Sweetest of all

[For this weekend, lovely story about love and longing in Shillong by Frank Krishner]

The darkness enveloped me. I sat on the bench taking in the cool outside air. The long power cuts of Patna made remaining indoors unbearable, unless one lived in an apartment that ran a generator.
I was alone. What the hell, I was here in this godforsaken B-grade urban conglomeration of humans that passed for a city .And on a Saturday night to boot. Like the song goes,. I ain’t got no buddy, I got some money ‘cos I just got pay, all I need is someone to love me, I’m in an awful way. I wasn’t out there cruising or waiting to be chatted up. Sure, I heard about what happens on dark park benches late in the night, but the small playfield was deserted, and I was in no mood to be pawed by some Bhojpuri speaking, betel-juice squirting Neanderthal. To be honest, I was in no mood at all.

My mind was still in flashback mode, my heart about as light as a few tons of lead. Here I was, in exile, and all because of misreading the signs that litter the rocky road to relationships. In the music that is love, the eternal triangle has a nasty habit of sounding a harsh discordant note, and then the whole symphony comes crashing about your ears. But it was another Saturday years ago when I was seventeen and on a hot August night, twenty-four-year-old Frank Richards lay beside me under a warm Ranchi sky. I was a pretty boy then. Blonde, slender, and with the kind of looks that turned my girlfriends green with envy.

Girlfriends, I had plenty of those, and that’s just how they remained to this day. My family tree is cosmopolitan, with roots from the mountains of north-eastern India, where there is no segregation of the sexes, and little boys and little girls grow up into bigger boys and pretty young things without much embarrassment at all. I was sixteen when I discovered that guy-watching was a much more interesting sport than girl-watching. I would observe the sporting types on the school playfield, but end up wrapped up in a Mills and Boon after sunset. Real boys, they said, built model airplanes and played football in the rain. There were more than enough of them around.


Frank Richards. A guy doing his post-graduation in Political Science. We met during a Lion’s Club debate. He was intense, a leftist. I was a devotee of the illustrious Ayn Rand. I worshipped Dylan and Neil Diamond. He was stuck on Jim Reeves, Engelbert Humperdinck and a rash of infra dig Hindi film songs. We argued, squabbled, drank gallons of fresh Assam tea in the little stall at Ward’s Lake. And then he invited me to travel to Bihar and his native village on the Chhotanagpur plateau.

Richards was a swarthy-skinned adivasi with a barrel chest, a slim waist and a sprinkling of Anglo-Indian blood somewhere along the line. He had an ordinary kind of face and a rich baritone of a singing voice that was the delight of Mrs Lao, who conducted the Baptist church choir at Burra Bazaar. I attended the Grotto Church at Don Bosco Square, where old Father Bacchio commended me on the way I read from the scriptures. Shillong, with its churches and grottos, novenas and colourful ways inculcated from Italian missionaries, was often called the Rome of the East.

Ranchi, the summer capital and biggest town in south Bihar, hadn’t escaped missionary zeal. Here too, churches raised their mighty spires. There was the great Catholic cathedral on Purulia road, the single spire of St. Paul’s, the German battlements of the Lutheran church. During the days of the Great War, a Lutheran pastor, in an act of . inspiration, loaded a small cannon and lodged a ball in the spire of St. Paul’s, which can be seen to this day. But unlike the North-East, the adivasis here made their own music in church-tribal tunes unchained by counterpoint or metronome. In the village of Ormanjhi, Richards set aside his faded Levi’s for a loincloth and tough fishing tackle, and fished near naked in the rain-fed waters of the turgid Swarnarekha.

That night, we were talking about the meaning of freedom. He rolled over, stared at my face in the moonlight, and said’ Are we really free? To do what our hearts really want to do?’ And then he put his lips to mine and gave me the first taste of what I supposed heaven should have been. We made love, first hesitantly, then passionately, and then allover again.

Frank Richards became my lover, or rather, it was I who was in love. His family approved of the nice young ‘foreign’ friend from the North-East. On return to Shillong, we spent Saturday nights in his cramped bedroom, and went to Mass on Sunday to listen to sermons on temperance and the wrath of God. He even wrote me letters, and we went off for a honeymoon to Calcutta where we walked hand in hand down Park Street. A buddy of mine screamed, ‘You two are behaving like bloody homos, men don’t hold hands.’ But we carried on regardless. It was holiday time and we were far from home. John and Yoko may have had their ballad a decade ago, but this was our time.

A discerning girlfriend from Ranchi went on a picnic with us, and told me later that night, ‘He lusts after your skin. Mark my words, he’s just showing you off to his rustic hometown pals like a trophy.’ I laughed. I was in love. And how could she of the evil eye be the judge, she of the sallow skin and no-boyfriend reputation.

Frank Richards was my lover, and the girl with the evil eye could read the signs. He’s not in your class, she pointed out. He doesn’t know a meat knife from a fish fork, or a waltz from a tango. And have you noticed his awful dress-sense?

So I took him to tea at Larsen’s and to parties with the St. Paul’s crowd, where he supported the wall and I flashed around the dance-floor dazzling the dames in the best Travolta style. I was in the flush of Saturday night fever. He felt like a fish out of water, and the best Saturday nights, he said, were the two of us, the firelight, ruby wine, and take-out dinner from the Hong Kong Restaurant near Police Bazaar .

Here was I, the upper-class brat with a genuine English education, trying to play Henry Higgins. The subject of my attentions refused to let go of his squashed cabbage leaf. Instead of reading the signs, I decided to get to in touch with Richards’s rustic roots.

I suffered the bumpy ride to a village in south Bihar, grinned at his toothless grandmother, tried to relish the coarse red rice and curried vegetables, and became an instant authority on Mundas and Oraons and the struggle for tribal rights. As I turned eighteen, I fancied myself beside this great supporter of the downtrodden, fighting the landlords and the system shoulder to shoulder.

And then I caught him smooching a particularly ugly and smelly adivasi wench, with heaving bosom and rounded buttocks, bad breath and all.

On the long journey back to civilization, he gave me the line, ‘If only you were a girl.’ The line wasn’t new. A year ago, back on the train from Calcutta, he had told me that it would have been wonderful had I been a woman and we could have belonged to one another ‘completely’.

‘You should have been a woman.’ This is the classic cliche that the men in Bihar use on their lover boys. It is a psychological mantra to convince himself he is still heterosexual, and to perpetuate the myth that his passive partner is somehow less than a man. There can be no crueller cut, especially if the boy is slightly built, beautiful, and terribly in love with the man. But no warning lights flashed in the sky. I decided to become a woman.

My mother looked as though I had belted her over the head with the Shillong Peak. I told her I wanted a sex change operation. She couldn’t believe her ears, but accompanied me dutifully to the family quack. He asked me to drop my underpants, took one look and said, ‘There’s nothing the matter with him.’

That settled it for my mother. ‘Don’t ever tell me about such nonsense again, the very idea!’ she sniffed. But I wanted a second opinion from the best doctor in town. Richards came alone with me. Dr Chaudhary examined me thoroughly and said in a loud voice, ‘My dear, you are a healthy male teenager, with all your equipment in fine working order. Get this transsexual nonsense out of your head. The operation will not only be bloody expensive, it’s just short of a hoax. What’s wrong with living in a homosexual relationship with your friend? It’s done allover the world. Believe me,’ he said, staring long and hard at Richards, ‘don’t rush into something you’ll regret later. If your lover wants a woman, what’s he doing in your bed?’

‘If you only were a girl.’ The coin dropped firmly in place. ‘I’m not a girl,’ I told him. ‘I’m a guy. If that woman can give you a hundred per cent satisfaction, it’s fine. But if you want me, I’m acute guy, but not a woman.’ Back in Shillong, he came over to my place to patch things up. I told him that I would be very busy for the next three months. He tried calling up once or twice, and then the phone stopped ringing. He had completed his studies and returned to Bihar.

I continued to correspond with his paralysed father, a lovable man who strummed a mean guitar from his sick bed.

Many years later, I received an envelope with a familiar scrawl. Richards had spotted my column in a national newspaper. It was a short note of congratulations. ‘You always had wanted to be a journalist,’ he wrote. He had got a job in the Railways, was posted in Lucknow. I sent him a noncommittal, polite reply. We exchanged Christmas cards for a couple of years after that, and then Frank Richards sort of shunted away into the distance. I sat there on the bench in the darkness, thinking about users and abusers. But it wasn’t Frank Richards who was on my mind on that park bench. I was thinking of the Saturday night I met Rajendra. A full room swinging with Pink Floyd and bodies in syncopation. Pretty girls, handsome guys, plenty of beer. A typical wild north-eastern bang-up that happens whenever the crowd at the North Eastern Hill University campus can manage to shanghai a location. I waded through the jungle of flailing arms and swinging torsos to a backroom to find the host, and there in the circle of light, strumming a guitar sat this divine apparition. The room had about two dozen people, quiet and attentive. The voice was haunting, melodious, the quality of bitter chocolate. He was singing a particularly haunting Nepali ballad. The lover was telling his beloved, ‘I wish you well as you travel the perilous path through the jungle of life’.

He was singing with his head bowed. And when the song finished, raised his eyes and looked straight into my very soul. He smiled at me and nodded, and then began killing me softly, knowingly. ‘EuM manchay ko maya le koteefarka paradesha zingagi maa’ …This popular song written by the Nepali music legend Narayan Gopal brought a round of applause. But the guy wasn’t taking his eyes off me. He was ruggedly handsome, a veritable Bruce Lee with a golden voice to match. And oh sweet Jesus! He was actually singing this song to me. ‘It’s strange how my life has changed just because of the love of a single person’, the song said.

Then he handed the guitar to somebody else, and came straight at me. My head came up to his shoulder. He gave his shiny black shoulder-length hair a shake. He took both my hands in his and said, ‘I’m Rajendra, you must be Mark. You sing English songs, don’t you?’

A girl gushed, ‘Rajen, what a voice! How about coming outside for some beer?’ he disentangled her fingers from his arm with a gentle firmness and said, ‘You see, we musicians are talking serious business. Some other time, okay?’

He put his arms around me and steered me out of the room and into the whirl of dancing bodies. He spun me around and began to jive. Our host, Andrew Sohliya, was the emcee. ‘Hey, you guys, break it up,’ he said. ‘There are many girls just waiting for you guys to pick them up.’

Rajen smiled broadly as he countered, ‘Emcee, you piss off. Mark and I are doing some dirty dancing. Come back later. Why don’t you pick up some of those pretty girls and get laid in the meantime?’ and when the music mellowed and the lights went low, and Don Williams sang ‘We are the loving proof, beyond the shadow of doubt’, he held me close and said, ‘You’re coming back with me. You can’t get rid of me, you know.’

He led me outside under the cold stars and kissed me. And you bet I heard those violins. I knew that this had to be love. Rajen was nineteen. I was twenty-one. But he had more confidence, dash and drive than three of me. In the years that followed, it was Rajen who encouraged me to write stories, who arranged for a Kathmandu group to set some of my songs to music, and to remind me that I should be true to myself.

We went together to his home in south Sikkim. A family of four brothers and a sweet old mother who instantly took to me and called me ‘saila’-her fourth child, because there was a baby brother in the family whose position was now demoted to fifth! In the years that followed, I pursued my career in journalism, while Rajen completed his studies. We were always in touch, and together during vacations or whenever possible. He finished his studies and joined as a junior engineer in the Sikkim Power Department.

One day he called me up. ‘My mother is arranging a wedding. Mine. I’ve seen the girl and like her a lot. Would you like to see her? Come up to Sikkim next week, we’ll go together to Kathmandu.’

I had an assignment in Delhi. Here was my partner telling me to approve of what? A second spouse? I bit back my tears and asked him firmly, ‘Do you really like this girl?’

‘Oh, yes, she’s great. A veterinary doctor as well.’

‘Then go ahead,’ I said. Grown men don’t cry, I told myself.

And I took up an assignment in Bihar. The toughest assignment a journalist can get, they said. A state where killing and looting takes place everyday.

But as I sat there in the darkness, in the midst of an indefinite power cut, I re-read a letter in my mind. Rajen had written: DearestM, we’ve got a son. We’ve named him Rohit Mark. Vinita is posted at Melli town, while I am at Namche, in the old house. Do consider coming over to Namche. You must write that book on Lepcha folklore, and Rohit must know his uncle. ..With all my love, always, your one and only, R.

And I also reviewed my answer. ‘1 will definitely come for a week when Vinita is back in town and I can meet your family togetller. I do want to meet my nephew. My love to all of you, especially your dear wife and little Rohit. Your brother, Mark.’ I didn’t know whether Rajen had ever told his wife about us. The last thing I wanted was to have little Rohit’s world blown apart. ‘

‘Excuse me,’ a voice broke into my thoughts. The neon light overhead flickered into life. ‘Would you mind if I sat down here a moment?’ He was tall and not bad looking at all. ‘Suit yoursel£’ I said. ‘I was waiting out the power cut. Now that the lights are back, I’ll get back to my flat.’ .

‘Actually I was strolling around for the same reason. It’s too bloody hot. Say, I can give you a ride back to your flat. It’s number 701, isn’t it?’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Look, you know the Malhotras in 699? I’m a distant cousin. Doing fashion designing at Bombay. I’m down for a short spell. Say, why don’t we go for an ice cream?’

I thought of Rajen as I ciimbed into the white Maruti. Praful-that was the chap’s name-turned on the stereo. Doctor Hook droned on and I mentally sent it out to Rajen:

It wasn’t my first love.

It wasn’t my last,

but yours was the sweetest of all.

(From Penguin book of Gay Writing in India. )


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