This is the first in an eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers. Rakhshanda Jalil is the curator and translator for this series.
GULZAR (b. 1934): Poet, author, film-maker and film lyricist, Gulzar is one of the most prominent names in cinema, popular culture and literature in present-day India. A recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the Sahitya Akademi Award, he has also received the Oscar for the song 'Jai ho!' in the Hollywood film Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to the Indian film industry in 2014. A well-respected name in poetry circles, he has several non-film short story and poetry collections to his credit. He has recently published his translations of Rabindranath Tagore and has written poetry especially for children.
The Crocodile | Gulzar
It was Muharrum. And Dussehra also fell at the same time. There was every likelihood of communal riots breaking out in the city. There were many reasons to exercise self control. But only one excuse is enough to abandon restraint.
Preparations for Dussehra were nearly complete. The committees had been formed. Work had been apportioned. The responsibility for the last day, that is the climax of Dussehra, had been given to Ramcharan Pandit, as always.
The Navratras had begun. Ramcharan would show up at Ali Raza’s place every day. Ali Raza made the effigies for Kumbhkaran, Ravan and Meghdoot each year. This year, Ali Raza had been listening to the waaz all night long, and would go to sleep in the morning. And that was why, every time Ramcharan showed up, Ali Raza would fob him off with some excuse or the other. As the days inched closer to Dussehra, Ramcharan could contain himself no longer. He burst out: ‘How much longer will it take, Raza miyan? You have to make three effigies… two of nine feet each and one…’
‘Twelve-feet tall,’ Raza answered, ‘Yes, I know. They will be made. The bamboo for the frame is being cut. But won’t you look at my condition, too?’
In the ritual mourning for Muharrum, Ali Raza had beaten his chest so much that he had drawn blood. Now he was applying ointment to soothe his wounds.
‘Why must you beat your chest so hard? Will Ali come back to see your wounds?… Whatever had to happen, happened centuries ago.’
Raza was offended. But he answered in a mild tone, ‘Don’t say that, Sir; each to his own faith. After all, Sita had come back home; what will you get by burning Ravan after all these centuries?'
The pandit too didn’t like it. And the severity in his tone didn’t go when he said, ‘All right, then. I will come again tomorrow. I want to see when the frame is finally set up. And, remember, the flames from Ravan should be the highest.’
And with these words, Ramcharan went away. He reached home and said to Manohar, ‘The bamboo is still being split for the frame. God knows when the effigy will be ready.’
Ram and Manohar were brothers. Manohar said, ‘The problem is we can’t make do without these people. We have to get all the tailoring jobs done by them. The costumes, too, come from them. They are the ones who make the crackers and fireworks. Remember, we got the effigies made by Bihari once… the 12-foot Ravan turned out to be a damp squib!’
The Ramlila was in full swing. All day and all night there would be kirtan. The quatrains from Tulsidas would echo all around. There was no other singer to match Rajan bhai in the entire city. And Hashim Ali Khan was his accompanist. The pair was famous all over the city. Their musical sessions had been witnessed by many in the city. And they had received praise from all quarters.
One day, Khan sahab asked half in jest, ‘Did Tulsidas not write a ghazal in this metre? It would have gone so well in this tune.’
Rajan bhai laughed. But some un-musical person overheard it and reported it to Ramcharan. Once again Manohar said, ‘What can we do... can’t make do without these people.’
Illustration © Richa Kashelkar for Firstpost
The next day, Ramcharan again landed up at Raza miyan’s place. Raza was wounded but busy at work with a black kerchief tied around his head. He said, ‘Tell me, sir, will it be alright if I reduce the height of all three effigies a little? They will still be taller than an average person. I can’t find any good quality sturdy bamboos.’
The pandit said, ‘Why can’t you find them? Khudadad’s timber shack is full of them.’
‘He’s asking for a lot more money; it’s beyond our budget.’
‘Alright, I will go and talk to him.’
Khudadad saw Ramcharan Pandit with Raza and immediately softened. Ramcharan Pandit offered ‘Adaab’; in response Khudadad folded his hands and said, ‘Namaste’. Ramcharan Pandit complained, ‘Miyan ji, I have heard of sweets becoming expensive during Dussehra, but you have raised the price of bamboos!’
‘What a thing to say, brother! Give whatever price you want. My bamboos are being put to good use... what else can I want?’
But Raza couldn’t contain himself. Almost by force of habit, he blurted out, ‘What is good about it? Ravan has to be burnt. The hero is Shri Ram. His victory is the good thing.’
Ram Pandit couldn’t quite understand if Raza was advocating his cause or opposing it. Be that as it may, his silence certainly earned him a discount from Khudadad, the owner of the timber shack. But the thought remained stuck in his mind; how did Raza call the burning of Ravan ‘not good’.
Once again, Manohar said the same thing, ‘What can we do? We can’t make do without these people. Somewhere or the other, our paths do cross and we have to meet them.’
When Khudadad came to deliver the bamboo, Raza said, ‘What is this, miyan? You gave me short shrift and gave in instantly when that pandit showed up.’
‘I say, what a blunt fellow you are! You must learn to exercise some self-control.’
‘If you have to stay in the river why should you make the crocodile your enemy?’
‘Crocodile?... Them?... So, what are we? Tortoises?’
Khudadad turned away. Obviously, Raza could not help himself.
‘Come on, count your bamboos...’
The effigies were up and ready a day before Dussehra. They looked beautiful, though they were slightly shorter than usual. Ramcharan and Manohar saw them and were very displeased. But what could be done at this late hour?
Raza raised the height of the shoes by a foot in each of the three effigies and said, ‘I have raised their feet from the ground by a foot each. It is all right now, isn’t it?’
Once again, Ramcharan could not quite understand if this was being said ‘for’ him or was it a taunt ‘against’ him. The thing that had been said in front of Khudadad the other day, and had remained stuck in his mind, burst out now. ‘Tell me, Raza miyan, how could you call the burning of Ravan on Dussehra something that is ‘not good’ the other day?’
‘Brother, the character of Ravan is not good just as Yazid’s character is not good in the incident of Karbala.’
‘But Ravan was a maha-pandit, a highly learned man, and a devotee of Lord Shiva. He was a great...’
Raza got annoyed. He cut short the pandit mid-sentence and said, ‘But then, Brother, why do you burn him if he was such a great and learned man... after all, he was a Hindu too!’
The sentence that had remained incomplete on Raza’s lips was completed by Ram Pandit.
‘Had he been a Muslim... why would we have to get an effigy made?’
That was enough! The battle lines were drawn. That year, bombs were burst instead of firecrackers during Ramlila. And the tallest flame leapt out from Raza’s shop.
Raza was absconding... and the riots were continuing.
Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); and in the past year a literary biography of the Urdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins; The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War (Bloomsbury); Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu (Niyogi), and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.