Price of a Lamb

Price of a Lamb
(a short story)

K L Chowdhury
Image coutesey Sajjad Hussain
We were visiting a friend in his new house at Natipora, a fledgling suburb on the Srinagar-Chrar highway. The road was rough and replete with potholes and ditches. It forked into smaller lanes inside the new settlement. Here, we drove lazily, stopping at places to inquire where our friend lived, passing through dirt paths that merged imperceptibly with large uninhabited tracts of land. Close to our destination, we were slowed down by a thick herd of cattle that blocked the long narrow path to the house. The sheep refused to budge. I honked to scatter them, but they huddled together and tied themselves in knots, raising clouds of dust. We were so close to our destination but here we were caught in this mess from which an escape seemed difficult any time soon. In my impatience, I continued to drive at a snail’s pace, expecting the herd to separate and allow us to pass through. Suddenly, a lanky lad appeared from nowhere, as if by magic—a sun-burnt face with a shock of unruly hair, wearing a loose striped shirt and grey shalwar, a long slender willow stick in hand.

He came running and hurling invective. “Have you no eyes, you heartless Batta? You nearly crushed my lamb to death!”

We were shocked by the unexpected verbal onslaught and the soubriquet. Leela, sitting to my left, held my arm, urging me not to return the compliment. As soon as I stopped the car, the fuming protestor caught up with us and tried to force open the door on her side. I moved out of the car to stop him and to find out the reason for his outburst. And there, right in front of the car bumper was a little lamb, struggling to stand. I picked it up and put it down again. It limped. It had sustained a fracture in the left hind leg.

“I am sorry I failed to see the little creature from inside the car. It must have been very close to the bumper. It is not my fault entirely; you let the sheep block this lane. I was driving very slowly; I could not have waited here for ever.”

“Don’t you see they are dumb little animals, not humans? Could you not wait a minute to let them pass? You act as if this entire place belongs to you and you have the right to run over animals and humans alike.” His small eyes flashed, getting narrower and sharper in their deep sockets. The dirty brown hair stood up as he jerked his head and waved the stick in anger. He could not have been more than fifteen.

I fumbled for an answer. “Well, there is nothing we can do about it now. What has happened has happened. Let us not make it a big issue. Let us resolve this small matter here.”

“How can you call it a small matter? You have disabled this innocent creature!” he retorted.

“Come on, I am a doctor. I can set the fracture of this lamb if you let me, and also compensate you for the distress I have caused.” I was conciliatory.

“You don’t realize what you have done. My innocent lamb is maimed for life. Can it ever walk and run about like healthy sheep, ever climb a hill, ever be the same as before?” He was arguing like a lawyer, building up his case.

“All right, why don’t you sell it to me? What could be the weight of this lamb? I will pay you at the going rate?”

No sooner had I uttered those last words, I realized my impudence.

“No, I am not interested in selling my lamb. Even as you claim to be a doctor, you do not seem to know what the price of a life is. This tiny creature is not mutton for sale in a butcher shop. This is a tender life that you nearly throttled, and now you want to pay for it as if it were a dead weight. How can you be so bereft of feeling?”

I felt cornered, and fumbled for an answer. These arguments, so cogently put forth, were unexpected from a village lad. I wanted to resolve this issue, compensate him or even buy the little helpless creature off him. I was willing to take the injured lamb to a vet or set its fracture myself. There had to be some means of settling this, or someone who could intercede and rid me of this quarrelsome brat.

Leela looked on helplessly, hoping for a quick conclusion. She came out of the car and addressed him, “Please ask your price, take the money, and let us go. We will carry this lamb with us and take care of it.”

“How can you take this lamb, madam? Do you Battas have a heart? Do you possess any knowledge about rearing cattle? It is still a baby sucking at its mother’s teats; I can not let it die under your care. Who knows, you might even make a hearty meal of it.” He was irascible, irritating, irreconcilable.

She maintained her composure in the face of his tirade. It was clear he was gunning for trouble and not interested in settling the problem. He was on the offensive as soon as he knew we were Pandits, betrayed by the saffron mark on our foreheads and the traditional dejhour dangling from Leela’s ears. A counter offensive would have been useless and could land us in danger.

“Well, where do we go from here? You are making too much of this minor incident and we have important business to attend to. Since you are not interested in resolving this issue in an amicable manner you should register a case with the police and let the law take its course? Or, speak your price, take the cash and take the lamb as well and deal with it the way you see fit. But for god’s sake, let us bring this matter to a close.”

Whether it was a chivalrous gesture to a lady’s plea or the mention of police, he seemed to mellow down and said, “All right, if you want someone else to settle this between us, go do it.”

I looked around. We were not far from the main street and the market place. I suggested we drive there and find some one who might give us an idea what this injured little lamb was worth.

“No, the car will stay here. I cannot trust you. You might just drive away. I will wait here while you go and find out from whoever you like. Besides, I cannot abandon my herd here.” He was unrelenting.

“Since you don’t trust us, why don’t you come along? Let us both walk to the market.”

He agreed, and followed me, lamb in his lap. I asked Leela to stay behind. It was not long before we found a butcher’s shop. The owner looked inquiringly at me.

Pointing at the lamb, I asked, “Mister, could you give us an idea how much this lamb might cost?”

“Why may you want to know the price, sir?” he asked sarcastically. “I am not interested in buying this little thing if that is what you came for.”

I related the story and sought his help.

‘Pandit Ji, this lamb is just a fledgling; I have no idea what it costs. We do not buy baby sheep here. I am sorry, I cannot help you,” the butcher replied brusquely.

The shepherd lad was amusing himself at my discomfiture. But having come thus far, I was in no mood to give up.

“You could weigh it on the scales and let us have some idea of the price,” I importuned.

“No sir, this is not my calling. It is forbidden to weigh a baby lamb. It is against our religion. Why do you ask me to weigh this innocent little lamb and heap your sins on me?” He was censorious.

The lad was grinning mischievously, enjoying the exchange.

By this time, an inquisitive crowd had gathered around us. I was feeling very awkward having to explain the problem again in an attempt to seek support from some quarter. This incident was degenerating into an ugly farce. We were getting late for the evening clinic. Our patients would be waiting. The friend we had come to visit would be wondering why we had not turned up. He was so near, yet so remote from my mind now.

The crowd started inching closer, commenting disparagingly:

“How cruel of Pandit Ji to have run over an innocent creature!”

“How callous of him to offer money for the weight of a poor lamb!”

“Can there be a price for a life?”

“No, not at all,” the crowd replied in unison, shaking their heads from side to side.

“And he claims he is a doctor,” an aggressive looking youth from the mob shouted, eyeing me menacingly.

“They think they can trample on us as they used to in the past, these Battas. They must face retribution,” declared another, as if I were a criminal caught in the act of committing a heinous crime.

The crowd was surging, emotions rising, and the threshold for an outburst getting closer. Yet, this was not uncommon—this incitement, this vilification, this ugly profiling of Pandits as infidels, usurpers, tyrants. It was the fabled lion and the lamb story—fishing for any imagined or contrived excuse to harass and to humiliate. Had I belonged to their faith, the shepherd boy would have felt sorry for letting his sheep block my way. He would have been reprimanded by the same people for making an issue out of a lamb. But here I was, heckled and held to ransom, while fear wrenched my wife’s heart as she waited near the car.

Leela could not stand the suspense any longer and walked over to join me. She sensed my exasperation and the physical danger I was in. She was there to restrain me from losing my cool. It would not take much provocation for the mob that had now coalesced to go out of control. An unwitting remark could set off fireworks and magnify this into an all too familiar communal incident. We had to get out of the situation somehow. The fate of the lamb had become irrelevant except as an excuse for the crowd to entertain itself by harassing us.

“Ha! Ha! The lady is here to shield him. Battas are known to hide behind the saris of their women when they find themselves in a difficult situation,” a skull-capped, middle-aged hooligan hurled the last salvo.

I looked him hard in the eye, ready to go after him, but Leela squeezed my arm again to restrain me. The crowd fell silent in anticipation of a flare up when a short, thickset, balding, bearded man broke the ring, came near and looked at me in recognition.

Salaam, Doctor Sahib. What a pleasant surprise! How did you find time to grace our neighborhood?” he greeted me with courtesy.

I could not place him, nor was I in a mood to explain my predicament yet again, even as I heaved a sigh of relief on finding a sympathetic face in the crowd.

“Salaam,” I replied, raising my hands in a helpless gesture and pointing at the lamb in the arms of the boy who held it high for everyone to see, playing with its flail leg, looking accusingly at me for having committed this act of great barbarity.

All eyes turned towards the object of sympathy as the lamb gave out a loud plaintive bleat, echoed by its mother from the herd afar. The crowd guffawed.

I addressed the stranger, “I hurt his lamb by accident and would be glad to compensate for it, but this young lad has made it a life and death issue.”

Scanning the crowd in one wide sweep of his puffy eyes, he thundered, “What is this tamasha all about?” and addressing the lad, “why are you holding Doctor Sahib up? The sky has not fallen because your lamb got hurt. Accidents do happen. If he is ready to square up with you, why don’t you accept his offer? Is there something the matter with you that needs to be looked into? In that case, he is the doctor to go to, for he treats crazy heads. Ask your price and let us settle this. Take the money and give him the lamb. Do you understand?”

His eyes took another broad sweep of the crowd. “Does any one here have any objection?”

A long silence ensued.

I looked at this divine apparition with gratitude, still unable to place him, Leela by my side looking away from so many peering eyes, the shepherd crestfallen, the crowd waiting for the next move.

“I am sure they have patients waiting in their clinic. Don’t waste any more of their time. Let me tell you something, young lad. When you are married and your wife goes into labor and your baby refuses to come out, this noble lady will cut open her tummy and deliver you your lamb, safe and sound.”

The last statement threw the whole crowd into a roar of laughter. Suddenly the explosive situation changed into one of hilarity, as if by magic.

People nodded in agreement.

The boys face fell. He froze to the ground, looking indecisively at the lamb in his lap, patting it nervously.

“Come on, state your price,” my messiah roared at the boy.

The boy gazed at him speechless.

Giving the boy a severe look, he continued, “This lamb must weigh nearly a kilo and a half. Mutton sells at sixty a kilo. Take twice the price and go home.” Then, he faced me and said, “Doctor Sahib, please pay him and take the lamb. You must be getting late to work.”

The crowd remained silent. The judgment had been delivered. There would be no appeal.

“It is a fair bargain, Rehman Sahib,” a man from the crowd put the stamp of finality on the judgment.

I lost no time, counted the money, handed it over to the boy, thanked my deliverer profusely, took the lamb gingerly in my hands and walked back to the car, Leela, a picture of relief, by my side.

A part of the crowd followed us as we walked towards the car. The herd had not moved and still blocked the road. We got inside the car. Handing the lamb over to Leela, I switched on the ignition. The engine roared and I waited for the shepherd to lead the sheep away and clear the road. He cast a rueful look at me before he whistled and drove the herd aside.

As we started, my eyes caught sight of the lamb looking at me with its gentle eyes. I let the engine idle, took the lamb from Leela, stepped out of the car and hailed the lad.

“I am sorry for what happened. You are right; we cannot take care of this innocent creature. Here, take it to its mother and look after its leg,” I said as I offered the lamb back to him.

He was bewildered and looked at me in disbelief, not certain whether he should take the lamb.

“Take it,” I said and thrust the animal in his arms.

Before he could speak a word, I got into the car, pressed my foot on the accelerator and drove off.

Looking through the rear view mirror, I saw the lad smiling for the first time, and the crowd waving at our retreating car. But, I could not see Rehman Sahib. He was gone as mysteriously as he had appeared.

(From Faith and Frenzy – a collection of short stories)
*Dr. K L Chowdhury Dr. K L Chowdhury retired as a Professor of Medicine, Medical College, Srinagar. Presently he is the Director of a charitable institution, Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center, Durga Nagar, Jammu.
He is a physician and neurologist, a medical researcher, poet, social activist. He writes on diverse subjects – medical, literary, social and political and has numerous research papers to his credit, his pioneering work being “The Health Trauma in a Displaced Population” which was presented at national and international conferences.
He has published three anthologies namely:
1- “Of Gods, Men and Militants”. Minerva Press (Pvt.) India -2000
2- “A Thousand-Petalled Garland and other Poems”. Writers Workshop Kolkata – 2003
3- “Enchanting world of Infants” Peacock Books, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors-2007
He was declared Shehjar's 'Kashmiri Person of the year' for 2007.
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You delighted me with this story told in simple words unlike mincing mutton as would perhaps have been the other side of it. You are a genius - Doctor Chowdury.
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