The Quartet. They never counted one without the other three.
They have their names, but for this chronicle we shall adapt to the nicknames which were bequeathed on them at a tender age by the astonishing and enterprising Gautam Mitra – The Magic Mathematician who taught them much more beyond two plus two. We shall address them as ‘Bushi’ (from “Bushy-ball”), ‘Mustafa’ (from “বাবা মুস্তাফা”), ‘Piddim’ (“পিদ্দিম”) and of course ‘Moyna’ (“ময়না”).
Let’s get along then, with the story. The year nineteen eighty-nine. A hot sultry day in Calcutta.
The plan was to exit the school premises by twelve noon, as soon as the lunch bell rang. The show at New Empire would start at twelve-thirty. There would be ample time in between.
The geographical location of the Alma Mater was a winner. Just after stepping out of the main gate, within ten (max fifteen) minutes – if one could hang on to a running bus and stay hanging – one could find oneself right into ধর্মতলা. Notwithstanding the black-and-white school uniform – the place happened to be such a diverse melting pot – anyone would hardly notice a few young snooping blokes jostling around the corners of New Empire or Light House (or Tiger or Elite or Roxy) for the elusive noon-show ticket.
Easier said than done, this exit. The plan had to be crafted with caution and care. The Alma Mater had the strictest norms for discipline and stringent set of rules which had been proudly carried forward for over a century.
For the Eleven-Commerce fella Piddim, it was easy. On that day of the week there would be no classes for Commerce after lunch. For the other three from Eleven-Science, there were a few hurdles to clear.
Incidentally, two of the three happened to be class prefects. The mantle bestowed since Class Eight, simply because very few others would be interested for this ঘরের খেয়ে বনের মোষ তাড়ানো. Nevertheless, Mustafa and Moyna had their privileges too. Prefects could be permitted to leave the school campus, in between the school hours, on special errands. The watchman at the gate would not object if he saw the ‘Prefect’ badge. But then, there would still be one problem to solve.
As soon as the bell rang for lunch, Bushi was seen in front of the School Office, trying to peep in through the door, to check if the surrounding was conducive to execution of the plan. The Principal – the one in particular to be avoided – would come out shortly to take the stairs for first floor. The one-and-only ever-diligent Front Desk In-charge Indramohan would still be holding fort. He was the one who would sanction emergency medical leaves.
At the apt moment, with a subdued “Sir…”, Bushi sneaked into the Office and parked himself in front of Indramohan. The latter, raising his eyes from his desk and with the familiar look of annoyance, barked, “What?”
“Not feeling well, Sir…”
“What happened? Always mischief, haan?”
“Stomach upset Sir, vomiting…” – and before giving any further chance to Indramohan to react, Bushi bent a little and quivered, as if he was about to throw up right upon him.
Indramohan jumped out of his chair and pushed back a few feet to a safer distance. Waving his hand, and desparate to get this unwanted ruckus out of his sight, he bellowed, “Go to the toilet, don’t do here!”
“Not toilet Sir, have to go home … matter serious Sir” – Bushi was about to do an encore of the previous act. Frantically trying to stop him in between, without any further q Indramohan drew his notepad, hastily jotted down name-class-section and threw over the gatepass.
The other three were watching this performance from behind the Office door. As soon as the accomplice was out with the gatepass, all four were seen scampering away from the danger-zone and within moments on the open S N Banerjee Road rushing towards Moulali.
The initial success of the plan had ushered in a pre-festive mood. However, time being of the essence, quick execution of the rest of the plan was important.
A crowded 30-D was about to take off from Moulali bus stop. Mustafa and Piddim could just manage to get a foot each onboard. Bushi and Moyna would take the next one, there was an even more crowded 79-B standing behind.
They split up, Bushi going for the front gate while Moyna aiming for the rear one. With people hanging on and spilling out of the bus, all one needed were a pedal on the footboard and a grip on the handle. Moyna could manage to sqeeze in between and get a grip, and Bushi just about lunged on to something as the bus started to roll.
Only a few turns of the wheel and it halted again at Taltola.
Moyna was still hanging on to the footboard and trying to negotiate for some more room, when there was a pull at his shirt form the back. Turning his head around he could see Bushi, who, with a cautious look around, instructed, “তাড়াতাড়ি নেমে আয়” – and then with a quick turn vanished into the narrow গলি just adjacent to the bus stop.
Meanwhile, one could sense quite a bit of commotion at the front gate. A lady in distress, it seemed, was wailing at the top of her voice and cursing someone. Male voices were shouting “কোথায় গেল, ধর ধর” – someone was absconding.
Adding up two and two, and with an immediate sense of alarm, Moyna got down from the footboard and turned into the narrow গলি, more or less unnoticed by the crowd. Bushi was hiding inconspicuously inside a tea-stall, peeping from behind an elderly person seated on a bench engrossed in the morning আনন্দবাজার. Moyna sneaked upto his side, and with a baited breath whispered, “কি ব্যাপার কি?” The reply was also in whispers, “আরে বাসের হ্যান্ডেল ভেবে বিনুনি ধরে ঝুলে পড়েছিলাম, পুরো একটা স্টপ ওইভাবে ঝুলে এসেছি”.
The whispering campaign had attracted the elderly person’s attention. Taking his eyes off আনন্দবাজার, he turned around with a pair of inquisitive eyes focused on the pair. It would be prudent to disappear before the matter became too explicit.
Trusting that the domain would be free from further threat, the duo cautiously resurfaced at Taltola bus stop and, courtesy another short stint of a similar bus ride, soon found themselves in front of Elite where the other pair was waiting, albeit impatiently.
As one would walk across from Elite to New Empire, one would experience the unmistakable blend of colours, tunes and aroma so typical of the Calcutta cauldron. You had Aminia to your left and Nizam just round the corner from where you took the right turn. The heavenly smell of kebabs and biryani and the aroma of the hot-kati rolls dished out of the take-away counters would paralyze your senses. You would notice the early rush of lunchtime crowd from the adjacent Calcutta Municipality filling up the empty spaces on the pavements. As you moved up, crossing Chaplin, and then took a left turn, you infallibly entered the New Market zone where hawkers with their variety of colourful exhibits would be occupying almost half of the width of the street. You would then take the first right turn and behold, there stood the majestic Light House and New Empire theatre duo, with all their grandeur.
The giant-size hoarding announcing the “Cave Girl (A)” was attracting quite a few admirers. The quartet was overawed – their jaws dropping upto the knees – by the bold display of the lady in somewhat prehistoric attire. However, quick to recover and get back to business, they hastily proceeded towards the ticket counter.
Mustafa was the default choice where money was involved. He carried a fat purse in his hip pocket, stacked with currency notes of different denominations. On this occasion, he took out a twenty-rupee note and handed over to the invisible man across the counter through the small opening, asking for “চারটে রিয়ার-স্টল, দাদা”. Satisfied, he counted the pennies, scrupulously inserted them back into his purse, and with the tickets in hand, signaled – “চল”.
The game was not over yet. On an unlucky day, you would be confronted with a watchman at the entry who, while tearing off half the ticket, would frown at you and your school uniform disapprovingly and nod his head both ways, thereby disqualifying your eligibility to viewership of the adult film. As they sneaked past the hurdle, the trio realized that one headcount was missing.
Bushi could not get in. He was seen engrossed in a negotiation of some sort with the watchman, but apparently with limited results. With the ring of the final bell announcing the start of the show, it was a question of priority for the other three – whether to pursue the mission further or to abort – when, all of a sudden, a compromise seemed to have been reached and Bushi squeezed in. Confronted with curious eyebrows, he could explain, with a subdued yet disappointed note, “শালা দুটাকা ঘুষ নিলো”.
Piddim was getting restless in the meantime. His rendezvous with the cave girl already delayed, he now made a rush towards the auditorium. The other three quickly followed. With advertisements being flashed on the screen, the torch-light of the lightman guided them through the semi-darkness to the allocated seats.
A few minutes into the film, now quite cozily settled in, Moyna took out his tiffin-box and opened it. The usual quota of bread toast and boiled egg, but they would of course look out for popcorns and potato chips during the interval. With a bite into the toast and half of the boiled egg in his mouth, he refocused on the screen where the adventures with the cave girl were just beginning to grow interesting.
Piddim was sitting beside Moyna. His undivided attention so far had been towards the screen, but there was a slight disturbance. The bloke seated in front of him was becoming a bit restless, and now he suddenly sprang up from his seat. With a sudden reflex action, Piddim jumped up, grabbed the shoulders of the bloke and pressed him downwards back to his seat.
Taken aback, the chap took some time to react. And then, he got up and turned around. He bent down over the seat and was about to catch Piddim by the collar, when Moyna thought of intervening, as a peacemaker. He would have a few words of comfort to utter which might calm down the big guy and restore normalcy. However the food in his mouth had chosen the perfect time to come in-between his thoughts and action, and he ended up coughing and spitting out fragmented boiled-egg-and-toast combo right on the face of the already offended soul.
Situation would have surely gone out of hand, but luckily by then there were some noises coming from behind. The other spectators were obviously not interested in this unwanted interruption of screentime. “দাদা, কি হল বসে পড়ুন না”, and similar notes of advice and annoyance were being thrown at the big guy. He had no choice, but before settling down he turned back again and barked, “হাফটাইমে তোদের দেখে নেবো”.
It is always difficult to concentrate on-screen with an off-screen threat lurking behind (or ahead). Moyna finished off the rest of the toast and boiled egg rather unassumingly, and Piddim’s interest in the cave girl had dimisnihed significantly as he was busy murmuring something to Bushi who was sitting on his other side. Just as the ‘Interval’ sign flashed on the screen, with the auditorium lights yet to be lit up again, the foursome nudged their way out of the row of seats and hastily proceeded towards the exit door at the back.
Quarter of an hour later, sitting with a plate of kulfi at Ralli’s, Mustafa disappointingly remarked, “টিকিটের টাকাটা জলে গেল”. Piddim, even more disappointingly, added, “নুন-শো টাও”. Moyna was disgruntled anyway, but now he was concentrating on the mixed chaat and did not speak much. Bushi, somewhat poignantly, reflected, “মার খেতে হয়নি এটাই অনেক”.
The S-5 was scampering through C R Avenue. It would subsequently drop off Mustafa and Piddim at Ultadanga and take the remaining two to Lake Town. In the course of this journey, the depleted mood of the quartet had picked up again and thoughts on the next courses of action were beginning to collate. The plan had flopped this time but would be redrafted again, for yet another day, yet another time.
Tomorrow never dies.