We young men from rich families have a unique rhythm to our lives. Perhaps young women do, too, but we had no idea what kind of family the only young woman to appear in this menacing story belonged to. It was possible that she didn’t even belong to this world. Maybe dangerous young women such as these are created in winter from a blend of fog, smoke and black magic. The very thought made beads of perspiration appear on our skins even in the icy weather, while Malli kaka’s continuous laughter could be heard outside the blanket and the mosquito net.
We turned over on our stomachs in fear, burying our noses in pillows with floral covers. Our only hope was the scent of naphthalene balls that had eventually shrunk into oblivion. Our stomachs used to turn after we had eaten our pastries, cakes, cream rolls and sweets — washing them down with warm milk — on summer evenings. We had slight paunches. Rich men’s sons, bellies like buns, our maids would say. There were other reasons for feeling queasy too. We would be dressed in jackets, sweaters, caps, woollen socks, gloves, thermal vests and so on before being given our warm milk. It was the same routine in every home before our game of badminton. Then we’d go out with our badminton racquets. Stamping our feet clumsily. As each of our feet fell on the pavement or the road, our fat cheeks quivered. The queasiness would persist. This was the state in which we would arrive at our friends’ houses where the barking of dogs reverberated.
Often, we’d run into one another even earlier. In front of a big gate. Each of our houses included a garden and a lawn. The gardeners in each of the homes prepared badminton courts for winter evenings. We’d play by turn in different houses. Sometimes close by. Sometimes further away. When further away, we’d be chauffeured in cars. And chauffeured back, too. The badminton courts would be dazzlingly lit. The feather would go back and forth across the net, holding light beams in its beak. Sometimes it would be snared in the net. At times it would even disappear in low-hanging branches or amidst the leaves in the light and shade. We would see the feathers of the tattered shuttlecock beneath the tree. You could see similar sights these days at shops selling chicken in the market. White feathers scattered everywhere. As a matter of fact, this was nothing new.
Familiar images were being attached to unfamiliar scenes to befuddle us. They couldn’t be named. We were flustered. This was normal before the stomach started turning. But what if it was! Anyway, cars did not emit much smoke in Calcutta then. Most of the smoke came from ovens. Although our homes had piped gas or electric cooking ranges.
It was on such a smoggy winter evening that we had gone to Sumitesh’s house for our game of badminton. Just as we had started playing, someone laughed like a barking jackal from the first floor balcony. Raju and Sumitesh were on one side of the net, Mohan and I on the other. The sound injected fear into our game, distracting us. We forgot to change courts when serving. We perspired more than we did on other evenings. We had not realised then that this was because of the weather. An unseasonal, mild, winter evening drizzle began. We rushed into the ground floor drawing room of Sumitesh’s house with our racquets, shuttlecocks and the cylindrical box for the shuttlecocks. The rain drenched the net and the lights. There were a few gusts of wind too. We sat on large rexine-covered chairs in the room. Slices of plum cake and warm Ovaltine were brought for us. We chatted as we ate and drank.
Who was that laughing that way from the first floor, Sumitesh?
Who was it, please tell us.
Oh that’s Malli kaka. He’s mad. He laughs this way now and then.
I thought he was laughing at us playing.
He laughs even when we don’t play.
Maybe he thinks of a funny story or a Laurel-Hardy movie or something.
I have no idea. But you know what — it was a girl for whom Malli kaka went mad.
How do you know?
You can get to know the same way that I did. It’s all in a movie. Without sound, though. Want to watch?
Of course. But what if someone comes?
Let them. I watch it quite often. But let me tell you something before we start. Before Malli kaka fell in love with this girl, he used to spend all his time with birds.
All kinds. There were entire rooms for birds on the roof, covered with nets. Pigeon coops too. Besides cages in all the balconies. Cockatoos, macaws, lovebirds, Nepalese parrots, budgerigars — lots and lots of birds. The girl had told Malli kaka that she would marry him only if he set all the birds free. He had just four budgerigars left. Three yellow and one blue. But you won’t be able to tell from the film. They’re all black and white. And I’ve lip-read them so many times I can provide the dialogue. You can easily put the whole story together.
In one corner of the room was a projector covered by a cloth. Two reels were loaded on it, one with film and one without. A square patch of light fell on a white wall decorated with the horns of a deer. This was the screen. Smotes of dust and insects were visible in the beam from the project. A few clicks were heard at the beginning. Then the numbers 1, 2 and 3 appeared on the screen. Although the image shook a little initially, soon we could see:
A cage with squabbling budgerigars.
Sumitesh made a sound like quarrelling birds. Then a bowl with grains for food and another with water are seen on the floor of the cage. The camera retreats, revealing a man in shorts and a tight vest pacing up and down, shaking his head repeatedly. Sumitesh: That’s Malli kaka. Can’t wait for the girl to come. Just the four birds left in the cage. The rest have all been freed.
Malli kaka is quite close now. He’s lighting a flat Turkish cigarette with his lighter. Letting out smoke, he puts the lighter back in his pocket. The cage. Two birds kissing. Two birds squabbling.
Sumitesh made both sounds.
The young woman is seen at the head of the stairs to the roof. She’s dressed in pedal-pushers, a shirt with large buttons and puffed sleeves, and sunglasses. Saira Banu, Asha Parekh and other heroines used to be dressed similarly once. Especially in the first half of the film. All the dialogue that followed was spoken by Sumitesh.
Malli! Malll… leee…!
No, my dear. Mallinath Sanyal.
Malli kaka looks like Dev Anand or a miniature Gregory Peck.
The girl’s face. Her lips move. Sumitesh’s dialogue came a little later. No synchronisation, but acceptable. Haven’t you freed these birds yet? I’d expected them to be flying towards the jungle by now. Look, these aren’t jungle birds. Maybe they’d been once. But these have been bred in cages for generations.
Oh Malli! That same old argument. Nothing new. Let them go Malli. Release them, please. I cannot bear to see them in captivity. I don’t want to. I’ve told you a hundred times.
What harm will it do to keep the last four budgerigars? Three yellow and one blue.
So you don’t want me?
I do. Of course, I want you but I want these last four birds too.
That’s impossible. Either the birds or me. You have to choose one, Malli.
The sun is seen setting immediately after this. Shadows gather over the large trees around Sumitesh’s house. Malli’s face. Silhouetted against the setting sun.
I’ve chosen, I’ve made my choice in that case.
Whom have you chosen, Malli? The birds or me?
Malli opens the door to the cage. The girl’s face is seen Brimming with her smile The cage again Sumitesh waved his arms and made fluttering noises to create the atmosphere.
The birds are afraid to leave the cage Mallinath brings them out one by one and releases them.
The girl claps and dances The Turkish cigarette hangs from Mallinath’s lips, broken All four birds beat their wings but because they have no experience in flying, they tumble downwards in a heap, their wings locked, their feathers flying.
The empty cage. Mallinath’s face He’s saying something, but Sumitesh was silent. Therefore the dialogue remained unsaid to us too.
As soon as the birds fall into the grass and bushes below, some other birds or grotesque bird-like creatures emerge suddenly, as though they have been waiting in the twilight for the budgerigars. Some of them are furry. Without feathers. A few resemble flying lizards. Others have teeth like hacksaws between their parted lips. They tear into the four budgerigars, eat their flesh, drink their blood, mangle their bodies.
The empty cage, again. Mallinath’s face beside it. His eyes popping out. The young woman walking off towards the staircase. Mallinath’s eyes, again.
Sumitesh said: This is the time, this is when Malli kaka went mad The film ends here too.
But what were those things that attacked the four birds and ate them? Were they birds too?
Birds, but not quite birds. All pre-historic birds. Birds like those don’t exist anymore.
Can’t we find out their names?
Of course we can. Archaeopteryx, aptornis, paleocarsonis, hesperornis, sinosauropteryx prima, pterodactyl.
We hadn’t heard of any of them besides the pterodactyl.
Once again, cake and milk with cocoa were brought for us. We ate and drank. All of us were feeling a little queasy.
Later, when we grew up, all of us became even fatter. But not milk, now we drank alcohol. Still our stomachs kept turning.
Sumitesh had the film digitally restored afterwards, creating a soundtrack with surround sound in stereo. It was originally available as a video cassette, and later as a compact disc.
The film was shown quite often. By turn on different channels On STAR Movies, on TCM, on HBO, on MGM, etc. We were reminded of Malli kaka’s laughter whenever we watched the movie. We even felt a stab of fear.
But we never let anyone know.