When the Gods Leave

A short story by Harsh Bhasin

It was a beautiful Sunday October morning in Delhi and I, still in my pajamas, lolled on the verandah, soaking in the sun, reading the Times of India, sipping tea. Behind me, in the kitchen, Khaman Singh, our cook, made breakfast: and the aroma of frying eggs, the clink-clank of pots and pans, our driver Ram Singh’s, and Khaman Singh’s voices, as they chit chatted, wafted through the air. The transistor radio on the table besides me was tuned to the All India Radio’s Sunday morning program, and Zeenat Aman’s lusty rain song, Hai Hai Ye Majboori, was playing; and in the back of my mind, as I sipped my tea, and pondered on the problems of the world, a sexy, wide-hipped Zeenat Aman, clad in a rain-drenched saree (the pallu of which kept falling off, revealing her big bosom, ) danced around a tree, singing and gyrating, just for me; and the winter sun, the song, the sultry rain-drenched Zeenat Aman in my mind,… everything, felt good.

The cleaning lady, Laxmi, was sweeping the verandah floor with her jharoo, now telling me to lift my legs onto the table so she could sweep under my chair; there, across the open courtyard, squatted the washing lady, her saree tucked up to her knee, thump-thumping a pile of soapy clothes with a wooden bat; the mali (gardner) was watering the potted plants along the boundary wall of the courtyard; and Ramu was washing our black Ambassador car.

The dhobi came, carrying his bundle of clothes on his head, which he plunked besides me, making me start. “Ram, Ram, Sonny bhaiya,” he greeted, untying the knot on his bundle.

Mother come out with her laundry notebook in her hand. She glared as she sat down on a stool besides me to check the laundry. But my defiant look said: What? Do I have to be studying all the time? On my winter vacation? And on a Sunday, on top. That put her in her place.

The milkman rode onto the courtyard on his cycle, his metal milk cans click-clanking against his cycle carrier. Khaman Singh came out from the kitchen with a utensil for the milk and taunted him, “How much water have you mixed with the milk today?” The milkman pouring the milk into the utensil with his measuring cup, appealed to mother, “Look at this thick stream of milk Bibi-ji. Does it look like there’s even a drop of water in it? I am Hanuman-Ji’s devotee Bibi-ji, I go to temple everyday; do you think I would do such a thing—“

“Yes, yes, I know what a great devotee you are—” Mother said. Just then the maid, Kamla Bai, sauntered in. Mother looked displeased because Kamala Bai had been absent for two days. “Where have you been?” Mother said. Kamla Bai calmly contemplated the question. “You’ve gone deaf or what?” Mother said, “Who’s died now?” I waited with interest for her excuse because, to date, she’d laid to rest her mother-in law, her grand mother, her maternal aunt, and her paternal uncle. But there was no report of a death in her family today. She had sprained her ankle, she said, as she limped towards the kitchen.

There is no dearth of domestic help for the residents of L-Block. This is because, just on the outskirts of L-Block is the Rajendra Colony, where all these people live. It was all a slum area once, but then the government, together with some building contractors, bulldozed their shanties and built the Nehru Market on the repossessed land. The slum dwellers were given a small stretch of land behind the Nehru Market, where they now live with open drains, flies and unsteady, topsy turvy houses.

#

The Sunday morning DoorDarshan TV programs starts at 9.30 AM, and everyone was already in the sitting room: Khaman Singh stood at the door, Ram Singh squatted besides him, my elder brother sat on the sofa with mother, and Laxmi sat crisscross on the carpet before Mother, chopping spinach. The Utterly-Butterly Amul ad was still on.

Our TV is a black-and-white Phillips. It has a huge wooden cabinet with sliding doors. I’d recently brought a plastic screen TV clip-on-screen that has rainbow colored bands painted on it. When you clip it on the black and white TV, its looks almost as if you’re watching a color TV.

I clipped the screen onto the TV, but my brother growled, “Take it off.”

“Ma!” I protested.

“Take it off,” Mother said, “you can’t see a thing with that.”

“You just have to adjust your eyes—-,“ I said

“Take it off right now!” Mother said.

The TeleMatch came on so I stopped arguing. In today’s game, two pretty girls had to stand on the inside of a huge wheel, like hamsters on a wheel, and roll the it over obstacles. It was a hilarious race as the wheel, and the girl inside, would topple over and the girl would have to push the wheel back to the starting point, and start all over again.

Then the Liril soap ad came on and Khaman Singh went to get tea for mother, the cleaning lady got up to throw the pea peels, Ram Singh went to tinker with the car; but my eyes never strayed from the hot, bikini clad Liril model, bathing in the waterfall, rubbing Liril soap all over her glorious body, smiling her 1000 watts smile, humming la…la…la..laa… as she bathed.

Slowly, tantalizingly, she came out of the water. She was standing up now..I saw the cleft between her heavenly boobs…she was almost out of water now… wow, look at her figure…come to me my dearest… yes, run to me.

“Sonny.” My arm was grabbed. I jolted.

It was Chandu my next door neighbor.

“Come outside,” he whispered.

“Wait!” I said and quickly looked back at the TV. But, it was too late—the Liril girl had already draped a towel around herself.

I was annoyed.

“What’s the matter Chandu, you are looking very perturbed. Is everything okay?” Mother said.

“Nothing…nothing is the matter Aunty. Come on Sonny, the boys are waiting outside.”

This was surprising because no one stirred out till after the Sunday morning TV programs. Our normal meeting time on Sunday was 2 p.m. when the regional movie , which no one understood, came on—though sometimes it had English sub titles, and then we might watch to improve our English.

#

Aman, Bhim, Amrik and Paramjit were waiting on the verandah.

“The Ramlila stage has disappeared,” they said in unison.

“Disappeared?” I said.

“Gone,” Paramjit said. “And the tent has disappeared too.”

“Oh! God! My Dad will kill me—the tent was booked in my name,” Aman wailed.

“Listen you chootias,” I said, “It’s not funny. How can a 20 foot wooden stage just get up and walk away? I’m going inside. I’m not going to miss TeleMatch.”

Chandu grabbed me by the arm and said, “It’s no joke, the stage is not in the park.”

“Come on, see for yourself,” Amrik said, pulling me by the shoulder, jerking his head, wobbling his turban in turn, as he always does when he is agitated.

“I can’t go in my pajamas,” I said, “let me go change.”

When we got to the L-Block park, I saw that indeed, the Ramlila stage had vanished. The tent that we erected over the stage was gone too. The stage had been set up against my house wall (the park adjoined my house,) and now there was a 20 x 20 foot patch of smothered grass, where the stage once was. Around the patch were four wooden tent pegs, still embedded firmly in the ground. Tied to the pegs were the ropes that once held the tent. But there was no trace of the tent.

We stood in silence, looking at the spot where the stage once was.

“Maybe it blew away,” Paramjit said, after a while.

“How can it just blow away,” Chandu said, “It’s made of solid wood. And, there were no winds last night.”

“It’s been there for the past three months, how can it just disappear overnight,” Amrik said.

“The tent rental is in my name,” Aman wailed, “my dad will kill me if he has to pay for it.”

“You are worried about the tent?” Chandu said, “What about the Ramlila now? How are we going to do the Ramlila without a stage?”

“It took us three months to erect the stage,” Amrik said.

We had knocked on every house door and visited every shopkeeper in the vicinity of L-Block, asking for donations for the Ramlila performance; we had skimped on ice-cream, movies, and every last paisa went into the Ramlila Fund box. After school, till late in the evenings, with the Rajendra Colony slum boys, we had worked on erecting the stage, getting into trouble with our parents who said we were neglecting our studies.

And, the lumber for the stage, the durries (carpets) for seating the audience, and the public-address system… had all been taken on credit. We were expecting to pay for them from the Ramlila collection. How were we going to pay for them now? And won’t we have to pay full price for the tent, now that it was untraceable? Soon the creditors would start coming to our houses, demanding payment from parents.

“What are we going to do?” I said.

“Let’s ask the night watchman,” Chandu said, “maybe he knows something.”

#

Loha Singh Yadav, our night watchman, was the day time security guard at the Nehru Market branch of the State Bank of India.

In his night watchman job, he walked up and down the L-Block street, banging his stick on the ground, blowing on his whistle, and shouting periodically, Jagtey Raho (keep awake.) In winters, the rickshaw pullers who line up their rickshaws at the corner of the L-Block, have a bonfire going to keep themselves warm at night. After a few rounds up and down the street, Loha Singh would sit down to chat with them, or if it was very late, and the rickshaw pullers had gone to sleep, he would talk to the stray mongrels curled around the fire.

His night watchman salary was paid by a monthly contribution from all the L-Block residents. The residents had great faith in his integrity and watchfulness. It was believed, and I think it is true, that he never slept on his night watch. He had told us that he caught up on his sleep while working his day job. Many bank customers complained to the management about his dozing on his stool outside the bank. But, this being a government bank, everyone was free to do what they wished, particularly if their job was a confirmed one. And Loha Singh was a confirmed employee of the government. And on top of that, he was of a scheduled caste, and had got the job in the reservation quota. Who could sack a confirmed government employee, belonging to the scheduled caste? The question that often came to my mind was: what would happen if robbers broke into the bank, and Loha Singh was dozing then? Luckily he kept his gun chained to his belt, so if someone tried to steal it, Loha Singh would know. Also the Nehru Market Police Station is right opposite the bank, which I guess is the main reason why robbers have not tried to break into the bank.

Loha Singh was not dozing when we came upon him. He jumped up from his stool as soon as he saw us and spoke in an agitated tone: “I was coming to talk with you boys in the evening.”

“The Ramlila stage has disappeared—” Chandu said.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about” he said.

“You know about it?” I said.

“Yes. The khaki-shorts took it. Last night they came in a big truck. They had big hammers with which they smashed up the stage, loaded the wood and the tent in the truck, and drove away,” Loha Singh said.

We called them khaki-shorts because they wear khaki-shorts when they do their drills, parades, and stick-fighting practice. Before the new government came into power, we used to see the them on TV, doing their drills and march-pasts, but we never saw them in our neighborhood. Now, we see them every morning and evening doing their drills in the L-Block park.

When they first came to the park, they were very friendly, offering us ladoos, inviting us to their prayer meetings. But, when we told them that we were not going to join their Party, they started doing their drills right at the time when we did our Ramlila rehearsals. Once they even told us to clear out from the park, because we were coming in their way! Can you imagine that? It is our park—they are the outsiders; and they told us to vacate our own park!

“And what did you do? Sit about and watch?” Chandu said to Loha Singh.

“Why did you not go to the police?” Amrik said.

“How could I go to the police when the khaki-shorts is the sarkar (government) itself—-“

“We live in a democracy where everyone has to follow the law, even the government,” I said.

Bhim was very angry. He was punching his right hand with his left. Amrik was jerking his head, making his turban wobble.

Chandu was trying to pacify Bhim because his temper is like Lord Shiva’s third eye, which opens rarely, but when it does, it destroys everything in its path. No one in L-Block (not even Amrik, (and he is six feet two,) takes a panga with Bhim because, though he is just five feet three, he is strong like a bull. He trains as a wrestler at Dara Singh’s Ahkara (gymnasium.)

#

We stood behind the iron rails outside the park, and watched their drill.

“Look– over there, that man blowing the whistle, he’s the shikshak (teacher)–he’s the one we got to talk to,” Chandu said.

The shikshak, shouting, left, right, left…left…left, was running up and down the line of the marching boys. They all held sticks, resting on their shoulders like guns. A small boy carrying a huge khaki-shorts flag, led the marching army.

They marched up and down the length of the park, and then to the center of the park, where they laid down their sticks before the shikshak. The small boy with the flag, planted the flag pole in the ground. It swayed unsteadily in the wind. Two boys drove pegs in the ground and fastened the post with ropes. The other boys fell into a formation of four rows before the flag. The leader of each row stood behind his row.

They stood facing the flag in silence, their heads bowed, their right hand clasped to their chest. Then the shikshak blew his whistle, and they burst out into a jarring song, which ended with a loud cry of: “Victory to Mother India!”

The shikshak blew his whistle again, and the boys picked up their sticks, and started stick-fighting. First they watched the shikshak whirl his stick around, and then they copied him. Soon they started fighting each other, their sticks making loud, clattering noises. Then the shikshak joined the fight, and five boys attacked him. The shikshak warded off their attack with ease.

Soon the shikshak blew his whistle and shouted, “At Ease!” I saw him move towards the wall of our house, which adjoins the L-Block park, and against which we had built the Ramlila stage, to relieve himself.

“Now’s our chance,” Chandu said, pulling me by his arm.

Paramjit nudged me with his elbow and pointed to the wall before which the shikshak was urinating. On the wall was a graffiti we had put up to deter urinators. It was a caricature of a donkey, with a sign that said: ”Look! here the son of the donkey pisses with pride.”

The shikshak finished, zipping up. He gave out a startled “Oi!” when he saw us standing behind him.

He was a thin, wiry man, about 25, dark skin, mustache and of course he wore khaki-shorts and a vest.

“Namaste,” Chandu said, “did not mean to startle you Shriman–”

“Ram, Ram,” the shikshak said.

“Namaste,” Chandu said.

“Ram! Ram!” the shikshak said in an angry tone.

“Ram, Ram,” Chandu said.

“Ram-Ram; Ram-Ram,” the shikshak said, now in a congenial tone, “what can I do for you boys. Have you come to join up?”

“N…o…, actually, we have something to discuss with you,” Chandu said.

“Why won’t you boys join up. Look at you, thin as a skeleton. We will make you strong. We will make you a warrior, a warrior of Mother India.”

“Er… actually…we came for an important matter, but we will think about it–“ Chandu said.

“Think about it? Think about it? Would you stop to think if your house is on fire? Would you stop to think if someone forced your family to eat a cow? Arise ye Hindus, your Bharat Ma needs you! Awaken! Heed the call! Stop not till the goal is reached! Say with me Bharat Mata ki Jai!,” the shikshak said.

We looked at each other.

“Go on, say it—don’t you love your country? Say with me: Bharat Mata ki Jai!,” the shikshak said.

“Bharat Mata ki jai,” we said.

“Very feeble, but after training, you will see how much energy you will radiate.

“We wanted to talk to you about our Ramlila stage,” Bhim said.

“What stage” the shikshak said.

“Our Ramlila stage that we think you took,“ Chandu said.

“Oye! You are the Ramlila guys – I’ve heard about you. I’ve heard what nonsense you present in your shows; you lot are twisting the meaning of our holy scriptures and corrupting the minds of our youth —“ the shikshak said.

“Corrupting the minds of our youth?” Bhim said.

“Yes. Is it not true that in last year’s play, when Surpnakha came to seduce Laxman, she was dancing and singing that vulgar filmi song – ‘sexy, sexy, sexy people call me—‘,” the shikshak said.

“But Surpnakha is an evil demon; no one could possibly object to her being depicted as a vamp,” Chandu said.

“Do you know what effect this dancing, this swaying of hips, these tight dresses, and these vulgar songs, has on our youth? It’s because of things like these that boys loose their Ojas –” the shikshak said.

“But sir! Surpnakha was not even a girl—it was a boy dressed up as a girl— him (Chandu pointed at Paramjit). Everyone knows that girls don’t act in the Ramlila,” Chandu said.

“That does not matter,” the shikshak said, “when you look at the picture of a beautiful girl, doesn’t you get excited, even when you know it is just a picture. And when you have a pretty boy dressed up as a girl and have him sing and dance before other young boys — aren’t you encouraging them to become chakkas?” the shikshak said.

“Will you return our stage or not,” Bhim said.

“I can’t do anything about it,” the shikshak said, “the order came from our high command.”

“How can we talk to your high command?” I asked.

“You can’t—they are all busy. There is a big officers training camp being conducted and all our senior officials are busy there,” the shikshak said.

“At least tell us where the camp is being held. We will go and see them training and we will take other L-Block kids with us. We got to show them the training, right? how else will they be motivated to join?” Chandu said.

“Take down the address then. You have a pen and paper? Good! It’s at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir School, behind the Nehru Market. Go there after 5 p.m. and meet Ram Mohan Pai. Tell him that Shastri sent you. Wait, I’ll write a note otherwise you will not be able to enter.”

#

The arched signboard over the school gate that was locked with a chain and a padlock said, “Saraswati Shishu Mandir” (Goddess Sarasvati’s Children School). There was no one at the gate, and the high walls around the school compound made it impossible to see inside. Normally whenever we see high walls we are inclined to climb them, especially if the high walls are around a girls school. However these walls were different: they had vicious jagged pieces of broken glass bottles stuck on top of them with tar, impossible to climb. I rattled the lock on the gate and soon two khakis, with rifles slung on their shoulders, came to the gate. “What do you want,” barked one with a pointy mustache and a scar on his cheek.

“We have come to see Mr. Ram Mohan Pai,” I said.

“Where have you come from?” the man said.

“We will only tell him about our business,” I said.

“You can’t see him,” the man said, “he’s busy.”

“We have a letter for him,” Chandu said and pushed the shikshak’s letter from between the bars of the gate.

Scarface flipped the letter open, blew on it, shook it open, read it, and then passed it to the other man. The second man looked at him and nodded. Then scarface went down the driveway and into the school building, while the other fixed a suspicious gaze on us. Soon scarface came back and whispered something to the other man, who opened the lock and pushed the gate open to let us in.

We were led through the driveway. Passing by the school compound , I saw a number of khaki’s standing at attention, listening to a man who seemed their leader; and as we neared the school building, we heard the sound of clapping from behind.

The school building was a box like structure. As we climbed the steps up to it, we came to a huge open hall, on the either side of which were classrooms. In front of the classrooms ran a huge, covered verandah. Scarface told us to wait in the hall.

The hall was covered with murals of khaki leaders. On the left wall was one of a sadhu dressed in yellow ascetics clothes, with a shawl draped across the upper part of his body. He wore glasses, had long shoulder length hair, a flowing black-and-white beard and intense eyes that stared at a mural of tigers around a lotus flower on the roof. On the right wall was that of a sad looking sadhu wearing round steel rimmed spectacle. His looked down towards the floor of the hall. On the back wall was a mural of a sadhu with a thin pinched face. His eyes were half closed and he looked as if he had just got up from sleep.

And In the center of the hall was a huge bronze statue of “Mother India,” which was a map of India, draped in a sari, with a female face for Kashmir. She looked very lonely standing all alone in the center of the large hall and it looked like the three gentlemen murals were ignoring her for they all looked away from her.

We heard the sound of rifle-fire. It appeared to be coming from the large playground across the hall. “I’m going to check,” I whispered. Amrik and Bhim came with me. We walked across the hall to the steps that led down to the playground and as soon as we descended the steps, we saw about five khaki-shorts lying belly-flat and firing rifles at a target.

We heard an angry voice behind us, “What are you doing here?”

It was scarface.

“Nothing,” I mumbled.

“Pai-ji will see you now, follow me,” he snapped.

We followed him back to the hall where the rest of the gang was waiting and then he led us through the corridor.

The corridor had instructive signs painted on the wall: Always speak the truth… Fight injustice…Respect your teachers… Your Acharaya is your God… Cleanliness is next to Godliness. The classrooms had bronze name plates of khaki leaders whose garlanded photograph hung above the classroom doors. When I peeped inside one of the classrooms, I saw that there were no table or chairs: there were only jute mats on the floor.

#

Ram Mohan Pai had a long nose on a horse-like face, with saggy, sunken cheeks. He was sitting behind a desk, overflowing with books, pens and paper. Khaki leaders framed photographs were all over the wall behind him and he was in most of the photographs, shaking hands, getting blessed, being hugged…

Across from Pai, on the other side of the table, sat a thin, old, bespectacled swami, with a long white beard, wearing a sadhu’s yellow garb.

“Yes, what do you want” said Pai.

I noticed that he talked fast and had a habit of puckering his lips and moving them back and forth as he spoke.

“We are here to get our Ramlila stage back,” Chandu said.

“You are the L-Block boys?” Pai said.

“Yes, we are,” Bhim said in a angry voice, “and we want our stage back.”

“We don’t have your stage,” Pai said.

“You do,” Bhim said, “our night watchman told us so,” Bhim said.

“I saw a sign outside that said ‘Always tell the truth’,“ Amrik said, his head and turban bobbing with agitation, “how can you tell your students to be truthful and yourself lie so blatantly?”

“Rude, mannerless boys!” Pai snapped at us, “is this any way to talk with your elders? Do you think we are going to allow the story of Lord Rama’s victory over evil be told by uncouth boys who show no respect of elders and have no Hindu values?” Pai said.

“No Hindu values?” I asked.

“Do not non-Hindus make your the effigies of the demons Ravan, Magnath & Kumkurn? Is is not true that low castes perform in your Ramlila? And do you not sing cheap vulgar filmi songs on stage?” Pai said, “You boys are corrupting the Hindu religion and will be stopped. No question about that.”

“It has been an unbroken tradition of L-Block to get the effigies for the Dussehra celebrations from Vilayat Khan and his artists at Baddi village—” Chandu said.

“Last year the L-Block Ravan was 10 feet tall,” I said, “no other block could match the grandeur of our Ravan.”

“—and the so called low casts are Rajendra Colony residents who work as cooks, drivers and gardeners in our houses,” Chandu said.

“They adore Lord Ram. Did not Tulsidas write the Ramayana in the vernacular instead of Sanskrit so that everyone could listen to the Lord’s tale?” I said.

“Children,” the swami said, in a gentle voice, “you are innocent and know not the ways of the world. In the Uttarakhand, did you not read the story of the low caste Shambuka who had his head chopped of by Lord Ram for practicing austerities that only the higher casts were allowed to perform.—”

“You are high caste Hindu boys. Join the Party, as good Hindu youth all over Bharat are doing. Become a soldier of Bharat Ma. Struggle for her. Sacrifice for her. Let the ground shake with the sound of your feet. Join us and we will teach you how to run the country, not just this small Ramlila. You will learn how to be real heroes, not just play the role of heroes,” Pai said.

#

The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new “open air” stage was held in the park later that month. The Swami we had met in Pai’s office, and whose name we learnt was Swami Chintananda, was the chief guest.

He looked grand, with his ochre robe, his wooden sandals with silver knobs, that added inches to his height, his long white beard that reached up to his neck, his silver and black tresses that fell to his shoulder, which he pushed back as he cut the ribbon.

They all clapped and cheered: the sycophant Party officials in their kurta pajamas and Nehru caps, the shopkeepers with their garlands and baskets of ladoos, the urchins grabbing at the ladoos, the press photographers going click-click with their cameras.

When he made his speech, standing on the newly constructed stage, which was made of concrete, with concrete steps leading up to it, and concrete steps on either side — to which our makeshift stage was a flimsy collection of wooden boards, he said, “The youth of the Party have worked night and day to construct this stage for the residents of L-Block as a gesture of their affection. Mother Saraswati will surely be pleased with the shopkeepers of Nehru Market Shopkeepers Association , who have been so generous with their donations. This stage, erected by the joint efforts of the Party youth and the shopkeepers, will be the center of cultural life of the residents, a place where folk singers, dancers , sitar players, classical Hindustani singers, Caranatic singers…, from all across Bharat, will shower culture onto the L-Block residents.”

“—and, this year,” he continued, “the Party youth will themselves organize the Ramlila, with all the proper rituals and ceremonies, in accord with the Hindu scriptures, adherence to which, sad to say, had been woefully lacking in the Ramlilas of previous years.”

Chandu, Amrik, Paramjit, Bhim and I stood silently listening to his speech and the cheering of the shopkeepers. These were the same shopkeepers who had for many years donated to our Ramlila. Some of them lived in our block, on our street, our neighbors, some of them our family friends.

#

The news of the atomic bombs test explosions caused great excitement in the land: there were slogans of “India Shining” and “Team India” everywhere: on the news channels, in the newspapers, on the lips of the people, on the streets. The khaki-shorts became so popular that nobody wanted to hear anything against them, especially from insignificant boys like us. The betrayal of the shopkeepers was just the start. Now no adult on the L-Block, including our family members, thought that we should perform the Ramlila. “Let the Party organize the Ramlila as it deems fit—it will perform the play with the correct rituals and rites, what do you boys know about our scripture,” we were told. Most boys of every other block except the L Block joined the Party. The L-Block boys did not join. They started morning prayer marches, called Prabhat Pheri starting at 4 in the morning. The boys from outside L-Block, who were previously wary about swaggering or sauntering about L-Block, now fearlessly marched up and down our block, led by members of the Party. A boy called Damodar– the bully Damodar–from the M-Block, led the prayer marches with a saffron flag. A Party office opened in the house opposite my house. The board outside said, “Indian Youth & Cultural Front.” There were regular Ramlila organization meetings held there, officiated by Swami Chintananda and Mr. Pai. They decreed that a centralized Ramlila would be performed in the park, doing away with the traditional system of each block conducting its own Ramlila. Even at school, we had new history books prescribed, which taught that our civilization was now to be called the Indus-Saraswati civilization…

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And then, the Party Ramlila. From behind the park fence, we helplessly watched all ten days of their Ramlila. The first time in ten years when we did not perform. Their actors were professionals, and all adults. Chandu had been our Vyas (prompter), and during the plays we put up, he would sit hidden behind the stage, and prompt the lines to the Swaroops (the actors who play the gods). Their Swaroops never missed a line and a Vyas was not needed. Unlike our masks of the demons and gods that we made out of papier-mâché, from newspapers saved and collected all year long, glued together with home made glue (called laavi) made from rice and water, and painstakingly painted with water colors; their masks were made of metal, as were their maces and helmets. Ravan’s ten cloth heads had intricate embroidery work done with gold and silver thread. He had a thunderous voice that boomed over the powerful loudspeakers of the stage. Even Bhim, who had been our Ravan, was impressed by their Ravan. Their twelve Ramayanis (the singers who recite the couplets from the book Ramchritramanas, hidden behind the stage), and the two mridanga players, were high class brahmins from Ramnagar. They were hereditary singers, who only ate food cooked by other high class brahmins, and their brahmin cooks travelled with them. Our Ramayanis had been the devout rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors and hawkers of Rajendra Colony that the Party had prohibited from acting in our Ramlila because of their low caste.

However, so devoted were these Rajendra Colony residents that these same “low castes” were here by the hundreds, bowing before the Swaroops, treating them as the very personification of the gods, the receptacles of divinity: cheering on Rama’s wedding, cursing Kaikeyi on Rama’s exile, persuading Ram to return to Ayodhaya with Bharat, shouting Jai Shree Ram when Hanuman gives the ring to Sita and burns down Lanka; — and on the victorious home coming march of Rama, the police had to march with the Rama’s raath (carriage), so great were the crowds. Our raath used to be a cycle rickshaw, drawn by the Loha Singh, the night watchman. Ram, Sita and Lakshman would sit on this rickshaw and the monkey god, Hanuman would run along side as we made the round around L-Block. The monkey army, with their red painted monkey faces, and their maces, would follow behind the rickshaw. Their raath was a Tata truck, modified to look like a chariot, on which the Swaroops stood, distributing ladoos, flowers, and showering blessings. It was followed by a huge procession of open-body trucks and tractors, carrying the monkey army.

The following summer, I passed my Matriculation exams, coming second in the school board. I obtained a scholarship to study at a university in America, and in time joined the ranks of the NRI (non required Indians) living overseas, ever planning to return to India, but never quite doing so. When my first born was fifteen years old, I took the girls to India to meet their grand parents. The ancestral house in L-Block had been sold and my parents had moved to Chandigarh.

We asked the taxi driver to drive us around the L-Block. My ancestral house was now a three story apartment building. Most of the other houses on the block had also been converted to apartment buildings. The housing situation in Delhi was so bad that house owners found it lucrative to sell off their houses to builders for large amounts of money. Their houses would be knocked down and an apartment complex built over it, and they would be given a floor in the new apartment complex.

The park was still there and the concrete stage was also there but, I learnt from Chandu, when I met him and his delightful family for tea later that day, that Ramlila was not performed in the park anymore. In fact, after that last Ramlila, the tradition of L-Block boys performing Ramlila, had come to an end. Ramlilas now were expensive, political, and bureaucratic affairs, to be held at designated Ramlila Grounds only. Lord Ram and his lila had been driven out of the L-Block forever, Chandu said.

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