Sunday, 16 July 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 5 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak

V

Bappa returned a bit late that night. Mai was quite anxious and had started to worry from the time she finished her cooking. But there was no cause to worry. Dulaare chacha came by to enquire and mentioned that as bappa was a government servant he’d have received his curfew pass. But mai relaxed only after bappa was back. He had, on coming to know as he entered the lane, stopped by at Bidesia’s house.

When curfew was lifted for two hours the next morning, some five or six people from the lane took Bidesia away. Bappa did not go with them for he had strict orders to be present on duty. He however, went to the police station before leaving to get a curfew pass so there would be no problem in case cremation got delayed. He told, after returning from police-station, that he hadn’t let on to the police that Bidesia had died of a bullet. He had said Bidesia had been ill since long. The police had drawn out a pass after looking at his depot-card which also had his photograph.

But no other person living in the lane could go for work that day. Curfew had continued for some two or three days. It was relaxed on the first day for two hours, then for four hours and then for the whole day. But not for many more nights to come. During the day, when the curfew was still on, people in the lane either stood or sat talking here and there. They were all either water bearers, porters, masons or cobblers and worked either in shops and hotels or with a contractor. Because of the curfew, all the bazaars were closed and everyone had to sit idle. Those working on a monthly salary did not lose out on anything but the daily wagers had no income. Massur Maharaj too did not suffer any loss because even though he didn’t keep his shop fully open for fear of the police (though no policeman entered that lane) he kept the door open to carry on with the sale.

Ganesh was not seen that day after bringing the news to the lane, but the next day, as the men stood around talking, he came and stood under the neem. A few children were already playing there. He stood there quietly at first. Some of the children came to stand around him. Ganesh’s face was still off-colour. Perhaps someone asked if he had seen Bidesia getting shot. And he began to tell. And as he began to tell, the colour of his face changed completely. “Arre, he fell right before me. The procession was taken out from the crossing at Ghantaghar - the Clock Tower. Such a huge procession too, there were thousands of men. Gandhi Mahatma has issued orders – turn the English out, bring in self-rule. The English have arrested Gandhi Mahatma. Therefore the procession. The English were so badly stoned, they had to run. All their rifles were of no use. The moment they came out of the police-station, the procession charged them pelting stones and bricks. Just when a Muslim Havaldar stepped out, I threw a stone with all my might. It hit him squarely on the chest. He ran back into the station. Processions were taken out all over the city. The town hall was burnt down. A pitched battle with the police was on when suddenly four trucks full of military arrived. All the telephone wires had been cut down and yet, somehow, the police had managed to send a message. The military took position at some distance. It was a black platoon – balochis with three or four white officers. They ordered firing at once. Bullets began to boom. They fired one round and advanced ten steps. Fired another round and advanced ten more steps. Men began to drop dead like flies. There was a stampede. Bidesia hadn’t been part of the procession till then. He had stood aside with his rickshaw. When people began to run, I too ran. And then, I saw Bidesia leave his rickshaw and come bang in the middle. With no fear for his life he ran forward, shouting Inquilab zindabad … long live revolution. And then there was a bang and a bullet went through his chest and out the back. He died instantly. When he had run forward, the stampede too had halted. Then some men came out of the lane at the back and began pelting stones. Even the military was foxed for a minute. Mahaadev had recognised Bidesia – he too had been in the procession. Together with a few other men, he picked up and put Bidesia on the rickshaw. By then the military had taken position both in front and at the back. The bullets started flying again. People took to their heels. Quickly they took the rickshaw into a lane and out from the other end. I was running ahead of them.”

As he spoke, Ganesh’s face began to glow. As if he was a different boy. As if the Ganesh of two days ago had been transformed. Although nothing had happened and it only took a few days for things to return to their old ways. But at that instant, Ganesh grew in stature in the eyes of all those children. He had gone with the procession, had hit a Muslim Havaldar with all his might, had been there at the time of firing. Nobody doubted he had hit the Havaldar. He may have exaggerated a little but the boys would have believed anything Ganesh said with that glowing face and all the boys in the lane came to regard Ganesh as their leader. Kisana always tried to be one up on Ganesh but after this incident, even Kisana stood in awe of Ganesh.

And then when the curfew was lifted and the bazaars opened, everything went back to its old routine. Only the children had now found a new sport. Whenever Mahaadev saw the children, he said – Say 'Bharat mata ki jai', victory to Mother India’. And then, the children went round the lane in a procession shouting slogans – Inquilab zindabaad, Mahatma Gandhi ki jai. Everyone understood the meaning of ‘zindabad’ and ‘jai’. During Dushehera too, when everyone celebrated the victory of Ram over Ravana, they shouted slogans like – Raja Ramchandra ji ki jai – Victory to Lord Ram. But no one knew what ‘inquilab’ meant and at times they also had debates over it. And at other times over why someone did not kill the government.

In the beginning, Mahaadev talked everyday at the well about the war and about the movement. ‘Subhash Babu’s army is going to attack. He is coming to India soon. The English are unable to face the Japanese army. The movement is in full swing. The police and the military are wreaking havoc.’ But gradually the talk at the well also cooled down. Mahaadev worked as an accountant with a cloth merchant and whatever he heard during the day in the bazaar, he repeated the next day at the well. Whenever mai took him down there for a bath, the talk came to his ears too. But there was no change in the rest of the things.

The only other change occurred in Bidesia’s wife. She was now clad usually in dirty, soiled clothes. Her hair dishevelled, in a tangle. She had always been thin but now became a bag of bones. Her face had withered, her skin had dried. Yes, her eyes almost sunken into hollows, still appeared large and if ever she looked with a fixed stare at someone even for a moment, it evoked a queer feeling. Her brother and his wife came to visit three or four days after Bidesia’s death – with three or four children. Neither of her parents were alive. Her brother had arranged her marriage. Whether or not her brother and his wife asked her to go with them, she hadn’t gone. A few days later, she began to go to some well-to-do households to do their dishes. And then her palms too, like her eyes, began to attract attention – for they now looked like the hands of a slender man. With a firm grip and yet strangely beautiful.

Everyone sympathized with Bidesia’s wife in the beginning. Then just as other things had cooled down with time, their sympathy too began to cool down. Bidesia’s rickshaw, parked under the neem, had kept reminding people of him every now and then. And then one day, a customer came from outside and Bidesia’s wife disposed off the rickshaw. And one day it so happened that bappa bashed Munna up. It was a holiday. Bappa had gone to bazaar. On his way back, Munna probably made a crack at bappa. Bappa turned back to give him three or four smacks. Munna, perhaps because he was stunned or cowed down by bappa’s anger, or for some other reason didn’t raise his hand in retaliation. He kept quiet after receiving the whacks and bappa, grumbling and growling, returned home.

However, there was tension in the lane after that day. Mahaadev, Munna’s father, was a mason and Munna, who must have been around twenty, was getting trained under him. Many households in the lane, all of them prosperous, belonged to the masons. Bappa wielded some sway because of his government service. He, however, was all alone. Even the boys came to know there was some hostility between the masons and Ghaseeta’s bappa. But, despite the tension nothing happened. Except for the talk in the lane about how a single woman always spelt trouble, for her own self as well as for others.

And so, he was completely unprepared for the battle of Mahaabhaarat that suddenly took place at his house. All that he knew about why bappa had hit Munna was that Munna had made a crack at bappa. The fact that bappa had returned after hitting Munna and Munna hadn’t had the gumption even to speak had only made him proud. Although he had stopped going to the Shivala for the fear of getting beaten up by the masons’ boys. One day, when he was playing with other boys under the neem after lunch, somebody, he couldn’t recall exactly who – perhaps Rajee, came to break the news that there was a fight going on between Ghaseeta’s mai and Bidesia’s wife. He went running and what he witnessed in front of Bidesia’s house was completely new to him. Their clothes in a total disarray, blouses torn, they stood scratching and tearing at each other, letting out choicest abuses, not heard even from a man’s mouth. Quarrels and beatings were routine in the lane but never before had he seen such a fight between two women. That mai could fight like this! ‘You man-eater, after eating up your own man, you’d now eat up another’s too?’ Had he not seen it with his own eyes, he could never have imagined it. Mai’s build was not bad, but Bidesia’s wife was still young. Soon, mai began to get breathless, and then other women intervened to pull them away from each other. These women too, perhaps sided in their hearts with mai  because as they separated the two, mai scratched at the face of Bidesia’s wife and tore down her aanchal - the open end of her sari. Something strange happened after the two were separated. Mai returned home still abusing but Bidesia’s wife broke down suddenly. She went back crying to her room and could be heard even from there.

Bappa, when he returned home that evening, was already boiling, either because he had gone to meet Bidesia’s wife or he had heard from other quarters. The moment he entered, he pounced upon mai – “You bitch! You are fond of wrestling? I’ll cure you of your wrestling now. You have claims to virtues? I’ll see how virtuous you are.” Bappa didn’t normally raise his hand against mai and mai too was generally subdued before him. But something was the matter that day. When bappa kicked her down, she got up at once and fell upon him – ‘hit me, hit me, but if you go to that hussy, I’ll kill you. I’ll have your blood, hers too.’ Just a push from bappa sent her sprawling down again – ‘You want my blood? I’ll give you my blood now.’ Picking up a firewood, bappa began to hit her, but mai too was like one possessed. Again and again she rose and pounced – ‘hit me, hit me, but you’ll go to that hussy over my dead body.’

He was petrified to see bappa so angry. And when bappa picked up a firewood, he lost his voice. Standing in a corner of the room, he watched it all, as if his body no longer had the strength to move. Then suddenly, tears started to roll and his throat started to produce a strange muffled sound, as if it was he who was getting thrashed. When mai fell back exhausted and began to moan, bappa threw down the stick and stomped out. He did not return home that night.

Many women from the neighbourhood showed up shortly, criticised bappa profusely and abused Bidesia’s wife to their hearts content. Mai said nothing. Only moaned. Meanwhile, somebody, perhaps Rajee’s amma, brought something, a paste of lime and turmeric or some such thing, to apply on mai’s wounds. But no one paid any attention to him. He sat down on the spot where he had been standing and at some point fell asleep. When he woke up in the morning he found someone, perhaps mai, had covered him with a kathari.

Bappa returned home early in the morning but didn’t speak a word. Mai was quite badly hurt. Still groaning, she had kindled the earthen stove - the chulha- and was engaged in cooking even before bappa was back. Quietly bappa ate his food and left for work. And from that day, a strange silence came to settle in the house. Bappa, quiet as he had been even earlier, now became completely silent. Mai too, became even more subdued. Her body ached for many days but she didn’t stop her household chores. He himself started to receive a little more of his parents' love. For many days in the beginning, whenever bappa wanted to convey something or even give money to mai, instead of doing it directly, did it through him. Mai too, when she had to call bappa to take his food, called out to him. But even in the silence and the softness, something seemed to have gone amiss.

Bidesia’s wife became almost invisible after that day. She kept always to her room after returning from work. And then one day she left her room also and went away. It was rumoured she had married another man but no one had any clue to the identity or the address or the business of the man.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English Translation Of Chapter 4 Of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब), novella by Om Prakash Deepak

IV

The room where Shivalewali had lived lay vacant for days. Although no one talked of her, the lock on the door drew everyone’s attention. Therefore he found it very strange when his uncle, Dulaare chacha, went to live in that room. When he had first arrived from their village, Dulaare chacha had stayed with them for many days. But when he found a job bappa approached the Munim to let that room out to Dulaare chacha. He had liked the fact of Dulaare chacha going away from their home. But the fact that he would live in Shivalewali’s  room had initially appeared weird to him.

It was only when Dulaare chacha had arrived that he had come to know he had another home too, in village Murware of district Sultanpur. When he asked mai, she snapped at him. Bappa had gone to work at the time and Dulaare chacha too had been away. What mai had said in a slightly sharp tone meant – ‘...what home and what family? The relatives are the same as the contenders. No one has ever sent so much as a grain from the land at home for them even to sniff at...' But one evening, Dulare chacha - as he sat smoking a beedi with bappa, said – 'Ghaseeta won’t  have any memory of his native village!'

Dulaare chacha was forever smoking beedis and to tease him, often blew smoke at him. The smoke from beedis was so acrid that if he happened to inhale it, it sent him into a fit of coughing. When chacha smoked it became difficult to sit in the room. His teeth too, were a peculiar yellow and black and when he laughed, looked very ugly. His mouth smelt foul, and not just because of the beedis. Even bappa smoked tobacco but the smoke from his hukka - a water- tobacco pipe with a coconut husk to hold water - didn’t smell so bad. He had also wondered a little at times why the water in the coconut husk didn’t go through the pipe to bappa’s mouth? Once when bappa had gone out, perhaps to attend to a visitor, he had picked up the hukka and put his mouth to its pipe. Nothing happened at first but when he dragged hard, the water and the smoke went straight to his lungs and then he had a very tough time indeed. His eyes began to water, his mouth began to drool from the constant coughing. By then, bappa too had come back. I have had it now, he had thought, with alarm. Bappa looked at him and asked somewhat angrily, “Why? Have you been smoking the hukka?” He hadn’t answered. He couldn’t have, had he wanted to because of the way he was coughing. However bappa had not hit him ... looking once at his plight, he had returned to his hukka. Never again did he try to pull at bappa’s hukka.

Bappa had laughed a little when he heard Dulaare chacha. How would he remember ... he hadn’t completed even three! Later, bappa and chacha kept talking about their native village and home and from their talk he began to form a hazy picture in his mind. They had a house in the village where bappa too had lived initially. Now bappa’s chacha and his family were living there. He had many uncles and any number of cousins living there. They owned some land in the village which could no longer sustain them. Dulaare chacha sounded a little unhappy. Bappa too disclosed at the time that he had come to Delhi because of the growing squabbles at home. And then, when he found work in a mill, he also called his brother. When war started and he found a better paid job at the depot, he left the mill. ‘It is convenient here. Work regular hours, take back a regular salary.’

He had also come to know from their talk at the time that chachi - Dulaare chacha’s wife - had passed away some three-four years back and that chacha had headed for Delhi after giving away his only daughter in marriage. He also held it against  his elder brother that he hadn’t made any attempts to get him married a second time. He sounded as if he still nursed a wish to marry, but who would have given his daughter to him?

And then somehow – perhaps from the talk of bappa’s work – the topic of war came up and Dulaare chacha started again on his tale of woes – of how war was wreaking havoc in the village, nothing was available, the prices were soaring higher and higher each day. The house had come to ruins and could not be repaired. The family had expanded, not the income.
The war was a topic of discussion amongst the lane residents too, but how the war was connected to the repair of the house in the village was something he failed to understand. The women living in the lane too, said often that all the grain, vegetables and cloth went to the war, that everything was on fire and the prices were shooting up. One could only get six seers of wheat or eight seers of gram for a rupee! What was one going to eat? Often times, one heard of a chore-bazaar, and he wondered what this chore-bazaar was? Was it the market where ‘chores’ – thieves sold their loot?

But war was discussed, also in another way. At first he used to hear that the English and the Germans were at war. The English were the government and the Germans wanted to remove the English from India. Hence the war. And now the Germans were on the verge of coming in. Once Mahaadev, while bathing at the well, was saying that the Germans wanted to take knowledge from our country, but the English didn’t let them in. The Germans had secretly, unknown to the English, taken away the ‘Vedas’ and learning from them, had made such weapons and arms that had existed in India during the times of ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, but had disappeared in the kalyug...in this present age of vice. The English could not compete with them but there  was a lot in the Vedas they couldn’t understand. Only the scholarly Pandits of India knew their meaning and therefore the Germans thought if they removed the English from India they could make immense progress with the help of Vedas. The science contained in the Vedas was not found anywhere else. Therefore the Germans respected Indians a lot.

Then he heard that the Japanese too had joined the Germans and their armies had reached the borders of Bengal. It was then, he also heard the name of ‘Babu Subhash Chandra Bose’, and how the police had laid siege to his house and how he, by appeasing the Goddess, had disappeared from there. He had reappeared in Japan and now his army was about to enter India.

He had heard the name of ‘Gandhi Mahatma’ earlier too – during the discussions at the well. But all that he had understood at the time was if Gandhi Mahatma had been arrested or released by the government. Why the government arrested or released Gandhi Mahatma, he didn’t understand. The names of Gandhi Mahatma, Subhash Chandra Bose and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru came to be heard more frequently after Bidesia died in the firing. During those days, there was much talk of how the government was holding Gandhi Mahatma and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru in a secret place and subjecting them to endless torture. He had also heard once or twice that the government had deported Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru to a place farther away than kalapani …the cellular jail at the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Bidesia pulled a rickshaw, which he also owned. Although his house came much before the Shivala, he parked his rickshaw under the neem tree at night as there was no other space in the lane, returning quite late at night and taking the rickshaw out at the break of dawn. He came back for lunch and went out again after two-three hours. After he went home at noon parking the rickshaw under the neem, the children in the neighbourhood climbed up to play. Once when Rajee was sitting on the rickshaw, he began to swing holding its back. Suddenly Rajee turned and the rickshaw toppled over bringing down both of them. Both were hurt. When Bidesia returned and saw his overturned rickshaw, he screamed and shouted but Rajee did not let the secret out. She had cried out loudly on falling down but when Bidesia was letting off steam, she had stayed in.

Although Bidesia had been pulling the rickshaw for a good time now, he too had earlier worked with bappa at the mill. He was still working there when bappa left to work at the depot but quit after he got married and purchased this rickshaw. At the mill, one had to work the night shifts too. He remembered vaguely that bappa too used to sometimes leave after dinner. On such nights he had slept clinging to mai. Otherwise too, he used to sleep either with bappa or with mai during those days. When Bidesia left his work and purchased a rickshaw it became not just a sport for the children but kindled the curiosity of the adults too - how much did the rickshaw cost? How much would he earn from it? Why had he left his job? And Bidesia had felt a little embarrassed saying he had reservations about leaving his bride alone at night and had therefore quit his job at the mill. The earning from the rickshaw was not fixed and kept fluctuating. But he would be master of his time and could work at will.

Hearing Bidesia, he had wondered if Bidesia’s bride too was scared when alone? Many a time he keenly observed Bidesia’s bride while passing that way. She was quite young – only fifteen or sixteen – but no child! Also, didn’t give the impression she’d be scared at night. The people in the lane often jested with Bidesia with regard to his bride. Bidesia was nothing much to look at. He wasn’t too dark but had sunken eyes, hollowed cheeks and a scrawny neck. He had grown his hair a little after marriage which he kept oiled but which stood like spikes on his head. However, his bride was extremely winsome. Also, the  cotton sari she wore was usually red which looked very becoming on her dusky complexion. Every morning and evening, when Bidesia was not home she went to chat up the women in the neighbouring houses. She must have cooked meals, otherwise what would the couple have eaten? At times, she also came to his place to sit with mai. But mai did not approve of Bidesia’s bride. In her absence mai said that the way the lass was dawdling all over the lane, it didn’t show good character. And when Dulaare chacha arrived, her visits to their house stopped all together. Once she just happened to come by but turned back when, on crossing the threshold, she saw Dulaare chacha. Didn’t turn up again for the duration Dulaare chacha stayed with them.

If Bidesia’s wife came over when bappa was home on a holiday, she stayed a little withdrawn and reserved, kept her head covered, laughed softly and less frequently. But didn’t run away. However, once she had seen Dulaare chacha, she didn’t head in that direction again. Even otherwise something had gone awry in the house with the arrival of Dulaare chacha. For one, mai had to sleep now in the inside room, and Dulaare chacha, along with bappa slept in the outer one. Then when it grew very hot, everyone began to sleep outside, under the neem. One day when mai asked bappa for money he started grumbling – ‘It is not as we have a family treasure buried here. The man has been sitting idle for two months and eating without work or a job.’ And for some reason he remembered what took place one day. Nothing had really happened on that day either. Mai had been sitting inside cooking rotis when Dulaare chacha came asking for a cinder to light his beedi, and then sat by the door talking about one thing or another. Both Dulaare chacha and mai had begun to laugh over something when suddenly bappa returned from work. The moment he entered the house, Dulaare chacha stopped laughing and mai became a little flustered. Bappa didn’t speak a word but Dulaare chacha got up and left. Nobody said anything for a long time, as if something had gone wrong. And after this, bappa kept quiet when in Dulaare chacha’s presence, replying only in yes or no when Dulaare chacha said anything to him. He spoke seldom even with mai – and only as much as was required. His nature too had become irritable and he scolded and abused mai on every trivial matter.

The rains had started when one day, Dulaare chacha informed he had found work in a hotel on a monthly salary of rupees 8 and two meals a day. It was then that bappa said to him that Shivalewali’s rooms were lying vacant and that he should rent them. And so on the third or fourth day, Dulaare chacha went to live in Shivalewali’s room.

When it rained the entire lane turned muddy. Bidesia found it very difficult to bring in and take out his rickshaw. When the lane was dry, Bidesia stretched backwards in a peculiar manner as he pulled the rickshaw. Ringing the bell on the handle-bar of his rickshaw he took quick, small steps, as if trotting like a pony. But when it turned swampy he had to be careful with each step that he took and had to wriggle this way and that to pull his rickshaw out. He possessed one mackintosh, stitched perhaps by himself, which he put over his head when it rained.
It was raining during those days also and the lane had become a big swamp. The commotion must have started a day or two in advance but he wasn’t aware of it. Although what happened that day and on many days to follow was beyond his comprehension, not only was he a witness to the impact it had but was himself affected by it. Words like ‘government’, ‘police’ and ‘military’ had become as dreadful to him as ‘Ravana’, or ‘demons’ or ‘ghost’. ‘Government’ to him meant an English or a white man upon whom he hadn’t till then set his eyes. But the ‘police’ or the ‘military’ meant men in khaki, who although like the others, were still different. They arrested people, sent them to jail, hit them with their batons or put a bullet through them, pouring kerosene over bodies, torched them. He had heard that even those, who were not yet dead, had been set aflame by the police.

It was noon. The time Bidesia usually came in to lunch. It hadn’t rained for a day or two, so the lane had been dry in places. They were playing under the neem tree when Ganesh came running and stopped suddenly, ‘Bidesia has died. He was shot with a bullet. They are bringing him over now. There is military in the city.’ All the children stood stunned for some time, not understanding a thing. But Ganesh appeared completely stricken. As if he wanted to get rid of his fears by blurting everything out. He stood there for a minute then suddenly bolted, other children ran towards Bidesia’s house without speaking a word.

It was as if a heavy load had fallen over its heart and the lane had ceased to breathe. Some other children too, were running towards Bidesia’s house. Women had come out of their houses, but were quiet or talked in hushed voices. And suddenly Bidesia’s wife came running out of Bhagirath’s house – completely bewildered, dressed even then in a red cotton sari. Bhagirath’s wife came out after her and stood at a little distance from her door. But Bidesia’s wife didn’t stop running till she reached her home. The door was latched from outside, the way she had left it. A few children stood at hand, and a few women here and there, in front of houses. He had seen people in their moments of grief but never again a face like that of Bidesia’s wife, as it was at that moment. After the realization of the grave calamity that had befallen her... the wait for coming face to face with the calamity. She was not crying, but the words, ‘Oh God’, ‘Oh mai’, slipped uncontrollably out of her mouth as if a massive burden was crushing down her breath. Again and again she looked around with dilated eyes as if all the children and women that stood around held swords in their hands and would strike her neck any second.

He had no idea how long they had all stood there like statues. Perhaps a very short time and yet it felt like forever. As if a fear permeated the entire lane which everyone could see and touch. In fact when the men carrying Bidesia on the rickshaw entered the lane and Bidesia’s wife, bursting like a dam, began to cry banging her head against the ground, it felt as if the tension had given way. People began to move about, women came forward to be close to Bidesia’s wife. The children too changed positions and stood huddled against walls and doors.

At first one man, perhaps Mahaadev, entered the lane but stopped short after casting a glance inside the lane. And then everyone accompanying the rickshaw came in. They had propped Bidesia up in the seat like a passenger and had covered him with the mackintosh. Bidesia’s wife darted ahead the moment she saw the rickshaw but tripped after two steps, either on her own or because her foot got caught in her sari. Then she began to moan and wail – ‘Oh my dear, oh my mai, why didn’t  the cruel police drive a bullet into my heart.’

What followed was a jumble in his mind.  People took down Bidesia, still wrapped in mackintosh and laid him on the ground before his house. His eyes went repeatedly to the rickshaw which had reddish brown stains on many spots. Somebody went in unlatching the door and brought a cloth or a sheet or a sari from inside and, removing the mackintosh, covered Bidesia with it. He couldn’t see anything clearly from where he stood and yet suddenly began to feel sick, as if he was about to throw up the next minute. Standing against the Wall he controlled himself with some difficulty.

Things seemed strangely suspended for a long while after this. All the women in the lane had come to sit or stand there, surrounding Bidesia and his wife. Mai too had turned up. Men stood at a little distance. Many others, who didn’t belong to the lane and had come with the rickshaw, went back. Soon, some others from outside started to trickle in just to stand there. Someone just passed through at times and crossed over. Men talked in whispers. Only the wails of Bidesia’s wife echoed all over the lane, joined in by a few other women who mourned not just Bidesia but his wife’s youth. Despite all this, everything appeared to be on hold.

Then slowly, voices began to rise from amongst the men. ‘A curfew has been imposed for twenty four hours. No one can go out of the house. The town hall has been burnt down. There is military all over, firing machine guns. Hundreds have died. How is one to go to work? Stay alert. If the police comes, everyone will be taken away.’

And a voice rose a bit higher – ‘Hey Munna, go. Stand guard at the corner, give a shout if there is police.’

Someone said, ‘How will the cremation be done? The city is under curfew.’

Followed by another, ‘If the police comes to know he died by a bullet they’ll take away even the body and then who knows how they’ll cut him up or treat him.’

In a little while, Munna came running from the mouth of the lane shouting, police, police – and caused a commotion. Women, men, everyone made a dash for their houses. Mai, when she saw him run, held him to her and together they rushed into Bhagirath’s house. Bidesia’s wife too got into a flurry and her wails stopped. Picking up Bidesia from both ends, some people carried him in. The lane became totally deserted.

But the police had probably gone straight ahead on the road, bypassing the lane. When nothing happened for a while, some of the people took courage and ventured out. Bhagirath’s children, like so many sick puppies, stood in alarm for some time. Many others, dreading the police, had hastened into that house. Two or three of the children had then broken into a whimper. The wailing of Bidesia’s wife could also be heard again from his room. But no one stayed out in the lane after this. People stood either by the doors, or inside Bidesia’s room or went back to their houses.

Mai returned home with him. There was still some daylight left, but perhaps not wanting to sit idle, she lit the earthen stove and began to cook.

Friday, 30 June 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English Translation of chapter 3 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Betalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


III

When the lane was electrified, the circle of his life suddenly became wider. A little beyond the Shivala was the well, and a little beyond the well, the lane turned to the right. A little beyond the turn stood the neem tree. Till then, whenever he had gone to bathe at the well, it was only with mai. The occasion to go to the Shivala came only rarely and then too only with mai. He usually played near and around the neem tree. Partly because a few homes near the Shivala belonged to kahaars, who were water-carriers, palanquin bearers and washed dishes, and Rajgeers, who were skilled masons, and a few grown up boys over there bullied and frightened the younger children, snatched their play things and even their money if they got a chance, robbed them of their share of eatables and to keep their commanding positions were constantly beating them. They were divided in groups and kept fighting amongst themselves and anyone not belonging to their groups was beaten jointly by all.

But when the pole near the Shivala was fitted with bulb, the children from the compound collected there. So did the grown-ups, but they went their separate ways after a short discussion on the advantages of electrification. The children, however, kept dancing for a long time. When something of the grown-ups’ discussion came to their ears, they too began to wonder how, after all, did the bulb light up? Most of the children stood around Kisana because it was he, who had informed with full authority that electricity was a very dangerous thing. If touched with a naked wire even an elephant dies writhing in pain, then what chance would a man have? Things went a little awry when someone asked if the rakshas - the demons too were killed with electricity? When Kisana said they did, a debate ensued on whether or not Lord Ram had slain the demon king Ravana with an electric arrow? Rajee had witnessed the slaying of Ravana in the Ramlila, wherein the life of Lord Ram was enacted. She testified in Kisana’s favour saying how Lord Ram’s arrow had caused Ravana’s body to go up in flames. But Ganesh had heard a story from a Pandit at his grandfather’s house that Ravana died only when hit by an arrow in the navel. Ganesh was the same age as Kisana. He countered Kisana saying demons gobbled up electricity. Also threw out electricity. The debate halted at this point when Nanku threw a poser, ‘but how does a bulb light up?’ Kisana threw one glance at Ganesh to see if he would say something. But Ganesh had nothing to say. Then Kisana spoke with some pride that the English people knew of such a science that, whenever there was lightening in sky, enabled them to capture and trap it. That was the reason why the electric wires were covered with rubber – to stop electricity from escaping. Then the English carried it in the wire and lit up whichever place they wanted to.

There was silence at this for some time. The English people and their science was outside the purview of everyone. What everyone knew was that the English were absolutely white, didn’t believe in their gods and were the government. Kisana had once seen a black - perhaps Baloch - platoon going on road. There were road blocks and people had stood on side-walks. A few English sahibs too had passed at the time in their motor-cars. Kisana had only seen red faces at the window. But Rajee said when she had gone to watch the ‘Ramlila’, she had seen a ‘sahib’ in khaki uniform riding a horse.

Billo too, was there that day. Usually, she stayed inside the rooms, and was seen only at times, washing dishes. She was also the most stupid, always staring wide-eyed at everything. That day when children collected, she too, stood at one side. The children were making a din but she stood on a side, staring with her eyes wide open. And then the children began to play. Since there was not enough space to play ‘hide and seek’ or ‘up and down’, they formed a circle to play the game of ‘korra jamal sai’. Ganesh took off his shirt and twisted it in to korra – a whip, and so took the first turn. There were quite a few children and when they formed a circle, Billo too became a part of it. She too, sat in the circle, but the instant the shivalewali called – 'Basantia! Where the hell are you?' Billo got up without a word. Then came the sound of her loud howls but the children didn’t stop playing. Billo cried loudly when she was beaten by her mother. It was only then that one heard her voice. But only for that long. She stopped crying the moment her mother’s hands stopped.
All the boys in the lane called her Billo - the cat. Goodness knows how and when she came to be known by this name. It was perhaps because she was forever staring quietly with wide eyes. Sometimes, when she sat outside her room washing dishes, her eyes followed anyone, even children, who passed by till he or she went out of her vision. As if each was a wonder to her. But, if angry, Billo’s mother, the ‘Shivalewali’ always called her ‘Basanti’ or ‘Basantia’. No other child in their lane was called by his or her proper name by their parents. One was Pillu, one was Hollar, another Mangu, Khacheru or Takaiya. Perhaps some of them had only these names, or had their names distorted. But if Takaiya was actually Tekchand, no one in the lane, except for his parents knew of it, perhaps not even he himself and definitely not the boys his own age. He himself was called Ghaseeta, his mother Ghaseeta’s mai, his father Ghaseeta’s bappa. But when caught the first time and asked his name in the police station, he gave his name as ‘Dharamdas’, son of Chhedilal, resident of Hata Saith Ramdas - For some reason both the names, his own and bappa’s, which he had almost forgotten – surfaced at that time. But this happened much later.

In any case hardly anyone in the lane knew another’s name. Even ‘Shivalewali’ was called that because she lived in the small tenement next to the ‘Shivala’. What appeared a little strange to him at times was that nobody ever called her over, nor had he ever seen her visiting anyone. Even at his own place, when mai gave birth to a son (not if she had a daughter) and came out on the twelfth day of delivery, women of the neighbourhood collected at night to sing songs and the next day, mai sent sweet prepared with jaggery and sugar to everyone’s house but not to Shivalewali. He had never seen Shivalewali go any other place except to the well and the latrines built by the municipality next to the trash bin, where a little beyond the neem tree, the lane turned back (it took many more turns after that). When sometimes, Billo went to Masur Maharaj’s shop to make a purchase (the shop was little to one side of the neem tree) she stopped at times on her way back if she saw boys playing under the neem tree. But did not speak. Standing at a little distance she only stared with wide eyes. If a boy said something, or even otherwise, she scampered away after a minute or two.

He had often overheard mai and neighbours call Shivalewali a tart, a whore, a hooker, while talking amongst themselves. And that she was a sinner even though she lived in a temple and the entire lane had to suffer the evil outcome of her sins. Once, when mai gave birth to a son and he died of a swollen stomach, somehow in the ensuing wailing and howling, someone mentioned Shivalewali and the women sitting there turned upon her saying that it was because of her sins that no child in the lane survived. There was no truth in this because Bhagirath’s wife, just like mai, gave birth every year and even though all of them were scrawny, none had died. Five of Bhagirath’s children were younger to him and all of them went about stark naked or clad in just a loin cloth, each bone on their body jutting out, drool and snot coating their mouths. Nevertheless, everyone was always angry with the Shivalewali.

Even though Shivala  came much before the neem tree and the lane took a turn in between, the area was so closely confined that any sound spread and echoed within the compound. Especially at night, a sound made anywhere in the lane, a fight or a scuffle in any of the households could be heard all over. And howls and yells were heard almost every evening in at least one of the households. More often than not, there were simultaneous fights in many dwellings. But this had been an everyday occurrence and no one paid any heed to it.

However the noise at Shivalewali’s house was of a different kind. For one, it often came late at night when all others had gone to sleep and there was silence in the compound. And then, there were no fights at her house, only noise. When at times, the noise became too loud and woke up bappa he often let out a barrage of abuses directed at Shivalewali. Once or twice he went to the extent of saying, ‘It’s all because of that ruffian, Bachan Singh: he has given the hustler so much leeway, otherwise the bitch can’t live here even for a day. He acts up only because he is the Saith’s darling.’

Bachan Singh was a goon of Saith Ramdas. He had never seen the Saith, had only heard that he was a big man and owned hundreds of houses. His grandfather had bought this plot of land enclosed by the lane and had got these tenements constructed. The hata - compound - was called Hata  Ramdas after his name.

A devout man, he had the Shivala and the well constructed with his own money for the use of the residents of the compound. The government too held him in high regard. That’s the reason the municipality had tin latrines put up in the compound.

The beginning of each month saw the Munim - the Saith's accountant - arrive at the compound to collect rent. He was accompanied by three or four goons. Of all these, he remembered the face of only Bachan Singh because even while laughing, he appeared scary. Goodness knows what he applied on his moustache that made them stand pointedly on either side like two large needles. His eyes were always blood-shot. When the Munim went round house to house collecting rent, the goons sat on the well and putting down their batons, played cards or got high on marijuana.

If ever, the Munim had a problem in collection of rent, Bachan Singh, picking up his baton, went to that side and whichever side he went to had it coming. The moment the defaulter came out, Bachan Singh pulled his hair, knocked him down and sticking the end of his baton into his back gave a few jolts, shouted obscenities involving the man’s mother and sisters and in the end left with the threat that in case he was compelled to return he’d do what not to his wife, sister and daughter! It was very rarely that Bachan Singh had to get up and go and he didn’t remember him ever having to go a second time. None of the Saith’s rent ever remained unpaid.

Those goons were always sprawled at the well during pay-up time but Bachan Singh visited often, even otherwise. If it was a little early in the evening, he sat down pulling up a cot outside the Shivala. Taking off his clothes he wrapped a tehmad - a length of cloth - which he pulled out of his bag, round him and then, sitting at the well and putting his finger down his throat, he hawked up loudly and washed his hands and face. Shivalewali was not on talking terms with anyone in the lane, but for Bachan Singh, she took out a cot, served meals and he too talked to her laughing in a strange manner. He was frightened not only of Bachan Singh but the Shivaliwali too, scared him a little. He understood neither what bappa nor what mai said about her but somehow had to come to believe firmly that Bachan Singh was an evil man, that Shivaliwali was an evil woman. He had seen once or twice that when Bachan Singh talked to Shivalewali, sitting on the cot, Billo stood close by, staring with wide eyes and had wondered how come she was not scared of Bachan Singh.

The days were extremely cold when one night, wrapped in a kathari, he woke up due to the extreme cold ... or perhaps also due to some commotion. For there was still some noise when he woke up. He thought of getting up and going to bappa or mai but at the same time didn’t feel like getting out of the covers. Suddenly the noise grew sharper and it sounded as if Shivalewali was screaming abuses in a shrill voice. In between, one could hear some other strange sounds as well. He was beginning to feel very scared when suddenly bappa had spoken from his bed, ‘who knows what crooks the bitch calls over, it is difficult now for straight people to live here’. Bappa is awake. He had become a little reassured with the knowledge. Suddenly a scream rose piercing the noise and then, a little later came a thud – as if a rope pulling up a pitcher full of water had snapped and the pitcher had gone crashing down to the water in the well. He saw bappa rise and sit up. For some time now there had been sounds like an animal being butchered. And then, all at once, there was silence. But sounds from a while ago seemed to echo in his ears and suddenly he felt terrified. Getting up quickly he went and cuddled against mai. He found that mai too was awake. She held him to her and slowly began to run her hand over his back.

Both bappa and mai were up and out by the time he woke up in the morning. He found himself alone. The earthen stove in the house had not been lit. When he went out, the lane too was deserted. A little further down he heard muffled voices coming from the direction of the well. The moment he reached the turn, he stopped in his tracks.

Eight to ten policemen stood near the well and the Shivala. The police had arrived quite some time back. Two or three men from the lane were trying to fish out the dead body of Shivalewali by dropping down a hook. All the men and women from the lane stood here and there in clusters. A havaldar - police sergeant -, baton in hand, stood near the Shivala and close to him stood the two money lenders, bappa, Bhagirath and a few other men from the lane. Near the door of Mahaadev’s dwelling stood mai along with a few women. He too, went to stand behind the children who stood huddled close to a wall. Listening to snippets of people’s talk from here and there he gradually came to piece together the whole incident.

Last night, some three or four goons of the Saith had visited Shivalewali. All  completely drunk. And one had suddenly happened to catch sight of Billo, asleep in a corner. Leaving Shivalewali, they had caught hold of the ten year old Billo. Shivalewali had fought hard, had even had a scuffle, but they had beaten her up and turned her out. She had kept screaming abuses and beating at the door with fists and when Billo had cried out, ‘Oh mai’, from inside, had jumped into the well.

Shivalewali’s body, when it was fished out after some attempts, was put in a cart, covered with a cloth and taken to the police-station by the policemen. Billo had already been taken away by the police, whether to the hospital or the police-station, it wasn’t known. People said she had been found lying unconscious and soaked in blood and chances of her survival were remote. The police had written down the details in front of witnesses, taken down the statements of the neighbours – the woman was of easy virtue. She was often visited by ruffians. She gave them shelter in her house. We have no idea of the incident last night. Neither do we know who was with her. We heard no sound of any kind.

For many days after the incident the lane lay submerged in a strange fear. There was less of noise, less of fights. Even the children were less quarrelsome. But no one said anything about Shivalewali. That night was talked about only as an ‘incident’. During these talks he heard that the visitors that night hadn’t included Bachan Singh (some said they had) but that other goons had brought over a relative of the Saith, some others said that it was this relative who had caught hold of Billo. (He wondered how they had come to know of this, but one of the goons might have said something later.) No one talked of Billo either. He had heard vaguely that she hadn’t died and that police had sent her to an orphanage.

Bachan Singh did not come to the lane again. When the Munim came to collect rent he had other goons with him. Bachan Singh always used to sit with others at the well and went anywhere only when the Munim asked him to, and then too, alone. But these goons went round with the Munim from house to house. None of the Saith’s rent remained unpaid even now.

Monday, 19 June 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 2 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak




II

The city those days ended just a little beyond their compound. However, the compound had been quite old even then. The road was considered wide those days – now, of course, it has become difficult to walk through it. A lane, looking like the many other lanes in the city, branched out between two shops but didn't lead anywhere. Meandering here and there, it reached the same spot again. The space left out by the lane in its meanderings was taken up by toy-like houses built in rows of two. Roughly tiled or thatched roofs appeared like the spine of a sick mongrel ... floors were of beaten earth ... the walls however, were plastered with cement in places.

And the winding lane was like a rope, binding in its fold an entire world. Not just the houses but also those who lived in them. And it was an entire world – a 'shivala' -  a Shiva temple, a water-well, a neem tree. A shop that sold everything – flour, pulses, rice, oil, candy, bottles of sweet and sour water (without ice) – everything of everyday need, that is. They were a family of two brothers but the shop was said to be owned by one of the two, perhaps the elder one, called Massur Maharaj, whose name may well have been Masmiadin. The entire compound had three poles in it put there by the municipality, over which burned lamps.

His house, which consisted of two rooms built one after the other, was close to the neem. Also close to the neem was one of the poles. A branch of the neem on that side dropped low. So low, that people, without climbing up or using a bamboo, plucked out neem twigs to be used as tooth brush just by pulling it down by hand. When the lamp was lit in the evening, he sat opening the window in the front room. The light, filtering down the neem leaves in the dark nights, spread out on the walls to form strange shapes. The slightest of breeze made these shapes dance, now making, now breaking them. But he never feared this sport of the dim lamp light. What he feared was the dark.

During summer, he generally slept before it was dark and even if he didn’t bappa usually returned home by then. And he feared nothing when with bappa. However, darkness descended early in winter. And then he was both cold and scared. Mai - his mother - cooked rotis. Lighting the earthen stove in the back room, she covered the baby, if asleep, with a patched covering or held him in her lap if he was awake. He didn’t really mind it but mai didn’t pay him any attention when the baby was there. He had after all grown quite big. He didn’t remember the number of siblings born after him. Perhaps one was born every year but no one survived except for him. What was really upsetting was that when a new baby was to be born, mai’s tummy bloated up and she was not able to cope with the work and cooked the meals with great difficulty. Often she had fights with bappa at night. However, he did get leave from taking his baths. In winter, if mai was keeping all right, she led him to the well every second or third day and scrubbing with a locally made soap, gave him his bath. He also received a blow or two if he gave any trouble and often returned shivering with cold or whimpering from the blow.

And then when it was time for the child to be born, women from neighbourhood collected in the house and he was banished. At times mai could be heard groaning inside. He had heard neighbours say at times how very brave a woman Ghaseeta’s mai was, other women just didn’t stop screaming on such occasions.

Even he remembered Bisnath’s wife. Bisnath, much older to him, had a light moustache and beard. He had gone all dressed to his in-laws’ house  for gauna - to bring his wife home after  the prescribed post marriage interval - but the thick dark kohl on his dark face made him look more like a cat. His wife was very young, not over thirteen or fourteen. Dressed in red, she went about with a jingle of her jewellery. Soon, her belly too bloated up. Her outings stopped. She was seen only when she came out running and sat down to throw up. He found it disgusting and turning his face, moved away from there.

It was summer when one morning, Bisanth’s wife began to scream. The children in the lane gathered in a group and the women too arrived at Bisnath’s house. He realized when he saw the old chamaarin - the woman of leather workers' caste who acted as a midwife - that Bisnath’s wife was going to deliver her baby. The same old woman came to his house, each time mai was to have a baby. Once, Bisnath’s wife came out screaming but Bisnath’s mai caught hold of her and pulled her back in the house.

He was standing there, watching dumbly, when his mai appeared from behind him. He did not protest when his mai caught and took him home. Bappa had already left for work by then. Giving him his roti and securing the door on the outside, mai left. He had felt bad and forced the roti down with difficulty. Later he kept turning everything in the house this way and that for a long time. Then he came and put his ear against the door but could hear nothing. He could have opened the window and jumped out but, for some reason, didn’t feel like opening the window. In the end he took out his box filled with kernels and tamarind seeds, won by him in a game. Pouring them out over the floor he began to make piles of five – he could count only up to five.

When mai returned she had Massur Maharaj’s wife and sister-in-law in tow. (He could never tell which of the two was the wife, which the sister-in-law). The three were sighing deeply and saying ‘Oh God!’ He didn’t remember now what each said but certain portions of the conversation became fixed in his mind. ‘Only God can help a woman at such a time. Poor thing. Even God turned away from her.’ ‘God’s will. He gave her so much pain at such a tender age and also took her life.’

From this he knew Bisnath’s wife had died. After sometime mai went to take her bath. And he sat there with his kernels and seeds spread out before him. Why had Bisnath’s wife died, how had she died – he didn’t understand for a very long time. Mai gave birth every year. That those days were extremely difficult is another matter. She lay confined in the room for twelve days. He wasn’t allowed in the room. Joining bricks in the front room and lighting it with fire, bappa used to cook a meal of roti and daal.

And each time he heard from the visiting women neighbours, ‘this time too Ghaseeta’s mother didn’t get milk in her breasts..’ Mai called sometimes an exorcist, sometimes a Peer for a magic cure. She sent for goat milk at times and at times for milk of a special cow. Also baby tonics, but what happened each time was that the baby became enlarged, he whimpered for a few days and then one day, he died. Mai cried her heart out and bappa, wrapping the child in a cloth took one or two of the neighbours with him. On the day, he was fed by a neighbour and from the next day life returned to its old routine.

But even then, he did not sit inside with mai. The room filled with smoke when she lit the stove. In fact the entire lane became smoky in the evening when each house had a stove burning in it. Many of the people made grates out of tin canisters, lit them with coals and put them outside for the smoke to thin out. The smoke made the darkness in the lane darker still, out of which danced flames from the grates dotting the lane. This hour was specially scary to him.

He could hear mai cook inside in the light of a small tin lamp but that didn’t take away his fear. Watching mai work at the stove in the smoke filled room or even sitting inside did not take away his fear. The light from the small lamp was very dim and just watching the smoke from the stove rustle up and spread in the room was frightening to him. When mai blew hard and the firewood went up in flames, it startled him. It seemed to him that the sooty tiles had caught fire. Later, when the flames came down slowly to give way to smoke, he felt stifled. He got up then and went to sit at the window.

Sitting at the window too, he felt very frightened till the time bappa came home or the municipality lamp was lit. But in winters, bappa generally returned home after the lamp was lit. Often the municipal worker was seen coming with a basket on the head and a ladder on shoulder as soon as it was dark or, at times, a little later. He could recognize the worker from a distance because of the ladder and the lamp burning in the basket. If he came late or didn’t come at all (which was rare) he was totally overtaken by his fear. Despite the bundee – the lined vest - he wore and the patched covering called kathari that he pulled over himself, he sat there shivering with cold, benumbed with fear. He watched every man who entered the lane to see if it was his father, but when the man passed him by the fear in his heart increased further.

He recognized bappa only when he turned towards the house. And then he leaped up to undo the chain, his fear disappearing completely the moment he saw bappa. Bappa came in, took off his shoes, sat on the cot while he returned to sit at the window. In the dark he had barely a vague idea of where bappa was sitting but he could hear bappa breathe and felt no fear. When drowsy, he lay down on the sack under the window, or, at times cuddled up at the window to sleep. When roti was cooked, mai came to wake him up. At times he didn’t remember the next day whether he had eaten the previous night or not.

But usually the municipality-worker with the lamp arrived regularly and punctually. Resting his ladder against the pole, he put his basket down, climbed up, took the lamp off, filled it with oil from the box, cleaned the glass and the lamp with a duster and putting the lamp back on the pole, lit it. He was specially taken up by two of the worker's actions. One, when he rubbed the lamp clean, it shone in the light of the lamp burning in the basket. And then, when he took out the wick that had one end dipped in the box and brought it near the lamp in the basket it lit up at once. Lighting the lamp on the post, the worker dipped the wick in the box again and it puttered off. He liked both, the way the wick lit up and the way it puttered off. He always wondered why, when he put the burning wick back in the box, didn’t the oil in the box burn up. He thought it had something to do with the worker’s deftness and if he missed once the oil would surely go up in flames and if the box caught fire the whole basket would burn down. But it never happened.

In a while, the flame of the lamp found its measure and steadied down. The shadow of the lamp spread out in a strange shape under the post, lighting at the same time a large area of the lane. The light filtering down the neem leaves made a lattice on the ground that danced with the lightest of breeze. Sitting at the window he gazed at the flame of the lamp till his eyes began to smart and water but the fear in his heart was driven away. And when bappa returned he began to drowse, listening to his breathing.

During those days he thought he too would become a lamp lighter when he grew up. Going from lane to lane with a basket on his head and a ladder over his shoulder, he would rub each and every lamp clean and light it up. Otherwise too, he liked the lamp lighter. He had a moustache somewhat like bappa’s, didn’t speak to anyone on his daily rounds except for a greeting with ‘Ram Ram’. But the lamp lighting stopped before he could grow up. The lane was electrified.

As one entered the lane from the road, the first lamp post stood near the Shivala. It was the first to go when the electrification started. In its place came a tall pole filled with wires and a blazing bulb. Now the municipal worker had only two lamps to light. After some more days the other lamps too were replaced by electric bulbs, and the lamp lighter stopped coming. No one came to light the electric bulbs or to clean them. The bulbs lit up on their own when it was evening. At times it remained lit even during day time. It’s light also, was very bright. If the doors and windows were left open the front room got lit up despite the neem and everything in it became clearly visible. In fact, the back room did not get so well lit up with the small tin lamp.

The neem branch that dropped low came in the way and so, was felled. At first, people took away twigs. Soon they had a stock of tooth-brushes for months. The dry shoots were used as fire wood. The pandit, who performed religious rites at the Shivala, paid labourers and had the main branch, that lay severed, chopped and moved to his rooms. But it was no longer easy to pluck twigs. People had either to use a pole or climb up.

But now the bulb gave out so much light, he did not feel afraid the way he had used to. Usually the bulb lit up with the dusk. He had also grown up a bit. However, there were times when the electricity supply failed and the entire lane was plunged into darkness. But the supply was quickly restored. When the bulb fused, it stayed fused for days. At times the bulb didn’t work for weeks. And if it happened to be winter and the nights dark, he felt very scared. And then, he sat inside with mai till the time bappa returned, because now, there was no hope that the municipal worker would come and light the lamp. He didn’t feel so scared now, sitting inside with mai. Even now, in the pitch dark outside, he felt something was smothering him from all four sides, and that he could not escape. In bappa’s presence however, he was not afraid, no matter how dark it was. He was in mortal fear of bappa and never had the nerve to ask him questions. If bappa called him and sounded miffed he became speechless with fear. But when bappa was there he never feared anything and bappa was hardly ever miffed with him. He didn’t recollect ever having been beaten by bappa in his childhood. Mai used to give him a smack or two every now and then. Once bappa had beaten him blue and black, but that was much later when he had grown quite big.

Monday, 12 June 2017

'Lives Without Meaining' - English translation of chapter 1 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Om Prakash Deepak


Om Prakash Deepak was foremost a political writer and activist, being closely related to the socialist party of India and its founder Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. After the death of Dr Lohia in 1965, he became the editor of Jan, the Hindi magazine of the Socialist Party.

During 1970s, he became closely associated with Loknayak Jay Prakash Narayan and his call for Sampoorn Kranti (Total revolution). During these years, Om Prakash Deepak wrote political and social articles for a number of publications, especially Dinman, a weekly magazine in Hindi, and for Everyman’s, a weekly magazine in English. During 1971-72, he travelled and wrote extensively about the war and the founding of Bangladesh.

Om Prakash Deepak wrote limited fiction, mainly short stories, during 1950s and 1960s. His fiction work includes two novellas – Manavi (1962) and Kuch Zindagiyan Bematlab (1968, translated in English as Lives Without Meaning in 2016).

In 1975, when Om Prakash Deepak died, he was 47 years old and was writing a biography of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia.

Why I translated the book : The  story of the realities of these drifting lives and the world of the adolescent protagonist caught in these realities - as it unfolds in the backdrop of pre and post independence years,  the working of the courts, the goings on in the jails of the time, the changing face of Delhi in the aftermath of the partition of the country - all of it, I felt, warranted a wider reach and read. Hence the attempt at translation.




Lives Without Meaning


I

He paused for a minute on coming close to Rajendra Nagar. For a moment he felt like going to Maqbool’s to look for him. He was feeling very hungry. If only he could find Maqbool, food would be no problem. Nor would he have to sleep out in the cold. But there was no guarantee he would find Maqbool. And even if he did, Maqbool would probably have some others from his gang with him. He had no wish to meet anyone else. He didn’t like any of them except for Maqbool. Maqbool was as big a crook as any but a good person at heart. At the time of his first arrest, a bond had formed between the two in jail and Maqbool had come to regard himself as his guardian. When he was broke, Maqbool fed him, offered him his room to sleep in, chided anyone who harassed him. So many years on, the bond remained the same. Had neither weakened nor grown stronger.

No matter what, he’d have to look for Maqbool tomorrow. But tonight he wanted to be alone, even though he was hungry and the long walk from the Tihar jail had exhausted him. He was also feeling cold. It had been summer when he was arrested and so had come out in the cotton kurta-pyjama deposited in jail at the time of his arrest. However, the cold did not bother him too much. His bones had become accustomed to withstanding the harshness of weather. Although he was no longer as sturdy, he could brave at least one night. He was also not as bothered about his old coat lying in Maqbool’s room as about the fact that he hadn’t eaten and didn’t have a single paisa in his pocket. He had had some change on him at the time of arrest but had been frisked at once on reaching the police station. Things deposited in jail are returned on release but anything taken out at the police station becomes the property of the police-station. He was aware that at the end of his term, a constable would forge his signature, that too in Urdu (whereas he had no knowledge of the language) and the money would be utilized for procuring a cup of tea. If he went now to the police-station to get the money back, he would be lucky if he escaped only with a lashing. He was more likely to end up in jail again.

That made it absolutely necessary that he look for Maqbool tomorrow. Jail releases are customarily made before the evening meal. He had just returned to the barrack at five after work at the factory when he was summoned. After handing in jail clothes, utensils and bedding, he had sat a long time in a queue of those to be released ... before they had begun taking their thumb impressions in the register. When the jail window opened to let them out in a double file, it had already grown dark. He hadn’t known any of the inmates released that evening. Nor was he in a mood to be social and had set off quietly. The old jail at Delhi Gate had been better in the sense that one didn’t have to walk too long a distance. The area may have fallen on the outskirts of the city at some point but now it was in its centre. A hospital was coming up over there, a medical college. Whenever he passed that way his eyes unconsciously looked for familiar spots, but nothing was recognizable. Just the walk from the Tihar jail to the city wore him out completely.

He felt a little thirsty (actually hungry). Folding his palms into a cup he drank from the tap on the roadside but couldn’t take in more than three or four gulps. The water was icy cold and he began to shiver the moment the water went in. However, the exhaustion lifted from his body for some time and his steps quickened. He walked fast for a fair distance, began to feel tired again, yet the chill didn’t leave him. It was perhaps past eight and the shops had closed quite some time back. The night was dark, the moon not yet out, the air chilly and now also turning a little damp. It was going to be a foggy tonight. He turned left from the round crossing. This was his old familiar haunt. He hadn’t really given it a thought, only his feet, unknown to him, had carried him here.

This side of the ridge was still quite deserted. There was no traffic except for a taxi or scooter that passed at intervals. This too would stop after sometime. A rock lay on the side of the road and beyond that rock, another rock - square and flat. If painted white, it would give the appearance of a cemented grave. And then it could be turned into the tomb of a Peer- a Muslim saint, to attract offerings. But he made such plans only in jest. The problem with him was that he could indulge in only occasional, small time fraud, could tell only an occasional lie. Couldn’t lie on a regular basis, couldn’t indulge in big time fraud on a regular basis.

The stone lay behind a big rock, only a corner of it visible. This was good to sleep on. It had a smooth surface and was longer and wider than the platform inside the barrack in the jail. He often came here to sleep when out in the summer. At times in winter also but then he had worn his coat and had something to cover himself with.

When he sat down on the stone, the stone felt very cold. At least the walk is over. He tried to comfort himself. He was very tired. Also breathless, from the long walk. Now it was a matter of spending one night, he thought. There was silence all around and it was nearly dark. The street lights too were spaced at long intervals. He stretched his legs out on the stone, then rested his back and then also the head. The stone was cold like a slab of ice. Its touch, like a sharp instrument, pierced through at once. Then, gradually, the sting began to subside.

And then, a slight breeze began to stir. The brush of the very first gust of wind made him shudder. Turning to a side and doubling up his legs, he brought his knees up to touch his chest. Tonight would be a difficult night.  Only God could save him if the breeze didn't stop. There was no way he would be able to sleep.

A voice came wafting in from afar. At first he couldn’t make out what it said but then suddenly with a chilling whiff of air, the words became clear – 'Brethren, who sleep on the footpath, you have been provided night shelters by the Municipal corporation. You can also get a rug and a blanket over there. Free of charge. Take advantage of the night shelters. You risk your lives by sleeping in the open.' – He had heard this earlier also. In Maqbool’s room. And once while he lay on this stone. Maqbool had been in jail those days. And there had actually been no urgency in him to go to the night shelter. He had had a coat on and had also got a thick cotton sheet. In any case the thought of going to the night shelter had never really occurred to him. To go like a beggar and ask some person – 'Sir, please give a rug and a blanket to me also.' – No, the idea had never appealed to him. Moreover he was so tired at the moment that there was no question of walking to Tibbia College. – Go that far and turn into a beggar? This stone will do very well.

A slight gust of wind blew every now and then and made him shiver. It was as if his face was being pricked by pins. His fingers had grown numb. To bring down the pain in his fingers he blew on his hands and began to rub his palms. This gave him some relief but the steam from his mouth settled on his fingers and with the next gust of wind the pain became sharper. The stone under him had become colder still.

The other day, Mustafa was telling him about the time he was caught stealing truck tyres. The police, in a bid to finding clues to other thefts, had forced him to lie on a slab of ice. ‘That stupid cripple! He’d had one too many the previous night and just wouldn’t get up. Only I know how I made him sit on the rickshaw. But once I did, I didn’t stop pulling. And the bastard slept on the way also. Once there, his hands refused to move. Had the work been over by three I would have cleared off. But he took so much time taking the wheel off that it was time for the morning petrol. And then he slipped away from there. I loaded the wheels he had undone on to the rickshaw and was just making a turn when the patrol arrived.’

‘And those rascals gave me a solid drubbing. Taking me on a month’s remand from the court they thrashed me without missing a day to make me sing. And then one day they took off my clothes and made me lie on ice. As it was, my body was in a sorry state from the regular flogging. I almost died. They didn’t allow me to bathe or wash my face. I had to clear my bowels inside the room and the stink was head splitting. They flogged me morning and evening and were asking the court for remand for fifteen more days. However, my earnest appeal to the Sahib, that they were beating me blue and black although I was not guilty and were only holding me on suspicion, beating me to extract a confession made some impact. Lucky that the judge was a gentleman. He took pity and sent me to jail.’

At times he wondered how Mustafa reacted when flogged or forced to lie on ice. Did he scream and shout? That Mustafa could scream and shout under any circumstance was beyond him. Mustafa may be short but was muscular and well-built. His face had hardened of late. It wasn’t so earlier. But his eyes were still as innocent as a child’s. Because he was good at heart. Mustafa feared none. He had never seen fear on Mustafa’s face. He had narrated the incident about ice as though this trouble too, had come like the many other troubles in life and had now blown over.

He himself was easily scared. Just listening to this incident from Mustafa had scared him stiff. How must he have felt when forced to lie on ice! He recalled once in childhood, Bappa ... his father had asked him to bring ice – somebody had perhaps come visiting – and carrying the ice from the shop to his house had made his palms smart as if they were being pricked by so many pins. He had been thoroughly miserable, even though the ice had been wrapped in paper. Mustafa had said it wasn’t the touch of ice that was painful because the skin, after a while, became numb. It pained when he was made to move because the movement kept the skin from going numb. Listening to all this, a deep fear had taken root in his heart, his fists had clenched in, his body stiffened.

He felt scared even otherwise and often came to hear such tales in jail. The yellow turbaned numbardaar...the headman called Nathu often came to sit by and told stories. He had been the only one in the entire jail with a yellow turban. A crook of the first order, the numbardaar used to play up to officers. The shrewd old timer could perhaps discern fear on his face and deliberately narrated to him his stories. What was peculiar was that despite his fear, he waited, in a way, for Nathu to come, who said that all the jail-officials were faint-hearted. Only the former Superintendent had been a real toughie (he had awarded the yellow turban to Nathu), an officer of superlative degree… he straightened out the most dreaded dacoits in no time.

And when Nathu went on to describe the methods adopted to ‘straighten out in no time’, he began to feel faint, as if all that was going to happen to him. He remained lost in thought for a long time even after Nathu had left, experiencing again all that he had heard and got very, very perturbed indeed. Tossing this way and that, he kept wishing for sleep but sleep eluded him despite the exhaustion.

There was one story Nathu specially enjoyed narrating. A political prisoner had gone on a hunger strike. Every morning and evening, eight men sat astride him, held his head back, pinned his arms and legs and milk was poured down a pipe that passed through his nose. Handcuffed and fettered, he was locked in a solitary cell. A man sitting outside pulled at the chain every now and then so he couldn’t sleep. This went on for three days and three nights. On the fourth day, Nathu said, the hunger-striker fell down at the feet of superintendent.

The breeze had stopped. The shivering too, stopped gradually. But the stone had turned even colder. Sleeping in one position with arms and legs folded, his whole body became stiff and all his joints began to ache. But a fear had overtaken his mind. He didn’t have the nerve to stretch out his legs for then the coldness of the stone would hit him all over again. There was another fear too. What if a police patrol came this way, threw torch light in his direction and he was seen? He shrank farther in.

In jail, he’d have been long asleep by now. Two blankets didn’t take the cold away but over a hundred inmates slept in the barrack. When cold at night, they unconsciously huddled together and found themselves sleeping in groups of five or six in the morning. He would get a blanket in the police lock up as well, but it was better to stay away from their clutches for as long as possible.

Whenever a policeman lay a hand on his arm with a - ‘hey you …’ he paled with fear, his innards began to contract and he felt he would puke. All the time he stayed in the police lock-up, he was too terrified to speak. Very often he received extra blows for not answering properly at once. There was no one to give him food in the lock-up, but he felt like puking even when he smoked a beedi - tobacco rolled in leaf. (He didn’t have with him even a god-damned beedi. It would have provided relief from the cold). He kept recalling all the stories about police-beatings. Did the police suspect him of a serious crime? What if they framed him in something big and started beating him to force an admission?

When he was put on a van to be transported to jail, he used to heave a sigh of relief. But no sooner did one fear subside, another surfaced. They would reach the jail now … now … now. How nice it would be if the van toppled over, he thought. If all the guards and the driver died or were injured. If the doors jerked open with the impact and everyone was freed. And then, who would know where they had disappeared? But there never was an accident. The van reached the jail safe and in one piece.

Despite having served so many terms, his blood still ran cold when the van stopped outside the jail. He was always the last to get down. As they stood outside in a line and the window opened with a loud clank he kept hoping for some kind of magic to happen that would take in the entire file along with the policemen and close the window leaving him out. And then he, eluding everyone’s eyes, would make good his escape. When suddenly he received a smack on his neck, ‘You, … will you move now or … rascal …’


The fog had thickened in the short span. The place suddenly seemed lit with a faint glow in which he could see the stone as well as a swirl of the fog. Turning his neck he saw the moon, rising from behind a cluster of trees. The moon wasn’t visible, only the fog over there appeared pale.


He changed sides and straightened his legs. The touch of the stone felt like daggers and batons striking from all directions. A momentary shudder ran though his body but he began to stare without blinking at the spot where the fog appeared pale. His eyes smarted and watered and yet he continued to stare. He had travelled back in time. In fact, whenever he watched the moon rising from behind this cluster lying here at this stone, he travelled back. It seemed to him that sitting at his window, he was watching the municipality lamp standing near the neem - the margosa tree.