Half a Rupee: Stories (8 page)

IV
 

A legion of heads, a throng of limbs
Abandoned apparatus from a defunct factory
Spare parts all—

Hilsa

Vibhuti dawdled through the house, rearranging the folds of his dhoti, and stopped at the kitchen door. ‘The newspaper hasn’t arrived yet, has it?’ he sighed. ‘Now it seems Bagbazaar Road too has been blockaded.’

But his sigh was lost on Kanchan. She was too engrossed in the fish that she was dressing. ‘Look at its eyes—beautiful, aren’t they? Mesmerizing like a mermaid’s.’ She scooped up a mug of water, poured it into the fat-bottomed pan and began to bathe the fish in it.

A hint of mischief stretched across Vibhuti’s lips, ‘Enamoured with these unseasonal showers, seems like Ramu found you some mangoes in December … eh?’

‘How do you mean?’

An impish glee lit up Vibhuti’s eyes, ‘It’s summer now. You shouldn’t eat fish in the months that do not have
the letter R in them. It’s prohibited!’ Now that he had Kanchan’s undivided attention he elaborated, ‘Like in the months of May, June, July, August … come to think of it, all the other months, September through April, they all have the letter R in them.’

Kanchan spelled out the months in her mind and looked at her husband, impressed. ‘Yes, it’s as you say … but why is it forbidden to eat fish in these months?’

Like a typical Bengali husband, Vibhuti stuffed a pinch of snuff up each nostril, rearranged the folds of his dhoti once again and sat down on the threshold of the kitchen. ‘Those are the months in which the fish breed … they are pregnant … and just like when the wife is pregnant it is forbidden to have …’

‘Dhat! What are you saying …’ she blushed, ‘you have grown old but the devil still has you in his clutch … go, go … off you go!’ She pushed Vibhuti away from the kitchen.

Laughing, Vibhuti sauntered into the living room and fidgeted with the TV controls. The television was rife with news of the riots. The rioters were on a rampage. The markets were all closed. The local administration had clamped a curfew in many places.

‘Perhaps this is why,’ Vibhuti muttered under his breath, ‘the fishermen could not bring their haul to the markets and Ramu found a cheap deal at the ghat.’

He ambled over to the kitchen to impress his wife once again with his power of deduction, but Kanchan was not there. He heard the sound of gurgling water and deduced that the wife must have gone for her bath at the
hand-pump. He crossed the kitchen and could see that Kanchan had spread her sari on the clothesline to carve herself a private bathing space.

‘Are you listening?’

‘Yes, tell me?’ her voice seemed wet, coming from behind sheets of falling water.

‘Our Ramu … you know … he must have gone to the ghat early in the morning …’ He lifted the improvised screen a little.

‘Dhat!’ A volley of water hit Vibhuti’s face. ‘Out … out you go … thank God, this shameless man has an office to go to on most days.’

Vibhuti laughed and began to wipe his face on his wife’s sari. ‘It’s not my fault that the newspaper hasn’t arrived … what’s an idle man to do? Shall I dress the fish?’

‘No! Don’t you dare step into my kitchen!’

Poor Vibhuti! He had too much time on his hands. Aimlessly he drifted through the house. There wasn’t much on the television to hold his attention:
Chitra-Geet
and then the news and then
Chitra-Geet
all over again. He couldn’t relish the song videos on the black-and-white TV. God! In this day and age of colour, a black-and-white TV! The clothes and the skin of the gyrating sirens in the same shade! Imagine having no idea where the heroine’s blouse ended and where her skin began! This was certainly not done.

He heard the sound of Ramu’s voice somewhere in the house. God alone knew when he was in the house, and when he was out. It seemed like he worked for the entire
neighbourhood. Ramu was standing outside Kanchan’s improvised bathroom, asking her, ‘Bouma, shall I grind the masala for the fish? Are you planning to cook it with mustard?’

‘Go, get the masala ground in Tuntuni’s grinder … I shall be done with my chores by then,’ he heard Kanchan say.

Tuntuni was the youngest daughter of his next-door neighbour. He heard Ramu’s retreating footsteps and the sound of the gate closing. Vibhuti did not like Ramu talking to his wife while she was having a bath. And now there was nothing but static on the TV. He turned the TV off and plopped on the easy chair.

When he heard the ringing of the prayer bells he realized that Kanchan was dressed and in the puja room. Soon she would be here with the bowl of prasad in her hand and when he would stretch out his open palms towards her, her eyebrows would arch and she would say go wash your hands first and lazily he would tilt his head back and open his mouth and Kanchan would drop the prasad into his mouth.

And that was what happened. The moment Kanchan stepped into the room she shot at him, ‘What? You haven’t had your bath yet?’

‘Un-hoon!’ He shook his head and opened his mouth. Kanchan dropped the prasad into his mouth and in doing so her still-wet hair fell on his face and while brushing her hair off his face he playfully squeezed her cheeks.

‘Uff! You men … you have no sense of propriety … this isn’t a proper time to …’

‘Must I fix a time to appreciate beauty?’

‘Liar!’ She hurried away.

Vibhuti could detect a blush on her face and tremor in her voice as she spun away from him. He smiled to himself.

Now he once again found himself with a lot of time on his hands. With nothing to do, he went and stood at his window and peeped into the lives of his neighbours. A crow few in with a piece of raw mutton in its beak and perched on the wall separating his house from that of his neighbour’s. Another crow few in and lowered itself onto the other end of the wall. When it started to hop closer, the crow with the piece of mutton in its beak flapped its wings and few away. The other crow few away too. Vibhuti moved away from the window and soon found himself once again in the kitchen.

The hilsa was still lying in the fat-bottomed pan, its mouth a little agape as if it was trying to say something. And those wide-open eyes, weren’t they mesmerizing, beautiful!

Kanchan reached for the fish-knife, fixed it between her toes and picked the hilsa out of the pan. She ran her hand over its slithery body to wipe off any stray drops of water that still clung on to it and then in one smooth stroke chopped it into three neat pieces: first she severed the head, then lopped off the tail and in the end split the truncated body wide down the middle. The water in the pan turned a deep red.

‘You were right,’ she looked at her husband. ‘The hilsa was pregnant. Look at this … it is stuffed with roe.’

‘Very lucky,’ Vibhuti smiled, and began to polish his spectacles. ‘Fry them separately … hilsa roe is a delicacy.’

It was precisely at that moment that he heard the short punch of the doorbell, the thud of a falling newspaper, and the delivery man yelling as he pushed his cycle away, ‘Paper, babu!’

Vibhuti got up and fetched the newspaper. The front page screamed out a big bold headline about the riots that had engulfed the city. There were a few photographs too. One photograph was of a girl. She had been pregnant; she had been gang-raped; and she had bled to death. In the photograph her mouth was slightly open, as if she was trying to say something. And her eyes were wide open.

Her eyes looked like those of the hilsa in the pan.

The Stone Age

The bomb did not fall anywhere near the house, but still, the walls could not withstand the impact of the explosion. Mud walls—what could you expect of them? They shook, began to crumble, and within moments were reduced to nothing more than a heap of rubble. Nasir’s younger sister got entrapped in its dusty entrails—and that was the end of her. The elder one snatched him up in her arms and ran. They ran for their lives, ran outdoors without a veil. A gossamer of dust from the crumbling debris had veiled the streets. Nasir’s father grabbed his mother’s hand, scooped the bundle off the floor and darted out. They had bundled everything they owned in a small little fold of canvas and kept it ready for such occasions.

Nasir was all of four then.

‘Abbu … this way Abbu … the firangis are on that side.’ He jumped off his sister’s lap, guiding them. He was
blessed with far-sightedness. A jeep full of soldiers sped by, showering bullets. ‘Nasir saved us! Nasir saved our lives!’ His sister smothered him with kisses. His mother blessed him, praying for his share of misfortunes to fall in her lot.

Nasir’s eyes shone with a strange brilliance. He had by now begun to get used to the life of the jungle; he had begun to forget what his own home looked like. They would wander for 2–3 months at a stretch and then return home, back to the pots and pans—a sort of return to civilization. They would take care of things, pick up the old threads of life, and then, once again, fee a few months later. There was a grandmother—all she would do was lie in the corner of the house like a sack full of straw.

Nasir was only two years old when he first heard the roar of a plane and then the accompanying, earth-shattering sound of exploding bombs. His ears had begun to ache—his eardrums nearly split. The entire house had begun to shake and he was shivering, clinging to the bosom of his mother. His mother had him wrapped around her chest with a thick piece of cloth. The bundle with all their worldly possessions was in one of her hands and with the other she held on to Bano, his younger sister. His father clutched a small attaché case under his armpit. His lips were quivering in silent prayer. He had dragged his mother to the door and said, ‘Amma, just try … just do it. Take Allah’s hand in yours and let’s go … to the masjid.’

God knew who his grandmother was cursing—his father or Allah. There was a sparkle in Nasir’s eyes
even then. He had seen stars being plucked out of the sky and he had seen numerous suns exploding on the ground. An innocent question had arisen in his heart then: ‘Why is Allah so scary, so dreadful? Why does he keep terrorizing us?’

Two years was hardly any time to understand the goings-on about you. But the eyes, they took in more than they could digest, to regurgitate and chew on things at a later age—like a camel.

The masjid was reeking of blood. Severed hands, torn shoulders, bleeding necks—there were more men bleeding than ones unharmed. But for Nasir this was normal. Where Nasir was born, blood would rain more often than water from the skies. He would jump into a puddle of blood and splash his feet in it the way other kids jumped into puddles of rainwater.

New sounds, new names fell upon his ears at the masjid. He was familiar with names of people from his tribe. But names like Russia, America, Bush, Traganoff, Greganoff, Firangi, Copter—they must have been names of people from another tribe. People living in another jungle—beyond those hills perhaps, from where all those flying machines would fly out, over which he could see the flying machines hovering, from where cannonballs of fire would shoot out at them … to wreak havoc in their lives, to break down their walls. He could never forget the sight of the walls falling on his younger sister. She was too young to even know how to scream.

‘Houses crumble, Abbu—then why do we live in houses?’ He was three years old when he had asked his
father this question. In those days they were refugees in a city of concrete roofs.

‘Because outside it is raining fire, bombs are falling!’ his father had said.

‘Who drops them?’

‘They … those firangis … those who fly about in helicopters.’

‘Why do they drop bombs?’

‘Because they are our enemies.’

‘Are we their enemies too?’

‘Of course we are!’

About a year and a half after that last question, he asked, ‘So can’t we too drop bombs on their hills?’

‘But son, we don’t have any helicopters!’

‘Then how?’

‘We have got fidayeens, don’t we? This is why we send fidayeen!’

This was beyond Nasir’s comprehension. But he was learning. He made another deposit in his piggy bank—the word fidayeen. He would come back to it when he grew up a little more. He would fall silent but he would never be satisfied with his father’s answers. These questions would keep hovering like bees over his head. So he would go out and begin to work on his catapult.

Nasir would remember his grandmother often. The few months that they had spent in the Aabnoosi Masjid in Kandahar, she had narrated to him a number of stories.

‘A horrifically tall devil kidnapped the fairy and imprisoned her in the twin towers in the sky,’ one story
went. ‘He imprisoned the fairy in one tower and he himself lived in the other. He had clipped the wings of the fairy so that she could not even fly away from there. And the towers were so tall that no human could ever scale them. Whenever a crowd at the base of the towers would become unruly the devil would pluck a feather off the fairy’s back and flick it down toward the crowd. And the crowd would run amuck to catch the feather, wild in ecstasy, and cover a distance of thousands of kilometres trying to grab the feather.’

‘Even the prince?’

‘No! But what could a lone prince do? He could neither scale those towers nor could he fly …’

Suddenly, the coin popped out of his piggy bank and he made a withdrawal against the deposit he had made long ago—the word came to his mind. ‘Fidayeen,’ he said to himself. ‘Why did he not send in the fidayeens?’

He had finally grasped the meaning of the word. If his grandmother was here with him, he would have told her. He asked his father and he said, ‘Allah called her. She’s gone to be with him!’

‘Dadi too!’ And then he fell silent.

God knew whether the minarets of the masjid were growing smaller or if it was he who was growing taller. He would squeeze himself out of his grandmother’s bundle and run up the stairs of the minarets like a rat running out of a sack full of grain. From the balcony of the minarets, he could see the entire city. From his vantage point, the city looked like a huge brick kiln—smoke snaking its way up from places at regular intervals. He took them to be
the eateries—they must have been roasting mutton, they must have been skewering kebabs.

Nasir was growing up fast. His legs peeked out of his salwar, the sleeves of his shirt rode high on his arms. He would look at his grandmother accusingly as if she had filched the clothes from the neighbour’s clothesline. Once, perched on that very minaret, he heard the rumbling of the tanks. When they drove past the bazaar the entire ground quaked. He could feel the ground quiver even from atop the minaret. Must be those humungous mythical, evil rhinoceroses his grandmother’s fantasy stories were filled with, he thought, stumping through the earth with their snouts in the air—to spit out fire.

And then there was another attack. The masjid was surrounded by those mythical, evil rhinoceroses. And they kept up their siege for quite a few days. Every night a few men would be herded out like cattle into the night. Like sheep and goats, on all fours, on their knees and elbows, they would go crawling, creeping, slithering through the lanes and escape to freedom across the maidan. Nasir managed to escape, too, along with his elder sister and mother. His father and grandmother had to stay still at the basement of the masjid.

There was another village behind the hills—a village of mud houses. A few families took refuge there in a cowshed. The place was relatively silent—you hardly heard people here. Nasir’s father would periodically come, spend a few nights with them and then go back. And then once, he did not return. Nasir’s mother would often fall on her knees in supplication, trying to appease
Allah, beseech him for his blessings, ask him for his indulgence to keep her family safe. Her eyes would be brimming with tears all the time. Nasir would lie on the floor watching his mother. He asked her once, ‘What blessings were you asking from Allah?’

‘I was asking Allah to keep your father safe, son!’

Nasir kept lying there, kept looking at the vast expanse of the sky, and then softly asked, ‘Ammi, on which side is Allah on? Ours or theirs?’

When he turned to look, his mother was long gone.

One night, Nasir tucked his catapult into the folds of his salwar and groped his way back into the basement of the masjid through the labyrinth of tunnels. The scene that befell his eyes inside the masjid shook him to the core. He fell in a heap there itself. The entire masjid was in ruins. It was filled with rubble and when his eyes got accustomed to the darkness he could see the hands and feet of the dead people jutting out of the debris. When day broke, he began to move towards the main door. Then he saw a few men. They had wound their turbans around their noses and mouths. They had shovels and spades in their hands. Perhaps they had come to clean the debris. Nasir hid himself from them without being caught. When he came out he saw a cordon of people outside and he jumped into a truck parked against the wall.

And then Nasir could feel halves and quarters of bodies and severed body parts raining down on him. He remained huddled in one corner of the truck under the human debris, afraid to move, afraid he would get caught. The sight was not all that unfamiliar. Half-torn,
severed halves of carcasses, half-skinned, half-peeled bodies of animals he had seen arrive by the cartload at the local butcher’s. He stayed huddled in the corner of the truck. The truck began to move. God alone knew the shop of the butcher at which they would dump these bodies. Over the drive of a few hours that followed, Nasir either fell unconscious or fell asleep; he woke up when the truck emptied its load on a hill.

He rolled down the slope; his fall broke only when he hit the bottom of the hill with a thud, and his eyes were forced open. He had fallen next to a huge pit that had been dug at the foot of the hill. The truck was returning after dumping its rubbish. The huge cliff stretched its head out in all its bald glory. Indomitable, the mountaintop reared its naked pate. He crawled out from under the inhuman remains of human lives. And like a scared vixen running for its life, he crawled up the slopes of the hill on all fours. Craters were open along the slope like mole-holes. He took refuge in a crater-like cave.

From the top of the hill, it looked like a dumping yard. By evening the pit was full to its brim and they closed its mouth. That night Nasir slept in the cave. In the darkness of the night, he could hear some human voices slithering across the silent, sultry air. Perhaps there were people who lived in the adjoining caves. And then he saw a number of eyes glistening in the dark—wild rabbits perhaps. Nasir groped for stones. The catapult was still in the folds of his salwar; he pulled it out. He picked a sharp stone by touch and began to sharpen it against a bigger stone.

One of his grandmother’s stories came to his mind: ‘In the beginning, humans carved stones into weapons. They would live in caves and hunt. Some tribes had fire. They were
afzal
, the blessed ones! They left the jungles and started to live in the plains. And they would travel huge distances and conquer foreign lands.’

Nasir was grinding the smaller stone against the bigger one and was making himself a lethal weapon of stone.

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