Luqman18 mins 131 18 mins 131
Men were killed in this region often and openly. Blood thirsty mobs descended upon their prey like a pack of hounds chasing, catching, and beating the victims till the last of life was sniffed out of them. They used stones, iron rods, bamboo sticks and even hammer to break their victim's bones and open up his skull.
On those rare occasions when the police arrived on the scene it usually remained a mute spectator through the theatre of macabre but sometimes, it assisted the killers in disposing off the bodies or establishing the culpability of the dead man.
It was in such a place that Luqman Khan and before him his father and grandfather carried out the meat trade. They butchered buffaloes in the village and sell meat to retailers in Gurgaon 30 kilometers away.
At the time of his father and grandfather the work had by and large been smooth, but by the time Luqman terminated his studies and took on the reins of the trade from his father the rules of the game had changed drastically.
Men who called themselves gau rakshaks now patrolled the highways looking for meat traders they could accuse of cow slaughter and lynch to death. They operated through a well-connected network using WhatsApp and Facebook and always recorded the lynching.
Every time a killing like that took place Luqman's mother's blood pressure shot through.
She often urged Luqman to look for an alternate source of income and this morning she was livid with anger. A dairy farmer called Akhter had been killed last week in a village about 100 kms away, whose video had appeared on Luqman's mother's phone an hour ago.
'Why don't you just leave this work. What are you waiting for?' she yelled at Luqman and her fair cheek turned purple.
Fatima Bibi had an extraordinarily fair complexion which meant that when she became really angry and oxygenated blood ran to her facial veins it showed through her skin. A legend in the family went Fatima Bi's maternal grandmother Surayya Bi had been so fair that when she chewed betel, its orange juice would be seen making its way down her throat. That of course was an exaggerated ode to the genes that had undertaken a journey of thousands of years, traversing continents and oceans, allying with diverse DNAs on their way to the sub-continent, where its carriers arrived about a thousand years ago. And made it their home.
There is one more legend. This one about Surayya Bi's father Nana miya'n who had participated in the country's first war of Independence in 1857 and was duly hanged to death by the erstwhile masters of the nation. As his lifeless body hung by a sturdy tree branch in Delhi along with scores of other bodies on the surrounding trees the English rope cut through the delicate white skin of his neck and blood dripped to the ground. From the exact spot where his blood drops fell sprouted a shrub of Night Jasmine whose flowers open up every night and vent out their fragrance into the air even now.
When Fatima Bibi's children were small her deep red face would scare them into obedience, now it alerts them to the possibility of a stroke.
It was difficult to say whether her current rage stemmed from the happenings around her or from her son's heedlessness to the happenings.
'Arey Amma, nothing is going to happen to me,' Luqman gently palceing his hands on her mother upper arms, trying to lead her to sit on the bare wooden thakht.
'How can you say that nothing will happen? Isn't it already happening to others?' Fatima Bibi said as she jerked away Laqman's hands, refusing to budge from her position.
'They are usually personal animosities Amma,' said Luqman casually, attempting to trivialize thematter before his mother.
'Who are you trying to fool, haan?' Fatima Bibi retorted sharply.
Luqman took a deep breath.
'Tell me Amma, what will we eat if I leave this work?' he asked.
'We shall eat chutney roti. You just leave this work!' Fatima Bi said cupping her son's face in her palms and looking directly into his eyes. Luqman placed his hands on his mother's letting their soft warmth pass through his palms and penetrate into his soul.
'We will eat chutney roti, but how will Shabana get married?' he said directing his gaze towards his twin sister. 'See Shabana, Amma intends to feed chutney roti to your baratis,' he laughed exposing a set of crooked teeth. A dimple made a guest appearance on his left cheek and his shiny black hair bounced to the tune of his laughter.
'That's not at all funny Luqman. Do something else, anything else,' said Shabana earnestly, 'and my baratis can starve for all I care,' she added handing him a cup of tea and rolling her eyes
Luqman took a sip of the tea and narrowed his eyes.
'Et tu Shabana?' he called out as Shabana sailed into the kitchen.
Literature had been his favorite subject till he discontinued his studies flunking in the class 10th examination twice. He still wrote poetry in Hindi sometimes.
'I think you should become a writer, you will do well,' said Shabana reappearing from the kitchen with a dastarkhawn to spread on the bare takht.
'Well,' said Luqman contemplatively, 'in that case you all will have to become mice, because my books will be all we will have in the house to eat after I become a writer.'
'Enough jesting Luqman. Let your father come back from Kanpur and we will settle this matter permanently. You will do anything but meat business,' said Fatima Bi.
Luqman looked at his phone clock, stuffed a paratha in his mouth and rose from the dastarkhawn.
'Have you heard?' Fatima Bi asked sternly.
'Hmm,' he nodded, chewing down the paratha in his mouth and putting on his knock off Adidas sneakers.
'Where are you going?' Fatima Bi asked.
'There is an order. I am already late,' Luqman replied.
'Can't it be avoided?'
'Not today Mai! Even the greatest autocrats don't impose embargos so ekdam,' he laughed.
'One day you will come to regret your decision sorely.'
Thats what Fatima Bi's dadi had said on the day of her nikah. Fatima Bi who herself hailed from a family of maulvis, madarsa teachers and munshis had married against her family's wish, creating an uproar among her close and distant relatives, who despite their poverty took immense pride in their lineage and considered themselves superior to the local second or third generation converts like Luqman's father.
In 26 years, Fatima Bi had not regretted her decision. Not until now.
'Please stop worrying yourself like this Amma. Shabana, make Amma eat breakfast and don't forget her BP pill,' Luqman said as he darted across the verandah towards the main door, where he halted, turned around and said 'Allah Hafiz.'
Shabana responded but Fatima Bi too engrossed in her thoughts did not look up.
Luqman hurried along the paved narrow lane in which his house was located. Uncovered drainage grooves on either side had swelled beyond their capacity and has thrown up their murky content in retired exasperation. Rife with microorganisms of all kinds it lent a foul odour to the air. Luqman sensed but did not mind it. Nor did he mind the young lads who rent the air asunder with the choicest of abuse as they clashed against each other in a cricket match on an empty plot two houses beyond Luqman's.
A gang of dirty-faced little urchins, a couple of them stark naked, played, ran and horsed around in the gully; their senses indiscriminately absorbing all that the environment offered, inadvertently shaping them into the young men they will turn into in a dozen or so years.
From a distance Luqman could make out Manoj chacha's vibrant vegetable cart; red tomatoes, bundles of green herbs, pink carrots, genetically modified yellow capsicum and shiny green chillies. Passing his cart, he extended to the old man a reverential nod.
'Sukhi raho beta!' Manoj chacha called out as Luqman hurried away towards the mouth of the gully where his loaded tempo and assistant Kishore stood waiting for him.
Kishore was lean young boy, not quite seventeen but working full time to support his family.
Being Dalit, his family lived at the far end of the village with other Dalit families. Kishore's father when he was alive earned by lifting dead animals and decaying human corpse. One day while retrieving mangled parts of a body from the railway tracks a super-fast train ran over him.
That's when Kishore the eldest of five siblings started to work with Luqman skinning, cleaning and breaking down the animal into cuts for retailers.
'What's wrong?' Luqman asked a grim looking Kishore.
'Bhayya,' Kishore said letting his voice trail off.
'Haan, tell,' Luqman said checking the lock at the back and pulling tight the plastic tarpaulin that made the roof of his tempo. 'Get me the screwdriver from the tool box,' he said shoving in a dangling indicator light.
'Don't go today,' Kishore said somberly.
'Haan? Why?' Luqman asked puzzled, looking up from his hunched position before the erring indicator, his eyes scrunched against the sunrays nosediving into his face. Kishore stared back at him; his eyes expressionless, lean mouth set in a straight line.
'My mother has heard something.' Kishore bent down and whispered to Luqman's.
'Come to know what? Quickly get the screwdriver,' Luqman said getting impatient.
'We might get attacked,' Kishore whispered.
Luqman sighed. 'Is your mother a secret service agent or did the attackers come and tell her their plan?'
'Amma won't tell me how she came to know. She just asked me to stay home for some days' Kishore whispered, 'and to warn you too,' he added.
'You don't want to come, don't come. Now get me the screw driver. I am getting late,' Luqman said imaptiently.
'You also don't go bhai, please' Kishore said.
'This is our bread and butter. How long can we sit at home?' Luqman said calmly.
'They might kill you,' Kishore said.
'A wise man once said, it's better to live like a lion for a day than to live like a lamb for years,' said Luqman raising from his hunch to get the screwdriver.
'We are neither lions nor lambs. We are humans, reason is our greatest asset, as you yourself say all the time,' said Kishore his tone teetering on the verge of resignation.
'Hmm, you are becoming smart!' said Luqman letting a lop-sided grin takeover his face, 'courage, the ability to stand tall in face of threat is another uniquely human trait. Now off you go!'
Kishore stood, indecisive and glum as Luqman tightened the erring screw, threw the screw driver into the toolbox and jumped into the driver's seat, agile as a cat. He turned the key in the ignition and hulky machine spurred to life. 'Go home, ask Shabana didi to give you her phone and take it to Mahesh's shop for a new screen,' Luqman said letting go of the clutch and pressing the accelerator.
The ride was bumpy, narrow pot-holed lanes opening into narrow pot-holed lanes and Luqman's tempo obliging begrudgingly at every command to slow or halt. This travesty continued for about two kilometer until Luqman turned left onto the national highway 48 and left the tribulations of his lesser civilization behind him.
Wide, smooth, flanked by flashy malls on either side and canopied by a clear blue sky the highway effortlessly cradled thousands of its surfers to their destinations each day. Gliding along, a cool breeze caressing his face, Luqman allowed his thoughts to wander to Faiza.
The stress created by his mother's extreme concerns, her depilating health and Kishore's warning at once faded into oblivion. Luqman was after all a man in love and his love tinted world view made the world an unrealistically happy place.
Faiza was his tall, dusky and intelligent distant cousin on his mother's side whom he met only at the weddings and funerals of extended family members but had fallen in love with over Facebook. She was pursuing graduation from a college of Delhi University with Urdu literature as one of her subjects and often posted couplets of Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Quli Qutub Shah, Khwaja Mir Dard, Aatish, Ghalib, Iqbal and Firaq on her FB wall.
Luqman compulsorily liked and commented on every post she made irrespective of whether he understood them or not, and her reciprocation rate of around 10% was enough to keep Luqman's hopes fueled.
Thoughts of Faiza stirred in him an urge to check himself out in the mirror. He adjusted the outer rear-view mirror on the right side of his tempo to peak a glance at himself and the mirror reflected at Luqman two unexpected things. One, a smile that had sprouted on his face at the thought of Faiza while he had been completely unaware of it and second, a white Tata Sumo speeding towards him at break neck speed.
Instinctively, Luqman hit the left indicator and swerved his tempo, providing adequate room on the right for the speeding beast to pass by. He looked into the rear-view mirror once again and to his utter horror realized that the Tata Sumo had altered its course and aligned itself with Luqman's tempo. The distance between the two remained no more than a hundred meters. This time he swerved right, changed the gears and pressed the accelerator as hard as he could. Thankfully, at that moment there were no other vehicles ahead of him.
For a few brief moments the distance between Luqman's tempo and the Tata Sumo increased, but within no time the enraged white beast swerved to the right, reinstated itself on the collision course and rapidly made up for the distance it had lost a few seconds ago.
The barest shred of doubt that Luqman had about the Sumo driver's intention until now vanished from his mind and the sordid confirmation hit him like a gust of icy wind.
As the Sumo broke into his tempo's space cushion and started to tailgate it, Luqman recited the shahad and braced himself for the rear end collision he was about to suffer without the benefit of a seat belt.
When the Somu finally knocked Luqman's tempo a few seconds later, the impact he felt was far more powerful than he had anticipated. The tempo plowed into the divider and Luqman flew over dark green ornamental hedge to the other side of the road where an oncoming Wagon-R barely missed running over him as he fell face down on the tar road.
This was the month of October and the road was lukewarm unlike the scalding hot it would be in the summer months of May and June. Strange reflection for a time like this, Luqman thought as he staggered to his feet. He felt no pain, just a warm viscous wetness springing forth his forehead and spreading all over his face.
His first instinct was to run but reason convinced him of the futility of such an attempt and he opted for the second and only practically viable course of action. Hands up in the air to indicate non-confrontation he turned around to face his attackers who were just descending from the Tata Sumo which Luqman noticed had not suffered even a dent while his tempo had totaled.
Four men, armed with sticks and rods, advanced towards Luqman. A devilish viciousness was writ large on faces of three of them while one had balck and white chequered cotton gamcha wrapped around his head and face.
'Its bufallo! Buffalo! We don't slaughter cows,' Luqman said trying to contain the panic rising in him.
'Saale! madarchod! You slaughter gau mata and say its buffalo?' one of the men said as he smacked Luqman hard on his left cheek. The slap reverberated through him. Anticipating another blow Luqman flinched and tried to raise his hands against his face. Thats when an intense pain shot through his left arm and he realized that the fall across the hedge had broken it.
'Listen to me, please,' Luqman said supporting his broken hand with the non-broken one, wincing in pain and thinking of his old friend Munna from the adjoining village who had become active in local politics. These men would certainly know him. Who didn't?
Considered a good for nothing Munna took over his father's timber business after a car accident that killed his father and disabled his older brother. With his greatest critic dead and his competitor bed ridden Munna discovered in himself a streak to excel that had been rendered dormant by years of humiliation and criticism. From loitering around the town with his friends, one of whom was Luqman, to working eighteen hours a day Munna's life altered dramatically.
Within two year he had wooed and married the daughter of a local politician and joined politics. He now had no more time for his old friends. When Luqman visited him on the first Diwali after his marriage Munna offered him gujiya, then turned his attention to the more important friends he now had, not speaking a word to Luqman for the rest of the evening. That was the last time the two of them had met.
It was said that Munna had usurped his brother's share of the property too, fixing for him a modest monthly stipend. Luqman did not believe this rumor. For him Munna was above debauchery.
One late evening in the summer of 2002 at ten years of age Munna had stood between a seven-year-old Luqman and two knife yielding drunk fanatics on the outskirts of Luqman's village.
'You will have to kill me before you touch this boy,' he had said looking straight into the eyes of grown-up armed men.
'I am Munna's friend. You know Munna right?' Please talk to him once, he will tell you I don't slaughter cows,' Luqman said writhing in pain as one of his attackers, the one in a pink shirt pulled at his hair and another limping, polio afflicted man rummaged through his pockets.
'Munna? Who Munna,' said the pink shirt sneering, as he fished out Luqman's wallet and phone.
'Munna Bhayya of Nausera village,' Luqman said.
The pink shirt kicked Luqman in the groin. Luqman doubled over in pain and allowed himself to collapse to the ground. Blood spurted from his forehead with renewed vigor.
'Please..,' he appealed to his attackers raising his index finger, 'let me make just one call.'
'First tell us why do you slaughter cows,' said another man sneering and exposing the gutka stained teeth that guarded a cavernous mouth.
'It's not cow! Why are you blaming me for cow slaughter? Why?' Luqman shouted.
'We will answer your question. First let us fix your attitude,' said the limp, and before he could complete his sentence lathi blows began to rain on Luqman's lithe body.
First his skin ruptured, letting out fountains of blood at several places, then his muscles tore and bones cracked before breaking into two, three or more pieces.
Luqman howled. His blood seeped into the miniature troughs on the surface of the road that looked flawlessly smooth from a height of six feet. Vehicles slowed down and honked so that the attackers entirely engrossed in their enterprise may get out of their way. Then their engines picked up and they sped away.
Luqman was about to pass out when the beating suddenly stopped. Someone splashed water on his face and helped him to sit up against the two feet high divider. When Luqman opened his eyes he discovered to his utter confusion that his helper was none other than the one who had given the call to fix his attitude earlier. To Luqman that looked like a very long time ago, but in reality, it had been only a little more than two minutes since the first blows of a lathi had fallen on him.
Luqman closed his eyes and allowed his profusely bleeding, heavy as lead head to fall back. Very little if anything made sense to Luqman at this point.
'Let me talk to Munna,' he whispered, barely audible.
The pink shirt rose from his hunches and took a deep breath.
'Your friend is really desperate to talk to you Munna bhai,' he said addressing the masked man among them.
Luqman lifted up his head and forced his unrelenting eyes to open. The whites of his eyes made a striking contrast with his bloodied face as they looked unblinking towards the potbellied man removing the gamcha from his face and strolling towards him as if they were picnicking in a garden.
'What is it that you are insisting to talk to me about Lukman?' Munna said coming to haunch before Luqman.
'It's not Lukman, its Luqman. Q . Luq, luq. LuQman. Do you understand now?'
'I can't speak like that.'
'You are only ten years old. You can learn. My Ammi says small children can learn anything they want.'
I don't want to learn. What's in a name anyways? You are my friend, Lukman or however you say it, it doesn't matter.'
Munna's eyes were bloodshot with dark bags underneath them and white telltale signs of high cholesterol on the eyelids. His hair line had receded and his voice had developed a grating quality that had not been there before. Too much alcohol.
'Why Munna?' Luqman whispered, struggling to breathe.
'Why?' Munna repeated, 'because you don't deserve to live in this country.' Munna roared.
'This is my country. Where else would I be if not here?' Luqman said his breath breaking.
'This is not your country; your country is Pakistan! Begone from here! Either to Pakistan or kabristan!' Munna roared.
'This harami is too stubborn. Let's bring him to his senses,' said the cavernous mouth.
Munna extended his hand, palms up just as Luqman had, asking Kishore for the screwdriver in another lifetime.
The pink shirt passed a hammer in Munna's hand.
Smooth wooden bar and a coarse iron head with small wooden grafts inserted where the head and the handle attached so that the head doesn't fly off on impact.
'You know what this is, right?' Munna said flexing the hammer in Luqman's face.
'Hmm,' Luqman moaned softly.
'I will break your head with it,' Munna said with calm passion of a physics teacher explaining the function of a pully to an ardent student.
'That you surely will.'
Exasperated, Munna tightened his grip on the hammer's bar, raised his hand and pulled it back. With all his might Munna brought the hammer on Luqman's head. The impact disturbed the air particles around them, causing a methodical frenzy in every direction.
Eventually, the frenzy died down and silence fell.