“Ten Thirty sharp,” the voice from the mobile phone had cautioned. “Not a minute late”.
I arrived at nine thirty at the gate of the Lion’s Den, then drove around the block and under the fly-over trying to find a parking space in the shade on the roadside. Eventually I found a place two kilometres away, ahead of a long line of SUVs and limousines.
When I got out, a five-feet-and-pot-bellied (as usual) policeman showed up, waving his two-foot stick called lathi.
“Chalo, chalo,” he said, waving me to get back into the car and drive away. I palmed him a twenty-rupee note.
“Chalo,” he insisted, looking at the money with feigned disdain.
I pulled out a fifty-rupee note, without handing it to him. He grabbed and pocketed it in a flash.
“Only ten minutes,” he said.
“I have an interview in the Lion’s Den”.
“Then it’s all right”. He picked up a handful of mud and put it atop the bonnet. “That’s a sign. Now nobody would bother you”.
It was nine-fifty. I decided to walk the two kilometres back, cursing myself for not knowing that putting a handful of mud on the bonnet would have saved me the money for a litre – well, at least half a litre – of petrol. As it is, I was ruined; if I could still save the car, that half a litre would be worth its weight in gold.
I walked slowly, marking time, and arrived at the door of the Den at 10:28. There were benches on either side of the verandah, all occupied. Except a few inches of bare wood at the far end of a bench.
I rushed to the door. A short man in Dadoji Konddeo makeup, not forgetting the sword in its scabbard slung by his hip, stopped me.
“The queue, “ he said, pointing towards the far end.
“I have a meeting with Lion Sahib,” I said : “10-30 sharp.”
“I know you, Mr. Ashok Ghatiya, the producer,” he said, with the faint shade of a smile. “You see that gentleman at the head of the bench? He has a meeting at 9:30 sharp. “
The fifty-ish handsome man with premature wrinkles who sat at the head of the queue looked up and smiled.
”Indian standard time,” he said.
“Is your Pakistan standard time any better?” asked the guard in Konddeo makeup. His mustache bristled with patriotism.
“It is worse. No need to get angry,” said Mr. fiftyish handsome with thinning hair and Caucasian face in light brown skin.
“My, my, the famous Mr. Irfan Khan of the Justice-for-my-kin-no-justice-for-Musharraff Party,” I exclaimed, stretching my hand for a handshake.
“Do I know you?,” asked Mr. Irfan Khan, ignoring the extended hand.
“Of course, of course. You are not supposed to know Indian filmwalas, are you? Not when cameras are around. But, tell me, what brought a famous man with great potential at the Lion’s Den?”
“The great potential,” said Irfan Khan. “To win, I need the Hindu votes in Pakistan. Only the Lion Meherban can help me”.
“How can Lion Sahib help you with the Hindu votes in Pakistan? I have heard that they shoot the Hindus when they come out of the polling booth after voting.”
“False propaganda by Americans and Indians to defame my beloved Country managed for the time being by non-beloved people. It never happens that way. Of course, people of the losing party blame Hindus for their loss and rape their women. They never find the men after elections. Shooting, by the way, is reserved for Shia Muslims when they come out after Friday prayers.”
“Good for Hindus”, I said. “But how can Lion ji of India help the Hindus of Pakistan? He is only the Emperor of Indian Hindu souls.”
“Simple. If the Lion picks up the phone, long-distance the Hyena in Dubai and asks for protection for Hindus in Pakistan – true, Hindus have no souls, only us Muslims, Christians and those Zionists have, that’s what the Book has said – but some of the Hindus have votes; and if they come to realize that their safety is assured through my good offices, they become my vote bank.” Like a true cricketer, he said it all in one breath.
“But aren’t the Lion and the Hyena enemies? How can…….”
“You know nothing about politics, Ashok Ghatiya,” he said.
“So you know my name, why, you might even win a Who-wants-to-be-a-crorepati show with your general knowledge.” I said, walking back, determined not to antagonize even a Pakistani political upstart.
I spied Afsose Swami, the man who lost 100 kilograms from his bottom and 16 kilograms from his torso and now looked merely obese. Actually, even before I spied him, he stood up to greet me.
“Lift kara de , yaar , Give me a lift,” he said, taking a beleaguered breath and extending a hand.
“I am here for a lift myself,” I said, taking his hand. It wouldn’t do to offend Swami, never mind the depleting lard and a surname that sounded like a Southie Iyer’s patented first name. A film might even run on the strength of a song from a Pakistani. That nomad woman – what was her name? – had proved it. Then there was another man with throaty voice who proved it even more.
“I know, I know, “ said Swami, who neither looked nor was a South Indian Pattar. “Your new film has bombed – was bombed, literally. I am sorry. I hope the Lion gives you a lift.”
“Then I might give you a lift,” I assured him.
As I sat on the last four-inch space of the waiting bench, a sweet and smooth fragrance engulfed me, a soft feeling of flesh tickled my butt-side. The plump, pale and beautiful woman sitting next to me was Qiraya Tariq, the Pakistani actress, I instantly recognized, never mind she wore a nine-yard sari and a matching blouse that showed off her flat midriff like a fourteen-inch television screen.
Midriff made an Indian actress sexy or otherwise, not to forget the cleavage. Flowing saris and bare-backed cholis gave the midriffs the job of titillating the front- benchers whose passionate howls marked the success of a movie. As a producer, the very best among them, I could tell an actress just by looking at her midriff.
“Mr. Ghatiya, the producer!” she exclaimed, surprise and pleasure oozing from all the pores of her body that I could see. “You produce great movies!” she said.
That exclamation did not seem to arouse interest in anybody in the sitting line ahead. Successful men do not show interest in Hindi movies; they only see them in private. They go to theatres to see English movies, which they don’t understand, but wait for the next man to laugh so they could laugh too. These were men of great importance in the trades that they plied, not youngsters who swooned over those who swept the studio floors.
I had heard that as a rule lone women were not allowed to sit in the line outside the Den, and most women who came in were led to the kitchen by Mr. made-up Konddeo.
“Bharatiya Naris should behave and be treated like queens,” was a well-known quote from the Lion. “They rule over men’s hearts when they toil in the kitchen”.
“How did that made-up soldier from the graveyard allow you to sit here?”, I queried of Ms Tariq.
“I’m not alone. I’ve come with Afsose , you know,” she said , nudging Swami with an elbow. Swami, the Pakistani with a name that sounded like a Southie’s, was said to have lost 116 kilos by running from a crowd that pelted stones when he sang a remix of Chholi-ke-pichhe-kya-hai in English, “What is behind the blouse”.
“Why are you wearing a nine-yarder? Aren’t you supposed to be in bikini?” I asked Qiraya.
“Only in films. You see, when the trailers of my movies are released, with me in the role of a housewife in bikini, some jobless lawyer or another is sure to file a suit to ban the film. He would say that it is an insult to Bharatiya Naris who don’t even own a bikini. We put out the film promos a year ahead of the shooting to make sure that the jobless lawyer or another busybody gets to work and files the suit to ban the film right away. By the time the judge decides to see the movie, we are ready. He watches it, drools, and permits the release. The caseless lawyer or the jobless busybody is happy seeing his name in print and mug on the TV for a whole year, and we are happy with the free publicity. Producer collects his cost in three days and a lot of profit till the next Thursday.”
Being a producer, albeit a failed one, I realized the importance of Friday – the crucial day when a movie was released. By next Thursday, whether successful or otherwise, it was buried. Even pirates buried their remaining DVDS of the new movie in the darkness of next Thursday before paying for a ticket to walk in to a multiplex with his mobile phone to shoot a video of the new movie straight off the screen.
I mulled over it. That must be how Bhim Chopstick, that fat financer sitting fourth in line, made all his money. Perhaps he has a couple of busybody lawyers on his payroll to sue for the banning of his films.
“Don’t tell anyone I told you this,” cautioned Qiraya. “Chopstick won’t chodo me for revealing the trade secret”.
Chodo had many meanings, depending on how one pronounced the do part. I let that pass.
“Tell me, don’t you get into trouble with your Pakistani countrymen for your bikini shows?”
“Never. In Pakistan, only women who complain of rape get stoned to death. She can’t get four male witnesses for the rape; the rapist won’t confess. So who is the only known person guilty of fornication? The woman. She gets stoned, and the spirit of Shariah is fulfilled. I wouldn’t cry rape even if you raped me,” she chuckled. Swami glowered. I feared an erection was on its way.
Irfan Khan came out, smiling from ear to ear. He stopped and whispered to me:
“The Lion made the Hyena speak to me directly. You are now speaking to the future Prime Minister of Pakistan – with Hindu votes! One day, you’ll see, I will be Azam-e-Paki-e-Hind!”. He nodded to Qiraya and rushed out.
The guard with the graveyard makeup and sword walked up to me gingerly. “Come with me. Quietly. You got priority.”
“I am not a chief minister or something,” I cautioned.
“The Lion once made a woman chief minister cook his lunch in the kitchen. But you’re coming with me straight to the Den. Lucky you. Let the business Murgas who are waiting keep waiting.”
I was afraid his hoarse whisper was audible among the waiting population of tycoons on the bench, including the two foreigners in business suits and a third one with shaven head half-smeared red and Hare-Krishna dhoti who had just walked in.
As he led me to the door, there were murmurs of protest. Made-up man gave them a collective cold stare, and the murmur subsided. Bhim Chopstick, the film financer, looked like he was filling up like a balloon. Suddenly he raised one buttock and broke wind. Qiraya Tariq giggled like a little girl while the business tycoons held their breath and their dignity.
If I ever get a chance to produce another spiritual movie, I would give her the role of – who? – may be Draupadi, the innocent and chaste woman with five husbands. Nice name too, I tarried at the door, musing, “Chaste Woman With Five Husbands”. Incredibly mystic and in English. That name could easily beat Seven Murders, Excuse foolishly titled in Hindi, and flopped. Indian movies have to have English titles. “Chaste woman…..”, the name would be, CWWFH for short, if I get to make another movie, so help me Lion’s Den.
Made-up Konddeo opened the door quietly into a dimly lit but heavily festooned hall, and I walked on the plush carpet towards the frail skeletal shape reclining on an easy chair. But for his newly grown white beard and scant hair with patches of remaining black dye, you could see little of a face. The newspaper he owned, In-Your-Face, and wrote or dictated every column, described his eyes as fierce, fiery and penetrating. I barely saw anything beyond the sockets.
“Come, come,” he croaked, “You are privileged to shake my hand”.
His right hand held the hand of a young teenager with thin limbs devoid of muscles.
The Lion stretched his left paw to me.
I took the bony fingers, cold and lifeless.
“I don’t get up to shake hands with anybody. My enemies – what do you say in Punjabi? Mother fuckers – say that it’s because if I get up, I will break in two. Hah, hah,hah. Do Lions break in two?”
The laughter sounded hollow, but I tittered for his sake.
“Moreover, people – even Michael Jackson – what a polite boy – didn’t expect to shake hands with me. He touched my feet. These Americans have great culture. But I don’t like Indian women wearing skirts and – what do you call it? – jeans”.
I bent down to touch his feet. What Michael Jackson could do, Ashok Ghatiya could do better.
“Sit down,” he said, pointing to a stool in front of him. “You are lucky. That’s the stool where Michael sat, not to mention Show-Stop-Khan who keeps coming and apologizing, for God Knows what.”
“Grandpa, every visitor sits on that stool,” intercepted the non-muscular wonder.
“See, see, always argumentative. My grandson Sunny Lion. Just like me. I call him Toad-phod Lion cub. How many hospitals have you burnt, Toad-phod?”
Though a regular Punjabi producer of Hindi films who gave interviews only in un-punctuated English and titled my horror movies in regular English, I knew that toad-phod meant smash-and-break.
“And how many football courts have you dug up?”
“How many houses have you set on fire, and how many buses were broken?
“Grandpa, how can I count them all? “
“Just like me. Angry, argumentative , toad–phod-skilled. Next-in-line Lion of the Pride . Twenty years from now- after I die, if I die.”
“But what about his father – your son? Shouldn’t he be leading the pride?”
“Ah, let’s stop this talk about sons and nephews and daughters-in-law. Tell me your problem”.
I wasn’t ready yet to get down to my problem. More buttering up was needed. So I looked around and said: “I see that all the Shivlings have come back to their original places. Last time I came to pay respects with my wife and to offer our condolences, you had thrown out all of them.”
“Very observant, very observant like a producer-director – isn’t that what you are? – should be. Yes, When my wife fell sick, I had specifically told these lingam deities that she shouldn’t be allowed to die. She should be made to go through the new happenings in my household and bear with it. You know, that useless son of mine ran away and the useful daughter-in-law stayed back and all- – but the Lingam-deity didn’t pay heed. The wifie died. So I threw out every semblance of a lingam except my own. Now that these things don’t matter either way, I have let the god and his lingams come back and take their places. Now tell me your problem. “
“You see, Lionji, this new movie of mine that has cost me everything I had – even the carpets and the fridge in the house –“
“Cut out the sentiments. Why did you name it Ravan ki Kahani? Eh? Are you a kaloo Ravan worshipper?”
“and sundry, housewives, jobless youth, goons, your own Pride of lions, murderers, even Pakistanis. Pakistanis are in love with my pirated videos. Since by principle they are against buying originals, and the originals are heavily taxed or banned in PPure Son of Punjab. Gora without makeup. And a great devotee of the Lion, ji. You see, all movies in the industry with names that began with Ra and ended in won did roaring business in the box office. That name became a fetish in the trade. Rawan, Ra-one, Raw van, anything with Ra. Like K some years ago. My writer suggested that name. You know, Lionji, I am really into spiritual movies. FierceVetals, toothy Draculas, horse-riding Jins, long-nosed and nosey witches, skull-faced Satans and white-saried singing ghosts come alive on screen in my movies. Children can’t get sleep for days and their mothers teach them Hanuman-Chalisa which puts them to sleep. A million children learnt Forty Odes to Hanuman from their mothers solely because of my movies. Purely spiritual. Till this time, they were lapped up by all in Pakistan – because the Mullahs have said it is against their Shar..shar..whatever law , I make the pirated versions of my own movies for them, which sell like Shalijani Gosht. There used to be a lot of money in it. Till now.” I sighed.
“Nobody had objected to any of that. Even my little Toad-phod likes your movies. Particularly those ones with skull faces and sexy women in white saris singing sweet Lata Mangeshkar songs and roaming in the dark. He led the Toado-phodo of your Ravan ki Khani because…..” his voice was beginning to strain and shudder – “you put a beard on Bhagwan Ram! Such insult to Hinduism, such humiliation to the purest of divine souls ever known to man! Such insult to me, the Landlord of Hindu souls! To put a beard on his handsome face! Moreover, the hero himself – no, not Ramji, but the hero of your movie – came to me a week ago. He complained that with all that hair all over his face, nobody would even recognize him as the actor who played Ram. How would the public worship him and touch his feet and give him awards if they don’t even know that he was the Ram in the movie? Didn’t you know that the actor was one of my boys in his heart of hearts? A beard on Ram, imagine!”
I noticed that he was stroking his own thin beard while saying it. Which made sense.
“My writer coaxed me to put that beard on Ramji’s face“, I pleaded. Imitating the writer’s Bihari accented Hindi lisp, I continued: “He said, ‘Ram lived in the forest for fourteen years. He took Laxman and Sita with him, but not a barber. Wasn’t he a real man? Don’t real men have beards? Do you expect a proud Kshatriaya-class prince to stoop so low as to shave himself? Even assuming Sita could shave him, since a woman can stoop to any depth or rise to any height (depending on who was taller) to serve her husband, who is her God, she wasn’t with him part of those fourteen years. To imagine that Ram and Laxman shaved each other would be sacrilegious. Were the divine brothers hairless eunuchs? No. So Ram and Laxman had to have beards’. That’s how the Sister-rape convinced me.”
The old man scratched his head. Thought came to him hard though speech came easy.
“Do Puranas, our scriptures, speak of a Ram with beard?”. He addressed that question to someone in the shadow behind him.
“Don’t the epics describe the beards of Valmikiji, Vasishtji and Viswamitraji?” I countered, peeping into the shadow, though with some trepidation.
The Lion kept scratching his head. A female voice in the shadow spoke up.
“But they were sages. Sages wore beards.”
“Narada was a sage. Why don’t they show him with a beard? Sai Babas have no beard.”
“Our gods do not grow beard. Not Brahma, not Vishnu, not Shiv.”
“Ram was an avtar of God, in human form on our beard-growing earth and not hairless Vaikunth. like Parashuramji and, some say, Sri-Sri Ravi Shankarji. They have beards. Even you, Lionji, who is no less an avtar of god to us humble Hindus, wear a beard“.
“Don’t argue with her..er..me,” croaked the Lion, trying to put some power into his voice. “Rama had no beard. Period. You remove the beard, and your movie will get an audience of millions of my subjects. It’s not my concern how many million Pakistanis watch the pirated videos of your bearded Ram.”
“How can I remove the beard of Ram from every frame? Please, please help me.”
“Don’t argue with me. Only Toad-phod is allowed that privilege.” His voice was getting faint.
The young man beamed with pride, but said nothing.
“I am ruined. I thought you’d save this old devotee, who touches your feet once again, even the feet of your photos, but you abandon me. I have decided to forget the movie and become a coolie.”
“Join the Lion’s pride,” said young Toad-phod , addressing me for the first time. “Unemployed Hindus around here join the Pride. We don’t give them jobs, but we give them a danda each. We train them on toad-phod, whereby they get respect and money by way of donations to the lingam. If you’re good, you might even get a gun and live like the wealthy producer you used to be. Even some Muslims try to join us , but we don’t let them in. So they join the Hyena’s Cackle. The Hyena is very grateful to Grandpa for helping to swell the Cackle. He offered to send a trainer to teach us making bombs. Grandpa declined. Who needs bombs when we have the police?”
I felt the time had come for playing my trump.
“Lionji, I have decided. I have nothing left but a mere one million in my last bank account. What would a coolie do with ten lakhs? My wife has eloped with the writer who got me into this mess after wangling everything but this million from me. I leave this last cheque for a million rupees as donation for your party – sorry, Pride. Do what you will. I wish you a long life.”
The voice in the shade emerged in the form of a woman and grabbed the cheque and returned to the shade.
I was not sure whether it was my wishing him long life or the cheque that lit up a light-emitting diode that shone through the transparent skin of his scalp. He tried to sit up, pushing down hard on the arms of the chair, but gave up, probably for fear that he would break in two at the middle. Only his elbows creaked.
Perhaps the Lion sensed that the cheque would bounce if the movie didn’t run. He was not known for great thinking, but was clever in counting his money and coining slogans.
“I got it. You are right. There was no way Ram could have had a clean-shaven face through the fourteen – or was it thirteen- whatever – years of jungle sojourn. Look at me. I didn’t shave for a month and I have this beard. Ghatiya is right, Ram had a beard at least those fourteen or thirteen-whatever-years in the forest”.
“Who cares about Laxman, that South Indian who thinks he can bat better than my boys in cricket?”
“Not that Laxman, but Ram’s brother Laxman,” intoned the female voice that had disappeared into the shade with my dud bill.
“All right, let him also keep his beard. Right NOW.”
The emphasis worsened his cough. His chest reverberated like the beating of a tribal drum.
Toad-phod turned towards his grandfather. “Shall I tell the Pride to stop beating up the ushers in multiplexes and burning down smaller theatres? That windshields of public buses and private cars should be spared? That the Pride should announce to the Hindus that Ram had a beard, his brother Laxman had a beard and that the Ghatiya movie must be seen by all – or else – and all that?”
“Yes, yes,” the Lion coughed and coughed.”You know, Ghatiya – cough, cough – we never burn down multiplexes. They are owned by my poor rich admirers. Only beat up ushers because those bloody Biharis can’t pay up for Linga-puja. Muslim ushers are worse, they won’t pay up even if they can. It doesn’t matter what’s the provocation, we target the right people and right things. Biharis, UP Bhaayyas. Ever since that Kaloo Nayagan interfered, we decided to spare the Southies. Moreover, they have franchised my pride down South. We touch Muslims if we have a big enough mob and they don’t; otherwise we let them be. We don’t spare public buses, private cars, ambulances and hospitals. Burning Hospitals are great fun, my Toad-phod grandson tells me. You could watch langdas – people with fractured legs – those on drips, crying babies, dying oldies, – no, don’t look at me , I am not dying – trying to run, falling down, and running again.”
His thin shoulders shook as he chuckled in glee.
“Pregnant women deliver. Those who aren’t pregnant – well, my boys in the Police have a solution even for that.. Nobody should play with the Lion’s Pride and our sentiments. If they do, the usual ones will pay for it. I will let Ram-Laxman keep the beard.”
I touched the Lion’s withering paws with oozing gratitude, saluted the Toad-phod who surely had a future in India, and walked out.
Qiraya Tariq and Afsose Swami, hand in hand, were being marched in.
“Seeking blessings for a movie you are planning together?”
“No”, said the Iyer-sounding Pakistani cheerfully. “Seeking his blessing for our marriage together. Otherwise the pandal would be stoned and I would lose half of the remaining hundred kilos”.
“Good for you,” I whispered. “Last time I had come here, I had come with my wife to seek blessing for our marriage together. Yesterday she ran away with the Bihari writer.”
“Good for you, too, ” said Swami with a wink. ”Many a fish in the water”
I didn’t pause to see Qiraya’s reaction.