Come to think of it, you can’t really blame God for failing to make all men equal, or all women for that matter. Not to speak of the rest of the living world, starting from cats, dogs and grasshoppers, all the way back to dinosaurs.
Inequality notwithstanding, God has ensured that what one loses on the swing, one’s almost certainly compensated for on the turnaround. To wit, a spider doesn’t feel too disappointed, or so I presume, that it’s not endowed with a Cleopatra charm. For God, in an effort to cover up the somewhat clumsy job he did on the spider vs. Cleopatra front, sanctioned for spiders an extra allowance of legs to keep them alive and, more importantly, kicking.
And I am almost certain that the same logic extended to Debu-da. I will simply call him Debu-da, following Bengali custom, because I never found out what his last name was. I was a student of Standard 5 or less I think, when Debu-da managed to catch public attention. I was too young to wonder about family names. Also, I was overwhelmed by the fact that he was the only human being I had come across who was literally taller than life.
Above 7 feet and a half in fact, give or take a millimetre. By Indian standards, and certainly by any stretch of Bengali imagination, he stood far too overstretched for the comfort of his neighbours, or at least his co-passengers in public buses. Indeed, Debu-da boarding a bus distinctly resembled a giraffe pushing its way into an igloo. It is unlikely that run of the mill igloo occupants would be too elated to entertain giraffes in their living rooms. And, unfortunately enough, much like a giraffe caught in polar wilderness, Debu-da too was quite as defenceless against the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. At least financially so, or else why would he need to board overcrowded public buses?
Going back to the somewhat pedestrian philosophy we started out with though, every bit of aberration in God’s creative adventures has a positive side to it. Debuda’s height didn’t turn into an unadulterated liability for him. Talent searching scouts spotted him and launched him off on a career linked to the celluloid world. An advertisement programme for the Metro Cinema, standing as it did in royal glory opposite the Ochterlony Monument (now Shahid Minar) on Calcutta’s Esplanade East area, made superb use of Debu-da’s height.
The movie version of King Solomon’s Mines, starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, if memory serves me right, had just arrived in India and the Metro was flooded with school kids from all across the city. To keep the children amused and ensure at the same time that the news would spread, the people in charge of the hall decided to post an usher who resembled a spear toting African tribesman, in full view of passers by. The role fitted Debu-da like a glove as he guarded the imposing gates leading to the theatre, looking, if anything, far more imposing than the gates themselves. They had painted him blacker than the blackest of boot polishes and dressed him up (or down, depending on the way you wish to describe his attire) as best as they could in imitation of characters in the movie.
Needless to say, this was not the best possible way to use his physical advantage. For example, basket ball teams should probably have been only too willing to pay a tidy sum to rope Debu-da in and train him up as their discovery of the century. But India went for cricket and soccer luminaries and no one in the sports world even noticed him. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, Debu-da had never demonstrated an inclination for ‘sportive tricks’.
Debu-da must have enjoyed his job though at least as much as the children loved watching him for the entire length of time the movie ran. I am sure, therefore, that the occupation brought him a modicum of compensation for the struggle he endured when forced to stoop in painful disgrace in packed Calcutta buses.
But then all good things in life, including life itself, refuse to last forever. Same for Metro’s stint with King Solomon’s diamonds and other precious stones. The treasures that Debu-da solemnly guarded lost their shine in Calcutta’s eyes ultimately and Debu-da had to give up his weapon as well as cannibal attire. He was about to join the ranks of Calcutta’s unemployed labour force when fortune smiled once again.
The Metro authorities had probably developed a liking for him and decided to absorb him as a regular member of their usher force. Debu-da underwent a magical metamorphosis as a result. The black soot covering him from head to foot was washed off, his ominous looking spear along with the smart warrior’s loin cloth vanished inside the jungles of primeval Africa and Debu-da emerged in a light grey usher’s uniform, sporting a navy blue bow tie, dimly visible somewhere up in the clouds where most of his torso lay hidden. Consequently, few people ever got to see the face that ‘looked down’ at them as they handed over the tickets to Debu-da’s hands prior to being admitted into the auditorium. For all practical purposes, it was a pair of ownerless hands that they interacted with when Debu-da ushered them in. His face remained shrouded in mysteries that appeared to call for expert mountaineers for a clear resolution.
I could well have been one of the lucky few who managed to have a glimpse of the face along with the bow tie that adorned his neck. My mom had taken me to the theatre to watch a children’s movie and just as we were being ushered in, she had a question for Debu-da. The subject matter of the question I can no longer recall. However, that does not matter. What’s important is that Debu-da had to bend low, double up in fact as he was used to during rush hour bus rides, and bring his ears to the level of my mom’s face to be able to hear her speak. And there was no way I could not have seen his face at that particular moment. He was hawk nosed and had eyes that were browner than those of an average Bengali. His eye brows twisted into a frown as he attempted to listen to what my mom had to say and soon after the conversation was over, he straightened up. That was the last time I ever saw his face in real life.
It is not clear how long Debu-da served the Metro cinema, probably a short stretch at best. I think he grew ambitious as he watched the endless procession of movies at the theatre and began to look for an opening for himself in the very same profession. Debu-da did not enjoy ushering people in to admire matinee idols. He wished instead that people be ushered in to stare at him on the screen. And, in a somewhat dubious manner to be described below, he did manage to fulfil his ambition, though I do not know exactly how he found his way into a movie studio.
He acted in his first and, unfortunately, last movie in a role that required him to disappear in the very first scene of the movie and remain in that state till the end. It was a Bengali comedy bearing the title ‘Adrishya Manush’ or ‘The Invisible Man’, and fanciful luck had decreed that Debu-da be chosen to play the title role itself. The role was comparable to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though it was in truth somewhat worse. Caesar had kicked the bucket pretty early in the play and, except for a solitary reappearance in the shape of a ghost, didn’t interfere with the flow of events. At least, he never insisted that the audience expect him to be occupying what appeared to be an unoccupied stage. The situation was diametrically opposite in Debu-da’s case. It was invariably an empty and, more importantly, voiceless chair that substituted for him. The film script didn’t assign a single line to the vacant chair, thus ensuring that Debu-da’s acting skills were never put to test.
As an usher, Debu-da was visible at least torso downwards. Once elevated to stardom, he vanished altogether. And this, surely, was a tragedy, partly because a man of his size ought not to have been denied his most prized possession, viz. physical visibility. More importantly though, the director of the film displayed prophetic wisdom in choosing Debu-da for the role of an invisible man, since he never reappeared before the public following his brief experiment with acting. Neither his top half that is, nor the bottom!
What happened to him will remain an open question, to which God alone might know the correct answer. The only trouble though is that God, despite the loud hosannas we sang in his praise earlier on in this story, has remained, if anything, even more invisible than Debu-da.
And that too since the day the universe was created.