The coldness in the air was gone. After a long time, it had been stuffy and humid and sweaty. Suddenly in the evening, the sky darkened and the hailstorm arrived.
Manoranjan’s shack was next to Ripon Street, beside a blind alley, in the courtyard of a decrepit building. The shack had tin roofs and two walls made of tin and two of unplastered old bricks. Straight across his door was the common bathroom and latrine. It was always stinking because at least fifty-sixty people used it throughout the day. It was unbearable in the beginning but Manoranjan has gotten used to it by now, He said ‘I have inserted a filter in my nose, I smell attar instead of the stench, ‘Nawab’ brand attar’. As the rains started, Manoranjan anxiously checked the canopy inside the room. But it was safe as it was strung with double ropes, only white ice pellets collected on the folds. He also saw Nupur coming down the stairs. She stuffed the loose end of her sari with hailstones and came for shelter under the canopy. While drying her hair, she asked Manoranjan, ‘Come to the room. We’ll have some fun’.
‘Take off your vest, hurry...’ Nupur said to a speechless Manoranjan.
She made him remove it before he could ask why, then she took the ice in her palms and started rubbing it on his back.
Manoranjan was startled. The twisted but thick skin of the hump on his back shivered with cold. He moved away and said, ‘Being crazy again? Saala, you want to ruin my evening show?’
‘Don’t you know this cures the pain. You were complaining yesterday about your body aching; and worrying about your performance…’
‘But cold like this? So suddenly? What if my heart fails?’ Manoranjan said.
Nupur giggled, ‘Can people die by hailstones?’ Nupur’s waist was level with Manoranjan’s eyes. Her sari plait had slipped, bringing her navel in view. As she wore the sari a bit low, a white scar was visible. Manoranjan lifted his head to avert his gaze, but his eyes got stuck to her breasts---they were heavy and full due to her pregnancy. Manoranjan lifted his head further and saw that Nupur had stopped laughing and was looking at him … This time her voice did not sound so chirpy—‘What are you looking at like that?—she asked quietly.
‘I am looking at you. You tall people look so beautiful.’
Nupur stroked his hair and asked ‘Did you complete today’s practice?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘See, you will get to perform regularly if we do well. Dilipbabu is supposed to come today. He can appreciate real talent.’
‘Let me try. It will give me a great boost if I manage to do that,’ Maoranjan replied.
The ice had melted by this time. As her sari was getting wet, Nupur said, ‘Let me go, it’s almost evening. I have to dress up after this.’
Manoranjan said ‘I am not going to start before 8 pm. Can you come then?’
‘Please, you can do my face make-up. I will apply the powder myself. You just need to highlight my cheekbones and paint my eyes’.
‘Ok, I will come,’ Nupur said.
The rain was petering out. A strange light came up before the evening; that special golden light which makes every human being and relationship look beautiful. Manoranjan switched on the cheap record player after Nupur left. It was a popular Hindi number with heavy beats. Spread across the floor, Manoranjan practised his dance: a bit of acrobatics, a bit of rhythm and his frustration as a dwarf. He poured it in the steps and gestures. If he can be this intense about his dwarf identity in practice, why can’t he captivate a larger audience? That happened once. When he acted Baazigaar’s Shahrukh Khan in white shirt and overalls with eye make-up done by Nupur, he flew from one constellation to the other in a milk-white orbit. Claps followed claps, the crowd kept increasing; there were a couple of other colorful girls like Nupur who lived on the second floor. At that time, their rooms were filled with men and beer. With the windows open and the garish neon lights on, clusters of four to five men were embracing one woman each while watching Mano dwarf’s act.
The reception turned out to be exactly what he had wished for. Dilipbabu came down. Nupur was standing at the back. Dilipbabu said ‘Manoranjan, you will do a lot of shows in Kolkata after this. Then I will take you to Mumbai. There are many opportunities for dwarfs in films. Would you like to go?’
Manoranjan was ecstatic. He said ‘Why not Sir? Must I not dream of the moon just because I am a dwarf?’
Dilipbabu laughed out ‘The guy has a very good sense of humour.’
The hotel was called Hotel Anarkali. A plastic board outside said ‘No Beef,’ but everyone knew that it did serve beef. It generally closed down at 10 pm but stretched it for half an hour more when there was a long queue. Like today it took 10: 40 pm to douse the fire in the tandoor. You had to first remove the coal with tongs and let the fire die out slowly and cover it with an iron lid. The tandoor will be ready next morning when you put in fresh coal and switched on the table fan. This was Manoranjan’s task. He wiped away his sweat and handed the tiffin box to Altaf, the head cook. Altaf took stock and kept four pieces of tandoori chicken and a ladleful of beef. Altaf was good-hearted, always gave him a bit extra, and never put him down because he was a dwarf. Manoranjan put the tiffin box in his pocket and started walking home in his lungi and undershirt. Midnight was approaching —an hour when the footpaths changed fast. Comical drunkards stood right in front of speeding cars, a sense of irony rose out of their somewhat synchronized lives. From a distance he could see people, cars, hand-drawn rickshaws and prostitutes with painted faces—everybody appeared to be without heads when they came closer. He was the only gold-headed person amidst these headless, brainless people and vehicles.
As he neared his house, he noticed the door kept ajar. This was unusual; the doors of his house were open to everybody in the evening. But there was a tinge of malaise somewhere. He went in rather carelessly; everything was still. He had called out to Nupur a bit daringly before entering. Then he felt it was wrong to do so. Anybody hearing it could perceive his clandestine delight in the call-- ‘Nuuupppur…hey Nuupurr.’ But Nupur did not come downstairs. Darkness came instead. A strange kind of darkness which ate away the light. Manoranjan thought that he needed to practise as he entered the room, but did not feel like doing it. He washed up and sat listlessly for quite awhile.
The entire house looked so dark, filled with the air and sound of rejection. His life in the past six years flashed before his eyes like a black and white film. His father Santosh Chel was from Bankura. His mother’s name was Gayatri, Gayatri Chel. Though he was raised by them, he had no place in the family after he turned 22. One day Santosh Chel handed him 1000 rupees and said ‘Go to Calcutta, it’s the season of circus, I heard they pay people like you well over there.’
‘I am doing well,’ said Manoranjan.
‘Hardly well,’ said Sanjay Chel. ‘Are you going to live on me for the rest of your life because you are a dwarf? Your legs can be short but you still have to stand on them.’
He thought Gayatri Chel would say something different. But that did not happen. She could not change what Santosh Chel decided. She cried buckets the night before he left, and gave him some more money. She placed her hand on his head and said ‘Be happy wherever you are and if God listens to your prayers, then try to be a great man, great.’
The second phase of Manoranjan’s story started while walking aimlessly on the Howrah station platform in a cold December morning. He worked as a taxi broker for the first few days, but he got into a brawl, and subsequently got a beating. His face was swollen. After recovering, he tried to work in Kanan circus near Shibpur. There were two other dwarfs who acted as ringmasters. They would dress up as clowns and do tough and funny acrobatics. Manoranajan looked dull in comparison. Besides, he could not get rid of the anger for being born a dwarf. Thus the audience did not laugh when he dressed like a clown and made odd gestures. His master would make fun of him and glare when he returned from those shows. Manoranjan left the circus and returned to Kolkata. At last he took up a job of making rotis. But music was in his mind even after he left the shows. Thus, one day he found himself dancing sadly to the cassette player even without any training or ambition of being a dancer. His whole body and his heart were experiencing strange tremors. ‘A new hassle’, he thought, but could not drive this urge away. Gradually he developed a knack for this, an aimless and reckless passion.
Though the house looked mysteriously dark, he was wrong about it being empty. There was music playing somewhere, some rhythm. His rotis and beef were getting cold but Manoranjan was looking for the music when he saw Nupur… She was coming down the stairs, in a carelessly draped sari and a red sleeveless blouse. Manoranjan asked ‘Have you worn something on your feet?’
‘Then where is that sound coming from?’
‘Will you stop being crazy?’Nupur said under her breath. Manoranjan became quiet. Her eyes appeared swollen. She had not worn any make-up.
She sat on a tin chair and said ‘I know you came some time ago. I heard you calling out my name but I was lying on the bed. Did not respond.’
‘Why? Are you ill?’
‘Headache. My stomach is also burning. I did not eat or cook anything today.’
‘You remember Jhimli? The girl whom Auntie put in the room next to mine? That high and mighty beauty?”
Manoranjan understood whom Nupur was referring to. Jhimli looked exactly like Madhobidi, a woman in the circus where he used to work. Proud and arrogant. Whenever they met, Manoranjan could sense her looking down at him.
‘What happened to her?’
Nupur said ‘She is no more.’ The police broke the door and found her dead body in the afternoon. She took sleeping pills.’
Darkness again engulfed the meager light. Manoranjan felt it was getting cloudy. Or perhaps an eclipse was on its way. The moon was losing its shine. Nupur said ‘the police asked many questions.To all of us. She was new in this line. Came from Shiliguri. Must be having an affair with somebody.’
Manoranjan stayed silent.
‘We are here for a long time’ Nupur said absentmindedly. We are done with those feelings. I am carrying someone’s garbage without falling in love with him.’
After being silent and blank all this while, Manoranjan felt an urge to laugh. He started to laugh uncontrollably. He said ‘The joys and sorrows of you tall people are so fake. I feel like laughing and dancing …’ a grotesque noise emitted from his body.
Nupur laughed. ‘How mean,’ she covered her face and said.
Manoranjan was suddenly overcome with a mad urge to dig out something; he ran and got his golden vest and cheap overalls from his trunk. He removed his lungi and vest shamelessly in front of Nupur and changed into his dance costume, then went over to her.
‘How do I look?’
Nupur yawned and said ‘good, short but well-dressed. But why didn't you win the competition arranged by Dilipbabu?’
‘You won’t understand.’ Manoranjan said seriously. ‘There are handicap issues. I needed a handicap to perform faster. I observed everything. Everybody’s shortcomings. But how will my dance appear beautiful to tall people?’
While talking, Manoranjan got two plates of roti and meat. He handed out one plate to Nupur and said ‘Eat. You should not suppress hunger.’
The sky looked brownish red. The courtyard offered a glimpse of the sky on rare occasions, as the horizon was usually covered with dust and smoke. Though it was dark, he could see that red tinge.
He pulled at Nupur and said ‘The night is ours. We will dance for the whole night. I will dance and you will watch. Today’s program will run throughout the night.’ Manoranjan was putting the cassette into the tape recorder. Nupur said ‘Why are you so happy today? My heart is heavy. There was police and death. Do you have to do your dance today? ‘
Manoranjan was taken aback. But he would not stop. His body had already attuned to some note playing from some unknown source. ‘It’s to perk up your mood that I am trying to do all these.’ He said.
‘Where are the light and stage here?’ Nupur said. ‘How do you enjoy dance in the dark?’
Manoranjan punched on the wall and said ‘Of course. See when I start dancing. The whole area will be lit up’.
It had started to rain from those reddish clouds. ‘Done with your dancing? Now move those instruments here. Go and sleep in your room. It’s late.’ Nupur said.
‘And you?’ Manoranjan asked. Will you be able to sleep alone in your room? You will think of Jhimli and see her and keep shivering throughout the night.’
‘You are trying to scare me.’ Nupur came very close and ran her fingers through Manoranjan’s neatly combed hair. Manoranjan caught hold of her hand and felt her ice-cold palms. ‘You are very scared of dying, isn’t it?’
“Why will I die? What sorrows do I have’? Nupur said.
‘Then you are happy and prosperous...’
Nupur turned serious. She kept quiet for a while and said ‘We are all so lonely.’
‘Says who?’ Manoranjan said. ‘You have only seen me. Do you think there are no other dwarfs around this house or that one or in those houses on the other side of the field? If there comes a day like that, you will see dwarfs coming out from all corners. I am sure I am not alone.’
Manoranjan said it in such a way that Nupur felt convinced about it. ‘But how can I get rid of this fear?’
‘You have beer in your room. Your fear will go when you have some, let’s try it,’ Manoranjan said.
‘I don’t have those stuff. The customers usually bring them. I have to deposit exact money for it. Only then I can get it in my room.’
Manoranjan said ‘Stop keeping count today.’
Nupur smiled at this. ‘Ok let’s go. Let me go and switch on the light in my room. Shut the main door. Police has asked us to stop all business in the house for now’.
The drizzle continued outside. When Manoranjan went to lock the main door, with his cassette player in his hand, he could see Santosh Chel walking over the field. Red clouds overhead, it was a time between day and dusk, the sky was strange. Manoranjan followed Santosh Chel, in his tiny body, across the fields. After walking a long distance, they found the hole from which water seeped in. Manoranjan tried his best to cover the hole with mud that he scooped in both his hands. It seems that Santosh Chel was shrinking in size due to some unknown reason, while walking over that light. Soon Santosh turned as small as Manoranjan , then he became even smaller, tinier and got lost in the mud.
Manoranjan shivered. A number of years have passed. He had no news of his mother. How were they? But he did not dwell on it for long. He locked the door, came close to Nupur and said ‘Come, let’s go.’ Then he held her hand and led her upstairs.
He had never before come to Nupur’s room. Though the furniture was cheap, the room was neat and tidy. It was also well-lit. Manoranjan noticed that Nupur had switched on both the tubelight and the bulb. She turned to him and said ‘I thought I would get you a beer but the stock is over. But we have this. Dilipbabu got it day before yesterday. About half a bottle is left.’ Nupur held a tall bottle in her hands; the golden liquid in it glowed crystal clear.
Manoranjan said ‘Will do.’ He took a glass from the corner and poured a peg for himself. He gulped it down quickly. There was burning sensation from his tongue to his guts, he closed his eyes to drown his pain and told Nupur, ‘You also taste a bit’.
‘Why are you having it neat? Mix water into it. Give me just a little. It gives me headache.’
The sound of midnight azaan filled the air. Manoranjan still found the sky red, though it had stopped raining by then. Then there was a sudden knock at the front door downstairs. Manoranjan did not understand but Nupur said nervously ‘That must be a customer; they are getting signals as our lights are on, I will switch them off.’
There were some more knocks even after the lights were off. Manoranjan could see a vast horizon out of the window. ‘Your room is great, feels like I have come close to the sky.’ The city had not slept yet. It was alive with the noise of cars, stolen tunes and a gust of drunken breeze which made its way through the concrete walls.
Some more time had passed. Manoranjan muttered to himself ‘I feel so new. Can understand why people take this. I could see my mother a while back. Can’t see her anymore. But I feel so happy now.’
Nupur did not respond. Seated near the bed on the floor, she kept running her fingers through her hair and said ‘I do not remember anything. I never had a childhood.’
‘Rubbish! How can that be?’ Manoranjan said. ‘Try to recall. You will be able to do it.’
‘I have tried so many times. You know what I remember?’
‘Have you ever seen locusts? Those that swarm across the sky. They can destroy a field full of crops?’
‘Never saw them but I heard that they come before the famines.’
‘I saw them once’ Nupur said. ‘They darkened the sky.
‘I saw them closely as they swept across the fields. They looked larger than grasshoppers and there was such hunger in their eyes. That’s it. That’s all about my childhood. I can’t recall anything else.’
Both of them had drank a lot by then. Nupur said ‘Can you please come with me? I need to go to the bathroom. I’am scared because the balcony is dark’.
Manoranjan held a candle in his left hand and started walking beside her. His legs were not steady. He stood unfazed in front of Jhimli’s room as Nupur finished her work in the bathroom, leaving the door ajar. Jhimli’s room was locked so Manoranjan’s disproportionate shadow with his head disproportionately bigger than his torso looked as big as the celling and rocked gently. One moment he could hear Nupur sobbing in the bathroom. As she came out, Manoranjan saw that she had splashed water on her face, she had been trying to suppress tears. ‘Why are you doing this to yourself? Don’t keep holding in things.’
‘I feel scared,’ Nupur said as she sat on the bed. ‘I heard that when someone dies, the person tries to call another one. They surely succeed--sonner or later. I won’t stay here anymore. Jhimli will surely take me one day.’
Manoranjan’s limbs were losing control. He gathered courage and got on to the bed beside Nupur. Then he suddenly put his arm around Nupur’s waist. Her body was cold. Are women’s bodies this cold? A gust of cold air entered the room through the window and kept lashing from one wall to the other. It could not go out. Nupur laid next to him without any words. A small piece of white light was moving across the dark. Manoranjan saw that Nupur had not clasped the buttons of her blouse. The white light fell on Nupur’s breasts and called out to Manoranjan. Where else could he go? He stretched out his hands and felt one of Nupur’s breasts with both his hands. Nupur did not resist. Manoranjan’s fear eased. He started to run in this tunnel of light and darkness. He felt tired at one point but where was the way out? So he ran more and more. He whispered to Nupur, ‘I don’t know what is happening. Are you liking it? Why are you silent? Say something.’
Nupur said,‘The old years curled up inside are coming up—till the time I can remember. One after the other. Mom, dad, our house at Majhdia. There was a swampy plot of land in front of our house. Lots of buffalos grazed there. Once one of them chased me as I was walking, wearing a little red frock, with my father. I fell on the ground and got smeared with mud. You know what else I can recall now? Lots of songs. Old, old songs, old records with layers of dust on them, they are all playing. Playing endlessly.’
Manoranjan lied on Nupur’s breasts and said, ‘Can your eyes see in the dark? Please look at me once, if you can.’
‘What will I see?’ Nupur said.
‘You can see I am not that small any more. I am tall now.'
Nupur laughed at this. ‘Let me see.’ While rubbing her soft palms on Manoranjan’s crooked and rough back, Nupur said, ‘Though you are not good-looking, you smell very good. If I have trouble sleeping, I will hide my face in your chest and fall asleep.’
For the first time in his life, Manoranjan felt something lumped in his throat. He was suffering from muffled sobs, he hid his face with his hands. Night kept thinning out outside the window.
Manoranjan changed into his golden bordered overalls and shirt. He took his tape recorder. Then he held Nupur’s hands and said ‘Come, let’s go to the terrace. The sky is clear. A piece of moon is still there. We have to go still higher.’
Nupur said, ‘I want to sleep. Feeling tired. You made me have too much meat late in the night. I got indigestion. I want to throw up.’ Manoranjan said ‘I am there. Puke if you want to. What’s with that?’
Nupur laughed,‘You are strange. You will dance in the terrace and let go off the chance to sleep with me at night.’
Manoranjan got up with a serious expression. ‘Don’t waste time talking….Get up. Time once gone never comes back.’
Their heads got stuck in cobwebs while climbing stairs. Their feet hit against leftover trunks and suitcases belonging to strangers. A few night-blind pigeons started flying out of fear—but nothing could stop Manoranjan. He again saw a white ray of light in the dark and held on Nupur’s hand.
Both of them started to flow in a breeze after reaching the huge roof. The darkness had eased. Everything could be seen clearly. Nupur started to pant and took to the corner. ‘Close your eyes for once. When you open them you will see in focus—red blue lights, smoke—what not,’ Manoranjan said while switching on the cassette player ‘trust me. I know magic.’
A very old Hindi number had started to play. Manoranjan did a few somersaults and got ready. ‘I learnt these during my stint in the circus. These help me keep fit.’
The music changed suddenly. Manoranjan stopped for a second. This piece was not in his cassette. But it hit his head. Without deciding on right or wrong, he realized that his legs were tapping and he was getting goosebumps. The rhythms of his body, spontaneous, were very different from the filmy dances he learnt before this. He was in a trance, dancing across the entire terrace, as if it were a huge stage. Nupur saw that the man had turned mad. Who else would dance like that?
Time flew by. Though Nupur was sitting in front of him, Manoranjan had still not come back to his senses. In the dim light, Nupur saw that he was breathing heavily and his shirt and overalls were dripping sweat. She said ‘Enough. You are completely wet. Stop now.’ Manoranjan could not hear Nupur. A huge canopy swung over his head, there was light around, and with his treasure of dance he was floating happily in a crystal boat.
Nupur could not keep down the nausea anymore. She leaned on the railings. Chunks of roti and meat started coming out. And exactly then she felt a different kind of pain in her body. There were tremors in her abdomen. But it was not time yet. It was only seven months. Is the one coming trying to come a bit too early? She bit her lips and tried to bear the pain. Then said ‘Listen. Can you hear me? Please take me to the room. I can’t stand it anymore.’
The music changed and made way for something wilder. Manoranjan’s styles and steps changed too. He stretched out towards the sky. The rain and electrifying cloud could not stop him. They came down towards him. Eventually his small body got charged with cloud. His being turned into an apparition. He turned into a flash of lightening as he danced.
Nupur had realized that Manoranjan would not be able to hear her words. She had suppressed her pain for some time and managed to subside it. She had felt some movements inside when she was intimate with Manoranjan. He had said quite a few things. He said ‘Will you let me steal a little?’
“Steal from the world.’
'How?' Nupur had asked.
Manoranjan said ‘The one in your tummy-- he will definitely be tall and big when grown.’
After a brief pause, he said ‘you will live your life, I will live mine. Just give your child my name. Let the world know that even I can give birth to a tall and good-looking human being.'
Nupur remembered it again. She was feeling sad.
The flash of lightning was still prancing across the terrace. It was a single cassette but the tune kept changing, new rhythms and bliss were being created. And Manoranjan kept dancing, ignoring his shortcomings, forgetting his urge to live. There was fire all over his body. It was as if he was dancing his last dance. Perhaps this is how tiny people try to touch the sky. Nupur felt tired and spent as she watched on.
Manoranjan had fallen flat over his face. The sky took the colour of curdled milk. A translucent dawn had come up. Nupur was worried. She took Manoranjan’s head in her lap, ran her fingers through his hair, his crooked and rough back and said ‘Crazy man! How can you do this to yourself!'. His body did not respond. And just like he had said, Nupur found thousands and billions of dwarfs coming out from all corners of lands near and far. They were all clapping. The claps sounded strange. It was not human, a bit alien.
Nupur could now see the mountains, rivers and deep valleys of past lives which the city did not let anyone enter. It was our retribution for changing births. Before the sun came up, Nupur held Manoranjan’s cold body in her lap and kept staring, at her past lives.Published in Parabaas, July, 2014.