It was eleven in the night, when Razia finally managed to reach Bareilly station. It was a big station. The multiple railway tracks and platforms of the station caused her eyebrows to rise a little higher than usual and her jaw to drop in amazement. The maximum number of railway tracks she had seen at a particular station so far had never exceeded the number two. Even those two remained unused for most of the time. Only two or three trains would pass through those stations in an entire day. So, the herd of trains that would throng the Bareilly station every now and then was quite a sight to her!
Slowly dragging her small bundle of clothes, rolled up into one wad of lint-free rag, she walked up to the ticket counter. Having known only plaster-free rooms with red bricks for walls and porous tin for shade, as the place where tickets are available, it was a bit tedious for her to locate the air-conditioned, properly-furnished ticket counter of Bareilly station. The lack of knowledge to read didn’t help either. But the old darwaan did. Maybe when age catches up with people, the attribute of compassion is automatically injected into their veins, Razia thought. Or is it so?
“Ticket to Delhi.. how much?” she feebly asked the person at the counter.
“You want a reserved seat?”
“Cheap ticket. I can manage on the floor.”
The person handed her over a ticket for the general coach. She was told that the train would arrive at four a.m. She should go outside and find some place to spend the night as the waiting rooms would not allow her in.
Razia looked around. There was ample space on the platform. She was a little surprised about being advised to look for some place outside. There were so many people cosily sleeping on the platform, large pieces of luggage serving as comfy pillows and long shawls protecting them from the chill of February. Well, of course they had taken up almost all the space that was not stained with ‘paan’-spits and other forms of litter. But still there was a lot of room to accommodate a skinny old woman like herself. She laughed in her mind, at the ticket-waala’s ignorance.
She found herself a suitable corner near a small tea stall on the platform. The lungi-clad stall-owner smiled at her and asked, “Will you take tea, maa ji?”
“No, beta. Thanks.” She replied with a smile. The heat from the stove was good for her. Though it was not a very handsome arrangement to keep her from the biting cold of the night, she would have to be content with only this much. She did not have much money to spend. Only a few hundred bucks were left. In her fit of rage, she couldn’t take enough money with her. Nor did she intend to have any of that money any more. She would be well-off once she had reached Delhi and met Firhaad, her son. Till then she would manage somehow with the little she had. A teardrop trickled down her left cheek. The thought of her son still brought a lump to her throat. Where was he? What was he doing? How would she be even able to find him? Why did she let him go in first place? Slowly the drops increased in frequency and soon transformed into a no-holds-barred flow of agony.
Firhaad was an ideal son. For Razia, he was. For his father, he wasn’t. Neither was he an ideal brother to his elder siblings. Nor was he the most appreciated lad among his friends. After the age of twelve he even stopped having any friends as such. He was a special kid, different from the others. He was sensitive, hard-working, particularly obedient to his parents—yet he failed to live up to the expectations of most of his kin.
“Why?” he would often think to himself. Was it because he wasn’t the quintessential masculine male, who would run around the field and climb trees all day and not stop for breath till he had wreaked havoc throughout the entire locality? Was it because football, kabaddi, cricket and all the other manly sports couldn’t entice him out of his house for a majority of the day? He loved to tailor clothes for himself and his elder sisters. He loved to work with fabrics and colours all day long. What’s wrong with that? He liked jewellery and would often wear them and stand in front of the mirror. His heart would often skip a beat seeing his own reflection on the dust-laden shaving mirror,the only one, his father could afford. He would often put on his elder sisters’ salwaar and dupatta and jewellery and look at himself in awe and admiration, for hours. Transcending the boundaries of time and space, his heart would fly out of the small window of their modest house and float in the clouds of a make-belief world where Firhaad was not a boy anymore—he was a beautiful maiden, walking in beauty like the night, carrying the moon and a million stars on the drapes of her gorgeous long gown… free as a bird, intoxicating as wine.
But people never understood him. They took his coveted bit of ‘femininity’ to be some sort of madness. Initially, the boys of his school would leave no stone unturned to mock and bully him. After school, as the group would return home, the boys would snatch away his meal or pull down his pants and make merry at the expense of his moment of embarrassment. It was like dessert to them. Without taking a trip of Firhaad, their school-going would be incomplete. His inability to retaliate was taken for granted and his daily dose of humiliation was incorporated into the unofficial routine of the school. As he grew a little older, new words were formulated to humiliate him—hijda, kinnar, auraat being the moderate ones. After a futile struggle to preserve his dignity for some time, Firhaad quit school. His Abba was rather relieved at this development. Their family of five was solely dependent on his earnings, which was—to put it most politely—considerably modest. His tailoring shop needed an extra hand, so he employed Firhaad for the same.
Firhaad’s mother was the only person he could confide in. She would not judge him for not being ‘normal’. In front of her, he didn’t have the pressure of sticking to the parameters by which a boy’s ‘boy-ness’ is measured. He could unworryingly drape himself in one of the customer’s churnis and fish for compliments, from his mother.
“How am I looking, Ammi?”
Razia would guffaw in mirth for a few minutes at her son’s ridiculous antics. Then she would pull him close to her and plant an endearing kiss on his forehead.
“You look like a princess, my little prince!” she would say and lock him up in warm embrace. In that moment of universal harmony, all the worldly grievances and perturbations would disappear slowly, just like a thick layer of fog fades out as the rays of the sun cut through them on a sunny winter morning.
Amidst this dubiousness of identity, and an environment of disapproval and mortification, Firhaad slowly and shakily grew up. And how painful it was to actually come to loggerheads with the evils and perils of an adult world—each of Firhaad’s guts bore testimony to that! Boyhood was one thing. It would be content with agitating you in small and mostly jest-oriented ways. But adulthood would take a toll on your psyche and drive you crazy, if you were not well equipped to deftly counter its blows. And of all people, our man was the least-suited for waging a war against destiny and reality! So the blows came continually, in various forms and slowly crushed down Firhaad’s self-belief like a betel nut.
One extra baggage that adulthood brings along with itself is sexuality. And for those who can’t take it in their stride, carrying it thereafter, becomes quite taxing in our country. While passing through his adolescence, Firhaad could hear new notes of youth, arbitrarily playing on his subconscious, engaging his mind and body to form an all-encompassing choir of pleasure and happiness and excitement and many more inexplicable new emotions. Thus far, his mind and body would function in unison, one couldn’t be told from the other. Now, he was seeing his body in a new light—it seemed to be a separate entity with a mind of its own! It had new claims, new desires, new responses which would at times defy the rationales of his own mind. Over time, the tunes and notes went from being arbitrary to playing in tandem; the feelings were finding a definite form. Soon, they assorted themselves into their distinct places and the scale was established! Firhaad’s mind, soul and body would immerse in the tunes and began to resonate with them in perfect harmony.
All these were facilitated by the advent of a new person in his life—Saleem. Saleem worked at a textile mill near Bareilly. He would come to Firhaad’s abba’s shop to supply tailoring cloths and other materials. Tall and handsome—he had captured Firhaad’s imagination at the very first glance. Moreover, his composed demeanor and baritone voice added in his personality a certain aspect of maturity and mystery, which put together, was rare in Firhaad’s experience. Well, being confined to a small village in rural Uttar Pradesh didn’t help in expanding his sample space. Most of the males in his generation whom he had come across in his short lifespan, were shallow and inconsiderate. All they would do was create a ruckus, bully the weak and propagate hooliganism. So this alien trait of restraint and decency, which he saw in Saleem, intrigued him immensely. A desire to get to know this man, to plunge into the depths of his heart, started ringing bells in Firhaad’s heart.
And the alarms couldn’t remain unheard for long. Just like pollinating animals are attracted towards flowers by their nectar, Firhaad was drawn towards Saleem and a strong friendship developed between them. Saleem was a man of the world. He was orphaned at a very young age and since then he had been supporting himself in this brutal, competitive world. He had worked in shops and mills and even in ships at some point in his life. He had a huge chest of experience, which he opened up and shared with Firhaad, who would listen to his stories, awe-struck, for hours at a stretch. Stories of huge air-conditioned shops in Delhi, the trains running below the city in Kolkata, huge ports in Gujarat, the palaces and forts of Rajasthan. Firhaad, who had never been out of his village would weave these pictures in his imagination, and presently, a wish to go beyond the boundaries of his modest locality and observe the world in its vastness and grandeur, slowly built up in his heart.
TO BE CONTINUED...