(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated January 10, 2009)
A friend of mine who lives in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi – also known as the one place which sells rasagollas, sandesh, mishti doi and ilish that are almost like Kolkata's, and Bengali newspapers that are almost a day old – is also as directionally challenged as I am. Given that this 'different-ability' applies only in its literal, and not philosophical, semantic interpretation, the two of us have made some quite wonderful discoveries in our wanderings, inclusive of a chocolatier's house we could never find again. But the cornerstone of our voyages has been the one which led us to a gate with the most intriguing sign on it we had ever seen: "No Band Allowed."
"Do you realise what this means?" my friend asked, as I clicked a picture of the sign, much to the stupefaction of the monkey-cap-clad, sweater-and-shawl-protected watchman inside. "The Backstreet Boys would never be able to go in there."
In our heads, five men with variably coloured-and-styled hair and an incredible talent for variable pitches of "aaanhh….aaaan-aaaaannh….aanh…anh-aaaaanh" and "oh, yeah", materialised in the gateway to the residential colony, and Mr. Monkey-Cap-Sweater-Shawl grew in stature until he could have taken on any of Alan Moore's Watchmen.
"Quit playin' games with…," the chorus would begin.
"No. No band allowed. No! No!"
"We don't care where you're from…," they would try again.
"No. No entry for band!" Mr. Money-Cap's sinewy fingers would ram into the sign a few times.
"But what about those guys there? They've got these turbans, oh yeah, and moustaches, oh yeah, and they make guttural noises, and…oh, yeah…"
"No. Not band. They go. You no. No band allowed."
"But they've got guns…aaanh-aaaaanh-aaaaaanh!"
"But they're terrorists, oh yeah!"
"Terrorist, not band."
"But terrorists are banned…aaanhhh….aaaanh-aaaaaaaaanh-anhh!"
"No. No. Out!"
At this stage, he would be assisted by his accomplice, also clad in exactly the same attire, of a vaguely different colour. This accomplice had materialised at some point of our hysterical enactment, and has discreetly enquired from my friend, in Bengali, whether the woman with him had had a little more to drink than she could handle. My friend replied that I was a singer, and rather upset by the sign.
As we moved on, I realised this signboard had replaced another one I had seen outside a hospital as the most bizarre in my experience. The sign was outside the Northwick Park and St. Mark's Hospital, which sat back in the hallowed shadow of Harrow School, where most of England's royals had learnt their grammar. The sign read "WARNING: It is dangerous to walk this way". It must have come as a rude shock to patients being wheeled into the trauma centre to be greeted with this ominous sign. The scenario could find a sort of evangelical equivalent in St. Peter winking at someone he turned away from the Pearly Gates, to show them a store of wine and offer them a selection of harems and gay bars. To say nothing of its austere location – that could find a politically incorrect equivalent possibly in a chhat puja being held right outside Raj Thackeray's house.
Our earlier view that the sign was redundant was corrected soon after, though. The crucial role it played in the life of the colony was revealed on the second leg of our journey. On some lost road, trying to find our ways to the market, we stumbled across a profusion of children of exactly the height I am allergic to. The dancing children were soon followed by dancing aunties, escorted by uncles with bellies and skinny girls who slapped around a bunch of skinnier men. An embarrassed groom with flowers flowing down his countenance sat gloomily on a horse. The first time he smiled was when the red-and-gold liveried band was turned away by the Watchmen. The sign had served its purpose.
(With many thanks to Anirban Banerjee for supplying half the scenario and accompanying yours truly on wild goose non-chases)