The morning before the family wedding, I was at my post monitoring our outstation guests at the hotel. I knocked on various doors to ask after their comfort.
‘Did you get hot water to bathe, this morning?’
‘Amrita mami, will you need a car to ferry you to breakfast at the house? Your knee seems pretty painful…’
An unknocked-upon door in the hotel corridor opened at some point in my vigil, and a man wearing spectacles came out. He stared at me as I passed him. He seemed to recognize me.
Much later in the day Papa asked me to check on the occupant of room number 108. Turned out he was Omprakash jijaji, a cousin sister’s husband, who’d come alone for the wedding. The hotel receptionist said he’d gone out that morning and hadn’t come back as yet.
Omprakash jijaji loafed around the ghats and temples of the holy city for two more hours before he allowed himself to be spotted at the paan shop outside our house. His ‘errant behaviour’(disappearing all morning and indeed, paying for his own food at the hotel!) was, I was told, his way of formally protesting the lack of personal attention. Traditionally the sons-in-law of north Indian households are entertained with conversation, company, compliments and most important, constant feeding! But somehow, Omprakash did not receive enough of the above from his wife’s family and so had made himself noticeably scarce.
At any rate, once found, he was brought home and ensconced in the living room with a cup of tea and plates of wedding sweets and namkeens. Then he was pressed upon to accept an envelope containing cash reimbursement of his hotel food bills.
‘Why didn’t you join the rest of the family group?’ Mummy was asking him. ‘You must behave like the other sons-in-law of the family. Be comfortable. Fit right in! Look at Krishnakant over there…’
Krishnakant is a fifty-two-year-old man from Bhubaneshwar, middle-class and shy, with a great affection for local politics although he never would stand for election himself. He is indeed one of the best fits that the family has as sons-in-law go. He came a week in advance of the wedding and helped out more than anybody. Now he sat on the neighbouring couch, dark, moustached and looking expressionlessly, almost nobly, at the wall as Omprakash jijaji turned his curious, bespectacled eyes on him.
This was the sight that met me when I entered the living room that where the two sons-in-law were seated. ‘Will someone go sit with Omprakash?’ Papa had come tiredly into the bedroom where I was sitting to make the request. Omprakash jijaji, in the living room drinking his tea, was to be chatted with lest he feel slighted and take off again.
‘Namaste jijaji!’ I announced cheerfully at Omprakash. The hair flattened across his scalp, I noticed, was oiled and henna red. I didn’t greet Krishnakant jijaji, who had faded into the furniture as usual. Now as I plonked myself on the sofa next to the needing-to-be-pampered guest, I was treated to a happy look from the fat man. He’d just pocketed the envelope he’d been pressed to.
‘I know you,’ he said with a superior smile. ‘I recognized you in the hotel corridor. Though you didn’t recognize me, I recognized you.’
I apologized. I asked after the health and doings of his family. I asked what line of work he was in presently. He said that he ran a small investment broking service in Ranchi.
Then, with nothing left to ask or tell, I opened a magazine I happened to be carrying, and showed him an article about a member of the family who was featured there. Anurag often graces the pages of film glossies. This is something the immediate family, who live and work in Mumbai, are pretty used to. We barely bother to read about our famous brother anymore. But Omprakash jijaji took up the magazine with interest and began to hold forth on each of the films this director-son of the family has made.
‘Where does he get such strange ideas from? Perhaps walking down the street he might see someone smoking and that gives him an idea…’
I nodded through his monologue, his insistence on personally interpreting each film. All the while he was leafing through the magazine he’d placed on the table in front of him. While he spoke, guests arrived and left the living room. They each joined in the conversation or started new trains of thought. But these were left chugging in the corners as Omprakash jijaji discussed every film, in chronological order, his way. Krishnakant was silent. Whether he was listening I could not tell. My mind must have gotten onto one of the other trains just about then, because all I remember is the print on the cushion cover across from me. Then suddenly a voice broke in.
‘Yes, I would think that it must be hard to get actors to act.’
Omprakash and I turned to look at Krishnakant. ‘I have acted, myself, you know…’ Krishnakant jijaji from his corner was leaning forward a little. He was self-conscious and spoke almost in an undertone.
‘How’s that?’ Omprakash asked drily. ‘You’re not from Mumbai, are you?’
But Krishnakant has acted, a fact I had quite forgotten. Five years ago, the director son, assisting Mani Ratnam on the film Yuva, met up with Krishnakant jijaji in Kolkata. The scene that was being shot needed a politician’s henchman to offer some advice to his boss. Now Krishnakant, having come on the sets that day, was affectionately cajoled into playing that role.
‘Yes that’s true!’ I said, nodding to a skeptical Omprakash. ‘He has acted.’
‘My heart was beating so hard! I was so nervous at first…’ Krishnakant said.
‘Yes,’ Omprakash jijaji put in, now a little hesitant. ‘I’d have been nervous too. If I’d had the chance…’
‘When all the lights came on, I felt so hot I started to sweat. It’s uncomfortable being under the lights.’
‘But when the director said ‘action!’ I said my line: Dada!’ his voice went rough and deep. ‘Michael ko aaj ki tareekh mein chu nahin sakte. Bawaal ho jayega!’
Somehow the bustling household had stilled to listen. Loquacious Omprakash sat as if stunned. Krishnakant’s knuckles rapped on the table and jerked outward. ‘Akhbaar ke pehle panne ki khabar hai woh!’
Krishnakant’s acting lines were no pussycat’s purr, and he said them like a lion: ‘Brother, nobody can touch Michael in this day and age. Such an action would cause a calamity! The man is front-page news!’ Words of weight, and the actor, even five years down, had not forgotten a single inflection.
In the film, Krishnakant, a dark shadow, stands by a wall opposite the chair on which the star character actor, a towel about his head, sits inhaling steam. Krishnakant leans forward very slightly, respectfully, since he is about to offer his boss some advice. Then, he speaks.
‘I am ready,’ Krishnakant said to us in the living room that day, his voice lowered now, the words slow, ‘to act again, anytime. Now I know I can act.’
‘If only I could have such a chance,’ Omprakash muttered. He fell silent.
I was quiet, too, silenced by the story that had snuck up on me. Krishnakant’s life had been ordinary, punctuated by failure rather than success. He hadn’t prospered in his career as a small-time machine parts contractor in slow-moving, underdeveloped Orissa. Over the years we had learnt to “hmm” and “haan” convincingly at the family’s explanations for his work troubles. And he had become increasingly quiet in the company of his wife’s family, even us English-educated upstarts from Mumbai.
I had forgotten in all this, that Krishnakant had indeed acted in a multi-starrer. His face and voice were imprinted on magical celluloid. A million people must have heard his deep-throated advice to let Michael go, his proclamation of the ‘bawaal’ that would arise if Michael was attacked. In darkened cinema halls across the country, for some moments the audience had given his unremarkable visage their complete attention.
The after light of his moment in the sun was held now in his hooded eyes, in the dim corner of the living room where we sat. His story, that had leaped into a brief, keen brilliance five years ago, has for him stayed as starkly lit… Somewhat like an enchanting film playing in a dark cinema hall: just one show in an entire lifetime, but a show like no other.
(First appeared in Penguin First Proof long ago)