Thursday, 18 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 18 (final instalment) of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Coming out of the water, she picked up her sheet but left the child’s cloth lying on the sand. She was not cold but anyhow, wrapped the sheet around her shoulders. Her legs below her thighs had gone numb. As she walked she felt her feet were walking, not as per her wish, but of their own accord. And her torso, only because it was attached to her legs, kept moving forward. Once she thought of stopping just to check if her feet would stop, but didn’t. Her entire leg was numb but the cold sand was pricking her soles like pins. Without stopping she looked back and saw her foot prints visible up to some distance and beyond that only fog, and in it a vague impression of the river Yamuna stretched out like a black sheet.

She came to stand by the roadside. Standing all alone in the midst of fog, engulfed by it on all sides, she felt she had come to a completely alien place. The tree next to her appearing even more densely dark. On either side hung small balloons of pale light at short intervals which looked - after three or four – like so many earthen lamps arranged in a row. Though she knew them to be electric lamps, the light could only manage to form a pale balloon in the fog.

She turned her eyes from one side to the other and somehow had a feeling she had exited from the world. Beyond the road lay the world and the sound of ‘ghrr’ passing through it floated down to her (must be a truck, this is how trucks, passing at a distance sound), but she had come out of it isolated, alone. However, she was feeling this need to cry, to cry loudly. But how was she to cry when both her mind and her body felt completely drained. Though she cried often (it had been some days now since she cried), in private and in public. She cried when in pain. But when she cried others enjoyed and laughed … 'she cries like a pig getting slaughtered.'

Her sari, clinging wet round her legs had begun to prick badly. Lifting up the sari a little she squeezed out the water, it wasn’t so bad now. Going under the tree she sat down leaning against the trunk. This was where she had been sitting since the evening. Wrapping half the sheet around her, she covered the child with the other half – 'Give a paisa mai, may your money grow, Saith. May you build your own empire, babu, may you get a promotion, may your children live, brother' – machine like, she went on and on but in her heart, there was fear. 'Jitua is back. Will not spare her when she will return to the shanty. He has come out after serving two months in the jail, will torment her again. It would have been better, had he stayed in jail. The two months had passed comfortably. But the shanty belongs to Jitua. She has no other place to sleep. On other days, she’d have slept even by the roadside but how can she spend the night out in the open in this chilly winter? Perhaps she could, had she been alone. But the baby, who even otherwise keeps on whining, won’t survive if they slept in the open.

And Jitua was a complete dog, grabbing her the moment she lay down, bashing her if she resisted even a little. She cried when the baby kept crying, she cried at the beatings, she cried when it hurt. Not that it made any difference to Jitua. He not only laughed himself but also described to the neighbours the next day how the slut cried like a pig getting slaughtered.

Even Jidda had not spared her, but had not beaten her, she had also had plenty to eat and wear those days. Now she has to beg for whatever she gets. Jitua gave her something only once in a while. Yet, in the end all men turn out to be the same. Always, they have given her pain. Always, a scream rises from within … 'oh mai' … and she can endure no more, can’t prevent herself from screaming out. She tries hard but despite all efforts to smother it, a stifled scream keeps rising inside her. All the women in other shanties laughed, also the men. The women also expressed surprise  and often said that she only put up a sham. This was beyond her. Why would she pretend to be in pain and agony? Also, she couldn’t get it into her head that men gave pleasure. What pleasure? To her, men had always given pain.

When the child was born, she had almost died. But everyone had always said that childbirth was painful. Such killing pain, yet all women give birth. Like her, they too must be doing it unwillingly, as something not in their control. But then, the women in the neighbouring shanties had said, being with a man would no longer be painful. But no! Men have always given her pain and only pain.

The evening drew to a close, the lights came on but she continued to sit there. On any other day, she’d have left by now. But she feared going back to Jitua in the shanty. When he had been put behind bars for two months for peddling opium, her days had passed in peace. Now, she sat there, even when the traffic on the road almost stopped. When someone appeared, she began, 'your money will grow saith, one paisa, may your empire grow, babu. Even when the man went past, she kept repeating mechanically for some time, then fell silent. She didn’t know when she dozed off. Suddenly a gust of cold wind woke her up with a shudder. The fog was thickening. The road was completely deserted.

Wrapped in sheet as the child was, she cradled him on her waist. Carefully picking up the money, she came under the electric lamp meaning to count and knot it up in her sari. Her hand, while counting the money, relaxed and the child swung down at once. As she gathered him up, she felt he had gone completely cold. As she started to wrap him up in the sheet, she thought - how stiff he is, did not even cry. She moved and swayed him, touched him all over. Nothing. Holding the money in one hand and the child in the other, she returned to the tree and sat under it. Sat for a long time. Then getting up, went down the side of the road, the water of the Yamuna river stretched like a black sheet in the fog at some distance.

As she drew closer, she could hear in the silence the low gurgle of the flow of water. She stood still for some time even after reaching the river bank. The cold was freezing and she began to shiver, but took off her sheet and placed it on the sand lest it got wet. She also took off the loose garment she had dressed her child in. Her hand fell upon the black thread tied around child’s belly by a woman neighbour as protection against the evil eye. She thought of snapping it but didn’t. Lifting her sari with one hand, she stepped into the water. The water was biting cold, its current, she felt as if someone was sawing off that part of her foot. Carefully she brought the other foot in, stretching her arm placed the child on the water and drew back. Silently, the child went down but after a while there was a small sound, like a bubble breaking, she thought the child’s head had surfaced and instinctively her foot moved forward. The water there was a little deeper, up to her thighs, her sari dropped from her hands and spread over water. The current there was even more rapid, she felt the sand below her feet shift. She tried to peer through the dark but could see nothing. She turned and walked out. For some reason she was not cold now. Picking up the sheet she wrapped it round her shoulders.

No, she will not go to Jitua’s shanty now. Resting her head against the tree trunk she lay down. Her legs were freezing now, drawing up her knees she folded her legs but couldn’t stand the wet sari. Stretching her legs down, she wrapped the sheet round her back and chest, if she’d draw up her legs, the wet sari would wet the sheet as well.


Delhi, December 1957: The cold wave sweeping the capital these days claimed two more lives last night, of whom one was a woman.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 17 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Lying in one position with his legs drawn up, his joints had begun to ache. But he couldn’t summon the courage to turn to the other side. The cold would've hit him anew. His clothes had become wet with fog, and the wet fabric was piercing like hundreds and thousands of needles. Although the breeze had stopped slight gusts, blowing now and then around balls of fog stabbed through to the bones like arrows. His face too, absolutely wet, was numb with cold but he could still feel a sharp stinging. His folded hands had stiffened and his fingers, when he tried to move them, could barely do so with much difficulty. Slowly, he rubbed his palms, but both his palms had become like stones and completely cold. He couldn’t even rub them with force. The pain in the knees was becoming sharper. When it became unendurable, he spread his legs half way and turned and was jolted at once. The wet, cold stone, where ever he touched it, felt like a stab of ice. The part of his arm, back and legs grown numb while resting against the stone, now felt the full brunt of the fog and the wind – like a gang cracking down upon him with rods and spears.

This is how Maqbool must have felt, when forced to lie on ice. But it had been summer then. Even on an ice slab, it wouldn’t have been as painful as in winter. The Delhi weather is so extreme, when it’s hot, it’s hot enough to singe your body and the two winter months so cold, it freezes the blood. It’s possible to brave through the winter by staying indoors or putting on a coat and blanket but there is no respite from heat. Of course, the cinema houses in Delhi remain cool. If the gate is ajar, it gets a little cool outside too. The Regal cinema is the best. The cool air from inside drifts out to the portico. If one was free in the scorching heat, one could sit there, enjoying the cool air.

He hadn't had money that day to go to the cinema and had just been roaming around. Many new, English style hotels were coming up those days around the round-about at ‘Barakhamba’. Their doors were always closed but whenever someone opened them to go in or come out, a whiff of cool air wafted out accompanied by sounds of English orchestra. Once when he had been close to a hotel, a sahib and mem sahib opened the door to come out. The moment the door opened, the doorman jumped up like a spring snapping open. Once the sahib and memsahib stepped out, the doorman let go of the door and saluted. When the sahib handed him a coin, the doorman’s moustache moved like a dog’s tail moving. The door swung close on its own and the whiff of cool air got shut off midway... as also the sound of the English band coming from inside. Seeing the door open, he had paused for a while, had thrown in a glance. Light had passed in through the open door up to a point and beyond that it was dark even in day time. Dim electric lights, milky white table cloths, flower vases on long tables, chairs in light green upholstery, glittering cutlery on the tables.

When the doorman turned his eyes towards him, he moved ahead. He could see just one man inside. Perhaps the others couldn’t be seen because of the dark. At times he wondered what went on inside these English hotels. One thing he was sure about was that they served English wines. Many of the hotels had shops selling English wines next to them. Girls too must be available, but only high class stuff. The cripple used to make such tall claims. He bragged he had once had whisky sitting in the ‘Standard’. 'No ordinary folks can go in there, my lad, you get white girls there, but you have to shell out big money. They are so shrewd, they can see through their clients in just a glance and unless you own a car you can’t get to even touch their shadow. But the cripple was a braggart. He could see that those who came out of these hotels were mostly over forty, both the sahib and the memsahib.

‘Will you leave or should I call the police?’ The sharp voice of the sahib coming from behind him made him look back. The sahib had parked his motor car a little to this side and as they crossed the verandah, the beggar woman standing behind the pillar had perhaps come after him. Despite the sahib’s displeasure her lips were moving in a plea, 'may your children live long mai, may your glory grow sahib, may your son be a king, memsahib.' He was a little amused. How silly, how stupid this woman is! In one breath she calls the lady both mai and memsahib. Had the lady been a mai, she’d have taken offense on being called a memsahib. She clearly is a memsahib and must have flared up on being addressed as mai. After the sahib’s scolding, the doorman too lost his temper, 'run off or I’ll give you a kick. The likes of you don’t understand unless kicked. Don’t let me see you here again. I don’t know where they appear from, like a bitch with puppies hanging on.'

The doorman’s anger was perhaps more effective than the sahib’s scolding, the beggar woman stepped back in alarm. The sahib opened the car door and when the memsahib was seated he went round to the other side and got in, all the while muttering without stopping, 'it is difficult to step out in the city. No matter where you go, they surround you like ants. Lepers, cripples or at places, boys whining like puppies. Or these damned women, they pester the most. Whose babies do these sluts deliver? Each has one or two hanging on to them. Their good-for -nothing men only give them babies but do not bring them up.' His voice drowninng in the sound of his motor engine revving up.

The woman was just like any other beggar woman. Standing a little to the back, at the point where the verandah projected outwards were three pillars. She stood there quite a distance from the hotel. Dried, matted hair, piled on head like twigs in a pigeon’s nest, dusky complexion, parched skin, looking ready to tear like rotten cloth if pressed, or pinched ever so slightly. Her hair was black. She wouldn’t be old but her parched up skin didn’t tell her age. Wearing only a dhoti which was also wrapped over her bosom. What else did one need in the heat? Dirty! Grimy!

He walked away. He had made up his mind that day to lift some stuff from shops at Queen’s way, a trick he had learnt from Babu. School books sold easily, watches got good money but were risky. Swiping pens was easy, even from people’s pockets. Babu’s trick was to stand where ever he saw a crowd in a shop and if the shop keeper noticed, to ask for something to look at and when possible to flick whatever he could, dodging others’ eyes. Fairs and festivals were more convenient. A small pot or pan, socks, gloves, shoes, slippers – these were less risky. Even if he was caught the shopkeeper would let him go after a beating, for even the shopkeepers were wary of going to the police. Lodge a report, run to the court, give witness, spend money and in addition endure the high handedness of the police. If one was decently dressed and talked with confidence, the risk was cut down even further. The shopkeeper too was in two minds – the fellow looks decent enough, how to charge him with theft? What if it backfires?

He hadn't worked for many days on being released. He had had money, and spent it slowly over days. Once, seeeing a crowd as he passed through the Karoli Bagh market in well laundered clothes, he had this impulse to try out Babu’s trick and had gone to stand in a shop. The shop keeper was showing cigarette lighters to a customer, 'this is Hong Kong stuff sahib, you won’t find it anywhere, very few are smuggled in. The sahib, perhaps not finding anything to his liking, kept picking them up and turning them over one by one, pressing to get a spark. And then two young girls arrived and the shopkeeper began to show them purses. There were seven or eight other men at the shop and just one servant. When the sahib left leaving the lighters, he had stood there and like the sahib, had continued to examine them by turning them over one by one. He stood there for a minute or two, looked again and again. Neither the shopkeeper nor the servant was paying him any attention. Both were busy dealing quickly with the customers. He took the lighter from Hong Kong in one hand. Turned the others around twice or thrice by the other hand and then seeing a woman exit, fell in step behind her, pretending he was with her.

He had managed to come out but his heart had kept pounding loudly,his fear not leaving even after he had mingled with the crowd. Turning into a lane, he had emerged on another street, and then taken the next turn to come onto a third and only then had he heaved a sigh of relief. But it was only after he had gotten away from Karoli Bagh that he was convinced he was not being followed. The shopkeeper had told the customer the lighter was priced at rupees ten but he had got only two rupees. This too had soured his mood. Put so much at risk for only two rupees. But he had lifted a lighter, and it would fetch only so much. The real thing was that he lacked courage. It happened only seldom that the shopkeeper didn’t look in a direction for a minute or two and he didn’t have the guts to quickly flick something the moment the shopkeeper’s back was turned. Besides, he didn’t need the money and had therefore hardly lifted anything. Only twice or thrice, only in crowds, only when there had been no risk.

However, he had started to sell cinema tickets again. The trick had been learnt in his childhood with Kisana. When a new film was released, he used to purchase as many tickets as he could have in advance and then sell them at rates they fetched but the business hadn't always done well. When a film was a crowd puller, he made five to seven or even eight to ten rupees a day for a week to ten days. Otherwise the business fell flat. The business also came to a standstill, when no hit film was released for a few weeks. Once or twice, he had also suffered a loss. As he arrived to sell tickets, he saw a policeman loitering around. Quickly, he had entered the hall to watch the film – now that there was to be no profit, he might as well get his money’s worth.

This is what he had been arrested for. The ticket window had closed and many were left without. He was standing with four tickets in hand, people were coming there on their own to enquire. He sold off all four tickets, which had cost him rupees two each, to a gentleman for two rupees and a half. As the exchange was taking place a policeman had caught hold of him by the shoulder from behind. Startled, he had looked back and immediately, on seeing the khaki uniform, his head had reeled. His stomach contracted and he had felt he would stagger and fall. But the policeman had a strong hold.

The money had eventually run out and many of the policemen had come to know him by face. And then, whenever identified, he was locked in under one hundred and nine. He had to stay in for at least three to four months, more at times. In the end he had been left with just one business - sale of cinema tickets. And he had also stopped fantasising about anything else. The only thought that occupied his mind was to somehow evade the police. Whenever the hand of a policeman fell on his arm – 'you there!' - he turned pale, his stomach began to draw in and he felt he would falter and fall. In the court too, his focus was on whether the police was asking for a remand. He still froze with fear when he saw the jail gate. It was only for the first two turns that he had been kept in the juvenile barrack. After thatr, first the lock up and then any barrack meant for prisoners. They put him to work on spinning ropes with the reed grass, the bastards!  which caused his hands, which in the beginning used to get all cut up, to crack.

The damned beggar woman too, had proved so unlucky. It was in the evening of that day that he had fallen into a police trap, hadn’t got a chance to do a thing. He had been loitering around in Chandni Chowk the previous evening, with just ten or twelve annas in his pocket and thinking of going to Maqbool to get two or three rupees and use it to make some more. A new film was to be released in the Jubilee cinema hall after many weeks. He hadn’t made any money during this while and had used up all the money that he had in his pocket. He had thought instead of going  at that hour, he'd go early the  next morning and catch Maqbool at home. After looking at the posters of the new film at the Jubilee, he was going by the Fountain side when he passed a man standing on the side walk with a bag on shoulder and a bundle of incense-sticks in hands. Must be selling incense-sticks, he had thought. But as he went past the man, he heard him mutter, 'private, private.' Without giving it a thought he had walked a few steps when it suddenly struck him, 'private,' meant a private woman. His feet had stopped as if of their own accord. A flame of fire running up his body. He had heard many a time there were private haunts all over the city, but apart from that one unproductive visit to Qutub road, he had never attempted to find out or go somewhere. Once, when he had adequate money, he had visited G. B. road once or twice, but each time, not having the courage to climb up the stairs, he had taken only a round and returned. And for some reason, no pimp had approached him while he was there.

He had turned back to look, the man was still standing there, moving his lips slowly. It had occurred once to him to go and ask, 'where will you take me? I am ready' but had immediately remembered - what about money? He didn’t have the money. ‘Private’ haunts would be charging even more. The flame had gone down, as also his spirit. He had felt completely exasperated – get money from somewhere, he has to get money from somewhere. But from where? He had never asked Maqbool for a large sum. And if he did get the money from him and spent it here, how would he run his business? He’d need money to invest, that too could be done only on Friday and Saturday and it was already Wednesday. Then he had thought he’d lift something and sell it fast. This night was gone, but this man must be around every day. It appeared to be his haunt.

He had kept going round Chandni Chowk for over an hour, looking for a chance, not getting any. Had he shown some alacrity he could have swiped something at two or three places (at one place, the shopkeeper had put some wrist watches on the counter and had started to open them for repair) but by the time he made ready to lift, the shopkeeper cast a glance back and many chances were missed in this indecision. He had stayed on, even after the crowd had dispersed but now no chance came his way again. When shops began to down their shutters, he had returned. The man too was not there at that hour, he must have found a customer.

That night he had gone to the ruins beyond Jeetgarh to lie down. It was so hot that even at night the air was hot. A fire raged within too and he was so restless the whole night that he went to sleep very late. Even as he lay he kept thinking he’d go on a search in the morning, pick up something definitely. Make some money by the evening and go to Chandni Chowk. If he made even ten rupees he would make a deal somehow. At most, the deal won’t be for the whole night but he would get at least one turn for ten rupees.

But despite going round Karoli Bagh till noon, he hadn't got anything. Suddenly he had felt exhausted and drained. The heat and the restlessness he had felt the day before had gone down. Intending to relax a little in the afternoon, he had gone to New Delhi after eating two rotis at the road-side eatery.

When the motor car went away, he walked on for a few steps, but the words spoken by the sahib kept ringing in his ears, ‘Who knows, whose babies these sluts deliver!’ Whose babies? That they get married is highly unlikely, they must be living in with one of their own kind, or hobnobbing here and there. And suddenly it flashed in his mind, why not talk this beggar woman into it? The face of the woman passed before his eyes. Pile of dry, tangled hair, dirty, grimy coarse cotton sari, parched skin looking like rotten cloth, a child hanging on to her waist, with only a black thread tied to his swollen belly. He felt a little hesitation. 'But she has a good body. She is not old and would agree for only a few annas.' Then he thought, such a woman could also be a friend, unless she was living with someone else. Even if she was, it would be with a beggar only. 'But the slut had this pup hanging on to her.'

Without coming to any decision, he turned back, afraid she might have left. Looked around, he couldn’t see her anywhere. Where had she gone in such a short time? He increased his pace. Just the fact that she couldn’t be seen made him feel he had missed his chance. Had she been there, he’d have talked her into it. There were very few people around. Who would come out in this heat? Only a few motorcars were parked at the curb. She was not in the corridor. Where had she disappeared? She must have gone somewhere to beg. But so fast? He should be able to see her somewhere!

And suddenly he almost collided into her. There was a chick curtain between two pillars and beside the pillar, in the shade of the curtain sat the beggar woman with the child at her breast. Climbing up the verandah he turned by the pillar intending to get into the shade and all but collided with her. She appeared so suddenly that he couldn’t even stop and, avoiding the collision, kept on walking. How could he have talked to her? He told himself. She had her back towards him and was feeding the child. How dirty she looked from close quarters! Her face was not bad, she must have been attractive in her days, but now her looks evoked revulsion. Not just revulsion but also a strange kind of fear. When he had suddenly come on to the verandah the beggar woman had turned to look, and to look at her eyes so closely, she seemed asleep. Startled perhaps for a while, she had continued to see with unseeing eyes, as if her mind was elsewhere. No, not deranged but like a scared, domestic animal. How she had stepped back in alarm when the doorman scolded her. What kind of woman was she! What was the fun in going to such a woman?

He walked till the end of the verandah, there was no shade in the field... it should be a little cooler under the tree in the round park. He went and lay down under that tree. 'Nothing can come up here. It’s better that I go to the old city after some rest. Something may come up in Chawadi Bazaar or Fatehpuri. But why do it at all? If caught, I’ll be thrashed for nothing. It’s better to go to Maqbool, bring some money and by some tickets in advance at Jubilee. They’ll be running a new film from tomorrow.'

Turning aside he closed his eyes and suddenly two lovely orbs appeared before him. When the beggar woman had turned to see, her bosom, covered only partially in the slipping sari, had become visible to him. The woman had been unmindful, as if, oblivious of his presence. At the time, he too, had been preoccupied but when he closed his eyes lying down under the tree, the orbs he had glimpsed once loomed before him now and this time the child clinging to one side was missing. He became extremely, extremely restless.

His body, though stiff with cold, had become a little feverish. Spreading out both his hands at once, he lay on his stomach and writhed just as quickly. His fog-wet clothes touched the ice cold slab and it felt as if someone was scrapping his chest and stomach with a razor. Oh bappa! He turned again to the other side and drawing up his legs brought his knees to his chest. The cold seemed to have enveloped him from all sides. He began to shiver badly and just didn’t stop shivering. Folding his arms he put his elbows on his knees and closing both hands into a fist kept them near his mouth. Slowly, the shivering subsided, the cold seemingly beginning to sink into him. The touch of breath on fingers touching his nose felt good. He brought his knees and elbows close to his chest.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 16 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' ( कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब ) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


The impact of Jidda’s death on the jail lasted only two or three days. On the fourth day Babu started again to sing. He was a Maharashtrian, from some place near Indore. He had also become a little friendly. At home he had a widowed mother, a sister, also some land but no one to work on it. When they’d given it out on contract they hadn’t had enough even to eat. Five or six years back (at the age of fourteen or fifteen) he went to Bombay to make a living. He couldn’t manage any other work over there, what he did was join a gang of pick-pockets. He talked a lot about film actors, was not bad to look at, was a good singer and when ever free, sat down with a pitcher to sing. He wore an iron ring on his finger and played on the pitcher striking it with expertise. When Bombay police ordered his deportation, he made for Delhi. The moment he arrived he was booked under one hundred and nine. His conviction would mean one year in jail. He said he needed money for his sister’s wedding. Ten or fifteen thousand. When he had that much, he would go back home. (Ten or fifteen thousand! It would take him a life time).

He kept singing for hours even after lock up time, playing on his pitcher like a drum. He remembered one particular song which Babu sang often, ‘Jia bekaraar hai' - my heart knows no rest’. When he sang, some of the boys sat surrounding him. A few sang along. When laddoo sweets were distributed on Diwali, Babu, instead of the pitcher, had turned the drum used for boiling water on washing days in to a playing instrument. There was singing for hours, the boys had danced swaying and rocking and adding funny and foul words to the song. Then they had  played kabaddi in the evening. The warder too had not objected, perhaps because it was Diwali. But when Jidda died, the boys appeared - for two days - not only not to be the crooks they were, but also not to know the use of even one foul word. The head warder of the ‘factory’ had been placed under suspension, two or three of the headmen had been locked up in the mill, stripped of their belts (although only for fifteen days, thereafter the head warder had reported back on duty and the headmen had got their belts back). The boys said the deputy was being investigated but eventually it came to nothing. Babu too had been quiet for three days but had begun to sing on the fourth, after lock-up at night. Without accompaniment at first, but had then brought the pitcher.

However, the news of Jidda’s death had given him a the touch of an electric wire and the shock had left him completely drained and broken. His body too had slackened in a strange way, as if, he had no strength left in him. And he could never be completely free of the impact of this shock, rather, he had remained badly shaken within him. It was only after this incident that he began, once in two to four months, to have this pain in his chest. Not a very piercing pain but like a pressure of some kind inside him and it drenched him in sweat in no time.

The first time he had had this pain was when the yellow turbaned headman had come to sit beside him. This headman was a little old, or perhaps not as old as he appeared to be. Around fifty, lean and thin and wizened. But it was frightening to look into his eyes which weren't  too small but were sunken into hollows and looked like stone. Those eyes held neither compassion nor love, nor anger but were completely cold and dry. He had heard earlier that the headman had been deployed at the black mill but he had not been stripped of his belt. His gaunt body appeared quite capable of physical violence. But the old man was very shrewd indeed. Even after talking for so long he gave no hint if he was one of those who had beaten up Jidda.

The yellow turbaned one had come to the barrack in the evening itself and the whispers started immediately on his arrival. The old man had been on duty at the black mill. The rasca!. Bastard of the first order! The  officers' favourite, their spy! The reason why he hadn't come to harm. It was some time after the barrack was locked up and he sat smoking a beedi when the old timer had come near the bars on that side – 'boy, light up this beedi. Lighting up, the yellow turbaned headman had sat down, at first asking him questions. What’s his name? What has he been booked for? Is he still under trial or has been convicted? And many more. And then he had started, as if to give vent to his resentment - 'the times have gone bad, the British rule is gone, the whole management has gone to the dogs. There are no officers, no discipline. The superintendent before this one was so powerful, a mere stare of his made the hardest of criminal pee in their pants. The moment he stepped into the vestibule -  there was dead silence. He could put a man against the wall, shoot him and say he was trying to escape. And now there are these puny officers, running helter and skelter, all because a prisoner has died.

As he listened to the old man, his heart began to sink. And when he began to tell him about the political prisoner who had gone on hunger strike - how he had not been allowed to relieve himself for three days and three nights, how six headmen had been put on duty to stand guard and not to let him sleep, how one of the headmen had sat at all times holding the chain, pulling twice or thrice the moment the prisoner relaxed or blinked and how on the fourth day he had fallen down at the Sahib’s feet – suddenly a pain shot up his chest, as if, someone was pressing down from inside. Unable to lie down he had just sat with head on his knees. Despite the cold he had broken out in a sweat in no time, the breeze had made him shiver and, feeling cold, he had lain down covering himself with the blanket. The old man, perhaps, had kept speaking all this while but he had heard nothing.

He had changed places the next day, thinking if he lay on the same spot the old man would come again to narrate his stories. Sending Babu to sleep in his place, he had slept in the corner of the barrack for two days. When it was night, the old man had turned up again to sit there. He had been unable to hear anything but there had been an exchange of words between him and Babu. He had felt a little afraid lest the old timer should report. But the old man had left it at that. For two days he had slept in the centre but then couldn’t stop himself. On the third day he had made a place to sleep near Babu, so now if there was a conversation, it was with Babu. He just lay there and listened.

The old man had a whole range of stories to tell, about dacoities, about the methods the dacoits adopted to make the traders tell where they kept their money, about how they chopped off their organs with a hacker, burned a fire under their feet. How the police encountered the dacoits and how each was caught and killed. How the former sahib straightened out the toughest of dacoits. In two days time, the old man had perhaps realized that Babu was hot-tempered and didn’t like listening to the tales describing the battering of prisoners. As if to settle scores, the old man first told the tales of dacoities and then of the dacoits of the gang he had seen getting caught and brought to jail. And of how they lived a straight life in jail or were straightened out. The old man had remained on duty in the barrack till the time of his release, and came almost daily to sit beside them. He told his tales as if talking not of men but of tigers and wolves. It used to make him very ill at ease, his hands clenched into fists and his body stretched and became taut. Somehow keeping a hold on himself, he kept sitting quietly. An even stranger thing was that when alone, he was often haunted by these stories and thinking about them he went through the same experience that he had gone through while listening to them. But when his thoughts arrived at certain horrific facts – such as burning of the fire under the feet, or caning of the prisoners after tying them to gallows in jail or rubbing of spices in fresh wounds or hanging them down the peg after handcuffing them – his mind refused to think any further and he was startled out of his thoughts.

The boys used to call the old man names behind his back but had been terrified of him. The yellow turbaned one had been close to officers. The boys had felt pleased as punch one day when the old timer told them that although his term was over – his sentence had been reduced by four years and he had already served ten – his release order hadn’t yet arrived. He couldn’t tell whether something was wrong with the report of the police station or someone else was creating problems at the I. G. office. But since he was serving life-sentence, he couldn’t be released without an order from the office of the inspector general. Good. May the rascal rot here, such a crook should never be released.

On the third or the fourth day after the old man had first come to the barrack, his own case had been settled along with the two traders. A fine of rupees two hundred, six months simple imprisonment in case of non-payment. The traders deposited the fine immediately. And he had served imprisonment for six months. Once it had crossed his mind that there must be a hundred rupees in his box. If he intimated Maqbool, he might pool in the rest. But he had left it at that. Who should he send with the message and the key? (He had hidden the key before he was searched, also the six, seven rupees he had in his pocket). If he gave it to a constable or a warder, he might pocket it himself. There was, after all, no one he knew personally.

Then too, it had been very cold at the time of his release. However  he hadn't faced any difficulty; for one thing he had been wearing a coat and then, had also had some money saved up. The only money he had spent was on beedis. He used toask the boys going for a hearing to bring him a bundle. He had walked the distance to Chandni Chowk on foot. And then, eating at a road side dhaba, had caught the tram to the ‘baarraa’. It had been a little unnerving to see the room closed, however he had found Maqbool at home. Maqbool had told him that he had thrown the cripple out of the room. The cripple had been trying to open the box when Maqbool had chanced upon him. He had said all of this so casually that he hadn't known what to think. All he could do was to look at Maqbool’s face again and again. Maqbool had asked him, 'have you eaten?'  'Yes.'  'You’ve got money?'  'Yes.'  Maqbool had come to drop him at the room but for some reason, but hadn't stayed.  'I’ll come tomorrow,' he had said.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

'Lives Without meaning' - English translation of chapter 15 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' ( कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब ) novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Maqbool had come some days later. But the routine had changed with the arrival of Mehmood. He used to leave for work in the morning, when Mehmood was still having tea. In Mehmood’s company, he too was getting in the habit of a morning cup. He didn’t know what Mehmood did during the day but when he returned in the evening from the shop, there were usually two or three other men and a game of flush was on. And along with the game, drinks. He would come and lie quietly in a corner. But from the first or the second day itself, when no one felt inclined to get up, they would ask him to get pakorras -fritters or kababs or daal-moth. After drinks, they usually went out to eat. Mehmood came late at times. At times disappeared for the night and returned the next day. Once or twice  - brimming with happiness - he told him that he had spent the night with Firoza. His mouth moved slowly at the time, as if he was still savouring the taste of something. Whenever there was a gathering, he too received some money. Whoever won, gave him a rupee or eight annas. Gradually, he came to acquire a strange position, not that of a young boy, neither exactly that of a servant, but somewhere between the two.

No one asked him to join in the game. And as he never had the money, how could he himself have asked for a turn? Once he had asked Mehmood to explain and always watched them at the game and yet could never get the hang of it. At times he sat behind Mehmood and observed his moves but was unable to catch on. At times, Mehmood discarded very high cards, and at other times, kept on bidding on low cards. Once, on Mehmood’s continuous prompting he had also taken a drink. It had tasted foul but on becoming a little tipsy, he had begun to enjoy. He had taken a little more. And then, in a while, he had seemed to have lost all control over his limbs. Everyone had had a good laugh at him. He had been in no shape to go out to eat. But Mehmood, perhaps taking pity on him had brought him some pakorras before going out, 'eat these, you’ll feel better. Eat and go to sleep.'

He had woken up the next day with a splitting head and aching limbs. After a bath his condition had improved a little but had remained off colour throughout the day. He had no idea when Mehmood had returned the previous night. Mehmood had laughed in the morning. 'O boy! It took so little to knock you down. I was telling you to keep eating side by side. One must always have something to eat with drinks. Something salty and spicy. Salt and spice will kill the poison in the spirit. Otherwise the poison rises up from your gut.' And he had kept thinking that when he had money, he’d drink only moderately, (only the amount he had in his first glass) and he would first eat daal moth, the korma (he didn’t know korma from Roghan Josh but he had appreciated korma) and then, if he got a girl in the hotel, fine, if not he would go to G. B. road. To Firoza’s house? No, why invite the cripple’s ire? There would be many others over there.

The cripple was always carrying a fair amount of money those days. He used to go out during the day for two or three hours. There was more opportunity for picking pockets in big crowds. He was purring with happiness one day, he had picked a pocket worth two hundred rupees the previous day (he hadn’t returned that night and said he had been at Firoza’s). Come, let me show you how to use a ‘lakkad’. (He had learned that day that ‘lakkad’ meant a blade. Also that ‘thaan’ meant a thousand rupees, ‘gaj’ a hundred rupees and ‘girah’ meant ten). But he had failed to learn. The cripple gave up in just two or three days. 'No boy, you are not cut out for this. For one, your fingers are thick and they don’t move nimbly because you are so scared. And if you are scared, you are gone. The slightest shake of fingers and you are in for a drubbing. First at the hands of the public, then the confounded policemen, and rest is taken care of by the jail staff.'

He wondered how the cripple had come to know his deepest secret in just two days... that he was shit scared. The reason why he couldn’t learn to use the blade, could never have money, could neither eat korma with drinks sitting in a hotel nor ask a girl or go to G. B. Road. He sat at the cycle shop during the day, did whatever work was there, brought pakorras or kababs or daal-month when people gathered in the room and got a rupee or eight annas from whoever won in the game of flush.

This became the routine of his life and remained so even after Maqbool arrived. Maqbool slept at home but visited there at times during the day or in the evening. Played a game of flush at times but seldom drank. Mehmood told him that Maqbool went to Bundu Khalifa’s akharra for workout and therefore did not drink. Maqbool also stayed more in the company of the people at the akharra. Seeing him there Maqbool had asked, 'you are still here?' And nothing more. Perhaps he had found out from Mehmood what he was doing. He had been surprised when Mehmood told him of Maqbool’s acquittal in the case of rioting – he had bought off that policeman with five hundred rupees and the policeman had given a twist to his statement. He had been sentenced to six months in jail in a theft case but the sessions court had granted him bail.

Gradually he realized that it was Mehmood, who was the real leader of the gang (though they were all youths of around twenty years of age). Maqbool did not take his share from their daily earnings. However when a big theft was planned, it was Maqbool who led. First because he had an athletic, strong body. And second because he was unafraid and clever. There was a daily risk but no big money in picking pockets. Whereas it was normal to lay hands on loot to the tune of four to five thousand in a theft. The winters that year had passed comfortably. When he had some money in hand, he had gone to the rag market and bought an old coat and two blankets. But a few days after the holi festival, when he went to the shop, he had found it closed. He had sat there and waited till noon and then had come away. He had no idea where the Sikh gentleman lived. He went again in the evening, the shop was still closed. When he had gone the next day, there were workers making some renovations. He came to know that the shop had earlier belonged to a Muslim, who had fled to Pakistan. The Sikh man had taken possession during the riots. The shop was at a good spot and the Sikh man had given its possession for four (or may be five) thousand to a bania - a grocer, who was going to open a grocery shop there.

When his job at the shop was cut short, he became totally dependent on Mehmood and his cronies and also began to feel the pinch of money. He got eight annas or a rupee only when there was a game of flush. Now that he had no work he stayed in the room only and Mehmood’s attitude too, changed suddenly. Mehmood knew that now he depended completely on his money and began to treat him more or less like a servant, asking him to do chores like fetching tea, cigarettes, soda or returning the empty glasses and bottles. His mind too, was overtaken by a lethargy or rather, something akin to exhaustion. He felt no inclination to go anywhere, do anything. When Mehmood went out, he stayed sprawled in the room. But one day, when Mehmood threw his dirty underwear before him, along with one rupee, saying – Wash these, they’ve become too dirty – his mind revolted.

He was short of money, so he washed the clothes but after this, began to avoid Mehmood. He returned late at night, kept loitering here and there, and once even had an altercation with the cripple. One night, seeing a number of porters who carried loads of vegetables lying down near the vegetable market, he too joined them. A middle aged man asked where he hailed from. Perhaps from his face, he looked like an easterner. When he said that although he had lived in Delhi, he belonged to Sultanpur, the porters came to regard him as one of their own. He found they were all from that region. No one from Sultanpur exactly, but from Deoria, Gorakhpur, Banaras, Mirzapur.

The middle aged porter was from Mirzapur. He kept asking general questions. Talking to him, he kept hoping that the porter would talk about getting him work. But these porters were themselves homeless, carrying loads to earn a daily wage of a rupee or twelve annas or a rupee and a quarter or a half at most, spending some of it on food and saving the rest. But once he came to know them, he often went towards the market during the day. If he found someone, sitting idle, he talked to him. If there was a light load, he carried it. He was going less frequently to Maqbool’s room now.

The porters slept in groups of ten or twelve. Perhaps that was the reason the police did not bother them much. The police patrol passed by, turning a blind eye or at times, sat with them to smoke a beedi. He was still scared of the police but realized there was nothing to fear. Still he didn’t much enjoy the company of the porters either. For one thing, they were all grown up and had families. There was no one his age. They had left their homes, their families and a few, their lands behind in their villages hoping they’d return after making and saving money in Delhi. Almost all of them had tilled another’s field, or had owned a small holding and were in debt, and hoped to earn and pay back. They were forever talking about their home and village.

It was partly because he still hungered for the pakorras and the daal-moth, and also because he got some money when there was a gathering that he still visited the room once in a while in the evening. The cripple had become a little indifferent towards him now. He went there and if a game of cards was on, sat quietly. If someone wanted something, he threw the money at him, 'Hey Dharma, get a packet of cigarettes, get the scissors brand.'  Now that he wasn’t there permanently, they didn’t think it necessary to give him money on winning. At times they paid, at times not. At times some money was left after making purchases, but only a few annas.

At times like these, he grew sad. He had discovered one or two isolated spots and used to go there to sleep. The spot was convenient and free from the fear of the police. From the vegetable market, one could also see ‘Jeetgarh’, built in the memory of the British killed in the mutiny. That too was a good spot but not completely hassle free. A little further down was a ruin, a relic of a building from the days of the emperor’s rule. A staircase leading up to an open space and also a room with a roof. Ideal for both summer and rain. And the best part was there was no risk of the police. The police patrol never went that side and even if they did, couldn’t see anyone lying on the terrace, not even in the torch light.

It was his greed that did him in. His clothes had become too grimy so he washed and put them out to dry in the room and went off to sleep. In the morning, Mehmood said, 'will you work?' 'What work?' 'Look, if you want the work, say yes. You won’t have to carry loads, you only have to sit.' All of the open space on Faiz road had been taken up from start to finish by Punjabis to put up stalls or to build small houses by joining bricks. At the end point, where a road from Panchkuian came up to the ridge, A new club had perhaps been opened where hooch was sold and people gambled all day long. A distillery was run by its side. Earlier he had thought liquor was sold openly in Delhi, so what was the need to sell on the sly. Gradually, he came to know one needed a licence to sell liquor. There was so much money in selling direct from distillery that one could become rich in just two or four months. Besides the club owner received one anna per rupee in gambling. There was no doubt a little risk but negligible if one greased the palms of the police. And one earned without putting in anything. If there was a game of sixteen hundred in a day, a hundred rupees would come to the owner! Just thinking about it made his head reel.

His job was to sit at the door. To let in any person who asked for Sardul and no one else. To knock at the door in a special manner if he sensed danger or saw a policeman patrolling the lane. There was a back exit, all the people and the staff went to adjoining house at the slightest hint of a risk and if the danger was more grave they could all slip away from another exit. The club too belonged to a Punjabi – Laddharam. There were two others besides him on his pay roll who sat inside supervising the sales and the game. The strange thing was that whereas all visitors to Maqbool’s room, barring him, were Muslims, most of the visitors here were either Hindus or Sikhs. But if Mehmood visited, there must have been other Muslim visitors too, or perhaps, people didn’t realize that Mehmood was Muslim. He didn’t appear like one from his face. And he, in any case, couldn’t tell a Muslim without the distinguishing moustache and beard.

Now, he often slept at the club. People kept going in and out till late at night. And thereafter, eating at a Sikh’s dhaba close by, lay down at the club only.

One morning he went from there towards the jungle and while returning noticed a rock near a little lane, somewhat longer than the platforms in jail, but absolutely flat and smooth. Now whenever he longed to be alone, he made for that rock. Now he also had lots of money, had had a proper shave and went for one regularly after every two or three days and also got quite a few clothes stitched. Once, he also felt like getting a pair of pants, but wasn’t sure it would suit him and that he'd be able to walk properly in it, with confidence, the way the others did. And had therefore got a kurta pyjama stitched by a Muslim tailor at the ‘baarraa’. Also a woollen jacket.

He kept his stuff locked in a small tin box in Maqbool’s room, although he now visited very rarely. He was saving money now and whatever savings he made, he locked in that box. He was having an easy time. Without putting in hard labour, he was making good money. He had noticed that many easterners had opened paan and cigarette shops at various points. And he had begun to calculate. If he continued to get money from the club even only for the next eight to ten months, he would have three to four hundred rupees. When he had that much money, he too would open a paan-cigarette shop somewhere. There were new settlements coming up, he’d get a place for a cheap rent and the shop too would pick up fast.

Now that the thought of saving money occurred to him, he started spending more thriftily and dropped the idea of a woollen coat. It wasn’t that cold yet and he had brought a blanket over from Maqbool’s for use at night. He had thought that he too would gamble on Diwali with five rupees.. if luck favoured the five might grow into five hundred. But he didn’t get a chance to try his luck. The club was raided two days before Diwali – at ten at night. The police had formed a special squad to check gambling on and around Diwali. The Karoli Bagh police station was paid a monthly sum but perhaps the head of that squad nursed a grudge against the Karoli Bagh station house officer. He carried out a number of raids in Karoli Bagh in just two days. The club too got wind of it. They were on alert the whole day. Had it been some other occasion, the gambling party might have dispersed but even though some of the party left the game, others in the spirit of Diwali, remained sitting. When night fell and the police didn’t show up, everyone relaxed.

Spreading out his blanket he had just lain down after dinner, when there was a knock at the door. He sat up startled, who was it? 'Open up,' two or three sharp voices rose at once and again, the knock. The people inside had also heard and there was instant panic. Had he been inside with the others, perhaps he too would have fled. But alone in that room, his feet seemed to have frozen. The voices outside, as also the knocks at the door grew sharper and sharper. Those voices seemed to have him tied down. Instead of exiting from the rear, he began to advance towards the door. 'Who is there?' He asked again with extreme difficulty. 'Open the door and we’ll tell you.' His hands moved almost unconsciously towards the latch. Even as he was about to undo the latch a voice from within cautioned him … let it remain closed. But at that instant there was a push at the door, his hand shook badly, the door opened and the policemen came barging in. One of them caught his hand, led him outside and made him sit in the police van parked there. The rest went in but could get hold of only two fat traders who perhaps had been unable to run due to either their bulk or nervousness. After getting out of the back door they had, begun to run in the lane instead of going in the next house. Both the traders had been newcomers, they had come because it was Diwali. They were not aware that the door of the next house opened out into another lane from where they could have cleared out. They thought if the police had surrounded them, there would be danger of their getting trapped in the house next door.

The squad leader (perhaps a senior officer) was standing outside with a small baton in hand. When a constable came to tell him there was no one else inside, he went in and made a round. The sight of the police had made the people in the neighbourhood come out and stand in a crowd. 'Whose house is it?' Coming out the officer asked, facing the gathering. 'Laddharam’s,' answered many voices in unison. 'Is there no one else in his family?' 'No sahib, he is alone. That’s his servant.' One of the men pointed at him in the van. 'Do you people know this is a gambling den?' 'No sahib, we know nothing.' 'And that it sells liquor?' 'No sahib, we go to work during the day, how would we know, but Laddharam is a good man to talk to.' 'What does he do?'  'He is a real estate agent, sahib.'

The officer came and sat down on the front seat and the van began to move. Had it been in his hands, the officer would perhaps have made further enquiries of him but his hands were tied and he delivered him to the staff manning the Karoli Bagh police station. When they asked him his name and address, he gave the same answer. Dharamdas. Son of Chhedilal, hata Ramdas. For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to give either Laddharam’s address or that of Maqbool’s room. The policemen too didn’t show any interest and locked up all three of them. But within two hours the two traders were let off on bail. As the case was filed only for gambling, there was no problem of bail in the police-station itself, but who would have come to bail him out? He thought Laddharam might, but then realized, he would be angry. What option did he have other than to open the door? But then it came to him on its own that after everyone had gone out of the back door, they’d have put a lock on it. Then perhaps someone would have gone round to the front to tell the police there was no one in the house, Laddharam had gone somewhere and there was a lock at the back. Then perhaps Laddharam would have returned and opened the lock after a while pretending he had just arrived, and wasn’t aware there was police outside. Possibly, the police, seeing that the birds had flown, would have left already.

However, he wasn’t as afraid this time as earlier. Partly because he had now come to know quite a lot about courts and lock-ups. Besides he had also, in his heart, come to know what had to happen, would happen. The next day being a holiday, he didn’t have to wait in the lockup at court. There were two others, caught for gambling, who had not been bailed out by any one. One a paan shop owner from Pratapgarh and the other, a Punjabi dry fruit-seller. They were taken to the court in the police van, the havaldar went in and took in the signature of the magistrate on duty on remand papers while they were still sitting in the van, and then they were taken to the jail.

He had again felt very sick on reaching the jail. All the while that he stood in the vestibule, he had a sinking feeling. There was no knowing when he would get out of these walls again. The screams of the mad woman were heard again. But this time, it was he who told the two startled men with him, 'she is mad, has been locked up for a long time. She often keeps screaming.' And somehow after this he felt a little lighter. Perhaps by comparing himself with the other two. This time too, he was kept in the juvenile barracks and was therefore separated from the other two. As it was still day, he was also given the evening meal. There were just two or three of his old acquaintances in the barrack and they too had come a second time after release. The mate this time was a lean and thin boy named Devender who smoked pot and was an opium user. He had been caught peddling opium on the sly. Two seers of opium had been recovered from him. Trafficking in opium, the boy had become an addict himself. But he had loads of money and was treated with respect by all the warders. They took slips from him and brought back money. He never had to make do without anything. The headmen and the warders kept a regular supply of coal. He got milk from the hospital, also eggs and bread. He always had a stock of ghee, jaggery, onions - the lot. His meals were cooked every morning and evening. He took only rotis from the usual jail food and those too were kept separately in the bundle for him. His rotis came from the kitchen of the death-cells.

He had only this time come to know of this custom in jail, that the food for all the condemned prisoners counting their last days in the death cells was cooked separately. The same fare, but a little better cooked. Perhaps there was sand even in those rotis, but he felt the rotis meant for Devender were somewhat better cooked. He was a mate only in name. Except for making a count each morning and evening, he lolled in the barrack all through the day. Devender also sent for sweets on Diwali. Not enough for distribution among the boys but all the headmen and warders who visited that day were treated to sweets by him.

The boys received one sweet of 'laddoo' each on that day. He came to know that there was one baba – an ascetic - who visited on Holi and Diwali to distribute laddoos to everyone in jail. But it was on the second or the third day after Diwali, when the sun came up and yet the barrack had not opened. The headmen and the warders stood like statues near the outer gate of the barracks. The boys thought at first they were waiting for the head warder and would open in a while. When the sun began to rise up they began to make a din, gathering near the bars and screaming. All felt the need either to urinate or to defecate or both, the headman and the warder, just stood at the gate. When some of the boys could hold no longer, they took water from the pitchers and began to use the urinals in the barracks to defecate. When the stink started the boys moved away from there. There was noise coming from the other barracks too. In a while, one of the headmen walked slowly in. As he was at the back and the headman spoke in a low voice,he couldn't hear what the headman said but there was silence at once. Then a whisper made its way  up. 'Jidda is dead. Jidda is dead!' Jidda who? A notorious crook. Had many murders to his name. Built like a mountain he would have proved difficult to over-power for four men. How did he die? He was in the black mills, punished for abusing the deputy. When the warder went to give him sweets yesterday, he called him names again. Last night, around eight to ten headmen tied up his hands and feet, gagged his mouth and thrashed him up. The beating proved fatal. He was perhaps hit on a delicate spot. The deputy too was sure to have been there, the warders and the headmen alone wouldn’t have dared. Besides, they had all been terrified of Jidda.

The headman went to the other two barracks also and within two minutes there was silence. Slowly the noise in the other barracks also stopped. There was no sound except for the boys’ whispers in the barrack, it appeared as if there was no one in the jail. As if instead of being full of a thousand odd inmates, it was a deserted, desolate place. When the head warder came again after a while to open the barrack, someone whispered that he was also in charge of the ‘black mills’, and so he too must have been present. The boys looked repeatedly at his face but no one said anything. Making a quick count, he went away. The whispers had died for the duration that he had been there. The boys, sitting in rows, had sat in complete silence and had continued to sit even after he had completed the count. Once he went out shutting the outer gate, the whispers started again and gradually small groups of boys were formed.

The whole day, there was silence in jail. The boys talked only of Jidda. When the headman and the warder changed shifts in the morning, the boys made enquiries. The warder sent them away with a scolding but the headman told them a little. The cooks, when they arrived with the food, also talked only about this. But no one could say anything with certainty except that Jidda had died before the night was over. They had sent for the civil surgeon at the crack of dawn. Although he lived in the Irwin hospital next door, it had taken him more than half an hour to reach. The surgeon arrived, the body was taken to the vestibule, only then the barracks were opened. The civil surgeon had taken the body immediately with him for post-mortem. Besides this, many other stories were floating around. Someone said the deputy had been placed under suspension. But obviously the news was incorrect for he later saw the deputy on duty. Another said it was not their head warder but the one at the factory who had been present there. He had been beaten by Jidda once when, some two or three years back, he had tried to boss over Jidda and had insisted that he should work. In his arrogance he had advanced, unbuckled his belt, and had been badly thrashed by Jidda. None of the headmen had come to his aid and he was left shouting. The head warder had come fresh from Punjab and was not familiar with Jidda. On his complaint Jidda was put in fetters but no inmate or headman agreed to give witness against him before the superintendent. He had been nursing this grudge when he got orders from the deputy to set Jidda right, and had taken his life. Some others contradicted the story saying that the deputy had been present himself, there had been no intent to kill, it so happened that Jidda had suddenly suffered a blow that had proved fatal.

By afternoon, even the whispers died and the silence in the jail deepened. When, at times, the warder called out or shouted, or a boy spoke loudly, it sounded like a dog’s bark, coming out of the dark. His heart had begun to pound hard in the morning itself, when the whispers had first started. His tongue seemed to have been paralyzed all through the day. In his restlessness, he had stood to listen in, at times near one group, at times near another, but hadn’t spoken or asked anything. He remembered how Jidda had looked at him with his only red eye, how he had called him names - fool, why cry? Now that you are here, show some steel. He remembered how Jidda had treated him to tea and biscuits. He had held such sway, everyone had been in awe of him. His heart didn’t want to believe Jidda had died, and had died like this! In the black mill, with his hands and feet tied (or was he beaten wrapped in a blanket?), mouth gagged, unable to fight, unable to speak, unable to ask forgiveness, unable to grovel. Had his mouth been open, would he have said, forgive me sahib, let me go, I won’t do it again? He couldn’t come to a conclusion. For all you know, he may have asked for forgiveness at the time while silently vowing revenge. Or perhaps not. Such a powerful criminal. He had murdered so many. And even he couldn’t live without fear, without risk and had had to part with his life. He felt his limbs go limp, as if there was no strength in his bones, as if he was not standing on ground but was hanging midair. The slightest of push from someone and he’d fall down and keep on rolling.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English Translation Of Chapter 14 Of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


He suffered for months in that furnace of a hovel but there was no other option. He didn't have the courage to sleep outside, who knew what it may lead to. He saw many a men sleep on cots outside in groups of four or six. But they were all Muslims, he couldn’t muster the courage to sleep alone in the lane. Despite the sweltering heat he slept inside with doors closed. The worst days were when the rains started and there was no breeze. It felt he would suffocate, the whole night passed turning from this side to that. Still he didn’t have the guts to leave the doors open.

And what blazed even more than that hovel was his own body. He got all wound up –  bang his head against the wall, leap in to a well, what should he do! In just a few days he came to a pass when, whenever he saw a young woman pass by on the road, he wanted to say ‘yauo-yauo’ in the manner of the prisoners. In his mind he killed, forced himself on many but on coming out of the room, when he  saw the world going its way he found himself completely helpless. Strange how, while in jail, not just his mind but also his body had remained subdued, perhaps due to fear. However, once out in the open it was as if a fire raged inside him.

Coming out like this, he had become absolutely lonely. At first he just didn’t know what he should do. He had gone to the old shop. Had had a very brief talk with the owner. The owner had said there was no work but had paid him four rupees for the last eight days. He had not felt very confident but had gone there after preparing himself and when the owner had refused him work, he had asked him to pay him his dues. When the owner looked up he became a little hassled, thinking if the owner refused he’d have to quarrel. He was deliberately trying to put up a tough front. What money? You owe me eight days salary. The sharpness in his voice had perhaps cautioned the shop-owner, he had opened his box, given him four rupees, written a note – press your thumb on it. He was unable to read the note but could make out that the amount written was rupees four. Taking the money he had come out.

What should he do now? As he went through the bazaar he realized the city had changed. There had been changes earlier too but now it looked so different: Punjabis everywhere. Displaying goods on stalls, on carts, in shops. The number of shops had gone up. Punjabi girls and women in every place. He had heard stories that these Punjabi girls were easy to win over. He had specially heard that many women and girls walked the street, looking out for customers. Those who had no other income, earned and managed this way. He had also heard there were many refugees in Karoli Bagh. Taking the money from the shop-owner, he had kept roaming around on the roads and in the lanes. He had never been to Karoli Bagh earlier. For one thing, there was a Muslim settlement in between and secondly the area had been, for the most part, jungle and still deserted. Till last year, there had been only nominal habitation. But now when he had gone there, a whole new city seemed suddenly to have sprung up. Endless crowds. Endless people. He kept loitering, even after it grew dark, he kept loitering but didn’t see anything, nobody made any overtures, there was nothing that would have given him any hint.

There must be something. Surely, there has to be. But the way he looked nobody would think that he could be a customer. He himself found all the women domestic, even the girls he saw were the domestic sort. None of the women he saw appeared cheap. He thought, perhaps he was unable to identify. He had no experience. But he had grown very restless and had suddenly started to walk in the direction of Qutub road.

He had known about Qutub road since long. He had heard about it in his childhood, when he hadn't understood a thing, from the people in the lane. He had heard about it again on growing up. Kisana had once told him a strange reason why whores didn’t have babies. But Kisana only said things he had learned from hearsay. Once, returning from a cinema, when their tram had come on to the railway bridge, Kisana had pointed with his hand and said that the lane directly opposite was a red light area.

He had sneaked in a look once or twice while passing by the Raamnagar road but it had been daytime and he had not seen anyone. That night too, he had gone straight ahead on the road without turning into the lane. The boys in jail had often bragged about knowing all about the going rates of rupees five to rupees ten. But most of them had perhaps been only bragging. They had not visited there. All through the way he kept thinking of the money he’d have to part with. If only he found someone needy, she might agree for a rupee or two. What if all four rupees were spent? He’d be left with nothing! The money Aziz had given was nearly spent. (He had, meanwhile, gone and asked for two more rupees which Aziz had given without asking any questions. Perhaps he had gone to visit Maqbool in jail and Maqbool had said something to him.) Unh, someone or the other was sure to agree for three-four rupees.

Going across the mouth of the lane, he had thought, how stupid he was. Where was he going? After walking some distance, he had returned and this time, taking courage, had turned into the lane. And  was immediately taken over by a strange nervousness. Raising his eyes once or twice he had looked here and there and then dropping them, had walked on. Later, only a few cinema-like images stayed with him. A string of rooms, glittering bulbs, smoking lanterns, sack-cloth curtains hanging down a few of the doors. Saris of dark blue, green, red colours, glistening – apparently of silk. Rouge on cheeks, faces white with layers of powder, thick kohl laden eyes, dark hands – a few of them wheatish, ugly faces (one had looked a little better, she was perhaps from the hills), silver jewellery, a nose pendant hanging down a nose (he had no idea if it was brass or gold), all matured women. He hadn't had the courage even to meet their eyes. A few men had also been passing through the lane. One or two had stood by the doors. There was bright light at just one spot to the right, at a paan and cigarette shop. Two or three men had been standing there also.

Reaching a narrow lane, his feet had slowed down. You ass, what is there to be embarrassed about? The whores stand here waiting for someone to come and strike a deal. All of them looking like witches. Why would anyone pay them more than a rupee or two. That one, from the hills, had looked somewhat better. She must be charging a higher rate also. He should have struck a deal with her. She might have settled for four rupees. He had turned back. Walking a little slowly this time. And with some courage, keeping his eyes up, trying to look at faces. But a few eyes had perhaps spotted him earlier too. The row of rooms had hardly begun when he heard, ‘Would you sleep babu?’ He had seen a thin, dark, middle aged woman, at least forty, with small eyes and large teeth, looking at him. No, no, not this one, and without a word, without a backward glance, without looking around him, he had broken into and had breathed only after he had reached the road.

Damn, damn you, you’re a eunuch, someone inside him had said. However, he had been drenched in sweat and completely exhausted. The ‘baarraa’ wouldn't have been too far from there but seeing a tram approach, he had climbed aboard. On reaching the room he had lain down. It was after quite a while that he had remembered he hadn’t eaten in the evening either. The thought had made him all the more hungry. But he hadn't gotten up. At this time, all the eating joints must have closed down. This won’t do, he had thought. One day, when he had enough money in his pocket, he would drink, eat mutton (he had never eaten mutton, hadn’t even thought about it, it was also more costly but somehow in his mind, he associated drinks and mutton with fun and high status) and then visit Qutub road. He had never had drinks and in some corner of his mind, also had a fear of drinks. Many of the masons and some others in the lane used to drink hooch and the impression in his mind was that after drinking, a man loses his senses, starts babbling, gets into scuffles and if he lands up in a tight spot, the police arrests him. But then he had shaken his head, he was no longer afraid of these things. The police arrested a person only if he made a nuisance of himself or got into street brawls. Otherwise, any number of people kept drinking. He would sit in a hotel to eat and drink. And then, he may not need to go to Qutub road (he had heard one could get girls along with drinks, in hotels). Only those who were no longer young, ended up at Qutub road. (All the women he had seen over there had been too old, mostly middle aged, not one of them had been young). This is right. Good quality girls must be available only in hotels. They must be costing more, at least fifteen to twenty rupees. If only he had twenty-twenty five rupees in his pocket, he could line up a good programme. All it boiled down to was money. He would get it one day.

But he never came to have money. It was his fault, mostly, but Maqbool also never encouraged him. The cripple had tried hard, tried his best to make friends but he could never form a bond with him. That night, when the cripple had turned up out of the blue, he could recognize him only by his limp. Otherwise, the cripple had been as well turned out as the college going son of a rich father. He had become a little edgy at first on hearing the knock. Who could it be at this hour? Meanwhile, there had been some unfamiliar visitors too, who said they thought Maqbool Miyan was back. It must be someone known to Maqbool again, he had thought. But when he had opened the door, it was Mehmood who had come limping in. You idiot, what are you doing in the dark, did you go to sleep so early? Light up the lantern at least. He had become a little confused. The man walked and talked like Mehmood but wore something like a jacket over trousers, boots on his feet. His hair, slicked neatly back, smelt good.

He had lit up the lantern at that hour for the first time that day. Earlier, he had never felt the need. In the dim light he had seen Mehmood wearing fine clothes - washed and ironed. When did you come out? Only yesterday. Hasn’t Maqbool come out? (Such a stupid question). He was acquitted in one case, now he has appealed to the high court to release him on bail. If it is accepted, he’ll come. What about you? Did the session court acquit you? Have you taken your food? Yes (he remembered he had eaten roasted gram with jaggery sticks in the evening which was not too satisfying). Never mind. Come, I’ll treat you to kababs today.

He was in a fix throughout on the way. What if the cripple made him eat beef? But he didn’t say anything. The cripple took him to a hotel close by. He knew that beef was called ‘burra gosht’. If the cripple would order ‘burra gosht’, he’d know. There were benches on the side-walk and two tables, of rough wooden planks. Two plates of mutton curry for two annas each and roti. The man at the hotel didn’t ask any thing and placed the food before them in enamel ware. Rotis, puffed up and white like bread, bigger than the rotis in the jail, but extremely tasty. However, no sooner did he put a curry-dipped morsel in his mouth that his mouth was on fire. Hell, is there chilli or poison in the curry! When the cripple saw his face, he burst out laughing. Too hot? He just couldn’t stop laughing at first but then, said, ‘All right, take some daal, or would you rather take yoghurt.’ The cripple ordered two annas worth of yoghurt, also daal and said softly, they don’t charge for daal here.

Even daal had chillies, only a little less than the mutton curry. Suddenly he had an idea, taking meat pieces from the bowl he placed them in the yoghurt. It was still hot but he was able to eat rotis. More? No more. I ate in the evening. He couldn’t have eaten more than two even if he hadn’t eaten the roasted grams. But Mehmood stopped only after he had eaten five rotis. Mehmood used to eat all three of his rotis even when in jail. (He himself could never manage more than two even after getting habituated, even when Maqbool cooked vegetables.) On his way back he kept thinking the mutton sure tasted good. He’d have enjoyed it even more, had it not been so full of chillies. Mehmood too had made sounds that said even he was finding the mutton hot but perhaps he liked it that way only. He must be used to having chillies.

He also felt he had passed muster in a test of life. The reason why Muslims were so aggressive was that they ate mutton. Punjabis too, consume mutton with abandon. They also consume milk and butter but milk and butter costs a lot. Men grow strong and become fighters on mutton. If one is to survive in the world, one has to be a fighter. He felt a little satisfaction. The cripple asked him just this much on the way – Did you like the food? Yes. The roti was good, the curry had too much chilli but the yoghurt set it right.

Mehmood slept there that night. Immediately after returning, he had taken off his clothes, hung them on the clothes line, searched out a shirt and pyjamas from the pile of dirty clothes in the dim light of the lantern and then holding them in his hands, had made a face, unh! and had thrown them back on the pile. What difference does it make? I’ll sleep in my underwear and see in the morning. Mehmood had rolled out the bedding lying on the cot (he had not touched the bedding till then. He had always been in the habit of sleeping on the ground. And the sagging cot would have been uncomfortable in any case) and sat on it with leg dangling down. He had looked so strange walking about in the dim light of the lantern. His whole body, though a little thin, was that of a normal being. But one of his legs, from waist down, was completely dried up. As if made, not of flesh and bone but of wood. As he hobbled about, his shadow, spread out over the wall, moved, as if it was not his shadow but had a life of its own. As he sat there, his longish, pock-marked face also looked a little too dry (perhaps smallpox had caused his leg to dry up too), smoking a beedi, he appeared lost in thought.

'This life is no good my friend,' Mehmood threw the beedi stub in a corner. 'It is all a game of money. You get nothing without money.' He said nothing in response, just lay there and kept looking. Suddenly Mehmood laughed, as if he had remembered something very amusing.' I had wanted to drink hooch today, had wanted to go to Firoza but had no dough in my pocket. If you have no dough, you have nothing.' Behind the laughter rose a regret. He lay down on the bed.

He had been quite perturbed before Mehmood arrived. How would he cope? It was a good thing he had drawn a blank at Qutub road. Those four rupees had seen him through the week. He had gone and purchased a towel, a soap which he had used to wash his clothes and then to bathe at the roadside tap. He had cleaned up an empty box and had it filled with one anna of oil. The barber at the jail had once run his machine over his scalp and he still had a close crop. Earlier he had thought the growth on his face to be heavy and had considered paying one anna to a barber for a shave. But then it crossed his mind that it was better to have a beard when living in Muslim quarters. Those who saw him would take him to be a Muslim.

The real issue was that of money. He got daal for free at the dhaba. But one meal cost at least four annas, six when he was real hungry. As long as the money lasted he kept himself locked in the room and stayed sprawled the whole day. Sleeping or fantasising about what all he would do if he had a lot of money. At times, trying to think of ways of earning money. Once he had considered becoming a coolie at the station. There was no risk now, he would come here at night. But his mind had said, no. No! Policemen kept hovering around over there night and day. And that policeman on patrol! If he saw him again he would lock him up again only to avenge himself. Should he ply a rickshaw? But he knew he couldn’t rent a rickshaw without an introduction, or guarantee, or a witness. Who would stand his guarantee?

Once he had also visited the wholesale grain and vegetable markets. However he hadn't had even a basket with him. Although he had also thought of earning money by carrying loads, with the idea of fending for himself by working, for the time being, as a labourer. At the vegetable market he had found the work - hauling down sacks of potatoes from the truck - to be heavy. He might have got lighter loads if only he'd had a basket, but he hadn’t got one. Most of the work at the grain market too was equally heavy, the labourers were lifting, carrying, putting down loaded sacks. But he got one load to carry only after a long wait. Three or four bags belonging to a gentleman, weighing if not one mound, at least thirty to thirty five seers. But the gentleman had tried at first to shrug him off with just six paise, saying the load weighed only twenty five seers and the rate was six paise per mound and paid him two annas after much haggling. After this he hadn't gone to the grain market either.

He had also made rounds of cycle shops. But all the shops in the neighbourhood belonged to Muslims. On hearing his name ‘Dharamdas’, they looked a little strangely at him and said, - no, there is no work here. Once when he went to Shidipura and saw a cycle shop there, he thought of making enquiries. The sight of the Sikh sitting inside made him waver a little. He was a little wary of Sikhs. They didn’t talk without abusing, got all boozed up and got into brawls on trivial issues. One can never be sure. They go about brandishing their kirpan, who knows when they’d lose their temper and stick one in to you. The thought of a bare kirpan brought back that scene before his eyes – the shining kirpan falling, rising again dripping with blood, falling again. But when the elderly Sikh saw him, he asked, 'what is it? What do you want?'

'Nothing. I want nothing. (The Sikh appeared sad, unhappy, a simple soul). Actually, I know cycle repair. Are you in need of help?' ' What work do you know?' ' I can repair punctures, tighten up the cycle, do all the other work. I am familiar with all cycle parts.' ' How much will you take?' ' The shop, where I worked earlier, paid fifteen rupees. Now, it is up to you.' 'Why did you leave that shop? (What should he say? That the shop owner had foul mouthed him. No Sikhs are forever using foul language). 'The shop owner had falsely accused me of stealing (he had thought up a new lie), so I left.' 'Falsely accused of stealing?' ' Yes, a new free wheel had rolled under his seat but he couldn’t see it. It was found later and he also admitted his mistake but I said I won’t work for him now.'

The Sikh kept thinking for some time, (It wasn’t clear if he had swallowed the story) then said, 'I do need help. It’s all fate. I had such a big shop in Gujranwala, with seven servants. But everything was left behind. I have just started work here. Ordinary repair work. There are no tools for bigger jobs. You can work here if you want and keep all the money you get for pumping in air. One anna for puncture, and one and a half if there is a burst. But no share in sales. I can’t pay you a regular salary. We’ll see about it later.'

He started working there but there was hardly any work. It was only seldom that someone turned up to get air pumped in tyres or get a puncture or burst repaired or the chain tightened. On days he earned up to twelve annas or a rupee, but then there were days when he earned hardly two or three annas. The Sikh opened his shop daily but seemed to get bored after two or three hours. He went for lunch in the afternoon and returned after three or four hours. In the evening too, the Sikh closed the shop as soon as it grew dark. At times he cheated a little. If he repaired a puncture during this time, he kept the entire amount and didn’t tell the Sikh but that didn’t make much difference as there wasn’t much of work. Also there was no scope for slipping out spare parts. There was simply no material in the shop. Work tools, a box of nuts and bolts and glue. The Sikh kept the spokes, free wheels etc. locked up in an almirah. Tyres and seats hung outside, all counted, and whenever the Sikh went out, leaving things outside, he made a count. But there were no sales. Only once he had found a chance and had sold a tyre priced at six rupees for seven and had kept the extra buck in his pocket.

As it was, he was always in difficulty, and to add to it he had also been a bit careless that time. He had more than one and a quarter rupee but got so restless one day he went to see a film and then suddenly he somehow got very little money continuously for four or five days. The day Mehmood arrived he had had all of three annas with him. He had purchased roasted grams for six paise, jaggery stick for one anna and had saved two paise.

'Are you married?' Mehmood asked as he lay on the cot. 'No.' (Strange how no one got personal when in jail, but once out, every one asked personal questions). 'Have you ever made out with a girl? But you are so dumb, how would you bring a girl round?' As he talked, Mehmood’s mind seemed to change tracks. 'Firoza dotes on me. I too, love her a lot.' He found it strange. The cripple’s voice was strained, but so soft, it surprised him.

He tried to turn to look at the cripple’s face but could see nothing. 'Where does she stay?' 'She is a high class prostitute living at G. B. Road mate, not a cheap whore from Qutub road. Sings such fine ghazals too, it is beyond words. So easy on the eye, so enjoyable.' The cripple took the pillow from under his head and clasped it with both arms to his chest. 'But that mother of hers, … an old shrew … has sold off Firoza to a lala, a trader, for five hundred rupees a month. I could persuade her only after greasing her palms. Then too, because the trader had gone to Bombay. But Firoza fell for me completely. A woman wants only a man … a man, do you get me lad? She serves only that man who conquers her in bed. These good for nothing traders … they grow paunchy and impotent sitting on their seats … their wives go to doormen to have their fill. But on the strength of their money they have their keeps, take potions and capsules before visiting. What I would like to do is drive a knife through him if I find him. She keeps on crying … poor dear, but can’t escape the clutches of her mother. These women … have henchmen in their employ … have their own people too, the police, officers, barristers, they keep everyone in their hold. That’s the reason why no girl can escape. They would get any one, who rescued one, trapped and killed.'

'Even in the beginning, when I had gone there to hear her sing once or twice, I could make out from Firoza’s look that she is somewhat soft on me.. then, the other night, she was totally impressed by my prowess. She must be waiting for me but I just couldn’t arrange the damned money.' Mehmood’s voice held some regret again. Then after lying silently for some time he suddenly began to hum … I live only because I await you ... his voice was a little hoarse, still he was not too bad a singer.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 13 of 'Kuchch Zindagiyan Bematlab'(कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Maqbool  had believed without a doubt that judge Sajnani would release him and when he saw how severely the judge was scolding the policeman, he too came to believe it. It was in fact, to some extent due to his own foolishness that he had stayed three months in jail. When the judge had asked him if there was someone who knew him and could vouch for his conduct, he had said, yes. Otherwise, the judge would perhaps have released him earlier. The policemen, too, must have known about the judge and had kept postponing the case despite the judge’s reprimand, hoping perhaps, that they’d find an excuse to transfer the case to another court. When the police did not file the challan at the first hearing, the judge lost his temper again. The challan was filed at the second hearing but without any evidence. When the judge asked the officer representing the police, point-blank, why he shouldn’t dismiss the case, the officer said, “My lord! This boy is clearly a pick-pocket, two blades were recovered from him at the time of arrest. If the court won’t pass a sentence in this case, it would amount to contempt of law and would encourage crime. The boy would go out and pick more pockets.”

The judge first asked him if he had a lawyer. No, my lord. O.K. We’ll deal with it later. The judge turned around the papers of the challan. Dharamdas s/o Chhedilal, r/o Hata Ramdas, Subzi Mandi. The judge looked up, what does your father do? No, my lord, my father used to work in a government depot, but both my parents passed away last year. You don’t have a brother? No, sir, I am all alone. What do you do? I am learning work sir, at a cycle shop. Can your employer or someone from your neighbourhood vouch for your conduct? He paused for a moment thinking how to answer. The enquiring eyes of the judge rested on him. Yes, my lord, my employer is a big man, why would he come to court on my account? But someone from the neighbourhood would vouch for me.

The judge handed the papers to the clerk sitting alongside – ask him the name and address and issue summons. He got into a fix now, whose name should he give? Also, he didn’t have much time to think. The clerk asked in a low but impatient voice, speak up, whom do you want to call? When he couldn’t think of anyone else, he gave the name of the pundit at the Shivala, Pandit Balbhaddar Misir, Hata Ramdas. The next two hearings were wasted in confusion. The judge enquired and was told by the clerk – the summons has not returned sahib. The judge got some what peeved at the third hearing, not with him but with the police. He said a little angrily, I know all about your department! It has been a month and a half and you couldn’t serve summons to one man? The officer said, ‘I beg your pardon sir. I’ll make a note of it and send it by hand this time.’ ‘No way. I am not giving any more time. This orphan child has been languishing in jail for three months for no reason.’

‘But sir?,' said the police officer, ‘If he is telling the truth, ask him what he was doing in the Company Garden at that hour?’ When the judge turned to look at him, his face drained of all colour. What could he say now? But the judge, instead of asking him, mimicked the police officer in a rude voice, ‘But sir, if the boy is speaking the truth, who is responsible for keeping him forcibly in jail and turning him into a criminal? And even if he is guilty, aren’t three months in jail, punishment enough? After all, you have arrested him only on suspicion, not picking a pocket.’ Then turning towards him, ‘Run off now. But never run away from home again. Go to your employer and go all out to convince him to engage you again. Don’t run away even if he scolds or beats you. If you come before me again, I’ll send you in for one year. Go, run along now.’

The constable undid his handcuffs. He folded his hands in front of the judge – Namaste sir, - but the judge was looking already at the papers of another case. Stepping out of the court room, he walked quickly for some distance in the verandah, afraid he would be arrested again, but then he saw the constable going towards the lock up to bring another prisoner without looking in his direction. He threw a glance around him. The two words – run along – spoken by the judge had made every one lose interest in him. Walking slowly he came on to the road outside.

At first, he kept thinking – the judge had realized that he had run away from home and therefore hadn’t made too many queries. Had the judge asked questions he’d have been trapped. Then it occurred to him that his bag and the other set of clothes had been left in jail. Once, he thought of going back to the police lock-up and go with others to the jail and bring back his clothes from there. But the court had released him, so why would anyone take him there? Should he go to the jail himself and say his clothes were left inside? And then he suddenly realized he would never want to see the gate of the jail again. He hoped in his heart he would not see the day when the window of the jail-gate should close after taking him in.

Coming out on the road, he stood thinking for a while. What should he do now? While in jail he had almost made up his mind - he’d go back home. Go back home, fight with Dulaare chacha and drive him away. He was a grown up now, after all, and if Dulaare chacha would create a problem, he would threaten him – I have stayed with hard core criminals in jail, if I set one of them after you, you’d disappear without a trace – bones and all. But he had thought he’d go home after it was dark.

Except for his clothes he had no other major concern. But then, he thought he was sure to get clothes at home. He had brought one set with him. He recalled there were shorts and vests also at home, also a set of kurta-dhoti, and perhaps a pyjama too. He also possessed a slightly torn shirt. There was no cause for worry. But what if Dulaare chacha had worn his clothes in the mean time? If he had, he would take him to task first on this count.

Maqbool had, as a precaution, given him two letters. There was no knowing at which hearing he’d be released. The letters, written in Urdu - which he could not read -  were lying in his pocket. But Maqbool had also explained everything to him :  right opposite the mosque situated at the starting point of the baarraa - the residential compex - is the paan shop owned by Aziz. This long letter is addressed to him. I have noted down some items in the letter. Tell him he is to bring all these when he comes to visit in a day or two. He is also to bring some money to deposit in my name. And explain to him clearly to bring cigarettes and slip in some notes between the silver foil and the cardboard of the packet. And to do so in many different packets separately. Tell him not to shove all of it down one packet so one can tell just by looking at it. I’ve written in the letter to give two rupees to you also. This other letter is for my brother Iqbal. He is the same age as you. Ask Aziz for his address. He has the key to my room. You can take the key and sleep in the room till the time you can make another arrangement.

Listening to Maqbool, he had nodded but had no mind to go to his place or to his room to sleep. The ‘baarraa’ was an out and out Muslim area. It was all right as far as passing the message to Aziz was concerned. He would also get money from him, there was not a single paisa in his pocket. But the idea of living in Muslim quarters scared him. He was also of the mind that even though Maqbool was a good sort, getting close to a Muslim was not the right thing to do. But perhaps Maqbool had asked Aziz in his letter to tell him his address, take the key from Iqbal and give it to him. Aziz didn’t even ask his name. All kinds of people must have been frequenting his shop – perhaps that’s why he didn’t feel the need. After reading the letter he gave him two rupees. And then asking a boy to mind the shop he said – come along.

After several turns in the lane they reached Maqbool’s place. An old, single story house. With a sack cloth as the door curtain. Asking him to stand there Aziz called out – ‘Iqbal’ and went in. He stood there and kept thinking – Are there any women in Maqbool’s household? Why is there a curtain on the door? Don’t they observe purdah in front of Aziz? They must have gone inside when Aziz called out. Who would be there? Would Maqbool’s wife be there? Had Maqbool married? His mother must be there, perhaps sisters too. Then suddenly, his mind became fraught with many apprehensions. Has he become trapped in a snare? Who knows what Maqbool had written in his letter? He looked around him. The lane was deserted. Only a few boys were playing in a corner. But it was day light still. What can they do in broad day light? What would he do if people surrounded him from both sides and asked him to either eat beef or be killed? There were only Muslim households in all the lanes. If they killed and buried him someplace, no one would ever know. There was in any case, no one to enquire about his whereabouts. He considered moving away instead of standing there, waiting. But it would be difficult to find his way out of these lanes and in case he met someone he would wonder what this Hindu was doing there. What would he say if someone asked something? That he had lost his way? But where was he going? To whose house?

He was still in a dilemma when Aziz came out with the key. The letter addressed to Iqbal stayed in his pocket. Perhaps Maqbool’s family didn’t approve of his conduct, of the company he kept, and didn’t want the younger brother to follow the same path. Was Maqbool’s father still alive? Did he have an elder brother? Aziz came out and said, come, I’ll see you to your room. As they walked towards the road, the room was located within the lane, right at the backside of the road. Aziz opened the door. The room was quite dirty. At one side was a sagging cot with a dirty bedding on it and a few clothes on a clothesline at the other, an old frayed rug was spread out on the floor and in a corner lay some empty boxes, a small lantern.

Leaving him there, Aziz went away. Not wanting to sit on the cot he sat down on the rug. And thought - it was all very well, he could pass his time here. It was well past noon but still some time before dark. Leaving the room open he bought a beedi and matches from the roadside, lit up and lay down. He had thought once of locking the room before going out but then thought there was nothing there that would be pinched in two minutes. The neighbours would know that it was Maqbool’s room. If they saw him opening and locking up the room, they’d wonder unnecessarily who this person was.

He fell asleep and on waking up suddenly, found the evening drawing to its end. He was also feeling a little hungry. During the three months stay in jail, he had become used to early meals. He stepped out, locked up and thought he would go to a small dhaba for food then take a tram from the ice-factory. Now he also felt that he had taken the key needlessly. He should go and return it to Aziz, but what would Aziz think? If he was not going to stay there why had he taken the key? Then he thought he’d keep it with him for now, come another day and return it. He would have to return it. They may not have a duplicate. What if Maqbool came out of jail and found that both he and the key were missing.

By the time he had his meal, it had grown dark and by the time he reached Pul-Bangash, the roads were lit up. When he reached before the lane, he found it abuzz with people. He remembered people used to assemble and gossip at the well at this hour. For a long time he kept pacing up and down the road. Once, when he thought the lane had fallen silent he went in but on going a little further, saw three-four people standing under the light of the lamp post near the Shivala and retraced his steps. If he passed by that point, someone was sure to recognise him. He did not want to meet any one from the lane before reaching his house. At first his mind had not been very clear and he had felt only a hitch, but walking about the road in wait of silence, he remembered all that the people in the lane had said and done and felt a rage build up in him. He would bide his time and deal with each of them. But first he has to deal with Dulaare chacha. He’d rent a house some other place once he’d driven Dulaare chacha away. But first he would shoo Dulaare chacha out and look for work, so everyone in the lane would know.
As he walked, he also passed by the shop where he had left his dues of eight or ten days. The lala was sitting on his seat counting money. He’d come here tomorrow. He may get work again. Otherwise, he would ask for his dues. He also passed by Chhotelal’s shop, who as always was dozing on his chair. There were two new boys in the shop but they were, at the time, smoking beedis. He did not see Kisana in the next shop. He was still very angry with Kisana. He would, one day, give him a good talking to.

After a while he peeped again inside the lane. There was no one near the Shivala now. Quickly, he walked past the light. Anyone who saw him in the dark would not know him. But he did not meet anyone. When the lane turned he stopped. Beside the electric lamp post, was also a blazing petromax. People sat there eating in a row. He stopped outside the circle of light and stood in the dark against the wall. On a durrie spread out close to the row, sat a crowd. He recognized quite a few from the lane. Mahaadev, Massur Maharaj and, chewing tobacco and talking to someone, the pandit sat in a corner. A few members of a band stood at the back. The door to Rajee’s house was open and people were going and coming, in and out. He guessed it must be Rajee’s wedding, still when he saw a stranger pass by he asked, ‘Why sir, is there a wedding taking place?’ The man paused on hearing a voice come in from the dark, then probably thinking it was one of the low caste servants, he indicated by turning his face and said, ‘The Chaudhury household is entertaining a baaraat tonight.’

He continued to stand there for a while. The place would remain crowded till late at night. After all, they are entertaining a wedding party. Keeping to the opposite side and close to the wall, he proceeded to his house. He went and stood there going as close as he could without stepping out in the light. The door to his house was ajar and a lantern burned in the outer room. Suddenly a feminine voice drifted out speaking in Punjabi, and then a woman in salwar-kameez, a Punjabi dress of loose trousers and top, stepped out. Who is she? And this man? Looks like he is a Sikh. Yes he is a Sikh, there is a small kirpan – a dagger kept by Sikhs, dangling down his waist. The two went back in, the door closed.

How come these Sikhs are here? Where have mai and Dulaare chacha gone? Dulaare chacha had been thinking about it already, he must have left surely, taking mai with him. He was a fool to think, they’d still be here. It was all absolutely clear, there was no need to ask anyone. With heavy feet, he turned back. Someone perhaps saw him in the light near the Shivala and when he had passed ahead, a voice came from behind him, ‘Is it Ghaseeta?’ He couldn't tell whose voice it was. He didn’t turn to see, nor stopped, instead, as if a little jolted (also somewhat disconcerted on hearing his nick name after so many months), he stepped up his pace and went out of the lane.

His mood had somehow turned sour. Where would they have gone! It occurred to him once that if he went to Dulaare chacha’s hotel tomorrow, he’d probably see him. But the thought came and went away. He now wanted to see neither Dulaare chacha nor mai. He wanted to see no one. What would he do if he met mai? If she had gone with Dulaare chacha, it is well and good. For a while, he felt he was lost again in an alien place. The way he had in the jail when the barrack-gate closed behind him. Then he started thinking, he’d work out and build up his body, be a bully, become a rogue like Jidda, people would be terrified of his name, even the police and the jail staff would stand in awe of him. Maqbool was a thief and a gambler. He too would gamble, also booze but won’t steal. He would be a bully and people would pay him out of fear. And if someone would be defiant he would kill him with a knife, he would keep a pistol (he would first learn to shoot and become a crack shot), bang, and everything will be over.

Suddenly he realized he was heading back to the ‘baarraa’ without having thought about it. The lane with Maqbool’s room was closeby. He gave a slight jerk to his head, entered the lane, unlocked the door, latched it from inside and lay down on the rug. It was very hot and the room had become a furnace. It was difficult to sleep. He remembered there was a lantern in a corner but had no idea if there was kerosene in it. Taking out a beedi from his pocket, he lit up. The acrid smoke of the beedi began to fill the room.