Half a Rupee: Stories (2 page)

I
 

Walk through the pages of a book and
You’ll find characters, like old friends
In the corridors of time—

Kuldip Nayyar and Pir Sahib

I remember it was a Friday, the evening of 14 August 1998. Kuldip Nayyar and I were driving towards the Wagah border.

Nayyar Sahib had been doing this without fail for quite some time. Every year on 14 August he would land up at the Wagah border with a few scholars, poets, artists and littérateurs. During the change of guards, when the fags of the two nations are lowered, he and his friends would rend the air with slogans of Indo-Pak friendship. They would light lamps at the border post and keep up their candlelight vigil till the clocks struck the turn of a new day. This was how he and his friends celebrated the two Independence Days of a pair of twins born a day apart.

It was a long straight road to Wagah. The evening was gathering darkness and Nayyar Sahib was saying, ‘If the road keeps going straight ahead like this and there are no
roadblocks, no checkposts, no hindrances or obstructions of any kind—and if I go visit Pakistan for a little while, what harm will I cause to that country, what will I have pillaged? Not that there is a dearth of pillagers and plunderers in that country or ours. No one needs to raid our countries from the outside.’

A hush fell over us. After a long pause Nayyar Sahib said, ‘After all, that country too is my home. A large part of me still lives on that side of the border.’

He must have seen some sort of question floating in my eyes, for he elaborated further: ‘My school is over there—my madrasa. My teacher, Master Dinanath, and my maulvi, Ismail. My alphabet primer, my school bags, they still are across the border. My roots still remain on the other side. I have only cut loose the branches and tugged them along with me.’

Nayyar Sahib’s voice was increasingly tinged with veneration for what was once his home. That day, Sialkot took over his thoughts often. ‘All of us, uncles and aunts—father’s elder brother, younger brother, his brother-in-law—we all had our houses next to each other, in the same lane. Right in front of our house was a large space. An open space. Not a single brick wall to mark a boundary. Not a single peg hammered in the ground to delineate one house from another. Enough space for everybody. No need to squabble over it. Right across this open space was a big leafy pipal tree. It was closer to our house than any of my uncles’. And right under the tree’s canopy, near the foot of its trunk was a grave. It was unmarked. We had no idea whose bones
lay under the raised mound of mud, but Ma often said that it was the holy Pir Baba’s grave, and that was how it was known.

‘Ma would anoint the trunk of the pipal with sindoor and light a diya, an earthen lamp, on the grave. She would dip her finger in the small pot of sindoor and smear it on the pipal but would wipe the rich vermillion smeared on her finger clean against the exposed bricks of the grave. She would light the diya, do the aarti of the pipal but would place the lit diya in the crumbling alcove of the tombstone. When an offering was made to the pipal, an offering would be made to the Pir Sahib as well. If things had upset her at home, she would go and sit leaning against the trunk of the pipal and talk for hours on end to Pir Sahib. At times she would even cry her heart out. Thus unburdened, she would glide back to the house, and bring the Pir Sahib along too. Poor Pir Sahib! He knew of no peace even in his grave. Ma would summon him from his rest all the time.

‘I remember during our school examinations, Ma would say, “Bow your head before Pir Sahib, seek his blessing before you go.” Whether it was examinations or festivals, moments of celebration or mourning, there was no happiness big enough and no sadness small enough not to involve Pir Sahab. There was no respite for him.’

Lapsing into colloquial Punjabi, Nayyar Sahib said, ‘If an important question needed to be answered, some decision needed to be made, it was Pir Sahib’s advice that Ma sought. We never got any answers from Pir Sahib, but Ma would get signs from him. At times, Ma
would say that Pir Sahib came in her dreams and told her what to do.’

We had reached Wagah. The sun was about to set. The fags of both the countries were lowered in a ritualistic retreat ceremony. There were a few people on the Pakistan side and a handful on ours. Film star Raj Babbar had joined us. The celebrated lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir was supposed to be on the other side, but eventually she did not turn up; she was not allowed to by her government. At the stroke of midnight we all lit candles at the border. We took a few pictures and rent the air thick with Indo–Pak friendship slogans. And with a lump in our a-little-parched-a-little-choked throats, we returned.

The next day we were on the way to Delhi. But I wanted to trek back to Sialkot. So I picked up the threads of our old conversation. ‘Nayyar Sahib, your mother saw the Pir Sahib in her dreams. Did you ever ask her what the Pir Sahib looked like, how he appeared to be?’

Nayyar Sahib was in a different mood now. A smile appeared on his lips and he said, ‘I started off as an investigative journalist. It was in my nature to ask. And ask I did. And to tell you the truth, I found Pir Sahib to be exactly the way Ma told me.’

‘Found him … meaning … you … you … met him?’

He kept smiling. And said, ‘In 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency, I was amongst the political leaders and intellectuals she threw behind bars. That day too was a Friday—I remember it vividly. 24 July
1975. They kept me in Tihar Jail. The jailer told me that my incarceration was only momentary and that I would be released soon. When I asked him who gave the orders, all he said was a single word: “Madam.” But when a few days passed without any sign of release I requested the jailer if he could fetch me my books and journals. He was a gentleman, the jailer. Not only did he get me what I had asked for, he made sure that I was provided with a table and a table lamp.

‘The period of my incarceration began to lengthen at an arduously slow pace. And then one day when I lost hope, I asked him when I would be released.’

I kept quiet. Nayyar Sahib too just kept looking at me in silence. We were now sitting in the airport lounge in Amritsar. Suddenly, the penny dropped: ‘Him? You asked him? Whom?’

He was perhaps waiting for me to explicitly raise this question and said, ‘Pir Sahib, who else?’

‘Oh!’

‘He came to me in my dreams. Dressed in flowing green robes with a long white beard. That’s how Ma had described him and that’s how I saw him. I do not remember if his head was covered …’

‘What did he say?’

‘He said that I would be a free man by Thursday.’

‘Did he say anything else?’

‘Yes … he said, “I am feeling too cold, beta. Give your shawl to me, son.”’ And Nayyar Sahib laughed.

‘So, you were released … I mean were you released by Thursday?’

‘No. Come Thursday, I became very restless. Not because I was still cooped up in the jail … but for Pir Sahib … I don’t know why but I wanted his promise to come true … perhaps I wanted to believe in him … I don’t know. As was my habit, I kept working late into the night and got up late the next day. It was on Friday morning that the jailer came to me with my release orders. 11 September 1975. A little surprised, I looked at him and asked, “When did these orders come?”

‘“The release orders arrived last night only. But by the time I came on duty it was quite late. You were at your desk, working, and you had given us strict instructions not to disturb you.”

‘I looked at him, my voice reinforced by faith, and reiterated, “Yesterday! You mean the release orders arrived on Thursday night?”

‘The jailer hesitated for a moment and then looked at me, “Yes sir! … You already knew about it?”

‘And I happily told him, “Yes, I had prior information!”’

There was more to this incident. Nayyar Sahib said that when his mother got to know about it, she told him, ‘Son, you must make a pilgrimage to his tomb in Sialkot. You must offer him the shawl. He must be really feeling cold.’

‘Tears had welled up in Ma’s eyes,’ Nayyar Sahib recounted. ‘But I was not able to go to Sialkot immediately thereafter. Those days it was difficult to acquire a visa to visit Sialkot. But when Ma passed away in 1990 I felt obligated to go. When I reached Sialkot I found the
place where we once lived had become totally different. It was unrecognizable. The huge open space in front of our house was divided up into small shops. The whole place had taken the shape of a market. And the grave was nowhere to be found. I asked almost everybody I met but no one knew about the grave, no one remembered it. It did not exist in their memories. I somehow approximated the place where the giant pipal had once stood. There was no sign of the tree or the grave.

‘A shop now stood there instead. I kept visiting the shopkeeper every day. And he stayed true to his refrain that he had not seen any grave, did not know about one. Then when I was about to return I bumped into the same shopkeeper, this time outside the market area. And he accosted me, saying, “Whose grave was it? The grave that you were looking for?”

‘I told him it was the grave of a Pir. My mother had great faith in him.

‘The man became a little uneasy at this. He hemmed and hawed but finally with great reluctance confessed, “Yes, there certainly was a grave here, adjacent to our shop. We were refugees. In those days we lived in the shop only. There hardly was any space. It was too confined. And then we encroached upon the grave. In order to live, we had to steal the space of a grave from the dead.”

‘I came back. And then one day I went to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya and the shawl that I had taken with me to Sialkot, I offered at the tomb.’

‘Did he come in your dreams ever again?’

‘No! How I wished he had! Many a times in my hours of darkness, in my times of trouble, I wished he would come to me in my dreams. I wished I could ask him a few things. How I longed for his advice, his answers. But he never did. Perhaps he left this earth along with Ma. Finally, he had got his respite. Finally, he had found salvation.’

Sahir and Jaadu

All this happened before they hoisted Sahir’s mortal remains up on their shoulders and took him out on his last journey. It was Jaadu who told me the story.

Jaadu and Sahir: Sahir, as in Sahir Ludhianvi and Jaadu, as in Javed Akhtar.

Their relationship was not your run-of-the-mill kind. The bonds that held them together were quite unique.

Jaadu is Javed Akhtar’s nickname. Magnanimous to a fault, his inclination runs towards everything poetic. Poetry flows in his veins. And why shouldn’t it—he comes from an illustrious lineage of poets: Jaan Nisar Akhtar for a father, and Majaz for a maternal uncle. If that wasn’t enough, he later got Kaif Azmi for a father-in-law.

But Jaadu could never bring himself to respect his father. An unrelenting anger against his father would
be forever seething inside him. As long as his mother was alive, he bore with his father. But after her death, he began to find his father insufferable. Often, at the slightest provocation, he would barge out of his house and make a beeline for Sahir’s. Just one look at his face and Sahir would know that father and son had had another of their fracas. But he would never ever let Jaadu get even a whiff of his suspicion. Heaven forbid if he would even hint at it: Jaadu’s nostrils would first fare, then he would explode in anger, and finally, spent, disintegrate into tears. Sahir did not relish the prospect of being witness to any of these demonstrations. Sahir would just let Jaadu be, give him some space, and, after a brief interval, call out to him, ‘Jaadu! Come … grab some grub!’ And while munching on his food, Jaadu would crunch out his anger and pour his heart out to Sahir. He would spend the entire day at Sahir’s house, and tell him everything: Father did this … Father did that … The day would end but not Jaadu’s list of grievances against his father.

But Sahir would not be able to indulge him like this every time. Some days, he would interrupt Jaadu’s litany of complaints against his father with a warning, ‘Akhtar’s coming over for lunch!’ Jaadu would arch his eyebrows and look at Sahir as if to say, ‘This father of mine! He can’t be happy till he chases me out of here too.’ If he could bring himself to say it in front of Sahir, he would have blurted out, ‘This blooming father of mine, must he be everywhere … every time? Must he?’ But he respected Sahir, and Akhtar was Sahir’s friend.

Jaadu was Jaan Nisar Akhtar’s son but his temperament
was like his uncle’s. Like Majaz, he was mercurial. Sahir raised him like a son, and indulged him like a friend. On the days Akhtar would be visiting, Sahir would say, ‘Jaadu … what a wonderful film at Eros yaar … whatsitsname … not to be missed … go watch it.’ And in this way Sahir would manage to avoid all possibilities of a face-off between father and son.

Sahir and Jaadu. The bonds that held them together were quite unique.

Once, Jaadu even gave up on Sahir, and walked out of his house. ‘You pamper my father too much. Make him feel too important! Unnecessarily!’ Jaadu had said. Sahir had laughed at his accusation. And that was it, the final straw. ‘You are like him … exactly like him … he too laughs at me … exactly like this.’ It was Jaadu’s et-tu-Brutus moment. ‘I don’t need anybody … not him, not you!’ he said, and walked out on Sahir.

Jaadu stayed unreachable for a few days. He was a man of honour, and since he was young, his sense of self-respect was a little exaggerated. His nose was often in the air, and his attitude turned a notch higher. God alone knows what he ate, where he slept, how he managed to live during the days he was away.

The story goes that he spent much of his time in a studio. Kamaal Amrohi’s production manager was a friend of Jaadu’s. Jaadu would while away the evenings with him on the studio floors and sleep the nights away in the production store which was filled to the brim with shooting props and paraphernalia. In that cramped
storeroom he found the two
Filmfare
statuettes that Meena Kumari—Kamaal Sahib’s wife—had won. Every night after this discovery, he would prop himself in front of a life-size mirror and award himself the trophy. He would pretend to be the presenter and announce the award … then pretend to receive the award, gracefully bowing before an imagined audience … and then become the audience and applaud himself as well. He refused to think of this as make-believe; he preferred to call these performances his rehearsals. And he rehearsed religiously, every night without fail. He told this story to an interviewer after he had received many a
Filmfare
statuette (engraved with his own name) himself, many years later.

When Jaadu was next seen at Sahir’s place, he looked careworn, pale and emaciated. Sahir called out to him affectionately but Jaadu’s anger had not evaporated yet.

‘I am here just for a bath,’ he said, ‘that is, if you have no objection.’

‘Sure,’ Sahir granted him the permission, and then said, ‘grab a bite as well!’

‘I’ll eat anywhere but here. I am not breaking bread with you.’

When Jaadu came out from his bath, Sahir kept a hundred-rupee note on the dining table and begun to run the comb through his sparse hair, searching for words. He was wondering how to ask Jaadu to accept the money. He was afraid of bruising Jaadu’s pride. Somehow he did muster the courage to say, ‘Jaadu, pick up that hundred-rupee note … I’ll take it from you later.’

In those days, a hundred rupees might not have been a king’s ransom, but it was certainly a princely sum. If you had a hundred-rupee note, you either went to a bank or a petrol pump to break it into smaller notes. Jaadu accepted the note as if he was doing Sahir a favour. ‘Fine … I will take it … but I’ll return it the day I get my first salary.’

Javed soon found work as an assistant to Shankar Mukherjee. And it was while working with him that he met and teamed up with Salim Khan. He earned himself a fortune as a scriptwriter thereafter. He would drink like his uncle Majaz, and once drunk, would begin to blabber like Sahir. He would vent his anger, his frustrations against his father. But those hundred rupees he did not return to Sahir. He earned in thousands and then in tens of thousands but he would always tell Sahir, ‘I have eaten up your money. You’d better forget about it.’

‘Don’t you worry, son,’ Sahir would invariably retort, ‘I will find a way to squeeze it out of you!’

It soon turned into playful banter. The two kept ribbing each other over those hundred rupees until the end, but their friendship stayed intact. Sahir did not have many friends, but was fiercely loyal to those who managed to find their way into his heart. But alcohol had a terrible effect on him; a few drinks and the cussing would begin. He would then strip most of the people bare.

During those days Sahir used to live in Krishen Chander’s cottage at Juhu. Om Prakash Ashq, an old friend of his, was rooming with him. One day, in front of me, he asked Sahir in Punjabi, ‘Sahir, yaar, a few pegs down and you start abusing everybody … why, yaar?’

Sahir replied in Punjabi, ‘Yaar … ab sharaab naal kuch chatpata tou hona chayinda hai, naa! Now one needs something spicy to munch on with alcohol.’

There was one Dr Kapoor amongst Sahir’s friends. A heart patient himself, Dr Kapoor nonetheless was the one who monitored Sahir’s deteriorating health. Sahir would often quip, ‘Doctor, should I come to see you or should I come to show myself to you?’

That fatal last evening too, when Sahir went to Dr Kapoor’s, it was both to see him and to show himself to him—as his well-wisher, concerned for his health, and as his patient, anxious about his own. Sahir now no longer lived at Krishen Chander’s place. He had finally constructed his own house and had christened it ‘Parchaiyaan’ (Shadows). Dr Kapoor was now in a bungalow in Versova. And Jaadu had now become a hugely successful and popular writer. Sahir had come to know that Dr Kapoor was not keeping well. A cardiologist, Dr Seth, was coming to check on him. Ramanand Sagar was there too. Sahir was trying to cheer Kapoor up and he called for a deck of playing cards. He shuffled the deck as he propped himself up on Kapoor’s bed. As he was dealing out the cards, Kapoor saw Sahir’s face stiffening. He was perhaps trying to suppress his pain. Kapoor called out to him, ‘Sahir!’

And then and there Sahir collapsed on the bed. Dr Seth arrived at this moment. He tried his best to revive Sahir but there was nothing he could do. Sahir was long gone. Dr Kapoor was scared witless. Finding him a bundle of
nerves and worrying for his health, Ramanand Sagar took him away to his own house.

Sahir’s driver Anwar came running in. He took charge of the lifeless body of his employer. Anwar first called up Yash Chopra’s house; Sahir and Yash Chopra were quite close. But Chopra was in faraway Srinagar. Anwar then called up Jaadu. Jaadu’s driver was not on duty so Jaadu hurried over in a taxi. And in that very taxi he brought Sahir’s body to his house, to Parchaiyaan. With Anwar and the taxi-wallah’s help he managed to haul Sahir’s mortal remains to the first floor where Sahir used to live.

Jaadu did not say a word in the taxi, as if he was shocked into silence. But when he reached home, he simply broke down. He hugged Sahir and wept like he had probably not wept in his entire life. It was around one at night now. Where was he to go? Who all should he call up to break the tragic news to? In the end, Jaadu did nothing. He just sat by the lifeless form of his dear friend. By now, the neighbours had heard about Sahir’s death and had begun to trickle in. A neighbour said, ‘Place both his hands together on his chest, the body will soon start to stiffen, you will have a problem later.’ Jaadu kept crying and kept doing everyone’s bidding wordlessly.

As the day broke and the news spread, people began to throng in to pay their last respects to the departed soul. Bedspreads had to be taken out for the people to sit on. Chairs had to be rearranged. Doors had to be opened. Jaadu kept sobbing like a child and running all the chores.

When he came downstairs to make the funeral arrangements he found the taxi driver still there. ‘Uff! Why didn’t you ask me? How much do I owe you, now?’ he said petulantly.

The taxi driver must have been a kindred soul. He folded his hands and said, ‘Saab … I … I didn’t stay back for the money. After all this, how could I have gone away into the night?’

Jaadu took out his wallet from his pocket.

The taxi driver shook his head, ‘Nahi saab … let it be!’

Jaadu nearly screamed, ‘Take it! Take this hundred-rupee note … just keep it! He did find a way to squeeze out his hundred rupees … even in his death!’

And Jaadu disintegrated into tears.

All this happened before they hoisted Sahir’s mortal remains up on their shoulders and took him out on his last journey.

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