Translated from Original Hindi by Barnali Saha.
You don’t know Kurbaan bhai? Kurbaan bhai is the most excellent person in this town. The heart of the town is Azaad Chowk, and in Azaad Chowk, Kurbaan bhai has his little grocery store. You can never miss a glimpse of him in this place wearing his white kameez-pajama and surrounded by a crowd of young and old customers who haggled over two and four annas. If there is no crowd then you would probably find him sitting on his hamstrings with the soles of his feet touching the ground and scribbling something. Time and again, he would lift the pair of thick framed spectacles and back-brush his vagrant, disheveled, graying hair using the fingers of his right or left hand. If you wish to do a transaction here then you are most welcome.
From here you can avail yourself of the best quality items measuring perfect at unmatched prices. Kurbaan bhai would never sell an item with which he is not fully satisfied. In case such items enter his store by fraudulent means then he would better let them rot in the shop than sell them to any customer. You want pepper? I am afraid it’s not worthy of your taste. It came mixed with coloring agents. Oil, you say? It’s not tasty; rapeseed has been added to it. You can take it in case you wish to use it to light oil-lamps.
It is because of this reason that when somebody buys something from Kurbaan bhai’s shop then he always comes back for the second time and never visits any other store. The area, on the other hand, is absolutely filled with shops on all four sides—shops belonging to Sindhis and to Marwaris. Nevertheless, Kurbaan bhai means honesty. Kurbaan bhai means assurance and the benefit of trade on account.
You must be careful about one thing however — never discard without checking the envelope or the bag you are given to carry your items in. This is because there is always a possibility of finding an Urdu couplet of a ferocious and egoistic kind written on these shopping bags. One cannot say how many people were tired of telling Kurbaan bhai that he should keep a notebook in the desk and whenever a poem came to his mind, must register it therein. Kurbaan bhai listens to them, often agrees with them, and repents for the pieces lost, but still he continues as usual.
My introduction to this excellent man took place in a rather similar fashion. One day on my way back home from office, I had got some stuff from Kurbaan bhai’s store…on the envelope the following was written:
It’s just about your loyalty to others or nothing else is difficult,
I can extinguish embers; my eyes are full of tears.
And this is the person who still weighs goods worth three-four annas! And why he weighs them, there’s a story behind that as well.
Kurbaan bhai’s father had a flourishing business of coloring agents in Ajmer. He owned a couple of huge houses. One should actually call them mansions instead. He had a huge shop in nayi bazaar. Around twelve servants worked for him. He had a hansom cab and a ‘Baby Austin’ at home; the latter was used for going on ‘drives’. They had a joint family. His father was one of the devoted followers of Maulana Azaad. A great number of prominent political leaders and poets came to stay at his home. At that time Kurbaan bhai had been a studying at Aligarh University. He neither worried about his future nor about old age. He lived his life on his own terms. He lived a happy life. Love, poetry, hostel, dreams!
Then partition took place. The store was burnt down. Many of Kurbaan bhai’s relations fled to Pakistan and two of his brothers were murdered. In grief his father took to bed and later died. The servants absconded with the money at home. Kurbaan bhai took whatever was left and himself went to Nagaur. From there he went to Merta, and from Merta to Taunka. Where could he go? Where could he hide himself? Should he go to Pakistan as well? He didn’t go there. Because Josh didn’t go, because Suraiya didn’t go, and because many people whom Kurbaan bhai admired didn’t go. Then why should Kurbaan bhai leave the country?
Gradually, all the things that could be put up for sale were sold. He got no work, no job; employment opportunities were pretty scarce for the Muslims at the time. Finally, in the end, he started to work as an accountant at a merchant’s office. However, because of his principles, his honesty, his sense of decency, and other dreadful qualities in his character of the like, he was soon thrown out of that job. When the affectation of being an owner broke then it continued to break without cessation. If he tried to eke a living out of the Hindus there was the doubt of being chopped into bits by javelins; and if, on the other hand, he tried to deal with the Muslims, then he found himself being tired of answering the innumerable questions of the religious fanatics of the league. He climbed down the social scale to become a laborer, a wage-earner...a paltry craftsman…. His situation forced him to learn new skills. He repaired punctured cycle-tires, soldered barrels and canisters, fixed locks, umbrellas and lanterns.
….He worked as tie-dyer of clothes…he crafted bangles out of ivory and so on. He visited one town after another. The violence now was not inflicted by communal insanity, but by machines. …Anything he grabbed... gradually slid out of his hand. He was pushed around by circumstances here and there and then finally, unbeknownst to him, he arrived in this town. He borrowed fifty rupees from an old namazi-Musalman and opened his store. In a few tiny packets he stored daal-rice…matchsticks…beedi-cigarettes-lozenge-chocolates. And now what to say and how to say what I wanted to say I wonder. Finishing the life story of a person fraught with struggle and pain in a few well-chosen words for one’s own purpose is not only doing an injustice to the person, but also an insult to him and his struggles. It’s almost like deriding him. There is nothing I can do about it. Anyway, the story I am about to relate now is actually a different one!
As soon as business started to flourish, Kurbaan bhai began ordering newspapers and magazines. Eventually, he got himself a place to stay and a couple of pairs of clothing. And subsequently, the mortgage was paid off there weren’t any more wishes to heed. None of the children were alive, and he had already forgotten the mirth and joy, the poetry and verse; whatever Allah provided was sufficient for the husband and the wife…so why wouldn’t he procure the magazines? At that time whenever a magazine came, it came by Book Post, and Kurbaan bhai used to go to the post office himself to collect the package. He took great care in storing the magazines and read every page, every letter printed on them, more than once. His behavior was like someone weakened by hunger and thirst savoring fifty-six meals at one time. He still regards them with much love. He borrows and buys magazines to read and later stores the files carefully.
Eventually…his moral principles started to express themselves. People started to see that the man never lied, never adopted dishonest means to cheat others, and never weighed items less than their actual amount. They noticed that he never addressed others with disrespect, never cracked vile jokes, always spoke with regard, and was a great help to one and all in their hour of travail. Every work was performed by the man with great refinement; his principles reflected in his behavior. It so happened that ultimately the eminent people of the town started to greet and bless him. Whenever there was a wedding in some merchant’s family, an invitation card was issued in Kurbaan bhai’s name. It so happened that a number of birds of the same category as Kurbaan bhai got highly attracted to his nature started to visit him. And now Kurbaan bhai offers them tea and abandoning the business of the store, engages with them in intellectual discussions on Ghalib.
Overtime, Kurbaan bhai’s store became a joint frequented by the educated people. It became a den for the lecturers, professors, journalists and the literates in general. In the evenings his store seemed to blossom like a rose garden with debates and bursts of laughter. Kurbaan bhai would greet his guests, call out to the chaiwalla to serve his visitors tea and place jute-sacks on the porch for them to sit. Business also went as usual along with debates and peals of laughter, and in the middle of it all, there was never the slightest hesitation in handing one of the visitors a container and asking him to fill it with a kilogram or so of whole dried red chilies, or asking someone to take out a packet of ground-salt from an open canister or calculate the total of ten items purchased by some customer. It was highly amusing to observe an expert in English literature standing on the street removing skins off garlic, or a journalist of some prominent newspaper sitting on his hamstrings and extracting fuller’s earth from a container kept underneath the porch or an aged professor of history…
Our relation with Kurbaan bhai started to change him. He realized that he had a respectful dimension to his personality as well. We learned Urdu from him, assorted and bound the books in his library (which was by this time pretty well-stocked); we took great advantage of the library. We took him to several poetic symposiums. We showed him magazines of the kind he never saw before. We told him about such writers and poets who only dwelled in his imagination before now, we recited such compositions by such shayars who had long bidden adieu to alcohol and addictives and so forth, and finally, we introduced him to that kind of politics about which he had only heard vague comments until now. Despite being wise and enlightened from the start, his head seemed full of junk of a religious nature; we started working with our broom to sweep away the litter. Unlike others who never thought it essential to undertake the task, we made him become obsess about newspapers and debates.
The result of all this was that he started to take one holiday every week. After dinner he often went out with us for a stroll and instead of thinking of his past and seething with anger, he was at times pleased to consider the prospects awaiting him in near future. In this way he gradually became closer to us like never before. A new kind of foolishness overtook him. He was addicted to our company. He awaited our arrival every evening and in case we couldn’t visit him, he came to visit us.
And now what happened was that even though Kurbaan bhai’s reputation of being a gentle and a prominent resident of the town didn’t help us in any way, he was soon within the grip of our notorious disruption in the community. The amount of Kurbaan bhai’s time we got cut short the time Kurbaan bhai dedicated to his other friends—Latif sahib, Haji sahib, Imam sahib and the rest. On Fridays every week he went to read the namaaz, now this practice ceased for good. People never asked him to attend sermons etcetera before, and they didn’t start asking him now. He continued donating money to the madrasa like before. The members of his fraternity criticized him for attending the occasionally held political assemblies and taking intelligent interest in the political events of the town saying such actions might prove to be seriously dangerous for him. Politics is not for us, you understand? Eat your curry and roti silently and take the name of Allah. If you want a peaceful life then stay away from all those troubles. Someday you will bring trouble to your home…and then you will implicate the rest of us as well. What’s the use of teasing alligators when you have to live in water?
We, however, were glad in our spirited ways. Neither we nor Kurbaan bhai had any idea that not only the main imam but also his holy assistant had started to look askance at him. We also didn’t understand the real reason for the sudden nonappearance of a few patriotic like people from his store in the evenings. And then, finally that incident took place…which dragged this story to such an unpleasant position that the mind still seems embittered.
At noon time one day a bullock cart stopped just outside Kurbaan bhai’s store. The bullocks were let loose and the other section of the cart was placed on the porch of his shop. The people who came from the village generally stopped their vehicles at this square, let their bullocks loose and after giving them their fodder, went to finish their work. They return in the evening and depart. They never placed their carts immediately outside somebody’s shop and there wasn’t any question of placing their vehicles on somebody’s veranda either. The man had such positioned his cart on Kurbaan bhai’s porch that no customers could reach the shop and Kurbaan bhai himself had no way to exit except by means of the porch of his neighbor’s store. The cart-owner was an acquaintance of lawyer Ukhchand and Kurbaan bhai knew that if he left now there wasn’t any chance of his coming back before evening. Kurbaan bhai asked him to shift the vehicle a little to the side and tie it somewhere adjacent to the bullocks. The man turned a deaf ear to his words. When Kurbaan bhai repeated his directives, the man turned to gave him one swift look and then toddled away. Subsequently, Kurbaan bhai himself rose and lifted the front end of the cart and pushed it…and as he did so, the man came up from somewhere, grabbed Kurbaan bhai by his neck and started to shout abuses. He snatched Kurbaan bhai’s glasses and pushed him around. At this time of the proceedings, lawyer Ukhchand on his way back from the court happened to cross the street. He called out to the man and said: What is the matter, Gomya? Gomya replied: He is beating me! Lawyer Ukhchand said: Who? Gomya said: This miyan here!
Kurbaan bhai felt benumbed. He was shocked by the time he grasped the full meaning of the words. Stars seemed to dance before his eyes. He sat on his hamstrings and clutched his head in despair. A lump arose from his gut and got stuck in his throat. Long stifled tears wished to burst out in one moment.
….What happened? …How did all that happen? Did Gomya didn’t know him? How did he become ‘miyan’ from ‘Kurbaan bhai’ in a minute? Actually, it didn’t even take one minute. The reputation he built for himself little by little over the years… every minute in every day having passed through an ordeal of fire, the respect he garnered, the love he acquired…making himself understand … that one wouldn’t become a nawaab if one went to Pakistan…life was wonderful the way it was…Allah would look after everything…let zeal and ardor take their leave, let the star of the sun set…let the friends be forgotten…let the business be plundered…let the ‘havelis’ be taken over by the lying miscreants …let brothers’ graves lie incognito… bury the dreams of flourished households…in the future a day might come for the self…wait till that time…what prices had to be paid to attain a bit of belongingness in the town…a bit of social security…a little self-confidence…overtime, he acquired a little bit of forbearance…and had been considering it as some mighty treasure…and now see what happened! The mountain crafted little by little over years now vanished in one breath. One illiterate man…and I wonder if the uneducated was really he or I. Did I ever think that I would become ‘miyan’ from Kurbaan bhai in just one minute? I earn my own living by hard work. And despite all that the people consider me as a burden. Why didn’t I realize this before? I should have gone to Pakistan…could have endured a million hardships…still I wouldn’t have to hear such offensive words. Fie, fie! Shame on a life like this!
Allah! Dear Allah!
Lawyer Ukhchand persuaded Gomya to come along with him. The bullocks and the cart were left behind. The neighbors attended to Kurbaan bhai. His teeth clenched and foam came out of the corner of his mouth. People removed the cart and the bullocks. They lay Kurbaan bhai down on the porch. They fanned him. They spattered cold water on his face. They abused lawyer Ukhchand. They tried to reassure Kurbaan bhai. But they didn’t know that something precious had broken inside Kurbaan bhai. Something that he had left never managed to break in all these years. Can the wounds inside one’s heart be seen?
People started to assemble. The news spread in the town. People who heard it started to come. We too reached the spot. And now there were twenty people speaking twenty different versions of the happenings. After fuming and ranting for a long time it was decided that such vile insolence must not be silently accepted. We should be reporting the incident to the police.
Consequently, the procession moved in the direction of the police station. ...but on the way some had to pee, some others had to visit the lavatory. And so by the time we reached the police station, only a handful of us remained with Kurbaan bhai!
The police station in-charge wasn’t available. He had just gone out in his motorcycle. The munsi was there, and he clearly declined to accept any report. Why wouldn’t he decline? The police station in-charge had already received a telephone call from lawyer Ukhchand. Lawyer Ukhchand was the district leader of the governing party. And who was Kurbaan bhai? And who were we for that matter?
After creating a row for half an hour and then waiting for the police station in-charge for another one and half hours, we departed with sullen faces saying that we would come back in the evening. In the evening, however, nobody apart from us came to Kurbaan bhai’s shop, and he didn’t show any enthusiasm in visiting the police station with us. He was so busy in running the shop that it seemed that he didn’t even have the time to talk to us.
After that a sort of guilty feeling on our part too made us stay away from Kurbaan bhai. What happened wasn’t actually as serious as it was held to be. Nobody wants to get into any trouble with the police; one tries to accept what happened as a display of uncouth behavior from an illiterate and tries to forget. But not us…we thought…one of our friends had been attacked and we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t be of any help to him. It also occurred to us that if we behave officiously then that might create further trouble for Kurbaan bhai. We further considered that it would be fruitless to hope for either police intervention or their cooperation in the incident; we could only fight the system politically, for which we needed to garner our strength rapidly.
All this, however, were nothing but excuses. It so happened that we left Kurbaan bhai all alone. He seemed low-spirited and didn’t talk much. Whenever he saw us he got himself busy in running the store. He was stifled and perplexed and wouldn’t open up. We failed in our attempt to open him up. One day when I reached the shop I found him talking to somebody. His back was turned to my direction, and he was saying: What nonsense you teach as history? Partition took place you say! It didn’t take place once upon a time; it’s still happening… the process is still on. And then he saw me and stopped and started to work.
The ending of the story is not pleasant. I don’t want you to read it. And if you read it, I want you think if there could have been any other ending for this story? A happy ending if you will. If you reply is in the affirmative, then pray tell how a happy ending would have ensued?
There isn’t much left to say except that one Friday afternoon when I was crossing Azaad Chowk—which had now been named Sanjay Chowk—I saw Latif bhai standing outside Kurbaan bhai’s store…Kurbaan bhai was locking the shop. He had worn a cap on his head…Afterwards the two started to walk in the direction of the mosque.
Glossary of Non-English Words:
- kameez-pajama:Shirt and pajama
- Nayi Bazaar: New Market
- Namazi-Musalman: A Muslim to prays; namaz is Islamic worship or prayer.
- Chaiwalla: One who sells tea
- Madrasa : A building or group of buildings used for teaching Islamic theology and religious law, typically including a mosque.
- Miyan: A form of address in Urdu
Barnali Saha is a senior research scholar at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. She is a creative writer and translator. Her creative work has been published in several newspapers and magazines in India and abroad.
Swayam Prakash is a well-known Hindi fiction writer and novelist.