Sunday, 16 July 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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