From The Magic Moonlight Flower: by Satyajit Ray

~ 1 ~

Nashu the village doctor sat feeling Balaram’s pulse for nearly five minutes. Balaram’s seventeen-year-old son Kanai stood near the patient’s head, staring fixedly at the doctor. His father had been ill for ten days now. Balaram had no appetite and ten days of starvation had withered him. His eyes were sunken, and his skin was pale. Kanai had tramped six miles to Nashu’s house, begging him to examine his father. He did not know what this disease was called. Did the doctor know? The frown on Nashu’s face made Kanai doubtful if he did. But the long and short of it was that if Kanai’s father did not survive, his world would collapse. He had no one else to call his own. Father and son lived in Nandigram, the sum of their possessions being an acre and a quarter of land and a pair of oxen. Whatever they managed to grow on their land sufficed for two frugal meals a day for the two of them. Kanai’s mother had died of smallpox about five years ago, and now his father had developed this strange illness.

‘Moonlight,’ said the doctor, shaking his head. Nashu’s fame had spread far and wide. Apparently his ability to read pulses was extraordinary. If he said that a patient was beyond cure, not even the gods could save him; and if he prescribed a medicine, the patient was bound to recover. But what on earth was chandni, or moonlight? ‘Excuse me?’ Kanai asked, frowning.

‘He has to be given the juice of moonlight leaves,’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing else will cure him. The classic name of this plant is Lunani. And the disease is called miseria.’

‘So moonlight is the name of a plant?’ Kanai asked, gulping.

Nashu nodded twice. But his frown did not disappear.

‘The moonlight plant is not to be found any and everywhere, my boy,’ he said at last.

‘Where, then?’

‘You’ll have to go to the forest of Badra. There’s an ancient abandoned temple there. Twenty-five feet to its north is a moonlight plant. But it’s almost ten miles away, can you go all that way?’

‘Of course I can,’ declared Kanai. ‘I don’t mind walking.’

Another question occurred to Kanai.

‘But how will I identify the plant, doctor?’

‘It has small, pointed, purple leaves, yellow flowers and a bewitching fragrance. You can smell it twenty feet away. Its scent can beat the amaranth of paradise hands down. The plant isn’t more than three or four feet tall. Grate a single leaf and give your father its juice—that’s all you need. The illness will flee his body with cries for help, and he will be as good as new in just two days. But you have only ten days. If you cannot give him the medicine in ten days…’

The doctor didn’t finish what he was saying.

‘I’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning,’ said Kanai. ‘I’ll ask Ganesh-khuro to look after my father while I’m away. I don’t suppose we can force some food down his throat, can we?’

The doctor shook his head. ‘It’s no use trying. That’s the symptom of this illness. Can’t digest any food, and the patient just withers away. But the juice of the moonlight leaf is a surefire cure. And, er, we’ll discuss the rest after he recovers…’

Requesting his neighbour Ganesh Samanta to keep an eye on his father, Kanai left very early next morning for the jungle of Badra, packing some flattened rice and gur in his bundle. It would be evening by the time he reached, but Kanai didn’t care. He worshipped his father like a god, and his father loved him more than himself. How could a perfectly healthy man like his father have become so ill all of a sudden? He had shrunk to half his size in no time at all.

Since Kanai didn’t know the way, he had to keep stopping to ask for directions. Whoever he asked inevitably said on hearing the name of his destination, ‘What business do you have there?’ Kanai realized that the forest was obviously not a very safe place, but so what? He was willing to lay down his life to get the moonlight leaf for his father.

When the sun had started throwing long shadows, Kanai saw a dense forest beyond a paddy field. A farmer was returning home with a plough over his shoulder. He confirmed to Kanai that this was indeed the forest of Badra. Kanai walked faster.

There was barely any sunlight inside the dense forest of sal, teak, silk-cotton and many other trees. Locating a plant barely four or five feet tall in this enormous forest was no child’s play. But there was supposed to be a temple near where the plant grew, which would help him.

When he was twenty-five yards inside the forest, Kanai spotted a herd of deer. They fled as soon as they saw him. Deer were all very harmless, but what if he came face to face with a formidable beast of some kind? Anyway, there was no point worrying about these things. His first objective was to find the temple, and then to locate the moonlight plant.

But Kanai got the fragrance even before spotting the temple. Not particularly strong; quite mild, but so satisfying.

After passing a mohua tree, Kanai saw the dilapidated temple. It was almost evening, but because the trees around the temple were a little sparse, a few scattered beams of late afternoon sunlight were visible.

‘And who do you think you are?’

Kanai leapt into the air, startled. It hadn’t even occurred to him that someone else might be living here. Turning towards the sound, he found a man with a three-foot-long beard in front of a shelter of leaves, frowning at him.

‘You won’t get what you want here,’ the old man said, advancing towards him. Could he read minds?

‘Do you know what I’m looking for?’ asked Kanai.

‘Just a minute, let me try to recollect. I knew what it was when I set eyes on you, but now it’s slipped my mind. At a hundred and fifty-six years of age the memory doesn’t work as well as it did in my youth.’

Lowering his head and scratching his right cheek, the old man suddenly straightened his head again. ‘I remember! Moonlight. Your father is ill, and you’re here to collect moonlight leaves for him. It was there on the northern side of that temple till this afternoon, but it isn’t there anymore. Go take a look—someone’s taken it away complete with its roots.’

Kanai’s heart leapt into his mouth. Would all his efforts go waste? He advanced towards the temple. The north. Which side was north? There. There was the hole. That was where the tree had been. Someone had uprooted it entirely and taken it away. But who?
Kanai had tears in his eyes. He went back to the old man.

‘Who’s taken the plant? Who?’

‘The minister and soldiers of Rupsha have taken the plant away. Rupsha’s citizens are all ill with miseria. People die in twenty days of starvation after their limbs waste away. The juice of the moonlight leaf is the only possible cure.’

Kanai didn’t feel like talking anymore. The world seemed to have turned black. But then the old man said something strange.

‘The moonlight may not be here, but what I see is that your father will recover.’
Kanai was startled.

‘Really? Is that really what you foresee? But how will he recover without the medicine? Do you know where else this plant can be found?’

The old man shook his head. ‘It can’t be found anywhere else. This was the only place, but now it’s gone to the kingdom of Rupsha.’

‘How far is it to Rupsha?’

‘Let me think it over.’

The old man had probably forgotten again, which was why he lowered his head and began to scratch his bald pate in an attempt to recollect.

‘Yes, I remember now. Sixty miles away. An enormous kingdom.’

Now Kanai remembered too. ‘Rupsha — isn’t it famous for its handspun fabric?’

‘That’s right. The clothes they weave at Rupsha—saris and dhotis and shawls—are sent all over the land. Such gorgeous clothes are not woven anywhere else.’

‘How do you know all this? Who are you?’

‘I know the past, the present and the future. I do have a name, but I can’t recollect it right now. By the way, you have to go to Rupsha. You must search for the moonlight plant.’

‘But the doctor said if I cannot give my father the medicine within ten days he will die. I’ve already lost a day.’

‘So what? Do what you have to quickly.’

‘How can I? It’s sixty miles away. I have to get there, look for the plant, come back…’

‘Wait, I remember now.’

The old man went into his hut and came back with a sack. From it he pulled out three round objects—one red, one blue, one yellow.

‘Here,’ said the old man, holding up the red one. ‘This is a fruit. When you eat this you will be able to run thrice as fast as a deer. You can run a mile in a minute and a half. Which means you will reach Rupsha in an hour and a half. All three of these are fruits, and I’m giving you all three.’

‘But what do the blue and yellow fruits do?’

‘Now you’ve got me in trouble again,’ said the old man, once again lowering his head to ponder. Then, shaking his head, he said, ‘Uh-huh, I can’t remember. But they do something all right, something that can only help you. If I remember I’ll let you know.’

‘How will you let me know? I’ll be gone.’

‘There are ways.’

Reaching into the sack again, the old man pulled out a seashell almost as large as his palm. To tell the truth, Kanai had never seen a seashell as large as this one. Giving it to Kanai, the old man said, ‘Keep this with yourself. I’ll call your name if I have something to tell you. Your name is Kanai, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ll hear my voice in this seashell. You’ll hear me even if the shell is tucked in your waistband. And then if you press it to your ear, you’ll hear me clearly. When I’m done saying what I have to, you’ll hear the roar of the ocean in it. Tuck it back then.’
Kanai placed the seashell in his waistband right away. Looking around, the old man said, ‘It’s dark already. There’s not much you can do at Rupsha now. I suggest you spend the night in my hut and leave early next morning. You’ll have the entire day to do whatever you have to. I have some fruits, you can have them for dinner.’

Kanai agreed. He wanted to eat the red fruit and set off at once; he wanted to test the old man’s claim. But he controlled himself. It would be best to go in the morning.

‘By the way,’ the old man said, ‘I remember now. Everyone calls me Jagai-baba. So can you.’

Patol-Babu, Film Star: Satyajit Ray

[The story on which Dibakar Banerjee’s track, ‘Star’ in ‘Bombay Talkies’ is based]

Patol-babu had barely slung the shopping bag over his shoulder when Nishikanta-babu called from the street, ‘Are you there, Patol?’

‘Yes. Coming.’

Nishikanta Ghosh lived three houses down from Patol-babu on Nepal Bhattacharjee lane. A most entertaining man.

Emerging with his shopping bag, Patol-babu said, ‘What is it? You’re up early.’

‘Look, when will you be back?’

‘In an hour or so. Why?’

‘You’re not going out again, are you? It’s Tagore’s birthday, after all. I met my wife’s younger brother at Netaji Pharmacy yesterday. He works for the films – supplies actors. He told me he needs someone for a scene in a film. The sort of person he wants, you know – about fifty, short, bald – I thought of you at once. So I told him about you. I’ve asked him to talk to you directly. He said he’d be here around ten. You don’t mind, do you? They HAVE said they’ll pay, according to their rates…’

Patol-babu had certainly not expected such a proposal early in the morning. It was difficult for an insignificant man like him to anticipate an offer to act in a film at fifty-two. It was actually unbelievable.

‘Well, out with it. Yes or no? Didn’t you act or something once upon a time?’

‘Yes, that is to say, why should I say “no”? Let him come, let him give me the details. What did you say your brother-in-law’s name is?’

‘Naresh. Naresh Dutta. About thirty, tall, well-built. He said he’d come between ten and ten-thirty.’

At the market Patol-babu confused his wife’s instructions and bought chillies instead of mustard. As for the rock salt, he forgot entirely. Not that he should have been so surprised. Patol-babu had once been keenly interested in acting. It wasn’t merely an interest, it was in fact a passion. He routinely acted at jatra performances, amateur theatre shows, festivals, and local club celebrations. Patol-babu’s name had appeared on handbills many times. On one occasion it actually appeared at the bottom, singled out and highlighted in large letters – Appearing as Parashar, Shri Sitalakanta Roy (Patol-babu). There had even been a time when tickets were sold on his reputation alone.

However, he used to live in Kanchrapara at that time, with a job at the railway factory there. In 1934, Patol-babu moved to Calcutta with his wife when he got a slightly better-paying job at Hudson & Kimberley and a house on Nepal Bhattacharjee Lane. The first few years here had passed happily. Patol-babu’s boss at the office was quite fond of him. But, in 1943, when Patol-babu was on the verge of setting up a neigbourhood dramatic club, his war-hit company began to retrench employees, and his safe job of nine years vanished into thin air.

Since then, Patol-babu had spent all his days looking for ways to earn a living. He set up a stationery shop, but it didn’t survive beyond five years. Then he took a job as a clerk at a Bengali company for some time, but resigned, unable to tolerate the arrogance and unprovoked aggression of the Bengali Englishman Mr Mitter. In the ten years since then, starting with selling insurance, there was nothing that Patol-babu had not tried his hand at. But he had remained as hard-up as ever, living from hand to mouth as always. Of late he had been frequenting a scrap iron shop; a cousin of his had promised him a job there.

And acting? It seemed to belong to a different lifetime. A dim memory, a sigh that sprang up unexpectedly – that was all. It was just that Patol-babu had a fine memory, which enabled him to remember snatches of stirring dialogue from his roles. ‘Hark! The divine bow doth spring to life repeatedly, the allies march to battle. As the myriad roaring wind, the mace doth thunder mountain-like!’ Oh! The very thought still gave him goosepimples.

Naresh Dutta arrived precisely at twelve-thirty. Patol-babu had almost given up hope and was preparing to take a bath when there was a knock on the door.

‘Please come in!’ Opening the door, Patol-babu practically dragged the stranger into the room, offering him the chair with the broken arms and saying, ‘Please take a seat.’

‘Oh no, no time. Nishikanta-babu must have told you about me…’

‘Yes, yes he did. I was very surprised, though. After all these years…’

‘You don’t have any objection, do you?’

Patol-babu lowered his eyes to the floor in embarrassment.

‘But … er… will I do?’

Looking Patol-babu up and down gravely, Naresh-babu responded, ‘You’ll do very well indeed. It’s tomorrow, mind you.’

‘Tomorrow? Sunday?’

‘Yes… not at a studio, though. I’ll tell you where it is. You know Faraday House at the crossing of Mission Row and Bentinck Street, don’t you? A seven-storied building. Get there by eight – eight-thirty, latest. That’s where we’re shooting. I’ll let you go by noon.’

Naresh-babu made to leave. An anxious Patol-babu said, ‘But you haven’t told me about the role.’

‘Your role… is of a pedestrian’s. A passer-by, you see. An absent-minded, bad-tempered pedestrian… by the way, do you have a coat that buttons up all the way to the neck?’

‘I think so.’

‘Wear it. It’s a dark colour, I hope.’

‘Brownish. Warm, though.’

‘That’s fine. Our scene’s set in winter, it will fit in well… eight-thirty tomorrow, Faraday House.’

Another crucial question popped into Patol-babu’s head.

‘The role has some dialogue, I hope. I’ll have to say something, won’t I?’

‘You bet! A speaking part!… You’ve acted earlier, haven’t you?’

‘Um… yes, a little…’

‘There you are then! Why should I come to you if I just needed someone to walk past the camera? I could have just picked someone from the pavement. Of course there is dialogue and it’ll be given to you as soon as you arrive tomorrow. All right then…’

When Naresh Dutta had left, Patol-babu went to his wife and told her everything.

‘As far as I can see, this isn’t a major role; there’s a payment involved, yes, but that’s not the main thing either. The fact is – you remember my first role on the stage, don’t you? A dead soldier. I had to lie there with my mouth open and eyes closed. And the rest, as they say, is history. You remember Mr Watts shaking my hand? And the medal from our municipality chairman Charu Biswas? Well? This is just the first rung of the ladder, don’t you think? Respect, fame, renown, reputation – If I live, o my wife, I shall win them all…’

The fifty-two-year-old Patol-babu suddenly sprang in the air. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said his wife.

‘Don’t worry! You remember how Sisir Bhaduri used to leap about while playing Chanakya at seventy? I’ve regained my youth today.’

‘If wishes were horses! No wonder you’re such a zero!’

‘I’ll be a hero soon! That reminds me – I’m going to have a cup of tea this afternoon, all right? With a little ginger juice, otherwise my voice…’

~

It was seven minutes past eight on the clock on the Metropolitan Building when Patol-babu reached Esplanade the next morning. It took him another ten minutes to reach Faraday House at the junction of Bentinck Street and Mission Row.

Elaborate arrangements were underway in front of the office gate. Three or four cars, one of them quite large – almost the size of a bus – with equipment piled on the roof. A three-legged black machine stood on the kerb; several people were bustling about. At the entrance a steel rod had been lain diagonally on a three-legged stand, with something resembling a beehive dangling from it. About thirty people were scattered about, among whom Patol-babu even noticed a few non-Bengalis, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were doing there.

But where was Naresh-babu? No one else knew Patol-babu.

Patol-babu advanced towards the gate, his heart thumping.

It was the month of May; the khaki coat buttoned up to the neck felt quite heavy. Patol-babu sensed beads of perspiration on his neck.

‘Here, Atul-babu… this way.’

Atul-babu? Patol-babu turned around to find Naresh-babu calling out to him from his position next to a pillar in the portico of the office. He had confused his name. Not surprising. They had only met once. Greeting him, Patol-babu said, ‘You may not have noted my name properly. Sitalakanta Roy. Though everyone knows me as Patol-babu. That’s what they called me on stage too.’

‘I see. You’re quite punctual, I notice.’

Patol-babu smiled.

‘Nine years sat Hudson-Kimberley – never been late a single day. Not one.’

‘Wonderful. I’ll tell you what – why don’t you wait there in the shade? We’ll get things going in the meantime.’

‘Naresh!’ someone next to the three-legged machine called out.

‘Sir?’

‘Is he one of our people?’

‘Yes sir. He’s the one… you know, the collision…’

‘I see. All right. Now clear the area, will you? We’re going for a shot.’

Patol-babu took up a position beneath the awning of a paan-shop next to the office. He had never watched a bioscope being shot. It was all new to him. There was no resemblance with the theatre. And how hard these people worked. A young man of twenty-one or twenty-two was carrying the heavy machine around from one spot to another. It must be at least twenty or twenty-five kilos.

But where was his dialogue? There wasn’t much time. Yet Patol-babu still didn’t know what he would have to say.

He suddenly felt a little nervous. Should he go up to them? There was Naresh-babu; shouldn’t he talk to him? Whether the role was minor or major, he would have to prepare if he wanted to play it well. What if he made a fool of himself in the presence of so many people by muffing his lines? He hadn’t acted in twenty years, after all.

About to move forward, Patol-babu stopped on hearing someone shout.

‘Silence!’

Then Naresh-babu was heard saying, ‘We’re taking a shot now. Please be quiet, everyone. Do not talk, do not move, do not approach the camera.’

Then the first voice was heard again, shouting, ‘Silence! Taking!’ Patol-babu could see him now. A plump man of average appearance standing next to the three-legged machine; something like a pair of binoculars hung from a chain around his neck. Was this the director? How odd, he hadn’t even found out the name of the director.

Patol-babu heard a few more cries in succession. ‘Start sound!’ ‘Running!’ ‘Action!’

As soon as the word ‘action’ was uttered, Patol-babu saw a car drive up and stop in front of the office, and a young man in a suit with pink-paint on his face practically tumbled out and strode up to the office gate before stopping. The next moment Patol-babu heard a cry, ‘Cut!’ and at once the silence was broken by a hubbub in the crowd.

‘Recognised the fellow?’ asked a man standing next to Patol-babu, leaning towards him.

‘I’m afraid not,’ said Patol-babu.

‘Chanchalkumar,’ replied his neighbour. ‘Rising star. Acting in four films at the same time.’

Patol-babu rarely went to the bioscope, but he thought he had heard of this Chanchalkumar a couple of times. It was this young man that Koti-babu had been praising the other day. His make-up was rather good. Replace that western suit with a dhoti and put him on a peacock – he’d make a perfect Kartik. Monotosh aka Chinu from Kanchrapara had similar looks; Chinu used to be terrific in female roles.

Leaning towards his neighbour again, Patol-babu asked in a whisper, ‘And what’s the director’s name?’

‘You don’t know?’ asked the man in surprise. ‘That’s Baren Mullick, of course – three hits in a row.’

Thank goodness. He had gathered all the necessary information. He would have been in trouble otherwise if his wife were to ask whom he had acted with and in whose film.

Naresh brought Patol-babu a cup of tea.

‘Here you are sir, this will clear your throat. We’ll call you any minute now.’

Patol-babu couldn’t help but come to the point.

‘If you could give me my dialogue now…’

‘Dialogue? Come with me.’

Naresh walked towards the three-legged machine, followed by Patol-babu.

‘Shashanka!’

A young man in half sleeves approached. Naresh told him, ‘This gentleman is asking for his dialogue. Write it out on a piece of paper, will you? That collision thing…’

Shashanka turned to Patol-babu.

‘Come with me, dadu… give me your pen for a minute, Jyoti. I have to write the dialogue for dadu.’

The young man named Jyoti handed the red pen in his pocket to Shashanka, who ripped a sheet out of the notebook in his hand, wrote something in it, and gave it to Patol-babu.’

Patol-babu discovered a single word written on it – ‘Aah!’

Aah?

Patol-babu felt his head reel suddenly. He wished he could take his coat off. The heat was unbearable.

‘You seem disturbed, dadu,’ commented Shashanka. ‘Too difficult?’

Were they mocking him? Was the whole thing a massive joke? A farce enacted around a harmless, uncomplaining man on the busy streets of a busy city? Could people possibly be so cruel?

‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Patol-babu, his throat dry.

‘Why not?’

‘Just “aah”? No other lines?’

Raising his eyebrows, Shashanka said, ‘What are you saying, dadu? You think this is nothing? This is a regular speaking role. A speaking role in Baren Mullick’s film – are you serious? You’re a lucky man, I tell you. Do you know that at least a hundred and fifty people have acted in this film of ours without a speaking role? They merely walked past the camera. Some didn’t even walk, merely stood on the spot. Not everyone’s face was visible, for that matter. Even today – look at those people standing next to the lamp-post. They’re all in today’s scene, but none of them has any dialogue. Even our hero Chanchalkumar has no dialogue today. You’re the only one speaking.’

Now the young man named Jyoti came up to Patol-babu, putting a hand on his shoulder. ‘Listen to me dadu – let me explain. Chanchalkumar is a senior manager in this office. In this scene we show him rushing into the office after hearing of a theft. That’s when you come in his way – a pedestrian – all right? You collide with him – all right? After the collision you say “Aah!”, but Chanchal rushes in without paying any attention to you. Ignoring you brings out the state of his mind – all right? Do you see how important the whole thing is?’

Shashanka came up to him again. ‘Now you know. Can you wait over there now? Can’t have a crowd gathering here. There’s one more shot before we call you.’

Patol-babu drifted towards the paan-shop again. Stopping beneath the awning, he threw a sidelong glance at the piece of paper in his hand and then, checking to see whether anyone was watching, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the drain.

‘Aah!’

He emitted a heartfelt sigh.

Just one word – not even a word, a sound – aah!

The heat was becoming unbearable. The coat felt like it weighed a tonne. He couldn’t remain standing anymore, his legs were like lead.

Patol-babu went up to the flight of steps on the other side of the paan-shop and sat on them. Nine-thirty. Karali-babu played devotional songs at home on Sunday mornings – Patol-babu went regularly. He enjoyed himself there. Should he go? What harm would it do? What use was it wasting Sunday morning in the company of these rotten, shallow people? He would have to bear the burden of the humiliation too if he stayed.

‘Silence!’

To hell with your silence. It’s all talk and very little work. The theater in comparison…

The theatre… the theatre…

A faint memory rose in Patol-babu’s mind from the past. Invaluable advice given to him in a deep, controlled and yet melodious voice: ‘Remember this, Patol. There is no humiliation in playing a minor role. Your achievement as an artist will be in extracting the last possible ounce of feeling from that insignificant role to make it a successful performance. The theatre is a group activity. The success of the play is built only on the success of each individual.’

It was Pakrashi-moshai who had given this advice to Patol-babu. Gagan Pakrashi. Patol-babu’s guru on the stage. An extraordinary actor, Gagan Pakrashi was not in the least bit arrogant. A saintly man, and the finest artiste among artistes.

There was one more thing that Pakrashi-moshai used to say. ‘Every line of dialogue in a play is a fruit hanging from a tree. It’s not within everyone’s reach. Even those who can pluck it may not know how to peel it. It’s your responsibility – the actor’s. You must know how to pluck the fruit, peel it, squeeze its juice out and serve it to people.

Recalling Gagan Pakrashi, Patol-babu instinctively bowed his head in respect.

Was his role today really meaningless? He would have to utter just the one word – aah. But could the dialogue be dismissed simply because it was just a single word?

Aah, aah, aah, aah – Patol-babu began to recite the word in different ways, with different intonations. As he did, he made a remarkable discovery. That one word, expressed in different ways, could bring out different states of mind. The way you said ‘aah!’ when pinched slyly was quite different from the way you said it after a cool drink on a hot day. And yet another kind of ‘aah’ emerged when tickled in the ear. There were many other aahs besides – sighing, contemptuous, or hurt; a quick ‘ah’ or a prolonged ‘aaaaaah’; loud or soft, pitched high or low – or even starting on a low pitch and rising to a high one. Incredible! Patol-babu felt he could write an entire dictionary of that one particular word.

Why had he felt so disheartened? This word was an absolute gold mine. A worthy actor could hit the jackpot with this single word.

‘Silence!’

The director emitted a roar again. Patol-babu discovered Jyoti pushing the crowds away near him. He had something to tell the fellow. Patol-babu strode up to him.

‘How much longer, my boy?’

‘Why so impatient, dadu? You can’t be in a hurry over these things. Wait another half an hour or so.’

‘Of course, of course. I’ll wait. I’ll be nearby.’

‘Don’t run away, ok?’

Jyoti left.

‘Start sound!’

Without a sound, Patol-babu stole away into a quiet, secluded lane across the road. He was pleased to have some time before the shot. Since these people weren’t going to bother with a rehearsal or anything, he would practise his role on his own. The lane was deserted. This was a business area – which meant there weren’t too many residents. Moreover, it was Sunday. The handful of people who did live here had gone off to Faraday House to watch the shooting.

Clearing his throat, Patol-babu proceeded to gain mastery over the special ‘aah’ in this special scene of the day. Using his reflection in a glass window, he perfected various aspects of his performance – how much his face would be contorted after the collision, how far his arms would be knocked back and what angle they would assume, how widely the fingers would be splayed, and what the position of his feet would be.

Patol-babu was summoned exactly half an hour later; he was no longer dispirited. His anxiety had vanished too, leaving behind only a suppressed excitement and a thrill – the feeling that he used to have twenty-five years ago before appearing in an important scene on the stage.

Waving Patol-babu over, Baren Mullick the director said, ‘You’ve understood the scene, I hope.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Very well. First I will say, “Start sound”. The sound recordist will respond with “Running”. The camera will start rolling at once. Then I will say, “Action!” You will immediately start walking from the pillar in this direction, while the hero gets out of the car and walks towards the office gate. You must ensure that the collision takes place at this spot on the pavement. Ignoring you, the hero will walk through the office gate, while you will say, “Aah!’ in annoyance and continue walking. All right?’

‘A rehearsal…’ proposed Patol-babu.

‘Oh no,’ interrupted Baren-babu. ‘It’s getting cloudy. There’s no time for a rehearsal. We must take the shot while the sun’s still out.’

‘It’s just that…’

‘Now what?’

Patol-babu had had an idea while rehearing in the lane. Mustering his courage, he spoke about it.

‘I was thinking… er… if I had a newspaper in my hand, and if I were to be reading it when we collide… you know, to bring out the sense of absent-mindedness…’

Before he could finish Baren Mullick said, ‘Excellent… you there, can you give your newspaper to this gentleman… yes. Now go take your position by the pillar over there. Ready, Chanchal?’

‘Yes sir,’ answered the star, standing by his car.

‘Good. Silence!’

Baren Mullick raised his arm, and then lowered it the very next moment. ‘Just a minute. Keshto, give the gentleman a moustache, quickly. The character isn’t coming through.’

‘What kind, sir? Bushy, handlebar or butterfly? I have all kinds.’

‘Butterfly. Quick, don’t take too long.’

Approaching Patol-babu, a short, dark man with backbrushed hair took a small black false moustache out of a tin box and glued it beneath his nose.

‘The collision won’t make it come off, I hope,’ said Patol-babu.

‘Never mind a collision,’ smiled the young man, ‘you could wrestle with Dara Singh and it still won’t come off.’

He was holding a mirror. Patol-babu took a quite look at himself. Yes – it suited him very well indeed. He couldn’t help admiring the director’s eye.

‘Silence! Silence!’

A buzz had risen amidst onlookers at the sight of the moustache being put on. it died at Baren-babu’s roar.

Patol-babu noticed that most of the audience gathered at the spot were staring at him.

‘Start sound!’

Patol-babu cleared his throat. One, two, three, four, five… Patol-babu would have to take approximately five steps to get to the spot earmarked for the collision. And Chanchalkumar would probably have to take four. So if they set off simultaneously, Patol-babu would have to walk a little faster, or else…

‘Running!’

Patol-babu held his newspaper up in front of his face. If he could just mix sixty per cent annoyance with 40 per cent astonishment when saying ‘aah’…

‘Action!’

Praise the lord!

Clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp…. bangggg! Patol-babu saw stars. His forehead had struck the hero’s practically head-on. A sharp pain almost made him unconscious for a moment.

But the very next moment he applied tremendous willpower to recover, and, uttering the word ‘Aah!’ with sixty per cent annoyance, twenty per cent astonishment and twenty per cent agony, he gathered his newspaper and continued on his way.

‘Cut!’

‘Was it all right?’ An anxious Patol-babu went up to Baren Mullick.

‘Fantastic! You’re a very good actor, you know… Suren, use the filter to find out if it’s going to get darker.’

‘No injuries, I hope, dadu?’ Shashanka came up and asked him.

Chanchalkumar walked up, rubbing his forehead. ;What timing! For a moment there I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead…’

Naresh pushed his way through the people gathered there. ‘Come into the shade here. One more shot and then I’ll clear your…’

Patol-babu made his way through the crowd, wiping his perspiration, and stopped once again in front of the paan shop. The clouds had covered the sun, and it was no longer as hot; but still Patol-babu took his coat off. Ah, how pleasant! A deep joy and self-satisfaction slowly suffused his mind and heart.

He had performed really well today. The years of disuse had not blunted his artistic sensibility. Gagan Pakrashi would have been genuinely pleased. But had these people understood? Had the director Baren Mullick understood? Would they value the enthusiasm and effort he had put into playing his role flawlessly? Did they have the capability for it? Their involvement probably ran as far as getting people to act and paying them. Payment! How much? Five, ten, fifteen? He did need money… but what was five rupees in comparison to his happiness today?

~

Naresh didn’t find Patol-babu when he went looking for him about ten minutes later. Had he left without his payment? How absent-minded!

‘The sun’s out,’ shouted Baren Mullick. ‘Silence! Silence!… Come here, Naresh, control the crowds!’