"Tantan Chacha’s Brand New Dragon Balls" by Ankit Raj
Tantan chacha swore on Brahma that the doctor had installed Chinese nuts for his old ones. The amicable neighborhood blacksmith could be persistent as hell if his victims would as little as flinch an eyebrow while being subjected to his outlandish fantasies. He had arrived this morning in his usual high spirits after a week-long hiatus from our daily gatherings at the tea stall and a month-long episode of existential crisis when all he would talk about was how he was going to donate everything he owned and become a recluse in the Himalayas. The specific destination he had in mind for his fortress of solitude was Mount Kailash, the sacred mountain from ancient Hindu texts believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, the greatest of yogis. Tantan chacha’s itinerary would include walking all the way to the snow-capped mountaintop. When Sanju butted in with the information that Mount Kailash was in Tibet and that the aspiring ascetic would have to cross two international borders and would in all likelihood be detained or shot down by Chinese soldiers, Tantan chacha dismissed the lad with his patented swagger and announced that walking without a passport or permit the 700 kilometers from Chapra, Bihar to the mountaintop in Tibet or China or whatever they call it in the papers these days would be a piece of cake for a man with an iron will and tons of political connections.
“Besides, I’d use my guerrilla training to sneak past the soldiers.” He’d never let go of a single chance to remind his audience of his life-affirming Communist stint in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, and how the State Police had barely survived an encounter with him and had to convince him to show them mercy and to use his talents for the good of his hometown rather than waste himself in the jungle. This incident with the police, he’d say, had made him rethink his purpose in life and had led him to return to society, exchanging his ammunition for blacksmith’s tools in the black market and setting up his business in our neighborhood. These adventures were said to have occurred in the decades preceding my birth, though the older residents in the neighborhood could vouch on their memory that Tantan chacha had never left our state Bihar in his entire life except for the one time he had attended a distant cousin’s wedding in Uttar Pradesh and had returned to tell everyone he chanced upon in the streets (though I have every reason to doubt the chance element in these encounters) that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh had been the special guest at the wedding feast and had insisted upon dining with him at his table.
“And if they do manage to catch me somehow (God knows what new technology our Chinese comrades are using these days), I’ll speak to them in their tongue and dial the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi on my satellite phone, and then they’ll apologize and they’ll see me for the veteran I am and they’ll treat me with their finest Sichuan noodles before respectfully escorting me in their helicopter, with provisions despite my insistence against bourgeois luxuries, to Mount Kailash,” Tantan chacha beamed, anticipating awe from his audience, his short-lived zeal turning to dust upon receiving skeptic stares in return.
“And how would you speak Mandarin, the Chinese language? You barely know English,” Sanju poked again, joined by the grinning Deepak and Shubham.
“I’ve been mastering my Chinese in secret for months now, mind you, what’s Mandolin? And boy, don’t even get me started on my English. I speak perfectly fluent English, better than the professors at your father’s university. I just choose not to speak it in public to avoid embarrassing the folks who don’t speak it well,” Tantan chacha retaliated, nursing his wounded pride.
Tantan chacha is a friendly, eccentric guy of over forty with an insanely inventive stock of tales and opinions he swears on Brahma are all true. It is said that even Brahma can’t budge him once Tantan chacha has convinced himself of a delusion. His native tongue, like all Biharis from our part of Bihar, is Bhojpuri. And like many Biharis and Indians in general, he sees English as a skill rather than a language, considering it to be the measure of a person’s worth rather than just a means to communicate. So he never misses a chance to slip in an English word or two in routine Bhojpuri conversations. Whether he actually knows what his English words mean or if they even fit in with his sentences does not deter him in the least from using them anyway.
Once when he was taking measurements for a new iron gate to our backyard, he assured my father in his practiced calm, “Don’t worry, bhaiya. I’ve taken its temperature. You’ll have one fine iron gate by Friday.”
On another occasion when we boys were having our bi-monthly litti chokha barbecue on a December night (Tantan chacha makes the best litti chokha in our neighborhood), he stopped my father on his way home from his evening walk, inviting him to our dinner party for the best torture of his life.
When father tried to pass on the invitation citing an early morning meeting with the Vice-Chancellor at the University, Tantan chacha insisted, “Arey, don’t you worry bhaiya! I know lots of big people at your university. I’ll put in a word with the VC saheb. The VC saheb will convince the Vice-Chancellor to postpone your meeting. What choice would the Vice-Chancellor have if VC saheb himself asks him in person?”
“Somebody has to do something about the Chinese,” Tantan chacha was furious today.
“What now?” asked Deepak.
“Didn’t I tell you guys about how the coronavirus came to India on a Chinese cow?” Tantan chacha pitied the boys’ ignorance.
“Wait, wait, what? Coronavirus came from a cow?” Shubham cried, baffled.
“On a cow. Not from a cow,” Tantan chacha corrected.
“But how?” the boys exclaimed.
“I know it from my old Communist sources. Nobody believes me, but I’ll tell you. See, the Chinese know from their spies that we worship cows. So they put the virus in a poly bag, tied it to a bell on a cow’s neck, and sent the cow across the Nepal border all the way into Bihar. We Biharis, being Indians after all, welcomed and garlanded the poor abandoned cow with all our heart and devotion. Some say they even had a homecoming feast in honor of the cow in Motihari. And lo! The virus spread,” he finished, exhausted by his own detail.
“Sounds totally reasonable, Tantan chacha. And I’m pretty sure you know it from your comrades how the Chinese themselves contracted the virus in such large numbers,” Sanju ignited another round, stealing a wink at Shubham and elbowing Deepak at the same time.
“They made a mistake na! They are always clumsy, no matter how smart they think they are. See, the poly bag with the virus which they had tied to the cow, it had a hole at the bottom they didn’t notice. The hole probably came from too much of viral load they had stuffed inside. So naturally, some of the virus spilled along the way inside Chinese territory, some spilled in Nepal, and the cow brought along the rest to India. So much for all the plotting and scheming! They should have used an iron bag na! But no, the Chinese are always using cheap material,” Tantan chacha sighed a huge wave of relief, grinning ear to ear having explained it all.
“You know why antacids won’t work on this virus? That’s because it’s a virus, not bacteria. You can kill bacteria with antacids. But how would you kill a virus with antacids, or even with antihistorians? Nah, they won’t work on a normal virus, let alone on a virus extracted from dragon blood,” he added.
“Dragons, now?” Shubham murmured tiredly. Deepak kicked his ankle, signalling to let the man continue.
“The only way this pandemic can end now is if Cheen attacks China,” Tantan chacha remarked with an air of foreign affairs expertise.
“Arey chacha, Cheen is what we call China in Hindi! Cheen and China are one country, not two,” Shubham protested.
“You kids born yesterday think you know more than I do? I should better get to work than waste my time with such arrogant brats,” Tantan chacha was about to leave agitated when Sanju calmed him with another round of tea.
“Kya yaar! Everybody knows that Cheen and China are two different countries,” Sanju eyed Shubham to stay mum.
“Yes, Cheen and China fought together against India in the ’62 war,” Tantan chacha enlightened the boys with his pearl of wisdom as he sipped on his third tea of the morning.
“Anyway, enough of this chitchat, won’t you ask me where I’ve been all week?” he demanded with newborn wonder and residual hurt in his voice.
“Of course, we would, like we have a choice,” Shubham sighed.
“Remember the past month when I was having second thoughts about life and the meaning of it all and had decided to give up on everything and leave for the Himalayas? Turns out it was my hydrocele all along. The excess fluid had gone to my head making me think all kinds of weird and morbid thoughts. And it was a real effort walking and riding the bicycle with the hanging gardens,” Tantan chacha let out a chuckle. “The kids call it so, you know. They’d make fun of me all the time. They’d say, ‘You need no introduction, Tantan chacha. Your reputation precedes you.’ Silly bastards!” Tantan chacha narrated his netherworldly experience in vivid detail.
“Arey bhaiya! Where are you off to? Come here, just for a moment, I promise! I was telling these boys about my hydrocele,” he called to my father who was leaving for the University. Puzzled, father approached.
“You won’t believe what the doctor did to me,” Tantan chacha began again, preventing father from checking his wristwatch. “The doctors call it hydroelectromy. That’s what the head surgeon from AIIMS Delhi said he did to me. And what a fine job he has done! He has made it brand new. It doesn’t even feel like they are the same old ones. Well, they aren’t the old ones, technically. I managed to steal a glimpse at the box the new ones came in just before the nurse put me under anorexia. Guess what? They are the same ones from that Chinese cartoon show with the magic balls kids are watching these days. The box had the same thing written in Chinese all over,” Tantan chacha recounted excitedly.
“Dragon Ball? The Japanese anime? What nonsense! You must have seen a box of Chinese surgical equipment. And it could have been Chinese or Japanese or Korean. What is it with you and China? Anyway, I’m getting late for class,” father was losing it now.
“You have to believe me, bhaiya. They are dragon balls. The same ones from the cartoon show. You’ll know it when you see them!” Tantan chacha appealed.
“Why in goddamn hell would I see them?” father left, fuming.
Ankit Raj is a former software engineer, rock band frontman and assistant professor from Chapra, Bihar, India. He teaches English at Government College Gharaunda, Karnal and is a PhD candidate at IIT Roorkee. His works are published/forthcoming in Routledge,The Bitchin' Kitsch, Roi Fainéant Press, Brave Voices Magazine andA Thin Slice of Anxiety among other venues. Ankit tweets @ankit_raj01