Sunday, December 09, 2012

A throne's tale - I

"Listen to me. I didn't slip up yesterday. I called them off. They were going to club you to death. I called them off."

"The sun is blinding. Just turn me around, let's talk. We can figure this out. C'mon let's talk. Like we're kids again. We can figure this out."

"You can have it. All of it. The money, the game, everything. Take the whole goddamn city. They deserve you. You were always baba's favourite."

"No, come on! This is not how I want to go. I know I didn't miscalculate. There's good in you, ma would simply say it, but I believed it."

"How you've fallen. I loved you. I still do. I thought you were better than this."


There must've been love. How could there not? He was the most adorable little thing. How could you not want to pick him up in your arms? Cheeks that chubby ki you just wanted to squeeze 'em, but yes, I couldn't see him cry, so no, not that hard.

I was always very protective of him. I wasn't four when he was born, but I feel like I knew exactly what my role was going to be. I was going to be playmate, teacher, tormentor. He was going to be my scapegoat, my ball of wet clay.

See, we were going to inherit the city. Or one of us was, anyway.

My father was in jail. Had been since before I was born. My brother was born of a conjugal visit. I learnt that baba ran his matka empire just as well from his cell as he did from his rooftop office in Malad before the pandus took him away.

The routine in jail was the same. Every night, at 11pm, he would draw three cards from a freshly opened deck. All the while surrounded by prominent politicians, sundry filmstars, and always the jailer. Do a straight add of each card, and that's the number that in seconds would be transmitted to every corner of the city. Phones would fall off their cradles getting the numbers across to the bettors, pagers would beep, and the bets would start to pour in.

Never did he draw the second hand a moment before midnight. By then, crores of rupees would have crossed the tables of the dalal network he'd set up throughout the city.

And then my father's bookies in every alley would begin their payouts. Promptly and accurately. The intoxication here was the crazy odds that he offered. Guess three digits out of a possible 8, and take home two and a half times your bet. No bet too small or too big.

Today, they say he had an elaborate mechanism to figure out which numbers to draw on his second hand to reduce the payouts. Statistics collated instantly from the corners of the city and transmitted through the bars of his cell, whispering digits into his eardrums. Hah. A likely story. There existed no such technology. There still doesn't. And even if he pulled off this voodoo to figure out those numbers somewhichhow, tell me about the second draw. He was still watched by those veinshot eyes. His each move, the single flick of each. How was he to draw these magic numbers? I mean, forget the how, just imagine the balls it would take. But then again, if I had this figured out, I'd probably have kept the crown of matka pasha. Baba made more money each night than the chief minister made in a month (relief funds included).

My brother and I were born to the same mother. She did not favour me over him, nor ulta. He would reach for my hand when we needed to cross the road, and I would fold his tiny fingers into my palm. I spent my pocket money on those candy cigarettes for him, bought him his first guitar, fought off kids that bullied him at school.

It wasn't always as sunny between the two of us - I would lose my temper on occasion, when the duffer wouldn't get geometry, or physics. But what was there not to get? I'd smack him then. He wouldn't protest. He could see how much I wanted him to be a better version of me. A handsomer boy, a more talented poet, sportsman, musician. Over the years, he did grow up to be that accomplished. I learnt later that what drove him was spite.

He must have been 13 the day he understood the stakes of the matka kingdom. I was 17, and leaving home for the first time to go abroad - Switzerland. I was about to leave for the airport, when news arrived that our father was not going to be carrying out the matka that night in prison. No further word as to why not. A large crowd had assembled outside the gates of our house. They demanded to know what was going on. They were there because they'd become addicted to matka.

Have you ever read a crowd? They say before Hendrix got on the stage at Woodstock, the otherwise raucous crowd suddenly went quiet. If you looked into a single, mellow bandana-ed soul, you'd gather nothing. No one individual could tell you what was about to happen. If you could read the pulse of the collective though, you'd know they knew. Their unified consciousness knew that a storm was about to tear through them. Hendrix was going to make it rain.

It's a good thing though that I had no such crowd-reading abilities. Not because it wasn't a handy skill, but rather, because the instant dread of that reading would likely have rooted me to the floor. Today, I imagine that if I had only looked closer into the membrane of the crowd, I'd have been able to see through the pores and the confusion, that spectrum of emotion would have crystallized into my gut, and told me what to do next. Amidst the curiosity-filled eyes, there were others that twitched nervously. Amidst the mutterings of prayers for matka pasha, there were quiet tongues within hardened jaws. Some of them were coming off large wins and the drug was in their system. Others must have owed large monies and it was only matka that would save their skin. That, or dakaiti.

We should have fled. Instead, as the head of the house, I stood there dumbfounded as time screeched into quiet. My mother was at my side. I could tell she was agitated, but I was mesmerized by the crowd. She was screaming my brother's name when the first stone crashed into the bay window on the second floor. I saw the darwan drop his stick as he ran past the house, away from the entrance. I suppose it was just as well. The iron gates would have crushed him when they fell.

The TV in the next room should have been drowned out by the crowd, but like it would happen again ten years later, the news seemed to lift itself to that annoying notch, the pitch of the mosquito, where despite the cacophony, the caster's voice cut through the curtains of noise - the Matka Pasha had hung himself in his cell, and the city was going into curfew immediately to quell any unrest.

It would be atleast 20 minutes until the police got here. By then we could have been burnt alive by the crowd, such was the sudden unreason in their eyes. My mother clutched at me, and we looked around for my brother but he was nowhere to be found. I ran out onto the balcony to see if he was there. The crowd was now charging down the garden path, men, women, the well-heeled and the troddowns.

I froze for the second time in the space of a few minutes - my brother, in his shorts, was walking out the front door and towards the rampage. He had a matka in his hands.

The sight of this sliver of a boy was like the firing of a water cannon. It brought the crowd to a dead halt. Perhaps his defenseless form triggered some spark of humanity, and they lowered the stones they'd picked up on the road outside.

I've seen standoffs in movies. They'd always felt comical. Sure, the gunslingers were sweating, knotted brows and all, but the sheer idiocy of the situation, where there was this formality to the duel despite how in a flash it would turn so primitively savage, always made me chuckle. I felt none of that idiocy in the air today. I needed to pull my brother back into the house, behind the oak doors. This lull was only a moment of reasonableness. Any second now, that blind fury would resettle behind the eyes of the mob, and they would trample him to death.

That's when he lifted that matka above his head and brought it crashing down to the ground. The hardened mud pot fractured into tiny pieces around his feet.

He sat down on the ground and pulled out a deck of cards. He had his toy megaphone with him. He called for five people from the crowd to step forward, and asked them to put down a thousand rupees each. He then shuffled the cards, and read the crowd the new rules of Matka. The Matka Pasha might have passed away, but "Flash Matka" was born that afternoon.

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