Read Prem Chand's short story 'Eidgah' translated by me.
Hamid goes inside and tells his grandmother, ‘Don’t worry amma, I shall be the first to return. Don’t be afraid.’
Amina is unhappy. All other children are going with their fathers. Who is Hamid’s father other than she herself! How can she allow him to go alone? He might get lost in that crowd there. No she won’t let him go like this. Such a small kid! How would he walk three kos? His feet would get blistered. He doesn’t have any shoes either. She would carry him in her lap for short distances. But then who would cook the sawaiyan? If she had the money she could have bought all the ingredients on her way back and then cooked after returning. Here she will take hours to collect the things. She will have to borrow them. That day she had stitched Fahiman’s dress and earned eight annas. She had tried to save that money like her honour, but yesterday the milkmaid had demanded to be paid. She has nothing for Hamid, but at least she would need two pice daily for milk for him. Now she is left with only two annas. Three pice in Hamid’s pocket and five in her purse. This is all she has, and on the day of Eid! God alone would see her through. The washerwoman, the barber and the sweeper’s wives would also come. All would ask for sawaiyan and no one likes a small quantity. How shall she satisfy them all? The festival comes after a year. Their fate is also linked to her own. May God protect the boy! These days will also pass.
The villagers moved out in a group. And Hamid was also going along with other children. Some of them run and take lead. Then they rest under a tree and wait for others to join them. Why are they walking so slowly? It seems Hamid’s feet have grown wings. How can he get tired! They have reached the edge of the city. The road is flanked on both sides by gardens belonging to the rich. There is a pucca wall around them. The trees are laden with mangoes and litchis. Occasionally a boy throws a stone at the trees. The mali comes out cursing. The boys are at a safe distance from him and are laughing. How they fooled the mali!
Big buildings come into their sight. This is the court, this the college, and this the club. There must be many students studying in this college. All are not boys. Some are men, really, with big moustaches. They are so grown up and still studying! God knows how long they will go on, and what they would do after studying so much! In Hamid’s madarsa there are three grown up lads, all of them useless. They get beaten up every day, for not doing their homework. Here too there must be boys like them. Why not? The club is a place for magic shows. It is said that the skeletons of the dead walk here. Big-big shows are held here. But no one is allowed inside. And in the evening the sahib log play here. Big-big people, moustached, bearded. And the mems also play, really! If my ammi is given what is called the bat, she won’t be able to hold it. She would fall down if she tried to swing it.
Mahmood says, ‘My ammi’s hands would shake, by Allah.’
Mohsin says, ‘oh no. Your Ammi grinds tons of wheat. Why would her hands shake, if she caught a small thing like the ‘baint’? She draws out hundreds of pitcher-fuls of water from the well. Your buffalo alone drinks five pitchers. If a mem had to draw a single pitcher-ful she would black out.’
Mahmood says, ‘But she can’t run, or jump around.’
Mohsin replies, ‘No doubt, she can’t jump around. But that day when my cow entered Chowdhry’s field she ran so fast I couldn’t catch up with her, really.’
They move on. Now the halwai shops. The sweets are so beautifully stacked. Who eats so many sweets!
Look, there must be tons of them in each shop. People say that djinns come at night and buy them all. Abbajaan used to say that at midnight a person comes to each shop , buys all the sweets and pays in real rupees, just like the ones we see.’
Hamid can’t believe it. ‘How would the djinns get rupees like these?’
Mohsin says, ‘There’s no dearth of rupees for djinns. They can pick them from any treasury they like. Even steel doors can’t stop them, janab. What do you know? They possess even jewels and diamonds. If they are pleased with someone, they give him basketfuls of jewels. Now they are here, within five minutes they can be in Calcutta.’
Hamid asks, ‘Djinns must be huge in size?’
Mohsin says, ‘Each is as large as the sky. If he stands on the earth his head touches the sky. But if they wish they can become so small as to enter a lota.’
Hamid asks, ‘How do people please them? Tell me a spell by which I too can please a djinn.’
Mohsin says, ‘Now, I don’t know all this. But Chowdhry sahib has many djinns in his control. If something is stolen, Chowdhry sahib can find out. He can even name the thief. Jumairati’s calf was lost. They searched for three days without success. Then they went to Chowdhry sahib. Chowdhry sahib at once told them that it was locked up in the home for stray cattle. The djinns come and tell him everything.’
Now he could understand why the Chowdhry was so rich and why he enjoyed so much respect among people.
They move on. This is the police line. All the police constables parade here. ‘Rai Tun. Fai Fo.’ Poor fellows patrol the city the whole night to prevent thefts.
But Mohsin objects. ‘Do these constables patrol to prevent thefts? Then you know nothing. Janab,these very people connive at the thefts. All the thieves and robbers of the city are hand in glove with them. At night these people tell the thieves to steal in one mohalla and they themselves move away to another mohalla shouting ‘jagte raho, jagte raho.’ That’s why these people have so much money. My mammu is a constable. His salary is twenty rupees, but he sends home fifty rupees. By Allah! Once I asked him where he got so much money from. He smiled and said, ‘Allah gives it all.’ Then he added, ‘We can get lakhs of rupees in a day if we want. But we take only this much so that we don’t earn a bad name and are caught.’
Hamid says, ‘Why doesn’t anyone catch them when they help the thieves?’
Mohsin, taking pity on his innocence, says, ‘You fool, who will catch them! They themselves are the catchers. But Allah punishes them severely. The ill-gotten money is lost quickly. A few days ago mammu’s house caught fire and everything was burnt. Not a single pot or pan could be saved. For many days they had to sleep under a tree. By Allah, under a tree! Then they borrowed a hundred from somewhere and bought the utensils.’
‘Isn’t one hundred bigger than fifty?’ asks Hamid.
‘Fifty, and one hundred! No comparison. Fifty can be put in one bag. But hundred can’t be put even in two bags.’
Now they are in the thick of the city. Groups of people going towards the Eidgah can be seen. People are wearing very bright colored dresses, each brighter than the other. Some are coming in an ekka or a tonga, others in a motor, all drenched in perfume, all full of joy. And this small batch of villagers is moving along, contented and carefree, quite unmindful of its impecunious existence. Everything in the city looks extraordinary to the children. Their eyes become riveted on whatever they look at. They don’t listen even after repeated horns. Hamid is nearly run over by a motor.
Suddenly, they can see the Eidgah. It is shaded by thick imli trees. Under these is a pucca floor, on which a printed cloth sheet has been spread. Rozadars, who have come to say the namaz, stand in rows that extend far out even up to the pucca platform round the well, where there is no sheet. The late comers come and stand in the last row. Here there is no distinction of status or wealth. All are equal in the eyes of Islam. The villagers also wash their hands and feet and come and stand in the last row. How well has everything been arranged and organized. Lakhs of heads bow together in obeisance, and then the rozadars stand up. They bend forward and sit down on their knees. This sequence is repeated many times, as if lakhs of electric bulbs light up and then go off in unison, and this goes on and on. What an extraordinary sight, that fills one’s heart with pride, devotion and bliss through this vast, timeless and collective act, as if the spirit of brotherhood has strung all the souls in a single thread.
The namaz is done. People are embracing each other. Now people swarm around the sweets and toy shops. This batch of villagers is no less enthusiastic than children. Look there, the hindolas, the swinging cradles. Pay one pice and have a ride. One moment you feel you are flying in the air, and the next moment that you are falling to the ground. And this is the merry-go-round. Wooden horses, elephants and camels hang from iron rods. Pay one pice, and enjoy going round and round twenty-five times. Mahmood, Mohsin, Noorey and Sammi ride the horses and camels. Hamid stands away. He has only three pice. He can’t waste one third of his treasure just for going round a few times.
All alight from the merry-go-round. Now they will go for the toys. Here there is a line of toy-shops. All varieties of toys – soldiers and village maids, kings and lawyers, water-carriers, washer women and sadhus. So life-like as if they are just about to speak. Mahmood buys a soldier, one with khaki dress and red turban, carrying a gun on his shoulder. Looks as if he is going on a march. Mohsin likes the water-carrier. His back is bent on which he is carrying a goat-skin water bag filled with water and holding the mouth of the bag with one hand. He looks happy. May be, he is singing a song. He is just going to splash water from the bag. Noorey loves the lawyer. He has a scholarly look on his face. Black gown and a white achkan underneath. In the upper pocket of the achkan a gold chain for a watch; and a huge law book in one hand. It seems he is returning from the court after a cross examination or arguing a case. All these toys are worth only two pice each. Hamid has only three pice. How can he buy such expensive toys? And if the toys fell off his hands they would break into pieces. Why should he buy such toys?
Mohsin says, ‘My water-carrier would bring water every day, morning-evening.’
Mehmood says, ‘And my soldier would guard my house. And ‘faer’ his gun at once if someone came to steal.’
Noorey says, ‘My lawyer would fight many cases.’
Sammi says, ‘And my washer woman would wash clothes daily.’
Hamid begins to decry the toys. ‘They are only made of clay. If they fall they would break into pieces.’ But he is looking at them with lustful eyes and wants to hold them in his hands and fondle. His hands go for them but children are not easy givers, particularly when their possessions are new. Hamid is left filled with longing.
After the toys, the sweets. Some are buying reories, some gulab jamuns, some sohan halwa. They are eating with delight. Hamid is outside this group. Poor fellow has only three pice. Why doesn’t he buy something to eat? He is just looking at others with greedy eyes.
Mohsin says, ‘Hamid, come, have a reorie. It is so sweet-smelling!’
Hamid doesn’t believe this. It seems a cruel joke, for Mohsin can’t be so generous. But still he goes to him. Mohsin takes out one reorie from the leaf-bowl and shows it to him. Hamid extends his hand to take it. Mohsin immediately puts it into his own mouth. Mahmood, Noorey and Sammi clap their hands and laugh. Hamid becomes shamefaced.
Mohsin says, ‘This time I’ll give, by Allah, come, have it.’
Hamid says, ‘Keep it to you. I too have money.’
Sammi says, ‘You have just three pice. How many things would you buy with them?’
Mahmood says, ‘Come, Hamid, I’ll give you a gulab jamun.’
Hamid says, ‘What’s so great about sweets? Books say so many bad things about them.’
Mohsin says, ‘But in your heart you must be wanting to eat them. Why don’t you take out your money?’
Mahmood says, ‘I know his tricks. When we have spent all our money, he will buy and eat to tease us.’
After the sweets shops come the shops selling things made of metal. Some are selling things made of tin, some are selling artificial ornaments. The boys are not interested. They move forward. Hamid stops at the shop selling iron things. He sees a pair of tongs. He remembers. Dadi doesn’t have one. Her hands get singed when she bakes chapatis. If he bought a pair of tongs she would be very happy. Then her fingers won’t get singed. This would be a useful thing at home. What use are toys? You waste your money. They give you pleasure for a short while. Afterwards no one even looks at them. They might break into pieces before they reach home; and if they did reach, the kids who could not come to the fair would willfully take them and smash them to pieces. A pair of tongs is very useful. You can use it to hold chapatis and bake them as you like. And if someone comes to borrow fire, you can just pick a piece of burning wood and hand it over. Amma has no time to come to the market. And then, when would you have money for this! She burns her fingers every day.
Hamid’s companions have moved ahead. They are drinking sherbet at a charitable stall. Look how greedy they are! They bought so many sweets but no one shared them with me. On top of it they ask you to accompany them. Do this or that for us. Now I’ll see how they ask me to do anything for them. Let them eat sweets. They would catch infection. They would become addicted to their taste. Then they would steel money from home and get thrashed. Books don’t tell lies. My tongue won’t be infected. And amma would come running towards me on seeing the tongs and cry out, ‘My child, you have brought this for me!’ She would bless me a thousand times. She would show it to her neighbours. The whole village would talk about it. ‘Hamid has brought a pair of tongs for his amma. What a good boy.’ Who would bless these boys for bringing the toys? The blessings given by the elders reach straight at Allah’s court and are accepted. I don’t have money. That’s why Mohsin and Mehmood show off. I would also do the same. Let them play with the toys and enjoy eating sweets. I won’t play with toys. Why should I care about them? I may be poor, but I don’t go begging. After all, my abbajaan would come one day. And ammi would also come. Then I would ask them. How many toys would they like? I would buy basketfuls of toys for each and show them how one should treat one’s friends. Not like them: That you buy reories for a pice and start eating in front of you. All of them would laugh at him for buying a pair of tongs. Let them. He asked the shopkeeper the price of the tongs.
The shopkeeper looked at him and said, ‘This is not for you.’
‘Is it for sale?’
‘Why not? Why have I kept it here?’
‘Why don’t you tell me the price?’
Hamid’s heart sank.
‘Tell me the right price.’
‘Five pice. Nothing less.’
Hamid hardened his stance and said, ‘Would you sell it for three?’
Saying this he walked away, fearing an angry retort from the shopkeeper. But the shopkeeper did not rebuke him. He called him back and handed over the tongs. Hamid kept it on his shoulder as if it was a gun, and joined his companions with great pride. He was ready to listen to their criticism.
Mohsin said, ‘Why did you buy the tongs, you fool. Of what use are they to you?’
Hamid threw the tongs on the ground and said, ‘Just you do this with your toy soldier. All its bones would crack in no time.’
Mahmood said, ‘This is not a toy.’
Hamid said, ‘Is it not a toy? Just now I kept it on my shoulder and it became a gun. I can also use it as a majira, to play music. If I like, with one stroke with this I can destroy all your toys. And your toys can do no harm to my tongs. He is brave like a lion, my tongs.’
Sammi had also bought a small drum. He was impressed. He said, ‘Would you exchange with me?’
Hamid looked at the drum with contempt and said, ‘My tongs can rip your drum apart. Just a piece of soft skin that makes a dub-dub noise. A touch of water will finish it. My brave tongs can stand against fire, water or storms.’
The pair of tongs has mesmerized everyone. But no one has the money now. And then they are now far away from the fair. It is well past nine and the sun is getting hot. Everyone is in a hurry to reach home. Buying a pair of tongs is now out of question. Hamid is so clever. That’s why the rogue hadn’t spent his money.
Now the boys have divided into two camps. Mohsin, Mehmood, Sammi and Noorey are all on one side, and Hamid is on the other side. A debate is on. Sammi has turned an apostate and joined the other camp. Even Mohsin, Mahmood and Noorey, all elder to Hamid by a few years, feel terrorized by Hamid’s verbal onslaughts. He has the force of justice and strength of policy on his side. There is clay on one side; and iron on the other posing as steel. He is unconquered, and deadly. Hamid says, ‘If a lion came their way, the water-carrier would be flattened. The soldier would throw his clay gun and flee. And the lawyer sahib would, out of sheer fright, lie down flat on the ground and hide his face in his cloak. But this brave pair of tongs, this Rustum-i-Hind, would jump on to the lion’s neck and pluck out his eyes.’
Mohsin summoned all his courage to say, ‘Ok, but it can’t draw water.’
Hamid held the tongs upright and said, ‘He would just order, and your water drawer would go running to bring water and start spraying it at his door.’
Mohsin was down but Mahmood brought in reinforcements. ‘If he’s caught he would be dragged to the court. And then he would have to fall at the lawyer sahib’s feet.’
Hamid could not refute this forceful argument. ‘Who would catch him?’
‘This gun-carrying soldier.’ Noorey said with pride.
Hamid taunted him. ‘Will this poor fellow catch my Rustum-i-Hind? Ok, come, let’s have a wrestling match. All would run away without facing him. Far from catching him.’
Mohsin launched another offensive. ‘Your pair of tongs would daily burn its face in the fire.’
He thought Hamid would be silenced. But this is what happened. Hamid retorted at once. ‘My dear sir, only the brave jump into the fire. Your lawyer, your soldier and the water man would go home like the ladies. Only a Rustum-i-Hind can jump into fire.’
Mahmood made another attempt. ‘Lawyer sahib would sit on a chair-table. Your tongs would keep lying on the kitchen floor.’
This argument roused both Sammi and Noorey. Mohsin had said something great. What else can a pair of tongs do except lie in the kitchen?
When Hamid could not find any forceful rejoinder he came down to tomfoolery ‘My tongs won’t stay in the kitchen. When the lawyer sahib is sitting in his chair, my pair of tongs would go there, catch him and drag him to the ground and thrust his laws into his belly.’
The argument remained inconclusive. It was all swearing from both sides. But the idea of thrusting the laws into the lawyer’s belly completely overwhelmed everyone. So much so, that all the three warriors were stunned. It was as if a half-pice kite had sent hurling down a giant kite by cutting off its line. Law is a thing that comes out of the mouth. Shoving it into the mouth sounds absurd, yet there is something novel in this idea. Hamid had won the fight. His pair of tongs is the Rustum-i-Hind. Now, Mohsin, Mahmood, Noorey and Sammi can’t raise any more objections.
The respect that a victor naturally deserves from the losers was given to Hamid. The others had spent three to four annas each, but none of them had been able to buy anything worthwhile. And Hamid had done wonders by spending only three pice. That’s the truth. What are toys? They would break quickly. Hamid’s pair of tongs would last for years.
Negotiations for terms of a truce began. Mohsin said, ‘Come, show me your tongs and have a look at my water man.’
Mahmood and Noorey also offered to show their toys.
Hamid had no problem accepting these terms. The pair of tongs was inspected by all in turn. And Hamid petted the toys one by one. How beautiful they were!
Hamid tried to wipe the losers’ tears. ‘I was just kidding. This pair of iron tongs is no match for these toys. It seems they are going to come alive any moment.’
But this is no consolation for Mohsin’s group. The pair of tongs has already made its mark. It’s impossible to remove with water the stamp that has stuck.
Mohsin says, ‘But no one will bless us for these toys.’
Mahmood retorts, ‘Blessings! We might even get a beating. Ammi would ask whether this clay toy was all I could bring from the fair.’
Hamid had to agree that no one’s mother would be as pleased with the toys as his grandmother on seeing the tongs. He had only three pice to do everything, and there was no reason to regret at the way he had used his money. And now the pair of tongs was the Rustum-i-Hind and king emperor too among the toys.
On their way back Mehmood felt hungry. His father gave him bananas to eat. Mahmood shared them only with Hamid. All the other boys kept staring. This was a reward won by the tongs.
At eleven o’clock the whole village came alive. The fair-goers had returned. Mohsin’s younger sister ran towards him, snatched the water-carrier from his hands, and just as she jumped with joy the water-carrier slipped from her hands and crashed to the ground and departed for heaven. At this the brother and sister had a big fight and both of them cried. Their mother became so angry to hear the noise that she thrashed them both.
Mian Noorey’s lawyer met a more honourable end, befitting his status. A lawyer couldn’t be seated on the ground, or in a nich. His dignity had to be maintained. Two wooden pegs were fixed in the wall and a wooden shelf was placed on them. On the shelf a paper carpet was spread, and the lawyer sahib was seated on his throne like Raja Bhoj. Noorey started fanning him. In the courts there are electric fans or khass for cooling. Shouldn’t there be at least an ordinary fan here? Otherwise the heat of the laws would make the lawyer sahib's head reel. A bamboo fan was brought and Noorey started fanning. No one knows, whether it was the air from the fan or the fan itself that downed the lawyer and sent him from the world of the living to that of the dead. Then there was great mourning and the lawyer sahib’s remains were consigned to the garbage heap.
Now about Mahmood’s soldier. He was at once given the patrol duty in the village. But the police constable is not an ordinary person that he should go walking on his feet. He would ride a palki. A small basket was brought and some red-coloured rags were spread in it. The soldier was made to lie down in it. Mehmood picked up the basket and began to pace up and down in front of his own door. His younger brothers shouted ‘jagte raho’ on the soldier’s behalf. But the nights have to be dark and Mahmood stumbled against something. The basket slipped off his hands and fell to the ground. The soldier along with his gun hit the ground and one of his legs was fractured. Only today Mahmood realized that he was such a good doctor. He found an ointment that could repair that broken leg. But he needed the sap from the banyan tree. The sap was brought and the fractured leg repaired. But the moment the soldier was made to stand his leg gave way. When the surgery failed his other leg was also broken. As a result he could at least sit comfortably. With one leg he was unable to sit or stand. Now the soldier has become a sannyasi and keeps watch in the sitting posture. Sometimes he acts like a god. Some lines have been etched on his head to make it look turbaned. Now you can do with him whatever you like. Occasionally he is used as a weight.
Finally, listen to Mian Hamid’s story. The moment Amina heard his voice she came running and lifted him up in her lap and began to fondle him. Suddenly she saw the tongs in his hand, and cried ‘Where did you get this?’
‘I bought it.’
‘For how much?’
Amina beat her breast. What a foolish boy! It is already noon and he hasn’t eaten anything. And he has brought this pair of tongs. ‘Couldn’t you find anything else to buy at the fair? Except this iron tongs.’
Hamid said with a sense of guilt, ‘Your fingers get burnt when you cook. So I bought this.’
The old woman’s anger at once changed into affection. Not the affection that is long-winded and expresses itself in a spate of words. But one that is quiet, thick and sweet. How full the children are with renunciation, generosity and understanding! He must have felt tempted on seeing others buying toys and eating sweets. How did he restrain himself? There too he thought of his old grandmother. Amina was filled with joy.
And now something very strange happened. Stranger than Hamid’s tongs! The child Hamid had played the role of an old Hamid. The old Amina now turned into the girl Amina. She had spread her dupatta and was begging for blessings for Hamid, and shedding big tears. How could Hamid unravel this mystery?
(Hindi, Chand, August 1933)
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