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Communalism

The Reformation of Laadley Khan: A Short Story

‘Your people, Lädley, your days of hurting majority sentiments are over.’

Laadley Khan had been sitting awkwardly at his desk, when his old mobile phone rang. ‘Jamal bhai? Ji, I arrived on time,’ he shouted into the phone, but then lowered his voice self-consciously, ‘no, I am wearing coat-pant. I have my own desk under PM ji’s framed photo, but I’m not sure what to do here Jamal bhai.’ After he had hung up, he looked about himself stoically and nodded, ‘Allah is my provider! Who would have thought I’d find work in a government department.’

‘Our government is a provider, Laadley ji. It has created so many new departments to maintain law and order. Everyone will find work, eventually,’ said Mishra Ji as he rolled his chair forward toward Laadley Khan. ‘What did you do earlier?’

‘I had a nehari shop!’

Mishra ji rolled the chair back discreetly. ‘Laadley ji, office premises are strictly vegetarian. No meat-machli for lunch, haha.’

Later Mishra ji brought up the matter before Balabhadra babu, head clerk in the scrutiny section. ‘He had a meat shop earlier, sir.’ Balabhadra babu looked amused, “Mishra ji, I am responsible for scrutinising everyone’s gotra when they put in an application for marriage. You think I will not know about my own department clerks? Arrey, I have known Laadley since he was a small boy. See he is okay, but he needs firm guidance. We will guide him in his work. Anyway, he is in inter-Mohammadan marriages, nothing to do with love jihad section. He will interact with his own community people.’

‘But still, sir, I feel former meat shop owner in sarkari vibhag…’ Mishra ji gazed at the framed photo on the wall. ‘He also said, “Allah is my provider” loudly in office.’

‘Arrey, it is a manner of speaking, Mishra Ji. Waise toh, I was the provider, you might say. I only adjusted him here,’ Balabhadra babu chuckled. ‘He came to me with folded hands. I also felt he knows all the Mohammadans in the old city, all the roadside Romeos also, so he would be useful in the scrutiny department. I requested MLA saheb to put in a word. He is not permanent; only on daily wage basis.’

November 10, 2013

Laadley Khan swatted at a single fly and managed to kill two. He was really quite big, but always underestimated his own strength.

Outside the nehari shop, along the open gutter, two mangy dogs fought over some bones and gristle, while the onionskin and rotting lemon peels lay unattended. Laadley Khan, the proprietor of that shop, sat cross-legged on a large Neelkamal plastic chair, behind a small aluminium counter, and stared at this scene. Suddenly, he made the connection: ‘Arrey, you’ve thrown the muck just outside my door. That’s why the place is infested with flies.’ He glared at his staff.

The establishment was situated in a narrow, winding alley in the old city. Ancient havelis, now partitioned and for the most part decrepit, blocked the sun and sky. It was often said that their old inhabitants, particularly those who had had to leave them for Karachi, pined for them. Laadley Khan’s family had never gone anywhere. From his position of vantage, the chair upon which he remained perched, he keenly guarded the alley. He now saw a thickset man turn in from the street and walk up quickly, purposefully. Laadley peered at the figure until he recognised him: ‘Oh, Jamal babu!’ he said to himself. Jamal dodged the garbage and the scavengers and called out as he entered the shop, ‘Is my food ready?’

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Laadley Khan had always been burly, but had only recently become bearded. He patted his beard, smiled at Jamal, and turning towards the tandoor to his right, barked, ‘Bring Jamal babu’s packets!’ Jamal observed him for a few seconds and said casually, ‘Have you hennaed your beard Laadley?’ Laadley Khan blushed.

A slightly built man, wearing only a checked lungi and sleeveless brown sweater was hunched atop the clay oven. He got up silently and handed Jamal a stack of greasy, brown paper packets that smelled of tandoori roti and kabab. Jamal leaned back as he adjusted them against his chest. ‘For the love of Allah, why don’t you have the place swept?’

‘I’d very much like to have the place swept, Jamal babu, but what will I do with the collected trash? The municipal cart doesn’t come here, does it? Every bastard is turning vegetarian suddenly. Nobody wants to touch animal filth, it seems, not even the mehtars. I’d have the waste thrown into the municipal dump on the main road, but it’d just lie there also, and then everyone will get upset with me. So I say: it’s my garbage, let it just stay here.’

‘Achcha? And what will people think when they come to eat your famous nehari?’

Laadley Khan looked bemused, ‘My customers don’t mind. They are used to it. Do you know, a few days ago a firangi came to my shop? He had been walking around the old city and he came here for lunch, but even he didn’t say a word. Arrey, the angrez are simple people. They come here to see the old city, eat nehari, not to complain about the garbage.’ His minions nodded in agreement: ‘Yes, the firangi was very cultured. He folded his hands and said namaste’; everyone cackled at the firangi’s apparent faux pas and Jamal grinned too.

‘Arrey, our Mullah ji, Rahman miyan, even tried to correct him. He said sternly, “We say salaam aleikum”, but the poor man got very confused.’ Laadley clapped his thighs in mirth and the assistants continued to laugh.

After Jamal had left the shop with the packets, Laadley Khan turned towards the tandoor again, ‘Listen, swine, collect this rubbish now and throw it into the dump. I don’t want to see this mess in front of my shop.’ The man in the lungi appeared largely unaffected, so Laadley Khan continued to glower at him, his mouth slightly open, ‘All right? You heard me?’

§

Kanwal and Nirmal sat on a wooden bench, which was chained to the collapsible grill of Bhawani Mishthan Bhandar. The shop had sold crisp kachauris, jalebis and milky tea since 1949. The boys had been rocking the bench when Shambhu, the owner’s son came rushing out at them and said, ‘Don’t do that! You’ll break the bench. Anyway, it is meant for patrons, not for freeloaders to lounge on.’ Kanwal and Nirmal looked at each other in mild embarrassment and Kanwal said, ‘We would like to have some tea, in that case.’ The owner’s son muttered something and went back into the shop.

‘Boss, it is not right,’ said Nirmal to Kanwal, ‘can’t sit anywhere in peace. Constantly have to be buying something.’

‘It’s Westernisation, boss. People are forgetting our old Indian values,’ Kanwal explained.

‘You are right. In ancient times people could sit anywhere; they would be offered tea. Now there is no sense of atithi devo bhava, no pride in our ancient culture…’ Nirmal stopped mid-sentence and nudged Kanwal. ‘Boss, see what he is doing!’

A slightly built man wearing a checked lungi and sleeveless sweater had emptied a bucket just outside the low boundary of the municipal dump. Kanwal and Nirmal could make out several bones and some gristle in the heap.

‘Eh, what do you think you’re doing?’ Kanwal shouted from across the road. The man looked startled, but didn’t respond. He turned nervously and made to go back into the alley.

‘He has slaughtered our gaumata!’ Nirmal yelled. The fleeing man stopped and turned around abruptly. ‘Abey, it’s not mataji. It’s just a goat. Can’t you tell from the size of the bones?’

Kanwal and Nirmal left their place on the bench and ran across the street, but they stopped at the head of the alley and glanced at each other hesitantly. Kanwal hated going into that filthy alley, where they slaughtered animals and then strewed their bloodied organs about as if to mock him. If he could, he would have driven them all out. ‘Barbarians, terrorists!’ he spat in disgust.

Nirmal looked at his friend for encouragement and shouted at the man, who had stopped at a safe distance inside the alley, ‘Pick up your filth and take it back inside!’

‘That is the municipal dump!’ the man shouted back.

‘It’s not meant for butchers and savages. Take it back or we’ll slaughter you and sprinkle your bones in the dump.’

The ruckus grew and reached Laadley Khan in his nehari shop. He stepped out curiously and several customers from his shop crowded behind him, amongst them Salman, the auto driver. ‘What is going on?’

‘I threw the waste into the dump just as you told me and they started chasing me and abusing me,’ said the slightly built man.

‘You go inside,’ Laadley Khan said to the man, and then he turned to Kanwal, ‘Haan bhai? What is the problem?’

Kanwal and Nirmal looked at each other for affirmation. ‘We won’t allow desecration of our land like this.’

‘That dump is your land?’

‘There will be no animal slaughter in my area.’

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Laadley, his feet wide apart and arms akimbo, frowned exaggeratedly for the benefit of his audience: ‘Your area?  How is this your area? You’ve come from some village to study here, and this has become your area? My ancestors are buried here. Their bones are mixed up in this mitti, unlike your ancestors.’ The rearguard hooted.

Kanwal regarded Laadley Khan with distaste. He wore a filthy shalwar-kameez, with the shalwar tied high and reaching his ankles. He also had a ridiculous henna-coloured beard, which provoked Kanwal: ‘The whole country is ours. You can go to Pakistan if you want!’ he said and made as if to charge. Nirmal held him back and said, pacifyingly, ‘Let our people win. We’ll put them in a municipal cart with all the rubbish and send them where they belong.’

Laadley Khan looked gleeful as he readied himself for a good fight. There were catcalls from his men: ‘If you’ve drunk your mother’s milk, come here and fight!’ Salman pumped his chest and called out. Kanwal and Nirmal, who were poised at the alley’s head, yelled back, ‘You will come out sometime, won’t you? We’ll show you then. We remember all your faces, you bastards.’

‘Am I scared of you, you little twerp?’ Laadley Khan roared as he started to walk towards them. At that fortuitous moment, Constable Achche Lal of Thana Sadar appeared at the junction of the road and alley, followed closely by Jamal. ‘What is happening?’ Achche Lal asked darkly.

‘Jamal babu, you only said to throw away the garbage. I told you the municipal cart never comes and then people throw tantrums.’

‘He is doing this to provoke us. He is showing us slaughtered animals!’ said Kanwal.

‘Why does that offend you suddenly, hain?’ Jamal turned to look at the heap that had been deposited. ‘It’s not even inside the dump, you’ve emptied it on the street, literally.’

‘It is inside only,’ whimpered the slightly built man from within the alley.

Achche Lal got a toehold, ‘Who has thrown all this outside the designated spot? Hup, come here!’ he barked at the slightly built man. The man retreated further into the dark recesses.

‘Everyone throws it there. If you throw it close enough to the dump, everyone understands that it is garbage. And anyway, why did they have to go prodding to look at what was there?’ Laadley Khan scowled back. ‘Why don’t you say anything to those two troublemakers, havaldar saheb?’

‘Why don’t I arrest you only Laadley? We have to first investigate whether there has been any illegal slaughter?’ Achche Lal snapped.

‘Havaldar saheb, don’t say such things. It is a sensitive matter, if you say it lightly even, people will believe it to be true,’ said Jamal firmly.

‘Chaliye, aap log bhi chaliye,’ Achche Lal pointed his chin at Kanwal and Nirmal. Then he gestured towards the alley, ‘I am letting them be because of you Jamal babu, otherwise one or two deserve to be in jail.’ Achche Lal glanced at Laadley, but let his eyes rest on Salman auto. He then took a few quick strides and left the scene.

Kanwal and Nirmal began walking back towards Bhawani Mishthan Bhandar. Shambhu had come out of the shop, and was watching them with admiration. Midway they stopped again: ‘We will get boys from the university; they’ll teach you to hurt peoples’ religious sentiments like this.’

‘I’ll break all your bones, you scoundrel. They have been sent here to study for the UPSC and all they do is waste their time and their parents’ money.’

‘They will never make it to the UPSC. I say Jamal babu, they are just frustrated because they are single. All the frustration is coming out like this. Why don’t you have them blessed at the dargah, they might find love,’ Salman called out and the crowd tittered.

Kanwal flared up again, ‘You’ll have us blessed? You fiend!’

November 11, 2013

The portly Balabhadra babu owned a Xerox shop and cyber cafe in the bazaar, his previous enterprise in STD booths having failed with the advent of mobile phones. He had recently landed a profitable contract for printing ‘modi masks’ for the up-coming elections. He was usually clad in starched kurtas and pyjamas, which started off being white, but soon acquired a dirty blue colour from excessive use of Neel. Balabhadra babu was sipping tea at Bhawani Mishthan Bhandar that morning.

Balabhadra babu always carried an air of sanguinity about him. ‘Arrey, Shambhu? If you want I can ask my friend who is a local coordinator to organize a ‘chai pe charcha’ with Modiji at your teashop. You’ll get coverage on national tv’, he smiled grandly.

Kanwal and Nirmal were on the opposite bench, talking softly to each other. They became immediately interested: ‘Bulbhaddar chacha, it’s the best idea. Let us organise a charcha in the old city. We will put up a big screen here and have a skype conference with Modi ji. What do you say Shambhu ji?’

Shambhu giggled in assent, ‘Kanwal ji is a big supporter.’

‘Arrey, everyone is a supporter. There is a Modi wave in India,’ Balabhadra babu replied. ‘You are young people, you should devote time to nation building,’ he added, somewhat superfluously, to Kanwal and Nirmal. ‘Work for a new India, get to know the real leaders and that is how you will also go far in life.’

Nirmal had been sitting with one leg folded under him, while the other dangled on the ground. Excitedly, he unfolded his leg and stood up, ‘Bulbhaddar chacha, we must work together. Our attitude should be nation first; everything can’t be for minorities and backwards alone, while meritorious and nationalist youth suffer. We cannot allow policy of appeasement any longer, and open cow slaughter like this.’

‘Kanwal ji and Nirmal ji suspect that Laadley has slaughtered a cow. They couldn’t catch them red-handed, but they have given him a strict warning,’ Shambhu explained.

Balabhadra babu felt the need for intervention. He shook his head resolutely, ‘They do it, Kanwal, but not here.’

‘We are certain, Bulbhaddar chacha,’ said Nirmal.

‘Not here, They do it, I am aware. But not here.’

‘You know about these things, Bulbhaddar chacha. Come we’ll show you the bones, then you can decide for yourself.’

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Balabhadra babu put his half-finished glass of tea on the bench and got up without a word. He followed Kanwal and Nirmal to the municipal dump across the street, accompanied by Shambhu himself, as well as two other patrons from the shop.

There they stood in a semi-circle trying to look for the gristle and the bones. Much more garbage had been piled on since yesterday. Nirmal found a long stick and prodded the trash till they found the gristle. Balabhadra babu gathered the back of his kurta and sat down on his haunches to observe the bones more closely. He smiled in relief and shook his head, ‘Goat,’ he said.

‘Arrey, Bulbhaddar chacha, look at the size!’

‘Big goat, ’ He paused, then added reassuringly, ‘It’s not easy transporting animals into that narrow alley. We are all here watching.’

§

Jamal lit himself a cigarette, took a long drag and grinned, ‘Then Laadley Khan? This has been good for your business, hain?’

‘What?’

‘Abey, your little fight with Kanwal and Nirmal! They have declared that they saw you slaughter right here and everyone believes it. I heard someone say that there was no need to go to Misri Bazaar anymore for Kababs.’ Laadley Khan touched his earlobes with either hand, ‘No, no, tauba Jamal babu. I’d never do such a thing.’

A door opened and shut loudly, nearby, and Salman teetered into the alley looking flushed, brushing his hair with the back of his hand. He came and sat on the stairs at a respectable distance from Jamal.

‘Then, hero? Naseeban’s half-witted husband is out again tonight?’ said Laadley. Salman blushed as the man in the checked lungi and brown sleeveless sweater rolled over with laughter. ‘Abey, don’t fall into the tandoor!’ said Salman, and added ‘I really love her’, which caused Laadley Khan to guffaw so much that his belly shook.

Salman quickly changed the subject, ‘Laadley bhai, you stopped me, otherwise I wouldn’t have let those two get away.’

‘When did I stop you?’

‘The problem is always that the police are biased. If it were just them, it wouldn’t be a problem, but who can fight with the police?’ said Salman embarrassed.

November 11, 2020

Sub-Inspector Achche Lal belched loudly. Laadley Khan, who was sitting perched atop his plastic chair, twirled his newly groomed moustache and smiled in satisfaction. ‘The food suits you, Inspector saheb?’

Achche Lal looked at his plate thoughtfully and said without malice, ‘The roti could have been a little more crisp…’ Laadley turned towards the clay ovens and shouted, ‘Swine! Did you hear that? You’re serving uncooked roti to Inspector sahib now?’

He got up from his perch and walked towards the Sub Inspector. The man at the clay ovens had become even more gaunt in these seven years and developed a racking cough. He now wore pants and a full-sleeved sweater. Laadley barked at him, ‘Abey, bring some fresh roti. And make it crisp this time, or I’ll skin you alive.’ The man lunged forward with a freshly baked tandoori roti in his hand and put it on the Sub Inspector’s plate. ‘And get more gosht, scoundrel. What will sahib eat the roti with?’

Achche Lal waited patiently for his food. ‘You don’t make dal? You should learn how to make good dal,’ he offered. Laadley nodded in agreement. After some time, the sub-Inspector held up his palms to indicate that he had had enough.  Then he patted the seat next to him and said softly, ‘Sit, Laadley, sit.’

Laadley Khan slipped onto the bench across the table.

‘Laadley we go back a long time. But now I am getting constant complaints about your meat business, haan? You are not caring about sentiments of people.’

‘Saheb, what is wrong with serving nehari-kabab? My people have served it since ancient times.’

‘Your people, Laadley, your days of hurting majority sentiments are over.’ Achche Lal’s tone became very soft again.

Something akin to anger flashed across Laadley’s face, but he contained himself, ‘So it would seem, huzoor.’

‘See just because something was tolerated for the last 70 years, it doesn’t become right. Also you people are very irresponsible, even during the pandemic you have kept the establishment open, no sense of social distancing. You don’t want to be part of the nation only. The nation will do one thing, you will do the exact opposite.’

‘Sir, do you see a single customer? Last seven months we have had zero business. I have had to let all my boys go, only he is left,’ Laadley pointed toward the ovens.

At that most inopportune time, a man walked in wearing skin-tight tapered pants and an equally tight fitting jacket. He hesitated when he saw Sub-Inspector Achche Lal, but chose to not turn back. He sat quietly in a corner.

‘Ha! No customers you had claimed and here we have TikTok celebrity Salman ji himself walking in. Laadley, if there were any one problem with your establishment, I would have tried to help you. Kyun bhai, Salman TikTok, love Jihadi?’

‘Arrey, Inspector saheb you know him since he was a boy. He is a harmless philanderer.’

‘TikTok has closed down, sir,’ said Salman sullenly.

Sub-Inspector Achche Lal turned to stare at Salman briefly, and then looked back at Laadley, ‘See this is your problem. Always trying to protect your people. You allow people with jihadi tendencies into your restaurant. Madarsa jihadis, love jihadis, then supplying biryani to protestors… It is becoming difficult for me to answer my superiors. They say, “You are trying to protect Laadley”. Now, you find something else to do. Close down this place.’

The spindly man rose from the clay ovens, panic in his eyes. Laadley stared ahead defiantly. There was a few moments’ silence before Sub-Inspector Achche Lal made a show of taking out his purse, and Laadley snapped back into the present and remembered his manners. ‘Saheb, what are you doing? You are our honourable guest. Eh, pack some kabab for saheb’s Mrs.’

‘Arrey, what are you saying! She doesn’t allow it in the house’.

§

Jamal took a long and gloomy drag on his cigarette. ‘These are bad times, Laadley. Listen to him, or they might book you under UAPA. Then you would be done for.’

‘Arrey, but how will I feed the family if I close down my hotel?’

‘See I will speak to Bulbhaddar babu. Have you heard of the new Romantic Relationships Scrutiny Department? Now everyone who wants to marry would have to make an application to the department with the details of their prospective partner, and they will scrutinise every application to see if it can be allowed. Bulbhaddar babu is very well connected. He has found himself a position in the department. We will request him to accommodate you there.’

‘But Jamal bhai, what would I do in the marriage department? It’s suitable for old women and for Pandits, who like to match people.’

‘Laadley Khan, you can keep rejecting Kanwal and Nirmal’s applications till they are too old.’ There was a flicker of a smile.

‘Laadley bhai, what will happen to me? I only know how to work the tandoors, and I have three daughters to marry,’ said the spindly man.

‘I’ll do something,’ said Laadley. Jamal looked away.

§

Balabhadra babu smiled an indulgent smile and shook his head. ‘Laadley it is a government department, not some street fight. You cannot reject Kanwal’s application. In any case, you are in Mohammadan section, how can you see his file?’

‘See Laadley, you should use your position to do good. Anyway, most boys from the community are criminals, but when you see a good prospect you block him for your sister, niece…if someone offers some token amount, out of gratitude, for a good boy, you facilitate that. Later after you have saved some money, you can also earn some sawäb by helping girls from poor families get married. To get a widow’s daughter married off is like going on haj,’ Balabhadra babu sighed.

‘I’ll become like mullah ji, always collecting sawäb,’ Laadley sighed too.

‘But first you will have to keep your position,’ Balabhadra babu was becoming uncharacteristically impatient. ‘Now there is a case,’ he said delicately, ‘if you provide Mishra ji with information he can use, then I can justify your contractual appointment.’

§

‘Salman TikTok?’ said Laadley excitedly, ‘I know everything about him. He is a rascal. Arrey, how will he convert any girl, he doesn’t know the kalma himself. Rahman miyan tired of hitting him on the knuckles and then told him never to come back to the madarsa. Mishra ji, if you reject his Hindu-Muslim marriage application, his poor mother at least would be very grateful. See if he runs away with this girl from another community, who will give him any dowry? His mother is a widow. All these years she has been waiting for a family-oriented daughter-in-law, who would give her some comfort, not some vamp who seduces young boys. I’m sure the girl’s mother would be equally grateful. Who would want Salman TikTok as a son-in-law? Most unreliable man.’

Mishra ji later informed Balabhadra babu that Laadley was okay. ‘Department can take benefit.’ He further made a file noting recommending that an FIR be lodged against Salman TikTok for indulging in love jihad.


Shahrukh Alam has been attempting to write versions of this story since 2013, but every few years when she returns to the drafts with a view to finalise, she finds that the world that it describes has changed yet again. There are characters in the story that shouldn’t be there: they should either have left, or realistically they could only be in jail. Similarly, certain scenes and plot points manage to look unbelievable, yet more jokes become unacceptable and the dialogues always seem to require further moderation. The world doesn’t keep pace with her writing and the novel refuses to get written. This is an extract from the incomplete work.

With thanks to Abeer Kapoor for the loan of an idea.