Wednesday, 8 November 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' English translation of chapter 12 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak.


The court had acquitted him on that occasion, but only after a three month stay in jail. He'd had his first hearing ten or twelve days after his first day in jail, and when, on return from the hearing, he had told Maqbool that the judge he had been first taken to had changed and that his trial was now in Judge Sajnani’s court, Maqbool had said – ‘You’re fortunate young fellow. Sajnani never sentences anyone under one hundred and nine. He stays somewhere close to Kashmiri Gate and goes for a walk at the break of dawn when it is still dark. Once he was taking a walk near Kudasia Ghaat at four in the morning. It had rained and he had rolled up the bottom of his trousers to save them from getting soiled. When the police patrol saw him, they booked him under one hundred and nine and locked him up. They made him sit for two hours at the police station. It was only when they asked his name that the truth came out. And what a dressing down he gave to all of them! Had them all placed under suspension. Since then he has vowed never to sentence anyone under one hundred and nine.’

During those three months, he had felt at times he would start screaming wildly, go nuts. But somehow he survived. Partly, perhaps because he learned, to a large extent, to transfer his fear down to his fists. Whenever, he was afraid, his fists tightened, his heart pounded loudly, as the fear deepened his limbs too became numb but he never let his fear show on his face. What surprised him the most in the beginning was Maqbool. How the whole barrack was afraid of him! So much so, that even the warder and the headmen were cautious when talking to Maqbool, who was facing three trials for theft, one for rioting. He had been out on bail in the first three trials and had been gambling somewhere when a constable or havaldar arrived to demand his share. They exchanged heated words. When the constable, foul mouthed, called him a name, Maqbool caught him by his neck and hit his head against the floor, nose down. The nose broke. The police had then given him a sound thrashing. This time his bail application was rejected by the sessions court and he had been put in fetters immediately on arrival in jail.

And yet, there was a softness in Maqbool’s eyes which was missing in the eyes of everyone else in jail. The eyes of all the others, whether they be prisoners, officers or warders, were hard and cold. One could tell by looking that they would show no mercy under any circumstances. If ever Maqbool looked at someone in anger, the person broke into a cold sweat, and yet, his eyes looked like that of a child. He seemed unafraid of everything. He was the mate at the barracks and this was only natural. Who else could be the mate as long as he was there? Who could dare to say anything to him? In the morning, when the barracks opened, he made everyone fall in line, made a count and then, had the food distributed. When the boys, who had a hearing that day, left, he sat down for a game of cards with the warder or the headman or a boy. Sometimes he drew something like a map on the floor and played a game using shards as pieces. A game he couldn’t learn despite Maqbool’s attempts at teaching. Maqbool also took care of the furnace that was kindled once a week to wash their clothes and took out some coal for himself to keep. On days the vegetable was badly cooked, he kindled those coals to season it again. Occasionally, he obtained some potatoes from only he knew where and cooked them. The rest of the boys dried up the rotis left over from their meals. He was astonished to see those dried up rotis burn as readily as dried up twigs.

Thanks to Maqbool, not only did he escape the cripple’s clutches that day, he also lived in a measure of comfort later too. Maqbool’s treatment of him resembled that of a boy who finds and brings home a small puppy, miserable with cold and hunger, and feeds it, covers it with a blanket. Maqbool talked only seldom to him but whenever he cooked, always gave him his share. That first night, he had slept very little. Partly because his hunger had not been fully satiated and partly because the blanket had perhaps been infested with bugs and they had bitten him all through the night. But apart from all this a strange smell in the barracks, emanating from the bodies and the breath of the boys sleeping there, and mingling, when ever there was a gust of breeze, with the stink of the urinal built on one side, had kept disturbing him. Once he became accustomed, he himself mingled with the smell and found it strangely comforting, particularly in the winter. But it hadn’t been cold that first night. Besides, the smell had been unfamiliar and he had found the barracks very stifling. Occasionally a boy had mumbled in his sleep, the calls of the watchman had kept echoing throughout the night. His sleep had got disturbed every now and then but his mind had been numb. He had been unable to think about what was going to happen next, nor what he would have to do, what he should do?

When he got up in the morning, his eyes were smarting. He had slipped into sleep just an hour or two back and when he awoke this time, most of the boys were already up. Maqbool was sitting, smoking a beedi, his legs stretched out. He couldn’t draw his legs up because of the fetters. He was up and rubbing his eyes when the head warder arrived to open the barracks.

He was very pleased that day with the jail practice of an early meal. Food was served early in jail because the inmates were sent to work by nine in the morning. However, he was very hungry and when the food was served early, he felt happy. Because he was hungry, he could eat two rotis. There was ‘daal’, but he couldn’t make out which ‘daal’ it was. Apart from the taste of salt, chillies and a little oil, he guessed from its dark colour and sticky consistency it was whole ‘horse-bean’. The moment he put a piece of roti in his mouth, sand grated under his teeth. At first, he thought of  spitting it out, but then forced it down somehow. Maqbool had given him an onion and he managed two rotis with it but when he finished the onion, he didn’t have the courage to start on the third one. His hunger too was almost satisfied. He threw the remaining ‘daal’ in the drain and slipped the roti under the rug intending to ask Maqbool for an onion to eat it with, in case he felt hungry during the day. But he didn’t feel hungry again.

Nearly all of the boys in the barrack were under trial. He heard that the boys, sentenced to more than one or two months, were sent to the ‘Borstal’ jail in Hissar. They weren’t usually made to work as they were under-trials but occasionally the warder engaged them for watering plants or pulling out grass etcetera in the barrack compound itself, or at times in another barrack. The inmates were not provided with scrapers etcetera and the grass had to be scrapped out by hands. The boys kept at it slowly but watering plants required a little labour. Buckets had to be filled up at the tap and poured down plants and thickets.

This is how he had run into Jidda a second time. The warder had sent him along with ten or twelve other boys to pull out grass in the compound of ‘Korateen’ . He had heard that when a prisoner was punished by jail authorities, he was put in fetters and was shut in an isolated cell, and was made to grind twenty seers of wheat in one day, that was why the cells were called grinding mills. But Jidda was neither shut in nor grinding wheat. However, his feet did have fetters around them. He was sitting on a platform in front of a cell, playing cards and drinking a cup of tea which did surprise him but not much. Small fire pots burnt in all the barracks. And Jidda was a prisoner with some reckoning. He must have ordered milk by asking the Doctor or bribing the compounder.

He too sat down on the side where Jidda was sitting and began to pull out grass. He was also being a little greedy. Jidda may perhaps see him and offer tea. But Jidda was engrossed in the card game. Even if he saw him, he paid no attention. He had probably not seen him as, constrained by the fetters, he was sitting with his legs stretched out and could see him only if he turned around to look. Two of the other card players with him were prisoners, probably under-trial, as they were wearing their own clothes. One was a headman. Suddenly one cracked a joke with Jidda, ‘Boss, I hear you too have been caught by the lure of the skirt. Did you marry?’

Jidda laughed out loud, then spat out suddenly, ‘What marriage? Am I made to fulfil the whims of a bitch all my life and then raise her litter? There is a girl with me these days. Such fun. She is an orphan, and used to go around begging. But she sure is delicious. I had brought her with me to enjoy for a few days. But I have no clue what’s wrong with the bitch. Each night she brays out as if it is her first night. Otherwise, she is o.k. That’s why I can’t have my fill of her. It’s been four months almost. She doesn’t act difficult, just sits tamely. I hope she doesn’t run away by the time I am out! But where would she run away to? She has no place. I had sent some money to my place so she won’t starve, at least. But I can’t be sure that a pal such as you won’t walk off with her.’ And again, Jidda laughed at his own joke, although not as loudly.

‘Who can eye anything that belongs to Jidda?’ The other prisoner with him tried to humour him. Jidda was perhaps in a very good mood. Twirling his moustache, he said, ‘Many a time I have asked, O, Basantia, why do you cry? Does it really hurt or do you pretend? But she says nothing and only looks at you like a cow.’

‘She must be putting on an act boss, women enjoy even more than men.’ Jidda took a sip of the tea and said a little mischievously, ‘Come over some day if the judge does not send you in for five years and I’ll make you take a dip. Then you can tell if she is pretending or not. Not that she is very chaste or virtuous. In fact she was walking the streets. Who knows how many have taken a dip.’

‘If she is shamming’, this time the headman spoke, ‘she won’t be waiting for you. She’ll take whatever things she can lay her hands on and run off.’ Jidda twirled his moustache again, ‘Where will she run off to? Where will she go with Jidda’s things? I’ll bring her back from where ever she’ll be and make twenty youths mount her one by one. Then I’ll see how the bitch acts.’

A strange silence fell at Jidda’s words. As he was listening, his hands had stopped on their own. Although Jidda was facing the other side, his face and his eyes now loomed in front of him. A strange tension appeared on the faces of the rest of the three, their eyes gleamed in a strange, frightening way and he knew, had Jidda’s eyes been facing him, they’d have appeared even more frightening. His limbs had grown slack and he sat without moving for a while. When the boy pulling grass at some distance came completely close, he gave a start and began to pull at the grass quick and fast so he could get away from there.

Jidda and his companions were still playing cards but now, perhaps, their heart was not in it. Suddenly the headman who had brought them there called out, ‘Boy, come and see here, there is so much grass, pull this out, all these rascals, they sit only at one spot.’ As if relieved, he got up quickly and went in that direction. Sitting down with his back to Jidda’s cell, he began to move his hands rapidly. And then, except for a side glance once or twice, he didn’t turn that way during the whole time that he was there. He was feeling queer inside and wanted that Jidda shouldn’t see him, shouldn’t recognize him. He tried again and again not to think of all that they had said but their words kept swirling in his mind even as he sat there.

Had he heard right? Had Jidda said ‘Basantia’, or some other name? Was it the same Basantia who had lived at the Shivala? He was struck with a strange revulsion when he remembered Jidda’s words. What kind of people were they? What kind of men? How could Jidda enjoy when the girl cried? Once his mind went to the extent of thinking of what would happen if he was with the girl and she started crying? He shuddered inside. How could a person enjoy when someone was crying with pain?

His mood had turned strangely sombre by the time he returned to his barrack. Maqbool had cooked potatoes with onions. When the food was served in the evening, Maqbool didn’t take his portion of the vegetable. When he began his meal, Maqbool asked with a little odd look, ‘Do you want some vegetable?’ His look was doubtful as if he expected him to say 'no'. He hesitated once, Maqbool’s look reminding him that he was a Hindu, Maqbool a Muslim. Also that he had accepted roasted gram and onions from Maqbool but that Maqbool had cooked a vegetable for the first time after his arrival. He hesitated once, then said, ‘Give me some.’ He noticed, as he ate, that many of the boys looked at him again and again. It had become a little easier to eat the rotis with the vegetable and instead of the usual two, he ate two and a half. Although many more were piled under his blanket. After that day, he noticed that the hostility present in Mehmood’s eyes for him was missing. Mehmood even laughed at times now when talking to him. But he also found that many of the Hindu boys had begun to grow distant from him. There was nothing on the surface, nobody said anything, but the barrack appeared to have become divided in three sections. A few Muslim boys, a few Hindu boys, and between the two, a number of boys – both Hindus and Muslims – who paid no attention to such things. If ever a word slipped out from some body’s mouth, it was like a spark in the air. But nothing happened that would have started a fight.

There was more tension amongst the headmen and the warders, than amongst the boys. There was no Muslim warder or officer in the jail. They had all moved to Pakistan. A few of the headmen may have been Muslims, he didn’t exactly get to know. Some of the headmen and the warders used certain expletives for the Muslim prisoners, but not usually in the presence of others. And one day, when they were watering the plants near the ‘circle’ inside the compound, he saw many people, donning black caps, go into the vestibule. (Meanwhile, he had come to know that the corridor and the offices, falling in between the two gates, were called the ‘vestibule’, and the building in the compound, where names etcetera were noted down, ‘the circle’. However, he could never gather why that building was called the circle.) Who are those people, when a boy asked, the headman accompanying them answered that they belonged to 'Raitery (Rashtreeya) Sangh' and opposed Pakistan. They were the ones who rescued Hindus from Pakistan but the Government had put them behind bars in order to appease Pakistan.

One of the prisoners, perhaps a boy named Sunder, didn’t react to what the headman said but later spoke to the boy who had asked the question, ‘They are associates of Gandhi’s killer and have therefore been arrested by the Government. This rascal of a headman talks only rubbish. They had wanted to kill even Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru!’ The matter went over the boys’ heads and therefore didn’t stretch any further.

Slowly, he got accustomed to the jail routine and when Maqbool narrated to him Judge Sajnani’s story, he also began to hope he’d be released. His sleep didn’t get disturbed now at night, when the headmen called out, ‘Go on - all is well’. He had come to know that headmen were posted at short distances against the wall and a piece of wood or brass was circulated. One of the headmen walked up and handed the piece to the second one, then the second one walked up to the third. One of them said ‘Go on’, the other answered, ‘All is well’. And this was how they kept watch all through the night.

However, around ten days or so before his release, it was as if the earth shook suddenly and all routine was disturbed. A new boy arrived that day in the barrack. An old hand at picking pockets, he had been to jail twice earlier, each time for three months and had been caught again in a new case. He had an old enmity with some boys and was, unfortunately locked in along with them. When the boys went to sleep at night, those boys gagged him, using small pieces of shaving blades scratched his whole body, heating up a coin branded both his thighs. The rest of the boys, even if they saw anything, didn’t intervene and no one in the other barracks came to know a thing during the night. When the barrack opened in the morning, the boy was in no condition to come out. He just lay there, groaning.

When the head warder found one missing, he shouted, ‘Where has one gone?’ Then some boys told him that the boy who had come yesterday was lying inside. The head warder went in cursing, but looking at the boy’s condition, came out cursing twice as vehemently. The hospital was informed. The compounder came and applied tincture on the gashes, bandaged the thighs. It was only after two or three days that the boy could walk again, but despite repeated questioning, didn’t name those who had done it. He was perhaps scared the boys would take revenge again if he told on them. But the rest of the boys in the barracks knew. Slowly the boys in the other barracks also came to know and then it reached the ears of the headmen and warders.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, the headman of the barrack was changed that very day. The new headman, earlier the orderly of the jailor, was shrewd, enjoyed the confidence of the officers and was serving life-sentence for murder. He was one of the three or four headmen in jail who wore a black turban. It was from conversations about the headman that he learned there were four categories of headmen – those with a belt, those with a white turban, those with a black turban and those with a yellow turban. He came to know that there was just one headman with a yellow turban and he was posted at the black mills where the most dreaded and fearsome prisoners, punished by the jail, were kept. That boy was shifted to another barrack. It was quite late at night when the screams and cries from the next barrack woke them up. All the boys stood beside the bars. No one could know at the time what the matter was. All that they could make out was that many of the headmen, warders and probably also a deputy, were inside and beating the boys with belts. The beating continued for almost one to one hour and a half. Even when it was over the boys were still terror-stricken all through the night. He couldn’t sleep at all. They had come to know in the morning that the headman had gone and sat the previous night with the boys whose names had been mentioned and had kept lambasting them saying the rascals took the jail too lightly, thought themselves to be the big boss and were under impression they could beat whom they pleased, brand any one at will. Wouldn’t the authorities come to know even if the lad didn’t speak up? Each of them would be thrashed till they collapsed. He had kept on the harangue for some time when one of the boys, perhaps to divert him, had asked for a light for his beedi. Taking offence, the headman had shouted expletives involving his mother and sister and said he was not a servant of the …’s father, light up the ….’s beedi indeed. Suddenly enraged, the boy could think of nothing else and had spit on the headman’s face. That did it. The headman had called other warders and headmen. Word reached the ‘vestibule’, a deputy too arrived. Unlocking the barrack, they gave the boys a thorough thrashing. Anyone who happened to fall before them received the brunt of their belts. But around eight or ten boys were selected exclusively and beaten badly. Their bodies were swollen in the morning. Some of them had perhaps got it on their faces as well, as their faces too were puffed up. Then they were presented before the superintendent and were put in ‘danda-berree’.

He had not seen ‘danda-berree’ so far. The ends of their fetters were attached to an iron rod which made it impossible for them to stretch their legs. Not only was it difficult to walk, even sitting or lying down brought no relief. Then he noticed that Maqbool and the other prisoners in ‘danda-berree’ had bandages of wool swathed round their legs to save them from getting cut up. But these boys had ‘danda-berree’ on bare legs. Within two days, legs of most of the boys had gashes. Then, collecting rags from here and there, they had wrapped up their legs. The compounder came and applied medicine, yet the day he was released, most of them had festering wounds on their legs and the boys suffered agonies even in going to the toilet.

Monday, 25 September 2017

'LIves Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 11 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Praksh Deepak


The police van took hardly five to seven minutes from the lock up to the jail, which, during those days was situated at Delhi Gate and the area wasn’t as crowded. When the van started, he began to think – ‘the van is so crowded, what if the driver lost control and it overturned?' He thought how nice it would be if the impact made the door of the van come loose and the guards sitting at the back got wounded or fainted or were unable to get up, all the prisoners would escape and disappear in the crowd. Meanwhile many of the prisoners who sat looking out by the window, made a strange utterance sounding something like – yo, yo – which was nothing like a human or an animal sound, but somehow like the sound some 'men' sometimes made. And the prisoners made the sound all through the journey. He tried to see what it was that they saw before they made this sound and came to realize after the third or the fourth time that it was when they saw a young girl or a woman on the road that they made the sound.

The van reached the jail, stopped ten paces away and driving in reverse, the driver turned it round in a way that the van’s rear came to face the jail gate. His heart began to pound loudly the moment the van stopped. But before he could think of anything or was in a position to feel anything except for an unknown fear, he found himself standing in a corridor between two huge, closed gates. The instant the van had stopped, a constable had opened the lock on the door and simultaneously a small window had opened in the outer gate. Getting down from the van, they had entered through the window in a double file. He could barely throw one glance at the arched gate and the stone walls. As soon as all the prisoners were in, the constable bolted the door quickly and put a padlock as heavy as three fists. A constable from the guard gave a paper to the warder and read out three names from another paper – ‘Come this way’. The list included his name. The three of them kept standing, as the warder made others sit down in a row in pairs, counted them and opened the window in the inner gate. They went in, escorted by a headman and the window shut down.

Now there were the three of them in the corridor, as also the constables of the guard, two or three warders, two or three headmen, of which, one stood with them. They stood there like this for a fairly long time. The other two men were quite aged and it didn’t seem like their first time in jail. He cast a frightened glance around him. At one side of the corridor was a concrete wall, at the other, a number of room like structures. He was a little surprised to see that the walls were constructed by joining stones together with mortar and seemed ancient. The ceiling of the corridor where they stood was also very high and instead of being flat, was perched on four arches, like a dome. Later he heard that during the emperors rule the Delhi Gate had been the main entrance into the city and the fort, and outside the city wall was an inn. The British, by putting bars etcetera in the rooms of the inn, had converted it into a jail.

They stood there waiting when suddenly he was startled by a woman’s screams coming from somewhere near the gate inside the jail. His heart missed a beat and he felt as if his stomach was getting drawn inwards, as if his chest was aching. How had this woman come to be inside the jail? Who was she? Why was she screaming? What surprised him was that not only the headman but also the other two in custody remained unaffected, as if this was nothing exceptional. After a short pause, one of them asked the headman, ‘Is the mad woman still here?’ Yes she is here. Where else would she go?’ ‘Is there no one in her family? Her father, or brother, or husband?’ ‘No idea. No one ever comes to see her.’

Even lunatics were shut inside jail? He had heard there were asylums where lunatics were kept. But one had to be confined if mad. She must be terribly insane. Perhaps violent. Probably hit people and had therefore been shut in jail. At that moment the Havaldar of the guard, who had perhaps been inside giving his name etcetera, stepped out and gave the paper in his hand to the headman. The window in the outer gate opened first and the guard went out and it was strange that with the exit of the policeman he felt even more lonesome and helpless as if the exit of the policeman had snapped his last link with the world outside, leaving him completely alone amid unknown, unfamiliar threats. The window clanked open and the three of them followed the headman. He was walking behind everyone and had hardly stopped when suddenly the scream of the mad woman echoed in his ears. He had heard the screams earlier too, but taken aback on hearing it from such close quarters, he crashed into the window frame, staggered and with much difficulty saved himself from a fall. Now he found himself standing in a compound surrounded by high walls. Adjacent to the right hand side of the gate, was a room. He could see no door, only the walls on two sides and two heavily barred ventilators high up near the roof. The door was perhaps on the third side. The mad screams were coming out of these ventilators.

Right opposite the gate on the other side of the compound was a small building. Its doors were open and a warder stood outside, along with two headmen. There were two or three headmen inside too. The compound, but for them, was vacant. There were many doors in the walls, all of them closed, their thick bars evoking a strange feeling. The building was surrounded on three sides with thickets of a variety not known to him. In the centre was a small pit, fenced on top, through which could be seen a small, withered, mango sapling. Whether or not it was meant for all the prisoners, but the headman, while pausing by that spot, spoke in a soft voice, ‘Mahatma Gandhi planted this tree. He had come here after Diwali.’ No one said anything. He himself couldn’t make out what to think! For a moment he thought if Mahatma Gandhi had come here, had planted a tree, the jail must have become a somewhat better place. But then doubt crept in. Only sinners and criminals lived in jails.

There was a low table in the building and a headman sat nearby. Looking at the note brought by the headman accompanying him, he wrote something in the register lying on the table, then asked for their names and addresses. The other two men separated from him at this point. Again he felt a little frightened. Why had he been separated? Where had they taken the other two? Where would they take him? But he couldn’t speak or ask anyone anything. Shuddering within, he stood there waiting. However, he didn’t have to wait long. The headman returned quickly. ‘Come.’ Going back to the right of the building, the headman stopped at a door against the bars. A warder appeared at the door. He saw there was another compound inside, a small one, and three long barracks. There were many boys in the compound, most appeared to be the same age as him. It was in fact a barrack for juveniles where boys from 14 to 21 years of age were lodged. The warder checked the note in the headman’s hand and opened the door. He went in, as if, without thinking. The warder locked the door again and sat down on a stool near the wall without looking at him.

He walked four or five steps, then slowed down, then stopped. Where was he to go? He had to live here. In these barracks. In this compound. He kept standing there for a while, forlorn, feeling lost in an alien place. Then his eyes fell on Mehmood sitting at one side, eating. Three or four other boys too, were squatting there, having their food. When the cripple walked towards the water-tap with a basin in hand, he recognized him by his gait and also, watching those boys eat, his hunger over-powered his fear. Mehmood too had come on the van with him and had got his food. He too, might get it. However, he didn’t have the nerve to ask the warder. Turning once, he looked back – the warder sat on the stool in the same posture. What was the point in asking the boys?

Then he saw Mehmood go by closely with three or four boys. Everyone looking at him and laughing in a strange manner. When he saw the cripple’s eyes, all the nerves in his body tensed up in warning. The glint in the cripples eyes was similar to the glint he had often seen in Kisana’s eyes, in fact, even more wicked. He felt a new fear emerge in him but with the fear, some anger too. He was not unaware of the threat the glint in the cripple’s eyes had warned him against. He knew of the wicked goings on amongst the boys in the lane.

He was just standing there, mind alert, when the head warder came to close down the barrack. He called out as soon as he entered, ‘Come, come, sit down everyone!’ The boys began to sit down in pairs to form a double row. He couldn’t understand which row to join. Thinking the warder would tell him, he kept standing in the centre. Then Maqbool rebuked him with an abuse. ‘You! Why aren’t you sitting?’ Maqbool appeared two or three years his senior and had his feet in fetters. He wondered why a prisoner was asking him to sit, then thinking, the others too might be getting punished if one of them failed to sit, he asked – ‘Which line should I sit in?’ ‘You, new here?’ Maqbool asked. He too was an inmate only, but seeing his athletic body, the warder had made him a mate. Without being appointed a headman, Maqbool performed most of the duties of a headman. He was often in jail and was facing three-four trials even in those days.

Yes, he nodded. Maqbool turned towards the head warder, ‘Which barrack would this new boy go to?’ The head warder pointed one way, almost without thinking. Maqbool turned towards him again, ‘Go, sit in that row.’ Turning, he walked in that direction and his blood ran cold when he saw Mehmood sitting there. He also noticed Mehmood begin to whisper to the boys sitting with him and they turned to look. At this point, the head warder shouted from behind him, ‘Boy, what’s your name?’ He stopped and turned. What wrong had he done now? ‘Dharamdas, sir’, he said with respect. ‘Take your basin and blanket’. Then his eyes fell on the headman who had brought him to the barracks. He was standing there with his things – a basin, a ragged rug and an old dirty blanket. It’s not cold. What’ll I do with the blanket? Then he thought he would spread it out to lie on. Clasping the rug and the blanket under his arm, and holding the basin, he sat down at the end of the row. The head warder made a count of the three lines, twice, then the boys at the front of his line began to get up to go into the barrack. The head warder stood at the door and shut the door immediately after him. The sound of the door clicking behind startled him and his head knocked lightly against the door bars. But he was not hurt. Standing there, he looked around him to see if there was a vacant place, away from where Mehmood was, where he could roll out his rug and blanket. Suddenly he heard a voice from a side – ‘New lad. That cripple, the rascal will break a bottle today.’ He looked opposite to where the voice had come from, there was some space on the floor. At a little distance from others were some things belonging to someone. He walked towards that space. Folding up the blanket, he spread out the rug on the top, put the basin near the head space and sat down. The moment he sat down he was struck again with hunger pangs. No one had said anything to him about food. The head warder was getting the other barracks closed for the night. He thought once of calling out to the warder to say he hadn’t got any food, but he didn’t get up. And then Mehmood came near him. ‘Boy, who asked you to put your blanket here. Get up.’ Mehmood’s face and eyes were harder than usual but his mind had been ready for something like this. He did not get up. Mehmood stood a little sideways, putting all his weight on one leg. ‘Can’t you hear me, boy? Get up and spread your blanket over there.’ Mehmood pointed with his hand. ‘Why, does this place belong to you?’ ‘Will you get up or should I give you a few smacks?’ A sound at the door made him look. The warder, after getting the barracks closed, was unlocking to shut Maqbool in. Mehmood too, saw from the corners of his eyes and withdrew one leg. He felt a little heartened. Mehmood won’t dare to manhandle him as long as the warder was present. He also mustered some courage, if the cripple raised his hand, he too would hit. The cripple, with one leg and a half, couldn’t be stronger than him. The warder went away after locking up. In the failing light he saw, there was just one headman left in the compound. Maqbool was standing near the door, perhaps to light up a cigarette.

The moment Mehmood saw that the warder had left, he stepped up again, ‘You won’t listen unless’, and the cripple caught and pulled his shirt from the neck. The pull and the fear that his shirt might give way made him stand up. Meanwhile, perhaps Maqbool had seen them and clanking his fetters came in their direction. ‘What is it? What has happened?’ ‘Nothing boss, this boy has spread out his blanket over here. When I am asking him to get up, he is acting tough.’ Maqbool’s face hardened a little. ‘It’s because he is new here. All his toughness will drop in just one blow.’ He felt trapped now. From Mehmood’s firm hold he knew that the cripple was scrawny only in appearance, his bones still had it in them. And there was no scope of any misjudgement about Maqbool’s brawny body. He thought he had escaped in the police-station, but won’t be spared here. The fear in his heart probably showed on his face because the strong tension on Maqbool’s face relaxed at once. ‘Are you from Delhi? A first timer?’ He nodded. The fear had robbed his limbs of their strength, his mouth of words. ‘Sit’, Maqbool said and he was so relieved, he controlled himself with some difficulty. In that moment of fear he had felt his belly pull inwards. When the tension relaxed his head almost reeled and he felt sick. Sitting down, he dug his head into his knees. Hunger, together with fear had so exhausted him that he broke into a sweat for a while. He continued to sit for some time with his head on his knees, then stretched out and closed his eyes when he felt a little better.

When Maqbool asked him to sit, Mehmood was taken aback and not knowing what to do next, looked at Maqbool’s face, which no longer held any hardness. The cripple went hobbling over to the other side – ‘Ok, beta ...son, you are sure to fall into my hands, someday.'

After he lay down and closed his eyes, Maqbool arranged his fetters and spreading out his legs on the blanket, sat down. Then asked, ‘What’s your name?’ He opened his eyes but didn’t get up. ‘Dharamdas.’ ‘What have you been charged with?’ At first he thought of saying ‘with theft’, but then remembering the cripple’s words in the lock up, said – ‘With one hundred and nine.’ ‘Don’t you have parents?’ He shook his head. ‘No one who could bail you out?’ He didn’t exactly know what ‘bail’ meant but shook his head once again. There must be someone where he lived? He tried to think of an answer and began to consider everyone in the lane, turn by turn. Could he send for someone? But there was still a certain resentment in his mind. Informing someone in the lane would mean informing mai and Dulaare chacha. He was not angry with mai now but the idea of Dulaare chacha coming to his rescue was intolerable.  He kept thinking and didn’t speak.

Suddenly Maqbool asked, ‘Haven’t the policemen given you food?’ And again he was on the verge of tears. That morning, saying that the policemen ate up the food meant for the prisoners, Jidda had given two biscuits to eat. And now, it was Maqbool asking him. No one had asked or offered him anything all through the day, as if, he had no need for food. He said nothing. Maqbool realized that he was hungry. Bending backwards, he picked up a tin box with a lid, opened the lock with a key tied to his waist with a string, took out two fists full of roasted gram and one onion and put it in his basin. ‘Eat it.’ Without speaking he sat up and began to eat. In his hunger he gobbled down all the gram quickly with the onion. He would have eaten all the gram with equal gusto had there been no onion. Even though it didn’t fill up his belly, he was much comforted. Having eaten, he looked up and around him. Maqbool pointed with his finger at an earthen pitcher full of water. His heart hesitated once while going towards the water pot. Mehmood was sitting there leaning against the wall. The cripple saw him pass but said nothing. On reaching the pot he thought of tilting it to pour water into his basin but there were boys sitting or lying down on their blankets on both the sides. There would be problem if the water spilled. The boys would find an excuse to fight. But someone may, if he dipped his basin in the pot, protest that he had polluted the water. He was still in this dilemma when a boy appeared, dipped his basin in the pitcher and went away with water. His heart faltered once again for a moment – who knows how many and what kind of people put their used basins in the pitcher? Who would know if someone was suffering from scabies or other infectious disease? Everyone – Hindus, Muslims, even chamaars - leather workers and mehtars - sweepers, scavengers - must be drinking from this pitcher. But there was no other option. He had to have water. The grams and the onion had made him even more thirsty. He put his basin inside the pitcher and standing there, gulped down two basins of water. Having had his fill, he felt his eyes had got back their vision. He felt revived.

When he returned to his blanket, Maqbool was lighting a beedi. An empty box of boot polish had a half-burnt cotton yarn in it. Maqbool rubbed a tiny iron chip over a stone. Rubbed again. A spark fell on the yarn and it began to burn. Maqbool closed down the box after lighting his beedi, looked at him and asked, ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here’, and Maqbool held the beedi out to him. Later he came to know, one was allowed beedis and cigarettes in the jail but not matchbox. Now that he had got some respite from hunger, thirst and fear, he felt tired. After smoking the beedi, he stretched out.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 9 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak.


His feet, as a matter of habit, moved for some distance towards the shop. But then he began to wonder why he was going to the shop. Would he work there during the day and go some place, other than home, for the night? What was the use? If he wasn’t going to work at the shop, why go there? He had also taken his salary some six or seven days back. He’d be losing ten days' salary. Unh! Let that be. If he asked for it now, his boss would only make trouble. He stopped. Then walked towards the station without any particular objective. He would look for work over there for a day or two.

Even after he reached the station, he couldn’t think of what he should do. Actually his mind was not in it. His mind was full of mai and Dulaare chacha and also resentment. All through his way to the station, he had cursed them to his heart’s content. He was extremely angry with Dulaare chacha and no less angry with mai. What did she see in Dulaare chacha? Couldn’t she be patient for a little while? Again and again, he remembered the whispered words of last night and the memory made him simmer within. Such a shame! Bappa had been so highly respected. How was he show to his face to any one now?

The sun was high in the sky and the day had become hot. He went into the ‘Company Garden’, sat down under a tree and then lay prone. Over and over again, his heart boiled over and for some time he even contemplated going stealthily at night and hitting Dulaare chacha on the face with a huge rock. Even if he didn’t die, his face would get so distorted that he'd become loathsome to look at – his nose would crack, his teeth break, eyes bulge. For a long time he kept thinking of how repulsive Dulaare chacha’s face would look! Once he also thought of going with a sharp knife and cutting of mai’s nose. And then he kept thinking of how he would go, how big a rock he would take and how he would hit it on Dulaare chacha’s face, how he would hide in the melee and then going quietly round to the other side, make his escape.

When he felt hungry, he took out the roti from his bag, ate it and drinking water from the tap, lay down under a tree. Lay down and fell asleep. Even after coming awake he kept lying half asleep for a long time...thinking he would return to the lane some days later, after he had earned some money, tell the people of the lane with pride – ‘I work in an office (or in a mill), get around fifty to sixty rupees. Also have a living quarter allotted to me.’ Once he found a job, he’d also marry. Once he thought of getting married to Rajee. But no, he would keep no contact with the people of the lane. He would go there just once, talk with dignity and come away.

It was evening when he rose and washed his face at the tap. By the time he came out of the park, the road was bustling with crowd. Passengers were coming out from the station, perhaps a train had arrived. The thought of working as a coolie occurred to him. He went inside the station and just roamed around, observing for some time. In a while, the crowd thinned out. At one spot he saw a few coolies sitting in a group smoking beedis. He passed by several times but was not bold enough to make enquiries. Even as they talked amongst themselves, they sounded coarse and harsh. Not only their bodies but their faces too were rough and tough. Especially the coolie with long moustaches had a peculiar ruthless glint in his eyes which he found frightening. As he passed by for the third or the fourth time, he saw the coolie with the moustache had moved away. An old coolie was sitting a little away from the group. He went to him and asked somewhat diffidently how one could obtain a coolie’s licence. The old man didn’t understand at first and when he repeated himself a little more loudly the old coolie, looked at him from top to bottom and laughed a little – ‘Bribe the contractor, bribe the clerk, come morning and evening to pay respect, make hundreds of rounds, you may get a licence.’ The old man was perhaps taking him lightly or wasn’t particularly interested. Perhaps the old man was paying more attention to what the other coolies were saying. He came away but still hung around, thinking he’d talk to someone again if he got a chance. Another train arrived and the crowd of passengers began to filter out.
He noticed that a respectable looking man,  a Lala, made the coolie put down his luggage – a box and a basket – at the stairs. Perhaps he had to go somewhere else, towards Fatehpuri. The Lala stood a long time but failed to strike a deal with a rickshaw puller! He watched for a while then taking courage approached him – Do you need a porter Saith ji? The Lala threw him a glance, ‘Will you carry it? The place is only two furlongs from here. But these rickshaw pullers are so unreasonable. You’ll get two annas. Come on, pick it up.’

Taking out his pyjamas from the bag and rolling it into a ring, he placed it over his head. The Lala helped him put the box over his head, he hung the basket on his shoulder, his own bag on the other arm. The box, not too heavy, wasn’t too light either. He covered some distance quite easily but then felt a pressure on his nape. In the same breath, he felt the basket hanging down his shoulder grow heavy. His shoulder joint and the bone in his arm began to ache badly.

However, he didn’t have to walk too far. Not more than half or three quarters of a mile, walking round the lanes. But after walking only a small distance he began to feel he would fall any moment, his arm would go down and the basket would fall. To keep his arm up, he held the box on both sides. It felt his neck would snap any minute. In the end he kept walking blindly behind the Lala as if being pulled. Finally the Lala stopped and hardly had he removed his hand from the box, when the basket came sliding down. Luckily it didn’t turn over. Had the Lala not caught hold of the box from one end he would have fallen down along with the box. The moment the load was off his head, everything before his eyes went dark for a minute. He had, during this time, become drenched in sweat. After sitting down for a while he felt a little better, his vision returned, his breath was restored. Meanwhile, the door too had opened in response to Lala’s knocking and a boy, around his age, came out. Picking up some courage he shifted the box in with the boy’s help.

The two annas he received from the Lala appeared to him to be very costly. He had reached this sorry state carrying only one load – he kept thinking on his way back – how would he work as a coolie? But he revived a little by the time he reached the station. He was not used to it yet, he comforted himself, once he was, it won’t be so painful. After all so many coolies carried loads day and night.

Exhausted, he went to sleep at around eleven at night in the waiting room only. It was still full of bustle and noise at the time but he was tired and fell asleep. After carrying Lala’s load he had become somewhat pluckier. A number of trains arrived after that. When the passengers came out and he saw one carrying a light load or hesitating in hiring transport he approached him and asked, ‘Do you need a porter sir?’ He had carried two more loads by ten o’clock and didn’t have to labour all that hard. He carried the luggage of one gentleman to the bus terminus adjoining the station and the attaché case and bedding of a miyan ji - an elderly Muslim - a little farther ahead of Jama Masjid.

After eating at a small, common roadside eatery - a dhaba - for four annas, he was still left with three annas from the evening’s earnings (Miyan ji had paid him three annas) and he felt quite happy. Lying in the waiting room with his bag under his head he thought it won’t be so difficult to earn a rupee or two in a day. He would soon be able to save enough money and when he had the money, he would try to make contacts and obtain a licence. That way, he’d make more money.

When he had picked up Miyan ji’s baggage it had grown dark and Miyan ji had perhaps hesitated to hire a transport out of fear. Perhaps he had failed to find a Muslim rickshaw or tonga puller. A few of the rickshaw but many of the tonga pullers were Punjabi refugees. Making him carry his luggage, Miyan ji hastened away quickening his steps. When he lagged behind, Miyan ji looked back and said to him – ‘Come on, hurry up, brother.’ A horde of refugee hawkers and vendors crowded the foot path on either side of the road, every now and then, Miyan ji would look up with a start. The bustle around the Jubilee cinema must have comforted him somewhat. ‘Surely, there must be some Muslims among the cinema goers.’ It was, any way, not time for a show. It must have been only interval. Miyan ji had slowed down over there and he was able to catch up with him. But his anxiety returned when they started moving again. Opposite the fountain, stood Gurudwara Sisganj.

Quickening his steps, Miyan ji had almost started running, looking back at times to see if he was following but after some distance, was forced to slow down now and again, because the road wasn’t too well lit and he wasn’t able to match Miyan ji’s pace. His face registered dismay at such moments. Delhi was calm those days. There had been no untoward incident but Miyan ji had probably returned after a long time and was still afraid.

When Jama Masjid approached near and Muslims began to appear in large numbers, Miyan ji heaved a sigh of relief and began to walk at leisure. He too found some relief. The load of the attaché case and the bedding was not all that heavy but he had begun to pant from walking so fast. And then he woke up to the fact that he could see only beards all around him. He could see only Muslims over there. He, himself, became a little afraid now. As they turned into a narrow street he realized he was going into an entirely unknown area which he had never seen earlier. This was totally a Muslim domain. He began to wonder if Miyan ji had a dagger or a knife concealed in his clothes. If he stabbed him in a deserted, lonely spot no one would come to know. No one would hear if he shouted. Even the houses in the lane appeared dark. And then, even if someone did hear his shouts, why would they venture out? He became quite nervous and slowing down, kept following Miyan ji five to six paces behind him. Suddenly Miyan ji stopped. As he turned back to look, he had his heart in mouth. Now he is done for! Miyan ji looked at the door. Putting his hand in his pocket, he said, ‘Put it here’, however it was not a dagger that came out of his pocket, but money. He placed three annas on his palm.

He was feeling scared on his way back too. Also, he was afraid he’d lose his way. It was only when he reached the main road that he became confident he wouldn’t get lost. But the fear persisted. In an illogical misgiving, he tied his pyjamas round his head, so that his choti – the tuft of hair atop his head, a telltale sign of being a Hindu – would no longer be visible. His heart kept pounding until he came out of the area of Jama Masjid, and untied his pyjama only when he reached the road at Chandni Chowk. Then finding a dhaba, he sat down to eat.

The night was almost over but it was still dark. He felt a slight chill and his sleep got disturbed again and again. Suddenly the sound of knocks made him open his eyes. A police constable, knocking the floor with his baton, was waking up people sleeping in the waiting room and asking – “Where are you coming from? Where do you have to go? Where is your ticket?" The new problem unnerved him. What would he say if asked these questions? The constable was still on the other side. As he went behind a pillar, he tiptoed out with his bag and taking cover behind the wall, went out of the station.

It was still dark but the night had turned from black to grey. From the station he crossed over to the other side and thought he’d go now to the town hall and lie down in the verandah. When it was daylight, he’d go and take his bath etc. in the waiting room. He was about to enter the ‘Company Garden’ when a voice thundered – ‘Hey, you there, stop’ and he completely lost his nerve. Two police constables from the morning patrol! Bolt, he thought to himself. The constables were still at some distance. He might succeed in escaping. But all his nerves seemed to have failed completely. His feet refused to move. Then he kept repeating to himself it won’t be right to run, the constables were sure to catch him. If he ran, the constables would get suspicious. ‘You there! Where are you off to?’ One of the constables asked him but he didn’t know what answer to give. ‘What do you have in this bag?’ The other constable asked and foregoing the first question he said ‘Clothes!’ The constable took the bag in his hand, felt it all over, took the clothes out and shook them. ‘Where do you live?’ asked the second constable. And suddenly he found an escape route. ‘District Sultanpur. In village Muswara. I’ve come in search of a job.’

‘In Sultanpur? Or here in Delhi? Saale, which train comes at this hour?’ Again he became a little nervous. ‘I arrived by train last night. Slept in the waiting room.’ ‘So, where were you going now?’ His nervousness showed on his face. Without thinking he blurted out a half truth, a half lie – ‘The constable drove me out of the waiting room. I thought I’d go, lie down in the verandah of the town hall.’ And a full handed whack landed on his face. ‘Saale, you’re taking us for a ride? You arrive from Sultanpur and know all about town hall and Chandni Chowk? Speak up, where are your accomplices?’ The constable was a hefty one, his slap made his head reel and he began to cry. ‘I swear Havaldar ji, there is no one with me. My father died and I have come looking for work. When I went to that dhaba over there at night to eat, someone pointed out the town hall.’ His mind was working overtime after receiving the whack and he was cursing himself for not having said this earlier. One of the constables looked at him on hearing of his father’s death but there was no effect on the other one. He received another slap on the other cheek, ‘Saale, your father will die when you get blows on your bottom. You are spinning us a yarn! The likes of you are committing crimes every day. Stealing faucets and meters and selling them off at Motiakhan. Today we have managed to nab you. Speak up now, who is the leader of your gang?’

‘I am no thief, Havaldar ji’, he grovelled, ‘I am telling the truth. I have no one living here.’ ‘He won’t own up like this', unbuckling his belt, the constable suddenly began to whip him with it. Putting both his hands on his temples, he bent a little in defence. And his mind froze with fear. Trying to protect himself, he only cried loudly and continued to whine – ‘I am not a thief Havaldar sahib. I have done nothing.’

Hitting him with his belt five or six times, the constable stopped. ‘The rascal is a tough one, he won’t admit to anything like this. ‘Come you …. I’ll straighten you up at the police station.’

When they reached the police station it was day light. As he entered the gate he felt he had become confined in a cage and would never be able to go out again. His cries had stopped on the way but he was still alarmed and was walking like a lifeless machine. ‘Sit over there’ the constable pointed to a corner and going to the constable standing guard, said something to him. But what frightened him most was that the constable had threatened to take him to task once they reached the police station and that he would now fulfil his threat. The very thought that he would now receive a beating made him go numb. He kept thinking whether he could escape the beating by admitting to stealing. But what would he say? Where did he steal from? Where is the loot? Who are his accomplices? The constable had asked these questions. What would he say if the questions were to be repeated here? He felt he could not escape the beating no matter what he said.

Meanwhile Jidda sat up, called a few foul names and then holding on to the bars called out to the constable on guard ‘… you there … you haven’t made anyone fill the pot with water.’ He was a little surprised to see Jidda talk to the policemen in the tone of an officer. He was more surprised to see that no constable said anything in return. A constable brought water in a container. There was something like an earthen pot and also a shallow earthen basin – probably the bottom of a broken pitcher or pot – in a corner of the cell. Once the basin was filled, Jidda lifted his tehmad and sat down on the pot to defecate. The cell filled up with a foul smell but he was not concerned with the smell – even municipality latrines in the lane were always very filthy – as with Jidda’s shamelessness. He sat quietly, keeping his head down, eyes averted. Jidda was also smoking a cigarette and making strange puffing sounds, like the panting of a buffalo bull. He too, smoked beedis at times but for some reason he was finding the smell of that smoke very offensive at that moment.

Jidda got up, opened the knot of his tehmad and then tied it tightly again. Looking at him while still in the act, Jidda said – If you want to shit or pee, do it now. Once the Jamaadar  comes and cleans up, I will not let you do anything.’ His whole body seemed to have become paralyzed but he picked up the basin out of Jidda’s fear, and came to stand near the bars. Not seeing anyone outside, he stood there for a while. When he saw a constable pass by, he called out with some force, ‘Havaldar ji!’ Either the constable did not hear, or hearing him ignored him and went away without looking. He became a little crestfallen. From the corner of his eyes he saw Jidda had sat down leaning against the wall and had started smoking. But when a constable passed by again in a while, Jidda’s voice rose from behind him even before he could speak – ‘Oye, Ramsingha, get this boy some water.' The constable only waved at the time, but he didn’t have to wait for long. Ramsingh brought water shortly in a tin container.

As he was pouring the water, Jidda took out a five rupee note from the layers of the folded sleeve of his shirt and handing it to Ramsingh, said – ‘Get two glasses of tea and a packet of Captain cigarettes. And send the barber.’ Jidda was standing at the door and talking. He thought he’d take advantage and ease himself quickly. He sat a little sideways out of modesty and was finding it difficult to sit on the pot and was sweating with shame and nervousness. Jidda was not paying him any attention and yet when he moved from the door and turned back in, he relieved himself quickly and moved away.

He was feeling strangely upset. Whatever happened later appeared to him like a nightmare and he felt aloof and cut off from it all. In his fear, he kept sitting close to the wall. Outside, there was some movement now, and a few officers, besides the constables, could be seen moving around. The door to the cell opened when the Jamaadar arrived but a constable bolted the door and stood outside. Turning the pot over in the basin, the Jamaadar left. Then Ramsingh arrived with two glasses of tea, four biscuits wrapped in paper and cigarettes. He noticed that the constable returned only three rupees to Jidda and thought Jidda would now explode at the constable. Two glasses of tea, biscuits and cigarettes for two rupees! But Jidda rolled the money up in his sleeve without a word. Ramsingh also gave Jidda a pencil and a paper on which he wrote a note and handing it to Ramsingh, said - 'Give this to the Havaldar of the guard when I go to jail, he will deliver it.’

Extending one glass of tea towards him, Jidda asked, ‘Is this your first time?’ He couldn’t speak and only nodded. ‘Were you committing mudda?’ He didn’t understand Jidda’s question. ‘Were you picking someone’s pocket?’ Jidda asked directly this time. No. Suddenly he wanted to cry. ‘I didn’t do anything, they just hauled me up from the street.’ It occurred to him since Jidda held so much sway at the police station, they might release him if he asked them. But Jidda spoke a little angrily. ‘So why do you cry? Now that you’re here, son, show some steel. You can’t imagine what they will do to you in jail, if you cry … these policemen, the prisoners, the headmen, wardens will all ….’

He was struck dumb. The fear brought tears to his eyes. His tea still lay untouched and he was sitting like someone frozen. ‘Drink it up’, Jidda chided again, ‘because in jail …’, tearing the paper packet from a side Jidda put two biscuits on it and extended towards him. ‘Eat it. You won’t get any food today. These corrupt policemen grow fat on the food money meant for those kept in the lock up.’

He was not hungry. The information that he won’t be getting any food that day made no impact. Breaking a piece of biscuit he put it in his mouth and began to chew. It felt tasteless. As if he was chewing paper pulp. The tea also had no taste. He had still not finished his tea when he saw the constable from the night before and was at once gripped with fear – now he has had it. He sat there, stunned. The glass of tea remained where it was. The constable went into a room. But in a short while, he heard someone inside – perhaps a senior officer – shout loudly in anger. Once again a new hope rose in his heart. From what he could hear, the officer appeared to be very angry with the constable.

When he heard the officer getting angry it gave him some hope – the officer might release him. Therefore when the constable opened the door, even as his heart was still pounding hard, he was not as scared now. However he was taken not before the officer, but to a Havaldar, who was writing something on a paper on the table and as soon as he went to stand there, asked in a sharp voice – ‘What’s your name?’ The voice emerged without the lips appearing to move. ‘What’s your name?’ He couldn’t immediately connect himself to the question and stood quietly for a moment. The eyes looking down at the table looked up – ‘You …, I am asking you your name.’ The moment he saw those eyes his blood froze. Even Jidda’s eyes were fearsome but were also warm. These eyes were equally fearsome but stone-cold. He had never seen a butcher but when he look at the Havaldar’s eyes, he felt he must be a butcher. His hands would never tremble while running a knife over an animal’s neck or while skinning it. ‘Dharamdas, sir’, he said with much difficulty. The eyes looked down again. Father’s name? Chhedilal. Residence? Hata Ramdas, beyond the vegetable market. He kept replying, as if, it was not he but someone else who was speaking. He had thought he would grovel before the officer saying his father had died and he had come from Sultanpur in search of work. The officer may take pity. But the moment he saw those eyes his blood ran cold and he couldn’t lie even about his place of residence. The havaldar asked no further question and continued to write on forms printed in Urdu. He looked around once, in fear, couldn’t see the constable from the previous night. But the constable who had brought him from the lock up was coming out from another room with a handcuff.

That was the moment when he suddenly grew up. He was still scared and alarmed. Still feeling surrounded by unknown, fearsome dangers, however, he was no longer a frightened boy but a frightened man. When the constable began to handcuff him, he saw it was too big for him, big enough to fit the wrist of someone like Jidda. For a second he thought, if he tried, he could wriggle his hand out. But the constable too, had noticed his wrist was too thin and undoing it after handcuffing only one hand, he locked it after slipping the chain in. The handcuff was still loose but not loose enough to slip his hand out.

The constable attached the hook at the end of the chain to his belt and buckled it up. . As soon as he saw the constable attach the hook to his belt, he understood he had to go with him. The constable must have received money for his conveyance and food but he stepped out of the police station and set out on foot. The court those days was held at Kashmiri Gate and was not too far if one went through the Kaurria bridge. Coming on to the road handcuffed like this, he felt very odd. All the passersby on the road must be looking at him, he thought. And they’d think he must either be a thief or a pick-pocket. Head bent in shame, he began to walk beside the constable. But he felt even stranger after a while, to think hardly anyone on the road threw a second glance at him. Everyone was moving engrossed in one’s own self.

Again and again he thought, if those people came to know he had been hauled up without any fault of his or branded a thief for no crime, won’t they do anything to get him released? But how would anyone come to know? What if he came across someone he knew? If someone he knew saw him going down the road in handcuffs, he won’t be able to show his face again. Passing over the Kaurria bridge he became extremely agitated. As he watched, a train emerged out of the station and began to pass under him. For a second he thought, he should jump, jump down, sit on the roof of the train, get down at the next station. No one would be able to catch him then. But he was in handcuffs and the hook of the chain was attached to the constable’s belt.

His mind went completely numb at the court lock-up. The room was much larger than the police lock up but already it held twenty five to thirty men from the jail lock up who had their hearing that day. The stench of urine was revolting but others seemed not even aware of it: screaming, shouting and abusing, every one kept making a din the whole day. Most of the people crowded the spot near the bars of the door and looked at anyone who passed by to see if there was anyone they knew. Whenever anyone spotted someone familiar, he shouted to attract his attention and asked to deliver a message to someone. He went over to a corner at the back and sat down quietly.

Two or three of the men asked if he was there under 'one hundred and nine'? He had no clue at the time what 'one hundred and nine' meant. He shook his head – no, for stealing. But Mehmood looked sharply at him and asked, ‘Where did you steal?’ ‘Nowhere.’ He shook his head again. Then why was he caught? Was he a servant and there was theft at the master’s house? No. Then?’ ‘The constable caught me at night.’ ‘Oh, he must have booked you under 'one hundred and nine then'.’ He said nothing, but Mehmood continued to look at him for some more time with his sharp eyes. Mehmood didn’t have a scary face, yet one was a little frightened to look at him. The deep sockets of his eyes made his eyes – which were not large – appear large and he gave such a direct, fixed stare that he seemed to be staring without blinking. His face, wizened and covered with large pock-marks, had no beard but his hair was long, dry and tangled. His body, generally, was not fleshy and one leg was completely dried up and when he walked, it was with a limp. Watching him for some time with his fixed stare, Mehmood limped forward to the door.

One constable, sometimes two, came at short intervals, called out a name and the lock opened. Whoever was called, was handcuffed and taken away. And then was brought back after a while. Once, three men were taken away together. One was a young robust, handsome Ghurkha, another was a man with big eyes and pointed moustache, the third, a man, who had the look of an office clerk. No sooner had they left than someone said, ‘This Ghurkha is a real brave-heart. The police beat him so hard it would have cracked the toughest but failed to crack him.’ Then the others too joined the conversation – ‘They broke into a jewellers, took away seven lakhs worth of loot but the shop owner reported a theft of only four lakhs because the goods were smuggled. Also he would have been caught for evasion of income tax had he reported the full amount. Loot worth three lakhs was recovered. But these fellows have swallowed up goods worth four lakhs. They could not touch Karam Singh. He, in any case, is a very powerful man. Also a man of great gusto. Can devour one full goat in one go. The Ghurkha they thought was only a boy and would spill out everything when beaten. But hats off to him, the police applied all its might and yet the boy did not let on.'

He sat quietly and listened but by this time, he had reached a state when anything happening outside had no effect on him. Suddenly there were several shouts – ‘Dharamdas, is there someone called Dharamdas?’ He started and stood up in a huff. The constable had come for him, he called out twice, the prisoners too called out his name. Without a word he began to move nervously towards the door, suddenly Mehmood’s face appeared – ‘Is your name Dharamdas?' ' Yes'. 'So why don’t you speak up boy, they have been calling for over fifteen minutes.' The door opened and as he handcuffed and lead him out, the constable kept cursing him.

During all this time he had become convinced in his mind of his guilt. To run away from home, carry luggage without licence or permit, think of hitting Dulaare chacha with a stone and cutting off mai’s nose, sleep in the waiting room – he was sure the moment he had stepped out of the boundary of his home, he had stepped into a world of crime. But he had not stolen anything. He kept thinking he would tell everything to whichever judge or officer he was presented before and ask for pardon – ‘Please, let me go this time sir, I will never run away from home again, I am not a thief. I have not stolen anything.’ Even as he repeated all this, he thought to himself – ‘I did steal the cycle parts’, but then he thought, no one knew about the cycle parts. Chhotelal had not reported to the police.

But when taken to the court, he didn’t get a chance to say anything. The constable who had brought him from the police station was standing in a corner. When he arrived, a police officer, who had been standing there, asked – ‘Is Dharamdas here?’ Then picking up some papers and putting them in front of the judge, he said something in a low voice. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Dharamdas, sir’, he said, gulping down. The judge would now ask me more questions, he thought. What had you done? But bending down his head, the judge began to sign the papers.

The judge did not appear old and seemed a little bored and restless. Apart from whispers, the courtroom was filled with an anxious silence. The judge also checked his watch twice or thrice while signing the paper and was still bent over the table when the constable took him back to the lock up. All that he had in mind, stayed inside him. The judge asked him nothing. Not even what he had done, or if he had done anything or not. The constable said just one word – ‘come’. He threw one glance around the court. Sitting on an elevated platform, the judge was still bent over the table, sitting below on either side, the clerks were turning over files, the police officer had come to his table and was taking out some more papers, two or three lawyers sat drowsing on the long table in the centre of the room, one or two other men were also standing and he no longer existed for any of them. Not only in the room but also in this world, except for the constable who had the hook to the chain of the handcuff caught in his fingers and had to return him safely to the lock-up. On his way from the court room to the lock up, his mind remained strangely disturbed. What is going on? What is going to happen? What will they do to him? The building and also the compound outside was filled with so many people, both urban and rural, lawyers, officers, clerks - sitting or standing, walking fast and almost every one talking in a loud voice. Like so many animals, shut inside one enclosure, growling and grumbling. He remembered the pock-marked one saying, ‘he must have been booked under one hundred and nine’. He thought, he’d ask him, what 'one hundred and nine' was on reaching the lock up.

But Mehmood was not there in the lock-up. He had been taken away for hearing. The Ghurkha of the seven lakh theft and his two accomplices were back. Karam Singh, of the pointed moustache, and the other man were talking to others but the Ghurkha, surrounded by many, sat in silence. He felt the Ghurkha also, like him, was cut off from the others. Was the Ghurkha also a first timer? Perhaps. He too was young and also appeared different from others. Was he also frightened? People said the police had had beaten him badly but had failed to make him confess. He felt the Ghurkha’s eyes appeared a little clouded. Then he remembered he had stuff worth four lakhs. Each will have a share of one or one and quarter lakhs. One lakh rupees! He didn’t have an exact idea of how much one lakh rupees were but knew the rich men having huge bungalows were called lakhpatis. Even if the Ghurkha is sentenced to serve a time of two to four years, he would be a lakhpati at the time of his release. But where is the loot? What if they refuse to give the Ghurkha his share? He had a good idea that if they betrayed, the Ghurkha would kill them. Again he looked carefully at him. Sitting silently, the Ghurkha appeared to him, to be a little sad.

He became conscious of how acutely hungry he was. But he was not going to get anything to eat. He had had only the two biscuits given him by Jidda at the police station. The tension of fear had perhaps diminished somewhat. Returning to the lock up after the silence in the courtroom and the meaningless din outside had given him some relief. As if he was safe there. This was perhaps the reason why he could feel hunger. The noon had come to an end, and the commotion inside the lock up was no longer as energetic. There was no crowd at the door, no eyes searching out familiar people. Two or three people stood looking out casually by the door. Most of the inmates had been to their trials and had been given new dates for hearing. A few were still in courts. Two young looking men, who had looked like brothers, had not returned. He learnt from the conversation there that they had indeed been brothers. Easterners. Hailing from some place in Bihar. (He didn’t exactly know where Bihar was but since they were ‘easterners’, it must be in the east. He remembered his home and village – Sultanpur – was also in the east). The court had let them off. A boy around his age was sitting looking very distressed. He had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment – for stealing. He was in tears and telling the people sitting near him how he used to wash the taxis and other motor-cars parked at a stand near a cinema house in New Delhi, and got one or two anna in return from the owners of these taxis and cars. There was a burglary at a tailor’s shop in the neighbourhood and he was forcibly caught and named in the theft by the police. He was let off by the court but the police arrested him again the moment he stepped out and adding two more witnesses in the initial case, framed him in yet another theft. This time, the judge sentenced him to two years.

His mind was busy thinking of the many possibilities. Would he be acquitted by the judge, like the two brothers from the east, or be framed in a theft by the police and get a two year sentence? He was hit repeatedly by hunger pangs once he became conscious of his appetite. The thought that he hadn’t eaten anything since morning nagged him again and again. Not a day had passed since childhood when he hadn’t eaten at least twice. The thought that Mehmood, with his crippled leg, hadn’t returned yet also occurred to him once. Has he also been acquitted? But he returned in a while and informed that witnesses in his case had been deposing. And he also asked him – ‘Why boy? What happened in your trial? Nothing? A new date has been fixed? What date? Don’t know? Hey, are you man or a toad?’ There was so much of contempt in Mehmood’s sharp tone that he almost cried and controlled himself with much difficulty.

The cripple went hobbling over to the other side and could be seen saying something to the men over there, who turned to look. He could guess why they were laughing at him. Once again, he suddenly felt all alone in a completely alien world. He killed his instinct to break into a bawling, realizing, if he cried, these people would laugh at him all the more.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

'Lives without Meaning'- English translation of chapter 8 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak.


Dulaare chacha stayed the night, then stayed for good. It came naturally and he also felt relief for some days. Mai cried often. At times, clutching him close to her bosom she began to cry loudly. He could say nothing to mai and only began to cry himself. It was Dulaare chacha who consoled them. Often people turned up to express condolence but he still didn’t feel like speaking. It was again Dulaare chacha who offered them seats and talked to them. At first chacha brought down his bedding, it was beginning to get cold. Then his clothes. Then gradually pots and pans, box – everything. When the month came to an end, he vacated his room.

They had to borrow from Massur Maharaj to feed Brahmins on the thirteenth day of bappa’s death. No one asked him to do anything. Mai and Dulaare chacha made the negotiations and mai put her thumb impression on the paper. But then it occurred to him he would now have to work to earn. How else would they survive? Bappa had some money in the post office. Some also with the depot. But it wasn’t possible to get out government money so quickly. Dulaare chacha was not such a burden. He took both his meals at the hotel. But only the house rent was two rupees, besides clothes and food for mother and son.

He went to Chhotelal on the third or the fourth day to ask for work. But despite much pleading Chhotelal didn’t agree to pay more than nine or ten rupees (he had already increased it to rupees 6, after Rahmat left). Chhotelal’s income too was not all that big but what was more important was that Chhotelal thought since he had trained him and he was still inexperienced, he should work for him for less. But could the two of them manage in ten rupees? He went round the bazaar making enquiries and found a job in a big shop near the mills, that paid fifteen rupees. They didn’t do much of repair work, but mostly sold cycles and spare parts. Therefore he generally had to open up and assemble cycles.

Still, the money they had borrowed from Massur Maharaj was a burden, they had to pay interest on it so now they thought of withdrawing the money from post-office and the depot. They had to do a lot of running around and again it was Dulaare chacha who accompanied mai each time. For the first time, he felt a little piqued that mai hadn’t thought it necessary to even ask him to go with her. Had it not been for Dulaare chacha, he’d have faced a lot of difficulty. His own job was a new one and the employer may not have given him leave. Still, he felt he should have gone with mai.

Only a few days had passed when suddenly he had a feeling that the people in the lane were giving him odd looks. When he went for work in the morning or returned home in the evening, people standing at their doors looked strangely at him, with pity and sympathy but also with contempt that tore at his heart. If there were more than one they began to talk in whispers as soon as they saw him. It didn’t take him much time to understand that the people were talking about mai and Dulaare chacha. Also, he didn’t take long to realize that what they said was the truth. He hadn’t talked much to Dulaare chacha even earlier, now there was almost no dialogue between the two. Mai used to look at him with concern for a few days but the resentment in his mind had turned to silence. As far as possible, he said nothing at all. Neither at home nor at the shop. Earlier, he had been alone only in mind. Now he was alone also in body.

The most trying time was when he went to bathe at the well. There were always some people or the other drawing water or bathing at the well. When he went, there were whispers or silence for as long as he was taking his bath. A municipality water tap had also been installed quite a few days ago in the lane but it was winter and the water in the tap those days was very cold. A bath in the fresh, warm well water always felt good. Also, it was an old habit. But now it became difficult for him to go to the well. Once while going for a bath he overheard from a little distance, the voice of the pandit from the Shivala, saying that those who killed Ghaseeta’s bappa were not Muslims but the boys of the masons. They had been on the lookout for an opportunity for long. Pandit was a little short-sighted and didn’t, perhaps, see him approach, and kept speaking till he was very close. When someone pointed him out, he clammed up at once. Suddenly there was silence and every one grouped near the well slipped quickly away. He had this odd feeling of having been rendered completely helpless and defenceless, completely vulnerable and pitiable. And the feeling brought him on the verge of tears. From that day on, he tried to go to the well at a time when it was deserted. It was winter and he would stay without a bath for two or three days. If it was getting late and there was someone at the well, especially one of the masons, he managed somehow to take his bath under the water tap.

The wish to leave home, leave the lane and go  someplace else had become very strong but he couldn’t think of a place to go away to. Many a time he had thought of leaving Delhi and going to Bombay or Calcutta but hadn’t dared to. Also, he didn’t have the money for the ticket. If he went without ticket and was caught he’d be done for. And if he left his house, where else would he stay in Delhi? Once, he took leave from his shop and went around Chandni Chowk to make enquiries at cycle-repair shops. But the ones he told he was working looked suspicious – why did he want to quit his old job? And those he told he didn't work looked even more suspicious – Was there anyone he knew who could vouch for him?

Disheartened, he was returning and must have come half way when suddenly a whisper, going from mouth to mouth, began to spread in the air. 'Mahatma Gandhi has been killed. Who killed him? And how? Was the killer a Muslim? No. A Hindu. He pumped a bullet into him. He is still breathing. No, he is dead.' In no time, the shadow of death descended over the city. The doors of homes and shops shut down. 'Hare Raam! Hai Raam! What has happened?' People, anxious and over-wrought, were heading only in one direction. A crowd stood at one point in front of a radio. 'Hare Raam, Hare Raam, Sabko sanmati de Bhagwan – May God give good sense to every one!

For some reason his own heart choked with emotion. He had heard only the name of Mahatma Gandhi, had never seen him. The punjabi refugees, who had come to live in the lane often censured Gandhi ji, saying that Gandhi favoured Muslims, he arranged a grant of crores of rupees for Pakistan, got so many Hindus and Sikhs killed in Punjab, made us homeless, it was because of him that our mothers and sisters lost their honour. But he had been so disturbed those days that he hadn’t paid any attention to this criticism. However, at the time the whisper spread and the shadow of death descended over the city, he himself started to feel very disturbed and tearful. As though a muted lamentation rising out of a choked up, massive throat was echoing all over the city, 'Hare Raam, Raam!'

He kept following the people up to some distance without thinking. Then suddenly he wondered where, after all, was he going. He asked a few pedestrians, “Where is Mahatma Gandhi?” “At Birla Bhavan.” “How far is it?” “Four or five miles.” All of a sudden, he felt very exhausted. It was getting dark. He had been walking non-stop since afternoon and didn't feel up to walking another four or five miles. “What would I do there? I won’t be able to see anything in so much of crowd and such darkness.” He turned around.

Before he reached home, he met Mahaadev on the road, almost on the run with three-four other men. Seeing him, he had paused a little, people were standing in groups and talking in the lane at two or three places. At one spot, it appeared that someone was telling how Gandhi had been shot, he didn’t remember whose voice it was. For a moment he thought of stopping to listen but then his eyes fell upon Munna and also some others of the masons standing with the group and he moved on.

All business came to a stand still for three days and he confined himself to his room. The next day, almost everyone from the lane went to the funeral, even Dulaare chacha, but not he. He stayed in his room thinking of what he should do. For some reason the restlessness in his mind had increased, as if his personal crisis had become more acute. He even thought to himself how it was going to make a difference to his life? But his sorrow and his exhaustion had increased. There was no sound and yet it felt a heart-rending wail was echoing in the room.

The remaining two holidays passed in similar fashion. The people in the lane stood at several points talking in groups. Some one or the other sat under the neem all through the day. Dulaare chacha too sat along with them. Half-heartedly, he strained his ears to hear the conversation taking place outside but didn’t feel like going out. It was some Maratha who had shot the Mahatma. He had been nabbed. People said he was killed by Sanghis. The funeral was attended by lakhs of people, eminent leaders, many had come from foreign countries. When he found the water-tap free during the day, he went and had his bath, took his food and flopped down again. Most of the time he stayed immersed in his dreams – If only an accomplished Guru would teach him the mystic yoga, he would take on so many different forms, go to so many places, do so many things. What all would he do, if only he won a lottery of one lakh of rupees!

A few more days had passed and he had, in a way, given up. There had also been some talk of leaving the lane and moving to another house – not too far away from his shop and Dulaare chacha’s hotel. But they hadn’t found one immediately. He had also thought that going away from the lane would bring him some relief. Meanwhile, the topic of his wedding too, had come up. Someone had told mai of a girl and mai had said to Dulaare chacha they’d get him married if the girl was good and the family decent, the bride could be brought home later. At times, he also thought of saving some money each month and going to Bombay. He had heard there were many people over there from their region. He would join a mill. But in a way, he too was getting used to things the way they were. The talk of marriage too had changed his mind. In a year or two he would grow up and try for a job in a mill or peon-ship in an office. Once he got married his parents in-law too would help.

But for some reason the matter of his marriage didn’t make progress. It didn’t end either but nothing reached his ears. Once on his way back from the shop, some people, sitting in dark at the well, were talking. He couldn’t see who all were there but recognized the voice of  the Pandit who was talking loudly, “… has no concern for her own son. Once there is a scandaal, who would give him his daughter.” Walking quickly he went past, and though no name was mentioned in what the Pandit had said, he was sure the reference was to mai. His resentment swelled and kept growing.

He sulked but said nothing. He didn’t even feel like saying anything in front of mai, who went about her household chores as a routine, spoke little and rarely went out. She had almost completely stopped going to neighbours and they too came only seldom and when they did, it was only to ask for something. Sometimes a sieve, sometimes a winnowing basket. Rajee used to come initially but then, perhaps, was forbidden by her mai. Whenever he was home, mai often turned to look at him after pottering about here and there, disturbed and full of concern. If he looked up, she moved away. Even otherwise, he felt mai looked a little sickly, downcast and subdued.

Holi too passed in like manner. They weren’t going to celebrate anyway. He stayed sprawled in his room and mai too, was a little too restless that day. Once or twice he had a feeling she had cried quietly in her room. It was perhaps one month after holi. The days had become quite warm but the nights were still a little cool and they used to sleep inside. He with Dulaare chacha, in the outer room, mai in the inside one. For some reason he was finding it difficult to sleep that night. He was extremely perturbed over no particular thing and was lying with eyes closed. The foot-fall told him that Dulaare chacha had gone in. Then, when muffled voices began to drift in, his ears cocked up unconsciously. Nothing was clear but he heard Dulaare chacha talk about calling the midwife the next day. Midwife? Why midwife? Suddenly, he received the shock of an electric current. Mai was expecting. He made calculations. It is over six months since bappa died, but mai’s belly is not that swollen. No, it’s not that, it’s recent. Dulaare chacha. And suddenly his head began to pound, like a sore tumour throbbing inside. He turned over to lie on his stomach.

He didn’t know when he drifted into sleep that night but remembered Dulaare chacha had not returned till the time he was awake. He woke up with a heavy head but last night’s incident had slipped from his mind. Without a thought he started to get ready for the shop. But after his bath, when he went into eat and sat before mai, it suddenly flashed in his mind. He couldn’t eat. Somehow he forced down the roti. Mai looked at him with grave concern and apprehension. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?” He looked up, mai appeared sad and disturbed and he thought she had started to look old in just a few days. “Nothing. I am just not hungry. Wrap up the roti in a paper. I will eat it during the day.”

But even as he was putting the roti in his bag, he felt he could endure no more, could live there no longer, and like someone under a spell, he put a set of clothes in the bag, also the money he had saved, around five-six rupees, in his pocket and slipping his feet into his chappals, stepped out. He was not coming back. Ever.

Monday, 31 July 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' English translation of chapter 7 of 'Kuchh Zindagiya Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


After that day he turned into a cowardly child again. However now, his fear didn’t disappear, but increased when bappa happened to be near. After his anger had cooled down, bappa had taken him by rickshaw to the government dispensary and had his wounds dressed with tincture. On their way back, bappa had also treated him to jalebis - those syrupy sweets - but the thread between him and bappa had snapped finally.

The thread between him and the others in the lane had snapped too. He was not on talking terms, not only with Kisana but with all the boys in the lane. He never came face to face with Rajee now. If she came to his house, he sneaked out at once without as much as a glance at her. He also avoided looking at other women neighbours. If a woman mentioned the day even to sympathise, or tried sweetly to preach against stealing he felt like strangling her, or even running off to a place where there was no witness to that day.

He felt most shamed and humiliated when he had to go back to work at Chhotelal’s shop. The news of his beating had already reached him. Bappa had returned the cycle parts he had hidden. Chhotelal didn’t say anything and only smiled. The smile held contempt and also a little pity and that was what he found most offensive. He went and sat quietly at a side when Madan pointed to a cycle – ‘Take out the tube of the rear wheel and check for puncture.’

He was completely alone those days. After working silently through the day, he returned at night to lie down and for the entire time that he was free, was nagged by just one thought – that he should run off somewhere. But where? Do what? The only part of his life that belonged to him was when he, sitting or lying down, dreamt like Shaikhchilli – the proverbial fool who was for ever building castles in air – would that he met a man with magical powers who, taking pity on him, would reveal to him the secret of a hidden treasure, or give a magic salve for the eye that would make him disappear so he would be invisible to others but could see everyone, move at will through closed doors and walls (he had seen a film which had such an accomplished magician) or make him so powerful he could conquer the world and no one could stand up to him. He dreamt and he dreamt, funny dreams that would enable him to possess all the human, godly and demonic powers, enjoy all the pleasures and when forced out of these dreams, he remained listless, thinking constantly of how to run away, where to run away.

Some days later, there was also some talk of his marriage – something to the effect that he should be married off in the next Jeth, the third month of the Hindu lunar calender. They had received a proposal from somewhere, he never came to know from where. And then gauna after a year or two. But bappa left it at that, or he didn’t know what exactly happened. The topic came up and it ended.

The month of Jeth came and passed. It was in that year that the country became independent and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru became king – the Prime-Minister. A procession was taken out with him sitting in the same buggy as the English Viceroy. He unfurled the tricolour at the Red Fort. At night there were illuminations. He went neither to the Red Fort to hear the speech nor to see the procession. He went round the bazaar just once in the evening to see the lights. Bappa too, went out only in the evening, all alone, however, he gave him eight annas before leaving.

It was just after that, that Delhi was suddenly flooded with refugees. Two or three families ended up in their lane also. They appeared so strange! Some looked helpless and lost, others fierce and a little mad. They told hair-raising tales of atrocities Hindus and Sikhs were subjected to in Pakistan. A family came to live in a house near the well – they were Sikhs. The man was seen only seldom, and when he was, he was always quiet. His eyes were very strange, so hard one was frightened to look into them. But his wife interacted with everyone. The women in the lane were also curious and three or four of them always had her surrounded. Narrating her tale, she went through strange motions. On the verge of tears one moment, she started screaming like one mad with rage the next, as if possessed by a spirit. He heard the Sikh had two young sisters. He owned a tailor’s shop in a town. When the crowd surrounded his house, he himself beheaded his sisters with his kirpan dagger. He was about to kill his wife when the police arrived. The old police inspector was kind hearted, he had them escorted to the camp. They also had a boy of three or four years who always clung to his mother.

And one day, Delhi too caught this fire. He was sitting at the shop, checking a puncture. Madan was inside the shop, when suddenly a strange noise rose up from every direction and shops began to shut down quickly. There was panic all around. Hearing the noise, Madan came out and the two of them were watching in amazement, trying to figure things out when they saw a crowd of twenty to twenty five people rush in from one side. He took a little time to understand that they were chasing a middle aged man in a tehmad, running ahead of them. All of a sudden, either the man’s tehmad got loose or his feet staggered with fear – a naked dagger flashed in the air. It rose- dripping with fresh human blood. Dropped. Rose again, dropped again.

And the next moment the crowd passed on. His eyes fell upon the road and his feet gave way completely, his head swam, a churning rose in his belly and he began to retch.

He didn’t remember how he got up and went inside the shop. Leaving everything outside the way it was, he bolted the door from inside, dropped down on the floor, trembling for a long, long time. The day passed not in sleep but in a stupor. Chhotelal hadn’t come to the shop the whole day. How could he have? Later, he came to know that curfew had been clamped. Madan had run away then and there or perhaps had joined the crowd.

It was getting dark when bappa came looking for him. It had taken just a few hours for plunder and loot to start. A little further, to the south of the bazaar was a settlement of Muslims – about ten or fifteen huts and a few old brick and cemented houses. Subsequently it became known that a crowd had surrounded the settlement. Only very few could manage to escape. Even before the police arrived, the only survivors in the settlement were the wounded who had been left in the blazing houses. Of them, some were rescued by the police. By the time the fire-brigade arrived, the huts were reduced to ashes and in most of the houses too, the only remains were half-burnt roofs and walls. Some women too were carried away by the men in the crowd. Much later, when he was working in a place in Karol Bagh and also lived there, a couple too lived in a small room nearby. The woman was very quarrelsome, very much so. When the man failed to stand up to her, he bemoaned – ‘I brought you out, saved your life …who knows what sorry end you’d have met otherwise! And this is what you give me in return?’ But the strange thing was that no matter how bitterly they fought, it never came to blows.

This time too, bappa got a curfew pass from his depot. When he returned, mother was flitting about in worry – “Such plunder and killing in the city and the boy is missing”. At first bappa found the shop closed, but on coming closer saw it was bolted not from outside but from inside. Bappa’s knock at the door scared him at first and he neither moved nor made a sound. But when bappa called out, he felt much relieved. Bappa left alone the stuff that lay outside, none of it was very costly any way, but searching out a lock, locked the shop from outside.

When mai saw them coming she ran from a distance and holding him close showered him with kisses. She didn’t stop crying and she didn’t stop kissing him. “O my son, my prince, my moon’. At first he felt reassured, a sense of security but when mai’s caresses didn’t stop he felt a little vexed. Many of the neighbours, both men and women, were watching. Many came later to enquire if Ghaseeta had reached home or not. He concluded that mai must have been really perturbed and must have raised a big hue and cry.

Things with bappa could never be the way they had been earlier – bappa was murdered only a few days later. However, distance between the two reduced a great deal during those last few days. He had become even more of a coward but at least now his fear did not increase when he saw bappa. The city witnessed so much of plunder and killing that leave alone the lane, he was scared to step out of the house. There was a twenty four hour curfew and the military kept patrolling the streets. Then, when the fire cooled down a little there was peace for a few days, but again someone murdered someone in some area or there were isolated incidents of a crowd surrounding a house and putting it on fire before the military or the police could arrive. The occupants, if they received prior information, got away, otherwise they too perished.

Chhotelal’s shop remained shut for a few days and when it opened, mai refused to let him go to work. But bappa started going immediately after the curfew was lifted. Mai was a little scared too, but bappa laughed out loud – “Can anyone dare to come before a military truck?” Those days, a truck from the depot used to ply, taking people to work in the morning and dropping them near their homes in the evening. But bappa had to leave a little early now as the truck had to take a devious route in order to pick up people from different points. The train didn’t take up so much time and the station at the Subzi Mandi- the vegetable market - was quite close to the house and the depot too was near a station.

Bappa was not feeling too well that day. At first, he said he wouldn’t go for work. But then, on second thoughts he said, “Might as well go, what would I do sitting at home, this will only mean a cut in the wages.” He lost some time before arriving at a decision and though delayed by only a minute or two, he missed the truck. Everyone at home thought bappa had gone by the truck. But bappa, not seeing any of his fellow passengers, had thought at first that the truck had left but then had stood there for a few minutes thinking perhaps no other person had come and the truck may still arrive. When it didn’t he started for the station, intending to catch the train.

It wasn’t yet noon when a policeman, with bappa’s name written on a paper, came to make enquiries. Mai was inside the house. He was sitting at the door sill. The policeman stopped under the neem tree – “Is this Chhedilal’s house?” The moment the policeman stopped and asked, his heart skipped a beat. He stood up, was unable to speak, but nodded his head – yes. “Chhedilal has been murdered, his body is lying at the Hindu Rao hospital.” He heard, but didn’t really understand what the policeman was saying. “Who is it?” - Mai asked from inside but he still couldn’t speak or move. When mai came out the policeman repeated his question, then the message – “Is this Chhedilal’s house? Chhedilal has been murdered, the body is lying at Hindu Rao hospital.” Mai seemed paralyzed for a moment. Then hitting herself suddenly on the head, she almost crumbled down to the floor and started to cry loudly. Women from surrounding houses came out and circled mai. Four or five men also appeared. The two money lenders along with Bhagirath and two others who, perhaps hadn’t gone to work or were perhaps unemployed. Tears dropped quickly down his eyes but he had still not regained his voice, as if an unknown force had clamped down his mouth.

And later, the unknown force also locked up the memory of the day in his mind. It was unlocked very rarely and when it was, he lingered very shortly on the days and the ensuing developments. For, whenever the lock opened, the face of bappa lying in the hospital verandah appeared before his eyes – open lips, as though he was still speaking when death arrived, eyes too, open and unmoving, as if they were not real but made of glass. Bappa had no wound on his head but on his chest (or perhaps the back) and on his stomach which had been stitched and bandaged at the hospital. No one knew if he died before or after he reached the hospital. Nor if he had been killed by Muslims or by Sikhs and Hindus, who mistook him for a Muslim.

The policeman who had come with the news also passed on that there had been a commotion at the mouth of a lane almost two furlongs this side of the station. Two policemen, patrolling the area had gone to check and found bappa lying all alone in a pool of blood. Later, he also heard whispers that the masons – Munna and his friends - had taken their long standing revenge when they found the chance. During the days these rumours came to his ears, he was already thinking of leaving home. The rumours did not anger him, nor incited him to take revenge. On the contrary, the resentment in him went up and the wish to go away somewhere, where he wouldn’t meet anyone from the lane, became stronger.

The policeman was still saying how the police patrol had sent for a vehicle from the police station and taken bappa to hospital, how his depot card, stating his name and address was found in his pocket, when suddenly, mai rose and began to run, still crying and screaming. He, and the others too, followed mai. Everyone understood without being told that mai was headed for the hospital. Mai was crying and running as if her early arrival at the hospital was going to make a difference. The city was quite peaceful at the time, the bazaar was open and there were quite a few people on the road who stopped when they saw mai running and crying like this. Many also asked the people from the lane who were following her what had happened. “Her husband has been murdered.” “Tch, tch, tch”- making a sound expressing pity they moved on. Mai did not stop running on the incline before the hospital. She was breathless and her wails had turned to a strange, continuous sound which was filling up that deserted area.

They had placed bappa in a corridor on the outer fringe of the hospital, covered to the top with a hospital sheet. His was perhaps the only corpse in the hospital that day. Mai had gone crashing down on to bappa and accidentally or intentionally by mai, the sheet on the body became displaced, revealing bappa’s face, which gave him a severe shock as if he had been hit forcefully on the chest by someone with a fist. Bappa’s mouth was open with his teeth showing, the fixed eyes seemed artificial, as if made of glass. Unable to watch he looked away but again and again his gaze returned. Then someone covered bappa’s face and he felt some relief.

Some more people, with them Dulaare chacha and the pandit from the Shivala, arrived in a while. The pandit took charge of everything, to make arrangements for an early funeral, “If there is rioting we’d all get trapped here”. Dulaare chacha went to get what was required. The bier was carried straight to the Jamuna river from the hospital. Three or four women from the lane had also arrived. They held mai and then took her home with them. It was perhaps the effect of the pandit’s words that of the ten or twelve people who had come to the hospital, only six or seven went with the funeral.

When someone covered up bappa’s face in the hospital, he was overtaken by a strange desolation and broke into sobs. Bappa’s death had still not registered in his mind but the way his mouth remained open, his eyes looked glazed like glass, wrenched repeatedly at his heart. All the time bappa was being laid out on the funeral pyre and while lighting it up, he kept crying and sobbing, his heart turning in a curious way.

When he returned, he didn’t have the heart to enter the house and sat there at the doorsill. Dulaare chacha went in at once. Mai was sitting against the wall, quiet now, after having cried herself to exhaustion, but seeing him she broke down again. He heard mai’s sobs and lay there on his stomach on the floor. Dulaare chacha came out, paused when he saw him lying but didn’t speak, just sat there quietly.