By: Saima Afreen
Kidneys. That’s what everybody called those pockets of the city. The grimy tents cleared the city’s junk: the industrial excretion or cremation of a dozing old building. Hillocks of metal scraps grew and vanished everyday. Continuos cling-clang-clangety tintinnabulation of heavy iron chains when they fell against the weighing scale. Little clouds of orange rust puffing up. Or chunks of distorted aluminium cans giving a metal cry when heaped together with force. Metal, gone bad. Metal with eyes of a hawk, roar of a pouncing tiger. It glazed, glazed again in hands of Aslam cleaning it with yesterday’s newsprint. Blood stained pieces of stories lay on the floor. His husky voice humming ‘ek baar muskura do…’
“Munni Begum kii ghazal? Aslam bhai?” asked Sameer buzzing off the flies with a newspaper flashing the headlines on Andhra and Telangana bifurcation.
“Ji, Jinaab. Singing for you. Ghazab khuda ka, aap muskuratey hii nahin!” A wide smiled flashed on the ruddy face of Aslam. His hands separating the legs of the mutton, pink and somewhat warm. The head of the goat lay nearby, its teeth still visible. Swarms of flies hovered over its dead yellow eyes. Aslam cleaned his knife again, this time with the square of a cloth, hardened with days of animal blood on it. Sameer didn’t say anything. His lips twitched, his face almost buried between the newspaper sheets. Page no. 5 read Asal Hyderabad in large letters. Its ink somewhat muzzled. “No action again from this lazy government,” he mumbled and read the entire article. Five weeks had passed and there was no reply from this newspaper or any other newspaper offices that he’d visited. The clock in the groceries shop on the opposite footpath announced it was 8:30 am or perhaps 8:36 – he was not sure. In Aslam’s shop his day would start these days with two newspapers that Aslam would regularly subscribe to. He smiled slowly. People went about their business buying packets of fresh bread and some fruits. A woman in floral sari quarrelled with one of the shopkeepers. “Sell these rotten eggs to your mother not to me. Give me my money back or pack me a dozen of these,” snapped her raspy voice while she kept the fresh eggs that the shopkeeper handed her in a brown cardboard box, while he too went on complaining about the soggy currency notes that she always gave him. Sameer longed for breakfast. He realized he had money only for his bus fare.
‘If only that fucking tabloid hadn’t kicked him out! Rascals. 100 rupees only left! God!’ He wished his mother in a temple would pray secretly for him. Only for him that no one in the universe could hear.
Aslam’s butcher shop was near his room. A small rectangle of cold bricks and cement that he had chosen. During his days as a reporter after a hard day’s work he would lie down under the fan and would doze off on the single bed that seemed to grow out of the peeling walls of his room. There he wrote breaking stories; scheduled appointments with IAS officers, commissioners, bureaucrats, mantris and even santris. The toast he raised with another colleague when his anti-corruption report actually forced the corporation to shuffle old files to start a scheme for children of BPL families. He still remembered the taste of rum at Firangi Pani. The crazy kia re song he sang till sleep pulled him in.
Darn! No money for tea or newspapers. He could survive days of headache. But newspapers? No! Aslam was his resort. His destination for news. Sameer couldn’t read Urdu so contended himself with The Times of India, while the heart of Hyderabad lay wrapped in Dakkan zubaan on a shelf above the small seating arrangement Aslam had. On the wall opposite it Aslam was hanging a skinned goat. His green chequered lungi wrapped above his knees. “Salaam Aslam bhai! Pack two kilos of mutton for me,” said a middle aged man holding a paper bag of jalebis. The syrup dripping from the ghee stained paper.
“Ji, miyaan! Kya banwa rahe hain aaj?”
“Aadmi ko kya chahiye bhai. Do roti aur do boti. Bas. Yes, yes! Cut that piece from the chest. Bones make the shorba delicious though my wife always complains,” he grinned handing him a 500 rupee note while he covered his nose with a dirty white handkerchief avoiding the smell of meat. Aslam lips twitched softly, “Gosht khate aur khoon se darte?
If only I could get that money…….that crisp 500 currency note….. Hush what I am thinking…. Sameer reprimanded himself.
The May morning was unbearable. There was no wind. And the brown ceiling fan in the shop was almost dead. There was no respite from heat, both inside and outside. Tinkling of small glasses and an aluminium kettle shook Sameer measuring the gutter space. It stinks. Gingery vapour floated in the air. Chhotu, the tea boy, was pouring milky tea in the small glasses with his eyes fixed on the bubbles that floated on the surface. Aslam’s hairy hand gave a glass to Sameer. He refused.
“Arre, bhai! I’ll go home this Eid. When you get busy you won’t have time to have tea here so leisurely. Have. It has ginger in it,” Aslam said. His eyes always had a narrow look, a crease of frown separating his thick bushy eyebrows. The gentle smile on his thick lips always belied this slight frown on his face. Sameer looked up. His eyes following the direction where Aslam’s eyes were fixed. Smoke rose in distance. The hubbub of the morning bazaar turned into a noise rising continuously. People ran. Shops downed shutters. A few men with blood-shot eyes ran with knives. Flags rose high as did the voices and the sound of guns. Trouble had broken out in the old city. New age; similar riots. The same blood that always fell. Its red a mockery of what it stood for. The journalist in Sameer ran towards the crowd. “No bhai! This is not the time,” the six feet frame of Aslam towered over him. His arms iron bars around Sameer’s body. He tried pushing him back. Anger rushing to his head. his eyes saw a flash, loud sound, the glass sheet of Aslam’s shop to conceal the meat was blown into shards. Blood trickled. The huge tall frame shielded him. The gush of warm liquid dyed Sameer’s yellow T-shirt orange.
“Aslam bhai! Aslam bhai!”
“Miyan! Go! They won’t spare you.”
“No! I am taking you to the hospital.”
“Miyan! Aap… jao…”
Aslam passed out… Sameer didn’t remember how many hours passed… Police sirens could be heard. The loud noise was fading. Shops were still closed… A police jeep screeched to a halt. Sameer knew the ACP… Soon he was inside the hospital… Aslam in ICCU… His shoulder was blown apart with the blasts. Doctors waited for his condition to stabilize. Two days… Sameer sat in the corridor his eyes fixed on the glass door of ICCU… the doctor in white court emerged, “He gained consciousness. We need to perform an operation and need his consent. Please get these papers signed.” Sameer smiled. He remembered it was after months. Brown eyes of Aslam looked liquid. So many tubes attached to his stomach and arms. A cardiometer constantly beeped. “Aslam bhai. Sign kar dijiye. You will undergo operation.”
A blank look. Puzzled eyes… His colourless cheeks were sunk. His broad face now was a shadow rising from oblivion.
“Miyan. I don’t know how to read and write!”
“What! But you always had two newspapers in your shop. That also the top ones.”
“Shauq bhi koi cheez hai…” he sank into oblivion again. Sameer stood still.
Saima Afreen won Museindia Monthly Poetry Contest in 2010 and Wordweavers Poetry Contest in 2013 respectively. Her poems were shortlisted for Raed Leaf Poetry Award, 2013. Her poems have been featured in Open Road Review, Brown Boat, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, The Asian Age, Nivasini Publishers, The Telegraph and many other publications. She is from Calcutta and at present lives and works in Hyderabad.