Thursday, 18 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 18 (final instalment) of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Coming out of the water, she picked up her sheet but left the child’s cloth lying on the sand. She was not cold but anyhow, wrapped the sheet around her shoulders. Her legs below her thighs had gone numb. As she walked she felt her feet were walking, not as per her wish, but of their own accord. And her torso, only because it was attached to her legs, kept moving forward. Once she thought of stopping just to check if her feet would stop, but didn’t. Her entire leg was numb but the cold sand was pricking her soles like pins. Without stopping she looked back and saw her foot prints visible up to some distance and beyond that only fog, and in it a vague impression of the river Yamuna stretched out like a black sheet.

She came to stand by the roadside. Standing all alone in the midst of fog, engulfed by it on all sides, she felt she had come to a completely alien place. The tree next to her appearing even more densely dark. On either side hung small balloons of pale light at short intervals which looked - after three or four – like so many earthen lamps arranged in a row. Though she knew them to be electric lamps, the light could only manage to form a pale balloon in the fog.

She turned her eyes from one side to the other and somehow had a feeling she had exited from the world. Beyond the road lay the world and the sound of ‘ghrr’ passing through it floated down to her (must be a truck, this is how trucks, passing at a distance sound), but she had come out of it isolated, alone. However, she was feeling this need to cry, to cry loudly. But how was she to cry when both her mind and her body felt completely drained. Though she cried often (it had been some days now since she cried), in private and in public. She cried when in pain. But when she cried others enjoyed and laughed … 'she cries like a pig getting slaughtered.'

Her sari, clinging wet round her legs had begun to prick badly. Lifting up the sari a little she squeezed out the water, it wasn’t so bad now. Going under the tree she sat down leaning against the trunk. This was where she had been sitting since the evening. Wrapping half the sheet around her, she covered the child with the other half – 'Give a paisa mai, may your money grow, Saith. May you build your own empire, babu, may you get a promotion, may your children live, brother' – machine like, she went on and on but in her heart, there was fear. 'Jitua is back. Will not spare her when she will return to the shanty. He has come out after serving two months in the jail, will torment her again. It would have been better, had he stayed in jail. The two months had passed comfortably. But the shanty belongs to Jitua. She has no other place to sleep. On other days, she’d have slept even by the roadside but how can she spend the night out in the open in this chilly winter? Perhaps she could, had she been alone. But the baby, who even otherwise keeps on whining, won’t survive if they slept in the open.

And Jitua was a complete dog, grabbing her the moment she lay down, bashing her if she resisted even a little. She cried when the baby kept crying, she cried at the beatings, she cried when it hurt. Not that it made any difference to Jitua. He not only laughed himself but also described to the neighbours the next day how the slut cried like a pig getting slaughtered.

Even Jidda had not spared her, but had not beaten her, she had also had plenty to eat and wear those days. Now she has to beg for whatever she gets. Jitua gave her something only once in a while. Yet, in the end all men turn out to be the same. Always, they have given her pain. Always, a scream rises from within … 'oh mai' … and she can endure no more, can’t prevent herself from screaming out. She tries hard but despite all efforts to smother it, a stifled scream keeps rising inside her. All the women in other shanties laughed, also the men. The women also expressed surprise  and often said that she only put up a sham. This was beyond her. Why would she pretend to be in pain and agony? Also, she couldn’t get it into her head that men gave pleasure. What pleasure? To her, men had always given pain.

When the child was born, she had almost died. But everyone had always said that childbirth was painful. Such killing pain, yet all women give birth. Like her, they too must be doing it unwillingly, as something not in their control. But then, the women in the neighbouring shanties had said, being with a man would no longer be painful. But no! Men have always given her pain and only pain.

The evening drew to a close, the lights came on but she continued to sit there. On any other day, she’d have left by now. But she feared going back to Jitua in the shanty. When he had been put behind bars for two months for peddling opium, her days had passed in peace. Now, she sat there, even when the traffic on the road almost stopped. When someone appeared, she began, 'your money will grow saith, one paisa, may your empire grow, babu. Even when the man went past, she kept repeating mechanically for some time, then fell silent. She didn’t know when she dozed off. Suddenly a gust of cold wind woke her up with a shudder. The fog was thickening. The road was completely deserted.

Wrapped in sheet as the child was, she cradled him on her waist. Carefully picking up the money, she came under the electric lamp meaning to count and knot it up in her sari. Her hand, while counting the money, relaxed and the child swung down at once. As she gathered him up, she felt he had gone completely cold. As she started to wrap him up in the sheet, she thought - how stiff he is, did not even cry. She moved and swayed him, touched him all over. Nothing. Holding the money in one hand and the child in the other, she returned to the tree and sat under it. Sat for a long time. Then getting up, went down the side of the road, the water of the Yamuna river stretched like a black sheet in the fog at some distance.

As she drew closer, she could hear in the silence the low gurgle of the flow of water. She stood still for some time even after reaching the river bank. The cold was freezing and she began to shiver, but took off her sheet and placed it on the sand lest it got wet. She also took off the loose garment she had dressed her child in. Her hand fell upon the black thread tied around child’s belly by a woman neighbour as protection against the evil eye. She thought of snapping it but didn’t. Lifting her sari with one hand, she stepped into the water. The water was biting cold, its current, she felt as if someone was sawing off that part of her foot. Carefully she brought the other foot in, stretching her arm placed the child on the water and drew back. Silently, the child went down but after a while there was a small sound, like a bubble breaking, she thought the child’s head had surfaced and instinctively her foot moved forward. The water there was a little deeper, up to her thighs, her sari dropped from her hands and spread over water. The current there was even more rapid, she felt the sand below her feet shift. She tried to peer through the dark but could see nothing. She turned and walked out. For some reason she was not cold now. Picking up the sheet she wrapped it round her shoulders.

No, she will not go to Jitua’s shanty now. Resting her head against the tree trunk she lay down. Her legs were freezing now, drawing up her knees she folded her legs but couldn’t stand the wet sari. Stretching her legs down, she wrapped the sheet round her back and chest, if she’d draw up her legs, the wet sari would wet the sheet as well.


Delhi, December 1957: The cold wave sweeping the capital these days claimed two more lives last night, of whom one was a woman.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 17 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Lying in one position with his legs drawn up, his joints had begun to ache. But he couldn’t summon the courage to turn to the other side. The cold would've hit him anew. His clothes had become wet with fog, and the wet fabric was piercing like hundreds and thousands of needles. Although the breeze had stopped slight gusts, blowing now and then around balls of fog stabbed through to the bones like arrows. His face too, absolutely wet, was numb with cold but he could still feel a sharp stinging. His folded hands had stiffened and his fingers, when he tried to move them, could barely do so with much difficulty. Slowly, he rubbed his palms, but both his palms had become like stones and completely cold. He couldn’t even rub them with force. The pain in the knees was becoming sharper. When it became unendurable, he spread his legs half way and turned and was jolted at once. The wet, cold stone, where ever he touched it, felt like a stab of ice. The part of his arm, back and legs grown numb while resting against the stone, now felt the full brunt of the fog and the wind – like a gang cracking down upon him with rods and spears.

This is how Maqbool must have felt, when forced to lie on ice. But it had been summer then. Even on an ice slab, it wouldn’t have been as painful as in winter. The Delhi weather is so extreme, when it’s hot, it’s hot enough to singe your body and the two winter months so cold, it freezes the blood. It’s possible to brave through the winter by staying indoors or putting on a coat and blanket but there is no respite from heat. Of course, the cinema houses in Delhi remain cool. If the gate is ajar, it gets a little cool outside too. The Regal cinema is the best. The cool air from inside drifts out to the portico. If one was free in the scorching heat, one could sit there, enjoying the cool air.

He hadn't had money that day to go to the cinema and had just been roaming around. Many new, English style hotels were coming up those days around the round-about at ‘Barakhamba’. Their doors were always closed but whenever someone opened them to go in or come out, a whiff of cool air wafted out accompanied by sounds of English orchestra. Once when he had been close to a hotel, a sahib and mem sahib opened the door to come out. The moment the door opened, the doorman jumped up like a spring snapping open. Once the sahib and memsahib stepped out, the doorman let go of the door and saluted. When the sahib handed him a coin, the doorman’s moustache moved like a dog’s tail moving. The door swung close on its own and the whiff of cool air got shut off midway... as also the sound of the English band coming from inside. Seeing the door open, he had paused for a while, had thrown in a glance. Light had passed in through the open door up to a point and beyond that it was dark even in day time. Dim electric lights, milky white table cloths, flower vases on long tables, chairs in light green upholstery, glittering cutlery on the tables.

When the doorman turned his eyes towards him, he moved ahead. He could see just one man inside. Perhaps the others couldn’t be seen because of the dark. At times he wondered what went on inside these English hotels. One thing he was sure about was that they served English wines. Many of the hotels had shops selling English wines next to them. Girls too must be available, but only high class stuff. The cripple used to make such tall claims. He bragged he had once had whisky sitting in the ‘Standard’. 'No ordinary folks can go in there, my lad, you get white girls there, but you have to shell out big money. They are so shrewd, they can see through their clients in just a glance and unless you own a car you can’t get to even touch their shadow. But the cripple was a braggart. He could see that those who came out of these hotels were mostly over forty, both the sahib and the memsahib.

‘Will you leave or should I call the police?’ The sharp voice of the sahib coming from behind him made him look back. The sahib had parked his motor car a little to this side and as they crossed the verandah, the beggar woman standing behind the pillar had perhaps come after him. Despite the sahib’s displeasure her lips were moving in a plea, 'may your children live long mai, may your glory grow sahib, may your son be a king, memsahib.' He was a little amused. How silly, how stupid this woman is! In one breath she calls the lady both mai and memsahib. Had the lady been a mai, she’d have taken offense on being called a memsahib. She clearly is a memsahib and must have flared up on being addressed as mai. After the sahib’s scolding, the doorman too lost his temper, 'run off or I’ll give you a kick. The likes of you don’t understand unless kicked. Don’t let me see you here again. I don’t know where they appear from, like a bitch with puppies hanging on.'

The doorman’s anger was perhaps more effective than the sahib’s scolding, the beggar woman stepped back in alarm. The sahib opened the car door and when the memsahib was seated he went round to the other side and got in, all the while muttering without stopping, 'it is difficult to step out in the city. No matter where you go, they surround you like ants. Lepers, cripples or at places, boys whining like puppies. Or these damned women, they pester the most. Whose babies do these sluts deliver? Each has one or two hanging on to them. Their good-for -nothing men only give them babies but do not bring them up.' His voice drowninng in the sound of his motor engine revving up.

The woman was just like any other beggar woman. Standing a little to the back, at the point where the verandah projected outwards were three pillars. She stood there quite a distance from the hotel. Dried, matted hair, piled on head like twigs in a pigeon’s nest, dusky complexion, parched skin, looking ready to tear like rotten cloth if pressed, or pinched ever so slightly. Her hair was black. She wouldn’t be old but her parched up skin didn’t tell her age. Wearing only a dhoti which was also wrapped over her bosom. What else did one need in the heat? Dirty! Grimy!

He walked away. He had made up his mind that day to lift some stuff from shops at Queen’s way, a trick he had learnt from Babu. School books sold easily, watches got good money but were risky. Swiping pens was easy, even from people’s pockets. Babu’s trick was to stand where ever he saw a crowd in a shop and if the shop keeper noticed, to ask for something to look at and when possible to flick whatever he could, dodging others’ eyes. Fairs and festivals were more convenient. A small pot or pan, socks, gloves, shoes, slippers – these were less risky. Even if he was caught the shopkeeper would let him go after a beating, for even the shopkeepers were wary of going to the police. Lodge a report, run to the court, give witness, spend money and in addition endure the high handedness of the police. If one was decently dressed and talked with confidence, the risk was cut down even further. The shopkeeper too was in two minds – the fellow looks decent enough, how to charge him with theft? What if it backfires?

He hadn't worked for many days on being released. He had had money, and spent it slowly over days. Once, seeeing a crowd as he passed through the Karoli Bagh market in well laundered clothes, he had this impulse to try out Babu’s trick and had gone to stand in a shop. The shop keeper was showing cigarette lighters to a customer, 'this is Hong Kong stuff sahib, you won’t find it anywhere, very few are smuggled in. The sahib, perhaps not finding anything to his liking, kept picking them up and turning them over one by one, pressing to get a spark. And then two young girls arrived and the shopkeeper began to show them purses. There were seven or eight other men at the shop and just one servant. When the sahib left leaving the lighters, he had stood there and like the sahib, had continued to examine them by turning them over one by one. He stood there for a minute or two, looked again and again. Neither the shopkeeper nor the servant was paying him any attention. Both were busy dealing quickly with the customers. He took the lighter from Hong Kong in one hand. Turned the others around twice or thrice by the other hand and then seeing a woman exit, fell in step behind her, pretending he was with her.

He had managed to come out but his heart had kept pounding loudly,his fear not leaving even after he had mingled with the crowd. Turning into a lane, he had emerged on another street, and then taken the next turn to come onto a third and only then had he heaved a sigh of relief. But it was only after he had gotten away from Karoli Bagh that he was convinced he was not being followed. The shopkeeper had told the customer the lighter was priced at rupees ten but he had got only two rupees. This too had soured his mood. Put so much at risk for only two rupees. But he had lifted a lighter, and it would fetch only so much. The real thing was that he lacked courage. It happened only seldom that the shopkeeper didn’t look in a direction for a minute or two and he didn’t have the guts to quickly flick something the moment the shopkeeper’s back was turned. Besides, he didn’t need the money and had therefore hardly lifted anything. Only twice or thrice, only in crowds, only when there had been no risk.

However, he had started to sell cinema tickets again. The trick had been learnt in his childhood with Kisana. When a new film was released, he used to purchase as many tickets as he could have in advance and then sell them at rates they fetched but the business hadn't always done well. When a film was a crowd puller, he made five to seven or even eight to ten rupees a day for a week to ten days. Otherwise the business fell flat. The business also came to a standstill, when no hit film was released for a few weeks. Once or twice, he had also suffered a loss. As he arrived to sell tickets, he saw a policeman loitering around. Quickly, he had entered the hall to watch the film – now that there was to be no profit, he might as well get his money’s worth.

This is what he had been arrested for. The ticket window had closed and many were left without. He was standing with four tickets in hand, people were coming there on their own to enquire. He sold off all four tickets, which had cost him rupees two each, to a gentleman for two rupees and a half. As the exchange was taking place a policeman had caught hold of him by the shoulder from behind. Startled, he had looked back and immediately, on seeing the khaki uniform, his head had reeled. His stomach contracted and he had felt he would stagger and fall. But the policeman had a strong hold.

The money had eventually run out and many of the policemen had come to know him by face. And then, whenever identified, he was locked in under one hundred and nine. He had to stay in for at least three to four months, more at times. In the end he had been left with just one business - sale of cinema tickets. And he had also stopped fantasising about anything else. The only thought that occupied his mind was to somehow evade the police. Whenever the hand of a policeman fell on his arm – 'you there!' - he turned pale, his stomach began to draw in and he felt he would falter and fall. In the court too, his focus was on whether the police was asking for a remand. He still froze with fear when he saw the jail gate. It was only for the first two turns that he had been kept in the juvenile barrack. After thatr, first the lock up and then any barrack meant for prisoners. They put him to work on spinning ropes with the reed grass, the bastards!  which caused his hands, which in the beginning used to get all cut up, to crack.

The damned beggar woman too, had proved so unlucky. It was in the evening of that day that he had fallen into a police trap, hadn’t got a chance to do a thing. He had been loitering around in Chandni Chowk the previous evening, with just ten or twelve annas in his pocket and thinking of going to Maqbool to get two or three rupees and use it to make some more. A new film was to be released in the Jubilee cinema hall after many weeks. He hadn’t made any money during this while and had used up all the money that he had in his pocket. He had thought instead of going  at that hour, he'd go early the  next morning and catch Maqbool at home. After looking at the posters of the new film at the Jubilee, he was going by the Fountain side when he passed a man standing on the side walk with a bag on shoulder and a bundle of incense-sticks in hands. Must be selling incense-sticks, he had thought. But as he went past the man, he heard him mutter, 'private, private.' Without giving it a thought he had walked a few steps when it suddenly struck him, 'private,' meant a private woman. His feet had stopped as if of their own accord. A flame of fire running up his body. He had heard many a time there were private haunts all over the city, but apart from that one unproductive visit to Qutub road, he had never attempted to find out or go somewhere. Once, when he had adequate money, he had visited G. B. road once or twice, but each time, not having the courage to climb up the stairs, he had taken only a round and returned. And for some reason, no pimp had approached him while he was there.

He had turned back to look, the man was still standing there, moving his lips slowly. It had occurred once to him to go and ask, 'where will you take me? I am ready' but had immediately remembered - what about money? He didn’t have the money. ‘Private’ haunts would be charging even more. The flame had gone down, as also his spirit. He had felt completely exasperated – get money from somewhere, he has to get money from somewhere. But from where? He had never asked Maqbool for a large sum. And if he did get the money from him and spent it here, how would he run his business? He’d need money to invest, that too could be done only on Friday and Saturday and it was already Wednesday. Then he had thought he’d lift something and sell it fast. This night was gone, but this man must be around every day. It appeared to be his haunt.

He had kept going round Chandni Chowk for over an hour, looking for a chance, not getting any. Had he shown some alacrity he could have swiped something at two or three places (at one place, the shopkeeper had put some wrist watches on the counter and had started to open them for repair) but by the time he made ready to lift, the shopkeeper cast a glance back and many chances were missed in this indecision. He had stayed on, even after the crowd had dispersed but now no chance came his way again. When shops began to down their shutters, he had returned. The man too was not there at that hour, he must have found a customer.

That night he had gone to the ruins beyond Jeetgarh to lie down. It was so hot that even at night the air was hot. A fire raged within too and he was so restless the whole night that he went to sleep very late. Even as he lay he kept thinking he’d go on a search in the morning, pick up something definitely. Make some money by the evening and go to Chandni Chowk. If he made even ten rupees he would make a deal somehow. At most, the deal won’t be for the whole night but he would get at least one turn for ten rupees.

But despite going round Karoli Bagh till noon, he hadn't got anything. Suddenly he had felt exhausted and drained. The heat and the restlessness he had felt the day before had gone down. Intending to relax a little in the afternoon, he had gone to New Delhi after eating two rotis at the road-side eatery.

When the motor car went away, he walked on for a few steps, but the words spoken by the sahib kept ringing in his ears, ‘Who knows, whose babies these sluts deliver!’ Whose babies? That they get married is highly unlikely, they must be living in with one of their own kind, or hobnobbing here and there. And suddenly it flashed in his mind, why not talk this beggar woman into it? The face of the woman passed before his eyes. Pile of dry, tangled hair, dirty, grimy coarse cotton sari, parched skin looking like rotten cloth, a child hanging on to her waist, with only a black thread tied to his swollen belly. He felt a little hesitation. 'But she has a good body. She is not old and would agree for only a few annas.' Then he thought, such a woman could also be a friend, unless she was living with someone else. Even if she was, it would be with a beggar only. 'But the slut had this pup hanging on to her.'

Without coming to any decision, he turned back, afraid she might have left. Looked around, he couldn’t see her anywhere. Where had she gone in such a short time? He increased his pace. Just the fact that she couldn’t be seen made him feel he had missed his chance. Had she been there, he’d have talked her into it. There were very few people around. Who would come out in this heat? Only a few motorcars were parked at the curb. She was not in the corridor. Where had she disappeared? She must have gone somewhere to beg. But so fast? He should be able to see her somewhere!

And suddenly he almost collided into her. There was a chick curtain between two pillars and beside the pillar, in the shade of the curtain sat the beggar woman with the child at her breast. Climbing up the verandah he turned by the pillar intending to get into the shade and all but collided with her. She appeared so suddenly that he couldn’t even stop and, avoiding the collision, kept on walking. How could he have talked to her? He told himself. She had her back towards him and was feeding the child. How dirty she looked from close quarters! Her face was not bad, she must have been attractive in her days, but now her looks evoked revulsion. Not just revulsion but also a strange kind of fear. When he had suddenly come on to the verandah the beggar woman had turned to look, and to look at her eyes so closely, she seemed asleep. Startled perhaps for a while, she had continued to see with unseeing eyes, as if her mind was elsewhere. No, not deranged but like a scared, domestic animal. How she had stepped back in alarm when the doorman scolded her. What kind of woman was she! What was the fun in going to such a woman?

He walked till the end of the verandah, there was no shade in the field... it should be a little cooler under the tree in the round park. He went and lay down under that tree. 'Nothing can come up here. It’s better that I go to the old city after some rest. Something may come up in Chawadi Bazaar or Fatehpuri. But why do it at all? If caught, I’ll be thrashed for nothing. It’s better to go to Maqbool, bring some money and by some tickets in advance at Jubilee. They’ll be running a new film from tomorrow.'

Turning aside he closed his eyes and suddenly two lovely orbs appeared before him. When the beggar woman had turned to see, her bosom, covered only partially in the slipping sari, had become visible to him. The woman had been unmindful, as if, oblivious of his presence. At the time, he too, had been preoccupied but when he closed his eyes lying down under the tree, the orbs he had glimpsed once loomed before him now and this time the child clinging to one side was missing. He became extremely, extremely restless.

His body, though stiff with cold, had become a little feverish. Spreading out both his hands at once, he lay on his stomach and writhed just as quickly. His fog-wet clothes touched the ice cold slab and it felt as if someone was scrapping his chest and stomach with a razor. Oh bappa! He turned again to the other side and drawing up his legs brought his knees to his chest. The cold seemed to have enveloped him from all sides. He began to shiver badly and just didn’t stop shivering. Folding his arms he put his elbows on his knees and closing both hands into a fist kept them near his mouth. Slowly, the shivering subsided, the cold seemingly beginning to sink into him. The touch of breath on fingers touching his nose felt good. He brought his knees and elbows close to his chest.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 16 of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematlab' ( कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब ) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


The impact of Jidda’s death on the jail lasted only two or three days. On the fourth day Babu started again to sing. He was a Maharashtrian, from some place near Indore. He had also become a little friendly. At home he had a widowed mother, a sister, also some land but no one to work on it. When they’d given it out on contract they hadn’t had enough even to eat. Five or six years back (at the age of fourteen or fifteen) he went to Bombay to make a living. He couldn’t manage any other work over there, what he did was join a gang of pick-pockets. He talked a lot about film actors, was not bad to look at, was a good singer and when ever free, sat down with a pitcher to sing. He wore an iron ring on his finger and played on the pitcher striking it with expertise. When Bombay police ordered his deportation, he made for Delhi. The moment he arrived he was booked under one hundred and nine. His conviction would mean one year in jail. He said he needed money for his sister’s wedding. Ten or fifteen thousand. When he had that much, he would go back home. (Ten or fifteen thousand! It would take him a life time).

He kept singing for hours even after lock up time, playing on his pitcher like a drum. He remembered one particular song which Babu sang often, ‘Jia bekaraar hai' - my heart knows no rest’. When he sang, some of the boys sat surrounding him. A few sang along. When laddoo sweets were distributed on Diwali, Babu, instead of the pitcher, had turned the drum used for boiling water on washing days in to a playing instrument. There was singing for hours, the boys had danced swaying and rocking and adding funny and foul words to the song. Then they had  played kabaddi in the evening. The warder too had not objected, perhaps because it was Diwali. But when Jidda died, the boys appeared - for two days - not only not to be the crooks they were, but also not to know the use of even one foul word. The head warder of the ‘factory’ had been placed under suspension, two or three of the headmen had been locked up in the mill, stripped of their belts (although only for fifteen days, thereafter the head warder had reported back on duty and the headmen had got their belts back). The boys said the deputy was being investigated but eventually it came to nothing. Babu too had been quiet for three days but had begun to sing on the fourth, after lock-up at night. Without accompaniment at first, but had then brought the pitcher.

However, the news of Jidda’s death had given him a the touch of an electric wire and the shock had left him completely drained and broken. His body too had slackened in a strange way, as if, he had no strength left in him. And he could never be completely free of the impact of this shock, rather, he had remained badly shaken within him. It was only after this incident that he began, once in two to four months, to have this pain in his chest. Not a very piercing pain but like a pressure of some kind inside him and it drenched him in sweat in no time.

The first time he had had this pain was when the yellow turbaned headman had come to sit beside him. This headman was a little old, or perhaps not as old as he appeared to be. Around fifty, lean and thin and wizened. But it was frightening to look into his eyes which weren't  too small but were sunken into hollows and looked like stone. Those eyes held neither compassion nor love, nor anger but were completely cold and dry. He had heard earlier that the headman had been deployed at the black mill but he had not been stripped of his belt. His gaunt body appeared quite capable of physical violence. But the old man was very shrewd indeed. Even after talking for so long he gave no hint if he was one of those who had beaten up Jidda.

The yellow turbaned one had come to the barrack in the evening itself and the whispers started immediately on his arrival. The old man had been on duty at the black mill. The rasca!. Bastard of the first order! The  officers' favourite, their spy! The reason why he hadn't come to harm. It was some time after the barrack was locked up and he sat smoking a beedi when the old timer had come near the bars on that side – 'boy, light up this beedi. Lighting up, the yellow turbaned headman had sat down, at first asking him questions. What’s his name? What has he been booked for? Is he still under trial or has been convicted? And many more. And then he had started, as if to give vent to his resentment - 'the times have gone bad, the British rule is gone, the whole management has gone to the dogs. There are no officers, no discipline. The superintendent before this one was so powerful, a mere stare of his made the hardest of criminal pee in their pants. The moment he stepped into the vestibule -  there was dead silence. He could put a man against the wall, shoot him and say he was trying to escape. And now there are these puny officers, running helter and skelter, all because a prisoner has died.

As he listened to the old man, his heart began to sink. And when he began to tell him about the political prisoner who had gone on hunger strike - how he had not been allowed to relieve himself for three days and three nights, how six headmen had been put on duty to stand guard and not to let him sleep, how one of the headmen had sat at all times holding the chain, pulling twice or thrice the moment the prisoner relaxed or blinked and how on the fourth day he had fallen down at the Sahib’s feet – suddenly a pain shot up his chest, as if, someone was pressing down from inside. Unable to lie down he had just sat with head on his knees. Despite the cold he had broken out in a sweat in no time, the breeze had made him shiver and, feeling cold, he had lain down covering himself with the blanket. The old man, perhaps, had kept speaking all this while but he had heard nothing.

He had changed places the next day, thinking if he lay on the same spot the old man would come again to narrate his stories. Sending Babu to sleep in his place, he had slept in the corner of the barrack for two days. When it was night, the old man had turned up again to sit there. He had been unable to hear anything but there had been an exchange of words between him and Babu. He had felt a little afraid lest the old timer should report. But the old man had left it at that. For two days he had slept in the centre but then couldn’t stop himself. On the third day he had made a place to sleep near Babu, so now if there was a conversation, it was with Babu. He just lay there and listened.

The old man had a whole range of stories to tell, about dacoities, about the methods the dacoits adopted to make the traders tell where they kept their money, about how they chopped off their organs with a hacker, burned a fire under their feet. How the police encountered the dacoits and how each was caught and killed. How the former sahib straightened out the toughest of dacoits. In two days time, the old man had perhaps realized that Babu was hot-tempered and didn’t like listening to the tales describing the battering of prisoners. As if to settle scores, the old man first told the tales of dacoities and then of the dacoits of the gang he had seen getting caught and brought to jail. And of how they lived a straight life in jail or were straightened out. The old man had remained on duty in the barrack till the time of his release, and came almost daily to sit beside them. He told his tales as if talking not of men but of tigers and wolves. It used to make him very ill at ease, his hands clenched into fists and his body stretched and became taut. Somehow keeping a hold on himself, he kept sitting quietly. An even stranger thing was that when alone, he was often haunted by these stories and thinking about them he went through the same experience that he had gone through while listening to them. But when his thoughts arrived at certain horrific facts – such as burning of the fire under the feet, or caning of the prisoners after tying them to gallows in jail or rubbing of spices in fresh wounds or hanging them down the peg after handcuffing them – his mind refused to think any further and he was startled out of his thoughts.

The boys used to call the old man names behind his back but had been terrified of him. The yellow turbaned one had been close to officers. The boys had felt pleased as punch one day when the old timer told them that although his term was over – his sentence had been reduced by four years and he had already served ten – his release order hadn’t yet arrived. He couldn’t tell whether something was wrong with the report of the police station or someone else was creating problems at the I. G. office. But since he was serving life-sentence, he couldn’t be released without an order from the office of the inspector general. Good. May the rascal rot here, such a crook should never be released.

On the third or the fourth day after the old man had first come to the barrack, his own case had been settled along with the two traders. A fine of rupees two hundred, six months simple imprisonment in case of non-payment. The traders deposited the fine immediately. And he had served imprisonment for six months. Once it had crossed his mind that there must be a hundred rupees in his box. If he intimated Maqbool, he might pool in the rest. But he had left it at that. Who should he send with the message and the key? (He had hidden the key before he was searched, also the six, seven rupees he had in his pocket). If he gave it to a constable or a warder, he might pocket it himself. There was, after all, no one he knew personally.

Then too, it had been very cold at the time of his release. However  he hadn't faced any difficulty; for one thing he had been wearing a coat and then, had also had some money saved up. The only money he had spent was on beedis. He used toask the boys going for a hearing to bring him a bundle. He had walked the distance to Chandni Chowk on foot. And then, eating at a road side dhaba, had caught the tram to the ‘baarraa’. It had been a little unnerving to see the room closed, however he had found Maqbool at home. Maqbool had told him that he had thrown the cripple out of the room. The cripple had been trying to open the box when Maqbool had chanced upon him. He had said all of this so casually that he hadn't known what to think. All he could do was to look at Maqbool’s face again and again. Maqbool had asked him, 'have you eaten?'  'Yes.'  'You’ve got money?'  'Yes.'  Maqbool had come to drop him at the room but for some reason, but hadn't stayed.  'I’ll come tomorrow,' he had said.