Originally published in: Modern Indian Literature: An Anthology, vol. 2. K. M. George, ed. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1993. Pp.1131-1136. Slightly edited for this online version.
Azad Goes to a Railway Restaurant
by Ratan Nath Dar 'Sarshar'

translated by Frances W. Pritchett

Azad, that devil of a fellow, hadn’t come to Lucknow to spread out his bedding and sleep, or arrange a title-deed for a house. He was merely passing through; he stayed a few days, then was ready to move on. When he reached the Lucknow railway station, there was such a hustle and bustle, such a roil and turmoil, such a clamor and crowding, that shoulders were pressed up against shoulders. The reverend Brahmin with his water-buckets is forcing his way through the tumult: “Cold water!” The brass drinking-cups make their own clatter. The ordinary water-carriers with their large or small water-skins are making the rounds. Off to one side the hookah-man has filled the pipe with a sweet-and-bitter tobacco mixture and is burbling for customers; the rich aroma could turn one’s nose into a perfumer’s box. Next to the platform the potter has arranged his wares for sale. The clay toys are so ravishing that visitors hasten to buy them up and carry them off. Buyers push and shove other buyers; they fling down their money and grab the hookah. Immediately the water-carrier freshens the hookah, sprinkling water on its bowl. The hookah-man fills the hookah-bowl with tobacco; the customer wafts clouds of smoke into the air.

        The fruit-seller calls out: “Red juicy mulberries, mango nectar, qalami mango nectar! Safeda mangoes from the garden of Faqir Muhammad Khan himself! Langra mangoes from Banaras, Bombay mangoes from Charbagh! Oranges, tangerines, nectarines, pineapples, citrus-fruits, sharifa-fruits, guavas, apples-- whatever you want, we’ve got it!” Elsewhere, in the confectioner’s shop are displays of sweets-- trays of white milk-sweets covered with silver leaf, sweets covered with crushed pistachio. Metal lanterns sway above them, so that the shop glitters with light.

        Now there comes a cry, “Biscuits-- get your biscuits! Kabobs and bread-loaves!” Take a couple of steps another way, and the basket-man appears, making his rounds. Two-ply hats, pastel hats, brocade hats, reverse-embroidered hats, Murree-work hats, silk-and-gold woven caps, round caps-- new fashions, unique and novel styles, he’s showing them all in a heap together, very fast. Customer after customer, people are eagerly buying; five or ten hats are instantly sold, right out of his hand. Over a large area, travelers sit with their bed-rolls spread out-- one sits on a saddle-cloth, another on a small carpet, all watching for the train. An uncouth fellow squats on his haunches, talking gibberish to himself.

        Azad said to himself, “Lord, what a carnival this station is! Is there any end to it? The crowd, the clamor, the bustle-- really, Lucknow is quite a place! Lord, I’ve never seen such a station!” Strolling on, Azad went into the station. When he saw the restaurant, he grinned widely with pleasure. “Oh my, how orderly and neat it is-- the walls and doors are simply oozing cleanliness!” Everywhere it is like a world of light. From one side to the other were tables surrounded by chairs, with glasses laid out. Lamps and shaded candles glowed everywhere. Azad too went and planted himself in a chair: “Bring me something to eat! But let there be no wine in it, and let there be no taint of swine-flesh anywhere around it!” A waiter, dressed in neat, clean clothes, wearing a fancy turban like that of a herald, came and stood before him: “Your honor, there will be no wine, but what else did you command?” Azad said, “Let there be no swine-flesh”-- whispering-- “that is, no pork in it.” The waiter replied, “Oh no, your honor-- how could there possibly be!” With these words, the waiter brought all kinds of English foods in extremely costly, immensely expensive plates. Azad, using a knife and fork, ate them with great relish, and drank soda water and lemonade. When he went out, what did he see but Khoji, who had arranged his bedding and was eating kabobs and bread.

        Azad: “Well, dear Master! You’re certainly making short work of those kabobs!”

        Khoji: “Well, some people gulp down wine, some people gulp kabobs.”

        Azad: “Eh! Wine? God forbid! Tell me, sir, just who do you think has been drinking wine? Who has fallen so low? I haven’t been paying the least heed to the Daughter of the Vine-- if she has a devoted lover, it must be somebody else! As for me, ‘I’ve given up drinking wine.’”

        Khoji: “Please do go on with the verse! ‘I’ve given up drinking wine’-- and then, ‘And I’ve given up my bad habits.’”

        Azad: “I swear by the Quran--w hat wretch has touched even a drop of wine? If he’s drunk wine, he’s surely eaten pork as well.”

        Khoji: (smiling) “All right, I believe you. ‘It wasn’t the one, but the two.’ And when would you ever have given up pork? By God, I declare you a true Master! You say, ‘If I’ve drunk wine, I’ve eaten pork.’ That’s very believable! You ought to say it when you consider it forbidden, or at least disapproved. In fact you consider both things permitted, and their use desirable. My friend, today you’re really in top form!”

        Azad: “Oh well, after all, what did I do wrong? Are you going to talk to me, or just go on telling tall tales and fish stories? My God! I swear that I haven’t even touched my hand to wine, and I haven’t even set eyes on pork!”

        Khoji: “Indeed, that was well said: you haven’t set eyes on pork-- but, my friend, you’ve surely eaten it with relish! And why should you have touched your hand to wine-- you’ve surely touched your throat to it! What kind of despicable fool would trust your word? You don’t even believe in oaths! To this day I have no idea what principles or faith you recognize. You’re a good one-- your beliefs and the lineage of your faith are strange indeed. Oh well-- people will all get what’s coming to them. What do I care about the whole mess?”

        Azad: “You grant neither defeat nor victory.”

        Khoji: “Grant, you say-- that’s a good one! I saw with my own eyes how energetically that knife and fork were moving!”

        Azad: “Well, brother, does anyone drink wine with a knife and fork?”

        Khoji: “How should I know? I’d rather not know how people drink wine! You’d better ask some wine-bibber, some drunkard, about that. Alas-- by God, you’re done for! How terrible! Well, what’s past is past.”

        Azad: “You just do one thing  go in the restaurant and...”

        Khoji: “Oh God forbid, God forbid-- may God never lead a true and staunch Muslim into any such place! Bite your tongue at such words! Lord preserve me, I’m a sinful wretch. Oh, awful-- a hotel, and me to go in it! I take refuge in God against such a thing! You go in and welcome, but your humble servant will refrain.”

        Azad began to stroll around, and Khoji made a renewed assault on the kabobs and bread. When he had finished every crumb, he brought milk-sweets from the confectioner’s shop, and sank into the daze of contentment induced by opium. In the meantime, a gentleman with a beard one hand and fifty fingers long addressed Azad: “Kindly tell me, sir-- your name?” He replied, “Azad.” The gentleman smiled and said, “Indeed, by God! Your stature and style exactly suit such a name. Freedom (azadi) and independence (azadah ravi) show all over you. What is your religion?”

        Azad said, “‘Don’t ask me about religion-- I’m neither believer nor infidel. I don’t know the ways of this place-- I’m a traveler.’ Sir, your servant is a Muslim, and true to the faith, and a follower of religious law. And your noble name, Maulvi Sahib?”

        Maulvi Sahib: “Let my name be thrown in the river! For the present, let me just lament.”

        Azad:  “In God’s name, lament if you wish, or even weep. But listen, Muharram is coming soon-- you’ll be able to weep to your heart’s content. What’s the hurry?”

        Maulvi Sahib: “You call yourself a Muslim and a follower of religious law-- and you go into a restaurant and drink ruinous wine. God forbid! A pious man takes some care for the Day of Judgment. Or do you intend to turn into a mere worldly dog?”

        Azad: “Enough, sir-- what can I say? I can’t do anything except stay silent. I take refuge in God against evil!”

        Maulvi Sahib: “Forgive my discourtesy, but you’re ‘taking refuge in God’ against your own self. You’re the one who’s performed such a Satanic action. But praise be to God! Your better self is reproaching you.”

        Azad: “Maulvi Sahib, I swear by God, I only ate in the hotel, and only those foods which are not forbidden by religious law! So if you look at the question fairly, why is there any cause for reproach? After all, in Turkey itself both small and great, including those most eminent for religious knowledge, dine with Christians. So why do the Muslims of India consider this a cause for reproach? What sin have I committed, to be called an infidel and heretic and apostate and so on?”

        Maulvi Sahib: “Listen to my words, I’ll explain. I maintain that for Muslims to go into a hotel is not desirable. The food you ate in the hotel-- if you had ordered it outside and spread your cloth and eaten it, there would have been no great harm. It would have been a petty sin, but not of this magnitude. You may swear a thousand times, you may lift up the Quran and swear on it, but what accursed wretch will believe that you didn’t drink wine, or you didn’t eat pork? Anyone who enters a room full of soot will come out with a blackened face. People who deal in coal end up with dirty hands. And don’t speak of Turkey. Doesn’t the Shah of Iran enjoy gulping down unmixed wine, and expensive brandies? This can’t be used to prove that such drinking is permitted. The Turks may dine with thousands of Christians, and eat with them freely-- but we shouldn’t. It’s contrary to our customs. Do you live in Turkey, or India? Let Turkey take care of Turkey. Are we talking about India and Indian attitudes, or Turkey and Turkish customs? After all, kabobs and bread and sweets, rolls, buns, fine bread, biscuits-- everything is for sale outside too, so what was the advantage of eating there and making yourself a laughingstock for nothing? How intelligent is it to make a fool of yourself?”

        Azad: “Well sir, first of all the excellent and refined food, second the clean and shining place-- how could I enjoy it out here, as much as in there? A servant standing by to fan you, a clean and neat room, sparkling clean plates, a shining clean table, crowds of waiters there to serve you-- how can all this be out here? God forbid!”

        Maulvi Sahib: “Well, no doubt you consider the food good! As for the fan-- just pay a penny, you can get fanned for a whole hour. What does a traveler need with cleanliness, anyway? And besides, there’s nothing really dirty out here. It’s just madness, what else could it be? Well sir, you’re the one to make your own decisions. But it’s as Hafiz says: ‘My dear young man, pay heed to my advice, for the most blest of the young / Regard as dearer than life the advice of a wise old man.’ So believe me or don’t believe me! It’s up to you to accept my words or not. I’ve said what I had to say.”

        Azad thought to himself, “From now on I’ll never again be so stupid as to go into a restaurant with a flourish of trumpets, and make myself a laughingstock for nothing! It’s my privilege to go into a restaurant, or to eat what I want-- but I’ll do it in silence.”


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