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Tamasha

Nidhi Arora


A man loves poetry but is constantly driven away from it by his sense of family—as well as one adamant member of his family.


The first time I really met the man Baba was, was when he retired. It was also the last time.


In his thirty-five years of medical practice, Baba hadn’t taken a day off. He worked from sunrise till sunset, on a mission to cure all of his patients of all malaise. Or perhaps to cure the emptiness that sat inside him, that neither the endless pro bono cases he took on nor the countless sweetmeats he ate after dinner could fill. Because whatever Baba did, Mati, his mother, had something else that needed doing. However much he did, it needed to be done either more or less.


Baba received his instructions dutifully, his neck a little stooped, his spine bent forwards, awaiting orders for that day and the next, and the next week and the next year. If he sat, Mati said stand, and he stood up, atten-shun. If he got a distinction in literature, she said medicine and he scratched out Arts from the college form. If his eyes lit up for Renuka, she said Amrita and he said “hanji”. If he suggested the whole family go for a holiday, she said sick people needed tending to and he said “of course”.


Mati was fond of saying that the mind is fickle, like a monkey. It wants to run outside and play in the dirt with the other kids, but we have work to do, we cannot afford to play, we need to control the monkey with a stick.


“The poor monkey will get hurt!” I objected.


Her brows would furrow and her jaw would tighten and I could tell the partition tales were about to start.


“When we got off the train at Dilli, all I had was one suitcase in one hand and Mannu in the other. Suraj held on to my dupatta.”


“You brought three suitcases,” I reminded her.


“Our haveli in Lahore had fourteen rooms,” she went on, ignoring me. “Four of them filled with books. We left it all behind and built this from scratch,” she said, presenting the walls of her room to me with her hand. “We did not come this far in life without self-control.”


It was the same story every time. I knew what came next.


“I won’t be around forever to tell you this. Get this inside your thick head, if you don’t control the monkey, the monkey will control you.”


Though everyone in the family had heard the tale a thousand times, each time Mati lapsed into it, we listened to it in deferential silence, like it were a sermon. Except when Mannu chacha visited. He lived in Canada, and came to see us occasionally. He laughed at her stories.


His visits lit up the whole house. He brought me sticky, leaf-shaped candies. I would climb on to his lap, he would stroke my hair and sing until I fell asleep.


Raat chaanani maen turaan, Mera naal turre parchaavaan, Jinde meriye!

As I take a walk on a moonlit night, shadows walk beside me, dear life.


Behind his back, Mati went around telling everyone that that his voice was not a sound, it was a vibration, that he was a ventriloquist of the soul. To his face, she pulled him up for disturbing her, for not letting her get on with her work. Baba felt vindicated when she went through the motions of scolding him, everyone else saw through the charade and as for Mannu chacha, he laughed.


*


Monkeys scared me. I used to wait in the balcony for Baba’s scooter to turn into our lane. I must have been about six years old. On some evenings, a madaari came on a bicycle, his monkey perched on his shoulder. I watched the show through our second floor balcony grill. They had a routine. It started off with the monkey walking on two legs. The madari twisted his wrist and his damru went dakadaka-dakadaka. When the damru beat, the monkey jumped and the crowd that gathered around them clapped. The madaari said, “Salaam kar”, the monkey put its hand on its head in a salute. The madaari said, “Namaste kar”, the monkey folded its hands. In the end, the madaari took a banana in one hand and his cap in the other. “Which one do you want?” he asked the monkey. The animal dutifully took the cap and went around collecting tips.


I had the perfect seat. I got a good view of the tamasha, no matter how crowded it got on the street.  And I didn’t even have to pay. When it was over, he sang in his high-pitched nasal voice,


“Open your heart, give more,


He who watches without paying, is a haramkhor.”


The meter was off, but the way he stretched ‘heart’ and ‘more’, he made the jingle work.


As soon as he said that, I retreated behind the curtains. But the haramkhor in me couldn’t help peeking to see if the madaari was watching me. He always was.


That jingle lodged itself in my heart forever. To this day, I can hear the madaari’s voice like he is calling out from the street outside.


*


When Mannu chacha wasn’t there himself, there were stories of him. Ma told me how when Baba and Mannu chacha were little, Mati supplemented the meagre government aid by knitting things and selling them door-to-door. She knitted sweaters for adults, booties for newborn babies, caps for boys and scarves for girls with pom-poms lining the sides. Mannu chacha smoked beedis with the carpenters and failed matric twice. Baba picked up knitting. Mati knitted all night. Mannu chacha dropped out of school to learn music. Baba split streets with Mati so they could cover more houses. Mannu chacha regaled customers with his songs. The more he didn’t listen to anyone, the more everyone loved him. Baba said Mannu chacha was selfish. Mati chided him for being small minded. Baba said, “forgive me.”


Mannu chacha tried to pull Baba in into his antics, whether it was stealing coins from Mati or bunking school to watch performances. But Baba was no thickhead. When Mati was not around to wield the stick, he became the stick, whipping both himself and Mannu chacha towards discipline and hard work and making a living, away from fun and joy, away from living. He never told on Mannu chacha, but never joined him either.


“We kept losing your grandfather at Lahore station. He was carrying two big suitcases of books and couldn’t keep up with us. From a haveli of twenty-five rooms, all he thought of taking with him was his books”

Baba did have one guilty pleasure though. He loved poetry. Whenever he had saved enough, he went to the second-hand bookshop near the railway station and bought poetry collections. He wrote too, at night, in Urdu, in a notebook tucked under his pillow. Things between the brothers came to a head when Mannu chacha submitted one of Baba’s poems to Dainik Jagran’s poetry competition in the paper, without Baba’s permission. It won first prize. Baba was furious. He tore up the newspaper and pushed Mannu chacha. Mannu chacha fell and split his head on the corner of the bed. They had to rush him to the hospital. As soon as we he was able to walk, he ran away. Baba poured all his guilt into the medical college entrance exam and got through. People heard from other people and reported to Mati that Mannu chacha was sighted in Mumbai, then Lahore, then England, then Scotland, again Lahore and finally Toronto, where he stayed.


He kept popping up in their lives when he pleased. Every time he did, Mati made his favourite food, karele and kadi, gave up her bed for him, stayed up late in the night waiting for him to come back home and eat. Baba stayed up too, confused, determined, making Mati’s bed on the floor, pressing her legs, telling her to go to sleep.


Mannu chacha never came empty handed. He brought magnets for Mati’s legs, fountain pens for Baba. He showed up uninvited and unannounced at Baba’s wedding with two tickets to Dal Lake. When it was time for Ma’s vidai, he gave such a soulful rendition of Babul Mora that even Mati wept.


Baba never used the pens. Nor the tickets.


I was going to be a doctor too. I grew up playing with Baba’s broken stethoscopes. By ten, I could measure everyone’s blood pressure accurately. Ma asked me, every now and then, what I’d like to be when I grew up and I always said, doctor. She always looked at me like she didn’t believe me, like she was making sure. I was very sure. I knew Mati’s prescription by heart. It was only half an Ativan after lunch, but she insisted on calling it a prescription. Baba took two full tablets, one after lunch and one after dinner. Then he started taking Metform for diabetes and a concoction for constipation and in some years, alprazolam, so he could sleep better, so he could wake up earlier and work more.


Ma always said the self-destruction gene ran strong in the family. She kept an eye on Baba’s increasing medication. She suggested they go for walks after dinner.


“Take some time out for yourself,” she said. “Let’s go somewhere for a holiday.”


“There are queues of sick people outside the clinic,” he said gruffly, dismissing her suggestion with a shake of his hand. And her.


“I don’t want to die without seeing Hardwar,” Mati announced.


“Of course not,” said Baba apologetically. “I’ll make arrangements.”


“Where would you like to go?” Ma persisted.


He clicked his tongue in irritation. A loud fight ensued in the bedroom.


“Why do you always have to be difficult?”


“You need a break.”


“Hardwar will be a break.”


“It won’t be your break.”


“Don’t worry about me.”


“Someone has to.”


“Why?”


“Because you don’t. It’s some vision of your own ruin you’re so enamoured by, you’re hurtling towards it.”


A few days later, Mannu chacha turned up with two train tickets and announced that he was taking Mati to Agra. Before Baba could protest, Mati had packed her clothes in the biggest suitcase we owned.


They left early morning in an auto.


She came back in a wheelchair. The marble floor had been wet. She had slipped and fallen.


“Where was Mannu?”


“There only, talking to the guide,” she said. “It took twenty-two thousand men twenty-two years to build it,” she told Baba, as he designed an elevator that would take her and her chair from the ground floor to her room on the first floor.


“Shah Jahan spent twenty-two lakhs.”


Baba bought a walker that had wheels and a brake. He ordered a walking stick from Russia.


Baba massaged her femur with warm mustard oil and nursed her back to her feet.


She resumed walking in a few weeks. Some mornings when she went on walks with her friends, she went without the stick. Most evenings, when Baba came back from clinic, the stick came back too. I had a theory and one afternoon I put it to test. Mati was leaning on her made-in-Russia walking stick on her right hand. She had sent me to buy milk urgently. I pretended to park my cycle and extended the milk can to her on her right. She flicked the stick to her left, reached out and took the can from me and proceeded to the kitchen to attend to the said milk emergency in quick, even strides, the stick supplying a steady triple meter. She must have sensed me watching, for she paused for half a moment, almost turned back to see if I had noticed, decided not to, flicked the stick back to her right and limped back to the kitchen.


I paid for this stunt later that evening. She saw me leafing through Baba’s poetry books and summoned me to give her a massage.   


“When my parents called me to massage their feet, I dropped everything and ran,” she said. “Our haveli had twenty-two rooms. The floor was made of marble. It took me ten minutes to reach their room. Running.”


It was the same story every time. It was a new story every time.


“Suraj and Mannu’s school was one and a half hours away from the refugee colony,” she went on.  “On foot. We couldn’t afford bus tickets.”


I knew the next part. “I knitted sweaters by candle light to buy them a cycle. There was no time for poetry and singing.”


She turned over to the other side, and was silent.


Ma staged an exit from that house so slow that I didn’t even notice it until many years later. Baba, probably never. She used to take me to Nani’s house in Nainital for holidays. She started teaching Sanskrit there, in her old school. Then she got me enrolled there—it was free for faculty children. Over time, that became home and we went to Baba’s house for special occasions. If he did notice, he never let on. At Nani’s house Ma introduced me to Kalidasa’s epics in Sanskrit and I read Hindi poems. Occasionally, I composed some of my own, which Ma filed in a cardboard folder, with dates. The other thing I didn’t notice was when my answer to Ma’s question changed. I just knew that one day she asked me what I wanted to be and I didn’t say doctor, I said writer.


At Baba’s, I consumed his divans of Mir, Faiz, Rumi and Sa’adi and some others who were not so well-known. Only one poet was missing on his bookshelf, Ghalib, my favourite. Baba didn’t like him. Once he saw me watching Ghalib on television and shook his hand.


“Specious,” he said.


I was outraged. But a not-so-small part of me brimmed with joy that he had taken any note of me at all, and that outraged me even more.


“The real poet was Mir. Ghalib was merely a reflection of the light that was Mir.”


Ghalib himself had gone on record to acknowledge Mir’s poetry, likening it to the garden of Kashmir. But Baba was out of the room before I could get the words to come out of my mouth.


Humne mana ke taghaful na karoge, lekin

Khaak ho jayenge hum, tumko khabar hone tak.

(Agreed, you won’t ignore me,

but I’ll be dead by the time you take cognisance of me.)


*


Later that year, the madaari stopped coming. Instead, there was a man on foot and a little girl, younger than me, maybe four or five, walking on poles. Very tall poles that reached all the way to second floor. I watched from our balcony as they approached from the far end of our street, scared that would fall face forward. A crowd gathered on the street, looking up at the girl on the poles. She walked slowly, carefully, drawing closer until she was eye to eye with me. Her face was dry, with dirt smudging it, her hair unmade. I had nowhere to hide. I ran inside and got a coin, but the girl had moved ahead. I ran downstairs to give the coin to her father.


“Before you, a madaari used to come with his monkey,” I said.


“The monkey died,” the man said.


“How?” I asked.


“They didn’t make enough money,” he said. “People thronged to watch the show but as soon as it finished, they ran away without paying…haramkhors.”


He looked straight at me as he said this.



“The monkey died of hunger?” I asked.


The man shook his head. “The madaari and his monkey hadn’t eaten for six days. On the seventh night the madaari couldn’t take it anymore. He strangled the monkey while it slept, skinned it, roasted the meat and ate it.”


I looked at him to see if he was messing with my head. He wasn’t.


“He stuffed the skin with hay and now goes around with the stuffed monkey on his shoulder and collects coins. He slotted the damru in the stuffed monkey’s head and attached a string that he holds. He tugs it every now and then, it looks like the monkey is playing it. He jumps, the madaari, does salaam, does namaste. He’s not as good as the monkey, but is getting better at it. He has started looking like the monkey too.”


I thrust the coin into his hand and ran back upstairs.


*


All that mithai eventually got to Baba. He had early onset glaucoma. His glasses got thicker, until they couldn’t any more, he went through series of operations till the doctors couldn’t any more, he saw patients until he couldn’t anymore and had to announce his own retirement. He was only fifty-one. The clinic would be run by Dr Suresh, Baba’s ex-student and now colleague.


As soon as Ma heard, she said we should be there when Baba retired. I didn’t see why. A library in Allahabad museum had commissioned me to translate a collection of early letters of Ghalib. I needed peace and quiet to focus. But Ma said it with such a sense of urgency that I didn’t argue.


Baba was in good spirits. He was handing over everything to Dr Suresh that week. We planned a lunch for the clinic staff, family and close friends at the end of the week.


“What’s the first thing you will do after retirement?” Ma asked.



Untitled by Jannat Farooq (linocut print on fabric, 2024)

“If he has it his way, he will get ready and be at the clinic at nine in the morning.” Mati said.


I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or an insult. Baba laughed a confused laugh.


“Let’s go somewhere.” Ma suggested helpfully.


Baba froze. Then he said, “Mati has been wanting to do the Char-Dham yatra.”


“Yes, but this is your time.”


He waved it away, angrily. More than anger, with irritation. And fear.


“What about Nainital? You love the hills.”


“And you love making things difficult for me,” he said, pushed his chair back and left the table. This time Ma didn’t go after him.


Mannu chacha showed up three days before the retirement and said he was going to take Mati traveling. Baba’s face darkened.


“Where do you want to break your left leg?” Mannu chacha asked Mati.


Before Baba could intervene, Mati said, “I don’t want to die before doing the Char-Dham yatra.”


“We leave tomorrow.” Mannu chacha said.


Baba was mute with anger. He shuffled to his room, with laboured breaths. Ma went after him. Like she knew something the rest of us didn’t. I followed them too.


“You must’ve called him.” he said.


“This is his mother’s house, no one needs to call him.”


“He always does this. Haramkhor.”


“He may be many things, but a freeloader he’s not. He has not taken anything from anyone.”


“You take his side too.”“It’s your side. He takes your side, I take your side. Only one person doesn’t.


“Don’t you dare say anything about Mati.”


“I wasn’t going to. I was talking about you.”


“I was eighteen when he stole my poems.”


“You were burying your words under medical books. He brought them out, so they could breathe, so they could live, so you could see them.”


Baba grunted. So loudly it made him cough.


“Did he ever lay any claim on it?” she asked.


Baba sank in his easy chair.


“They were beautiful words, they deserved to be read.” Ma said.


“You read it?” he asked. He looked nervous.


“Many times,” Ma said.


From her wardrobe, she took out a cardboard folder, similar to mine, but much older and frayed. In it was a newspaper cutting from thirty-three years ago, torn through the middle and taped back.


Dream

The other night,

You came in my dreams.

I made you tea,

You asked what I’d written lately

And I read to you lines of a beautiful dream I had.


Mannu chacha and Mati left before day break the next day.


Baba got up and came down ready, shaved, showered, hair oiled, armpits powdered, breakfast eaten, chai drunk, newspaper read, briefcase packed, ready to go at full speed on a road to nowhere.


He went to clinic, to ‘help’ Dr Suresh. Dr Suresh, ever the loyal student, pulled a chair from the waiting room for himself and let Baba sit on his old one.


He came home in the afternoon for lunch. The three of us ate together. It was quiet without Mati’s constant lecturing. After food, Baba washed his hands. Then he just stood there near the washbasin.


The truth was that Dr Suresh had it all under control. He did not need Baba. The patients did not need Baba. The clinic did not need him. I wasn’t sure why Ma and I were still there.


Ma told me to keep an eye on him while she cleared the kitchen. What for, I had no idea. I worked on my assignment in the living room, from where I could see most rooms. Baba ambled up and down the dining room. He went to his room. He went in the kitchen. He went in to Mati’s room, spent the longest time there. Then he walked over to where I was sitting and looked at me, like he had spotted some curio he had failed to see before.


“What are you writing?” he asked.


“Translating,” I said. Years of resentment sealed my lips.


He peered over my text. He was having trouble reading. He breathed heavy.


“Early letters from Ghalib, not yet translated,” I supplied, without meaning to.


“You always liked him,” he said.


I was surprised that he remembered this about me. I was surprised he remembered anything about me. Still, I braced for battle. By now, I worshipped Ghalib and was not going to take it quietly if he was called specious, even if that meant turning away the very crumb of attention I had craved all my life.


“I used to like him too,” he said, staring at my text unfocusedly. “Until he led me to Mir.”


He had a faraway look on his face. He looked like a young boy. Not Dr S. P. Bhatia son of Santosh Devi Bhatia and Late Lt. H. P. Bhatia. This looked like Suraj, the eighteen year old poet.


“What’s your favourite sher?” he asked me.


I wasn’t ready for this. All my life I had rued that Baba didn’t like me, value me—forget all of that, Baba didn’t even see me. My sadness had fermented into anger, rife with instances, dates and times when he had refused to acknowledge my existence. I was prepared to fight. I wasn’t ready to discuss poetry with him. Here he was, asking me my favourite sher, and I was fumbling. I was, of course, familiar with Mir’s work, but I wanted to pick out an impressively obscure one, an undiscovered gem, something he wouldn’t have heard of, something that would make him take me seriously.


“Dekh to dil ke jaan se uthta hai,” I recited, embarrassed that the depths of my taste went only as deep as Mir’s most popular ghazal.


“Just see, does it rise from the heart or the soul…”


Baba’s face lit up, like a lonely little boy who’s suddenly found a friend in his own backyard.


“Yeh dhuan kahan se uthta hai,” he completed it.

“This smoke, where does this rise from?”


It arose from his watch.


“I should get going.” he said.


“Do you want to see my translation?” I heard myself ask in panic.


“I can’t read very well with these glasses.”


“But you can listen with them.”


A laugh escaped Baba. It wasn’t my joke, another beautiful poet had once said it. And Baba knew this. I knew he knew this. I laughed. Baba knew that I knew that he knew this. We laughed till our eyes teared. He hadn’t answered my question yet. He was considering it. The eighteen year old Suraj was about to say yes but just at that moment Dr Suraj Prakash Bhatia returned and said he was getting late for clinic. I braced for the familiar anger on being passed over, but it didn’t come.


The next day was the same. He went to the clinic in the morning, came home for lunch, we ate together and he resumed his aimless ambling in the house. He went to his room and came back with Ma’s cardboard folder and handed it to me.


“I too was a poet once,” he said. He was out of breath. He slumped on the sofa.


“Then what happened?” I asked.


“Someone stole my poems.” he said, looking at Ma petulantly, waiting to be corrected.


Ma looked at him like she looked at her difficult students, the ones she could save if only they would let her.


“Someone might steal a poem, but no one can take poetry away from you,” I said.


This troubled him visibly. His brows furrowed.


“He took away Mati.” he said, sounding like a ten year old now. “I was going to take her to Char-Dham.”


“He took her so you don’t have to.” Ma said.


“But I’m free now.”


“That’s exactly why. That’s what he wants. That’s what he has always wanted for you.”


Baba was quiet.


“What we have always wanted for you.”


“You always take his side,” he mumbled.


Ma shook her head.


“You were going to read me your translation,” he said, turning to me.


“Don’t you have to go back to the clinic?” were the words that came of out of my lips when my heart was screaming for him to not go.


The self-sabotaging gene gets stronger with every generation, Ma muttered.


Baba dismissed the idea with a shake of his hand.


“Okay, but first tell me your sher of Mir,” I asked. I had no idea why I was stalling.


Gor kis dil jale ki hai ye falak,” he said, continuing the previous day’s ghazal.


“– shola har subah yaan se jalta hai,” I completed it.

(Of which heart-burned-one’s grave is this sky?A single ember rises from it every morning)


Yun uthe aah us gali se hum,” I started the next sher. “I left that street, in the manner of…


Baba didn’t complete the sher. He didn’t get up from the sofa.


One who departs from the world.

Jaise koi jahaan se uthta hai.


*


Mannu chacha and Mati cut their trip short and turned back from Yamunotri.


“I step out for one day…” Mati said to anyone who cared to listen. “If only I hadn’t left.”


I wailed into Mannu chacha’s chest. “He was going to read my translation,” I said through sobs. “We were going to compare Ghalib and Mir.”


“His eyes were on his family, his ears filled with poetry,” he said, stroking my head. “You gave him the happiest afternoon of his life.”


Ma asked for his ashes to be split in two urns, one for Mati and one for us. She and Manu chacha handled the funeral with an unsettling calm, like they had known something like this was going to happen. Like they had come to watch over him in his last days.


*


Next time they came, the girl was on the street and the man on the poles. He could reach the haramkhors on the third floor. I didn’t believe the story he had told me about the madaari eating his monkey. I went down, gave the girl an apple. She bit into it without washing it.


“Do you know the madaari?”


“He died.” the girl said.


“No, the monkey died.” I said.


She clicked her tongue.


“They hadn’t eaten for six days. The monkey was hungry

but couldn’t go anywhere, it was chained to the cycle.”


“Then?”


“On the seventh day, when the madaari was sleeping, the monkey smashed his head with a brick and scooped out his brains.” She took a big bite of the apple and chewed on it noisily. “Eyes, teeth, tongue, everything.” She chomped hungrily, skin, seeds, stem and all.


“Then?” I asked.


“It untied the rope and set itself free.”


“Where’s it now?”


“Looking for haramkhors who watch the tamasha but don’t pay.”


I gave her all the coins I had.


*


Mati’s jaw was set. I poured mustard oil in a katori, heated it on the gas and took it to her room.


“We kept losing your grandfather at Lahore station. He was carrying two big suitcases of books and couldn’t keep up with us. From a haveli of twenty-five rooms, all he thought of taking with him was his books,” she started.


I dabbed my fingers with warm oil and massaged her calves.


“When Dilli came, his suitcases were gone. He told me to get off with the boys, he would find his books, then come and find us on the station. I got off, one suitcase in one hand, Suraj in the other.”


“Mannu chacha in the other hand.” I corrected.


“We waited for him for two days outside the station.”


“What happened to his suitcases?”


“I threw them out of the train in the night, while he slept. What else was I to do? But they kept coming back. When Suraj was about eighteen, he started writing poems. I had already lost my man to this madness, Mannu was the spitting image of his father in every way, even as a little boy.”


“You loved him more for it.”


“I couldn’t afford to lose Suraj too,” she went on. “One morning, while he was at school, I went to his room, got out his poetry diary from his under his pillow and burnt it.” she said.


I tried to imagine those shy, unsure words inked in darkness, stolen in daylight. All that tenderness turned into ashes.


“He wrote well.” Mati said.


“You never beat the monkey hard enough,” I said. “You could’ve killed it if you wanted to, but you never did.”


“Won a prize too. Full ten rupees.”


“You loved the monkey.”


“When their father sang, even the birds stopped their chirping and listened in silence.”


It was a new story every time. It was the same story every time.



 



Nidhi Arora was born and raised in India, spent a decade in Singapore, now calls London home, but far prefers to inhabit the world of words. Her stories and essays are featured in international journals and anthologies including Best New Singaporean Short Stories, Out of Print, The Hooghly Review, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Popshot. More at www.nidhi-arora.com




Jannat Farooq is a Lahore-based artist and a recent graduate of Kinnaird College for Women. Her artistic focus lies in themes of fertility and female representation. Jannat has showcased her work has most recently been shown at Kaleido Kontemporary (Lahore) and VM Art Gallery (Karachi); her thesis was displayed at the Alhamra Art Council, Lahore. She can be contacted at jannatfarooq61@gmail.com and on Instagram @jannat61. 

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