The older folks like me have this compulsive habit of slipping into the halcyon days of the past. Bereft of all the modern gadgets that people take for granted, looking back, our childhood, spent in one of the quietest suburbs of the bustling city of Mumbai, was like a seamless dream.
In the evening, after a hard day at school where the teacher sometimes spanked a child who forgot to do his homework, everyone would descend on the makeshift playground, surrounded by concrete buildings around.
The games that we played, and devised, rarely required expensive equipment. Khokho, Langdi, hu tu tu, aataa paataa, thappo, icepyce (corrupt form of “I spy”), marbles – the list was endless.
Street cricket was played sometimes with the mallet (used for beating the soiled clothes kept in the bucket of soapy water) as a bat and a rubber ball. Before the game of cricket would start, the proud owner of the rubber ball always quoted a penalty that everyone would have to contribute to buy a new rubber ball, just in case the ball would get lost in the buildings for good.
If that actually happened I had a hard time explaining to my mother, the deal I had agreed to.
Some resident villains who never liked the noise that the children made were quick to confiscate the ball audaciously if it shattered their windowpanes or if the ball just landed innocently into their open balcony.
At times, the ongoing game had to be halted for while, to let a rare car that would enter the gate to park within the compound. The rules of the game had to be instantly modified to take into account the obstruction that the parked car would cause to a normal game. For example if the ball got stuck underneath that parked car the batsman would be credited with just one run, notwithstanding the time it took to retrieve the ball.
Occasionally, the atmosphere would light up at the sudden entry of that Jungle man. No one knew his real name. Some even called him ‘jungly baba’ but he wouldn’t mind. His specialty was his ability to mimic the sounds of most of the birds and animals of the jungle by manipulating his tongue, mouth and his fingers moving up and down within his cupped hands.
He entered the open space, what we called ‘the compound’, from the main road, whistling away the sounds of various birds.
All the games in progress had to stop to make way for the Jungle man. We all loved him. He wore a long, colorful robe that was so long that we wondered whether he wore anything below his waist. His footwear was simply a pair of old, very old, sandals that were a part of his feet forever, as it were. The noise that the sandals made when he dragged them along, sounded like straight out of a dense jungle.
He always had a hideous looking hat on his head that hid his greying hair, save for some unruly strands that protruded out at the back.
What stood out in his attire were the numerous badges and odd-looking stripes that were strung across his long robe. They made a lovely clanking noise that sounded as if a big chariot with hundreds of chimes was passing through the jungle.
That day he came a bit early in the afternoon when many of the older residents were still enjoying their afternoon siesta. The children could sense something was amiss but his cheerful face did not give anything away.
“Hurrr, hi hi hi, tweet, tweet, …” he entered.
Oh my God, the jungle man cometh. Hey hey hey. Make room for him. He kept walking all the way towards the center of the compound. The gang followed him, trying to mimic whatever he was letting out from his mouth. The children were ecstatic.
“Hey Bharat, Naresh, Chandrika, come down, quick. Look, the jungle man is here” the children called out excitedly to those who were either too studious or were forced to stay at home by their parents.
The jungle man trudged the center of the compound. The size of crowd of the cheering children had unmanageably grown around him. The parents, elders positioned themselves in their little balconies, holding their infant babies with their eyes in perpetual fascination.
“Oh my masters, my bread-givers, here I am again to regale you with sounds of jungle. Dear children, clap, clap, clap”
The delirious crowd of children clapped their hearts out. Someone from one of the balconies whistled. Saroj, a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old girl in the balcony opposite, in mock anger, strained to look for the boy who had whistled.
As he bent down to pay his respect to the people standing in the balconies, some naughty children tried to pull at his robe, some even tapped his cap but the jungle man didn’t mind. He smiled and got down his business.
Thus began the great spectacle.
The diveristy of sounds of birds and animals were simply stupendous. When he mimicked the growl of a tiger the younger children even got scared and ran helter-skelter.
The jungle man received a thunderous applause. He had created the jungle right there.
Suddenly, a police van with siren screeched to a halt at the entrance of the compound. A uniformed constable led the way, followed by his boss with a baton in his hand.
What the hell was happening? The audience fell silent. The arrival of the police meant trouble.
The two policemen reached the spot where the jungle man was collecting the coins thrown from the balconies.
“That’s the man, Sir”
“Arrest him” The inspector pointed the baton to the terrified jungle man.
No one had a clue as to what brought the police to the scene.
“What have I done, Sir?” the jungle man got up with folded hands faced the constable, trembling uncontrollably.
“You, child-lifter! Come with us to the police station, you will know everything there”
“Just get into the van, quietly or else..” the baton pressed into his face.
“But, Inspector Saab, he is a very nice man. He performs fantastic tricks, He visits this locality very often” a boy mustered up courage.
“Keep quiet you silly boy, you are too young to understand this” the policeman disdainfully dismissed the plea from the boy. The stature of the boy was no match for the portly constable.
A man came forward. “Sir, why? We all know him. He is a good man”
The constable just showed his stick and walked away.
“Let the police do its job, son. We don’t want to get into this mess” the exasperated man gave up.
The boys followed jungle man all the way to the police- van as the constable continued beating him. No mercy for the poor man. The little bulgy bag that he was carrying fell to the ground, scattering all his possessions on the ground – his smelly mattress, his plates and bowls, some broken metallic badges and a faded picture of him with his baby girl in his arms.
There lay his jungle; the concrete jungle stood still as a mute witness.