During the month of September, Arif shut himself in his tiny study room, spending all his waking hours preparing for the mains. The previous month Amma had made Abba buy two large cylindrical steel containers to store grains, and these were then placed in the corridor outside his study room. A mason had been deployed to cut through the brick wall and construct a window that opened into the backyard. Amma had also got the study room whitewashed and the table and chair had been given a new coat of polish.
‘My son needs privacy to prepare for a prestigious and difficult exam like this,’ Arif had heard her saying to Abba.
He stopped going over to Mritunjay’s place, fearing he might run into Sumitra. He knew that if she was around, he would not be able to stay away from her. Whenever Mritunjay complained about his reduced visits, Arif invented new excuses.
But Sumitra kept popping up in his mind. The scene from that rainy night played in his mind continuously. Whenever he conjured up the moment she had embraced him, he got goosebumps. At times he also recalled Simran, his childhood crush from Darbhanga, and felt nostalgic. He convinced himself that Sumitra would vanish from his memories the way Simran had.
October finally arrived and Arif felt that he had performed exceptionally well in the exam. He was sure to get an interview call. The very next day he went to Ashok Rajpath and bought the books required to prep for the interview. He also created detailed notes on his personal and academic backgrounds, the areas he would be questioned on during the interview.
‘A part of our ancestral house in Jamalpura has collapsed in the rain. One of the walls requires immediate repair. I want you to go there and oversee the construction,’ Abba told Arif.
Arif was eager to leave for Jamalpura instantly. This way he would be away from Sumitra. He also wanted to test Zakir’s hypothesis – maybe staying away from her would help him forget her. He would also be able to concentrate on his studies. His ultimate dream to join the civil services was just one hurdle away and he couldn’t mess up all his hard work and his family’s dreams now.
‘See, Arif, you are close to your goal. In Jamalpura, you’ll have a comfortable space to study for the interview. Here, the continuous footfall of guests will distract you,’ Abba said. ‘Sometimes I feel guilty for not sending you to a good coaching institute like Mritunjay’s father did,’ he added with a heavy sigh.
‘Don’t say that, Abba. You have been a wonderful father.’
The bus crossed Gandhi Setu over the majestic Ganga and entered Hajipur. It turned and speeded towards Muzaff arpur. Between Muzaff arpur and Hajipur, there was no road, only a long stretch of potholes and cobbled paths. The bus jerked like a horse cart. A bespectacled old gentleman cursed the chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the condition of the roads and ridiculed Yadav for claiming that he would make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.
Often the driver drove through farmlands which were smoother than the uneven roads. The passengers felt a big jerk as the bus descended into a diversion, freshly dug to allow vehicles to pass. A small bridge had caved in for want of repairs.
‘All the thieves and thugs are sitting in the assembly and Parliament. No one cares for the public; everybody is busy filling their own pockets. And now we have elected a joker as our chief minister,’ remarked a bulky middle-aged man.
‘What have the earlier governments done for the betterment of Bihar since Independence? The present chief minister has been here only for the last few years. He can’t undo the wrongs of the previous regimes in such a short time,’ responded a young man sitting next to Arif. ‘The so called upper castes are yet to digest the fact that a Yadav has become the chief minister of Bihar.’
‘It is not a question of caste but of development and good administration,’ the old man replied.
The argument continued and more people jumped into the discussion. Arif silently followed the heated conversation.
Just as the bus was about to enter Muzaffarpur, the driver stepped hard on the brakes. The road ahead had been blocked by hundreds of people squatting on the road. ‘I think they are protesting the murder of that boy,’ someone in the bus called out loudly. Most people were familiar with the story from the local newspapers. The boy, a class seven student, had been kidnapped for ransom. His father, a rich businessman of the city, had been asked by the kidnappers to pay a ransom of twenty lakh rupees. They had warned him not to call the police. But the father of the boy had informed the police. The very next day the boy had been found on the outskirts of Muzaffarpur, his throat slit.
All the passengers were leaning outside their windows, straining to see what was up, and some of them had gotten off the bus to stretch. There was a bus ahead of them and they could hear an argument. It sounded like the other bus driver was asking the protesters to move.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass. Just as Arif was considering his options, a big stone hit the windscreen of his bus. People pushed each other as they tried to grab their bags and get out of the bus. Clutching his own bag, Arif shoved through the crowd and managed to get out. The vehicle ahead of them was now on fi re and people were scattering everywhere. Arif was stunned for just a moment before he came to his senses and, along with a bunch of fellow passengers, began to run away from the rioting crowd. He had no idea which way they were running, but it felt best to stick to a group. Finally they stopped at a small teashop, a few hundred metres away.
The owner had considered shutting down his shop but saw that the mob was focused on the bus and thought he could maybe do some business. There were no buildings in sight. Across the vast expanse of fields the burning buses and the mob were visible. The passengers watched the scene silently and fearfully, ready to run at the first sight of the mob proceeding towards them. Thick black smoke rose into the air like an apparition. For a few minutes the crackling of fire and the distant cries of the mob were the only sounds they could hear.
Surprisingly, police jeeps drove past them in less than five minutes.
‘Did you call the police?’ someone asked the young teashop owner.
‘There is no phone here, bhaiyya. I don’t know who could have called them. But it’s good they are here.’
‘I think the police must have already been on their way, even before the riot broke out,’ someone remarked.
The silence broken and with the police headed towards the rioting crowd, the teashop owner started offering tea and locally made buns. The passengers discussed how they should continue their individual journeys. The teashop owner warned them that there was still news of buses being vandalized by the mob on the Motihari–Muzaff arpur road. Most buses had either been cancelled or were taking a detour to Sitamarhi. Arif was surprised that his bus had come this way. People asked each other and the teashop owner for suggestions.
‘From Sitamarhi, you can take a train to Inayat Nagar,’ one of Arif’s fellow passengers suggested to him.
‘That’s a good idea, thank you,’ Arif said as he looked at his wristwatch. It was 12.10 p.m.
By two o’clock, he was in Sitamarhi. After a hot meal of dal, bhaat, tarkari and bhujia at Bhargava Hotel, he reached the railway station and saw that the train was already whistling and puffing, and he ran to board it.
Two hours later, the Darbhanga–Inayat Nagar passenger train crawled to a stop next to a red brick building. ‘Inayat Nagar (East)’ was painted in black against a white background, the letters fading. A few hundred yards away, Arif could see the river Bagmati’s zigzag trajectory. On its makeshift bamboo bridge, a man rode leisurely on his bicycle, seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere.
The river surrounded Inayat Nagar, a small town of three thousand people, on three sides. During the rainy season the town was totally cut off from other parts of India, as the floods would wash the bamboo bridge away. And after the floods the bridge would be built again.
Outside the railway station horse carts were lined up, their drivers yelling names of different villages. Making his way through the crowd of passengers and the people who had come to receive them, Arif came on to a brick lane flanked by shops selling puff ed rice, jalebis and balushahi. He turned left into a narrow alley which brought him to a wide road just in front of the Clock Tower. He walked into a dispensary.
‘Hakim Sahab ka Shafakhana’ read the signboard. The blue lettering had lost its sheen and the once white background had turned the colour of mud. His mother’s only brother, Hakim Ajmal Khan, sat alone in his clinic.
He was a short, thin man with a salt-and-pepper beard. The cabinet next to him had a dozen or so plastic jars. Arif instantly recognized one of them labelled ‘Sualin’ from which he used to steal sweet and fragrant herbal lozenges as a child.
‘Assalam alaikum!’ Arif greeted as he placed his bag on the floor.
‘Walaikum assalam, bhanje.’ Hakim sahab stood up and hugged his nephew with a broad smile lighting his face. ‘Let’s go home. Your aunt has been waiting for you.’
‘But why are you closing your clinic so early, mamu? What about your patients?’
‘Arrey bhanje, hardly any patients nowadays. Everyone is running to allopathic doctors.’ Hakim sahab paused, and then added, ‘And there is also the meeting of the Emarat Committee in the evening.’
Arif knew his uncle was the president of the Inayat Nagar Emarat Committee, a non-profit social organization and dispute redressal forum for local Muslims.
Arif did not say anything more and silently walked alongside his uncle.
In front of Hakim sahab’s house, chairs and benches were being arranged by three men dressed in lungis and half-sleeved short kurtas.
‘A married Muslim woman has been caught red-handed with a Hindu man. The Emarat Committee is going to decide on this matter,’ a tall man in his early twenties responded to Arif’s question on what the meeting was about.
A bearded man in his fifties greeted Hakim sahab. As the two of them sat down to discuss something, Hakim said to Arif, ‘Bhanje, go inside the house. Say hello to your mami, then have lunch and rest.’
Inside, fifteen-year-old Farzana, Hakim sahab’s only daughter, dressed in a blue salwar-kameez and head covered with her dupatta, wished Arif, ‘Assalam alaikum.’ Dragging a chair for him from a corner of the veranda, she asked him to sit down.
Arif unzipped the side pocket of his bag and pulled out the latest issue of the Pakeezah Anchal. He handed the magazine to her and she seemed genuinely happy.
‘Thank you, bhaijaan,’ she said softly, and went inside and returned with a glass of water and two poached eggs. The yolks were dark yellow and the eggs had been sprinkled with coarsely ground pepper.
Ten minutes later Farzana’s mother, his mami, emerged from one of the rooms. After showering him with the choicest of her blessings, she settled on a chair next to him and asked about his family in Patna.
After a delicious lunch of mutton korma and pulao, Arif stepped out of the house. The townspeople had begun to gather in the lawn in front of the house.
The meeting started after the afternoon prayer. Hakim sahab had changed into a faded black sherwani and anklelength pyjama, and sat on a wooden chair with an intricately carved armrest. Next to him was his childhood friend, Harihar Prasad Srivastava, a tall, thin man with a thick moustache. Settled on a cushioned wooden chair, he was a special invitee to the committee.
Arif stood under the neem tree at the far corner of the courtyard. His distant cousin from his mother’s side, Bilal, a short young man with a scant beard, stood just behind him. By now about a hundred people had gathered to watch the proceedings.
Suddenly, a baby goat emerged from under the wooden chowki, on which some of the junior members of the committee were seated. Seeing the crowd, the goat panicked and started to run here and there.
‘Whose goat is it?’ Hakim sahab asked in an authoritative voice.
A frightened boy, around ten years old, came out of the crowd.
‘Get it away,’ somebody shouted.
The boy swiftly caught the goat by its ears and dragged it away, while the crowd made way for them.
Bilal whispered to Arif, voluntarily briefing him about the case, ‘Sanjay Kumar Gupta, a teacher at the local primary school, is having an affair with Abida Begum, the wife of Sheikh Waris. Their affair, in fact, was the talk of the town for some time. But this was the first time they were caught together in an objectionable position in a sugarcane field. The elders have decided to resolve it before this becomes a Hindu–Muslim issue.’
Why did she cheat on her husband? Arif wondered, but did not ask Bilal.
Abida Begum, along with some women, was seated on a bench in the nearby veranda, shielded from the crowd by a semi-transparent makeshift curtain. The curtain flapped in a gust of wind and Arif caught a glimpse of Abida’s round face and big eyes. He also saw two middle-aged women seated behind her point at her, whisper and snigger.
Is Sumitra attracted to me? Arif asked himself. But he didn’t have an answer.
Turning to his right, Arif saw Sanjay standing silently, his head bent, his hands shaking. Next to him stood a dhoti clad old man in his sixties, with a white stubble, looking anxious, perhaps Sanjay’s father.
Abida’s husband, Sheikh Waris, was not present.
A committee member asked if Sanjay had anything to say. Sanjay instead burst into tears, his head still bent, his shoulders shaking. In a swift move, his father took off his hawai chappal and started beating him. ‘Abey chutia, speak now, why are you silent?’
Harihar Prasad intervened, ‘Ram Prasad! Stop this immediately,’ and snatched the chappal from him. Then it was the old man’s turn to weep. ‘The boy has brought shame to our family. I wish he had never been born.’
A tall man with a clean-shaven, pale face stood up to speak. ‘Mohtarma Abida Begum, what do you have to say about this allegation?’
‘That’s Syed Hafi z Ahmed, sahab,’ Bilal kept up his commentary.
Through the curtain, Arif saw Abida Begum stand up. ‘If I have done anything wrong, Allah will punish me on the Day of Judgement.’
‘If you want to live in our society, you have to follow its conventions,’ Hakim sahab said. ‘Your behaviour is against our religion and culture.’
Abida Begum’s voice became acerbic as she replied, ‘Where was our society when my husband was lying in the hospital? Where was our society when my daughter was married off to a man twice her age because we couldn’t afford dowry for a younger groom? Is dowry not against our religion? I know that many among the esteemed members of the Emarat Committee also took dowry for their sons’ marriages. Why didn’t the Emarat summon them for an explanation? Let it be. As far as Sanjay sahab is concerned, I respect him a great deal. He has always helped us in times of trouble. I tried to pay our debts by being nice to him. That’s all.’
A man with a soot-black beard stood up. ‘Shut up, you shameless woman!’ His body trembled in anger and his untrimmed beard fl uttered in the breeze as he spoke.
‘Mohammed Nasir Ali sahab gets angry easily,’ Bilal whispered to Arif.
Hakim sahab silenced Nasir Ali and asked Abida Begum, ‘Did you come to us for help?’
‘Do you expect me to go from door to door with a begging bowl?’
Nasir Ali again rose and shouted, ‘Shut up!’
This time Abida stopped talking. She covered her face with the loose end of her sari. There was agitated murmuring among the crowd.
What kind of a shameless woman is this? Arif thought. He did not like the idea of humiliating a woman publicly, but he also didn’t like the way Abida defied the Emarat Committee. At least she should show some remorse for what she has done.
Hakim sahab turned and whispered something to Harihar Prasad. A few senior members joined in by pulling their chairs closer to them in a circle.
Bilal said to Arif, ‘Sheikh Waris is really a eunuch. He has no control over his wife, nor is he able to fuck her; that is why she offered her pussy to this Hindu boy.’
A bemused Arif looked at Bilal, but said nothing.
The committee announced its decision: Sanjay Kumar Gupta had to atone for his improper conduct. He was asked to spit on his chappal and then lick it and promise the committee that he would not repeat the mistake. Abida was let off with a warning that if she did not mend her ways, the committee would take severe action against her.
Sanjay cried inconsolably. He bent to weakly spit on his pair of worn-out hawai chappals, with their webbed blue straps and white insoles, both of which had blue patches at all the pressure points. As soon as he licked the chappal, he retched. In the veranda Abida Begum shifted restlessly on the bench.
Harihar Prasad remarked, ‘This is enough punishment for now.’ Everyone nodded.
Arif felt sorry for the man.
He imagined himself and Sumitra in place of Sanjay and Abida, and shivers went down his spine. He wiped the beads of perspiration on his forehead.
The same evening Arif asked his aunt if she would accompany him to Jamalpura.
‘Farzana will go with you. For months, Apa has been asking us to visit her. It is not possible for all of us to go but I promised to send Farzana,’ his aunt said. She and Arif’s paternal uncle’s wife were sisters.
Part of the twenty-kilometre stretch between Inayat Nagar and Jamalpura was paved with loose bricks, but most of it was a kuccha road that sometimes ceased to exist, and instead a slushy bed, where drainage from houses opened directly on to the road, appeared. A Mahindra jeep plied twice every day between Inayat Nagar and Shamshad Nagar, from where Jamalpura was only five kilometres away, and people either walked the rest of the journey or arranged for a bullock cart. For the first part of the journey, people were stuffed into the jeep like cotton sacks in a truck, with four passengers instead of two in the front seat, the driver occupying only half of his own seat, his other half jutting out of the jeep. More people precariously held on to the jeep from the back, swinging to and fro through the ride. A few also sat on the roof. The jeep lurched and shook, jolting the passengers all the way.
To spare Arif and Farzana this tortuous journey, Hakim sahab had hired a bullock cart for the journey from Inayat Nagar to Jamalpura.
But Arif resented having to travel in the bullock cart with Farzana because he suspected that it was his aunt’s scheme to get him to know Farzana so that he would agree to marry her.
The next morning Arif sat on the veranda with his cup of tea and his aunt waxed eloquent about Farzana. ‘You know she has done so well in the Fauquania examinations.’
Even a table and a bench can pass the madrasa board examinations, Arif thought.
His aunt continued, ‘She is an expert in cooking, knitting, sewing and embroidery.’
Arif knew two things. His relationship with Sumitra was not going to go anywhere. But also, despite Abba’s word to Hakim sahab, he was not going to marry Farzana. Arif had faint memories from the day Farzana was born, when Abba had announced to the crowd of relatives that she would be his daughter-in-law. Arif had even clapped at his father’s proclamation without having understood its future implications.
To change the topic, he asked, ‘Mami, when is the bullock cart coming?’
‘It is already at the gate. The bullock cart driver is tying the wahar.’
It was taboo for women to travel in an open bullock cart, so the driver had to tie a canopy over the cart. Arif was relieved as the wahar would also protect them from the sun.
Homemade sweets and snacks were packed in a bamboo basket and placed at the back of the cart, along with the travel bags carrying Arif’s and Farzana’s clothes and other personal belongings. Farzana sat inside the canopy. It was covered on all sides with thick cloth except in the front where a semi-transparent fabric had been hung as a curtain and tied with a string to allow air to enter. Arif sat with a part of his body inside the canopy and part out.
The cart driver sat on his seat outside at the front end of the cart, his legs dangling, his hands holding the reins of the bullocks. His name was Yaqoob Ali. A lanky man with a meagre beard, he was from the same locality of Inayat Nagar where Hakim sahab lived.
They started at 10 a.m. and by noon they were in Panchkurwa. It was unusually hot for November. Propped against one of the railings, Farzana was snoozing, sweating inside the canopied cart. To avoid the sun, Arif also took shelter under the canopy and immediately felt awkward to be so close to Farzana. She was fair with sharp facial features and looked older than her age. Her long tresses fell below her waist. There was no sign of make-up, but still she was attractive. Arif wondered for a moment if he should say yes. But the moment passed.
He remembered Farzana as a five-year-old girl clinging to him and asking him to buy her chocolate. Also, how could a future IAS offi cer have a semi-literate village girl for a wife? But whom would he marry in the end?
Just out of Panchkurwa, Yaqoob stopped the bullock cart near a neem tree and suggested that they should have lunch. At a hailing distance were half a dozen thatched shops selling tea, samosas, grains, vegetables and other items of daily needs.
‘What have you packed for lunch?’ Arif asked Farzana.
‘Paratha, fried potatoes and roasted kulma,’ Farzana said in a mellow voice. She took out three tiffin boxes kept in the back of the bullock cart.
As she opened the box of kulma, the idea of eating six month-old sun-dried, spiced minced beef didn’t appeal to him. Beef was never cooked in his house at Patna. His father had banned it from the kitchen a year before Arif was born.
‘Many Hindu friends come to our house. We must respect their sensibilities. Anyway, we have the option of eating mutton or chicken,’ Abba would say.
When Farzana handed him a plate to pass to Yaqoob, the smell of the roasted kulma almost made him throw up. Arif cleared his throat and spat on the ground and then turning to Farzana, said, ‘Please, give me the fried potatoes only. I don’t eat kulma.’
Yaqoob began chewing his paratha and kulma contentedly.
After lunch Yaqoob suggested they order tea from an open-air teashop a stone’s throw from where their bullock cart was parked. Arif didn’t want to have tea, but guessed that Yaqoob needed a cup. He gave Yaqoob a five-rupee note for three cups.
Sipping the tea, Yaqoob said, ‘You know, Arif bhai, this is a Bhumihar village. All bloody Jan Sanghis and communally minded. Only three Muslim houses in this village. Last month a poor Muslim’s house was burnt down when he was caught with beef in his bag. The poor guy was beaten badly by the youth in the village. The Muslims of the neighbouring villages were very angry, and it looked as if there would be a riot. Finally, the police intervened and arrested the culprits.’
‘Then what happened?’ Arif asked.
‘The police released all the suspects for lack of evidence and instead warned the Muslims in the area to refrain from eating beef or slaughtering cows. They say it is against the law of the land.’ Yaqoob seemed agitated. ‘What kind of law is it which prohibits people from eating their food?’
Tethered to the neem tree the oxen were munching on green bamboo leaves and dry hay. Yaqoob released them and then tied them to the yoke before taking his seat. As he prodded them with a bamboo stick, they heard a large crowd. The air around them reverberated with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Arif saw fear dancing on Yaqoob’s face as he pulled the bridle with all his might to stop the oxen.
A stocky, dark man with a handlebar moustache holding a triangular saffron flag hoisted on a bamboo stick was leading a group of around eighty people. They kept chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in loud, passionate voices as they passed by. Thankfully, they didn’t pay much attention to the bullock cart.
‘What was that, Yaqoob bhai?’ Arif asked when the procession was gone and the bullock cart started moving.
‘I told you earlier; this is a village full of Jan Sanghis. And now Suresh Singh, a former smuggler and a BJP MLA, has started this programme called Prabhat Pheri to polarize the Hindus. The flag they were carrying is called the Ram Dhwaj, the flag of Lord Rama.
‘Achcha.’ Arif nodded.
‘Even in Inayat Nagar, some Hindu youths tried to take out similar processions and there was communal tension. But Hariharji, the only sensible Hindu in Inayat Nagar, intervened and nothing happened. However, his son Shashidhar . . .’ Yaqoob rambled on but Arif tuned out, sleepy from the meal.
As they entered Shamshad Nagar, three adolescent boys playing gilli-danda in the middle of the road stopped their game and moved aside. One of them called out to the others, ‘See, Zulfikar, some bride is going. The bridegroom is sitting in the front of the bullock cart.’ He pointed at Arif and giggled. Then they started following the bullock cart and began singing:
Lali lali doliya mein lali re dulhaniya
Piya ki piyari bholi bhali re dulhaniya
(In a red palanquin is a beautiful and innocent bride
This lovely bride is her husband’s beloved)
Arif flushed. From the corner of his eye he saw Farzana blushing, her cheeks turning red.
Yaqoob scolded the children, ‘Go away, you rascals.’ But the children did not pay heed and followed the cart till the end of the village.
Remembering his own childhood in Jamalpura, Arif had to smile. Zakir, he and their friends had always run behind a bullock cart that seemed to be carrying a bride and had sung the same song.
The minarets of the Jama Masjid of Jamalpura loomed on the east, and the scene fl owed into the domes of the mausoleum of Hazrat Baba Pir Jamaluddin Khan Rahamatullah Alaih. They were close to their destination.
A bicycle pulled up next to the bullock cart.
‘Assalam alaikum,’ Arif greeted Abdul Waheed Khan, his Badke baba, father’s elder brother, and jumped out to greet him.
They followed his bicycle into the village. After a nap and another glass of tea at Badke baba’s place, Yaqoob began his long ride back to Inayat Nagar.
In the evening, Arif sat down for dinner with Badke baba and his cousin Muneer. The rectangular courtyard where they sat on a wooden platform was flanked on two sides by four grain storage cylinders made of hay and mud. In the corner was a green-coloured iron handpump.
‘Bhai told me that you don’t eat mughal-e-azam.’ Badke baba used the code name for beef. ‘So, I had to go all the way to Shamshad Nagar to buy mutton. In our poor village only a handful can afford mutton.’ Although Arif’s father was younger to him, Abdul Waheed Khan held him in great regard for having completed his studies against all odds and getting a job in the police department.
‘How are Azmati baji and Rahmati?’ Arif asked after his uncle’s daughters as he helped himself to mutton korma.
‘Azmati is in Delhi. Her husband runs a lathe machine repair workshop. And Rahmati is in Kathmandu. Her husband has started a bakery shop. However, he has had some trouble with the Nepalis. Th ey say Indians are Madhesias and have no right to live in Nepal.’ He fi nished his dinner and burped as he drank water.
‘Did you like the food, beta?’ his aunt Saleha Begum asked him, standing in the veranda, trying to keep the pallu of her sari from slipping from her head.
‘Delicious,’ Arif remarked. His aunt responded with a smile and began to remove the dishes.
‘Muneer bhai, let’s go for a walk,’ Arif turned to his cousin.
‘Yes,’ Muneer said, rubbing his tummy.
They came out on to the road leading away from the village. It was a full moon night.
‘So how is Sadaqat?’ Arif asked about one of his childhood friends in Jamalpura.
‘He is as hopeless as ever. I heard he is having an affair with a chamar girl.’
‘You don’t say!’
‘Married at ten and widowed at the age of twelve, Chameli is now Sadaqat’s paramour. But one good thing is that he has stopped drinking tadi.’
‘That is really good news.’
‘Also, recently he got into trouble with the village elders for allegedly writing a poster.’
‘Last month, on a Friday morning, a poster written in Urdu was found pasted on the wall of the old bungalow facing the Jama Masjid. It read:
Hashim Khan – Rangeen Mizaj (The Flirt)
Sagir Khan – Betichod (The Daughter Fucker)
Raees Khan – Chughalkhor (The Slanderer)
Sartaj Khan – Randibaaz (The Whoremonger)
Saeikh Rahmat – Aag Lagwa (The Troublemaker)
This poster is written by Sadaqat Ali Khan
These were respectable and powerful people of the village. A meeting was convened in front of the mosque to discuss this mischief. Sadaqat denied his involvement in this episode and said, ‘Do you think I am a fool to sign my name on the poster if I had actually written it?’
‘People were not convinced. They asked Sadaqat to write whatever was written on the poster. And he did. Both the handwritings were diff erent. He was exonerated.
‘But the contents of the poster were mostly true,’ Muneer concluded and chuckled.
They had walked almost a quarter of a mile away from the village. And as the call for the night prayer was heard on the mosque’s loudspeakers, Muneer turned to Arif and said, ‘Arif, I have to go for prayer.’
‘Okay, Muneer bhai.’
Muneer started walking briskly towards the mosque.
Arif was following his cousin in a leisurely manner when he saw Sadaqat approaching from the other side.
After exchanging pleasantries, Arif began to walk with Sadaqat.
Sadaqat was carrying a hurricane lamp and water in a lota. Arif guessed he was going to the fields. In his village ‘going to the fields’ meant going to take a shit.
He asked Sadaqat about the poster episode. Sadaqat laughed and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone. I did paste the poster there. I had one of my friends in the neighbouring village write it.’
‘I heard that you are in love with a village girl,’ Arif teased his former classmate.
‘How do you know?’ Sadaqat blushed.
‘Magic.’ Arif laughed.
‘Arif bhai, you are an old friend. I’ll not hide anything from you. Her name is Chameli. She is a Hindu and that too from an untouchable caste. A chamar, to be exact. My family would never agree to this match. But I don’t care; I’ll marry only her.’
‘Let it be! Tell me about yourself. Surely, you must have a girlfriend in Patna?’ Sadaqat asked, laughing.
He was tempted to tell him about his fascination for Sumitra, but didn’t. ‘No, Sadaqat bhai, I am not as lucky as you are.’
‘I don’t believe you. Tall and handsome men like you can easily enchant any girl. I have heard that Patna girls are very liberal.’
They had reached the pulia, the tiny bridge over the Karpoori Thakur canal. Though built in the 1970s, there was still no water flowing in it.
‘I’ll be back in ten minutes.’ Sadaqat descended into the dry canal and started walking towards the bhutia gachhi, the ghost orchard abutting the small piece of open land used as a cremation ground by the Hindus of the village.
Not even two minutes had passed when Arif saw a feminine figure silhouetted against the full moon walking towards the bhutia gachhi from the other side. Arif’s grandma had told him that many years ago a rakash had been seen around here. A rakash was a type of ghost with a hundred eyes on its body. That’s how the orchard came to be known as bhutia gachhi or the haunted orchard. But should an educated person like him believe in ghost stories?
Then he realized that must be Chameli. Arif saw her climb into the canal and walk towards the bhutia gachhi. He was overtaken by curiosity and, without thinking, he got down into the canal and walked towards the bhutia gachhi as well, making his way through the wild growth. A shiver ran down his spine as he thought of the snakes and other creatures that lurked in the undergrowth. He ducked under the low branches of the litchi trees and reached a point from where he could see Sadaqat sitting in the orchard. He strained his eyes to see better, and in the light of Sadaqat’s hurricane lamp, he could also see Chameli lying on his lap. As Sadaqat’s hands strayed into her blouse, she slapped his hands and said, ‘Not before marriage.’ Their conversation was audible in the quiet night. Sadaqat kissed the girl on her cheeks and lips. His hands strayed into her blouse again, but she didn’t stop him this time. Pushing her on the ground, he was on top of her. Arif imagined himself with Sumitra in a mango orchard.
‘No, Sadaqat!’ Chameli suddenly pushed Sadaqat away. Sadaqat was laughing. Arif was drawn back to reality, regretting his lustful thoughts about Sumitra. What Sadaqat was trying to do with Chameli was wrong, a sin. What he had fantasized about Sumitra was also wrong, a sin.
‘Chameli, I have to leave early today. My friend Arif is waiting for me at the pulia.’
‘But when are we going to Kathmandu?’
‘Very soon.’ Sadaqat got up.
Arif rushed back to the pulia.
The people of Jamalpura were early sleepers. Even in the month of November, when the weather was cool and the sky was clear, the village was in deep slumber by eight thirty. But Arif was awake. There was silence everywhere except for the singing of crickets that could be heard from the nearby fields, punctuated from time to time by the howling of jackals. Arif had acquired the habit of sleeping late at Police Colony where nobody slept before eleven. His mind wandered to Sumitra again and he worried if he’d ever be able to erase her from his thoughts.
The bedroom in Jamalpura was huge, almost triple the size of the bedrooms in Patna. A 1960s’-style four-poster teak-wood bed with intricate carvings occupied one-fourth of the space. The bed was his mother’s wedding gift from her father but despite the passage of many years, it still looked sturdy. The room also had a study table and a chair of shisham wood and an almirah. Two windows opened to a view of the main mosque of the village.
To distract himself, Arif opened the almirah hoping to find something interesting to read. Among the moth-eaten old copies of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Tilsm-e-Hoshruba and Alif Laila, he spotted a couple of his old diaries, buried beneath books from his school. Lying in his bed he began reading his diary entries on Simran. He could vividly remember the day he had seen Simran for the first time, almost ten years ago.
31 October 1984
Around eleven in the morning, one of Abba’s collegues, Mr Mishra, came running to our house. He looked upset and spoke in a choked voice.
‘Khan sahab, the Iron Lady is no more.’
Abba’s face turned white and then he rushed to get his radio. All India Radio news confirmed the death of Mrs Gandhi.
By evening it was known that the prime minister’s two Sikh bodyguards had assassinated her. Rumours were afloat that Sikhs were celebrating her death and were distributing sweets in the local gurdwara. I had also heard someone saying that this was revenge for Operation Blue Star.
The prime minister’s death is like a news item from the papers to me: Two die in a road accident. Boat capsizes in river Sone, three persons missing. I don’t understand why Father is so sad for somebody who is not related to or even known to us.
1 November 1984
Zakir and I came home from the playground in the evening. I was pleased that the electricity had not gone off as it usually did. Nazneen and Rabiya sat on the floor playing Ludo but my ladli little Huma sat on a chair, looking sad. When I asked her what happened, she complained that Nazneen and Rabiya were not letting her play as she was too young. I wanted to be the big brother. With mock authority I asked the other two: ‘Arrey, how dare you not let my favourite sister play? Do ask Huma to join your game.’ They didn’t have a choice but to ask her to join. I felt great affection for my sisters as I watched Rabiya tell Huma, ‘Don’t cry if you lose.’ Dadi lay on the cot reading a magazine in Urdu, The Huda Islamic Digest, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose.
Seeing me she asked, ‘Does my grandson want anything to eat?’
‘No, Dadi,’ I said and hugged her.
‘Should I cook your favourite potato snacks or halwa?’ Dadi asked, planting a soft kiss on my forehead.
‘This is not fair, Dadi! You reserve all your love for bhaiyya,’ Zakir complained.
‘That is not so, Zakir,’ Dadi said, smiling. ‘Just tell me what you want.’
‘Halwa!’ Zakir responded immediately.
I went inside, changed into a lungi and kurta and returned to the veranda with the day’s newspaper. There was a huge photograph of the deceased prime minister dominating the front page.
‘Please come inside, sir,’ I heard Abba say. A jeep had pulled up in front of our house. Abba ushered Sardar Swarn Singh with his wife into our bedroom, which also served as the living room. Swarn Singh was the deputy commandant of the Bihar Military Police and Abba’s senior. He looked grave and worried.
A middle-aged Sikh man in a dark brown turban and a plump woman in a maroon sari also walked in after Sardar Swarn Singh. A girl in a green salwar-kameez with Sadhna cut hair followed. As I looked at the girl, I couldn’t breathe for a while. I had never experienced something like this before. The girl looked beautiful.
‘Khan, meet Dr Balwinder Singh, his wife and their daughter, Simran. Doctor sahab is my wife’s cousin.’ Mr Singh introduced his brother-in-law and his family.
Simran. Simran. Simran.
Even as I was captivated by her, the conversation interested me. Why was this beautiful girl in my house?
‘Dr Singh lives in Kathalbari where some shops belonging to Sikhs have been vandalized. So he took shelter in our house. There too ten to fifteen constables gathered in front of our bungalow and started raising slogans against Sikhs. My wife panicked and thought we would be safer in a Muslim offi cer’s house.’
‘Doctor sahab did the right thing,’ Abba said.
‘Bhaisahab, please don’t tell anybody that we are here,’ Mrs Singh said. Her hands were shaking. I felt sorry for her.
‘Memsahab, don’t worry. Nothing will happen in Police Colony,’ Abba said as he picked up the radio from a wooden table and tried to tune it. He was probably searching for the news again.
‘The anti-Sikh riots continue unabated in Delhi,’ came a voice from the radio.
I stood in the corridor against the wall, looking inside the room once in a while, stealing glances of Simran’s face. She looked tense, and beautiful.
By nine thirty in the night the electricity went out, engulfing the room in darkness. I heard the sound of gunfire from a distance. What if the neighbourhood Hindus decide to attack Simran and me and my family? I was terrified. I was reminded of that time in Inayat Nagar, five years ago.
There had been minor scuffles between some Hindus and Muslims over the organization of Durga Puja in the town. The rumour was that Hindus were going to attack Muslim colonies in the night. I can still remember how scared I was that Hindu mobs might attack us. I can still feel that fear.
Amma came into the room with a hurricane lamp and placed it on the stool. Around the same time, there was a knock on the door. I was startled and I looked at Abba. He looked alarmed too. Simran was holding her mother in a tight embrace, sobbing. My heart raced. I was sure the neighbourhood Hindus had come to know about our guests.
Abba gestured everyone to be silent as he went out of the room.
I automatically followed Abba. Holding the lamp in his left hand, Abba moved at a measured pace. He stood close to the door, trying to listen to the sound outside, and then unbolted the door. A tall young man with a clean-shaven face stood at the door, along with someone who looked like a bodyguard holding a Sten gun.
‘Jai Hind, sir,’ Abba greeted him.
‘Jai Hind, Khan. Where is Singh sahab? I have come here to take him and his family to my house. I just returned from Muzaffarpur and found out about the afternoon incident. I’ll take strict action against all the constables involved.’
Abba brought them inside. ‘Singh sahab, the Commandant of Bihar Military Police Ranbir Singh is here to take you with him.’
Simran had been in my house only for a few hours, but her presence lingered on even after she left. I dreamed of Simran. This morning I feel inspired to dedicate my first poem to her. (See the last page in the diary.)
For the next one year, Arif began to follow Simran. He sat in a tea stall close to Simran’s house for hours, just to get a glimpse of her. He stood outside her school as well. He visited the local gurdwara on Sundays. He filled his diary with poetry about her.
Despite his obsession for Simran, he couldn’t muster the courage to talk to her. Even after pursuing her for three years, he couldn’t even bring himself to say hello to her. Once he planned to hand her a letter, but at the last moment he changed his mind.
Then, his father was transferred to Patna and they moved immediately.
After arriving in Patna, Arif remained in the grip of a strange longing for Simran for many months. He wrote hundreds of ghazals and listened to sad songs by Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi.
One day, six months later, at a magazine stall, Arif saw the latest issue of Sportstar with a centre spread of Steffi Graf holding aloft the Wimbledon trophy. In a white Adidas tracksuit, she looked astonishing. She was the most beautiful tennis player he had ever seen.
Arif promptly fell in love with the glamorous Fräulein from Germany. Simran moved out of his orbit of daydreams.
It was his infatuation with Steffi that introduced him to lawn tennis. He wanted to play the game that she played. Borrowing a few books from Sinha Library, he tried to understand the basics of tennis. He watched matches on television regularly to learn the nuances of the game. He planned to start playing the game.
At the age of seventeen it was very unlikely that he could make it to the competitive level. Arif knew this, but still the incorrigible optimist inside him believed that he was going to be the next Boris Becker or Stefan Edberg. Sometimes he daydreamed of winning the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon with Steffi Graf, and hugging and kissing her after the match. He even sent a letter to her Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg address in Germany, asking her to be his pen friend.
Arif, of course, had no money to buy tennis rackets. He had visited Chhabra Sports at Fraser Road and Kohli Sports near Bakerganj police station. A good quality racket cost more than a thousand rupees. Even a Jalandhar-made local brand, Kay Kay racket, which was made of steel and was more of a mallet than a racket, cost three hundred rupees.
Disappointed, he returned home. He dared not ask his father for money to buy a racket, something he knew would be considered wasteful expenditure.
But luck was in his favour as the new commandant, the head of the Bihar Military Police Unit, was very fond of the game. The first thing he did after joining was to have the old red clay court refurbished. A tennis coaching camp was organized for the children of Police Colony. Amma convinced Abba to buy rackets for him and Zakir. One of Bihar’s top tennis players, Chandra Bhushan, had come to train the children. Arif picked up the basics easily. Tennis became his obsession, pushing Simran to the margins of his mind.
Steffi regularly appeared in his dreams now, sometimes dressed in a beautiful chiffon sari or a pink full-sleeved salwar suit. He bought a poster of her from Book-en-Amee in Boring Road for a princely sum of twenty-five rupees. He inscribed AK+SG on all his books.
Three years of hard work fetched Arif a place in the Bihar Junior team. That year, 1989 to be precise, the Junior National Championship was to be organized in Patna. He was excited when he heard that some of the big names in junior tennis would be playing in the nationals – Leander Paes, Gaurav Natekar, Ashif Ismael and many more.
It was his first day at the New Patna Club.
All six grass courts of the club shone an emerald green. The ambience was electric. He saw Leander Paes talking to the chairman of the Bihar Tennis Association. Five girls stood a couple of yards away in their colourful tracksuits. A strange kind of uneasiness gripped Arif as he reached court no. 4 near the eastern end of the club. His heart was beating very fast and beads of perspiration began to appear on his forehead.
His first match was with a local player, Jagat Srivastava, who appeared to be a couple of years younger than him. Jagat was a bit plump and shorter than him.
Arif looked at his opponent and at the other players around him. Everybody was wearing branded T-shirts and shorts and carried graphite- or carbon-framed rackets, not only the well-known players but even other newcomers from Bihar, including his rival in the fi rst match. Arif looked at his Symonds wooden racket and his cheap Power shoes, a factory second purchased from Bata’s factory outlet at Digha, and his oversized fake Nike T-shirt. Even the spectators were well dressed. Arif felt like the odd man out. Embarrassed and uneasy, he lost the match even before it began. During the match he served one double fault after another. His service returns were so weak that his opponent killed them easily. From the stands Zakir kept shouting throughout the match to encourage him. But that didn’t help Arif and the match ended with 6-1, 6-0 in favour of Arif’s opponent.
After the match, Arif was heartbroken. He vowed he would never visit the New Patna Club again. He stopped playing tennis. The rackets were hung up on the wall. A black-and-white poster of Meena Kumari replaced the Steffi Graf poster. When he watched tennis on TV, he saw Steffi hitting her trademark forehand, lifting trophies and giving interviews, as millions of her fans did across the world. During those moments, he continued to be filled with yearning for Steffi and tennis.
He would forget Sumitra just as he had forgotten about Simran. He just needed a distraction, he convinced himself, as he fell asleep and dreamt of Sumitra again.
About the author
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai based screenwriter, lyricist and novelist. Born in a poor Muslim village near Motihari, Bihar, Abdullah was initially educated in madarsa (Islamic seminary) and Urdu medium schools. In mid-90s, he discovered that George Orwell was born in Motihari. And, this ‘Orwellian’ connection (no pun intended) with his home district drew him towards literature. Abdullah’s writings have appeared in Brooklyn Rail (New York), Wasafiri (London), The Hindu (India), The Daily Star (Bangladesh) and Friday Times (Pakistan) among others. He has written a film called Viraam which was screened at Cannes Film festival, 2017 and was subsequently released in theatres in December 2017. Patna Blues is his first novel which has been published by Juggernaut books in hardcover. He is also one of the contributors to a non-fiction anthologyIndia Now & in Transition wherein other contributors are Shashi Tharoor, Ramchandra Guha, Sunil Khilanani among others.
At present, he is working on a TV show for a well known TV channel of India.
He has been invited by The Hindu Lit for Life Festival and Hyderabad Literature Festival as a speaker.
About the book
Arif is the son of a police sub-inspector in Patna. His once prosperous landowning family has slipped low down the class ladder. Arif ’s sole ambition in life is to crack the civil service examination and become an IAS officer. He believes this will restore the family’s fortunes and works hard at his studies. Until his first glimpse of Sumitra, a voluptuous long-haired beauty. Married, Hindu and several years older than him, she is wrong for him in every way. It is the beginning of an infatuation that will consume his life.
Culturally insightful with political undertones, it is actually three stories in one. One is simply the story of a boy – Arif, the central character, who deals with love, lust and ambitions as he goes through the painful process of growing up. The second is Arif’s story too, but it is also the story of a Muslim boy in particular, and this flows into a larger narrative of being a Muslim in post-Babri India, with its own challenges and anxieties. The third is the story of India itself, not the India that exists in the cities, but the India of villages and small towns about which nothing much has been written by the writers writing in English.