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A Two Penny Opera

Discussion in 'Snippets of Life (Non-Fiction)' started by ojaantrik, Aug 18, 2013.

  1. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    At the time, he was surely the oldest man alive in my world. I mean at the time I knew him. Short of a miracle, he cannot possibly be around anymore now, having renounced his title in favour of other two legged creatures, who, paradoxically enough, have managed to live longer than him. That is, if "number of years lived" were to be treated as a reliable index of living.

    I was less than ten perhaps, when he was a regular visitor in the locality we inhabited. The short, toothless, hollow-cheeked, sunburnt, emaciated old man was a known face. Life expectancy in India has improved significantly since those days and I suspect that this geriatric was no more than forty when he was readying himself for his final journey.

    His attire, though not extraordinary, was not exactly ordinary either. It consisted of a homemade poncho of sorts running all the way down to an inch or two below his knees as the rest of his legs lay hidden under a lungi, if I remember correctly. It is unlikely that his clothes had ever been washed. Touched up by dirt collected from various non-discernible sources, their colour could perhaps be described as somewhere between dark brown to grey.

    His head was permanently covered by a toupe-style piece of cloth, again of nondescript colour, tied into a knot hanging from the nape of his neck. The top of his head having been doggedly hidden from public view, I cannot be exactly sure of course about the nature of vegetation adorning it. I tend to believe though that he was totally bald and the head cloth was a costume he had devised to make himself presentable to his audience.

    He had fierce eyes and a high-pitched voice, which served as the only weapons he possessed to establish his right to exist in a planet which was possibly not too eager to grant him that right. The voice sang out a number or the other from a limited repertoire, as his right hand fingers struck up a beat on a left hand held percussion instrument, the bottom of a used can of Australian cheese that policy makers in India still allowed to be imported in the early years following independence.

    I don't think I would ever commend him for his musical expertise and along with the stray dogs in our vicinity, my friends and I had accepted him as a necessary adjunct to our lives. We coexisted, in other words, quite oblivious of Herbert Spencer's Darwinian thoughts on the survival of the fittest.

    The planet's indifference notwithstanding, middle class housewives in the areas he visited considered it, despite their limited resources, a God ordained responsibility to keep him going. And "keep on going" he did, from house to house, pouring out his toothless songs and collecting the one paisa donation to his one man show. The paisa I speak of dates back to pre-decimal coinage days and constituted a sixty-fourth part of a rupee. *

    My mother too, as I recall, had a kitty, yet another tin can, which held her philanthropist's collection of one paisa coins, reserved specifically for the tribe of street dwellers the old man appeared to belong to. And I had been taught to pick out a coin from her collection and hand it over to the man whenever he showed up, which, out of impatience, I often did before waiting for him to finish his singing.

    He was a pathetic soul, which I could make out even at that tender age, but I don't think I bothered much about the matter. Till the day arrived when the man proved that he could rise to the occasion when situations demanded.

    Our next door neighbour had a son, Ratan, who was a year younger to me. Ratan was as acquainted with our man as I and was not surprised as he arrived one morning when the two of us were playing in their small garden. As I said, we were quite young at the time, but I wonder now, as I ruminate over this incident, what the cut off age is for boys migrating out of the world of pure innocence.

    The songs the man sang mostly belonged to the category of folk music, laced with religion and a rustic brand of philosophy, for none of which young children like us had any use at all. Except for one song, which we were particularly fond of. There was a line in the song that said: I have arrived totally naked into the world and that's the way I will have to leave it too! There is no point writing down the Bengali equivalent of the word "naked", but I think the closest word in Hindi would be "nanga". So, the song was telling us about the futility of accumulating worldly treasures, for "arrived we have on earth totally nanga and we have no choice but to leave it in an equally 'nanga-fied' state." The philosophy embedded in these lines, however simple to absorb, made little impression on our minds. Instead, we were tickled pink to hear the word "nanga" being repeated several times in the song. And we wished to hear it over and over again. Possibly we felt sex in the air, quite instinctively I am sure, for no one had ever exposed us to anything remotely related to the birds and the bees.

    Much to our dissatisfaction, however, the man did not sing the song of our choice on this particular morning. And as soon as he began, we knew that we won't get to be treated the way we wished to. We quickly stopped him therefore and demanded that he sing that other song, the forbidden one as it were. The man's fierce eyes turned somewhat angry as he listened to us.

    But it was not really anger that had invaded his tranquillity. It was not his disappointment with the fact that his message concerning the senselessness of material possessions had failed to reach us that appeared to cause him annoyance. Quite the contrary in fact. We had completely misunderstood the expression on his face.

    His face turned very grim as he said, "That song costs two paisas! I won't sing it unless you give me two paisas."

    I was flabbergasted and began to protest. "Only yesterday, you sang that song in front of our gate and I gave you one paisa. Why do you want two today?"

    The stoic philosopher remained quite unmoved though. "That song costs more nowadays," he repeated.

    I was too young I am afraid to argue out the case with him. Or else, I ought to have told him that he should sing it free, given its sermon. But I was no match for the "smart businessman" I was facing at the moment.

    Neither Ratan nor I had that extra paisa. So we began to scratch our heads till a solution to the problem struck me. "How about my mother's kitty? There should be more than a paisa in the tin box." As soon as this thought struck me, I told Ratan that I might be able to steal a paisa from the home fund, if my mother was not in the vicinity. And Ratan of course readily agreed. It didn't occur to either him or me that Ratan himself could play the same trick with his mother!

    In any case, I ran back home and quietly stole that one paisa and came back to the venue of the musical performance. The old man was patiently waiting I found, as was Ratan. I was panting as I sat down on the steps leading to the garden. We sat side by side in our royal seats and the man then treated us to the song of our choice. And truth be told, he did entertain us sufficiently with his song, repeating the line we were dying to hear several times more than he usually did.

    We giggled merrily each time the word came up. Who says markets don't work? We paid more and he supplied us with the goodies.

    Ratan unfortunately is no more, but his memory resides deep inside my heart. And whenever I remember Ratan, I feel guilty of cheating my innocent mother of her collection of paisas. And I cannot forget the old man's amazing bargaining skill either.

    Frankly, I will never be able to figure out who amongst the three of us cheated most.


    * PS As Viswa has correctly pointed out, a paisa was a 64th part of a rupee and not 16th. I apologize for the error!!
     
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  2. iyerviji

    iyerviji Finest Post Winner

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    Good post OJ da dear and it is surprising even after so many years you still remember him. We have come to this world without bringing anything and will go back also without taking anything . But the love we get and the love we show it to others comes a long way. Dont knowwhat I have written is correct and an apt fb for what you have written.

    Wish you belated Happy Birthday OJ da . May God bless you with happy, healthy and prosperous life. Need your blessings for my Birthday and right time you have posted this snippet. I must admit that I wanted to wish you on your birthday but somehow forgot because I got many wishes from IL before the Birthday itself and I was so touched and overhelmed that I completely forgot to wish you. Anyway it is never too late and here are my wishes

    You deserve everybody's honor for being such an inspirational and full of wisdom personality
    May every unfulfilled dreams of yours during the past seventy years come true
     

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  3. Viswamitra

    Viswamitra IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Sri Ojaantrik,

    I truly enjoyed reading your post sharing your experience as a young boy. I have nothing but admiration for your factual presentation of why you and your childhood friend Ratan wanted to listen to that song more than the philosophical content in the song. Needless to say that the old man knew exactly what market would bear as otherwise, he won't be looking to price his song 100% more than the previous occasion. The innocent exploitation of the resources available to help an elderly person obviously would be forgiven by your benevolent mother. After all you have not taken one paise for your own use but for giving it to an elderly person who was in need of that money. Your crime had a good cause and it reminded me of Cheeniya Sir's description of a Saint steeling money that he was entrusted with by the Kingdom, to construct a temple and eventually, the Lord Himself came in the dream of the King to tell him to pardon the Saint.

    Even though philosophy didn't excite you those days, now, your writing reflects a lot of philosophy and your practical experiences. Your depth of knowledge excites me a lot. The song of the old man teaching that we came in empty-handed and leave empty-handed as well is a good lesson to learn. I enjoy a Tamil song, "Bitchai Pathiram enthe vandhen, Aiyyane enn Aiyyane" meaning that "This body itself is a vessel given to us to beg for liberation".

    Your longevity related discussion reminded me of a joke I heard long time back. An elderly person who was in his early 90s was interviewed by a TV station to share his secrets of long life. He explained that he had clean habits throughout his life and never smoked, never consumed liquor and always ate healthy food. Throughout the interview, the interviewer was hearing some noises in the top floor and at the end of the interview, the interviewer asked him the reason. He explained, "Don't worry about it. It is my dad shouting to get more cigars, throwing liquor bottles around and demanding sumptuous meal".

    I thought a rupee those days are divided into 16 anas and each ana had 6 paises in it.
     
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  4. Cheeniya

    Cheeniya Super Moderator Staff Member IL Hall of Fame

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    My dear, dear OJ!
    What a classy writer you are to be able to spin magic out of a mundane event! I just cannot reconcile myself to your tendency to play truant like our monsoon on which our whole life depends. Your writings elevate the status of IL in general and the Good to Read Forum in particular to the level of an exclusive literary circle. This event of a toothless tramp begging in the street is a familiar sight to almost every one of us but how many of us can write about it in such an engaging manner? The trademark tongue in cheek humour comes through every line. Adolescence has never been brought out as skillfully as you have done here.

    The center figure of this treat that you have provided us reminds me for some strange reason of the classy film ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ of Satyajit Ray. This was probably the only children’s film he produced but his handling of music as its central theme is very much like how you have handled it in this delightful snippet. I just spent two years in Bengal during my career but the impact of that eventful period is still fresh in my memory even after four decades. Every son of Sonar Bangla is blessed with some talent or other. I always thought that humour was not part of the repertoire of their talents. I never associated Satyajit with any humour until I saw ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ and what a delightful movie it turned out to be, so different from his murky portrayal of life in his other movies.

    Your humour is a celebrated fact among your fans in IL. How you have peppered this recap of your boyhood days with your wonderfully subtle humour and made it an eminently enjoyable snippet is something I’ll keep raving about all my life. Singing beggars are probably a well known facet of this vast country. I am sure that everyone has experienced it. But no one would have ventured to write a snippet about it and make it thoroughly enjoyable too. That’s where you stand absolutely alone OJ.

    I am all with your loving Pashenka in wishing you a long and fruitful life!
    Sri
     
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  5. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    Thank you Pashenka. I wish you Happy Birthday too, loaded with all the happiness in this world.

    Believe it or not, I too received Happy Birthday wishes from two I'Lites. They are two of my favourites here.

    Best wishes again.

    oj-da
     
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  6. Mindian

    Mindian IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Oj da,

    firstly, belated Birthday wishes.Hope you have happy healthy years ahead. what a beautiful post this was! I thoroughly enjoyed it and totally agree with Cheeniya sir. It was truly magic.

    It also brought back some lovely memories from my own childhood...of characters long ago forgotten. thanks to you,I look forward to talking about them with my brother, who I shall meet soon.

    and finally ..the title which I found totally classy and drew me to the post immediately.You are :thumbsup
     
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  7. BharadwajThiru

    BharadwajThiru Silver IL'ite

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    Dear Sri Ojaantrik,
    A truly inspiring post. This is the first post I am reading written by you and am impressed both with the style of writing and command over the language.
    THank you for taking us on a nostalgic trip as well.
     
  8. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Viswa,

    Thank you for your thought inspiring comments. I liked the interview story at the end. It was quite delightful.

    To tell you frankly, a singular drawback I suffer from is my inability to manufacture a story out of thin air. I tried a few once in a while and Cheeniya tells me that he enjoyed reading one of them in particular: Paradise Regained -- A Hairy Tale. I wrote a few romantic tales too, but I am slowly realizing that writing stories is not exactly my forte.

    On the other hand, the older I grow, the longer back in time I seem to drown. I remember inconsequential events and ask myself what was there in the event that makes me remember it so many years later. And, quite invariably, I discover a key element in the event and feel inspired to share the memory with my friends. If I have to choose favourites from my own produce, I am almost certain that I would fish out the character portrayals of street folk or semi-street folk. The five I like most are A Nobody Called Somebody, Nisheeth Babu -- Small Man in a Large World, Debu-da -- Large Man in a Larger World, Maganlal Magicwallah and The Man who Could not be a General. My style has deteriorated somewhat since the days I wrote those pieces, partly because I don't spend enough time revising and rethinking. Partly also because I may truly have lost my style. Nonetheless, I still keep on entertaining this ambition of collecting my character portrayals somewhere for people to find them without much search, or possibly purely by accident.

    I don't know how good I am, but there is little doubt that I have produced for IL some of the pieces I enjoyed writing most. I was introduced to IL by Kamalji. I am grateful to Kamal for this, but sometimes I feel frustrated that except for a few of my kind friends, not many end up reading my pieces. I have learnt to live with this now and, unlike the old man in the present story, I have given up bargaining.

    My stuff is available free of charge. If someone likes it, I feel it's a job well-done. If people don't notice, I remind myself that I am not exactly running for the Nobel Prize!!

    Best wishes.

    oj
     
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  9. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Sri,

    I am not sure about the class you keep referring to, but I do enjoy writing. Lots of people enjoy doing things and quite often they end up with lousy outputs.

    If you read my response to Viswa's fb, you will probably be the person in IL who will understand it most. I am sure now that I am drawn towards discovering unusual things in commonplace occurrences and the humor is probably conceived in the process. I cannot compare myself with the world's greatest artists, needless to say. But I can always try to mimic them. They say Gorky had this ability to write a story by simply watching a person walk by his open window. The comment you have made on my present effort today reminds me of Gorky. Don't misunderstand me please, I am not comparing myself with that great writer. All I am trying to emphasize is that Gorky could be a hero worth pursuing. And the other hero of heroes is R.K. Narayan. He too was a true magician. Almost all his characters were anti-heroes. Simple street people. And look what he made out of them!!

    I know now for sure almost that short stories will not pour out of my pen. My imagination is poor. But the real world can compensate for the shortcomings in my imagination. For the real world is very rich indeed. And I have realized that variety, if it has to constitute the spice of life, must be found in the commonest of people. One merely needs to keep one's eyes open and be prepared to adopt a way of arranging events. Take liberties sometimes if necessary, putting the cart before the horse to achieve an effect.

    I have a few other "singer beggar" tales to tell. I hope I shall be able to finish telling them before it is too late. Also, I need to get back my style. As you read the snippet today, you couldn't have failed to notice the number of typos. I was amazed myself. But there you are. I have now corrected most of them, but I can't forgive myself for committing the errors in the first place.

    I wonder why I reminded you of Goopi Gayen. It was a children's story of course, written by Satyajit Ray's grandfather. And I had two innocent children in my tale. Also, music played an important role in the event, as in Goopi Gayen. Humor? Well may be a little. I need to revise a great deal before I can bring it out fully. Incidentally, Ray wrote short stories for children and came up with a detective character called Felu-da. He made films out of two of his Felu-da stories, Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath. In the second of these films, Utpal Dutt gave an unforgettable performance as a villain. I know you will enjoy watching the films. Let me see if I can lay my hands on them. If I can and they carry subtitles, I shall mail them to you.

    I want to write Sri. There is nothing I enjoy more. But something's going wrong all the time!!

    Thanks for your birthday wishes.

    So long friend.

    oj
     
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  10. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Mindi,

    Long time no hear from you. I am glad that I made you happy. People like you keep alive the desire in me to continue writing. Yes, childhood memories can make you fly in magic-land. Perhaps I never ceased to be a child, or else why do I keep roaming there. I know perhaps that there many hidden jewels there still. I need to follow up on them.

    Thanks for the birthday wishes.

    Hope to meet you someday.

    Love.

    oj-da
     

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