The ‘news’ reached those of us in class VII-B almost by accident, after everyone else in the school had already heard it: Hindi film actor Danny Denzongpa would be executed for engaging in spying activities on behalf of the Chinese government.
The year was 1982, and this news was preceded by a series of unfortunate events for Mangaldai, a small, nondescript town in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley. These included two monsoon hurricanes (known in Assam as Bordoisila) uprooting the supposedly invincible coconut trees, and the sojourn of a confused wild elephant to the town, leading to loss of lives and property, and finally ending in its death at the hands of hunters.
During the next few days, the major topic of discussion in school was Danny’s imminent hanging. Some, buoyed by the nationalistic fervour imparted by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation, expressed their happiness at the fate of a traitor; while some others, perhaps due to their parents – in whose mind the 1962 China-India conflict and its consequences were still alive – expressed their worry that this execution could lead to another conflict. My father, amused by our anxiety, told us that the news about Denzongpa could not be true, as neither the newspapers nor the radio had mentioned it. He commented that even if Danny was a James Bond-like spy – filming movies by day and spying for China at night – his greater crime was acting in too many formulaic Hindi movies. He reassured us, saying that if the hanging of Billa and Ranga could take about three and a half years, poor Danny would not be executed so quickly.
Jasbir and Kuljeet Singh (aka Billa and Ranga) had kidnapped for ransom the Chopra siblings, Geeta (17) and Sanjay (15), on 26 August 1978. Three days later, when Geeta and Sanjay’s bodies were recovered, it was found that Geeta had been raped before being murdered. Billa and Ranga were career criminals, only just released from the Arthur Road Jail in Bombay. Geeta and Sanjay, who had been on their way to the All India Radio building at Parliament Street in New Delhi for a radio programme, had hitched a ride in a cream-coloured Fiat, stolen by the two criminals. Billa and Ranga were arrested on a train some few months later, given the death penalty in 1981, and executed a few months later in 1982, almost three and a half years after they had committed the crime.
A few years later, Billa and Ranga would come back to haunt Mangaldai. Sometime in 1984, a big poster hung outside Ashok Cinema Hall – one of the few centres of excitement and entertainment in Mangaldai in those days – announcing that a movie named Billa Ranga was ‘coming shortly’. Though we were not able to differentiate Telugu from Tamil, from the look of the heroes in the poster we knew that this was a South Indian movie dubbed in Hindi. And we awaited its arrival with anticipation.
Television had not yet arrived in Mangaldai, but the memory of the verdict in the Chopra case was still fresh in our minds, and Billa-Ranga were the epitome of evil for most people. Therefore, we were eager to see the entire story on the big screen, which was released sometime in winter 1985. In this version of the story, Billa and Ranga turned out to be singing-and-dancing undercover police who wooed women, beat up bad guys and earned medals for bravery.Though this creative license was disappointing to many of us who went to watch the film, it was, in fact, in line with the atmosphere of ‘magic realism’ that had engulfed Mangaldai at the time. Fact was not very different from fiction. Often, fiction and vivid imaginativeness took precedence over fact finding and logical reasoning. At home, my mother was a grandmaster of magic realism; in her magnifying view nothing small ever happened, exaggerations of gigantic proportion were the norm and not the exception. It would take me many years to realise that if mother said that many dead bodies had come floating up the river (actually a springlet) Bega, the police might, in reality, have recovered one body.
My introduction to this aspect of my hometown’s workings happened in 1976, when a health officer arrived at our school to administer tuberculosis vaccinations. The previous day, the officer had visited a nearby high school. It seemed that he had lit a small lamp, put the needle in the flame, and then injected the students. The news of his visit to the high school and vaccination reached us before he arrived. This was during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency: we were told that it was all part of her big plan to kill all the children and young people, and the health officer was going to poison us. He burned the needle to make the poison more effective.
So, when the official finally arrived, the smarter children escaped and ran home; the timid and the weak (including myself) surrendered to our fate. I still remember waiting all day for the poison to take effect. On my way home I pondered the fact that this would be the last time I walked this way.
A few years later, in 1982, Mangaldai was hit by a mysterious disease, in which the softer organs of the body (such as the breasts and the penis) began to shrink, eventually disappearing. Apparently, this incurable disease originated in Japan, and was known as kuro. As scary as kuro was, the preventive measures were rather lightweight. They included smearing the earlobes with slaked lime (an ingredient normally consumed with paan), wearing red thread on the toes, and tying a taro stem to a thread worn around the wrist. Despite these measures, kuro attacked the town viciously, and people were quite often hospitalised. Panic gripped the town. Some of my teachers (including perhaps one or two who taught science) came with their earlobes covered in dried slaked lime, or with the red thread tied to their wrists. It would be almost a decade before I learnt that the disease was actually called koro (also known as ‘shrinking penis’, or ‘genital retraction syndrome’) and was a culture-specific syndrome, a mental disorder, characterised by delusions of penis shrinkage and retraction into the body. This feeling is accompanied by panic and a fear of dying. Psychosexual conflicts, personality factors, and cultural beliefs are considered to be major causes of koro; in addition, feelings of sexual inadequacy, promiscuity, guilt over masturbation, impotence and so on, may also contribute to it. An affected male often secures a strong hold of his penis by tying a ribbon around it or other, more severe means.
Returning to Danny. I had been familiar with his name since about 1980. My oldest cousin, who lived in our ancestral village and had gotten married in the spring of 1980, often visited us along with his new bride. He loved movies, and made it a point to take his wife each time they came to Mangaldai. Sometimes they would take me along, and I had the chance to watch my first film starring Danny, Heera Moti, followed by Muqaddar ka Sikandar, starring Amjad Khan, the legendary villain of Hindi cinema, after his role as Gabbar Singh in Sholay.
Since Sholay was the inaugural film to screen at Ashok Cinema Hall in 1977, it was the pinnacle of cinematic art in the psyche of many a young boy. I learnt that the role of Gabbar Singh had originally been offered to Danny, who could not accept it due to scheduling constraints, as he had to go to Afghanistan for Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma. Naturally, the ‘news’ of Danny’s conviction upset me.
By 1983, Mithun Chakraborty – with his film Disco Dancer – conquered Mangaldai. Half the young men of the town happily sacrificed their sideburns and had their hair styled in a mullet, a-la Mithun-da. In 1984, Mithun-da brought relief to many of us, as his film Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye starred Danny, affirming that the actor was still alive and acting. Even though Amitabh Bachchan’s 1983 Andha Kanoon had included Danny in a supporting role, some of us were not sure if this had been shot before Danny’s execution.
The mass hysteria caused by hearsay grew to a dangerous level in 1983, when rumours of Tiwa girls being kidnapped by ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrants, among other causes, sparked a bloodbath in Nellie, Assam. This soon spread to other parts of Assam, including the areas surrounding Mangaldai. While countless lives and properties were lost, and hundreds of thousands made homeless, the rumour mill continued to churn, fueling distrust and hatred. Soon, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Assam and gave a speech in an area mostly populated by Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants. Someone told us that leaflets encouraging the immigrant Muslims to kill Hindus were distributed at her meeting. It transpired that this person had not attended the meeting himself. When asked how he had come to know about this leaflet, he said that someone else who had attended the meeting told him so.
In 1985, Mangaldai was once again under attack, but this time by an unseen trio. Three sisters, later ‘confirmed’ to be apparitions, appeared in Hajo, 50 kilometres from Mangaldai. These sisters were said to lure mostly high-school age boys from their homes. Some of the boys were never found, and the few who were, were unable to speak a single word. Rumours also circulated that the three sisters were seen in Mangaldai. Panic ensued, and the superstitious were afraid to roam after sunset. A few of us friends often sat on a bridge over the Mangaldai River in the late afternoons. However, one amongst us was so certain that the girls were real that the daily rendezvous had to be called off out of fear of what could happen.
Over the next 20 or so years I moved from Mangaldai to Guwahati to Delhi to Hyderabad to Jerusalem to Los Angeles, and saw many Hindi movies starring Danny along the way. I learnt that Danny’s real name was Tshering Phintso Denzongpa. During his early days at the Film and Television Institute of India, many could not pronounce his name and made fun of it, so his classmate Jaya Bhaduri suggested he take the pet name Danny. He was initially rejected repeatedly for his ‘chinki’ looks, and producers thought he’d be unsuitable to play any roles other than a Nepali or a Gorkha. The Hindi movie Chak De! India, released in 2007, addressed the issue of alienation that people from Northeast India often feel in ‘mainland’ India. The movie and its message were generally appreciated. However, in January 2014, Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, was killed in an alleged racial attack in Delhi. Suddenly, what Danny had said to the Hindustan Times in 2012 became relevant once again: “I dreaded stepping out of the campus because people would stare, and jibes like Gurkha, Chinese, Nepalese and chinki were openly thrown at me… I lived through hell. It’s very unfair and insensitive.”
This is an issue many Indians face. I lived in Delhi, where people guessed I came from Afghanistan or Sikkim, or anywhere in between. I was never called a ‘chinki’ as I apparently do not have so-called ‘typical Northeast features’ (I still do not know what those are). But I saw the way many locals looked down upon students from the Northeast because their customs and costumes did not match those of Delhi. Until I picked up some Punjabi-accented Hindi I felt like an outsider in Delhi. I have been an outsider elsewhere, too. I arrived in Jerusalem at the peak of the second Intifada and was frequently mistaken for a Palestinian, being forced to show my passport to whoever demanded it. The scariest experience was waiting at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2001, at six in the morning, just hours after the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had tried to blow up an American Airlines plane en route from Paris to Miami. In Los Angeles, I was taken as a Mexican. A racially mixed megacity such as Los Angeles does not usually make one feel conscious of oneself, but it still felt odd to be spoken to, by default, in Spanish.
Rumour has always been a part of life. Rulers have used it to create confusion and fear among enemies. Today it is often utilised to spread hatred and racism, leading to dire consequences for some, and opportunistic gains for a few. With the advent of new technologies, today we do not need messengers on horseback to spread rumours. Simply pressing a button on a cell phone can spread dangerous rumours, as in August 2012, when Northeasterners exited ‘mainland’ India en masse. And as with the koro ‘epidemic’, here, too, the poorer and poorly educated were the main sufferers. While thousands of people working as night watchmen and other such ‘lowly’ jobs rushed back home on the first available train, hardly any well-educated people with well-paying jobs did the same. So, as entertaining as the stories about the bungled rumours concerning the three deaths of Danny Denzongpa are, our tendency to believe – quickly and without questioning – everything we hear is not always so amusing.
~Pankaz K Sharma (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born and raised in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, in Northeast India. He is a science worker, and currently resides in Seoul, Korea.