Smoke

Print edition : January 04, 2019

Gulzar (the pen name of Sampooran Singh Kalra) is a highly decorated and popular poet, lyricist and film director. Drawn from a collection of fiction and poetry about the unspooling of communal suspicions after Partition, this Urdu story (“Dhuan”, 2004) asks whether individual will has no place before the collective will of the mob.

Rakhshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based writer, translator and literary historian.

The talk caught fire very slowly but soon enough its smoke had filled the entire qasba.

The chaudhry had died at four in the morning. By seven, when his wife, the chaudhrain, had collected herself after a prolonged bout of crying, the first thing she did was to send for Mulla Khairuddin. The servant was given strict instructions not to say anything.

When the servant escorted the mulla into the courtyard and left, the chaudhrain took him to the bedroom upstairs where the chaudhry’s corpse had been removed from the bed and laid on the floor. A white face tinged with yellow draped in white sheets, it had white eyebrows, a white beard and long white hair. The chaudhry’s face emitted an otherworldly glow.

The mullah saw him and immediately recited “Inna lillahe wa innalillahe rajaoon and offered a few token words of condolence. He had barely sat down when the chaudhrain took out the will from a cupboard, and made him read it. The chaudhry’s last wish was that he should not be buried; instead, he wished to be cremated and his ashes strewn in the river which watered his land.

The mullah read the will but remained silent. The chaudhry had done a lot of good in the name of religion in this village. He was known to give equally to the Hindus and to the Muslims in the name of charity. He had had a proper brick-and-mortar mosque constructed in place of the makeshift one in the village. And what was more, he had even had a regular concrete structure erected at the cremation ground of the Hindus. Even though he had been sick for the past many years, and confined to his bed, he had given instructions for the iftari to be made in the mosque for the poor and the needy at his expense during every Ramzan. The Muslims of the neighbourhood were devoted to him and had great faith in him.

Now, reading the contents of the will, the mullah was worried. What if it caused trouble? As it is, things are bad in this country: the Hindus have become more Hindu and the Muslims have become more Muslim!

The chaudhrain said, “I don’t want to have any religious ceremony. All I want is that arrangements be made for him to be burnt in the cremation ground. I could have told Pandit Ram Chandar but I didn’t call him because I don’t want things to take a bad turn.”

But things did take a bad turn when Mulla Khairuddin sent for Pandit Ram Chandar and gave the following prudent advice: “Don’t allow the chaudhry to be cremated in your cremation ground, because the Muslims of this neighbourhood might create trouble. After all, the chaudhry was no ordinary man. Many people were associated with him in many different ways.”

Pandit Ram Chandar assured him that he did not want any sort of evil-mongering in his area. Before the news spread any further, he too would explain matters to some of his specially chosen people.

But the spark had been lit and the news gradually began to catch fire.

“It isn’t about the chaudhry or the chaudhrain; this is a matter of faith and belief. It concerns the entire community and religion itself. How dare the chaudhrain even consider having her husband cremated instead of buried! Is she unaware of the fundamentals of Islam?”

A few people insisted on meeting the chaudhrain. She spoke to them with great patience: “Brothers, this was his last wish. The body is nothing but dust, after all; burn it or bury it. If burning brings comfort to his spirit why should you object to it?”

A certain gentleman grew especially agitated. He asked: “Will burning him bring comfort to you?”

“Yes,” the chaudhrain’s answer was brief. “Fulfilling his last wish will bring me comfort.”

As the day progressed, so did the chaudhrain’s anxiety. The task she wished to accomplish with accord and agreement was becoming prolonged and protracted. There was no complicated plot or story or secret behind the chaudhry’s wish. Nor was there a philosophy aligned to a particular religion or belief system. It was a simple, straightforward human desire: that not a single trace of him should remain after his death.

“I am till I am; I won’t be when I cease to be.”

Years ago, he had said this to his wife but who has the time to go into such matters in any detail during the course of one’s life? The chaudhry, however, had written it down in his will. And to ensure that his wish was fulfilled was, for the chaudhrain, a token of her love and loyalty. After all, it isn’t as though one should forget all one’s promises as soon as the person goes away.

The chaudhrain tried to send Biru to fetch Pandit Ram Chandar but the pandit could not be found. His counterpart said, “Look here, brother, we must put tilak and recite mantras before burning the chaudhry.”

“Arre bhai, how can you change the religion of a dead person?”

“Don’t argue too much. We can’t set fire to a pyre without reciting shloka from the Gita. If we don’t do that the soul doesn’t find release. And if a soul does not find release then that restless spirit will trouble all of us: it will trouble you and it will trouble us. We are deeply indebted to Chaudhry sahab. We can’t do this to his spirit.”

Biru went away.

Panna spotted Biru as he was coming out of the pandit’s house. Panna went into the mosque and informed the congregation.

The fire that had almost died down caught flame again. Four or five respected Muslims went so far as to announce their decision in unequivocal terms. They were especially indebted to the chaudhry; they could not bear to let his spirit wander. They gave instructions for a grave to be dug in the graveyard behind the mosque.

By the time evening fell, some more people gathered at the haveli. They had decided that the chaudhrain must be intimidated, the chaudhry’s will must be taken from her and burnt; without the will what could the old woman do!

Perhaps, the chaudhrain had sensed this possibility. She hid the will and when people tried to scare and bully her, she told them: “Ask Mulla Khairuddin; he has seen the will and read all of it.”

“What if he denies it?”

“If he places his hand on the Holy Quran and denies it, I will show it; otherwise…”

“Or else what?”

“Or else see it in the court.”

The fact that the matter could reach the court now became clear. It could even be that the chaudhrain would send for her lawyer, and the police, from the city. She could call the police and, in their presence, ensure that her decision was carried through. But what if she had already called them! For, how else could she put her husband’s corpse on slabs of ice and talk with such self-assurance?

At night, news spread at the speed of rumours.

Someone said: “A horse rider has just been spotted going towards the city. The rider had swathed his head and face with cloth, and he was seen coming out of the chaudhry’s haveli.”

Someone had even seen the rider coming out of the chaudhry’s stable.

According to Khadu, he had not just heard the sound of wood being chopped in the haveli’s backyard but had also seen trees being felled.

Without doubt, the chaudhrain was making preparations for a pyre to be lit in her backyard. It made Kallu’s blood boil.

“You cowards! Tonight a Muslim will be burnt on a pyre and all of you will sit around watching the flames feed the fire.”

Kallu leapt out. Killing and bloodshed was his profession, but so what? After all, faith, too, counts for something.

“Friends, not even one’s mother can be dearer than one’s faith.”

Accompanied by four or five of his comrades, Kallu entered the haveli by scaling its rear wall. The old woman sat alone beside the corpse. Kallu’s axe sliced her head before she had time to feel surprise.

They picked up the chaudhry’s corpse and set off towards the rear of the mosque, where a grave had been prepared. As they walked, Ramza asked, “What will happen when the chaudhrain’s body is found in the morning?”

“Is the old woman dead?”

“Her head had been split; she is unlikely to survive till the morning.”

Kallu paused and looked at the chaudhrain’s bedroom. Panna understood Kallu’s deepest thoughts.

“Carry on, boss; I know exactly what you are thinking. Everything will be taken care of.”

Kallu carried on towards the graveyard.

That night when the flames from the chaudhry’s bedroom leapt up to touch the skies, the entire qasba was filled with smoke.

The living had been burnt.

And the dead had been buried.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

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