Friday, 30 June 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 June 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 June 2017

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

Om Prakash Deepak

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

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

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

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

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

Lives Without Meaning


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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