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Beyond bread and butter

My father always said dogs can perceive omens. It was incredible as a child for me to believe this, whenever I would offer a dog a biscuit or a chapati, and it would devour it greedily and would later rub itself against my leg and lick my feet. It was unusual to imagine that abilities of such mythic proportions would be at the disposal of an order of creatures we consider incapable of freedom from instincts. As it turns out, their instincts would often lead them to bark at certain shifty individuals. They would certainly bark at the other people in my chawl, especially outsiders — save Chacha.

Chacha has been delivering pao bread, butter, eggs, lozenges and other confectionery items in our chawl for as long as I remember. I remember seeing him standing at the threshold, holding his old white cement sack, that still somehow faintly bore the name of the company, while my father would answer him and take our usual share of one packet of pao and four eggs for one day. I remember seeing him with his thick black beard as a child and remembering the tale of the Kabuliwala, except that Chacha was a frail looking man all along but had a certain vitality and energy to him that my puny comprehension could never locate. He cycled to our chawl each day. When it rained, which was almost as certain as Chacha’s punctuality, we could see him in his yellow tarpaulin raincoat with the goods covered with a white plastic sheet. Even the rainbow-coloured fan that whirled around did not move then as the contradictory winds and the downpour just made it confused and cease all motion.

Time passed and I began answering the door, the number of paos doubled while two more eggs added to our share. Chacha occasionally brought along his son to familiarise him with us and the nearby

tenements, so that he could soon replace him. Chacha was getting old. He already had lost most of his teeth to his habit of tobacco, and I could see a discernible limp in his gait and a hunch in his posture, which made the sparsity on his dome all the more conspicuous. His beard was losing its jet, and was streaked with strands of inevitable grey.

I remember his son as a likeable kid, but I only ever saw him as a young urchin with the same brilliance in his eyes as Chacha, confident, and probably ambitious, often carrying a toy aeroplane with him. He was well-mannered too, for when my father gifted him some money or some of my old clothes at Diwali or Holi, he would thank him and touch his feet — an honorable gesture.

Perennially, when I took the parcel of eggs from him, the wrapping paper bore an article from the pen of Dada Rao. I am almost certain that Chacha was older than Dada Rao. Dada Rao has been a timeless icon of our people’s strength and resilience against foreigners and aliens. My childhood was replete with patrikas and pamphlets of Dada Rao, commanding his followers to rally with him in his battles against injustice and exterior attempts at subordination. Dada Rao was a superhero to me in my youth. There were comics of his exploits, where he would frequently cross the border to teach our wicked neighbours a lesson, and often he would beat and parade butchers and sweepers because they had slaughtered or consumed cow. Often these characters resembled Chacha in their appearance.

My father once told me at breakfast that Chacha and his “ilk” were living here on our land. “His kind will be severely punished by Dada Rao. You just wait and see when he comes into power,” he muttered while he took a bite of a toasted pao. Mother was cooking eggs and the smell filled our small two-room apartment.

“These people have grown too proud. What do you think? Huh?”

“He is just a kid. Spare him your tea chatter. What then will you blabber on about with your friends if you blurt it all out at breakfast?” chuckled mother.

“He is the future of our community. Don’t lecture me on how to raise my son,” retorted father as he sipped his tea. “Beta, you need to learn this

as soon as possible for your own good. These people are not your friends. They are only here to multiply, and make this land as our neighbouring country and several others only a few thousand miles away.” I was looking down at my plate, but father had not ended his expostulation.

“See, these people are so proud and smug. Look at them! They serve us, live at our pleasure and have the audacity to smile at our faces and allow their kids to play with ours!”

His speech had a marked acquaintance to my judgment. I believe I had seen it on TV in one of Dada Rao’s election rallies. I remember millions there, jumping up at his every word, clapping, shouting, jeering when he admonished the current government for the sorrowful conditions in which our community lives. I remember seeing women, old and young, clutching at their little babies or holding the hands of their children, crying and howling when Dada Rao declared that he will protect them against the lustful foreigners. These words and images were engraved on my impressionable mind, almost as if the very hammer and nail that were the insignia for Dada Rao’s party were the weapons that were used to do so.

Time was a visitor as always, and Dada Rao’s party won with a remarkable majority. He nominated a respectable and rather agreeable looking fellow from his party as the Chief Minister. I can distinctly reminisce of those days. A band had paraded throughout the city with dhols and cymbals, drums and blaring speakers, announcing to every living soul and each of the dead that Dada Rao, their pious and just leader, was here finally — a second coming of a mythical deity as it were — to deliver his people from the clutches of slavery and ignominy.

A local convoy of supporters had reached our chawl that day. I remember them on their loud Yamaha bikes with thumping engines, saffron bands on their heads, smearing saffron gulal on each other’s faces. The elders remained planted on the balconies and windows, smiling and cheering them on. The women clapped and beat their utensils. The dogs barked. All of my friends went out to join them in their celebration, and I did so too.

We danced, we laughed and we shouted slogans. It was an initiation, an acceptance into a world I had admired from afar, and now I was submerged in it. The saffron consumed me, assimilating my existence into it, giving me an identity, an association, and in return, I gave it myself. I was not one now but many. We were together in our joy and in our quest for independence. I was saffron. The sheer bliss I felt made me forget that I was hungry. I could not have breakfast that day since Chacha had not come.

We had to manage our supplies for the next couple of weeks, after which Chacha resumed his services. He was still his same sombre but lively self, but I often thought I noticed a dissimilarity between the Chacha of old and the one who came to our house now. I thought I saw a shame in his eyes, the dissident vitality of old replaced by a meek submissiveness. Often when he did not have change, he would say he will settle it the next day. However, now he would run around the building and bring the change back to us. There were other curious changes too. When I would answer the door having just prayed bearing a tika on my forehead, he would not look up. He would silently nod, hand me the paos and eggs and walk away, stuffing the money hastily and often carelessly into the pockets of his kurta, invariably spilling coins in the corridor and earning a curse or two from the residents.

Soon Chacha stopped coming altogether and was replaced by his son, as he would have intended.

His son had grown into a confident young man. He was sprightly, and the bounce in his step helped me envision a younger, chattier Chacha on the same bicycle — one that was unafraid just like his son. His garrulous charm had resisted the onslaught of adolescence and won over the people of the chawl, which he frequented in the evening when he played cricket with us. He was liked by the dogs too, and often let out a packet of biscuits and paos for them. He had told me his mother had passed away so Chacha looked after the shop. This was easier for his aging eyes too, while he was in charge of delivery and pickups. He had to give up his education because of it, but he said that he planned to continue it in a few years. The aeroplane was still on his mind.

And so the needles of the clock went on until they were halted by another thud on my remembrance.

It was a pleasant morning, the rising sun spilled the first of its already decaying orange light through the window in its absurd routine, while mother served me tea. December had set in and following a healthy monsoon, it was getting a little chilly. The mosque had fallen a few days ago, and riots had broken out all over the city. Our locality was largely untouched and the paos and eggs were coming regularly.

Mother was preparing father’s lunch while he bathed. The smell of frying onions and their sibilance was interrupted by a ruckus outside. I heard distant drumming and frightening roars, a loudness matched only by the deafening detonation of bombs from old war documentaries. I was shaken out of my comfortable reverie and jumped to a window.

I could see no one and dismissed it all as another one of the zealous celebrations of my fellows of their victory over history. The dogs barked ceaselessly as they always did when they drummed maniacally, but a shoo or a stick made the stupid beasts scamper away yelping in terror.

I sat down to sip my tea when I heard a woman’s shriek, shrill almost like a girl’s, shriller than the clang of swords on shields, piercing my ears like a pacing javelin, hurting. I ran up to the window again and saw the horde of celebrators had reached the compound of the chawl. They were gathered round in a circle and shouting slogans while a few women stood a comfortable twenty or thirty yards away with an incriminating, almost baneful look on their face, holding a girl, sobbing and screaming. It was her voice that had made me jump up. She beat her head and her chest, her hair had been undone, the kohl from her eyes bled into her face, besmirching it with the harrowing semblance of an inevitability, a fear-driven humiliation that had sauntered on to her face which I had never seen before. She was the daughter of a resident.

All this while the men’s faces ranged from apoplectic paralysis to haughty jeering and chuckling. They brandished wooden sticks, almost as thick as the boughs of the asoka. They shouted slogans of “justice” and “revenge”. Excited at this raucous commotion, I went down, leaving the tea to cool with the rising sun.

By the time I got into the compound, the crowd had started moving. The girl let out another wail that left me shaken in my steps, but I walked on.

I could see rags which were oddly familiar, red stains and some saffron gulal where the horde had stood. I ran up to join them, unmindful of the fact that I was now accompanying them in raising the same slogans. There were some of my friends at the back of the crowd, still too young for a voter identity card, but they goaded me on relentlessly. I followed the crowd to the exit gate of the chawl, where I was followed by the barking dogs, which looked on helplessly, mewling and shaking.

I looked on, bemused and perplexed when it dawned on me. I stood there frozen, afraid, and disgusted. My mind was an infinitely contorted maze of ideas, and memories. I was too late.

Cries of hapless anguish filled the silent winter air. The smoke rose into the heavens, not at all what his God had wanted. I had never known the smell of burning flesh, and now I wish that I could forget it. The crowd cheered on while he danced with fiery death and rolled on the wet road that gave him no aid. He rolled and rolled and rolled but to no avail. It went on for some time. I looked at it the whole time.

He lay there, wriggling like a worm. It was soon over; petrol burns fast. His cries were gone. The smoke was gone. The winter morning consumed them, hid them from discovery, but failed in front of the charred mass.

The crowd scattered, spitting and clapping, raising the same slogans they had raised all morning. The girl still cried. I returned to my home. Mother asked no questions, packed my father’s lunch who went out to the shop.

The paos and eggs stopped coming. We welcomed the new year, and the riots continued for some more time.

I have to go out in the evenings now to get the paos and eggs, and often I amble past Chacha’s shop but it remains shut. There are weeds growing around it, where people used to sit at tea and discuss politics, and cricket and Dada Rao while Chacha or his wife served them toasted paos and omelettes. It is funny how quickly weeds grow and occupy a place.

The chawl has returned to its routine. My friends have got their voter identity cards now, and voted Dada Rao into power again. I have not

seen the crying girl in months. It turned out that the family has shifted to a nearby town, citing dishonour. I began assisting my father at his shop, and now look forward to replacing him, especially after his bout of epilepsy.

Since that day, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. I lie down and my eyes do not shut all night. Even when they do, I hear screams. Ceaseless pouring out of lungs and voice for as long as one may be struck dumb, but they continue.

Today, I was lying awake in my bed when the doorbell rang. I got up, slipped my feet into my shoes and walked to the door. I opened it to find an emaciated figure, oddly recognisable, bearded white with watery bronze eyes and a hollow mouth. I looked at him for what I perceived lasted an hour, while the chime of the doorbell and the devotional songs that rang with it reverberated in my head. My reverie was broken again.

“Eggs, beta?” asked the man. I looked at him. He was robotic, almost inhuman except that his nostrils flared to allow breathing; nevertheless, when they failed, he opened his mouth and looked on. The only emotive response I could gather was one of a patient impatience, an ache to go somewhere, do something but a retirement to the actuality of everything.

“No, uh,” I caught the hair at the back of my head with my right hand and squeezed them, “we have them.” I felt a pang of complex emotions, too tough for me to articulate and I realised that he had perceived that.

He turned around, without as much as a twitch in his eyelid, and walked away. I walked into the corridor to chase after him, to talk to him, maybe shed sympathy but he walked on with his white sack, blending into the darkness of the corridor where the rising sun still did not shine.

If I could, I would ask Dada Rao if it was worth it. Since the day he walked off into the corridor, I have stopped hearing screams. Even when I am able to catch a few hours’ sleep, I am haunted by a singular dream — the bicycle that lay by the blackened heap of sizzling humanity, the rainbow smeared with ash.

utk.sharma01@gmail.com


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Printable version | Sep 27, 2022 12:01:41 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/beyond-bread-and-butter/article26352315.ece