When I was a school going kid I loved to read spy novels, murder mysteries, and detective series. My imagination often took flight and I wondered if any exciting, suspense-filled event would actually happen in my life or around me.
And then it did.
Young boys were known to run away from home, particularly from villages, in pursuit of long-cherished dreams of becoming a movie star in Bollywood.
One such young hero was a cousin of my mother’s – we shall call him Viren to protect his identity.
Viren had been living a normal life in a village about 200 kilometres from Mumbai. Not inclined towards achieving academic excellence, he generally loafed around the village in the company of like-minded youth.
One fine day he disappeared. In the tiny village it caused a ripple of excitement. The reactions varied from shame to appreciation of “Viren’s guts”, and the episode was a happy addition to the gossip around the villages.
The parents – my mother’s uncle and aunt – were distraught, as you would imagine. It made the father – let us call him Jija Kaka – set aside his worries about his farming activities and focus on mobilizing all of his resources to bring his son back.
Now let us shift your attention to our modest one room-kitchen home in Mumbai. We learnt about Viren’s “heroism” by way of a letter that reached us about 4 days after the event.
My father, Bhikhubhai, being perpetually absorbed in pursuit of chemistry, both in the factory/office as well as at home, sighed and threw up his hands to signal his helplessness in providing any help in to the ‘bring the hero back home’ movement that must have reached critical mass in the village.
My mother, with an understandable concern for her cousin, wrote to her uncle and offered to help in whatever way she could.
Among the theories doing rounds in the village, I am sure there must have been Bollywood aficionados suggesting that Viren must have decamped to the Bollywood capital Mumbai to become a movie star and perhaps consoled Uncle that whatever happened was for the good, and that in no time the village would have its first movie hero. It must be God’s will. No argument with that, you see.
Jija Kaka, upon receiving my mother’s letter and acting on the hints by the Bollywood fans at the village promptly set out for Mumbai and landed at our home, forlorn and worried.
Our tiny flat was already too small for our family of five, and then here comes Jija Kaka in distress. Mother of course was used to accommodating and taking care of dozens of people streaming through our flat without a hint of complaint. Father took off his preferred ‘trouble is far away’ mask and made up his mind to listen to the old man’s woes.
My father’s interest in movies was limited to subscribing a movie magazine called Filmfare. This was not to dig into juicy stories about actors and actresses. The glossy paper on which the magazine was printed was just perfect for use in a balance he used for weighing finely ground chemical powders that he made at home. My college-going elder sister of course read the entire magazine, before the ‘balance’ act, and would often read out news about new movies to be released in the next two or three months. My interest in movies was restricted to the songs that were pre-released on the radio.
Now enters the next character in the plot.
The flat adjoining our flat, much larger than ours, housed a huge family hailing from the same region as my own forefathers. In those days, even in a huge city like Mumbai, there were virtually no boundaries between adjoining flats – the doors remained open throughout the day and people, children milled about, in and out of each other’s homes. There were four flats on each floor and typically you could find one neighbour in another neighbour’s flat, reading a newspaper, chatting, having tea, or simply doing nothing.
It so happened that our next-door neighbor – let us call him Dolat Kaka – was at our flat when Uncle Jija Kaka arrived.
Dolat Kaka held a senior post in a Government technical department and was even given an official car. He was a brilliant Engineering student in his college days and glimpses of his brilliance could be seen in the way he carried himself and in his no-nonsense talking style. He had recently undergone cataract surgery that had kept him at home for some days, huge sunglasses protecting his eyes from all angles. He had to keep his eyes shielded for two weeks, as was the practice in those days, The Government had thoughtfully allotted him a driver for that short period. Being a righteous government servant, however, he hardly ever utilized the services of his driver. So he had nothing much to do except move around the four flats at odd times, relax and simply doze off.
Jija Kaka, holding a cup of tea, wanted to talk and unload his woes but the presence of the stranger, Dolat Kaka, made him nervous. Jija Kaka and my mother glanced at my father and Dolat Kaka who were engrossed in discussing some political developments. Mother was about to lose patience when thankfully Dolat Kaka, as per his style, got up and marched out, back to his den next door.
All right then. Jija Kaka began pouring his heart out.
It was decided that an announcement would be placed in the local newspaper offering a reward to whoever found the errant boy and provided information on how to locate him. Our address was given as the contact address.
Within four days of the release of the announcement, all hell broke loose. We started receiving dozens of letters, some purportedly written by Viren, some written by ‘well-wishers’ claiming that Viren was sighted at a local studio working for a famous actress of yesteryears.
My heart too started racing. Being too young I could never dare to offer any ideas but generally kept myself abreast of the plot as it thickened.
Each day was an exciting new day in which we reviewed all the letters received and discussed the next course of action. Once, my father even accompanied Jija Kaka to a local shady film studio where, as one letter-writer claimed, Viren had started working. I heard they waited in a restaurant nearby where someone from the studio emerged and demanded a sum of money to get him released.
Viren, if he were there, certainly made life around us full of excitement. New information each day, new strategies new hopes, new disappointments. Poor Jija Kaka. He had not bargained for this.
Dolat Kaka in the meantime kept making the rounds of our house, and soon enough it was decided that we would seek his advice as otherwise it was impossible to discuss this situation.
Dolat Kaka took it upon himself to find a way. He started spending more and more time at our place, wearing his huge sunglasses, refining the strategies and generally providing comfort to the troubled minds of Jija Kaka and to some extent my mother.
Dolat Kaka decided to park himself on an easy chair in our balcony overlooking the busy Vincent Road. Seated on an easy chair, at a low height, he could still see through the curved gaps in the cement concrete designed structure of the balcony.
One day, he was alerted by something he saw on the road. He motioned to my father to come to the balcony and quietly asked him to take a look. My father who was about to settle into his afternoon nap, went over and looked.
“You see, Bhikhubhai, do you see my car parked on the road?” Dolat Kaka asked my father.
“Yes” I can see it.”
“Now, you see, look properly, there is a guy near the car, keeping a watch on our flat”.
“Well, yes there is suspicious looking guy glancing in the direction of our flat, follow me?”
“You see, not only he is keeping a watch on our flat, he looks away as soon he realizes that I am watching him”. (the phrase ‘you see’ was his pet phrase that he used as an interjection. My father’s pet phrase was “follow me?”)
“He is definitely doing that, follow me?”
I was watching the whole scene from inside the living room. My pulse started racing. Now it is happening right here in front of me. I imagined, Dolat Kaka would summon someone from his flat and get the police in no time, thanks to his position in the Government department.
Wow! Viren, if at all he eventually did attain the status of a movie star, he would someday write an inspiring story of how he ran away and made good and how his father finally nailed him and took him back to the village from where he again ran away to Mumbai and achieved his dream. Our home would figure in that story and become an important landmark in the making of a movie star!
Bhikhubhai however was always mortally afraid of any such adventures, and never relished getting involved in anything to do with the authorities.
He kept pleading with Dolat Kaka. “Wait, Dolat bhai, let us not rush into anything. The police will be here and how will it look? Our reputation will take a blow, follow me?”.
Whatever happens next will be as good as any detective story, I said to myself. and thanked my stars. As I got up, in came Daahi Kaki, the elderly silver-haired wife of Dolat Kaka.
“There you are! Lunch is ready and I have been looking for you everywhere!” Daahi Kaki fumed.
“Shhh… quiet,” rebuked Dolat Kaka.
“What is wrong with you, sitting in the hot sun in the balcony, unmindful of the serious surgery on your eyes?”
Dolat Kaka grudgingly realized that his wife would have to be introduced to the crisis at hand.
He asked her to come to the balcony and asked her the same set of questions that he had asked my confused father barely a minute ago.
Daahi Kaki peered out at the character her husband was pointing to.
“What is wrong with you? Have you gone crazy seated in the hot sun in the balcony? That guy is your driver!”
Then she trooped out of our flat and back to her flat, her honorary detective husband following her sheepishly.
A hush fell over the rest of us.
Bhikhubhai was visibly relieved, thanking God for the non-escalation of the situation.
Viren was eventually located a few days later near Delhi Airport, no less, where a policeman nabbed him, moving around suspiciously. He returned to the village in due course where he was often spotted regaling his friends with his adventure. I do not know whether the fire still burned in his belly and if he still harboured dreams of becoming a movie star. But in my young eyes, I had come close to a ringside view of a real-life detective novel, unfolding before me. The anti-climax only served to feed my imagination – what would have happened if…?
So many dreams, so many stories. Here’s to all those who follow their dreams – even if they fail, there’s always the possibility that their (mis)adventures will make a great story! This adventure at least made it to this blog!