Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Short Story in Earthen Lamp Journal

The Price of Friendship 

Abdullah Khan

A sharp pain rushed through Arif's heart. I too am responsible for Sukhia's death, he thought. He could have easily saved his friend's life. Sukhia had not been suffering from an incurable disease. But poverty itself is a disease. He felt claustrophobic inside his room with all the windows and the door shut. Getting up from the bed, he pulled a window open. A gust of icy wind slapped his face, and he shivered. Outside, the mist hung like a white silk curtain in the air. The atmosphere reeked of sadness.

As a child, during the winter, Arif remembered, he would visit the outskirts of his village, Alipura, early in the morning, wrapped in a woollen shawl. Sukhia would follow him covered in his threadbare chadar. Sitting on a big boulder, facing north, they looked high up at the gigantic silhouette of Mount Everest. The Himalayas were hundreds of miles away, but during winter mornings when the sun fell on the ice-laden top, it could be seen from Alipura too. The majesty of the mountain thrilled Arif and Sukhia. 'Hey Bhagawan! It's so big!' Sukhia would marvel, almost every time he saw it. They wandered around together, almost always. The village men, seeing these two boys, would whisper: 'See this Pathan boy, a high-caste Muslim, hanging around with a low-caste untouchable Hindu boy.' His Amma and Dadi, however, never questioned his accompanying Sukhia.

Dadi had told Arif that both the boys were born on the same day, or rather the same night. Sukhia's grandma, Ramwatiya, the best midwife of their village, had played a crucial role during his own birth. Attended by a rather inexperienced midwife, the same night, Sukhia's mother (and Ramwatiya's own daughter-in-law), had died minutes after giving birth to Sukhia. Three months later Sukhia's father had remarried. Sukhia and Arif went to the same school, the Government Urdu Middle School. Often, Sukhia visited Arif's house with his grandmother. He sat in the verandah of Arif's ancestral bungalow, on the floor. And every time he came, Amma would come with something for  Sukhia to eat in an earthen pot. Arif knew that the vessel would either be thrown away or kept in some corner, to be reused when Sukhia or somebody from the same caste visited his house. Arif often wondered why Sukhia never sat on the chair or was not offered food on an aluminium plate. He had once asked Dadi. She had replied, 'He is a low-caste Hindu – belongs to the leather workers. Even other Hindus don't eat with them.'

Even in school, during lunchtime, Sukhia sat separately. Arif sat with his cousins and other Pathan boys. The other Hindu boys in their class, Ram Prasad Gupta and Ganga Ram Pandit, also shunned their low-caste compatriot. Ram Prasad said he was a teli, the oil extracting caste, and Ganga Ram claimed that he belonged to the carpenter caste, both much higher than Sukhia's in the caste hierarchy.
At the age of thirteen, Sukhia was a good-looking boy – round face, sparkling eyes and curly hair He always wore the same set of clothes – a striped polyester shirt and white polyester trousers. But, surprisingly, his clothes were always well ironed, and his trousers always immaculately white. Arif wondered how he managed to keep his clothes so neat. Sukhia always sat in the last row with two other Hindu boys and a couple of low-caste Muslim boys. But on the attendance register, his name came just after Arif's. It was some sort of an unwritten rule in that school that roll numbers were allotted on the basis of the students' performance in the last examination. Sukhia had stood second in the class the year before, while Arif had stood first.

Only once in his lifetime had Arif hated Sukhia. And that was in class five, when Sukhia had topped the class. Arif had not done well in mathematics, and that had cost him his first position.
Arif felt humiliated. To add to it, Tazammul Hussain, their mathematics teacher, asked Sukhia to sit in the first row. 'Now, our new maths topper in class is Sukhia with ninety-two marks out of a hundred,' he announced.

Arif was no longer his favourite student, so he felt jealous of Sukhia. He wanted to thrash him, but could not muster the courage to do so. Anyway, the devil planted an idea in his mind. During lunchtime, he approached the head bully of the class, Shams Tabrez Khan, a Pathan, and said, 'Shams, you know ... yesterday, Sukhia pissed towards the west. I told him not to do so because we, Muslims, face west – towards Mecca – while praying. He didn't listen to me, and continued in the same direction. Ever since he has topped in the examination, he has become arrogant.'

'How dare he!' Shams growled. 'Salaa Sukhia, I will show him his place this very evening!' he fumed. Arif smiled, aware that he had been successful in inciting Shams. The same evening, after school hours, Shams caught Sukhia's collar and slapped him repeatedly.

'Shams Bhai, who told you that? Ram Kasam, I have never done that!' Sukhia sobbed, 'Please believe me.' Arif stood a few yards away, looking sheepishly in the other direction.

When he reached home, a fear lurked in his mind. What if Tazammul Hussain came to know about this incident? Then his conscience smote him. 'If you do injustice even to an ant, God will ask you about it on the Day of Judgment. And you'll have to pay for it,' Dadi used to say while teaching him the Holy Quran. 'To make amends, one must repent and ask forgiveness from the person to whom he has been unjust.' Of course, he was remorseful for all that had happened in his fit of jealousy. But the idea of asking for Sukhia's forgiveness did not appeal to him at all. How could a high-caste Muslim boy, whose forefathers were feudal lords, bow down to someone from the leather worker caste? Sukhia's forefathers were servitors to his family. Nonetheless, Arif did it the very next day. Sukhia forgave him in a minute. Arif, to calm his guilt-ridden conscience, gifted his friend his favourite set of crayons, which Abba had brought him from Calcutta.

In the next examination, Arif regained his number one position. But he couldn't relish his success as he felt that Sukhia had allowed him to stand first in the class.

But that incident cemented their friendship further. One Friday, they sat in the verandah chatting when Arif forced Sukhia to eat with him using the same utensils. Arif's aunt, who stood at the threshold of his house, clinging to the curtain, gaped. Abba just smiled and said, 'Arif is a pucca communist.' A couple of passers-by had also seen Arif perform this act of rebellion against the society's rules. There was continuous gossip for many days. A few months later, Arif's family moved to Patna.

Now, Arif had returned to his village in 1993, almost eleven years later. Even this visit to Alipura was forced by Abba. During the rainy season the previous year, the western wall of their house had collapsed and needed immediate repair. His father's income was just enough to meet the basic necessities of his family. So he had withdrawn money from his provident fund and asked Arif to visit Alipura to get their ancestral house repaired.

Once in Alipura, Arif had enquired about his childhood friend. Somebody told him that Sukhia had been bedridden for six months. Sukhia's father, Maiku Ram, had taken him to the Government Homoeopathic Hospital in the nearby village and the doctor had directed him to a bigger hospital in Patna or Muzaffarpur. But where was the money to pay the hospital bill? He shared his problem with the genial-faced caretaker of the mosque, Ali Ahmad, who, in turn, after the Friday prayer, appealed to the congregation in the mosque to contribute for Sukhia's treatment. In response, the newly appointed young imam of the mosque went to the pulpit and screamed: 'Ali Chacha! Have you gone crazy? You are thinking of helping a Hindu, the community who are hell-bent on destroying our mosques! And these untouchables of our village! They are thankless people. I would not advise you to show any sympathy to these people.'

Ali Ahmad sat down, disappointed. Nobody spoke against the imam. Maiku Ram was standing outside the gate of the mosque, listening to the proceedings. Disappointed, as he turned to go, Ali Ahmad took out a hundred-rupee note and pressed it into his hand on his way out. Arif was also at the mosque at that time. He had twenty thousand rupees in his pocket. He could easily give ten thousand rupees to his friend's father. But how would he explain his actions to his father? Abba would go crazy. No, he could not donate such a large amount for his friend's treatment. Ten thousand is too much, and it is not my responsibility to take care of Sukhia.

He looked skywards and returned home.

Ya Allah! Forgive me – he said.

Arif lay in bed for two days, in a state of indecision, and even missed a few meals. Should I send ten thousand rupees for Sukhia's treatment?

Finally, this evening, the news of Sukhia's death put an end to his dilemma. He wept for his friend for hours and then decided to visit his house. He wore a sweater, wrapped himself in a woollen shawl, and put on a monkey cap before stepping out of his house. Then he walked briskly through the chilly alleys and streets, dodging the open sewers.

'Maiku Chacha,' Arif patted his shoulder gingerly.

Maiku raised his eyes filled with tears. 'Arif Babu, Sukhia has left us!' He tried to control his emotions, but could not. Carried away by his emotions Maiku grabbed Arif's hand. Arif began to sob too. Then it occurred to Maiku Ram that he was holding a high-caste Muslim. Devastated by his son's death, he had forgotten his place in the society. Swiftly, he separated himself from the boy, apologising with his gaze. Then they went inside the room. Sukhia's dead body lay on the floor, covered with a dirty white sheet. Sukhia's stepmother sat there silently. She looked more angry than sad. When she uncovered Sukhia's face, Arif could see how his handsome looking friend had become a skeleton. The stubble on his cheeks made him look even worse. Arif's eyes turned moist again as the sorrow mixed with guilt began to gnaw him from inside. For ten thousand rupees he had allowed his friend's to die.

My friend should have a decent funeral, he thought and slipped his hands into his trousers' pocket, extracted a packet of hundred rupee notes, and reached out to Maiku Ram, nervously. 'Maiku Chacha, please take this money.'

'What will I do with this money when I have already lost my only son?' Maiku replied, still crying.

Maiku's wife stood up, walked towards Arif, and snatched the note from his hand. 'If Babu Saheb wants to help us, why refuse him and insult his generosity? He was a friend of our son's. Anyway, we need money for Sukhia's final rites.' She folded the note and pushed it inside her blouse.

Maiku Ram said nothing.

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