Is it the power of his glasses that has changed or the world around him….
Nisar rubs his eyes again and again…everything is moving away from its place…getting further and further away, far, far, slippery…familiar faces can not be recognized…it is pitch dark as though it is a perpetual night…. If you happen to wake up at night it seems like people are screaming, crying….
|Are the assailants coming here? What is this noise?
Nisar gets up with a start….
“I don’t hear any noise. Why are you so scared?”
Amena is worried.
“Yeah…I am worried. Just check if the door is locked. Are the windows closed?”
He gets up afraid of his own fears. Once he had got up trying to check the commotion on the road by opening a window and immediately the police came in. “Who was he? Who was hitting everyone?? Tell us….”
“Who was it? You know it too well.” But he could not say this to the inspector. He gets scared to say anything these days lest someone recognises who he is. Looks like everyone is afraid of him. Wants to run away here or there to avoid him. If anyone stands close to him, his heart starts pounding. Why does he look at me that way? What is that young man hiding in his sling bag? Why does that car stop a few steps ahead of him??
There was a phone call from Venkatesh when the riots had broken out in the city.
“How are you Nisar? Is everyone alright? I just called to find out if you are at home.”
Why was Venkatesh calling him that late at night? Why was he curious to know if I was at home or not?
Every time there is news of riots on the television Nisar feels that it is his fault. That people are staring at him with hatred in their eyes. They are running after him with vengeful weapons. No matter where the riots are, whoever the rioters, Nisar always sees himself standing in the accused-box.
Leaving home for work he would carry in his brief-case the belief that something terrible is going to happen that day. Possibly a bomb would explode in the office. He would possibly be murdered. Some goonda would kidnap Mariyam.
“Baba if the goondas break into our house I am going to jump from the terrace and die.”
How calm he felt when Mariyam said this one day!
“Listen Amena. The insurance papers are in the almirah, first shelf from the bottom. Sadiq has not returned the twenty thousand rupees that he had borrowed. I think Ahsan will be a good match for Mariyam….”
Amena hardly pays attention to his “will”. She has her own fears. “The flour is over. The curfew will be imposed in the evening again.” As though Amena could lead her life without Nisar but not without the flour.
In the Lab, Ashwini repeats the same phrase again and again.
The atmosphere has changed everywhere.
“I don’t believe it,” Nisar says with confidence. “How can the entire atmosphere change when you and I have not changed? I haven’t seen anywhere that a friend has murdered another friend.”
“Now you start looking at me carefully!”…Ashwini starts laughing. He mixes poisonous chemicals in the lab. He is filling the lab with poison.
Well, the mood of the entire office is off. Nowadays in this staff room we do not hear laughter, jokes or playful tiffs. Everyone keeps quiet. Heads down. Eyes downcast.
Someone hides his face behind the newspaper. Someone has lost something from the briefcase and goes on frantically searching for it. Everyone is searching for something and feels disappointed at not finding it. It is as if everyone has lost some thing or the other.
It is so warm as though there is some leakage of gas somewhere and oxygen seems to be scarce. It is suffocating. Ashwini’s dangerous, acidic words fall drop by drop on all those sitting around.
Silence seems like a crime. Nisar clears his throat while sipping tea and asks Venkatesh:
“Where did you disappear at lunch time yesterday? I waited for you till 3’O clock.”
Venkatesh looks agitated. With trembling hands he keeps the cup on the table. He lights a cigarette and then says in a snuffed out voice:
“The doctor has advised me not to eat meat. I won’t be sharing lunch.”
“Oh! Really.” Nisar bends down his head feeling the addition of one more crime.
While Venkatesh says this Ashwini is looking at him intently.
This is the staff-room of the Gazetted Officers working in the Lab. Here you have scientists, geniuses, people who distribute gasses and antidote to the whole world. They go out to the different corners of the world to participate in seminars. These are very careful, diplomatic people who keep an eye on the changing climate of the universe. They do not speak about riots. They do not want to discuss the fact that last night twenty people were killed and an entire settlement was burnt down.
Dr. Reddy pretends to be a Marxist. He claims that the real cause of all our conflicts is our religion. He is the secretary of the National Welfare Association and National Ekta Committee. But even he is stunned into silence today.
One day he was narrating the incident of the attack of miscreants on his house. They had announced that if he was not with them then the consequences would be stringent.
“Yes. I am bearing the consequences. My wife has stopped going out of the house these days. My children can’t go out for tuition. I take Pinky everyday to her College.”
“And that is why you had forgotten to invite me for Diwali this time but remembered to send the sweets home?” Nisar says with sarcasm.
“No. No.” Reddy holds Nisar’s hand. “You know…this was in fact….”
“Let’s get up. It’s time….” Everyone gets up to go.
Nisar keeps sitting. It is just half past ten. Yet no one has the time to listen to what Reddy has to say.
Soon everyone buries their faces in the files without lifting their heads. Not even when a whiff of perfume enters the hall…tingling, laughing, swaying, dancing … the fresh breeze….
Nigar is such a piece of magnet that all the eyes like iron particles would get stuck to her. Her pallu flutters in the breeze … whichever colour Nigar’s saree was, that colour would get splashed in the entire Lab, it would spillout through the windows, spread out on the roads, over the skies, and then it would enter the flats with closed windows on to the discoloured faces of the screaming wives, and then slowly fade away….
With whom did she laugh today…who does she listen to carefully…whose joke did she like…whose tiffin did she taste today…these are all important issues.
They all would feel happy talking about Nigar. Take her name unnecessarily. Just like young college louts they would laugh loudly at nothing in particular.
Nigar looks all around after entering the hall. She could grasp the seriousness around her. Slowly opens her cabin door and quietly steps inside.
Nisar sees…Instead of looking at Nigar, Ashwini is looking at Nisar. Startled, he wipes the perspiration off his forehead before bending over his file.
Night falls so very quickly these days…time and again I have to wipe my glasses. God knows whether it is the power of my glasses that has changed or the entire universe around me.
Perhaps it is time for the curfew to begin. Everyone is hurriedly rushing outside carrying their brief-cases.
Venkatesh comes out of the Men’s room with a sparkling tilak of sindoor on his forehead.
Venkatesh is Nisar’s childhood friend. He asks him with surprise as to why he has started putting tilak all of a sudden. Venkatesh replies that he has started going to the temple every morning. On repeatedly washing the face the tilak gets washed off. That is why he has put it again in the evening.
Everyday he goes back home in Nisar’s car and gets down at Basheer Bagh.
“Yeah! In a minute… we’ll go,” Nisar says gathering the papers.
“No…You stay….” As if Venkatesh has pushed him with both his hands.
“I am not keeping well…I’ll go to the doctor first.”
The hands that are tying the file freeze abruptly. With bent head Nisar starts to wipe the dust on the table which is not visible.
Something must have happened. Everyone is looking at him with doubt and apprehension. A friend like Venkatesh also went away leaving him alone. When the news of his chacha Abba’s death in the riots reached, everyone in the locality became alert. People in his office were startled, as if he was part of the conspiracy that took chacha Abba’s life.
One evening he saw that Raman and Veena’s Ayah was dragging them forcibly from his lawns. When he was coming back from the morning walk Narain’s daughter-in-law stopped abruptly and pretended she was waiting for someone else….
Nisar lifts his head and looks around. He seems to have lost the strength to get up after Venkatesh left him. The entire office is empty now. Then slowly the door opens…Anand, the chaprasi enters. He looks at Nisar intently. Then goes back. He is startled. Why is Anand here? What is he looking at? Nisar Ahmed is alone in the entire office. Only Nisar Ahmed…Only Nisar Ahmed… Nisar…Alone….
Should I close the door from inside? How would I go out? How would I be identified? It’s curfew outside….
He starts the car. There is no petrol. The petrol pump was closed for the last two days.
“Taxi…Taxi…Please stop bhai…reach me home…take as much money as you want.”
“No bhai saheb,” the taxi driver replies starting off. “Now I can not take the responsibility of taking anybody home. There won’t be any home. You would simply take me round and round.…”
“My home will not be there?” He wipes his tears and stands in a bus queue. Two girls are standing in front of him wrapped in burquas. They get nervous on seeing Nisar. Understanding their problem, one Moulana moves in between them and Nisar, but simultaneously starts ogling at them in turn.
“Even here I am in the row of criminals.” He is nervous again.
The bus does not turn up. Close by there is commotion. Sounds of firing, people running…but there are some who are as helpless as Nisar. They do not run. Simply keep waiting for death.
“The firing is from Brahman Wadi.”
“Is it?” Nisar cannot hide his surprise. He has been within the range of bullets for years but until now he could not distinguish between a Hindu bullet and a Musalman bullet. But alas …our children. How quickly they have covered the journey of bitter experiences.
“Run…run…Anyone found on the roads will be shot.” The protectors of law are shouting.
“Does that mean the bullets will not reach indoors?” He wants to ask the shouting soldiers…then he too starts running along with the others. After sometime he realises that he is with those people who do not consider him one of their own. He has come to a place which is not for him.
“Go away from here!”
“Where? …Which way?”
He keeps asking everyone … those who are running for protection …those who are watching the scene from the tall buildings…those lathi wielding , beating armed forces….
The next day when he gains consciousness, he hears Amena telling someone over the phone:
“Yesterday he was lying on the road …unconscious…he was going through depression for the last few days….Oh I see… Venkatesh bhai too is not well. Please give him my regards.”
“What happened to Venkatesh?” He is startled.
“Bhabi was saying he is very ill…high pressure…weakness.” Amena passes him a glass of water and medicines.
One week later Venkatesh comes to see him…looking very weak… shrivelled….
“Are you ill? You hadn’t even been coming to the office. Everyone is worried about you,” sitting on the sofa he says, panting with the effort.
“You tell me about yourself first. You look pale.” Nisar looks at him intently.
Venkatesh hangs his head. His hands tremble while lighting the cigarette. He looks around furtively and says in a soft tone:
“Mate, don’t know what has happened to me. There’s some fear all the time. You would probably laugh at me…but…but…you…I am afraid even of you….”
“Even me?” Nisar hangs his head.
“I feel as though everybody is doubting me. I feel as though I am a criminal.”
Nisar cannot lift his head. The burning cigarette in Venkatesh’s fingers keep turning to ash.
After a long pause Nisar picks up a packet of medicines from the table and shows it to Venkatesh.
“Is this the medicine that Dr. Singh gave you?”
“Yes…same one…. Are you also…?”
Both hang their heads this time….
Translated from Urdu by Afeefa Banu.
JEELANI BANO. Is a noted Urdu writer from Hyderabad. She has penned nearly twenty books in Urdu, many of which speak of the subjugation of women in the state. She has been associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Hyderabad for more than three and a half decades. A well known literary figure in Urdu circles, several of her novels have been filmed. The nation honoured her with Padma Sri in the year 2001.
AFEEFA BANU. Established translator. Translates fluently from Urdu into English. Teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad.