Some Meaningless Lives Part 7 By Om Prakash Deepak
Original Title: Kuch Zindagayian Bematlab
Translation from Hindi: Ranjana Srivastav
Maqbool believed, without doubt, judge Sajnani would release him, and he too, came to believe it when he saw how severely the judge was scolding the policeman. It was in fact, to some extent due to his own foolishness that he had stayed three months in jail. When the judge had asked him if there was someone who knew him and could vouch for his conduct, he had said, yes. Otherwise, the judge would perhaps have released him earlier. The policemen, too, must have known about the judge and had kept postponing the case despite the judge’s reprimand, hoping perhaps, that they’d find an excuse to transfer the case to another court. When the police did not file the challan at the first hearing, the judge lost his temper again. The challan was filed at the second hearing but without any evidence. When the judge asked the officer representing the police, point-blank, why he shouldn’t dismiss the case, the officer said, “My lord! This boy is clearly a pick-pocket, two blades were recovered from him at the time of arrest. If the court won’t pass a sentence in this case, it would amount to contempt of law and would encourage crime. The boy would go out and pick more pockets.”
The judge first asked him if he had a lawyer. No, my lord. O.K. We’ll deal with it later. The judge turned around the papers of the challan. Dharamdas s/o Chhedilal, Hata Ramdas, Subzi Mandi. The judge looked up, what does your father do? No, my lord, my father used to work in a government depot, but both his parents passed away last year. You don’t have a brother? No, sir, I am all alone. What do you do? I am learning work sir, at a cycle shop. Can your employer or someone from your neighbourhood vouch for your conduct? He paused for a moment thinking how to answer. The enquiring eyes of the judge rested on him. Yes, my lord, my employer is a big man, why would he come to court on my account? But someone from the neighbourhood would vouch for me.
The judge handed the papers to the clerk sitting alongside – ask him the name and address and issue summons. He got into a fix now, whose name should he give? Also, he didn’t have much time to think. The clerk asked in a low but impatient voice, speak up, whom do you want to call? When he couldn’t think of anyone else, he gave the name of the pundit at the Shivala, Pandit Balbhaddar Misir, Hata Ramdas. The next two hearings were wasted in confusion. The judge enquired and was told by the clerk – the summons has not returned sahib. The judge got some what peeved at the third hearing, not with him but with the police. He said a little angrily, I know all about your department! It has been a month and a half and you couldn’t serve summons to one man? The officer said, ‘I beg your pardon sir. I’ll make a note of it and send it by hand this time.’ ‘No way. I am not giving any more time. This orphan child has been languishing in jail for three months for no reason.’
‘But sir?, said the police officer, ‘If he is telling the truth, ask him what he was doing in the Company garden at that hour?’ When the judge turned to look at him, his face drained of all colour. What could he say now? But the judge, instead of asking him, mimicked the police officer in a rude voice, ‘But sir, if the boy is speaking the truth, who is responsible for keeping him forcibly in jail and turning him into a criminal? And even if he is guilty, aren’t three months in jail, punishment enough? After all, you have arrested him only on suspicion, not picking a pocket.’ Then turning towards him, ‘Run off now. But never run away from home again. Go to your employer and go all out to convince him to engage you again. Don’t run away even if he scolds or beats you. If you come before me again, I’ll send you in for one year. Go run along now.’
The constable undid his handcuffs. He folded his hands in front of the judge – Namaste sir, - but the judge was looking already at the papers of another case. Stepping out of the court room, he walked quickly for some distance in the verandah, afraid he would be arrested again, but then he saw the constable going towards the lock up to bring another prisoner without looking in his direction. He threw a glance around him. The two words – run along – spoken by the judge had made every one lose interest in him. Walking slowly he came on to the road outside.
At first, he kept thinking – the judge had realized that he had run away from home and therefore hadn’t made too many queries. Had the judge asked questions he’d been trapped. Then it occurred to him that his bag and the other set of clothes had been left in jail. Once, he thought of going back to the police lock-up and go with others to the jail and bring back his clothes from there. But the court had released him, so why would any one take him there? Should he go the jail himself and say his clothes were left inside? And then he suddenly realized he would never want to see the gate of the jail again. He hoped in his heart he would not see the day when the window of the jail-gate should close after taking him in.
Coming out on the road, he stood thinking for a while. What should he do now? While in jail he had almost made up his mind, he’d go back home. Go back home, fight with Dulare chacha and drive him away. He had grown up now, after all, and if Dulare chacha would create a problem, he would threaten him – I have stayed with hard core criminals in jail, if I set one of them after you, you’d disappear without a trace – bones and all. But he had thought he’d go home after it was dark.
Except for his clothes he had no other major concern. But then, he thought he was sure to get clothes at home. He had brought one set with him. He recalled there were shorts and vests also at home, also a set of kurta-dhoti, and perhaps a pyjama too. He also possessed a slightly torn shirt. There was no cause for worry. But what if Dulare chacha had worn his clothes in the mean time? If he had, he would take him to task first on this count.
Maqbool had, as a presentation given him two letters. There was no knowing at which hearing he’d be released. The letters were lying in his pocket written in Urdu which he couldn’t read. But Maqbool had also explained every thing to him – Right opposite the mosque situated at the starting point of the barra is the paan shop owned by Aziz. This long letter is addressed to him. I have noted down some items in the letter. Tell him he is to bring all these when he comes to visit in a day or two. He is also to bring some money to deposit in my name. And explain to him clearly to bring cigarettes and slip in some notes between the silver foil and the cardboard of the packet. And to do so in many different packets separately. Tell him not to shove all of it down one packet so one can tell just by looking at it. I’ve written in the letter to give two rupees to you also. This other letter is for my brother Iqbal. He is the same age as you. Ask Aziz for his address. He has the key to my room. You can take the key and sleep in the room till the time you can make another arrangement.
Listening to Maqbool, he had nodded but had no mind to go to his place or to his room to sleep. The ‘barra’ was an out and out Muslim area. It was all right as far as passing the message to Aziz was concerned. He would also get money from him, there was not a single paisa in his pocket. But the idea of living in Muslim quarters scared him. He was also of the mind that even though Maqbool was a good sort, getting close to a Muslim was not the right thing to do. But perhaps Maqbool had asked Aziz in his letter to tell him his address, take the key from Iqbal and give it to him. Aziz didn’t even ask his name. All kinds of people must have been frequenting his shop – perhaps that’s why he didn’t feel the need. After reading the letter he gave him two rupees. And then asking a boy to mind the shop he said – come along.
They reached Maqbool’s place after taking many turns in the lane. An old single story house. The door covered with a curtain of sack cloth. Asking him to stand there Aziz called out – ‘Iqbal’ and went in. He stood there and kept thinking – Are there any women in Maqbool’s household? Why is there a curtain on the door? Don’t they observe purdah in front of Aziz? They must have gone inside when Aziz called out. Who would be there? Would Maqbool’s wife be there? Had Maqbool married? His mother must be there, perhaps sisters too. Then suddenly, his mind became fraught with many apprehensions. Has he become trapped in a snare? Who knows what Maqbool had written in his letter? He looked around him. The lane was deserted. Only a few boys were playing in a corner. But it was day light still. What can they do in broad day light? What would he do if people surrounded him from both sides and asked him to either eat beef or be killed? There were only Muslim households in all the lanes. If they killed and buried him someplace, no one would ever know. There was in any case, no one to enquire about his whereabouts. He considered moving away instead of standing there, waiting. But it would be difficult to find his way out of those lanes and in case he met someone he would wonder what this Hindu was doing there. What would he say if someone asked some thing? That he had lost his way? But where was he going? To whose house?
He was still in a dilemma when Aziz came out with the key. The letter addressed to Iqbal stayed in his pocket. Perhaps Maqbool’s family didn’t approve of his conduct, the company he kept, and didn’t want the younger brother to follow the same path. Was Maqbool’s father still alive? Did he have an elder brother? Aziz came out and said, come, I’ll see you to your room. As they walked towards the road, the room fell within the lane, right at the backside of the road. Aziz opened the door. The room was quite dirty. At one side was a sagging cot with a dirty bedding on it and a few clothes on a clothesline at the other, an old frayed rug was spread out on the floor and in a corner lay some empty boxes, a small lantern.
Leaving him there, Aziz went away. Not wanting to sit on the cot he sat down on the rug. And thought, it was all very well, he could pass his time here. It was well past noon but still some time before dark. Leaving the room open he bought a bidi and matches from the roadside, lit up and lay down. He had thought once of locking the room before going out but then, thought there was nothing there that would be pinched in two minutes. The neighbours would know that it was Maqbool’s room. If they saw him opening and locking up the room, they’d wonder unnecessarily who this person was.
He fell asleep and on waking up suddenly, found the evening drawing to its end. He was also feeling a little hungry. During the three months stay in jail, he had become used to early meals. He stepped out, locked up and thought he would go to a small dhaba for food then take a tram from the ice-factory. Now he also felt that he had taken the key needlessly. He should go and return it to Aziz, but what would Aziz think? If he was not going to stay there why had he taken the key? Then he thought he’d keep it with him for now, come another day and return it. He would have to return it. They may not have a duplicate. What if Maqbool came out of jail and found that both he and the key were missing.
By the time he had his meal, it had grown dark and by the time he reached Pul-Bangash, the roads were lit up. When he reached before the lane, he found it abuzz with people. He remembered people used to assemble and gossip at the well at this hour. For a long time he kept pacing up and down the road. Once, when he thought the lane had fallen silent he went in but on going a little further, saw three-four people standing under the light of the lamp post near the Shivala, he retraced his steps. If he passed by that point, someone was sure to recognise him. He did not want to meet any one from the lane before reaching his house. At first his mind had not been very clear and he had felt only a hitch, but walking about the road in the wait of silence, he remembered all that the people in the lane had said and done and felt a rage build up in him. He would bide his time and deal with each of them. But first he has to deal with Dulare chacha. He’d rent a house some other place once he’d driven Dulare chacha away. But first he would shoo out Dulare chacha and look for work, so every one in the lane would know.
As he walked, he also passed by the shop where he had left his dues of eight or ten days. The lala was sitting on his seat and counting money. He’d come here tomorrow. He may get work again. Otherwise, he would ask for his dues. He also passed by Chotelal’s shop, who as always was dozing on his chair. There were two new boys in the shop but they were, at the time smoking bidis. He did not see Kisana in the next shop. He was still very angry with Kisana. He would, one day, give him a good talking to.
After a while he peeped again inside the lane. There was no one near the Shivala now. Quickly, he walked past the light. Any one who saw him the dark would not know him. But he did not meet anyone. When the lane turned he stopped. Beside the electric lamp post, was also a blazing petromax. People sat there eating in a row. He stopped outside the circle of light and stood in the dark against the wall. On a durrie spread out close to the row, sat a crowd. He recognized quite a few from the lane. Mahadev, Massur Maharaj, and the pandit sat, chewing tobacco in, in a corner talking to some one. A few members of a band stood at the back. The door to Raji’s house was open and people were going and coming, in and out. He guessed it must be Raji’s wedding, still when he saw a stranger pass by he asked, ‘Why sir, is there a wedding taking place?’ The man paused on hearing a voice come in from the dark, then probably thinking it was one of the low caste servants, he indicated by turning his face and said, ‘The Chaudhury household is receiving a wedding party tonight.’
He continued to stand there for a while. The place would remain crowded till late at night. After all, they are entertaining a wedding party. Keeping to the opposite side and close to the wall, he proceeded to his house. He went and stood there going as close as he could without stepping out in the light. The door to his house was ajar and a lantern burned in the outer room. Suddenly a feminine voice drifted out speaking in Punjabi, and then a woman in salwar-kameez stepped out. Who is she? And this man? Looks like he is a Sikh. Yes he is a Sikh, there is a small kirpan – a dagger kept by Sikhs, dangling down his waist. The two went back in, the door closed.
ow come these Sikhs are here? Where have mai and Dulare chacha gone? Dulare chacha had been thinking about it already, he must have left surely, taking mai with him. He was a fool to think, they’d still be here. It was all absolutely clear, there was no need to ask any one. With heavy feet, he turned back. Some one perhaps saw him in the light near the Shivala and when he had passed ahead, a voice came from behind him, ‘Is it Ghaseeta?’ He didn’t know who it was, from the voice. He didn’t turn to see, nor stopped, instead, as if a little jolted (also some what disconcerted on hearing his nick name after so many months), he stepped up his pace and went out of the lane.
His mood had some how turned sour. Where would they have gone! It occurred to him once that if he went to Dulare chacha’s hotel tomorrow, he’d probably see him. But the thought came and went away. He now wanted to see neither Dulare chacha nor mai. He wanted to see no one. What would he do if he met mai? If she had gone with Dulare chacha, it is well and good. For a while, he felt he was lost again in an alien place. The way he had in the jail when the barrack-gate closed behind him. Then he started thinking, he’d work out and build up his body, be a bully, become a rogue like Jidda, people would be terrified of his name, even the police and the jail staff would stand in awe of him. Maqbool was a thief and a gambler. He too would gamble, also booze but won’t steal. He would be a bully and people would pay him out of fear. And if some one would be defiant he would kill him with a knife, he would keep a pistol (he would first learn to shoot and become a crack shot), bang, and every thing will be over.
Suddenly he realized he was heading back to the ‘barra’ without having thought about it. The lane with Maqbool’s room was close. He gave a slight jerk to his head, entered the lane, unlocked the door, latched it from inside and lay down on the rug. It was very hot and the room had become a furnace. It was difficult to sleep. He remembered there was a lantern in a corner but had no idea if there was kerosene in it. Taking out a bidi from his pocket, he lit up. The acrid smoke of the bidi began to fill the room.
He suffered terribly in that furnace for months but there was no option. He did not have the courage to sleep outside, one didn’t know what it would lead to. He saw many of the men sleep out on the cots in groups of four or six. But they were all Muslims, he couldn’t muster the courage to sleep alone in the lane. Despite the scorching heat he slept inside with doors closed. The worst time was when the rains started and there was no breeze. It felt he would suffocate, the whole night was spent changing sides. Still he didn’t have the guts to leave the doors open.
And more than the room it was his own body that was on fire. He became all wrought up – should he bang his head against the wall, leap in to a well, what should he do? In a matter of just a few days he came to pass when, whenever he saw a young woman pass by on the road, he wanted to say ‘yo-yo’ in the manner of the prisoners. In his mind he killed many, forced himself on many but when he came out of his room he saw the world going its way and found himself at a complete loss. It was strange that while in jail, not just his mind but also his body had remained subdued, perhaps due to fear.. but no sooner had he come out in the open, that a fire began to rage in him.
Actually, he had become absolutely lonely on coming out. At first he just didn’t know what he should do. He had gone to the old shop and had a very brief talk with the owner. The owner had said there was no work but had paid him four rupees from the last eight days. He had not felt very confident but had gone there after preparing himself and when the owner had refused him work, he had asked him to pay him his dues. When the owner looked up he became a little hassled, thinking if the owner refused he’d have to quarrel. He was deliberately trying to put up a tough front. What money? You owe me eight days salary. The sharpness in his voice had perhaps cautioned the shop-owner, he had opened his box, given him four rupees, written a note – press your thumb on it. He was unable to read the note but could make out that the amount written was rupees four. Taking the money he had come out.
What should he do now? As he went through the bazaar he realized the city had changed. There had been changes earlier too but now it looked so different: Punjabis every where. Displaying goods on stalls, on carts, in shops. The number of shops had gone up. Punjabi girls and women in every place. He had heard stories that these Punjabi girls were easy to win over. He had specially heard that many women and girls walked the street, looking out for customers. Those who had no other income, earned and managed this way. He had also heard there were many refugees in Karoli Bagh. Taking the money from the shop-owner, he kept roaming around on the roads and in the lanes. He had never been to Karoli Bagh earlier. For one thing, a Muslim colony fell in between and secondly the area had been, for the most part, jungle and still deserted till last year, there had been only nominal habitation. But now when he went there, a whole new city seemed suddenly to have sprung up. Endless crowds. Endless people. He kept loitering, even after it grew dark, he kept loitering but didn’t see any thing, no body made any overtures, there was nothing that would have given him any hint.
There must be some thing. Surely, there has to be. But nobody thought, to look at him, that he could be a customer. He himself found all the women homely, even the girls he saw were homely. None of the women he saw appeared cheap. He thought, perhaps he was unable to identify. He had no experience. But he had grown very restless and had suddenly started to walk in the direction of Qutub road.
He had known about Qutub road since long. He had heard about it in his childhood, from the people in the lane, when he didn’t understand a thing. He had heard again on growing up. Kisana had once told him a strange reason why whores didn’t have babies. But Kisana only said things he had heard here and there. Once they had been returning from a cinema, when the tram had come on to the railway bridge, Kisana had pointed with his hand and said that the lane directly opposite was a red light area.
He had sneaked in a look once or twice while passing by the Ramnagar road but it had been day and he had not seen anyone. That night too, he went straight ahead on the road without turning into the lane. The boys in jail often bragged about knowing all about rates of rupees five to rupees ten. But most of them were perhaps only bragging. They had not visited there. All through the way he kept thinking of the money he’d have to part with. If only he found some one needy, she might agree for a rupee or two. What if all four rupees were spent? He’d be left with nothing! The money Aziz had given was nearly spent. (He had, meanwhile, gone and asked for two more rupees which Aziz had given without asking any questions. Perhaps he had gone to visit Maqbool in jail and Maqbool had said some thing to him.) Unh, someone or the other was sure to agree for three-four rupees.
When he crossed the mouth of the lane, he thought, how stupid he was. Where was he going? After walking some distance, he returned and this time, taking courage, turned into the lane. And was immediately taken over by a strange nervousness. Lifting his eyes once or twice he looked here and there and then dropping them, walked on. Later, only a few cinema like images stayed with him. A string of rooms, glittering bulbs, smoking lanterns, sack-cloth curtains hanging down a few of the doors. Saris of dark blue, green, red colours, glistening – apparently of silk. Rouge on cheeks, faces white with layers of powder, thick kohl laden eyes, dark hands – a few of them wheatish, ugly faces (one had looked a little better, she was perhaps from the hills), silver jewellery, a nose pendant hanging down a nose (he had no idea if it was brass or gold), all matured women. He didn’t have the courage even to meet their eyes. A few men were also passing through the lane. One or two stood by the doors. There was bright light at just one spot to the right, at a paan and cigarette shop. Two or three men were standing there also.
He now came to a narrow lane. His feet slowed down. You ass, what is there to be embarrassed about? The whores stand here waiting for someone to come and strike a deal. All of them looking like witches. Why would anyone pay them more than a rupee or two. That one, from the hills, had looked some what better. She must be charging a higher rate also. He should have struck a deal with her. She might have settled for four rupees. He turned back. This time walking a little slowly. And with some courage, keeping his eyes up, trying to look at faces. But a few eyes had perhaps spotted him earlier too. The row of rooms had hardly begun when he heard, ‘Would you sleep babu?’ He saw a thin, dark, middle aged woman, at least forty, with small eyes and large teeth, looking at him. No, no, not this one, and he broke into a run without a word, without a backward glance, without looking around him and breathed only after he had reached the road.
Damn, damn you, you’re an eunuch, someone inside him said. However, he was drenched in sweat and was completely exhausted. The ‘barra’ was not too far from there but when he saw a tram approaching, he climbed aboard. On reaching the room he lay down. After quite a while, he remembered he hadn’t eaten in evening either. The thought made him all the more hungry. But he didn’t get up. At this time, all the eating joints must have closed down. This won’t do, he thought. One day, when he had enough money in his pocket, he would drink, eat mutton (he had never eaten mutton, hadn’t even thought about it, it was also more costly but somehow in his mind, he associated drinks and mutton with fun and high status) and then visit Qutub road. He had never had drinks and in some corner of his mind, also had a fear of drinks. Many of the masons and some others in the lane used to drink hooch and the impression in his mind was that after drinking, a man loses his senses, starts babbling, gets into scuffles and if he lands up in a tight spot, the police arrests him. But then he shook his head, he was no longer afraid of these things. The police arrested a person only if he made a nuisance of himself or got into street brawls. Otherwise, any number of people kept drinking. He would sit in a hotel to eat and drink. And then, he may not need to go to Qutub road (he had heard one could get girls along with drinks, in hotels). Only those who were no longer young, ended up at Qutub road. (All the women he had seen over there had been too old, mostly middle aged, not one of them had been young). This is right. Good quality girls must be available only in hotels. They must be costing more, at least fifteen to twenty rupees. If only he had twenty-twenty five rupees in his pocket, he could line up a good programme. All it boiled down to was money. He would get it one day.
But he never came to have money. It was his fault, mostly, but Maqbool also never encouraged him. The cripple had tried hard, tried his best to make friends but he could never form a bond with him. That night, when the cripple had turned up out of the blue, he could recognize him only by his limp. Otherwise, the cripple had been as well turned out as the college going son of a prosperous father. He had become a little edgy at first on hearing the knock. Who could it be at this hour? Meanwhile, there had been some unfamiliar visitors too, who said they thought Maqbool Miyan was back. It must be someone known to Maqbool again, he had thought. But when he opened the door, it was Mehmood who had come limping in. You idiot, what are you doing in the dark, did you go to sleep so early? Light up the lantern at least. He had become a little confused. The man walked and talked like Mehmood but wore something like a jacket over trousers, boots on his feet. His hair, slicked neatly back, smelt good.
He lit up the lantern at that hour for the first time that day. Earlier, he had never felt the need. In the dim light he saw Mehmood wearing fine clothes, washed and ironed. When did you come out? Only yesterday. Hasn’t Maqbool come out? (Such a stupid question). He was acquitted in one case, now he has appealed to the high court to release him on bail. If it is accepted, he’ll come. What about you? Did the session court acquit you? Have you taken your food? Yes (he remembered he had eaten roasted gram with jaggery sticks in the evening which was not too satisfying). Never mind. Come, I’ll treat you to kabab’s today.
He was in a fix through out on the way. What if the cripple made him eat beef? But he didn’t say any thing. The cripple took him to a hotel close by. He knew that beef was called ‘burra gosht’. If the cripple would order ‘burra gosht’, he’d know. There were benches on the side-walk and two tables, of rough wooden planks. Two plates of mutton curry for two annas each and roti. The man at the hotel. The man at the hotel didn’t ask any thing and placed the food before them in enamel ware. Rotis, puffed up and white like bread, bigger than the rotis in the jail, but extremely tasty. However, no sooner did he put a curry-dipped morsel in his mouth that his mouth was on fire. Hell, is there chilli or poison in the curry! When the cripple saw his face, he burst out laughing. Too hot? He just couldn’t stop laughing at first but then, said, ‘All right, take some daal, or would you rather take yoghurt.’ The cripple ordered two annas worth of yoghurt, also daal and said softly, they don’t charge for daal here.
Even daal had chillies, only a little less than the mutton curry. Suddenly he had an idea, taking meat pieces from the bowl he placed them in the yoghurt. It was still hot but he was able to eat rotis. More? No more. I ate in the evening. He couldn’t have eaten more than two even if he hadn’t eaten the roasted grams. But Mehmood stopped only after he had eaten five rotis. Mehmood used to eat all three of his rotis even when in jail. (He himself could never manage more than two even after getting habituated, even when Maqbool cooked vegetables.) On his way back he kept thinking the mutton sure tasted good. He’d have enjoyed it even more, had it not been so full of chillies. Mehmood too had made sounds that said even he was finding the mutton hot but perhaps he liked it that way only. He must be used to having chillies.
He also felt he had passed muster in a test of life. The reason why Muslims were so aggressive was that they ate mutton. Punjabis too, consume mutton with abandon. They also consume milk and butter but milk and butter costs a lot. Men grow strong and become fighters on mutton. If one is to survive in the world, one has to be a fighter. He felt a little satisfaction. The cripple asked him just this much on the way – Did you like the food? Yes. The roti was good, the curry had too much chilli but the curd set it right.
Mehmood slept that night there. Immediately after returning, he had taken off his clothes, hung them on the clothes line, searched out a shirt and pyjamas from the pile of dirty clothes in the dim light of the lantern and then holding them in his hands, had made a face, unh! And had thrown them back on the pile. What difference does it make? I’ll sleep in my underwear and see in the morning. Mehmood had rolled out the bedding lying on the cot (he had not till then touched the bedding. He had always been in the habit of sleeping on the ground. And the sagging cot would have been uncomfortable in any case) and sat on it with leg dangling down. He had looked so strange walking about in the dim light of the lantern. His whole body, though a little thin, was that of a normal being. But one of his legs, from waist down, was completely dried up. As if made, not of flesh and bone but of wood. As he hobbled about, his shadow, spread out over the wall, moved as if it was not his shadow but had a life of its own. As he sat there, his longish, pock-marked face also looked a little too dry (perhaps smallpox had caused his leg to dry up too), smoking a bidi, he appeared lost in thought.
This life is no good my friend, Mehmood threw the bidi stub in a corner. It is all a game of money. You get nothing without money. He said nothing in response, and only kept lying and looking. Suddenly Mehmood laughed, as if he had remembered something very amusing. I had wanted to drink hooch today, wanted to Firoza but had no dough in my pocket. If you have no dough, you have nothing. Behind the laughter rose a regret. He lay down on the bed.
He had been quite perturbed before Mehmood arrived. How would he cope? It was a good thing he had drawn a blank at Qutub road. Those four rupees had seen him through the week. He had gone and purchased a towel, a soap which he had used to wash his clothes and then to bathe at the roadside tap. He had cleaned up an empty box and had it filled with one anna of oil. The barber at the jail had once run his machine over his scalp and he still had a close crop. Earlier he had thought the growth on his face to be heavy and had considered paying one anna to a barber for a shave. But then it crossed his mind that it was better to have a beard when living in Muslim quarters. Those who saw him would take him to be a Muslim.
The real issue was that of money. He got daal for free at the dhaba. But one meal cost at least four annas, six when he was real hungry. As long as the money lasted he kept himself locked in the room and stayed sprawled the whole day. Either sleeping or fantasising about what all he would do if he had a lot of money. At times, trying to think of ways of earning money. Once he considered becoming a coolie at the station. There was no risk now, he would come here at night. But his mind said, no. No! Policemen kept hovering around over there night and day. And that policeman on patrol! If he saw him again he would lock him up again only to avenge himself. Should he ply a rickshaw? But he knew he couldn’t hire a rickshaw without an introduction, or guarantee, or a witness. Who would stand his guarantee?
Once he also visited the wholesale market of vegetables and grains but he didn’t even have a basket with him. Although he had also thought of earning money by carrying loads, with the idea of fending for himself by working as a labourer for the time-being. At the vegetable market he saw, the work was heavy, hauling down sacks of potatoes from the truck. He might have got lighter loads if only he had a basket, but he hadn’t got one. Most of the work at the grain market too was equally heavy, the labourers were lifting, carrying, putting down loaded sacks. But he got one load to carry after a long wait. Three or four bags belonging to a gentleman, weighing if not one mound, at least thirty to thirty five seers. But the gentleman tired at first to shrug him off in just six paise, saying the load weighed only twenty five seers and the rate was six paise per mound and paid him two annas after much haggling. After this he did not go to the grain market either.
He also made rounds of cycle shops. But all the shops in the neighbourhood belonged to Muslims. On hearing his name ‘Dharamdas’, they looked a little strangely at him and said, no, there is no work here. Once when he went to Shidipura and saw a cycle chop there, he thought of making enquiries. The sight of the Sikh sitting inside made him waver a little. He was a little wary of Sikhs. They didn’t talk without abusing, got sizzled and got into brawls on trivial issues. One can never be sure. They go about brandishing their kirpan, who knows when they’d loose their temper and stab. The thought of a bare kirpan brought back that scene before his eyes – the shining kirpan falling, rising again dripping with blood, falling again. But when the elderly Sikh saw him, he asked, what is it? What do you want?
Nothing. I want nothing. (The Sikh appeared sad, unhappy, a simple soul). Actually, I know cycle repair. Are you in need of help? What work do you know? I can repair punctures, tighten the cycle, do all the other work. I am familiar with all cycle parts. How much will you take? The shop, where I worked earlier, paid fifteen rupees. Now, it is up to you. Why did you leave that shop? (What should he say? That the shop owner had foul mouthed him. No Sikhs are for ever using foul language). The shop owner had falsely accused me of stealing (he had thought up a new lie), so I left. Falsely accused of stealing? Yes, a new free wheel had rolled under his seat but he couldn’t see it. It was found later and he also admitted his mistake but I said I won’t work for him now.
The sardar kept thinking for some time, (It wasn’t clear if he had swallowed the story) then said, I do need help. It’s all fate. I had such a big shop in Gujranwala, with seven servants. But every thing was left behind. I have just started work here. Ordinary repair work. There are no tools for bigger jobs. You can work here if you want and keep all the money you get for pumping in air. One anna for puncture, and one and a half if there is a burst. But no share in sales. I can’t pay you a regular salary. We’ll see about it later.
He started working there but there was hardly any work. It was only seldom that someone turned up to get air pumped in tyres or get a puncture or burst repaired or the chain tightened. On days he earned up to twelve annas or a rupee, but then there were days when he earned hardly two or three annas. The sardar opened his shop daily but seemed to get bored after two or three hours. He went for lunch in the afternoon and returned after three or four hours. In the evening too, the sardar closed the shop as soon as it grew dark. At times he cheated a little. If he repaired a puncture during this time, he kept the entire amount and didn’t tell the sardar but that didn’t make much difference as there wasn’t much of work. Also there was no scope for slipping out spare parts. There was simply no material in the shop. Work tools, a box of nuts and bolts and glue. The sardar kept the spokes, free wheels etc. locked up in an Almirah. Tyres and seats hung outside, all counted, and when ever the sardar went out, leaving things outside, he made a count. But there were no sales. Only once he had found a chance and had sold a tyre priced at six rupees for seven and had kept the extra buck in his pocket.
As it was, he was always in difficulty, and to add to it he had also been a bit careless that time. He had more than one and a quarter rupee but got so restless one day he went to see a film and then suddenly he somehow got very little money continuously for four or five days. The day Mehmood arrived he had had all of three annas with him. He had purchased roasted grams for six paise, jaggery stick for one anna and had saved two paise.
Are you married? Mehmood asked as he lay on the cot. No. (Strange how no one got personal when in jail, but once out, every one asked personal questions). Have you ever made out with a girl? But you are so dumb, how would you bring a girl round? As he talked, Mehmood’s mind seemed to change tracks. Firoza dotes on me. I too, love her a lot. He found it strange. The cripple’s voice was strained, but so soft, it surprised him.
He tried to turn to look at the cripple’s face but could see nothing. Where does she stay? She is a high class prostitute living at G. B. Road mate, not a cheap whore from Qutub road. Sings such fine ghazals too, it is beyond words. So easy on the eye, so enjoyable. The cripple took the pillow from under his head and clasped it with both arms to his chest. But that mother of hers, … an old shrew … has sold off Firoza to a lala, a trader for five hundred rupees a month. I could persuade her only after greasing her palms. Then too, because the trader had gone to Bombay. But Firoza fell for me completely. A woman wants only a man … a man, do you get me lad? She serves only that man who conquers her in bed. These good for nothing traders … they grow paunchy and impotent sitting on their seats … their wives go to doormen to have their fill. But on the strength of their money they have their keeps, take potions and capsules before visiting. What I would like to do is drive a knife through him if I find him. She keeps on crying … poor dear, but can’t escape the clutches of her mother. These women … have henchmen in their employ … have their own people too, the police, officers, barristers, they keep every one in their hold. That’s the reason why no girl can escape. They would get any one, who rescued one, trapped and killed.
I had gone at first, once or twice, only to hear her sing and could make out from Firoza’s look that she had fallen for me. And then, the other night, she surrendered completely and acknowledged my powers. She must be waiting for me but I just couldn’t arrange the damned money. Mehmood’s voice held some regret again. Then he lay quietly for some time and suddenly began to hum … I live only because I await you. His voice was some what hoarse, still he was not too bad a singer.
-  Hata: Compound
-  Subzi Mandi: Vegetable market
-  Barra: residential complex
-  Purdah: seclusion of women
-  Salwar-kameez: A Punjabi dress of loose trousers and a top
-  Sardar: a sikh
-  Almirah: cupboard