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.

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