Sunday, 23 July 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 6 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Before starting to train at a cycle shop, he also received some schooling for a few days. It wasn’t much of a school. The pandit at the Shivala collected some children of the lane to teach them the alphabet. The pandit ran the school for some months but, for one, it was difficult to go about collecting the children every day and also, he didn’t get regular payments. One day in his exasperation, the pandit drove the children away. ‘Rogues … low castes … how would they know how education can benefit them..’ Thus the school came to an end. He had, meanwhile learned some numbers and tables. Also alphabets. But later, he remembered only the numbers. He could write his name but forgot the rest of the alphabets.

The cycle shop was to him the first, first-hand experience of the life’s realities and the first few days proved quite tough. Hearing abuses and receiving slaps was nothing new to him, what he minded was that he now received these from new people. People he had had nothing to do with till now, and he got nothing in return from them. The four rupees at the end of the month went to bappa. The owner of the shop was Chhotelal, who himself kept sitting on a tin chair and lent a hand only when the work load was too heavy. All the work was done by Madan and Rahmat – a Muslim boy. Madan must have been seventeen or eighteen and Rahmat, fourteen or fifteen. When he joined, minor jobs like cleaning, pumping, oiling, locating the puncture by soaking the tube in a water-basin, unscrewing etc. came to his lot.

A few days later, Chhotelal fired Rahmat. Rahmat was a thief, but more than that he was a Muslim and Chhotelal had wanted to sack him on one pretext or the other. When Rahmat left, his position got worse. For one thing, there were now only two of them, instead of three, in the line of Chhotelal’s fire and for the other, Madan too, apart from abusing him for every small thing also took to beating him because his own work had increased manifold. Rahmat could do almost all the work but he couldn’t even put a tyre on to a wheel. Madan had to do more work and Chhotelal too, had to get up to lend a hand and they vented their anger at him. Madan was angry with him also because with Rahmat he’d had a pact. Apart from slipping away small spare parts or at times even tyres and tubes, they had also shared the major portion of money made from customers who came to the shop when Chhotelal was not present. But Chhotelal seldom left the shop now and Madan too, rarely dared to keep any money with him. He was perhaps scared he would squeal to Chhotelal.

He felt both anger and envy for Kisana. Anger, because it was he, who had told bappa that Chhotelal was looking for a boy for his shop. Kisana had been working at a nearby motor repair shop as a cleaner for the past two years. This was the cause of his envy. He watched at times how Kisana opened the bonnet of the truck to be repaired and cleaned it, or lying underneath, greased all its parts. He felt really envious when Kisana emerged from under the truck with oil and grease on his hands and clothes.

And the way Kisana drew out petrol from the tank of the truck was nothing short of a miracle to him. Putting one end of the tube in the tank and the other in his mouth, Kisana sucked in air and hurriedly spitting out petrol, placed the tube in the basin. Petrol began to flow out and continued to flow till the time the tube was taken out of the tank. At first he thought there was a nozzle inside the tank, to which the tube was attached but in that case why did Kisana put the tube in his mouth? And if there was no nozzle, why did the petrol keep flowing? He asked Kisana once, and he laughed patronisingly – It’s a trick. One day Chhotelal was not at the shop. There was also no work. So when Kisana brought a tube and a basin to take out petrol from the truck, he also stood at a side and watched. Putting the tube in the tank, Kisana handed him the other end. ‘Sit down. I’ll teach you the trick today.’ When he drew in the air, he went through the same motions he had gone through when he had smoked bapu’s hukka. Nothing happened at first. He only drew in air. Then the petrol rushed through the tube to fill his mouth, some also went to his stomach and when he took out the tube with a jerk, the petrol too, stopped after a trickle.

He felt sick the whole day. The petrol swallowed was not enough to make him throw up, but enough to make him dizzy and queasy the whole day. Kisana rubbed his back and head for quite some time but it didn’t make much of a difference. Kisana also treated him to a glass of tea (tea wasn’t as common those days as it was now) which gave him some relief, but he did not get back to normal for two or three days. The shop was close to the lane and he used to go back home for lunch around one or one-thirty. But he couldn’t eat that day and started to feel sick after taking just one roti. Leaving the rest of the food he went to lie on his stomach and a little later, when he felt a little better, returned to the shop. Mai became quite worried and gave him a clod of rock salt to suck on. She was asking him to take some more rest, but he went back to the shop as he didn’t want either Chhotelal or bappa to know.

He became friendly with Kisana after this and the friendship opened for him, the door to a new world. Kisana never confided fully in him but hinted that the petrol from the tank was often filched behind the owner’s back and if someone chanced upon him, he was told the oil had trash and had to be cleaned. Otherwise too, if the tank had to be emptied they helped themselves to some of the petrol and sold it later. When they got a chance, they also swiped small spare parts.

Kisana was very fond of snacking on this spicy snack - chaat - and usually had money in his pocket. Now he sometimes treated him also to chaat. Once, giving Chhotelal some yarn, he also went to see a bi-scope with Kisana (nobody called it bi-scope now, but cinema). He felt a little scared that day. They took a tram ride to a spot near Jama Masjid. Never before had he ventured so far out to such a crowded place on his own. The fear that he might get separated from Kisana stayed with him till the end. There was a big crowd at the biscope but Kisana managed to go in and get tickets. Not only for themselves but also three extra tickets. Later, he sold these tickets that had cost him five annas each, for eight annas each. Thus the biscope cost the two of them a total of one anna.

It was the first film he had watched. As far as he could remember, it was titled ‘Bharat Milaap’. He liked it very much. And after that, he too became addicted. Whenever he found an opportunity, he too went with Kisana to see biscope. In the beginning he didn’t have money and could go only when Kisana took him along and then too, he had to think of an excuse to give Chhotelal to get leave. Often Kisana went alone and told him later. At times he himself asked Kisana but Kisana used to excuse himself.

If Kisana took him along it was because he could talk to him without fear. Kisana talked of things of all manner... like one much experienced. One day Kisana asked him – ‘Do you know how babies are born?’ Even otherwise, he had observed how Kisana and Madan passed obscene comments directly at women, especially young women, who passed by. Even others uttered obscenities, but those obscenities concerned mothers, sisters and daughters and he was under the impression that these didn’t actually mean anything. But Kisana and Madan directed the obscenities straight at women and somehow, perhaps by reading their faces, he came to understand these were not just obscene utterances but what they actually had on their minds. At such times their eyes acquired a strange glint, their lips tightened and all this made him feel a little uneasy.

He knew babies were born to women and before that their tummies bloated. He also knew women suffered a lot when they had babies and yet the whole business was filled with mystery to him. Therefore when Kisana asked him this question he kept quiet. And then Kisana told him in detail the ‘realities’ of life and also that women had in them, eight times the heat men had, but the women’s heat got released each month, while men’s stayed stored inside them.

Listening to Kisana, he felt a big secret had suddenly been revealed to him, as if this new knowledge had suddenly ended his childhood and made him an adult. For many a day he had this strange feeling, as if this knowledge had been a secret of others and was now revealed to him because it wasn’t yet a part of his experience. He also found it strange initially that Kisana, whenever he found an opportunity, either while going for lunch or returning in the evening, walked with him to his house and stopping him under the neem tree, talked of this thing and that while looking constantly at Rajee’s door.

Rajee was the same age as he, but had somehow matured more. She had now stopped playing with children in the lane, her mannerism too had become more like that of a grown-up. For some days in the beginning he thought Kisana accompanied him because they were friends. But one day, when Kisana was talking to him sitting under the neem, Rajee returned from outside, and throwing one glance at them went inside her house and shut the door. Kisana’s face looked unnaturally tense – ‘The bitch … has a thing going with Ganesh … he has all the fun … and I am not allowed even to touch.’

The tension on Kisana’s face and his words, not only baffled but also, to some extent, offended him. He failed to understand Kisana’s anger because he had seen nothing that would indicate Rajee had a ‘thing’ going with Ganesh. Kisana had spoken out of desperation. But what was there to be desperate about?

Not many days had passed after this, when that whole tension and desperation made its way into him. He was standing, unscrewing a cycle turned upside down, when suddenly he heard Madan, who was working on another cycle, raise his head and let out a mouthful of obscenities. A pretty girl, thirteen or fourteen years of age, was passing by with a small boy. As she walked, she turned her gaze – her neck slanted a little, so did her gaze – her lips twisted as she spoke and a flame of fire ran through his body and then kept on running. His nerves tightened, his body stretched like an arrow mounted on a bow-string. The girl passed and went out of his sight, but his body still seemed to be on fire, his eyes were red. Where to go? What to do? Should he knock the wall down with his head, break the cycle with the pressure of his hands, jump into a well, what should he do?

Crack. His wrist received a jolt, he had turned the wrench gripped in his fist in the opposite direction, cutting the rings in the screw. The fire went out and he gave a start. Looking round him, he felt everyone around was watching him, watching the fire raging in his body, his taut nerves, the blood welling in his eyes. As if he had become naked and bare in mid-market. He felt everyone must have heard the sound of the ring cracking, which to him had sounded like the report of a gun. No one was watching him. No one had heard the crack, at least no one paid any attention to it. Madan was bent over his cycle, Chhotelal was dosing on his tin chair.

His friendship with Kisana deepened after this. The first few days were really trying. Everything was the same, only he had changed from within – and no one was aware of this change. There was no need to say anything to Kisana. Earlier, it was only Kisana who spoke about girls, his job was to listen. Now the two of them began to share their experiences. In this new round of friendship, he too felt the need to have money. Kisana had, even earlier, given some hints and now he too, when he had the chance, swiped, sometimes a small part, sometimes an old tyre or tube, sometimes glue. If he got a chance, he handed it to Kisana there itself, if not, he brought it home and hid it. Kisana knew a junk dealer to whom he sold all these things. The money they got was spent on eating chaat or watching biscope. Gradually a system evolved and whenever a new film was released, they tried to purchase the tickets in advance, and then sell the five anna tickets for eight anna. Thus, they generally watched the cinema for free and often earned some money too.
But this friendship didn’t last long. In the beginning he liked it very much when Kisana walked with him to his house and sitting under the neem, talked to him, but began to dislike it equally a few days later. Kisana was so obsessed with Rajee that the moment they left the shop, he began to abuse her and kept abusing her even as they sat under the tree, sometimes linking her with Ganesh, at other times cooking up stories of her imagined pursuits. At first he enjoyed listening to Kisana’s talk but gradually came to find it offensive, mostly because Kisana, thinking him ignorant even now, gave vent to his frustration before him. He also began to dislike the way Kisana talked about Rajee. And then, a few times, he got a feeling that Rajee was looking at him in a strange way – as if weighing him up.

And slowly his heart, on its own, attached many meanings to that look of Rajee’s – Kisana was his rival, Rajee disliked Kisana. Kisana deliberately stayed constantly glued to him, if Kisana was not with him and he alone, met her, he could strike a friendship with her, Rajee could be persuaded to start a ‘thing’ with him.

He didn’t have an open fight with Kisana but began, gradually to cut himself off from him. In the afternoon he tried to dodge Kisana’s eye and came home alone. Even otherwise, he stopped hanging out with Kisana. Now, when Kisana asked him to come to the cinema, it was he who excused himself. When he started coming home by himself in the afternoon, once or twice, Rajee began to clean and pick something sitting out in front of her house. Once when he reached home, Rajee was sitting with mai who was stitching a patchwork spread and when she got up to serve him food, Rajee took her place and resumed the stitching. She sat there that day, till the time he went back to the shop. Rajee hadn’t talked to him but he came to believe that Rajee could be made to come round.

And then, one day bappa caught his theft. He was sure Kisana had told on him. It was Sunday and bappa had a holiday. But he left for the shop in the morning like other days. When he returned home for lunch in the afternoon, a few cycle parts, which he had hidden under his spread, lay on the floor of the room, right in front of the door. Bappa was sitting with a neem stick in hand.

Bappa did not so much as ask him where the parts had come from or if he had stolen them. The instant his eyes fell upon the parts, he stopped in alarm, and at that instant received bappa’s full handed slap. Staggering, he fell down. ‘Rascal. Scoundrel. Thief. Doing his father proud! I’ll teach such a lesson to this bastard, he won’t think of stealing again.’ Before he could pull himself together bappa had taken down his knickers, pulled off his shirt, dragged him out in the lane. He was struck dumb at first but when bappa, leaving his hand, began to hit him with a stick, he began to cry, screaming out ‘Oh mai!’ He also thought of running away but when he realized he was standing stark naked, his feet stopped. Suddenly, bappa pounced on him and catching hold of his hair, gave him a push so he fell down again.

His screams brought many women out of the neighbouring houses, Rajee too came out, and stood in front of her house. The realization that he was naked and was getting thrashed before all these girls and women was, for a while, more humiliating and shameful than the pain of beating. To hide his shame, he shrank on the ground and tried not to scream, but unable to endure the blows of the stick began to scream again.

The beating became unbearable after a while. The women began to plead with bappa to stop, saying he had beaten him enough. Mai, who had been giving him a tongue lashing from inside, saying he was a thief and would land up in jail, would bring dishonour to the family, now came out and chided bappa – ‘kill him! Butcher! He has no love for his only son. He would rest only after he has killed him. Didn’t even let him eat.’ But bappa thundered - ‘it is better the scoundrel dies than become a thief. But the rascal won’t even die. And no wonder. He is a thief. And thieves are a sturdy lot.’

And everything within him shattered, turned to ashes. He forgot he was naked, he forgot he had grown up, forgot that women and girls stood watching, forgot the person beating him was his own father. All that remained in his mind was that he could no longer stand the lashings. He cried and grovelled –‘I won’t do it again bappa, I won’t ever steal again.' After some time even the grovelling became meaningless to him, but his mind and tongue went on repeating, if only to retain his senses.

And then a few women neighbours also joined mai to intervene. Perhaps bappa too, had tired. Dropping the stick, he suddenly went in. By then his whole body had turned blue and he continued to lie still and sob even after that. He was only semi-conscious when mai, with others' support, brought him in and he realized afresh that he was naked. His heart sank in a flood of shame and pain.

Spreading out a kathari, mai helped him lie down and turning his face towards the wall, he closed his eyes. As bappa too was sitting at the other side of the room, he made an effort not to let out a groan. But couldn’t stop himself. Unknown to him, his mouth began to issue forth a strange, muffled sound. He began to  ache from lying for so long on one side but did not change sides till bappa was there. It was only when bappa went out after some time that he turned his face the other way.

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