They tied my hands securely at the back.
To my left was the jailor, to my right a doctor and two police each in the front and at the back.
I had heard that there are some 39 steps to walk to the gallows; I will count and see I told myself. How many more minutes are left for me? I was cool.
From the moment the judge had read the death sentence on me, a strange, cloudy calmness had descended on me. Acceptance? I do not know. But I knew my soul was clear; clear, if not clean. I did not feel the need for a last confession.
I had a very strong hand in the death of Bhaat Minguel, that is what the verdict said. This was some months back. Nothing worked to reverse this verdict. I had no means nor influence to have this reversed or revoked. Who and what was I anyway?
"Twenty-five students of the 1964-65 English medium batch of standard ten are jointly responsible for the death of Michael Lobo alias Bhaat Minguel alias Minguel the old black bear." The judge read out the sentence. "Nevertheless we cannot impose death sentence on all these twenty-five; but," the judge looked at me menacingly. "But one has to go! One who has been the instigator, driving the said deceased into circumstances which have caused his death has to pay the price. So this court of law condemns Edwin Joseph Francis DSouza to death. To be hanged till death".
The jailor nudged me.
"If you have anything to say?something to ask?.."
"Nothing," I replied, surprised at the composure my voice exuded. Strange, I was still in my school uniform. I was one of those smartly dressed boys, navy blue shorts, full-sleeved spotless white shirt and spit and polish black shoes. This attire spoke words about the English-medium breed of that prestigious high school. Hey, where is my gold-buttoned blazer? I was never without it at special occasions. Isn’t this a special occasion? Edwin JF DSouza is being hanged!
We walked a few steps, I towards my death and the others to execute their duty and then took a turn to the right and entered a passage which lead to the gallows. I started counting the steps. On either side of the passage were cells and the inmates were screaming at me. It was the death row. `You are the lucky one!’ some yelled. `Remember us when you are in paradise!’ An atheist, perhaps. What difference does it make?
In a few seconds we were at the gallows; it stood tall and firm; a formidable verdict in itself. What the hell, I had lost count of the steps. The rope looked new and raw. Would it hurt? The executioner wore black but did not have a paunch as I had imagined him to have. He was slim and stood with his hand on the lever which when pulled would send me down to eternal rest. The lever looked well oiled. The executioner may not have any difficulty in yanking it down.
I climbed the steps to the gallows without any coaxing.
It takes less than a fraction of a second for the neck bone to snap, the kind jailor had told me. Jailors are supposed to be kind, specially to those who are condemned to death. You will never know or feel anything, he had said, as if he himself has been hanged several times. Think of something beautiful and when they slip the black hood over your head have a look at the bright blue sky for the last time. Then you will go off like a candle.
He must be trained to talk in this manner to the guys on the death row. What did he have to lose, anyway?
I tried to catch the executioner’s eyes but he plainly avoided my gaze. Even when they slipped the black hood over my head he stood at my back.
The world disappeared from me.
Now I could feel the rope. There is a tactic, the jailor had told me. The knot had to be in a particular spot on the neck and at a specified angle. Between the ear and the jawbone. Else, there will be prolonged struggle. Yuk!
The knot was set in place.
The executioner patted my back. The guys around me must have stepped back. What do they think? That I cannot see anything? Hey, look at that executioner standing dumb with his hand on the lever waiting for the signal. If I do not witness my own hanging, who else will?
The jailor nodded and with little effort the executioner pulled the lever.
Where am I now?
At the pearly gates of heaven?
Where the devil is that Saint Peter?
Open the gate man, I have come and I have my earthly account settled.
Oh, you do not know me? Here, let me take this black hood off. Happy now?
Let me see how your heaven looks.
I opened my eyes, opened them wide.
Yes, I was in my own heaven –
In my own bedroom. To my left was my wife, snoring away to glory and at my foot my darling Blackie, the cat.
Hell, every time this dream would snap and end at this very juncture?..
About thirty years ago completing standard ten I had decided to pursue my studies in the science stream and joined Pre-University course. This dream haunted me frequently; no doubt, the memory of Bhaat Minguel was still afresh in my mind. Ah yes, "bhaat" in Konkani slang meant a person who talks through his head. A ‘bundlebaaz.’
But why tonight this dream should haunt me again? I never even thought of Bhaat Minguel; did not see any grotesque hanging scene on the TV. The brain was playing truant in my sleep. This Minguel the old black bear was there in some niche of my brain. In others too. All of us had a remorse at the death of Minguel, a guilty compunction that could not be snuffed out.
How and when he came into standard ten and how he went off like a candle was a mystery to all of us.
Did we push him to the brink with our challenges or his big mouth got his goat, we will never know.
1964-65 English medium batch of the standard ten. X standard E, to be precise. That classroom, even now, is still in the same place in high school. Smart, well dressed boys, intelligent. There were two groups in X-E. This division took shape right from standard six when boys who were in convent English medium schools till they completed fifth standard had to find a seat in boys’ high school; the nuns would not keep them beyond fifth standard. They migrated to this English medium high school as `professors’ of English; they behaved as if the British had left them behind to rule India or X-E to say the least.
I did not belong to this group and there were others too who did not. We had studied in Kannada Medium till the fifth standard and to get us into English medium must have been a Herculean task for our parents; I clearly remember my dear Mother running from pillar to post exhorting some priest or nun to influence the headmaster of this high school to give me a seat.
A seat I did get, and all the discrimination, humiliation of coming from a Kannada medium school came along. Before ‘we’ could formulate any answer in our minds and rehearse it before opening our mouth to reply to the teacher, these "goras" would rattle off and draw appreciative glances from the teachers.
They had French as the second language and we had our Kannada. One kind sir, having noticed our plight came forward to conduct a special class in English grammar at 8 in the morning, that too free of charge. When we sat in the class with that immortal red bound Wren & Martin grammar book, the privileged ones played football.
Even when we reached standard ten, even when our English was as good as theirs, this split just refused to mend.
When such a situation was prevailing, enter Michael Lobo. Classes were already in their second month. This chap’s father must be holding a transferable job, we presumed. The transfer proceedings might have taken long. However, Michael was given admission.
But we never asked. Michael, from day one, sat on the last bench; he never spoke to us nor to the "goras." He was well built, looked a couple of years older than us and black pigmentation could be seen generously in his complexion.
It did not take long for the imp of our class, Terence to name him Minguel the old black bear.
Now planned a strategy. If we have this black bear on our side, we will have an edge over the "goras." We coaxed Terence to approach Michael. He agreed.
"I am Terence," he said to Michael during a lunch break.
Michael sized him with narrowed eyes. Terence was five feet nothing.
"I’m Michael Lobo," came the reply. We were watching and hearing, standing a few feet away. "I’ve come from Bombay?." He appraised Terence again. "You’re a bacteria!" he said.
"There are no bacteria in Bombay?" Terence shot back. "We do not want any of your "bhaat" in this school, Mingueli!" Terence had the gall to say.
Michael got up and gathered Terence’s collar and crumpled it in his fist.
"Your bhaat and gas will not work with them!" stammered Terence, pointing to the "goras" standing little away and who had suddenly become interested in what was going on in this corner of the classroom.
"Whose they?" Michael snapped looking in their direction.
"They studied in English medium right from KG Class," I made bold to tell him. "They are rich. They are either doctors’ sons or engineers’ or business men’s. They have the clout," I added.
"Is that all?" Michael sneered. "My father is film producer! Raj Kapoor salutes him."
"What’s his name?" I asked him. My familiarity of Hindi movies and songs was unsurpassable in the class.
"Business secret!" he said. "My father does not permit me to disclose his name in public. Income-Tax problems." He let go of Terence’s collar. "I have acted in movies too. Heard of the film "Aadhi Roti"?
We looked at each other and drew blank. Terence wanted to say something but I pinched him to shut up. "Rita Lobo from Amchem Noxib" is related to me. You wouldn’t believe this but Asha Parekh and I have played caroms several times!"
"What brought you to Mangalore?" The ever stern Stany asked.
…We meet very very rarely. We talk about everything and everybody. But no one talks about Bhaat Minguel….
"Even this question ?..I cannot answer this question."
"Where do you stay?" Stany did not relent.
"Your blessed boarding house is full. Daddy has put me in a star hotel."
We looked at each other again. There were no star hotels in Mangalore then.
"What you guys were saying about those punks?" Michael asked jerking his thumb in their direction. "I’m ready. If it is going to be a fight, gang war?I’m ready. I’m a trained fighter. Ever heard of stuntman John Cavas? He has trained me."
Our verdict was unanimous:
This boy is nuts. The nickname Bhaat Minguel fits him like a glove. By evening the name stuck. And in spite of this, he stuck with us. Allow him to shoot his mouth off, Michael became your friend instantly. He was an alright chap. In studies too he was okay.
One afternoon, after lunch (Mom sent the Tiffin carrier) I was puffing away on a cigarette, cozily hiding behind massive tree by the toilets.
Suddenly, I do not know from where, Minguel appeared. I wondered where he had had his lunch.
"What cigarette?" he asked authoritatively.
"Charminar." I said crushing the stub against the tree.
He sat down next to me.
"You are useless man, gutless!" he said. "Ever tried charas, ganja?"
"Grass man, grass!" he snapped.
I shook my head vigorously. "I’ve heard that the college students here have started a gang called the Barracuda gang. I hear they have these?eh..drugs."
"Humm," he mused. "It will not be difficult to contact them!"
"I double dare you!" I mustered courage to say. "Impossible to contact this gang. Only a few in our class are in contact with them." I paused and looked around. "Look Mingueli, let us not get into these lafdaas." I pleaded.
"You Mangalorean monkeys have no guts!" He yelled. "Are you challenging me?"
I lost my cool.
"Listen you," I said. "Your Bombay bhaat will not work here. This is Mangalore, our Mangalore. We have not invited you here."
"You wait and see!" he said suddenly rising. "You are frightened of a bunch of jerks because they fire off in fluent English?. Barracuda gang he says!" He huffed and went away.
After this, two or three unsavory incidences took place in the class.
Suryaprakash (Suri) was being dropped to school in his father’s car. His sister sat on the rear seat. She was beauty and looked like the reigning star Sadhana of those days. We thronged every day at the gate for their car to enter the campus. But made no audible comments.
It was alleged that Minguel did make some vile comment about Suri’s sister.
A fight ensued near the toilets.
We had to interfere to break the fight. "Mangalorean girls are girls?" Minguel chided Suri. "Come to Bombay and see the spring chicks in their `bakram’ skirts, man!"
The matter went to the headmaster.
We were sure Minguel would be caned in front of us. We waited. But nothing happened. The whole day Minguel was made to sit in the headmaster’s parlor.
Around noon, an elderly couple came to meet the headmaster. Certainly not his parents I told myself. The man was red-eyed, wore Hawaiian rubber chappals and the lady wore a faded sari. "Film producer, my foot!" I said to myself.
Some talk went on in the parlor and Minguel went away with that elderly couple.
"You guys are giving too much boost to that bombai-ka-babu," Suri said to us after class that day. "Be careful, he will get you into trouble one day."
"Shut up, Suri," I said. "Do not underestimate Minguel. He is not even afraid of the Barracuda gang."
Suri’s face darkened.
"Do not mention that name here!" he said in a low voice. "We have no connection with them." This was rather unusual. Suri always spoke about his contacts in "high" places.
Minguel came back after two days and took his usual seat in the class. He was crestfallen and we kept away from him.
Amidst all this a strange phenomenon came to our attention. No matter what, the headmaster and the teachers were unusually compassionate towards Minguel. It was common when it came to the wards of the rich but to Minguel? May be, just may be, his father is a film producer after all. But this was too sour to swallow.
Those were the days of "By Night" films. Paris by Night, London By Night, Hong Kong by Night and so on. These were categorized as "sexy" films. In reality, these had nothing but lovely floor shows, flamingo dances, fan dances. Some showed Egyptian belly dances.
One afternoon we were talking about one such film when Minguel appeared from nowhere. "You call these sexy films?" he jeered. "There’s a movie running in Bombay. Blow Hot Blow Cold. And that’s what I call a sexy film. It may take another three for it to come to your stupid Mangalore!" He glared at me menacingly. "Obviously this a "AA" rated film. But I have seen it; I had to dodge twenty-five police vans around the cinema house to stand in the queue to get a ticket."
We fell silent for about five seconds.
Then we broke into violent fits of laughter.
"Mingueli," I said clapping. "You think we Mangaloreans are fools? We are morons? What do you think of yourself?"
"This chap says he can approach the Barracuda gang and get drugs; he has done it before he says and he claims he is on drugs?."
"I?" Minguel tried to interrupt.
"Yes, Yes," I chipped in. "Every Saturday night the Barracuda gang has its beach party. Let’s see what this Bombai-ka-babu will do this Saturday. This is a challenge. Show us the proof of your contacts, man!"
"Yes, indeed!" said Suri. "This is a challenge."
Strange enough, on the strength of this challenge the divide in the class seemed to narrow down considerably.
Minguel walked away. I noticed something on his face which sent shivers down my spine.
The week passed and when the Saturday came we had forgotten about the challenge. We were planning for Sunday and we hardly took any notice of bhaat Minguel.
There were police in headmaster’s room.
May be there was some trouble in the boarding house.
The first hour was mathematics.
The teacher came and looked disoriented and disheveled.
At the stroke of ten an attender came to the class and we were told to report to the headmaster’s room in order of our registered numbers.
What is it now? Tetanus shots?
It was the English hour but the teacher did not take up lessons; he sent us one by one to the headmaster’s office.
Ashok S.K.’s name was first; he went and came back in about ten minutes. There was terror written all over his countenance.
Before he could sit he whispered something into the ears of students to his right and left. Within minutes the entire class was buzzing with whispered conversations. The teacher did nothing to impose silence. The gist of the buzz was simply this:
Something has happened to bhaat Minguel!
Police have come for an enquiry.
And it was then that we noticed that bhaat Minguel was not in the class!
The enquiry went on for the entire day. The students were asked stereotype questions: How was Michael Lobo in the class, what did he talk about, who were his friends. Our answers were, surprisingly, did not contradict each other’s. Michael was loud mouthed, talked through his head and claimed he had contacts with the Barracuda gang and that Saturday he boasted he would go and get some drugs from that gang.. In brief students of X-E declared Michael Lobo was mentally unstable and perhaps had contacts with some shady characters.
But none of us ever made a mention of the treacherous challenge we had thrown at him to go and get drugs from the gang; we knew that this fact if revealed, would land all of us in jail. This fact remained within us and bred a guilt that we still nurse.
Nothing happened for about a week. Bhaat Minguel was nowhere to be seen. We dared not to ask the teachers. Perhaps the Barracuda gang has finished him off, said some; some said he has been locked up by the police; some optimists said he may have gone back to Bombay.
After a week the truth came out. The science teacher (who was about to retire) who was superfluously soft towards Bhaat Minguel could not contain himself. He broke down in the class itself:
Bhaat Minguel was dead.
His lifeless body was found about three kilometers from the beach. Postmortem revealed the cause of death – drug overdose. There were telltale marks of needle pricks on his arms and –
A packet of charas was found in his pocket.
Perhaps he brought it with him to show to us and prove that he was bold enough to get it from the Barracuda gang.
Who was this Michael Lobo anyway?
Now we made bold ask this question and we got the answer too.
He was the only son of a well-to-do family in Bombay. Right from the start of his growing years he was arrogant, erratic, confused and perverted in his thinking. He got involved with drug dealers, bootleggers and ultimately became a drug addict. A NGO rescued him, ‘broke’ his habit and suggested that he needs a new atmosphere. However, how Michael had managed to reach standard ten was mystery to everyone.
He was sent down to Mangalore to live with his aunty and uncle.
"This is the first mistake his parents made, Sir!" Terence stood up and yelled. "How did they know Bhaat?.Michael was fully cured or not, whether he was stable enough or not. Stupid people?."
"That’s not important now," the science teacher said. "We tried to give him a fresh atmosphere. Gave him a seat in the English medium so that he would be in the company of students like you who have come from good stock, your parents are educated and you boys?.."
"But why weren’t we told about Michael?" Suri’s voice was unsteady.
”What would have happened if we did tell you, Suri?" asked the science teacher. ”You would have treated him differently. You would have been over-cautious with him and this would have made him feel alien and he would inevitably go back to the same rut of drugs?.."
We looked at each other with equal measures of guilt written all over us.
After the class that evening we held a meeting. The entire class was there, the divide had healed, healed for good. Everyone wanted to talk, talk at the same time.
"We should all be hanged!" hissed Terence, tears welling in his eyes. "First you should go, you angel-faced devil!" He pointed a shaky finger at me. "You are the root cause of Bhaat?.no?.Michael’s death. You threw him a challenge?."
"Shut up, Terence!" said Suri. "We all are equally guilty. Now do not get to each others’ throats. We will have our share of punishment, in due course." He prophesized.
I quietly slipped away from that gathering.
A strange fear gripped me. Police would not stop at this, I told myself. Further enquiries, court, jail, verdict and perhaps hanging?.my imagination ran wild. I was in a whirlpool which was spinning me and there was no stopping it.
Mercifully, as time passed, this whirlpool formulated itself as a dream and made me walk those 39 steps to the gallows??
The batch of 1964-65, I do not know where it is now scattered. Three or four are still in Mangalore. Another few are in Bangalore.
We meet very very rarely.
We talk about everything and everybody.
But no one talks about Bhaat Minguel.
Author: Edwin JF DSouza- Mangalore