Wednesday, 8 November 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' English translation of chapter 12 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak.


The court had acquitted him on that occasion, but only after a three month stay in jail. He'd had his first hearing ten or twelve days after his first day in jail, and when, on return from the hearing, he had told Maqbool that the judge he had been first taken to had changed and that his trial was now in Judge Sajnani’s court, Maqbool had said – ‘You’re fortunate young fellow. Sajnani never sentences anyone under one hundred and nine. He stays somewhere close to Kashmiri Gate and goes for a walk at the break of dawn when it is still dark. Once he was taking a walk near Kudasia Ghaat at four in the morning. It had rained and he had rolled up the bottom of his trousers to save them from getting soiled. When the police patrol saw him, they booked him under one hundred and nine and locked him up. They made him sit for two hours at the police station. It was only when they asked his name that the truth came out. And what a dressing down he gave to all of them! Had them all placed under suspension. Since then he has vowed never to sentence anyone under one hundred and nine.’

During those three months, he had felt at times he would start screaming wildly, go nuts. But somehow he survived. Partly, perhaps because he learned, to a large extent, to transfer his fear down to his fists. Whenever, he was afraid, his fists tightened, his heart pounded loudly, as the fear deepened his limbs too became numb but he never let his fear show on his face. What surprised him the most in the beginning was Maqbool. How the whole barrack was afraid of him! So much so, that even the warder and the headmen were cautious when talking to Maqbool, who was facing three trials for theft, one for rioting. He had been out on bail in the first three trials and had been gambling somewhere when a constable or havaldar arrived to demand his share. They exchanged heated words. When the constable, foul mouthed, called him a name, Maqbool caught him by his neck and hit his head against the floor, nose down. The nose broke. The police had then given him a sound thrashing. This time his bail application was rejected by the sessions court and he had been put in fetters immediately on arrival in jail.

And yet, there was a softness in Maqbool’s eyes which was missing in the eyes of everyone else in jail. The eyes of all the others, whether they be prisoners, officers or warders, were hard and cold. One could tell by looking that they would show no mercy under any circumstances. If ever Maqbool looked at someone in anger, the person broke into a cold sweat, and yet, his eyes looked like that of a child. He seemed unafraid of everything. He was the mate at the barracks and this was only natural. Who else could be the mate as long as he was there? Who could dare to say anything to him? In the morning, when the barracks opened, he made everyone fall in line, made a count and then, had the food distributed. When the boys, who had a hearing that day, left, he sat down for a game of cards with the warder or the headman or a boy. Sometimes he drew something like a map on the floor and played a game using shards as pieces. A game he couldn’t learn despite Maqbool’s attempts at teaching. Maqbool also took care of the furnace that was kindled once a week to wash their clothes and took out some coal for himself to keep. On days the vegetable was badly cooked, he kindled those coals to season it again. Occasionally, he obtained some potatoes from only he knew where and cooked them. The rest of the boys dried up the rotis left over from their meals. He was astonished to see those dried up rotis burn as readily as dried up twigs.

Thanks to Maqbool, not only did he escape the cripple’s clutches that day, he also lived in a measure of comfort later too. Maqbool’s treatment of him resembled that of a boy who finds and brings home a small puppy, miserable with cold and hunger, and feeds it, covers it with a blanket. Maqbool talked only seldom to him but whenever he cooked, always gave him his share. That first night, he had slept very little. Partly because his hunger had not been fully satiated and partly because the blanket had perhaps been infested with bugs and they had bitten him all through the night. But apart from all this a strange smell in the barracks, emanating from the bodies and the breath of the boys sleeping there, and mingling, when ever there was a gust of breeze, with the stink of the urinal built on one side, had kept disturbing him. Once he became accustomed, he himself mingled with the smell and found it strangely comforting, particularly in the winter. But it hadn’t been cold that first night. Besides, the smell had been unfamiliar and he had found the barracks very stifling. Occasionally a boy had mumbled in his sleep, the calls of the watchman had kept echoing throughout the night. His sleep had got disturbed every now and then but his mind had been numb. He had been unable to think about what was going to happen next, nor what he would have to do, what he should do?

When he got up in the morning, his eyes were smarting. He had slipped into sleep just an hour or two back and when he awoke this time, most of the boys were already up. Maqbool was sitting, smoking a beedi, his legs stretched out. He couldn’t draw his legs up because of the fetters. He was up and rubbing his eyes when the head warder arrived to open the barracks.

He was very pleased that day with the jail practice of an early meal. Food was served early in jail because the inmates were sent to work by nine in the morning. However, he was very hungry and when the food was served early, he felt happy. Because he was hungry, he could eat two rotis. There was ‘daal’, but he couldn’t make out which ‘daal’ it was. Apart from the taste of salt, chillies and a little oil, he guessed from its dark colour and sticky consistency it was whole ‘horse-bean’. The moment he put a piece of roti in his mouth, sand grated under his teeth. At first, he thought of  spitting it out, but then forced it down somehow. Maqbool had given him an onion and he managed two rotis with it but when he finished the onion, he didn’t have the courage to start on the third one. His hunger too was almost satisfied. He threw the remaining ‘daal’ in the drain and slipped the roti under the rug intending to ask Maqbool for an onion to eat it with, in case he felt hungry during the day. But he didn’t feel hungry again.

Nearly all of the boys in the barrack were under trial. He heard that the boys, sentenced to more than one or two months, were sent to the ‘Borstal’ jail in Hissar. They weren’t usually made to work as they were under-trials but occasionally the warder engaged them for watering plants or pulling out grass etcetera in the barrack compound itself, or at times in another barrack. The inmates were not provided with scrapers etcetera and the grass had to be scrapped out by hands. The boys kept at it slowly but watering plants required a little labour. Buckets had to be filled up at the tap and poured down plants and thickets.

This is how he had run into Jidda a second time. The warder had sent him along with ten or twelve other boys to pull out grass in the compound of ‘Korateen’ . He had heard that when a prisoner was punished by jail authorities, he was put in fetters and was shut in an isolated cell, and was made to grind twenty seers of wheat in one day, that was why the cells were called grinding mills. But Jidda was neither shut in nor grinding wheat. However, his feet did have fetters around them. He was sitting on a platform in front of a cell, playing cards and drinking a cup of tea which did surprise him but not much. Small fire pots burnt in all the barracks. And Jidda was a prisoner with some reckoning. He must have ordered milk by asking the Doctor or bribing the compounder.

He too sat down on the side where Jidda was sitting and began to pull out grass. He was also being a little greedy. Jidda may perhaps see him and offer tea. But Jidda was engrossed in the card game. Even if he saw him, he paid no attention. He had probably not seen him as, constrained by the fetters, he was sitting with his legs stretched out and could see him only if he turned around to look. Two of the other card players with him were prisoners, probably under-trial, as they were wearing their own clothes. One was a headman. Suddenly one cracked a joke with Jidda, ‘Boss, I hear you too have been caught by the lure of the skirt. Did you marry?’

Jidda laughed out loud, then spat out suddenly, ‘What marriage? Am I made to fulfil the whims of a bitch all my life and then raise her litter? There is a girl with me these days. Such fun. She is an orphan, and used to go around begging. But she sure is delicious. I had brought her with me to enjoy for a few days. But I have no clue what’s wrong with the bitch. Each night she brays out as if it is her first night. Otherwise, she is o.k. That’s why I can’t have my fill of her. It’s been four months almost. She doesn’t act difficult, just sits tamely. I hope she doesn’t run away by the time I am out! But where would she run away to? She has no place. I had sent some money to my place so she won’t starve, at least. But I can’t be sure that a pal such as you won’t walk off with her.’ And again, Jidda laughed at his own joke, although not as loudly.

‘Who can eye anything that belongs to Jidda?’ The other prisoner with him tried to humour him. Jidda was perhaps in a very good mood. Twirling his moustache, he said, ‘Many a time I have asked, O, Basantia, why do you cry? Does it really hurt or do you pretend? But she says nothing and only looks at you like a cow.’

‘She must be putting on an act boss, women enjoy even more than men.’ Jidda took a sip of the tea and said a little mischievously, ‘Come over some day if the judge does not send you in for five years and I’ll make you take a dip. Then you can tell if she is pretending or not. Not that she is very chaste or virtuous. In fact she was walking the streets. Who knows how many have taken a dip.’

‘If she is shamming’, this time the headman spoke, ‘she won’t be waiting for you. She’ll take whatever things she can lay her hands on and run off.’ Jidda twirled his moustache again, ‘Where will she run off to? Where will she go with Jidda’s things? I’ll bring her back from where ever she’ll be and make twenty youths mount her one by one. Then I’ll see how the bitch acts.’

A strange silence fell at Jidda’s words. As he was listening, his hands had stopped on their own. Although Jidda was facing the other side, his face and his eyes now loomed in front of him. A strange tension appeared on the faces of the rest of the three, their eyes gleamed in a strange, frightening way and he knew, had Jidda’s eyes been facing him, they’d have appeared even more frightening. His limbs had grown slack and he sat without moving for a while. When the boy pulling grass at some distance came completely close, he gave a start and began to pull at the grass quick and fast so he could get away from there.

Jidda and his companions were still playing cards but now, perhaps, their heart was not in it. Suddenly the headman who had brought them there called out, ‘Boy, come and see here, there is so much grass, pull this out, all these rascals, they sit only at one spot.’ As if relieved, he got up quickly and went in that direction. Sitting down with his back to Jidda’s cell, he began to move his hands rapidly. And then, except for a side glance once or twice, he didn’t turn that way during the whole time that he was there. He was feeling queer inside and wanted that Jidda shouldn’t see him, shouldn’t recognize him. He tried again and again not to think of all that they had said but their words kept swirling in his mind even as he sat there.

Had he heard right? Had Jidda said ‘Basantia’, or some other name? Was it the same Basantia who had lived at the Shivala? He was struck with a strange revulsion when he remembered Jidda’s words. What kind of people were they? What kind of men? How could Jidda enjoy when the girl cried? Once his mind went to the extent of thinking of what would happen if he was with the girl and she started crying? He shuddered inside. How could a person enjoy when someone was crying with pain?

His mood had turned strangely sombre by the time he returned to his barrack. Maqbool had cooked potatoes with onions. When the food was served in the evening, Maqbool didn’t take his portion of the vegetable. When he began his meal, Maqbool asked with a little odd look, ‘Do you want some vegetable?’ His look was doubtful as if he expected him to say 'no'. He hesitated once, Maqbool’s look reminding him that he was a Hindu, Maqbool a Muslim. Also that he had accepted roasted gram and onions from Maqbool but that Maqbool had cooked a vegetable for the first time after his arrival. He hesitated once, then said, ‘Give me some.’ He noticed, as he ate, that many of the boys looked at him again and again. It had become a little easier to eat the rotis with the vegetable and instead of the usual two, he ate two and a half. Although many more were piled under his blanket. After that day, he noticed that the hostility present in Mehmood’s eyes for him was missing. Mehmood even laughed at times now when talking to him. But he also found that many of the Hindu boys had begun to grow distant from him. There was nothing on the surface, nobody said anything, but the barrack appeared to have become divided in three sections. A few Muslim boys, a few Hindu boys, and between the two, a number of boys – both Hindus and Muslims – who paid no attention to such things. If ever a word slipped out from some body’s mouth, it was like a spark in the air. But nothing happened that would have started a fight.

There was more tension amongst the headmen and the warders, than amongst the boys. There was no Muslim warder or officer in the jail. They had all moved to Pakistan. A few of the headmen may have been Muslims, he didn’t exactly get to know. Some of the headmen and the warders used certain expletives for the Muslim prisoners, but not usually in the presence of others. And one day, when they were watering the plants near the ‘circle’ inside the compound, he saw many people, donning black caps, go into the vestibule. (Meanwhile, he had come to know that the corridor and the offices, falling in between the two gates, were called the ‘vestibule’, and the building in the compound, where names etcetera were noted down, ‘the circle’. However, he could never gather why that building was called the circle.) Who are those people, when a boy asked, the headman accompanying them answered that they belonged to 'Raitery (Rashtreeya) Sangh' and opposed Pakistan. They were the ones who rescued Hindus from Pakistan but the Government had put them behind bars in order to appease Pakistan.

One of the prisoners, perhaps a boy named Sunder, didn’t react to what the headman said but later spoke to the boy who had asked the question, ‘They are associates of Gandhi’s killer and have therefore been arrested by the Government. This rascal of a headman talks only rubbish. They had wanted to kill even Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru!’ The matter went over the boys’ heads and therefore didn’t stretch any further.

Slowly, he got accustomed to the jail routine and when Maqbool narrated to him Judge Sajnani’s story, he also began to hope he’d be released. His sleep didn’t get disturbed now at night, when the headmen called out, ‘Go on - all is well’. He had come to know that headmen were posted at short distances against the wall and a piece of wood or brass was circulated. One of the headmen walked up and handed the piece to the second one, then the second one walked up to the third. One of them said ‘Go on’, the other answered, ‘All is well’. And this was how they kept watch all through the night.

However, around ten days or so before his release, it was as if the earth shook suddenly and all routine was disturbed. A new boy arrived that day in the barrack. An old hand at picking pockets, he had been to jail twice earlier, each time for three months and had been caught again in a new case. He had an old enmity with some boys and was, unfortunately locked in along with them. When the boys went to sleep at night, those boys gagged him, using small pieces of shaving blades scratched his whole body, heating up a coin branded both his thighs. The rest of the boys, even if they saw anything, didn’t intervene and no one in the other barracks came to know a thing during the night. When the barrack opened in the morning, the boy was in no condition to come out. He just lay there, groaning.

When the head warder found one missing, he shouted, ‘Where has one gone?’ Then some boys told him that the boy who had come yesterday was lying inside. The head warder went in cursing, but looking at the boy’s condition, came out cursing twice as vehemently. The hospital was informed. The compounder came and applied tincture on the gashes, bandaged the thighs. It was only after two or three days that the boy could walk again, but despite repeated questioning, didn’t name those who had done it. He was perhaps scared the boys would take revenge again if he told on them. But the rest of the boys in the barracks knew. Slowly the boys in the other barracks also came to know and then it reached the ears of the headmen and warders.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, the headman of the barrack was changed that very day. The new headman, earlier the orderly of the jailor, was shrewd, enjoyed the confidence of the officers and was serving life-sentence for murder. He was one of the three or four headmen in jail who wore a black turban. It was from conversations about the headman that he learned there were four categories of headmen – those with a belt, those with a white turban, those with a black turban and those with a yellow turban. He came to know that there was just one headman with a yellow turban and he was posted at the black mills where the most dreaded and fearsome prisoners, punished by the jail, were kept. That boy was shifted to another barrack. It was quite late at night when the screams and cries from the next barrack woke them up. All the boys stood beside the bars. No one could know at the time what the matter was. All that they could make out was that many of the headmen, warders and probably also a deputy, were inside and beating the boys with belts. The beating continued for almost one to one hour and a half. Even when it was over the boys were still terror-stricken all through the night. He couldn’t sleep at all. They had come to know in the morning that the headman had gone and sat the previous night with the boys whose names had been mentioned and had kept lambasting them saying the rascals took the jail too lightly, thought themselves to be the big boss and were under impression they could beat whom they pleased, brand any one at will. Wouldn’t the authorities come to know even if the lad didn’t speak up? Each of them would be thrashed till they collapsed. He had kept on the harangue for some time when one of the boys, perhaps to divert him, had asked for a light for his beedi. Taking offence, the headman had shouted expletives involving his mother and sister and said he was not a servant of the …’s father, light up the ….’s beedi indeed. Suddenly enraged, the boy could think of nothing else and had spit on the headman’s face. That did it. The headman had called other warders and headmen. Word reached the ‘vestibule’, a deputy too arrived. Unlocking the barrack, they gave the boys a thorough thrashing. Anyone who happened to fall before them received the brunt of their belts. But around eight or ten boys were selected exclusively and beaten badly. Their bodies were swollen in the morning. Some of them had perhaps got it on their faces as well, as their faces too were puffed up. Then they were presented before the superintendent and were put in ‘danda-berree’.

He had not seen ‘danda-berree’ so far. The ends of their fetters were attached to an iron rod which made it impossible for them to stretch their legs. Not only was it difficult to walk, even sitting or lying down brought no relief. Then he noticed that Maqbool and the other prisoners in ‘danda-berree’ had bandages of wool swathed round their legs to save them from getting cut up. But these boys had ‘danda-berree’ on bare legs. Within two days, legs of most of the boys had gashes. Then, collecting rags from here and there, they had wrapped up their legs. The compounder came and applied medicine, yet the day he was released, most of them had festering wounds on their legs and the boys suffered agonies even in going to the toilet.

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