Translated from Malayalam by Premkumar K P
Though there were only a few passengers, though breeze of February drifted along the platform, Nasirudheen experienced a phobic sweat. The city was fast asleep – the concrete benches in the station, those who huddled on them, the wooden pillars, billboards, tracks and all else. Only the old man was not able to sleep.
It perturbed him; it is quarter to one and there is no clue of the Guruvayur express scheduled to arrive at quarter past twelve. He cursed the sore-eyed signal lights staring at him. He heard the announcement that the train will arrive shortly. The old man puffed a
Kajah Beedi with eyes wide open into the darkness.
He was scared of making journeys, especially in trains. His vulnerability to asthma when exposed to the wind and his drained out lanky body were not the only reasons. After his last train journey nine years ago, in all his sleeps he used to have nightmares wherein inside the train he alone runs short of breath.
‘Nasirudheen, it’s a fallacy.’ Even this evening the seventy one year old Kolakkadan Unneen repeated this.
‘If you can’t, I will go,’ Kunimacha ventured impudence along with a sob. ‘It’s that heart-rending.’ She bowed and swabbed her nose with the blue
As though not comprehending anything, he counted the notes in hand. Six hundred and fifty rupees. He obtained that much by selling off Faisal’s transistor. It was the most expensive object in his home. He brought it from Arabia; his boss’ present for Khadeeja’s wedding.
Before taking it for sale, he and Kunimacha played again that cassette Khalb one last time. That song had turned more pathetic and frail than a wail. Before the last song, its flimsy tape stretched, the wheels circled fast. As he took it out,
Khalb was broken. Never in his life has Nasirudheen seen Kunimacha bursting into tears like this.
“It is for her, na? Poor thing, how much pain!” Kunimacha’s skinny bust drooped.
“Oh, so painful it would be. Allah, give her solace.” Nasirudheen prayed before boarding the train.
He felt as if he ended up in a hideous dungeon of steel. The fluorescent lamps in the bogie emitted a blue light. The old Nasirudheen sat stunned. Such a luminous room…! He has never, even in his dreams, seen such luminance. Like rolled up stars clung to the iron roof, they spat smouldering light into his eyes. In the brightness, his eyes turned sore.
Nasirudheen got a seat near the window. The rough tongue of cold dangled in the outer darkness. The wind pierced the ears like a diamond needle. Passengers dozed in diverse postures. He realised how perilous would be the insecurity of someone trapped inside a weird prison. As the train moved, he pressed on to the window like a clever cat. He managed to keep his eyes open into the darkness. He discerned that the train is running along the Khabersthan of Karbala mosque.
“Oh the great God,” Nasirudheen’s lips trembled. He has trained himself to see in darkness. The black tombs rising unto the sky. Karbala mosque, its minarets glistening in pallid light. Moving ahead further…
He saw prayers in Arabic for the dead, inscribed on marble. Saw overripe, thorny henna bushes. The lean henna stump planted near Faisal’s tomb came to his memory. By the time, Faisal’s tomb stood perpendicular to his vision, in the windowsill. He felt that his
meezan sepulchres are the fangs of night, and that they are scowling at him. For a solace, he looked at the fellow sitting next.
“Nothing” Nasirudheen nodded as if he has committed a fault. What did I do to bid such a fierce glare? His body drew in the direction opposite to feverishness. Severe heat and sweat. But more frozen than a shred of iron. He perspired more and more. He guessed that almost everyone awake is observing him. Wrathful eyes. Ungracious lips.
“My dear Muslim brother” he shuddered as if he heard Sait’s call. At the same time, blood circulated through his skinny veins with confidence. Because Sait and himself are Muslims. They are in Nasirudheen’s own salon. In his hand, the sharpened scissors; there is the razor to shave head.
Could have carried the scissors; for an assurance. Without the scissors, ossan Nasirudheen is frail. An insect or mere shit. But while others sit, surrendering their head, Nasirudheen is the King. A mighty Ossan who has all powers to prune head and to press a knife on neck. A king.
Only Muslims come to Nasirudheen’s salon. Off and on, one or two strangers came after journeys. He disliked talking to strangers. With his pair of scissors, he would quickly dress strangers’ hair stinking of sweat and dirt; if for lather, even then. To the query “How much?” he would point at the calendar with the photo of Mecca. All Kerala barbershop Owners Association’s board hangs there.
Head Shave –
Whatever it may be, Nasirudheen is an expert barber; the man who has mastered the language of hair and head. When they were children, he used to narrate to Khaddeja and Faisal the language of hair. Some has permed hair, some others flat top, brown, thick, ripping, grey, dyed and black, waxy, blond without dye and some others dread locks. Only the barber can discern the language of the hair. While seated for a crop, the language of some hair would be like “Don’t… don’t cut me…” Some others would dare: “Come on… cut…” On sagging in pieces, one language; on beginning to shave, another.
Last month it was. Sait came to the salon and stated the mutual relation between cutting of hair and cutting off heads. Barber cuts Muslim’s hair; and they cut off Muslim’s head. Nasirudheen was scared stiff. The razor quivered during the shave. Sait’s chin scratched.
“Cool down Nasirudheen” Sait swabbed blood drops with his kerchief.
“They will come to us old people only at the end. Their target is our children and women.” Nasirudheen spouted water on his hair.
“Yesterday Faisal and Ummer. What’s going to happen to our race is extermination. As per their agenda of 1975 and 76, we the minority…”
Sait’s heavy voice broke with the entrance of a stranger. In a sharp voice Nasirudheen’s scissors talked to hairs.
Again Nasirudheen looked out. The train has moved from Kayamkulam. Strange route, strange fellow travellers, strange places and strange names. An unusual, fear gripped Nasirudheen. He has the ultimate wisdom that he is never safe in any trip.
“Either they will track us down and then behead. Or they will explode the whole train we travel, by a bomb blast or else setting it afire. But a barber need not worry. Scissors and razor are there to protect him.” Nasirudheen remembered Sait’s words.
“A barber is a killer artisan too.” Sait laughed out loud.
Nasirudheen mused. The same barber is an artist too. His sublimity should always glisten at the tip of his scissors, left hand and his comb. Nasirudheen knew the geometry of haircut too. “There is a calculation at heart. If it fails, all is lost. Right?”
Nasirudheen simply stirred his scissors to sharpen it. The music of arms reverberated in the salon. In the former days, Nasirudheen’s scissors had no discretion. It didn’t consider Hindus, Christians and Muslims separate. Gradually the visits of ‘others’ to the shop stopped. “To be precise, it’s since 1996 that the Hindus stopped coming.”
Nasirudheen would shudder at the question about the non-appearance of Hindus. When the cops roughened up asking Unneen, “did you see,” it was Nasirudheen who had a urine block. As he heard the din of beating up, in his dhoti, Nasirudheen defecated in fear. The rest of the day, severe with pain in the stomach, he lay down on the bed pressing a pillow. With Faisal’s death, he started feeling a loss of vigour. With the clamour about Sait’s missing son, Nasirudheen and his scissors showed signs of rusting.
It was at the nightfall one day, while Nasirudheen was sitting listening to the music of the scissors that Sait himself came by his car and took him home.
“Crop him clean. Or better shave him off.”
Nasirudheen stared at that man. The look of negation frightened him. His hair had the smell of oil and his beard that of camphor. As the odour of blackened wicks emanated on shaving his arm pit, Nasirudheen’s razor paused for a moment. Said to him in a hush: “Hindu.”
Once again a cool breeze surged into the train. Nasirudheen once again trembled in that memory. The open
kajal duppy of darkness and the tiny circle of light inside frightened him. He placed the stripped hand bag on his lap. Placed his pads on the seat, held his knees and tried to add strength to himself. The insolence of some non sleepers reminded him of that Hindu’s body hair.
With the clank of a massive weapon, the train halted. “Abruptly the train will halt. They will barge in. The compassion of the crimson colour on their forehead won’t be in their eyes. “Genocide is said to be their agenda,” Sait’s words dragged him down to abyssal waters of fear. Tired, he sank his head onto his knees.
The train got back into motion after three minutes. He lifted his face. Outside, the guard’s flashlight flickered green. “Cherthalai,” with mortification, he read the sign board. If it was not for Khadeeja, Nasirudheen would’ve never set out on such a hazardous journey. He was quite aware that a sacred funeral is an undue demand.
Nasirudheen himself washed him with cold water. Water taken from the same well from which was he took water for bathing him the first time in life. The same hands of Nasirudheen. Tears rolled down into the red wound on his hairy chest. While removing his worn out blue underwear, he whimpered in distress.
“What last rites once you are charred? You’ll just be buried near the mosque. On the head’s side they will erect a concrete
meezan stone.” Sait’s words frightened Nasirudheen. “If possible, avoid trains. That’s the only way out.” But Nasirudheen couldn’t help boarding a train. From Khadeeja’s letter, the fair nails of pain had scratched him that much.
“Cannot eat anything solid now. Only juice. One tube runs inside through the nose. Another one comes out from the belly. You come immediately. While coming, bring ripe grapes; seedless. Am hungry
Uppa. Very very hungry…”
Rubbing her head against Nasirudheen’s lanky chest, Kunimacha cried: “Allah”
“Oh God.” Train is now moving at a howling speed. It is not running; it is flying. The flying Satan. He pressed his head to the window grill. I should hand over the ripe grapes Kunimacha bought for Kahdeeja. Behold her one last time before death, bring her two kids home. It is so important. That’s why he has set out, that too only by train.
“How long will you stay there?” He looked down before Unneen’s query.
“At the most, one or two days. Doctors have declared that she would not go further. Just after the
Namaz and cremation I will return. Kunimacha’s indifference surprised even Nasirudheen.
The train stopped once again. Nasirudheen looked out. It is not a station. All around it is glazing river. On its shore, a sandbank luminous likes a carnival. He felt as though all his energy is draining out. Why did the train halt on this bridge? None among the fellow travellers are nervous. They do not fear anything. Might be they are all Hindus. Somewhere in the confronting seat, he spotted an old man smoking a cigar. Alone he sat exhaling smoke, nervously.
“My dear Muslim brother.” Sympathy arose in Nasirudheen’s heart. “You, me, who are the later preys…?”
Again the train pulled out. Its movement was mechanical as if afraid of something. Nasirudheen started wondering about the vital being which hitherto has controlled it. Slowly, it ground to a halt.
Hubbub from outside. The roars and clamour of people. Nasirudheen stared at his Muslim brother. He saw him rising from the seat, dashing to the door and darting out. The noise of slippers rustling. As he peeped to the door, Nasirudheen felt a shiver. Men and women. On their forehead, burning marks of blood. Women’s blouses were red. The dense crimson colour of gore. All of them wore
kasavu dhotis. The radiance of the cheap dhoti border reminded him of the sharpness of veiled weapons.
Women too were there. With crimson sindoor and clothes. They barged in like passengers. As the train moved on and reached a desolate spot, they pulled the alarm chain. As Sait struggled to breathe, Nasirudheen too got tired. Some women glared at Nasirudheen. Fear made his hair stand on end.
“Tell that mappila to stand erect.” In the rough voice of men, Nasirudheen recognised the rattle of arms. I am the first target. He felt like pissing.
“Next?” Nasirudheen asked to himself, looking at the throng in the compartment.
He thought it was for self-defence that the Muslim brother got down earlier. His eyes dilated. How to escape? He looked out. The train is still. He got to his feet quickly.
“Hi,” a heavy palm fell on his shoulders. He shuddered once again. “Hand bag.” The ferocity seen on his face while saying this turned him more scared. He felt his throat parching and feet shivering.
There is one way; one and only one. Stand at the foot board. Afraid to touch the sandal scented bodies, he kept on standing near the window. “Jump when the train moves. Jump and escape”.
Scared of these, Nasirudheen flustered. The train jerked once. All of a sudden, startling all, Nasirudheen flung the bag out. Pushing aside those standing with gaping mouths, he scurried in fright toward the door. Closed his eyes. With prayers, jumped out.
‘Tup.’ Nasirudheen felt the pain of bones splintering. As if in a nightmare, he discerned the blood fanged train speeding up just behind. He saw people gaping at him through doors and windows.
“Escaped!” He heaved a sigh. With delight, he stroked the blood oozing from his lanky, twig like elbow. “Escaped” Nasirudheen raised his head.
“What happened?” People swarmed around him. They are double the number of those inside the train. “These many Hindus?” He sprawled out on the platform, terrified.
“Get up you…” A railway policeman grabbed him.
“What’s the problem?” The station master rolled the green flag. “Jumped out to die.” The station master’s beard, calloused forehead and loose khaki brought Nasirudheen to the presumption that he is a priest.
He narrated everything. About the attempt on his life, about his jump for life from the train…
“Please rescue me…”
First, the station master broke into laughter. Then the police man. Then all those assembled there.
“What nonsense are you talking? None of them are manslayers. They are returning after the
Shiv Rathri festival.”
A moment. Nasirudheen had tears and titters together. A banner unfurled wide in the station pooh-poohed at him. This is what Nasirudheen read over there:
“Maha Shivrathri. Believers, Hearty Welcome to Manappuram.”
A Shivrathri breeze from Aluva sand bank cooled him down.
Kacha…. A type of dhoti usually worn by Muslim women.
Khalb The Arab word for heart
Uppa Muslims use it to address their father.
Namas One among the sacred Muslim rituals saluting the dead.
Kasavu The golden bordered sari, a typical dress of upper class Hindu women.
Sindoor A saffron pigment used by Hindus to adorn their forehead.
Mappila Slang for ‘Muslim’
Manappuram A place near Aluva, famous for Shivrathri festival