There were whispers on the street that evening: whispers that floated from lips on faces that betrayed a great deal of need. Whispers of need; whispers that, as the evening progressed, would become cries of anguish and hunger and later pain. Some would be silenced by relief, if they could afford it. Others would remain till sleep or death silenced them. There were whispers on the street that evening, but no one was there to hear them.
Bunty was excited. A nervous energy raced through his veins, energising every muscle and tissue; so much so, that he found it hard to sit still. Trumpet in hand, he paced back and forth while his new colleagues sat around the fire and downed a glass of desi before the show. This was Bunty’s first day with the band and he was loving it. It was his return to showbiz, albeit small, but it still was a small step in the old direction. He had almost had enough of the respectable job that he had been coerced into by his father, and after four years off the stage, he was ready to start building contacts and performing again. It was true that he could no longer dance as he used to, and that the craze for stage shows had died down in the interim, but Bunty loved performing and he hoped Raj Singh would give him a chance. For now, Bunty had to be content with blowing the trumpet at Shirpa Nagar, Janakpuri, a small village near the border that Delhi shares with Haryana.
Bunty was playing Bholu’s trumpet at the akhara situated on the banks of the river Yamuna, near his home. Bholu had been playing with the Panchhi Band since the Memsahib Artists troupe disbanded. Bunty was Memsahib’s star performer, earning up to Rs.6000 a month, before his father decided that he should be doing something respectable, instead of dancing on stage in the evenings. Bunty’s uncle was a head clerk at Tis Hazari courts, and on his reference, Bunty got a job with advocate Khera. Working from 9:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening was new to Bunty, but he got used to it. He prepared and typed legal documents for advocate Khera’s signature, and delivered notices. He made new friends and learnt new tricks, but he still missed show business. He missed the cheers and the adulation. He missed the achievement of perfection as step after step was executed as planned. And so, after work, he would sit at the akhara and play the trumpet or drums while Bholu and his friends got ready.
“You have some dum in those lungs, beta,” said the towering figure of Raj Singh, as Bunty’s lungs powered a near perfect rendition of raja ki ayegi barat rangeeli hogi raat magan main nachungi . Raj Singh was huge. Bunty, a mere 5’8″ craned his neck to look the six-footer in the eye and thank him. And Raj Singh was full of gold- he had a sparkling large gold necklace around his neck and gold earring in his pierced ears. Three fingers on his large hands were encircled by a thick and broad twist of gold. If Raj Singh ever lost a tooth, he would probably replace it with a gold one. But he didn’t look like a man who would lose a tooth in a fight.
Raj Singh was very much a Sanhsi, and though Bunty knew they were scum, they gave good money. Sanhsi‘s almost always had a well kempt handlebar mustache, and were usually tall and always powerful. Even if one was as short as Bunty, he could probably take him out with one arm tied behind his back- such was the power in their arms, and the skill of their hands. They were hardened by life and their society was governed by their own laws. Drugs, Prostitution, money laundering, alcoholism, gambling were preferred professions. Strolling down Paharganj, in central Delhi, Bunty had often seen Sanhsi‘s selling packets and syringes to unkempt shivering foreigners. Sanhsi‘s, Bunty had heard, valued each other on the basis of the number of cases filed against their name. A boy with no police case in his name was almost an outcaste, a kayar. Weddings were decided on basis of income, profession and police cases. But Sanhsi‘s meant good money, and Bunty was bored with his job. So when Raj Singh offered him Rs. 4000 a month for a coupe of hours of work every evening, Bunty happily acquiesced.
There were no Sanhsi‘s on the streets that evening. It was cold and whatever desi was available on the streets, was exhausted. And anyway, desi could never ease his pain. The throbbing in his head, the whistle in his ears and the sharpness of the streetlights- it was all just too intense, and he couldn’t take it anymore. It was cold and he felt colder, as if his heart had stopped pumping and his blood had become as cold as the foggy night about to descend on these unforgiving streets. He clutched on to his tattered quilt, and hobbled to where he had taken his first fix. Behind him, exhausted cries of anguish flooded the streets.
Bunty sat on the floor in Raj Singh’s brightly painted two-roomed shack with his new colleagues. They sat in a circle and at the center was a pile of fifty and hundred rupee notes amounting to almost Rs.20000 to be shared among the 12 them. And this was just tips; at the end of the month, Bunty would be getting his Rs.4000 as well. As per the custom, as a new member, Bunty would be getting two of the highest denomination notes. Forget show business, forget a respectable job, thought Bunty, as he got up to pull out a bottle of expensive scotch whiskey from Raj Singh’s refrigerator in the other room. I could do this for ever.
Bunty’s day at work had been satisfactory. The Sanhsi‘s were a spirited lot and had danced the entire three kilometer distance that the wedding procession traversed through dilapidated and unpainted shack-like houses. So much money and such simple means of living, thought Bunty. It was as if the entire village had attended. There were at least a thousand in the procession, and many more when they reached the girls house. And they danced, danced to his tune. He hadn’t skipped a beat, except while playing Meri pyaari behenia banegi dulhania, when a 9 year old boy with gold on his fingers danced up to him and stuffed a hundred rupee note in his pocket. That’s more than I earn in a day with advocate Khera!.
Bunty opened the refrigerator. A refrigerator in this small little house seemed out of place, but so did a color television. There was only alcohol in the fridge- bottles of beer, whisky and rum. And a couple of bottles of desi. Only alcohol, he thought, as he pulled out a bottle of scotch, he saw a pile of polyethene packets kept behind the whiskey. Some packets were brown, others white. And there were some syringes. Bunty picked up a packet and took a short sniff. There was no smell. The thought of stealing this an selling it in Paharganj did cross his mind, but sensibly, he decided not to. One wouldn’t want to risk stealing from a Sanhsi. The consequences could be deadly, literally. He was just about to place it back when he felt a shooting pain in his back. Again and again, as a crude knife, a Rampuri went in and out of his back at a speed only a desperate madman could achieve. As Bunty fell on the floor, the half dead man tied his Rampuri to his tattered quilt, grabbed all the packets from the fridge that he could hold on to with both hands, and ran.
There were fewer cries of anguish on the streets, the next day, as the Sanhsi‘s got back to work again.
The Sanhsi’s are a community, it is believed, originally from Rajasthan, India. Newspaper reports and personal accounts suggest that they still sell narcotics in the sleaze infested Paharganj areas, among others, in Delhi. They make a lot of money, but still live within their means in small shack-like houses. They are a benevolent lot, but quick to anger, and quick to kill. In Hindi, the word ‘Sanhsi’ literally means brave. Bands, like stage shows, have seen a steady decline in bu
siness. Stage shows are more or less extinct. Only Ramlila’s, during the festive season between Dussehra and Diwali see any kind of business. An Akhara is a traditional gym in India, where men learn how to wrestle. A Rampuri is a thick steel knife, commonly available in India for as little as Rs.40 (less than a dollar). Desi is short for Desi Daaru, or locally brewed contraband liquor. The word ‘Kayar’ means coward.
Nikhil Pahwa knows no sanhsis.