The Jirga by author Khawar Latif is inspired by the theme silence.
This story is one of six winning stories of the #WeToo competition, a collaboration between Stories To Action and Dastaan, where young people shared inspired by COVID-19’s impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The child was seen only at night. The witnesses, though, held multiple opinions. From the frequency of sightings to the appearance of the child, there were many differences.
Disheveled hair. Ragged shirt – somewhere between a leafy and parrot green. A blue something, shorter than boxers and longer than briefs, failing to cover the dirty legs. “Like a poor orphan soul, lost in the mighty world,” according to some people, for the people of the village, they all loved telling stories.
But there were those who disagreed. The clothes, they contested, were fancier than any living soul in the village had ever seen. The hair: short but neatly creased. The child, it appeared, was headed to a party, or just coming back from one, as the hour was odd to go anywhere. “Like a sovereign ruler, confident and rich, though little,” they said.
Debates erupted at times, with supporters of both popular beliefs having a face-off. They’d be sitting at the roadside cafe (or dhaaba or khokha) of the village with their dirty, half-filled cups of chai carefully balanced on the saucers and then on the tables with broken legs when someone would mention the child, making the chai a forgotten presence.
Pappu is what they call you. That’s not your name though. Merely a title, and it’s not unique either. There’re probably a dozen more living in the same city. A dozen boys like you. Boys who are ‘Allah log’ or ‘saaen’ of their mohallas.
When you don’t have a broad chest and strong arms and you’re weak and clumsy, always looking down with a harmless smile on your face, you kind of earn these titles, first in your school and then in your whole village, until a time comes when they forget your real name, calling you ‘Pappu, Pappu’ all the time.
You don’t mind it, or ‘take offense’ as they put it sometimes. You’re weak, remember? You can’t stand up and shout curses like all of them. You’ve been taught to behave. For if you don’t, they’ll break your legs.
Also, how many Pappus have ever taken offense? They’ll just cry sometimes. But then, some boys fight and win, some others – not so boyish – just stand and cry, even if it’s not their fight. And they all grow, though differently.
No matter how hard they tried during the day time, he was nowhere to be found. He? Or she? They didn’t even know that. They argued about it, of course. With those forgotten cups of chai placed in front of them, somehow, someone would always mention her long earrings or his really short hair, but there was no conclusive evidence. They couldn’t live with this confusion. The soul may not have a sex but put it in a body, real or mythological, and you need some pronouns, specific ones.
At one such instance, when the he-she debate was getting really out of hand, there came a peculiar suggestion. The Chaiwala, the owner of the dhaaba, who, by now, was playing an active role in the debate, cleared his throat. He’d chosen a side, but only in his heart, knowing that involvement in such debates could be bad for business, even though he had a monopoly. “How about,” the most unlearned of all people present went on. “How about we call a jirga to settle this? At least we’ll know what to call her,” adding only after a pause, “or him.” He raised his hands in a defensive way.
They all fell silent. Some thinking why had they not come up with the suggestion. The others wondering whether it was too small a matter to call a jirga for.
“I mean,” the Chaiwala went on, knowing that his words were being well received. “We’re all here anyway. We just need to make it formal.”
His words, indeed, left their mark, and the next half an hour was spent in coming up with a suitable time for the jirga.
When you grow up a little, about the time when all the kids start playing in the streets, you get a bike. A red bike with two extra wheels, black ones, at the back. You’re clumsy. You’re weak. You get hurt easily. And you cry. They’re just showing care, a little extra maybe.
You’re not allowed to take it out. The bike stays at home, just like you. Because in the outside world, there are bad people. Bad people who do bad things. Bad people who do bad things even to good boys.
“What kind of things, Maa?” You ask one day.
She looks up while cutting the tomatoes and onions and potatoes – just an ordinary day for her. “Really bad things,” she says. “You don’t want to know.”
And you think that you really don’t want to know.
You keep riding your bike in circles in the veranda and on the small roof. You don’t fall. You don’t get hurt. You’re safe. And you will be. Forever.
The news of the jirga traveled fast. In that small village, every news traveled fast. And what was more, it traveled with details, making the Chaiwala a popular personality. For the villagers never robbed anyone of the credit – or guilt – wherever it was due.
The news reached houses, not even stopping to knock at the doors. Men talked to women, who now had a reason to visit other women, sharing their versions.
Women, who seldom left the houses, and certainly not after sundown – washing and cleaning and cooking and taking care of all the men in the family, never getting tired – now claimed to have seen the kid themselves. Some even described the detailed features, being watchful of the pronouns, as the child’s gender was now a widely contested matter. Though the credit still rested with the rightful person, the details did vary.
In each retold version, the story drifted away from reality. There were false claims and exaggerations. People who hadn’t had the first-hand experience were the ones to add the most. Every conversation appeared as if two dwellers of the mountains were talking about sandstorms, neither having witnessed one but both believing in its existence.
The village you live in is small, where everyone knows everyone. All the men share the title of chacha and the women are all khalaas – except for a few people. There’s the Chaiwala, Maulvi-sahab, Master-sahab, and a couple more – men who are known by their professions. Men who, just like everyone else, love you for being who you are: innocent, quiet Pappu.
You start seeing more of them, taking the bike out more often, when your Abba falls sick. It all starts with a stubborn cough. A dry cough which soon turns into a bloody one. A doctor comes from the closest hospital, one in the neighboring village, gives him some medicines, and,
just like all the doctors, tells him to stay at home, get some rest, at least for a few days. Your Maa’s belly is swollen. She can barely move. That’s when your responsibilities increase.
You don’t know whether to be happy that you’re finally able to go out or sad that both your Maa and Abba are not strong anymore. “Who’s gonna save me?” You wonder.
“You’re a big boy now,” says Maa.
“But Maa…” You don’t say anything and just nod. You want to ask about the bad people and the bad things. You want to ask if carrying a knife would be a good idea, because that’s what strong people in all the dramas do. But you probably shouldn’t.
You’ll go out every evening to get some milk from the dhaaba and a few vegetables for the next day. You’ll see some familiar faces, every single day, and update them about Abba’s health. They all care, a lot.
You’ll have to be back before sunset though. For that’s when the worst things happen, even to big boys.
The exaggerations, just like in any other story, went to insane levels. While waiting for everyone to assemble for the jirga, the old Chacha of the village falsely referred to the kid’s smile as demonic.
Chacha, always being early at such gatherings, was sitting with a couple more people on the charpoy near the dhaaba. They’d chosen the small field for the gathering. The multipurpose field where kids used to play cricket and some stronger, athletic adults used to play volleyball. The same field, with dust and small pebbles, where the janaza of an ordinary man was held and where the small matters of concern were discussed. None of the past matters, or disputes, had been so strange as the one they were going to discuss that day.
“There’s no doubt,” said Chacha, while combing his long white beard with his fingers. “That little thing is possessed. I’ve seen that evil smile.” He lied. But with all his confidence and experience, and the known habit of the elders to take offense quite easily, no one doubted him, at least not openly.
The Chaiwala witnessed it all from his dhaaba and smiled. “The more spice there is,” he thought. “The better the business.” He used to be an audience to all such debates. He was there when the elopement of the Maulvi’s daughter with the son of the school’s Headmaster was discussed. He was also there, in fact, he was a party to the dispute when a chaiwala from the neighboring village had set up another dhaaba, challenging his monopoly. He was making hot
sweet chai when Pappu’s case was discussed, or dismissed, by the jirga. That was a long time ago.
For a moment his thoughts lingered in the past, on Pappu’s innocent face and testing fate, and then the boiling chai, threatening to fall out of the saucepan, brought him back to reality.
Abba is getting better. But your Maa keeps on growing bigger and bigger. It scares you, seeing her that way. What if she were to explode one day?
“Are you sick, Maa?” You ask one evening while hanging the dolchi on the bike’s handle. “No love.” She looks down, the view of the ground being blocked by her stomach. “This,” she points at the balloon blocking her gaze. “This is just your brother.”
“Brother?” You wonder.
Once again, Maa confuses you.
Who is your brother? Why is he doing this to Maa? How is he doing all this? Is he a magician? And in the brief moment that follows, you fantasize the life of a magician’s brother. You think of all the fun things you’d do. The brother, he better be a magician now. You smile, as the ballooned Maa doesn’t scare you anymore; the sight is rather funny.
“I hope he stops hurting you.” You say, without caring much while riding your bike out.
Chacha is sitting at the dhaaba again, as you get milk from there. He’s always sitting there. Always talking. He is sweet though. You don’t mind when he calls you “Pappu Puttar” and then gives you a kiss on the forehead. It’s just his way of loving you.
When you’re all set to leave, Chacha gets up, clears his throat, and starts walking with you – an unusual thing to do.
You find it sweet, so you get off the bike and start walking with him.
He talks as you keep dragging the bike. You enjoy listening, just like you always listen to Abba.
It’s getting a little dark when he stops at the door of his house – just a few minutes from yours.
“You’re sweating, puttar.” He says while wiping the sweat off of your forehead. “Let me get you a glass of water.”
“Come on in.” He says after a pause.
You’ve learned not to say ‘no’ to elders. You’re a good boy. Decent, obedient, and nice. You walk in, not thinking much, but just doing what you’re expected to do.
The fate of the entire debate was clear. “They won’t decide anything,” he shook his head at the thought while pouring the chai in those hastily-cleaned cups – only 8 for this round, 32 in total.
32 cups of chai, that’s how many he made in the first phase of all such gatherings. Depending on the heat of the debate and the interest in the matter, the number of phases varied. The most interesting one, by far, was the case of the Maulvi’s daughter. He sold a total of 95 cups in that four-hour session, while the Maulvi was throwing curses at the Headmaster. It was some day. “Today won’t be like that,” he said to himself.
He served 31 cups in that first phase, leaving one aside for himself. That was his little treat on a good day for business. Except for one instance, when he was deprived of that privilege. Just as he was pouring the last cup, his cup, that one time, Chacha asked for more chai. That was just moments before they started talking about Pappu. He must be really sad that day, the Chacha, so the Chaiwala didn’t mind sacrificing his cup. The old man kept asking for more and more, gulping seven hot cups of chai in that brief meeting. You couldn’t blame him though. No one could. Pappu was a sweet boy after all.
As they all sipped their first cups of chai, and the matter of the child’s gender was brought to light, the Chaiwala considered whether he was the only sane person in the village or was it the exact opposite.
He’d never seen the child they were all going crazy about. He was one of the people who stayed out late, serving his last customers long after sunset. He had yet to see an innocent or demonic boy or girl walking in the darkness. No one in the village left their kids out after sunset. Pappu was seen in the dark sometimes. See what happened to him!
As the days grow shorter, and the nights get colder, you become quieter. Chacha’s company on the way back home is now more frequent, converting your bike rides to slow walks. You get home when it’s dark. Maa doesn’t mind. As soon as you stop at the dhaaba to get your dolchi filled with milk, Chacha is almost ready to leave. Sometimes, he calls you closer, uses your hand as a support, instead of his stick, to get up from the charpoy, and the slow walk home begins. Your stay at Chacha’s place stretches subtly, every single day. There you were, standing just inside the door with a glass of water. Today you’re sitting on the bed with a warm glass of milk in your hand, listening to the stories of Chachi, who left him a few years ago. You feel bad for the old man, left alone in such a big house, with no one to play with, no one to talk to. It makes you feel sad.
The story goes on for so long that at some point you stop listening. You get worried. Worried that it might be too dark when you step outside. But you can’t cut his story short. That’ll be a rude thing to do.
When your attention comes back to Chacha and his story, his voice has dropped to a whisper. His hand is not on your shoulder anymore; it rests on your thigh. It’s not unusual, though. He used to hold your hand and caress your arm and back at times. Nothing wrong with the thigh either, you wonder. You sit and wait for the story to resume.
The voice coming out of his mouth is not a story of Chachi anymore, but some moans and grunts you can’t decipher. His other hand is in between his legs, holding something, hard. You look at his face and it scares you.
“Pappu puttar!” He whispers amid the grunts.
“Are you okay Chacha?”
You’ve seen people falling sick at your home. You don’t want to see any sickness around you now. He nods, as his hand moves a little up, up where the elastic band in your shalwar is.
He wants something, you know that.
And like a good boy, you can’t say no.
They didn’t have much time to talk. It was about to get dark, and all the jirgas ended shortly after sunset. They had, rather deliberately, set aside just a little over an hour for the entire debate. For maybe deep inside they all knew how important the matter really was.
It all started with a brief account of the sightings and the dispute. Though they were already aware of it, but the purpose was to formalize it, so no one would ever bring the matter of he-or-she up again. As the elder and more vocal ones kept on talking, the others just listened and oohed and aahed – that’s what they used to do, on most occasions.
Pappu’s case was odd. There was only silence then. They couldn’t do much about it. Found in the pond, without a shred of clothing on his body, exactly thirty days after his brother was born. He wasn’t the runaway kind though. “But then,” thought the Chaiwala. “You can’t tell with boys these days.”
The debate went on. There was the mention of the earrings and the really-short hair, one more time. Someone said that she was wearing a pink frock with little beads on her head. There was also a claim that he was wearing not a pink frock, or anything close to that, but a brown kurta with a white shalwar. There were not just two views though. Chacha was still fixated on the demon-theory. “His eyes,” Chacha would say, trying to mimic the demon. His theory, though unique, was unpopular.
The Chaiwala had a different theory: the theory of (in)sanity.
No one asked for chai, not a single cup, clearly losing their interest. The Chaiwala, too, was getting irritated. It was a stupid idea, after all. “Who decides the gender of a nonexistent child in a jirga?” He thought.
As it got darker, nearing the end of the gathering, he started cleaning the tables and gathering the cups, just to rinse them one more time. Calling it a day, at least for the ‘special business’. He stopped when he looked at Chacha’s face. He was alright a moment ago. Not anymore. And then, as he looked around, there was silence. No more debate. No more looking at the watches to get done with the evening. They were all looking in one particular direction: right behind the Chaiwala.
He was scared to turn.
You wake up in a nightmarish world, right in the middle of the day. Your afternoon nap isn’t over yet.
You shut your eyes tighter, thinking that it’s a dream, and it’ll pass because it’s all so familiar. There are sobs and cries, just like your cries in the nightmares. There’re gasps and moans, just like Chacha’s. There’s a bad smell and just something wrong in the air. You close your eyes for you don’t want to see Chacha standing in front of you, wearing nothing, looking straight at you. You can’t run away because the door is locked and because you’re weak. You can’t tell anyone because it’s bad and they all love Chacha more than they love you. You don’t want to cry because if you be a good boy, you’ll get more candies than yesterday. So, you just turn around, he pulls your shalwar down, you close your eyes, and let him do what he wants. So, before it gets really dark, you can go home… and cry… and sleep.
But when the cries don’t stop for a long long time, you open your eyes. Abba’s kameez is covered in blood. He’s spilling more as he coughs. Maa is crying, sitting on the floor, with a weird-looking liquid between her legs.
You are prepared for the latter. Maa had told you. “Run to Aapa,” she’d said. “When you see that I can’t move and the liquid won’t stop coming out, just run to her and tell her to come home.” The house right next to the school, the one with the orange door, you remember that.
You just didn’t know it’ll be that bad.
And now Abba is sick too.
“Aapa!” Your Maa says, looking at you, as if reminding you of your duties.
And then she takes a heavy breath. “Doctor… Abba.” She screams.
And you run to Aapa’s place. You forget your bike, but you can run fast. Aapa says she’ll be home soon and that you should stay with Maa.
You need your bike if you want to get a doctor for Abba. You’re running back when you see Chacha, standing in his door. He looks at you and smiles. You know that smile. You’ve seen it many times now.
“Ah! Pappu.” He says, putting one hand on your shoulder, while adjusting his shalwar with the other hand, the hand already carrying his wooden stick.
You start crying, for that’s all you need to break down. You spill it all out. Maa. Abba. Liquid. Blood. Cries. Screams. You say it all amid your own sobs.
His smile widens and he pats you on the shoulder. “Let’s get a glass of water.” He says.
You want to say that you don’t need it.
“And we’ll get a doctor for your Abba.” He continues.
He locks the door as you step in.
“Not today.” You want to say.
He continues anyway.
You want to scream.
He stuffs his shirt inside your mouth.
You want to run.
He throws you on the charpoy.
He pulls your shalwar down, needing more strength as you try to resist.
There are the smell and moans and something wrong all over again.
You want to run away.
He doesn’t let you go.
Something hits you on the head…
Chacha was looking straight at the face of a slowly-advancing Pappu. He was wearing nothing, just as Chacha remembered him from the last time. A mix of water and blood dripping from his head. He had that same innocent smile on his face.
The others were looking as well, not seeing Pappu, but a child, or a handful of them, all from their own stories, someone from their past. Some saw a girl, the others looked at a boy. The Master-sahab saw a few students from his school, some still studying there. The Maulvi-sahab saw his pupils, a few of those probably carrying his legacy. Some kids were clad in expensive
clothes and some with barely anything on their bodies. The issue of the gender, or the appearance, lingered.
The Chaiwala turned around, and there was a girl walking toward him. As she got closer, he recognized her as the little angel who used to get milk from him, every evening, without him accepting the price, for he wanted, and sometimes got, something else. He stared at her, not daring to blink for he’d no idea how the world would change when he was to open his eyes again. He wondered where she was now. Probably married to someone in another village, probably still living here, or maybe long dead. But the child was there, as real as a human could be. There was one thing for sure: the girl was no demon.
The Chaiwala wanted chai, his chai. A hot, strong cup, or maybe seven of them.
As he stood there, with a few dirty cups still in his hands, he heard a chorus from the whole jirga, as if the matter they’d all gathered for, was finally resolved. The case, though, was different. They all wanted chai. Badly, they said.