by Adithi Rao
‘Bapu,’ he whispered. ‘Eat something.’
Bapu couldn’t hear him. He was many miles away, lying in a little bed, his life slipping away. Only his spirit remained strong, so strong…
Aisha wanted a doll. She had begged for one for so long now, and Munna badly wanted to get it for her.
“I stopped by Ahmed Bhai’s toy shop on my way home yesterday to check the price. The doll you like costs 6 rupees!”
“Allah!” gasped Aisha, her eyes wide as saucers. “So much!”
Then her longing got the better of her and she dropped her eyes and mumbled, “But it’s so beautiful…”
Munna’s face softened. He decided to earn the money, no matter how long it took. He worked as an assistant in a shoe store after school each day, for which Kapoor Sahib paid him three rupees a month.
At Kapoor, Chand & Sons, Munna was the junior assistant. He hardly saw the customers who came and went, for his job was to remain up in the attic and throw down shoes of different sizes that the senior assistants yelled for, as they fitted out the customers. Clients. Kapoor Sahib insisted that they be called clients.
In the attic were hundreds of shoe boxes piled one over the other. At twelve years of age, Munna and Shankar (the other junior assistant) were the only ones small enough to move around with some ease in that confined space upstairs. So they ruled their territory like young lords, arranging everything according to some brilliantly devised system known to them alone, that ensured that they never took more than a minute to find any pair of shoes in the size and colour that was needed below.
Munna liked his life at Kapoor, Chand & Sons. He liked Kapoor Sahib, who was always jovial and kind. He liked the senior assistants who teased and laughed and made funny comments on the custo…clients…that came and went each day. Most of all, he liked Shankar, his simple little friend and coworker.
This was Munna’s life. School by day, the store every evening, home at night. At first Rafi Muhammed, Munna’s father, had been displeased at the thought of his young son working. But times were getting harder, and money dearer. They needed Munna’s three rupees to pay for their monthly ration of sugar. For some months now, Rafi’s vegetable stall in the market place had become less and less lucrative. The ladies of the fine homes who once came to him, smiling and chatting easily as he picked out the freshest of peas and bhindi to fill their baskets, now walked quickly past his stall with lowered eyes, on to Bijoy Babu’s cubbyhole next door where the vegetables were less green.
Only the women from the mohallas, the Muslim ghettos, came to his shop anymore, shrouded in their burqas. But they were so poor that they could just only afford to buy their vegetables by the quarter kilo at a time. Sometimes, moved by the weariness in some woman’s eyes, Rafi Bhai would throw in a few extra bhindis for free, tipping the weighing scale past the pau kilo mark.
Rafi realised that Munna was happy at Kapoor, Chand & Sons. The boy laughed there; he had friends there. In times like these, thought Rafi, that is something.
One day, up in the attic, Munna and Shankar were taking a tea break.
“I’ve worked it all out,” said Munna. “I’ll give Abbajaan 2.50 rupees from my salary and keep eight annas each month. In about a year I’ll have enough to buy Aishu’s doll.”
Shankar looked worried. “But how will they manage at your home without the eight annas?”
“Arrey, I drink so much tea that most of the sugar from the house goes into my cup! So I figured that if I stop taking sugar in my tea, that will make up for it. Isn’t that a good idea?”
Shankar’s large, innocent eyes lit up slowly. “Yes, it really is. And Aisha will be so happy with her doll!”
Munna thought of his sister’s delight and his heart clenched in anticipation of the happy day he’d surprise her with that much-coveted toy.
“What would you do if you were allowed to keep your earnings, Shankar?” asked Munna, seeing the far-away expression on the other boy’s face. It was easy to talk about it because they both knew that such a thing would never happen. Shankar’s family was too large and poor to spare a single anna on anything other than food.
Shankar thought for a long time. Munna didn’t interrupt him because he knew this took some serious consideration.
“Maybe he’ll buy himself a shirt,” mused Munna silently, as he watched the emotions play across his friend’s face. “His are almost completely worn out.”
“Pink sweets!” cried Shankar suddenly, his eyes shining.
“I’d buy a dozen of those pink sweets from Anthony’s bakery, and all of us at home could eat one. Not share one. We’d eat one whole one each!”
“Those syrupy ones?” laughed Munna thoughtlessly. “They are terrible.”
Shankar turned his head quickly and Munna’s laughter faded. Their eyes held for a moment. Then Munna nodded awkwardly and looked away. In times like this, you did not mess with people’s dreams.
Months passed and the New Year came around again. Life went on as usual in Munna’s little world, but out there, great changes were taking place. They didn’t matter too much to Munna, who was content and secure in his life of work and school. He had now managed to save two rupees of the six that he needed for Aisha’s doll. He had even learned to enjoy his tea without sugar.
Often on his way from school to the shoe store, Munna stopped by Ahmed Bhai’s toy shop to gaze at the doll. Aishu’s Doll, he called it.
Then one day in July, something unexpected happened. Kapoor Sahib called Munna to him.
“Munna,” he said quietly. “Take this money.”
Munna’s eyes went from the six rupees to Kapoor Sahib’s face. He frowned, puzzled.
“But it is not pay day, Sahib. And so much money…?”
“It’s this month’s salary and the next. Here, keep it. Don’t come back to work tomorrow.”
Munna stared at Kapoor Sahib in shock.
“Have I done something…?”
“No, no, nothing! You’re a good boy! A good…” his voice broke and he turned away. Munna looked around at the others, bewildered. Sumanth and Haresh didn’t meet his eyes. Shankar was weeping silently in the corner. Munna couldn’t understand it. What had happened in the course of these past few hours?
“Sahib!” he cried desperately, and Kapoor Sahib turned around. Slowly some of the anguish from the older man’s face melted and he pulled himself together. In a calmer voice he said, “Son, it is not safe now. That’s why I don’t want you to come back to work. If things settle down in time you’ll have your old job back, I promise. But for a while you must remain at home. Now wait here at the store until it is night, and I will take you home myself.”
Munna nodded and turned away, the six rupees clutched in his sweaty fist.
“Take off your skull cap.”
Munna and Shankar spent the rest of the afternoon huddled in the attic together. No more clients came in, for the shutter to the store’s main entrance had been lowered and locked. All around there was a deathly calm that struck a note of terror in Munna’s heart, although he couldn’t entirely comprehend why.
As the hours ticked by, Munna slowly began to feel the fear loosen its grip over his heart. He spread out the damp and crumpled six rupee notes on the floor beside him to dry. Then he gazed at them thoughtfully, as if seeing them for the first time. Speaking in a low tone, he said, “I already had two rupees saved up. With these six I have a total of eight.”
Understanding dawned on both boys at the same time. They sat up and grinned at each other excitedly.
“You can buy the doll for Aisha!” said Shankar happily.
Munna nodded, his eyes shining.
The two boys whispered the next three hours away, imagining Aisha’s delight, making plans to meet outside work, reassuring each other, but really themselves, that nothing would change about their friendship. How hard would it be, really? After all, Munna lived in one of the mohallas of Calcutta’s Raja Bazaar, and Shankar in Beliaghata, just a short distance away.
The clock struck eight and Kapoor Sahib called to Munna from down below. The boys stopped speaking abruptly and looked at each other. Tears sprung to Shankar’s eyes again, and suddenly Munna felt that he couldn’t stand it. Blinking hard, he said gruffly, “Allah hafiz.” Go with God. Then he swung himself out through the opening in the attic and descended the ladder. Haresh and Sumanth patted his shoulder awkwardly as he walked past them and followed Kapoor Sahib out through the back door of Kapoor, Chand & Sons.
Kapoor Sahib led Munna to his car that was parked in the sheltered premises of the next door mechanic shop. It was an old Fiat, a 1930 model. Munna moved to open the gate when Kapoor Sahib snapped tensely, “Leave it! Get in the car!”
As he climbed in, Munna saw Kapoor Sahib’s eyes dart up and down the deserted street nervously as he pushed the gates open wide. He got into the driver’s seat and backed out, his jerky movements making the car jump a little. They sped off down the road.
“Sahib?” ventured Munna hesitantly.
“Wouldn’t it be better to slow down a little? That way we’ll look less suspicious.”
Kapoor Sahib stared at him blankly. Then he nodded and forced himself to relax. They drove on in silence, more smoothly now. As they turned into the main street, Munna’s heart gave a little lift. When things calmed down he would come here and buy the doll!
And that’s when they drove past Ahmed Bhai’s toy shop. The sign board sagged grotesquely from one of its hinges, blackened and charred. The shop below it was burned to cinders. Everything. Everything in that shop was destroyed. Including Aishu’s Doll.
The next few weeks were tense and terrifying. Rafi Bhai’s family spent many hours with their ears pressed to the radio listening to the news of the outside world. One man begged for peace, over and over and over again. The others seemed bent on breaking the country up. Nobody believed that people of different gods could get along together in one land.
It was the month of Ramzan. This year people kept their fast as usual, only now it was easier to control their hunger, knowing as they did that there was nothing to eat anyway. It had been a while since the people from the mohllas had been able to go out to work. And even if anyone had the money, there was little out there to buy with it.
The day Ahmed Bhai’s toy shop burned down, Munna had handed over the eight rupees to his father. Rafi had locked it away in the tiny metal safe. Now Munna knew that his father intended to use the money to buy their tickets.
“We are no longer safe here. There are people in Rangoon, my Abba’s old associates who still honour his memory. For his sake they will help me. I’ll write to them, and once things are arranged, we’ll cross over into Burma and start a new life there,” he had whispered to his wife one night when he thought the children were asleep.
Things were getting more unsafe, and Munna sensed that it wouldn’t be long now before leaving India became inevitable. On the twenty-seventh roza, the night of Badi Raath, the country officially split in two. Eid was only three days away. If the moon could be sighted, Eid would be on the 18th of August this year. The people rioted on as the Holy Month drew to its close. The mohallas were burning. People were on fire, inside their hearts and outside.
On the night of the 17th, somebody mustered the courage to sneak up to the terrace and peer up at the sky. And there he saw it, glowing softly, that sliver of a moon in a sky lit up by the fires burning the city. He let out a cry of joy and anguish, and ran downstairs to tell the others.
Nobody from the mohalla went to the eidgah for the Eid prayers the next morning. It was too unsafe. But they prayed at home, prayed as they had never prayed before. There were no new clothes that year, no sheer khorma. The mohalla was quiet, and greetings were exchanged amongst people of the same building only, for nobody dared venture out into the street.
Ammi and the other women of the building had left-over henna powder from last year. They pooled the powder into one large bowl, mixed it into a thick paste, and sat together in the central courtyard and applied it to each other’s hands, talking softly among themselves. The menfolk leaned over the balconies to watch, grateful for this momentary happiness the women were enjoying.
Somewhere in the world there are people walking freely in the streets, laughing, talking, thought Munna, as his eyes sought and found his ammi and Aisha among the women. Somewhere out there, maybe in this very city. But not here. Not us.
Then something stirred. There was a subtle shift in the atmosphere. The men began to discuss in sharp whispers, growing more animated with each passing minute. Munna, lost in thought with his chin resting disconsolately on his hand, noticed nothing. But as the people around him became excited, he raised his head and turned around.
“He’s coming!” they were saying.
“Haan! He’s coming here to beg for peace, to wish us for Eid.”
Munna frowned, curious now. When the others rushed outside, he went along with them.
From a distance, Munna saw a thin, balding old man wearing a dhoti and holding a stick. He wore round glasses and a white moustache. He looked like a man of no importance. Yet he was followed by throngs of people, all reaching out to touch him, shake his hands, touch his feet. The old man came closer and closer, and finally he reached the place where Munna was standing. Somebody stepped forward, tears streaming down his face.
“Bapu!” he cried, addressing the old man as Father. “They will wipe us out! We will be destroyed!”
Bapu took the man’s hands in both his own. He spoke softly, lovingly. “They are your brothers. They are blinded by hate but they are your brothers. Have faith in God!”
“Bapu,” said another man. “Are you not afraid to be here alone and unprotected?”
“I am among my countrymen. From whom should I seek protection?”
“But you are a Hindu.”
“I am a child of God,” said Bapu.
“But how to forgive them? They have killed our children in this war of hate!” cried one man despairingly.
“Remember one of them that you have loved in this life. Remember one act of kindness, and your wounds will begin to heal.”
Suddenly, Munna’s mind jumped to Shankar. It had been weeks since he had thought about him. These days he only thought of people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But now, with the old man’s words, he remembered that little friend he had spent so many hours with in the attic, their shared secrets, the laughter, those innocent eyes. Suddenly he heard Shankar’s voice saying, “Pink sweets! I’d buy a dozen of those pink sweets from Anthony’s bakery and all of us at home will eat one.”
Munna turned around and sped inside his building, taking the stairs two at a time. He rushed into his house, dug out the locker keys from their hiding place, unlocked the safe and rummaged about till he found the eight rupees he had given to his father. He withdrew one note and sprinted away, running until he reached the main road. Thanks to Bapu’s presence, there was some life in the street today. Surely Anthony’s bakery would be open? After all, he was a Christian and had nothing to fear.
Ten minutes later, Munna raced back into his mohalla. In his hand was a sweet box. His eyes searched for the old man, fearing that he might have left. But he was still there, at the far end of the street, having made his way slowly, stopping to take people by the hand and wish them Eid Mubarak.
Munna hurried up to the old man and said, “Bapu?”
At the sound of the young voice, Bapu turned.
“Will you be going to Beliaghata from here?” asked Munna.
Bapu nodded. Then Munna held out his hand, offering Bapu the box of sweets.
“Will you give this to Shankar? He is my friend. He lives in Saraswati Building. Tell him it is from Munna for Eid.”
Bapu looked down at the box in Munna’s hand. For a while he said nothing. But when he took the box and passed a gnarled hand over Munna’s head, Munna saw that the old man was crying.
In August 1947, Mahatma Gandhi undertook a fast unto death in Calcutta, to protest against the Hindu-Muslim riots in the city. As he lay in his little bed, weak and dying, a twelve-year-old boy, who was leaving Calcutta for Rangoon with his family, was closely following the reports of Bapu’s failing health on the radio.
‘Bapu,’ he whispered sadly. ‘Eat something…’
That evening, the boy snuck out of his home and bought a few oranges. Then he made his way through the city, searching for a certain address. When he found it, he went inside and climbed the narrow flight of stairs that led to the terrace where the Mahatma lay. At the door, the boy stopped and gazed for a long time at the motionless figure in the narrow bed. Then he placed the oranges carefully near the threshold and slipped away.
The next morning, news reached the Mahatma that people all over the city had stopped rioting so that he would break his fast. When he heard this, the Mahatma smiled. With the last vestiges of strength left in his frail body, he murmured, “May I have some orange juice, please?”