Debojit Dutta is a writer based in Delhi, from where he runs Antiserious, a literary magazine. His writings have appeared in the Missing Slate, Northeast Review, Motherland magazine and Himal Southasian among other places.
In 2011 when India won the cricket World Cup after a gap of 28 years, Banchal, a small town in northeast India, celebrated in a more or less traditional way—going out and burning firecrackers that we save every Diwali in anticipation of such events. There was a minor scuffle in the Muslim neighbourhood where a bunch of hoodlums assuming that it was Pakistan that India were playing in the final had burned down a poster of Wasim Akram. When arrested most of these teenagers confessed they did not know much about this particular World Cup. As they had not been watching cricket since Indo-Pak matches became a rarity, they had no clue that Wasim Akram had hung up his boots long ago.
But that scuffle, even though it grabbed a few local newspaper headlines wasn’t unusual. Some newspapers had gone as far as claiming it to be a communal riot, but newspapers are prone to such exaggerations. It was a trivial matter. Something of that kind would happen every now and then. There was nothing strange about it. It did not affect me in a way tragedies do. After all, nothing had happened. It wasn’t a story about a building being brought down by aeroplanes in a major country of the world. Not even a monkey man roaming the streets of the nation’s capital. Not even a personal tragedy of a nail refusing to come off when one tries to pull it out, unconsciously. Heck, not even like a child not getting to complete a full over of bowling on a cricket field because he is too young for that! Perhaps it was just too mundane to strike me. What struck me was the death of Pulokit Purkayastha/ PP, hanging by a noose to the peepal tree outside his house.
PP was a boy of 13 when the local news agencies took notice of him. He had just won a poetry competition and as part of the deal was invited to Delhi for a workshop. He was in seventh standard then and his mother was a little sceptical about allowing him to go to the land that rumours had made inhospitable in her head.
Delhi was “Dilli” for Banchal, and was infamous for dilli ka laddu—a mythical sweetmeat that you regret if you taste, and you regret if you don’t. It is a metaphor often used for marriages. And PP’s mother always regretted her marriage to a man who earned not half the income of her father. The mention of Dilli brought her terrible memories. She saw herself washing clothes under the water tap on the veranda of her former house, while trying hard to hold herself back from puking. The stench of urine filled her nose. It was the second daughter of her sister-in-law who had peed on the bedcover this time. The daughter was eight years old in that memory, so while it made her feel disgusted it also made her feel weirdly excited thinking about how later she would talk to people about that incident.
But the fear of Dilli wasn’t limited to this. She also remembered what her uncle—her father’s elder brother—would tell her. Despite the fact that it was after jethu had gone senile, she would remember him telling her about the Dilli he once visited. “New Dilli,” he said, “is a jungle”. There were foxes and tiger cubs who greeted him on his visit. The foxes cried incessantly and tigers were not very sure what they were doing there. As jethu sat waiting for his vehicle to arrive—jethu had elsewhere to go—he saw a plane crash and fall on the foxes. He never revealed much about the tigers.
“Jethu was in his late 80s then,” she once confided to PP’s father, “and our child is still a boy. How will he cope with that nasty land?” If Banchal was always sleeping, Dilli, the jungle, seemed to be a raging insomniac with bloodshot eyes knowing not how to fit animals and aeroplanes in the same picture, always killing the former. PP was still just a boy, we all knew. Our mothers used him as an example because he still slept with his mother without fussing over the fact that he had grown up.
So all taken into account, it took much effort from PP to convince her.
“He would walk after me with a copy of his poems and follow me everywhere I would go. But frankly speaking, they made not much sense to me. I mean it is great that he writes, and people say he writes really well, it makes me happy, but I cannot understand what he writes. His father tells me whenever he mentions me in his poems and I feel happy. But this Dilli-ulli was too much to take for that. So I ignored him while he persisted. He would try to convince, then he would stop talking to me for days, then he would sleep with his face on the pillow to show me that he was upset. I noticed but I did not react. But, you know, I have a mother’s heart.”
When nothing worked PP gave up food for a whole day. “Not even his favourite aam muri (mango and puffed rice) could convince him to eat. Such was his resilience.”
A week later just before PP’s going to Delhi when the news reached the papers, “resilience” was mentioned thrice in a 500-word report.
PP’s poetry was highly appreciated by the Delhi poets, one famous name going as far as offering to publish him in a book of New Writing, the kind that usually includes very old and big people. PP’s poem “Daffodil in Banchal”, seen as a tribute to William Wordsworth, was going to be a part of the anthology.
PP began the poem exactly like Wordsworth had—word to word, comma to comma.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high over vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
I could not understand the big deal they made out of it. But the famous Delhi poets seemed to have found it rather amusing that PP could place a poem inspired by the 19th century England in the context of Banchal, further extending to seeing Dilli through the lens of Banchal. They were particularly focussed on “When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils” which they thought was the point of transition from the small town to magnanimous Delhi, “a host, of golden daffodils”. They marvelled at what they considered “the child’s amazement” at seeing the big city with so many people, tall buildings, broad roads, construction works going on all around giving it a feeling of a place where things are made.
Excited by the news of publication, PP called up home via Misra uncle, the next door neighbour and only owner of a telephone in their lane. “I… I, Pappu. Ma, I am getting famous here. Becoming big person,” and then he had no more money to pay the P.C.O guy who without looking at him asked, “Naukri lag gayi kya?” In his head PP thought up an office, a long row of seats where 10-15 people sat and exchanged paan and laughter in between tapping on the wooden tables and slow, continuous noise of the fans that made the afternoons seem even longer than they were. He imagined a lady in a blue sari with white dotted patterns and black blouse to go with it and wondered what she might be thinking while staring at the register before her, while it was clear that her mind was somewhere else as showed the pencil stuck in her mouth, which he knew was often held tight between her teeth because he had once picked it up in his hand during the lunch hour when no one was looking and had wondered putting it in his mouth if it would take him to where the lady goes every afternoon. Where and how? Saliva, saliva, through her digestive tract to where she thinks from. If saliva could travel in that way is something he was never taught and later, as you will find out, he would never know. “Nahi. Naukri toh karni hi nahi hai.” (No. I don’t want to get an employment.)
PP returned after his four week stay. His mother noticed a change in his behaviour. “It is like he was another person only. So quiet. ‘PP, PP!’ You call, and no response. Not even to his friends.”
Like PP’s mom, Biren, one of his best friends, agrees that there was a change in his behaviour if not that drastically overnight. “He stopped playing with us. He was always a very enthusiastic cricketer but he kind of just gave it up. There was a time when throughout the day you could spot PP on the field. He would bunk school and play in the morning, sneak away in the evening when his maa would be sleeping, continue to play till his father came looking for him with a thin stick in his hand, which would embarrass PP. But he just gave it up.”
The truth is that he was a very good fielder, but nothing much otherwise. While I understand this does not negate the part about his enthusiasm, but I thought it deserves mention. I say this from memory because I was thought to be too young to play proper matches with the people of PP’s age. They would either allow me a baby over—where they would allow me to bowl only three balls. Or, on other days, they would allow me to bat for a few deliveries after their match was over. But PP just used to swing his bat in the air like a pinch-hitter—imagine Javagal Srinath batting at number three for India in mid-90s. When the ball would touch his bat it would soar up in the air vertically from where he stood and then fall straight down. It was an amazing spectacle, but definitely not cricket. But as I said this is about cricket, not his enthusiasm.
There are people who knew PP better, and were in a better position to talk about his enthusiasm for cricket that went beyond the field. Like Atul, a neighbour and playmate of his who concurs with Biren’s version. “One day, he just came up to me and said, ‘Atul da, take these trump cards of mine. I don’t want them anymore.’ I was shocked and honoured both at the same time. Years of eating bubble gums that tasted like rubber just for those cards and now all gone. Strange emotions, two at the same time… last happened when this girl in high school dumped me. No, I wasn’t honoured then,” Atul chuckles.
After two more months PP told his mother that he did not want to take his studies beyond the 12th standard if it meant going to big cities and becoming an engineer. His mother was shocked and upset—two emotions at the same time—but eventually “let him ruin his life here”. After all, she had spent so much time in convincing herself to let him go to Dilli, and now this “opodartho”, good-for-nothing wanted to again shrink his universe.
So cricket gone, you would think. And Engineering and Socializing. What was left was poetry but no awards.
Two years later, it was time for the Wills World Cup. It was hosted in India and so, naturally, we were all very excited. Cola giants Coke and Pepsi got into their usual tug-of-war and we enjoyed watching cricketers like Shane Warne, Dominic Cork try to speak Hindi to look like one of us.
There were rumours that Warne was so impressed with Hindi now that he wanted to act in a Bollywood movie, and Subhash Ghai already had a role for him opposite Madhuri Dixit.
There were also rumours that Banchal’s Aminapara field would be hosting a match between India and Pakistan, and although that did not happen, the Eden Gardens in Kolkata was hosting the semi-final. I, a nine-year-old then, persisted with my father to take me to the game. He told me the Eden Gardens was a very small stadium and matches there could never go beyond ten overs a side because the players got furious after a while with the poor organizing. The truth was that he did not have the money for the tickets. In trying to convince me against Kolkata, my parents had to involve the neighbours who would validate their version of the stadium. Among the neighbours was Rekha aunty, PP’s mother, and when through her the news reached PP, he landed a tight slap on my right cheek.
I stood there terrified. It just fell on me when I least expected. I had no time to be prepared, to duck, to defend. In hindsight, ducking might have helped. Think about it, PP was at least eight inches taller than me. He must have measured me up in his head before landing the blow. Otherwise, it would have flown over my head, like bouncers flew over Sachin’s when all he did was perform a make-believe ducking pose in his defence. But PP had caught me unaware. He was angry. A contemplated anger, because it had driven him to tears. His eyes were wet but PP being PP was holding it back. He would not cry in front of someone only worth a baby over. He said nothing, just went ahead and did it. It left me red-cheeked with a burning sensation that travelled to my ears. It terrified everyone. I did not utter World Cup ever again in front of him, and I don’t know anyone else who did.
But we did talk about Sachin Tendulkar, the wunderkind. He dominated the Australians and Sri Lankans alike, scored hundreds and ended up with most runs in the tournament. We were crazy about him. In our tiny cricket field we started recording his scores on a scorecard: like 137 off 137 balls vs. Sri Lanka, 1996. We copied his stance. We had tiny pale white bats that said “Power” with Sachin’s head smiling on their sweet spots. Whenever we were forced to drink milk in the evening, we drank it holding our breath so that we didn’t need to smell its pungent smell, and thinking that we were drinking Boost, the secret of his energy.
After a few matches though, something strange started happening. Every time we would scribble Sachin’s scores diligently on the board, someone would wipe them out and write on the same spot in block letters again and again: KAPIL DEV 176 N.O VS ZIMBABWE, 1987. We had no clue what was happening, but the older boys nodded a knowing nod.
Next year, PP moved out of the city. That was the last I saw of him. A blue duffel bag hanging from his shoulders, dark denims, a yellow T-shirt and white canvas shoes that he used to wear on sports days in school. I saw him from behind. After that slap, I did not want to see his face.
Later, I was told that he had moved to his grandmother’s, to a nondescript town nearby. A town that had more gutters than there were people. A town that howled at night and slept throughout the day. A town that stank of a time it was trying to hold on to and in doing so had got its guts rotten, so when it belched and when it burped the tourists had to run with their face covered.
Thereafter, PP wasn’t remembered as much as he was reminded of. We heard how he had become a drug dealer and had gone to a big city and was a big shot criminal now. We heard that he had, like in movies, saved a rich girl from a bunch of eve-teasers and now had her heart and her money.
However, in 1998 a more interesting talk started doing the rounds. While we enjoyed listening to that story, we thought it too bizarre to be true. Eventually, perhaps because it was so regularly told, the local newspapers started carrying reports around it. We ignored that too, but with a sense of pride having heard it before it reached the media. But then one of the papers featured a photo of PP, now with stubble and wearing the same yellow shirt that he was wearing the day he left.
The Yugantar Times published a report under the headline “Mad Man Claims to have Killed the Master Blaster”: “He had bloodshot eyes when he reached the police… was holding a .44 caliber unlicensed revolver, and stood on his trembling legs as he constantly murmured, ‘I have him. I have killed him.’”
The attending cop admitted he was too terrified to ignore his complaint, although he knew very well that it made no sense because he had seen Sachin murder the Australian bowlers on the field just the night before, hitting the second of his consecutive centuries. Moreover, the matches were in Sharjah and it was too far for a pauper like PP.
But PP insisted that it happened right here in Banchal where he had come for a visit. He was just done watching the highlight of a cricket game where Mohammad Azharuddin and Kapil Dev had combined to see India home. It made no sense, but as PP would put it, he had bought the revolver specifically for this purpose. He said he had to convince himself for three months before he finally did it. But this was much needed. So in the middle of the night after Tendulkar had hit the first hundred against Australia and the whole of Banchal was celebrating he could not take it anymore. He knew where he would find his target, he knew his target was four inches shorter than he was, so he measured in his head from what distance he would have to shoot, so he caught him unaware like a Wasim Akram delivery, fired one, two and three bullets, the last one point blank, as he saw his target resist and fumble, resist and fumble and fall.
When the cops asked him why he decided to come and surrender for a pre-planned crime, PP replied saying it wasn’t as satisfactory as he thought it would be. He was sleepless, breathless, and the fumbling, falling image of Tendulkar kept coming back to him, regardless of if his eyes were open or closed. Always the same dream. Always. Although, after a point he really started doubting if he was willing himself to dream that terrible, chaotic dream. He said, he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming to fall asleep or falling asleep to dream that dream, some gibberish like that the policeman recounted. The dream: A bunch of smiling school kids from some government school flailing their bats without sponsors running together to group under what looked like a banyan tree and then emerging to much surprise as 22 holy Sachins and then a kid who is not Sachin carrying Pepsi on a bicycle to feed all the Sachins and then arrives a grown-up real Sachin who whistles at them and all the kids are surprisingly surprised. This would repeat three times, each time faster than the previous one, the images not always in that particular order. Finally just cut to Sachins, cut to Sachin and cut to the drinks boy. And then a close-up of the drinks boy’s face, then mostly his eyes. Grim, on the verge of tears, scared, scared, scared. What has he done? At least, he deserves to be punished.
The next morning, as the YT reported, PP was sent to a mental asylum, then after a few months moved surreptitiously to Banchal on his parents’ wish, or so we heard. But we never came to know where he lived. That is, until his death.
There were rumours again that he has been locked inside a room the size of a matchbox, that he now looked like a chimpanzee, that he now shat and ate at the same place. The only rumour that allowed PP to speak is the one where he would repeat, breathlessly, “I have killed Sachin Tendulkar. I have murdered Sachin Tendulkar.”
Image: Bijaya Datta