“Has he returned?”
“Who rang the bell?”
“A servant from the house across. He wanted the newspaper.”
She grumbled, as if she hadn’t heard him, “I wonder where he is?” Looking worried, she turned around and went inside.
“BetayMobeen,” BawaJaan said, “SajidMian is waiting. Make some tea for him.”
Mobeen was about to get up when Sajid stopped him, “Not yet. Tea can wait. Let Moin get back.”
“If only he come back home,” BawaJaan said despondently. “You can see how worried his mother is.”
Amma, still worried, looked into the room once more as if she had suddenly remembered something, “SajidBhai, what did he tell you?”
“Ji…Actually…I had complained to him — that the evenings are very boring. One can’t go anywhere. There is a curfew every evening. He replied — I am always at home these days. Come over after work. We’ll invite Rasheed too. Both of you can spend the night here. We’ll gossip. Maybe, even see a film…”
“Yes, he has been at home for several days. He has no work. Where can he go? But, early this morning, there was a telephone call for him. He left at once. I said to him — Betay, don’t go. The times are bad…He replied — I have some urgent work. I’ll take care of it and be back in about an hour…He is yet to come back! It’s almost evening and there is no sign of him.”
Amma continued to stand for a while in silence then went inside. That was the fourth time she had come into the room since Sajid had arrived. And Sajid hadn’t been there for long. BawaJaan hadn’t even started his usual commentary on current affairs.
The telephone rang again. Mobeen picked it up, “Hello…ji…ji…He hasn’t yet come back.”
Amma rushed into the room, “Is he asking for Moin? At least ask him…”
“Ask him what? I don’t even know who he was…”
“I don’t even know who he was! How casual can you be? I wonder who he was. There was a call for Moin in the morning soon after he left. And another in the afternoon.And yet another now. Someone asks for him and disconnects immediately after…I wonder who he is…an informer or some…” she fell silent before completing her sentence and walked out of the room.
As soon as she left, BawaJaan began to talk freely, “You can at least step out of your house. Was it peaceful in the city today or was there any…”
“I didn’t hear anything. We’ll know from the newspaper tomorrow.”
“Yes, we’ll find out from tomorrow’s newspaper. There was a time when the most insignificant news used to spread through the city at once. Now the times are such that if there is a calamity in one locality, other localities hardly even get to hear about it. For instance, last Friday, we were at a wedding feast. There was firing in a locality, a few steps away from the marriage hall. The police arrived. A curfew was imposed. But we knew nothing about it. We continued with our feast.”
“But, Syed Sahib, rumours spread very fast.”
“Yes, that’s true, Mian. The times are very bad. That’s why I tell both my sons — stop wandering around. But Moin can’t sit still. I especially warn him — Betay, the times have changed. You can’t roam through the city day and night. Finish your work and return home at once. But he refuses to listen. You can see how worried his mother is.”
The telephone rang again. BawaJaan stopped talking. “MobeenBetay, see who it is. Perhaps…his…”
Mobeen rushed to the telephone, “Hello…all right…I’ll get him.” Then he called out, “Nadeem, phone call for you…”
Nadeem picked up the telephone, spoke for a few minutes and then returned to the drawing room.
“What’s the score?” Mobeen asked.
“Only? That’s very slow.”
“Their bowlers have caught us in a noose. No one has hit a boundary for a long time.”
“I hope we won’t lose.”
“Let’s see what happens,” he said as he left the room.
Amma continued to stand in silence. Sajid’s statement had no impact on her. Suddenly, she felt strange standing there. She quietly left the room.
There was silence for a while.
Mobeen grumbled, “BhaiJaan knows that Amma gets worried quickly. Not only does she worry, she makes us tense too. But, BhaiJaan…”
“Betay, her concern is understandable. These days one is even afraid to step out of one’s house.”
“Saiyyad Sahib,” Sajid said, “why speak of the world outside? One isn’t safe even inside one’s house.”
“You are right, Mian. One should always be cautious when the times are bad,” Abba said. Then after a pause, he added, “Let me tell you something. There was a time when I wasn’t afraid of anything. I worked in the forest department. I was young. I got a job soon after my matriculation. My Phupha was a forest conservator. He got me a job in his department. I was posted to the Central Provinces. The jungle there…may God protect us…was so dark even during the day that one could walk for miles on end without seeing a ray of light or coming across another human being. My orderly and I were nearly always alone. I had a rifle and a belt full of cartridges. The orderly carried a lantern in one hand and a stick in the other. We had to deal with the Gonds. They were a wild tribe. Very dangerous. They stole logs of wood at night. The forest guards were afraid of them. They didn’t want to risk their own lives. But if a Gond fell into my trap, I never let him escape. When I came home during the vacations, TayaJaan said — Why did your Phupha condemn you to that place? The whole area belongs to the Hindus…and you also have to deal with the Gonds, the Bhils and the animals of the forest. Aren’t you afraid? I replied — No…Indeed, I wasn’t afraid of anything in those days, even though I was the only Muslim around. Believe me, I wasn’t afraid of anything…But now I am. I am afraid of the Muslims.” He fell silent. Then he sighed, “How things have changed! A Muslim is afraid of other Muslims!”
“Syed Sahib,” Sajid asked, “aren’t the Central Provinces in the south?”
“Perhaps. But, Mian, we weren’t concerned about north or south. We didn’t care about where we were or where we were going. In a forest, one loses all sense of direction. There is nothing but the jungle everywhere…with tigers, panthers, leopards…and men known as Gonds or Bhils — wilder than the animals. I am surprised at myself when I recall those foolhardy days. How could I have wandered so fearlessly? I suppose, I had faith in Allah above, and confidence in my rifle, as I walked through the forest down here. Mian, the rifle was a great help. The Gonds knew I had a rifle…Even during the riots, it was my rifle that saved our locality. We weren’t attacked. People knew there was one house in the locality which had a rifle…” BawaJaan paused, took a deep breath and said, “It’s sad that I had to leave my rifle back there. Now, Mian, we are unarmed. That is why we are so afraid…”
“BawaJaan,” Mobeen asked, “how can a rifle protect you now? These days, a rifle is no better than any country-made weapon.”
“Did you hear that SajidMian? Whenever I talk about my rifle, my sons laugh at me. They tell me people use Kalashnikoffs these days. Maybe they are right. But, still, Mian, a rifle is a rifle…”
Nadeem looked into the room and asked, “Hasn’t BhaiJaan returned yet?”
“No,” Mobeen answered curtly.
“Where could he be? Amma is worried.”
“Allah knows where he is. I wish he would realize how worried Amma gets.” Mobeen paused for a moment and then asked, “What’s the score?”
“The run rate is a bit better now. We have a fifty-fifty chance. Let’s see what turn the match takes after the tea-break.” Then he exclaimed with a start, “The tea-break is over,” and left the room in a hurry.
BawaJaan heaved a sigh of relief. He didn’t like being interrupted.
“SajidMian, the boys are crazy about cricket. In our days, we weren’t so crazy even about kite-flying.”
“Yes, these days there is a craze for cricket,” Sajid replied briefly.
“Mian, all these are games which fate plays with us. Once upon a time, a sword was a sign of manliness, now it is mocked at. But, to tell you honestly, SajidMian, these modern times have yet to find an alternative to the sword. Modern weapons are only machines. Press a trigger and the machines begin to fire. And what’s so great about a trigger? Anybody can press it. It’s not a test of manliness. But a sword…”
He was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. “Mobeen, go and see who it is. Perhaps…”
Mobeen went to open the door.
Amma quickly came in, and asked, “Did the doorbell ring?”
“Yes,” BawaJaan replied calmly. “There is someone at the door.”
“Who else can it be? I know it’s him…” As Amma turned to go towards the door, Mobeen returned.
“Who was it?” asked Amma and BawaJaan together.
“The man who lives upstairs.”
“The man who lives upstairs?”BawaJaan looked puzzled.
“The one who lives in No.63.”
“What did he want?”
“He wanted to know if BhaiJaan was at home.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“You should have asked him. You should have found out what he wanted.”
“I don’t know him. I don’t even know what he does.”
“He is a lawyer.”
“A lawyer?”BawaJaan asked suspiciously.
“Arrey, he has never asked about Moin earlier. I don’t think Moin even knows him.”
“SajidMian, do you know him?”
“That’s funny. None of us know him.”
“In fact, I hardly ever socialize with these flat-wallahs,” Sajid said, as if trying to explain himself.
“As if we do, Mian. Apart from you, we don’t know anyone else who lives here or what they do.”
“But why did that lawyer come here? Why did he ask for Moin?”
“Amma, I think the lawyer is a decent man. You shouldn’t unnecessarily suspect him.”
“You keep quiet. You think every petty thief is a decent man.”
“What strange times we live in!” BawaJaan said. “Men are afraid of men, and neighbours don’t trust their neighbours. Indeed, how can they? All sorts of people have now come and settled in the city. Consider our flats, for instance. People from all walks of life live here. They are all strangers. Who knows what they do? That is why they can’t share each other’s sorrow. Once upon a time, neighbours shared each other’s pain, consoled each other. Now, we can’t go and cry before anyone; now we can’t tell anyone that our son left home in the morning and hasn’t yet returned, that he is in trouble…”
Amma, who seemed lost in thought, suddenly got up and left the room.
“I am really getting worried. It’s time for the curfew and BhaiJaan…”
“Yes, Betay. I don’t know what to do,” BawaJaan said anxiously.
“Perhaps we should ask someone,” Mobeen said, wondering whom he could contact.
“Moin should have come back by now,” Sajid said. “I really don’t understand why he hasn’t. He asked me to come here at this time and even invited Rasheed. Perhaps, Rasheed has delayed him, and they’ll come together.”
“We are all anxious about the boy,” BawaJaan said. He looked very perturbed. “I wonder whose inauspicious face I saw in the morning. The whole day has been spent worrying about something or the other. First, a letter from BasharatBhai upset us. SajidMian, BasharatBhai refused to migrate. He still lives back there. He wrote about the conditions in Khurja. They are very bad. He thinks, however, that people in Pakistan live comfortably.”
“Yes, it’s hell over there,” Sajid said.
“Mian, earlier I used to get very angry. At the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Jews. After all, the Jews have also tormented the Muslims a lot. I used to get very angry. Now I don’t. Perhaps, I’ve grown old…or, perhaps, I’ve witnessed so much that…I can’t even tell you. Yes, I used to get very angry. Now I don’t. At anything…If I ever get angry, it’s at myself.”
“Yes, the times are bad.”
“No, Sajid Mian, that’s not the reason. The truth is that we have no compassion. My father, for example — may his soul rest in peace — was such a fine person that when he read Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, he would weep inconsolably. Compassion disappeared with people like him, along with all sense of Mussalmani.”
Nadeem entered the room looking very nervous. “MobeenBhai, Amma is standing at the door. Go and take care of her. The match is in the last stages. I’ll be back soon. BhaiJaan has caused us a lot of anxiety,” he said as he ran out of the room.
Mobeen rushed to the door. Bawa Jaan seemed to have lost his voice. Somehow, Mobeen managed to cajole Amma back into the room and persuaded her to sit on the sofa.
“Please, AmmaJaan, don’t worry so much. Maybe, something urgent has detained him. He’ll be back.”
“No, he won’t come back. I know.” Amma seemed to have given up all hope. “How can he come home now? The curfew has already been imposed.”
“Not yet,” Mobeen said, contradicting her.
“He will never come back,” Amma sobbed.
BawaJaan sat in silence for a while. Then he said to Mobeen, “Betay, take her inside.”
Mobeen tried to console Amma. She wiped her tears and stopped sobbing.
“Come. Let’s go in,” Mobeen said.
She stood up and silently walked out of the room. Mobeen followed her.
“Pakistan has won!” Nadeem ran into the room shouting with excitement.
“Really?”Sajid asked enthusiastically. “It would have been embarrassing if we had lost.”
“No one could predict the result till the last moment. The last ball settled the issue. Had that boundary not been struck, we would have lost the match.”
“Well, at least, we have saved our honour,” Sajid seemed very satisfied at the victory. But he wasn’t as ecstatic as Nadeem.
“Now that you are no longer anxious, go and see how your mother is.”
“So, BhaiJaan hasn’t yet returned…that’s the limit…Where could he be?” He walked out muttering to himself.
“What’s the time?” BawaJaan asked Sajid.
“The curfew would have been imposed,” Sajid said, looking at his watch.
After a pause, BawaJaan grumbled under his breath, “Something must have…” His voice trailed into silence.
“I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand?”
After a while, Sajid said, “Maybe I should go.”
“You have waited long enough. Now…” BawaJaan didn’t complete his sentence.
Sajid was about to get up when the doorbell rang again. Startled, Sajid said, “I think he has come.”
“He…how can he come at this time?”
They watched Mobeen and Nadeem run to the door. Tense with apprehension, they continued to sit where they were. When the other two returned, Moin was, indeed, with them. BawaJaan looked at him reproachfully.
“Arrey, Sajid, you are still here! What happened was that…”
BawaJaan interrupted him and said, “Tell us later. See your mother first.”
“All right.Sajid, wait for me here. I’ll be back soon,” he said, his face tense with fear.
“Allah is merciful,” Sajid said, as Moin left the room. Then after a pause, he added, “We thought that…” He didn’t complete his sentence.
BawaJaan, lost in thought, continued to sit in silence.
Trying to resume the conversation, Sajid said, “Life these days is completely unpredictable. Riots have logic of their own. A man walks through a crowded bazaar. Suddenly a shot is fired from somewhere. The man falls dead. This could happen to any one of us. Death may strike while one is out for a walk. Anything can happen.”
“Yes,” BawaJaan sighed. “One shouldn’t say such things, SajidMian, but since you have raised the subject, I must tell you that Pakistan…is lost.”
Nadeem walked in with a packet of sweets. “Have some sweets, SajidBhai.”
“Sweets! Oh well…all right. But what’s the occasion?”
“To celebrate Pakistan’s victory!” Then he extended the packet towards BawaJaan and said, “You have some too.”
“No. You know I avoid eating sweets.”
Nadeem left the room as quickly as he had come in.
BawaJaan’s mind was fixed on the same subject. He whispered, as if to himself, “How funny! Pakistan hasn’t fought a war but has lost…lost to itself.”
Moin returned. His face was still marked with fear. He sat down quietly. Tea was served.
“Have some tea, Sajid…Yaar, you had to wait a long time.”
BawaJaan got up and said, “Well, you carry on with your conversation. I must go.”
“Syed Sahib, tea has been served. Won’t you have some tea with us?”
“No, Mian, it’s time for my namaz.”
“Yaar, Sajid, sorry.”
“But, yaar, you have upset everyone in the house. What happened?”
“I’ll tell you. Drink your tea.”
“You look upset. Did something happen?”
“No, nothing happened. Drink your tea, yaar. It will get cold.”
Puzzled, Sajid looked at Moin’s face for a while and then began to drink his tea. He wasn’t in the mood to talk because the entire episode had exhausted him. Moin too was tired at the end of the day.
“I am sure you were bored out of your mind today. BawaJaan must have really bored you.”
“Not at all. I was very impressed by his conversation. And, well…” He stopped as if he had suddenly recalled something, “Wasn’t Rasheed supposed to come with you? Didn’t he turn up?”
After some hesitation, Moin replied, “No.” Then in a broken voice, he added, “He won’t come now.”
“Yes, how can he come now? He would have, if he were planning to. Didn’t he meet you?”
“He did meet me. We were together.”
Nadeem, looking rather pleased, walked into the room, and said, “SajidBhai, let’s see a film tonight to celebrate the victory. What do you say? BhaiJaan, you also wanted to see one.”
“A film?”Moin asked with surprise. “Sajid?”
“No, yaar, not tonight. You are tired and I am not in the mood. Besides, Rasheed’s absence has upset me.”
“Rasheed,” Moin said in a whisper. “It’s strange that a man is here one moment…and gone the next.”
Utterly confused, Sajid looked at Moin who seemed to be lost in his thought.
“You haven’t yet told me what happened.”
At that moment, Mobeen walked in and said, “SajidMian, there was a telephone call from your home asking when you would be back.”
“Didn’t you tell them?” Moin asked.
“I did. But Ammi worries a lot.”
“I told them that you would be late,” Nadeem said. “We are going to watch a film to celebrate our victory.”
“Oh no, not today,” Sajid said and got up quickly. “Some other time.”
Moin didn’t try to stop him. “Yes, some other time.”
Sajid went back to his flat. He entered his room and collapsed into a chair as if he had walked a great distance. Soon his mother entered the room.
“It’s good that you are back. I was worried. When I called you, Nadeem told me that you were celebrating. When I asked him — Betay, what are you celebrating? He said that you were celebrating our victory. When I asked him — Victory, whose victory? — he replied, Pakistan’s victory! — Pakistan’s? And Betay, who lost? But suddenly the telephone was disconnected…All right, you rest. I won’t disturb you. Should I send you some tea?”
“No, I have already had some.”
From outside came the sounds of whistles.
“Strange, why are people blowing whistles today?” Sajid’s mother said anxiously as she left the room.
Sajid got up and began to pace up and down. He didn’t know what to do. He flipped through a few books. Rearranged the ones that were lying scattered on the table. Tore up some old papers and threw them into the waste-paper basket. He didn’t know what to do after that. Once again, he heard the sounds of whistles being blown somewhere in the distance. He went and stood out on the balcony. From the balcony of his third floor flat, it always seemed as if the entire city lay spread out before him. Glowing with lights, it used to look beautiful at night. That night there was something different about it. Only a few scattered lights were burning and they too seemed dim and lifeless. He looked at the street below. Normally busy, it was now desolate. Suddenly, several jeeps, packed with policemen, roared through the street shattering its silence. Then once again an eerie silence settled over the street.
“Let’s celebrate our victory…” Nadeem’s sentence echoed in his mind for no reason. Going back to his room, he shut the balcony door and the windows facing the street. Still unable to find anything to do, he collapsed into his chair and closed his eyes.
Many disjointed and meaningless thoughts flashed through his mind — “Where are we? Where are we heading? One loses all sense of direction in a jungle. The jungle is everywhere. It is all around…Fierce Gonds armed with spears…Dark nights…He will not come now. Really?…”
Sajid got up with a start. He wanted to call Moin at once and talk to him. He should at least have asked Moin what…what…? But then he was overcome by another thought — Why should he ask? Slowly, he sat down in his chair and closed his eyes. He was once again in the jungle of the Gonds…
Original title: Gondonka Jungle
Date of publication: 1990