The Highway

Hindi/Urdu/Telugu words used in the piece

Vattare – Crisps or chip of various shapes.

Kurta – A traditional Indian shirt worn by all the sexes.

Taqiyah – A traditional Islamic prayer cap.

Bidi – A cheap version of unfiltered cigarette.

Roza – The month long fast during Ramadan according to Islamic calendar.

Rooh – soul/spirit

Vattare Vattare! O Vattare! The booming baritone voice of Hakim would surface at the sight of a bus. Perennially dressed in an off-white pyjama, a turquoise blue kurta with dirt patches carving a simulacrum of maps on it, and a white taqiyah, Hakim is a stocky middle-aged man without a moustache but with a gruff black beard. He is a seller of an assortment of chips and crisps with diverse geometrical patterns at the crossing of Balgera, a little hamlet on the highway connecting Raichur in the state of Karnataka and Kurnool in the state of Andhra Pradesh. As the roosters usher in the day, Hakim could be spotted frantically pacing up and down the crossing, smoking his bidi, waiting for the first bus to arrive. The highway in reality is just a narrow strip of asphalt with sloping crusty patches of earth on either side of the road. Any vehicle on this road has to slant at an acute angle to let another vehicle from the opposite side to pass through in an identically slanted manner; creating an inertial symmetry of sorts. Crater like potholes liberally adorn the highway to add a sense of adventure to the travellers.

The high frequency of buses going in either direction bear testimony to the long trading history that Kurnool and Raichur have shared. Each time a bus stopped in the Balgera crossing, Hakim would spring up from sitting next to Zakir, the flower seller, with shouts of Vattare! Vattare! Slinging a jute basket on one hand and holding two small plastic packets of these “designer” crisps on the other, he would briskly go from window to window on either side of the State run buses drawing the attention of the sleepy travellers. Be it the raw piercing summer heat or overcast days with brief rainy spells, Hakim was a constant fixture on this junction. This bus route was Hakim’s sole lifeline and his alacrity belied the harsh working conditions here. On a good day he would earn anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 120. While he waited for buses to arrive, he would sit around with Zakir, Thimmappa the soda seller, and Hanumanthu the fruit seller, discussing the key political theme of the times: separate statehood for Telengana, the central and north western region of Andhra Pradesh. Hakim was more of a listener, a spectator, as the others presented their points of view on the subject. The most vociferous of them, Thimmappa, was convinced that carving a separate state for the Telengana region was the only hope to improve conditions of life in Balgera. His brother, a rabid supporter for the cause, had sacrificed his life for this pursuit and shards of his brother’s belief continued to live through Thimmappa. Hanumanthu insisted that Thimmapa’s brother was a mere pawn in a larger and irrelevant political gambit. Zakir would chip in with rumours that Andhra Pradesh would be split into two states: the Telengana region would become a separate state while the regions of Rayalaseema and the coastal areas would form another state. This political Zeitgeist was not of Hakim’s concern though. Hakim believed that his concerns were small but eternal and that the concerns of politics were big but transient. The on-going battle for separate statehood and politics in general, he thought, was peripheral to his existence. Puffing smoke, Hakim would often chime in with “How does it matter if we are in Telegana or America? After all what matters is how we live and not where we live.”

On a hot evening in the last week of April, Narsimulu came to Hakim’s modest mud hut with a wide grin on his face. Narsimulu was visibly overjoyed at having finally realised his dream of buying a Honda motorcycle. Hakim and his son Wahab had just returned after offering their evening prayers in the only mosque in the village, while Hakim’s wife Zareena Bee was sitting indisposed on a pink plastic chair. With a weary smile and a pat on the back, Hakim congratulated Narsimulu on his purchase. The monumental import of such a day had to be made perfect by Narsimulu. Thanking Hakim with an exaggerated bow, Narsimulu invited Wahab to catch the last show of the new Telugu blockbuster in Ieeja, a nearby town 17 kilometres away on the highway. Wahab responded with a frozen half grin on his face underscoring his monetary helplessness at the offer. The maudlin air of the hut seemed to have outlined the half grin of Wahab. The momentary awkwardness was cleansed immediately as Narsimulu offered to pay for the film saying, “Arre! Bikan maine kharida chacha, toh daawat mera hoga nai” “(Come on! I bought a bike uncle so it is my treat, isn’t it?)” Wahab exchanged a terse glance with his father when Narsimulu reiterated saying “Arre Chacha! Mera daawat hai. Please nakko mat balo” “(Come on uncle! It’s my treat. Please don’t say no.)” Much to Wahab’s delight, very hesitantly Hakim nodded in agreement adding several notes of caution to drive safely.

More than four hours had passed. It was midnight now. Wahab had not returned. Zareena Bee lay there gesturing Hakim to call Narsimulu and check the reasons for the delay. Two years ago Zareena Bee accidentally came in contact with a live wire paralysing her entire left side and completely impairing her speech. Hakim reasoned with Zareena Bee that they may be getting some food after the film, saying, “Ghabrao nakko mee. Tumko pata naa, Wahab ko Ieeja bus stand ke paas wala egg fried rice kitna pasand. Jaldi aa jayega, fikar nakko karo.”(“Don’t worry dear. You know how much Wahab likes that egg fried rice sold outside the Ieeja bus stand. Relax. He will come back soon.”) Zareena Bee’s prodding stopped momentarily but started again in five minutes. Tired of Zareena Bee’s insistence, Hakim stepped out to Narsimulu’s house to make a phone call and inquire about their delay. Narsimulu didn’t answer the phone despite several calls. Panic gripped Hakim and Thimmappa, Narsimulu’s father. It was 1:30 AM and there was yet no news of their respective sons. Thimmappa got hold of a motorcycle from his neighbour and the two fathers rode at the dead of the night in search of their sons. After travelling about 12 kilometres on the wretched and bumpy highway, they spotted a black coloured Honda lying on the road, compact in its devastation, next to a massive pothole with a pool of red blood forming a dirty trail from the asphalt to the crusty earth. Narsimulu lay there unconscious, somehow breathing life while Wahab lay there lifeless, with a shattered skull.

Wahab was in his twelfth grade and was well on his way to pursuing a diploma in technical education at Ieeja. Hakim’s world had just come crashing down. He was agonising in a crucible of guilt for having permitted them to go on a motorcycle on the highway on that ill fated April evening. He navigated through the what-ifs of life and blamed himself for losing Wahab. Every visit to the mosque was circumscribed with an overflowing sense of regret and questions to the Invincible, the Almighty. “Why should it happen to me? What have I done to deserve this? Wasn’t punishing Zareena enough of punishment that I needed?” Wanting to comprehend this ambiguous justice, he lay stricken inside the mosque for long hours and gradually, his questions had changed. He asked “Why Wahab and why not Narsimulu?” Grief does not understand ethics or rationality. The boundary of the moral and the immoral becomes more elastic when suddenly struck by a boulder of tragedy. This very question left Hakim even more gloomy and guilty as he felt morally empty thinking so selfishly about Wahab. He cursed himself for having asked such a question and sought apologies from the Almighty for the very immorality that led such a thought to germinate. He did not sleep for a few nights, scared at the thought that the Almighty might summon his soul while sleeping. What would happen to Zareena then, he thought. While the buses came, stopped and left, Hakim would sit quietly in the mosque alternately seeking answers and apologies for the so-called corrupt thoughts. He got no answers and it was probably too early for any kind of redemption. Zareena Bee continued her speechless sojourn wailing silently in the dingy corner of her hut.

Zareena Bee’s treatment had left Hakim with a mounting debt. Wahab was his hope to excavate the family out of the mess. The symphony at the arrival of buses at the Balgera crossing seemed to miss a vital voice now. The rhythm of the revving engine had only the tenor of Zakir the flower seller for company. The harmonising bass with the standard lyric of Vattare was muted.

Hakim had now spent more than a month travelling on the highway of grief crossing several milestones of guilt. He had exhausted posing questions to the Almighty. Around the second week of June, bootstrapping courage from the depths of his pit, one could once again hear the older familiar lyric at the Balgera crossing. The timbre was intact but the pitch had descended an octave down. Hakim had visibly grown tired. The sprightly springing motion upon seeing a bus had been transformed to a more jaded rise and a sluggish walk to the bus.

Not having worked for an entire month, he had to resort to borrowing more money from the local money lenders at very high interest rates. His debt kept rising but his frail mind was unable to reason the need to run that extra mile, to compensate for the lost time. He was hard pressed for choices. He couldn’t avail of the luxury of temporary migration out of the village to nearby cities for work nor could he choose to work for the State’s livelihood security programme owing to its infamy of delayed wage payments. His need was immediate. He needed liquid cash and in more volumes to come out of the well of debt. He started spending longer hours at the crossing now, screaming his throat out to sell his designer crisps. Skipping a meal in the day was now not left to chance. The month of Roza had started and Hakim felt a strange closeness to the Almighty around this time as he began to think that the Almighty was testing his devoutness. There were fleeting moments when he thought that perhaps the Almighty was recreating a modern version of the story of Ibrahim and Ismael through Hakim and Wahab. He wondered if Wahab was indeed decreed to death by the Almighty or if Wahab had had the powers to have traded his own soul with Hakim’s while they were asleep the night before his departure. He was not afraid of death but he did not want the “Angel of Death” to gouge his rooh from him. He wished his soul to have to have a good taste at death. He was now convinced that the only way to come up triumphant on Judgement Day was to struggle and work harder at the crossing through these testing times. He had regained his vocal pitch now.

Amid sounds of fire crackers on a cloudy July morning, some sporadic Telengana supporters in the village announced that the ruling coalition government of India, the United Progressive Alliance, had granted a separate state for Telengana subject to the bill being sanctioned by the union cabinet. Zakir’s words turned out to be true. The state of Andhra Pradesh was to be divided into two states – Telengana and Seemandhra. The souther regions of Rayalaseema and the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh would together form a new state called Seemandhra. The hitherto indolent politicians of the Rayalaseema region now got a sudden burst of energy to agitate against the ruling party’s decision. The politicians and the State transport workers of Rayalseema went on an indefinite strike protesting the union government’s decision of granting a separate state for Telengana.

Kurnool is in Rayalaseema and Balgera is in Telengana. The State transport workers’ strike has dried up the bus service between Raichur and Kurnool for over two months now. The Balgera crossing was thus thrown into a limbo. After a month of agony, Hakim had just about tuned back his voice and brought purpose to his walk. Hakim’s lifeline had once again taken an ironic turn. The rhythm of the revving engine punctuated by the sonorous horns of the buses had been silenced. The tenor of Zakir and the bass of Hakim could barely be heard now. The orchestra had been disbanded and the vocal duo were set free from the path of struggle, leaving Hakim puzzled at the dialectical nature of the highway. The potholes on this highway were spared of the weight of the State buses now. The State was probably not happy with Hakim’s lyric or his baritone voice. Perhaps the State wasn’t satisfied with Hakim’s month long penance for his “immoral” thoughts. Hakim’s question bank to the Almighty have become empty now. His tears have dried and he was not willing to return to his philosophical excursions any more. He desired more real answers now: from the bus travellers. Smoking his trademark bidi, removing his taqiya, with a forehead sporting a network of worry lines, he asks Zakir, “Bhai! Kya gornament khuda hai yah khuda gornament hai?” “(Brother! Is the State Almighty or has the Almighty become the State?”)


English names for Hindi/Urdu terms used in this piece

jowar – Sorghum/Milo

bajra – Pearl millet

Khala – Aunt/ An Urdu term of endearment to refer to an older lady.

After a sumptuous meal on a Saturday afternoon at Ali Pasha’s place in a little hamlet called Aragidda, Ag was sitting in the living room of his thatched roof house. It’s a living room that doubles, triples and quadruples up as different rooms depending on the time of day and the people inside the house at the said time. Fanning himself with a green coloured hand fan, Ag had his eyes roving across the room as every object of utility seemed like a trinket to him.

The lunch was a great relief after a heady day of travelling across various villages in the area as the sun was beating a rather merciless sadistic drum of heat from the early morn. The progression from an innocent dawn to a devious day is extremely smooth in this part of the world. Midnight and dawn don’t even seem as half truths for what portends the next day.

Sitting relaxed on a mat made out of bamboo, Ag was conversing with Ali’s mother, a fifty something charming lady with a smile that seemed permanently embossed on her creased face. She spoke a variant of Hindi that was a cocktail of Hyderabadi Hindi and Urdu with acute Telugu inflections and intonations, adding more colour to her personality. As both of them eased into their respective speech styles, she took a few grains out of a sack and said, “Yehi jowar, jiska roti abhi ko tum khaaya.” ( This grain is jowar and the roti you had now was made with this.) Ag had never seen these grains and had a huge grin on his face, a child like wonderment upon seeing it. There was a bigger sack underneath the opened jowar sack. Playing with a handful of jowar grains, Ag asked her, “Khala! Is bade bag mein kya rakha hai?” ( Aunt! What is in this bigger sack?). Effortlessly lifting and moving the 30 kg jowar sack, she took out a few grains from the bigger sack now and said, “ei ko bajra kate hai” (This is called Bajra). Her speech was a mix of surprise and delight. She was surprised because there was nobody in her world who didn’t know these trusted soldiers, jowar and bajra. The surprise was nicely tucked away in her delight as she began explaining the process of jowar cultivation. Ag sat there, eager eyed listening to every drop of intricacy that went into his lunch. Ag’s sole contribution in the conversation were various exclamations from a soft ‘oh’ to an exalted ‘Oh’. With a subdued melodrama, she said, “Hamare ko 2 aceran khetan hain, jisme hum jowar ugata”( We have 2 acres of farm in which we cultivate jowar).

After her detailed matter-of-fact tutorial and before the birth of silence between them, she asked Ag – “Aapke jameen mein kya ko ugta hai?” (What is cultivated in your land?). There was a genuineness in her question, curious to learn about what Ag grows in his farm in Mumbai. Ag couldn’t control the smile on his face. He said, “Huh! you have 2 acres of land here and you can only grow one thing at a time in a given patch. We, in the cities, have more limited land than you do but we can be limitless in what we produce. We don’t need monsoon to reap what we sow.” She stood in front of Ag with an unchanged morphology of smile and asked, “Kya matlab? Tumhare fasal ko pani ka jaruvat nahin?” (What do you mean? Don’t you need water for your crops?) With a cold static smile, Ag said, “No. No water. No sun. No rain. No fertilizer.” Looking straight in her eyes, he said, “We don’t need to depend on such things.” Stretching his legs and reclining on one of the four wooden pillars that held the room from collapsing, he said, “It is all organic, Khala”. Wiping out drops of sweat from her forehead, she said, “Mujhe kuch samajh nakko aata, saab”( I am not following you at all, sir). Stretching his smile into something more expansive, Ag said, “Khala! For us, our house is our land and our land is where our house is. The two are not distinct. What we grow in our houses cannot be flattened and cooked. Neither can it be eaten. It is only brewed for a long time in our heads and chewed in our minds. I am not even sure if our minds chew them or they chew our minds and minds don’t digest as well. Do they? We feel heavy and bloated without eating and feel hungry after a full meal. Is it because what we brew for so long, turns bitter and hard to chew but we still do so out of habit?” Khala laughed out loud at this point, interrupting Ag. Putting back the bajra grains in the sack, she remarked casually, “Abhi samajh mein aaya ki aap ko jowar roti itna ishtam kyon laga”(Now I understand, why you liked the jowar roti so much).

A dusty hall for the rusty mind.