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.

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