"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, ti