The troop bazaar lay in the crossroad leading to the marketplace of Koti on one side and the commercial centre Abid’s on the other. A narrow street branched off to Mozamjahi fruit market via the Rani park. Many by-lanes crisscrossed the area like multicolored threads in a quilt. In one such lane resided Avatar Singh who ran an icecream factory right from his home. When his Ambassador car moved through the lane no one dared to come out for it was so narrow that there was hardly any space left for even a mangy mongrel to pass.
Every morning wooden carts streamed into the lane to unload their burden of huge ice blocks. Workers then set to work on the blocks to crush them into tiny pieces suitable for stuffing into icecream containers. Gallons of milk, icecream powder and sweeteners were then poured into noisy machines that churned the liquid until the entire content turned into a coagulated mass.
From morning till noon the work went on; rickshaws come groaning with ice and return jauntily, while wooden trolleys roll into the factory and return heavy with their metal containers filled with ice cream and surrounded by crushed ice. The men shouted to each other and Singh the proprietor-cum-supervisor barked orders and cursed now and then when he finds slackness in work. The noise that arose each morning was enough to awaken the most lethargic of men from their sweet slumber, but Singh’s neighbors never complained. If they harbored any reservation on this account, they never let it be known to the architect of the morning mess. The ice-cream season would last two months, when the fiery Sun is in its ascendant in the months of April and May.
The ice-cream factory began from the far end of the vacant part of the house and spilled over the lane right up to the houses in front, leaving just enough for one person to walk gingerly over the place for fear of slipping on the pieces of scattered ice. For as long as the work continued, the spot shone like an ice rink, no, worse, for there was water all over the place and men moved about it all the time working and yelling at each other.
Singh stood on the front porch of his house, twirling his gargantuan mustache and the steel ring, the kada, on his wrist glinted like a sabre’s edge. He hustled the men, and often clenched his fist and raising his arm he pushed the kada with his other hand as far back as it would go. He had a gruff voice and a matching exterior that drove fear into the weak-hearted.
After the day’s work, he left home to conduct his business outside, which consisted in collecting money from men who borrowed from him or to strike a new business deal for his ice cream sticks and cups. It was then that the women of his household came out to meet the neighboring women, when all their men too had gone out to work. Singh’s women (wife, mother and aunt) were jovial, talkative and easily made friends with the women in the neighborhood. When Singh returned from work, his women folk were already inside making parathas, the delicious soft pancakes made from kneaded wheat flour, that go with the variegated curries that only Punjabis can make.
The neighbors included two families from the South both residing in two portions of a house opposite to Singh’s. One portion was occupied by a man who worked as a clerk in a government office and in the other lived two brothers. The clerk sported a waving shock of hair, black and shining, which he often had to push back with his slender hand to uncover his small dark face. When he stepped out of the house in the morning he wore a frightened look on his face until he exited the lane. And then the same look returned when he bolted back into it at sundown and it lingered until he entered the house. The brothers, on the other side, looked well-built in comparison and much taller. The elder one wore a serious mien, walked the lane as a professor might when he is crossing the courtyard of a University. He wrote for the local daily, kept to himself mostly and rarely exposed his mind by way of word or emotion. The younger brother worked for the railways, crossed the narrow lane like a steam engine rolling down the track and often swore at the workers for messing up the lane.
The brothers had just moved in with their wives and their children, having needed a larger house to accommodate their growing numbers. One of the new members in their family was a boy of four, the only son of the elder brother. Everyone doted on the boy, even the women from Singh’s family. The boy looked chubby and very fair for a Southerner – his Uncle even went so far as to say that he was of pure Aryan blood. The Punjabi women cuddled him and took turns to pet him. After the noise of the rush hour in the morning – grating and irritating – the squeals of laughter and wondrous delight from the Punjabi women more than compensated for Singh’s rude work.
This summer was especially hot, the women told one another, for never had they felt such heat in all the dozen years they had since migrated from the cold North. Little did it matter to the local women that the Punjabis made the same comment every year; it was a delight to hear them speak, for their words rolled out in quick succession like a mountain brook bouncing down a steep slope. But the reason they said it was that Singh brought in more ice, made more ice cream and consequently made more noise for the beleaguered neighbors.
One day the younger brother’s bicycle slipped and fell as he tried to navigate through the crushed pieces of ice. He cursed the men, kicked at the little rocks of ice and his rage building up shut the noisy machine down and removed the fuse from the power source. He then ordered the men to remove the carts and the trolleys from the lane and began pushing them inside Singh’s compound. There was no sign of the women. There was no sign of Singh either; it was unusual for him to be absent at this hour. The men left singh’s house after locking the place and handing over the keys to the occupants inside. The brother kicked some more ice, hollered for Singh and having got no response picked up his by circle and went home.
In the evening the clerk returned and heard about the younger brother’s foolhardy act. He became visibly agitated. The fear in his eyes leapt out and affected the women in the house. He said that once when his aging mother could not bear noise at all as she suffered from hypertension he had asked Singh to move his factory from the residential locality. He recalled that Singh became furious at this suggestion. He used the foulest possible language and asked the clerk to mind his own business. When he persisted, albeit diffidently, Singh’s fist clenched and the next moment he felt like he had been hit by a sledgehammer. He had swooned then, he told the women, and when he awoke he found himself lying like a crumpled flower beside his ailing mother.
When the elder brother returned that evening, he had said to his younger brother not to pick up quarrels in the neighborhood. We don’t want to get into fisticuffs, he said, let’s maintain some dignity. Singh is a ruffian and if you cross swords with him you become one too.
The younger brother remained firm and let it be known to all that whatever may be the outcome he is determined to see the matter to its bitterest end. He left the house and went over to Singh’s and called out his name. Still there was no sign of Singh. His wife pushed a curtain aside and told him that Singh is expected any time soon. The brother invited himself in and asked the lady if he could wait for him in the hall. The lady didn’t think that was a good idea and tried to dissuade the rebellious youth from his hotheaded idea. But the young man was resolute and determined to meet the lion of the lane.
It was quite dark when Singh returned home. The air hung heavy like it had been churned out of an oven. The neighborhood was silent, even the sound of the radio was not heard. The kitchens made no noise, nor was there any sound from the little boy in the house. It was eerily quiet and Singh unaccustomed to silence stormed into the house and shouted: Why this quiet? Are you all in mourning? No one spoke.
He walked through the door and saw the brother sitting on a sofa, legs wide apart and arms akimbo. Is this some kind of a joke? He said and immediately found himself pushed into his room. Before he could react, the brother rained blows on him so hard he could barely stand. He ducked to evade the blows but only managed to lose his turban, which went rolling down like a rabbit out of the magician’s box. When the brother was done, he left Singh slumped in a corner too weak to move or mumble.
The troop bazaar was neither a bazaar nor populated by any troops, but certainly became less noisy as Singh moved his ice factory out of it.