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‘Custodian of Rubble’: Mohan Rakesh’s short story about a chowkidar (and the Partition)

  • Published at 02:30 pm March 31st, 2019
‘Custodian of Rubble’

After the house was destroyed and its occupants killed, what remained to be guarded?

After a full seven-and-half years they had returned from Lahore to Amritsar. The hockey match was just an excuse – what they had really come to see were the homes and streets that had become alien to them. A group of Muslims could be seen on every other street of the city. Their eyes were eagerly gazing at everything as though it was not just an ordinary city but a lost wonderland.

Passing through the narrow by-lanes of the bazaars, they reminded one another of old times. Just look, Fatehdin, the number of crystallized sugar shops has decreased in the Misri Mandi and that corner where Sukhi would sit roasting gram has a paan shop now. Just look at the Namak Mandi, Khan sahib – remember how sultry the wives of the traders were!

After a long time, red Turkish caps were seen in the city. Many of the visiting Muslims were those who had been forced to flee at the time of the Partition. Seeing the changes over the past seven years they were saddened at times and surprised at others. How did Katra Jaimal Singh become so wide? Were all the homes of the Muslims of Amritsar burnt down? This here was Hakim Asif Ali’s shop wasn’t it? Now a cobbler had occupied it. At times one would hear exclamations like: Wali, see, the mosque is standing just as it was. These people haven’t turned it into a Gurdwara.

Whichever way the groups of Muslims passed, the residents gazed at them with curiosity. 

Some people were still suspicious and would avoid the Muslims, others would reach out to them in excitement. They would ask the visitors how Lahore looked these days. Is Anarkali Bazaar still busy as before? We hear Shahalmi Bazaar has been rebuilt after being burnt down? We hear there is no burqa in Pakistan, is it true?

These queries had such a ring of familiarity and fondness that it seemed Lahore was not a city but a close relative of thousands who were keen to know its welfare. The visitors from Lahore were day-long guests of the city, and the people felt elated meeting them and talking to them.

The Bamboo Bazaar was in a rundown area because before the Partition it had been the basti of poor Muslims. The shops there mostly sold bamboo and wooden logs and all of them were burnt down in the raging fire. The fire in the Bamboo Bazaar of Amritsar was the most fearsome – it had seemed the whole city would be burnt down. Many colonies close to it were enveloped by flames.

The fire was extinguished somehow and along with one house of belonging to Muslims, five or six houses belonging to Hindus were burnt down too. After seven-and-a-half years, the shops had been rebuilt, but one could still see patches of rubble. These patches presented a strange sight amidst newly-constructed shops.

There was not much activity that day in the Bamboo Bazaar. Most of the inhabitants had been martyred, with their homes being destroyed, and those who escaped alive did not have the courage to return. Only a frail old Muslim man ventured into the deserted bazaar. Seeing the burnt-down buildings, both old and new, he was somewhat confused.

He turned slowly into the lane on the left but returned after a few steps, not quite sure that this was the lane he wanted to visit. Some children were playing in a corner and a little farther ahead two women were screaming and abusing each other. 

Everything has changed but for the language. That has not changed! The old Muslim whispered to himself and stood there, holding on to his stick. His knees were bulging out of the worn fabric of the pyjama and his sherwani had three or four patches. A child was coming out of the lane howling. Lovingly the old man called out – come here my son! See, I have something for you.

He started rummaging in his pocket for something to give the little boy. The child stopped howling for a moment, only to pout and start off again. A girl of sixteen or seventeen came running out and dragged the boy back to the lane. The child kept howling and tried to free his arm. The girl picked him up in her arms and kissing his forehead, said – quiet, my little brother. If you weep so then the Muslim man will take you away. Stop crying, my darling!

The old man returned to his pocket the coin he had taken out for the child. He took off his cap and scratched his head. Then he tucked the cap under his arm. His throat was dry and his knees were trembling slightly. Opposite the lane, where logs of wood used to be stacked, stood a new three-storey house. There was some sunlight by the electric pole and he gazed at the particles flying in the beams. Involuntarily, he exclaimed – ya Allah!

A young man came towards the lane, twirling his key chain. Seeing the old man standing there, he asked – tell me, Mianji what brings you here?

The old man felt a faint tremor in his chest and arms. Running his tongue over his parched lips he examined the young man carefully and said – son, is your name Manori?

The young man stopped twirling his key chain and held it in his fist and asked in surprise— how do you know my name?

Seven-and-a-half years ago you were a little child, my son. Saying this, the old man tried to smile.

Have you come from Pakistan today? Manori asked. 

Yes, we used to live in this very lane earlier, the old man said – my son Chiragdin was your tailor. We had built our new house here just six months before the Partition.

Oh Ganni Mian! Manori recognized him.

Yes my son, I am your Ganni Mian. I will never see Chirag and his family, but I thought I would gaze at the facade of the house once more. He ran his hand over his head, holding back his tears.

You had left before the riots broke out, Manori said, adding a note of compassion to his voice.

Yes son, it was my misfortune that I left alone, much earlier. Had I lived here I too would... He realized he shouldn’t be speaking this way, but tears filled his eyes and he let them flow.

Forget it Ganni Sahib, why brood over the past? Manori held Ganni’s arm and said – come, I will show you your house.

The rumor that had spread in the lane was that a Muslim man was standing outside the lane and he was about to kidnap Ramdasi’s son. If the boy’s sister had not reached in time the man would have made away with the child. Hearing this, the women who were sitting on their stools in the street rushed back into their homes with their stools.

When Manori stepped into the street with Ganni, only a vendor and a dog were to be seen outside. However, many faces were peeping from the doors and windows, and whispers were afloat. In spite of his beard having turned white, the women had recognized Chiragdin’s father Abdullah Ganni.

That there was your house, Manori said, pointing to piles of rubble a little further. For a moment Ganni trembled, gazing wide-eyed at what lay in front of him. He had accepted the deaths of Chirag, his wife and their daughters long ago, but he was not prepared to see the new house in this state. His tongue grew parched and the trembling in his knees increased.

This rubble? He said in disbelief.

Manori saw his distress and said, taking his arm gently – your house was burnt down back then. 

Ganni managed to reach the spot with the support of his stick. The rubble was just dust and more dust, with some broken and burnt bricks scattered around. Who knew when the iron and wood had been removed? Only the frame of the burnt door had been saved and was jutting out of the debris. At the back were two burnt cupboards. Examining the scene closely, Ganni said – is this all that remains, this?

His knees seemed to collapse and he sat down holding the frame of the door. Then his head hit the frame and he wailed – hai! O’ Chiragdin!

The frame had stood thus amidst the rubble for seven-and-a-half years, but the wood had rotted. It crumbled when Ganni’s head hit it, with flakes of wood falling on his cap and hair. An insect fell out too, and started crawling on the brick pavement by the drain. It was looking for a hole to creep into, but each time it would lift his head and start its search again.

The number of people peeping through windows had multiplied and they were whispering that now the episode of seven-and-a-half years ago would come out in the open. They felt that the rubble would tell the entire story of that evening when Chirag was having his evening meal upstairs, and Rakha the wrestler had asked him to come downstairs for he had something important to tell him.

Those days the wrestler was the emperor of the lane. He lorded it over the Hindus in any case, and Chirag was only a Muslim. Chirag abandoned his meal and went downstairs. His wife Zubeda and daughters Kishwar and Sultana were peeping from the windows above. Chirag had barely reached the front door when the wrestler dragged him out by his shirt, threw him down in the lane, and sat down on his chest.

Chirag had gripped his hand, which had a knife, saying – no Rakha, don’t kill me! Save me, someone! Zubeda! Save me…! Zubeda had run downstairs screaming and rushed to the front door. A crony of Rakha’s held Chirag’s arms in an iron grip, while Rakha forced his knees down on Chirag’s thighs, yelling – why are you screaming you sister-seducer…I’m giving you Pakistan, here it comes!

And he had served Chirag his Pakistan before Zubeda could reach her husband.

The windows of the houses nearby were closed. Those who had witnessed the killing abdicated their responsibility by shutting their doors. But even behind these closed doors they heard Zubeda, Kishwar and Sultana scream for a long time. Rakha the wrestler and his cronies had given them Pakistan too, dispatching them to their maker. Their bodies were found not in Chirag’s home but in the canal.

For two long days Chirag’s home was ransacked, and after looting everything, someone set the house on fire. Rakha the wrestler had sworn that he would bury the culprit alive because he wanted the house for himself, which was what had prompted his decision to kill Chirag in the first place. He had even bought the material for the Hindu “havan” ritual to purify the house.

But the culprit was never found and never buried alive either, and for the past seven-and-a-half years, Rakha the wrestler had considered himself the custodian of the rubble. He would not allow anyone to clear it, or even to tether their cow or buffalo there. No one could pick up even a brick without his permission.

People were hoping that somehow the story would find its way to Ganni – perhaps the rubble would tell it all. Ganni was beside himself with grief, raking the dust with his nails and throwing it on himself as he wailed with his arm around the frame of the door – speak out, Chiragdin, speak! Where have you gone! O’ Kishwar! O’ Sultana! Where are you my children! Why have you left Ganni all alone! The flakes kept falling from the rotted wood.

Someone awoke Rakha the wrestler, who was sleeping by the well next to the peepal tree, or maybe he woke up on his own. When he heard that Abdullah Ganni had come from Pakistan and was sitting on the rubble of his house, phlegm rose in his throat and he started coughing. He spat on the ground, looked in the direction of the rubble, breathed heavily, and said – Ganni is sitting on his rubble.

His understudy Lachha the wrestler sat down by him to calm him down, saying – how is it his rubble? The rubble is ours!  


The older wrestler replied in a hoarse voice – but he is sitting there.

Lachha gave him a conspiring look and said –l let him sit there. You light your chhilam!

Rakha the wrestler parted his legs, stroked his bare thighs, and said – If Manori reveals anything, then…

Offering Rakha the chhilam, Lachha said – Manori’s end is near!

Rakha kept crushing the dried leaves by the well between his fingers. Then, taking a drag from the chhilam he asked – has anyone else talked to Ganni?

No one!

So!

At that moment Lachha saw Manori guiding Ganni by the arm, walking a step ahead of the old man to ensure he would not spot Rakha the wrestler by the well. But Rakha was too conspicuous not to be spotted. Spreading his arms wide, Ganni cried out – O’ Rakha!

Rakha lifted his head and looked at the old man. The wrestler felt a vague sense of panic but did not say anything.

Don’t you recognize me, Rakha?

Ganni lowered his arms, saying – I am Ganni, Chiragdin’s father!

The wrestler looked the old man up and down suspiciously. Ganni had a sparkle in his eyes on spotting a familiar face. The wrinkles beneath his white beard had grown. Rakha’s lower lip trembled, and he said in a heavy voice – So, Ganni!

Ganni’s arms rose again to embrace him, but seeing no response from the wrestler, he did not reach out. He sat down, resting his back against the trunk of the peepal tree…

Speculation was rife in the windows of the houses that since they were face to face now, the untold story was bound to come out. Probably the two of them would curse each other. Rakha could not touch Ganni now. Gone were the days when he could flaunt his status as the custodian of rubble. In fact, the rubble belonged neither to him nor to Ganni. It was the property of the government. The wrestler did not allow anyone to tether their cow there. In fact, Manori was a coward – why had he not told Ganni that Rakha had killed Chiragdin and his family? Rakha was not human, he was just a bull. All day he roamed around like a bull in the lane. But how weak he had become. His beard had turned white.

Ganni looked up and said – see Rakha, what remains now? I left a full house and now I have come to see the dust and rubble. This is all that is left of a home once alive with people. To tell you the truth I don’t even feel like leaving this rubble.

Tears flowed down the old man’s eyes.


The wrestler folded his legs, picked up his towel from the rim of the well, and threw it on his shoulder. Lachha gave him the chhilam and Rakha started taking deep drags.

You tell me, Rakha, how did all this happen?

Ganni controlled his tears and entreated – all of you were close him, you were like brothers, he could have taken shelter in someone’s home, why didn’t he?

What was one to say?

Rakha felt his voice echoing unnaturally. His lips were sticky with mucous. Sweat was dripping from his mustache. He felt a weight pressing down on his head, and his backbone felt like it needed support.

What’s it like in Pakistan?

He asked his question in the same heavy voice. The veins of his neck were stiff. He wiped the sweat in his underarms with his towel and spat out the mucus.

Rakhey what am I to tell you?

Ganni clutched his stick with both his hands and said – only god knows how I survive. Things would have been different if Chirag had been with me. Rakha! I wanted him to leave with me but he was adamant that he would not leave the newly-built house. Then he said there was no danger here, in his own lane. Poor fellow, he did not realize that even if there was no danger within the lane, it could always come from outside. Four of them died guarding the house. He would say that as long as Rakha was there no one could touch him. But no one can defy fate.

Rakha tried to stretch himself because his back was aching. He felt a heavy pressure on his waist and thighs. His breath was uneasy. His entire body was drenched in sweat and his feet were tingling. He seemed to be seeing stars in broad daylight. He felt his lips were not coordinating with his tongue. He wiped his lips with the towel and said – o’ lord! You are the one in all!

Gani realized that Rakha was in agony. His lips were parched and there were dark circles under his eyes. He put his hand on Rakha’s shoulder and said – don’t lose heart, Rakha. Whatever happened was pre-ordained. One cannot change it. May Allah bless the good and forgive the evil. Even if Chirag is not there, you people are with me. I can at least be happy knowing there are some memories here of the lost world. May Allah grant you health and happiness.

Ganni rose to his feet with the help of his stick. As he left, he said – all right then, Rakha the wrestler, do think of me sometimes.

A faint sound of acceptance struggled out of Rakha’s throat. Still holding his towel, he joined his palms together. Looking into the lane with longing, Ganni slowly made his way out of it.

The whispers continued behind the windows. as people felt Manori would follow the old man out to relate the whole story. Rakha had lost his voice in front of Ganni. How would he now stop anyone from tethering their cow near the rubble? Poor Zubeda! The accursed Rakha had neither home nor hearth! What would he know of the honor of a woman?

In a short while the women came down from their houses into the lane, the children started playing games, and two adolescent girls fought with each other over something.

Rakha sat by the well late into the evening, coughing and drawing on his chhilam. Several passers-by asked – Rakha Shah, one hears Ganni had come today from Pakistan.

Yes he came. Rakha gave the same answer each time.

And?

Nothing. He went away.

At night the wrestler walked out of the lane as always and sat on the bench outside the shop on the left. Usually he would offer gambling tips and suggestions for health and well-being to people he knew. But that day he just kept telling Lachha the story of his journey to the temple of Vaishno Devi some fifteen years ago.

Seeing Lachha off, he returned to the rubble and, seeing Loku Pandit’s buffalo standing there, shooed it away. Then he sat down on the frame of the burnt door sticking out of the dust. The lane was silent and pitch dark. The water could be heard flowing in the drain beneath the rubble, along with the sounds of insects.

A crow drifted in from somewhere and perched on the frame. Flakes of wood fell, awakening a dog sleeping by the rubble. The dog got up with a growl and started barking at the crow. The crow remained for a while before flying away to the peepal tree.

Now the dog turned his wrath on the wrestler, barking fiercely at him. The wrestler tried to chase him away, but to no effect. Then he threw a stone at the dog, who retreated a few steps but continued barking. The wrestler cursed him silently and slowly went and lay down by the well. The dog went into the lane and barked for some time. But when he saw no one there, he returned, flapping his ears, and sat down in a corner, growling.

Translated from the Hindi by Nirupama Dutt.

Playwright and short fiction writer Mohan Rakesh (1925-1972) was one of the pioneers, along with Nirmal Verma, Rajendra Yadav and others, of the Nai Kahani (modern story) literary movement of the Hindi literature in the 1950s.

This short story was first published on Scroll.in.