When I was told about the bullets that pierced him last year, my first thought was, “They got you in the heart, where I lived.” From then on, I’ve been trying to find my way back home. I’ve wandered in a daze through familiar haunts: ‘It’s a Saturday. Were you not meant to be here at 7 pm...?’ I have rushed to the train door between stations, befuddled; even boarded the wrong trains, when it’s hit me between the eyes: ‘He won’t be waiting near the station anymore.’ I’ve wanted to run away when I’ve seen people laugh, hold hands and shop with their beloveds. The simplest things, like rustling up some tea, which he so loved, or walking past a motorcycle, stir a deep wound within. There is not a square inch of this city that we haven’t covered on his beloved bike. Yes, he often loved “her”, I suspected, more than he loved me — she had barely to sputter and off he would go, sometimes in the dead of night, to his trusted mechanic in Dharavi. I couldn’t even murmur resistance, for I knew his “Rani” was his life. Before every journey, he would whisper sweet nothings to her, lovingly pat her, and take off with a flourish — it was a language only the two of them understood. And she reciprocated in equal measure, faithfully standing by him when the end came.
Everywhere I look, I can see the three of us: the Commander, his Rani and I. At our favourite pani-puri stall; at the local mall; riding through Dongri, where he would sometimes take me on a quick “know-your-underworld” tour (in our early days together, he even took me to a ‘ladies bar’ on a whim I once expressed. A crash course in reading the regulars’ body language and the history of the hangouts followed). Then, of course, there were trips to Sewri to see the flamingos, or to Ferry Wharf, where he would watch the waves caress the ships that had dropped anchor. He could sit there for hours, transfixed. The security guard once politely asked us to leave — we had been there for over five hours, and it was nearing 11 pm! Ever since, we shared a little joke: whenever we rode past the area, he would nudge me and wink. “Chand Darshan?” he would ask.
We had our codes, much like the underworld in Khallas. ‘CHQ’ would be Central Headquarters, or home; ‘RHQ’ would be Regional Headquarters, a close friend’s home we often visited; ‘Chai ki Dukaan’ would be the coffee shop in our neighbourhood and ‘Coast’ would mean we had unwanted company. This was our little heaven, and he was my superhero. On a rare occasion when we travelled in the general compartment of a suburban local, he sensed my discomfort at prying eyes and quickly wrapped his strong arms around me. With one look and his trademark 1,000-watt smile, he reassured me that no one could dare come near. And in that sweaty, hostile sardine can, I retreated into my shrine of peace and comfort. In blinding rain, if he had even a hint of me sniffling with a sinus infection, he would stop the bike, take off his extra-large windcheater and wrap it around my shoulders.
His tenderness and quiet strength were my greatest refuge. And he extended these to everyone who crossed his path. At a family lunch in a Bandra restaurant two years ago, we all watched horrified, while a dog chased an old woman on the street outside. Dressed in rags, she huddled up to her meagre possessions and ran down the sidewalk, screaming. Before we knew what was happening, we saw a familiar pair of arms cradle her, while shooing the dog away. Dey proceeded to help her cross the street to safety, and without a word, took his seat with us again.
He believed in giving, and sharing. Anyone who needed help knew he would go to them, and all it took was a call. When the tsunami wreaked havoc in South India a few years ago, he didn’t think twice before helping with an orphaned child’s upkeep. And a few days before he passed on, he expressed a desire to contribute towards the treatment of a little child in need of heart surgery. Many of those who attended his funeral said he was a “friend”, a “guru”, and even a “father”. People I’d never seen or heard of before. Dey was a protector of animals too. A pair of kites had built a nest near our home, and he had been keenly photographing the process from our window. When the baby kite was born, no one in the neighbourhood was happier than he. One morning, as he was leaving for work, he heard the baby’s moans, and traced it to the building’s water tank. The bird was gasping for air and bleeding profusely. Dey took the watchman’s help, dressed it, and tenderly placed it in a cardboard box. That was not the end, though. He drove all the way to the animal hospital in Parel, and made sure the staff there came to our building and took charge of the bird.
“Main karu hai (I’m a doer),” he’d say, in his Bambaiyya Hindi. “I don’t waste time with words.” His sharp observation skills had helped him sketch mental profiles of people he’d meet or places he’d been to just once. “Look at the eyes,” he’d say. “The mischief they hold is typical of so-and-so.”
That was how he connected with people — simply, and endearingly. That is also how he lived his life. The lyrics of an old Hindi film song, ‘Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya’ were his credo and, for a long time, his ringtone. You’d never hear him crib about how he had to balance work and home, or how risky his job was. He just gave of himself fully to his work, his ideals, his family, and everyone he came in contact with. I often wondered how he zipped around the city on his bike, met so many people every day, and still found the time to call me at work and ask, “Sir (a formal tone was one of his endearments), can you come down for 10 minutes for tea?”
But at heart, he was a baby. One night, I got home from work and heard him call out to me in a faint voice. The bike had slipped, and he’d scraped his knee. He just stretched his hands out, wanting to be cared for. That was also how he connected with his Higher Power. Every morning, he’d meditate for a while before he left for the day’s duties, and would faithfully report to me the feeling of peace he’d derived. Trips to Shirdi would always be decided on the spur of the moment, and he would wait it out in the queue for darshan, never once using his influence to take the shorter route.
He dreamt big, and had no time for trifles or small talk. “I want to be at Cannes,” he’d often tell me. He’d trained to be a cinematographer many years ago, and had even enrolled in a scriptwriting course. And almost like he was delivering a movie line, he’d regularly chide me with, “Tu itna darta kaiko hai re (Why’re you always so afraid)?” He never was. Given half a chance, he would have said that to the guy who pulled the trigger that stormy afternoon. The guy didn’t know the warrior J Dey was. He didn’t even know that the place he pumped those bullets into was just a shell. J Dey’s heart is with all those who love him. And like them all, I feel his protective presence around me every day. I know I’ll find my way back soon.