Taqlif Husain was always living up to his name, which means “trouble” non-discriminatorily in both Hindi and Urdu. Not that he made trouble in the sense of making mischief; nor that he got into trouble, in the sense of trouble with the law. It was more that nothing went smoothly for Taqlif Husain. His poor mother went through such a complicated childbirth—suffering from preeclampsia, eclampsia, and even the little-known posteclampsia—that naming him Taqlif seemed a euphemism. Mild constipation troubled him from his boyhood, and whenever his grandfather visited, they would complain about their bowels to each other. The trouble he had in school could supply a thousand more anecdotes, as could his trouble finding a bride; but he never overcame these two troubles, and it would be rather insensitive to dwell on them.
Things, as a rule, did not go smoothly for Taqlif Husain—so when Partition happened, which did not go smoothly even for people whose first name was not Taqlif, it was proportionally more troublesome for him. At that late hour when the last Viceroy clasped his red crayon in a fist, stuck his tongue out the corner of his mouth, and drew the Border between India and Pakistan—well, he drew it right through the modest residence of Taqlif Husain. Taqlif Husain, trying to avoid trouble, had bought himself a modest plot of land, and he farmed it by himself. On this modest plot of land he slept in a modest hut, which was perfectly bisected by the Border. Inside, his cabinet, his radio, and his dinner table were cut without such precision; his nightstand found itself in India, and his slippers in Pakistan; but his hut, and the cot within it, and himself on the cot, were divided equally and distributed with evenhandedness to the Hindus and the Muslims. He was sleeping at that late hour, as the Viceroy should have been too, and awoke to find himself holding dual citizenship.
We should not blame the Viceroy, for the old boy was under considerable pressure. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, skeletal and sunken-eyed and chain-smoking, was wasting away from lung cancer; and while Jinnah grew skinnier of his vice, Mahatma Gandhi was wasting away with virtue. The Viceroy had to work quickly, for any morning he might have found these crucial gentlemen in a heap of bones. We cannot blame him for neglecting to inspect the map with a magnifying glass before he drew the Border. If he had seen Taqlif Husain’s modest residence, we can be sure he would have skirted it one way or the other.
Outside Taqlif Husain’s left and right windows, endless lines of people walked moaning and bleeding in either direction. Oxen dragging wooden carts came along, too, and their unhurried malaise checked the exodus from a terrified run. The Hindus were on one side, the Muslims on the other, and they looked exactly the same to Taqlif Husain, except that on one side the men had long beards. Unthinkingly, he stroked the beard on his own chin and poked his head out a window.
“Mian, what’s all this?”
He had picked the wrong side, and the Hindus hurled abuse and finally a clod of earth at him. Puzzled, Taqlif Husain murmured, “These are some of the most ill-natured sufferers I have met.” At this moment, quite unexpectedly, the sluggish serpent of his bowels bestirred itself, and Taqlif Husain smiled the smile of ecstatic gratitude seen only in those who share his sort of trouble. Fearing the sufferers he had just encountered, he ventured out on the Muslim side of his house. He was a simple man, and his modest residence had a modest outhouse that took the form of a bush. Taqlif Husain moved his bowels so infrequently and incompletely that he did not take the trouble to provide his outhouse with walls. Running eagerly to the spot, he lifted his robes and squatted, and he felt the mounting, sharp pressure of a single pellet of stool. It was still shy of daylight when he heard a fellow Muslim cry out:
“Traitor! Shitting on Pakistan!”
His alarmed sphincter swallowed that thick pill without water. Crestfallen, Taqlif Husain retreated into his modest residence, pelted with clods of angry Pakistani earth. “They treasure their land, but they are awfully quick to throw it!” reflected Taqlif Husain, sweeping his floor clean of India and Pakistan.
He would not have minded the situation very much, but a few days into Partition, he received tax forms from both governments. He had never known paperwork to process itself so rapidly. So he got into an ox-drawn cart and, while keeping his distance from the unbroken line of Muslims leaving India, followed it into Lahore. There he looked for a government office where he could lodge his complaint.
Inside the government office, a Pakistani army official eyed him from behind a desk. Taqlif Husain entered the office apprehensively; he knew that bureaucracy, for the same reasons as Partition, promised him more than his usual share of trouble.
“So,” the army officer began, “what’s your business?”
“My modest residence is half-and-halved, janab. It is partitioned along with the rest of Punjab. Yet I am taxpaying to both nations.”
The army officer, however, conceived the suspicion that Taqlif Husain was really a Hindu masquerading as a Muslim and trying to get his land declared part of India. Without particularly listening to his visitor’s complaint, he asked, “Muslim or Hindu?”
Taqlif Husain hesitated, and the army officer believed he had caught him. Yet Taqlif Husain hesitated because he had been brought up by Muslim parents but babysat by Hindu neighbors. His father made him pray five times a day to Mecca, but whenever he was over the neighbor’s, his lenient babysitters let him get away with praying only once a day to Ganesh, and sometimes not even that.
The army officer leapt from his seat and told Taqlif Husain to close his eyes. Not wanting any trouble, Taqlif Husain closed his eyes. “And don’t open them!” The army officer began to spin him around and around until he was very dizzy. “Now tell me! Which way is Mecca?”
Taqlif Husain scratched his head and had no idea.
“Aha!” cried the army officer.
Within the hour, Taqlif Husain had been kicked and clobbered and locked on a train to India. It was a train full of dead and wounded Hindus. The army officer accidentally prodded Taqlif Husain into a car of dead ones, but he just thought them standoffish and sullen when they would not make conversation, and he got off the train on the other side of the Border without suspecting anything. In that city, he found another government office and repeated his claim. The Indian army officer, rotund and sweaty and fanned by houseflies, received his complaint more favorably.
“Oh-ho, so you are torn down the middle like roti!”
“Yes, janab, this is so.”
“Oh-ho, so you are cracked in half like a walnut!”
“Yes, janab, this is so.”
“Well, I agree with you, my Muslim brother, this is absolutely wrong! You must sell the Indian half of your land to the Indian government.”
“Never!” said Taqlif Husain. “This is my modest plot of land, and if I lose half of it, it will devaluate from a modest residence to a humble abode.”
“Well then, you have no other option but to buy the Indian government’s taxation rights.”
Taqlif Husain said: “Hehn?”
“You will need a broker, my friend, but fear not, I will take that burden on myself. I will also take a certain commission from the sale, of course, and the standard gratuity. Furthermore, I will need the usual monies to bribe the officials above me on your behalf, and also the monies with which, had you come yesterday and spoken with my assistant, you would have bribed the official below me.”
The army officer held out his hand. “Your total comes to one hundred rupees, payable to me.”
Taqlif Husain nodded his head, then suddenly changed his mind. “Hehn?”
One hundred rupees poorer, and informed that he must continue to pay taxes to India until he was notified that his claim had “gone through,” Taqlif Husain trudged his way home. He slept on the side of the road, but he could not sleep very well at all, interrupted twice by young men carrying torches and shouting unintelligibly. The first batch were Hindus hunting Muslims. They stomped up the road and never saw Taqlif Husain, and he would never know how much trouble he had avoided by being too sleepy to inquire what they were looking for. He made sure he would be prompter to offer himself if they came back the other way. So as soon as he heard the second batch, he hurried to the road and asked, “What are you boys looking for, with your torches and hollering?”
“Hindus! Brother, we are looking for Hindus!”
(For these were Muslims hunting Hindus, and Taqlif Husain with his beard and cap was quite safe among them.)
“Oh, if you are looking for Hindus, you are certainly in the right place,” Taqlif Husain said cheerily. “It seems the Hindus are gathering on this side of my farm, and the Muslims on the other. I am sure if you keep looking, you will find some sooner or later.” And then Taqlif Husain offered to help them look, and for an hour and a half traveled up and down the countryside in a hunt for Hindus. At last he grew tired, and he asked the indulgence of his comrades to let him sleep, for they had obviously all had naps in the afternoon, whereas he had been busy trying not to pay taxes. He parted with the advice that, if they split up and searched individually, they might cover more area; but they did not take his advice, and their torches bobbed away up the night road.
Late the next afternoon he passed through Gandara, the town closest to his modest residence. He was very dirty from traveling, and his throat was sore, so he stopped for water in the house of Sajid Ali. Sajid Ali was fifty-one years old and had never been married, either, but when Taqlif Husain entered his house and went through the rooms calling for him, he found a young girl on his bed. She was sitting forward, and it looked like she was tying an anklet, but when she saw him, she grabbed her dupatta and held it across her chest. Her hands holding it were pressed against her mouth. Taqlif Husain thought to himself, “Even Sajid Ali has found himself a bride, and a young bride at that. Taqlif, will things never go smoothly for you?” He asked her where Sajid Ali was and she did not answer, but when he asked her for water, she tried to rise from the bed but could not. He saw her feet had gotten entangled with some clotheslines that were tied to the bedposts, where Sajid Ali must have hung his laundry. Taqlif Husain untangled her, and he too struggled with the many knots she had been trying to undo. He told her of the partition of his modest residence, and how he had been traveling for very long with a dry throat. When she was finally freed, she went to the kitchen. Unfamiliar still with the house, she looked around before she found the clay pot of water and a ladle and a glass. Her hand trembled as she handed her houseguest his water, and he thought to himself, “She is such an innocent girl that she is frightened at the sight of a man other than her husband.” Then he noticed a smudge of kumkum on her forehead, and his heart rejoiced. “Tell Sajid Ali,” he said, “that I am very happy he has taken a Hindu bride, for there is too much crisscrossing and back-and-forth between Hindus and Muslims these days. If a Hindu and a Muslim can live together in the same house, living in the same country cannot be that hard. And tell him also that I am very angry he never told me about his wedding. In fact, if you do not mind, I will wait right here until he returns, and congratulate and reproach him myself.” Sajid Ali’s wife ran out of the door, and Taqlif Husain thought she was going to fetch her husband. But she did not return even after it was dark, and neither did Sajid Ali. So Taqlif Husain left the border town of Gandara, which had caught fire several blocks away. People were racing past him towards it. “That is where Sajid Ali must be,” thought Taqlif Husain, “fighting the fire.”
Too tired to help fight the fire, he headed for the adjacent halves of his modest residence, pondering sadly how he would have liked to have a young wife waiting there for him. Home at last, he left his worn sandals in India and washed his face in Pakistan. Apprehensive from his earlier experience, he made sure to urinate precisely on the Border and not an inch to either side. Then he waited for his bowels, but they did not twitch. “Alas,” he sighed to himself, returning to his bed, “nothing in life will come easily to you, Taqlif, but sleep.”
Amit Majmudar, M.D., is a 24-year-old diagnostic radiology resident in Cleveland, Ohio. His poems have been published in Journal of the American Medical Association, The Formalist, Journal of the Medical Humanities, and The Plain Dealer.