a long dark night

Posted 11/26/2015

I have been around for over a hundred years now.  Architecturally speaking that would make me middle aged.  A lot has changed around me since.  For starters, there weren’t as many buildings around me.  Back in the day, people would come riding on bullock carts from villages far and near. 

Not all would get to spend time with me though. I was meant for the elite! Only the gora sahibs. Sometimes the wealthy zamindaar or the nawabs entourage.  I used to be under lock and key for most part.

I was spacious. I had two large cushioned couch sets that faced each other across a heavy wooden center table. They were leather! The sahibs wouldn’t have settled for less. A tasteful engraved wooden screen separated the seating area from the sleeping area – a gift from the nawab

There was provision for ten people to sleep.   Four independent beds and three bunker beds lining the opposite wall.   I have two windows, one right between Bed No. 2 & Bed No. 3 and a larger one on the perpendicular wall.  It used to face the fields that stretched all the way upto the river.  The moist evening breeze would kiss the crops and make them sway almost as though choreographed.  A great view.

Attached to me are a small pantry, a wash & changing room and a storage area.  All in all a self-sufficient unit.

My interiors have undergone some changes.  The drapes, the upholstery, the beds, the bunkers and the couches all have got changed multiple times now.  Few things have remained as is though. Most important amongst them; the engraved wooden screen. The clock that hangs on the wall facing the main entrance! Oh yes and the picture frames adorning the walls, of course the pictures inside them have changed like seasons. Only one picture however, has been around for half a century now. It’s a picture of a dark man with round-rimmed spectacles and a bare torso with what seems like a loin cloth wrapped around.  A Sanskrit phrase is printed under the picture reads “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma”.

Talking of pictures; isn’t lifetime just a picture wall with special moments hung on it? How many such moments does one really have? How many are really vivid? How many pictures really find their way on to the wall? But a few. The ones that do, are the ones living the lifetime for!

Like anyone else I have seen a range of emotion in my lifetime.  Anger and calmness, friendship and enmity, fear and courage, shame and shamelessness, benevolence and cruelty, pity, indignation, envy and of course love and hatred.  But all of them in one night! Bound to be an unforgettable night.

It was a long dark night. Dark in more ways than one could imagine. The night though had begun in the morning itself.

The man, his wife, his younger brother and his five year old son had moved in a few days earlier.  They obviously had bribed the caretaker.  I heard the man being chided by his younger brother for having brought along the wife and son.

“Anything can happen,” he had said. “Who knows…”

“We have come here to do The Almighty’s bidding. He will take care of us. Just hope the caretaker doesn’t get greedy and keeps his mouth shut,” the man told his younger brother.

 “Your Bhaabi doesn’t have any clue about the real reason for us being here. She thinks this is pilgrimage. Let’s keep it that way. Plus they make for a good cover” the man continued.

“When are we supposed to leave?” the younger one asked.

“The night we finish the work we have come here for is the night we leave.  There’s a train from here that leaves at two-fifteen past midnight.”

“The caretaker shall get the angeethi in a while. We will go and get the rations. Come Chotu,” the man told the wife as he picked his son up. The three of them stepped out.

Bhabi, bolt the door behind us. The caretaker said no one else is expected to come.” The woman complied.

Over the next two days I watched as the woman turned me into their home.  She would cook, clean, wash, feed her son and sing him a lullaby. She would steal glimpses of herself in the bathroom mirror each time adjusting her bindi or her nose-ring. 

 

She was very excited. This was the first time she was stepping out.  When her husband had mentioned about a ‘business’ trip with his brother, she had insisted that she would join.  He hadn’t said no. They hadn’t been married long when they had their son. Ten months that’s it.  She had longed for some time away from the daily chores. Not that she wasn’t doing the regular chores here but any time away from her overbearing mother-in-law and nosy sister-in-law was welcome.  The brother-in-law was the same age as her and friendly.  He was just like her brother and would help her around house.  Her husband had to assume responsibility for the clan after the untimely death of his father. He was a man of few words. She loved him and she knew he loved her too.  Why else would he make sure that she wasn’t troubled by his mother or sister when he was around? Matters were different though when the brothers would step out for work or leave town. She had never really asked questions regarding the nature of this ‘business’ trip. She though it better not to lest the husband changed his mind!

She needed someone to speak to and that someone was her son.  The woman had told her tale to her son while he slept in her lap.  She had really enjoyed herself the previous day. Though the darshan of the actual sanctorum had not been possible they had all taken a dip in the holy waters. She felt blessed. She kissed her son on the forehead and thought of catching a few winks before the men returned.

~

They had left at the crack of dawn.  The men had talked amongst themselves that this was an important day.

There was a knock. The woman opened the door to find the caretaker standing with an elderly gentleman. Behind them were two women and a man holding a boy no more than five in his arms.

“They won’t be staying long.” The caretaker said almost barging in. 

“But….” the woman said hesitantly, “My husband said you had promised we would have the whole place to ourselves.”

“Things change,” the caretaker said curtly without even looking at her.

“Please make yourselves comfortable,” the caretaker was now addressing the elderly gentleman. “You can place all your luggage in the storage area and…..”

“Is this your child behen? How old is he?” one of the women asked her looking at her son who was still sleeping.  She sounded young, but there was no way of telling. Her face could barely be seen behind the burkha.

Before she could even respond the other lady asked her, “Which are the beds you have occupied?” She put up her veil.  She was an old woman, perhaps in her fifties.

“I am sorry, where are my manners,” the old lady continued. “I am Zohra, this is my daughter-in-law Saira.  That young man is my son, Salim and that,” she said pointing in the direction of the elderly gentleman, “is my husband.” She did not take his name.

“I….I am Parvati.”  She was confused and scared that her husband would come and reprimand her.

The caretaker took the elderly gentleman’s leave and left.

“We are using these two beds,” she said pointing towards two of the independent beds.  Chotu and his Chacha sleep there,” she pointed in the direction of the bunker beds.

“What a coincidence, we call our little one Chotu too,” Saira re-joined the conversation.

“So it’s settled then.”  The older woman continued. “The four men can take the beds, while we ladies take the bunker beds.  The kids can figure it out for themselves,” she pronounced.

“Where is your husband beta? And your brother-in-law? What time is your train?” the elderly gentleman asked Parvati.  He was seated on the couch across the wooden partition.

“They left early this morning they had some work in the neighbouring town.

“Oh! You better pray that they return early,” the old man said. “There’s trouble brewing in that town.”

The blood drained from Parvati’s face.

 

~

 Chotu woke up bawling. The other family had settled down in the meanwhile. Parvati had prepared some dal and chawal.  She had asked them out of courtesy.  The ladies had both jumped at her offer.  There was just sufficient ration to cook a meal for all of them. 

Parvati’s mind had not been on the meal she had prepared.  A knock on the door raised her hope.

It was the caretaker again. The clock on the wall showed ten minutes past four.

Salim, the old man and the caretaker spoke in hushed tones.  Parvati strained her ears to catch a few words from behind the wooden screen. Their discussion over the caretaker left.

Humnein theek kaha tha begum, qayamat aa hi gayi. Jo nahin hona tha woh ho gaya”, the old man spoke in Urdu. “They razed it to the ground, the mob went berserk. The caretaker says it’s a battlefield outside.”

There was a knock on the door again.  Parvati was in the pantry. It was Salim who opened the door.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” It was Parvati’s husband.  There was anger in his voice.

Parvati reached the door just in time to prevent an argument from breaking out. 

“They are staying here too, they came in this morning. They will leave tonight,” she said.

Hearing her Salim eased his grip on the door.  He was standing with his armed stretched across the door guarding it.

“Did you not tell the caretaker that the deal clearly was – No one else,” the husband said still simmering. “How could he betray us, that too for these people!”  Though he was not loud he made no attempt to be discreet either.  The obvious reference was to the other family and their faith. The body language of the young men was still belligerent.  More so, her husband and brother-in-law. They just didn’t seem like the same men who had left in the morning.

 

“How is the mahaul outside beta?” The old man had been watching the young men bare their fangs. He was wise enough to know nothing would come out of it. “What happened is rather unfortunate,” he said.  Salim nodded but he was still smarting underneath.

“Unfortunate?!” the younger brother exclaimed as he flexed the muscles of his bared arm suggestively. “It should have happened years ago,” he continued.

The older brother put his hand up signaling him to stop, “It’s over Lakshman. It’s done.”

Ji Ram bhaiya,” Lakshman retreated.

The old man too held back Salim. 

The tension in the room was palpable.  The ladies in the meanwhile were cowering behind the screen not knowing what to make of the turn of events.  The two boys were playing on the bunker beds, oblivious.

 

~

“We brought down the structure bhaiya, we can take them down too.  They are no match for us. The old man will be out in one blow and the younger one is… ”

Ram put his hand on his lips and shushed Lakshman.

They were in the storage area, packing their bags.

“Yes we can. We have achieved what we had come here to do. No need to attract unnecessary attention,” Ram said.  “We take the two-fifteen train….. and we will be ready lest they try anything funny,” he said patting the Rampuri in his kurta pocket.

The two brothers, shook hands.  They were ready!

The two families had kept to themselves post the conversation with the old man.  There had been a lot of staring at each other between Lakshman and Salim.

 

 

~

They could hear noises in the distance.  They were closing in.  At first it was not clear what was happening. They grew louder as though building up to a crescendo.  They could make out the screaming and sloganeering punctuated with pleas of mercy and angst. 

The two families had formed separate huddles in the room. It was now dark.  There was no electricity.

The mob was in the vicinity now.  Through the closed windows they could see the glow of the torches or had something been set ablaze? They couldn’t tell.

Suddenly, the chant was loud and decipherable.

In the darkness they could make out the silhouette of the old man approach. Lakshman, firmed his grip on the Rampuri inside his pocket as did Ram. 

They heard the old man say, “Quick! Take off your kurtas and wear these caps.”

Lakshman sprung up ready to attack. The words that the old man had said just about sank in. He paused.

The old man was holding out two prayer caps. He turned around and instructed the women to hand Parvati a burkha.

“It’s an angry mob outside, take it beta. Jaan hai to jahaan hai.” It was the old lady.

Parvati reached out and took the burkha. Ram and Lakshman followed suit. They followed the old man’s instructions.

One couldn’t see them very clearly in the darkness.  But it was the only way Ram and Lakshman could hide the shame they felt.

 

~

It was inevitable.  The mob found their way to them.  They were now banging on the doors. The noise was deafening.  A stone shattered the glass on the window at the far end of the room. A torch was dropped in.  Ram doused it with a bucket of water. They had anticipated it but there was no way they could hold fort for a long time.

“Open up!” An angry voice on the other side of the door said. “Open up or we will burn this place down!!” The chant followed. They were banging on the door pushing it with all their might from the outside.

It was a split second in which the old man opened the door, the mob threw it wide open. They were inside!

“Leave my family alone!” The old man screamed at the top of his voice. 

The leader of the mob the held his hand up.

“Who are you? Who are all these people?” he questioned the old man.

“This is my family,” the old man repeated. “My name is Syed Masoom Reza, this my wife, my three sons, their wives and my grandsons.”

 

~

Those were the last words to be spoken that night. The train to Begusarai came in late. The brothers and Parvati bid the old man and his family farewell in silence. They touched his feet as they left.

I am the waiting room at the Faizabad Railway station and this is my lasting memory.