Monday, 31 July 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' English translation of chapter 7 of 'Kuchh Zindagiya Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


After that day he turned into a cowardly child again. However now, his fear didn’t disappear, but increased when bappa happened to be near. After his anger had cooled down, bappa had taken him by rickshaw to the government dispensary and had his wounds dressed with tincture. On their way back, bappa had also treated him to jalebis - those syrupy sweets - but the thread between him and bappa had snapped finally.

The thread between him and the others in the lane had snapped too. He was not on talking terms, not only with Kisana but with all the boys in the lane. He never came face to face with Rajee now. If she came to his house, he sneaked out at once without as much as a glance at her. He also avoided looking at other women neighbours. If a woman mentioned the day even to sympathise, or tried sweetly to preach against stealing he felt like strangling her, or even running off to a place where there was no witness to that day.

He felt most shamed and humiliated when he had to go back to work at Chhotelal’s shop. The news of his beating had already reached him. Bappa had returned the cycle parts he had hidden. Chhotelal didn’t say anything and only smiled. The smile held contempt and also a little pity and that was what he found most offensive. He went and sat quietly at a side when Madan pointed to a cycle – ‘Take out the tube of the rear wheel and check for puncture.’

He was completely alone those days. After working silently through the day, he returned at night to lie down and for the entire time that he was free, was nagged by just one thought – that he should run off somewhere. But where? Do what? The only part of his life that belonged to him was when he, sitting or lying down, dreamt like Shaikhchilli – the proverbial fool who was for ever building castles in air – would that he met a man with magical powers who, taking pity on him, would reveal to him the secret of a hidden treasure, or give a magic salve for the eye that would make him disappear so he would be invisible to others but could see everyone, move at will through closed doors and walls (he had seen a film which had such an accomplished magician) or make him so powerful he could conquer the world and no one could stand up to him. He dreamt and he dreamt, funny dreams that would enable him to possess all the human, godly and demonic powers, enjoy all the pleasures and when forced out of these dreams, he remained listless, thinking constantly of how to run away, where to run away.

Some days later, there was also some talk of his marriage – something to the effect that he should be married off in the next Jeth, the third month of the Hindu lunar calender. They had received a proposal from somewhere, he never came to know from where. And then gauna after a year or two. But bappa left it at that, or he didn’t know what exactly happened. The topic came up and it ended.

The month of Jeth came and passed. It was in that year that the country became independent and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru became king – the Prime-Minister. A procession was taken out with him sitting in the same buggy as the English Viceroy. He unfurled the tricolour at the Red Fort. At night there were illuminations. He went neither to the Red Fort to hear the speech nor to see the procession. He went round the bazaar just once in the evening to see the lights. Bappa too, went out only in the evening, all alone, however, he gave him eight annas before leaving.

It was just after that, that Delhi was suddenly flooded with refugees. Two or three families ended up in their lane also. They appeared so strange! Some looked helpless and lost, others fierce and a little mad. They told hair-raising tales of atrocities Hindus and Sikhs were subjected to in Pakistan. A family came to live in a house near the well – they were Sikhs. The man was seen only seldom, and when he was, he was always quiet. His eyes were very strange, so hard one was frightened to look into them. But his wife interacted with everyone. The women in the lane were also curious and three or four of them always had her surrounded. Narrating her tale, she went through strange motions. On the verge of tears one moment, she started screaming like one mad with rage the next, as if possessed by a spirit. He heard the Sikh had two young sisters. He owned a tailor’s shop in a town. When the crowd surrounded his house, he himself beheaded his sisters with his kirpan dagger. He was about to kill his wife when the police arrived. The old police inspector was kind hearted, he had them escorted to the camp. They also had a boy of three or four years who always clung to his mother.

And one day, Delhi too caught this fire. He was sitting at the shop, checking a puncture. Madan was inside the shop, when suddenly a strange noise rose up from every direction and shops began to shut down quickly. There was panic all around. Hearing the noise, Madan came out and the two of them were watching in amazement, trying to figure things out when they saw a crowd of twenty to twenty five people rush in from one side. He took a little time to understand that they were chasing a middle aged man in a tehmad, running ahead of them. All of a sudden, either the man’s tehmad got loose or his feet staggered with fear – a naked dagger flashed in the air. It rose- dripping with fresh human blood. Dropped. Rose again, dropped again.

And the next moment the crowd passed on. His eyes fell upon the road and his feet gave way completely, his head swam, a churning rose in his belly and he began to retch.

He didn’t remember how he got up and went inside the shop. Leaving everything outside the way it was, he bolted the door from inside, dropped down on the floor, trembling for a long, long time. The day passed not in sleep but in a stupor. Chhotelal hadn’t come to the shop the whole day. How could he have? Later, he came to know that curfew had been clamped. Madan had run away then and there or perhaps had joined the crowd.

It was getting dark when bappa came looking for him. It had taken just a few hours for plunder and loot to start. A little further, to the south of the bazaar was a settlement of Muslims – about ten or fifteen huts and a few old brick and cemented houses. Subsequently it became known that a crowd had surrounded the settlement. Only very few could manage to escape. Even before the police arrived, the only survivors in the settlement were the wounded who had been left in the blazing houses. Of them, some were rescued by the police. By the time the fire-brigade arrived, the huts were reduced to ashes and in most of the houses too, the only remains were half-burnt roofs and walls. Some women too were carried away by the men in the crowd. Much later, when he was working in a place in Karol Bagh and also lived there, a couple too lived in a small room nearby. The woman was very quarrelsome, very much so. When the man failed to stand up to her, he bemoaned – ‘I brought you out, saved your life …who knows what sorry end you’d have met otherwise! And this is what you give me in return?’ But the strange thing was that no matter how bitterly they fought, it never came to blows.

This time too, bappa got a curfew pass from his depot. When he returned, mother was flitting about in worry – “Such plunder and killing in the city and the boy is missing”. At first bappa found the shop closed, but on coming closer saw it was bolted not from outside but from inside. Bappa’s knock at the door scared him at first and he neither moved nor made a sound. But when bappa called out, he felt much relieved. Bappa left alone the stuff that lay outside, none of it was very costly any way, but searching out a lock, locked the shop from outside.

When mai saw them coming she ran from a distance and holding him close showered him with kisses. She didn’t stop crying and she didn’t stop kissing him. “O my son, my prince, my moon’. At first he felt reassured, a sense of security but when mai’s caresses didn’t stop he felt a little vexed. Many of the neighbours, both men and women, were watching. Many came later to enquire if Ghaseeta had reached home or not. He concluded that mai must have been really perturbed and must have raised a big hue and cry.

Things with bappa could never be the way they had been earlier – bappa was murdered only a few days later. However, distance between the two reduced a great deal during those last few days. He had become even more of a coward but at least now his fear did not increase when he saw bappa. The city witnessed so much of plunder and killing that leave alone the lane, he was scared to step out of the house. There was a twenty four hour curfew and the military kept patrolling the streets. Then, when the fire cooled down a little there was peace for a few days, but again someone murdered someone in some area or there were isolated incidents of a crowd surrounding a house and putting it on fire before the military or the police could arrive. The occupants, if they received prior information, got away, otherwise they too perished.

Chhotelal’s shop remained shut for a few days and when it opened, mai refused to let him go to work. But bappa started going immediately after the curfew was lifted. Mai was a little scared too, but bappa laughed out loud – “Can anyone dare to come before a military truck?” Those days, a truck from the depot used to ply, taking people to work in the morning and dropping them near their homes in the evening. But bappa had to leave a little early now as the truck had to take a devious route in order to pick up people from different points. The train didn’t take up so much time and the station at the Subzi Mandi- the vegetable market - was quite close to the house and the depot too was near a station.

Bappa was not feeling too well that day. At first, he said he wouldn’t go for work. But then, on second thoughts he said, “Might as well go, what would I do sitting at home, this will only mean a cut in the wages.” He lost some time before arriving at a decision and though delayed by only a minute or two, he missed the truck. Everyone at home thought bappa had gone by the truck. But bappa, not seeing any of his fellow passengers, had thought at first that the truck had left but then had stood there for a few minutes thinking perhaps no other person had come and the truck may still arrive. When it didn’t he started for the station, intending to catch the train.

It wasn’t yet noon when a policeman, with bappa’s name written on a paper, came to make enquiries. Mai was inside the house. He was sitting at the door sill. The policeman stopped under the neem tree – “Is this Chhedilal’s house?” The moment the policeman stopped and asked, his heart skipped a beat. He stood up, was unable to speak, but nodded his head – yes. “Chhedilal has been murdered, his body is lying at the Hindu Rao hospital.” He heard, but didn’t really understand what the policeman was saying. “Who is it?” - Mai asked from inside but he still couldn’t speak or move. When mai came out the policeman repeated his question, then the message – “Is this Chhedilal’s house? Chhedilal has been murdered, the body is lying at Hindu Rao hospital.” Mai seemed paralyzed for a moment. Then hitting herself suddenly on the head, she almost crumbled down to the floor and started to cry loudly. Women from surrounding houses came out and circled mai. Four or five men also appeared. The two money lenders along with Bhagirath and two others who, perhaps hadn’t gone to work or were perhaps unemployed. Tears dropped quickly down his eyes but he had still not regained his voice, as if an unknown force had clamped down his mouth.

And later, the unknown force also locked up the memory of the day in his mind. It was unlocked very rarely and when it was, he lingered very shortly on the days and the ensuing developments. For, whenever the lock opened, the face of bappa lying in the hospital verandah appeared before his eyes – open lips, as though he was still speaking when death arrived, eyes too, open and unmoving, as if they were not real but made of glass. Bappa had no wound on his head but on his chest (or perhaps the back) and on his stomach which had been stitched and bandaged at the hospital. No one knew if he died before or after he reached the hospital. Nor if he had been killed by Muslims or by Sikhs and Hindus, who mistook him for a Muslim.

The policeman who had come with the news also passed on that there had been a commotion at the mouth of a lane almost two furlongs this side of the station. Two policemen, patrolling the area had gone to check and found bappa lying all alone in a pool of blood. Later, he also heard whispers that the masons – Munna and his friends - had taken their long standing revenge when they found the chance. During the days these rumours came to his ears, he was already thinking of leaving home. The rumours did not anger him, nor incited him to take revenge. On the contrary, the resentment in him went up and the wish to go away somewhere, where he wouldn’t meet anyone from the lane, became stronger.

The policeman was still saying how the police patrol had sent for a vehicle from the police station and taken bappa to hospital, how his depot card, stating his name and address was found in his pocket, when suddenly, mai rose and began to run, still crying and screaming. He, and the others too, followed mai. Everyone understood without being told that mai was headed for the hospital. Mai was crying and running as if her early arrival at the hospital was going to make a difference. The city was quite peaceful at the time, the bazaar was open and there were quite a few people on the road who stopped when they saw mai running and crying like this. Many also asked the people from the lane who were following her what had happened. “Her husband has been murdered.” “Tch, tch, tch”- making a sound expressing pity they moved on. Mai did not stop running on the incline before the hospital. She was breathless and her wails had turned to a strange, continuous sound which was filling up that deserted area.

They had placed bappa in a corridor on the outer fringe of the hospital, covered to the top with a hospital sheet. His was perhaps the only corpse in the hospital that day. Mai had gone crashing down on to bappa and accidentally or intentionally by mai, the sheet on the body became displaced, revealing bappa’s face, which gave him a severe shock as if he had been hit forcefully on the chest by someone with a fist. Bappa’s mouth was open with his teeth showing, the fixed eyes seemed artificial, as if made of glass. Unable to watch he looked away but again and again his gaze returned. Then someone covered bappa’s face and he felt some relief.

Some more people, with them Dulaare chacha and the pandit from the Shivala, arrived in a while. The pandit took charge of everything, to make arrangements for an early funeral, “If there is rioting we’d all get trapped here”. Dulaare chacha went to get what was required. The bier was carried straight to the Jamuna river from the hospital. Three or four women from the lane had also arrived. They held mai and then took her home with them. It was perhaps the effect of the pandit’s words that of the ten or twelve people who had come to the hospital, only six or seven went with the funeral.

When someone covered up bappa’s face in the hospital, he was overtaken by a strange desolation and broke into sobs. Bappa’s death had still not registered in his mind but the way his mouth remained open, his eyes looked glazed like glass, wrenched repeatedly at his heart. All the time bappa was being laid out on the funeral pyre and while lighting it up, he kept crying and sobbing, his heart turning in a curious way.

When he returned, he didn’t have the heart to enter the house and sat there at the doorsill. Dulaare chacha went in at once. Mai was sitting against the wall, quiet now, after having cried herself to exhaustion, but seeing him she broke down again. He heard mai’s sobs and lay there on his stomach on the floor. Dulaare chacha came out, paused when he saw him lying but didn’t speak, just sat there quietly.

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