Monday, 25 September 2017

'LIves Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 11 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Praksh Deepak


The police van took hardly five to seven minutes from the lock up to the jail, which, during those days was situated at Delhi Gate and the area wasn’t as crowded. When the van started, he began to think – ‘the van is so crowded, what if the driver lost control and it overturned?' He thought how nice it would be if the impact made the door of the van come loose and the guards sitting at the back got wounded or fainted or were unable to get up, all the prisoners would escape and disappear in the crowd. Meanwhile many of the prisoners who sat looking out by the window, made a strange utterance sounding something like – yo, yo – which was nothing like a human or an animal sound, but somehow like the sound some 'men' sometimes made. And the prisoners made the sound all through the journey. He tried to see what it was that they saw before they made this sound and came to realize after the third or the fourth time that it was when they saw a young girl or a woman on the road that they made the sound.

The van reached the jail, stopped ten paces away and driving in reverse, the driver turned it round in a way that the van’s rear came to face the jail gate. His heart began to pound loudly the moment the van stopped. But before he could think of anything or was in a position to feel anything except for an unknown fear, he found himself standing in a corridor between two huge, closed gates. The instant the van had stopped, a constable had opened the lock on the door and simultaneously a small window had opened in the outer gate. Getting down from the van, they had entered through the window in a double file. He could barely throw one glance at the arched gate and the stone walls. As soon as all the prisoners were in, the constable bolted the door quickly and put a padlock as heavy as three fists. A constable from the guard gave a paper to the warder and read out three names from another paper – ‘Come this way’. The list included his name. The three of them kept standing, as the warder made others sit down in a row in pairs, counted them and opened the window in the inner gate. They went in, escorted by a headman and the window shut down.

Now there were the three of them in the corridor, as also the constables of the guard, two or three warders, two or three headmen, of which, one stood with them. They stood there like this for a fairly long time. The other two men were quite aged and it didn’t seem like their first time in jail. He cast a frightened glance around him. At one side of the corridor was a concrete wall, at the other, a number of room like structures. He was a little surprised to see that the walls were constructed by joining stones together with mortar and seemed ancient. The ceiling of the corridor where they stood was also very high and instead of being flat, was perched on four arches, like a dome. Later he heard that during the emperors rule the Delhi Gate had been the main entrance into the city and the fort, and outside the city wall was an inn. The British, by putting bars etcetera in the rooms of the inn, had converted it into a jail.

They stood there waiting when suddenly he was startled by a woman’s screams coming from somewhere near the gate inside the jail. His heart missed a beat and he felt as if his stomach was getting drawn inwards, as if his chest was aching. How had this woman come to be inside the jail? Who was she? Why was she screaming? What surprised him was that not only the headman but also the other two in custody remained unaffected, as if this was nothing exceptional. After a short pause, one of them asked the headman, ‘Is the mad woman still here?’ Yes she is here. Where else would she go?’ ‘Is there no one in her family? Her father, or brother, or husband?’ ‘No idea. No one ever comes to see her.’

Even lunatics were shut inside jail? He had heard there were asylums where lunatics were kept. But one had to be confined if mad. She must be terribly insane. Perhaps violent. Probably hit people and had therefore been shut in jail. At that moment the Havaldar of the guard, who had perhaps been inside giving his name etcetera, stepped out and gave the paper in his hand to the headman. The window in the outer gate opened first and the guard went out and it was strange that with the exit of the policeman he felt even more lonesome and helpless as if the exit of the policeman had snapped his last link with the world outside, leaving him completely alone amid unknown, unfamiliar threats. The window clanked open and the three of them followed the headman. He was walking behind everyone and had hardly stopped when suddenly the scream of the mad woman echoed in his ears. He had heard the screams earlier too, but taken aback on hearing it from such close quarters, he crashed into the window frame, staggered and with much difficulty saved himself from a fall. Now he found himself standing in a compound surrounded by high walls. Adjacent to the right hand side of the gate, was a room. He could see no door, only the walls on two sides and two heavily barred ventilators high up near the roof. The door was perhaps on the third side. The mad screams were coming out of these ventilators.

Right opposite the gate on the other side of the compound was a small building. Its doors were open and a warder stood outside, along with two headmen. There were two or three headmen inside too. The compound, but for them, was vacant. There were many doors in the walls, all of them closed, their thick bars evoking a strange feeling. The building was surrounded on three sides with thickets of a variety not known to him. In the centre was a small pit, fenced on top, through which could be seen a small, withered, mango sapling. Whether or not it was meant for all the prisoners, but the headman, while pausing by that spot, spoke in a soft voice, ‘Mahatma Gandhi planted this tree. He had come here after Diwali.’ No one said anything. He himself couldn’t make out what to think! For a moment he thought if Mahatma Gandhi had come here, had planted a tree, the jail must have become a somewhat better place. But then doubt crept in. Only sinners and criminals lived in jails.

There was a low table in the building and a headman sat nearby. Looking at the note brought by the headman accompanying him, he wrote something in the register lying on the table, then asked for their names and addresses. The other two men separated from him at this point. Again he felt a little frightened. Why had he been separated? Where had they taken the other two? Where would they take him? But he couldn’t speak or ask anyone anything. Shuddering within, he stood there waiting. However, he didn’t have to wait long. The headman returned quickly. ‘Come.’ Going back to the right of the building, the headman stopped at a door against the bars. A warder appeared at the door. He saw there was another compound inside, a small one, and three long barracks. There were many boys in the compound, most appeared to be the same age as him. It was in fact a barrack for juveniles where boys from 14 to 21 years of age were lodged. The warder checked the note in the headman’s hand and opened the door. He went in, as if, without thinking. The warder locked the door again and sat down on a stool near the wall without looking at him.

He walked four or five steps, then slowed down, then stopped. Where was he to go? He had to live here. In these barracks. In this compound. He kept standing there for a while, forlorn, feeling lost in an alien place. Then his eyes fell on Mehmood sitting at one side, eating. Three or four other boys too, were squatting there, having their food. When the cripple walked towards the water-tap with a basin in hand, he recognized him by his gait and also, watching those boys eat, his hunger over-powered his fear. Mehmood too had come on the van with him and had got his food. He too, might get it. However, he didn’t have the nerve to ask the warder. Turning once, he looked back – the warder sat on the stool in the same posture. What was the point in asking the boys?

Then he saw Mehmood go by closely with three or four boys. Everyone looking at him and laughing in a strange manner. When he saw the cripple’s eyes, all the nerves in his body tensed up in warning. The glint in the cripples eyes was similar to the glint he had often seen in Kisana’s eyes, in fact, even more wicked. He felt a new fear emerge in him but with the fear, some anger too. He was not unaware of the threat the glint in the cripple’s eyes had warned him against. He knew of the wicked goings on amongst the boys in the lane.

He was just standing there, mind alert, when the head warder came to close down the barrack. He called out as soon as he entered, ‘Come, come, sit down everyone!’ The boys began to sit down in pairs to form a double row. He couldn’t understand which row to join. Thinking the warder would tell him, he kept standing in the centre. Then Maqbool rebuked him with an abuse. ‘You! Why aren’t you sitting?’ Maqbool appeared two or three years his senior and had his feet in fetters. He wondered why a prisoner was asking him to sit, then thinking, the others too might be getting punished if one of them failed to sit, he asked – ‘Which line should I sit in?’ ‘You, new here?’ Maqbool asked. He too was an inmate only, but seeing his athletic body, the warder had made him a mate. Without being appointed a headman, Maqbool performed most of the duties of a headman. He was often in jail and was facing three-four trials even in those days.

Yes, he nodded. Maqbool turned towards the head warder, ‘Which barrack would this new boy go to?’ The head warder pointed one way, almost without thinking. Maqbool turned towards him again, ‘Go, sit in that row.’ Turning, he walked in that direction and his blood ran cold when he saw Mehmood sitting there. He also noticed Mehmood begin to whisper to the boys sitting with him and they turned to look. At this point, the head warder shouted from behind him, ‘Boy, what’s your name?’ He stopped and turned. What wrong had he done now? ‘Dharamdas, sir’, he said with respect. ‘Take your basin and blanket’. Then his eyes fell on the headman who had brought him to the barracks. He was standing there with his things – a basin, a ragged rug and an old dirty blanket. It’s not cold. What’ll I do with the blanket? Then he thought he would spread it out to lie on. Clasping the rug and the blanket under his arm, and holding the basin, he sat down at the end of the row. The head warder made a count of the three lines, twice, then the boys at the front of his line began to get up to go into the barrack. The head warder stood at the door and shut the door immediately after him. The sound of the door clicking behind startled him and his head knocked lightly against the door bars. But he was not hurt. Standing there, he looked around him to see if there was a vacant place, away from where Mehmood was, where he could roll out his rug and blanket. Suddenly he heard a voice from a side – ‘New lad. That cripple, the rascal will break a bottle today.’ He looked opposite to where the voice had come from, there was some space on the floor. At a little distance from others were some things belonging to someone. He walked towards that space. Folding up the blanket, he spread out the rug on the top, put the basin near the head space and sat down. The moment he sat down he was struck again with hunger pangs. No one had said anything to him about food. The head warder was getting the other barracks closed for the night. He thought once of calling out to the warder to say he hadn’t got any food, but he didn’t get up. And then Mehmood came near him. ‘Boy, who asked you to put your blanket here. Get up.’ Mehmood’s face and eyes were harder than usual but his mind had been ready for something like this. He did not get up. Mehmood stood a little sideways, putting all his weight on one leg. ‘Can’t you hear me, boy? Get up and spread your blanket over there.’ Mehmood pointed with his hand. ‘Why, does this place belong to you?’ ‘Will you get up or should I give you a few smacks?’ A sound at the door made him look. The warder, after getting the barracks closed, was unlocking to shut Maqbool in. Mehmood too, saw from the corners of his eyes and withdrew one leg. He felt a little heartened. Mehmood won’t dare to manhandle him as long as the warder was present. He also mustered some courage, if the cripple raised his hand, he too would hit. The cripple, with one leg and a half, couldn’t be stronger than him. The warder went away after locking up. In the failing light he saw, there was just one headman left in the compound. Maqbool was standing near the door, perhaps to light up a cigarette.

The moment Mehmood saw that the warder had left, he stepped up again, ‘You won’t listen unless’, and the cripple caught and pulled his shirt from the neck. The pull and the fear that his shirt might give way made him stand up. Meanwhile, perhaps Maqbool had seen them and clanking his fetters came in their direction. ‘What is it? What has happened?’ ‘Nothing boss, this boy has spread out his blanket over here. When I am asking him to get up, he is acting tough.’ Maqbool’s face hardened a little. ‘It’s because he is new here. All his toughness will drop in just one blow.’ He felt trapped now. From Mehmood’s firm hold he knew that the cripple was scrawny only in appearance, his bones still had it in them. And there was no scope of any misjudgement about Maqbool’s brawny body. He thought he had escaped in the police-station, but won’t be spared here. The fear in his heart probably showed on his face because the strong tension on Maqbool’s face relaxed at once. ‘Are you from Delhi? A first timer?’ He nodded. The fear had robbed his limbs of their strength, his mouth of words. ‘Sit’, Maqbool said and he was so relieved, he controlled himself with some difficulty. In that moment of fear he had felt his belly pull inwards. When the tension relaxed his head almost reeled and he felt sick. Sitting down, he dug his head into his knees. Hunger, together with fear had so exhausted him that he broke into a sweat for a while. He continued to sit for some time with his head on his knees, then stretched out and closed his eyes when he felt a little better.

When Maqbool asked him to sit, Mehmood was taken aback and not knowing what to do next, looked at Maqbool’s face, which no longer held any hardness. The cripple went hobbling over to the other side – ‘Ok, beta ...son, you are sure to fall into my hands, someday.'

After he lay down and closed his eyes, Maqbool arranged his fetters and spreading out his legs on the blanket, sat down. Then asked, ‘What’s your name?’ He opened his eyes but didn’t get up. ‘Dharamdas.’ ‘What have you been charged with?’ At first he thought of saying ‘with theft’, but then remembering the cripple’s words in the lock up, said – ‘With one hundred and nine.’ ‘Don’t you have parents?’ He shook his head. ‘No one who could bail you out?’ He didn’t exactly know what ‘bail’ meant but shook his head once again. There must be someone where he lived? He tried to think of an answer and began to consider everyone in the lane, turn by turn. Could he send for someone? But there was still a certain resentment in his mind. Informing someone in the lane would mean informing mai and Dulaare chacha. He was not angry with mai now but the idea of Dulaare chacha coming to his rescue was intolerable.  He kept thinking and didn’t speak.

Suddenly Maqbool asked, ‘Haven’t the policemen given you food?’ And again he was on the verge of tears. That morning, saying that the policemen ate up the food meant for the prisoners, Jidda had given two biscuits to eat. And now, it was Maqbool asking him. No one had asked or offered him anything all through the day, as if, he had no need for food. He said nothing. Maqbool realized that he was hungry. Bending backwards, he picked up a tin box with a lid, opened the lock with a key tied to his waist with a string, took out two fists full of roasted gram and one onion and put it in his basin. ‘Eat it.’ Without speaking he sat up and began to eat. In his hunger he gobbled down all the gram quickly with the onion. He would have eaten all the gram with equal gusto had there been no onion. Even though it didn’t fill up his belly, he was much comforted. Having eaten, he looked up and around him. Maqbool pointed with his finger at an earthen pitcher full of water. His heart hesitated once while going towards the water pot. Mehmood was sitting there leaning against the wall. The cripple saw him pass but said nothing. On reaching the pot he thought of tilting it to pour water into his basin but there were boys sitting or lying down on their blankets on both the sides. There would be problem if the water spilled. The boys would find an excuse to fight. But someone may, if he dipped his basin in the pot, protest that he had polluted the water. He was still in this dilemma when a boy appeared, dipped his basin in the pitcher and went away with water. His heart faltered once again for a moment – who knows how many and what kind of people put their used basins in the pitcher? Who would know if someone was suffering from scabies or other infectious disease? Everyone – Hindus, Muslims, even chamaars - leather workers and mehtars - sweepers, scavengers - must be drinking from this pitcher. But there was no other option. He had to have water. The grams and the onion had made him even more thirsty. He put his basin inside the pitcher and standing there, gulped down two basins of water. Having had his fill, he felt his eyes had got back their vision. He felt revived.

When he returned to his blanket, Maqbool was lighting a beedi. An empty box of boot polish had a half-burnt cotton yarn in it. Maqbool rubbed a tiny iron chip over a stone. Rubbed again. A spark fell on the yarn and it began to burn. Maqbool closed down the box after lighting his beedi, looked at him and asked, ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here’, and Maqbool held the beedi out to him. Later he came to know, one was allowed beedis and cigarettes in the jail but not matchbox. Now that he had got some respite from hunger, thirst and fear, he felt tired. After smoking the beedi, he stretched out.

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