Sunday, August 10, 2008

And Buddha Cried

Buddha was finding it difficult to sit on the cold steel chair. His head hurt, his back was sore, his eyes were dry and his heart, cold. Sitting in that tiny blue room, Buddha waited. On the table in front of him sat three empty cups, chipped and stained, just like the walls around him. In the cup closest to him, he could see a fly struggling to escape the sugary bog at the bottom of the cup. Buddha tore a strip of paper from his notebook and fished the fly out… and then he waited some more.

Just hours ago, Buddha had been walking towards his tutor’s house, when he heard a familiar voice… “ Buddha, wait… !” Looking up, he saw a head dart in from a first floor window. It was Babu, his friend, a fellow ‘gang member’. Babu couldn’t contain his excitement. “Come, I have a plan!” What happened next was still a bit of a blur for Buddha. The tuitions forgotten, the two reached the parking lot of a theatre and ‘got to work’, stashing their newly acquired ‘loot’ in the satchel that contained Buddha’s unused notebook.

With the satchel bursting at the seams, the two friends started off on their last ‘job’. Just then, footsteps…. The two friends turned and saw a bunch of parking attendants running towards them… “Woh dekho chor, saale. …. Pakdo saalon ko, maaro!” Buddha and Babu ran hard and Babu made it past the gate first, followed by Buddha. “Phew! Made it” thought Buddha, and just then he heard a crash and felt a tug. Entangled between his shoulder and a prone bicycle, its wheels still spinning, was his satchel. Metres away, sprawled out on his stomach, muttering curses lay the rider. With his pursuers closing in, Buddha tried to disentangle himself and run, but before he could, the mob caught him. Babu, meanwhile, had disappeared.

At this point, his memory becomes a patchwork of curses, cuffs and the warm salty taste of his own blood; he remembers a thick fleshy fist catching him by the scruff of his neck and pushing him onto a yellow motorcycle, crushed between two coarse, rather odorous, khaki shirts, to the local police station, and a rather thick stick. “Kaun tha therey saath, naam bata? Nahin batayega?!” Thwack, went the stick on Buddha’s bare legs.

“@#%*! Chori kabse kar raha hai?” thwack. Somehow, all through, he does not remember feeling any pain. “Kahan Rehta hai?” Buddha was quiet again. “Murga banao c#*$*#$ ko!” Thwack, thwack went the stick again. Buddha could feel an excruciating throbbing pain in his legs and his back. Buddha lied about his address. “Jhoot bolta hai saala!” thwack, thwack thwack… Buddha gave in…

At this very minute, while Buddha waited on that cold steel chair, a policeman was knocking on a door. But while he waited, Buddha was surprised he hadn’t cried. He was after all a child, barely nine years old. Until now Buddha hadn’t felt either guilt or shame, just a stubborn resolve to be as difficult as possible, like a primal animal that thought nothing of the future, only living and fighting for its present. But now, as he saw his mother walk into the police station, Buddha looked away, afraid to make eye contact. One of the constables, in one smooth motion turned the satchel upside down, and like a hail storm beating against a window pane, car logos… three-pointed Mercedes stars, Toyotas and dozens of Maruti Suzukis tumbled and clattered onto the floor and the table… Buddha saw the expression of mild indignation on his mother’s face turn into disbelief and shock. “It’s just a game Ma… just a game,” Buddha pleaded, as his mask melted away. He was nine years old again, scared and embarrassed. He expected her to scream at her, to tell him what a ‘good-for-nothing’ he happened to be, but she became very quiet... She apologised to the policemen, and assured them that she’ll ensure better conduct from her only son and to their credit, the cops did not drag the issue and let Buddha and his empty satchel go…

That evening, many many years ago, as my mother and I walked back from the station, I remember wishing I could somehow make her understand that the only reason I did what I did was because I believed that was all I was good at… this is all that my peers noticed about me. I knew everything I was bad at and no one told me what I might’ve been good at till I found this game. I was braver and quicker than them and had the logos to prove it.

For a change, those who sniggered when my math teacher announced my scores were looking upto me… wanting to be with me… and that’s what I wanted, not the logos. But I couldn’t say all that, didn’t need to I guess. Though I’ve never asked her, I’m sure she’d known, or at least felt all that I wanted to say. So, in front of our house, she looked into my eyes for the first time and said “ You’re not a bad boy. You’re a good boy. I know it, I believe it… now you have to know it; you have to believe it. Do you?” The dam broke and I wept like the child I was. Through the tears, I nodded, and promised to be as good as she thought me to be.

It’s been 23 years, and every day, I still try and keep that promise. And I’ll tell you this, if anybody ever disappoints you, don’t tell them how bad they are; tell them how good you know they can be, and more often than not, they’ll become that ‘good’ and better… it works, just ask my mother…

The second coming

When Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables, was caught and turned in to the Bishop for stealing his silver, the latter rescued him with these words: “You no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” Can a brush with the ‘bad’ prove seminal to one’s course of life?

• Hip hop singer Akon’s best hits, whether Trouble, Konvicted, or Locked Up, have smacked of his trysts with the law. It was behind bars, allegedly for auto theft, that he decided to switch gears for good. Often prefacing his songs with the utterance of ‘Convict’, Akon, can’t seem to go away from his ‘humble(d) beginnings’.

• Gregory David Roberts, or Shantaram, is better acquainted with Mumbai than most Mumbaiikars. A promising Australian academic who turned to thieving to support his heroin addiction, Shantaram was one of the most wanted men in Oz when he escaped to India. Here he dabbled in the mafia, smuggling, and even co-fronted a mission to Afghanistan in the 80s, before he was extradited back to Australia, where he penned Shantaram while serving sentence in a manner of purging himself.

• Author Jeffrey Archer was set to run for Mayor (London) in 1999, when he was found guilty of perjury in a case of sexual misconduct from which he had walked free twelve years back. There followed an exit from politics, along with more writing in the form of Prison Diaries and lately, A Prisoner of Birth.


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