The marriage procession turned from Mulund’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Road toward the railway station, wending its way through the main bazaar. Leading the procession were the men of the brass band in their glittering outfits, followed by the boys with their shiny teenage mustaches. In the middle were the middle-aged men in their tight T-shirts, bestowing proud glances on their wives and on the bazaar shops. Next to them were a bunch of dancing drunks, their faces smeared with colored powder. Right at the end came the women’s group, like the brake van at the end of a train. Amid all this, sitting on a starved-looking dark brown horse as though he was welded to its spine, was the bridegroom. The strings of jasmine flowers descending from his gold-edged turban covered his face almost completely. The feather on the turban looked as if it were about to fall. No one in the procession could remember the face of Dagadu Parab, the bridegroom.
Walking a little ahead of the horse, like a master of ceremonies, was Balachandra Parab, the bridegroom’s older brother, who had arranged for the horse to make the procession more attractive. He had gone to much trouble to hire the horse, and had supervised all the arrangements for the procession from their home to the bride’s chawl. Now he walked ahead, looking now and then at the people thronging the bazaar and also at his younger brother on the horse. The look on his face seemed to communicate that this was the first time in their family’s history that a wedding procession on a horse was taking place.
The procession was approaching the Shivaji statue. Just as they came near, an old motorbike in a garage nearby sputtered into life with a screech. This sky-shattering sound pierced through the bazaar, drawing everyone’s attention. In a blink, the horse had run away, carrying the bridegroom with it.
One moment the horse had raised its front hooves and neighed. The bridegroom called out in a strange voice. It seemed as if he was trying to decide on which side of the horse to fall. As the horse vanished with the bridegroom, a cry went up. The people in the procession started diving into the nearby lanes in search of the bridegroom. Balachandra Parab tried to address the procession but his lips moved helplessly. He then rushed to the vegetable market. People were immersed in buying vegetables, in holding out their bags, handing over money. It seemed to make no difference to them that this horse had bolted. As though something had suddenly occurred to him, Balachandra rushed back to the street and returned to the Shivaji statue. He told the women and the remaining band members to stay where they were. The women moved to the side, since it was a busy street. But they ended up crowding the approach to a fruit seller’s shop, and he chased them back into the street.
When this event was taking place, Balachandra’s wife laughed out loud. She knew that her husband had deliberately gotten a horse for the procession to show up her family for not having done the same during their own wedding. Balachandra Parab was in a dilemma. “Dagadu … Dagadu …” he kept stammering as he went through the vegetable market and reached Goshala Road. The terrible question that confronted him was where he should search for the horse. And if he found it, would Dagadu still be on it? Or should he search for Dagadu instead? All the men from the procession who went in different directions kept looking at the side of the road to see if Dagadu had fallen down somewhere.
School students who had just been let off for the day swarmed into the street. Balachandra stopped some of them and asked if they had seen a horse going that way. He asked this question again when he saw people at a bus stop a little farther ahead, and was frustrated that he got no answer. And then he wondered: Where was the fellow who was minding the horse? Perhaps he, too, had gone looking for the animal. After all, he would be the one most bothered about the loss. At that moment, Balachandra decided to look only for his brother, and, jumping into an autorickshaw, he began to wander through the streets. “Stop here!” “Stop there!” he said from time to time. A pile of baskets in the distance looked like a horse. Someone on the roadside seemed like Dagadu. Finally, when the meter had climbed to sixteen rupees, he stopped the autorickshaw. He was by then quite far from Mulund.
Gulam, the boy who had brought the horse, had disappeared in the commotion. No sooner had the horse neighed and bolted than the youth ran to the station and jumped into a train bound for VT. The horse wasn’t his. It belonged to Bhanumathi’s father, Bhanumathi whom he loved in secret and lusted after in his fantasies. Gulam worked in a grocery store in Kalwa, and while wrapping a package one day had set eyes on Bhanumathi, who lived in the stable-like house opposite. Her arms had attracted him. Watching her hang clothes out on the washing line with those arms turned the youth into her slave. Her father was supposed to have once been a tongawalla. Now he owned five tongas, and sent them to Juhu Beach in the holiday season to offer rides for the children.
In this house that seemed like a stable crammed with tongas, horse dung, horses’ tails, horse feed, young Bhanumathi moved around like a swan, laughing and then vanishing immediately. She, too, began to notice the youth she had enslaved, and began to play with him just through her glances. One day, the youth went boldly up to her father and asked for her hand in marriage. In return, her father slapped him hard. Gulam nearly died of humiliation. But he firmly believed in the triumph of love as shown in Hindi films, and didn’t give up staring at Bhanumathi’s white arms even as he weighed and measured out grain. With a stubborn rage, he began to cast his looks of love at her. He befriended the tongawallas. If young girls came to his shop, he detained them with sweet talk and tried thus to attract Bhanumathi’s attention. When his efforts increased, she stopped looking at him. Not knowing whether he felt angry or sad, he began to spend time in the Thane tonga stand, gossiping with the drivers. During one of these sessions, Balachandra Parab had come there to bargain for his brother’s wedding horse. Gulam was filled with a strange gallantry. “Give me whatever you can afford. I’ll bring the horse before dawn. But I won’t be able to decorate him or anything,” he promised.
The next day before the sun rose, he unfastened a tonga horse from Bhanumathi’s father’s stable and walked with him all the way to Mulund to Parab’s kholi. Those in the chawl who came up enthusiastically to decorate the horse were scared off by the animal’s behavior. Without being able to do anything with the horse, they finally used a step stool to get the decorated bridegroom onto the animal.
In his fear of this creature, which seemed to have leaped out of the movies, Dagadu had almost forgotten his bridegroom status. Whenever the horse shook its head a little, he thought that he was finished. By the time the procession had started moving, Dagadu kept thinking that he shouldn’t have been born as his elder brother’s sibling. When the band began to play, the horse made a small jump, and Dagadu’s bottom received a sound blow. He moved his buttocks to ease the pain, and received another blow in the same area, making him curse himself for having been born a man. The youth who was the horse’s custodian walked along, indifferent to Dagadu’s plight.
Gulam wanted to get away from the horse he had brought. But the pretty young girls in their oversized blouses kept coming up to apply perfume, and he couldn’t tear himself away from the procession. Balachandra Parab had bought a Gold Spot for him as they were walking along. Just as he finished drinking it, the Shivaji-statue incident took place and the horse bolted. Without looking at either side, the youth ran to the station, intending to take a train to VT and catch a movie. As he ran, he cursed Bhanumathi and her father and wished destruction upon them.
There in Kalwa, Bhanumathi’s father had woken at eight o’clock, and had danced with rage when he heard the news of the missing horse. He ordered his tongas to look through the neighborhood and see if they could find the creature. He filed a complaint at the police station. When they asked him what color the horse was, he couldn’t remember and said, “horse color.” Meanwhile, Bhanumathi went in to bathe. As she scrubbed her limbs, she sang “Laalaalaaa” to herself. She was full of good spirit today.
Here in Mulund, Balachandra was hailed by someone as he walked tiredly in the heat.
“Arre, what are you doing here? I thought it was your brother’s wedding today?”
Balachandra felt like beating the man up. For one second, he felt that the wedding mandap, or tent, the chawl, were all far, far away. If Dagadu and the horse were here, the wedding ceremony would have been over by now. Suddenly, he wondered whether Dagadu had indeed reached the mandap and they were all waiting for him. When he thought of going to the police station, he remembered the nets in which they could trap him for the licenses he had not applied for—setting up the mandap, the loudspeakers, etc. Dragging his feet, he slowly approached the mandap by 2 p.m. The women were drowsing in the heat. The band people and the loudspeaker men were going into the kitchen and coming out grinning. At 3 p.m., Balachandra stood up and addressed whoever was there: “It’s all God’s will. Whatever will happen, will happen,” and ordered that lunch be served. The guests enjoyed the meal, hoping that the horse would not turn up to spoil their enjoyment. At his wife’s insistence, he ate a jalebi. When he had to pay the band the entire day’s hire fee for just the two tunes they had played, his heart came into his mouth. But he counted out the notes, making sure people were watching him do so. When the loudspeaker men asked if they should stay till evening, he shouted at them and asked them to leave. Then he sat down on a chair and dozed off.
Why had the horse behaved as it had near the Shivaji statue? The horse had been in the circus for a while. Then it had been part of a film set. The sound of the motorcycle gunning must have ignited old memories—who knows which ones—in the creature. It was at that sound that the horse had run. It was already angry with the early morning fuss, and this sound was the last straw. The horse galloped through the Rajaji vegetable market and within seconds it was on Zaver Road, turning from there onto Goshala Road. Sitting on the horse, Dagadu shook as though he were made of thermocol. With what strength he had, he clutched the horse’s neck and closed his eyes to become one with the horse’s movement—Dagadu actually neighed in astonishment that he hadn’t yet fallen off. On Goshala Road, a bunch of schoolchildren shouted as he went past. Dagadu’s turban, however, fell off at this point. The schoolchildren picked it up and ran after the horse for a while. From Goshala Road, the horse went into the vast St. Pais playing field, galloped through a herd of cows, crossed two or three cricket pitches and a small wall, slipped past a petrol station, and thus emerged onto the Agra highway, running between enormous vehicles, trucks, and double-decker buses. From the buses, passengers looked out at Dagadu. Now the horse began to gallop. Dagadu gave up all connection to the world, and flew along with the horse, feeling at one with the beast. His job at the textile mill, his brother’s bullying, his bucktoothed bride-to-be, his tedious daily routine—Dagadu felt he had kicked everything away, and clutched the horse harder. At one moment he felt as though he were Shivaji himself climbing up to Raigad Fort. The horse was running energetically on the highway, it galloped through the octroi post and through several traffic signals, toward a goal known only to itself.
After a long time, the horse turned off into the by-lanes of a suburb, and, snorting and breathing hard, came to a stop in what looked like a stable. Servants came out of the house and helped the drooping Dagadu climb down. They unbuttoned his gold thread buttons and put him on a rope bed to rest. He saw, with unfocused eyes, a girl bringing him a tumbler of water. As he drank the water noisily, she went off, singing “Laalaalaaa” softly. Without a word, in two minutes flat, Bhanumathi’s father accepted this ready-made bridegroom as his son-in-law, this braveheart who had brought his horse back.
Many months later, someone told Balachandra Parab that Dagadu was giving children rides on Juhu Beach in a large and beautiful tonga. That same day, Balachandra took his wife and children, changed one train and two buses, and reached Juhu Beach. On the beach, there were scores of people, scores of children getting rides in tongas and on camels, and balloons everywhere. Dagadu was not to be seen. Balachandra walked around till his feet ached. He bought his children a packet of peanuts and made them sit down, and then walked around for some more time before he came back. Seeing his disappointment, his wife grumbled, “So you didn’t find him? If we had, at least we could have asked him to pay for the wedding costs.”
“No, no. That was the least I could do for him, being his brother,” said Balachandra, looking helplessly at the sea.