Rohan Govenkar is the author of 1000 Kilograms of Goa (Pirates India; 2015) which was greeted with much praise by readers. He gratuated in Geological Science, and manages the family business. He is also actively involved in supporting many causes pertinent to Goa, its land and its people. His debut book can be purchased here and is available at Broadway's Panjim.
(A limited glossary is provided at the end of the story)
I think I was nine or ten; somewhere in that region where age is just a count of candles on your birthday cake. Like all neighbourhoods in Taleigao, we had a playground in the vicinity. And when I say playground, I am keeping it basic: the ‘ground’ we used to ‘play’ on. On our playground, stood over a hundred coconut palms which served as boundaries during our marble-aiming tournaments and protected our backs while playing ‘voddyanni’ ( a sadistic game of catch where victory depended on how badly you hurt your opponent’s back with a sock-ball).
It was another one of those carefree days at that playground, when a familiar vehicle - the kind we called ‘Jeep’ - passed by from the adjacent road. There was a synthetic banner mounted atop, funnel loudspeakers protruding from either side of it, and flowing ribbons tangled to all possible loops. A man wearing old fashioned eyeshades, with a croaky, nasally voice, worsened by the inferior make of the loudspeaker, was shouting out something which we understood nothing of, except that it was in Konkani.
The big boys shouted ‘run’, and if the big boys called for something, the smaller ones – that’s us - must obey. So we discarded the game, whichever archaic one we were playing, and ensured we intersected the jeep’s path at a blind corner where it was compelled to slow down. “Paper”, we screamed at the passengers, and they, without halting, hurled out a bunch of pink fliers that flew in all directions, before settling on the muddy road.
The boys tried to grab as many fliers as they could, and I too put in a fight for my share. As soon as I grabbed one, I folded and secured it in my trouser pocket, anxious to show my prized possession to the big boys. Once back on the field, each one of us produced our possessions to the big boys. I read mine aloud, and it proclaimed in bold letters ‘Tiatr’. Below that were listed a few other details, and names like ‘Patrick, Gerald, Nazareth, Philomena and Sylvia’ were on the print. I knew people with such names lived in other vaddos, and it was only our ‘Durgawadi’ that was full of names like Hanumant, Vaikunth, Narayan, Kashinath and Mahabaleshwar. But that wasn’t the issue; it wasn’t a factor for appraisal.
“This is trash,” one of the big boys announced.
“But you said we’d receive ten rupees for every such paper,” I protested, puzzled.
“Not for such papers, Laapit. These are advertisements for local theatre plays. You get money only for ones which say vote for something or someone.
“Vote for what?” I asked, scratching my head, the other younger kids surrounding me, equally eager.
“Vote for what? – It doesn’t matter for what. It just has to be a ‘Vote for’ flier,” another big boy said, haughtily.
Disappointed that our attempt hadn’t fetched the anticipated outcome, we tore those fliers into small bits and scattered them on our playground like dead, fallen butterflies. Our game resumed, and the lure of easy money was postponed for another day when another jeep of that sort would pass by. The dream of blowing up our hard-earned money at the nameless eatery we called ‘Raayaager’ was to be put on hold.
Several weeks later, while we played on our regular coconut-palm habitat, a loudspeaker trumpeted its call for votes. “Tumcho Moloaadik shikko hornaarecheruch maaraa.” Cast your valuable vote on the Deer symbol. This was it! – our passport to a nice, hot batatawada and paatal-sukhi mix bhaaji at Raayaager in the nearby San Paulo market. The big boys weren’t around for approval, but their recommendations were etched in our childish, greedy minds.
“The papers. Run. Run,” one of the boys commanded with the stern voice of a young leader.
Like we did the previous time, we ran across the playground, and encountered the jeep on its regular path. There were condescending smiles on the faces of the occupants. “Papers,” we demanded, and they ignored us as if we were begging for alms. But, when our orders turned louder, they had to bow down to democracy, and hurled a thin bunch of pink fliers at us.
“More,” we screamed in unison, and from the jeep flew out another bunch of papers, dancing in the breeze. This time, we jumped to catch those fliers before they landed on the road, like how the public goes ecstatic in Hindi movies after the hero empties a loaded money-sack (mostly belonging to his girlfriend’s father who’s also the villain) off a high-rise terrace.
My holdings were four pink fliers, which when calculated, added to 40 rupees. And this time, I didn’t hide them in my pockets, but slid them inside my trousers, well-pressed and secured by the broad elastic, to keep them safe from the young, friendly muggers I played cricked with. When the big boys arrived later in the evening, we all proudly showed our treasures to them. Most of us had six each, some four, and a few unlucky ones could manage only two. The big boys inspected our papers and ascertained that they were indeed campaign fliers, and guaranteed us that we were rich.
“So take the papers and give me my forty rupees,” I told the one who was talking the most.
The boy smirked, and replied, “I don’t buy those, Laapit. You must hand them over to the polling officer during elections. He will give you the money.”
“But… but… can we enter those polling booths?” I asked, creases forming on my forehead.
“You can’t enter; you’re not eighteen. So you’ll have to give them to the taxi guys who drive the voters to the booth.”
I wondered who these taxi guys were, that he spoke of, but there was some hope that my pink fliers would still get me the money they were worth. At least I was richer than some of these stupid kids from the other vaddo who had brought in ripped-off elections posters for evaluation. You didn’t need the big boys to tell you that those election posters were all over the village, on every tree, hugging every lamp post, adorning the walls of every little cigarette shop, defacing the column of every building in the market; which meant that those posters were too commonplace to be worth anything. The real deal were these pink fliers which could not easily be acquired; one had to risk life and limb, run with great speed, and inhale toxic fumes emanating from those jeeps, to get them.
So I kept those pink fliers with me, in a shoe-box where I stored my other valuables which included some foreign postage stamps, a two anna coin of the British Era (I believed it was a priceless antique) and a single imitation earring that I’d lifted off the roadside which looked way too shiny not to be gold. I intently awaited the elections, whose announcement would come to me as a surprise on one fine random morning.
The big day came, clearly marked by the bustle on the streets. All the possible taxi drivers from Taleigao were employed to walk into houses and persuade residents to come along with them and exercise their fundamental right. Whether elderly, handicapped or ill, no excuse would work since the taxi drivers were offering people a free ride to the polling booth and back. Voting was made to look like an effortless activity, and the convenience of travel was sponsored by hopeful candidates who harboured the belief that victory was assured only with a large turnout.
Ensuring that the day was indeed the promised one when our pink fliers would turn into cash, I dusted by shoe-box and extracted my treasure. My parents were just about to leave with the on-duty taxi driver, and I entrusted them with my pink fliers, asking them to take them along to the polling booth. My mother refused to comply; she hurled those fliers at the sofa and said, “If I carry material of any political party, people will assume that I am supporting that party. And if that party doesn’t win, the winning party will hold a grudge against me.”
“No, no, these are simple fliers the jeep people gave us. We are not bothered what party they belonged to,” I explained.
“Well, I am bothered; I am not carrying those with me. Final,” she said and scurried off.
I followed the foolish woman to the gate, explaining to her that she was turning her back on 40 rupees. I emphasised the figure because it was not just 40 rupees, it was my 40 rupees; the money that would buy me a delightful cheap meal at Raayaager. Yet, she refused; no encashing of my tender. Moreover, she called those fliers worthless, and snubbed me saying I was dumb to believe those uneducated farmers’ boys.
It was difficult for me to agree with her opinion of those farmers’ boys. The big boys were stronger, smarter and had a more practical understanding of the world. After all, they toiled in the fields, chewed gutkha and used fearless language which consisted of Konkani swear words which my parents never dared to use. My folks were just scared of being on the wrong side of politicians and apparently, my harmless pink fliers would do that damage. Other than this, I had often overheard my parents speak to other parents about how pocket-money was deleterious; how children could end up misusing the money and get drawn into vices.
What vices? I just needed a batawada and a sukhi-patal mix bhaaji for a couple of days. Nobody ever went to rehab for eating batawada. By then, I had concluded that my parents were cowardly and over-protective, or plain jealous.
Sitting on a notional profit whose validity would die out within a few hours had put me in a strange conundrum. I decided to visit my octogenarian granny. I dared not ask my grandfather: he was an ill-famed cynic who had given up hope in politics, called everybody a rogue and threw around platitudes like ‘they are all the same’ and ‘nothing’s going to change’. Evidently, this man was difficult to reason with, leave alone enticed to vote, even if the taxi drivers decided to rope in a Contessa which was the hottest car back then. My granny was obviously the smarter one; she was hardworking, she sniffed tobacco and she often used words like ‘Dhukor’, mostly aimed at me. She was more like the big boys I looked up to.
“Aaji, the taxis have arrived. Won’t you go out and vote?” I asked, feigning innocence.
She blatantly ignored me and continued to grind chilies on that old ‘roggdo’ in our backyard.
“Aaji, please vote. Get up and go,” I said.
My granny responded in the negative, but was curious to find out what made me so persuasive. So I confided in her the story of my prized pink pamphlets. After a few minutes of intellectual exchange, it dawned on me that this old woman was more ignorant than my mother. Not only did she turn down my proposition, she also rubbished the entire concept of elections, claiming that she had never had to deal with such hassles, having lived most of her life under a dictatorial Portuguese regime.
When the wisest owl of the family had disparaged my effort, I took some time alone to think with a clear head. After a few minutes in solitude, I was inclined to think that those pink fliers were just another piece of garbage: an urban myth designed for gullible children. I didn’t take the disappointment to heart, but considered carrying forward this legacy of selling dreams to other unsuspecting children. I assumed this was to be passed on, like those other stories which floated in Taleigao, like the shabby, mad lady in the other vaddo who was rumored to be a baby-eating witch.
A couple of years hence, I had turned into a big boy, and remarkable changes had started to show in my body, and wickedness in my mind. The playground had now turned into a barren flatland, with many parallel tar roads criss-crossing through; a few houses had emerged within its new grid-like pattern. As I was pedalling away on my bicycle, passing by the smaller boys playing gully-cricket, I stopped for a familiar chat. I educated those boys about the pink slips disbursed by identifiable jeeps; and the worth now doubled– 20 rupees a piece.
However, a killjoy of an Election Commissioner introduced rules which disallowed posters and loudspeakers and campaign-vehicles during elections. The new kids would have to miss out on the enthusiasm associated with hopping around jeeps and confronting adult strangers. We were probably the last little boys to get tricked into this deceit.
Much later, elections evolved. The fliers turned obsolete, but the memories attached to them dwelled in my mind as lessons learnt for life, in turn giving birth to new skills -the ability to filter hope, and the strength to handle disappointment. Strangely, these lessons continue to be pertinent, and the newly-learnt skills cushion many a fall, specifically around election season.
Today, on this cold January evening of 2017, I was sipping coffee in my living room. Someone knocked on the door. I opened it and saw that a large group of people stood outside in confident poses. Memories of those big boys on that playground rushed to my head. Amidst the large group of people, in the centre of the crowd, stood a man with a plastic smile, folded palms and grandiose promises.
He was the pink flier from my childhood.
Anna: archaic unit of Indian currency, now replaced by paisa as in pence.
Batawada: A snack made of potatoes.
Dukhor: pig; slang for disgusting human being.
Laapit: colloquial term for young boy usually someone who is uppity.
Gutkha: a narcotic.
'Raayaager’: the use of gar or kar denotes belonging in the Konkani language. In this case, the eatery belonging to Raayaa.
Roggdo: a rough-hewn stone grinder used to grind spices.
Tiatr: local vernacular theatre.
Vaddo: a ward of a particular village. Goan villages are segmented into several wards for easy identification.