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 shock...like 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.

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