The story wanders into the past to about 10 years ago. So why am I penning it down now? Two reasons – one: There weren’t blogs at that time. If there were, I wasn’t aware of them; two: I got reminded of it recently when I appeared for NET (National Eligibility Test), which would qualify me, if I clear the exam, to be eligible for lectureship. The latter – clearing the exam – seems unlikely.
Anyway, to begin with, it was a June Sunday. Place: Delhi. Don’t remember well, if I’d cleared the college or was in the final year. But those were the days, when being a Theatre person was high on my agenda and was associated with Advait Theatrical Group – that thought of itself to be a revolutionary concept, with flying egos.
The Director-Founder of Advait was a dear friend in those days, and was four/five years my senior in college. We followed him, if not blindly, but followed him ardently and thought of ourselves as some philosophers who would change the literary world and the art world. Thank God we spared the society of that. Again why am I meandering? Because the story is all about meandering.
The pressure on me was though not too high to appear for the IAS exam but was certainly high on my friend. Let’s call him The Friend only. His parents were convinced that one day their son would leave his vagabond lifestyle and join the mainstream by being a high positioned bureaucrat in the Indian Civil Services. Had The Friend been serious, he would have certainly qualified. I never doubted his intellect, even still though his reckless life has made him sacrifice many friends. Yours truly being one. But that’s a problem with all artists I suppose, who are non-conformists.
On a Saturday night, we decided to stay at my place in RK Puram, as the centre of the exam – some Government School, near Sarai Rohilla Station (near Karol Bagh) – was closer to my home. I don’t remember if we boozed that night or not. But we did sleep late. By the time we woke up next morning, the Sunday, we knew that we were running late for the exam. We hired an auto-rickshaw for the centre and after every minute were looking at our watches. We had to find and trace out the centre too. We were exactly 20 minutes late. We found the classroom where we were supposed to be seated. The invigilator declared that he could have allowed leniency of 10 minutes only and 20 minutes was too much of a time as per the rules laid down by the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission – that conducts the civil services exams). While I was too happy to be late as that would have meant one chance lost – as I knew I had not prepared for the Preliminary exam and I stood no chance to clear it to go to the second round – The Mains. The Friend pleaded with excuses that we had come from Ghaziabad and the train was late to reach the Sarai Rohilla Station. The pleading fell on deaf ears. Later, The Friend told me, “I just wanted to quell my guilt feeling that I did not try.” He unlike me, was under pressure from his parents to appear for the exam.
So what next? We already were feeling the Delhi June heat. We couldn’t go home. As we should have been giving the exam. There were about two-three papers on the day with a lunch break and it was supposed to end at 5 PM. We would have to while away that time out. Even though a friend stayed quite nearby, we didn’t want his parents to know that we’d bunked the IAS exam. So for the mutual love of books we decided to go to Daryaganj – the biggest of the Sunday Market for second-hand books. After a ride on one of the deadly Redline buses (that plied on Delhi roads during those days) we were in Daryaganj in half an hour. The market runs across an approximately 1-km stretch and the heat was unbearable. Still we managed to cover the entire market, with our hands full of, if I’m not wrong, with only James Patrick Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. It had been just over a three quarters of an hour, and the heat had already drained me out and my back and knees too seemed to have lost their lubricant.
The stretch managed, what next? It was just 11 or 11:30 PM. A brilliant idea struck us. Remember not too much money was in our pockets that we could go to some restaurant. It was decided that we’ll watch some movie on a Rs 20 per ticket at Regal in Cannaught Place. The 12:30 PM show. Just about 10 minutes were left for the show, and there was madness for the tickets at the ticket counter. Delhi didn’t have multiplexes or the hep kind of theatres during those days. Priya Cinema and Chanakya were the only decent places. Anyway, back to Regal. The movie that was about to start was – I don’t remember the name – the like of Jawaani Ki Aag, or Jawaani Ki Dushman or Jawaani ki Bhool or Something Something, if you know what I mean.
We weren’t interested in the movie but to escape the Delhi summer for at least two hours, Regal seemed to be a good idea. But the good idea wasn’t that good as the tickets were being sold at a flat rate of Rs 50. That was too much for us. May be we had about Rs 100 put together in our pockets but still Rs 100 for a C/D grade movie was too much for our egos and the artistic fellows who were born to change the way how art was looked upon. We were after all theatre people.
Should we try out any other theatre? The shows ran across Delhi had fixed timings unlike the present days when movie-halls or the multiplexes run shows every half hour.
So what next? A little bit of loitering around in Cannaught Place and 50 paise wala machine ka thanda paani, we found ourselves under the shadow of khajoor type trees in the Jantar Mantar arena. We lay beneath one of the khajoor type trees, hardly a leaf for shadow. I still wonder why there aren’t any shady trees there. We talked for a while and tried to have a wink or two. But the Delhi summer wouldn’t let Lady Sleep come nearby. After every five minutes of silence we looked at our watches. These minutes seemed to be as hours. We tried hard to not to look at our watches. But couldn’t resist the temptation. There were a few middle-aged loafers – like us – there too trying to sleep, or just whiling away time. The only difference was that they were not future bureaucrats in the making and not come out to give an IAS exam. Nor were they the theatrewallas with fine sensibility and refinery for art. May be that was their life. One, pulled out a newspaper from where I don’t remember, opened each sheet and laid them down nicely on the grass to lay upon.
The Friend and me, tried to talk, philosophise or what else? But the sun seemed to have caught itself in the mires and designs and dials of Jantar Mantar. By the way, we paid Rs 5 each for an entry into the Jantar Mantar complex. How the loafers had got in, I’m not sure. They were beggars, I suppose. The newspaper man, said to the other, “Chal lunch karke aate hain, Bangla Shaib (a popular Gurudwara in Delhi and near) pe.” The plan didn’t seem to have gone down well with the other man. The newspaper man then followed it up with all kinds of abuses to the Sikhs, and then turned to us, “Buraa mat maanana Sahab, main bhee Sardaar hoon.” Must be a cut-Sard (Sikhs who have cut their hair and don’t wear a head-gear – the turban). Anyway we were least interested in finding out his background, except that there was some amusement going on for us to get us through the day. Then the newspaper man tried to offer us some sheets of the newspaper, which we politely declined, hoping that he doesn’t start his rant with us. “Main toh ek rupaiya ka paper isiliye khareedta hoon taaki aaraam se so sakoon.”
May be Lady Sleep pitied us and we managed to get some uneasy sleep for about 15 minutes, when our newspaper man shot out, “Bhai sahab, bhai sahab, teen baj gaye kya?” Startled we woke up and looked at our watches and nodded our heads in affirmation, still fearing to open our mouths lest the man starts a rant with us. That didn’t resist him, and asked, “Poocho mujhe kaise pata?” We didn’t try and answer him neither in words nor through our body or any expressions. Still, he answered, “Yeh aurat dekh rahe ho? Ye r**** hai r****. Theek teen baje aati hai yahaan pe. Har roj. Ek baar mujhe kehti, ‘50 rupaiya de, tera l***a c******gee’. Maine kaha, ‘hat s****…” followed by some other words, which cannot be put down in asterisks as well.
The woman got into some small talk with other men around, and soon came to this newspaper man. He too engaged her in small talk, while he looked at us with a smile and an expression, which probably said – See, I had told you. We thought that it was time for us to move out from the place.
We got up, loitered around Jantar Mantar and marvelling the historic place built by His Highness Sawai Jai Singh, – that was more appropriate for us, The Theatrewallas – and left the place. Soon we found ourselves behind Janpath Lane, where some Kashmiri boys were playing cricket. They were, I suppose, the local shop-keepers or who else, I’m not sure. Not to forget that we must have smoked about three packets of Charms cigarettes by then since morning. We smoked Charms those days. Charms with its denim look pack was a cult amongst the theatre people and the rebellious. “Charms is the spirit of freedom, Charms is the way you are” was its positioning statement those days. We weren’t trained in marketing fundas, hence we called the positioning statement as a ‘slogan’ only. Some years later, Charms changed its statement to “You’ll like the taste my friend.” The motto for us was over and we shifted to some other brands.
But again this is not the story about Charms. We saw the Kashmiri boys playing cricket, while trying to decipher what they were talking in their dialect. Around 4:15 PM, we thought that it was too much to bear and we could go home and tell our respective parents that we had finished the paper early, by about 4 PM and had left the venue in an auto-rickshaw for home. Tired, we took our ways. The Friend left for Noida from Janpath and I for RK Puram, not in an auto-rickshaw but in a bus hoping that it’ll trudge slowly picking up passengers on the way and give me a leeway time for little explanation at home. So I boarded the No 615 bus plying between Minto Road and JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). But against my prayers, the driver wanted to speed – but true to the character and nature of the Redline buses. On the way, some students of JNU hopped on to the bus. They were on their way back to their hostels after appearing for the IAS exam. So a bleak light that well the exam could be finished by this time – except that my centre was way far than theirs. I tried to gather the threads of their conversation – the questions they were discussing. So armed with some questions that had been asked in the exam, I rang on the door bell at about 4:45 PM.
Nobody asked me, why I was early, except, “Kaisaa hua?”
“Theek hee ho gaya,” I said.
Nobody again asked me what kind of questions had been asked, still I was eager to tell them – the questions I’d eaves dropped upon from the discussion between the JNU students.
Any regrets for not giving the exam? Not as of now, till may be my boss throws me out for non- performance during the economic slowdown and inability to get stories. That was a Midsummer Day’s Dream. I could have entitled the story that but then why vulgarise the copyrights of The Bard, Shakespeare; particularly when we were at that point of time, besides Advait, bringing out a literary magazine called – The Bard. So my due respects for the greatest ever playwright. We had just made an Ass of ourselves. Nothing else.