At the break of dusk, the streets of Chandni Chowk, Delhi were reverberating with the sounds of celebration. Not of an event, season or festival; but the end of the day. There was something unique and special about this street. Each day ended with the inadvertent tribute to the completion of its monotony, so much so that the celebration had itself become a part of the monotony. Nevertheless, it was not something the residents didn’t look forward to. The mundane had to be done with, each day… everyday. Why? So that they could go back home to their families, have loud discussions with their kin, watch cricket matches in groups with their neighbours, loiter around in the street over tea mostly talking ill about the one who couldn’t come that day, and perhaps, for a change, in the midst of this robotic world… be human.
As the Sun lethargically made its way down the horizon, the excitement persistent in the street seemed to amplify. The vibrating noise of an archaic Scooter’s engine began cutting its way through the jolliness. On it rode a lean man wearing rugged formals, covered in sweat all around. His helmet’s colour had faded, his beard had aged silver and he was carrying a blissful smile on his face as he greeted everyone around him. They all knew him and he knew them all. “Assalamualaikum Azhar Bhai…” (Salaam Brother Azhar), “Aur Azhar Bhai…” (What’s up brother Azhar!), “Namaste Azhar Uncle…”, “Arre Professor Saahab” (Oh! It’s you, Professor Sir). There was utter happiness and warmth in the micro-engagement he was having with them all. He soon reached his home, got down from his scooter and removed his helmet to reveal his grey receding hairline. He picked up the polythene bags kept in the front of the scooter and gave a call to his daughter “Sana. Dickey se samaan nikal do mere haanth full hain” (Sana. Please get the stuff from the dickey since my hands are full). His daughter hurriedly took the packets out and rushed inside, pushing him aside. Azhar’s phone started ringing in his pocket, but his hands were full. As he drifted inside with a small bag in his hand and his helmet in the other, he took off his shoes at the shoe-rack kept in the small courtyard and greeted his wife and mother. He handed the bag to his wife, washed his hand and slowly walked inside the darkness looming in the small guest-hall of his house. He took his phone out to check on his phone and then kept it down on the table. He then turned towards his wife.
“Kya Hua? Bohot jaldibaazi mein lagrhi hai Sana” (What happened? Sana looks in a lot of hurry).
“Ji… Woh Ajay aarha TV pe… Hume bhi jaana hai” (Yes…That Ajay is on TV… Even I have to go) his wife replied. Azhar smiled and kept walking inside. His wife and mother slowly followed. His two daughters were sitting on the floor, peeling peas in a large metallic dish. In front of them was kept a small black and white television displaying a news channel.
“The young and dynamic author Ajay Srivastava has reached the award-ceremony and he’ll be here very soon. The 25-year old is one of the youngest to receive the Sahitya Akademy award for his excellent contribution towards cultural and historical literature of India. Also, we have heard rumours that he is ready with his sixth book entitled ‘Pashupati’. Yes, the long-awaited book is rumoured to be in the pre-publication process already. Look… Here he is… (A young and well-suited man came walking in front of the reporters of the press conference. The horde of reporters swarmed him instantly asking questions). Are the rumours about your new book being ready true?”
Ajay smiled and scanned the crowd in front of him. He then said in a composed manner “You’d get an announcement soon…”. The crowd cheered up and a loud call was heard from amongst them “I love you Ajay…”. Ajay kissed his right hand and then raised it, waving at the crowd as he walked away.
“Abba… Kitna achcha hai na…” (Father… He is so good, right?) Sana said. She and her sister started discussing about Ajay. Azhar gazed at them with a joyful expression and said “Haan achcha hai… Par kabhi iski kitaabein bhi padhlo…” (Yes he is good… But at least read his books too). “Ji Abba. ‘Suryaputra’ ki copy issue Karli hai library se par waiting me hai” (Yes Father. Have issued a copy of ‘Suryaputra’ from the Library but it is in waiting). Azhar immediately went to his bag and took out a book from inside which read ‘Suryaputra: The Invincible who Lost’ on its cover. He handed it to Sana and said “Aapke liye… aaj hi ek colleague se li maine…” (For you… Took it from a colleague just today). He then turned towards the television. He zoomed his vision on to Ajay and kept staring at the television with a blissful smile.
The world in front of the television was humble, yet happy. The world beyond seemed magnificent and glorious. But, what about happiness? Yes, it did look happy to them all. Much happier than they could ever imagine for themselves. How can glory and magnificence be devoid of happiness? The elements of nature, in their dire ambiguity, trespassed across the virtual barriers of the telecast to observe the world of Ajay, who was now returning home after the award ceremony. As he walked past the carpet towards his chauffeur-driven vehicle, he was chased by hundreds of his fans looking for a picture or an autograph. He greeted them with smiles, signed copies of the books they brought with them and then sat inside his car. As soon as he did, his Universe changed colour. The cheerfulness outside was left outside as soon as he had closed his door on it. He was all alone in his luxury car, with no one to speak to. His smile faded just as the faces of his fans faded in the car’s mirror. The further he got away from them, the more he entered back into his very own reality. There was a hollowness succumbing him. He immediately grabbed hold of his phone to escape it and go back into his virtual life. He started seeing his pictures from the event and reading the news about himself. Soon, he reached home. The security guard at the gate saluted him and opened the humungous gate to make way for his car. He got out of the car to step inside his huge mansion. Two Siberian Huskies ran out and jumped on him to greet him. He freshened up and began cooking himself a meal. There was no one else in the house. Often, he gazed at the portraits of his parents, recalling times back in his hometown with them. “It is for you only that I’m doing all this”, his nightmares re-iterated his own phrases from the past. Neither could anything be for ‘them’ nor did he now want it all to be for himself even. But fame was now a drug for him. The thing harming him the most yet the only thing keeping him sane.
All of a sudden, he was reminded of something and dialled a number on his phone. The person didn’t pick up. He then constructed a text message reading “Please Help Me. I need it as soon as possible…” and sent it to someone. He received a response immediately “Yes, pick it up tomorrow afternoon”.
A loud alarm broke the silence of the morning chirps of the singing birds. Sana woke up in her bed while her sister continued sleeping. Their mother entered the room with a tray in her hand. On the tray, there were two glasses filled with milk to their brims.
“Arre ab toh Uth Jao… School Nahi jaana kya?” (At least get up now… Don’t you have to go to school?) their mother said.
“Aaj Tuesday hai na?” (Today is Tuesday right?) Sana said to her mother while yawning.
“Nahi… Wednesday…” (No… Wednesday) her mother replied. Her dullness was immediately overshadowed by an instant excitement. “Arre Sara utho… Aaj Wednesday Hai” (Oh Sara get up… Today is Wednesday) she said to her sleeping sister, who also immediately got up. They stood upon the bed and started jumping. Their mother tried to calm them down but to no resolve. They both gulped down their respective glasses of milk. The mother then went out of their room towards the kitchen. Azhar was standing in her path, right beside the small doorway below the stairwell. He was wearing his formal office attire. His wife put one hand on his shoulder and he immediately snapped out of his daydream.
“Aapka Tiffin pack kardiya hai. Aur ye list lelijiye. Aate huey lete aaiyega.” (I have packed your tiffin. And take this list. Bring the items while coming back) Azhar’s wife said to him.
“Chaliye main chalta hun Aparmita ji. Aaj ink bhi lane jaana hai” (Okay then I am leaving Mrs Aparmita. I have to get some ink too today) Azhar said as he picked up his back kept on the floor, took the keys hung beside the door and made his way towards his scooter. He kickstarted it and greeted his wife, and then left for his office.
Azhar was a high-school teacher of history at a small school in Delhi. His school lacked the luxuries and extravagance of modern five-star educational centres but faired well in the department of imparting education. He was a senior and reputed teacher in his school, so much so that he had earned the epithet of ‘Professor’. He began his usual schedule in the school until the Sun reached its zenith in the sky. It was time for the mid-day lunch break marked by the hammering of the school-bell. Azhar went to the staff room to have lunch with his fellow teachers. He sat down silently amongst them as they started loudly discussing their household chores as well as those of the school. The discussions included talks ranging from the treacherous instalments of their cars to the mischiefs of the students. Azhar observed them all in his silence as usual. They did try to involve him in their conversation. One of the faculties took a book out of his bag to show to his colleagues.
“Ye maine nayi nayi padhni shuru kari hai… Kaafi romanchak hai. Mahabhrata ke kisse hain ismein kuch aise jo mujhe pata hi nahi the” (I have started reading this one recently. It has some stories from the Mahabharata which I wasn’t aware of myself) the person said. Azhar’s attention was caught by the book.
“Ye toh Ajay Srivastava ki kitab hai na? Meri betiyon ko bohot pasand hai.” (This is Ajay Srivastava’s book, right? My daughters really admire him) Azhar said to the person.
“Ji! Kaafi jawaan lekhak hai. Main padhke aapko deta hun fir…” (Yes! He is a pretty young writer. I would give it to you after reading then…) the person said. The woman sitting across him looked at him with a strange expression. He stuttered for a bit and then continued speaking to Azhar “Par aapko itni samajh nahi aayegi na hi achchi lagegi. Aap dekh lijiyega” (But you won’t understand it nor like it that much). Azhar smiled at him and said “Meri betiyon ko achchi lagegi ji” (My daughters would like it, Sir). The person replied “Chaliye fir aaj school ke baad lelijiyega aap” (Okay then take it from me when the school gets over).
The school hours soon finished and Azhar started making his way towards his home. He stopped for a while at a small grocery store, then at a vegetable vendor and finally at an Antiques and Pawn Shop. After collecting whatever he needed to, he started his journey back home on his scooter. He entered the lively and rather living streets of Chandni Chowk and warmly greeted everyone around him. On reaching home, he took off his helmet and grabbed hold of his bag. His phone was constantly ringing but he couldn’t pick it up. He called out for Sana to help him with the packets. He went inside and heard the loud sound of the television and had a small chat with his wife Aparmita. He then went to his daughters and seeing them so excited watching Ajay Srivastava on television, he brought out the copy of the book given to him by his colleague. He gifted the copy to Sana as she started jumping with exhilaration.
“Par Usse Pehla beta ye batao ki tumko Suryaputra Karna ke baare me kya pata hai?” (But before that my daughter, tell me what you know about the Sun of God, Karna?) Azhar said. Sana held a blank expression on her face. Everyone stared at her for a while and then broke into a loud laughter at her cluelessness. “Thik Hai… Main batata hun” (Okay then… I shall tell you) Azhar said, inducing curiosity in the demeanour of everyone in the room. “Yes, Abba kitne dino baad koi kahaani sunayenge aaj” (Yes, Dad is going to narrate a story after so many days) Sana said in an excited tone. The entire family sat together in different corners of the little room, be it on the floor, on the mat, on the bed or the plastic chairs. Then, Azhar started his narration in his very own and adored style.
So simplistic was the world of Azhar where a mere gift of such a small magnitude could bring all the joy one could wish for their kids and family. It was humble but pure in all its forms. In the void of materialistic pleasures, they had collectively understood that they aren’t pleasures at all. The only they knew were the actual pleasures of life which existed in the smallest of moments of happiness. Whereas on the other side, Ajay seemed to have everything one could virtually desire as a means to a happy life. So, why was he unhappy? Perhaps n his pursuit of achieving ‘everything’, he could never retain the few things that actually mattered.
“Der horhi hai. Bacchon ko khana khila do. Aaj main der raat tak kaam karunga. Tumhari liye firni laaya hun” (It is getting late. Give the kids their dinner. I have to work till late night today. I have brought Rice pudding for you) Azhar said as he gave a small earthen-pot, covered with aluminium foil, to Aparmita. He then took his bag and went towards the stairwell. He took out a key from his bag and opened the lock on the door to enter inside. There was pitch-black darkness inside. He switched on the bulb to reveal the small dusty room, full of bundles of papers. There was a typewriter kept on a small table in front of him. He took out an ink ribbon from his bag and started replacing the one fitted inside the typewriter. He then sat down and loaded a paper and started typing something. His phone beeped suddenly. He took it out to see that he had received a text message reading “Please Help Me. I need it as soon as possible…”. He got lost in thought for a few seconds and then sent the reply “Yes, pick it up tomorrow afternoon”.
Continuing typing on the typewriter, he wrote the words “The End” at the end of the page. He typed down his name, “Azhar Sheikh”, in full below the phrase. But then he immediately cancelled it out by retyping on it. His hands became stiff for a while as he zoned out again. But after a while of contemplating something, he smiled and said “For my family” and typed something below the cancelled-out name. He took the piece of paper out and raised it up, revealing a name written in capitals below the overwritten one. It read ‘Ajay Srivastava’.
-Rishabh Dubey ‘Kridious’