Some scenes have a way of sticking in the head, like signposts. This one, taken out of Banquet on the Dead, is one that is close to my heart. My father, after having read the novel fully, said, ‘This is a bad book. You goofed up in many places. But that scene in which the inspector goes to Hamid Pasha’s house – that’s good.’
This is a ‘filler’ scene, in the sense that nothing much happens to move the story along. Inspector gets on a bike. Goes to the house of an old acquaintance. That’s about it. What makes it work, I think, is the atmosphere. The brief sights and sounds of Hanamkonda, of Tailors’ Street, of Vijaya Talkies Road – they bring the scene alive for a brief moment.
Whenever I feel homesick or nostalgic, I find myself re-reading this scene. I hope you like it too.
As Inspector Nagarajan eased his old Rajdoot off the driveway and got on the main road – a jeep would invite stares where he was going – he became aware of a faint ache behind his right shoulder. He did not flinch or respond in any way; that would mean acknowledging its presence. He tried to ignore it. What had the doctor said? It was not really there. It was his mind playing tricks.
He focused on his bike. Handle. Clutch. Brake. Gear. Release.
The bike lurched into motion in the direction of the Chowrastha. He tried to remember where Hamid Pasha’s house exactly was. How long had it been since he had seen him last? About a year? Yes, last Bakrid sounded about right. Then he had been living in one of those Muslim dwellings by the big sewer. He had not kept in touch with Hamid bhai, he knew. But he also knew Hamid bhai wouldn’t hold it against him. Neither of them was particularly good at social formalities. Even that previous visit on Bakrid was one of business.
He crossed Podduturi Complex and approached Tailors’ Street. It got its name some time in the eighties when, presumably, it teemed with tailor shops. But now you would struggle to find one. There were four grocers, two internet cafes, two clothes shops, three general stores, one hardware shop, and a litany of other bits and pieces – but no tailor shop.
However, one fact about Tailors’ Street remained unchanged from the time Nagarajan was a child. Then and now, Tailors’ Street was Hanamkonda’s ‘Old Hyderabad’. Less sensitive souls called it Pakistan. If Hanamkonda Main Road was the border, they said, Tailors’ Street was Pakistan and Vijaya Talkies Road, which branched off on the other side and sported a Devi temple at the very mouth, was India. It was a long-running joke in circles Nagarajan mingled in to tease any fashionably-dressed person with: “Did you get that from Pakistan?” For the two clothes shops on Tailors’ Street stocked top notch wares; much better in quality and much more reasonable in price than the more plush – and the more Indian – stores in Podduturi Complex.
Nagarajan waved a salute at the traffic constable – what was his name? Naresh? Suresh? Nagesh? – on the Chowrastha, and the pain returned when he lifted his right arm to do so. He started to wince, and caught himself half way. (“It’s not really there, Mr Nagarajan. Just your mind playing tricks.”) With pursed lips he turned into Tailors’ Street, dodging the stream of two-wheelers heading that way from Vijaya Talkies Road. Naresh had just opened the India-Pakistan border, Nagarajan thought with a half-smile, looking over his shoulder and cutting from in front of a lumbering grey Ambassador into the small by-lane that went straight to the big sewer.
The Big Sewer was Hanamkonda’s most prominent landmark bar none. You might live in Hanamkonda and meet people who’d never been to Vijaya Talkies, who might look askance at you if you mentioned Kakatiya University, even who shook their heads when asked directions to the Thousand Pillared Temple, but mention Big Sewer and the reply would come out in a trice. Hanamkonda built itself around the Big Sewer. There was a theory – not a too far-fetched one – that the Chowrastha was where it was because of its proximity to the Big Sewer.
Such an important landmark, and what was its distinguishing feature? Mosquitoes. The Sewer was ‘completely covered’ according to the local municipal officers, but somehow mosquitoes the size of bees freely held court at all times of the day. Particularly at this time, just after sunset, just as the lights of the city were coming on, they would be out in their droves, buzzing for blood. If you lived by the Big Sewer, you didn’t open the windows of your house in the evening unless you wanted to be eaten alive.
More than anything it was that characteristic tangy buzz of mosquitoes in flight that told Nagarajan that he was at the Big Sewer. Almost from memory he turned into the second left, dodging a goat and calling out to the skinny kid in front of him – who from every appearance was contemplating a jump across the road – to stay where he was.
It was somewhere here, wasn’t it, that he had come last year? The air was exactly as it had been that night. The lights in the dwellings (these could not be called houses) were dim and flickering. Lizards prowled around the mercury tubes and snapped at insects. Most windows were closed. The few which were open had been tempered with mosquito meshes.
There was no street-light. He drove on best as he could, aided by just his head light and the occasional light from a house. The smell of fried mutton assaulted his nose from all sides. He gulped. For all his years in the department, he had not yet fallen so low as to eat meat. He had fallen to alcohol, yes, but not to meat. And as long as mutton held that horrible stench, he was in no danger of falling to it either.
A little further on, he realized his head had started to thud. So there were reasons other than his natural social reticence, he thought dryly, that had kept him from visiting Hamid Pasha at his house for a year. He was beginning to see what they were.
Somewhere here. Somewhere.
And just as he parked his vehicle at the front steps of a single bedroom house and looked around, he heard a voice that he recognized – low and hoarse, but tender.
“Begum!” the voice said, “you make the best mutton in the whole wide world, Mashallah.”
And the Begum said, “Haan ji.”
A throat cleared itself, and the voice began:
Tamannaon ko zindaa, aarzuon ko javaan kar loon;
Yeh sharmili nazar keh de to kuch gustaakhiyan kar loon?
The Begum giggled and said again, “Haan ji.”
Nagarajan got off the bike and stood it. He had reached the place. He stood looking at the front door pensively for a few seconds, then with a quick decisive nod, ran up the stairs, took off his hat, and knocked.
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