The First Memorable Poetry Festival of Dhiraj Ganj

Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi

Illustration by Michela Caputo

The Sweetshop and a Dog's Breakfast

Basharat left at three in the morning to get to the interview. When he arrived at Maulvi Muzaffar's it was seven and Maulvi Muzaffar was sitting on his chaise lounge eating jalebis. Basharat introduced himself.

"Come in, come in, the man from Kanpur!" Maulvi Muzaffar exclaimed. "Kanpur's like Lucknow's kissing cousin. Since everyone knows people in Lucknow are hoity toity, I won't even bother to ask you to share my breakfast. Oh, Zauq, standing on formality is kind of like standing on broken glass!" (Yes, he said "kind of" when he meant "exactly.") "You must have eaten already. The Selection Committee's going to convene in an hour in my office. We'll meet there, OK? And, hey, that loser you used for a reference? He's not only a tremendous miser, he's also as dumb as a rock."

This conversation transpired in under two minutes. Maulvi Muzaffar hadn't even asked Basharat to sit down—he'd had to stand there like a servant.

Since Basharat left home in the pitch dark, when he saw Maulvi Muzzafar eating warm jalebis he realized how hungry he was. In the words of Muhammad Husain Azad, when you're hungry, anything tastes good. So, after wandering around for a while, he asked where he could find the sweetshop, and when he got there he ordered two-thirds of a pound of jalebis hot from the fryer. He'd just picked up the first jalebi from his leaf cup when suddenly the sweetshop owner's dog came up to him, stuck its snout up the leg of his widebottomed, Lucknow-style pajamas and started licking his calf with amazing devotion. Basharat stood motionless for a while, letting the dog do whatever it wanted. This was because he'd heard that if a dog starts following you or starts licking your hands or feet, it's best not to run away or make a fuss because then the dog will get angry and really give it to you. Basharat gave the dog a jalebi; immediately the dog lost interest in his calf and so Basharat managed to eat a jalebi himself. But once the dog finished his treat, he went straight back to licking Basharat's leg without even cleaning the remaining tidbits off of his tongue!

Now this became the pattern. Basharat would give the dog a jalebi and then quickly stuff one into his own mouth. But if there was any delay, the dog would go back to licking Basharat's calf with the same feverish intensity as before, apparently trying to get at the bone inside. Basharat was no longer scared and he began to notice the dog's cold nose tickling him. Right then and there he made two important decisions. One, never again would he stop to eat jalebis in the middle of the street like some country bumpkin from Kanpur. And two, never again would he try to imitate the fine folks from Lucknow by wearing wide-bottomed pajamas. He resolved to observe these rules until death.

Having finished feeding the dog, Basharat put the leaf cup on the ground and the dog fell to licking out the syrup. Basharat went back to the sweetshop and bought a cup of milk for himself plus a little extra for the dog so he'd be able to slip away while the dog drank its fill. Basharat swallowed his milk in one gulp and set off to see the town. Noticing Basharat leave, the dog pricked up its ears in alarm, left the milk and started following him. This confused Basharat: what on earth could this lowly creature want? Three or four times he tried to slow down a little to catch his breath, or made as though he wanted to turn around, but the dog wouldn't let him do anything.

At every turn in the road, dogs rushed out from the alleys to shepherd Basharat and the dog toward the next deployment of yipping canines—a veritable inter-alley canine task force. The dog fought off the others quite bravely. As long as the battle raged, as long as the cease-fire was still unsigned, as long as the skirmish with the next alley's Lion Brigade was still imminent, Basharat stood peacefully in the middle of the action and watched the goings-on like an impartial UN observer. He was trying his best to stop the village boys from throwing stones at the dogs because, in fact, their stones were only hitting him. The dog lashed out at any other dog that tried to get to Basharat, who, truth be told, found himself rooting for the dog—his dog. Just a few minutes ago it was just a dog, but now things were different and he was suddenly worried about coming up with a good name for it.

He realized suddenly that the arrival of a stranger in a village is announced by three things—dogs, peacocks and kids. But once the hue and cry is over, every house in the village treats you as their guest.

Dogs Named Tipu

It upset Basharat that the sweetshop owner and the village boys called the dog "Tipu." After the British martyred Tipu Sultan in the bloody battle of Seringapatam, they began calling their dogs by this name. There was even a time throughout North India when this name was so common that everyone referred to any stray dog as Tipu—"Scram, Tipu!"—without even knowing why stray dogs were called this. Other than Napoleon and Tipu, the British treated none of their enemies so badly, and this was because none made their hearts fill with such awful dread. A hundred years have passed in South Asia with the name of the martyred sultan on everyone's lips! "Get lost, Tipu!" "Take that, Tipu!" The trials and tribulations—the sanctifying sorrows—and great sacrifices—of only a few select martyrs are not forgotten after they die. These are the few that God Almighty blesses with eternal martyrdom!

Sole (Soul) Reader

Although Maulvi Muzaffar had spared no expense in building his own house (out of brick) and in building the school (half out of brick), he'd decided to have his office in a room with a corrugated tin roof in order to exhibit the model of simplicity set by the true Muslims (those of the first generation). This is where the Selection Committee was to meet. There were three candidates including Basharat, and the following guidelines were written in chalk on a blackboard to the right of the door: (1) Candidates are asked to wait patiently for their turn. (2) Under no circumstances will candidates be reimbursed for travel expenses. A meal will be provided in the Light of Islam Orphanage after noon prayers. (3) Before the interview begins, each candidate will be asked to present proof of having offered a one-rupee donation to the orphanage. (4) It is kindly requested that candidates extinguish their cigarettes before entering.

When Basharat arrived in the foyer (meaning, the shady skirt of a neem tree), the dog was by his side. He motioned suggestively several times trying to get it to leave, but the dog had no such intentions. Basharat sat down on a boulder and the dog stationed himself right by his feet, wagging his tail happily and casting appreciative glances up at his new friend. This pleased Basharat—not only was he beginning to feel attached to the poor thing, the dog's presence felt kind of supportive.

The candidate who introduced himself as L.T. from Allahabad was squatting in the shade drawing a good-luck mandala in the sand with a little twig. Whichever way you added up the digits of the mandala, the total was twenty—this was the very mandala considered to be a surefire way to get a woman or to win over a superior. In the intricate curlicue folds of his ear he'd stuffed a cotton ball doused in a sweet-straw perfume, and the Bengal Locks hair oil that he'd profusely slathered on was now flowing down his forehead.

The second candidate came from Kalpi and announced that he had both a B.A. and a B.T. from Aligarh. He wore sunglasses, which made sense since the sun was blazing, but he also wore a red silk scarf whose only purpose seemed to be to gather the copious amounts of sweat streaming down his face. As far as his suit, well, it would have fit just right if he'd been a hundred pounds lighter—the two bottom buttons of his shirt and the two top buttons of his pants were left undone. His sun hat was the only thing that fit. It appeared as though his turquoise ring had become too tight as well, because when his name was called, he took it from his pocket and installed it on his pinkie. His shoelaces were untied, but when standing up he couldn't see them anyway. He said he used to be a goalie, and despite his hulking body he was able to cinch himself between two branches in such a way that from a distance he looked like a big sideways "V": shoes on one end and hat on the other. He joined in the conversation from his perch, and from there he spat out his paan spittle and flicked the ash from his Passing Show cigarette.

After a while a fakir showed up and sat down near Basharat. This was the type of fakir with matted hair and a walking stick and chains around his ankles, the type that wanders around with a little gong that he strikes from time to time. He raised his walking stick to Basharat's forehead and said, "I tell fortunes by reading the soles of feet... so take off your shoes or I'll mess you the fuck up."

Basharat thought the man must be crazy so he turned away. But then the man said quietly, "Son, you have a mole on your pelvis and a wart in your right armpit." This sent shivers down Basharat's spine and he immediately took off his shoes because what the man had said was true.

A short distance away the third-grade boys were exercising beneath a banyan tree. They were doing push-ups. When they extended their arms the very first time, they cried out in pain, and after they dropped back to the ground only two boys had enough strength to do it a second time. The rest lay there like lizards sunning themselves on a rock. They turned their heads and looked helplessly toward the PE teacher who barked at them, "What? Does your mamma give you watered-down milk?"

The lower half of the reed mat covering the doorway was in tatters, leaving its coarse threads hanging limply. The first candidate was the guy from Aligarh, and they called out his name the way they summon plaintiffs and defendants in a court case—I mean by surname first, and so loud you'd have thought there were as many as two hundred candidates sitting in a line extending two miles into the distance. The candidate jumped down from the tree as though he'd been sprung from a catapult and landed with a thud. He readjusted his sun hat and was about to enter when the servant stopped him. He asked for proof that he'd donated to the orphanage then had him hand over his pack of Passing Show cigarettes, which he confiscated despite there being only two cigarettes left. Then he had him take off his shoes and they entered as though approaching the Almighty Himself. After fifty minutes they came out. The servant went over to a gong that hung from a rocking horse next to the door and struck it so that everyone in town (as well as the three candidates) would know the first interview was finished. The boys milling around outside clapped loudly. Then the candidate from Allahabad was called in; he erased his mandala from the sand and rushed inside. After fifty minutes the servant came out and struck the gong twice with such force that all the peacocks in town began crying out (each interview lasted the same fifty minutes as a class period). The servant winked at Basharat and motioned for him to enter.

The Black Hole of Dhiraj Ganj

When Basharat went inside he couldn't make out anything. Since there was neither a window nor a skylight, the only way light got into the room was through a little round hole in the wall. Gradually outlines appeared out of the darkness, and he could see the walls, whose plaster was made from yellow mud and fresh cow dung into which dried mustard stalks and chaff had been mixed to strengthen the compound. The plaster's natural golden varnish sparkled in the dim light. In the corner to his right there were two beads of light. Suddenly they began moving toward him, and this frightened him until he realized it was a cat in search of a mouse. To his left there was a really strange cot: it was four feet high, its legs were so thick they looked like the trunks of some trees, and whoever had made it hadn't even bothered to shear off the bark. This is where three of the Selection Committee's members sat with their legs dangling. Nearby another member was sitting on a reed stool with no backrest. Maulvi Muzaffar was sitting with his back toward the door on a reed chair that had no padding left on the armrests so the bare reed fibers shown through. A very cheerful-looking man was sitting on an iron chair. He had turned it around so he could sit with his chest pressed against the back and his chin propped on top of it. His skin was so dark that the only thing Basharat could see were his teeth. This man was the county treasurer and the chairman of the committee.

One member hung his Turkish hat on top one of the cot's legs, but when the cat came over to bat its dangling tassels, the man put the hat back on. Everyone was cooling themselves with fans made of date palm branches. Moli Mujjan pushed the stem of his fan down the neck of his sherwani to scratch his back and when he brought it back out he sniffed it to see if it smelled. The county treasurer's fan was fringed with red lace and had a small mirror in the middle.

For the candidates there was a stool with a kidney-shaped hole—the standard type in those days. For the longest time I couldn't figure out the purpose of this hole. In the summer some people put an earthenware water pitcher or flask over it so that the beads of evaporation oozing from the pitcher would seep through the hole and cool the pitcher's bottom. Throughout the interview, Basharat couldn't decide whether he was shaking from being nervous or whether it was the stool itself that was shaking.

The county treasurer was sipping a sweet lassi and the rest of the men were smoking hookahs. Everyone had taken off their shoes—if Basharat had been informed about this state of affairs he certainly would have made sure to wear clean socks. The man on the reed stool sat with his left foot resting on his right knee and had interwoven the fingers of his right hand among the toes of his left foot and was playing a game of push-em-pull-em. A tarnished spittoon was being passed around. The room smelled of a curious combination of the hookah-smoke, the Benares tobacco in the paan, the earthenware water pitcher, the watermelon rinds tossed into the corner, the previous candidate's sweet-straw perfume and the wall-plaster's cow dung. A smell wafted over this that you couldn't be too sure about: was it that of the homemade shoes worn into everyone's feet, or the rotten stench of their feet coming from their shoes?

The small round hole in the wall was of an uncertain nature as well. It was difficult to decide whether it was there to supply light or just to supply a little contrast to the shades of darkness that shrouded the room; whether it was there to let the room's trapped smoke out or to let the dust outside in; whether it was there to provide a means to look out at the world or to provide a means for all the Peeping Toms to look in. Skylight, ventilator, spyhole, chimney, window and porthole—Basharat thought it was the most multipurpose hole in all of Asia, and so overworked that it suffered from ontological confusion, which in turn led to its not being able to do anything well.

Every five minutes a new face was at the hole. Outside, one boy bent over so that his buddy could climb onto his shoulders and look in. They remained in this position until the boy giving support got tired. When his legs gave out and his waist started wobbling, he'd yell out to his friend, "Hey! Get down. It's my turn now. Let me see!"

The hole was also a passage for oxygen and insults. Long story short, Moli Mujjan suffered from asthma. When a coughing fit overtook him and he felt as if he couldn't breathe, he rushed over and stuck his mouth against the hole. Once he refreshed his lungs, he intoned prayerfully, "God be praised!" then launched into a cursing rampage against the boys.

A little while later the sun changed its position in the sky and a bright beam of light shot straight through the hole into the room and illuminated the smoke dervishes and dancing dust motes. What a vision! On the left, on a shelf set into the wall, there were balls that the theology students had made for drying the piss off the ends of their penises. These were arranged one on top of the other so neatly that they would have looked like round sweets from the market in Badayun if only they had flies swarming all over them!

On the right wall there was a framed photo of King George V over which hung a shriveled marigold garland. Beneath this were two more photos—one of Mustafa Kamal Pasha and the other of Maulana  Muhammad Ali Johar, who was wearing a loose, long sleeved robe and a sable-fur cap decorated with the moon and stars. Between these was a large photo of Moli Mujjan with a framed appreciation certificate beneath it from all the teachers and staff congratulating him on making it through a bout of cholera and wishing him the best for all times, a certificate that earned them the pay he'd withheld for the five previous months.

I forgot to mention that the dog went in with Basharat for the interview. Basharat had tried his best to get him to stay where he was but to no avail. The servant told him he couldn't take the unclean thing in and this gave Basharat the opportunity to say that the dog wasn't his. "Then why have you two been acting like bosom buddies for the past two hours?" the servant asked.

Picking up a clod of dirt, the servant made like he was going to strike the dog, but the dog sprang upon his calf. The servant began screaming. Basharat called off the dog and it obeyed. The servant didn't thank him.

"You're still going to insist it's not yours?"

So he went in, and the dog with him. Forget stopping the dog, the servant didn't have enough courage to look the dog's way.

As soon as they got inside chaos erupted. The committee members started yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs, but when the dog barked even louder they all got scared and shut up, making sure they raised their legs up onto their chairs.

"Gentlemen," Basharat said, "If you remain quiet and motionless, he'll stop barking."

"Why did you bring this dog in?" someone asked.

"I swear it's not mine."

"But if it isn't yours," the man replied, "how come you know the ins and outs of its shameless behavior?"

Basharat sat down on the stool and the dog took up residence at his feet. Basharat didn't want him to move because his presence was reassuring. Twice during the interview Moli Mujjan laughed contemptuously at Basharat, and the dog started barking over him. He became frightened and immediately switched off his cackling. How much Basharat loved that dog!

What's There to Say About Me?

The interview began. The county treasurer cleared his throat to quiet everyone, and the silence that spread through the room was so deep they could all hear not only the tick-tock of the wall clock but also Maulvi Muzaffar's rasping breath. The barrage of questions was just about to begin when the clock struck eleven and everyone again fell silent: living in Dhiraj Ganj would soon teach Basharat that whenever the clock struck the hour, then according to a countryside custom, everyone would sit in respectful silence to consider whether the clock had struck the right hour or not.

The interview began in earnest. The man he'd thought was the servant went and sat on the edge of the cot. It turned out he was the theology teacher who was temporarily doubling as the Urdu teacher. This man ended up being the one who grilled him, whereas Maulvi Muzaffar and another man, a retired reader for a circuit court judge, ended up blabbering nonsense. The county treasurer, on the other hand, gave small bits of encouragement and throughout the interview supported Basharat's candidacy. Here's a sample of the Q & A so you can get a sense of the strengths of the respective speakers:

MAULVI MUZAFFAR: (caressing the Complete Works of Makhmur) Please explain the benefits of poetry.

BASHARAT: (with an expression that implied the question was out-of-line) Poetry? I mean couplets. Or I mean its meaning... its devotees... actually I like poetry...

MAULVI MUZAFFAR: Excellent! Recite something from Khaliq-e-Bari.

BASHARAT: God alone is the Creator. / And He is the Actor Supreme.

COURT READER: Your father and grandfathers did what sort of work?

BASHARAT: Nothing, really.

COURT READER: Then how can you be fit to work? It takes four generations of gutwrenching labor to create a man capable of holding a job!

BASHARAT: (naively) Sir! I've already had a hernia operation.

THEOLOGY TEACHER: Please show us the scar.

COUNTY TREASURER: Have you ever caned anyone?

BASHARAT: No, sir.

COUNTY TREASURER: Has anyone ever caned you?

BASHARAT: Regularly.

COUNTY TREASURER: Good, then you'll be able to maintain discipline.

COURT READER: So tell us—why is the earth round?

(BASHARAT looks at the COURT READER with the defeated eyes of a wrestler pinned to the mat.)

COUNTY TREASURER: (to the COURT READER) Sir, we asked him here because we need an Urdu teacher. The interviews for the geography teacher are on Thursday.

THEOLOGY TEACHER: Please write something on the blackboard to demonstrate your good penmanship.

COURT READER: Why are you against beards?

BASHARAT: I'm not.

COURT READER: Then why don't you have one?

THEOLOGY TEACHER: Do you love your maternal or paternal uncle more?

BASHARAT: I've never thought about it.

THEOLOGY TEACHER: Please answer the question.

BASHARAT: I don't have a paternal uncle.

THEOLOGY TEACHER: You know how to pray, right? Please recite your father's namaze-janazah.

BASHARAT: He's still living.

THEOLOGY TEACHER: God Have Mercy on Me! Your face seemed sad, I just assumed... then please recite your grandfather's, or is he too drawing breath?

BASHARAT: (in a sad whisper) He's passed away.

MAULVI MUZAFFAR: Please recite something from Hali's Musaddas.

BASHARAT: I can't recall anything at the moment, but I can recite some couplets from his poem "The Supplication of the Widow."

COUNTY TREASURER: Fine, then recite some of your favorite couplets that have nothing to do with widowhood.

BASHARAT: Ripped apart—all our ties—strangled in death's straightjacket... On the tomb's throw-cushions lies the wrestler—he's nothing at all now...

COUNTY TREASURER: Whose poetry is this?

BASHARAT: It's Urdu poetry!

COUNTY TREASURER: That's amazing! Simply brilliant! What wonderful wordplay! The bonds of life are ripped apart, and then the ties of death's straightjacket strangle you. So the word "throw" could be both the wrestling move and then the soft pillows of death's eternal rest—as though God has "thrown you" in a wrestling match! Then the world's impermanence is summed up in a short phrase, "he's nothing at all now." It's a marvel that so many things could be hidden in just two lines of poetry! Only a true master is capable of composing a throw-away couplet like this.

MAULVI MUZAFFAR: Are your tastes simple or extravagant?


MAULVI MUZAFFAR: Are you married or still footloose and fancy-free?

BASHARAT: I haven't married yet.

MAULVI MUZAFFAR: Then what are you going to do with your whole salary?! How much will you give each month to the orphanage?

COUNTY TREASURER: When did you first become interested in poetry? Please recite the first couplet you ever wrote.

BASHARAT: Watching and waiting I saw the corpse jumping for joy. / And yet the Alley of the Beloved is still so far...

COUNTY TREASURER: Bravo! To turn the couplet on "and yet" is a stroke of genius! My God! The corpse was happy too soon! And "still so far" ... it hardly says anything and yet it says so much!

BASHARAT: Thank you very much. Truly.

COUNTY TREASURER: Such a great couplet from such an unexpected place! Besides economy in language, the couplet also shows parsimony in thought!

BASHARAT: Thank you.

COUNTY TREASURER: (The dog starts to bark.) I'm sorry to interrupt your dog's barking, but what is your goal in life?

BASHARAT: To get this job.

COUNTY TREASURER: Well, then, consider it yours. Tomorrow morning bring all your stuff. I'll need your paperwork completed and on my desk by eleven thirty. Your salary will be forty rupees a month.


Maulvi Muzaffar stamped his feet on the floor and protested, "Hey, new employees only get twenty-five!" The county treasurer shot him a fiery glance that shut him up. Then he wrote a note in English on Basharat's file indicating that in this candidate he had found all the lofty qualities of an ambitious young man who could become a successful accountant or school teacher, if placed under the proper supervision. And that even though he had no free-time to speak of, he was personally ready to give him some time and attention. Last of all he wrote that he had given the candidate an eighty out of one hundred, but that he was willing to up the score five points considering his good handwriting. That being said, he'd also need to deduct five points due to his bad poetry.

translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad