Water hyacinth covered half of the Yamuna. Mass of silt, debris and mud poked its nose, pushing back the water into a thinner stream. Can this be called water – this toxic semi-solid mix of industrial waste and garbage that the city discarded every day? Hussain Miyan sat on the banks of the river, staring blankly at the dark mass. He often threw a twig at it and with a worldly-wise look chaperoned the children who played in the shrubby land that lined the stream. “See, it neither flows, nor floats. It is just stuck. It is captured in that dark mess, like a curse. It will slowly sink.” The children always made fun of Hussain Miyan. Nearly everybody did.
On the other side of the river stood the cybercity Noida, with giant buildings in different shapes and sizes. The blinking lights in those structures reminded Hussain Miyan of stars that twinkled in the skies of the Delhi of his younger years. When the sky was not as grey, his mind was less clouded and his judgments sharper. When his libido was kicking and he was not lost all the time. Then he dreamt more and daydreamed less.
Hussain Miyan reared two horses. He initially had three. Like Shoaib, his only son, the horses, Chunu, Munnu and Gajju, were like his children. He treated all his human and non-human wards equally, till compulsion pinioned him four years back. Shoaib had to go to the Gulf for work, and Hussain Miyan needed to pay 25,000 rupees to an agent named Abdul Lateef. Hussain Miyan had to sell off Chunnu, his best horse. Could he have done the opposite? Could he sell Shoaib to meet some imminent crisis in Chunnu’s life? He often toyed with such philosophical conundrums while sitting by the Yamuna and waiting for the ships to arrive at midnight.
Hussain Miyan’s wife Madina sold roasted corn cobs on the pavements of Okhla Head. She sat on the corner of a bridge that went over the Yamuna Canal. Hussain Miyan sometimes left the riverside and climbed the ret ka tilla, a sandhill, to sneak a look at her. He hid behind a neem tree and watched her from a distance. Her face glowed in the darkness from the orange flames of the fire she roasted the bhutta in. She started in the afternoon and continued till night. The colour of her face changed as day melted into night. Labourers gathered on the bridge from the morning, as it was also the biggest labour chowk in Okhla. The ones who could not find work hung around and flirted with Madina. She flirted back.
Madina was 16 when she married him, and now, 25 years later, she still looked young and vibrant. She was his second wife, and he married her after his first wife Tahmina died of tuberculosis when Shoaib was only ten. Madina was a young orphan, whose parents were killed in the riots in Meerut after the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground by a livid mob. She migrated to Delhi to stay with her aunt and was eventually married off to Hussain Miyan. Although scarred and exhausted, her mind is not clouded as Hussain Miyan’s and her libido is still kicking. Hussain Miyan smiled every time he saw her flirting with a labourer. It meant she would not come home that night. It meant they would have better meals the next day. It also meant he would be able to wait for the ships in peace, without a distant pang of guilt, which he often did not recognise with his clouded mind, but felt uncomfortable about nonetheless.
As the sky turned ink blue with a distant haze of the Noida lights, a strange mist grew over the toxic, semi-solid Yamuna. As the clock struck midnight, Hussain Miyan prepared himself by the riverside. Munnu and Gajju grazed around him in the bushes and Hussain Miyan looked to the horizon. It was time for the ships to arrive.
Hussain Miyan has been seeing the ships since he was a teenager. Back then he was convinced that they were figments of imagination of a very creative mind. One that could visualise stories that his grandfather told him. But over the last two years, since his mind became completely clouded, he is not so sure anymore. In fact, now that the ships arrive almost every night, it’s getting harder and harder to dismiss them as mere fantasy. The ships are now more real to Hussain Miyan than anything else.
He knows the ships come from distant lands and different times. A few weeks back, a medium-sized ship passed by. It was a beautiful ship. Hussain Miyan heard an enchanting music that slowly held everything around it in a warm embrace. The music touched Hussain Miyan’s cold soul. It was a song sung by an elderly man on board, in a language that he did not know but yet understood. It was a ballad for a benevolent ruler, who sought harmony among different faiths and brotherhoods. Hussain Miyan also knew that the man sitting on a throne at the centre of the ship’s deck was a beloved of the King. He also knew that the ship was sailing from a port called Illahabad and heading towards Agra. The people on the ship all looked at Hussain Miyan, and he felt a strong bond with them.
Now, that rarely happened. He stretched out his hands and spoke in garbled words, that the passengers had his blessings. And he sought theirs. He needed them to pray for Munnu, Gajju and Shoaib. Also, Chunnu and Madina. And his father and grandfather who sleep in the Batla House cemetery. And his mother, who was slaughtered in front of him near Ferozepur while crossing the border during Partition, and was never given a proper burial.
Hussain Miyan could not have fathomed that the man sitting at the centre of the ship, painted on the canvas of time with his imagination and very distant realities alike, is a tareekh nawees, a historian. He would document his great travails across the Subcontinent, but never noticed Hussain Miyan sitting on the banks of Yamuna with his hands outstretched. If Hussain Miyan’s mind was less foggy, and if there indeed was a chance of communication between him and the ship, maybe he could have shouted or whispered to them a fact. It would have delighted the man sitting at the centre of the ship. Hussain Miyan could have told him, that even four centuries later, Abul Fazal is immortalised in the name of the colony that has grown behind Hussain Miyan, with rickety crowded buildings and entangled electric wires, with furniture markets and e-rickshaws. But he couldn’t, and the ship sailed by, like they always did.
Shoaib left Delhi four years back in search of fortune and a future. He called Hussain Miyan’s neighbour Rabiul intermittently on his cell phone, and told them he was working in Saudi Arabia. He even sent money thrice. He wired them to Rabiul’s bank account, and Rabiul handed Hussain Miyan the exact amount. Or so Hussain Miyan thought. Nine months after he left, however, Shoaib stopped calling or sending money. Madina made frantic calls to Abdul Lateef to inquire of her son’s whereabouts. Abdul assured them that Shoaib was fine. He was working at a place with very strict regulations on making phone calls and, therefore, was incommunicado. Shoaib would contact soon, he said. Hussain Miyan’s mind got more clouded in the meantime, and Madina had to increase her night outs to make ends meet. Ships have been passing by Hussain Miyan every night ever since.
One day Hussain Miyan woke up beside the river, as strong rays of the June
sun pierced his back. He rarely fell asleep beside the river. After the ships sailed past, he would usually return home in a daze. That day, however, he woke up and squinted at the sunlight. His hands and legs were sore from mosquito bites and his head felt heavy. He proceeded to get a cup of tea from a roadside stall in Abul Fazal market. On the road was Salim Hajam’s barber shop. Salim was no longer a barber, but a wealthy real estate don with a lot of political clout. The neighbourhood knew that it was Salim Hajam who decided who would be the MLA from their area. Political affiliation of the candidate notwithstanding, it was Salim Hajam’s blessing that invariably decided the winner. However, even after becoming a powerful builder, Salim retained his barber shop out of superstition, although he himself did not take up the scissors anymore. It was the shop that brought him his first lucky break, so the shop continued with other barbers working on his payroll. He visited the shop sometimes and joined his entourage for a morning tea. People came by to see him, asking for favours.
Salim had become very important, but he paid due respect to Hussain Miyan. He reminded Salim of a time when both of them struggled against poverty. Salim also felt sympathy towards Hussain Miyan ever since he lost touch with Shoaib and his mind got more and more clouded. Salim even tried using his own networks to track Shoaib down, but with no success.
Hussain Miyan had been observing Salim Hajam from a distance. He has witnessed the meteoric rise of this man with his own eyes. In 1984, Salim’s small barber shop in the isolated neighbourhood of Abul Fazal suddenly saw a flurry of customers who came in the dead of the night to get rid of their beard and hair. Delhi was going through a tumultuous time. Following the assassination of the prime minister, people from the Sikh community were being slaughtered like animals. They were ripped apart, burnt alive, cut into pieces in broad daylight on open streets by violent mobs, while the cops looked away. The terrified Sikhs, therefore, came to get rid of the markers of their religious identity in Salim Hajam’s shop. Circumspect of Hindu barbers, Sikh people from nearby Jungpura, Bhogal, Taimurnagar and Kalkaji flocked to Salim’s shop at night. After trimming their beard and hair the customers would often break down and cry with piercing shrills. They cried out the horrors that they had witnessed and rued the sacrilegious compromise that they were forced to make in order to safeguard their lives.
Initially Salim felt bad for his customers. He even cried with them and shared their trauma. But soon their distress meant overflowing profit for him and he started to like it. He amassed enough wealth to invest in the city’s fledgling real-estate business. As the population of Delhi swelled, the city spread its wings in the southeast direction and Salim’s business grew. He never let go of this shop, however.
Salim’s luck rocketed within half a decade as one more disaster struck the country. A chariot proclaiming the mythical birthplace of a deity rampaged across the country causing riots and pogroms. The poisonous snake of mistrust and hate raised its hood once again, vitiating communities that had cohabited for centuries. Especially Muslims, even the wealthy ones, felt uncomfortable living in Hindu-dominated areas and started moving towards Okhla, Old Delhi and other parts of the city, which were turned into Muslim ghettos with invisible walls separating them from Hindu neighbourhoods. The walls entered people’s minds, too, and grew there over ages, getting stronger and unscalable. But Salim welcomed the people struck by fear, desertion and mistrust. Like a vulture he feasted on their distress. The incessant flow of Muslims in Okhla meant his business boomed. He earned not only money, but absolute power by controlling land and property. Since then, any smell of mass distress arouses him.
So today when Salim Hajam sat in his shop surrounded by a group of people who looked grim and disturbed, Hussain Miyan knew that some new distress has struck, because Salim looked smug and happy. He had probably smelled the fresh influx of paranoid customers trying to buy a small apartment for a large family, or, at least, rent one. Since the time Hussain Miyan’s mind got clouded, he has not been following the news. He has been spending his time with his horses during the day and with the ships at night. Other than making the occasional inquiry about Shoaib – from Madina, Rabiul or, sometimes, random strangers on the street – he did not follow what was happening in the world, in the country, or in Okhla for that matter. But today he got curious and walked up to the crowd at Salim Hajam’s shop.
“Saalam alaikum Hussain Miyan, what’s going on?” asked Salim. Others turned to Hussain Miyan with a tinge of jealousy. They never figured why Salim treated a crackpot with so much respect. “What happened?” asked Hussain Miyan, pointing at the smartphone that was being passed around. “Look at the video. Look how they slaughtered the kid,” a man said, handing the phone over to him. “This country is not meant for us anymore. I wish my father had gone to Pakistan.” “It was never meant for us.” “Look how the bastards surrounded and killed a kid.” “Ya Allah rahem.” Salim looked content. Hussain Miyan, too, watched the video. It was a clip from a news channel where the anchor described how a 16-year-old boy named Junaid was fatally assaulted in a running train by a mob who detested his religion. They stabbed him till he fell, while a trainful of people looked away in willful disregard. The video on the phone showed Junaid gasping for his last breaths while blood oozed out of the multiple stab wounds on his body. Hussain Miyan froze for a moment and then suddenly collapsed.
Hussain Miyan had witnessed enough violence in his lifetime; he had heard even more gory stories. He saw his mother being ripped apart in front of his eyes, when he was only five-years old. A Sikh man had slashed her tiny, frail body with a shining sword while they were crossing the border in Ferozepur. In 1984, he saw an old Sikh man being set ablaze, a burning tire around his neck. He had heard Madina recount in absolute horror the tales of how their Hindu neighbour for thirty years set fire to her parents after injuring them. He had seen Salim Hajam shoot a rival at point blank, right in front of the lane of his slum. Even with all these wounds rotting in his clouded mind, he still could not bear the sight of the boy’s brutal slaughter.
This was because, on the screen, he did not see Junaid. He saw Shoaib. When Hussain Miyan last saw Shoaib in the airport, he was much older. But the face etched in his clouded mind is that of a much younger boy. When he saw the video, he remembered that his asthmatic son used to gasp for breath, too, when he had an attack and the family could not afford to replenish his inhaler. Thin, frail, helpless – that was how Shoaib looked as well. Where was he now? In what part of the world was he gasping for breath? Was he also killed like Junaid? Did his frail body also bear 49 stab wounds?
When Hussain Miyan came back to his senses it was almost dark outside. He saw a worried Madina sitting near his head and fanning him. “Don’t you have your night outs?” Hussain Miyan rudely taunted Madina. She looked at him with hurtful eyes, tears swelled up. “I have been sitting by you since morning,” she said. “That must have cost you a fortune. Or has your rate gone down?” he bickered. “Well it is you who will starve if my rates go down.” She threw the hand fan and stormed out of the house. That is exactly what Hussain Miyan wanted. Because tonight he must visit the ships.
That night it rained heavily. It seemed the sky had broken open over the city of Delhi after a long sultry summer. The toxic viscosity of the dark liquid rose over the river’s banks while Hussain Miyan waited impatiently for the ships. He was not sitting calmly, waiting for the ship to appear on the horizon, as he did every other night. He shivered and fidgeted as he strained his eyes searching for a mast. What if no ships come this way tonight because of the rains, he thought! He was drenched to the bones and felt feverish. His wet cotton kurta and pajama were both glued to his dark skin. His white hair and beard were dripping with water. He felt like he was losing his senses again, when he felt a tingling on the back of his neck. The ship had finally arrived. The rain had stopped and a faint moonbeam shone from a sad half-moon. The toxic water reflected silver.
The silhouette of the ship seemed huge against the night sky, bigger than anything Hussain Miyan had ever seen. He could tell this ship had been preparing for a long, uncertain journey. For the first time, Hussain Miyan flagged the ship with both hands up in the air. For the first time a ship stopped by him. A tall, lean, bearded man wearing long robes peeked down from the railing. “What do you want Hussain Miyan?” he asked. Hussain Miyan knew the man’s name was Amin Chand. He was a trusted tradesman of Emperor Jahangir. “Where are you going?”, he asked in response. Amin Chand told him that they had started from Agra to reach Bengal via Patna. They would carry cotton from Rajmahal in Bengal, and then, cutting through the Bay of Bengal and touching the Lingbalos Island through the Strait of Talek, north of Ceylon, they would float across the Arab seas to reach Baghdad. They would trade at every port on their way.
The route made no sense to Hussain Miyan. However, he had a feeling that this could be close to where Shoaib was. And he needed to go and find his son. He would have to protect his asthmatic boy before they stabbed him, if they had not done so already. In any case, it was time for Hussain Miyan to board the ship. “Tell me,” he asked Amin Chand, “is there a place for a Muslim on your ship?” Amin Chand laughed out loud. “We are sailors Miyan. There are Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and what not on board. We sail the ship looking at the stars and measuring the wind. We find our way through the unknown waters to reach new lands. And when the sea gets furious, we stretch our hands up and pray to each of our gods. We roar together to tame the sea and we sail together to move forward. When we go down, we go down together.”
Hussain Miyan pleaded, “Please take me along.” He might never find Shoaib again, but this was a better world to go looking for him. The sailors lowered a wooden staircase for Hussain Miyan to climb up. Once in the ship, he saw Munnu and Gajju were grazing in the shrubby land by the river, which was flooded with moonlight. They looked up at him and, probably in their own ways, bid him goodbye in silence. Slowly, the ship merged into darkness.
The next day, the kids found Hussain Miyan’s body in the toxic water. It was not flowing, it was not floating. It was just stuck.