Sunday, 31 December 2017

'Lives Without meaning' - English translation of chapter 15 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' ( कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब ) novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Maqbool had come some days later. But the routine had changed with the arrival of Mehmood. He used to leave for work in the morning, when Mehmood was still having tea. In Mehmood’s company, he too was getting in the habit of a morning cup. He didn’t know what Mehmood did during the day but when he returned in the evening from the shop, there were usually two or three other men and a game of flush was on. And along with the game, drinks. He would come and lie quietly in a corner. But from the first or the second day itself, when no one felt inclined to get up, they would ask him to get pakorras -fritters or kababs or daal-moth. After drinks, they usually went out to eat. Mehmood came late at times. At times disappeared for the night and returned the next day. Once or twice  - brimming with happiness - he told him that he had spent the night with Firoza. His mouth moved slowly at the time, as if he was still savouring the taste of something. Whenever there was a gathering, he too received some money. Whoever won, gave him a rupee or eight annas. Gradually, he came to acquire a strange position, not that of a young boy, neither exactly that of a servant, but somewhere between the two.

No one asked him to join in the game. And as he never had the money, how could he himself have asked for a turn? Once he had asked Mehmood to explain and always watched them at the game and yet could never get the hang of it. At times he sat behind Mehmood and observed his moves but was unable to catch on. At times, Mehmood discarded very high cards, and at other times, kept on bidding on low cards. Once, on Mehmood’s continuous prompting he had also taken a drink. It had tasted foul but on becoming a little tipsy, he had begun to enjoy. He had taken a little more. And then, in a while, he had seemed to have lost all control over his limbs. Everyone had had a good laugh at him. He had been in no shape to go out to eat. But Mehmood, perhaps taking pity on him had brought him some pakorras before going out, 'eat these, you’ll feel better. Eat and go to sleep.'

He had woken up the next day with a splitting head and aching limbs. After a bath his condition had improved a little but had remained off colour throughout the day. He had no idea when Mehmood had returned the previous night. Mehmood had laughed in the morning. 'O boy! It took so little to knock you down. I was telling you to keep eating side by side. One must always have something to eat with drinks. Something salty and spicy. Salt and spice will kill the poison in the spirit. Otherwise the poison rises up from your gut.' And he had kept thinking that when he had money, he’d drink only moderately, (only the amount he had in his first glass) and he would first eat daal moth, the korma (he didn’t know korma from Roghan Josh but he had appreciated korma) and then, if he got a girl in the hotel, fine, if not he would go to G. B. road. To Firoza’s house? No, why invite the cripple’s ire? There would be many others over there.

The cripple was always carrying a fair amount of money those days. He used to go out during the day for two or three hours. There was more opportunity for picking pockets in big crowds. He was purring with happiness one day, he had picked a pocket worth two hundred rupees the previous day (he hadn’t returned that night and said he had been at Firoza’s). Come, let me show you how to use a ‘lakkad’. (He had learned that day that ‘lakkad’ meant a blade. Also that ‘thaan’ meant a thousand rupees, ‘gaj’ a hundred rupees and ‘girah’ meant ten). But he had failed to learn. The cripple gave up in just two or three days. 'No boy, you are not cut out for this. For one, your fingers are thick and they don’t move nimbly because you are so scared. And if you are scared, you are gone. The slightest shake of fingers and you are in for a drubbing. First at the hands of the public, then the confounded policemen, and rest is taken care of by the jail staff.'

He wondered how the cripple had come to know his deepest secret in just two days... that he was shit scared. The reason why he couldn’t learn to use the blade, could never have money, could neither eat korma with drinks sitting in a hotel nor ask a girl or go to G. B. Road. He sat at the cycle shop during the day, did whatever work was there, brought pakorras or kababs or daal-month when people gathered in the room and got a rupee or eight annas from whoever won in the game of flush.

This became the routine of his life and remained so even after Maqbool arrived. Maqbool slept at home but visited there at times during the day or in the evening. Played a game of flush at times but seldom drank. Mehmood told him that Maqbool went to Bundu Khalifa’s akharra for workout and therefore did not drink. Maqbool also stayed more in the company of the people at the akharra. Seeing him there Maqbool had asked, 'you are still here?' And nothing more. Perhaps he had found out from Mehmood what he was doing. He had been surprised when Mehmood told him of Maqbool’s acquittal in the case of rioting – he had bought off that policeman with five hundred rupees and the policeman had given a twist to his statement. He had been sentenced to six months in jail in a theft case but the sessions court had granted him bail.

Gradually he realized that it was Mehmood, who was the real leader of the gang (though they were all youths of around twenty years of age). Maqbool did not take his share from their daily earnings. However when a big theft was planned, it was Maqbool who led. First because he had an athletic, strong body. And second because he was unafraid and clever. There was a daily risk but no big money in picking pockets. Whereas it was normal to lay hands on loot to the tune of four to five thousand in a theft. The winters that year had passed comfortably. When he had some money in hand, he had gone to the rag market and bought an old coat and two blankets. But a few days after the holi festival, when he went to the shop, he had found it closed. He had sat there and waited till noon and then had come away. He had no idea where the Sikh gentleman lived. He went again in the evening, the shop was still closed. When he had gone the next day, there were workers making some renovations. He came to know that the shop had earlier belonged to a Muslim, who had fled to Pakistan. The Sikh man had taken possession during the riots. The shop was at a good spot and the Sikh man had given its possession for four (or may be five) thousand to a bania - a grocer, who was going to open a grocery shop there.

When his job at the shop was cut short, he became totally dependent on Mehmood and his cronies and also began to feel the pinch of money. He got eight annas or a rupee only when there was a game of flush. Now that he had no work he stayed in the room only and Mehmood’s attitude too, changed suddenly. Mehmood knew that now he depended completely on his money and began to treat him more or less like a servant, asking him to do chores like fetching tea, cigarettes, soda or returning the empty glasses and bottles. His mind too, was overtaken by a lethargy or rather, something akin to exhaustion. He felt no inclination to go anywhere, do anything. When Mehmood went out, he stayed sprawled in the room. But one day, when Mehmood threw his dirty underwear before him, along with one rupee, saying – Wash these, they’ve become too dirty – his mind revolted.

He was short of money, so he washed the clothes but after this, began to avoid Mehmood. He returned late at night, kept loitering here and there, and once even had an altercation with the cripple. One night, seeing a number of porters who carried loads of vegetables lying down near the vegetable market, he too joined them. A middle aged man asked where he hailed from. Perhaps from his face, he looked like an easterner. When he said that although he had lived in Delhi, he belonged to Sultanpur, the porters came to regard him as one of their own. He found they were all from that region. No one from Sultanpur exactly, but from Deoria, Gorakhpur, Banaras, Mirzapur.

The middle aged porter was from Mirzapur. He kept asking general questions. Talking to him, he kept hoping that the porter would talk about getting him work. But these porters were themselves homeless, carrying loads to earn a daily wage of a rupee or twelve annas or a rupee and a quarter or a half at most, spending some of it on food and saving the rest. But once he came to know them, he often went towards the market during the day. If he found someone, sitting idle, he talked to him. If there was a light load, he carried it. He was going less frequently to Maqbool’s room now.

The porters slept in groups of ten or twelve. Perhaps that was the reason the police did not bother them much. The police patrol passed by, turning a blind eye or at times, sat with them to smoke a beedi. He was still scared of the police but realized there was nothing to fear. Still he didn’t much enjoy the company of the porters either. For one thing, they were all grown up and had families. There was no one his age. They had left their homes, their families and a few, their lands behind in their villages hoping they’d return after making and saving money in Delhi. Almost all of them had tilled another’s field, or had owned a small holding and were in debt, and hoped to earn and pay back. They were forever talking about their home and village.

It was partly because he still hungered for the pakorras and the daal-moth, and also because he got some money when there was a gathering that he still visited the room once in a while in the evening. The cripple had become a little indifferent towards him now. He went there and if a game of cards was on, sat quietly. If someone wanted something, he threw the money at him, 'Hey Dharma, get a packet of cigarettes, get the scissors brand.'  Now that he wasn’t there permanently, they didn’t think it necessary to give him money on winning. At times they paid, at times not. At times some money was left after making purchases, but only a few annas.

At times like these, he grew sad. He had discovered one or two isolated spots and used to go there to sleep. The spot was convenient and free from the fear of the police. From the vegetable market, one could also see ‘Jeetgarh’, built in the memory of the British killed in the mutiny. That too was a good spot but not completely hassle free. A little further down was a ruin, a relic of a building from the days of the emperor’s rule. A staircase leading up to an open space and also a room with a roof. Ideal for both summer and rain. And the best part was there was no risk of the police. The police patrol never went that side and even if they did, couldn’t see anyone lying on the terrace, not even in the torch light.

It was his greed that did him in. His clothes had become too grimy so he washed and put them out to dry in the room and went off to sleep. In the morning, Mehmood said, 'will you work?' 'What work?' 'Look, if you want the work, say yes. You won’t have to carry loads, you only have to sit.' All of the open space on Faiz road had been taken up from start to finish by Punjabis to put up stalls or to build small houses by joining bricks. At the end point, where a road from Panchkuian came up to the ridge, A new club had perhaps been opened where hooch was sold and people gambled all day long. A distillery was run by its side. Earlier he had thought liquor was sold openly in Delhi, so what was the need to sell on the sly. Gradually, he came to know one needed a licence to sell liquor. There was so much money in selling direct from distillery that one could become rich in just two or four months. Besides the club owner received one anna per rupee in gambling. There was no doubt a little risk but negligible if one greased the palms of the police. And one earned without putting in anything. If there was a game of sixteen hundred in a day, a hundred rupees would come to the owner! Just thinking about it made his head reel.

His job was to sit at the door. To let in any person who asked for Sardul and no one else. To knock at the door in a special manner if he sensed danger or saw a policeman patrolling the lane. There was a back exit, all the people and the staff went to adjoining house at the slightest hint of a risk and if the danger was more grave they could all slip away from another exit. The club too belonged to a Punjabi – Laddharam. There were two others besides him on his pay roll who sat inside supervising the sales and the game. The strange thing was that whereas all visitors to Maqbool’s room, barring him, were Muslims, most of the visitors here were either Hindus or Sikhs. But if Mehmood visited, there must have been other Muslim visitors too, or perhaps, people didn’t realize that Mehmood was Muslim. He didn’t appear like one from his face. And he, in any case, couldn’t tell a Muslim without the distinguishing moustache and beard.

Now, he often slept at the club. People kept going in and out till late at night. And thereafter, eating at a Sikh’s dhaba close by, lay down at the club only.

One morning he went from there towards the jungle and while returning noticed a rock near a little lane, somewhat longer than the platforms in jail, but absolutely flat and smooth. Now whenever he longed to be alone, he made for that rock. Now he also had lots of money, had had a proper shave and went for one regularly after every two or three days and also got quite a few clothes stitched. Once, he also felt like getting a pair of pants, but wasn’t sure it would suit him and that he'd be able to walk properly in it, with confidence, the way the others did. And had therefore got a kurta pyjama stitched by a Muslim tailor at the ‘baarraa’. Also a woollen jacket.

He kept his stuff locked in a small tin box in Maqbool’s room, although he now visited very rarely. He was saving money now and whatever savings he made, he locked in that box. He was having an easy time. Without putting in hard labour, he was making good money. He had noticed that many easterners had opened paan and cigarette shops at various points. And he had begun to calculate. If he continued to get money from the club even only for the next eight to ten months, he would have three to four hundred rupees. When he had that much money, he too would open a paan-cigarette shop somewhere. There were new settlements coming up, he’d get a place for a cheap rent and the shop too would pick up fast.

Now that the thought of saving money occurred to him, he started spending more thriftily and dropped the idea of a woollen coat. It wasn’t that cold yet and he had brought a blanket over from Maqbool’s for use at night. He had thought that he too would gamble on Diwali with five rupees.. if luck favoured the five might grow into five hundred. But he didn’t get a chance to try his luck. The club was raided two days before Diwali – at ten at night. The police had formed a special squad to check gambling on and around Diwali. The Karoli Bagh police station was paid a monthly sum but perhaps the head of that squad nursed a grudge against the Karoli Bagh station house officer. He carried out a number of raids in Karoli Bagh in just two days. The club too got wind of it. They were on alert the whole day. Had it been some other occasion, the gambling party might have dispersed but even though some of the party left the game, others in the spirit of Diwali, remained sitting. When night fell and the police didn’t show up, everyone relaxed.

Spreading out his blanket he had just lain down after dinner, when there was a knock at the door. He sat up startled, who was it? 'Open up,' two or three sharp voices rose at once and again, the knock. The people inside had also heard and there was instant panic. Had he been inside with the others, perhaps he too would have fled. But alone in that room, his feet seemed to have frozen. The voices outside, as also the knocks at the door grew sharper and sharper. Those voices seemed to have him tied down. Instead of exiting from the rear, he began to advance towards the door. 'Who is there?' He asked again with extreme difficulty. 'Open the door and we’ll tell you.' His hands moved almost unconsciously towards the latch. Even as he was about to undo the latch a voice from within cautioned him … let it remain closed. But at that instant there was a push at the door, his hand shook badly, the door opened and the policemen came barging in. One of them caught his hand, led him outside and made him sit in the police van parked there. The rest went in but could get hold of only two fat traders who perhaps had been unable to run due to either their bulk or nervousness. After getting out of the back door they had, begun to run in the lane instead of going in the next house. Both the traders had been newcomers, they had come because it was Diwali. They were not aware that the door of the next house opened out into another lane from where they could have cleared out. They thought if the police had surrounded them, there would be danger of their getting trapped in the house next door.

The squad leader (perhaps a senior officer) was standing outside with a small baton in hand. When a constable came to tell him there was no one else inside, he went in and made a round. The sight of the police had made the people in the neighbourhood come out and stand in a crowd. 'Whose house is it?' Coming out the officer asked, facing the gathering. 'Laddharam’s,' answered many voices in unison. 'Is there no one else in his family?' 'No sahib, he is alone. That’s his servant.' One of the men pointed at him in the van. 'Do you people know this is a gambling den?' 'No sahib, we know nothing.' 'And that it sells liquor?' 'No sahib, we go to work during the day, how would we know, but Laddharam is a good man to talk to.' 'What does he do?'  'He is a real estate agent, sahib.'

The officer came and sat down on the front seat and the van began to move. Had it been in his hands, the officer would perhaps have made further enquiries of him but his hands were tied and he delivered him to the staff manning the Karoli Bagh police station. When they asked him his name and address, he gave the same answer. Dharamdas. Son of Chhedilal, hata Ramdas. For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to give either Laddharam’s address or that of Maqbool’s room. The policemen too didn’t show any interest and locked up all three of them. But within two hours the two traders were let off on bail. As the case was filed only for gambling, there was no problem of bail in the police-station itself, but who would have come to bail him out? He thought Laddharam might, but then realized, he would be angry. What option did he have other than to open the door? But then it came to him on its own that after everyone had gone out of the back door, they’d have put a lock on it. Then perhaps someone would have gone round to the front to tell the police there was no one in the house, Laddharam had gone somewhere and there was a lock at the back. Then perhaps Laddharam would have returned and opened the lock after a while pretending he had just arrived, and wasn’t aware there was police outside. Possibly, the police, seeing that the birds had flown, would have left already.

However, he wasn’t as afraid this time as earlier. Partly because he had now come to know quite a lot about courts and lock-ups. Besides he had also, in his heart, come to know what had to happen, would happen. The next day being a holiday, he didn’t have to wait in the lockup at court. There were two others, caught for gambling, who had not been bailed out by any one. One a paan shop owner from Pratapgarh and the other, a Punjabi dry fruit-seller. They were taken to the court in the police van, the havaldar went in and took in the signature of the magistrate on duty on remand papers while they were still sitting in the van, and then they were taken to the jail.

He had again felt very sick on reaching the jail. All the while that he stood in the vestibule, he had a sinking feeling. There was no knowing when he would get out of these walls again. The screams of the mad woman were heard again. But this time, it was he who told the two startled men with him, 'she is mad, has been locked up for a long time. She often keeps screaming.' And somehow after this he felt a little lighter. Perhaps by comparing himself with the other two. This time too, he was kept in the juvenile barracks and was therefore separated from the other two. As it was still day, he was also given the evening meal. There were just two or three of his old acquaintances in the barrack and they too had come a second time after release. The mate this time was a lean and thin boy named Devender who smoked pot and was an opium user. He had been caught peddling opium on the sly. Two seers of opium had been recovered from him. Trafficking in opium, the boy had become an addict himself. But he had loads of money and was treated with respect by all the warders. They took slips from him and brought back money. He never had to make do without anything. The headmen and the warders kept a regular supply of coal. He got milk from the hospital, also eggs and bread. He always had a stock of ghee, jaggery, onions - the lot. His meals were cooked every morning and evening. He took only rotis from the usual jail food and those too were kept separately in the bundle for him. His rotis came from the kitchen of the death-cells.

He had only this time come to know of this custom in jail, that the food for all the condemned prisoners counting their last days in the death cells was cooked separately. The same fare, but a little better cooked. Perhaps there was sand even in those rotis, but he felt the rotis meant for Devender were somewhat better cooked. He was a mate only in name. Except for making a count each morning and evening, he lolled in the barrack all through the day. Devender also sent for sweets on Diwali. Not enough for distribution among the boys but all the headmen and warders who visited that day were treated to sweets by him.

The boys received one sweet of 'laddoo' each on that day. He came to know that there was one baba – an ascetic - who visited on Holi and Diwali to distribute laddoos to everyone in jail. But it was on the second or the third day after Diwali, when the sun came up and yet the barrack had not opened. The headmen and the warders stood like statues near the outer gate of the barracks. The boys thought at first they were waiting for the head warder and would open in a while. When the sun began to rise up they began to make a din, gathering near the bars and screaming. All felt the need either to urinate or to defecate or both, the headman and the warder, just stood at the gate. When some of the boys could hold no longer, they took water from the pitchers and began to use the urinals in the barracks to defecate. When the stink started the boys moved away from there. There was noise coming from the other barracks too. In a while, one of the headmen walked slowly in. As he was at the back and the headman spoke in a low voice,he couldn't hear what the headman said but there was silence at once. Then a whisper made its way  up. 'Jidda is dead. Jidda is dead!' Jidda who? A notorious crook. Had many murders to his name. Built like a mountain he would have proved difficult to over-power for four men. How did he die? He was in the black mills, punished for abusing the deputy. When the warder went to give him sweets yesterday, he called him names again. Last night, around eight to ten headmen tied up his hands and feet, gagged his mouth and thrashed him up. The beating proved fatal. He was perhaps hit on a delicate spot. The deputy too was sure to have been there, the warders and the headmen alone wouldn’t have dared. Besides, they had all been terrified of Jidda.

The headman went to the other two barracks also and within two minutes there was silence. Slowly the noise in the other barracks also stopped. There was no sound except for the boys’ whispers in the barrack, it appeared as if there was no one in the jail. As if instead of being full of a thousand odd inmates, it was a deserted, desolate place. When the head warder came again after a while to open the barrack, someone whispered that he was also in charge of the ‘black mills’, and so he too must have been present. The boys looked repeatedly at his face but no one said anything. Making a quick count, he went away. The whispers had died for the duration that he had been there. The boys, sitting in rows, had sat in complete silence and had continued to sit even after he had completed the count. Once he went out shutting the outer gate, the whispers started again and gradually small groups of boys were formed.

The whole day, there was silence in jail. The boys talked only of Jidda. When the headman and the warder changed shifts in the morning, the boys made enquiries. The warder sent them away with a scolding but the headman told them a little. The cooks, when they arrived with the food, also talked only about this. But no one could say anything with certainty except that Jidda had died before the night was over. They had sent for the civil surgeon at the crack of dawn. Although he lived in the Irwin hospital next door, it had taken him more than half an hour to reach. The surgeon arrived, the body was taken to the vestibule, only then the barracks were opened. The civil surgeon had taken the body immediately with him for post-mortem. Besides this, many other stories were floating around. Someone said the deputy had been placed under suspension. But obviously the news was incorrect for he later saw the deputy on duty. Another said it was not their head warder but the one at the factory who had been present there. He had been beaten by Jidda once when, some two or three years back, he had tried to boss over Jidda and had insisted that he should work. In his arrogance he had advanced, unbuckled his belt, and had been badly thrashed by Jidda. None of the headmen had come to his aid and he was left shouting. The head warder had come fresh from Punjab and was not familiar with Jidda. On his complaint Jidda was put in fetters but no inmate or headman agreed to give witness against him before the superintendent. He had been nursing this grudge when he got orders from the deputy to set Jidda right, and had taken his life. Some others contradicted the story saying that the deputy had been present himself, there had been no intent to kill, it so happened that Jidda had suddenly suffered a blow that had proved fatal.

By afternoon, even the whispers died and the silence in the jail deepened. When, at times, the warder called out or shouted, or a boy spoke loudly, it sounded like a dog’s bark, coming out of the dark. His heart had begun to pound hard in the morning itself, when the whispers had first started. His tongue seemed to have been paralyzed all through the day. In his restlessness, he had stood to listen in, at times near one group, at times near another, but hadn’t spoken or asked anything. He remembered how Jidda had looked at him with his only red eye, how he had called him names - fool, why cry? Now that you are here, show some steel. He remembered how Jidda had treated him to tea and biscuits. He had held such sway, everyone had been in awe of him. His heart didn’t want to believe Jidda had died, and had died like this! In the black mill, with his hands and feet tied (or was he beaten wrapped in a blanket?), mouth gagged, unable to fight, unable to speak, unable to ask forgiveness, unable to grovel. Had his mouth been open, would he have said, forgive me sahib, let me go, I won’t do it again? He couldn’t come to a conclusion. For all you know, he may have asked for forgiveness at the time while silently vowing revenge. Or perhaps not. Such a powerful criminal. He had murdered so many. And even he couldn’t live without fear, without risk and had had to part with his life. He felt his limbs go limp, as if there was no strength in his bones, as if he was not standing on ground but was hanging midair. The slightest of push from someone and he’d fall down and keep on rolling.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

'Lives Without Meaning' - English Translation Of Chapter 14 Of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


He suffered for months in that furnace of a hovel but there was no other option. He didn't have the courage to sleep outside, who knew what it may lead to. He saw many a men sleep on cots outside in groups of four or six. But they were all Muslims, he couldn’t muster the courage to sleep alone in the lane. Despite the sweltering heat he slept inside with doors closed. The worst days were when the rains started and there was no breeze. It felt he would suffocate, the whole night passed turning from this side to that. Still he didn’t have the guts to leave the doors open.

And what blazed even more than that hovel was his own body. He got all wound up –  bang his head against the wall, leap in to a well, what should he do! In just a few days he came to a pass when, whenever he saw a young woman pass by on the road, he wanted to say ‘yauo-yauo’ in the manner of the prisoners. In his mind he killed, forced himself on many but on coming out of the room, when he  saw the world going its way he found himself completely helpless. Strange how, while in jail, not just his mind but also his body had remained subdued, perhaps due to fear. However, once out in the open it was as if a fire raged inside him.

Coming out like this, he had become absolutely lonely. At first he just didn’t know what he should do. He had gone to the old shop. Had had a very brief talk with the owner. The owner had said there was no work but had paid him four rupees for the last eight days. He had not felt very confident but had gone there after preparing himself and when the owner had refused him work, he had asked him to pay him his dues. When the owner looked up he became a little hassled, thinking if the owner refused he’d have to quarrel. He was deliberately trying to put up a tough front. What money? You owe me eight days salary. The sharpness in his voice had perhaps cautioned the shop-owner, he had opened his box, given him four rupees, written a note – press your thumb on it. He was unable to read the note but could make out that the amount written was rupees four. Taking the money he had come out.

What should he do now? As he went through the bazaar he realized the city had changed. There had been changes earlier too but now it looked so different: Punjabis everywhere. Displaying goods on stalls, on carts, in shops. The number of shops had gone up. Punjabi girls and women in every place. He had heard stories that these Punjabi girls were easy to win over. He had specially heard that many women and girls walked the street, looking out for customers. Those who had no other income, earned and managed this way. He had also heard there were many refugees in Karoli Bagh. Taking the money from the shop-owner, he had kept roaming around on the roads and in the lanes. He had never been to Karoli Bagh earlier. For one thing, there was a Muslim settlement in between and secondly the area had been, for the most part, jungle and still deserted. Till last year, there had been only nominal habitation. But now when he had gone there, a whole new city seemed suddenly to have sprung up. Endless crowds. Endless people. He kept loitering, even after it grew dark, he kept loitering but didn’t see anything, nobody made any overtures, there was nothing that would have given him any hint.

There must be something. Surely, there has to be. But the way he looked nobody would think that he could be a customer. He himself found all the women domestic, even the girls he saw were the domestic sort. None of the women he saw appeared cheap. He thought, perhaps he was unable to identify. He had no experience. But he had grown very restless and had suddenly started to walk in the direction of Qutub road.

He had known about Qutub road since long. He had heard about it in his childhood, when he hadn't understood a thing, from the people in the lane. He had heard about it again on growing up. Kisana had once told him a strange reason why whores didn’t have babies. But Kisana only said things he had learned from hearsay. Once, returning from a cinema, when their tram had come on to the railway bridge, Kisana had pointed with his hand and said that the lane directly opposite was a red light area.

He had sneaked in a look once or twice while passing by the Raamnagar road but it had been daytime and he had not seen anyone. That night too, he had gone straight ahead on the road without turning into the lane. The boys in jail had often bragged about knowing all about the going rates of rupees five to rupees ten. But most of them had perhaps been only bragging. They had not visited there. All through the way he kept thinking of the money he’d have to part with. If only he found someone needy, she might agree for a rupee or two. What if all four rupees were spent? He’d be left with nothing! The money Aziz had given was nearly spent. (He had, meanwhile, gone and asked for two more rupees which Aziz had given without asking any questions. Perhaps he had gone to visit Maqbool in jail and Maqbool had said something to him.) Unh, someone or the other was sure to agree for three-four rupees.

Going across the mouth of the lane, he had thought, how stupid he was. Where was he going? After walking some distance, he had returned and this time, taking courage, had turned into the lane. And  was immediately taken over by a strange nervousness. Raising his eyes once or twice he had looked here and there and then dropping them, had walked on. Later, only a few cinema-like images stayed with him. A string of rooms, glittering bulbs, smoking lanterns, sack-cloth curtains hanging down a few of the doors. Saris of dark blue, green, red colours, glistening – apparently of silk. Rouge on cheeks, faces white with layers of powder, thick kohl laden eyes, dark hands – a few of them wheatish, ugly faces (one had looked a little better, she was perhaps from the hills), silver jewellery, a nose pendant hanging down a nose (he had no idea if it was brass or gold), all matured women. He hadn't had the courage even to meet their eyes. A few men had also been passing through the lane. One or two had stood by the doors. There was bright light at just one spot to the right, at a paan and cigarette shop. Two or three men had been standing there also.

Reaching a narrow lane, his feet had slowed down. You ass, what is there to be embarrassed about? The whores stand here waiting for someone to come and strike a deal. All of them looking like witches. Why would anyone pay them more than a rupee or two. That one, from the hills, had looked somewhat better. She must be charging a higher rate also. He should have struck a deal with her. She might have settled for four rupees. He had turned back. Walking a little slowly this time. And with some courage, keeping his eyes up, trying to look at faces. But a few eyes had perhaps spotted him earlier too. The row of rooms had hardly begun when he heard, ‘Would you sleep babu?’ He had seen a thin, dark, middle aged woman, at least forty, with small eyes and large teeth, looking at him. No, no, not this one, and without a word, without a backward glance, without looking around him, he had broken into and had breathed only after he had reached the road.

Damn, damn you, you’re a eunuch, someone inside him had said. However, he had been drenched in sweat and completely exhausted. The ‘baarraa’ wouldn't have been too far from there but seeing a tram approach, he had climbed aboard. On reaching the room he had lain down. It was after quite a while that he had remembered he hadn’t eaten in the evening either. The thought had made him all the more hungry. But he hadn't gotten up. At this time, all the eating joints must have closed down. This won’t do, he had thought. One day, when he had enough money in his pocket, he would drink, eat mutton (he had never eaten mutton, hadn’t even thought about it, it was also more costly but somehow in his mind, he associated drinks and mutton with fun and high status) and then visit Qutub road. He had never had drinks and in some corner of his mind, also had a fear of drinks. Many of the masons and some others in the lane used to drink hooch and the impression in his mind was that after drinking, a man loses his senses, starts babbling, gets into scuffles and if he lands up in a tight spot, the police arrests him. But then he had shaken his head, he was no longer afraid of these things. The police arrested a person only if he made a nuisance of himself or got into street brawls. Otherwise, any number of people kept drinking. He would sit in a hotel to eat and drink. And then, he may not need to go to Qutub road (he had heard one could get girls along with drinks, in hotels). Only those who were no longer young, ended up at Qutub road. (All the women he had seen over there had been too old, mostly middle aged, not one of them had been young). This is right. Good quality girls must be available only in hotels. They must be costing more, at least fifteen to twenty rupees. If only he had twenty-twenty five rupees in his pocket, he could line up a good programme. All it boiled down to was money. He would get it one day.

But he never came to have money. It was his fault, mostly, but Maqbool also never encouraged him. The cripple had tried hard, tried his best to make friends but he could never form a bond with him. That night, when the cripple had turned up out of the blue, he could recognize him only by his limp. Otherwise, the cripple had been as well turned out as the college going son of a rich father. He had become a little edgy at first on hearing the knock. Who could it be at this hour? Meanwhile, there had been some unfamiliar visitors too, who said they thought Maqbool Miyan was back. It must be someone known to Maqbool again, he had thought. But when he had opened the door, it was Mehmood who had come limping in. You idiot, what are you doing in the dark, did you go to sleep so early? Light up the lantern at least. He had become a little confused. The man walked and talked like Mehmood but wore something like a jacket over trousers, boots on his feet. His hair, slicked neatly back, smelt good.

He had lit up the lantern at that hour for the first time that day. Earlier, he had never felt the need. In the dim light he had seen Mehmood wearing fine clothes - washed and ironed. When did you come out? Only yesterday. Hasn’t Maqbool come out? (Such a stupid question). He was acquitted in one case, now he has appealed to the high court to release him on bail. If it is accepted, he’ll come. What about you? Did the session court acquit you? Have you taken your food? Yes (he remembered he had eaten roasted gram with jaggery sticks in the evening which was not too satisfying). Never mind. Come, I’ll treat you to kababs today.

He was in a fix throughout on the way. What if the cripple made him eat beef? But he didn’t say anything. The cripple took him to a hotel close by. He knew that beef was called ‘burra gosht’. If the cripple would order ‘burra gosht’, he’d know. There were benches on the side-walk and two tables, of rough wooden planks. Two plates of mutton curry for two annas each and roti. The man at the hotel didn’t ask any thing and placed the food before them in enamel ware. Rotis, puffed up and white like bread, bigger than the rotis in the jail, but extremely tasty. However, no sooner did he put a curry-dipped morsel in his mouth that his mouth was on fire. Hell, is there chilli or poison in the curry! When the cripple saw his face, he burst out laughing. Too hot? He just couldn’t stop laughing at first but then, said, ‘All right, take some daal, or would you rather take yoghurt.’ The cripple ordered two annas worth of yoghurt, also daal and said softly, they don’t charge for daal here.

Even daal had chillies, only a little less than the mutton curry. Suddenly he had an idea, taking meat pieces from the bowl he placed them in the yoghurt. It was still hot but he was able to eat rotis. More? No more. I ate in the evening. He couldn’t have eaten more than two even if he hadn’t eaten the roasted grams. But Mehmood stopped only after he had eaten five rotis. Mehmood used to eat all three of his rotis even when in jail. (He himself could never manage more than two even after getting habituated, even when Maqbool cooked vegetables.) On his way back he kept thinking the mutton sure tasted good. He’d have enjoyed it even more, had it not been so full of chillies. Mehmood too had made sounds that said even he was finding the mutton hot but perhaps he liked it that way only. He must be used to having chillies.

He also felt he had passed muster in a test of life. The reason why Muslims were so aggressive was that they ate mutton. Punjabis too, consume mutton with abandon. They also consume milk and butter but milk and butter costs a lot. Men grow strong and become fighters on mutton. If one is to survive in the world, one has to be a fighter. He felt a little satisfaction. The cripple asked him just this much on the way – Did you like the food? Yes. The roti was good, the curry had too much chilli but the yoghurt set it right.

Mehmood slept there that night. Immediately after returning, he had taken off his clothes, hung them on the clothes line, searched out a shirt and pyjamas from the pile of dirty clothes in the dim light of the lantern and then holding them in his hands, had made a face, unh! and had thrown them back on the pile. What difference does it make? I’ll sleep in my underwear and see in the morning. Mehmood had rolled out the bedding lying on the cot (he had not touched the bedding till then. He had always been in the habit of sleeping on the ground. And the sagging cot would have been uncomfortable in any case) and sat on it with leg dangling down. He had looked so strange walking about in the dim light of the lantern. His whole body, though a little thin, was that of a normal being. But one of his legs, from waist down, was completely dried up. As if made, not of flesh and bone but of wood. As he hobbled about, his shadow, spread out over the wall, moved, as if it was not his shadow but had a life of its own. As he sat there, his longish, pock-marked face also looked a little too dry (perhaps smallpox had caused his leg to dry up too), smoking a beedi, he appeared lost in thought.

'This life is no good my friend,' Mehmood threw the beedi stub in a corner. 'It is all a game of money. You get nothing without money.' He said nothing in response, just lay there and kept looking. Suddenly Mehmood laughed, as if he had remembered something very amusing.' I had wanted to drink hooch today, had wanted to go to Firoza but had no dough in my pocket. If you have no dough, you have nothing.' Behind the laughter rose a regret. He lay down on the bed.

He had been quite perturbed before Mehmood arrived. How would he cope? It was a good thing he had drawn a blank at Qutub road. Those four rupees had seen him through the week. He had gone and purchased a towel, a soap which he had used to wash his clothes and then to bathe at the roadside tap. He had cleaned up an empty box and had it filled with one anna of oil. The barber at the jail had once run his machine over his scalp and he still had a close crop. Earlier he had thought the growth on his face to be heavy and had considered paying one anna to a barber for a shave. But then it crossed his mind that it was better to have a beard when living in Muslim quarters. Those who saw him would take him to be a Muslim.

The real issue was that of money. He got daal for free at the dhaba. But one meal cost at least four annas, six when he was real hungry. As long as the money lasted he kept himself locked in the room and stayed sprawled the whole day. Sleeping or fantasising about what all he would do if he had a lot of money. At times, trying to think of ways of earning money. Once he had considered becoming a coolie at the station. There was no risk now, he would come here at night. But his mind had said, no. No! Policemen kept hovering around over there night and day. And that policeman on patrol! If he saw him again he would lock him up again only to avenge himself. Should he ply a rickshaw? But he knew he couldn’t rent a rickshaw without an introduction, or guarantee, or a witness. Who would stand his guarantee?

Once he had also visited the wholesale grain and vegetable markets. However he hadn't had even a basket with him. Although he had also thought of earning money by carrying loads, with the idea of fending for himself by working, for the time being, as a labourer. At the vegetable market he had found the work - hauling down sacks of potatoes from the truck - to be heavy. He might have got lighter loads if only he'd had a basket, but he hadn’t got one. Most of the work at the grain market too was equally heavy, the labourers were lifting, carrying, putting down loaded sacks. But he got one load to carry only after a long wait. Three or four bags belonging to a gentleman, weighing if not one mound, at least thirty to thirty five seers. But the gentleman had tried at first to shrug him off with just six paise, saying the load weighed only twenty five seers and the rate was six paise per mound and paid him two annas after much haggling. After this he hadn't gone to the grain market either.

He had also made rounds of cycle shops. But all the shops in the neighbourhood belonged to Muslims. On hearing his name ‘Dharamdas’, they looked a little strangely at him and said, - no, there is no work here. Once when he went to Shidipura and saw a cycle shop there, he thought of making enquiries. The sight of the Sikh sitting inside made him waver a little. He was a little wary of Sikhs. They didn’t talk without abusing, got all boozed up and got into brawls on trivial issues. One can never be sure. They go about brandishing their kirpan, who knows when they’d lose their temper and stick one in to you. The thought of a bare kirpan brought back that scene before his eyes – the shining kirpan falling, rising again dripping with blood, falling again. But when the elderly Sikh saw him, he asked, 'what is it? What do you want?'

'Nothing. I want nothing. (The Sikh appeared sad, unhappy, a simple soul). Actually, I know cycle repair. Are you in need of help?' ' What work do you know?' ' I can repair punctures, tighten up the cycle, do all the other work. I am familiar with all cycle parts.' ' How much will you take?' ' The shop, where I worked earlier, paid fifteen rupees. Now, it is up to you.' 'Why did you leave that shop? (What should he say? That the shop owner had foul mouthed him. No Sikhs are forever using foul language). 'The shop owner had falsely accused me of stealing (he had thought up a new lie), so I left.' 'Falsely accused of stealing?' ' Yes, a new free wheel had rolled under his seat but he couldn’t see it. It was found later and he also admitted his mistake but I said I won’t work for him now.'

The Sikh kept thinking for some time, (It wasn’t clear if he had swallowed the story) then said, 'I do need help. It’s all fate. I had such a big shop in Gujranwala, with seven servants. But everything was left behind. I have just started work here. Ordinary repair work. There are no tools for bigger jobs. You can work here if you want and keep all the money you get for pumping in air. One anna for puncture, and one and a half if there is a burst. But no share in sales. I can’t pay you a regular salary. We’ll see about it later.'

He started working there but there was hardly any work. It was only seldom that someone turned up to get air pumped in tyres or get a puncture or burst repaired or the chain tightened. On days he earned up to twelve annas or a rupee, but then there were days when he earned hardly two or three annas. The Sikh opened his shop daily but seemed to get bored after two or three hours. He went for lunch in the afternoon and returned after three or four hours. In the evening too, the Sikh closed the shop as soon as it grew dark. At times he cheated a little. If he repaired a puncture during this time, he kept the entire amount and didn’t tell the Sikh but that didn’t make much difference as there wasn’t much of work. Also there was no scope for slipping out spare parts. There was simply no material in the shop. Work tools, a box of nuts and bolts and glue. The Sikh kept the spokes, free wheels etc. locked up in an almirah. Tyres and seats hung outside, all counted, and whenever the Sikh went out, leaving things outside, he made a count. But there were no sales. Only once he had found a chance and had sold a tyre priced at six rupees for seven and had kept the extra buck in his pocket.

As it was, he was always in difficulty, and to add to it he had also been a bit careless that time. He had more than one and a quarter rupee but got so restless one day he went to see a film and then suddenly he somehow got very little money continuously for four or five days. The day Mehmood arrived he had had all of three annas with him. He had purchased roasted grams for six paise, jaggery stick for one anna and had saved two paise.

'Are you married?' Mehmood asked as he lay on the cot. 'No.' (Strange how no one got personal when in jail, but once out, every one asked personal questions). 'Have you ever made out with a girl? But you are so dumb, how would you bring a girl round?' As he talked, Mehmood’s mind seemed to change tracks. 'Firoza dotes on me. I too, love her a lot.' He found it strange. The cripple’s voice was strained, but so soft, it surprised him.

He tried to turn to look at the cripple’s face but could see nothing. 'Where does she stay?' 'She is a high class prostitute living at G. B. Road mate, not a cheap whore from Qutub road. Sings such fine ghazals too, it is beyond words. So easy on the eye, so enjoyable.' The cripple took the pillow from under his head and clasped it with both arms to his chest. 'But that mother of hers, … an old shrew … has sold off Firoza to a lala, a trader, for five hundred rupees a month. I could persuade her only after greasing her palms. Then too, because the trader had gone to Bombay. But Firoza fell for me completely. A woman wants only a man … a man, do you get me lad? She serves only that man who conquers her in bed. These good for nothing traders … they grow paunchy and impotent sitting on their seats … their wives go to doormen to have their fill. But on the strength of their money they have their keeps, take potions and capsules before visiting. What I would like to do is drive a knife through him if I find him. She keeps on crying … poor dear, but can’t escape the clutches of her mother. These women … have henchmen in their employ … have their own people too, the police, officers, barristers, they keep everyone in their hold. That’s the reason why no girl can escape. They would get any one, who rescued one, trapped and killed.'

'Even in the beginning, when I had gone there to hear her sing once or twice, I could make out from Firoza’s look that she is somewhat soft on me.. then, the other night, she was totally impressed by my prowess. She must be waiting for me but I just couldn’t arrange the damned money.' Mehmood’s voice held some regret again. Then after lying silently for some time he suddenly began to hum … I live only because I await you ... his voice was a little hoarse, still he was not too bad a singer.