C H A P T E R O N E (first half)
the world was still all new, when the sky was fresh and the earth not yet
soiled, when trees breathed through the centuries and ages spoke in the
voices of birds, how astonished he was, looking all around, that everything
was so new, and yet looked so old. Bluejays, woodpeckers, peacocks, doves,
squirrels, parakeets -- it seemed that they were as young as he, yet they
carried the secrets of the ages. The peacocks' calls seemed to come not
from the forest of Rupnagar, but from Brindaban. When a little woodpecker
paused in its flight to rest on a tall neem tree, it seemed that it had
just delivered a letter to the Queen of Sheba's palace, and was on its
way back toward Solomon's castle. When a squirrel, running along the rooftops,
suddenly sat up on its tail and chittered at him, he stared at it and reflected
with amazement that those black stripes on its back were the marks of Ramchandar-ji's
fingers. And the elephant was a world of wonder. When he stood in the entry
hall and saw an elephant approaching from the distance, it looked like
a mountain moving. The long trunk, the huge ears waving like fans, the
two white tusks sticking out and curving like scimitars -- when he saw
it all he ran inside, wonderstruck, and went straight to Bi Amma.
now the thread of imagination abruptly snapped. The sound of slogans being
shouted outside suddenly penetrated the room and scattered his memories
in all directions.
every action in that town seemed to be spread out over the centuries. The
caravan of nights and days passed so slowly there, as though it weren't
moving at all, but had halted. Whatever came to rest somewhere settled
down and stayed there. When the electric poles arrived for the first time
and were stacked here and there along the roads, what a revolutionary event
that seemed to be! A thrill ran through all Rupnagar. People paused in
their progress, and looked with wonder at the tall iron poles lying there.
"Laila, Laila, I called out in the forest,When morning came, the feel of the town was utterly changed. Here and there a shop was open, all the rest were closed. Some houses had already been locked up, others were being locked up now. In front of one house a bullock-cart stood, in front of another a horse-cart. People were going, the town was emptying out. The town was emptied both ways: some people left the town, others left the world.
"Bi Amma, more Hindus are dying."
"Bibi, when cholera comes the Muslims die, when plague comes the Hindus die."
But then the plague ceased to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. More funeral processions came out to the sound of the kalimah as well.
"Daughter-in-law! Keep Zakir inside, he's constantly going out."
"Bi Amma, the boy won't obey me."
"All right, if he goes out to look any more, I'll break his legs!"
But no threat had any effect on him. The sound of "Ram nam satya" came -- and he dashed out to the front door. Behind the funeral procession the grieving women passed by, carrying wood for the pyre and wailing aloud. After they had passed, how desolate the street seemed. Sharifan ran and seized him, and brought him inside.
A bullock-cart came rattling along, and halted before the door.
"Oh Sharifan, just look and see what guests have come in this disastrous time."
Sharifan went and returned. "Bi Amma, they've sent a bullock-cart from Danpur, and sent word that it should bring everyone out."
Bi Amma went straight to the big room, where Abba Jan sat apart from everyone, day after day, on his prayer-carpet.
"Nasir Ali, my son! Your uncle has sent a bullock-cart."
Abba Jan reflected. Then he said, "Bi Amma, the glorious and exalted Prophet has said, 'Those who run from death, run toward nothing else but death.'"
The bullock-cart had arrived empty; it went back empty. And Abba Jan dissolved saffron in a china cup, dipped a purified pen into it, and on heavy paper wrote in clear letters:
I have five personages by whom the power of destructive diseases can be eliminated: they are Muhammad and Fatimah and Hasan and Husain and Ali, Ali, Ali.He went to the front door and pasted this paper on it, then went back and sat down on his prayer-rug.
When Doctor Joshi came out of his clinic and went into somebody's house, it used to be an event. But now the Doctor Sahib, stethoscope around his neck, appeared in the neighborhood at all hours, sometimes in this street, sometimes in that. The Doctor Sahib was Rupnagar's Messiah. People said that even in the big hospitals of Delhi, no doctor could equal him. But now the Messiah's power was waning, the power of death was growing. The Doctor Sahib's wife herself broke out in pustules, and drew her last breath before the Doctor's very eyes.
"Even the Doctor's wife has died."
"Yes, she has."
The people sitting on Bhagat-ji's terrace could say no more than this. Faith in Chiranji Mal Vaid's knowledge and in Hakim Bande Ali's learning had departed long ago, at the first shock. Now Doctor Joshi's Messiah-hood too had lost its status. Now death was an inescapable reality. The dying died in silence. Those who arranged the funeral processions looked exhausted.
How tired he himself had grown! A funeral procession passed, and he just stood there, staring at the empty street. The street before his house looked so desolate. The shops and houses had mostly been locked up. Vasanti's house had a lock on it too. Here and there a shop opened its door a crack for a little while, then soon closed it again. He grew tired of looking at locked doors, closed shutters, and the empty street, and even before Sharifan insisted, he came back into the house, which itself was always sunk in silence. Abba Jan, distant from them all, detached from questions of life and death, sat on his prayer-rug, his fingers busy with his prayer-beads. Bi Amma sat on a cot, with her sewing. A word or two from Ammi, or Sharifan. Now shock had vanished from their eyes -- shock, and fear as well. Other eyes too had lost both shock and fear. Everyone had accepted the plague as an established, eternal reality. Yes, but one morning Bi Amma awoke to find that her body was trembling. In this state she offered her prayers, and lay for a long time making her prostrations. When she lifted her head from her prostrations, her wrinkled face was wet with tears. Then she drew the end of her dupattah over her face, and very softly began to weep. Abba Jan, seated on his prayer-carpet, looked at her closely. "Bi Amma, what's the matter?"
"My son, the Imam's coach has come." She paused, then said, "Such a light, as though a gas-lantern had been lit. As though someone were saying, "'Prepare the majlis.'"
Abba Jan reflected. Then he said, "Bi Amma! You've had a vision."
Through Sharifan, the news of the vision spread from house to house. Ladies came from every house that had not been shut up. The majlis took place, and there was much weeping and lamentation.
"Ai, Bi Amma! Have you heard? The cursed ill-fated disease has been halted."
"Oh, tell the truth!"
"Yes, Bi Amma! Doctor Joshi has said so."
"Thanks be to God." And again tears welled up in Bi Amma's eyes. When she lifted her head from her prostrations, her wrinkled face was still wet with tears.
as the loaded, overflowing bullock-carts had gone away, so they came, loaded
and overflowing, back again. Every little while a new horse-cart came creaking
along, and another shut-up house was opened. The shut-up houses were opened;
old ragged clothes and blankets were brought out of the houses, piled up
in the street, and burned.
"All night long Laila lies"Chiranji, you bastard, you're really the lucky one!"
"The pole's been put up right by your terrace. Now, you bastard, you'll be playing the harmonium by electric light!"
The poles, which had been lying covered with dust for ages, suddenly rose up. Walking along, people paused, lifted their eyes to the high poles, and imagined with astonishment the new light that would soon arrive.
"They say electric lights are very bright."
"You'd think the night had turned into day."
"Why man, those English are amazing!"
But the workers, having put up the poles, again vanished from sight. Days passed, months passed, then time just went on passing. The poles, laden with dust, again became part of the landscape. They didn't look as if they'd been put up, but as if they'd grown from the ground. In mid-flight, a dove or a woodpecker sometimes alighted for a moment on one of the poles -- but, perhaps disgusted with its iron surface, the bird soon flew off. If a kite came and perched on a pole, it would stay there for a long time. But the kites preferred to perch on rooftop ledges. Any kite that came and perched on the high ledge of the village hall stayed there for ages. It seemed that the world would pass away, but the bird would still be perched there. This ledge had grown old with the help of passing time -- and with the further help of kite-droppings. But the crenellated walls of the Big Mansion were broken down before they grew old. This was the doing of the monkeys. Just as kites don't perch on every ledge, monkeys don't take a fancy to every rooftop. Some of the town's ledges had suited the kites, some of its rooftops had pleased the monkeys.
The monkeys had a strange way of life. When they came, they kept coming. When they went, they did it so completely that even on the tamarind trees near Karbala -- not to speak of the rooftops -- there wasn't a sign of them. The roofs were empty, the walls deserted. Only the ruined parapets of the highest stories served as a reminder that these roofs had once been within the monkeys' range. And what had happened that evening? Passing through a lane, it seemed to him that someone had jumped from one wall to the opposite one, over his head. When he looked up, what did he see but a troop of monkeys, traveling from wall to wall. "Oh, monkeys!" he exclaimed, and his heart only slowly recovered its beat. And the next morning when he woke up, there was commotion both inside and outside the house. Everything that had been left in the courtyard was either broken to pieces or missing entirely. One monkey had carried off Ammi's dupattah and was sitting on the rooftop parapet, holding the dupattah in his teeth and tearing it to shreds.
There was no telling what towns, what forests, the monkeys had come from. One troop, another troop, troop after troop. From one roof to a second, from the second roof to a third. Swiftly leaping down into a courtyard, snatching things up, here one minute and gone the next. Nanua the Oil-seller, collecting contributions from everyone, bought grain and a lump of raw brown sugar. He went down to the site of the weekly market; in the small reservoir there, which stayed dry year-round except for the rainy season, he spread out the grain, placed the lump of raw brown sugar in the midst of it, and put a number of small sticks nearby. The monkeys came leaping and skipping along and gobbled up the grain, filling their cheeks with it. They threw themselves on the lump of sugar. One lump, a hundred monkeys. The riot began. The sticks were ready at hand; the moment they saw them, the monkeys equipped themselves with sticks. Whenever a monkey picked up the sugar-lump, a stick crashed down on his head.
The monkeys raised a commotion for days, for weeks. Night ambushes, looting and plundering, finally civil war among themselves; and after that -- gone. The roofs were again silent, the parapets once again empty. But when the electricity came, the monkeys were in the town, they could be seen on roofs and parapets. The electric poles, enduring the harshness of the seasons, had become part of the scenery; now suddenly they again became a center of attention. Workers appeared, carrying long ladders on their shoulders. At the tops of the poles iron crossbars were attached, and on the crossbars white ceramic insulators were fixed. From the first pole to the second, from the second to the third, wires were strung, and from street to street the wires gradually connected all the poles.
Something new could be felt in the atmosphere, and the birds had acquired new places to perch. Rupnagar's birds were no longer confined to walls and tree branches. When the crows grew tired of sitting on the walls and cawing, they flew off and swung on one of the wires. Bluejays, shama birds, swifts would pause to rest in mid-flight by alighting on a wire.
Copying the birds, a monkey leaped from one wall of the Small Bazaar and swung on the wires. The next instant, he dropped with a thud and lay flat on the ground. From one side Bhagat-ji, from the other side Lala Mitthan Lal, left their shops and dashed over. With astonishment and terror, they stared at the dying monkey. They yelled, "Hey, somebody bring water!" Chandi dashed to the well, filled the bucket, brought the water, and poured the whole bucketful over the monkey, but the monkey's eyes had closed and its body had gone limp.
Monkeys poured in from all directions, and the nearby parapets were full of them: they were gazing at their companion's motionless body lying in the middle of the street, and they were making a commotion. Then people came running from the streets and neighborhoods, and stared at the dead monkey with amazement.
"Which wire was he swinging on?"
"That one." Chandi pointed to the highest wire.
"Then the electricity has come?"
"Yes, it's come. The moment anyone touches the wire, he's done for."
The next day a monkey again leaped onto the wires, and instantly dropped with a thud to the ground and lay still. Then Bhagat-ji and Lala Mitthan Lal again jumped up and went to see, and again Chandi ran with a bucketful of water, but the monkey had grown cold before their very eyes.
Again a turmoil arose among the monkeys. They came leaping and bounding from distant roofs. They stared wildly at the dead monkey lying in the middle of the road, and made as much noise as they possibly could.
The monkeys, tired and defeated, gradually fell silent. Many of them had begun to go back, when a strong, stout monkey came running from a distance to Pandit Hardayal's high roof. His face was red with anger, and the hairs of his coat stood up like arrows. He leaped onto the pole, and shook it with such force that it swayed like a half-uprooted tree. Then he climbed up and attacked the wires with his whole strength. The instant he landed on them, he collapsed. For a moment he hung suspended, then fell half-dead to the ground. Bhagat-ji, Lala Mitthan Lal, and Chandi, all three again did their duty. When the water fell on him the monkey opened his eyes, looked helplessly at his sympathizers, and closed his eyes for the last time.
Leaping from roof to roof, the monkeys came. It seemed that they would all come down into the street, but they only milled about on the parapets, shrieking and screaming. Then suddenly they fell silent, as though some terror had gripped them. Then the walls began emptying.
Evening was coming. The stout monkey still lay in the street. On the nearby parapets there was not a single monkey. Rupnagar, offering up its three monkeys as a sacrifice, had entered the age of electricity, and the monkeys vanished so completely that for weeks not one was to be seen on any wall, roof, or tree. In fact even the big pipal tree near the Black Temple, where every day, in every season, monkeys could be seen leaping and jumping from branch to branch, was silent.
wild, uninhabited forest started from the Black Temple. On the walls and
dome so much mould had grown, and then darkened with time, that the whole
temple looked entirely black. Inside and outside all was empty, as though
for centuries no conch shell had been blown and no priest had set foot
here. The pipal was as tall as the temple, and monkeys were always swinging
on its branches. Except for the days when some tall black-faced langur
with a rope-like tail appeared, and the moment they saw him all the monkeys
vanished. Beyond the Black Temple was Karbala, which except for the Tenth
Day lay desolate the whole year, as though it was the real Karbala itself.
At a little distance from it was a mound, on which by way of a building
only a small turret still stood, which was called the Fort. Beyond that
the Ravan Wood was utterly deserted, with wide expanses of wasteland and
a huge banyan tree standing in its midst. On summer afternoons he went
wandering with Bundu and Habib, and they left the town and came out this
way. When they went on beyond the Black Temple, it seemed to him that he
had entered some new continent -- some great forest where at any moment
he might encounter any sort of being. His heart began to pound.
my son," Abba Jan said, as he entered, "It seems that again tonight these
people won't let us sleep."
"Ripe neem seed, when will the rains come?What long long swings Tahirah was enjoying with her girlfriend, and how wistfully Sabirah was watching them! Just then Khalah Jan's voice came from the kitchen, "Tahirah!"
"Daughter, how long are you going to swing? Come and do some frying. Make a few fritters."
After Tahirah left, he went to Sabbo: "Sabbo, come on, let's swing."
When he sat pressed close to Sabirah in the swing, he felt that tenderness was melting and spreading inside him. He wanted to keep on swinging, but Sabirah's moods never held steady for long. "I won't swing with you." She suddenly jumped down from the swing.
"Why?" He was dumbfounded.
"I just won't, that's all."
He was left standing, surprised and unhappy. Then, very slowly, he approached her.
"I'm not speaking to you."
When he found Sabirah impossible to placate, he went sadly away. He happened to wander off toward the stairs. Climbing them, he reached the open roof. The roof was made of unfired clay; since the rainy season had ended long ago, the mud had hardened. From his pocket he pulled out the broken penknife-blade he always carried to sharpen his pencils. He began to slice the hardened mud with the tip of it as though he was cutting out sweets. In a little while Sabirah too wandered up there. With great attention she watched him cutting sweets. But now he was absorbed in his work. He paid no attention to Sabirah. When he had had his fill of cutting out the sweets, he invented a new occupation for himself. Where the mud had grown driest, he began to dig into it. When he had dug a small hole, he put one of his feet into it, and pressed all the loose dirt firmly back on top. Then he slowly pulled his foot out. A kind of dirt cave remained. Sabirah was watching with great attention. Then she said, "What is it?"
"A grave." He answered casually, without looking toward Sabirah.
"It's a grave?" Sabirah asked in surprise.
She regarded the grave with wonder. Then she spoke with a kind of warmth in her tone. "Zakir, make me a grave too."
"Make it yourself," he answered shortly.
Sabirah, giving up on him, began to work on making her own grave. She scratched out a considerable amount of dirt. She put her bare foot into the scratched-out place. Then she pressed the loose dirt down on top of it. Then she slowly pulled out her foot. The moment her foot came away, the dirt roof fell in. At her failure, he burst out laughing. But Sabirah didn't lose heart. She tried a second time, and again was unsuccessful. She tried again a third time, and this time she really drew her foot out so delicately that not even a grain of dirt fell. Sabirah gave herself airs at her success, and glanced at his grave, then looked at her own. "My grave is better."
"Sure, it's very fine." He made a face at Sabirah.
"Put your foot in and see."
He hesitated at this proposal. He thought a bit. Then, very slowly, he put his foot forward, and slid it into Sabirah's grave. Then he was convinced in his heart that Sabbo was right. And for some time he kept his foot in that soft, warm grave.
After that, his vexation disappeared. His relations with Sabirah again became friendly. When Sabirah's grave collapsed as she was remaking it, he cleaned off her white foot with his hands. Then he pulled out a shell from his pocket.
"Sabbo, would you like a shell?"
"Yes I would." She looked covetously at the shell.
Taking the shell from him, Sabirah made an offering in return: "Come on, let's swing."
As they were coming down from the roof, they heard Tahirah and her friend singing:
"Mother, the fruits are soft, Mother, I won't eat them, Mother.They turned back, and again went and sat on the roof. Now what to do? He proposed a new scheme: "Sabbo!"
"Come on, let's play bridegroom and bride."
"Bridegroom and bride?" She was taken aback.
"Yes, as though I'm the bridegroom and you're the bride."
"Someone will see." She was nervous.
Just then thunder rumbled in the clouds, scaring them both, and at once the rain came down so hard that before they got from the open roof to the staircase they were both drenched.
How forcefully the rainy season began! Inside, outside, everywhere was commotion; but when it went on raining at a steady pace, the atmosphere slowly filled with a kind of sadness and voices were gradually silenced. When evening fell, the stray call of a peacock came from deep in the forest, and mingled more sadness with the sad, rainy evening. Then night came, and the rain-soaked darkness grew deep and dense. If anyone woke in the night, the rain was falling as though it had been raining for an endless eternity, and would keep on raining for an endless eternity. But that night was so well-populated by voices.
"Look, Krishan hasn't come, the clouds have closed in,"Oh, these Hindu women won't let us get a wink of sleep tonight! And on top of it the rain keeps coming down."
"Bi Amma, this is the Janamashtami rain!" Auntie Sharifan elaborated: "Krishan-ji's diapers are being washed."
"Well, by now Krishan-ji's diapers have been washed quite enough! The water is overflowing." Bi Amma turned over, and again tried to get to sleep. Just then in Vasanti's verandah a drum struck up:
"Oh Ram, I went to the Yamuna to draw water,And from somewhere far away a voice was coming,
"The night is enjoyable, lover, will you go or will you stay?It was as if the whole season's rain had made up its mind to fall during the night of Janamashtami. In the morning when he woke, no rain or clouds at all. Everything around was glowing, freshly washed. Sky, trees, electric poles, walls, roofs.
"Zakir! Come on, let's go catch rain-bugs."
When Bundu made this proposal, they at once set out from the house, and went in search of rain-bugs beyond the Black Temple to Karbala. How soft and bright the earth and sky were just then, and here and there in the grass so many rain-bugs, like soft bits of velvet, were crawling. What pleasure it was to touch them! In those days he wanted so much to touch soft things, but the moment they were touched, the rain-bugs pulled in their legs and stayed still, as though they were dead. Why do soft things shy away so much from being touched? He marveled at it.
"Sabbo! Look at this."
"Oh my, so many rain-bugs!" She was full of amazement and delight. And then she treated him so warmly. In a single moment how close she used to come to him; in a single moment how far away she used to go.
"Sabbo! Come and play."
"I won't play."
"I have cowrie-shells."
"What do I care?"
"Look at this, it's a whirligig."
"Huh." She turned her head away.
He went on twirling the whirligig all by himself, for a long time. Then he pulled out his yo-yo and began to play with it. How much he enjoyed spinning the yo-yo!
"They say it was Laila's custom..."In the midst of spinning the yo-yo, he paused with a start: "Majnun has come." And forgetting the yo-yo, he ran off like an arrow toward the door. When he stood in the doorway, he saw that Sabirah was standing there too. "Zakir! It's Majnun!"
"Who else? Of course it's Majnun!"
With his collar ripped open, his hair tangled, a begging bowl in one hand, a brick in the other hand, chains on his feet that clinked as he walked -- Majnun. He paused and stood still:
"They say it was Laila's customAs he finished singing, he took the brick and struck his forehead so hard that it was drenched with blood, and he fell to the ground with a thud and lay motionless.
"Zakir, is Majnun dead?" She was trembling violently.
"No, he's not dead."
"No, he's dead." She burst into tears.
"You silly girl, he's just pretending."
"No, Majnun's dead." She went on crying.
Majnun suddenly stood up. She was amazed. Taking up his begging-bowl, in which the bystanders had put some small coins, he walked away.
"Sabbo! Have you ever seen 'Laila-Majnun'?"
"No, what's it like?"
"Master Rupi plays Majnun and Ilahi Jan plays Laila."
"Then what happens?"
"Then Master Rupi falls in love with Ilahi Jan."
Looking at each other, they suddenly felt embarrassed. Sabirah at once frowned: "Go away, you shameless creature, or I'll tell Bi Amma this minute!"
"What did I say wrong?" He was anxious.
But how could she have told such a thing to Bi Amma? She simply grew annoyed, and began to hold herself aloof from him. He himself felt awkward. He hesitated to meet her eyes.
"Kau bas, kau bas." All of a sudden he pricked up his ears; voices coming from anywhere, near or far, used to have a strange effect on him. Whether he understood them or not, he was drawn to them. "Kau bas" -- he had never understood what kind of words these were. He only knew that when Vasanti's father, Lala Chunni Mal, stood on the roof and gave this call, crows came from all over and fluttered around his head. He ran like an arrow to the roof. Behind him was Sabirah.
Over on Vasanti's roof two huge leaf-plates had been spread out. In them was rice that had been cooked in milk. The crows were making short work of the rice. Sometimes a kite came coasting down and pounced on a leaf-plate. Lala Chunni Mal was standing there calling out, "Kau bas, kau bas." And a cloud of crows and kites had gathered around his head.
"Do you know what it is?" Seeing Sabirah's amazement, he decided to enlighten her. "Ramchandar-ji's leaf-plates are being cleaned."
"Ramchandar-ji's leaf-plates?" She was even more astonished.
"Of course, what else? When Ramchandar-ji had finished his dinner, then the King of the Crows used to come and eat the remaining food and clean the leaf-plates."
"Oh go on, you liar!"
"I swear in God's name!"
"Shall I ask Bi Amma?" And she at once went and told on Zakir to Bi Amma.
"Son!" Bi Amma glared at him. "Why were you born in our house? You should've been born in some Hindu's house! Your father is always invoking the names of God and the Prophet -- he doesn't realize that his son has taken to Hindu stories!"
/1/ By custom, food is not cooked in a newly bereaved household.
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