Islamuddin came out from the back of the shop where he had been polishing a crown. He was a tall, thin man with a pencil thin moustache and looked more like a paanwallah than an actor. “Yes?” he smiled showing tobacco-stained teeth. “Another school play?”
“Nnno… I mean yes, Islamuddin bhai,” Sukhan stammered.
“What kind of play?” asked Islamuddin, busily shining a false jewel on the crown, “Laila-Majnu type, mythological, comedy, political, dance drama?”
Nakul, who had discovered a box of moustaches and was trying one out before a fly spotted mirror, turned and said, “Religious. We need a sadhu’s costume.”
“That’s easy!” said Islamuddin. They followed him to a rack of coloured robes and women’s frilly gowns. He pulled out a long orange dress, held it out before Sukhan and said, “It will have to be altered. You are too short.”
“No, no, bhaijaan,” Sukhan said hurriedly, “it’s for another boy and he is nearly six feet tall.”
The costume man got them a pair of wooden kharau slippers and a wooden begging bowl with a curved handle. From a case full of assorted jewellery Sukhan picked up a few strings of rudraksha beads and Nakul discovered a tin trident with a piece of red cloth tied to it. Islamuddin got them a wig with a topknot and then held up three luxurious beards, “Black, white or grey?”
Sukhan thought for a moment, imagining Pehelwan’s wrestler-face and then said, “Black, please.”
All afternoon, at the akhara, Kishen Pehelwan prepared for the role of his life. He was having a great time because no one had ever asked him to act before. But the boys were sweating, trying to get his make up on and checking that he remembered his lines. Pehelwan was a champion wrestler but he wasn’t very good at remembering dialogues. After Nakul had carefully pasted the beard on his chin with spirit gum, he studied himself in the mirror and said admiringly, “I look great! Badlu will be floored by the sheer force of my personality!”
“Sure,” Sukhan said soothingly, checking that the wig was on straight. “But don’t mix up the lines, please. You keep doing that. I can’t stand next to you and keep prompting, you know.”
“Instead of wasting your time being rude to me,” Pehelwan growled, “why don’t you go and find out where Badlu is?”
So Sukhan went in search of Badlu while Nakul put the finishing touches to Pehelwan’s make up. He drew a big red tilak on Pehelwan’s forehead and drew thin white lines across it with a piece of chalk. Then he picked up a tin of talcum powder. Islamuddin had told them to use it instead of the ash that real sadhus rub on their bodies.
Pehelwan sniffed appreciatively and grinned, “How about that? A sadhu smelling of jasmine talc!”
“Of course,” said Nakul, rubbing away with the talcum, “but remember your name is Bibhuti Nath Maharaj. You keep forgetting and say ‘Kishen’. That won’t do!”
► Continued next week