This is the second 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

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JOGINDER PAUL (1925-2016) was born in Sialkot, Pakistan. His first story was published in the well-known Urdu journal Saqi in 1945. The partition of the country led to his migration to Ambala as a refugee. His marriage led to another migration, to Kenya, where he taught English, throughout expressing his angst of being in exile in his stories. Back in India in 1965, he was the principal of a college in Aurangabad, Maharashtra for another 14 years before settling in Delhi to pursue full-time writing. He published over 13 collections of short stories, including Khula, Khodu Baba ka Maqbara, and Bastian. Amongst his novels are, Ek Boond Lahoo Ki, Nadeed, Paar Pare and Khwabro, as well as three collections of short stories. Paul was a recipient of many important literary honours including the SAARC Lifetime Award for his contribution to literature, Iqbal Samman, Urdu Academy Award, All India Bahadur Shah Zafar Award, and the Ghalib Award.

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Those Without Graves | Joginder Paul

In a five-star hotel in Calcutta, an American doctor heard the doorbell ring and moved towards the door of his room.

‘Who’s there?’ he called out.

‘It’s I, Ram Deen, sahab!’

‘Oh, you’ve come; I’ve been waiting for you.’

‘Shall we go, if you are ready?’

‘Yes, let’s go. Could you arrange for all fifty?’

‘Yes, sahab. Even if you had wanted hundred or a thousand, we wouldn’t have run short here.’

‘All right, let’s go then.’

They came out of the room and reached the porch; the American doctor’s driver spotted him immediately and drove up with the car. The American doctor got in at the back and Ram Deen sat in the passenger seat beside the driver.

‘Where do we need to go?’

‘Howrah.’

‘Is it the name of some large mortuary?’

No... well, yes, you could say that, sahab.’

‘Let’s go, driver.’

The driver started the car. At first, it spluttered and giggled like a living being, and then, by the time it came out of the hotel, it began to fly down the road.

‘You have done an amazing job, Ram Deen. You have managed to organise all fifty at one go?’

‘In our country we can take care of the biggest requirement anyone can have; all you need is money in your pocket.’

‘Don’t worry; you will get your payment as soon as you hand over the goods.’

‘No, sahab, I have no worries about the payment. I have been dealing with your country for a long time now. I know that the Americans are very honest and very lively people.’

‘That’s exactly what’s troubling us doctors! No one in our country is ready to die.’

‘But surely those who have to die, must be dying!’

‘No! They plan to die but then they forget all about it!’

‘He he, ha ha!... In our country, doctors take their fee right after every visit. Who knows, the patient might die before the next visit.’

‘Yes, indeed! After all, what else can a doctor do in a country where death is so routine? He can’t run after corpses for every small bill that is due!’

Suddenly, the American doctor’s glance fell on the sea of people outside the car and a sort of shiver ran through his body. There was no trace of a personal life on any face. Everyone seemed to be moving purposelessly from here to there – lost, unaware of each other, here and yet not quite here, but God knows where. Their eyes were seeing but without telling them what they were seeing. Their feet were rising and falling of their own accord. There was so much noise and clamour and yet it seemed as if they could not hear anything. The doctor took out a pen and notebook and began to write.

‘15 June, 1957. A street in Calcutta. There are crowds of people on the street, but strangely enough, there is no sign of life in any of them. It would seem that they were beginning to get suffocated in their graves and so all of them have come out. And once out, they are now tired and defeated and going back to their graves...’ He stopped mid-sentence and began to stare out of the window. Are these people really alive? He was trying his hardest to get to the bottom of this strange phenomenon. ‘Well, why not? Next month, in the doctors’ conference, I am going to raise this question in right earnest... it is entirely possible... No, no! ... Why not? After all, it is possible that the human machine keeps functioning while the human being inside it may have died... Yes, if it can be proved... No! How can it be?’ Once again, he began to stare out of the window. No, after all, when it has happened already, how can it not be?

The red light came on at the big crossing and the driver stopped the car beside the pavement. The doctor tried his best to pin his gaze on any one face in that crowd of faces. But how can the gaze rest in one place on a flood, an over-flowing deluge? Just then, some people drew close to his window. He craned forward and smiled at them. But they walked on, completely oblivious and detached from him, from each other and even from themselves. The car moved forward as soon as the green light came on. ‘What if one of these people were to ask me to give them a death certificate? Yes, why not? If they are not alive, they have every right to ask for a death certificate. But is it not right that one should conduct a medical examination first before giving a legally-valid certificate?’

Troubled by his own nit-picking question, the doctor lit a cigarette. But almost instantly, he was reminded of the injurious effects of smoking and stubbed out his freshly-lit cigarette. He sat up straight in his seat.

Sahab...’

‘Yes!’ Pulled out of his reverie, the doctor answered with a start.

‘There! See that pavement over there... about 15 minutes ago when I was passing by this way... there... look, near that pillar... a dead body got up suddenly and began to shout: “Listen! Hello, do you hear me?” But no one paid any heed. It began to shout more loudly: “A corpse is speaking to you, O people! Listen!” But people went about their business without paying it the slightest amount of attention.’

‘But it may well be, Ram Deen, that what you are calling a dead body was a living person in that crowd of people and everyone else was dead.’

‘But, sahab, I too was one of those who were there. If you are willing to do a free medical test on me, you are welcome to reassure yourself. I am very much alive.’

‘Then you should have stopped to help that dead body.’

‘How could I? I had to meet you at the hotel on time.’

‘You have arranged for all 50, haven’t you?’

‘Yes, sahab, I have told you – all 50! If you want, you can buy 100 too.’

‘Very good!... Tell me, what was that dead body trying to say?’

‘Just this – “It has been over six hours since I died; is there any God-fearing person who will take pity on me and take me to the graveyard?”’

‘Then?’

Then nothing. No one so much as looked at it. Eventually that poor thing must have given up and gone looking for a graveyard for itself in sheer hopelessness.’

‘But was it a real dead body?’

Ram Deen began to laugh. ‘You are such a big doctor, sahab. How can I make you understand that if there’s a dead body, it must be a real one?’

‘Yes, yes, of course there can be no doubt about that.’

The American doctor did not know what to think. And so, quite without thinking, he asked Ram Deen, ‘Is it not necessary to get a death certificate in your country?’

Once again, Ram Deen laughed out loud. ‘You Americans are so intelligent, sahab, and yet so innocent. No one was willing to even dump that dead body in a graveyard. How could that poor corpse run around getting a death certificate from the various offices? Or else, it would have given a bribe and got itself a certificate while it was still alive. On the other hand, if it had the money for a bribe would it not have used it to get some medicine? Why would it have died, then?’

The doctor found Ram Deen’s humour both tasteless and intriguing.

‘You are possibly thinking, sahab, that without a death certificate, how will that poor corpse know that it has indeed died.’

‘Yes, we recognise a person’s death when it has been ascertained by a doctor.’

‘It is different with you people, sahab. All our certificates are fake. And so we believe our death only when we ourselves begin to feel that we are dead...

Driver, turn left from here. We have to reach that alley.’

‘Why do you people get your hospitals made in such narrow and dirty lanes?’

‘There is no hospital here.’

‘But a mortuary is usually beside a hospital.’

‘Why don’t you come with me?... Our poor are not blessed with either hospitals or mortuaries... Stop, driver... just here.’

The car stopped.

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Illustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost

The American doctor saw a queue of bedraggled, poor old men, young men and children lined up along the narrow alley.

‘Where have you brought me?’

‘Exactly where we had to come,’ Ram Deen turned around to answer as he was about to get out of the car.

‘I made them line up like this here before I came to meet you.’

‘But I had placed an order for dead bodies!’

‘Look at them carefully, sahab; do these people look alive to you?’

‘I don’t like such jokes, Ram Deen.’

‘I am not joking, sahab. The corpses don’t even realise that they are dead. Look carefully at these people lined here; each one of them is keenly aware that they are dead.’

Nervously, the American doctor looked at those poor, destitute people.

‘What a strange man you are! I had told you that I need 50 dead bodies for medical research and experiments in my country.’

Ram Deen began to laugh. ‘No, sahab, I did not know that you have come from so far to dig graves. I had thought that all the countries in the world take people from our country and that you too must be needing them for some job that can only be done by the dregs of life.’ Ram Deen took off his soft cotton cap and began to scratch his head. ‘Shall I make a suggestion, sahab? All these people are going to die in a day or two in any case. Many of them will die on the way or on the plane... Look at them... Look at their faces... Tell me, am I wrong?’

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘I am saying that simply take them quietly.’

‘Stop this nonsense and tell me clearly if you can arrange for 50 dead bodies — 50 real dead bodies, that is?’

Ram Deen scratched his head some more and put his cap back in its place.

‘Your medical science is far ahead of ours, sahab; why don’t you examine each one of them and satisfy yourself fully that they are real dead bodies. Wait... let me give you a clear demonstration.’

Ram Deen got out of the car and approached the queue. Without saying a word, he slapped a man across his face.

The man uttered neither a word of reproach nor abuse; he kept standing there as though nothing had happened.

Victoriously, Ram Deen walked back and stood beside the American doctor.

‘Do you still not believe that all these people are a hundred percent dead?’

Harassed and angry, the doctor addressed his driver, ‘Let’s go!’

‘Wait, sahab! Listen to me... take them with you. Do whatever experiments you wish to do on them... Wait, driver!... You can make the payment after you are fully satisfied, sahab!’

‘Come, on, driver, let’s go.’

‘You stand to gain from this, sahab; if they had been corpses, you would have had to spend money on cartage; these poor things will carry their own weight and get into the plane.’

‘Come on, driver!’

The American doctor’s car moved away. Ram Deen turned towards the people lined up in the alley and said, ‘You are indeed very unfortunate. If you had really died, you would have traveled to America in great style.’

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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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