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.