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.

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