- Qayyuma’s Shop
Cozy under the quilt, not quite sleeping, not quite awake, I heard a voice wafting in from some other world. “Milk! Come get your milk!” The moment Buddhan called out from beneath the window, my sister came in and shook me. “Ai! Are you getting up or not? Go get the milk!” Before I could even turn on my side, she pounced again. “Arre! When are you going to get up and study? Every evening you crawl into bed early. There are children who stay glued to their books until midnight and still manage to get up when it is dark. Look at you. Lazy bones!” She walked out.
Only the sufferer knows his suffering. Well, saheb, I got the milk and handed her the container. She peered in and shook it a couple of times before screaming, “Ai! Look at this. Does he think our money grows on trees? The idiot has sold us plain water! Go, throw it in his face.”
Throw it in his face?! Saheb, that was beyond me. Buddhan was not your average milkman: he was tall and broad, and carried a solid lathi that had acquired legendary status after cracking many a thick skull. His list of enemies was quite long, and dacoits who attempted to waylay him in the woods suffered when he wielded it. Even his goat didn’t dare to quibble when he clamped her legs while milking her.
With a long queue of ready customers for his milk, he didn’t care a damn about his clients. If I was late even by a minute, he dryly said, “No milk left, saheb.”
Besides, what proof did we actually have that Buddhan doctored the milk? Maybe it was merely a difference of opinion. What Buddhan called cream was plain water to my sister. To see Buddhan in his element, one needed to go to Qayyuma’s shop. He strolled down every night to drink his quota of milk. If you were lucky enough to pass by, he regaled you with stories.
Qayyuma’s milky way!
Drinking milk there was more than just a transaction. The crème de la creme that settled upon Qayyuma’s every evening accorded the milk only secondary importance. God knows how late into the night those gatherings went on. I had to return home at the latest by eleven thirty or midnight, but I still got my fair share. They all gathered there—Buddhan, Husaini Guddi, Ramzani Kasai the butcher, Altaf the wrestler, Qamarji and party—all the oddballs of the neighbourhood, exchanging juicy gossip, mapping heaven and hell.
Husaini Guddi’s work did not allow him to come regularly. Sometimes he did not show up for a month or two, and if by chance he fell into the [End Page 17] hands of the police, then it could easily be a few years. His situation was rather like Sindbad’s: come home for a few days, deposit the loot, pop up at Qayyuma’s, narrate adventures, and set off again. But Altaf, true to a wrestler’s custom, came by to drink milk every single night. Besides, his ustad threatened him, “Oye Altaf, if you visit your wife, I’ll have you hung upside down.” If he could have, he would certainly have spent the entire night at Qayyuma’s.
Altaf’s build was impressive, and many saw right away that he was a force to reckon with. And then he defeated Babbwa! Ramzani Kasai was about equal to Husaini, and he sometimes defeated Buddhan too. Qayyuma’s was the place for countless discussions over who was stronger.
“There’s nothing much to Ramzani beyond that name Kasai,” Habib used to say, adding, “He isn’t worth the dirt under Buddhan’s feet.” To this Munna retorted, “Compared to Ramzani, Buddhan is a sapling. He can’t even conceive of the kind of skills Ramzani has when it comes to lathi tricks.” Once on a roll, Munna kept telling anecdotes to prove his point. However, Shaddo’s opinion carried more weight because he was balanced and fair. When Habib and Munna got into a heated...