Sunday, 31 December 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.