by shakil ahmed
Published on: Apr 14, 2008
Type: Short Stories

It has been four months since I took up residence here at Jogabai Extension, an outgrowth of the predominantly Muslim locality known as Zakirnagar. The outgrowth is said to be an unlawful encroachment on the dried up bed of the river Yamuna. I stay in a small room on the ground floor of a two-storey unplastered house, built on fifty square feet of sand-filled land. One of the doors of my room opens onto a traffic-free street which is used by pedestrian cyclists and, occasionally, two-wheelers.

Ever since my arrival here, whenever I happen to wake up at any time of the night, I am met by the disturbing and terrific grating, squeaking sound of a bullock cart zooming past till the muezzins’ call of adhan goes up at the crack of dawn. The rhythmic whack of the baton sound in perfect rhythm with the mad raining of hooves, squeaks and treadles. The impressions evaporate no sooner than they have registered in my mind.

Today I went in a different direction for my morning cup of tea. For that matter I ventured further North towards the Yamuna on my return journey. I wondered, was it a living being with the senses of thirst, hunger and pain? Its mouth was open in a perfect 30 degree angle, bisected by a straight, nearly cylindrical muddy tongue, struggling to shoot out from the base. The mouth and tongue seemed locked in a picture-frame. Whether out of thirst, hunger, pain or constriction it is difficult for me to say.

The bruised, black, open-mouthed buffalo-bull answered the intermittent raining of the batons with spurts of vertical jumps and then resumed the run. The cart was the size of a mini-truck laden with a mountain of grey sand loaded from the Yamuna bank. It was 7.30 in the morning. Alas! One more prayer had gone up from the minaret which formed part of the distant the sky line: “For Allah’s sake stop this cruelty!” For 120 days and 120 nights the poor creature had been undergoing merciless travails. How many more days lay ahead before he turned into clay?

I sat brooding on the side walk with a 3 Rupee pen and a piece of soiled paper: “Ah! It’s a pity Allah has not enabled me to have a digital camera to capture the life of men”. A small procession of three elders and about seven children was passing by. The size of procession didn’t change at all as it moved to the grave yard. None of the faithful watching from the side performed the few ritual steps toward the corpse and the bereaved. The oldest in the procession, in his 60s,walked with the body wrapped in a shimmering white cloth, the two ends of which were tied, giving the package the shape of a bottle in his lap. The body was that of a child but not of a baby.

One of the children walked behind holding a small polythene bag which showed a packet of incense sticks, a match box and some other stuff. In his left hand, he held his sister’s hand firmly; she seemed half his age. Interestingly I found almost no lips muttering a prayer for the poor soul. A few days back a coffin bearing caravan had also passed that way. Then, countless faces with downcast eyes had turned, muttering prayers to bless the soul. Passers-by, shopkeepers and hawkers had lent their steps to earn the pleasure of Allah and to honor the tradition of the Prophet. It had been a procession of well-fed and well-clothed people, the size of which had gone on swelling until it had reached the grave yard at the end of the road.

These were soiled men of clay.

The next day when my bruised heart sought solace from one of my Hindu friends, he said, “It is because of their previous bad karmas that they are suffering.” My Muslim friend, on the other hand, said, “It is the will of Allah, the master of all affairs; a sin to think otherwise.”

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