BENGALURU: I am talking about a time when there was absolutely no hint of war anywhere. It happened eight, maybe nine years ago, when, quite unlike today, madness had method and tumultuous events followed a predictable course. Today-well, tumultuous events occur without rhyme or reason and throw everything upside down.
I was then employed in a film company at a monthly salary of forty rupees. Life was chugging along smoothly. I would show up at the studio at ten, feed the villain Niaz Muhammad’s two cats two paise worth of milk, write banal dialogues for a banal film, joke around for a while with the Bengali actress, ‘the nightingale of Bengal’ as she was called in those days, fawn over Dada Gora, the greatest director of his time, and return home.
Like I said, life was chugging along smoothly with the usual ups and downs. The proprietor of the studio, Hurmuzji Framji, a whimsical man of Iranian origin with big fat ruddy cheeks, was head over heels in love with a middle-aged Khoja woman. Feeling up the breasts of every newly arrived girl was his habitual pastime. There was this Calcutta whore, a Musalman, who was carrying on with her director, sound recordist and storywriter all at the same time. Carrying on meant that the tender affections of all three would remain reserved only for her.
The shooting of Ban ki Sundri was in progress. Every day, after feeding the villain Niaz Muhammad’s cats the two paise worth of milk, (God only knows what kind of impression he expected to create on the studio-wallahs by keeping them) I would write dialogues for the film in some unfamiliar language. I knew absolutely nothing about the film’s story or its plot because I was merely a munshi-a pencilpusher in those days and didn’t pull much weight.
My work only involved writing on a sheet of paper in mutilated Urdu whatever I was ordered to and what the director could understand, and hand it over. Anyway, the shooting of Ban ki Sundri was under way. Rumour was rife that Hurmuzji Framji was bringing an entirely new face from God knows where for the part of the vamp, while Raj Kishore had been assigned the role of the hero.
Raj Kishore, a native of Rawalpindi, was a handsome and healthy young man. It was widely believed that his body was very manly and had a graceful shape. I thought about his body often.
It was certainly athletic and well proportioned, but I found nothing else appealing in it. Maybe that was because I myself am frightfully gangly, look more dead than alive and, besides, am given to wonder rather too much about my kind of people. I didn’t hate him; I’ve rarely hated anyone in my life. Let’s just say that I didn’t much care for the man. The reason will reveal itself as you go along.
I absolutely loved his pure Rawalpindi accent, his language, his manner of speaking. Only in the Rawalpindi dialect of Punjabi can you find the sweetest, most endearing cadence. It has a strange kind of rugged femininity, at once sweet and mellow. Should a Rawalpindi woman talk to you, it would feel like having mango juice dribbled into your mouth.
But I’m not talking about mangoes; I’m talking about Raj Kishore, whom I liked much less than that heavenly fruit. As I mentioned, Raj Kishore was a good and healthy-looking young man. Well, had the matter ended there, I’d have had no cause to grumble. What was worse was that he was also overly conscious of his physique and good looks. And this I could scarcely stomach.
Being healthy is a good thing, but to inflict one’s health on others like a disease is something else again. Well, Raj Kishore suffered from this disease. He never lost an opportunity to flaunt his health and his wellproportioned and shapely limbs before those less healthy than he was.
Doubtless, I’m a frail and chronically ill man. One of my lungs can hardly pump enough oxygen into my body. But as God is my witness,I have never ever put my weakness on display, although I know that one can exploit one’s frailty as much as one’s strength. But I believe one should not do that.
To me, true beauty is the kind that you quietly admire in your heart, not broadcast with your tongue. I consider such beauty an affliction that hits you with the impact of a rock. All the beauties that a young man should have, Raj Kishore had them.
But, regrettably, he also had the nasty habit of exhibiting them in the crudest fashion, such as by flexing his arm muscles while talking to you; or worse yet, praising them unabashedly himself. Or, in the midst of a discussion on some serious issue, such as swaraj, unbuttoning his khadi kurta and measuring the unusually wide span of his chest.
Ah, yes, khadi-it reminds me: Raj Kishore was a staunch Congressite. Maybe that’s why he wore khadi. But the thought that he didn’t love his country as much as he loved himself never ceased to peck at my heart.
The majority of people thought that my opinion of the man was grossly unjust. This was because, whether in or out of the studio, everyone admired him for his beauty, his thoughts, his simplicity, and his language with its perfect Rawalpindi accent, which I also loved.
Unlike most other actors, he didn’t keep to himself. You were sure to find him in any and all Congress rallies, as well as literary gatherings. Regardless of how busy his life was, he always found time to share in the joy and sorrow of his neighbours, even those with whom he had only a nodding acquaintance.
Every film producer regarded him highly on account of his celebrity and his spotless character. And not just them, even the public knew all too well that Raj Kishore’s life was free of scandal. It’s not easy to be part of the film world and remain squeaky clean. That Raj Kishore was a successful hero further jacked up his stature in everyone’s eyes.
I spent part of my evenings at Shamlal’s paan shop in Nagpara. Here, people often gossiped about actors and actresses, none of whom was free of some scandal or other. Not so with Raj Kishore. Whenever his name cropped up in a conversation, Shamlal asserted proudly,
‘Manto Sahib, Raj Bhai is the only actor who’s not easy on his zipper.’ I didn’t know why Shamlal had started calling him ‘Raj Bhai’, nor was I too surprised by it because every little thing Raj Bhai did soon became public knowledge as a veritable achievement.
How much he made, how much he gave to his father every month, or donated to orphanages, or spent on himself-people knew these details as if they had been singed into their memories.
One day Shamlal told me that Raj Bhai was exceptionally nice to his stepmother. When times were hard and he had no source of income, both his father and his father’s new wife had put him through all manner of hardship.
But remarkably, Raj Bhai never shirked from his duty and welcomed them all with open arms. Now his father and his stepmother sat majestically on their canopied bed and ruled the roost.
And Raj Bhai went every morning to touch his stepmother’s feet and joined his hands before his father, ready to carry out immediately any order the old man might give him.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin, Random House