As soon as Ahmed saw the office order informing him that he was assigned to Mysore office, he screamed “oh, Allah!”, crashed on the chair and tipped his head to the side. All of us, the entire staff gathered around him anxiously.
Ahmed’s eyes were rolling, no words from his mouth. We brought the dead body to his home in the office vehicle. The family members who depended on him threw themselves on the body and cried aloud. There was not one red cent in the house to pay for his final rites. We, the office staff, pitched in. Some of us shed tears as his body was being buried. That was the kind of relationship we had developed in the course of work for so many years. Even now, I recall his words each time I he comes to my mind. I still can see his face in my mind.
Ahmed was thin and tall. His pale face and drawn in eyes would indicate his sorry condition. His entire demeanor—his black and white beard, worn out threads hanging from the sleeves of his discolored sherwani without buttons, and the broken sandals made of tire—would make him look as if he was being washed away in the whirlpool of hardships.
In fact, I used to think that he would one day die of broken heart. Each hardship would hit me like a tornado. Each time I would be scared, not knowing to far off shore it might carry him away. The humiliation that followed would pull him down head to toe. Because of that weight of that humiliation, Ahmed could not be himself for a couple of days. Ahmed’s heart turned to a stone because of all those sufferings and humiliations. After all that suffering, probably it was no surprise that the office order posting him to Mysore caused his heart to stop. Probably it hit him like a heavy hammer. Probably the weight of his responsibilities howled at him and caused him to collapse.
Ahmed was born in a family of Nawabs. All his ancestors—father, grandfather and great grandfather—lived with all the fanfare of Nawab lineage. In the end, only Ahmed had come to face this fate. The only thing his father had left was the house. Even that one was mortgaged. The only good thing his father had done for him was to make him a graduate.
At the beginning, Ahmed’s father-in-law used to help out whenever necessary. His father-in-law was in a position and so helped Ahmed to secure a job as well. However, that support did not last long. After his father-in-law had passed away, Ahmed’s life was crushed. His brothers-in-law told him to take of himself by himself.
Ahmed was crushed financially. Nevertheless, the family traditions and customs would not let go of him. No, the family would not let of them. Ahmed’s life became unbearable in a struggle to guard his status and reputation.
One day, I left the office forty-five minutes early, I was in a hurry. In about 20 or 30 yards ahead, I saw Ahmed. Three Kabuli men, creditors, besieged him, would not let him move. One of them seized his sherwani tight, as if he was squeezing his heart. The other two were standing on either side of Ahmed and speaking in strong language. Ahmed saw me; his face turned pale on seeing me there in that moment. His eyes were filled with tears; his pride must have received a blow from an axe. He lowered his head; he could not see me anymore. I felt sorry for him but there was nothing I could do. I went back into the office.
Probably Ahmed did not have the heart to look at me. He buried his face in the office files and kept himself busy. Earlier he used to find something to talk even when there was really no reason. Now he was avoiding me even when there was a need to talk to me.
It was lunch time. Everybody was leaving but Ahmed remained in his seat. He used to leave earlier than others but today he would not leave. I saw that; something in me would not let me keep quiet. Probably he had not had his morning meal either, I thought. I was on my way out; I turned around and said, “Ahmed bhai, come on, let’s go to the canteen.”
I was not sure what he thought of it. He stared at me for a second and got up without a word.
We both sat in a corner in the canteen. I thought that, unless I somehow manage to drag into chitchat and lighten the atmosphere, he would not get over the incident that had taken place in the morning. But was sitting tight and withdrawn. No matter what subject I broached, he did not show any enthusiasm. While we were still in the canteen, his twelve-year-old son came. The boy was fair-skinned and cute. He was a little thin probably for want of nourishment.
Ahmed bought five or six big size loaves of bread and a few other items and gave them to the boy to take him.
“What’s the matter? Somebody sick at home?” I asked.
“This is normal for me. Children would not have anything to eat in the afternoons,” Ahmed said.
“If you send food from the canteen everyday, wouldn’t the charges be high?”
“Charges are high but what can I do? How can I let the children starve?”
I did not like his answer. “That’s not the point, Ahmed bhai! In stead of wasting money in the canteen, can’t you have the food cooked at home? Everybody can eat and it will not cost this much.”
‘What can I say about my troubles, bhai? Grown up children go to college or school. My old woman is sick; she can barely take care of the rest of the kids. The food from the canteen costs me 80 rupees per month. You might ask why that much? Usually, I don’t eat at home in the morning. Even if I eat, that will not be enough. I still feel hungry and so go to the canteen to eat again,” said Ahmed.
I was surprised that he was spending 80 rupees at the canteen. Once or twice I had suspected that he might be spending more money at the canteen than the rest of us but did not expect to be this high. Ahmed makes about 200 rupees a month and that includes allowances. Probably he takes home about 80 or 90 rupees, after all the cuts—canteen bill, insurance and cooperative contribution, etc. I could not understand how he could manage, with that little leftover money, the household, the children’s education, and the creditors who were chewing him up like vultures.
“Yes, brother, you are surprised. My heart has gone bad. Sometimes even I don’t know what I am doing. I am neither concerned nor unconcerned about life. Sometimes, I feel like sitting alone and cry my heart out. But then again, when I am alone like that, crazy thoughts beset me, and my eyes turn moist. With those moist eyes, I lie down tediously. I would not even know when I fall asleep,” Ahmed said.
Sometimes, thoughts gnaw a person, squeeze life out and make him totally powerless. He lies down incapable of mobility. He would not have any strength even to think anymore. In that powerless condition, he would not be able to fall asleep either. It would feel like all the organs were functioning but he would lie on his back dully. I concluded that probably Ahmed was in that position. I got up to leave. Both of us returned to the office.
From that day onwards, I became closer to Ahmed. I thought of helping him anyway I could, although I knew I was not in a position to save his family. I heard of his family’s situation not only from him but also from others.
Ahmed had nine children. Every father would be anxious to see his children educated and well- settled in life. For some, the conditions would be favorable. For others, the conditions would not be favorable and their anxiety would remain the same. There is however one thing for which Ahmed deserved compliments. He struggled in the face adverse conditions and put his children through school. He would say, “I may not have any assets to give my kids but will give them education so they can live their own lives.”
Some people commented, “What is the point of educating girls? They will have to go to another home as daughters-in-law anyways.”
“They may not help me out but all I want is they helping their own families. I can not bring high class rank boys for them by paying huge dowries and gifts. By the same token, I can not ruin my family’s reputation and marry them off to some rickshaw driver or somebody. If my daughters have degrees, maybe somebody would come forward to marry them because of their education. Whether they will let them go to work or not is their business. If not, that is fine too. Let’s say nobody comes forward to marry my daughters. Then they will be in a position to work and live on their own.”
If somebody in our Telugu families was in the same position as Ahmed, we will stop after minimal education and put them to work in some small job, which has no prospects. We may even beg somebody to get the job and be done with it. We feel that if each one of us brings in a little money, we all can lead our lives quietly and minimally. Ahmed would never accept that argument. “That is the reason his life has become a public affair,” some said. “May be my life has become a public affair. My children’s future is guaranteed and that is enough for me,” Ahmed said.
One day, I went to Himayat nagar and was on way home. I was Ahmed in front of one house. He caught my hand and said, “This is my house, bhai. Please, come in.” We both went in.
While we are chatting, a heard a very sweet voice calling “Baba” and turned around. A very beautiful and delicate figure peeked from behind the curtains, saw me and disappeared like lightning.
“Come, child, come,” Ahmed said.
The gorgeous young woman came modestly and said, “adabarsey” shyly.
“adabarsey,” I replied, gazing her beauty.
Ahmed introduced me to her. He told her, in addition to my being an ordinary clerk, I was also a well-known writer, and that my stories appeared in reputable magazines, and also I had written for the radio also.
“I am happy to meet you. I will be back in a second,” she said in Urdu and went in.
Ahmed told me that Mumtaz, the young woman, was studying B.Sc., and also had received scholarship because of her intelligence.
Mumtaz returned like a lightning rod.
Behind her, a servant brought tea on a tray for the three of us.
“Take,” Mumtaz said, looking at me. Her voice carried unusual sweetness. There was a strange beauty in her eyes, lined with dark katuka.
“Murthy sir, I have been thinking of asking you something for a very long time,” Ahmed said.
“You don’t have to hesitate where I am concerned. Ahmed bhai. Tell me, what is it?” I said.
“Mumtaz has elected for Telugu under regional language studies. I wanted to ask you whether you would be willing to help her. But I know others in our office had asked you and you had turned them down. That is why I am hesitating.”
I noticed a trace of worldly wisdom in his approach.
Mumtaz was anxiously watching me for my response.
“That is true. You know usually I go to literary gatherings and meetings in the evenings. I refused to tutor their children, hoping to spend that time on writing and it might pay off. If you want, I will manage to free myself for an hour or so in the evening and tutor your daughter,” I said.
Both Ahmed and Mumtaz were very happy to hear my response.
From that day onwards, I became a close friend and well-wisher of his family. All his children were very smart. Mumtaz was his second daughter. His eldest daughter, Masoona Begum was studying medicine. The rest of his children were also in school in step with their ages.
I used to go their house after I was done at work in the evenings to teach Telugu lessons to Mumtaz. Everybody in the family, children and adult alike, were respectful towards me. Ahmed was not coming home after the office was closed. He would say he had some errands to run and leave. I was not sure what those errands were, but decided not to ask and kept quiet.
Everyday Mumtaz used to serve tea and biscuits to me. At the beginning I accepted them, thinking she might be upset if I did not accept them. However I was also aware of the financial troubles Ahmed was in and thought it was unfair on my part to let them incur additional expenses. One day I told Mumtaz, “There is no need. Please, don’t.”
“Why?” Mumtaz asked, looking straight into my eyes.
“Oh, nothing, after work, I go to the restaurant to eat and then come here. No need to eat again here,” I said.
Mumtaz looked disappointed a little. “So, you are not taking?” She said. There was a plea in her tone.
“I swear on my life, you must take,” she added.
Why swear? I looked at her. Her rose-like lips, which always splashed a smile, were motionless today. The face showed signs of frustration. I wondered why Mumtaz felt to have a hold on me. I took the tea and biscuits and said, “Okay now?”
Mumtaz smiled contentedly and picked up the book.
A month passed by. On that day, I finished the lesson for the day and was about to leave. She handed me two ten-rupee bills and said, “Take them.”
“What for?” I said, surprised.
“Tuition fees,” she said.
“If that is so, I will stop coming beginning tomorrow,” I said.
Mumtaz was shocked. “I beg your pardon. I don’t understand,” She said, confused.
“Nothing. Use this money for some other purpose depending on your needs,” I said and left quickly.
One day I went to a movie along with some friends. By the time we left the theater it was ten o’clock. We all had to go different ways. We stood there on the road and talking.
“Don’t you want a rickshaw, sir?” I heard behind and turned around. The voice sounded familiar. I turned around. The eyes sunk in deep, bushy beard like the color of winder squash … I could not believe my eyes. As soon as he saw my face, the rickshaw driver kicked the pedals and went away. There was no doubt. It was Ahmed. He was wearing a turban in stead of his usual cap, and a pair of khaki half-pants in stead of full-length pants; replaced his sherwani with a torn shirt. Possibly he changed his appearance to avoid being recognized. He was driving a rickshaw in this corner of the town so he did not have to run into his acquaintances.
The following day, Ahmed took a leave of absence probably because it was uncomfortable to see me in the office. For the next two or three days I was busy with my work and did not go to teach Mumtaz. All the three days, Ahmed did not come to office. I started getting worried about him. The next day, I decided to their home and find out what was wrong. However, I had to go to another place on office business and so could not go to Ahmed’s house. I thought I could visit him the following day since it was Sunday.
On that Sunday, in the morning I had my coffee and sat down with my pen and papers to write something. A rickshaw with closed curtains stopped in front of my house. Even as I looked up, Mumtaz pushed the curtain aside and stepped out. She came to me quickly and said anxiously, “Saar, please hurry.”
“Your Baba has not to the office for over three days, why?” I asked.
“Baba is sick with high fever for four days now. I was waiting for you, hoping you would come. Baba is asking for you. Please, won’t you come?” she said.
Her eyes were filled with tears, maybe out of fear that father was sick or just feeling helpless.
“Oh, no. You don’t have to worry; it is only temperature. Your Baba will be alright, don’t worry. You go ahead, Mumtaz. I will have bath and come,” I said.
Mumtaz looked at me as if she was not sure.
I took bath and put the twenty rive rupees, which I received after cashing the check from the radio station, and left for Ahmed’s place.
Ahmed was running high temperature. “Are you taking medicine, Ahmed bhai,” I asked.
“Yea, I am taking something,” he said weakly.
Mumtaz handed me a piece of paper, medicines the doctor had prescribed. I understood the situation. I pulled out two ten-rupee notes and one five-rupee note, gave it Mumtaz and told her, “Send Vaheed to the store and get them.”
“You may not get back that money,” Ahmed said.
“That is okay” I said.
I talked with Ahmed for a little while and was about to leave. Ahmed said, “Bhai, don’t tell Mumtaz about the other day.”
I was troubled by the plea in his eyes and huskiness in the tone. “What a pride” I told myself and came into the hallway. Mumtaz signaled me from the side room.
“How come you are not coming for tutoring? What did I do wrong?” Mumtaz asked.
I could not reply right away.
“You are right. What right I have to question you? It is not like I am paying you to tutor me,” Mumtaz was saying.
“Mumtaz,” I shouted aloud I think. Mumtaz shivered. I was not even thinking of reprimanding. I think several emotions—the mental pain Ahmed was suffering, the struggles he had been through, and the sad feeling that she did not understand me, and anger—they all colluded and made me sound in that manner.
She could not speak for a minute. Then she said, “I apologize. I was upset, sorry it came out like that.”
“Do you know why your Baba was coming home late at night everyday?” I said.
“He was saying that he had nothing to do at home and so spending time at the club or with friends,” she said. She seemed confused about why I was asking all these questions.
“No, that is a big lie.”
“So, what do you think he was doing?”
“In order to put you all through school, to pay for household expenses, also because his income was not enough to pay off even the interest on the debts, which was accumulating to the top of palm trees, your Baba was running rickshaw until eleven in the nights,” I was screaming, agitated.
“Rickshaw? Baba was running rickshaw? Chi, chi, what kind of sick sinner I should be, Master Saar,” Mumtaz was crying.
“Where do you think, Mumtaz, the money you paid for your joyous rickshaw rides to college was coming from? That was the money your Baba earned by driving rickshaw at nights. Did you, Masoona or Vaheed ever think of Baba anytime?”
“Please, don’t tell me any more, Saab,” Mumtaz said and kept sobbing, heartbroken.
It was not my intent to say this to Mumtaz to make her cry. My plan was only to make her, Vaheed and Masoona aware of the situation. But the delicate heart of Mumtaz could not bear the thought.
“Don’t cry, Mumtaz, don’t,” I stroked her hair involuntarily. She collected herself in a few minutes.
“Please, Master Saab, find a job for me. I will quit school tomorrow,” she said.
“Okay,” I said and left.
Ahmed did not recover from the fever for ten days. The words I said to Mumtaz on that day had worker on her well. She was more determined than ever to work and help her father. Masoona, who was studying medicine, and Vaheed, who was studying engineering thought there was no way they could get a job unless they had finished school.
I used a bit of my clout. Mumtaz got a job in an office. Ahmed did not agree to Mumtaz working at the outset but her determination and my encouragement helped him to accept it.
Ahmed continued to come to the office as usual. Kabuli men continued to pester him as always. The bills at the canteen were no different from the earlier times. After Mumtaz started working, Ahmed did not have to run the rickshaw service. That was only because Mumtaz insisted.
Then the central government decided on the reorganization of the states. The news that some of the Muslim employees would be assigned to the states of Maharshtra and Karnataka caused the Muslim employees to worry. Ahmed began to worry to what state he would sent.
Heavy debts and everyday problems were driving Ahmed over the edge. That fear brought even more restlessness to him.
“Bhai, it is no easy task for me to move from here, you know. I cannot move even one step without paying off the ten thousand rupee debt. My family is in no position to move. Children’s education will suffer,” he said.
“We were born on this soil. We grew up on this soil. We never thought, not even in our dreams, that we would have to leave this soil,” said some of them.
“No matter who is working in what position, we all are together in our family. My family will be ‘shattered’ if I am sent to Mysore, my son to Bombay, my brother to another place, and my daughter to Aurangabad or some other place. Now we are able to manage even one of us earn more and another less. Tomorrow that will not be possible,” said another person with an extended family.
‘Narrow-minded vision causes the fundamental concept. It is natural to face some inconveniences and discomforts temporarily due to the reorganization of states. Today what we need is broader perspective’ argued some of the leaders and it worked on some people. But none of these views was made public. Those who had influence began their attempts to stay in the same place. Ahmed also tried the same way like the others. He recounted his problems to those in power and begged them to let him stay in the same town. He fell on their feet and implored. He even tried to please them and win their goodwill.
In some offices, the reassignments were announced. Mumtaz was transferred to Aurangabad. It as like a pestle hitting on ringworm for Ahmed. He was worried what might happen to his job. He was even more determined to try his hardest to be reassigned to the same place. He said to me, “If they post me in the same place, I will make Mumtaz resign her job.”
Amidst this commotion, the Kabuli men and other creditors intensified their efforts to collect their money. The grocery store owners stopped selling items on credit. Because of these pressures, life became more miserable day by day for people like Ahmed. One of the creditors planned to take over Ahmed’s house in return for the money he owed. The creditor loaned Ahmed 300 rupees, forced him to sign a promissory note for 1000 rupees and now he was threatening to sue him. On top of all of this, Ahmed’s wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis. All these things ate up Ahmed’s brain. He was looking like a dried stick. “Why should I live, Bhai,” He would say desperately.
Days passed by. Suddenly, there was a change in Ahmed’s behavior. He used to be millions away but now he is approaching others on his own accord and talking gleefully. I wondered what might be the reasons for this change. I thought for a second, if it was like the lamp that would flare up higher before dying, and beat myself up for entertaining such a stupid thought.
One day, I went towards Tank Bund for a walk and turned around. It was getting late. I saw Ahmed sitting on a bench. Usually he would be happy to see me but that day he turned away as if he had not seen me. “Did he come here to jump into the Hussein Sagar River?” I suspected and approached him. Contrary to his habit of being friendly, he replied curtly and added, “I did not come here to jump into the river and die. I came here to talk to a gentleman.”
I noticed that he was not about my being there. “Okay, I am leaving,” I said and proceeded towards home. I walked a few yards. Suddenly I saw Mumtaz’s face peeking from a car window, her face lit by the street lights. An officer was next to her. He put his arm on her shoulder and was talking to her joyously.
I was overcome by surprise and sorrow. “Chi, chi, Ahmed gone so low! How could Mumtaz, with all her education and culture, agree to this deplorable act? Is this the reason for the change in Ahmed’s behavior?” I kept walking as I pondered. What else can I do but pity him and feel sorry for him?
All offices announced the lists of reassignments. Ahmed’s hope was crashed to the ground. The officer whom he trusted could do nothing about it. Probably Ahmed could not believe his own eyes when he was the paper which said he was assigned to Mysore office. Probably, the same officer looked like a pervert now; his daughter who sold her virtue for his sake and his wife, who was suffering from tuberculosis, appeared pathetically before his eyes. The voices of the creditor who mortgaged his house and the Kabuli man who was threatening him with lawsuit, howled in his ears.
Ahmed’s heart stopped, choked and weakened by all the circumstances. Poor Ahmed, he died before the thought occurred to him what might happen to his children, for whose sake he run the rickshaw service, and whose future he hoped to be bright.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, December 2008.
(Note: This story is about a family shattered and a heart broken under the state reorganization program undertaken by the government after India had achieved independence.
Lingamurthy, the author, was one of the prominent writers during that period, now nearly forgotten. Thanks to the abhyudaya racayitala sangham, Guntur, I was able to read this story. I hope readers enjoy it too.
The Telugu original, vicchitti, was published in Andhra patrika, ugadi 1957.)