12 years old Chandu was far from peace. He was sitting on the steps of Asi Ghat and was looking across at the funeral pyres of the desolate beach of Manikarnika Ghat. This was the second day of his being jobless. The municipal officers, who raided the tea shop in Dalmandi, where Chandu worked, were least bothered about his sustenance. They were only concerned with upholding the Child Labor Law. Consequently, Chandu was jobless and penniless. He hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday morning. The law is supposed to bring peace and prosperity by its application. Chandu could not fathom why the law made him a beggar from an honest labor!
Hungry and sad, he went to sleep on the freezing steps of the Asi Ghat. He cried for his dead mother, whom he didn’t know or remember. She was just an idea for him. Like the ever illusive God, who always loves to test and joke with the meekest and the weakest. Whoever heard of God testing a rich man? May be, even He’s scared of their clout. All the tests and travails are reserved for the poor, who aren’t even allowed entrance into His affluent temples. Desperate with hunger and cold in the cold January night, he cried himself to sleep.
Today was the third day. He couldn’t find any job or food in the City of Bholenath. He tried to beg, but no one allowed him to beg in the Holy City. Here the beggars are under contract and their seats command lucrative rents by their overlords. A poor, hungry and amateur kid was not welcome. All day he slept under the tamarind tree outside Kashi Vishwanath temple, opposite the Gyanwapi Mosque and went to the bank of Ganges in the afternoon. He saw the distant flames of Manikarnika Ghat and strayed towards it like a moth.
There was a festive atmosphere. Or, as festive as a crematorium can manage. The famed poet father of the superstar Mahesh Kumar had died and he had arrived from Bombay to conduct the last rites. There were buntings strung all over. The gates of the Ghat named after the wife of Mahakal – Manikarnika: The One Wearing Ruby Earrings – was awashed with flood lights. There was heavy security. The dirty child in his torn clothes approached meekly. He saw the posters of Mahesh Kumar and couplets by his poet father splashed on huge banners all over. He was a diehard fan of the superstar and always mimicked his baritone voice and his flamboyant acting. In an instant he forgot the pangs of hunger gnawing in his intestines and craned his scrawny neck to the breaking point to get a glimpse of his idol. Suddenly he got a resounding slap from a constable and was kicked out of the way. He got up from the ground, ignoring his bleeding ear and again started looking out for Mahesh Kumar.
There he was! Resplendent in white Kurta. Chandu piped in his squeaky voice, “Mahesh Kumar!”, and was rewarded by another slap by a policeman. “Shut up, you bastard!”, the guardian of law growled menacingly. Mahesh Kumar waved to the adulation of the mob and folded his hands with a grim face. After all, he was the bereaved son! Chandu could remember his scene in the movie ‘The Wall’, where Mahesh had cried buckets upon his mother’s death and had vowed that he will avenge her. Then he went ahead and single handedly wiped out the entire clan of villains. Today, may be he was not in the mood. He just mimed a formal Namaste and went inside the decorated gate of Ghat. Chandu was disappointed.
People started moving on. It was a chilly night and they wanted to reach the warmth and comfort of their homes. Few of them waited for the return of the superstar. Chandu decided to wait as he didn’t have anywhere to go. After an eon, the superstar came out. Carrying the ashes of his dead father in a silver urn, along with three other people, may be his family. He was looking majestic. Just like his role in the epic movie ‘Aag ka Rasta’. With a vermilion teeka on his forehead, he was the ideal son of a father. How proud his father must feel! The paupers in the surrounding crowd wished that their sons were like him! Death would indeed be welcome if it’s accompanied by such pomp and ceremony!
Chandu was beyond himself! He was screaming as if he was dying. Suddenly he was caught by the scruff of his neck. “Get lost, you bastard!”, a harsh voice grated in his ears, followed by a swift kick in his pants.
“Wait!”, a baritone voice boomed over the crowd. Chandu’s heart flipped a beat. It was the same way Mahesh Kumar had commanded the villain in the movie ‘The Emperor’, when he was trying to kill the mom of the girl he loved. The unruly guard was suddenly penitent and fawning. “Yes sir.”
“Leave the child alone.”, God boomed. Chandu was beyond ecstasy. The guard released his clutch. The kid scampered to his idol. Mahesh signalled the kid to walk beside him. Everyone was impressed. Such a humble and caring man! Such a great son of a great father! The crowd was chanting ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai!’ Only the God is the truth. Chandu screamed lustily, with different expressions, as if giving an audition. Sometimes he was a bereaved son, with tears in his eyes. Then the tears became blood and he wanted to punch the world with his tiny fists. He was emulating the great Mahesh Kumar in all his roles. He was Mahesh Kumar with his dead father. The father he never knew. Tears were streaming in the false memory of a father he didn’t remember. His tears grieved for the childhood, which was a mirage. He presented his Oscar performance for his idol, who was gravely silent and grim as an idol should be. Chandu was ecstatic.
The procession reached to the bank of Ganges. A fisherman with stained teeth had decorated his boat with buntings. It was washed clean. Mahesh Kumar stepped gravely in the rocking boat and waved once again at the crowd. People thronged at the bank. Mahesh Kumar beckoned Chandu, who just couldn’t believe his luck. Mahesh smiled. A painful smile, which he depicted in the super hit movie ‘The Chain’. Chandu sat near the great man with red eyes and tear stained face. He was acting. The priest was standing. Somber. Looking around at the throng with an exalted heart. He was acting too. The crowd was silent. Showing off their grief. They were acting. Mahesh was touching the corner of his eyes. He couldn’t meet his eyes with the crowd. He was beyond grief. Then, his eyes met Chandu’s. Even he was acting. Shakespeare would have approved of the scene wholeheartedly.
The boat casted off with its somber passengers in the freezing night. The lamps and lights on Dashashwamedh and Gai ghat twinkled across like a million fireflies. Mahesh Kumar was shivering in an expensive shawl. Chandu was drinking this epic moment of his life through his wide eyes. In the middle of the Ganges, they had to disperse the ashes in the urn for the nirvana of the great poet. The guards held the urn near water line with Mahesh touching it with his ring finger. Chandu went with his enthusiasm and lent his hands. No one said anything. Now he was the charmed one.
The actors in this grand drama forgot that it was not a steamer. It was an ill-maintained boat of a fisherman. With such a humongous load on the starboard, the frail vessel toppled over. People screamed. Chandu got an elbow from one of the security guys and was tossed over. There were screams and melee. Couple of security guys jumped over in the freezing river in the January night and rescued the superstar. One of them secured the vagabond urn, which was trying to get away in the angry stream. The boat was made upright. People clambered over, preceded by Mr Kumar. Everyone tried to settle down in the freezing temperature.
Chandu was confident that he will be rescued. He expected his idol to act like a champion swimmer as in the movie ‘Ganga and Jamuna’ and save him. Chandu never learned to swim. He went under for the second time and saw his star shivering in blankets and the boat moving away. He tried to scream and his mouth was filled with the holy water of the Ganges. All the movies of his favorite idol flashed before his eyes. Suddenly he was the Great Actor, enacting all the fabulous roles. Suddenly he was killing villains mercilessly and giving his life to save innocent children. Suddenly his parents hugged and consoled him and he cried. He mercifully went under for the third time. His sins washed. His hungry soul sated and purified.
The sun was melancholy today when it rose beyond the Vindhyachal mountains. Today, the sun didn’t smile. It was grim. Today he forgot his anger and didn’t try to burn down the world. Today was a cold day.