raised his eyebrows and shrugged, as if to say "and where do you think we already are?", but then he shifted gear and the taxi was off on the long sea winding stretch of a road.

"What are we doing?" Veer quizzed. "Where's baba? Aren't we going to look for his palace? I thought you said we were following him? Where did he go?" Awake now as much as he had been asleep a minute ago, the way only 5 year olds can be, Veer kept tugging at Kallu's arm and asking questions.

Kallu stopped paying attention. He was scanning the roads wondering what he would do now. The life and pulse of Marine Drive were also sucking him into their glamour and he was finding it difficult to stay focused on his current task. What swank cars, what amazing buildings, what stylishly turned out people. They all looked like film stars. The warm yellow lights glowed inside the new cafes that dotted the promenade and smiling faces suffused in aromatic fumes twinkled at their wide windows. Advertisement panels brought the underside of the over bridges to life, selling everything from insurance to toothpaste, with wide mouthed models flashing sparkling smiles in neon. Hotel after hotel with liveried guards and elegant doormen seemed to welcome, yet with a hint of a dare...

Exotic names. Intercontinental... The Sea Princess... Marine Plaza.... Kallu jerked up from his half recline and craned his neck out of the taxi window. At the door of Hotel Marine Plaza stood a tall liveried guard with a trim red beard. His gown was elegantly long and creamy and on his head was a red silk turban. As the taxi slowed in the snaking traffic, the Afghan's eyes locked with Kallu's, even as he bent to retrieve a middle aged lady's leather suitcase. A stricken expression hit Shera's face as he looked beyond Kallu into the taxi and noticed Veer, looking in the opposite direction at the sea....

Kallu felt the world slow down. A turban, a gown, a night shift, a proud Afghan opening a glass door to a boy in rich threads who didn't look a day over 17. Followed by a middle aged paunchy man, who tossed his car keys into Shera's hands... And Veer's head was turning. Slowly as the taxi revved up again, Kallu realised Veer's head was turning because of the expression of panic on Shera's face... The light at the crossing twinkled to a tantalising yellow before the liberating green... Shera lifted his hand to half cover his face but a guest at the Marine Plaza was talking to him, asking for a car announcement and Shera had to nod and smile...

"Veer look there" Kallu yelled, almost yanking Veer's head back to face towards the sea. See how... how lovely the sea looks at night... I'm sure your baba's palace must be beyond those twinkling lights there... its called the queen's necklace... I've heard that there is a lovely palace beyond the sea there... Now I get it, your father rules from there... why could you not be clear earlier... that's why we lost him, he travels by sea, maybe even underwater, to his castle..." Kallu was blabbering, but his fingers had an almost vice like grip on Veer's neck, willing it not to turn, willing the taxi to move, willing, willing the darkness to swallow one proud Afghan who was not a king...

The next day Veer walked triumphantly into the playing area, his hands confidently tucked into Kallu's grasp. "Kallu has something to tell you all" he began....

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