“Go, go. Get the cardboards. Can’t you see how the mosquitoes are all over the saab? Go go.”
We were on a street near a historical monument in a city that’s known all over the world for the most beautiful mausoleum any man has ever built for his beloved wife. The monument we were outside, however, wasn’t that mausoleum. It was a fort, some of whose inside walls had been red once and then yellow and finally white. Clearly, the father ruler hadn’t liked what the grandfather had built and in turn, the son ruler hadn’t liked what the father had changed. Yes, I was in a city of whims, where more stock was given to fancies of the emperors than was to the realities of its citizens.
Maqbool Miyan, the wizened old man I had chosen to talk to that evening, kept looking expectantly at his wife. “Begum? The mosquitoes are eating away at the saab. Get the cardboards.”
To be honest, I was relieved that he was calling for the cardboards. If I fanned myself, I knew I could keep most of the bloodsuckers away. But I wondered who fanned these people at nights – everyone on the street slept outside on the footpath. Actually, it wasn’t a footpath at all. It was just the edge of a street already too narrow for one autorickshaw to pass through. I wondered if any such vehicles ever entered this street. They had to, hadn’t they? Where did these people go then?
I followed Maqbool Miyan’s gaze and saw the Begum. Her head was bowed, while her hands were knotting and unknotting a tattered end of her much-patched shawl. Her expression was one of great confusion and concern as if she had to make a choice that she didn’t want to make.
“There’s only two left for the night,” she muttered her head still bowed and her hands still fidgetting with the shawl. “And there’s ten hours to sunrise.”
“What is one night, Begum,” laughed Maqbool Miyan, “before the virtue of welcoming a guest? Bring them out, bring them.”
“Um, if it’s too much trouble, I am OK. Really.” I didn’t know why the Begum was hesitant, but then I didn’t know so much about the people on the streets. Wasn’t I here to find things out?
“No trouble, no trouble. We are poor, but we are of the old ways. A guest has come to our doorstep and we will serve him. You see, we don’t get guests here so often.”
The Begum had gotten up already. Her knees hurt badly, I could see. Slightly bowed, she hobbled away to where she had set two lengths of cardboards against the wall, picked one up and went over to where a drum was blazing with a fire.
“We pick things during the day,” explained Maqbool Miyan. “And we feed the fire with that. Too cold it is here. You should have gotten something warm. Here, take my shawl.”
He got up with the enthusiasm of a man much younger than him and wrapped the shawl around me. I wasn’t sure what had happened until I was completely wrapped.
“No, no. I am fine. I am wearing a warm inner. I am fine. See? Yes, it’s an inside sweater. Haha, no no. I didn’t outgrow it.”
Maqbool Miyan was a nice man. He wasn’t grumpy like most people on the street. And he was kind. As I gave him his shawl back, I smiled and knew that I liked him.
What I didn’t like, however, was that the Begum had set one corner of the cardboard on fire.
“Ji, Maa-ji. Why are you burning it? Don’t burn it.”
She wasn’t expecting me to get so excited about it and in that moment of surprise, she almost dropped the whole cardboard into the fire.
“How else will the mosquitoes go, saab?” Maqbool Miyan was frowning now. There was puzzlement dancing in his eyes with a flowing dress of fear.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I…um…don’t we need the cardboard to fan ourselves?”
The eyes laughed again. “No, no. We have to burn them. The smoke keeps the mosquitoes away.”
“Wait…what? You mean you burn cardboards every night and sleep near them?”
“Yes. We keep them at our feet. One cardboard piece slowly slowly burns for one hour. We burn more if we can’t sleep.”
I looked around the street more closely. In the darkness of the evening I had indeed missed several patches of ash and blackened concrete.
“But that will kill you. The smoke will fill your lungs.”
“Mosquitoes kill quicker, Saab. Only last month we lost Adil Miyan’s Begum to malaria. Cardboard kills slowly slowly.”
The Begum set the cardboard at my feet. It had an almost nonexistent flame and a very thin wisp of smoke. The Begum took the end of her shawl, now unknotted, and fanned the flame a bit. Smoke came rushing out like a genie from a lamp and I had to shield my eyes before they melted away in tears.
“This smoke is bad. Very bad. Every night, you say?”
“More or less. Some days we can’t buy them from the shop. One cardboard is one rupee. After chai roti if anything is left, we buy the boards.”
“I am sorry I can’t stand the smoke. My eyes are burning. Will you wait 5 minutes? I will just be back from the corner shop. Just 5 minutes. Yes, yes. I will come back.”
I got up, fingers still wringing my eyes. I could hear the Begum beating the cardboard to put the flame out. She was muttering and I caught a few words that my mother says I shouldn’t listen to.
On my way here, I had noticed a corner shop that sold regular household supplies. I went there and asked for some mosquito repellent coils and a tube of repellent cream.
“Eighty three rupees, bhaiya.”
I fished into my pocket, where I usually kept my wallet. It wasn’t there. I checked the other pockets. Nope, not there either. When had I last seen it? Where?
“Bhaiya, you went to the Fort, right? You must have kept your wallet in the bag there. For locker.”
Oh yes, I had. Now I remembered. I also remembered having taken out all the money from the wallet and keeping it in my breast pocket. I pulled a hundred rupee note out, kept the change in the same pocket, decided to leave the wallet in the bag only and went back to where Maqbool Miyan sat.
“Maqbool Miyan, here you go. The coils will last you a week. And the tube will last longer. No need to kill yourself. Here, keep one more hundred rupees. No, no. I insist. Keep. For next time.”
He was a kind man, but he was poor too. He took the note and the repellents and gave them to his Begum. “See? And you were grumbling about one cardboard. We are poor, but we are of the old ways. See?”
The Begum still kept muttering and snatched the stuff from his hands.
“Saab, old she has become, but the fire is still hot.”
He threw his head back and laughed at that. I smiled a bit too. The Begum just muttered under her breath and busied herself with the coils.
I sat there for an hour more, listening to Maqbool Miyan’s stories of a youth ill-spent in a city that was still stuck somewhere in the Mughal era. He told me of his times as a rickshaw puller between the fort and the mausoleum. He told me of how he lost his rickshaw in a round of cards on the eve of Diwali to a man who was known to lose always. He spoke of his barren marriage and barren fortunes. And he spoke of people walking away without noticing. The Begum only muttered, once a while, words that my mother says I shouldn’t listen to.
“You are kind, Saab. Very kind. I had forgotten my life and how it was. I have relived it now.”
I smiled and got up. My hotel was a little more than a short walk away and so I stretched my legs a bit.
“Thank you Maqbool Miyan. Please thank Begum Sahiba also. I must take your leave now. I am going away tomorrow. I will see if I can find some time to come and meet you.”
“May Allah keep you well, Saab.”
“May Allah keep you well too Maqbool Miyan.”
I bowed in the direction of the Begum, who simply muttered words that my mother says I shouldn’t listen to. I smiled, shook my head and headed off.
I hadn’t walked more than twenty paces when I heard the Begum’s voice again. It was louder now and she was beating Maqbool Miyan with the cardboard.
Still full of fire, indeed.
She picked something from beneath his thighs, beat him some more and looked around. She met my eyes, showed her hands to wait, and started hobbling towards me. I walked back faster to save her the trouble.
When I reached closer, she pulled my hand and placed a piece of black foam leather into my palm. She didn’t meet my eyes but muttered, “I am poor, Saab. But I am not of the old ways. Not his old ways.”
I looked at her as she turned and left muttering words that my mother says I shouldn’t listen to.
I pushed my wallet into my pocket and walked away too.