‘I had my pistols-at-noon moment, but no reasons to fire’

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By Shone Satheesh Babu

Illustrations: Samia Singh

WHEN I was 15, I once went to collect my guitar, given for repair at the only musical instrument shop in Udaipur. Normally, the shop was a desolate place with various dusty instruments entombed in their plastic wrappings. That day it was abuzz with people.

A bearish assistant, who fixes the instruments, handed me my guitar. When i saw how bad a job he’d done, I was furious. The keys were askew, the neck had bent in a way that the higher notes came off muted, and he had drilled a few inexplicable holes to fasten the bridge. This job lay beyond salvation. It was like asking a burnt cake to unbake. Still, and unmindful of the prospective buyers around me, I gave him an earful, with instructions to undo everything. He was twitching nervously. Perhaps that was anger. He beckoned me to follow him to the basement.

Unscrewing the bolts from the guitar, he fumed: “Do you know how it feels to be insulted in front of your employers, that too by a small boy?” And before I could react, a thwack on my head. And then a slap. I was too mortified to even register anything. He went on: “I know where you Christians live. My entire basti will descend on you if you even tell about this to anyone.” Fear had taken hold of me inside the shop, but when I got out, an animalistic rage took over.

In those days, Udaipur was a place rampant with smalltime gangs. The leaders called themselves dons, and every locality seemed to have one. If you knew the right don or even his associate, It was enough to tide over any confrontation at school. I knew just the person for the job: he was appropriately named Bhagvan, as he claimed to be the adhyaksh of a Shiv Sena unit. I’d spent many days bunking school to sit with these guys and hear tales of slash-fights and gang wars over cups of chai. It was time to script my own story and join the league.

Accompanied by a friend, I went to meet him soon after the incident. His experience with such things was evident. “Make sure we don’t do anything inside the shop. He might just break his own stuff and call the cops on us for vandalism,” he said. A thrashing, on the other hand, does not leave clues.

Within an hour, the three of us were back at the music shop. An afternoon lull had descended on the shopping complex; most outlets were shuttered down. I tiptoed down the corridor to see if the coast was clear.

What I saw there was utterly surprising. There was no one in the shop, except for the guy who’d hit me. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with an Indian string instrument on his lap, and playing in rapture. It was a moving scene; he played exceedingly well, and I thought it was almost like penance.

Suddenly, I felt all the bitterness inside me melt. And then the scourge of guilt, when I realised what I had come here for. I also realised the absurdity and folly of the duels shown in the movies, where the price of an insult holds the lives of both parties to ransom. This was my pistols-at-noon moment, but I was left with no reasons to fire. I ran back to my friend and the don, and told them that maybe we should abort the plan. It was too late. They looked at me as though I’d gone mad. Grudgingly, I went with them inside, now stricken with disgrace at the thought of disrupting a musician in practice. He stood up, put aside the instrument, denied everything initially, but followed us to the basement. He was asked to apologise, and when he did, he was slapped and whacked half a dozen times. A premeditated act only brings premeditated catharsis. I had my revenge, I expected satisfaction. There was none. And when my friend gloated over the poor man’s face as he apologised, I felt nothing.

Shone Satheesh Babu is 25. He is an assistant copy editor with Tehelka.

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