Some Meaningless Lives Part 4 By Om Prakash Deepak
Original Title: Kuch Zindagayian Bematlab
Translation from Hindi: Ranjana Srivastav
After that day he turned into a cowardly child again. However, his fear didn’t disappear now, but increased when bappa happened to be near. After his anger had cooled down, bappa had taken him by rickshaw to the government dispensary and had his wounds dressed with tincture. On their way back, bappa had also treated him to jalebis but the thread between him and bappa had snapped finally.
The thread between him and the others in the lane too, had snapped. He was not on talking terms, not only with Kisana but with all the boys in the lane. He never came face to face with Rajee now. If she came to his house, he sneaked out at once without as much as a glace at her. He also avoided looking at other women neighbours. If a woman mentioned the day even to sympathise, or tried sweetly to preach against stealing he felt like strangling her, or even running off to a place where there was no witness to that day.
He felt most ashamed and humiliated when he had to go back to work at Chotelal’s shop. The news of his beating had already reached him. Bappa had returned the cycle parts he had hidden. Chotelal didn’t say anything and only smiled. The smile held contempt and also a little pity and that was what he found most offensive. He went and sat quietly at a side when Madan pointed to a cycle – ‘Take out the tube of the rear wheel and check for puncture.’
He was completely alone those days. After working silently through the day, he returned at night to lie down and for the entire time that he was free, was nagged by just one thought – that he should run off somewhere. But where? Do what? The only part of his life that belonged to him was when he, sitting or lying down, dreamt like Shaikhchilli – the proverbial fool, building castles in air – would that he met a man with magical powers who, taking pity on him, would reveal to him the secret of a hidden treasure, or give a magic salve for the eye that would make him disappear so he would be invisible to others but could see everyone, move at will through closed doors and walls (he had seen a film which had such an accomplished magician) or make him so powerful he could conquer the world and on one could stand up to him. He dreamt and he dreamt, funny dreams that would enable him to possess all the human, godly and demonic powers, enjoy all the pleasures and when forced out of these dreams, he remained listless, thinking constantly of how to run away, where to run away.
Some days later, there was also some talk of his marriage – something to the effect that he should be married off in the next Jeth, they had received a proposal from some where, he never came to know from where. And then gauna after a year or two. But bappa left it at that, or he didn’t know what exactly happened. The topic came up and it ended.
Jeth came and passed. It was in that year that the country became independent and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru became king – the prime-minister. A procession was taken out with him sitting in the same buggy as the English Viceroy. He unfurled the tricolour at the Red Fort. At night there were illuminations. He went neither to the Red Fort to hear the speech nor to see the procession. He went round the bazaar just once in the evening to see the lights. Bappa too, went out only in the evening, all alone, however, he gave him eight annas before leaving.
It was just after that, that Delhi was suddenly flooded with refugees. Two or tree families ended up in their lane also. They appeared so strange! Some looked helpless and lost, others fierce and a little mad. They told hair-raising tales of atrocities Hindus and Sikhs were subjected to, in Pakistan. A family came to live in a house near the well – they were Sikhs. The man was seen only seldom, and when he was, he was always quiet. His eyes were very strange, so hard one was frightened to look into them. But his wife interacted with everyone. The women in the lane were also curious and three or four of them always had her surrounded. Narrating her tale, she went through strange motions, on the verge of tears one moment, she started screaming like one mad with rage, the next as if she was possessed by a spirit. He heard the Sardar had two young sisters. He owned a tailor’s shop in a town. When the crowd surrounded his house, he himself beheaded his sisters with his kirpan. He was about to kill his wife when the police arrived. The old police inspector was kind hearted, he had them escorted to the camp. They also had a boy of three or four years who always clung to his mother.
And one day, Delhi too caught this fire. He was sitting at the shop, checking a puncture. Madan was inside the shop, when suddenly a strange noise rose up from every direction and shops began to shut down quickly. There was panic all around. Hearing the noise, Madan came out and the two of them were watching in amazement, trying to figure things out when they saw a crowd of twenty to twenty five people rush in from one side. He took a little time o understand that they were chasing a middle aged man in a tehmad, running ahead of them. All of a sudden, either the man’s tehmad got loose or his feet staggered with fear – a naked dagger flashed in the air. It rose- dripping with fresh human blood. Dropped, rose again, dropped again.
And the next moment the crowd passed on. His eyes feel upon the road and his feet gave way completely, his head swam, a churning rose in his belly and he began to retch.
He didn’t remember how he got up and went inside the shop. Leaving everything outside the shop the way it was, he bolted the door from inside, dropped down on the floor, trembling for a long, long time. The day passed not in sleep but in a stupor. Chotelal hadn’t come to the shop the whole day. How could he have? Later, he came to know that curfew had been clamped. Madan had run away then and there or perhaps joined the crowd.
It was getting dark when bapu came looking for him. It had taken just a few hours for plunder and loot to start. A little further, to the south of the bazaar was a settlement of Muslims – about ten or fifteen huts and few old brick and cemented houses. Subsequently it became known that a crowd had surrounded the settlement. Only very few could manage to escape. Even before the police arrived, the only survivors in the settlement were the wounded who had been left in the blazing houses. Of them, some were rescued by the police. By the time the fire-brigade arrived, the huts were reduced to ashes and in most of the houses too, the only remains were half-burnt roofs and walls. Some women too were carried away by the men in the crowd. Much later, when he was working in a place in Karol Bagh and also lived there, a couple too lived in a small room nearby. The woman was very quarrelsome, very much so. When the man failed to stand up to her, he bemoaned – ‘I brought you out, saved your life …who knows what sorry end you’d have met otherwise! And this is what you give me in return?’ But the strange thing was that no matter how bitterly they fought, it never came to blows.
This time too, bapu got a curfew pass from his depot. When he returned, mother was flitting about in worry – “Such plunder and killing in the city and the boy is missing”. At first bapu found the shop closed, but on coming closer saw it was bolted not from outside but from inside. Bapu’s knock at the door scared him at first and he neither moved nor made a sound. But when bappa called out , he felt much relieved. Bappa left alone the stuff that lay outside, none of it was very costly any way, but searching out a lock bappa locked the shop from outside.
When mai saw them coming she ran from a distance and holding him close showered him with kisses. She didn’t stop crying and she didn’t stop kissing him. “O my son, my prince, my moon’. At first he felt reassured, a sense of security but when mai’s caresses didn’t stop he felt a little vexed. Many of the neighbours, both men and women, were watching. Many came later to enquire if Ghaseeta had reached home or not. He concluded that mai must have been really perturbed and must have raised a big hue and cry.
Things with bappa could never be the way they had been earlier – bappa was murdered only a few days later. However, distance between the two reduced a great deal during those last few days. He had become even more of a coward but at least now his fear did not increase when he saw bappa. The city witnessed so much of plunder and killing that leave alone the lane, he was scared to step out of the house. There was twenty four hour curfew and the military kept patrolling the streets. Then, when the fire cooled down a little there was peace for a few days, again someone murdered someone in some area or there were isolated incidents of a crowd surrounding a house and putting it on fire before the military or the police could arrive. The occupants, if they received prior information, got away, otherwise they too perished.
Chotelal’s shop remained shut for a few days and when it opened, mai refused to let him go to work. But bappa started going immediately after the curfew was lifted. Mai was a little scared too, but bappa laughed out aloud – “Can anyone dare to come before a military truck?” Those days, a truck from depot used to ply, taking people to work in the morning and dropping them near their homes in the evening. But bapu had to leave a little early now as the truck had to take a devious route in order to pick up people from different points. Train didn’t take up so much time and the station at the Subzi Mandi was quite close to the house and the depot too was near a station.
Bapu was not feeling too well that day. At first, he said he wouldn’t go for work. But then, on second thoughts he said, “Might as well go, what would I do sitting at home, this will only mean a cut in the wages.” He lost some time before arriving at a decision and though delayed by only a minute or two, he missed the truck. Everyone at home thought bappa had gone by the truck. But when bappa saw none of his fellow passengers, he thought the truck had left but stood there for a few minutes, thinking perhaps no other person had come and the truck may still arrive. When it didn’t he started for the station, intending to catch the train.
It wasn’t yet noon when a policeman, with bapu’s name written on a paper, came to make enquiries. Mai was inside the house. He was sitting at the door sill. The policeman stopped under the neem tree – “Is this Chhedilal’s house?” The moment the policeman stopped and asked, his heart skipped a beat. He stood up, was unable to speak, but nodded his head – yes. “Chhedilal has been murdered, his body is lying at the Hindu Rao hospital.” He heard, but didn’t really understood what the policeman was saying. “Who is it?” - Mai asked from inside but he still couldn’t speak or move. When mai came out the policeman repeated his question, then the message – “Is this Chhedilal’s house? Chhedilal has been murdered, the body is lying at Hindu Rao hospital.” Mai seemed paralyzed for a moment. Then hitting herself suddenly on the head, she almost crumbled down to the floor and started to cry loudly. Women from surrounding houses came out and circled mai. Four or five men also appeared. The two money lenders, Bhagirath and two others who, perhaps haven’t gone to work or were perhaps unemployed. Tears dropped quickly down his eyes but he had still not regained his voice, as if an unknown force had clamped down his mouth.
And later, the unknown force also locked up the memory of the day in his mind. It was unlocked very rarely and when it was, he lingered very shortly on the days and the ensuing developments. For, whenever the lock opened, the face of bappa lying in the hospital verandah appeared before his eyes – open lips, as though he was still speaking when the death arrived, eyes too open and unmoving, as if they were not real but made of glass. Bappa had no wound on his head but on his chest (or perhaps the back) and on his stomach which had been stitched and bandaged at the hospital. No one knew if he died before or after he reached the hospital. Nor if he had been killed by Muslims or by Sikhs and Hindus, who mistook him for a Muslim.
The policeman who had come with the news also passed on that there had been a commotion at the mouth of a lane almost two furlongs this side of the station. Two policemen, patrolling the area had gone to check and found bappa lying all alone in a pool of blood. Later, he also heard whispers that the masons – Munna and his friends, had taken their long standing revenge when they found the chance. During the days these rumours came to his ears, he was already thinking of leaving home. The rumours did not anger him, nor incited him to take revenge. On the contrary, the resentment in him went up and the wish to go away some where, where he wouldn’t meet anyone from the lane, became stronger.
The policeman was still saying how the police patrol had sent for a vehicle from the police station and taken bappa to hospital, how his depot card, stating his name and address was found in his pocket, when suddenly, mai rose and began to run, still crying and screaming. He, and the others too, followed mai. Everyone understood without being told that mai was heading for the hospital. Mai was crying and running as if her early arrival at the hospital was going to make a difference. The city was quite peaceful at the time, the bazaar was open and there were quite a few people on the road who stopped when they saw mai running and crying like this. Many also asked the people from the lane who were following her what had happened. “Her husband has been murdered.” “Tch, tch, tch” and they moved on. Mai did not stop running on the incline before the hospital. He was breathless and her wails had turned to a strange, continuous sound which was filling up that deserted area.
They had placed bappa in a corridor on the outer fringe of the hospital, covered to the top with a hospital sheet. His was perhaps the only corpse in the hospital that day. Mai had gone crashing down on to bappa and accidentally or intentionally by mai, the sheet on the body became displaced, revealing bappa’s face, which gave him a severe shock as if he had been hit forcefully on the chest by someone with a fist. Bappa’s mouth was open with his feet showing, the fixed eyes seemed artificial, as if made of glass. Unable to watch he looked away but again and again his gaze returned. Then someone covered bappa’s face and he felt some relief.
Some more people, with them Dulare chacha and the pandit from the Shivala, arrived in a while. The pandit took charge of every thing, to make arrangements for an early funeral, “If there is rioting we’d all get trapped here”. Dulare chacha went to get what was required. The bier was carried straight to the Jamuna river from the hospital. Three or four women from the lane had also arrived. They held mai and then took her home with them. It was perhaps the effect of the pandit’s words that of the ten or twelve people who had come to the hospital, only six or seven went with the funeral.
When someone covered up bappa’s face in the hospital, he was overtaken by a strange desolation and broke into sobs. Bappa’s death had still not registered in his mind but the way his mouth remained open, his eyes looked glazed like glass, wrenched repeatedly at his heart. All the time bappa was being laid out on the funeral pyre and while lighting it up, he kept crying and sobbing, his heart turning in a curious way.
When he returned, he didn’t have the heart to enter the house and sat there at the doorsill. Dulare chacha went in at once. Mai was sitting against the wall, quiet now, after having cried herself to exhaustion, but seeing him she broke down again. He heard mai’s sobs and lay there on his stomach on the floor. Dulare chacha came out, paused when he saw him lying but didn’t speak, just sat there quietly.
Dulare chacha stayed the night, then stayed for good. It was natural and he also felt relief for some days. Mai cried often. At times, holding him close to her bosom she began to cry loudly. He could say nothing to mai and only began to cry himself. It was Dulare chacha who consoled them. Often people turned up to express condolence but he still didn’t feel like speaking. It was again Dulare chacha who offered them seats and talked to them. At first he brought down his bedding, it was beginning to get cold. Then his clothes. Then gradually pots and pans, box – every thing. When the month came to an end, he vacated his room.
They had to borrow from Massur Maharaj to feed Brahmins on the thirteenth day of bappa’s death. No one asked him to do anything. Mai and Dulare chacha made the negotiations and mai put her thumb impression on the paper. But then it occurred to him he would now have to work to earn. How else would they survive? Bappa had some money in the post office. Some also with the depot. But it wasn’t possible to get out government money so quickly. Dulare chacha was not such a burden. He took both his meals at the hotel. But only the house rent was two rupees, besides clothes and food for mother and son.
He went to Chotelal on the third or the fourth day to ask for work. But despite much pleading Chotelal didn’t agree to pay more than nine or ten rupees (he had already increased it to rupees 6, after Rahmat left). Chotelal’s income too was not all that big but what was more important was that Chotelal thought since he had trained him and he was still inexperienced, he should work for him for less. But could the two of them manage in ten rupees? He went round the bazaar making enquiries and found a job in a big shop near the mills, that paid fifteen rupees. They didn’t do much of repair work, but mostly sold cycles and spare parts. Therefore he generally had to open up and assemble cycles.
Still, the money they had borrowed from Massur Maharaj was a burden, they had to pay interest on it so now they thought of withdrawing the money from post-office and the depot. They had to do a lot of running around and again it was Dulare chacha who accompanied mai each time. For the first time, he felt a little piqued that mai hadn’t thought it necessary to even ask him to go with her. Had it not been for Dulare chacha, he’d have faced a lot of difficulty. His own job was a new one and the employer may not have given him leave. Still, he felt he should have gone with mai.
Only a few days had passed when suddenly he had a feeling that the people in the lane were giving him odd looks. When he went for work in the morning or returned home in the evening, people standing at their doors looked strangely at him, with pity and sympathy but also with contempt that tore at his heart. If there were more than one they began to talk in whispers as soon as they saw him. It didn’t take him much time to understand that the people were talking about mai and Dulare chacha. Also, he didn’t take long to realize that what they said was the truth. He hadn’t talked much to Dulare chacha even earlier, now there was almost no dialogue between the two. Mai used to look at him with concern for a few days but the resentment in his mind had turned to silence. As far as possible, he said nothing at all. Neither at home nor at the shop. Earlier, he had been alone only in mind. Now he was alone also in the body.
The most trying time was when he went to bathe at the well. There were always some people or the other at the well, drawing water or bathing. When he went, there were whispers or silence for as long as he was taking his bath. A municipality water tap had also been installed quite a few days ago in the lane but it was winter and the water in the tap those days was very cold. A bath in the fresh, warm well water always felt good. Alas, it was an old habit. But now it became difficult for him to go to the well. Once while going for a bath he overheard from a little distance, the voice of pandit from Shivala, saying that those who killed Ghaseeta’s bappa were not Muslims but the boys of the masons. They had been on the look out for an opportunity for long. The pandit was a little short-sighted and didn’t, perhaps, see him approach, and kept speaking till he was very close. When someone pointed him out, he clammed up at once. Suddenly there was silence and every one grouped near the well slipped quickly away. He had this odd feeling of having been rendered completely helpless and defenceless, completely vulnerable and pitiable. And the feeling brought him on the verge of tears. From that day on, he tried to go to the well at a time when it was deserted. It was winter and he would stay without a bath for two or three days. It was getting late and there was someone at the well, especially one of the masons, he managed somehow to take his bath under the water tap.
The wish to go away some where leaving his home, leaving the lane had become very strong but he couldn’t think of a place to go away to. Many a time he had thought of leaving Delhi and going to Bombay or Calcutta but hadn’t dared to. Also, he didn’t have the money for the ticket. If he went without ticket and was caught he’d be done for. And if he left his house, where else would he stay in Delhi? Once, he took leave from his shop and went around Chandni Chowk to make enquiries at cycle-repair shops. But the ones he told working looked suspicious – why did he want to quit his old job? And those he didn’t looked even more suspicious – Was there anyone he knew who could vouch for him?
Disheartened, he was returning and must have come half way when suddenly a whisper began to spread in the air going from mouth to mouth. Mahatma Gandhi has been killed. Who killed him? And how? Was the killer a Muslim? No. A Hindu. He pumped a bullet into him. He is still breathing. No, he is dead. In no time, the shadow of death descended over the city. The doors of homes and shops shut down. Hare Ram! Hai Ram! What has happened? People anxious and over-wrought, were heading only in one direction. A crowd stood at one point in front of a radio. Hare Ram, Ram, Sabko sanmati de Bhagwan – May God give good sense to every one!
For some reason his own heart choked with emotion. He had heard only the name of Mahatma Gandhi, had never seen him. The punjabi refugees, who had come to live in the lane often censured Gandhi ji, saying that Gandhi favoured Muslims, he arranged a grant of crores of rupees for Pakistan, got so many Hindus and Sikhs killed in Punjab, made homeless, it was because of him that our mothers and sisters lost their honour. But he had been so disturbed those days that he hadn’t paid any attention to this criticism. However, at the time the whisper spread and the shadow of death descended over the city, he himself started to feel very disturbed and tearful. As though a muted lamentation rising out of a choked up, massive throat was echoing all over the city, Hare Ram, Ram!
He kept following the people up to some distance without thinking. Then suddenly he wondered where, after all, was he going. He asked a few pedestrians, “Where is Mahatma Gandhi?” “At Birla Bhavan.” “How far is it?” “Four or five miles.” All of a sudden, he felt very exhausted. It was getting dark. He had been walking another four or five miles. “What would I do there? I won’t be able to see any thing in so much of crowd and such darkness.” He turned around.
Before he reached home, he met Mahadev on the road, almost on the run with three-four other men. Seeing him, he had paused a little, people were standing in groups and talking in the lane at two or three places. At one spot, it appeared that someone was telling how Gandhi had been shot, he didn’t remember whose voice it was. For a moment he thought of stopping to listen but then his eyes fell upon Minua and also some others of the masons standing with the group and he moved on.
All business came to a stand still for three days and he confined himself to his room. The next day, almost every one from the lane went to the funeral, even Dulare chacha, but not he. He stayed in his room thinking of what he should do. For some reason the restlessness in his mind had increased, as if his personal crisis had become more acute. He even thought to himself how it was going to make a difference to his life? But his sorrow and his exhaustion had increased. There was no sound in the room and yet it felt a heart rending wail was echoing in the room.
The remaining two holidays passed in similar fashion. The people in the lane stood at several points talking in groups. Some one or the other sat under the neem all through the day. Dulare chacha too sat along with them. Half-heartedly, he strained his ears to hear the conversation taking place outside but didn’t feel like going out. It was some Maratha who shot the Mahatma. He had been nabbed. People say he was killed by Sanghis. The funeral was attended by lakhs of people, eminent leaders, many had come from foreign countries. When he found the water-tap free during the day, he went and had his bath, took his food and flopped down again. Most of the time he stayed immersed in his dreams – If only an accomplished Guru would teach him the mystic yoga, he would take on so many different forms, go to so many places, do so many things. What all he would do, if only he won a lottery of one lakh of rupees.
A few more days had passed and he, in a way, had given up. There had also been some talk of leaving the lane and shifting to another house – not too far away from his shop and Dulare chacha’s hotel. But they haven’t found one immediately. He had also thought that going away from the lane would bring him some relief. Meanwhile, the topic of his wedding too, had come up. Someone had told mai of a girl and mai had said to Dulare chacha they’d get him married if the girl was good and the family decent, the bride could be brought home later. At times, he also thought of saving some money each month and go to Bombay. He had heard there were many people over their from their region. He would join a mill. But in a way, he too was getting used to things the way they were. The talk of marriage too had changed his mind. In a year or two he would grow up and try for a job in a mill or peon-ship in an office. Once he got married his in-laws too would help.
But for some reason the matter of his marriage didn’t make progress. It didn’t end either but nothing reached his ears. Once on his way back from the shop, some people, sitting in dark at the well, were talking. He couldn’t see who all were there but recognized the voice of Pandit who was talking loudly, “… has no concern for her own son. Once there is a scandal, who would give him his daughter.” Walking quickly he went past, and though there was no name in what the Pandit said, he was sure the reference was to mai. His resentment swelled and kept growing.
He sulked but said nothing. He didn’t even feel like saying anything in front of mai, who went about her household chores as a routine, spoke little and rarely went out. She had almost completely stopped going to neighbours and they too came only seldom and when they did, it was only to ask for something. Sometimes a sieve, sometimes a winnowing basket. Rajee used to come initially but then, perhaps, was forbidden by her mai. Whenever he was home, after pottering about here and there, mai often returned to look at him, disturbed and full of concern. If he looked up, she moved away. Even otherwise, he felt mai looked a little sickly, downcast and subdued.
Holi too passed in like manner. They weren’t going to celebrate anyway. He stayed sprawled in his room and mai too, was a little too restless that day. Once or twice he had a feeling she had cried quietly in her room. It was perhaps one month after holi. The days had become quite warm but the nights were still a little cool and they used to sleep inside. He with Dulare chacha, the outer room, mai in the inner one. For some reason he was finding it difficult to sleep that night. He was extremely perturbed over no particular thing and was lying with eyes closed. The foot fall told him that Dulare chacha had gone in. Then, when muffled voices began to drift in, his ears cocked up unconsciously. Nothing was clear but he heard Dulare chacha talk about calling the midwife the next day. Midwife? Why midwife? Suddenly, he received the shock of an electric current. Mai was expecting. He made calculations. It was over six months since bappa died, but mai’s belly is not that swollen. No, it’s not that, it’s recent. Dulare chacha. And suddenly his head began to split, like a sore tumour throbbing inside. He turned over to lie on his stomach.
He didn’t know when he drifted into sleep that night but remembered Dulare chacha had not returned till the time he was awake. He woke up with a heavy head but last night’s incident had slipped from his mind. Without a thought he started to get ready for the shop. But after his bath, when he went into eat and sat before mai, it suddenly flashed in his mind. He couldn’t eat. Somehow he forced down the roti. Mai looked at him with grave concern and apprehension. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?” He looked up, mai appeared sad and disturbed and he thought she had started to look old in just a few days. “Nothing. I am just not hungry. Wrap up the roti in a paper. I will eat it during the day.”
But as he was putting the roti In his bag, he felt he could endure no more, could live there no longer, and like someone under a spell, he put a set of clothes in the bag, also the money he had saved, around five-six rupees, in his pocket and slipping on chappals stepped out. He was not coming back. Ever.
-  Jalebi: a syrupy sweet
-  Jeth: the third month of the Hindu lunar calendar
-  Gauna: the ceremony of the bride’s going to her husband’s home after a post-marriage interval.
-  Kirpan- a dagger
-  Tehmad – a cloth draping lower part of body usually worn by Muslim men
-  Subzi Mandi: vegetable market