Sparrows

(K. A. Abbas)

 

       The sun was setting behind the mango grove which fringed the western extremity of the village when Rahim Khan returned from the fields. Broad and strong despite his fifty odd years, with the plough on his shoulders, and driving his two oxen, he walked through the main street of the village with a haughty and unfriendly air. As he approached the chaupal where a dozen or so peasants were collected for their evening smoke, the hilarious tones of gossip died down to cautious whispers. It was only when he had vanished round the corner and the heavy tread of this footsteps was heard no more that Kallu, passing the communal hookah to another, remarked, 'There goes the hard-hearted devil!' To which Nanha, the fat sweet-seller added: 'He is getting worse and worse every day. Only yesterday he beat poor Ramoo's child for throwing a pebble at his oxen.' Ramnath, the officious zaildar, volunteered further details of Rahim Khan's recent cruelties. 'And the other day he very nearly killed my mare for straying into his field.' The zaildar, of course, thought it quite irrelevant to mention that the straying of his mare had been specially planned by his mischievous sons. The old grey-haired patel was, as always the last to open his toothless mouth. And as usual, his words were prefaced by a pious invocation to the Almighty. 'Hari Ram!' he muttered, 'I have never seen such a cruel man. He has compassion neither for a child nor for helpless animal. No wonder his own sons have run away from home.
       The subject of their conversation, meanwhile, had reached his hut which , almost symbolically, stood gaunt and aloof, at a distance from the neighboring cluster of houses. Leaning the plough up against  the low wall of his house, he proceeded to tie the oxen to a pair of big wooden stakes embedded in the ground just in front of the doorway.
       'Bhai Rahim Khan!' an obsequious voice said behind him as he was about to enter the house.
       'What is it?' he gruffly queried, turning round to address the old woman who had come out of the house nearest his own. As  she hesitated to speak he fired a volley of questions: 'What is it? I won't eat you. Why don't you speak, woman? Has your son been arrested again for revenue arrears or has your daughter-in-law delivered another baby?'
      As she stopped for breath, the woman summoned up all her courage to utter two words, 'Your wife...' '....has run away'. He completed the sentence with a grin which broadened with the realization that he had guessed right.
       'No, no,' the woman hastily explained with an apologetic look, as if she herself were responsible for his wife's absence. 'She has only gone to her brother at Nurpur and will be back in a few days.'
      'Bah!' he flung back at her, opening the door. He knew that his wife would never come back.
       Seething with inward wrath he entered the dark hut and sat down on the charpoy. A cat mewed in a corner. Finding no one else on whom to vent his anger he flung it out, slamming the door with violence.
       There was no one to give him water to wash his dust-laden feet and hands, no one to give him supper, no one whom he could curse and beat. Rahim Khan felt uncomfortable and unhappy. He had always been angry with his wife when she was there, but her absence angered him still more.
       'So she's gone,' he mused, lying down on the cot, having decided to go to sleep without his food. During the thirty years of their married life he had  always felt that she would leave him one day and, at one time, he had even hoped she would. Six years ago, his eldest son Bundu had run away from home because of a more than usually severe beating. Three years later, the younger one, Nuru joined his brother. Since that day, Rahim Khan had felt sure his wife too would run away to her brother's house. But now that she had gone, he felt unhappy--not sorry , no, for he had never loved his wife--but only uncomfortable, as if a necessary piece of furniture had been removed. With her gone, on whom could he shower the outpourings of an embittered heart?
       For thirty years his wife had been both the symbol and the target of all his grievances against his family, against society, against life.
      As a youth there had been none in the village to beat him in feats of athletic skill--in wrestling, in kabadi in diving from the canal bridge. He had loved a girl, and wanted to join a touring circus which happened to pass through the village. In the circus, he had felt, lay the key to his ambitions--a career after his own heart--travel-fame. And in Radha, the daughter of Ram Charan, the village banya, he thought he had found this soul-mate. He had first noticed her watching him at a wrestling match and it had been the greatest moment of this life when, standing up after vanquishing his adversary, he had found Radha looking at him with the light of love in her eyes. After that there had been a few brief and furtive meetings when the unlettered but romantic youth had declared his love in passionate though halting words. But his parents had killed both ambitions. Circus work was too lowly and immoral for a respectable peasant. Anyway, his father, grandfather and all his ancestors had tilled the land, so he too had to do it. As for marrying Radha, a Hindu, a Kafir, the very idea was infamous and irreligious.
       For some time, Rahim Khan, with youthful resentment, toyed with the idea of open rebellion. But the tradition of centuries of serfdom ran in his blood and, however, indignant he might have felt at his father's severity, he could not summon enough  courage to defy paternal authority and social traditions. After a few days, the circus left the village without Rahim Khan and the furtive romance with Radha, too came to an abrupt end. Rahim Khan's father slyly suggested to Ram Charan that his daughter was now fifteen and ought to have been married long ago, not failing to hint at the disastrous consequences of late marriages. Within a few weeks Radha was married to Ram Lal, a middle-aged, pot-bellied banya of the neighboring village. With a few sad tears shed in the solitude of the night in memory of her hopeless romance with Rahim Khan, she quickly reconciled to her fate and proceeded forthwith to be mother of half-a-dozen children.
       Rahim Khan also married. He had, of course, no choice in the matter. His parents selected the girl, fixed the date, ordered some gaudy clothes for him and some silver ornaments for his bride, sat him on a horse, and to the beat of a brass band, took him to the girl's house where the Nikah was duly preformed. To the Kazi's formal questions Rahim Khan mechanically nodded his head. Any other course was impossible. Nobody, of course, cared to ask the shy little girl who sat huddled in a dark room only dimly conscious of the fate to which she had been condemned. After the ceremony, Rahim Khan's father, in a mood of self-congratulation, boasted to his wife: 'See how meekly he obeyed me. You always feared he might refuse to fall in with our arrangements. I know there youngsters. They apt to be restless if their marriage is delayed. That is why our father's believed in marrying away their children early. Now he will be all right!'
       At that very moment, standing on the threshold of the room where his wife awaited him much as a sheep awaits the butcher, Rahim Khan made a terrible resolve to avenge himself on his parents, his family, on society. He held them all responsible for the frustration of this life's dreams. And in his confused, illogical mind he regarded his bride as a symbol of this persecution to which he had been subjected. On her he would wreak his vengeance. Iron entered his hitherto kindly soul as he rudely pushed open the door.
       That was thirty years ago, Rahim Khan reflected as he lay there on his cot in the dark hut. And hadn't he had his revenge? For thirty years he had ill-treated his wife, his children and his bullocks, quarrelled with everyone in the village and made himself the most hated person in the community. The thought of being so universally detested gave him grim satisfaction.
       No one in the village, of course, understood or tried to understand the reasons for this strange transformation of the cheerful and kind young man into the beast that he had become. At first, their attitude towards him was one of astonished hostility, but later it changed to indifference mingled with fear. Of understanding and sympathy he received none. Shunned by everyone, with a bitterness ever gnawing at his heart, Rahim Khan sought consolation in the unquestioned authority over his wife which society allowed him.
        For thirty years his wife had submitted to his persecution with the slave-like docility that is the badge of her tribe. Lately, indeed, she had become so used to corporal chastisement that it seemed unnatural if a whole week passed without beating. To Rahim Khan beating his wife had become a part of his very existence. As sleep gathered round him, his last thought was whether he would be able to endure a life without having an opportunity of indulging in what had now become his second nature. It was perhaps the only moment when Rahim Khan had a feeling, not exactly of affection for his wife, but of loneliness without her. Never before had he realized how much the woman he hated was a part of his life.
       When he awoke it was already late forenoon and he started the day by cursing his wife, for it was she who used to wake early every morning. But he was in no great hurry today. Lazily he got up and, after his ablutions, milked the goats for his breakfast which consisted of the remains of the previous day's chapattis soaked in fresh milk. Then he sat down for a smoke, with his beloved hookah beside him. Now the hut was warm and alight with the rays of the sun streaming in through the open window. In a corner they revealed some cobwebs and, having already decided to absent himself from his fields, he thought he would tidy his hut. Tying some tags to the end of a long pole, he was about to remove the cobwebs when he saw a nest in the thatched roof. Two sparrows were fluttering in and out, twittering constantly.
       His first impulse was to wreck the nest with one stroke of his pole, but something within him made him desist. Throwing down the pole, he brought a stool and climbed up on it to get a better view of the sparrows' home. Two little featherless mites of red-flesh, baby sparrows hardly a day old, lay inside, while their parents hovered round Rahim Khan's face, screaming threateningly. He barely had a glimpse of the inside of the nest when the mother sparrow attacked him.
      Next day he resumed his daily work. Still no one  talked to him in the village. From morning till late in the afternoon he would toil in the field, ploughing the furrow and watering the crops, but he returned home before sunset. Then he would lie on his cot, smoking his hookah and watching with lively interest the antics of the sparrow family. The two little ones had now grown into fine young birds, and he called them Nuru and Bundu after his lost sons whom he had not seen for several years. The four sparrows were his only friends in the world. His neighbours were still frightened of him and regarded his recent peaceful behaviour with suspicion. They were genuinely astonished that for some time no one had seen him beating his bullocks. Nathoo and Chiddoo themselves were very happy and grateful and their bruised bodies had almost healed.
       One monsoon evening, when the sky was overcast with threatening clouds, Rahim Khan returned from the fields a little earlier than usual. He found a group of children playing on the road. They ran away as they saw him, and even left their shoes behind in their haste. In vain did Rahim Khan shout, 'Why are you running away? I am not going to beat you.' Meanwhile, it had started drizzling and he hurried homewards to tie up the bullocks before the big downpour came.
       Entering his hut, Rahim Khan lighted the earthenware oil lamp and placed some crumbs of bread for the sparrows before he prepared his own dinner. 'O Nuru! O Bundu!' he shouted, but the sparrows did not come out. Anxious to find out what had happened to his friends, he peered into the nest and found the quartet scared and sitting huddled up within their feathers. At the very spot where the nest lay, the roof was leaking. Rahim Khan took a ladder and went out in he pouring rain to repair the damage. By the time the job was satisfactorily done he was thoroughly drenched. As he sat on the cot, Rahim Khan sneezed, but he did not heed the warning and went to sleep. Next morning he awoke with a high fever.
       When the villagers did not see him going to the fields for several days they grew anxious and some of them came to see what the matter was. Through a crack in the door they saw him lying on the cot talking, so they thought, to himself. 'O Bundu, O Nuru, who will feed you when I am  gone?'
       The peasants shook their heads sympathetically. 'Poor fellow,' they said, 'he has gone mad. we will send for his wife to look after him.'
       Next morning when Rahim Khan's wife, anxious and weeping, came with her sons, a group of neighbours collected in sympathy. The door was locked from the inside, and in spite of loud knocking no one opened it. When they broke their way in they found the large and gaunt frame Rahim lying in the brooding silence of the room, broken only by the fluttering of  four sparrows.
Back to the list of stories.