Thursday, 13 July 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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