VEGETARIANS ONLY (A SHORT STORY) /BY SKY BAaBA
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
We had been walking since morning in this basti. Our legs ached badly. The soles of our feet burned. We had roamed all the streets and bylanes. We greeted every TO LET board that we sighted. And there were many more streets left to search. We had covered all the lanes to the right and left of the main road. Of the three houses we had looked at, we liked one very much. It was a small portion of a house. The rent was 1500 rupees per month. One room and a small kitchen. In a big city like Hyderabad, this would do for a couple like us. The owner asked us to pay two months’ rent as an advance. We said that we would pay one months’ rent now and another after moving in. He agreed. We were relieved. Paying three thousand immediately would have been impossible. We only had fifteen hundred right now, so this worked out well. We were anxious to give the money to him immediately. Both of us had the same thought—we’d be in deep trouble if someone else gave him an advance before we did!
I took out the money and gave it to him. He counted the money and said, “All right. When would you like to move in?”
“Right away, sir! We’ll bring in some of our things this evening” I said.
“Ok”. As he turned to go in, he paused and asked, “What’s your name?”
I hesitated for a few seconds. We looked at each other. My heart sank. At that moment I really wished my name was Ramesh or Rajesh. But there was nothing I could do.
“Yousuf”, I said.
The owner froze as if he had received an electric shock! He blurted out, “What did you say?!”
“I said ‘Yousuf’, sir!” I knew that this house too was a gone case.
“You’re Muslim!” He asked in disbelief.
“Yes, sir. But there won’t be any trouble. I leave for work early every morning and she is doing her M.Phil in Telugu….” I was mentally searching for more things to say even as I felt that whatever I said was not going to satisfy the landlord. I felt that there was nothing I could say that would please him.
“I thought you were “our people” going by the Telugu you spoke. I’m sorry but we can’t rent out the house to Muslims” he said as he tried to return the money he had taken.
Shaheen pleaded, “Sir, We really like your house. We are really tired with the all the searching. We won’t trouble you in the least bit. We are both educated, sir. And we will keep the house very neat.”
“I am sorry. My family will not agree.”
I said, “Sir, why don’t you consult them once. Please tell them about us. Please ask them to speak to my wife.”
The owner gave me a strange look.
“Sir, please!” I pleaded.
“Ok. Let me see.” He went inside.
I sighed. I was hoping they’d agree. We couldn’t hear the conversations inside. “No raised voices, maybe his wife doesn’t mind.” I whispered to Shaheen.
The owner stepped out.
“I’m sorry. They’re not willing”, he said as he handed back the advance. And without looking back even once, he retreated inside.
A thorn pierced our hearts once again.
I slipped the money back into my pocket and we began our search all over again. We roamed all the streets in the vicinity but didn’t find a single house that we liked. After a while, we thought maybe only Muslims would rent out houses to us Muslims. So, we started off in the direction of a Muslims locality. I recalled what my friend, Shankar said about Chintalbasti. He said that you could find people of all castes and religions there. Moreover, they were all just ordinary people, what you could call the “masses”. Not only Muslims but Christians, and even Jains. People who migrated to Hyderabad from all over the country seemed to be living there. He said that you could see a large number of Nepalis too. Chintalbasti also had a large vegetable market and the general weekly market was on Sundays. So everything was easily available and the bazaar would be bustling with people, mostly from the working class, walking around to buy their daily food and other necessities. All this made Chintalbasti very convenient and an attractive proposition to us.
Immersed in these thoughts, we reached the Muslim neighbourhood in no time. The houses were narrow and small. Poverty announced itself from every corner. Most of the front doors were closed. A few purdahs appeared here and there. A newly built house carried a TO LET board. Our spirits rose. We rang the doorbell. A sweet voice called out, “Who’s that?”
“We saw the ‘To Let’ Board”
“Please wait for a few minutes”
After a few minutes, the owner emerged out of the house, adjusting his lungi. He threw a surprised glance at us.
He looked at me and asked, “What do you do?”
“I am a journalist and she is studying in the university. It’s just the two of us”
“Are you from Andhra?, he queried.
“No”, I replied, “Why do you ask?”
He gave Shaheen an irritated look, “You don’t wear the purdah!?”
“No” said Shaheen in a neutral tone.
“Why?” he asked.
Shaheen was nonchalant. “Just like that”.
He leaned against the wall and said in an insulting tone, “We won’t rent out our house to people like you!”
I was tempted to retort in the same tone but I controlled myself with some difficulty. Shaheen was bursting with rage and was about to say something when I pressed her hand to restrain her. He continued to stare at us insolently. We had a strong desire to burn that look. Suppressing our anger and anguish, we stepped out on to the road.
“Its no use. Muslims will not rent us a house. We have to search in the non-Muslim areas. You seem really tired. Go back to the room. I’ll search some more,” I said to Shaheen.
I set out in another direction. I was reminded of an incident similar to what just happened.
Ibrahim was my batch-mate at school and a distant relative too. He had come once to visit us in our room. We were living in Saidabad then. As we were talking over dinner that night, he mentioned that a portion was available for rent in his mother-in-law’s house in Pisalbanda. I immediately asked him to inquire whether we could rent the place. We were shocked to hear his instant response, “My in-laws will not allow people who don’t wear the burqa or the purdah.” I was even more pained when I recalled this incident.
I came to the second main street and entered the first lane. On one side were houses with two and three floors and on the other side were houses with just the ground floor. Those were clearly not houses meant for renting out. So, I began walking looking up on the side of the storied buildings. I was excited when I saw a “To Let” board hanging from the second floor of the fourth house in that row. I paused near the front gate and looked around. I opened the gate and went inside and rang the bell near the staircase. I walked out again and waited looking up at the second floor. A woman emerged from the first floor balcony. She asked me, “What do you want, son?” “It’s about the portion to rent, madam” I said nodding in the direction of the sign board.
“Are you vegetarian or non-vegetarian” she asked.
I was shocked by this question. I was never confronted with such a straightforward question before. For a few moments, I didn’t know how to respond to this. Of course, I couldn’t lie. I sighed to myself, “We are such truthful beings!”
“Non-vegetarians, Madam” I said
“Sorry”. Not only did she shoot back the reply instantly but also disappeared inside right away.
I felt ashamed with myself…or did I feel ashamed of the world? I looked around. Thankfully, there was no one around. I moved forward, wearily.
What did she mean exactly? That they won’t rent out the house to Muslims? No, that was not it. They wont rent it out to anybody who was non-vegetarian. So, who could she be? Who are the people who are purely vegetarian? They would be so few, isn’t it? So, are these people among the few? And who are non-vegetarians? Think about it—Muslims? Completely non-vegetarian. Christians? Yes, perhaps. Dalits, backward castes? Yes, all of them are non-vegetarian. So, who does that leave out? The Brahmins and the Vaishyas! So, these people must belong to one of these communities! So, that means they will rent out the house only to people from their own castes. Oh, how clever these people are! You can learn so much from just one single question. And in one shot you can eliminate so many people! Remarkable!
Meanwhile, I saw another “To Let” board nearby. I walked towards it full of hope. There was something else written beneath the words “To Let”. I moved closer wondering what it was. “ONLY VEGETARIANS”. Oh, my God! This was direct speech! There was no need to ask for any more information. The board simply said, “Get Out!”
This lane was of no use. I moved on to the next lane.
After more searching, I left the lane to move into a cluster of houses. There were many houses but none carried any boards. I spotted an old woman sitting on the verandah of a house chewing betelnut. I approached her and asked, “Grandma, are there any houses here for rent?”
“That house there, son! That has a portion to rent”, she said pointing out a house to me. Her words were soothing to my ears.
I went to the house and knocked on the door. There was a small gate on the side and I could see part of the house. I waited for sometime and knocked again. There was a hand pump in one corner of the house. A girl stood pumping water into a plastic pot. She was staring at me. I adjusted my hair and looked a little impatiently at the door. I was about to knock on the door once again when the door flew open as if by magic. A stout, fair skinned woman stood in the open doorway and she looked at me with a question in her face.
“Madam, I heard there were rooms for rent.”
“Yes, there are. Are you a bachelor?” she asked.
“No, I’m married. Just the two of us.”
“You work somewhere?!”
“Come in through the side gate.” She said. And without another word closed the door on my face.
Thank goodness! She seemed to have some faith in me. I hope the rooms are good. As soon as I opened the gate and went inside, she led me up some stairs. I followed her.
“Where are you living now?”
“Erramanzil, Balapur Ma’am”, I replied.
She unlocked the door and stepped aside. “Take a look”, she said. It was just one single room. There was no washbasin/sink either. I asked her about that. She pointed to a small drain hole in one corner of the room. There was a pipe that ran downstairs. She said we should wash there. There was a bathroom and a latrine adjoining the room. That seemed all right, I thought. But I was doubtful, so I asked, “Are these just for us?”
“No. There are two families living on the other side. These are for common use.”
So, we’ll have those people coming near our door every time they needed to use the bathroom or latrine. This wasn’t going to be easy. But what to do?! It was already the 30th of the month and we had to vacate the following day.
“Alright. Ok, madam. How much is the rent?”
“Fifteen hundred” she said.
I waited for her to say more. She didn’t ask for a two months’ advance. What luck! I was really pleased. I thought to myself that even if it wasn’t all that convenient, we ought to adjust and manage somehow in this house.
“Can we move in tomorrow?”
Suddenly, she asked, “What caste are you?”
My heart sank. What does this mean? How does it matter who we were! I wanted to scream that we were just human beings. But she wasn’t going to understand all this. And anyway, no Brahmins or Reddys were going to come to her house. But there would be no hesitation in declaring that one was a Reddy but why was it so difficult to say you were a Muslim? Maybe it would be as difficult to say that you were Mala, madiga or a washerman.
“We are Muslims, ma’am. My wife did her M.A in Telugu. We won’t be any trouble at all”…I was going to say more…when she dropped another bombshell…
“Do you eat beef?
How was I to answer this question? If I said yes, there was no way she would rent the house to us. What were we to do? The last time I was asked this question, I had shaken my head saying ‘no’ because we badly needed the place and had nowhere to go. A month later, the landlord caught me buying beef at a meat shop. Well, what can we do, that’s the cheapest meat. They abused us really badly that day. They asked us to vacate the house instantly! We were shamed in front of the entire neighbourhood. The owners were golla people, a cattle-rearing community. One of them almost beat us up. We left immediately and took up another house even if we had to pay more rent.
And now, here was the question again! I sighed, it was difficult to live in this world. What did it matter what we ate! What was I to do?
“Ma’am, we eat beef once in a while. We won’t eat it if you don’t want us to. We really need the house. We’ve been searching since morning.” I said in a pitiful tone.
“We won’t rent the house to those who eat beef,” she said as she locked the room. I simply stood there not knowing what to say. I had already stooped before her and said that we wouldn’t eat beef if they didn’t like it. What more could I do! I felt like shouting out to her, “The whole world eats cow’s meat.”
But she didn’t even glance at me. She walked downstairs wordlessly and I had to follow her.
Ok, so this entire neighbourhood was going to be useless to me. The girl I had seen earlier was now pumping the water violently. I felt her violence was directed at me.
I came on to the road. I saw the lane leading to the other side of the road. I went there. A two-storied building with a To Let board! I rushed to the gate and went inside. There was a staircase on one side and a woman was coming down just then. She looked at me enquiringly. There’s a board for renting a house”, I said. “Go on in and ask the owner. He’s there”. She said as she was leaving. I went up and saw a man who was very big-built and seemed to be educated.
“Sir, the house for rent..”
“How many of you?”
“We are a couple; just the two of us”.
“The rent is two thousand and two hundred and it includes the electricity and water bill”, he said as he unlocked the house to show it to me. It was a big room and a kitchen. The place had an attached bathroom and was really nice. But the rent was too high.
“Sir, can you reduce the rent please. My wife is still studying…”
“Well, you won’t get such a house for less than Rs. 2500 in this area. And I am not even asking you for an advance! Anyone else will ask for two months’ advance.”
“You’re right, sir. But it’s hard to manage with my salary alone. Please make it 1800. We will increase the rent after some time.
“That’s not possible”, he said pausing to think a little. “Very well. Give me 2000. You say your wife is still a student. Let’s settle it at that. …I can’t make it any less…you won’t find anything cheaper.”
I began thinking, “The house was good and the owner seemed like a nice person. What should I do? 2000 was a lot of money. Will we be able to manage? It was going to be tough. But we have no choice; we are running out of time.
“Ok, sir. I only have 1500 at the moment. Please take this. I will give you 500 in a couple of days.”
“All right. When will you move in?” He asked as he took the money and counted it.
I was overjoyed to hear this question. “Tomorrow, sir.”
He said, “I like educated people. Moreover, you say that it’s just the two of you. Keep the house clean. That’s all I want.” He didn’t ask me anything else. He seemed like a prophet who had descended just for me.
He hadn’t asked which caste I belonged to! Which religion! What I ate! Such a good person! Are there such good people in this world?…But I should tell him that we are Muslims. What if even he says no, once I tell him this? I had no energy left to begin the search all over again. But it wasn’t proper to not tell him this. Lets see….
“Sir…My wife speaks mostly in Telugu, sir. She did her M.A in Telugu. I work as a journalist in a Telugu newspaper, sir. We are…Muslims, sir. I hope that’s ok, I said hesitatingly.
“You’re Muslim! You don’t seem like that. You speak such good Telugu” he asked in surprise.
I stood with a forced smile on my face. What was so great about knowing Telugu when we lived in a Telugu state? And is the Telugu language their sole property? Does Urdu belong just to Muslims? Certainly not.
The old man patted my shoulder and left.
Even after a whole week, the mystery of the three questions that the owner didn’t ask me continued to haunt me.
The servant maid who worked in the neighbouring portion said she would work for us too. Shaheen agreed to employ her after listening to her story. It was the first time we had a servant in the house. Washing the vessels and clothes and sweeping and mopping the floor, these were her duties. 200 for all this. Even though it was a meager wage, it was still a burden for us.
One day, as she chatted with Shaheen while working, she mentioned the landlord.
“Narsamma, what people are they?” I asked.
“Arijans” she said.
The mystery was now clearing up. I sank into a chair.
For the Brahmins, all non-vegetarians were untouchable people. For the Sudras, those who ate beef were untouchable. For Muslims all those who didn’t eat halal meat were untouchable. Those who didn’t wear the purdah were untouchable. SO who was left? Only the ‘arijans’ in Narsamma’s words, that is the dalits. But who was untouchable for the dalits? No one! There were no untouchables for the dalits. This meant that only dalits were real human beings. The others were the real untouchables!
I closed my eyes. I could see the Madigas in my village beating the drums and singing—‘flinching not at the whiplash, missing not a step in the tiger dance’! Yes, everybody else was untouchable except the dalits. Except the Madigas, in particular.
–Translated by Uma Bhrugubanda