Not far from Minto Park, our railway shed had seen its heyday. Once upon a time, men worked here round the clock under its steel roof with unglazed openings that allowed steam and smoke to escape. Engines came for repairs or a general washdown. The end of steam had seen a gradual decline, with gangs giving a bad name to loco sheds. Wagon breakers lured bulk carriers inside, broke open their seals to steal coal and wheat, and occasionally guns from the armaments factory. You’d stay away from sheds unless you had business with the breakers.
Ladly had discovered our loco shed that was rotting like a haunted house. Pigeons claimed it as their own, and stray dogs. Monsoon tempted snakes to bury themselves inside abandoned ash pits, sharing quarters with the generous company of crab spiders.
The boiler rack served as our stage, with concrete blocks on either side doubling as wings. Fully restored floodlights, salvaged by Raju, hung from overhead grids and added glamour. We didn’t mind the mangled heap of metal, happy to pick our way through it. Sound waves had a field day, bouncing off rusted steel and rotten wood, cracked glass and torn canvas, gathering notes from jagged rocks.
JJ sat in a trance with the band surrounding him before we started our session. He made us practise vocals. Then Dr Lobo struck chords and invited us to sing in tune. We took our time to warm up, then played to our audience of pigeons and snakes and Saz who’d come along for the rehearsals.
Raju got a scolding for going too fast. My guitar wasn’t in tune, and JJ gave me a mean look. Ladly seemed a touch distracted, while Dr Lobo was at his smoothest. Saz clapped and cheered after each number, and we bowed just like a proper gig.
Then JJ sprang a surprise and asked me to do an Elvis.
“Go on, Elvis, give us an Elvis!”
“Meaning what?” I asked, setting down my guitar.
“As in the King, Lonesome Lover, Memphis Master, the Pelvis Man,” Raju did a drizzle on his hi-hat.
“Yes...let’s have an Elvis!” Saz screamed aloud.
Me singing an Elvis after all these years! “But what?” I screamed back at her, “rock and roll, ballad or standard pop?”
“Sing one of his Vegas hits,” Dr Lobo prompted gently. Saz nodded and smiled her special smile, and I was caught in two minds about whether to sing an all-time favourite or a lesser-known gem.
That was when we heard the explosion. Boom! Then another one, louder than the first. It didn’t sound like a drummer’s strike. Like an impenetrable rock, the sound sat under our shed and rumbled the iron roof. Quite suddenly, pigeons started to fly in tight circles, desperate to find a way out and released a confetti of feathers that descended below. The dogs, stunned into silence, howled, finding their voices. Someone was banging on the corrugated sidings, making you wince from that sharp clangour. It felt like an invasion.
“Keep your heads down!” Ladly barked, barely moments before the arrival of a torrent of rocks. We went scrambling into the ash pits. But first, I streaked across the stage to pull Saz down into our own bunker, the missiles missing us by pure luck. Losing his balance, Dr Lobo fell heavily, Raju pulling him by the feet to safety.
In the deafening silence, we waited for the next round of explosions. Has the enemy, whoever he was, announced a temporary ceasefire? We wondered. Inside the ash pit bunkers, we heard each other breathing, and the movement of loose rock threatening to give us away. We didn’t have to wait too long before marching boots approached the boiler rack, coming to a stop a dozen or so yards away. Kallu’s voice rang out loud and clear.
“Come out, Elvis!”
He was wearing his trademark fatigues, frothing at his split lips. Huddled by my side, Saz stiffened and held me firmly down.
A growl came out of Kallu’s throat, “Get lost, Elvis! Mind your own business and let my sister mind hers. Stop following her around like a dog. Come out and I’ll teach you how to fight like a real man.” Gone were the salesman’s sighing and moaning, the bowed head, the respectful “Sir” – he looked like a proper buffalo-killing demon. And I was his target, not our band. Arrived at the loco shed with his fight club warriors, he was bent on performing section 299 of the Indian Penal Code – the unlawful killing of a human being with malicious intent.
Shuffling feet made me think of rats, but it was our Ladly. He left his trench and walked up to Kallu, standing tall right in front of his nose. One criminal before another. A lead guitarist who’d clocked more jail time than any band member. And he was speaking to Kallu in a mixture of bass and baritone.
“Go tell your boss, Kallu, Elvis is untouchable as long as he is with his band, and whatever he does is his own sweet business. Tell him to mind his own, because our DC is well aware of your club and won’t think twice cutting off your fist if you make the wrong move.”
Through the zones of light and shadow, I saw Kallu’s warriors, each dressed in fatigues, fully armed and waiting for orders. Ladly tapped Kallu on the shoulder, appearing to give him some friendly advice, “Now leave, before your sister turns you in. You can bet she will after what she has seen here today.”
Saz broke free of my grip. Kallu’s mouth fell open as she scrambled out of our hole and walked up to stand right beside Ladly. When she spoke, she hit the highest note I’d ever heard from a female lead.
“Go home, Kallu,” Saz blasted off, “go feed your brother if you can. Take him to see a doctor. Make a trip to the jail to see your mother, and take some food with you. If you want to fight, fight with your friends, and make some money breaking their heads. Forget about Elvis, and worry about cows and buffalos...”
Kallu’s jaw dropped, and his forehead furrowed.
“Tell the man who’s sent you to kill him that I will do what I want. He must kill me before he touches him. Go tell him, Saz has more brains than he thinks. That she’ll never let anyone harm Elvis for as long as she can breathe.”
She punched Kallu on the chest with her elbow and screamed out her final words, “Come, teach me how to fight!” In the confusion that followed, I could sense the gang backing off, their shadows shortening on the sidings. Keeping his face down, Kallu inched away from the stage, then disappeared. Unable to bear the tension any longer, a dirty green snake slithered away to its hole.
Band members, led by Raju, came out after Kallu had left. Our stage was in a mess with rocks strewn all over, and it required an effort to clear it up. Raju’s snare drum had been punctured, and the guitars needed retuning. A missing fiddle had Dr Lobo flustered, till Ladly recovered it from under a pile of rubble. It was time to pack up, but JJ emerged from a large carriage bin and issued orders to get back into the groove. “Leaving a session unfinished is like leaving a gig without playing the last number,” he said, then took us back to where we’d left off.
“Now sing your song, Elvis, give us the King.”
“Go Elvis!” Raju yelled from the drums. Dr Lobo made a sign as if to begin his chords.
Saz was smiling.
And so I sang with all I’d ever known and felt about singing, striking a simple first note just like Elvis.
You give your hand to me, and then you say hello
And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so
And everyone could tell, you think you know me well
But you don’t know me...
My band was backing me up and singing along. Saz was blowing kisses in the air, and my heart was filling with something indescribable.
No you don’t know the one who dreams of you at night
And longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight
To you I’m just a friend, and that’s all I’ve ever been
But you don’t know me...
There at the loco shed, I heard surging applause befitting Vegas, saw a million flashbulbs blinding me, and an ocean of faces screaming madly for Elvis. I knew I had found my song for Sarojini.
Excerpted with permission from Sarojini’s Mother, Kunal Basu, Penguin Viking.