By: Ram Govardhan
The towering, ornate Nigerian teak door at the end of lane is usually closed and persistently watched over by very old Rasul Chacha, as if he is on a continued lookout for someone wicked. Because the lane has no doors or windows of other houses, he calls it an uncluttered passage to enter Khandaan, the one-time majestic mansion he passionately built during his heydays. As whole of Naroda knows, he guards it like an old owl all the time. The screening is so unyielding, that no one has entered the mansion in more than a decade now. Even bearers of news of death, birth or other mishaps deliver the word at the doorstep. Milkmen, grocers and meat vendors leave their goods in the doorway without seeing the residents who watch them, and the quality of produce, from behind a one-way curtain. Whenever electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other sundry men are required to go in, Rasul Chacha ensures that the three women huddle into the backyard behind a thick curtain.
Before falling to partial ruin, the stately Persian-style mansion, with its tea house, garden pavilions, vaults and domes, was renowned not only in the neighbourhood but also throughout Ahmedabad and even Baroda, Surat and Rajkot. The Khan in Khandaan is his surname. Rashid Patel, his father, inspired by Sardar Patel, had adopted the surname. But Rasul Chacha was too proud of his ancestry to settle for a measly Patel, a surname too uninspiring and dime a dozen in Gujarat, while Khan had an unmistakable ring of nobility to it.
The mansion has seven lavish, now unkept, bedrooms; yet Rasul Chacha has no place in it. He survives in veranda at the mercy of three women who, in one of the rarest instances of unanimity among in-laws, had thrown him out of the house fourteen years ago. Ever since, one of the ladies slips a plateful through a tiny opening thrice a day, every day. No one speaks to him; nor does he try to engage with them or others. Having not spoken for months together, to make sure that he hasn’t lost his voice altogether, he actually speaks to himself every now and then. And every now and then, perceiving the subdued murmurs, most vendors, passersby and rubbernecks assume he has gone mad. However what others think of him had lost relevance long ago, while what he thought of them had no meaning whatsoever for others.
The permanent fixtures in his but and ben shack are a cot, a clay pitcher and heaps of unwashed clothes lying on dirt floor. The shack is brick-walled and roofed with green plastic sheets that take sunshine and render everything under it, well, green and unbearably warm. Every day, the ‘greenhouse’ effect, he says, hastens his death a bit. No one knows where he performs ablutions. The shack has no door, nor is he fond of privacy or comforts. No spells of biting cold or loo, hot & dry summer wind, had ever bothered him. His miserable existence is so open that the moment he starts snoring in wee hours, neighbourly mongrels get under his cot to doze until dawn, the time he wakes up. Surviving with couple of hours of sleep is his old strength put to better use these days.
Despite hints of past majesty conspicuous in its deterioration, the crumbling mansion looked as futureless as its inhabitants. They are a family of four but the three women don’t consider him, but the considerate ration card considers him.
“But then all four of us are part of a forlorn world of hopelessness,” defends Rasul Chacha.
Their lives have nowhere to go, yet they plod away their days in their own sad ways and even if their ailments prolong their painful days, the present slips into past very fast—weeks, months and years each one of them magically seem here today and gone tomorrow.
Woebegone Rafia, Rasul Chacha’s first wife, had lost her three children fourteen years ago. The gory sight of their neatly slit throats haunts her and she continues to grieve endlessly as if her children had died yesterday. She loathes him holding him responsible for the deaths and, on the other hand, as her girth had doubled since that fateful night, Rasul Chacha seriously doubts sincerity of her grief.
Mumtaj, his second wife, most beautiful woman he had seen and wedded to beget better looking offspring because Rafia’s children were almost ugly. He is yet to figure out as to how Rafia could bring forth such buffoonish genes when all of his forefathers were tall, fair and handsome—the three quintessential qualities of being Pathans, the descendents of the Supreme Khan of the Mongols: Genghis Khan.
“Human genes have this uncanny knack of germinating in unlikely of places. It’s not uncommon to find looks of menials finding their expression in offspring of royalty and vice versa,” said Mumtaj, “Perhaps Rafia has gifted you the best of her family’s pedigree.”
Mumtaj never missed an opportunity to derive pleasure by sneering at Rafia or at her dead children.
Such sadism apart, in her melancholic moments, Mumtaj continues to curse Rasul Chacha for her plight of barrenness. She insists that he wasted time marvelling at her beauty, spent too little time with her and, crucially, never took love making seriously. However, Rasul Chacha always considered himself the most consummate player when it comes to carnal matters, and, what’s more, there were several women all around Ahmedabad to vouch for it.
And the third lady, Wahida, his ninety-year-old mother, over the years, has strengthened her capacity to stand his vulgar abuses. “Anger management keeps my heart hale and healthy,” she asserts. Like the other two women, she too is purposeless. Her only chore is to curse the other two women all the time. Yet, of late, television soaps have eased their interpersonal equations a great deal. When they speculate the turns the next episode will take, it’s impossible to guess as to how fiercely they grudged each other and how venomed could be their curses.
Years ago, when Rafia and Mumtaj were friends, while Mumtaj was infertile even after years of marriage, Rafia delivered a bundle of joy every year until the sixth childbirth. “Only the removal of her uterus had come in the way of seventh,” Rasul Chacha had prided. Of the six, three had died before they could crawl. It was the prolific progenetive output that had caused irreversible hostility between Mumtaj and Rafia.
Rasul Chacha always preferred fertile of the two and, after removal of Rafia’s uterus, his appetite for Mumtaj was rekindled, and odds of rapprochement between the ladies diminished at once.
However, Mumtaj had her qualms about Rafia’s unfailing fertility; she felt the secret lied in the way they made love. Those were the days when he could not sleep without making love every night and, one bitter evening, Mumtaj pretended periods and ushered Rasul Chacha to Rafia’s room. Mumtaj saw them make love through a tiny hole in a window that she had made the night before. The manner of love making was different in two ways: one, Rafia was on top in the beginning and, two; she was not fully undressed until he was spent.
“Maybe this coming on top is the thing…I would be glad even if I am half as productive as she is, Inshallah” thought Mumtaj and decided to try it out right away. But before trying the new trick, unable to bear the utter frustration that comes with unanswered curiosity, at last, Mumtaj asked Rafia about making love without fully undressing.
“Allah must have created woman’s body at the height of his artistic turn. There is no greater work of art even among His creations. That is why; even if one is a wife…a woman should never bare every part of her body on her own. A woman’s body is not a mannequin to be robed and disrobed dispassionately. Keep him on tenterhooks…let him seek, unveil and marvel,” said Rafia. “A lifetime is not enough for a man to fully appreciate the poetry in the flesh in its entirety.”
With new techniques in her grasp, however hard Mumtaj tried, there was no ‘good news’ despite doctors’ assertions that she is perfectly disposed to have babies. “In fact, any number of babies,” their family doctor insisted.
That was long ago, whereas this cold morning Rasul Chacha is too numb even to crawl. Lying on his rickety nawar cot, he shouted “chai” several times for an hour but no one brought him tea. Why are his cries being ignored? Or have they decided to dump him altogether? Of course it’s too chilly; perhaps the closed doors and windows are keeping his cries from reaching them. But isn’t it too callous of them, knowing he is lying exposed to elements? He stifled his anger for, these days; such things were yielding nothing positive in return. In fact, in contrast, his rage was earning him ample ridicule and, besides, of late, the consequences of hypertension were mortally affecting walls of his arteries.
If this is his sad plight now, his circumstance was utterly unlike until just over a dozen Bakrids ago. He not only lorded over the three women at home but also the entire older part of Ahmedabad city from one darwaja to another. “Since I cannot afford a harem, my concubines are scattered all over the town,” he often prided.
Rasul Chacha was a strapping, easygoing, and charming man in town. Camel trading was what he loved for it gave him at least eight months of paid holiday to pursue his sensual escapades.
“I was the most sought-after man until marriage…and a sought-after man after marriage,” he would say reminiscing pride of his youthhood, “And, as I passed through streets, girls and middle-aged women lifted veils to have a clear glimpse. In response to their oohs and ahs, as I blew kisses, they caught and put them into their tight blouses.”
“Camels are in my blood,” says Rasul Chacha, which is to say that his ancestors, belonging to al-Jazira tribe from the pastures that are now in northern Iraq, had entered India crossing Indus River. And with them, came along the great camel raising tradition of Middle East. A dozen generations later, by the time he took over the reign from his father, even if camels were harder to get, transport and keep, since trading was too lucrative, he visited auction pens in Ajmer. It was during one of those stays in Ajmer that he had met gorgeous Mumtaj, daughter of a cameleer, and, impressed with her more than impressive knowledge of raising and trading camels, married her within a few months. It is from Mumtaj that he had picked up tips such as choosing camels that are absolutely even-toed.
When asked as to how she knew such things, she said, “Instinct is genetically passed on knowledge…it is part of the deal you are born with to cope with the ways of the world.”
Mumtaj’s repertoire of nuances complemented his less than impressive knowledge. Within no time, buyers from far and wide descended on his expanding pen. Dozens of camels were traded within days and many of his established rivals had to go out of business. Year after year, as Bakrid approached, as number of camels went beyond hundred, juggling between two pens twelve miles apart, he had to engage more breeders, vets, and handlers. While he loved only one-humped breed, he regretted to have never dealt in Mumtaj’s pet two-humped ones and others such as Llama and Alpaca. He also regrets not to have tasted meat of wild camels. Even if it was two thousand years since every camel on earth was domesticated, Mumtaj told him, there were a few left in the wild somewhere in southern Yemen. He had once explored Mumtaj’s idea of importing state-of-the-art milking plant and pasteurizers from the Middle East but the exorbitance kept him from going ahead. Yet, as part of Mumtaj’s backward integration ideas, trading had turned into farming keeping him hectic throughout the year for a few years. This was the time he had built the grand mansion employing hand-picked masons from all over India spending half his fortune.
As customers drooled over the taste of camel milk, during the month of Ramadan, he offered milk shakes as a better way of breaking fast. As an ultimate tribute he would repeatedly say, “Dandi or no Dandi, Gandhiji hated salt, but loved a glass of camel’s milk every day. My grandfather used to supply canfuls to Sabarmati Ashram every day cycling all the way from here to Gandhinagar.”
Yet the incongruity of his debonair disposition and the sheer drudge of dairy-farming utterly frustrated Rasul Chacha and he decided to go back to trading. But the gap of eight years had blunted his commercial acumen so much that, despite Mumtaj’s cutting edge ideas, he had to give up the trade altogether within a year.
These days, except Mumtaj, everyone knows he is old enough to die and she is the only one who knows what keeps him alive: the hope of proving his innocence. He is also too old to dye his hair, but he manages by fooling people, who say he is too old to bother about looks, by saying, “Grey-hair invites Angel of Death and I dye my hair black to thwart his approach.”
His seventy-fourth Bakrid is just a week away and, purring over a cup of tea, this morning, he could hear drumming of hooves. This was the largest herd of camels entering the town after he gave up the trade and he reckoned the number by the collective thud of stomps, “About seventy.”
Thoughts of that fateful Bakrid came flooding back, rendering him giddy. Overwhelming the dizzying sensation of whirling in his head, the thoughts harried him.
That night, fourteen years ago, as his business collapsed, he was left with one ageing camel and, wanting to engage a butcher, he had summoned his one-time shepherd.
“A very good butcher is what I want…the animal is very expensive one. So he must come with proper knives for proper parts…I’ll brook no wastage,” Rasul Chacha had warned, “Including guts, bones and hide.”
Since the butcher the shepherd knew was a hopeless chap, the shepherd prefaced his submission, “He is boozed up all the time…but he is an expert…he does a clean job and charges just two bottles of rum.”
Rasul Chacha was upset that the butcher was too shabby and too befuddled to prepare meat as per laws of halal.
“I am sure he seldom brushes or bathes,” said Rasul Chacha.
“He drinks so much that he is usually unaware of days, weeks or months passing by. For him life is one long spell of space and time for drinking,” said the shepherd, “And not drinking is squandering away a lifetime of dipsomaniac bliss.”
“No, no, no…Take him away, get a proper butcher,” said Rasul Chacha. The shepherd promised to be back with a better chap in wee hours.
That sultry evening Rasul Chacha decided to sleep in veranda since he had to wake up early. His three children were adamant on sleeping in the open along with him. He huddled all three of them into one cot, next to his cot.
The barking mongrels, which suddenly leapt out from under his cot, woke him up around midnight. The dogs rushed towards main road and he heard a large crowd shouting and pelting stones at them. Assuming that it was one of those nights when the mongrels howl at passersby for no reason, he dozed away. He was then woken up by deathly screams emanating from a neighbouring street. He rubbed sleep off his eyes to see the skyline filled with black smoke. As he sauntered that way, he could see two gangs with torches, knives, swords and cleavers. He saw several dead bodies lying on streets even as gangs entered houses, torched and looted shops. He saw men splashing petrol, torching houses, huts, workshops, and the only timber-yard. Some were dragging women and children out of the houses. A Muslim group was herding Hindu women and children together, a Hindu group was herding Muslim women and children together to kill them; each group was invoking their own gods.
As a mob charged towards his house, as Rasul Chacha turned back, tyres, vehicles, bikes and plastic chairs were ablaze blocking his way. Sidestepping the flames, by the time he reached home unharmed, he saw the most horrific sight of his lifetime, including the time he has left in this world: all three of his children were dead. An expert butcher’s skill was apparent: a long and lean sword was used to slit all three necks in one sweep. The children must have died even before waking up, he thought.
All three women blamed Rasul Chacha for having been so lenient with his Hindu neighbours. Spurning him, they then kept goading their Muslim brethren until they looted, gutted all the houses and killed several at random.
After the burial, elders of his community banished Rasul Chacha once and for all. After he cried his innocence for over a month, they relented and allowed him to sleep in the veranda with a condition that he should never ever enter the mansion.
Rasul Chacha is still languishing by the doorstep of Khandaan, not knowing that it was the barren Mumtaj who had killed the three children out of jealousy on that riotous day.
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai cursing the humidity all the time. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org