You couldn’t but notice his exaggerated swagger. He jerked his hips so to the extreme right and left that in a narrow alley they were sure to graze the walls and be abraded. Had the Bollywood brat known for his hits and runs, on whom Ketanbhai had patterned his swagger seen him, he would have been astonished at the ease with which his fan’s hip-roll aced his own. With his thumbs inserted inside the front pockets of his crotch-crushing pants, the rest of his fingers spread out evenly on his thighs, his feet snug in ankle-length cowboy boots punctured with rivets, he strutted through the streets of Mulund, the latest Bollywood chart-buster on his lips, his body possessed by the reigning tinsel town star. He was an eyesore in white–from the embellished shirts that managed to make the otherwise serene colour a horror, to the trousers jazzed up with strange decorations, and most of all, the shoes, which by virtue of their whiteness, contributed to the militant chalky landscape. Only his hair, an unruly mass of shades of black and his red stained mouth provided some interim relief. His shirts—designed on an Elvis Presley-meets-Jeetendra pattern—were unbuttoned right down to his navel, creating a valley that revealed the five stray hair on his chest.
People ducked when they saw him, hid behind doors, slunk away stealthily before he could spot them, because acknowledging him meant being dragged into a kaleidoscopic world of song and dance and being an anguished participant in his never-ending romance with make-believe, till you either lost your sanity or plotted a sensational escape. That was easier said than done because Ketanbhai had the famous tenacity of legendary celluloid heroes, who, when they pinned down their victims, let go of them, only after they finished their business with them. But, if despite your precautions, he spotted you and his eardrum-bursting “Hiiiiiiii” encircled you like a twister, there was no choice but to be drawn into its vortex. It was a Tarzan-like, “Kreegah Bundolo” war cry, no less, practised to perfection, with an ability to stupefy you. If you were male, he thumped you on your back with such force that if a large piece of apple was lodged in your throat, it would be ejected instantly. Just as you recovered from the spinal shock, he squeezed your shoulders affectionately, as if you were the long-lost brother he was separated from in a densely populated village fair, and he had lived all his life for this very delirious reunion. If you were female, he folded his hands, bent low from his waist and greeted you with a, “Namaste bhabhi.” Then, making a slurping sound, he sucked in the betel leaf juice that swirled inside his mouth and smiled, the thick flavoured saliva leaking out of the corners of his lips.
His mouth was a red grotto, a fount of oral sap, which sprung from some never-drying source. He wiped his lips with the back of his palms, squirted the spittle on a nearby electric pole, and continued talking. He enquired about your health, asked after your children, and if you had an old relative living with you, requested you to convey his respects to them. If you met him in the morning, you ran the risk of being dragged to the nearest restaurant for a cup of tea and snacks, with Ketanbhai stuffing your mouth with his generosity till you reached barfing point. Generous he was—with his words, his money and his smile. You could be a beggar sitting outside a temple near his house, but you deserved a smile and acknowledgement. So, despite the fact that I cringed at his sartorial choices, winced at his affectations, was exasperated by his dramatic dialogues, exaggerated gesticulations, and the theatrical contortions of his facial muscles, I could never dislike him. Beneath the masquerade was a man with a good heart. So, when he went into histrionic overdrive, all I managed was rolling my eyes and masking my amusement.
One day, he bumped into us, my husband and I, as we were returning from our morning walk. My husband, thrown off-balance, by an overdose of Ketanbhai’s introductory affection, steadied himself and began to make small talk. For some reason, Ketanbhai tapped his feet incessantly on the ground. Ignoring the percussion, I scrutinised the variety of his teeth, a row of tiny porous rocks—rough, jagged, serrated—fixed inside his gums in a pattern that would fox the most celebrated dentist. I couldn’t distinguish between the molars and the incisors, and the stains left by years of betel- and gutka-chewing ensured that their original character was completely obliterated.
‘What makes this man feel like a film star?’ I wondered, revulsion gripping me during that not so compassionate moment. The tip of his nose, I noticed, touched the centre of the vertical groove that ran from his nose to his lips. As if to compensate for this flaw in design, the Creator had enlarged his nostrils to make enough space for the air to pass through. As I looked at his hair, a mass of wiry scourers that defied the breeze and stood their ground, he stamped his feet furiously. The grotesque buckle on the embellished belt which secured his pants emitted multi-coloured rays, blinding me. “Bhabhi, look at my sooze,” he commanded, mispronouncing the ‘sh’ sound in ‘shoes’, forcing me to shift my attention from his faulty speech to the fault lines in his footwear.
My husband was already transfixed. He looked like he had just seen an alien. I looked down at a monstrous pair that had tassels sprouting out from all directions, laces that were veritable ropes and heels so high that Lady Gaga would baulk at slipping her much-elevated feet into them. As I groped for some polite compliments and adjusted my facial muscles to mask my alarm, Ketanbhai punched my husband playfully and said, “Kidhar hai, bhai? Lost, are you? I got them made from the same ‘sooe’ designer as Sunju Baba.” It socked us, this unabashed, unashamed worship of a celluloid deity that had inspired an enchanted Ketanbhai to go to the extent of locating his idol’s shoe designer. In comparison, our own reverence for the Almighty faded into insignificance. This was super stuff that made blockbusters out of inanities and set the Bollywood cash registers ringing. What would the Salman Khans and Sanjay Dutt’s of the world do without the lunacy of the likes of Ketanbhai? He was a star-maker, a builder of destinies, an upholder of the cause of no-brainer, time-pass entertainment, a dream-buyer. Who were we to judge a devout fan who gave two hoots to our derision, who lived life on his own terms, in his own mad way, unconcerned by what the world thought of him? We, with our trained responses and tailored behaviour, stood exposed in our own eyes. “Wow, awesome shoes, Ketanbhai,” I said, shocked at the genuineness in my voice. “Hai na, fir?” he retorted, doing a jig, as we slithered away.
We lived in the same locality, our buildings facing each other, he on a lower floor, which enabled us to get a bird’s eye view of his house and his antics. He woke us up every morning from our deepest slumber with the latest, noisiest Bollywood numbers that created seismic waves in our beds. Unmindful of the temblor he had caused, he gyrated at the window, bare-chested, brushing his teeth, the strokes of his toothbrush keeping rhythm with the music. He looked around egging on the rattled neighbours to shake a leg, risking his life and limb, for there wasn’t a single soul in the rudely awakened neighbourhood who did not want to strangle him with his bare hands. It didn’t help that he had the best music system in the neighbourhood, which managed to rouse even the comatose with its amplitude.
My heart went out to his wife but she was the stuff legends are made of–the ever-dutiful, ever-suffering, stoic paragon of endurance, the kind you want to shake mercilessly or bow down to. Hina was a picture of dignity. She had a thick hide and a smile that camouflaged her duress so remarkably that I began to suspect that she secretly enjoyed Ketanbhai‘s notoriety. He serenaded her often with a romantic number, pulling her out of the kitchen, twirling her, her hands caked with sticky dough, her long, simple braid swinging, her body resisting this untoward onslaught with all its might. He admonished her for serving pedestrian fare unfit for consumption. “Roj roj chawli ki bhaji,” he wailed, and eulogised the Bollywood wives and mothers who scalded their hands while making the ubiquitous sarson ka saag, makkai ki roti and the much-served on the filmi table–gaajar ka halwa. It is possible that she complied, as I heard him roar one day, “Mere paas Hina hai,” thumping his chest with pride.
I met Hina by chance the next day. She knew that I had heard. I turned away so as to not embarrass her. I needn’t have. She looked me in the eye and said, “What to do? However he may be, he is my husband.” Then, she flushed a beetroot red. Hina was in love! One more had bitten the stardust.