C H A P T E R   O N E  (first half)

        When 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.
        "Bi Amma, did elephants once fly?"
        "What, have you gone crazy?"
        "Bhagat-ji was saying."
        "Well, that Bhagat-ji has rocks in his head! Imagine, such a huge heavy animal, how could it fly in the air?"
        "Bi Amma, how were elephants born?"
        "How else? Their mommies gave birth to them, and there they were."
        "No, Bi Amma, elephants came out of eggs."
        "What! Have you put your brain out to pasture?"
        "Bhagat-ji was saying."
        "That wretched Bhagat has lost his mind. Such a big animal, an elephant -- as though it would come out of an egg! Not to speak of coming out -- how would it ever fit into an egg in the first place?"
        But he had a lot of faith in Bhagat-ji's knowledge. With his sacred thread around his neck, his caste-mark on his forehead, his whole head shaved except for one tuft, Bhagat-ji sat in his little shop, sold condiments, and told wise stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. The children called out, "Bhagat-ji, a penny's worth of salt! Bhagat-ji, two pennies' worth of brown sugar!"
        "Children, don't make a fuss! Be patient." As he spoke, he weighed out the salt, packed up the brown sugar, and then picked up the story where he had left it. "Children, when Brahma-ji saw this, he said to Shesh, 'Look, Shesh, the earth is very unsteady these days. You give it some help.' Shesh answered, 'Master, lift it up and put it on my hood, then it will stay still.' Brahma-ji said, 'Shesh, go inside the earth.' Shesh saw a hole in the earth. He slipped into it. When he went inside the earth, he spread out his hood, and supported the earth on his hood. When the tortoise saw this, he felt worried, for under Shesh's tail was nothing but water. He went down under Shesh's tail and supported it. So, children, the earth rests on Shesh-ji's hood. Shesh-ji rests on the tortoise's back. When the tortoise moves, Shesh-ji quivers. When Shesh-ji quivers, the earth shakes, and an earthquake happens."
        But Abba Jan gave a completely different reason for earthquakes. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain came every day and sat in the big room -- the room with its fringed fan hanging down right in the middle, with its cornice running all around near the high ceiling where wild pigeons, doves, and wrens had built their nests. What difficult questions they used to ask Abba Jan! And without hesitation Abba Jan recited verses from the Quran and recounted sayings of the Prophet, and answered every single question.
        "Maulana! How did God Most High make the earth?"
        A little reflection, then the answer. "Jabir bin Abdullah Ansari asked, 'May my mother and father be sacrificed for Your Lordship -- From what substance did God the High and Exalted shape the earth?' The Prophet of God replied, 'From the expanding of the ocean.' Then he asked, 'How did He make the ocean expand?' He replied, 'From the waves.' Then he asked, 'Where did the waves come from?' He replied, 'From water.' Then he asked, 'Where did the water come from?' He replied, 'From a single pearl.' Then he asked, 'Where did the single pearl come from?' He replied, 'From the darkness.' Then Jabir bin Abdullah Ansari said, 'You have spoken the truth, oh Prophet of God.'"
        "Maulana, on what does the earth rest?"
        Again a moment of reflection. Then with the same easy elegance, the answer. "The questioner asked, 'May my mother and father, oh Your Lordship, be sacrificed for you -- what holds the earth steady?' He replied, 'Mount Qaf.' Then he asked, 'What surrounds Mount Qaf?' He replied, 'The seven earths.' Then he asked, 'What surrounds the seven earths?' He replied, 'A serpent.' Then he asked, 'What surrounds the serpent?' He replied, 'A serpent.' Then he asked, 'What is under the earth?' He replied, 'A cow with four thousand horns, and the distance between one horn and another is five hundred years' journey. The seven earths rest on two of her horns. A mosquito sits near the cow's nostrils, and for fear of him she cannot move. All she can do is change horns, and it causes an earthquake.' Then he asked, 'What does she stand on?' He replied, 'On the back of a fish.' Then the questioner was convinced, and he said, 'You have spoken the truth, oh Prophet of God.'"
        Abba Jan fell silent. Then he said, "Hakim Sahib! This whole world comes down to a mosquito sitting near a cow's nostrils. If the mosquito goes away, where will the world be? So we exist at the mercy and good pleasure of a mosquito, but we don't realize it, and we're vainglorious."
        Every day these conversations, every day these stories, as though Bhagat-ji and Abba Jan together were explicating the universe for him. As he listened to the conversations, an image of the world took shape in his mind. Well, the world was born, but what happened after that? Mother Eve wept a great deal. From her tears were born henna and eye-shadow. But from her stomach were born Cain and Abel, two sons, and one daughter, Iqlima, who was partly like the sun and partly like the moon. The father bestowed this daughter upon the younger son, Abel. At which the older son, Cain, waxed wroth, and lifted up a rock and smote Abel with it, so that he died. Then Cain arose and lifted up Abel's corpse on his shoulder and walked all around the earth. And in the spots where Abel's blood fell, lo, the earth became alkaline. Then Cain began to ponder what he should do with his brother's corpse, for his shoulder had begun to ache with the burden of it. And it came to pass that he saw two crows fighting, and one of them slew the other. The slayer dug a hole in the earth with its beak, then buried the victim in it, and went and perched on a tree. Then Cain made lament, "Alas for my wretchedness -- I could not even do as much as a crow, and bury my brother!" Then the brother buried his brother, following the example of the crow. And that was the first grave that was made on the face of the earth, and that was the first human blood that was shed by human hands, and that was the first brother who was slain by the hand of his brother. He closed the book with its yellowing pages and put it back where he had found it in Abba Jan's bookshelves; then he went to Bi Amma.
        "Bi Amma! Abel was Cain's brother?"
        "Yes, dear son. Abel was Cain's brother."
        "Then why did Cain murder Abel?"
        "A curse on his blood -- it was thinner than water!"
        He heard this, and wondered, but now there was a little touch of fear mixed in with his wonder. In his encounters with wonder, the first ripple of fear. He rose and went into the big room, where Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain sat as usual, asking Abba Jan questions and listening to the answers. But Abba Jan had made a leap from the beginning of the world, and had already reached the end of the world.
        "Maulana, when will Doomsday come?"
        "When the mosquito dies, and the cow is free of fear."
        "When will the mosquito die, and when will the cow be free of fear?"
        "When the sun rises in the west."
        "When will the sun rise in the west?"
        "When the hen crows, and the rooster is mute."
        "When will the hen crow, and when will the rooster be mute?"
        "When those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak."
        "When will those who can speak fall silent, and when will shoelaces speak?"
        "When the rulers grow cruel, and the people lick the dust."
        After one 'when' a second 'when,' after a second 'when' a third 'when.' A strange maze of 'whens'! The 'whens' that had passed away, the 'whens' that were yet to come. What 'whens' and 'whens' Bhagat-ji recalled, what 'whens' and 'whens' were illumined in Abba Jan's imagination! The world seemed to be an endless chain of 'whens.' When and when and when --

        But 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.
        He rose and looked out the window. Glancing over the field opposite, which for some days had been serving as a rally-ground, he saw countless heads crowded close together. The rally was in full swing, and suddenly people had begun shouting slogans. Closing the window, he sat down again in the chair, and began to leaf through a book and read bits of it here and there. After all, he had to prepare his lecture for the morning. But even though the window was closed, the sound of slogans could still be heard. He looked at his watch: eleven o'clock. The rally has just begun, there's no telling when it'll be over. What if it should be the same bother as yesterday, and the night's sleep lost! Nowadays rallies are like that. They begin with shouts, and end with shots. But it was strange; he began to wonder at himself. The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are my forest. So where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in the forest. As if he wanted to reach the edge of the forest; as if he was searching for his own beginning. As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn't grasp the moment. When he put his finger on a memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train. Then he moved on to explore what he remembered as the first event in Rupnagar.

        But 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.
        "So is electricity coming to Rupnagar?"
        "It sure is."
        "Swear on my life?"
        "I swear on your life."
        Days passed, the curiosity diminished. Layers of dust settled on the poles. Gradually they grew as dusty as the heaps of stone chips which had been brought there in some prosperous time to repair the roads -- but which had then been forgotten and had become a part of the dust-choked landscape of Rupnagar. Now the poles too were a part of the dust-choked landscape. It seemed that they had lain there forever, and would lie there forever. The affair of electricity was already a thing of the past. Every day when evening fell, the lamplighter appeared, ladder on his shoulder and oil-can in his hand, and went around lighting the various lanterns fixed to wooden posts or hanging from high walls. "Hey, you, Vasanti! It's dusk, light the lamp!" With her tawny complexion, fresh young face, rumpled sari, forehead adorned with a dot, bare feet thup-thupping, she came to the doorway. She put a wick into the lamp in the wall-niche, lighted it, turned and promptly went back into the house, without looking toward him as he stood in his own doorway staring at her. In the Small Bazaar, Bhagat-ji put a drop of mustard-oil in the lamp on the dirty lamp-stand, lit it, and considered that his shop had been illuminated. By the gutter near Bhagat-ji's shop, Mataru lit a torch and anchored it in the ground by his tray, and a few seconds later called out, "Ginger-chips!" But the brightest light was in Lala Hardayal the Goldsmith's shop, where a lamp hung from the roof, its light reaching beyond the shop and making a spot of brightness in the street. In the town, this was the whole supply of light. And even this -- for how long? One by one the shops closed. In the niches by the doors the flickering lamps grew dim and finally burned themselves out. Then only the lanterns fixed to wooden posts glimmered on a few street corners. All the rest was nothing but darkness. Still, in that darkness, wide-open eyes saw a great deal.
        "Bi Amma! Last Thursday it happened, just at twilight. When I passed by the village hall, I thought I heard a woman sobbing. I looked this way, I looked that way, no one at all. Near the door of the hall, there was a black cat sitting. My heart almost stopped beating! I shooed the cat away. When I went on, ai, what did I see, but on the wall of the old lady's house by the neem tree, the same cat! I shooed it away again. From the wall, it jumped down inside. When I went on and came out by the lane with the high well -- ai, Bi Amma, believe me, there was the same cat again! It was sitting on Lala Hardayal's terrace, sobbing the way a woman would sob. I was petrified!"
        "God have mercy upon us," Bi Amma said apprehensively, and she fell silent.
        But there was no mercy. Two or three days later, Sharifan came with more news: "Ai, Bi Amma! All over the neighborhood, so many rats are dying!"
        "Oh yes, when I passed by the rubbish pile, I saw them lying dead in heaps."
        First the rats died, then people began to die. From outside came the chant of "Ram nam satya hai."
        "Oh Sharifan, just look and see who's died."
        "Bi Amma, Pyare Lal's son Jagdish has died."
        "Hai hai! He was a strong healthy young man, how did he die?"
        "Bi Amma, pustules came out on his body, and in a few hours he was dead, just like that."
        "Pustules? You wretch, what are you saying?"
        "Oh yes, Bi Amma! I'm telling the truth. The plague -- "
        "That's enough, keep your mouth shut! In a house full of people you shouldn't mention the name of that ruinous disease."
        Pustules came out on Jagdish, then on Pandit Dayaram, then on Misra-ji. Then they kept coming out on other people. Funeral processions left from one house, then another house, then house after house. Bi Amma and Sharifan together kept count of them, up to ten. Then they lost count. In a single day, such a number of houses sent out funeral processions! As evening came near, the streets and lanes grew empty. No sounds of footsteps, no voices of laughing and talking people. Not to speak of all the rest, today even Chiranji and his harmonium had fallen silent -- Chiranji who through winters, summers, rainy seasons, used to sit every night on the terrace with his harmonium and sing,

"Laila, Laila, I called out in the forest,
Laila lives in my heart."
        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.

        Just 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.
        Now it was evening. Far off, from the courtyard of Vasanti's house, the clattering of large and small pots and pans could be clearly heard. And along with the sound of the temple bells came a familiar voice: "You there, Vasanti! It's dusk, light the lamp." And Vasanti came to the door, barefooted, in just the same way, put a new wick into a new lamp, and lit it. She was about to go back inside, when he crossed the road and approached her: "Vasanti!"
        Vasanti turned and saw him, and smiled.
        "So you're back?"
        He came nearer. He gently touched her bare arms, and said in a soft, tender voice, "Come on, let's play."
        Vasanti hesitated. Then she suddenly flared up: "Go away, you Muslim brat!" --  and ran off into the house.
        Having been scolded by Vasanti, he went back to his house drunk with pleasure, and for a long time felt a melting sweetness, right down to his fingertips.
        The uninhabited houses were inhabited again, and in the Small Bazaar there was the same hustle and bustle. Still, here and there he saw empty gaps, and here and there faces were missing. Pandit Hardayal was not to be seen on the terrace of his house, nor Misra-ji on the cushions in his shop. And where was Jagdish, who used to go every evening to Chiranji's terrace and practice the harmonium? For weeks the shaven head of Sohan, Pandit Hardayal's son, proclaimed that he was in mourning. But gradually hair grew out again on Sohan's head, and the gaps in the Small Bazaar began to be filled. Finally, there were as many people as though none were missing, and as much liveliness as though nothing had happened at all. Again a crowd began to gather on Chiranji's terrace. The harmonium played on and on until midnight, and the sound of singing could be heard far off:

"All night long Laila lies
Embracing a secret pain.
Is suffering too a beloved?
Everyone's absorbed in it!"
        "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.

        Rupnagar's 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.
        Passing by the pipal tree, which was loud with the merrymaking of the Black Temple monkeys, he paused: "Yar -- " he could say nothing more.
        "What is it?" Habib asked carelessly.
        "A man," he said with fear in his voice.
        "A man! Where?" Habib and Bundu were both startled.
        "That one." He pointed at the Fort, where a solitary man could be seen walking.
        In that uninhabited forest, a man! Why? How? Is it even a man at all, or -- But their fear even of a man was boundless. They at once took to their heels.
        Bundu lived in the house too, for he was Auntie Sharifan's son. Zakir was friends with Habib. How he used to wander with them both, and play the vagabond! But after Sabirah came, his wanderings gradually changed.
Sabirah. Before, he had only heard her name when Khalah Jan's letters came from Gwalior and said, "Tahirah and Sabirah are well. We all send cordial greetings." Khalah Jan lived in Gwalior, since her husband, who was Bi Amma's nephew, had a job there. But one day a telegram arrived: her husband had passed away. Ammi, in the midst of making bread, overturned the pan and stood up./1/ Bi Amma wept and wailed aloud.
        Then only a few days later a horse-cart, loaded down with luggage and passengers, hung all around with sheets, came and stopped before the gate. Abba Jan, bringing a long, wide shawl, came outside. He gave Zakir one corner of it to hold, and held the other himself. In one direction he thus made a protective screen, and in the other direction no men were coming. Then the horse-cart's curtain was lifted. Khalah Jan got down. With Khalah Jan two girls, one Tahirah and the other Sabirah, whom Khalah Jan called Sabbo. She seemed to be just about his own age.
        At first Sabirah kept her distance from him. With a kind of shyness he stayed away from her, but stole glances at her from the corner of his eye. Then, hesitantly, he approached her. "Come on, Sabbo, let's play."

        "Zakir, my son," Abba Jan said, as he entered, "It seems that again tonight these people won't let us sleep."
        "Oh?" He crashed his way back from the forest.
        "Son, are these people having a rally, or just being rowdy?"
        "Abba Jan, this is how political movements are. People get enthusiastic, and then they get out of control."
        "What did you say -- movement? Is this a movement? Son, have I not seen movements? Has any of them ever been bigger than the Khilafat Movement? And Maulana Muhammad Ali -- oh God, oh God! When he spoke, it seemed that sparks were raining down. But not a single word ever fell below the standard of cultured speech. Well, that was Maulana Muhammad Ali; but I never saw a single volunteer say anything below the standard of cultured speech, either. They said, 'Death to the English,' and not a word more." Abba Jan fell silent. Then, as though lost in memories, he began to mutter, "That venerable personage committed one fault: in the matter of shrines and tombs he supported Ibn Saud. May God the Most High forgive him this sin, and fill his grave with light. Afterwards he himself very much repented this support."
        He smiled inwardly: Abba Jan is a good one! Even now he's still dreaming of the Khilafat Movement.
        "And what are you doing?"
        "I thought I'd prepare my lecture for the morning, but -- "
        "As though you could get any work done in this noise!" Abba Jan cut in.
        "Yes, there's a lot of noise, but perhaps tonight the rally will be over quickly. Yesterday it dragged on because of the leaders from outside."
        "Son, it doesn't look to me as though it'll be over quickly." He paused, then said, "In my time there were rallies, too. If there was noise, it was before the rally. Then a speaker came on stage, and at once the people sat down respectfully. What a cultured time it was!"
        Again he smiled: Abba Jan still hasn't emerged from the time of the Khilafat Movement. But while he was forming the thought, it seemed that he too was following Abba Jan, moving into a past time. What a cultured time it was. If anyone spoke loudly, Abba Jan at once reprimanded him: "Child, I'm not deaf." And when sometimes Tahirah spoke in a harsh voice, Bi Amma cut her off: "Girl, do you have a split bamboo for a throat?" And when Tahirah and her girlfriends, full of the joyful mood of the rainy season, swung high in the tall swings and laughed loudly, Bi Amma at once stopped them: "Daughter, what's this noise, are the dishes breaking?" The rainy season, the swing, the songs, the ripe seeds of the neem tree --
        "All right, I'm going. I'll never get to sleep." With these words, Abba Jan was going back. "And now you get some rest, too."
        Zakir let his words go in one ear and out the other. A distant voice was drawing him toward itself.

"Ripe neem seed, when will the rains come?
Long live my beloved brother, he'll send a palanquin for me!"
        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!"
        "Yes, mother."
        "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.
Mother, the water is high, Mother, I won't bathe, Mother.
Mother, the yellow-green dress is ready, Mother, I won't wear it, Mother.
Mother, my husband has brought a palanquin, Mother, I won't go, 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,
The night is dark and black, the rain rains so cruelly,
Sleep won't come to my eyes, the clouds have closed in,
Cloud-dark 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,
On the way I met Nand Lal,
Ai, my sister-in-law wept -- "
        And from somewhere far away a voice was coming,
"The night is enjoyable, lover, will you go or will you stay?
The bed is springy, 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 custom
To give alms to any beggar who came.
One day Majnun too went with a begging-bowl
And called out, `In God's name, give me something.'
Laila came and gave them all something,
From Majnun's hands she took his begging-bowl."
        As 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!"

(*on to Chapter One, second half*)


/1/ By custom, food is not cooked in a newly bereaved household.



-- BASTI index page -- Glossary -- FWP's main page --