I grew up surrounded by masked people. And I never met the same person more than once in life. Every time I saw a woman who caught my attention, she would go away in the sea of masked men, never to reappear. And then I would keep on finding the same face in the vast sea of theatre artists I grew up with. This was maddening. I could not understand why I was not able to see the same person again. What was more baffling was the fact that different people were always called by the same name, every time. On the other hand, I also did not understand the logic of the fact that Ajoba (grandfather) was called Bhau (brother) by everyone. While the different-looking people around me had the same name, the same person was referred to by different names.
It was not until I was five that Ajoba told me that I did not have a mother. And then I realized the reason why ladies caught my attention more than men in the vast sea of different and sometimes scary-looking people. It was my inner longing for my mother. Though Ajoba tried his best, in spite of his age and ill health, to be a loving and caring father to me, he was too masculine to become a mother. Not only was he not able to cajole the crying child, who was hungry, he would sometimes turn his back on me when I was crying due to waking up because of a bad dream. I would cry for some more time and then when I got tired of crying, I would sleep peacefully. Though I was a little afraid sometimes to go near Ajoba, I loved him as he was the only person I had met more than once in life.
Ajoba once told me that he found me at the Grant Road station. I was sleeping in serenity when he saw me for the first time. I was so calm that he thought me to be dead. He says that I looked so beautiful that he kept on looking at my face. He kept doing that for almost ten minutes when my lips twitched. By then I had enchanted him so much that he had decided that I was going to be saved. I was going to grow up with him, in his house, around his acquaintances, around his profession. For long, I was not able to figure out what Ajoba’s profession was. All I could see him doing was giving directions to different people every time to do something or the other on stage. Like I didn’t see the same person again in my life, he didn’t give directions to the same person again. It looked after doing what Ajoba asked him to do; they vanished, got lost in the wave of masked people. The same wave which washes away my name written at the Juhu Chaupati everytime I write it when I go there with Ajoba or one of the masked men.
Ajoba did not have a family. I once heard some masked men saying that Ajoba was adopted by a theatre group when he was one year old. His mother had poisoned her husband and then drunk the same poisoned juice to end the misery of life which comes with the chawl life. She tried to poison him as well before she poisoned herself but something stopped her from doing that. Perhaps, the calmness with which Ajoba was sleeping prevented the possible death. Perhaps, death got scared by already existing calmness. He was then adopted by a single lady living in the nearby kholi who worked in the theatre group. And thus he was adopted by the entire theatre group when the lady who adopted him died in an accident after a month of the death of his parents.
When I was six, Ajoba first talked to me about acting. He provided answers to my questions of why I was not able to see the same person twice in life. He told me about why he had two different names. He told me the reason for which he was always keeping directions to people. He told that a director has to do that all the time. He told me that I was born to be his son, I was born to be an actor, I was born to be a director, I was born to carry forward his theatre company.
Ajoba told me that the entire world is also like a stage. When I asked about the director of the world, he would talk about the God. He would say that that we play the part as decided by The Director. He was just playing the role of a director. This is how it was destined to be. I was destined to play the role of his son; he was destined to play the role of my father. The masked men were destined to play the roles of the masked men. And once I thought about it well, I was able to relate everything I saw with a stage. The swarm of men coming out of the Dadar station in the evening was nothing but a stage setting with many actors at a time while a child sleeping peacefully at the Grant Road station was also a stage setting with a few days old child playing the lead.
At seven, when I went to the school for the first time, they asked me what I wanted to be after growing up and the only thing I could think, say or write was ‘actor’. I knew of nothing other than masked men and the impact was so much that I have started thinking of everyone as a masked man, even Ajoba. I was a good student at school, a little afraid though. I was afraid that someone would snatch my tiffin box which Ajoba made me every day; I was afraid that someone would take my books away and then Ajoba would shout at me; I was afraid that someone would send a goon at night and take my Ajoba away from me. I loved Ajoba and didn’t want to be away from him. Ever!
I left school not long after. I could not see any sense in learning what they taught at school. I was learning whatever was required for me among the masked men. People without masks made me afraid. Ajoba resisted my decision not to go to school. I told him that I wanted to act, direct and run his theatre company and it didn’t require any knowledge of Science or Algebra. He shouted at me, even raised his hands to slap me, but he stopped. I do not know why. And the moment his hands stopped, I knew that he had given his consent. Ajoba was my teacher for the rest of my life. He taught me everything he knew about acting, directing and running a production house. He taught me that masked men need unmasked men to support them and vice versa. He taught me that people become better humans after wearing masks. He taught me how to wear a mask every time.
Today Ajoba is not there. I am an orphan again. I still remember the day he died. He was not feeling well since the morning. I asked him to visit a doctor but he refused. He told me that some malignancies cannot be cured. As the sun went up, so did his body temperature. But unfortunately, it did not come down as the sun started coming down. He was panting and gasping for breath in the evening. I was sitting beside him; I didn’t want to move an inch away from him. I was praying to the Director to let this director play his role for some more time. I was holding his hands to make him sure of the fact that I was always there for him. I was touching his forehead again and again to check if the temperature lowered. But it was decided that that this actor had to make an exit. He had to go leaving the stage for other masked and unmasked men. And before midnight, he went! The director made an exit. I did not weep. I did not weep for the fact that I did not know that people weep when someone dear dies. I just sat there holding his hands and looking at his calm sleep. I held his hands till it was as cold as ice and it became unbearable for me to hold it further. We took Ajoba for burning his dead body. I felt like an orphan for the first time. I was really an orphan now.
I run the theater company after Ajoba. It has become big now and we do not need to struggle for survival anymore. We are going out of this city for the first time to stage a play. But I miss Ajoba. I cry in bed at nights thinking of him. Truths are scarier than bad dreams. They do not let one get tired of crying. The masked people have to hide their emotions behind their masks. I have done the same. I do not show the emptiness which has crept into my life when Ajoba is not here. Though it has been seven years now, I feel the same pain which I had felt when I returned after his funeral.