1.5 Listening Room
Words by Amrita
In an unnamed town somewhere in India, names are still just names, and the highlight of Sameer and Azaan’s lives is playing truant from school. But even as their fathers prepare for the day of an important rally, fault lines begin to emerge and their childhood is threatened as neighbours align themselves on opposite sides of the fence. The Other is a story about identity, friendship, and tragedy.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
“Not there, not THERE! Left, arre, my left, your right! Such fools - in our time…” Bhaiyaji drew a breath as he dabbed at his forehead. The hapless labourer ascended the ladder once again with a mouthful of nails to fix the crooked banner. The tilted visage of their leader cast an oily smile upon his subjects. Bhaiyaji grinned back.
His sweat-drenched companion looked relieved. It was unusually hot for a mid-April afternoon. Bhaiyaji gathered the folds of his dhoti and hoisted himself off the chair with some difficulty. It groaned.
“You see, Mishra ji, these babus will hold on to their lunch times. Even the labour people have unions. But for people like me and you, what is lunch and dinner when the election time hovers above our heads...I got a call yesterday, you know. Very important. From You-Know-Who. Top secret.”
Mishra ji nodded sagaciously, his butterfly moustache wiggling. A decade of being Bhaiyaji’s secretary meant he did know who. “Very important, yes.” Bhaiyaji continued, “HE called from his personal mobile. Personal! Not the office landline, and he told me our constituency is crucial for this election- Tomorrow’s event must go off without a hitch, Chaubey, and that’s why we’re trusting only you to organize everything. The cows, you know…Arre!” He turned back to holler at his two assistants, “Did you order those marigold garlands? Will you honour the Holy Mothers with cauliflowers? Hmph, useless!” he huffed.
The manager hurriedly followed as he picked up pace in the direction of the waiting car. “Bhaiyaji, tiffin?” “What has the Mrs given today - cucumbers?” He guffawed at his own sense of humour. He looked at his driver, “Take the next turn.” Twenty minutes later, they stopped. “We have work here. You go and pick up Sameer from school and then come back straight and wait. Don’t run off home to laze around.” Akram nodded as he started the engine. He was well aware of the nature of his master’s work in the neighbourhood - he’d been driving Bhaiyaji around for the past five years. He was a little surprised though - with how much Bhaiyaji had been harping on about the big event - anyway, it wasn’t his place to comment. He caught sight of a poster in his rearview mirror and sighed. They claimed the project would change the face of their town. But if the rumours were true, what about their lives?
“Bhaiyaji, err, tomorrow, isn’t it a holy day, I mean...” Mishraji stuttered. His boss nodded indulgently, “Yes it is, and the day of our biggest rally, may the glory of our party reign supreme!” he bellowed suddenly. Several heads turned nervously. He ambled into the next restaurant, squeezing himself behind the narrow table with difficulty.
“Wasim, It’s been a while. How is business?”
“Oh, Chaubey ji, the usual, just the usual. What will you have?”
“You are asking like I am a stranger. Serve me quickly, man - I’m starving!”
The owner’ smile did not quite reach his eyes, “Of course, of course, Bhaiyaji. Only the best for you.”
“It better be the best, hehe, you want to keep this place running when the Pragati project starts, don’t you?” Wasim recoiled. Bhaiyaji chuckled, waving a hand, “Arre, I’m making a little joke, we are old friends, no, Wasim?”
The waiter scurried over to the table with two plates of steaming gravy and naan. Mishra ji shook his head politely, “Not today, Bhaiyaji, no, wife has asked, festival, you know, even my cholesterol...” His boss waved away his excuses in favour of wrapping a triangle of bread around a morsel of meat and dunking it into the gravy before tossing it into his wide mouth. He closed his eyes as he swallowed, “Aaah, what bliss!”
He opened his eyes to find a few of the other guests staring at his plate from the next table. They looked like tourists from the city. He coughed a little, “This...ahem...mutton is very good, Wasim.”
“Sir, this is not mut-” Wasim placed a warning hand on his waiter’s shoulder as Bhaiyaji gave him a predatory smile. “Yes, my boy, very nice mutton indeed.” He turned around to stare at the next table and the occupants hurriedly lowered their gazes. Mishra ji swallowed another bite-sized piece of cucumber from his tiffin.
“But Chacha, I don’t want to go home right now. I’m hungry!” Sameer bounced in the back seat of the car as his friend, Azaan, threw his father an ingratiating smile from the driver’s side seat. The master had arranged for Akram’s son to attend the same school as Sameer, but Akram often worried about how long the benevolent hand would rest on their heads. If Bhaiyaji ever found out what his precious heir got up to after school…
“Beta, your father...I could lose my job. Or worse.”
Sameer winked with the characteristic bravado of teenagers. “Well, then you can always tell Ma where he goes off for lunch, can’t you?” He burst out laughing at the look of horror on Akram’s face. “Lighten up, Chacha. You know our bland curries at home don’t compare with Najma Chachi’s Nihari - and no one has to know - Ma is off for the keertan with her friends.”
Akram suppressed a sigh as he stopped the car outside the lane leading to his house. The boys high-fived. “Now remember,beta, you need to be home before I arrive with Bhaiyaji in an hour.” He cautioned, giving Azaan a glare that plainly read, “Make sure he is, or else…”. The boys mock-saluted him as he reversed. This time his sigh resonated in the empty car.
“Are all the cows ready? The leaders have boarded their flights, they’ll be here before you can say Gau. What now?” Bhaiyaji shouted into the face of the pale-faced deputy who had just appeared at his elbow. The man recoiled as flecks of spit moistened his collar. “Erm, Sir...there is a problem, that is, not a problem, just a little hitch, what I mean is -” He coughed. Bhaiyaji’s glare was enough to get his words spilling. “The cows - they were being brought - they were exactly hundred and eight in number, the auspicious count, as you said- and now- there are hundred and seven. One is not here.”
“Not here? Is this a toddler? Where will a cow go? It must be in the cowshed - you fools don’t even know mathematics!” Bhaiyaji spluttered, gazing at his watch. It was past two in the afternoon - only a few hours to showtime. The deputy scuttled away, only to be replaced by one of his deputies, who looked even more confused, “Bhaiyaji, we got a hundred and eight young girls to garland the hundred and eight cows and now there is one girl without a cow - I mean, er, one cow is missing, we have counted thrice, first cows, then girls, then cows again.”
Bhaiyaji bit down on one swear word and then another. “Lord, now where the hell do we find a pure, milky white cow at such short notice? Listen!” he waved urgently and three hefty youths who were waiting nearby, came running. “Yes, Bhaiyaji?” “Who sent you, the Trust?” He didn’t wait for their answer, “Okay whoever you are. I don’t care. Take my car - arre, Akram - leave the rest of the work. You three, go with him, and I don’t care if you have to beg, borrow, or steal - find me the cow. And remember, pure white, not one black spot on it.”
The three looked at each other bemused for a second, before they noticed their leader’s rapidly reddening face and took off at a run. Bhaiyaji rubbed his temples with a groan. In the distance, a hundred and seven identically dressed girls in white and saffron salwar kameezes practised bowing in front of a hundred and seven identical heifers. The odd one out watched them with a petulant expression.
“Now where do we find this cow?” Akram had long since figured out that his opinion was only to be ventured if asked directly. “What about on the outskirts? What do you say, Mr. Akram? Will we happen to find a Holy Mother to rescue there?” They guffawed loudly at their joke.
Akram gritted his teeth and smiled, “No, brother, it’s not likely. We will be better off visiting the larger traders to see if they are willing to lend or sell one of theirs.” The men fell silent for a while. “Why don’t you do something? Drop us near the highway and go to the traders and ask around, if anyone is willing. We’ll see if there is some other way.”
Akram suddenly shivered. He knew what that meant. He stopped the car and the men got out, waving a careless hand at him to leave. As he reversed the car, his thoughts turned to his son. Azaan would have to study well and leave this place as soon as he could.
There was a crowd as Akram turned the vehicle towards the lane that led to his house. The religious leader of their neighbourhood was standing on a makeshift podium, his cap threatening to fly off his head, hollering monotonously into the mike. Every third sentence laid emphasis on the conspiracy “they” were planning, although he was careful to not identify “them”. He got out of the car, spotted his friend in the distance and beckoned to him. “What is His Honour shrieking about now?” Nayab grinned, “Oh, the usual. Apparently he’s received confirmed information that they are planning to set fire to our homes and the market, all the restaurants, exactly at nine minutes past nine on the 9th of next month! I don’t know where he gets these tips - they haven’t even announced the project date yet. And, anyway, you’re more likely to know, aren’t you, Bhai?” Akram squirmed, and Nayab’s brow furrowed. “You’re not saying- are they really-but it’s our home, isn’t it?”
Akram frowned. “No one will set anything on fire. You didn’t hear it from me. And you’re right, nothing is fixed yet. Maybe they won’t - “
And it is better to be homeless than...he hushed his mind as a thought occurred to him. “I wonder if they had something to do with the cow.”
“The hundred and eighth cow is missing, you know, for the event today - you don’t think - no, they wouldn’t.”
“Missing! Their cow is MISSING!”
Akram turned around to clip the ear of the eavesdropping teenager who had yelled. But it was too late. The murmur rippled across the crowd. The speaker continued for a couple of lines, looking increasingly annoyed at the inattention, before he leaned towards one of his deputies. His expression transformed, and with renewed vigour, he clutched the microphone, “Friends, brothers, what our Lord has given, he can take away, and this is but one of his miracles- this will teach them to respect the Divine order of things! A clear sign indeed that He is with us, in this fight of ours to preserve…”
His voice droned on in the background as Akram strode off towards his house. “Najma, where are you? Give me some lunch, will you? Before this back-and-forth silliness about cows gets serious, I should just go find one and deliver it to Bhaiyaji.”
His wife looked marginally amused and mostly tired. “I am going to the shop - food’s in the kitchen.” He brushed her fingers as she rushed around, tidying up the space that doubled up as the living room and their son’s bedroom. “What - did something happen?” She stopped and gazed at him. His usually good-humoured face was tinged with tension.
“Not yet. Don’t worry about it. Where’s Azaan?”
“Not back from school yet. You know he’s at that age. I don’t question too much. He and Sameer must be off somewhere. That boy is so humble, every other day he comes around, hugging me, saying Chachi this and Chachi that- sometimes I wonder how he could be Bhaiyaji’s...”
“Yes, yes, Najma. Now don’t go around telling too many people whose son he is - especially not in these times. Repeatedly I have told them to be careful - but you know, they won’t listen.”
“Careful? But they’re just boys, dear! Now remember to eat the kheer - that bowl right next to the curry.” She laughed as she picked up her purse.
They only see names. “Yes, dear.”
He gulped down his food, his gaze straying often to the wall clock. Azaan would get quite the tongue lashing when he turned up today. He walked towards the car, his mind running over the names of likely cow-owners and thoughts of two runaway boys.
“That was some picnic!” Sameer grinned. Azaan nodded gleefully, before sneaking another glance at the glossy straps slung on his own shoulders. If only nice things weren’t so expensive. “Take your bag back, no? We might forget later.”
Sameer shrugged, “Nah, you keep it today. You like the Avengers more than I do. I’ll just take the notebook for tomorrow’s homework. Anyway, no one at my house will notice, as long as I come back with a bag. Not until Ma decides it has to be washed.”
Azaan looked torn between joy and resignation. “I can’t- My father won’t like it-”
“Just tell him I will eat three plates of stew in exchange. And two bowls of phirni.” Sameer laughed.
The wind whipped through their hair as they rode side by side on the highway leading back to their town. Already the glare of the sun was fading, as the beginnings of dusk crept up on them. The fields stretched out on either side of the mostly deserted highway, yellowed stalks fluttering gently. Sameer wondered if he and Azaan could sneak inside the event venue and see what the fuss was about. His father kept him firmly away from his work; all he’d known was that for the past month, there had been an uncomfortably large number of posters all around town plastered with his father’s face watching him wherever he went. It’d be a relief to have them gone.
Azaan braked suddenly. “What?”, Sameer asked, jerking to a standstill a few feet behind.
In the distance, two hefty men appeared to be slapping around a frailer figure, who was clearly protesting, while a third was nonchalantly walking off with what appeared to be a cow. After a while, they left him, and he got up shakily, moving a few paces only to sit down by the road with his head in his hands.
Azaan looked grim. “That looks like Anwar Sahab. I know his grandson. And they just took his cow. I’d heard they had finally saved up enough to buy one.”
They quickened their pace until they stopped near the old farmer. He wasn’t bleeding, but his bruises were already purpling, and he looked visibly shaken. It took him a few moments to recognize Azaan as the boys offered him water. “They took my cow, beta, they said I had probably stolen it from somewhere. I showed them the receipt, they tore it up- said they were rescuing the cow because I was going to kill it.”
“Why don’t you go to the police, sir?” Sameer suggested.
Anwar Sahab looked at him bleakly, “Beta, I don’t know which police you know, but the ones I know, they don’t help people like me.” Azaan nodded. “I’ve heard stories - Rahim’s older cousin and his father - they went to file a complaint - they came back after a week and…” he trailed off.
“Then I’m going after them. I will go take a good look at their faces at least - my father won’t let them get away with this.”
“What, no, are you crazy? They look scary.” Azaan shivered.
“Look, Azaan, you take Anwar Sahab home and call Akram Chacha. I can’t let them just go off.”
“Don’t, na. Let’s call home, they’ll know what to do. Sam-” Sameer gave him a glare, and Azaan’s shoulders slumped. He helped the old man on to the carrier of his cycle, and sped away towards a dirt road that would take him to the nearest house quicker.
A few hundred metres ahead, the three men were sitting on benches outside a tea shop, howling with occasional laughter as they sipped their tea. Sameer parked his cycle in the bushes and sidled up to the shop to listen.
“Can you believe he actually tried to say he owns it? The nerve-”
The second guffawed, “Thieves - the whole lot of them. For thousands of years they’ve been doing it. Now we take back what is ours, and that piece of shit tries to protest. As if the police will write his complaint-”
The third guy looked a little nervous, “I say, shouldn’t we be heading back? The programme begins at six, and you know how He gets-”
“My dear friend, He is going to be proud that we managed to find him the hundred and eighth Holy Mother. We might even get promoted, you know - hey, you! What are you doing?”
Sameer continued to untie the rope that tethered the cow to a nearby tree, his expression defiant. The men leapt up, one of them grabbing his shoulder. “Little thief! Wearing a school uniform and trying to steal our property - tell me your name before I beat you up!”
“It’s not your property - that is Anwar Sahab’s cow.” Sameer spat out, suppressing a cry at the slap that landed across his face. He tried to bite the hand that was placed firmly on his mouth. He wouldn’t forget these faces.
The nervous guy stuttered, “I say, brother, beating up schoolboys - doesn’t look right, I say, does it? I mean, what would Bhaiyaji say? If someone finds out-” Sameer’s eyes widened, he stopped struggling. The first man chuckled. He had just ripped open the old school bag that the boy was carrying. He held up a notebook, reading the name off the smudged label. “Boy, you say? Azaan Ahmed. Well, what would Bhaiyaji say?” he appeared in deep thought. “Probably, that he’s already a thief, or well on his way to becoming one. He was man enough to try stealing what is not his, weren’t you, Ahmed Sahab? Just like the rest of your kind.” Sameer couldn’t hold back the next cry, or the next. Purple night fell upon the highway, all at once.
Bhaiyaji stood underneath a garlanded arch, humming gently to himself. The floodlights had come on, painting the venue in a gauzy golden glow. He watched smugly as the men led a glossy white cow to join its hundred and seven companions in a neat enclosure. The hundred and eighth girl was no longer glum, but fiddling with the flowers on her plait as she and the others looked eagerly at the entrance. Any minute now, thought Bhaiyaji. He drew his shoulders up a little as he looked at his own tiny beaming face on the banner. The leaders would be proud, perhaps just enough to consider making him the sole face of the next local election. Just this evening, and then perhaps he would take his Mrs and Sameer on that trip to Nainital.
Speaking of his Mrs, he stared at his buzzing phone with some annoyance. Thirteen missed calls. The number of times he’d told her to avoid thirteen on an auspicious day - he tucked it back into his pocket. The crowd was getting impatient - it was half past six. Suddenly there came the sound of a siren - surely that was them! No, false alarm, only an ambulance. Bhaiyaji paced on the podium. Any minute now. He caught sight of his three lackeys hovering near the cows, gazing at him desperately- he gave them a brisk nod and they looked delighted. There was a buzz in the crowd again, louder this time - was it Them? No, a man was running towards the podium, stumbling, clothes askew. As he approached the podium, the floodlight lit up his face - Akram, looking half-crazed, mouthing something at him. His phone buzzed - the Mrs again - and he finally picked it up, “Have the heavens fallen, ji? You know I’m-”. He listened for a few seconds to the incoherent sounds from the other side. The phone hit the ground. Bhaiyaji let out a howl like a wounded animal as he lumbered down the steps of the podium, charging towards the three men who were gaping at the gate, quite unaware. “My- he was MY- you imbeciles- he was a CHILD!”
This time, the sirens wailed longer as a convoy streamed in. The crowd rose as they had been instructed, and chanted the name of their Lord in one echoing chorus.