Of all the things that are made at homes- cakes, woollens, linens, music, pickles, pakodas,blogs, sweets, paper fans, and generosities, Mr. Jhunjhunwaala specialized in toys. He believed that the contention between the industry and the household, or, simply put, between the factory and the house can never be justified for the simple truth that the house houses families whereas factories are only concrete buttresses. The familial emotions are so much more subtle and untouchable compared to the clogged formality floating in warehouses.
He made toys not for a living. He made them for his closet. His unique closet faced the outside world, propped up in the porch, fronting the house, and displaying its characters. The bearded ape sat atop, his arms dancing over his head, and his teeth screeching at detractors. The puny weasel caught in the act of sneezing, the mouse sniffing at a ball of cotton, the couple in eternal embrace, the clockwork clown slapping his dish-like palms, and the astronaut waving off to his family before heading into oblivion were his other pieces of imagination turned palpable by his expertise. They were plucked from the newspapers, the gossips of strangers, the scenes happening in the street and from the flashes of uncalled for memories before being turned into solid masses.
Mr. Jhunjhunwaala would dust his old collections every morning before beginning. Then he would collect his equipment and take his seat in the porch to begin the day’s work. His radio, that had recently replaced his worn out gramophone, buzzed in the distance, but Mr. Jhunjhunwaala was content with only the sound of it. He would rarely lend any attention to what was being said or played, but if anyone turned off the sound, his eyes would snap instantly at the intrusion.
He would always be mystified with the amount of thought he put behind each character, lending it even the tiniest trait after much consideration. He liked to build his closet members carefully, lest he should forget any detail of any of his occupants. He liked them in full measure, looking out of his closet, intent, and to his mind, glorified.
He ran his fingers, tracing a curve in the pattern of his coconut oiled, tightly shaped, trimmed and sleek hair. He was acutely aware of the brushing of his freshly trimmed finger nails digging into his matted hair, and felt a certain repulsion at the feel of his skull standing guard against his fingertips, almost reproachfully.
As he admired himself before his mirror image, it passed for a moment in his mind that he looked, or rather, could have looked so much more pleasing, like all the other boys in Modern High School, and could have bettered each of them with his gleaming, watery eyes and perfect light-coloured skin. Instead, here he was looking at a mediocre, incorrigibly plain- another lad from another street come with his satchel strapped and bottle slung.
His school uniform looked as if every inch of it had been pasted on him, disgustingly neat and orderly even after recess. His tie was tugging at itself, trying its mightiest to somehow smother him. He tilted his head at the undone collar button, bashfully crouching beneath the double knot, held in its place by the exertions of the tie. It was his daily ritual to unfasten it after having escaped the jurisdiction of his fastidious mother.
He was not going to stand it.
The shining black of his shoe seemed to be a constant reminder of his subservience. Each time he bent over to pick something from the floor, or looked down submissively at the incessant ranting of his teachers, his view invariably fell on the symmetrical architecture of the perfectly aligned buttons, tie and his deep grey trousers, on the dove-like white of his socks peeping out- contrasted against the sheen of his black shoes- and, he imagined, screaming to the passers-by, announcing his imprisonment.
In many ways Manas was a prisoner too.
He brushed his hand roughly over his head, messing his hair. Displaced momentarily, his silk-like hair fell back to their accustomed place, like a swarm of flies converging back on the dung after a temporary disturbance. His stubborn nature was insidious, he decided, and it was commandeering his physical faculties too. Wetting his palms, he ransacked through his hair with both hands, his face convulsed under the surging resentment. At the end of the pillaging, he looked like the Manas who has just woken up in the morning, sleepy-eyed and dishevelled hair. That brought a smile to his lips. He loved the untouched natural Manas, before he was smeared by the pin-point precision of his mother’s practised hand. He began to hum his usual Raghu Dixit’s tune Hey Bhagwaan asking the lord to give him an option of restarting his life.
He wanted to be the raw Manas once again, the Manas standing at square one holding his head aloft, his watery eyes looking into the distance, proud of his impressionable mind, boasting of the voluminous receptivity of his being, wondering amusingly at the depth inside.
After days of goading, his mother, Mrs. Dutta, finally agreed to take him to the local fair with its thrilling rides.
Mrs. Dutta was a woman who carried herself haughtily. She enjoyed being indifferent- ignoring things, happenings and people around her, things that usually succeeded in drawing attention.
She liked to act a woman of business.
A woman of business, to her, remains prim and proper, and does the sort of things that is meticulously and, often arduously, accurate. She, being one, observed all the rules stringently. She carried bundles of notes of all denominations in her purple handbag so that she could produce exact amounts to the rickshaw-puller, the grocer and the doctor. She walked all the way to the milkman’s cowshed every morning and stood over the poor puny man as he milked his cow, overlooking acrimoniously with her eyebrows drawn in an unforgiving glare to make sure that not a droplet of water entered the utensil. She would always keep her kitchen adequately stocked. Nothing ever was wasted or wanted under her charge.
Unfortunately for Manas, his mother applied the same formula on him. His timetable was so crafted that after school he would only be able to catch his breath before being whisked away in his three-quarter jeans to his tuition classes. His health, his diet was paid such great attention that he had never tasted the toothsome food served in the plazas. Though he seldom fell ill, Manas could never recover from the heartache he suffered because of the excessive infringement in his personal space.
Manas had lesser friends than he had fingers. Once, when a kid in the neighbourhood tried to befriend him by inviting him to play a board game, it was his mother who saw to it that their friendship did not last long.
To her, Manas having too many friends would mean Manas wasting too much time. He was destined to follow his father, in becoming an economist, and she would not let any other interest or potential lead him astray. They were killed in their infancy. “You are a responsible child, Manas,” she used to say, “You know what is right and what is wrong.”
Her son’s new neighbourhood friend, the eccentric Mr. Jhunjhunwaala’s nephew, triggered a beacon of alarm in her mind. Manas was crossing deadlines in his timetable, appearing late for lunch, disappearing at bed time only to be found playing crossword with his new found friend. As a result, his mother initiated a fresh propaganda. Whenever the poor boy would come calling for Manas, she at once denied that Manas was in the house at all, sometimes even when a morose Manas was visible in the background. She increased the study hours in his schedule and forbade him to leave the house after tuition hours. His friend began to lose interest in the neighbourhood kid who always seemed to be hiding behind his mother’s skirt. There was nothing Manas could do about it.
An alarming fact had taken root in his mind. He considered himself to be more vulnerable than any of his companions in school, susceptible to the invisible trappings of the world. That was why, he explained to himself, his mother had to take such precautions.
Sometimes, when Manas saw kids of his age acting unruly, getting expelled or faring poorly in studies, he would feel an infinite sense of security in his mind. He knew, under his mother’s watchful presence, he would never experience such a fate. It was these singular moments that always restored his faith in his mother’s idiosyncrasies.
He was like a bee shut in a shell, safe, aptly fed and unharmed, but without the ability to draw nectar from his life.
Manas had been wanting to visit the fair for a long time. However, his mother’s tight timetable didn’t allow her the space for such excursions, and there was no way Manas could go to the fair on his own.
When finally his mother agreed to squeeze out time for the trip, Manas was overjoyed. He jumped and frolicked as he waited beside the motor car for his mother to descend from the house. Mr. Jhunjhunwaala peered at him from his perch across the street, and called out, “What’s the occasion?” “Hello, Mr. Jhunjhunwaala, it’s a family excursion to the local fair, a rare outing!” Mr. Jhunjhunwaala smiled inwardly and nodded almost imperceptibly before returning his gaze to the half-finished train engine.
Manas remembered the last time he had been into the house across the street.
Mrs. Dutta and Mr. Jhunjhunwaala had not spoken to each other after that incident. Manas had been playing with Mr. Jhunjhunwaala’s nephew in the anteroom towards the back of the house. Mrs. Dutta, on finding her son absent at the dinner table, barged into his house and barked at Manas to appear for dinner at once. Being submissive by nature, Manas quietly consented and left the game. As they reached the porch, Mr. Jhunjhunwaala accosted Mrs. Dutta. He was carrying a packet of pastries he had just brought from the local bakery meaning to have a little snack with Manas and his nephew. He politely asked Mrs. Dutta, “What is the hurry? Come and join us for a little snack,” he offered. The ruckus that Mrs. Dutta created consequently and the protests uttered out by Mr. Jhunjhunwaala earned the time for Manas to loiter a little longer in the porch. He turned a deaf ear to the furore and patiently observed the various toys neatly arranged in the closet. He was particularly amused by the sneezing weasel, and he stared at it with his nose against the glass, oblivious to the raised voices parrying somewhere.
On that very moment, in the sheltered front of the house, the moment lingered a little longer than any moment usually does. With the elderly pair arguing and the innocent boy lost in his own thoughts, everything seemed slowed down; stretched. For an unknown observer, it might have seemed that the roles of Mr. Jhunjhunwaala and Mrs. Dutta merged into each other, while Manas and the toys were, somehow, fused. It was as if there were two entities, not four, each lost in his own distractions, connected to each other by a very thin and delicate string, and as if no other existence mattered.
The entrance to the fair was littered with small bits of yellow and pink coloured printed papers. Three to four persons flanked the gates, checking the tickets of the queued people and tearing the coloured tickets in two halves, letting their half fall on the ground and get swept by the blowing wind. The fair had about nine to ten rides, about four of them for children and the rest for adults who screamed with every dipping motion of the ride, taking the thrill of the fifty rupees that they feel are spent well. A milling crowd floated almost motionlessly in and out. Numerous people thronged the tents selling all types of products, children’s stuffed toys, machines and equipment that make cooking and washing easier, snacks counters and one large bookstore that smelt of sweat and books and was filled with people, all with their noses inside large and small volumes but rarely any meaning to buy anything.
Manas clutched to his mother’s hand desperately as he manoeuvred his way past the sea of legs around him. It took a great effort to prise spaces between onrushing people, especially because he could not be seen by virtue of his small height in this rising mass of people. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of vendors selling candy or ice-cream or balloons to children who were either demanding such things quite audibly or were fighting amongst each other to get the biggest portion. No matter how much he wanted any of those, he didn’t have the heart to ask for it. His mother would curtly deny him and continue in her portly way.
His mother tugged sharply at his arm as she turned right and he lost his grasp. At once, lines of people plugged the gap between them. Manas looked up at the faces swarming by, trying to push his way through in the general direction of his mother. Despite the uneasiness of it, Manas was not alarmed, he knew his mother wouldn’t let him get lost. Surely enough, a hand came out of nowhere and snatched his tiny frame from where he stood. The next second, his mother shoved an ice-cream cone in his hand and continued her march. Manas followed delightedly.
First, they came upon a ride named Tora-tora, where a giant spinning cylindrical tube went up and down a horse-shoe shaped platform, with people strapped to their seats on both ends of the tube. Manas experienced goose bumps merely by the sight of it.
He, of course, had to ride alone. As he joined the queue waiting to get on the ride, he noticed three children, two boys and a girl, all about his age a few paces in front of him, giggling away. They jumped up and down, trying to get a glimpse of the length of the queue in front of them, pulling each other down in the process, tugging at strangers. They were chattering excitedly, discussing what seat they would prefer and who was the boldest among them all.
Despite all their claims regarding their boldness, when the moment arrived, all three of them simultaneously scampered to occupy the seat that they felt was safest and least bumpy. They kicked their legs in the air impatiently, exchanging wide smiles and glittering eyes.
As he enjoyed the thrill of the ride, Manas couldn’t help listening to the fun that those bunch of kids were having. Exhilarated, the three of them hopped off quickly, eager for more. Manas scuttled after them.
He half-dragged his mother towards the ride those children were heading next to. It was the dancing car ride, named Break Dance. Bunches of four cars each were placed on a circle that rotated and caused the hinged cars to rotate in their turn, hence causing a double motion that used inertia and the centrifugal force to create odd turns and emphatic pauses.
Seeing him sitting alone, a stranger in a khaki cap and a broken toothed smile joined Manas in his car. Manas passed a reassuring smile to his mother who was standing- with an apathetic look on her face- apart from the crowd of cheering relatives and friends. If only he had somebody who enjoyed alongside him, this trip to the fair could have been another matter entirely. He had to be content with his lot, so he trashed all his inhibitions and flailed his arms as they were thrown against each other in the messy affair of the ride.
When his car, in the process of its rotations and revolutions, came within earshot of his mother, he yelled to her to get him the ticket for the next ride. His unknown ride-mate passed a broken smile to him as they swirled around. He smiled back forcefully, hating the courtesies that were expected to be observed. He jumped off his car when the whirling ended and shot straight across to the next ride.
This was the giant wheel. One huge wheel with humungous spokes supported about twenty small four-seater cabins, open at the top. When the wheel would begin to turn, the large cabin and its occupants would keep climbing up until they would be minute to the eye. This was going to be the best. It was the hall mark ride of the fair. A ride that would be visible when one was still a good distance away from the fair, it announced the magnificence of it all, a symbol of family relaxation for the middle-income group of the town.
Manas was joined by an energetic man this time who, he later realised, was not another townsfolk who had come to relax but one of the operators of the ride, come to assist a small child in enjoying the ride. He was grateful and abashed at the same time. This time he passed a smile to his partner who acknowledged it with a thump on his shoulder. The operator tapped the seat of the cabin as a signal and the great wheel began to turn. As they climbed higher and higher, Manas tensed and clutched the seat tighter, looking straight ahead in his fear.
When they had spent a few moments in the air, Manas relaxed a little and looked down. The fair looked so small and condensed from the height, he wondered. His eyes fell on the greatTora-tora, now looking so puny and easy. It had lost its grandeur and its superiority. Manas felt as if, by climbing on the giant wheel, he had succeeded in winning the duel. The challenge was fulfilled, and now he had conquered all the great rides of the local fair, climbed on to the backs of the monsters one by one and hit them where it hurt most. Sadly, he had nobody but himself to whom he could boast of his achievements.
His eyes fell on the three children, some cabins to the left of Manas, who were hanging on to each other and to the cabin. Though they were sitting absolutely still, Manas knew they were having a great time. It could be seen from the grin on their faces and the alertness of their figures. It was finally proved by the incessant chit-chatting that ensued after the ride was over. They just couldn’t get over it. Manas searched for his mother and spotted her waiting for him away from the crowd gathered at the exit of the ride, her purple handbag on her shoulders and some coloured paper in her hand.
The last ride for the day was the train that would take them through the haunted house, theBhoot Bangla. Mrs. Dutta bought two tickets, one for herself. The way Manas had stepped back at the sight of the bleeding skull outside the entrance, Mrs. Dutta knew it wasn’t a good idea sending him in alone, especially because she wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on him from outside.
The train had the capacity of two persons per chair car, with some eleven such cars attached one after the other. It was Mrs. Dutta who hurriedly entered first and elbowed the first car of the train for her son and herself. Manas followed hurriedly, trying to match pace with his mother’s outmatching speed.
He stopped at the fourth carriage of the train. This was occupied by two of those three children, with one of the boys sitting alone in the third car. Instinctively, Manas couldn’t get himself to walk past this empty seat. It beckoned to him, urging him to break free of the shackles and make his own decisions. The laughter of the three kids was too much for him to bear. Giving in seemed such an easy option, almost as instinctive as removing your hand from touching a hot object. The red space of three feet had such a magical effect on poor Manas that he stood there in a dazed sort of way, looking at the three children peculiarly. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he stepped one foot inside the carriage. At this, the three children turned towards him inquiringly. Manas stopped short.
He was looking for words to explain himself when his mother, now notified of his absence, turned to him, “Manas, over here, now.” Manas could not question the conclusiveness in her voice. He emerged from his bewilderment and retreated. He timidly obeyed the instructions relayed and joined his stoic mother at the front of the train, relieved.
He was pleased his mother had not noticed his unnatural behaviour. He was both angry and surprised by his stupidity. He shrugged off the guilt, and gripped the hand rest firmly, shutting out the distant pleas emanating from somewhere within him. He was a responsible child; he knew what was right and what was wrong.
Of all the things that are made at homes- cakes, woollens, linens, music, pickles, pakodas,blogs, sweets, paper fans, and generosities, Mr. Jhunjhunwaala and his neighbour Mrs. Dutta, specialized in toys.