Posted on Oct 14, 2017
Literary critic, columnist and crime fiction writer Zac O'Yeah was made an offer he couldn't refuse. Here's his account of his day with his malificent alter ego, his inner "rowdy".
(Written for the exhibiton catalogue of Clare Arni's show "Notorious Rowdies")
By ZAC O’YEAH
Today we did my nightmare.
Being a certified action and horror flick aficionado, and having seen more than my share of zombies and gore over the years, I thought I more or less knew what my worst case scenario would look like. And how to handle it. It’s just that this one time I’m centre stage, arm-wrestling and pistol-whipping my buddy who’s trying to kill me. His name is Vinayak, alias RIP. The situation is confusing and… above all, it isn’t a dream.
We’re by this deep well in an ancient courtyard tucked behind a small shrine, in the maze of old Bengaluru, surrounded by enthusiastic street kids who cheer us on, eager to see who’ll keel over first. Whenever I display signs of losing the battle, one precocious little fellow steps up and directs me in the art of warfare – showing me how to point the 9mm Beretta in a more threatening manner. Hopefully he’s just applying knowledge gleaned from gangster flicks.
Another toddler wants to arm-wrestle me, and I begin to feel my mouse elbow compounded by the usual carpal tunnel syndrome acting up. Desk jobs don’t exactly prepare you for a stint as a semi-professional rowdy-sheeter. To add to my feeling of inadequacy, I realize what a top-heavy fatso I am; if Vinayak should push me hard I might topple down into the well. Or, god forbid, I might accidentally shove Vinayak over the edge.
By his own admission, Vinayak’s got the paunchy body of a middle-aged accountant and neither of us is likely to be cast as stars in Survival of the Fittest, if that seminal book by Darwin was ever made into a movie – except perhaps as minor side characters unfit for survival. Luckily, Clare Arni, the photo artist who is the boss, calls an end to the inaugural shoot and we move towards the main attraction, the traditional wrestling pit.
Just a few weeks earlier I’d been a guest at a cocktail party at Clare’s house, where slides of anthropological interest were to be shown, when the British-born but Bengaluru-based photographer insisted that I model for a day in her new work-in-progress, ‘Notorious Rowdies’. She’s persuasive as she tells me how her imagination was fired by local crime reporting of ‘notorious rowdies absconding’ and ‘rowdy-sheeter so and so, alias so and so, hacked to death by rival gang’. Add to that Kannada action movie posters where ominous gents swing machetes. Now she’s getting the city’s crème de la crème to shed light on their darkest fantasies: a famous policeman playing a cinematic rowdy, a businessman becoming a brothel madam, a respectable lawyer dressing up as a eunuch, innocent-looking housewives transforming into gangster molls, and her own sister to act as a Greek goddess of fury.
‘It struck me that perhaps there was a latent rowdy in each of us wanting to be released,’ Clare explains. ‘The idea is that I don’t direct or decide what rowdy they should play but that they should search within themselves and come up with their own personal rowdy persona.’ She then helps them realize these dirty dreams by arranging costumes, the settings, and generally being a sounding board when it comes to plotting their imaginary crimes.
It is clearly a project of great artistic merit and so later in the night, after a few more pints, I begin feeling flattered and agree to give it a shot. Waking up the morning after, however, it occurs to me that it may be another of those easier-said-than-done things that I habitually take upon myself. Bad habit. The project parameters remain as fuzzy as my hangover: I’m supposed to conduct some do-it-yourself psychoanalysis to plot my personal psychodrama and dig out the filth that lurks within. Just shows that sweet talk goes a long way with me.
But then again I’m a detective novelist. So who am I kidding – I’ve killed off so many characters in my stories, that obviously what is needed is a reality check. After a few nights of soul-searching and disturbed sleep, I ask myself: What would be my worst nightmare? I sleep on the question for a few more nights to find out.
There was one particularly bad dream that recurred: To meet a big fat rowdy and having to defend myself in a life-and-death pummelling, and end up actually killing that person. It’d be really bad for my karma. Practically murder. I don’t even want to think about it.
But then for Clare’s sake I do. I just need a co-rowdy to make the nightmare real, because although a man can do many stupid things alone, he cannot wrestle himself to death. This being an arts project I call Vinayak Varma, CEO of one-man creative studio mixtape.in and the great-great-great grandson of the legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma, to check if he’d like to become a murder victim. In which case I’d be happy to kill him on the following Saturday. He readily agrees and even promises to oil his moustache.
What about the scene? In a flash of inspiration I recall a photo exhibition of the dungeon-like old-town wrestling pits with their blood-coloured earth. It turns out Clare knows the photographer, Pradeep KS, who’s spent years documenting these archaic gymnasiums and the fascinating rituals surrounding them, and he’s happy to assist us. Many a heritage conservationist fears that traditional wrestling is a vanishing cultural practice, so it seems like a first-class idea to put one of the pits to good use.
And so it happened that this morning I found myself walking somewhere off the Chickpete Bazaar towards the location, feeling a little self-conscious about the gunny sack of weapons I was lugging – guns, swords, machetes, cricket bats. Clare had gone into overkill procuring props, including rather evil ‘longs’ that are great sharp swords made out of lengthy strips of a car chassis, equipped with primitive wooden handles, and favoured by the Bengaluru underworld.
Turning into a narrow back lane, which according to my phone GPS doesn’t even exist, but where houses stand cheek by jowl, we reached our destination behind an anonymous wooden gate built into a nondescript mud wall. As the crow flies, it’s not so distant from my usual reality. Along the approach road we had passed a series of rusty, wrecked cars, one with a streamer stating ‘Love is like a Chinese mobile, no guarantees’. Apart from that reminder of 21st century sensibilities, I’m amazed how vividly this area, known as Ranasinghpete, bespeaks of those heady 16th century days of chivalry when the heroic chieftain Kempegowda founded Bengaluru. Inside is a hundred-year-old garadi mane, with a charming courtyard, a well for washing up and a roughly 200-square-foot indoor wrestling pit.
The form of wrestling practiced here, kushti, is ancient and was established already by the 1730s when Tipu Sultan’s father, the illustrious Hyder Ali, before becoming the ruler of Mysore state, started out as a wrestler at a garadi mane hereabouts. In those days the city was dotted with such gymnasiums – there may have been as many as fifty, but now only about a dozen remain.
Yet even today, in this modern age of AC gyms, big strapping fellows known as pehlwanjis gather here at dawn and dusk to battle it out, muscles lathered with Ayurvedic oils. The generous custodians have told Pradeep that we’re welcome to use the place for a few hours in the middle of the day, when it is anyway empty. The fact that pieces of modern gym apparatus stand in a corner, surrounded by ancient looking stone dumbbells and iron cudgels, is evidence enough that this is a living place – not a museum.
With a single overhead bulb lighting it up, the 12-feet-deep layer of soft earth in the matti pit apparently gets its characteristic colour from vermillion and turmeric, and has been soaked in groundnut oil, medicated ghee and cow’s urine over the ages to make it antiseptic so that wrestlers don’t get skin infections. No alcohol or cigarettes are allowed anywhere near it. The sweat that obviously sinks into the earth too, makes the room feel dank and my own sweat breaks out even before I make any physical moves.
I explain my plot idea to Vinayak, Clare and Pradeep: ‘The evil Foreign Hand (me) comes to make an offer the Local Rowdy (Vinayak alias RIP) can’t refuse. But he, who is leisurely oiling himself in his pit, does indeed refuse. We arm-wrestle to sort out matters. When that doesn’t do it RIP twists my neck 360 degrees while I try to chop his head off with a “long”. This leads to us both getting badly angry and a duel ensues where we shoot each other in the mouths, following which the Foreign Hand has a midlife crisis.’ It is like the Greatest Hits of Shakespeare in a nutshell.
Although Clare thinks Vinayak looks too cute to be a rowdy, it all changes once he gets into character. He’s filched his wife’s kajal and starts painting bruises on his face. Meanwhile, looking for a suitable weapon in the prop bag, I happen to pull out a grinning skull (Clare takes her preparations seriously) and am suddenly reminded of my own mortality.
Because our medical insurances are unlikely to cover accidents arising from this kind of a situation, initially we take it easy. Vinayak pretends to wrestle me down, hands around my neck. But it doesn’t feel convincing, so I ask him to tighten the grip. He obediently squeezes my throat in the crook of his arm. Suddenly it’s very realistic. I can’t breathe. In my crouched position, feeling very arthritic, my bones creaking, I find that I can’t get him off my back without breaking my own neck first. I start to regret not joining my wife at yoga when I had the chance.
However, I gradually become affected by the ancient atmosphere and the clammy earth against my soles. Cricket bats, guns, machetes pass through our hands. I feel aggressive, thinking less and less, the alpha male takes over. But being very myopic and further blinded by the sunglasses I’m wearing indoors, in the dim pit, I also have to take constant care to not accidentally chop off any part of Vinayak. It requires a fine balance. Especially in the series of pictures where I’m supposed to decapitate him with the ‘long’ I seriously worry that this fiction may, inadvertently, turn into fact.
Comparing notes, I ask Vinayak: How does it feel to pretend to kill a close friend? He sort of defends himself, ‘Look, I’m usually a fairly peaceful guy. I steer clear of violent confrontations. So for me, this was pure fantasy.’ Though he admits that from a shrink’s perspective what is happening could be termed a ‘subconscious expression of a primordial, masculine, cavemanly id’. Yeah? ‘But I’m not a shrink’, he points out, ‘and, frankly, I don’t know what to make of any of it.’ Well, except that afterwards he does say that he’d like to do it again.
While the instinctive part of me focuses on keeping us both alive through the shoot, and the cerebral tries, in vain, to understand why we are doing this, I’m saved by the bell. Although the gates are supposed to be bolted from the inside, the kids have been running in and out to play with our arsenal and it so happens that one slightly tipsy rowdy staggers in, possibly looking forward to an afternoon row.
At first he must think that he’s hallucinating – a woman (Clare) has invaded this sanctuary of machismo, this refuge from wives and feminists. Of course, he is himself breaking the most fundamental rule against intoxicants near the pit, but Pradeep, who knows these places better than we do, nevertheless says that this might be a good point to quickly wrap up. Being a detective novelist, I connect the dots.
Although the drunkard is shooed away, there’s no knowing if he will muster up a big bunch of authentic rowdies, should such an idea get into his head. We jump into our pants, tie our shoelaces, and beat a hasty but respectful retreat – because judging from our physical decrepitude, an escalation of this situation could only have one outcome in real life.
It ain’t easy to be a notorious rowdy.