Song of Surrender

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Calcutta Cheema

Sruti Fiction

By V Ramnarayan

He was the quintessential “minor[v1]” immortalized by early twentieth century zamindari aristocracy—epicurean, bohemian, sharp-tongued, tending to smell like a flower-garden both from the perfumes he wore and the scented tobacco he chewed, totally lacking scruples of any description. He was what we in Tamil country like to describe as a connoisseur of arts—which, translated, means that he sat in the front row of most music and dance concerts in his spotless white mull shirt and veshti, with the top two buttons undone and a zari angavastram carelessly slung across his left shoulder. Nodding his head imperiously during the rare moments in the performance that met with his approval, he continued the betel chewing. He made loud remarks, sometimes complimentary, at other times admonitory, nonchalantly directed towards the artist, unmindful of the effect it had on the performer or the audience. Sometimes, he tried to carry on a conversation with the musician during a concert, as he did once with the flautist T Viswanathan when he was performing at the Pillaiyar Koil in Besant Nagar.

It was a small, intimate gathering well suited to the kind of music Viswa purveyed, and the audience was lapping up a marvellous exhibition of his unique brand of music of the Dhanammal school in reverential silence. As was his wont, Viswa interspersed his flute-playing with vocal interludes, and most of the listeners were there for just that very treat. Not so, Cheema, as we found out midway through the concert, when he stopped nodding his head and swaying in his chair, to admonish the artist, with whom he appeared to be on first name terms. “Why don’t you shtop shinging and shtart flaying the fullankushal?” he announced in the middle of a majestic Sankarabharanam kriti. Obviously relishing the sound of his own voice, he repeated, “Kushal, kulal, kuzal, flute, floot, flooot, float…” so and so forth, continuing to sway all the time. He then toppled forward head first in a stylish namaskaram towards the stage. He then went to sleep there, and the concert continued. 

When I first met Calcutta Cheema—in the 1980s—it was clear he had seen better days. His shirt and veshti were still spotless, but he was skin and bones and could no longer afford any of the other appurtenances of “minor’hood. He was a regular at concerts, especially in south Madras, as he lived by himself at the seaside suburb of Besant Nagar. His reputation as a sometimes foul-mouthed, “spirited” critic of the music and musicians of the period kept most people at a safe distance from him. In his sixties, he was friendless, except for the company of a 50-something art-lover famous for his excellent collection of music and music-related memorabilia. Thin, almost emaciated Cheema and the somewhat overweight Subbu were a truly odd couple often seen together at sabhas, cafeterias, even hairdressers, in the Besant Nagar-Tiruvanmiyur belt. That the impecunious Cheema did not die of starvation must have owed much to generous subsidies from Subbu, and I suspect that Cheema’s vast repertoire of gossip about celebrities was the currency with which he repaid his benefactor. 

As I lived in Valmiki Nagar, often passed Cheema’s house while driving to or from work, and ran into him at cutcheris, I got to willy-nilly know him reasonably well. He was a perfect snob with an aquiline nose and stiff-upper lip kind of features, which were nature’s gift for the role he had assiduously cultivated for himself., For some strange reason, he seemed to want to make friends with me and sought me out for idle conversation at every opportunity. He claimed to be an admirer of my wife’s columns on music and dance, though the way he put it, he approved rather than admired her work. I was always puzzled that he deemed me deserving of his superior company, and never really figured the puzzle out. Still, I was quite innocent (or naïve, according to my wife), with no training in warding off “evil influences” (again according to my wife) like Cheema, and gradually learned to tolerate his annoying habit of cornering me at the most inopportune moments to share words of wisdom with me. Cheema also took to waylaying me to cadge a lift every now and then in my gleaming white Standard Herald car, which gave people the impression that I was a collector of old cars. It was in fact the cheapest car in the second hand market and I had spent a minor fortune on giving it a makeover. Anybody who has ever owned a Herald knows that any improvements you made to its body could only be cosmetic. 

Graduating from free rides to borrowing the car was child’s play with Cheema, as I soon found out. Most of my troubles in life have sprung from my inability to say ‘no’ and my meekly agreeing to lend my car to that rascal in white was no exception. The first time it happened, I waited in a friend’s shop in Besant Nagar until Cheema came back from his wanderings, which meant that I returned home in my car and noone was any the wiser about my abject surrender to his wiles. It was not long before I got caught by my wife, who like many others of the gentler sex, has this uncanny nose for her husband’s indiscretions. Normally someone who walks around in her own dream world of fantasies, she chose to notice the absence of the car the one day Cheema borrowed it and seemed to have disappeared with it. I walked home around 11 pm from Amar’s shop after my friend pulled the shutters down, well past closing time. “Don’t tell me you’ve lent your car to your great friend again!” she greeted me. By now I had begun to really worry, as I was certain our hero had stopped at some waterhole and met with an accident afterwards driving sozzled to the gills. I paced up and down for the next three hours, with no idea how to contact Cheema, or where he had gone. He finally returned at 3 am, nearly dashed the car against my gate, got down and wobbled away, too far gone for me to attempt any conversation with him. He however had about him an air of great dignity befitting Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther series. 

That was of course the last time Cheema borrowed my car, and I took great trouble to avoid any contact with him. I started new routes of getting to Adyar from my Valmiki Nagar home, thereby eliminating any chance of being accosted by my nemesis on the road. One morning, however, I had to run an errand in Besant Nagar, and came face to face with the champion betel chewer- spitter opposite Maharaja’s Store on First Avenue, and swerved to avoid running over him as he stood waving furiously demanding a lift. I waved back, shouting that I was late for work (which I was) and drove off at breakneck speed endangering the lives of a handful of innocent bystanders. That evening, a very inebriated Cheema accosted me at the Music Academy, where I had gone to attend a concert, as I was parking my car. After first questioning my parentage and my musical acumen, he slurred, “Who do you think you are, you pittance?” at me. “What do you mean, pittance?” the grammarian in me wanted to shout back at him, but I hurried wordlessly from the scene. Cheema had struck with a vengeance during the concert I discovered, when I returned to the parking lot at the end of it. One of the many chronic infirmities my old Herald suffered from was the refusal of its front window to close, and this chink in my armour, Cheema had used to his advantage to get his own back at me. 

The driver’s seat was a disgusting mess, blobs of betel spit, saliva and phlegm splashed across it in the shape of some abstract painting. It took me the better part of an hour to clean the car. The worst part of the whole experience was that it had been a lousy concert as well. I did not see Calcutta Cheema again, nor did I ever want to see him again. Months later, he was found in his apartment, apparently dead for days, by neighbours who had to break the front door open. 

 [v1]The word minor here has nothing to do with age but for some reason came to mean a young (or old) man with a roving eye and love of the good life, often a “roué and cad”.

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