A Partition story by Keki N. Daruwalla.
This is not a conundrum, but regrettably there are times when you don't know whether your troubles have ended or begun. This muggy August morning was one such moment. Baba, Adityaji to friends, had got up from bed looking for the first time in months, normal, sane, composed. He had woken up without wanting to beat up the night nurse — male, for no woman could have stuck it out with him. He would lash out wildly and curse and how! Even grandmother said “send him to that hospital.” In Agra that meant the loony bin, a city equally famous for the Taj and this mental hospital.
We lived near the Eid Gah. A railway line ran next to our house where hordes came to hunker down and shit. They never got run over — what a shame. Shortly there was violence in the street. Soon the curio shops selling miniature Taj Mahals and jewellery boxes, downed their shutters and ran; all except the jalebi walah, frying his sweets in a huge deghchi. He threatened he would splash the hooligans with his burning oil and they left him alone.
All Muslims in Agra weren't prepared to make a dash for Pakistan. Why should they? They too hunkered down. Daily there were brawls and some stabbing with knives imported from Rampur, the haft metal green, enamelled and fish-shaped.
Baba looked into a mirror. “The mirror is getting old.” Conundrum again. It is your face getting older Baba, I wanted to answer! Baba asked, where are Naim, Najibuddin, Akram, Aslam? He rattled off names of all the brothers — the very tenants he had tried to expel for ten years. We had two solid barrack-shaped outhouses. One was occupied by Nathu Ram who owned a tannery. Baba had wanted him out too.
The Commissioner was a friend. Baba and he would have drinks at the Agra Club, and kababs and barbequed quail served on metal skewers to go with it. The appeals for eviction were lying with the Commissioner. “Look,” said the big man, “I can evict one tenant, not two. That would be blatant. Whom do you want out first?”
“The tannery owner, the Chamar,” said Baba. Mentioning a bloke by his caste name was not an offence in 1947. The Commissioner passed the order. Tannery owner said loudly in court “Yaar ne yaari nibha di;” friend has honoured his friendship. The tanned family shifted to Sadar — and Baba got the fits. Dizziness, loss of balance, violence, valium followed. Two months went by with one nurse after the other quitting. This morning he was back to ‘normal', recognised his mother and me, his son. What was I to tell him about Naim, Najib and others?
It had been bad — riots during day, Baba's mad violence at night. We'd got used to it and now, this horrendous normality.
“Nothing should happen to them, you understand, nothing? Tenants are our responsibility.” Baba's eyes shone like metal studs. I asked my brother “could the old fox be thinking that if a Muslim mob attacked, Naim and co. would be our safeguards?” Brother poured scorn by the barrel on what I said. I too felt ashamed. Shame is infectious, my contribution to philosophic thought. When others feel ashamed of me, I feel ashamed of myself. What clarity! Reminds you of Euclid, doesn't it?
Rain pelted down, hooligans ran. Baba came out with one of his enigmatic saws: “The monsoons are here, but it's the soul's autumn.” What on earth did he mean? I like things clear, flat, not gol-matol which Brits call rigmarole. A riot has a sound-track: The initial clustering of the mob like crows cawing, the rising swell of curses; the hiss of fire and wind coiling round it; someone escaping and footsteps in pursuit thudding behind; then the high treble of a scream.
The telephone came to life. Baba shouted “Aditya Prakash, here!” “Police this side,” came the answer. “Which side?” asked Baba, acerbic as ever, “Hindu side or Muslim side?” I grabbed the phone. Baba went for the extension. “Your tenants are causing law and order problem!” shouted the police. “Which law? Which order? Where have you hidden them?” asked Baba. Phone went mercifully dead.
Akram, Aslam, Najib and Naim had been told that we couldn't ensure their safety. Who could (?) not even the police. “You're endangering our lives,” I said. It was true. We also wanted them out, that was also true. “The suburbs are safer,” I added. Haider, a car mechanic nearby, always had someone's car needing repairs. There was a lull. A lull during riots makes you more tense than the riot. Haider slipped out with them in a rickety Chevrolet — the evening dark as the car.
In heavy rain the car broke down near Billochpura. Chased by a small mob, they took sanctuary in a huge building — the mental hospital. The inmates knew fugitive from hooligan, and challenged the mob. There was a skirmish of sorts. Doctors, nurses rushed out and the mob disappeared. I had suggested suburbs, not realising that the suburbs of the mind were crowded with knives. Our tenants sheltered there for a week till the riots blew over. Then they returned. With some of the inmates! The eyes of the patients would light up and dim as if someone was playing with fuse wires. Both inmates and our tenants were laughing — the inmates wanted to stay here for good!
Sure enough the mental hospital called — in hysterics. Baba had to be told the truth. Sometimes you don't have an exit hatch. Till now I thought I had done them a good turn. Baba said, “They've been with us for ten years and you packed them off during riots! Where will they hide, in rat holes? You ought to be ashamed.” I nodded dutifully —things had become clear. Euclid zindabad!
Keywords: short story