‘Excerpted with permission from The Plague Upon Us by Shabir Ahmad Mir, published by Hachette India’
THE SECOND TALE
Once upon a harsh winter, in the house of Hamid Puj, a baby girl was born. She was named Sabia.
Hamid Puj was a butcher only in name. True, his forefathers dating back to an ancestor named Nabir Puj had been butchers, but at a very early age Hamid had noticed how people smirked at the mention of the word ‘puj’. So he decided that come what may he would be a puj no more and vowed he would do whatever it took to make an Abdul Hamid out of a Hamid Puj. Thus, as soon as Hamid thought he had come of age, he asked his father for some cash as his inheritance so he could start a business.
‘What is wrong with being a butcher?’ his father asked. ‘There is good money in butchery.’
Hamid could not explain himself well, and his words made his father feel that he was abusing his ancestors for being butchers. So he told his son quite clearly that he could go and grind his arse at whatever business he liked, but he wouldn’t get a single penny from his father unless he repented and swore lifelong ﬁdelity to the family knives. But Hamid could not take such an oath; the distaste left by the sneers and scowls he had faced all his life was too strong to be overcome by his father’s threats. As soon as he was married, he decided to put his resolve into action. Now more than ever, he wanted to give up being a puj.
As the ﬁrst step towards his purported journey of moving away from being a puj, Hamid started to work as an apprentice to a carpenter. One morning, the master carpenter called Hamid aside and asked him to accompany him to the army camp that had been set up on the periphery of the village.
The army needed carpenters for some work on the roofs of the structures in their camp. Army camps, as everybody knew, were localized black holes. A man could walk into one of them, willingly or unwillingly, but no one could be sure if he would walk back out. Consequently, neither the junior carpenters nor the apprentices were willing to go there. They could aﬀord to refuse – it was the master carpenter who had been summoned by the camp, not them. The master could not force them either – what if something happened to one of them? Their families would hold him solely responsible, because nobody would ever hold the army responsible for anything. It was unthinkable.
Hamid thought about the master carpenter’s request. It was risky; the summons may or may not be about the work – one could never be sure. Even if it was indeed about the roof, he would be paid next to nothing, if he was paid at all. After all, who could dare to ask the army for compensation?
But, Hamid thought, this was just as much an opportunity. For one, he would now be in the good books of the master carpenter. More importantly, he felt he could try to work out a business proposition at the army camp. There was great potential for doing business there. The soldiers stationed at the camp were men, after all, and strangers to the land and climate
– they must have needs; needs that Hamid could cater to, with a neat margin of proﬁt of course. Carpentry was too slow and too unreliable a way out of being a puj, and now that Hamid had children to raise he was not particularly averse to taking risks. So he agreed to go along with the master carpenter.
Once he got past the barricade and the obligatory frisking, Hamid realized the army camp was mainly the village’s old school building and a few sheds that had been erected haphazardly around it in apparent haste. The new structure, a secondary two-storey building, had been built on what had once been the school playground. From its appearance, it was obvious that the new building had been constructed by the men in the camp. It resembled the houses in the plains from where these men came, and stood quite in contrast to the old building. In the plains the houses did not need tin roofs to survive the snow and the winter; here, in the mountains, they did. And it was to build a tin roof that the expertise of a local carpenter was required.
It took about a week for the work on the roof to be completed. During this time, Hamid discovered, much to his dismay, that the men stationed at the camp did not need anyone to fulﬁl their needs. They were often outside the camp, not just for search operations but also to patrol the streets, establishing what was called ‘area dominance’. And, while they were out there, they took whatever they needed, both out of necessity and to reinforce their authority.
Nevertheless, Hamid found a way to do some business on the side. The camp had a defense canteen outlet, where a wide range of products – shampoo, soap, perfumes, clothes, biscuits, chocolates and shoes, among other things – were sold at subsidized prices. Hamid worked out a friendly association with Bittu, the canteen salesman. He started to buy products from Bittu at the subsidized rates and sell them outside the camp at less than their open-market price but more than what he had paid for them at the canteen, pocketing a neat proﬁt for himself.
Once the roof was complete, the master carpenter said his prayers at the nearest shrine in thankfulness for his safe week at the camp and left the premises. But Hamid kept going back, ferrying goods from the canteen out to the village, and to keep his business going he wove a ﬁne web of alliances with the men at the camp. Any new person he encountered on his way into or out of the camp would receive half a kilogram of almonds or walnuts packed in a blue polythene bag. Soon it was diﬃcult to ﬁnd a man at the camp who had not received one of Hamid Puj’s blue polythene bags.
It was not long before Hamid’s business expanded widely and he began to receive orders from beyond his village, and for products beyond the essentials, such as watches and electronics, which Bittu had to procure from the military canteen depot located at the city garrison. The size of the blue polythene bags Hamid presented to Bittu also increased commensurately.
One day, when Hamid needed a particularly big consignment, he brought along a box of apples in place of the regular bags of nuts. The problem with the nuts, Hamid had realized, was that even if he packed a lot of them into a bag, the size of the packets was never large. In a world where size mattered most, a box of apples looked like a more substantial gift. But, to his surprise, there was no Bittu at the canteen. He had been replaced by a cleft-lipped man with a perpetual scowl on his face whom everybody called Trivedi-ji.
Hamid approached the dour Trivedi-ji with the box of apples.
‘So…you must be Hamid?’ Trivedi-ji said without moving his lower lip, his scowl intact.
Hamid nodded earnestly, hoping that Bittu had already initiated Trivedi-ji into the business arrangement that Hamid had with the canteen. It would be quite daunting to start afresh, and particularly with a man as ominous as Trivedi-ji.
Shabir Ahmed Mir is a writer and poet and has been awarded the Reuel International Prize for fiction in 2017. This is his first novel.