“Watch it. You’ll drop the lights.” Mr Bijju yelled out a warning to the employee who was unloading them.
“Goddamn idiots, useless loafers. No respect for money or property.” He glared angrily at his employee. “With these butterfingers on the job, we’ll never be able to set up in time for the concert.” He mumbled to himself in frustration.
The jungle had been abuzz for days with news of the event. Surilee (the Koel), the singer who had vowed audiences the world over was back for a brief hiatus at her mothers’ home. When the jungle folk had learnt that she was home for a respite, some of them had begged her to perform for them.
How could she say no to them? Even though the European tour had depleted her strength and she badly needed to rest and recuperate, she could not say no to her own people. So, she had consented to hold a concert for them.
Post her consent, an undercurrent of excitement had run in the jungle. The concert was the most talked about thing. A poster to this effect had been put up on the Old Banyan tree near the watering hole. Everybody had seen it. Everybody was going to attend. After all, Surilee was a local celebrity. Why, she had been born right here, in this very jungle. She was a child of this very forest.
“Wow! This is so exciting,” said Hansmukh, the Hyena in his trademark laughing style, reading the poster.
“Oooh! Yes, I cannot wait,” added Gajini, the Elephant.
“I remember Surilee from when she was a chick,” said Kalu, the Bison. “Her voice was so melodious back then too.”
And, so it had gone on for days. Animals had come, clustered around the poster and word of the concert had spread.
Many remembered Surilee from her days of living in the jungle. They remembered how her mellifluous voice had filled the jungle when she would practice. It would resonate from every corner of the valley that she called home. It was another matter that in those days she used to be rudely shushed for practising her craft so early in the morning. It’s true that Jungle folk are early risers but the God forsaken hour of 4 am was definitely a bit too early. Even Kuku, the Cock had concurred on this. He too was considerate enough to crow only at 5 am.
But, that was all in the past now. Surilee was an international sensation. Her previous misdeeds were forgotten because everyone wanted to claim some part of her childhood to stake a claim in her success.
The contract to create an arena in the jungle and set it up for the concert had been awarded to Bijju, the Badger. His company Bijju & Sons (named thus as Bijju’s able bodied strapping sons now helped him run the business) was on the forefront of cutting edge civil work in the jungle. They were responsible for constructing most of the dwellings. They also undertook contracts for festivals, marriages etc. In short if you wanted any arrangements for a party done, you went to Bijju & Sons.
Bijju was not an imposing figure in stature but he had a fearsome reputation. He was a cutthroat businessman and ran a tight business. His employees feared him. Rumour had it that he had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in penury. What he could not have as a child, he had vowed to provide for his own progeny. Thus, he had embarked on a career in construction. He had started working odd jobs in the jungle and learnt on the job. His work had been good, his eagerness to please even more so. Through sheer hard work he had built up a small yet respectable business, the same one that he now so shrewdly ran. Gradually, over the years he had hired employees, taken on more work and had emerged as a full scale contractor. Rumour also had it that anyone who dared oppose him met with misfortune. Such was his reputation now that no one dared to refer to him by his name anymore. No sir. To one and all, he now was Mr Bijju.
To create the perfect arena for the concert Mr Bijju had put all his best employees to work. Teams of workers had toiled for days to create the perfect setting. Herds of deer and bison had been called in to clear the demarcated area. They had grazed for days to reduce the wild grass to mere stubble on the ground. It now covered the earth like a soft carpet that the audience could sit on. A tower of Giraffe had been hard pressed into service to eat the leaves off of the low hanging branches of the trees that dotted the meadow, so that visibility to the stage could be increased. Supplies had been ordered and carted in from the warehouse and other places. Bijju & Sons had laboured hard to create the perfect setting for the concert.
Today on the night of the concert, Balwant, the Bear stood manning the lights, being directed by Mr Bijju.
“Balwant, the face lights have to be out front,” he said now, a note of annoyance creeping into his voice. “What is the use of mounting the face lights behind the stage when they are meant to throw light on the artist?”
“Ugh! Sorry Mr Bijju. Sorry. I’ll change them and put them out front,” mumbled Balwant, hurrying away in his stumbling gait to change the lights.
“Chaturlal, don’t slacken your pace now,” he yelled at the Fox. “I need you to double check the effect lights. There are five different colour effects. I need to you to check the blueprint of the arena and place them as directed. And, do it pronto! I’ve got eyes on you.”
“Yes Sirji, sure Sirji. I’ll do it right away,” said Chaturlal, fearfully. He had been planning to slink away and take a nap. It was not in his nature to work so hard. But, for this concert, the boss had everyone in a tizzy. Mr Bijju’s reputation preceded him and Chaturlal was too smart to cross him.
“And Chartulal, check the beam lights too. I don’t want them to blind Surilee on stage.”
“Jeez! What a slave driver,” muttered Chaturlal, looking at the retreating back of his boss. He walked away to do the boss’s bidding.
Finally…the stage was set.
The arena was bathed in the translucent hues of the moonlight that filtered down from the canopy of the trees that abutted the clearing. The merry stars shone. They twinkled and winked down in anticipation. The forest was silent. The crickets and katydids were not singing tonight. They had taken the night off. Tonight they were going to be mute spectators. The fireflies had been called in from the farthest corners of the jungle and deputed to the concert arena. They now lit up the night sky like festive rice lights, strung together as if in a shimmering beaded necklace. It was a beautiful setting.
Mr Bijju was still busy hollering orders.
“Balwant, dim those face lights a bit. They are still too bright.” He yelled.
“Bhawar, can you and your charm stop flapping your wings and hovering at that furious pace near the fireflies?” he scowled at Mr Hummingbird. “You are literally fanning away the poor things. It’s breaking the symmetry of the lit dome that we created. Go and find another spot to watch the concert. It does not start for another hour. You are too early.”
Turning around he instructed his older son. “Rajju, go and double check the smoke and haze machines. I asked Chaturlal to specifically put them in front of the stage. But, I do not trust his work at all. Go check and see if he has placed them properly.”
“Sure Dad, will do it now,” said Rajju looking up from the checklist he was marking off.
“Er, Dad. I put the lasers in the trees right next to the stage. That way they can throw the beams upwards and also in front, in between the audience. Is that okay?” asked his younger son, Ajju.
“Ya, ya that is fine. And, Ajju where did you place the pyro’s?” he grunted, looking at the list in his hand. “We need them placed near the stage and the flame needs to be adjusted. Cannot have them throw up a high flame that burns the fireflies.”
“I placed them like you instructed Dad. Don’t worry, I’ll go and double check,” said Ajju, shuffling away.
“Mr Bijju, Sir, for the finale we have the confetti cannons and fireworks. Do you want us to set up anything else?” asked Mrigank, the Deer timidly. Mrigank was Mr Bijju’s assistant. He lived in perpetual fear of his boss and literally cowered before him.
“Hmmm..No. That is enough. Who is manning the confetti canons?” he barked
“Erm….I asked Lambu Sir, the Giraffe.”
“What? Lambu! Seriously? Do you have any sense?” growled Mr Bijju, his voice rising up a notch. “Lambu has the worst body coordination among all employees.”
“Sorry sir, I’m sorry. I did not realize…..,” Mrigank’s voice trailed off in a meek whisper.
“Use your brains for once Mrigank. Now go and tell Chaila and his cohorts to take over the canons. I asked them to dance with the audience after the show. They may as well man the canons too,” he said irritated, referring to Mr Peacock and his dance troupe.
“Yes Sir, will tell him right away, Mr Bijju.”
“Yes, Mr Bijju, sir.”
“Who in your supreme intelligence did you ask to take over the lighting of the fireworks?”
“Sir, I asked Gaindaram, the Rhino. But, sir, I can change that. Whoever you want sir, I’ll get that person to…,” blabbered Mrigank, eager to please.
“No. No. Let it be. Gaindaram is fine. He is too thick skinned to be of use anywhere else. But, Mrigank ask Gajini to depute some elephants. They can stand on the periphery of the arena with water in their trunks. They can help douse the flames in case something catches fire.”
“Yes Sir, will do sir,” said Mrigank, making a note.
Scowling at the list of things to do on his list, Mr Bijju cast one last look at the stage and shuffled off towards the main entrance to the arena.
Although the concert venue was not very big, yet an arched entranceway had been created. It was quite grandiose. The arch was made of a Bougainvillea creeper that created a canopy of green with magenta blooms. In this the spiders had spun innumerable webs and actual rice lights had been stung up. The entire arch shimmered like thousands of sequins glinting. It was really quite beautiful.
Mr Bijju inspected the archway critically.
“Saaras,” he called to the Crane working on stringing up the last few lights. “Put a few strings of light on the adjoining bushes too.”
“Yes Mr Bijju.”
“This is the entrance. I want it to look inviting.”
“Sure thing Mr Bijju. I’ll get on it right away.”
Satisfied with the work, Mr Bijju was about to turn when…
“Er…. Mr Bijju, sir,” Mrigank’s voice intruded.
“What?” he literally barked. Sometimes Mrigank’s meekness irritated him beyond measure. But, recognizing an obedient and loyal worker, Mr Bijju let him be.
“Er, Mr Bijju, I, no I mean we, I mean….” his voice trailed off, clearly distraught.
“Get on with it Mrigank. The concert opens in an hour. I don’t have time to stand and interpret your babbling. Out with it,” growled Mr Bijju.
“Sir, we have a problem.”
“Sirji, Surilee cannot perform today,” said Mrigank, dabbing at the cold beads of sweat on his forehead.
A deep frown appeared on Mr Bijju’s forehead. He narrowed his eyes till they were mere slits. His furry face turned a shade darker. His body quivered. His paws balled on the checklist board that he was carrying. With thinned lips he snarled menacingly at Mrigank. “What did you say?”
Mrigank withered. He stumbled backward under his boss’s angry glare.
“How dare she!” bellowed Mr Bijju. A vein popped up on his forehead, throbbing furiously. Work ceased at the arena. Bhawar who had been hovering on a branch of the nearby Fig tree, nearly fell off.
“What is her problem?” he finally asked, his voice a dangerous hiss.
“Sirji, her mother says Surilee is tired. She needs rest. So she….” Mrigank’s voice trailed off again at the sight of Mr Bijju’s clenched jaw.
“Her mother, you say. I see. So, it’s not Surilee but her mother who has the problem?” asked Mr Bijju fixing Mrigank in a withering glare.
Mrigank wilted. “Yes Sir.” He managed to say.
“Let’s go. Let’s go see her right now.”
He called out to his sons, “Rajju. Ajju. Keep a check on things whilst I am gone.”
Then turning he stormed off in the direction of Surilee’s nest. Mrigank followed behind, his usual dainty gait giving way to an ungainly stumble. They covered the short distance and were soon at Surilee’s doorstep, knocking.
“Coming, just a minute?” Mohinee, Surilee’s mother screeched.
On hearing her voice, a drastic change came over Mr Bijju. The scowl on his face was replaced by a smile. He ran a hand over his unkempt fur and straightened the collar of his shirt. He stood up taller. The frown on his forehead disappeared. His entire demeanour became almost deferential, submissive even. Mrigank watched the transformation in awe.
Mr Bijju bowed low as Mohinee opened the door. “Madam Mohinee, greetings.”
“Why, it’s Mr Bijju.” She cooed, although what came out was another screech, albeit softer.
“Madam. It’s such a pleasure to meet you again. You look just as beautiful as you did when we last met. God knows, your beauty grows day by day.”
“Come in, Come in.” Beckoned Mohinee, deeply flattered. “It’s good to have visitors. I don’t go out much anymore.”
“Thank you Madam. What a beautiful nest you have.”
“Now, now Mr Bijju, don’t be so modest. You constructed this nest for us.”
“Ah Madam! You remember. I feared you would have forgotten,” said the silver tongued Mr Bijju. “It is surely my good fortunate to be remembered by a someone as beautiful as you.”
“Oh come on now Mr Bijju.”
Mrigank watched the exchange between the two, open mouthed. “Mrs Mohini, beautiful?” he thought, sneaking a look at her. “Sheesh…the hag has black matted feathers. The nest looks like it has not been washed or swept in ages. What’s wrong with the boss?”
“So what brings you to my doorstep Mr Bijju?” finally asked Mohinee, batting her eyelashes.
“Aah Madam. The sound of your voice is still so melodious. Every word tinkles musically. Surely your daughter gets her dulcet tones from you?”
Mrigank gulped audibly.
Mohinee patted her feathers and blushed. “Why Mr Bijju, how kind you are. Yes, I suppose Surilee does take after me. The jungle knows that her father could never carry a tune. God bless his departed soul.”
“Madam, if I had any say then it is you who would be singing at the concert tonight. Such a voice like yours begs for an audience madam. Really…I am such a fan.”
“Mr Bijju, really?” blushed Mohinee, a wistful yearning on her face. “Oh Well, it was my fondest wish to sing professionally. But, well, you know, life happened.”
“I know Madam. Life can be a brutal mistress. Well, at least you can live your dreams through Surilee. She most definitely takes after you, although I must confess your voice is more melodious.”
“Oh Mr Bijju, you don’t say. No, no, Surlee is quite the star. In fact Surilee is singing for our jungle folk tonight.”
“Is it? Really? That is marvellous Madam. I shall be sure to attend then.”
“Of course, Mr Bijju. You must attend. Oh! It is good to sit with someone and chat. Nobody visits me anymore. I get lonely. Surilee is home very infrequently. She has a career and all. I have no one to talk to also now days,” said Mohinee. “But, that apart, tell me Mr Bijju, why did you come?” she asked, shaking her nostalgic thoughts off.
“I came to visit you madam. Did you not just say that you long for company? Well, here I am an old familiar face.”
“Bless you Mr Bijju. It was good of you to come and ask after me,” said Mohinee, her eyes moistening with emotion.
“It was my pleasure Madam. In fact it would be my honour to escort Surilee to the concert venue. May I?”
“Of Course, of Course. Nothing could be better,” said Mohinee smiling as she called out to Surilee.
Mrigank still watched agape. Much as he tried, he could not fathom what had just transpired. But one thing was clear to him. Every word of his boss’s reputation was true. He was as shrewd as people believed him to be.
Mr Bijju took leave of Mohinee and taking Surilee’s hand, escorted her to the concert venue. His son’s had done their job and kept an eye on things. The concert venue looked beautiful. It shimmered under the light of the fireflies, the moon and the stars. The guests had been seated. There was not an empty seat to be found. Those who could fly were perched up on the trees.
Enchanted by what she saw, Surilee stepped on to the stage. Under the stage lights her raven hued feathers shone like black satin. She looked almost ethereal. A hush fell over the crowd as she picked up the microphone. Then she sang, her notes emerging pure & clear and carrying hauntingly into the night.
Bijju & Sons had done it again. The concert was a stupendous success.