Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ajmer: an amazingly crazy 1970s style thriller

We are not sure what the plot of Ajmer may be, but we do know a little about the main characters. Here is the male cast:

1. The celibate sufi ekes out a meagre day to day living from the idiotic foreign disciples who flock to the town and are impressed by his deeper meanings and religious blathering and can be relied on to buy hashish at inflated prices. The sufi lives with his father, a half-senile indian freedom fighter who with his three mates uses freedom fighter privileges to ride up and down the train to jaipur and back all day for free, drinking cups of chai at various stations, telling crazy stories to strangers.

Behind this veneer of harmless family eccentricity lies a terrible secret - many years ago, when the sufi was a boy, the barber doing his circumcision cut off too much -- in fact, his father had the barber killed in revenge. Now all these years later, a beautiful girl has just come from a far away land looking for her father who was a fugitive vizier who had gone into hiding and had come to this town pretending to be barber. The sufi knows this mean trouble, but oh she is so terribly attractive! And so who has offered to help her in her investigations? The sufi slaps his head at his own stupidity.

2. Character number two is the lovable tourist guide, with a knotted handkerchief around his neck. He is deferential to the women folk, but flirts gently with those kajal-eyed men from peshawar and persia. Whether goats, camels, boys or girls, when a visitor needs anything, it's the guide they turn to.

But wait. This natty guide is not the closet homosexual he seems. He is in reality a sleeper ISI agent, and keeps an eye on the goings on in town and in the military cantonment nearby, watching and waiting for the secret orders that will one day surely come.

3. Maulana Akbar 10% doesn't go to politicians. politicians come to him. The fiery rhetorician (!) of the prestigious mosque that contains the holy relic, maulana inherited a position of historical importance, a power he has expanded ruthlessly. in the community of the faithful, people look over their shoulders before they whisper anything against the maulana. but whisper they do.

there are rumours of weapons being smuggled and stored in the mosque, and hashish and opium too. of the comings and goings of men from foreign lands whose eyes gleam with evil fervour. and that big big industrialists come and seek his blessings before any project , politicians before any election, and he gives them too -- in return for that ten percent which is his nickname. He claims to be the voice of the muslims, and noone dares contradict him - the last one who tried left town when his daughter was kidnapped, subsequently rescued at the maulana's intervention.

maulana though must be given credit where credit is due. there is peace and order in the community, and if anyone has a grievance, they know they can go to the maulana and plead for justice to be done. and the maulana takes an interest in the advancement of women too. he's set up a school for girls adjacent to the mosque, and a house for the widows and most oddly enough, for advanced religious studies for women students from all over the ummah. in bazaars when men get too drunk, they whisper to one another that they have heard these women are nothing but the maulana's harem, that they are all great beauties in their prime, trained and experienced in the sexual arts, and that the maulana does not allow them to wear anything under their burqas and hijabs. well, we all know there is nothing but dirt in the minds of

4. Anthony the Bollywood photographer is the wrong man in the wrong place. A year ago, he was the toast of bollywood, the maverick photographer every actress and director demanded for their publicity photo-shoots. Anthony, everyone agreed, was no saint, but his photographic abilities were divine. He created compositions and highlighted qualities in his subjects no one had seen before, and in a land of honey-coated tongues, his camera was celebrated as the ultimate flatterer.

No wonder every young aspiring actress in Bollywood dreamt of a shoot with him to launch her career. And Anthony obliged many of them too. They say in return Anthony would expect, and receive, a second more private photo-shoot, and sometimes a third and a fourth as well.

It had all been going so well for him until one of the actresses had recently married the son of the supremo of a hindu right-wing party. Who knows how these things happen, but compromising photos had somehow turned up in the hands of the local Congress neta, and there had been great scandal and political fallout. Anthony's name was never directly mentioned in the media, but in bollywood there were suspicions, and with the right-wingers looking for heads to bash, the photographer had been banished to the backwaters of Ajmer city.

Here he stayed at his uncle's palatial mansion, and spent his day taking photos around the city, wandering when he would get back to Bollywood. Then one day while looking through the photos he had taken, he noticed something unusual.

5. The manager of the ram-rahim nimbu-lemon soda shop outside the great dargah is a man with ambitions. He knows he has vision, charisma and flair. Unfortunately noone else seems to have noticed, and so he is stuck as a foot-soldier of the ruling party, running small errands for the powers that be.

This was not always so. In his youth he was a man of more consequence than some appreciate today. Remember those heady days when fizzy imperialist colas were expelled from our nation? Guess which city the first protests took place in. And who do you think was at the head of the crowd, making the most noise, waving the most colorful banners, posing energetically for the young photographer from the local paper?

You can still see the photo now, behind the counter at the lemon-nimbu soda shop where he sits. it's faded now, but you can make out a thin young man, grinning wildly, arms waving that inadvertently brilliant banner. The photo ended up being syndicated across the country, in fact. In his mishmash of english, his demand read, NO MORE PHORENICATION OF MOTHER INDIA.

Oh well, back to the present, at least his grandmother's legendary nimbu-lemon soda recipe means he is prosperous, and that the shop is always full of customers. people of all types sit on the chairs outside, beause it doesn't matter if you are rich or you are poor, tourist or local, the nimbu-lemon soda is the most refreshing drink you can get in the city, and the best antidote to the sapping heat. Guides come and sit here, and so do their customers, and when powerful people look to complete transactions in public places, what better place to do it than the ram-rahim soda shop.

But the manager has a problem. Just this morning there has been an official visitor, and he knows he is in deep trouble, and he will need a lot of help. The question is, who will be willing to help him, and what is the price to be paid?

What did that tax inspector want, ji? his shy new bride disturbs his thoughts. The manager glares at her. "How come you just go and open the door to strange men dressed so immodestly, woman!! THis is not our sanskritii!"

He storms out of the house and into the restaurant. Son of a bitch he muses, as he drinks a lemon-soda to calm himself. The inspector of taxes has been counting the lemon-peels outside the shop for the last three months, it seems he must pay the Government 5 crores in backtaxes and penalties or go to jail.

6. The nefarious Don of Ajmer, Amar Bhai falls asleep while listening to the industrialist's woes, and his nihang bodyguard has to shake him to get him to wake up.

Sorry, Amar yawns, all night debate in parliament last night.

That's right, Amar Bhai is a member of parliament, the big one in Delhi, not just the state one. In farcical elections last year, Amar completed his transformation from a gangster thug to a thuggish politician - his motto was "Amar, Aap Sabka Bhai" and his party's symbol the ominous hand. His promise to improve the crime situation had raised a few titters -- people agreed sending Amar Bhai to Delhi would indeed improve things for Ajmer.

Amar had followed the standard crook to politician route, started as a gun for hire, graduating to running an extortion racket, then extending into legitimate businesses, and now finally a move into politics. The Maulana and he had often collaborated in the past.

But this is where the cliches end. Amar is no rational superbaddy. He's a half-lunatic for sure - what else explains a bodyguard of sikh nihangs, high on opium and with swords in their hands and quoits in their turbans. And then there's something else.

"His father was a freedom fighter- and you want me to kill him to help you take his land? Yeh poorab hai hum poorab waale har jaan ki keemat jaante hain.Get out!"

Maybe years of alcoholism and bollywood film addiction have addled his sense of reality. But there is more to it than that . Ever since he started to go down to Delhi and sleep in MP quarters there, Amar has been having strange dreams, visions almost. His visions have convinced him that he is the reincarnation of some great freedom fighter of the past. He knows that ooparwallah has sent him to serve bharat mata on a great mission, and if he's maintaining his criminal empire for the moment, it's only so he has the means to serve the great cause when it presents himself.