His right shoulder began to itch due to the strap of his dilapidated leather bag. To relieve the itching, he scratched the hollow of his collarbone with his long filthy nails. It looked like he hadn’t trimmed his nails in a year, it seemed longer than that since he had changed his clothes, and a bath was simply out of the question. A poster boy for homeless people. Food and dirt stuck in his shabby beard, clothes torn and poorly stitched in places, face tanned and feet bare. He also begged like any other beggar. One hand drawn out, fingers curled and palm facing the sky, and the other hand touching his belly and then his lips, in that order, repeatedly, a gesture meaning he is hungry.
A woman quickly dug inside her purse and handed him a silver coin. Judging by her appearance and her perfectly manicured nails, he thought she would give him anything but silver coins. He was so used to disappointment that he didn’t react or beg her for more. He quickly walked over to another man standing near the tea shop with a phone in his hand mindlessly scrolling.
“Give him a cup of tea and some biscuits,” he said to the young boy selling tea. He obliged and gave him a cutting chai and three Parle G biscuits on a torn newspaper. He thanked the gentleman in white shirt and dipped the biscuit in his steaming chai. The first bite burnt his tongue, and he loved it. The burn made him feel alive.
He heard the Maghreb prayer call and knew it was time for work. He ran clutching his leather bag and broke two signals. He almost got killed by a white BMW. The driver of the car rolled his window down and hurled abuses at him in English.
“You are late again, Ajmer,” said a frail old man. Ajmer didn’t respond. “Fifty-fifty, Ajmer. As always,” he said and left Ajmer his pulled rickshaw. Ajmer was a beggar in mornings and rickshaw-puller in evenings. He didn’t mind splitting his earnings with the old man. After all, he owned the rickshaw. The old man drove a rented auto till midnight and sometimes earned extra when careless people dropped their mobile phones or purse in the auto.
Ajmer picked up two women from the corner of the street whose fragrance disturbed his nostrils. He forgot what it feels like to smell good. His senses are only accustomed to the smell of urine and garbage and rotten eggs. They were talking in Hindi. He normally never cared about the conversations the people sitting in his rickshaw had but the two women caught his attention when he heard them say his name.
“He felt like a new person after returning from Ajmer, as if his soul was reborn, reincarnated into the same body,’ one of them said.
“Yeah. I went there last year with my husband. It calmed my soul after my mother died,” the other one replied. He dropped them off and one of them handed him a 50 rupees note.
After a few hours, his hands began to feel numb. He went to park the rickshaw and split his share. The old man was inside his rented auto.
“Why aren’t you driving around?” Ajmer asked.
“None of your business. Give me the money and scram,” he yelled.
His breath stinks of cheap liquor. He never drives when he gets lucky and earns his extra income.
Ajmer asked, “Purse maara ya mobile?” (What did you flick? Purse or mobile?)
He yelled again, “Bho**ike, paisa de aur bhaag yahan se.” (Mothe*****r, give me the money and get lost.)
Ajmer handed him a hundred rupee note.
“Yeah. I only took four customers. My hands started to pain,” he replied.
The old man asked, “Want to drink?”
It was unusual of him to offer. Maybe he felt lonely, so Ajmer sat in the driving seat and said, “I don’t drink.”
The old man laughed through his nose.
“This is the only thing I live for, Ajmer. This is why I work my ass off,” he said.
“Ye Ajmer kahaan hai?” (Where is this Ajmer?) He asked as his eyes caught a brown wallet that had a stag’s antler in the centre.
“You don’t know? I thought you were a Muslim,” he said taking a small sip from a plastic cup.
“Sirf naam se musalmaan hoon,” (I am not), Ajmer replied.
“Rajasthan. It has a famous dargah. People go there for various reasons. Some to pray, some to heal themselves, some to find themselves and some to pray for their loved ones. There’s a fellow who lives in my chawl who went to Ajmer Sharif to pray for his son. He believed his son was possessed because he used to dress like a woman,” he said.
“Did the trip cure his son?” Ajmer asked curiously.
“Yeah. He stopped draping a saree and works as a waiter.”
For the next few weeks, Ajmer begged and worked tirelessly to save for his trip to the Dargah. When Ajmer went to say goodbye, the old man said, “Why travel all the way to Rajasthan? There is a very famous Dargah here in Dilli itself. I will rent the auto for the whole day and we can go to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah.”
“You won’t understand, Budhau. I want to go to the place I was named after. I want to know why I was named Ajmer,” he replied.
After dinner, while leaving the old man’s house, a tiny room with only one bed and one green almirah with a long mirror on its left side, Ajmer thanked him for showing kindness and said he was grateful he met him.
“Wait,” the old man said and went near the bed. He lifted the mattress and took something from under it. “Here. Take this,” he said, handing Ajmer four Rs 500 notes.
Ajmer politely declined but the old man shoved it inside his leather bag. Ajmer was so moved by his deed that he might have cried if he still had any emotions left inside. He gave him a warm smile and said, “Don’t die until I come back, Budhau.”
Ajmer was sure the old man was going to miss him. And it goes without saying, he was going to miss him too. He usually slept under the bridge with a woman, her husband, and their three noisy kids who taught him how to beg and which traffic signal is most profitable during daytime, but since he was leaving, he decided to sleep on the footpath on the main road. For the first time in many nights, he slept without having to listen to the moans of the wife as she begged her husband to stop, that she didn’t want to bring one more child into this world. He slept to the silent hum of Dilli and woke up to the sound of women’s chattering as they swept the dusty roads.
He gathered his things and walked to the nearest kirana store. He bought three pieces of bread and a water bottle. The bread was so dry that it was getting stuck on the inside of his sternum. He drank water after every bite. Ajmer walked towards the highway and hoped someone would give him a lift. He kept walking for more than an hour. He felt like he was in the middle of nowhere. Cars passed by now and then but nobody stopped. Minutes later, what seemed like hours to him, a pickup truck stopped. “Sit at the back,” the driver said.
The pickup truck had an open back. Four cows stared at him as he sprang inside the truck. He sat in one corner, knees to his chest. The stench of cow dung was so unbearable that Ajmer had to cover his nose with his elbow. The truck stopped after an hour and another man got in. He sat at the other end of the truck covering his nose with his worn-out scarf.
He asked, “Where are you going?”
“Oh! I am going to Manoharpur. My wife and two kids live there,” he said even though Ajmer didn’t ask. He continued, “I work in Dilli. I am a watchman at night and mop hospital floors in the morning.”
“I am a beggar,” Ajmer replied sternly, expecting he would stop talking but he didn’t.
“Yeah. You look like a beggar,” his reply made Ajmer chuckle. “Why are you going to Ajmer?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“You can sit outside the Dargah and beg. They provide free food. I heard people who go there to pray are very desperate and generous to beggars. You know once a rich man gave all the beggars gold coins. A man from my village got one.”
“I don’t want gold coins,” Ajmer replied.
“Then what do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you mental?”, he asked, laughing at Ajmer’s reply.
“I am,” he said.
The driver dropped them off after the Manoharpur toll. They walked side by side without talking for a while.
“When did you become a beggar?”
Ajmer hates talking unless it’s required.
He replied, “My father killed my mother to marry another woman. She threw me out soon after they got married.”
“And your father didn’t stop her?” He was appalled.
“The man killed my mother. Do you think he had any humanity left to keep me with him?”
he asked rhetorically.
“My home is two streets down. Come and have lunch with my family,” he offered. Ajmer couldn’t figure it out if it was out of pity or out of kindness.
“No thanks. I still have a long way to go”, Ajmer replied.
“I will walk you back till the highway, Ajmer. Now come, I’ll take you home for lunch”, he insisted.
Kanhaiya’s home was surprisingly big. Two bedrooms, one kitchen, and one toilet. Ajmer asked him if he could take a bath. When he got out of the toilet, Kanhaiya handed him a shirt and a pant.
“Wear this. Your clothes are beyond tattered,” he said.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Kanhaiya,” Ajmer replied.
“Don’t worry about all this,” he said.
One of his kids had gone to school and the other one was sick.
“The younger one has viral fever,” his wife said.
“He’ll be fine once he sees me,” he replied and rightly so. The kid’s face lit up as soon as he saw his father. His wife served them rice, sabzi, and watery dal.
Ajmer had forgotten what daal tasted like, earthy, like his mother’s lullabies, like her lap, like home. He thanked his wife for lunch, and bid farewell to Kanhaiya’s son.
“When you go back to Dilli from Ajmer, visit us again,” he said.
“If I go back to Dilli,” Ajmer corrected Kanhaiya.
“Haan haan. Agar (Yeah, yeah. If),” he rectified and continued, “I hope you find whatever it is you are looking for. And if you get a gold coin, I want 20 per cent of it.”
Kanhaiya’s wife was a very kind woman. She packed the leftovers in a plastic bag and said, “For the journey.”
Ajmer walked and walked for miles. Nobody stopped to give him a lift. The sun began to set and his legs were deadening. He sat in the mud on the side of the road waiting for someone to pick him up. He didn’t realise he had dozed off until a deafening horn honked at him. Startled, he woke up and rubbed his eyes.
“Where to?” a man in a red turban asked in Punjabi.
“Ajmer,” he replied.
“Get in,” he said. He got in and sat beside him. “You shouldn’t sleep like that. What if somebody robs you? Or worse, what if some drunkard drives over you?”
“I don’t have anything to be robbed off. And I would probably thank the man for running his car over me,” replied Ajmer.
“Aren’t you afraid of death?”
Ajmer replied, “Why be afraid of something that’ll relieve you of all the pain and sadness?”
“Why are you going to Ajmer?” the Sardar asked.
“To find my lover,” he replied.
“Does she live in Ajmer?”
“Yes. With her husband. Her parents married her off to a saree manufacturer in Rajasthan.”
The Sardar fell silent after this. He thought this was a bad idea, that he was going to ruin someone’s marriage. This reminded him of his lover. He went through something similar. The mere thought of that woman ached his soul, stirred his gut like a washing machine. He loved someone who left him for someone richer. After all, who in the right mind wants to marry a truck driver? To fill in the silence, he turned on his cassette player. A qawwali began to play. He hummed along the lyrics and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the beats of the tabla.
He said, “The great Bulleh Shah wrote this. Ever heard of him?”
“No,” Ajmer shook his head.
“He was one of the greatest Sufi poets. They turned his poems into qawwali,” he said. “You know there is a saying that goes something like this, ‘Nasha chai ka, awaaz Nusrat ki, kalaam Bulleh Shah ka aur thokarein zamaane ki.’ (The intoxication of tea, Nusrat’s magical voice, Bulleh Shah’s verses, and the world’s unjustness) Very relatable, right?”
For the next few minutes, the Sardar and Ajmer delved into the mystical world of qawwali. Ajmer keenly listened to the lyrics of it and wondered how someone who lived in the 16th century could have penned down his exact thoughts and feelings. An hour later, he stopped at a Dhaba. “There is a toilet behind you if you want to pee,” he said and jumped down.
Ajmer didn’t get down. The Sardar went to take a leak and when he came back, Ajmer was still sitting inside the truck. “Don’t you want to eat anything?” he asked.
“No,” Ajmer replied and showed him the rice Kanhaiya’s wife had packed for him.
“Save that for later. You won’t find any Dhaba or restaurant from here till Jaipur,” said the Sardar.
Ajmer was reluctant to spend money, so he ordered two paratha and a bowl of dahi. The Sardar ordered butter chicken with naan and a glass of lassi.
He asked, “What will you do after reaching Ajmer? Will you elope with your lover?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“But she is someone’s wife now. You should let her be,” the Sardar replied.
The waiter brought their order and asked, “Aur kuch? (Anything else?)”
They said no and began to eat.
“How will you eat that with dahi? Have some butter chicken,” he said.
“I am a vegetarian,” Ajmer replied.
“Then just have some gravy,” the sardar said, serving him the thick orange gravy.
Ajmer couldn’t believe his taste buds. That was the most delicious thing he had ever eaten. He wiped his plate clean and smacked his lips.
“Do you want some lassi?” he asked. Ajmer said no and the Sardar finished it in one go.
“I am staying in the lodge upstairs for tonight. What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Why? Aren’t you driving till Ajmer?” he asked.
Ajmer was hoping to reach his destination with the Sardar.
“I can’t drive at night. I get sleepy. Two years ago, I almost killed a man riding his motorbike,” he replied.
Ajmer asked, “Is there a bus I can take from here?”
The Sardar gave him directions to a bus stand nearby.
“Rab Rakha,” he said as Ajmer got up to leave. Ajmer smiled and said it back to him.
The route to the bus stand wasn’t as simple as it seemed to Ajmer when the Sardar was giving him directions. After a long walk, he reached the bus stand and it wasn’t as crowded as he thought it would be.
“Ajmer?” he asked one of the conductors. A man in khaki wearing a metal whistle around his chest pointed him to a red sleeping bus. “Isn’t there a government bus to Ajmer?” he asked, thinking private buses would be expensive. “No. You are late for that. All government buses leave soon after 5 pm.”
Ajmer walked over to the red bus. It wasn’t as opulent as he thought it would be. It was just an AC bus with normal seats. He asked the fare to Ajmer.
“800 rupees,” the conductor replied.
Ajmer took two Rs 500 notes from his leather bag and handed it over.
He asked, “When will the bus leave?”
“In half an hour,” replied the conductor, giving him the remaining Rs 200.
Ajmer got inside the bus and only two seats were occupied. He chose the last seat in the left corner so no one would disturb him or talk to him. Right before the conductor blew his whistle, a woman in green saree hopped in with her baby. She paid the conductor and the driver started the engine. It made the bus and the people inside jolt forward. Ajmer thought he would freeze by the time he reached his destination. He asked the conductor to turn off the cooling but he refused. He went near the driver’s area and took something from under his seat.
“Don’t steal the blanket. Keep it in the bus and get down,” he said and gave him a foul-smelling blanket.
Ajmer woke up to the loud cries of the baby. His mother lifted her blouse up and fed him. After she was done feeding, she turned back and caught Ajmer staring. “Do you have some water?” she asked. “Thank you,” she said and walked to the back of the bus.
“Where is his father?” Ajmer asked.
“I don’t know. He is a cobbler,” she said. “He hasn’t been home since I got pregnant. He stopped calling. He stopped sending money. I am going to check on him. What about you? What’s your name?”
When he told her his name, she got confused and said, “I am also going to Ajmer. He is a cobbler on the street next to the Dargah.”
The bus halted in Jaipur and the two men who were sitting in the front got down.
“How many hours from here?” he asked the conductor.
“Less than three,” he replied and whistled for the driver to start the bus. There were no passengers from Jaipur.
“Are you married?” the woman asked.
“Widowed,” Ajmer replied.
“How did she die?” she asked with a trace of genuine concern in her voice.
“The villagers found her washed ashore one morning. She had been missing for three days. I went to the police but they didn’t do anything to find her. Then they tried to pin her death on me, so I ran away,” he said and took a deep breath.
She asked, “So you’re on the run? The police are searching for you?”
“No. The police have more serious crimes to solve. They ruled her death as suicide.”
“But why would she kill herself?” she asked gently, tapping her son’s chest.
“The police made up a story of domestic abuse after a few villagers told them they heard us fighting on multiple occasions.”
“Did you?” she asked.
Ajmer didn’t understand what she was asking.
“Did you ever beat your wife?” she asked.
“A few times,” Ajmer replied.
“So does my husband. Sometimes, I feel he only comes home to slap me. Or to have sex.”
“Do you miss his punches and slaps? Is that why you’re going to see him?”
“No. To see if he is dead. And if he is, I can finally move on with my life,” she said.
“Will you abandon your son?” he asked.
“No. I will raise him like a boy should be raised. He won’t grow up to be a wife-beater,” she said, proudly.
After the woman fell asleep, Ajmer hummed the verses of Bulleh Shah’s qawwali. He fell asleep trying to remember the lines after Na vich jaagan na vich saun, Bulleya ki jaana main Kaun (Neither awake, nor in a sleeping daze, Bulla! I know not who I am).
Ajmer dreamt of an ocean. His feet were on the mud waiting for the deep blue sea to envelope him in its waves but the waves didn’t come to him. He walked steadily into the water. He walked till his feet couldn’t touch the ground. He tried to float further but his body refused to listen. And then in a flash, out of the blue, half of him melts, like a candle, like metal melting in a foundry, and the other half disintegrates into letters, in Urdu, in Punjabi, in languages he was unaware of.
While he dreamt of him thawing, the bus plunged into a ditch and rolled over. Ajmer woke up to the shock of his head crashing against a metal object. Blood streamed down his face like water running down a man standing under the shower. His forehead was split open.
Ajmer looked around to find the woman and the baby. She was lying unconscious in the front row under the seats. He crawled near her and dragged her out. He tried to wake her but her body was stiff. He kept his hand on her chest. Her heart wasn’t beating. He scanned around for the baby. He was on the floor. Two feet away from the driver’s seat. He looked up and the bus driver was struggling to stand up. He staggered like the old man who walked when he was drunk.
“Aye!” Ajmer yelled, loud enough to wake up God and his angels in the seventh heaven, when the driver was just about to step on the baby.
He stopped with one foot in the air. He lost his balance and fell. Ajmer grabbed the baby’s legs and pulled him close. He wasn’t breathing either.
Ajmer placed his lips above the baby’s and breathed into his mouth over and over again, gently yet hastily. The baby finally let out a cry and opened his eyes. Upon seeing Ajmer’s face, the baby cried louder and cried relentlessly. He tapped his chest the way his mother did but he didn’t stop crying. Thirty minutes later, his forehead was being stitched inside an ambulance.
“Is my wife dead?” he asked the nurse.
“I am afraid so,” she replied.
“Where do you want to take her body?” the ambulance driver asked.
“Ajmer,” he replied. He asked, “Why won’t he stop crying?”
“I think he fractured his legs. We will have to take him to a hospital,” she replied.
Almost an hour later, they were in Ajmer.
“Finally,” he thought. “His bones are crushed. You must take him to a private hospital,” the doctor said after examining the baby.
“You can collect your wife’s body tomorrow,” the nurse said. He left the hospital with the intention of never returning. The baby had stopped crying. He was too tired to walk to the Dargah and there was nobody on the road to show him the route. He was hungry, but none of the restaurants or shops were open.
With the baby in one hand, he foraged through the garbage pile on the side of the road. He found half a dosa and some chicken bones that still had some meat left in it. It reminded him of the butter chicken he had.
“I am a vegetarian,” he said and chuckled, licking the bones. “People are so gullible.”
They will believe anything you say as long as you are poor, and as long as your story is more depressing than theirs, thought Ajmer. He slept on the steps of what seemed like a boutique. He placed the baby on the upper stair and he slept on the lower while his hand held the baby’s tiny fingers the entire time. He woke up to a man kicking his feet. “Go sleep somewhere else,” he yelled.
He took the baby and walked over to a tea stall. By force of habit, he touched his shoulder to get his leather bag, his only possession. He had left his bag on the bus. A thousand emotions hit him all at once. He felt an immense amount of anger surging inside his bones, a deep sense of sadness coursing through his veins, and a colossal amount of despair flooding through every fibre of his being. He screamed and he cried. He fell on the road and cried. He slapped his chest and cried, aggressively and painfully.
“Look at that deranged beggar,” he heard someone say.
He felt their eyes on him, feeling sorry for him and pitying him.
“A beggar’s destiny never changes. Once a beggar, always a beggar,” he remembered the husband’s voice. He said that to his wife every night before defiling her. He stood up and drew his hand out to beg.
“Subah subah aajate hain (All they do is wake up and beg!),” he heard a man mumble, a mix of disgust and displeasure in his tone.
The bus driver stood looking at the ruins of his bus, his source of income, his home. That’s where he spent his entire day, driving around with the conductor, his best friend whom he just laid on the pyre. That’s where they spent their nights drinking and listening to old Bollywood songs. He sat on the conductor’s seat and poured a glass of alcohol. He turned on the bus amplifier. It wasn’t working. He took his mobile out and played the conductor’s favourite song. He wept and drank to the memories of him as Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe played in the background. After finishing the bottle, he leaned back to get some sleep. His peripheral vision caught a brown bag lying on the floor of the bus. He was too wasted to walk on his own so he held the metal bars for balance. He sat down and opened the bag. He took out a plastic bag that smells rancid. He threw out the food Kanhaiya’s wife had packed out of the window.
There was a black and white photo of a woman in saree holding a baby. The photo was damaged. The woman looked beautiful. Hair untied, a nose ring, and a bindi on the centre of her forehead. He folded the photograph and kept it inside his pocket. The bag had a zipper separating two sides. He unzipped it and found another black plastic bag. His mouth fell open when he saw what was inside. 50 rupees notes bundled together. And there were eight bundles. Eight thick bundles. The booze in his system wore off the minute he held the money in his hands. He kept it back in the plastic bag and tied a knot. He stood up and tucked the bag inside his underwear. He waited for an auto but none of the autos were vacant. He walked to his home and placed six bundles inside the cupboard and locked it. He went to the next street and knocked on the door of a small house. A boy opened the door.
“Where is your mother?” he asked.
A woman in white walked towards the door. “Your husband had saved this,” he said and gave her two bundles.
The woman looked at him perplexed and out of words.
“He had asked me to keep it safe. He was going to enroll your son in a private school.”
The woman thanked him and asked if he would like to come in.
“No. I have to be somewhere. I’ll see you around. You take care of yourself and your son,” the bus driver replied and left.
Meanwhile, Ajmer was in Ajmer, living the same life he had hoped to leave behind, listening to the same groans and grumbles of people when they saw his face.
“What’s worse than a beggar? A beggar with an infant,” he heard someone say as he walked past a group of men.
A shopkeeper told him it’s 10 minutes from the railway station. A while later, he was standing outside the Dargah. The street bustled with tourists, street vendors, beggars, and people of all kinds and all religions. He walked in and nobody stopped him. Ajmer was used to being thrown out of places because of his appearance, because of who he was, because of his mere essence, but not here. Nobody even noticed him. He blended into the crowd. He feared he would get lost in the vastness of the place. Then he realised he had always been lost. What was so peaceful about this place? The Dargah exuded chaos in every step he took towards the grave of some famous saint he had no idea about. He wondered what he must have done to get so many visitors to his grave. He wondered if anyone would visit his grave.
“Would I even be buried or would people leave me to rot on the footpath?” the thought weighed on him heavily. “They left me to rot while being alive. Who would care about a dead beggar anyway?”
Ajmer saw some people were praying, some were taking pictures, some doing ablution, some were tying orange threads on a silver gate, some prostrating to a grave inside a small room, and some throwing money and gifts in a big pot. He went and sat in one corner with the baby. Maybe that’s why he was named Ajmer. He had always felt a commotion inside him. He gazed around at the faces there, so many people, so many stories. That’s who he was. A man with conflicting stories, different stories, and each one of them melancholic. He is chaos and conflicts reincarnate. People listen to his journey and get a sense of relief that their life isn’t as tragic as his. They feel better, they feel at peace. That’s Ajmer. He is Ajmer.
Seven Years Later
Ajmer now lives in the Dargah. He eats the food that gets prepared there. He sits next to the man who sings qawwali every evening and claps his hands. Some throw money at him and some praise him for his synchronised hand-clapping. He named the baby Moin after the great Moinuddin Chisti, whose grave he looks at everyday and wonders why he is treated like God. He also sleeps there in one of the big halls after he agreed to sweep and mop the floors.
“My wife died giving birth to my handicapped son,” he told one of the peers and they let him stay. Ajmer piggybacks Moin everyday to have tea and his favourite butter biscuits in a tea shop on the next street where they look at a cobbler and laugh at his ugly face. “Look at his nose. Longer than a bridge,” Ajmer would say. He further said, “What if you grow up and have a nose like that?”
“I will scrape it off with a knife, Baba,” Moin replied.
“Then Moin, learn to breathe through your mouth,” he said and laughed. Moin laughed along with his father.