Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Aditya Mani Jha

Japani Hanuman
Aditya Mani Jha

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a South Delhi man with an SUV must either possess or covet the most garish car stickers money can buy. We're not talking puny bumper stickers with 'Jai Mata Di Let's Rock' vomited out in Comic Sans – that's amateur hour. No, what started this whole mess with Kapish and the Vanar Sena was a large, unmissable, drawn-and-stencilled Hanuman.  

It was bright orange, like the rising sun swallowed by the monkey god who mistook it for a fruit, as the story goes. It was muscular, like Kapish himself, who was renowned in Bhagwan Nagar for downing a litre of milk every day at dawn, before heading off on his morning run. It was the pride and joy of the Vanar Sena – until, of course, it was destroyed along with the rest of Kapish's Fortuner. That was last night, and the stench of burning rubber hasn't quite left us yet.    

But I'm getting ahead of myself, leaping over buildings that block the sun out for each other. Three facts are essential to understanding why the mild-mannered residents of my mohalla extinguished the life force of an innocent SUV: 

1.     Bhagwan Nagar is an irony-free zone: As the name suggests, we have gods aplenty. We have no less than four temples, all major deity cards accepted. We also have an evangelical church, a masjid named Masjid and a Buddhist park where an Ambedkar statue glowers down on a smaller Buddha statue almost directly underneath.   

2.     Bhagwan Nagar, a strictly working-and-middle-class neighbourhood, is immediately adjacent to the many-splendored Maharani Bagh, home to wealthy pensioners and their wealthier ENT doctors. This is a source of considerable distress to those of us who claim residence in Maharani Bagh and mutter profanities when pressed for precise co-ordinates. Upward mobility is the wind in our sails – and we haven't gotten around to inventing the steam engine yet.
3.     Kapish's father, a wrestler-turned-politician, heads the local wing of the Vanar Sena (literally, the Monkey Army, named after the mythical troops that included Lord Hanuman himself). These fine, oiled-up gents abhor what they perceive as attacks on Hindu culture – a protean, ever-expanding set of misdemeanours that includes a) the sale and promotion of videshi goods, b) treating women as though they were human beings, and c) 'immoral' live-in couples who approached landlords for places to rent. How was Kapish to know that a convergence of offences a-c would eventually sound the death-knell for his beloved Fortuner? 

 Yesterday began normally enough for Bhagwan Nagar. The music of the streets sounded its usual too-sincere notes, dengue-preventive messaging blared from Ahmed the auto-wallah's pimped-up steed, the amplified national anthem, courtesy the local school (Kalvin Kidz, where Bhagwan Nagar's children were liberated from antiquities such as spelling) cut through the morning air, and workers at rival sweetshops began pounding their dough. By eight in the morning, even the laziest of shopkeepers had started pulling up their shutters, reluctantly listening to their first customers, mostly morning walkers and gym-goers, sweaty and irritable and anxious to step into their showers. 

Most of the shopkeepers in the area belong to the Saini caste – influential North Indian land-owning people. Of late, they were having a lot of trouble with burglars. Only last week, my landlady's first cousin, who lives four doors down the street, was robbed of 3 lakh rupees in cash and a significant amount of jewellery. In broad daylight, too. The robbers were minimalists, by the look of things. They rang her bell, waited for the old lady to shuffle her way to the door, whacked her flush on the temple with a lathi, and took off with the loot a couple of minutes later. This was only days after Bhajan Singh, the mohalla's ace halwai, was relieved of his cash deposit box. Bhajan Singh being the de facto leader of the local shopkeepers, this robbery sent shock waves across the Saini community. Jewellers, grocers, property brokers and other merchants sitting on piles of cash were understandably nervous.    

This is where Kapish and his father, not to mention the Vanar Sena, came in. The Sainis, led by Bhajan Singh, requested Kapish's father, the redoubtable Maruti Nandan, to beef up security in Bhagwan Nagar. We're being bled dry, Bhajan Singh said. You have connections with the ruling party, the Sainis told Maruti Nandan. You can easily have a police car and a few constables on night shift here, patrolling the neighbourhood, keeping an eye out for these dastardly robbers. Hell, you have the Vanar Sena at your disposal.  

That is true, Maruti Nandan smiled and removed a toothpick from the corner of his mouth. He hadn't actually eaten anything that morning: the toothpick was there merely because he felt like closing his teeth over something. Kapish alone can summon twenty louts with a single whistle. What more could law-abiding businessmen want, the Sainis murmured politely before showing themselves out. 

A few hours later, Kapish and the aforementioned louts were out and about. Kapish himself rode up front, sitting on the hood of his Fortuner, mike in hand, even as the car rode at a funereal pace through Bhagwan Nagar. Our merchant friends need not worry anymore he announced, his youthful baritone thundering through the taped-up mike. The Vanar Sena will protect you and your businesses. These good-for-nothing shop-robbing rascals don't stand a chance. Some of the smaller, more timid shopkeepers cheered feebly at this. Jai Bajrang Bali, they said, in muted tones.  

It wasn't as simple as that, however. It never was, when it came to the Vanar Sena. In return, Kapish said into the mike, we want you to sign a pledge against stocking videshi goods, especially those Japani firecrackers flooding the market. We can't have these yellow bastards rob our countrymen of their hard-earned revenues. We must fight all kinds of robberies with equal shraddhaa. 

Those hundred-watt Saini smiles faded a little upon hearing this. Kapish was talking about Chinese firecrackers. Every shopkeeper, no matter what his usual business, stocked firecrackers starting a month before Diwali. Shopping for milk? How about you enjoy that with a side of shooting stars? Need a new bucket-and-mug set? Fill 'em up with chocolate bombs, what are empty buckets for anyway? Kapish and the Vanar Sena wanted to nip the cosy little neighbourhood business model, in the bud. We were just two weeks away from Diwali, after all. 

The reason I'm able to tell you what happened next with such detail is because I live on the second floor of a building that's right next to Bhagwan Nagar Chowk. On my right lies the Buddhist shrine I mentioned earlier, built and admirably maintained by a Dalit rights NGO. On my left is the biggest cluster of Saini-owned businesses and shops large and small. Tearing straight through at the moment was Kapish and his Vanar Sena, inside, atop and behind his Fortuner, lathis in hand.  

And on the back of his Fortuner was the stylised orange Hanuman, clear as day. It seemed to be watching everything and everyone. It was drawn in a deliberately military fashion, the facial muscles taut and battle-ready. Its eyes seemed to follow you as the Fortuner drove past. 

Presently, Kapish and his cohorts stopped the Fortuner and started going from shop to shop, exhorting merchants to give up their japani stock. What they were actually doing was carrying out an impromptu inspection. Shopkeepers found to be swimming in 'japani maal' were given stern warnings. In some cases, their goods were immediately confiscated in the name of 'security charges', never to be seen again. The word on the street was that these would be sold off to faraway wholesale men in East Delhi, and the profits would fuel the Vanar Sena's nightly revelries, wherein Bollywood numbers would inform the whole of Bhagwan Nagar just how safe we were under their stewardship.       

This is when Kapish screwed up. You see, as he and the Sena marched past the Buddhist shrine, he saw, towards the back of the building, a canoodling couple. The girl was twenty-year-old Sweety, the daughter of Sant Singh, the richest, most reclusive man in Bhagwan Nagar, the brother of an ex-chief minister. Everybody knew Sant Singh but nobody actually spoke to him, such was his icy, king-in-his-castle glory. The boy whose hand Sweety was holding was young Junji, the twenty five-year-old Japanese PhD student who had become a familiar face in Bhagwan Nagar.  

Kapish, it was widely known, had the hots for Sweety. But Sweety, now in her final year at LSR (Lady Sriram College), razor-sharp, sophisticated, and already interning at the Times of India, wouldn't give a 12th-fail bumpkin like Kapish the time of the day. Her father's money and sway gave her the luxury of openly dissing Kapish. He hadn't forgotten how she had laughed in his face last summer, when Kapish had finally summoned up the courage to tell her how he felt. And now, she had the temerity to romance this yellow bastard, and that too in Bhagwan Nagar itself! 

Stop it, you shameless japani haraamkhor, Kapish yelled. Before a shell-shocked Junji could react, about half-a-dozen foot soldiers of the Vanar Sena had got him in their clutches. Sweety, turned pale at the sight of goons manhandling her boyfriend, and ran back to her house, just a stone's throw away. She slammed her father's formidable iron gate behind her, the resulting clang sounding like the crack of doom. It seemed as if the whole of Bhagwan Nagar gasped at the sound collectively. Junji was being thrashed pretty badly, blood streaming down his white tee-shirt. This is what happens to videshi bastards who make googly eyes at our sisters and daughters, Kapish was taunting, mike still in hand, clearly enjoying watching his padawans knocking the stuffing out of Junji.  

You must realise, dear reader, that the geography of it all was Kapish's undoing: Bhagwan Nagar Chowk was in a bit of a depression, with several downhill lanes converging at the spot where the Sena was doing its dirty business. Just when things were looking pretty bleak for Junji, two separate mobs came streaming downhill from opposite sides of the Buddhist shrine. One of them was led by Sant Singh and about thirty sardars, all carrying lathis and maybe five or six swords, for added menace. Both the lathis and the lathi-wielders were stouter and considerably better-fed than their Vanar Sena counterparts. To make matters worse, a group of Dalits, the core group behind the NGO managing the shrine, approached from the other side, unarmed but at a pace which was clearly meant to indicate business. The Vanar Sena was surrounded and outnumbered, but their reckoning did not begin immediately. First, Bhagwan Nagar was treated to a rare sound: that of Sant Singh's voice, which needed no microphone to strike terror. Indeed, a lucky few Vanars dodged and weaved out of the danger zone just in time. You son of a bitch Kapish, Sant Singh thundered. There isn't a single soul within miles who would dare touch a member of my family, and you lowlifes thrashed my daughter's fiancé! Perhaps it was my excitement at watching this unfold in real time, but I could have sworn Kapish turned a putrid shade of grey-green upon hearing these words.  

Brothers and sisters of Bhagwan Nagar, Sant Singh hollered, this hypocrite, good-for-nothing Kapish has been screaming blue murder at japani goods all day. But do you know who has made his sticker of Lord Hanuman on his car? Do you know whose god-given skills have blessed our neighbourhood mandir with its beautiful orange Hanuman? 

The plot thickens, I said, under my breath. Just then, my doorbell rang. I opened it to find a bloodied Junji. He asked me if I had any booze handy. It's noon, I would've said ordinarily, but this man had clearly earned himself a Patiala peg. We poured ourselves some Old Monk and watched the action from my balcony.  

You're one hundred per cent right, Sant Sahib, the leader of the Dalits now shouted. Kapish has insulted our Japanese guest, who has donated his money and his art. Junji-bhai is an artist – and will soon be the damaad of Bhagwan Nagar. 
I turned and looked at Junji, quizzically. He said, ‘I'm PhD student here, but in Japan, I'm famous mangaka.’ Manga-kya? I asked him. He grinned and pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket. On it was drawn a smaller version of the same Hanuman that adorned the back of Kapish's Fortuner – Japanese manga style, he explained to me. Junji had donated his Hanuman to the neighbourhood printer's shop, from where Kapish and the local Manokamna Mandir had both procured giant Hanuman prints. Only, as Sant Singh had revealed, this was always a japani Hanuman to begin with. 

There was little else for Junji and me to do but watch. We watched, sipping on our Old Monk glasses. We watched as Bhagwan Nagar's unofficial watchmen got their comeuppance. We watched in silence for the most part as Kapish's limbs were broken first, and then his Fortuner. We watched Lord Hanuman staring back at us through the flames as the Fortuner was burnt down and Junji said, in his japani accent ‘Jai Jai Bajrang Bali’.    


Aditya Mani Jha is a 29-year-old writer living in New Delhi, currently working as Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House India. His poems, short stories and essays have been published in Guernica, Strange Horizons, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, The Caravan, Mint and other publications. From 2012-215, he wrote a comics column called ‘The Speech Balloon’ for The Sunday Guardian and in 2017, a screen column called Universal Remote for The HinduReading Pictures, Drawing Words, his non-fiction book on Indian comics and graphic novels, will be published by Oxford University Press India in 2018.  

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed every rollicking word of it,depicting just another normal day in a normal patriotic, religion and caste conscious Delhi neighbourhood.