He was the quintessential parar chele, the local lad. That was how he was known, and how he continued to be known, years later, even when all his contemporaries outgrew their boyhood ways. He had a name – Arun, but it was likely to get mixed up with those of other boys, for these faces were collectively familiar. Individually, you would probably be unable to place them.
Of course, he was also known as Dutta Da-r chele (Mr Dutta’s son), by the older generation. Dutta Da of the video cassette rental shop “Maa Durga Videos”. Dutta Da was well known, his family having lived on Jail Road for the past two generations, since they had migrated from the erstwhile East Bengal in the 1930s. Portly, with a decisive moustache and corners of a thin mouth lined with spittle, that was Dutta Da. The video came at a price, the review was free, and often enriched by multiple opinions, since Dutta Da’s shop never lacked visitors, especially those with an insatiable hunger for conversation and more than enough time on their hands. In the corner of the shop, was a small Onida TV that was always showcasing the latest movies, thanks to Dutta Da’s assistant Joga, a lean, dark boy with merry eyes, whose only mission in life was to watch movies. It was here that Arun was initiated into the world of Hindi films and film music.
It was the early nineties – most of these songs were graphic and laced with double entendre. A discerning parent would guard his children against the contaminating influence of Hindi songs, and Bengali parents, particularly discerning and generally bourgeoisie, looked so far down upon Hindi films and music as to condemn that entire genre and its aficionados to cultural damnation.
At this time, Arun, just stepping into mid-teens, discovered he had a voice. And what a voice it was – a full-throated baritone, crooning Kishore Kumar’s evergreen classics with such ardour that every girl who heard that voice was convinced of his love for her, if only for a fleeting moment. By this time, Arun had established his reputation as a ne’er-do-well. He had failed his Class 12 exams, was often seen smoking in lone corners of the neighbourhood, followed girls of varying ages from music school or tuition classes with his gang of similarly inclined boys. In a nutshell, he was everything that a parent dreads and neighbours prize as an endless source of schadenfreude – the quintessential bad boy of the neighbourhood.
Arun didn’t care, or maybe he did and didn’t show it. He was always merry, never more so than when singing his favourite love ballads, along with his cronies. Every evening, when the sleepy town tucked itself in for an early slumber, Arun and his gang were heard on the streets, singing their hearts out. They were tuneful and soulful, but, as everyone would say “What was the point? One couldn’t make a career out of street singing. Now, if he was classically trained and performed on the public stage, it would be another matter. Why didn’t he grow up?”
Eventually he did grow up but only after years of serenading girls of different generations. By then, the nineties had passed as also did the age of video cassettes. Most of the boys of his age had moved out, ones that remained behind sobered up, married, had children and moved past their youthful capers. Arun and a couple of others were the only ones of the original gang, flirting with girls a decade or more junior, filling streets with sonorous singing after dark, loafing endlessly in every corner of the neighbourhood, playing cricket in every gully cricket competition and volunteering in the club, organising the Durga Puja every year. While they had their uses, as self-appointed guardians of women and elderly residents of the neighbourhood and also as key resources of the grapevine, their services, like other things that are available for free, were mostly underrated. No one would pat them on the back for such things, it’s what a parar chele was expected to do.
Eventually, Dutta Da, in his sixties, forced his son to take up the family business. Now in his thirties, with a receding hairline and a growing paunch that looked incongruous on his lean frame, Arun took up the mantle on willing if not entirely able shoulders. “Maa Durga Videos” had been upgraded to “Maa Durga Cyber Café and Xerox” but the Onida TV set remained, though mostly switched off; Joga, the movie buff having long moved on to better things.
As for Arun, his heart no longer yearned for the movies. Cinematic sensibilities were changing, one rarely saw the heroine cavorting to bawdy lyrics any more. Somehow people now wanted cinema to be intelligent as well as entertaining. And, it seemed, you had to be quiet and subtle and not obvious to be considered intelligent. You could not shout about your love from the rooftop, could not follow a girl to show your devotion or threaten to cut your wrist if she didn’t reciprocate – you had to be mature and not make song and dance of every situation. Where, he wondered, was the heady romance of his teenage years? The songs of Kishore Kumar were his only solace. That, and an occasional a glass of whiskey, which grew larger over the years. He had not married, having never taken his wooing seriously in his younger days, and now no one would have him. Again, it was difficult to understand if that bothered him, for he had never spoken much about himself.
A few more years passed and a middle aged Arun, looking more like his father every day, now presided over the conclave that still gathered in the mid-mornings and afternoons at his store. In the evenings, a chai glass of whiskey was omnipresent, as were some shifty-eyed individuals who seemed to sniff the scent and present themselves at the opportune moment to quench their thirst and dispense company. However, they were mostly quiet, Arun occasionally regaling them with Kishore Kumar covers, frequently reminiscing on how things had been, how much it has changed. He rarely sang when sober, lived with his parents and increasingly found comfort in drinking though he drew the line just short of being an alcoholic.
Then, one summer morning, in his fortieth year, as he was opening up the store, he collapsed in front of the gates. The other shop owners rushed him to the hospital, but he had succumbed to the heart attack en route.
During our routine conversation, my Dad told me, “ Do you remember Arun? Our parar chele? He passed away.” I don’t remember how I responded. I had a vague memory of him and I am sure do did the rest of my cousins and friends, not enough to feel sorry, in fact, not enough to feel anything. I guess that was true about most people who knew him.
Death often tends to lend dignity and sentimentality to lives fairly ordinary, but, truth to tell, he wasn’t missed by many. The streets of Jail Road are unusually silent nowadays. There is of course, a new gang of ne’er-do-wells, but today’s kids have other ways of venting joblessness, and most are too busy to be jobless. Perhaps the lilting voice wafting through the biting night air was part of a generation that was easier on itself, that wanted to believe in good things, irrespective of how they turned out in the end. Perhaps that’s just nostalgia making a song and dance of an otherwise mundane existence.