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Something was wrong. I could sense it but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It reminded me of when my father would jerk his head this way and that, sniffing the air like an agitated rooster. He would look at me and say, "Can you smell a change in the air, my boy? Monsoon is coming." This feeling was like that. I could sense that there was something on its way but it wasn't rain or monsoon—it was even bigger.
I was walking through the market, cradling a large melon in my arms, lost in thought, but the scent of jasmine tugged me back into the present. I stopped to watch the line of flower vendors carefully stringing petals into piles of necklaces.
Out of all the flower vendors, Jayesh had the sharpest eyes and the nimblest fingers, and his pile was always bundled higher than everybody else's.
People from the surrounding villages would come just to see Jayesh sitting cross-legged at his workbench threading flower after flower. I made my way across to his stall. A few months ago he would have had a crowd gathered round but today there was only me. I watched for a few minutes as he delicately threaded each petal without pausing once. I waited patiently for the moment when he slipped a rose petal into his mouth and began to chew—by the time he had swallowed the petal, the necklace would be finished.
As he slipped a rose petal into his mouth, I smiled to myself. Some things never changed. But my smile faded as I thought how recently some things had changed. It appeared that life continued as normal but there was a tension in the market I'd never felt before; little signs that things were not the same.
My stomach began to growl as I passed the fry cooks who provided food for the army regulars and the Britishers, the daal gently bubbling away in a large stewpot, a huge pot of steaming rice next to it. As I passed another stall, there was the same combination again, daal and rice. I shook my head and walked quickly past. A few months ago, these two stallholders had been partners; one made the daal, the other made the rice, and they split the profits. Their stalls used to be beside each other and they used to sit, as friends do, in the shade sharing the odd cigarette. But that was a few months ago.
As I approached a space shaded by a canopy of bamboo sticks, I could hear a babble of voices all trying to talk at the same time. For as long as I could remember, the elders of the market town sat here spreading lime and betel onto eucalyptus leaves ready to smoke, and talking about the rights and wrongs of the world. My father would often sit here and listen to what the elders had to say, shaking his head at their warnings and listening respectfully as they gave him advice. Now I hung back and stood listening to the voices and watching the gestures of the town elders. I'd always remembered this spot as a peaceful place, where old men dozed or winked at you as you went past or gave you some money to buy eucalyptus leaf, but now it was anything but tranquil. Although a few men still sat and smoked quietly, a good number of the elders were standing and wildly gesticulating. A few others, propped up by their sticks, had stern faces and waited patiently for their turn—not to speak but to shout. One old man actually prodded another with his stick, inciting a few more to stand up and raise their hands in outrage. I walked past hurriedly. The elders had always argued but this was different. It was charged with something else. Something under the surface. Before they had argued and then cooled over a glass of refreshing lassi. Nowadays they stayed angry, feelings festering in the shade. Everything felt askew, like when I put on Bapuji's glasses and everything was magnified and altered. As I remembered how it used to be, I walked in a trance, drifting past Anand's vegetable stall. A sharp sound yanked me back into the present once more when Anand shouted at me.
"Bilal, watch where you're going with that melon! You nearly dropped it on my foot."
The melon weighed heavily in my hands. I looked down at it and suddenly it hit me. Bapuji hadn't really wanted to eat melon. He had wanted me out of the way for when Doctorji came. I quickly handed the melon to a startled Anand and began to run.
Skidding to a halt, I arrived just as the doctor was walking out of our front door. He waited patiently while I frantically tried to catch my breath, doubled over.
"Stand up, Bilal. You'll get your breath back quicker that way."
Breathing in short, sharp gasps, I was unable to speak but stood up, staring intently at his face.
He looked at me closely and leaned forward to straighten my upturned collar, then smiled. "Look at the state of you, Bilal. Thirteen years old and still can't dress yourself properly. How long now since your mother died?"
"Five years ..."
"Five years is a long time, my boy. You have to take better care of yourself."
"And four months ..."
"And twenty-four days," I replied, looking him in the eye.
Doctorji blew out his cheeks and sighed.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach that I hadn't been able to place suddenly sent little currents of electricity slicing through my body.
"Your bapuji's dying, Bilal. You know this, don't you? You've seen him, you've felt it."
Bright lights flashed in front of my eyes, my entire body tingled. The outline of the doctor's face blurred, making me blink rapidly.
"Bilal ..." said Doctorji gently.
I forced my eyes to stay open and after a few seconds the doctor slowly came back into focus. Doctorji put a heavy hand on my already sagging shoulder. I felt my knees buckle.
"Your father hasn't long now—a month, maybe two—but we can still make him comfortable. If not for that stroke a few months ago ... If it hadn't left him so physically helpless ... If he could still move and be active, he might have had a chance to fight this cancer." Shaking his head, Doctorji frowned. "Too many "ifs." His mind is strong but his body no longer obeys him. Go to Rajawallah and ask for this prescription. Tell him to see me about payment. You must do that today. Bilal, are you listening?"
I looked at the doctor again and at his hand on my shoulder, then tilted my head to look past him at the gaping doorway.
"Yes, I am listening," I replied, my voice croaky and faint.
"Good. Now you must continue as normal. Keep him in good spirits by going about your usual routine—and that includes school. I have to go but I'll check on you tomorrow. You come to me if you need anything, OK?"
I nodded slowly. Doctorji looked me up and down with his usual stern expression but his eyes were softer, like when he and Bapuji spoke of old times.
Turning to go, he stopped and looked back to me.
"And where's that brother of yours?" asked Doctorji.
"He comes and goes ..." I muttered.
"More goes than comes, I'll bet. Damned fool of a boy, playing at being a man. I'll give him a piece of my mind when I see him, don't you worry. It's no way for an older bhai to behave," said Doctorji, shaking his head and turning on his heel.
I felt as heavy and immovable as an ancient tree as Doctorji marched in the direction of the market.
Fixing my eyes on his briefcase, I watched until the black square bobbed out of view. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of walking through the doorway of our home. I closed my eyes and stepped into the darkness.CHAPTER 2
Entering the room slowly, I patted the cool, dark clay and leaned my forehead against the wall. It made me feel better, to touch that familiar and solid wall. Bapuji used to say our house was made up of two parts clay, two parts water, and two parts pure goodwill. For me, it was a sanctuary. A place where I knew Bapuji would always be waiting, where he'd have all the answers to my many, many questions.
I knew it was just a mud hut made up of one small space but it was my home. It did have one memorable feature—there was a partition which split the room in two. A partition made up solely of old books stacked floor to ceiling, three books deep.
For a while it had been the wonder of the market town community, many of whom had never seen so many books in one place.
After some guidance from Bapuji, I gave tours of our home, pointing out various books and ending the visits by reciting some poetry by Tagore, then bowing and ushering the newly enlightened group out of the front door. Bapuji always said, "Education and literature, my boy, we are all deserving of that. If you have it, you must not deprive others of it." Then he would quote some poetry.
My education started at school but continued at home. Sometimes it was a bit much, having to live with so much knowledge. You only need a little bit to survive. Like where to get clean water or how to mend your clothes, and who you could swap things with to have enough food for the week. Real things, practical things. Nobody would swap books. Believe me, I tried, but the usual answer was, "I can't eat books, can I?" It amazed Bapuji that people couldn't comprehend that letters, words, and books made you richer than you could ever imagine. Even I had difficulty understanding what he actually meant but that was just what he was like. Give Bapuji a good book and he could go without washing, talking, or even eating for days on end.
Bapuji had collected his wall of books over the course of forty years. He had traded, worked for, salvaged, repaired, begged, and bought each book with a passion that was obsessive. Often, late at night,
I'd find him sitting next to the partition in only his dhoti, poring over a book. Upon hearing my scuffling feet, he'd tear his bright eyes away from the page and smile deeply and with such pleasure that it would make me smile too. He'd say, "Come, you must see this," and I'd go and sit next to him, fighting to stay awake as he pointed out strange and wonderful facts about places on the other side of the world or animals I couldn't believe existed.
The air now felt thick as I shuffled slowly into the room toward Bapuji's bed. It was particularly cool and dark on this side of the room since very little sunlight sneaked in through the small window. His low bed was pushed up against the far wall close to his wall of books. I'd spent a lot of time in the charpoi, listening to him reading aloud passages from old books full of strange language that I didn't always understand. I'd often go to sleep listening to Bapuji's voice and have extraordinary dreams about places I'd never been and people I'd never seen. That was the idea, according to him—that through books you could lead a thousand different lives and have a million different adventures.
The pain in my stomach was now a dull ache. I took a breath and pushed it deeper inside. I moved toward the only other piece of furniture in the room, a low stool on which I often sat and read to Bapuji. I picked it up and sat down on it next to the bed.
I watched as Bapuji slept, chest rising and falling in between intervals of ragged gasps and coughs. His hair was mostly gray now, cut short and thinning on top. We shared the same dark-brown eyes, sharp nose, and nut-brown skin. Sweat trickled down his forehead on to his sallow cheeks and clung to his rough salt-and-pepper stubble. He opened his eyes and, not for the first time, I saw how weak and frail he had become. Dark rings circled his eyes and made me think of those pictures of pandas we'd seen in an old encyclopedia.
Bapuji smiled, his face creasing into a hundred little lines. "Fault lines," he called them. "Our very own fractures in the earth's crust." I didn't know what he meant but that wasn't unusual. He tried to sit up, weakly managing to haul himself into an upright position. I sat there tensely but didn't try to help because he hated it when I fussed over him. He propped himself up and looked straight at me with his bright eyes.
"Spoke to Doctorji then, did you?"
"I'll be OK, Bilal."
"I know you will." Being dead is not OK.
"You'll be OK too. You'll need to write to your aunt and make arrangements."
"I will, don't worry." I don't want to live with my aunt. This is my home.
"It's beautiful in Jaipur and my sister will look after you properly. And the history in Jaipur, my boy ... I envy you."
"It'll be fine, Bapuji." I don't care about Jaipur, I don't care about stupid history, and I won't be OK.
And that was it. No more said. A vicious disease was eating him from the inside out and he wouldn't even talk about it.
"What's the news today, son? Have those vultures come to a decision yet?"
I held myself rigidly because I knew what was coming next.
"Harpies, the lot of them. They just don't understand, do they? The soul of India can't be decided by a few men gathered around a map clucking like chickens about who deserves the largest pile of feed. They can talk all they want—until the end of time, for all I care— but Mother India will set them straight. Look at your friends, Bilal. Do they care that we're Muslims? We've sat and eaten with Chota's family on many occasions. Are we supposed to hate them because they're Hindus? Take Manjeet—I've known his family since before you were born. I was at Manjeet's father's wedding. They're Sikh, yet we share very similar ancestry and have many things in common. We'll always have differences but our similarities will keep us together. India will never be broken, never be split. Do they think this hasn't happened before? That we haven't been to the brink before? Do they believe India is made of clay and can be shaped according to their petty ambitions? We've suffered this before and will again, but those men—those villains and these visiting British—will never break the back of India. Not in my lifetime, son, not in mine."
Bapuji was shaking with a fury I'd never seen before and his eyes were dark pools of ink that I could no longer look into. I wanted to scream, "You're wrong." Only yesterday I had stood with Saleem in the marketplace listening to the wireless as Nehru-ji had spoken of the partition plan, of the new world we were going to create whether we liked it or not. How can they do that? Take a map and say, "Here's the line. Choose which side you want to stand on." Partition was like laying flat a piece of coarse material and cutting it as steadily as you could down the middle. The only difference was, once the first cut was made, no amount of sewing and stitching could make that material whole again.
Bapuji hadn't been out of his room for almost a month. He hadn't seen the changes in the people, the atmosphere in the market, the elders arguing around the market square. There had been trouble and violence last year, but it had died down and life had returned to normal for a while. But since the partition plan had been announced, everything had changed. There were stories of mobs all over the country, burning people's houses, killing women and children, and political parties recruiting young men to fight and further their cause. India was succumbing to a cancer, like the one that was eating Bapuji alive. A disease from within.
A sharp pain in my stomach that had started earlier when I spoke to Doctorji made my stomach cramp in anxiety. I squeezed my eyes shut against the pain. Why couldn't he sense it? Everything was changing, everything was wrong. India was on the verge of disaster! I wanted to scream at him, I don't care about India or politicians or vultures or anything like that. I only care about you! Instead I went over to his bed, held him close, and lay down next to him. After a while, I felt him dozing gently and disentangled myself from his arms. I looked at him sleeping so peacefully.
I had kept the partition plan from Bapuji thinking that in his ill state it could kill him. I knew now that the effect of the news would in many ways be a lot worse. It would break his heart.
It was at that precise moment that I knew exactly what I had to do. I decided that no matter what happened or what people said, I would make sure that my bapuji would never know what was happening in the outside world. It didn't matter that people were preparing for the worst and that India was on the verge of something big, a monsoon the likes of which they'd never seen, that, once cleared, would change everything. I swore an oath that Bapuji would die not knowing the truth of what was to come. He would die thinking that India was as he remembered it and always would be. At that precise moment, I decided to lie. I set my shoulders and made to leave the room.
"Bilal," croaked Bapuji.
"Where's my melon?"
I left the room, salty tears stinging my face as I walked out into the light.
Excerpted from A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master. Copyright © 2011 Irfan Master. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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Posted January 9, 2013