In the second part of this fascinating series we get to know about Ashutosh and his friends’ decision to make a short film and to make the watchman the main character of the story of the short film….But to do that Ashutosh had to break the ice with the watchman and befriend him….Could Ashutosh do that? To know more lets wade through Part 2….
By Adhiraj Kashyap | Illustration by Sid Ghosh
In our second year of college, some of my friends and I planned to make a short film. It was for a competition conducted across colleges in our University. I got underway writing a script for it straight away. I was struggling to get it on track for quite some time and didn’t know where it was heading towards. We all were amateurs and had no real cognizance of how to proceed further. So Nikhil, who was eventually going to shoot the film, advised me to develop a story first. I discarded everything I had written before and decided upon observing a character, which I could later flesh out a story around- “Whom better than the watchman to write about!”
I started talking to him more regularly. Even when Abinash didn’t accompany me at nights, I used go out alone and be around him. I even used to keep him company when he used to take his rounds around the colony. It took me a little bit of time to make him comfortable around me. But I had to allow him that much to break the ice. He didn’t talk much at first. As usual, I used to be the one triggering things and he would reply in a word or two; and if he was gracious enough, then maybe a sentence. But slowly and steadily, he got out of his shell and started conversing with me. He used to talk about his native land, his family and narrate me ample amount of stories- starting from his childhood to the years he spent in Delhi. It became a daily affair for me. I would step out of the house each day post-midnight and come back around 2. I would spend time with him for at least an hour and a half, sometimes even more, when the chit-chat would make me lose the track of time. I wanted to soak up all of his stories first and then start writing something around whatever I found engaging.
One night, he was telling me about his father while trying to flame the logs to catch fire. Those were not icy cold nights that deserved a fire. But he was regularly lighting it anyway, after I started paying him daily visits at night. The fire made the conversations much cosier. He used to have a mortar pan where he would put all the logs and planks. He had a plastic bottle full of kerosene which he used very prudently so that it lasted longer, and he would refill it at the end of every month. He would put a minimal amount of kerosene on the withered coconut husks because it caught fire more readily than the logs. The coconut husks, in turn, would pass on the fire reluctantly to the logs and the logs would gradually catch fire after much hassle. The watchman would have to first use the coconut husks and kerosene as igniters- then there would be slight hints of fire sparks in the logs- then he had to keep blowing the logs persistently, with an added task of fanning them with a newspaper- and then only the logs would seem gracious enough to light up.
He told me that his entire family used to gather around a similar fire set-up in their courtyard during winters. Sometimes, the neighbors also joined. His father and he would always arrange for logs from the woods just behind their house. They were a family of around 25 people who stayed under the same roof-his parents, his uncles and aunts, and all of his cousins. Whenever I asked him the exact number; every time he would start counting with his fingers first and then stop somewhere around 10. He would then tot up the rest inside his head briskly and say, “There must be around 25 people”. It was always 25- never any less, and never more.
His father and his elder brothers were farmers. He also helped them out at times, even though he wasn’t particularly interested in it. But he used to lend them a hand whenever they needed it. But they didn’t own any land. It was leased to them by the land owners, which usually was the case with most of the lands in his native place. There were a bunch of people who owned acres and acres of land and leased them every year to farmers to grow a variety of crops. He told me how once, when he was really young, his father was battered by a landlord. I was astounded to see how vividly he recalled it. He was recounting it with so much of lucidity, adding on the minutestof details, that I could actually see it come into being in front of my eyes. He had the ability to narrate his stories in a very riveting way, evoking images quite effortlessly. I often wondered whether he actually remembered all of it, or he was just spicing things up to make the story more enticing.
The watchman would start off the stories in a mildly somber tone. It would seem as if he was half asleep and still making an effort to tell a story. But as the story would progress, his body would start warming up and start participating more rigorously. He would first remove his shawl- then he would remove his muffler only to wrap it around his head once again- and then he would keep aside his stick to sit slightly upright. And his entire storytelling mode would shift drastically. The story would start unfolding with him behaving like an actor playing various parts. He would use his hands meticulously to complement his facial gestures. At times, he would even stand up if the story demanded it. But strangely, he would never look at me. He would avoid eye-contact as much as he could. He would just simply look elsewhere, and keep narrating- as if there was some imaginary invisible audience he was catering to. Even when he was telling me about his father being maltreated, he was enacting the whole thing in a way that he became his father at one point; and switched to being the landlord to show how he behaved the very next moment- and then, within a span of seconds, again he switched back to being his father.
He also told me about how the atrocities and the oppression never diminished even after he had grown up. Just the faces of those tormentors kept changing, but not their cruelty- cruelty which probably was a by-product of power, wealth and privilege. He didn’t want to live there ever since he saw his father being humiliated for the first time in his life. It was an image that refused to leave his mind ever since. But his family kept facing such iniquities on many occasions over the years- so much so that it was accepted as a perennial part of their existence after a point. He always wanted to run away somewhere far. But his father didn’t want him to go away as having him around meant having an added helping hand in the farming seasons. So he had to wait until he turned 30. That was when his father passed away and he took off to Delhi.
But Delhi was also no different. It too didn’t treat him kindly. The absence of the landlords wasn’t felt much as there were other people making lives difficult for the likes of him. He kept taking up various jobs over the years before landing up at our colony. And the slum where he had been staying ever since he set his foot in Delhi kept growing bigger in size, but the standard of living never really saw anything apart from stagnation. I once asked the watchman- “Isn’t it frustrating to live like this? Why did you come here in the first place?” He fixed his gaze upon me for quite some time as he was taken aback by my query. He wasn’t anticipating anything of that sort. He took his moment before a smile slowly transpired on his face. The smile possessed a sense of self-doubt as if it was asking himself why he actually came to Delhi and whether it was worth everything. But at the same time, the smile also bore a proud sense of maturity which was devoid of any regret. It had only acceptance and the sagacity of a wise man which, in a way, forgave my ignorance and idiocy, and simply said, “I didn’t think much. I just came… Some people go to small towns. Some come to big cities like I did. And some stay back in their villages only. Life actually doesn’t seem starkly different in any of these places anyway.”
To be continued
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Adhiraj is a filmmaker, currently studying Film Direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). One of his short stories “The School Function” has been published in the magazine “Indian Ruminations”.