by Shrishti Chaudhary
Every morning, the sun rose steady over the low rises in the old city of Delhi, where each building sat next to the other, met at the hip; a series of conjoined siblings. Scores of pigeons took their positions on the electrical wires strung from different ends, somehow supporting their weight over the years. The street awoke early, for there was no time to waste in a trading area like this one. In these few square kilometers of old Delhi, you could find almost anything in the world, and however much you wanted of it.
Naya Bazaar hosting a multitude of grains and food items grown across the Indian plains; Khari Baoli, home to spices and dry fruits, stripped of the glamour of Middle Eastern souks, punctuating the air with their conflicting odors; the dazzling colors of the clothes at Chandni Chowk, sequined and shining under transparent plastic covers; the glittering jewelers of Dariba Kalan; the stationery market of Nai Sarak with their paper-cutting machines whirring in the background; Sadar Bazaar holding bulks of leather bags, toys, crockery, plastic ware, electronics, clothing; and the hardware markets of Chaawri Bazaar, the realm of every accessory and lock imaginable.
Gali no. 23 was tucked in the by lanes of Chaawri Bazaar, a refuge in the midst of madness; a narrow street with dilapidated houses on either side. It was wide enough for two bicycles to just about manage passing each other. Sewage ran along one side of the street, and the houses, some of them more than a century old, were painted a sad kind of sea-green, the paint peeling off the walls. The electrical poles emerged, as if planted randomly, and were papered with layers of election posters and advertisements. For years, Gali no. 23 held its own, despite being on the verge of collapse. It received no benefit of modern refurbishment but still stood tall. But the real wonder was that, it was one of those rare streets where Hindus and Muslims lived alongside each other.
In one of the houses at Gali no. 23 lived Azhar with three brothers, and some way down the street lived Seema. In the mornings, Azhar swung his school bag over his shoulders, and walked over to Seema’s house. Giving a shrill whistle he signaled to her to come out. Her family had leased two small rooms on rent on the first floor of this crumbling structure. Once upon a time it might have been the elegant home of a nawaab who liked to live in opulence, but now it lay in ruins, running on meager electricity and water. Sometimes, Azhar saw Seema’s mother on the balcony, and he would eagerly yell out a Namaste. She generally responded with a nod and a tight smile, and if feeling generous, said Namaste in return.
“You make me late every morning,” Azhar said, shaking his head in exasperation, as he saw Seema skipping over the front steps, school bag on shoulder, her braids bouncing as she walked.
“What can I do?” she said, “I need to wait for my turn to bathe.”
Azhar looked her up and down, pretending to be surprised, “This is after bathing?”
She made a mocking face, “Don’t worry, you look like no prince either.”
After school got over, they walked past the corner of the street and ate chaat from Hukum Singh, the famous chaat which had the yogurt and tamarind chutney oozing all over. Even though it was always crowded and he had lots of people waiting, Hukum Singh would serve them first. He’d even give it to them on credit, if they were out of money, for they made him laugh – Azhar and Seema – in the middle of a hot, crowded day.
Every once in a few weeks, Azhar and Seema treated themselves, and walked over to Jama Masjid. They’d walk past the sky blue boards with the big, red Z in the middle. Seema always looked curiously at them, and asked, “What does this sign mean?” But Azhar never knew. Next to the sign, wasthe shahi tukra a scrumptious mix of mango ice-cream, fried bread, milk, syrup and pistachios. The dessert was literally a ‘piece of royalty’ and came at a heavy price of Rs. 40.
“Fit for a queen,” Azhar said when they had bought it the first time, holding it out to Seema, and then added, “so definitely not for you,” as she extended her hands to accept it. They’d dig their spoons in the Shahi Tukra, which was warm and cold at the same time, sharing the one plate, even if they managed to save enough money to have another one. If we have too much of it, we wouldn’t like it anymore, Seema insisted, so we have to have just enough to make us want more.
Azhar never understood this logic because he could eat as much was given to him. But he went with it anyway. Moreover, he wanted to pay for it with his own money instead of the change he managed to pick up around the house. The food stands in and around Chaawri Bazaar gave away leftovers, at the end of the day, to those who lined up for them. Azhar did not like taking food that way now that he was older. He wanted to be able to buy it. Yet his parents never had money to give him, so some evenings after school, he helped his abba in his work to earn an extra allowance. Azhar’s abba was employed at one of the shops in the main market of Chaawri Bazaar. He had to transfer aluminum and copper rods from the tempos and trucks parked outside on the main road to the shop. The narrow, congested streets were inaccessible to carrier vehicles. The times when Azhar was able to earn a little bit of money by helping out his abba, he liked to stand with his hands in his trouser pockets when he ordered the shahi tukra. He really liked to feel royal about it.
Sometimes, they skipped school altogether, and walked the winding lanes of old Delhi, almost as if in a daze, pushed forward by the crowds. They loved scaring the tourists away.Azhar, first saw Seema doing it and thought that it was mad. Mad, but brilliant. The tourists were easy enough to spot, with their sweaty, uneasy faces, clutching their purses and bags to their chest, clearly warned that they could be mugged. When Azhar and Seema were in the mood for a bit of trouble, they walked uncomfortably close to them, making sudden movements, then laughing and running away. Sometimes, they jumped out unexpectedly and made a loud noise, startling the unsuspecting ‘explorers’, who thought themselves so courageous for venturing into the streets of Old Delhi.
It was one idle, Tuesday noon when the earth began to shake; Most of the people were not at home. The men were at work and children at school, with only the women left behind. Azhar’s ammi, Fatima, had just then retired for the afternoon and propped herself on an old armchair. After her morning routine of doing washing of the clothes, she needed time to think about other things. She had just begun thinking of what to cook for lunch when she first felt the tremors, but attributed them to the rocking chair, for they only lasted for a few seconds.
A few minutes later though, Fatima felt them again. The faded calendar on the wall was shaking and even the sewing kit that lay on the shelf vibrated slightly. She stood up with a start, ready to run out, but the vibrations stopped as abruptly as they had started. Looking around the house for an intruder, she peeked around but it was still and silent as before. She waited for some time and then decided that it was just her imagination. She cautiously sat down. A few minutes later though, everything shook yet again and she sprang up immediately. “Allah!” a cry escaped her lips, and grabbing her shawl and wrapping it around her head, she ran outside. Yet Gali no. 23 appeared as it had always done; a few children playing on the narrow street, bicycles parked against the houses, some women had their charpais out and sat on them comfortably, shelling peas and chatting.
Fatima asked the women, sitting outside, if they had felt an earthquake. When they seemed puzzled, she wondered why it was just her who could feel the tremors. She returned inside, confused. A few minutes later, when Azhar returned from school, Fatima told her son about the shaking earth. He pulled her cheeks affectionately, asking her why his ammi was losing her sanity. She was not yet old enough.
When Azhar walked to school the next day, he heard the same thing from Seema, that her mother had felt strange vibrations in the house as well. Azhar looked at her surprised, and they concluded that being alone in the house was driving them crazy. Yet this strange occurrence went on for another three days. Both mothers felt tremors in the house, around noon at precise intervals. When the weekend finally came around, Azhar and his brothers were home, and they felt the tremors too. The very walls seemed to vibrate, the biscuit jars kept on the shelf rattled, the spoons hanging on the stand jingled and even the drawers shook. Nobody thought Fatima was crazy now.
With each passing day, more neighbors felt the tremors and spoke to each other about it. When nobody seemed to have any answers, they went about their day, accepting the vibrations as a new feature of Gali No. 23. Some went to the elders looking for an explanation; the ones sitting out in the shade discussing what the world had come to. When the houses would shake, the elders put forth an explanation: they said it was to make sure we took nothing for granted, to make sure that we kept alert. “It’s to make sure that we remain ever respectful and grateful to our God,” one of them explained.
Fatima felt the tremors them increase though. She knew the tremors were getting stronger each time. She felt the legs of the chairs dance, and could intuit it coming upon them, knew their time was coming, that Allah had finally decided. She grew more religious in her prayers, and lost her temper if any of the boys missed the times for namaaz, insisting that the time had come and that none of them must falter now. So every afternoon when the house shook, she held onto her faith, refusing to move, saying to herself that Allah’s will, whatever that may be, is accepted.
It was beyond Azhar to understand what was happening, but he did not want to contradict his ammi, just in case she turned out to be right. He didn’t want to be the only one who lost faith when it was called for. There was general confusion in Gali no. 23, but most people, didn’t have time to waste talking about shaking tables. Money had to be earned, children had to be fed and the trade had to keep running in the shops at Chaawri Bazaar.
“Ma says it’s the Gods come to take us all,” Seema told Azhar, “that they are angry, and that I should not talk to you.”
“What is my fault in all this?” Azhar asked, although he already knew the answer.
“She says it’s because of you that the Earth is shaking, because you go against dharma that you eat and kill animals. And because your chacha has two wives.”
“How is it possible for the Earth to shake because of this?”
“My ma is stupid,” Seema said, “she thinks anything.”
Yet as the tremors went on, the beliefs of the mothers solidified, and Seema’s mother banned her from walking to school with Azhar.
“But you know he’s a nice boy, he’s always doing things you ask him to, he brings you milk whenever you ask him!” Seema protested.
Her mother pursed her lips. “He may be nice but he still lives in that house. You’re a child, you don’t know any better, so just listen to me.”
Soon the only time the two could talk was at school, making sure that no one from Gali no. 23 saw them together. For next few days, the situation seemed bleak. Azhar’s ammi worried more every day, and ate even little. She couldn’t say what exactly, but she knew something was about to happen. Seema on the other hand was not let out of the house in the evenings. Her mother was suspicious about her meeting Azhar. She wanted no part for Seema in their sins. She started going to the temple every morning, instead of just Tuesdays, and fasted Mondays and Saturdays.
It was a few days after the tremors had begun, that Fatima finally asked her husband if they should make a pilgrimage to Ajmer or Haji Ali, and if they could spare the money.
Her husband looked at her in confusion, ‘Why do you want to make this sudden pilgrimage? It is not even the right month.”
“We have to,” she replied, as if the answer was obvious, “The tremors are felt every day; it will not stop at that. Every day I feel the ground shaking and some may be blind to it, but to me it is a clear sign.”
Azhar’s abba stared at his wife for a few seconds, nonplussed; “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” he said.
Azhar’s ears stood up and he came out the kitchen where he had been drinking water.
“Abba,why?”Azhar asked. His abba turned to his wife, “You want to go on a pilgrimage because you feel the earth shaking?”
Fatima nodded meekly, suddenly unsure, turning to Azhar for support.
“I have felt them too,” Azhar spoke up, “it’s true. Everything starts vibrating and the other day even the calendar fell off from the wall.”
Azhar’s abba looked at his wife and son, shaking his head at their delusions. “The ground doesn’t shake because of Allah,” he told them, “it shakes because they are building the underground metro, here, right beneath our houses.”
Azhar’s abba then looked, rather dramatically, to the sky and asked Allah what he had done to deserve such a family.
Azhar could not believe his abba at first, because to him, it seemed impossible. In an area where thousands of people were crammed together, where the average speed on the road was less ten kilometers an hour blockaded by carts and rickshaws, where there was no digging work, nothing to indicate that a hole was being made beneath where he stood, let alone a hole big enough for the train to pass through. He went out and inspected the lane, roaming the streets of Chaawri Bazaar, and saw nothing, absolutely nothing at all to indicate that underground trains would run there. People walked by, in a hurry as always, and when he stayed too long at a spot, someone yelled at him to get out of the way. Just another day at Chaawri Bazaar.
He walked farther from Chaawri Bazaar, away from all the action, where displays of glass shelves and tower bolts, brass rods and door handles lay gleaming. He walked towards Jama Masjid and his school. Coming upon Hukum Singh, he asked him if there was a metro station being built.
“Clever boy,” Hukum Singh said to him appreciatively, “yes indeed they are building one. Did you ever think you would take the train within a city, eh, little Azhar?”
Azhar looked around once more. “But I don’t see it,” he said to Hukum Singh.
“That’s because they aren’t building it from here, where will all of us go? They are making a tunnel from a place which is a bit far, and they will keep digging, just like a rabbit makes a burrow you see? And the train will soon start running and nobody will even know!”
Azhar stared at Hukum Singh, speechless. “If you come in the evening when I shut down, I’ll take you to see it, from where they are building the tunnel,” Hukum Singh suggested.
And so Hukum Singh took Azhar to the place where they were making the underground metro, perimetered with the sky blue boards that had a red Z in the centre, the ones that Seema always wondered about. They went around and Azhar saw the tunnel, the big tunnel which was probably already running under their houses, which was causing his ammi to think that Allah was angry. He looked on wide-eyed and imagined a train going through it. Would it be noisy? Chaawri Bazaar Metro Station: Azhar finally could believe the possibility. Hukum Singh asked him where Seema was, these days. With a jolt, Azhar ran back to Gali no. 23.
Azhar spread the news of the metro to everyone at Chaawri Bazaar, to all the houses, making sure that all the women knew, so that Seema’s mother could know as well; know that it wasn’t because they ate meat that the ground was shaking. Her mother saw him that evening and he greeted her with a namaste. She said namaste back to him a little stiffly, but later smiled. Azhar then walked to Seema’s house, and whistled, asking her if she wanted to have some Shahi Tukra. When she came outside, he gave a small wave.
Srishti Chaudhary is a student of creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She writes because she considers it her truth, loves leafy trees and flowers that grow wild, and enjoys the company of people and memes. A series of her short stories has been published with Juggernaut Books, the protagonists of which include a gossipy domestic worker, a gang of kids readying for Holi, and a housewife obsessed with Dhoni. Find her here.