Übersetzt aus dem Urduischen ins Englische von Matt Reeck und Aftab Ahmad
Aus der Fiction Issue 2015
IN THE COMPANY OF BIRDS
The walls were adorned with the same decorative tughras and the same calligraphic texts, and the bed was the very one on which Muqeet Khan had used a knife to carve the name of this boy. It was on one of the legs near the bed's head. Then he had used this knife to cut his finger, and he dabbed blood into the carving of the boy's name. You too must really think that I'm strange. If, through some miracle, I stop talking about prostitutes, then I start talking about good-looking young boys! Sir, what can I do? I can only tell the stories that these sinful eyes have seen. But look at Mir's poetry. Or his autobiography. Or look at Mushafi's poetry. In all of them, you'll see clear references. Sir, we had enough courage to talk about women only after we went to college. I really don't want to tell his name. He became an important politician for congress, but then he was ousted from the party on corruption charges. He married the former wife of a deputy secretary. But then she ran away with a Sikh businessman just three months after he was dismissed. You can't guess how we used to suffer from the claustrophobia of sexual deprivation back in those days—you weren't old enough then. Majaz wasn't lying when he said,
Sleeping with death is bearable
Because she'll lie down with you.
Sir, the fact is that back then if you showed even an X-ray of a woman to a boy, he would fall head over heels in love.
Where once had been a glass skylight was now a piece of cardboard. Through a hole in that, a bird was coming and going quite contentedly. She had made a nest nearby. Her chicks were chirping constantly. Mullah Aasi said that once the chicks grew up and left the nest, the house would feel empty. Dust covered his rug. The hole in the rug that Mian Tajammul Hussain's cigarette had burnt 40 or 45 years earlier remained, except that it had grown so large that now you could pass a watermelon through it. Around the hole, frayed threads hung loosely. You could see through the hole that awful red shade of cement that used to be in all the railway waiting rooms and government bungalows.
In those days, Mian Tajammul Hussain must have been around 30 years old. He had three kids already. But he was so scared of Haji Sahib (his father) that he went to his friends' houses to smoke. Haji Sahib considered smoking cigarettes immoral. He smoked a hookah. He also considered bioscopes depraved. Therefore, he never let Mian Tajammul go to the movies by himself. Rather, he went with him.
So I see you're smiling because I used the word "therefore." Sir, people from Lucknow and Kanpur are fond of saying "therefore." To us, "hence" sounds clunky. But, sir, back in those days, I heard even ordinary people using a lot of big words like "hence," "howsoever," "notwithstanding," and "so much so."
BIG CAUSE, SMALL MEN
The killer poem that Maulana Shibli wrote after the destruction of the Fish Market Mosque ("We, the slain, the martyrs of Kanpur") is still hanging from the very nail that got bent in half while being hammered into the wall. Sir, the man who has never mistakenly hammered his thumb is one to watch out for. You have to be on your guard against clever devils like that. Khwaja Hasan Nizami wrote about this mosque, "This is the mosque where our elders fell writhing to the ground, where their white beards grew red with blood."
The glass that covers the poem was broken in the middle so that it looked like a spider's web. After 50 years, I read the poem in its entirety, as well as the poem that goes "Muhammad Ali's mother said, 'My son, give your life for Khilafat.'" How should I put it? It didn't move me. The causes of that era and the one before it, for example, the Silk Handkerchief Movement; the Khilafat Movement; the Balkan Wars ("If you want to die well, let's go to the Balkans, let's go"); opposition to women's education and science education (where Akbar Allahabadi was in the vanguard); Muslim protests, including those of Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar against the Sharda Act (the act prohibiting child marriage); these and many other causes that we were ready to lay down our lives for, now they just seemed odd. Take the Khilafat Movement. Gandhiji also supported it. You can't imagine a more passionate, national, organized, and pointless, futile movement. But people then were larger than life. Today, causes are well thought out and meaningful. But people aren't half of what they used to be. Nushoor recited Sauda's couplet, which, even though it's 200 years old, feels contemporary today:
Laments feel insipid, souls have lost their strength.
O God, where have the lions of yesteryear gone?
Those were strangely emotional days. I remember how Badri Narayan once called Mahmud of Ghazni a "pilfering tyrant," and so Abdul Muqeet Khan retorted that Shivaji was a "mountain rat." Things escalated, and Badri Narayan began to slander the Mughal emperors one by one. He said extremely offensive things about Aurangzeb's daughter, the Princess Zaib-un-Nisa, penname Makhfi ("Hidden"). So Abdul Muqeet Khan laid waste to Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, and Raja Sawai Man Singh. But when he turned to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Badri Narayan lost control, even though he wasn't a Sikh. (He was a Gaur Brahmin.) They fell to fighting right then and there. Muqeet Khan broke his thumb, and Badri Narayan broke the bridge of his nose. Actually, this was all an excuse: They were in love with the same boy.