At about the same time that David Belle was inventing the acrobatic training discipline of Parkour in France in 1988, a much cruder and somewhat hilarious version of the same was emerging on the rooftops of closely stacked houses in the northern crannies of the port city of Kolkata.
Similar to the Yamakasi – the nine founding fathers of Parkour, the ‘Rooftop Ruffians’ of Calcutta were nine in number too. They were a closely-knit teenage gang of varied ethnicity. Friend circles of such motley races could only be possible in a vividly cosmopolitan city like Kolkata. The difference in their language, religion or food preference was not a deterrent to but acted as the glue that bonded this unique friendship of theirs.
Very different from Belle’s French town of Lisses, the little city of Kolkata on the east coast of the Indian peninsula had always been a boiling cauldron of mixed races. With infinite cultures and a million heritages, the city boasted sights, sounds, and smells from almost every corner of the subcontinent.
The ‘Rooftop Ruffians,’ were a living example of this unity in diversity. Three Hindu Bengalis and a Marwari, a Rajasthani Muslim, a Christian Anglo Indian, a Zorastrian Parsee, a Taoist Chinese-Nepali and a Sikh Sardarjee meshed the fabric of this clan of cahoots who spent the majority of their time prowling the urban rooftops, like monkeys in a concrete jungle.
Their language was unique too. Like a half-filled jar of mixed nuts, it resonated with assorted words from all of their cultures. Of course, bad, and forbidden slangs were at the top fo the list.
Sixteen-year-old Cheema was the pack alpha. He was one of the three Bengalis. His soccer-crazy father had aptly named him after the legendary Nigerian football striker Cheema Okorie, who was a heartthrob in the Calcutta football circuit in those days.
The other two Bengali kids, monozygotic twins – Bidhan and Nonu were the adroit spies with detailed knowledge about everything and anything happening in the locality. Their identical looks was a boon to their espionage skills. People often mistook one for the other. They popped about here and there creating much confusion among everyone.
Like the Hindu mythological demon twins Koka and Vikoka, who would aid the mortal demon Kali in his battle against Kalki, the tenth and final avatar of God Vishnu in the Kali Yug, Bidhan-Nonu would always be by Cheema’s side. They were ever battle-ready to jump into any kiddish urban dispute that the clan could get into.
Radheshyam Rastogi the-calculative-Marwari was the accountant of this mob of midgets. He was extremely proud of his accounting heritage, which traced back its lineage to the court of mighty Moghul Emperor Akbar of India. Akbar though a Muslim was known for his inclusion and openness to all religions. He treasured individuals of all faiths and origins. His court of Navratnas – nine of the brightest minds of the time were a mixed group too.
Five-time namaz praying Raju Bundi was the gang muscle. His ancestors traced their origins back to the state of Bundi situated in a narrow valley within the Aravalli Hills in Rajasthan. Raju claimed his strength was the result of battle-hardened genes, handed down through generations from his forefathers who fought for Rao Raja Surjan Singh in the battle for the Capture of the Fort at Bundi Rajasthan in 1577, chronicled in the Akbarnama – the official record of Emperor Akbar reign from 1556 to 1605.
Next in the group was Anglo Indian kid Bertrand Tolly, funnily nicknamed Bertolli like the Italian extra-virgin olive-oil brand. Maybe this name stuck on to him not only for his sculpted Italian looks but also for the fact that he was extremely shy with the girls and certainly extra-virgin. So was perhaps every other kid in the group, though they claimed imaginative feats of sexual accomplishments with the opposite sex now and then. Most of which was not true, but just byproducts of over-imaginative teenage grey cells.
Love was very innocent in those days. The kids were shyer and had a million other distractions apart from sex. Further girls were more protected by their parents in comparison to their male counterparts and there was less scope for interaction among the sexes apart from at family gatherings and communal pujas and festivals. There were the local Romeos though, who spent much of their time and dime grooming themselves and scheming encounters with Juliets of the time.
Darius Daruwala lovingly referred to as Daru (alcohol) was the Parsee in the party. Like most other Parsee-babas, his surname too suggested his ancestral profession.
When the Britishers wanted to identify and track people in colonised India, they demanded family names, which reflected the person’s livelihood. And no other community took it as seriously as the Parsees.
Hence arose the innumerable and somewhat funny surnames like Batliwala (seller of bottles), Akhrotwala (Walnut vendor), Paneeewala (cottage cheese seller), SodaBottleOpenerWala and of course Daruwala (seller of medicines or alcohol). The list is unimaginably inexhaustive.
During the colonial days, Daruwalas and Darukhanawalas were known to run liquor stores and were sought out by thirst Indians on trade routes and business trails from Multan to Madras.
Daru, colloquially though referred to as liquor, was a term also used for medicines, it is still today, and Darius’ forefathers, were into selling the later. Three generations back his grandfather started the Dajibhai Daruwala & Sons, Chemists and Druggists in Burrabazar. Young Darius though had no knack for medicines. He was more interested in spirits of higher potency – the kind that made your head go zoom.
This interest made him the group’s alcohol aficionado. Daru would once a month device some elaborate plan to acquire a pint of rum or whiskey for the Navratans (nine jewels) to secretly sip by the shade of an un-plastered brick wall, hidden from the hot noontime sun, on one of the roofs of their urban jungle. The band of brothers would hushedly scuffle to get the most out of the tiny 375 ml bottle of what seemed to them as the elixir of Gods, during those early days of childish innocence.
Bao Chen Chow nicknamed BCC was the Chinese in this clan of chimney clingers. Half Nepali from his Mother’s side, he was extremely proud of his Chinese roots. BCC claimed he belonged to the family of Yang Tai Chow, a.k.a. Yang Da Zhao, better known in history as Tong Achew, one of the first persons of Chinese origin to arrive in Calcutta in 1778.
Achew landed in Budge Budge near Calcutta in the late 18th century and was granted 650 bighas of land on an annual rent of rupees forty-five by Governor-General Warren Hastings to set up a sugar cane plantation along with a sugar factory. This place later came to be known as Achipur, the first Chinese settlement in India. Even after 230 years of his death, still today Achew’s grave and a Chinese temple in Achipur stands testament to this saga of settlers from the far east.
After Achew’s death a good portion of the workers he had bought along with him from Guangdong, China came and settled in Kolkata. The majority of them started living in the vicinity of Bow Bazar Street. While some worked at the Khidderpore docks, others started small businesses which would later blossom into well-known eateries, tanneries, shoe-shops and much more, through the course of the next century.
The last of the nine jewels was baby-faced, hairless pink Sardar kid Pammi. Lovingly named as Paramjot, meaning the supreme light, by his devout Sikh parents, he belonged to the Bajwa family. His father Ompreet Bajwa was the proud owner of a fleet of three white Ambassador cars that he gave on rent to a very special and select clientele.
Our Pammi, however, was not interested in the transport business. His passions were more related to the history of his surname. Bajwa was a name derived from the Persian word “Baaz,” meaning hawk or a falcon. True to his family name young Paramjot Bajwa had a special connection with the birds of the sky. Right from the parapet pigeons to carnivorous crows to diving hawks, many fowls of the sky above the cement canopy of this concrete city ate food from his very hands.
At a very early age, the Ruffians found safe heaven on the roofs of their urban dwellings. Their houses being close by, whenever they went to their terraces either to pick up clothes from a drying line or just to enjoy the evening breeze or to simply fly a kite, they spoke with each other at yelling distances.
Though close, their houses were not right next to each other. First of all, they were at different heights. While some of the better ones towered at 4 storeys, the shorter single-storeyed ones remained welled between taller buildings. Like a sea of containers in a shipyard, the roofs of these houses cut across the horizon at right-angles of crest and throughs of varying elevations.
As their friendship grew, the nine realised the disadvantages of long-distance yelling. Somehow, they had to reduce the physical distance that separated their terraces.
Narrow lanes and the wider streets further divided the houses. Some of the gullies were as thin as two feet, while the largest ones were double laned roads for busses and tramcars. Soon they realised that no matter how wide the valley, there was always a way to cross.
Similar to David Belle’s Parkour, with a series of running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping, plyometrics, rolling, quadrupedal-ing, crawling and other movements, most suitable for a particular obstacle, they were able to overcome any hurdle.
As time passed, different members of the group found unique ways around an obstruction. The clan celebrated overcoming each obstacle by naming the crossing and the manoeuvre, suffixed or prefixed to the conquering kid’s name. Like ‘Cheema’s Vault of Victory Over Hari Pal Lane,’ ‘Bertolli’s Fifty Meter Wall-top Crawl,’ ‘The Bundi Swing of Doom,’ ‘Waltz of Drunken Daru,’ and many more interesting ones.
During those days other celebrated groups prowled the terraces too, like the ‘Pegion People’ who spent their entire time flying and caring for pigeons. Then there was the ‘Kite Runners’ who flew miniature spinnakers from dusk to dawn and ran after the broken ones falling from the skies.
Other notable clans were that of the ‘Ganja-Khors‘ (weed addicts), ‘Peeping Pappus’ always looking into other people’s houses, ‘Tash-khors‘ a group of card addicts ever-huddled under the same flopping tent and never moving from their spot. The list was quite inexhaustive, but no one could beat our tribe of terrace trekkers, the undisputed rulers of the rooftops, and masters of the urban skies.
Then as time went by, and the kids started to grow, different educational choices, career moves, and family quests gradually broke the group apart, and they fell out of touch. A long period of silence followed. Initially, though some of them met at festivals when they came back to Kolkata from other cities and even countries, gradually over time most of them lost touch with each other.
Until many years later now in their late thirties and early forties, the Ruffians got in touch with each other once again. Don’t remember who called who, or who found who, on which social media platform, but somehow something rekindled the childhood bond that was formed thirty years ago.
Somehow all of them were able to find time in their otherwise busy lives. Scattered all over the globe, it took over a year of meticulous planning to finally decided on a date – Friday, the fourth of October 2019. On Saptami, the first day of the sacred Durga Puja, the biggest festival of Bengal, the childhood acrobats would meet at Cheema’s terrace, who was now the father of two and the PT teacher at the local Scottish Church Collegiate School. He could not be as famous as Okorie in football, however, was successful in shaping many young minds, instilling in them the very important value of sportsmanship.
The day finally came, Cheema was up at 4:00 AM. The first thing he did was go to the roof, where he had not been in a long time. The first to arrive was his childhood lieutenants Bidhan-Nonu. The twins were based in Delhi working for the Research and Analysis Wing of the Government. It seemed their espionage skills finally came to good use.
By two o’clock in the afternoon, the entire gang of Ruffians were on the rooftop. They hugged each other, exchanged gifts, and greeted one another with shouts of joy.
Radheshyam was a successful chartered accountant based in Botswana in Southern Africa. Bundi had opened a famous gym in Mumbai. Bertolli was well settled in Australia managing a garments business. BCC had started a chain of momo joint very popular in Kolkata. Pammi had become a renowned bird photographer, his work was highly sought-after from different corners of the world.
As everyone settled and the initial excitement calmed, Daru took out a small pint of Old Monk from his back pocket and the gang pounced at the sight of it. They hushedly scuffled as they did thirty years ago to sip from the sacred bottle. That day Daru could have brought the best of brands to the rooftop party, as he owned one of the best distilleries in Campbeltown, Scotland, but we know why he decided not to. To have been able to rekindle even one moment from their childhood days of growing up in the eighties was priceless.
As the day progressed and the gang looked out at the rooftop, they realised that the times had changed. The rooftops lay bleaker than the dead forests of Tolbachik Dol. There were no ‘Pigeon People’ or ‘Tash-khors‘. Gone were the ‘Kite Runners’ and the ‘Peeping Pappus’. Children did not visit the terraces anymore. They were busy with their gaming consoles and mobile phones. Gone were the good old days of the ‘Rooftop Ruffians’ as a new era had now entered, where groceries were being delivered from dotcoms on the rooftops by unmanned drones.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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