The Orioles are Back
पोशनूल की वापसी
After hiding for weeks together, the sun had finally emerged out of the shards of weary clouds to cast a glance at the snow-covered earth. With the warmth that its rays had generated, the icicles hanging from the sloping roofs of the house had started dissolving and losing their ephemeral existence.
When Mahda, who had carefully wrapped himself in a quilt littered with stitched holes, craned his head out to look outside, he felt gratified enough to raise his hands in benediction to God and exclaim, ‘Praise be to Allah! After a long time, he has been kind enough to look down at us mortals with compassion.’
Khadija was sitting on a wooden plank in the kitchen engaged in giving shapes to the lump of dough in front of her. When she heard Mahda’s prayer, she burst out, ‘I know people like you, who have on work to do, engage themselves in tracking down the movements of the sun when it hides in Gandarbal and when it emerges out of Harmukh. They can sure give you minute-by-minute account of the motions of the sun.’
‘Who stops you from gazing at the sky the whole day,’ Mahda retorted mischievously. The warmth of the kangri tucked inside his pheran and the wafting smell of fresh, round pieces of bread on the griddle had put him in a pleasant frame of mind to banter with his wife.
‘Where is the time to even look at the sky?’ Khadija said heaving a deep sigh. ‘I am destined to slog like a slave the whole day. And then no one in the family seems to give a damn for all the work that I do. No one has a sweet word for me.’
Mahda looked at Khadija’s wrinkled face lined with anger and concluded that she must have had a tiff with their son or daughter-in-law early in the day.
Khadija kept turning the bread in the griddle and muttering to herself, ‘From early morning till late at night, I keep working like an automaton with not a moment to straighten out my back. The village folks are jealous of my good luck for having a brood of children! But my children are a thankless lot. Who gives me time to even look at the sky?’
‘Don’t keep cribbing all the time,’ Mahda said. ‘Have a large heart. If you start blaming your children like this, people in our neighbourhood will get ideas and defame us in the locality. After all, children are children. In course of time, they will grow up and be mature enough to understand things.’
Whenever Khadija complained about their children, this was the stock reply that Mahda offered. They were children; they would grow up and be mature enough to understand things. But Khadija knew that their children were grown up and educated enough to understand things. And yet they had made it a habit to find fault with everything that their parents did or planned to do. There were just five living souls in the family, and yet there were bickering in the family often leading to heated arguments. The daughter-in-law did not come out of her room till noon. In the evenings too, when Khadija was in the kitchen preparing food for the family, she avoided coming to the kitchen to help her out on the pretext of being engaged in something or the other. After all, she was a product of a new dawn, a new age! She thought that she was educated and showed off her education in the family. She did not know how to milk a cow the family cow would not let her touch her udders! She could not bear the smoke coming from the cow-dung fire used for cooking food and warming the house. Being city-bred, she was probably used to gas stoves. The result was that Khadija had to do all the household chores by herself. To cap it all, the daughter-in-law did not drink the salt tea which was the staple tea drunk by all and sundry. She must have ‘English’ Lipton tea, as if her family had been drinking this tea for generations! As for her education, she had not gone beyond the senior school level and yet she flaunted her education like she had passed out of a degree college! As for Tariq, he turned speechless in the presence of his wife. He seemed to be suffering from the complex that his wife was city-bred and that probably justified the way she was behaving in the family.
Now, look at our Noorie. She is married in the city and has to take care of a family of ten persons. She accepts abuses hurled on by her in-laws, and sometimes even beatings from her husband. She accepts all that calmly with no grudges, no complaints. And that is why when her mother-in-law is in a benevolent mood, she showers her affection on her like she does on her own daughter.
Mahda’s heart overflowed with affection for Noorie. He recalled that his daughter was brought up in the company of Durgi and Kamli, the two little daughters of his employer Samsar Chand affectionately called Bablal by one and all. She always sought the company of good persons who led an upright life and respected social customs and norms. How could she then go wrong? For Mahda, the daughter-in-law held the other end of this continuum. The little education that she had acquired had gone to her head. She had befriended all the wayward women of the locality. The company of such women could not but have its effect on her behaviour. Mahda wanted to lighten the burden on his heart by talking about it. But why give rise to unseemly bickerings in the family on this account? Being a gentle soul, he was not given to such behavior or actions.
In order to avoid any discussion on this sensitive topic, Mahda got up and walked to the cow’s shed. He saw the new-born offspring of the cow quivering and got concerned. He looked up and saw that the thatched roof of the shed was leaking and drops of icy water were falling down on the young one making it shiver in cold. Mahda lifted the young one in his lap and patted it affectionately. Then he spread out an old, tattered piece of quilt in a dry corner and made it lie down on it. He then put a large iron vessel right under the leaking roof so that the incessant flow of water drops could be held in it sparing the floor.
‘I had asked Tariq to spread out a few bundles of straw on the roof,’ Mahda muttered. ‘That could have saved the present eventuality. But Tariq let it go over his head. The roof is leaking without stop. Also, the weight of the snow accumulated on the thatched roof is making it cave in. In the present circumstances, he may find it difficult to climb over the roof to remove the icicles.’
‘Why should educated boys like Tariq climb to the shed roof to sweep the snow and to cushion it with bundles of straw?’ Khadija retorted. ‘You must be getting senile to think like that.’ Khadija, who was actually bitter at their children’s wayward behaviour, was letting off her steam on Mahda.
‘I never had grey matter inside my skull,’ Mahda replied bitterly. ‘In fact, I got senile the day our darling boys started growing hair on their upper lips. I should be thankful to Allah that even at this age, I can work with my hands. Come, get me my spade and vessel. I’ll remove some portion of the snow from the roof to lighten it. By the time the boys return, it might be too late. If the roof falls, our pets will suffer grievously.’
Taking care, Mahda moved ahead and managed to get on the top of the roof. With his spade, he kept shoving the mounds of snow towards the edge of the roof to make them fall down. While engaging himself in this work, he could not help thinking of the boys and their irresponsible ways, and this thought filled his heart with twangs of sorrow and regret. In fact, whenever he thought of Tariq and Fazal and their thoughtless behavior, he could not help blaming himself for it. ‘Mahda, you have failed in bringing up your children in a proper way,’ he said.
Lost in his train of thoughts, Mahda recalled what his employer Samsar Chand had told him, ‘Mahda, your absence from here, even for a few days, makes things difficult for me at home. You know how to take care of children, how to make them follow norms of good behavior.’
But while Mahda could take care of the employer’s children, he found himself helpless in dealing with his own offspring. After getting education in proper schools, they displayed disregard for the norms and conventions followed by their parents or people of their generation.
The snow-capped mountain peaks seemed eager to touch the sky. The icy cold winds had denuded the mulberry tree standing aloft in the compound of its verdant greenery. There were no signs of parrots, parakeets or bulbuls. Without its greenery and its feathery friends, the tree looked distant, sad, and forlorn. During the spring, the same tree was covered with white and pink buds which blossomed into red mulberry fruits. Flights of orioles hid themselves in the thick foliage of the tree and twittered aloud.
Mahda remembered the time when Bablal had visited his humble dwelling bringing along his children. The little girls had taken an instant fancy for the mulberry tree. They were particularly enamored of its juicy, sweet-and-sour fruits and the colourful orioles playfully jumping around the branches of the tree twittering … ee…ee…yo…
‘What do the orioles say, Mahda Kaka?’
‘The orioles say Shri Krishna goopiyo, vodi chhay na toopiyo (‘Lord Krishna’s gopis, where have you left your headgear?’)
Clapping her little hands in glee, Kamli jumped up and playfully snatched the cap worn by Mahda.
‘This is not part of the game,’ Mahda retorted showing mock anger and exasperation.
‘By God, I haven’t stolen your cap,’ Kamli replied mischievously hiding the cap behind her back. ‘See, that oriole has taken away your cap.’
‘Come on, the oriole is not a monkey that will snatch my cap.’
Mahda finally succeeded in getting his cap back and again put it on his head. ‘The oriole will never take away a person’s cap,’ Mahda explained. ‘It will in fact restore the cap that has been snatched to its owner. A cap, like a turban, is a sign of modesty, and its rightful place is on a person’s head where it should stay.’
After that, in his simple but interesting ways, Mahda explained to the girls the difference between a cap and a turban. He also explained to them the meanings of the many sounds produced by the feathery creatures. As a result of this interesting conversation, the girls did not touch Mahda’s cap that day.
Durgi and Kamli had become big girls now. They were married off in distant towns where they were happily absorbed in their household responsibilities. But Mahda still imagined them to be little, inquisitive girls. He recalled that on snowy days, he sculpted figures of animals with lumps of ice to amuse them and these ranged from little mice to fearful lions. He also created ferocious looking prototype of the indigenous spectre-man called Rahchok to arouse fear in them. The icy winds and the awakened sense of fear and curiosity made the little girls’ cheeks ruddier than they actually were.
‘Have you seen Rahchok, Mahda Kaka?’
‘Yes, why not? In the dark night, when it snows endlessly, Rahchok takes a lantern in his hands and crosses fields and mountains and streams. He always walks backward.’
‘Oh! Does he drown people in the streams?’
‘No, not at all. It is only chicken-hearted people who get intimidated by him. In fact, he is himself afraid of brave and fearless people and is scared of bumping into them.’
Durgi and Kamli loved listening to stories. They were especially fond of hearing stories of different kinds of birds, their habitats, their flight routes and their final destinations beyond the crimson horizon. In the evenings, when flights of birds flew towards a particular destination forming immaculate rows, they dragged Mahda out from some corner of the house and posed questions to him.
‘Mahda Kaka, where are those birds flying? … Are they going to the big walnut tree over there? … Mahda Kaka, who lives in that tree?’
‘They have their little ones living there who have been waiting for them to bring food. They make feeble chirping sounds to welcome them. Then they open their little mouths for their parents to feed them.’
‘Do they eat raw, uncooked food? Don’t they get stomach ache after eating such good?’ Durgi kept firing her volley of questions at Mahda.
Many a time Mahda was forced to revise the statements that he had earlier made. On one occasion, Mahda had said that the little ones of the birds were given grains of raw rice by their parents and they digested these well. The result was that Kamli started imitating the birds by eating fistfuls of raw rice on the stealth. When Kakni saw her eating raw rice, she shouted at her. But Kamli argued back saying, ‘Mahda Kaka says that the young ones of the birds eat and digest raw rice.’
Kakni called for Mahda and asked him, ‘If the young ones of the birds eat raw rice, they do get an upset stomach, don’t they?’
Mahda got the hint and immediately retracted his earlier statement, ‘Yes, Kakni Ma, you are right. The mother bird lights up a small fire on the top of the tree. The birds fly out in search of food and bring home grains of rice. The grains are cooked and then fed to the young ones.’
‘But the birds don’t have hands. How do they feed the young ones?’ Durgi challenged the nuggets of knowledge proffered by Mahda Kaka.
‘They feed the little ones with their beaks,’ Mahda replied quickly lest any delay should be construed as lack of knowledge on his part. ‘In fact, the birds do most of their work with their beaks.’
Durgi and Kamli had got extremely fond of Mahda. They got ecstatic at the sight of a bulbul. Who but Mahda could decipher the meaning of the melodious cooing of the bulbul perched on the boughs of Chinar tree? Mahda even tried to imitate their songs by cupping his hands in the shape of a conch-shell and blowing into it. The sound he produced was sweet and melodious exactly like the song of the feathery songsters that he was imitating…goo…gu, goo…gu, goo…
‘What do these birds sing, Mahda Kaka?’
Then Mahda would explain that in their plaintive voices the little birds were narrating how they were chastised by their mother and also by their sister. They wail that their mother beat them up with a stone grinder and their sister did the same with a spindle rod.
‘Did their mother really beat them up with a stone grinder?’
‘Why wouldn’t she? The little ones had made the utensils dirty while the mother was busy cooking their food.’
‘And why did their sister beat them?’
‘Their sister was spinning the wheel when they started playing with the roll of skein used for spinning. Wouldn’t that make it look soiled? Is that how children should jump and frolic around?’ Mahda asked.
Tariq looked at his father shoving and pushing big chunks of snow down the sloping roof. He accosted his mother angrily, ‘Why has Baba got to the roof to clear the snow? He will catch cold and that will be a cause of worry for the whole family. Even otherwise, he has been coughing for a long time now.’
Mahda got down from the roof almost dragging his snow-covered feet along. The shivering cold had frozen his limbs and made them heavy. When he heard Tariq’s words, he retorted, ‘Tariq, should people like us engage servants to do such jobs?’
Mahda’s complaining tenor of speech provoked Tariq and he burst out, ‘You may be right in saying that. After all, all your life you have been working like a menial and are pretty used to such tasks!’
Mahda was shocked at Tariq’s reaction. His brow got lined with deep furrows and his blue veins swelled and showed up on his wheatish skin. ‘Do you want to say that I have worked like a servant all my life? Yes, I have. But if you had worked in the position that I worked in, earned the respect that I got, you would never have desired to be a master yourself.’
Khadija signaled her son to stop the wordy duel with his father. She was well aware of Mahda’s association with Samsar Chand’s family and did not want the subject to be discussed further.
Khadija filled Mahda’s kangri with pieces of burning charcoal and handed it over to him. Mahda put his frozen palm on the kangri and felt warm. The smug warmth of the kangri soon transported him to a world of memories related to the past. Yes, he had worked like a menial in Samsar Chand’s household Tariq was not entirely off the mark. Yes, Mahda first worked as a sharecropper on Samsar Chand’s lands, then as a peon attached to Samsar Chand who held a senior position in the education department, and then as a caretaker of his house and hearth. Tariq considered all that as working in lowly, servile capacity.
It was how you looked at things, Mahda reasoned. The outsiders saw things from the outside and considered his job as that of a menial servant. But they had no idea of how it worked inside. They did not know that Bablal always insisted on his eating the same food, drinking the same tea that members of the family did. They did not see how Bablal did not eat till Mahda had approved the taste of the roganjosh or yakhni cooked in the household. They did not hear Kakni Ma’s voice insisting, ‘Look, Mahda! From now on you must sit and eat with the family instead of eating after them.’ When Mahda heard Kakni’s instructions, he looked red in ears out of a sense of respect for her. He reasoned, ‘Kakni Ma, how can a master and a servant eat together? That will be sacrilegious. That will transport me to hell straightaway.’
‘No, Mahda,’ Bablal took a breather from his incessant hookah-smoking to intervene. ‘You are like my brother. If I don’t repay the good that you are doing to me, I will have to suffer grievously in my next birth.’
While Bablal thought that Mahda had done a lot of good to him and was grateful to him, Mahda never considered it an obligation on Bablal. He always considered Kakni as his mother and Durgi and Kamli like his own daughter Noorie.
When Mahda went to his village on a month’s furlough, Durgi and Kamli felt restless. They sat mournfully at the open window and looking out waited for Mahda to return. Not much unlike the way children wait wistfully for their father to return from the distant land where he might have gone on work. On such occasions they sing: sheen pyato pyato, Baba yito yito (‘The snow is falling incessantly. Father, when will you return home?’)
On Mahda’s return, Kakni would tell him how Durgi and Kamli had felt out of sorts without him and waited eagerly for him to return. This filled Mahda’s heart with pride and satisfaction and a redoubled quantum of paternal affection for the little girls.
But soon time took a turn for the worse. The British left the country after dividing it into two. Those who had been living like brothers became sworn enemies overnight. In Kashmir, the scourge arrived in the form of the infamous kabaeli raid which, taking the PoK route, had reached Baramulla. During those days, Bablal served as the headmaster of a high school in Baramulla and Mahda served as a peon in the same school. Since Mahda’s village was quite far off and he could not commute daily to his home, he stayed with Bablal and looked after the children.
How can Mahda forget that fateful night in Kartik month enveloped in darkness and silence! The town looked asleep like a child in the cosy lap of its mother. Suddenly, in the middle of night, a volley of gun fire rent the air shaking the very foundation of the town and its fragile buildings. Mahda, who was sleeping in the corridor jumped up. Within minutes, the small town was rent with the cries of loot and mayhem. Mahda rushed out to get a sense of what was happening around. He saw people running helter-skelter and in the process getting caught in the firing range of the intruders who seemed to be firing indiscriminately to scare people. Some women were fleeing to take shelter in godowns and barns. But the attackers had caught many of them and were dragging and molesting them.
Suddenly, Rasool Miyan, Lateef Baig and Ghaffar came up to Mahda and spoke to him, ‘Mahda, if you want to save the lives of Master Sahib and his family, send his wife and daughters out of the house quickly!’
The mere mention of Master Sahib’s wife and daughters shocked Mahda. It was clear to him that these men were in cahoots with the intruders and were working on their behalf. It was also clear that the intruders needed local women to satisfy their lust and these men were sent to work out things for them. Mahda saw through their intentions. He rushed in and locked the house from inside.
In the house, Mahda saw an ashen-faced Bablal pacing up and down in anxiety. He still remembered how Bablal had taken off his freshly pressed turban and put it at Mahda’s feet to seek help in this hour of unprecedented crisis. More than the gory events that followed the convulsion, it were Bablal’s sad, entreating eyes that were still etched in Mahda’s memory.
Mahda took up Bablal’s turban and respectfully placing it on a shelf bowed before him in supplication. Then he motioned him to wipe off the vermilion mark on his forehead and to remove the sacred thread worn by him. He then helped Bablal change into his own salwar-kameez. Finally, he made him jump over the parapet wall in the rear compound urging him to proceed to Srinagar by whatever means he could command in that exigency.
After this quick operation, Mahda led Kakni and Durgi-Kamli out of the house through the rear door and hid them in his own shanty at the back of the house. For two days, Durgi-Kamli were dressed in Noorie’s clothes to hide their identity. For the same reason, when Kakni put on Khadija’s clothes to camouflage her true self, Mahda got overwhelmed with a sense of shame and regret. Looking down, he spoke with embarrassment, ‘Kakni Ma, let Allah’s fury visit these demons for what they have done to your noble family. I shall also pray to Him to steer you out of this crisis with grace and honour.’ On hearing this, Kakni could not help shedding tears of gratitude and hugged him like her own son.
After a few days, when the Indian forces finally arrived, they pushed the marauders back to Muzaffarabad. As soon as things became normal, Mahda brought Kakni and Durgi-Kamli back to the city safely.
The episode made Ghaffar and Latif furious with Mahda. They castigated him no end and even called him ‘an ungrateful Kafir’. ‘What is this notion of loyalty to a Pandit master,’ they asked viciously. ‘If the raiders had come to know about it, they would have burnt down the entire locality in retribution … Our first priority should be to save our lives.’ Mahda was sad and perplexed. For him, there was something much above religion or religious affiliation, but he could not explain to them what it was.
Why did Mahda stake his own life to save Bablal and his family? Was it just because they were his employers and had sustained him and his family for long? Mahda wanted to pose this question to Tariq at that time. After all, Tariq was an educated person, he reasoned, and should have been able to offer a cogent and well-reasoned response. But then Mahda had decided not to ask Tariq. No, not at all.
But after many, many years now, Tariq had put the same question to Mahda giving it a different twist. Mahda was dumbfounded when Tariq confronted him with the question. Mahda never cared about what people outside thought about his action. But his own son Tariq? If Tariq was well-educated today, it was because of Bablal. It was Bablal who had paid for his education right up to the college level. It was because of Bablal’s munificence that he had become qualified enough to be a teacher in a high school. A yokel like him, Mahda thought, could not have even dreamt that his son would not only get good education himself but would be competent enough to impart knowledge to others. Why didn’t Tariq have even a trace of his father’s approach to life? What is the use of knowledge that incapacitates a person from retaining even a modicum of gratitude for his benefactor? It was difficult for Mahda to understand why after reading a few books, a person loses respect for the values earned by elders after years of hard work, practical experience and benign wisdom.
‘What is this education worth if it does not inculcate feelings of love, honesty and humility in learners?’ Mahda could not help posing this question. ‘Don’t your books talk about them? We were not educated the way you were, but we imbibed them from the book of life itself.’
Tariq could not offer any coherent and convincing reply to this poser either to his father or to his own self. For him these sentiments were too abstract and did not relate to life around in a meaningful way.
He did make an attempt though in this direction by weighing these terms on the scales of logic. Then he came out with his own understanding of the situation thus, ‘Father, one should talk about things like love, friendship, honour only among equals. Working like a menial for your master all your life and then talking of these in relation with the master does not make sense. Take your own case, for example. Isn’t it a fact that you worked for Samsar Chand all your life. That sense of loyalty still persists in your heart, I must say. Do you think that Samsar Chand’s children, whom you brought up like your own children, still remember you? I’m sure they must have wiped out these memories from their consciousness long time back.’
Tariq reaffirmed his argument by referring to a popular parable, ‘Father, you often tell us the story of a nawab who had two servants. Every month the nawab would give a fistful of ashrafis to one and a few slaps to the other. The reason was obvious: the servant who got ashrafis was honest and hardworking and the servant who got slaps was dishonest and lazy. Now, you might have been like the servant who got ashrafis and not like the other one. That’s the only difference.’
Mahda did not get into arguments with his son on the issue. He remembered the conventional adage that from the time the size of the father’s shoes fitted the son, the latter should be treated more like a friend than a son. Also, he had come to realize that there existed a vast chasm between knowledge acquired from books and knowledge gleaned from the book of life. He no longer worked for Bablal’s household. In fact, both Bablal and Kakni had died a couple of years ago with the span of a few months separating their final departure from earth. Their two daughters Durgi and Kamli were married and lived far off. Their son Nika had got a job in Delhi and had virtually settled there. Before his death, Bablal had bequeathed a big chunk of his farmlands to Mahda. After Kakni’s death, Mahda had returned to his village for good hugging a trail of sweet memories connected with them.
At home, Mahda was now exposed to a different kind of world typified by his grown up children and their affairs. He did not comprehend it fully but had decided not to intervene in their affairs. Mahda did not mind changes taking place over a period of time. He accepted that change was the law of nature. After all, seasons too changed. The trees covered with thick verdant leaves and blooming flowers in spring got denuded of their foliage in autumn leaving them with their bare skeletons. But after the icy winter blew away, these skeleton-like frames got covered with green moss preparing ground for the buds to sprout forth into blooming flowers once again.
Mahda wondered why his children could not understand that the soil must retain moisture to enable buds to grow. Without moisture, the soil would not grow anything but unwanted weeds and prickly thistles. When Mahda took out the photograph of Durgi and Kamli in which the two little girls, seated in his lap, were listening to the twitter of the orioles from his pocket, he felt immensely gratified. In this pleasant state of mind, he started humming the old song azad bulbul bashi karan, posh dalan manz (‘The free bulbul are frisking and chirping around in the reservoirs of flowers.’)
After having his afternoon meals, when Mahda was taking in a few puffs from his chillum, Tariq handed over an envelope to him. ‘I was returning from school when Ahda gave it to me. Since the address on the envelope was written incorrectly, it went round the village before it landed up in my hands.’
‘Whose letter could that be?’ Mahda wondered. ‘Why would anybody write to me now. Must be from Gulla. He has been after me to persuade Tariq to get him a small job in his school.’
‘I am not holding a big post in some ministry to get people jobs,’ Tariq muttered angrily. Then he turned to Mahda again and said, ‘This letter is from Calcutta … from some Kamla Raina.’
‘From that child Kamli,’ Mahda jumped up in surprised pleasure. ‘After so many years? It seems she still remembers Mahda Kaka … Just read it to me, son.’
Tariq smiled and read out the letter. Mahda heard each and every word with utmost attention.
Kamli had written that this spring she planned to come to Srinagar bringing along her children. The children were visiting Kashmir for the first time. Kamli had fed them with a number of stories narrated to her by Mahda when she was a child. Now the children wanted to know who Mahda Kaka was and how he was related with them. Kamli could offer no straight answer to the relationship question. She knew that there were some bonds which had no names, which could not be explained by fitting them in relationship moulds. May be Mahda Kaka could explain such subtleties to them. She had also conveyed the names of her two children the daughter was called Kukil and the son Poshnool.
Mahda got overwhelmed with joy and gratitude after Tariq had read out the letter to him. He took a deep puff from the chillum and then laughed crazily, ‘Look, the English-educated children have names like Kukil and Poshnool the names of two birds of Kashmir. Look Tariq, Kamli hasn’t forgotten anything. Nothing … Kukil … Poshnool!’
With alternative efforts at puffing deeply and talking animatedly, Mahda got breathless. He got up and went out into the courtyard. With streaming eyes, he looked at the mulberry tree covered with ice-flakes standing like a sentry in the middle of the yard. He visualized that the ice had melted and the tree was covered with green foliage and newly-ripened mulberry fruits. He was sure that soon the orioles would return and, perching on the branches of the trees, would sing ‘Krishna’s gopis are dancing around without their headgear.’
(Translated from Hindi by Pankaj Bhan)