Boomtown Rats: Being amidst Nothingness

Pankaz K Sharma

Chronicles of some lives in the 1980s in Mangaldai, a small town in Assam

"Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill."
-Edgar Lee Masters

Up until the early 1980s, not much was there to do in Mangaldai. In a town devoid of a sports stadium, a good library or any other such facilities, all one could have were the radio and the books and magazines. Television was still a thing of the future, something you watched if, for example, you travelled to Delhi and then came back and explained to everyone with excitement. Almost everyone listened to the radio back then; it was a common sight to see people carrying a radio around. In the villages, the importance of a radio was even more overwhelming, as most people could not afford one, or did not feel it necessary to own one; they had many other necessities to take care of with their limited income. Therefore, families who owned a radio had an elevated status. My uncle, who had to grudgingly accept the superiority of two of his neighbors, by dint of their radio sets which were always played at the loudest volume, could finally find redemption, when in 1978 both my father and he bought a Philips Philetta radio set each.

We used to wake up every morning listening to the Bandana (Vandana in Sanskrit; Worship in English, a program of devotional songs of different religions) on the Guwahati Radio station. We knew by heart when a good drama or an important interview would be broadcast, and recognized people by their voices. Life was centered around, and dependent on, radio; if Geetimalika (a program of modern songs in Assamese that started at 8-30 AM) started on Guwahati Radio Station, it meant that it was time for us to eat and leave for school. Nobody explained to us (nor did we think ourselves until many years later), why we needed to leave more than an hour before, for a school where classes began at 10-00 AM, and which was  only about one kilometer away from our home. Wednesday evenings were important, as there used to be a nice drama between 8-00 and 9-00 PM. If you missed it due to some other important engagement, no problem; it would be re-broadcast on Monday at 9-30 PM. For the young adults, it was Vividh Bharati, a program of Hindi songs that was broadcast by the All India Radio, which held the most importance. (It is indeed a sad fact that many of us -- myself included -- would renounce radio later in favour of Television (though I would return to the fold further down the line); in contrast my brother never denounced it, and he still does have a radio with him. As a born again radio enthusiast, I sincerely hope that the words of Mark Tully, the patron saint of Radio for me (and possibly for many others) who grew up amidst exaggeration and paranoia, and whom Mark Tully’s BBC taught for the first time that truth in reporting and not sensationalizing is what Radio should aim for, that radio would again return to its glory days.

We used the radio for another purpose as well: to listen to the cricket commentaries. The whole state of Assam came to a standstill during 1979-1980, due to the agitation led by the All Assam Students Union with a demand of flushing out all the illegal immigrants in the state, and we were out of school for a year. With literary all the time at our disposal, and having not much to do, we all directed our attention towards Cricket. The Pakistani Cricket Team under Asif Iqbal was touring India, and names like Washim Bari, Zaheer Abbas (after all, he would be the only victim to have fallen to Sunil Gavaskar's bowling in a Test match) Imran Khan (who would win the Cricket World Cup in 1992 "at the twilight of my cricketing career") and Sikander Bakht (not the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, but the tall and lean Pakistani fast bowler, who seemed to spend most of his time running from the boundary line towards the three wooden sticks planted towards the center of the field) were household names.

It was during this time that my cricket training began. Rantu, the youngest son of a family living next door, whose movements were restricted due to certain unfortunate events, by his family elders, needed someone to kill time with. All he did was yoga, talk about martial arts and be obsessed with cricket. Eight years down the line, he would establish the first Tae Kwon-Do academy in the town, and begin as a beginner and go to the top, if I remember correctly. My brother and I spent many evenings with him, and it was he who first told us about Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Tolstoy's "The Imp and the Peasant's Bread". He was about 7-8 years older to us in age, and 5 years senior in school. He was a man with passions: he did everything with a vengeance.

He also was well-read and informative in his fields of interest. For example, he had enough info about Bruce Lee and his arts; he was perhaps the only guy in the town who could explain most, if not every, fielding position in a game of cricket (and there are about 7.5 million of those! Positions, not people.). He could do the most difficult of the Yoga exercise with ease. He used to collect all the info he could gather, read them carefully and then carry the info in his head. It was from him that I heard for the first time in my life the word “Cowboy” and what they do and what cut of denim they wear!

Rantu anyhow could not play cricket alone at home, and we were the only two kids he could catch. Or maybe the proximity and close contact of our families allowed that. My mother, in whose paranoid imagination all the neighbours and other people were looking to harm and hurt us, did not allow us to go out and play with others. However, she had no objection when it came to Rantu; after all, he was a good guy, who belonged to a family who were our friends.

Thus, it was Rantu, who initiated me to cricket. Fascinated by the cricketing techniques of the West Indies cricketers, he devotedly emulated the things they did to improve their skill. A thin stick was his bat, and the small ball made of cork that is buried inside a cricket ball was his ball. There would be no equipment, not even shoes. The game must be played barefoot and in shorts, so that the cork ball, if he missed it, could hit him with full impact and deliver the maximum amount of physical pain. I don't know if he wanted it to be that way so that he would be most careful to hit each ball, or if he took each hit as a punishment for missing the ball.

He decided that I would make a good spin bowler, and so my training begun. Of course, I must bowl barefoot too! Each ball that went a few inches outside the wickets (those wooden sticks planted in the middle of a cricket ground) were a "no ball"; every ball that he could hit was“easy and bad”, and any ball that did not turn or did not have the right amount of flight but hit his wickets werenonsense”. If I did not hold the ball in the proper grip and yet could deliver the spin of the flight, it was still a “wrong and bad”ball. For him, following the cricketing grammar exactly was the rule. Eva, his older sister, who was like an older sister to us as well, often watched the practice and asked him to go soft on himself and us; but he won't relent. (Thanks to his regimen, within a couple of years I reached a stage when I could put three wickets, make an average guy bat, tell him which wicket I would strike at next, and then could actually do it!.). Oddly though, Rantu and I never really played in the same team. When he was playing for Golden Club, I was the 14th man (thus being an outstanding player, by dint of my standing outside the field) for the same team; by the time I got to play club league cricket, I would be playing for Pioneers' Club and not for Golden Club. Interestingly, it was Rantu's father, whose extremely good handwriting (or rather calligraphy of the highest order, if handwriting could be called that) made me try to improve my handwriting for the first time in life, and I have been reasonably successful in doing so.

But Rantu was not the only member of the possessed guys’ club. Babla would be the only other guy in the town who could field at short-leg (it is like sitting one foot away from a cannon that fires solid rocks at high speed, with your face towards the cannon) without a helmet or any protective gear and would take catches from deliveries that some poor batsmen touched out of poor judgement, and which would never have been a catch in the first place for any other ‘human’ fielder. But then, Rantu and Babla were inhuman when they were fielding!

Dinesh, who played for the Town Club as a fast bowler, was the first guy, in my memory, who wore spiked cricket boots. He always played cross with his bat, which was completely grammatically wrong in cricket (we called it swiping-with-a-broom); but then he was no really a batsman and he had nothing to lose. He was a good bowler and could deliver deadly bouncers ; even Rantu grudgingly accepted that. Mantosh was the fastest bowler in the town and the pride of my school cricket team; Bul, the second bower, was the comedian of the team outside the field, and Rantu, the third.  Mridul, the captain of my club, played almost all sports, be it cricket, football or volleyball, and all of them pretty good at that.

Where are they now?
When I last saw them, Mridul was busy with his kid and the cane furniture business of his brother, Rantu was a primary school teacher far away from home, and busy raising his kids, Mantosh was roaming from shop to shop, working as an Insurance agent, and Babla was selling cheap, used clothes on the roadside. Bul had hanged himself in his hostel room in the Veterinary college a few years earlier.

And Dinesh? He was busy riding his invisible motorcycle wearing a construction worker's yellow helmet and talking animatedly to an equally invisible rider sitting behind him on his motorcycle!

Someone later told me (though it could all be just conjecture), that Dinesh, who had had a serious head injury in the 1970's during a student agitation (and perhaps during a clash with the police), was always prone to mental instability if something equally shocking happened; a major theft of his shop (he was running which we called a Tent house business, which basically rents everything from the tents to the utensils for weddings and other such events) apparently pulled the trigger. However, in the Macondo-esque labyrinths of Mangaldai, truth is often juxtaposed with fiction, and I would never know for sure if there is any truth in this information.
Not all boomtown rats ended this way though! Some of them became engineers, some doctors, some college teachers and other professionals.

In Mangaldai, where there were no real terrorists, Maina was a terror for the schoolgirls and young ladies in the early to mid 1980s. Bespectacled, often attired in BDM (not the products of the famous Sports Goods Company B D Mahajan & Sons, but rather “Bangla Desi Maal”, as we referred to the inexpensive and often used clothes) off-white polo shirts and trousers, and a hat to boot, and a goatee (French-Cut in Assamese parlance) added in the later days, he had a respectable look. However, he terrorized the girls in the town by catcalling and verbal harassment (Eve-teasing, as we called it). Most girls were afraid, annoyed, irritated or all at his sight; complaining to his parents did not lead to any positive outcome either, some said. Many took a detour, and a few even walked into someone else’s house, to avoid a face-to-face encounter with him. He was a classmate of my elder brother, to whom he said that, due to his glasses and attire, some girls mistook him for a doctor. My mother was so fascinated by this info that, from that day onwards, she always referred to Maina as Dr. Goswami.

Soon things progressed to regular and reasonably heavy consumption of alcohol, and non-stop gambling. It seemed that the excitement and dedication with which he had played marbles in his school days, was now totally focused on gambling. There were a few dead buses (and trucks as well) lying in the front-yard of a certain neighbor, which became the gambling dens for Maina and other gamblers, albeit for a service charge. This is the picture I carried with me of him when I moved out of Assam.

Then in 2003, when I was visiting my family, my mother gave me the news that Maina had recently got married.  She also insisted that I pay a visit to them, as his mother inquired about my well-being, whenever she met my mother. When I went to their home, Maina was out of town for some work, but his newly-wed bride served me tea and snacks and I sat with the family for an hour chatting. During the chat his mother told me a bit hesitantly that it always came as a relief to her, when old acquaintances like us visit their family, because she was not sure how people would accept the news of Maina’s wedding, since he opted to marry a widow!

Bhan, his younger brother, who was my classmate in school, explained to me the next evening over a cup of tea that Maina had been pressurized for long by the family to get married and settle down. He initially avoided (or ignored) the request; but when there was no way to do so any more, he made his counter-offer: he would marry if they could find him either a physically or mentally challenged woman, or a widow. Bhan being the man in charge of finding the girl, and being able to understand the depth of guilt and regret of his elder brother, decided that opt for a widow. After some search, when they came to know about a young lady, who had been married for only a month or so before she was widowed, they went to her home to ask her hand in marriage to Maina; Bhan told me that her family did not initially even believe that this was a real proposal.

Later I found out that any apprehension that his family might have had was ill-founded. I was told that most people who came to know about Maina’s wedding and met him or his brothers, invited themselves to the wedding and attended it. The temple, where his wedding was conducted, saw 600 guests against an invited number of 250, and additional food had to be brought in from the local restaurants (hotel in local language) to feed those extra 350 people, something that an Assamese wedding in a small town did not usually do.
Pankaz Sharma was born and brought up in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam.

May 10, 2017

Pankaz Sharma may be contacted at [email protected]

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