This story contains analogies to sexual violence and graphic descriptions. Reader discretion is advised.

This is the third in an eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers. Rakhshanda Jalil is the curator and translator for this series.

Part I: In 'The Crocodile', Gulzar tells a story of smoke and fire

Part II: In 'Those Without Graves', Joginder Paul blurs the lines between the living and dead

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DEEPAK BUDKI is a Kashmir-born short story writer, critic and researcher known throughout the contemporary Urdu world for his stories centered on human behaviour, both individual and collective. Apart from holding a post-graduate degree in Botany and a Bachelor's degree in Education, he also attended a coveted course at the National Defence College, New Delhi, besides becoming an Associate of the Insurance Institute of India, Mumbai. He was a member of the Indian Postal Services, from where he retired in 2010. For almost nine years he went on deputation to the Army Postal Services. Budki has six collections of short stories, one collection of mini stories, four collections of critical essays and book reviews besides a well-researched book titled The Non-Muslim Short Story Writers of Urdu. His short stories have been translated into English, Hindi, Kashmiri, Gojri, Marathi and Telugu. Several scholars have written dissertations on his life and work.

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The Rape of an Abandoned House | Deepak Budki

A trunk, an attaché case, a bedroll — these were the only worldly belongings they could carry when they left the house in the darkness of the night. Six souls: him, his wife, two small children and two frail elders, whose weight burdened him for the first time in his life.

Ammi, where are we going in this darkness?’ the seven-year old girl lisped as she curiously asked her mother.

‘We are going to hell! Can’t you stay quiet?' the mother said angrily.

This sentence was enough to silence the little girl but, in actuality, they themselves didn’t know where they were going. With quivering hands, the wife fastened the chain on the main door and slipped in the lock. She turned the key and pulled the lock a couple of times to ensure it was properly locked. When the lock didn’t open, she was reassured that the house had now been secured.

And, soon, that family disappeared somewhere in the dark night.

Anyone could have broken the lock. There was no one there now to stop anyone from doing so. A lock is not a protector in itself. The real protectors are those who live in the neighbourhood and who, quite unconsciously, consider it their duty to guard the lives and goods of their neighbours. But things had taken such a turn here that it was difficult to trust the neighbours any more.

They were living in mortal dread of their own lives; how could they be expected to guard the property of others? Even if they were to see someone breaking the lock, for the sake of their own safety they would close their windows and sit quietly inside their own homes, as though they had seen nothing. In any case, what good would be served by any vigilantism? Who would want to make an enemy of the crocodile if one had to live in the same waters?

For many days and months, the lock hung in its place. As time passed, any hopes of the inhabitants of the house returning diminished. Everyone who passed by looked longing at the lock hanging from its front door and thought: ‘If only this lock were to break and fall down on its own and this door were to open of its own accord.’

Finally, when some unknown person broke the lock, in the darkness of a moonless night, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

They began to absolve themselves of the crime, because none among them was guilty of this offence.

While it is a crime to push an innocent virgin into the flesh trade by fraud or deceit, in no way is it considered a sin to derive enjoyment from her body, because a price has been paid for that pleasure.

After this incident, the main door of the house remained open, as though it was a brothel. Looking at the open lock dangling from the hoop on the door it seemed as though someone was in such haste that they had not fully taken out the nose ring, and the open nose ring was dangling from the pierced nose.

The person who had broken the lock was a dreaded terrorist who had sought refuge in this house, ducking and hiding from the security forces. The house gave him shelter all night long. The moment the man had entered the house, he had taken the AK-47 rifle off his shoulder and thrown it on a chair, as though he was lightening the burden of long years of a tormented life. And then with the same disdain, he had flung his heavy set body on the soft bed and fallen fast asleep.

At midnight, when his body could no longer ignore its hunger and thirst, he woke up. The AK-47 lying on the chair in front of him could neither quench this thirst nor satiate this hunger. With some effort, he lit a cigarette and in its dull glow began to search for water in the kitchen. He would have invited attention by switching on the lights. Somehow or the other, he managed to pour some water from a pot and gulped it down. Then, lighting one match after another, he began to search for some food to quell his hunger. The kitchen was scrubbed clean. There was not a crumb in sight. ‘The fellow has not left a thing in the house! He has run off with everything!’ Quite without volition, the words burst out of his mouth.

Finally, his gaze fell on a small, concealed shelf. Several small photographs of gods and goddesses were displayed on it. There was a small pile of cold ash from the camphor that had been burnt in front of the photographs. Beside it was a platter that had five soft round pieces of a special type of sweet bread that was traditionally prepared during the festival of Pun and offered to a goddess. When the sweet bread was being offered, the pandit ji had narrated an interesting incident that was heard with great reverence for the goddess by everyone in the family.

‘This festival has been celebrated for thousands of years. Thick sweet bread, called roth, is made in every home and offered to the goddess. Long years ago, there used to be a king whose wife was an extremely good and pious woman. Theirs was a happy and prosperous family. But the king himself was an extremely arrogant man, and an atheist too. Year after year, the queen would have grain ground into flour with great devotion and dedication. All night long she would roll out the roth with her own fair hands, fry them in pure ghee and then offer them to the goddess. Her husband, the king, didn’t like any of this. One day, in a fit of rage, he entered the puja room with his shoes on and kicked the tray containing the offerings with his feet. The wife watched this helplessly and in her heart prayed and hoped that the goddess would forgive her husband for his terrible transgression.

‘Whatever is destined to happen will occur. One after the other, so many misfortunes befell them, their kingdom was snatched away, the king was exiled and had to live in disguise in a neighbouring country, where he had to work as a labourer. And his wife had to work as a servant in other people’s homes. One day, in a home where she worked, the festival of Pun was being celebrated. She watched the proceedings silently, and her eyes were filled with tears . In her heart, she resolved to once again make an offering to the goddess. She began collecting grains from all the houses where she worked. So much so, she even picked out the grain from the fodder that was given to the cattle. After several days, she was able to collect a handful of grain. She ground the grain into flour and made roth and offered them to the goddess.

‘And then there was no looking back. Within no time, everything changed. The people found out that a terrible conspiracy had been hatched against their king and he was actually free of any crime. They searched and searched for their king till they reached the place where he was working as a labourer. The people recognised their king and took him back to his kingdom. And so, he once again became the king and all the ills that beset the family were removed. And from then onward, every year the king’s wife would celebrate the festival of Pun, and the king too would join the puja.

‘And now you too must pray to the goddess and say: “O Mother, the manner in which you removed all the obstacles from their path and showered them with every happiness, in the same manner, remove every hardship from our path and grant us peace and happiness.”’

It was another matter for that royal family. The king was, after all, an atheist. But here, in this home, there was no heretic, and no one had committed a transgression during worship which was, in any way, disrespectful towards the goddess. Then why did such an unexpected calamity befall them?

And how very strange it was that the offering for the goddess came in handy to assuage the hunger and thirst of a fierce warmonger.

Before the break of dawn, the intruder had rifled through the contents of all the trunks, boxes, attaché cases and cupboards. He was only interested in cash or jewellery, and he could find neither. Once again, he uttered a terrible imprecation for the house owners and went his way.

The imprecation echoed endlessly in the house thereafter.

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Illustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost

The next day, the security forces were informed that a dreaded terrorist had taken refuge in the house. Their suspicions were confirmed when they saw the broken lock. They threw a cordon around the house and began firing; in fact, they unleashed a veritable barrage of gunfire. They kept calling to the terrorist to come out, but when there was no retaliatory gunfire, four soldiers entered the house. The poor, helpless house was already riddled with bullets, but being mute, it could not say anything in its defence now. There was no one inside. The men from the security forces were surprised and extremely angry too.

‘Sir, there is no one here,’ a soldier reported to his superior officer.

‘The wretched fellow must be hiding. Check it thoroughly. He shouldn’t get away,’ the senior commanded in a stern voice.

The men searched the entire house. They turned over every trunk, attaché case and box. Saris came tumbling out of them like the intestines of a goat that had been slaughtered. The entire room was littered with woollen clothes, sweaters, school uniforms, utensils and assorted household goods. When they found no incriminating evidence anywhere, they unleashed their anger by raining blows upon the furniture and tin boxes with their stout wooden sticks. Finally, disappointed, they went away.

And from that day onwards, anyone could enter that house. People would avoid meeting each other’s glance but nevertheless enter the house and rob and pillage whatever they could carry away. In the first lot, the black-and-white Weston TV set, the Phillips transistor, steel utensils and clothes were taken away. Then, tranche by tranche, tables and chairs, beds and almirahs, and other bits and pieces of furniture were taken away till the entire house was empty. By now the house looked like virgin who had been gang raped and then her wounded half-dead body, covered with blood, had been left beside a road. Such bodies are left half-alive simply so that they can be pounced upon and clawed at again and again. And greedy and lascivious people are known to spare neither the shroud from the corpse, nor the cold flesh of the corpse.

Though there was nothing left in the house, a neighbour’s covetous glance fell on the windows and doors made from expensive deodar wood. All night long the father and son worked on removing the doors and windows so stealthily that no one heard or saw a thing. By the time the first rays of the sun fell, they had set the house on fire so that no one would suspect that the doors and windows had been removed. Criminals know that they are better off disposing the bodies of those they have raped.

As soon as the neighbours found out that the house was ablaze and its flames were spreading unchecked, they began to worry about their own homes. They ran out of their houses carrying pails filled with water and began to pour water over the flames. They were scared that the fire would spread and burn their houses too.

The house that had already been stripped naked grappled with the flames for a long time. Smouldering charcoal... smoke... and ashes.

Finally, all that remained was a heap of ash and a few broken and blackened walls. And yet, people were still not willing to believe that nothing remained of the treasure that once was here.

‘It was must be here, somewhere. After all, there must be something in such a large house that can be of some use to somebody,’ people would mutter.

A middle-aged woman spotted half-burnt tin sheets buried in the rubble. She called out to her two sturdy young sons, and got the tin sheets carted away. She went aside to offer prayers for a better afterlife. The tin sheets came in handy to repair the roof of her cow shed.

Another neighbour took away what remained of the half-burnt bricks. Using them he got a small lavatory constructed in his courtyard. The few walls that still stood finally fell under the blows of hammers. A few days later, a widow happened to pass by. Her eyes fell on the rubble; she could spot bits and pieces of half-burnt wood and chunks of coal. She was reminded of the severity of the previous winter. This thought alone caused her to shiver. She filled all the half-burnt pieces of wood and chunks of coal in a sack and took it home.

All that remained of the house now was a pile of rubble. The neighbourhood children made it a playground. Everyday, as soon as school was over, they would come here, lugging their bats and wickets, and a cricket match would ensue.

One day, four boys came. As always, one boy began to fix the stumps. The wicket was not going into the ground; something was holding it back. The boy bent his head and peered into the hole in the ground. He could see a shiny object. He was delighted. The three other boys gathered around him. They took turns to put their eye to the hole in the ground, and they too raised their head and expressed their delight.

The thought that it must be a gold ornament crossed everyone’s mind, but no one said it in so many words. The first boy began to dig the ground with his wicket. The second boy raced to his house and brought back an iron rod. The first boy kept digging while the three others stood transfixed, praying that the shining object might turn out to be an expensive piece of jewellery. Finally, the digging was complete. The first boy was about to lower his hand into the hole in the ground when the second boy called out in Kashmiri, ‘Adus, adus...’ It meant ‘I too have an equal stake in this.’

Adus, adus...’ the third and fourth boys also chimed in, as they waited for the hidden treasure.

The first boy stuck his hand into ground and groped around till his fingers pulled out something. It was that same brass lock that once had been the protector of the main door. All four boys suddenly looked downcast. Then they picked up the lock and carried it to the junk shop. They haggled with the junk dealer and finally struck a deal for four rupees. Shoving a rupee each into their pockets, the boys went home happy.

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Pun is an important celebration among Kashmiri Pandits. It falls during one of the few days of the bright lunar fortnight around Ganesh Chaturthi. Utmost care and cleanliness (purity) has to be maintained by the lady of the house while preparing the bread for the offering. The water, utensils, ingredients, etc are washed in fresh water and every care is taken that they are clean and pure.

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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.

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