HIPPY HARRY AND THE ELEPHANT (2008)
Hari became a guitarist because his father wanted him to learn English. When he was ten years old, his teacher sent him home with a note that his parents should get him some extra coaching in English or forget sending him back again. That was when his father Velu, the toddy tapper, decided that it was time Hari met William Sahib.
The Sahib lived in a bungalow on the outskirts of town. He had been living there for years, supposedly writing a book. Having run out of Scotch a long time ago, the Sahib had developed a taste for the local brew and Velu kept him provided with a plentiful supply. In fact, it was a matter of pride for Velu that he was known in local circles as the Sahib’s friend. And now it was time to put that bond to the test. After all, who could teach English better than a Sahib?
After a month, the Sahib gave up. In fact, he even begged Hari never to speak to him in English, he had a country to go back to and didn’t want to forget how to converse with his own people. But by then, Hari was well on the way to mastering the Sahib’s guitar.
Hari took to the instrument like he was born to it. Chords came to him as naturally as climbing coconut trees, which he had been doing since he was a toddler. There was no tricky bit of string work the Sahib knew that was too difficult for Hari to master. And the Sahib was no mean guitarist himself, having played lead in a band back home in his wild youth.
Two years later, when William Sahib returned home, Hari had dropped out of school and was performing at all the best hotels, the local Boy Wonder. As a farewell present, the Sahib gave Hari a beautiful brown Fender guitar.
Hari grew his hair long, till his knees, modeling himself on the strange apparitions he had seen in the music magazines strewn on the Sahib’s tables. He loved his nickname “Hippy Harry”. He got hold of a singer (a college boy whose passion was the Beatles), a keyboard artiste and a drummer to set up his own band. They thrilled audiences from one end of town to the other. It didn’t matter if the keys man or the drum thumper failed to turn up for a performance. Hari’s guitar was what the crowds came to hear.
Only one thing, though. The singer had to be there. Hari couldn’t sing an English song even under extreme torture. The words were alien, but their music, that universal language, throbbed and flowed through him in ample measure.
Looking back, that was the golden period of Hari’s life. For ten good years, Hari and his motley crew were the town’s kings of entertainment. Those were days without television, when fame spread strictly by word of mouth. People flocked in from far off towns to hear him. And Hippy Harry reveled in all the adulation.
He got married and had two boys in quick succession. Though he didn’t really needed the money, he started classes in music. He was very choosy about his students, though. Not just anyone could learn from Hippy Harry. Only the really talented could do that.
Hari’s fortunes changed once his singer went to the Gulf seeking employment. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a suitable replacement, no one with the fervor for singing that the college boy had. The keyboard and drum thumpers had been replaced long ago.
Hippy Harry’s audiences started dwindling. Somehow his solo performances just didn’t have the required zing. His classes suddenly became all-important. He was no longer choosy and would admit all and sundry, gritting his teeth while music was murdered in his classroom.
Drinking, which he had indulged in rarely once, had now become an escape route, resorted to more and more as the bad times continued without respite. The number of students clamoring for his classes had petered out.
Hari was now playing seedy songs for needy singers in decrepit hotels, churning out popular movie numbers with no challenge in the playing. At times, he would be forced to play the drums or man the keys when a guitarist more familiar with the latest numbers came on stage.
He even toured North India with a traveling circus, billed as a “One Man Orchestra”. Cymbals strapped to his knees, blowing into a mouth organ on a wire stand attached to his neck and strumming his beloved guitar to tunes totally alien to his palate, Hari drew mild applause from people who had come there mainly to see the lions and their tamers. Down on his luck, up to his neck in debt and the demon drink pulling him deeper into the mire, Hippy Harry strummed harder and harder to keep the home fires burning.
It is a wonder how Hari got through the next twenty years of his life. The dreadlocks were long gone. His sons had grown up and were now holding down small, low-paying jobs. Neither of them were musicians, probably not wanting to go the way their father did, though they never told him that to his face. When he was sober, he picked up some occasional money teaching children of friends and former students. Performances were rare and far in between.
The brown Fender was probably the only thing of value that he possessed.
When an old friend called him up to say that there was an opening for a guitarist at a hotel in a nearby town, Hari didn’t really want to take it up. The job involved staying there (room provided) and Hari really didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to leave his home town, where at least he had a few friends with whom he could indulge in a jamming session once in a while. But they promised a steady salary, which he really needed at the moment. He thought he would give it a try, at least for a month.
Suitcase in hand, the Fender slung over his shoulder, Hari got down from the bus in the town where he was to work. It was around five in the evening. Hari walked down the road, intending to report to the hotel and begin work whenever they wanted him to. He was slightly tipsy from the three fast ones he had consumed before getting on the bus.
The Elephant was tethered to a tree in a compound on the side of the road, its ears irritably swatting at the flies buzzing around its oozing temples. It was in an advanced stage of musth. Its trunk worried at the palm fronds placed in front of it, but it was not interested in eating. It was angry at everything, at the flies, the heat and all the passing vehicles and little men disturbing the hot, hazy area around it.
Hari paused when he saw the Elephant. It looked so lonely and bored. He suddenly felt like buying it something good to eat.
He bought a bunch of bananas from a shop further down the road and came back to the Elephant. He walked towards it and bent down, intending to place the bananas amongst the palm fronds.
Just as he was about to straighten up, he felt a powerful jerk pull him up in the air before he came crashing down between the Elephant’s feet. Looking up, he saw his Fender in the Elephant’s raised trunk. The straps had broken off and that was why Hari himself was not up there.
The Elephant’s bleary eyes stared straight into Hari’s eyes as the trunk swung even higher. It trumpeted loudly, shouting its challenge at the puny creature cowering under it, which had become the object of all its ire. Hari could hear a voice shouting to the Elephant to stop. The mahout, probably. The Elephant paused for a moment and then raised the guitar again, readying to smash it in a vicious arc onto Hari’s head.
An overpowering rage consumed Hari’s entire being. Suddenly it seemed to him that the Elephant stood for all the things that had been taken away from him, all the good times that were now almost forgotten. The Elephant was the crowd that had disappeared, the faithless student, the unappreciative audience. The Elephant was William Sahib who ridiculed his pursuit of English and condemned him to a lifetime of never understanding the words of the songs he gave music to, it was the College Boy who left him in the lurch in search of greener pastures and flagged off his downfall. The Elephant was his enemy, the sum total of everything that had gone against him and made him what he was that day.
He shouted at the Elephant at the top of his voice, all the anger in him coming out in wave upon wave of unrelenting fury. He told the Elephant that if he did not get back his guitar that very instant, he wouldn't be responsible for the dire consequences that would follow. He cursed the Elephant to hell and back, showered scorn on his forefathers and its past lives. He harangued the Elephant in invective never heard before by the gathering onlookers, who were hanging on to his every word in morbid fascination.
The Elephant’s trunk remained raised, but the crowd could see that it was wavering in its murderous resolve. As they watched in wonder, the Elephant slowly brought down the Fender and hesitantly placed it in Hari’s outstretched hands. And moved back as Hari inspected his guitar, found it undamaged and backed off himself.
Hari now plays the lead for a young, outgoing band which performs at the best shows and regularly appears on the hep channels. He is billed as the Never-Ageing Rocker, India’s answer to Clapton and whatnot.
And Hippy Harry’s grey locks are now at shoulder length.