Sandip Chakroborty recalls an adventure during the festival when he was a student in Delhi.

After passing my Intermediate in Science examination from Bihar, like many other Biharis, I looked forward to do my graduation from Delhi University (not before making a few unsuccessful attempts at IIT-JEE). I joined the horde and one fine day took the Vaishali Express from Chapra to Delhi in pursuit of a better career and a more fulfilling life. On that day, there were many who boarded the train of dreams with me from that station.

In Delhi, I reunited with many old friends. Finding and meeting them again was an incredible experience and Dhabo was my most prized catch. Dhabo had moved out of Chapra when we were in Std IV. I met him after ten years and wanted to make up for the lost time by staying as much together as possible. It was a sheer coincidence that our liking for cinema and music matched, making our association even stronger. We had joined different colleges and both were denied a seat in the college hostel. We decided to rent a place with a few friends.

Our two-room flat in Kingsway Camp near the University’s north campus was a commune of a kind. Dhabo, Devesh Roy, Raja Singh and I shared this place together. Devesh and I were studying Economics, Dhabo took History and Raja Singh joined Zakir Hussain College as a student of Psychology. Other than our small-town upbringing, we were different from one another in outlook and temperament. Dhabo, for instance, had spent most of his time in a village near Bhagalpur and was very soft spoken. He would listen to old Hindi songs on Vividh Bharati. He was an encyclopedia on old Bollywood songs. Having studied in an English medium school in Patna, Devesh was the most articulate among us. His favourites were Jim Reeves, John Denver and Carpenters. He would read PG Wodehouse and Ayn Rand with equal ease. I was more of an old Kishore-RD type, though; I would join Devesh at times.

Raja Singh was none of the above. He was short and stout and was a State-level weightlifter prior to joining the college on sports quota. Unfortunately, the monthly allowance we got from our parents was enough for existence but not for our fancies, so Raja Singh had to forego his weightlifting aspirations. But as the saying goes “Once a pehalwan, always a pehalwan”, he remained the muscleman of our house. We would pick up fights with local students relying on him as our saviour.

Throughout our university days we could not visit our hometown during Holi, as the yearly exams would start immediately after the vacations. We missed home.

However, staying in Delhi on our own had its advantages. We were free birds. We could eat, drink and make merry. Not that we always took advantage of our freedom, but Holi was different. It is important to mention that the flat in which we stayed was on the third floor. The ground floor was occupied by our landlord, Mr. Chaddha. He stayed with his wife, two teenage sons and an ailing mother. During the two years I stayed in that house, I never heard Mr. Chaddha’s mother speak. She had a hand bell and would play it whenever she needed anything. From the way of playing the bell, Mr. Chaddha would understand what exactly she required.

Mr. Chaddha had an automobile parts shop in Kashmiri gate. He had settled in Delhi from Pakistan after the Partition. The land on which the house stood was a refugee camp and later awarded to these people at a nominal price. Mr. Chaddha’s attire at home was boxers and sleeveless vests. As if that was not enough, the most awkward thing about the house was that we had to pass through Mr. Chaddha’s lobby-cum-drawing room to reach our third floor flat. There were no separate stairs. That was the reason we were not allowed to stay out after 10 pm. We hated the unnecessary guardianship but had no choice as there were hardly any good houses available for a reasonable rent. Barring that matter, the rooms were nice, cozy and we had a terrace to ourselves which was free from any intrusion of the Chaddha family. Mr. Chaddha was a miser of the highest order. He never offered us a cup of tea, not to speak of lunch or dinner. In those days if someone offered us home-cooked food, we would consider him the direct descendant of god. The Chaddhas belonged to the devil’s camp.

It was 1994. On the day of Holi, Dhabo came up with an idea of preparing thandai mixed with bhang to celebrate the occasion. The drink had a certain method of preparation of which, at least, I was not aware of. Devesh had never tasted bhang earlier but was willing to try if someone could prepare it. In the meantime, Raja Singh jumped into the discussion and claimed he had the expertise to make the drink as he had prepared it many times when he was in Bihar. This surprised me as Raja Singh was a teetotaller. I trusted Dhabo more on the matter as he claimed to have prepared bhang many times in his village, but seeing Raja Singh’s enthusiasm we decided to go with him as our master blender.

Bhang was available as green round balls in a government approved shop in Azadpur market. We bought four balls from there along with milk, cashew nuts, almonds, kesar and returned home with immense excitement. Raja Singh started the preparation. Milk was boiled with cashew nuts and almonds, the four green balls were slowly added to it along with sugar. As the milk started changing its hue and became thicker it was cooled and poured into a container with ice cubes and kept aside to chill. Finally, the drink was ready with a sprinkling of kesar on top. We were aware of the after-effects of bhang. It could take one into a state of hallucination or spiritual ecstasy.

Hence with all anticipation, we took our first sip and each of us drank a full glass of it. It tasted sweet and we eagerly waited for the bhang to take effect. But nothing happened. We cursed Raja Singh that he must have missed some important trick in the preparation. He, on the other hand blamed the bhang shop of selling adulterated stuff. The argument was still on when we decided to consume the remaining drink, considering the earlier intake was insufficient. We felt miserable experiencing no real thrill of bhang. In all disappointment Devesh then suggested exams were around the corner and he had heard bhang helped concentrate better, so the best option was to study.

Suddenly I heard Raja Singh laughing aloud at a stretch following which Dhabo started crying inconsolably. Devesh and I looked at each other. The green balls were certainly taking effect. I soon heard Devesh declaring that he would end his life and apologising to all of us for any mistake unknowingly he had committed in the past.

After sometime the wailing Dhabo stood up and declared, “We are not going to give up but fight till the last for survival!” It sounded like a war-cry. We realised the need of the hour was to leave the house immediately. The destination could have only been Dhabo’s older brother’s place. He stayed around six kilometres from our house. He could be the only one who’d help us at that time of distress by calling a doctor.

It was past midnight. All four of us rushed to Chaddha’s lobby and shouted, “Chaddha, darwaja khol (Chaddha, open the door)!” A startled, sleeping Chaddha, in his famous boxers, thought that dacoits had struck. He gauged something was seriously wrong with us and offered to drive us to the doctor as he ran for the keys of the main gate. Before he could unlock the gate we jumped over the boundary wall and started walking.

We were all walking but heading nowhere. Dhabo came up with another novel idea. He wanted us to walk hand-in-hand. All four of us walked towards Dhabo’s brother’s house singing aloud “Kadam kadam badhaye ja...” in the hope to see the first light of dawn.

I do not remember how we finally managed to reach the place, but it must have been a nightmare for him to see four of us at his doorstep crying for help. The poor guy pulled us in and called for a doctor. In my little senses, which I thought still prevailed, I could see the doctor giving all of us an injection. Raja Singh fell asleep immediately. Devesh asked the doctor why Raja Singh was not talking, to which the doctor remarked “Jo so gaya, samjho bach gaya” (One who slept was safe). However, we understood the opposite and started howling, this time for Raja Singh, thinking he had breathed his last.

The injection worked. I fell asleep only to wake up with a searing headache 36 hours later. I was hungry, but felt relieved to see my three friends sleeping next to me, alive. I decided not to touch bhang ever again. I haven’t. Dhabo has tried it many times since, whenever he went to his village during Holi. In the many years since then, life has taken the four of us in different directions. But I often wish my old friends would come back, and that Dhabo would start singing, “Kadam kadam badhaye ja.”