He sang. Or he sat. Or he slept. Or he danced. Or he sang and danced. When he sang the whole village would come out of their homes. When he danced too! Some called him Lal Singh, some called him Gan Singh. Some said that he was from Comilla and had been on his way to Calcutta, but changed his mind and settled down on this abandoned bench instead. Nobody really knew.
When I was a toddler I would crawl up to him to listen to these amazing melodies. As I grew older I began to understand his songs, the message of hope and joy, of the wonder, beauty and goodness of all things. A small school had come up in the vicinity which I was forced to attend. I learnt to count and to my little eyes he looked a hundred years old.
One day I heard a commotion that was raucous and appalling to my ears. I hid behind a tree and watched a man hit Lal Singh. There were others shouting and pointing fingers at him. “Our wome’n are being kidnapped and raped and you are singing these stupid, happy songs? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? All of us are mourning, only you are laughing!” Lal Singh continued to sing. He hit him again and again until Lal Singh fell off the bench. This did not stop Lal Singh from singing. The man who was hitting Lal Singh was known as Dada Singh. I remember shrieking loudly when he touched me harshly and inappropriately a few years ago.
A few days later they returned to beat him again. “Our men are dying in the war but you carry on with your happy singing and dancing as though nothing has happened? How dare you! We are poor and jobless and exploited but you continue to dance as if this is paradise. Will you stop!” Pull his tongue out, screamed Dada Singh, infuriated.
That was the last we heard of him. He soon disappeared.
Today, I am in Gondiya, near Nagpur making a documentary on the Gond tribals, their caves, Darekasa and Kachargadh; their culture, religion and dress code. It is after midnight and I am listening to an old man singing songs that make the most creative use of cuss words. Amazing and funny at the same time! He is just making them up on the spot, like this one –
Moreet ka mutli……
I walked up to him with some money in my hand. Lal Singh!
Words (Fiction): Jyotee
Edits: Shweta Swaminathan
Photograph: Mayank Austen Soofi
Jyotee is an artist and a writer living in Mumbai.