THE MASKED CRUSADER
Hunger pangs, though uncomfortable, can be mitigated by consuming tiny morsels of food. But the biggest curse of humankind is staring at abject poverty, which can leave one without a shred of dignity.
Narayan Kalindi stared at the dented plate before him. A fistful of rice had been unceremoniously heaped on it; a solitary boiled potato accompanied it. Tears trickled down his cheeks. A man of wiry build, he once boasted of indefatigable stamina. That, coupled with his unbridled passion for his art, held him in good stead as he donned those heavy masks and danced in front of a cheering crowd.
What could have been more humiliating to a performing artist than his shows getting cancelled? That too, due to a lockdown! Narayan watched helplessly as his meagre financial resources started depleting. But life has an uncanny way of putting people in their places. And so, the lead dancer and founder of the Chhau Nritya Kendra swallowed his pride and accepted the government’s scheme of free meals.
As his thoughts meandered aimlessly, a small girl wearing a threadbare nighty peeped into his room. The plate containing the insipid lunch looked inviting to her rumbling stomach. Saliva formed in her mouth, which she swallowed instantly. Should she, should she not? She placed one foot hesitatingly over the threshold. At that moment, her father looked up and called out to her with outstretched arms.
“Come, Buchki! Why are you standing there?”
A curve formed over her lips. She dashed towards her father and flung her arms joyfully around his neck.
Narayan ran his hand tenderly over his daughter’s hair. “Are you hungry, sona?”
Buchki looked at him. Should she tell him that she longed for that delectable fish curry which her mom used to prepare? The six-year-old was too naïve to understand that a dreadful pandemic had wreaked havoc in the world, and that people like Narayan were the worst sufferers.
“I asked you something, sona.”
“Is maa not well?”
“Why, what happened?”
“Mmmmm.. Baba….. I don’t like what we are eating.”
Narayan looked at Buchki. A lump formed in his throat. Forcing a smile, he made her sit on his lap. The rays of the sun penetrated through the shutters of the rickety window. He cleared his throat and began in a soft voice. “One day, Lord Krishna came to visit his friend Panchali when the Pandavas were in exile……….”
The ceiling fan whirred noisily, threatening to drown out the instructions bellowed out by Narayan. Beads of sweat had formed on his bare torso. He bent down, placed his palms above his knees and exhaled deeply. The room was devoid of any furniture, barring a long bench, and a wooden stool, over which an earthen pitcher with a water ladle had been placed. Three huge masks painted in white, orange and green lay on the floor, waiting to reclaim their spots under the limelight.
Dilip looked at Narayan. Only an hour had elapsed since he had resumed his practice, and he was already feeling faint. The ground beneath him threatened to give way. He held on to Shyam’s hands in a tight grip.
Narayan glared at his friends. “I cannot tolerate this lazy behavior. If you do not keep in touch with our art, how can you survive?”
“Dada. I am feeling weak. I haven’t had proper food for a long time.”
“As if I have been stuffing myself with mutton for the past one month! Look at Shyam. Not yet ten! But see his passion!”
The boy looked at the two adults but said nothing. His eyes darted to the water pitcher. As if reading his thoughts, Narayan thundered, “not now!”
With a doleful look, Shyam took a couple of steps towards the bench. His eyes pleaded with Narayan. Giving in, the man nodded. The boy immediately clambered onto it and stretched his legs.
“See, dada. He is not saying anything. He is scared of you.”
Narayan kept mum. Dilip spoke less, but his words were often impactful. Wiping his forehead with his palm, Narayan squatted on the floor. Taking the cue, Dilip joined him.
“I am sorry, dada.”
“Arey na, Dilip. I should be the one asking forgiveness from you.”
“Na, dada. We can never repay what you have done for us. You took a huge loan to buy new masks. Then the bookings got cancelled. But you ensured that we got some money. What about you, dada?”
Narayan shrugged his shoulders. “I can never let you suffer. You are like my children. Let’s see. God will help us.”
The men looked at young Shyam, who was trying his best to stifle his yawns.
Narayan continued, “I don’t know when we can start performing again. But we shouldn’t forget our art. Right?”
“It flows in our veins, dada.”
Narayan nodded. The men sat silently for a couple of minutes. The sound of a rickshawalah on the street honking his horn made Narayan turn around. Near the door was a battered white board leaning precariously against the wall. Narayan had dismantled it in a fit of rage, as news of the lockdown and its implications filtered in. Chhau Nritya Kendra, Khairi, Purulia. These alphabets had once witnessed intense practice sessions, with Narayan Kalindi helming the performances. He could portray Arjun in the Kurukshetra war brilliantly, and the very next day, he transformed himself miraculously to Ram, offering to go to exile with Sita and Lakshman. Today, the dancer looked deflated – like the elders in the court during Draupadi’s disrobing.
Behind every cloud there is a silver lining. To Narayan, Shakyasingha Ganguly was no less an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
It was a Sunday morning. Not that it made any difference to the mundane lives of Narayan and the dancers. A few of them had gradually joined Dilip and Shyam in their practice sessions, albeit with lesser enthusiasm. Uncertainty still loomed large over the horizon.
Narayan was talking with Dilip, when a soft knock on the door made him pause.
A young man stood outside the door. Wearing faded jeans, a T-shirt with a random slogan in English, and gold rimmed glasses, his appearance and demeanour suggested he was from the city.
“Can I come in, dada?” His voice was soft, yet firm.
Narayan nodded. “I am sorry, I didn’t recognise you.”
The man took off his dust-ridden sneakers and entered the room. He brought his hands together in a Nomoshkar. “I am Shakyasingha Ganguly. You can call me Shakya. I am a journalist working for an English news channel in Kolkata.”
Narayan’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, you are from the city?” He hurriedly signalled one of his friends to bring a chair from the house nearby. He then took a piece of rag from the floor, went to the bench and dusted it vigorously. “Please sit, babu. Dilip will be back soon with a chair.”
Shakya gave an embarrassed smile. “Narayan da, relax. I can sit anywhere.”
With that, the journalist strode towards the bench and sat down, stretching his legs comfortably. “Dada. I have a photographer with me. I hope you don’t mind when he is clicking away.”
“It’s our pleasure, babu.”
“I am sorry if I have interrupted your practice session. What’s the theme you are performing, by the way?”
Narayan gave a lopsided smile. “Narasimha Avatar”.
Shakya took out a Charminar and offered it to Narayan, who took it with gratitude. “So, dada. Thank you for sharing some snippets from your experiences. I have gathered enough material for a series. But tell me something. With no tourists around, how can you sustain your livelihood?”
Narayan remained silent.
Shakya smiled. “You have to step up the pedal. I truly appreciate your generosity towards your fellow dancers, but it helps to look after yourself too, you know. You need money, dada.”
Narayan shuffled his feet. He knew Shakya’s words were true.
“I have an idea. I will organize a booking for you. Let’s see if I can raise a decent amount of money.”
“What? How is that possible with no tourists around?”
“Narayan da. I am talking about online streaming.”
Narayan stared at him with a blank expression on his face.
Shakya straightened his back. “See, dada. You will perform in an open ground. I will record it. But it will be shown to viewers via internet across the world.”
Narayan’s eyes widened. “Even America?”
Shakya whistled. “Even America, dada!”
The dancer stood up in excitement. “Is it possible?”
The journalist nodded. “Tell me when I can come again.”
With a huge grin plastered on his face, Narayan glanced at his men discussing animatedly a chapter from the Bhagwad Gita.
“Next month, babu. We will be ready.”
“So will it be something from our epics, dada?”
Narayan pondered for a minute. “I have a plan in my mind.”
“Dada. Are you out of your mind?”
Dilip looked at Narayan. The other dancers remained rooted to their spots, shocked.
“I have thought about it, Dilip. Trust me.”
“Dada. The elders will kill us. We cannot insult our scriptures like this.”
“Who is talking about religion, Dilip?”
“Our Chhau is famous for it. We cannot deviate from traditions just like that.”
Narayan sighed. He put an arm around Dilip’s shoulder. “Come, let’s sit for a while. You all too.”
“Dilip, my friend. Art doesn’t just mean sticking to something rigid. Of what use is it if it doesn’t convey a social message? Tell me something! How many people come to watch our shows even in peak seasons? And even if they do, they all know the epics. If we take up an unexpected theme, they will sit up and take notice. Our dance should make them introspect.”
“Won’t people be bored, dada?”
“If we put up a sterling performance, then no.”
“What about the masks then?” It was a half-hearted attempt by Dilip to dissuade Narayan from attempting something so drastic.
“I have spoken to the makers. Some minor adjustments, and we are ready to go.”
Dilip gave up. “As you say. By the way, how did you stumble upon this idea?”
Narayan winked. “It was something which Shakya had commented on an impulse. Remember? About how callous some idiots are.”
“Have faith in God. It will be a success. I need your co-operation. From all of you. Come, let’s go to the sarpanch, and seek his permission.”
CURTAIN/ FUND RAISER
Shakya’s eyes scanned the ground. Much to the villagers’ amusement, he had insisted that the spectators maintain strict social distancing norms.
“Do you see those large circles? I have drawn them. You should not come out of your designated spots. Ok? And where are your masks?”
“Babu. These precautions are for city people like you. We are fit. The air we breathe is fresh”, a villager had told Shakya.
“Keep this wisdom to yourself, dada. This will be shown live across the world. We cannot afford to be careless.” And with that statement, Shakya had put his foot down.
TING! The WhatsApp group ‘TRP Chats’ in Shakya’s iPhone X came alive.
You will rock, Shakya.
Any beautiful girls in Khairi? <followed by a wink emoji>
Make sure everything goes on smoothly as planned. Good luck.
The clock chimed six. Shakya alerted his crew. They took position. “Narayan da. We are ready.”
A thunderous applause reverberated across the ground. Shakya brought his palms together, covered his mouth and blew into it. And then, a deathly silence followed.
The journalist’s eyes widened in disbelief. This cannot be happening. NO.
Narayan, dressed in a dark pink dhoti, and a matching kurta, made his entry. Intricate patterns in gold adorned his costume. Furthermore, he had put on a purple stole with designs of wildflowers. A typical Chhau uniform, one could say. The mandatory mask completed his attire. Painted in a subdued hue of saffron, those wide eyes could have sent a shiver down anyone’s spine. A gaudy crown made of faux gems, ribbons and feathers rested on its head. Did those lips sport a benign smile? None had an inkling. For someone had dipped his brush in blue paint and ran over the lower part of the face with it in frenzied motions. It was almost as if the mask was wearing a … mask.
Narayan paused in his tracks, bent down, took a handful of soil and brought it to his forehead. The music began.
The dancer swirled around, tapping his feet to the drumbeats. A couple of minutes later, young Shyam joined him. Narayan did a somersault. Shakya gasped. This man is truly a genius. The boy, wearing a similar mask, extended his hand towards Narayan. The music ebbed. The man shook his head vigorously and took three steps behind. Shyam raised his index finger, tapped his cheek twice, and then gave Narayan the thumbs-up sign. The music suddenly gained pace when Dilip entered the ground – wearing a normal mask. He staggered towards Narayan, clutched his chest and fell down. The beats reached a crescendo. Heavy breathing raked Dilip’s body.
Shakya sprung up from his chair. A few members of the audience got up and started to rush towards Dilip, but they were stopped by the other dancers.
What’s happening here, Shakya??
That was his boss in the group chat.
The music stopped. Narayan went near Dilip, faced Shakya and bowed before the camera.
“My dear friends. Wearing a mask will save you. Else you will meet the same fate as my friend. But… he can wake up. Not you. Now I present you….” Narayan paused. Why is Shakya sporting such a shocked look? Dilip got up, unsure about the next action.
Oh no. Shakya. Fringe groups have started to target us. Says it insults their religion.
People attending this live event are appreciating it. The comments look encouraging.
Any Bongs criticising it?
Are you crazy? We are never the ones to take offense.
Those are by some lumpen elements… these disparaging messages.
This was not what Shakya had expected. Who the hell told Narayan to come up with something so stupid? It would make him the butt of jokes in Khairi. And Shakya’s reputation? To think he had broached this idea of a live Facebook event!
Shakya??!! You there!!?? That was a private message from his boss.
Listen, Shakya. Call me ASAP. I have already invited an actor, a poet, a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a RW activist for today’s debate. Good job done. TRPs will soar now.
Shakya sank into his cane chair, relief writ large on his face. Thank God for those 9 o’clock debates.
He glanced in the direction of Narayan. The three dancers had removed their masks and stood in rapt attention. Their eyes were on Shakya. The people in the audience were getting restless. Rumours had started floating the rounds. This show is a flop, so went the murmurs. What will happen to Narayan da now?
Oblivious to the whispers around him, Narayan Kalindi did not bat an eyelid, as he stared at Shakya, imploring him to say something. The journalist sighed. What purpose would it serve to tell them that this performance had grabbed the eyeballs at a perfect moment?
Shakya pursed his lips and shook his head. Narayan retreated a couple of steps. His downcast eyes were stamped with the fear of disappointment. He dropped his mask, let out a cry, and sprinted towards the school building.
Shakya began typing on his iPhone. Shall I interview the man of the moment? <smiley emoji>
Yes. Also some members of the audience. Look out for disgruntled faces.
“Dada. Wait. Dada”, Dilip screamed as Narayan shut the door.
Shakya stood still. “Be prepared to leave in a hurry, if the situation demands it”, he whispered to the cameraman.
Dilip and a few of the men started pounding at the door. In a few seconds, it gave way. The men rushed inside. A blood-curdling scream shook the core of every villager present in the ground. And then, Dilip came out. Violent sobs shook his body. He lifted Buchki in his arms and facing the crowd, ran his index finger over his neck.
Cursing himself, Shakya ran towards the building. And stopped in his tracks. Narayan Kalindi hung from the ceiling fan; a dhoti tied around his neck. On the bench was a note, scribbled in haste. “I had promised Buchki that I will feed her mutton curry today. Tell her I am sorry.”
* Prompt: Dancer; Needs Money; Village
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