Translated from the Urdu by Meenakshi Jauhari
Premchand’s storied ‘Hori’ became so old that the hair of his eyebrows and lashes turned white, back bent into a bow, and the veins bulged on the dark rough flesh of his hands.
During this time, he had two sons who were not alive any more. One drowned as he was bathing in the Ganga and the other was killed in a police encounter. Why he had an encounter with the police is not something worth telling. Whenever a person becomes alive and aware of his social position, when he feels the disquiet spread around him, to have an encounter with the police is a natural consequence. And so, it happened with him. Old man Hori’s hands shook, his grip slackened momentarily, quavering, and then on their own, his hands regained their strength. He threw the plough over his bullocks, and moved forward, the ploughshare tearing through the heart of the earth.
Now, there were his sons’ wives, and further, their five children, three of the son who had drowned in the Ganga, and two of the second one who had been shot dead by the police. The responsibility of looking after them all had fallen on Hori, and the blood coursed through his ancient body with purposeful vigor.
That morning the sky was unusually red before the sun rose. In Hori’s courtyard, next to the well, the five children were naked, bathing. The elder bahu was drawing water and pouring it on each child, one by one, and the children were prancing, washing themselves and splashing water all around. The younger bahu was cooking large rotis and putting them in a cane basket, while Hori was tying his pagdi after changing his clothes. Finishing up, he looked into the mirror in the alcove and saw his reflection– fine lines spreading over his entire face. He turned to the little picture of Hanuman ji hanging close by. Bringing his hands together, he bent his head and closed his eyes. Then he passed through the doorway and came out into the courtyard.
‘Everyone ready?’ he called in a firm crisp voice. ‘Yes Bapu!’ All the children spoke up at once. The bahus adjusted their head-coverings and their hands began to move faster. Hori saw that nobody was ready. Everyone was lying. He thought how essential these lies are for living. If God had not given us a boon like lies, people would have died willy-nilly. No one would have any excuse to live. First, we tell a lie, and then, we live for a long time trying to make it come true.
Hori’s grandchildren and bahus were now diligently working to prove the lie they had just spoken. Meanwhile, Hori gathered the tools for harvesting from the corner … and now they were truly ready.
Their field was in its glory, the harvest stood ready. Today was the day for cutting, and it seemed like a festival. Everyone was excited and hurrying to reach their fields as soon as possible. The sun had risen, and they saw the first golden sunrays taking the house in their magical embrace.
Hori threw a piece of cloth over his shoulder and thought: What a good time has come upon us – no bullying from government officers, no fear of the moneylender, no threat or coercion of the angrez and no portion to hand over to the landlord. And before his eyes, swam lush ripened ears of grain.
‘Chalo, Bapu!’ His older grandson clutched his finger, and the other children wrapped themselves around his legs. The older bahu shut the door of the room and the younger one placed the basket of rotis on her head.
Bir Bajrangi’s name was loudly invoked, and all of them went out through the door of the open courtyard, out into the pathway. Turning to the right they headed towards their field. By now, the village lanes were bustling and abuzz. People were going to their fields or coming back. One could almost hear the fireworks in everyone’s joyful hearts. Hori felt that life had changed between yesterday and today. He turned to look behind him at the children – they looked no different from other farmers’ children. Wheatish skins, scrawny-limbed, shrinking at the sounds of jeep-tires and inclement weather. The daughters-in-law looked like any other poor farmer’s widowed women, faces hidden behind head-coverings, every fold of their clothes covering up their want as if it were lice.
He put his head down and started moving ahead. Beyond the last house in the village lay the open fields. The water-wheel stood silent nearby. Beneath the neem tree, a dog slept heedless of the world. In the shed farther away, cows, bulls and buffaloes were lowing after being fed. In front of them, lush golden fields stretched far and wide. Passing beyond these, past the last field, then past a small canal, apart from the others, stood Hori’s lot with its ripened betel nut crop, waving its arms contentedly.
Making their way along the narrow trails, they looked like colorful clothes creeping along dried patches of grass. They were going towards their piece of land – ahead of which lay the vast sweeping desert. No greenery was to be seen anywhere in the desert, only lifeless mud that sucked up your feet the moment you stepped in it. And the soil had turned dry and dusty, as if his sons’ bones had burned in their pyres turning to ash and grains of dust, and scattered like sand at the touch of his hand. The ‘thal’, desert, was slowly edging closer. Hori remembered that it had progressed a length of two hands over fifty years. Hori wished that the desert wouldn’t touch his field until the children had grown up; by then, he would be part of some other ‘thal’.
The endless course of narrow trails and tracks, and on it, the motion of the bare defenseless feet of Hori and his family members… The sun was peeping through the eastern window of the sky. Their feet were caked with mud. In many fields along the way, people were already busy cutting. They would pause to greet passersby with a ‘Ram! Ram!’ and then, driven by an unseen enthusiasm, get back to cutting the stems with a sickle, putting them on the side.
Hori’s family crossed over the canal one by one, there was no water in it. Within its depths, the sandy mud had become bone-dry and had strange designs and patterns in it – marks made by the crawling feet of water. And there in front could be seen the verdant field. Everyone’s hearts started to jump. When the harvest is cut, the courtyard will be filled with dried grass, and the storeroom will be filled with grain. What joy it will be to sit on the cot and eat a full plate of rice. What big burps will rise on a full stomach. Each person saw it all in their mind’s eye at least one time.
Abruptly Hori’s feet came to a stop. They all stopped. Hori was looking towards the field in utter astonishment. Their eyes turned to Hori, and then towards the field. All at once, Hori’s body was energized as by an electric current. He took a few steps forward and shouted in a forceful voice, ‘Hey! Who is it?’
They saw there was no response from their lot. By now they had come close, and from the far end, the sound of a sickle going ‘Sarraapp, saraapp’ floated out to their ears. Everyone instinctively froze with dread.
Again, Hori challenged in a strident tone. ‘Who is it, bastard… why don’t you speak up?’ And he held up the sickle threateningly in his hand.Suddenly on the other side of the field, a contraption came into view, and it seemed to look at them with a smile. Then a voice was heard.‘It’s me, Hori kaka – Bajooka, the scarecrow!’ The figure waved a sickle in the air as it spoke. A muffled fearful scream escaped everyone’s throats. Their faces turned pale and Hori’s lips suddenly had a desiccated look. For a few moments everyone was shaken and stood still, silent. How long were these few moments? One moment, or one century or perhaps one millennium… None among them was able to ascertain. Not until they heard Hori’s voice shaking with anger, did they become aware of their life.
‘You…scarecrow…you! Arre! Arre, I made you for guarding my crop! With slices of bamboo… I gave you the clothes of the angrez huntsman, whom my father assisted by driving game towards him on hunts, and who handed down his torn khakis to my father when he left because he was pleased with my father’s service. Your face was made from the discarded handi of my household, and on it, I placed the hat of the same angrez hunter. What, you lifeless thing, you are cutting my harvest?’
Hori went forward as he spoke, the scarecrow smiling as before. As if whatever Hori was saying was not bothering him in any way. As they drew closer, they saw that about a quarter of the harvest had been cut, and Bajooka was standing next to it, sickle in hand, smiling. They were dumbstruck – from where did he get a sickle?
They had been seeing the scarecrow for many months – inanimate figure standing there with empty hands. But today…he’s looking like a man…a flesh-and-blood creature like themselves.
The sight before them – it drove Hori mad. He stepped forward and gave the scarecrow a mighty push. The creature did not budge from his place. But Hori was thrown back some distance away. Everyone shouted and rushed to Hori’s side. With his hand on his hip, he was trying to raise himself from the ground. They helped him up, and fearfully, he turned to the scarecrow and said, ‘You…you have become even stronger than I am, Bajooka! Stronger than I…I who made you with my own hands! To safeguard my harvest!’
Bajooka continued to smile, and answered, ‘You’re getting upset needlessly, Hori kaka! I have only cut my portion of the harvest… one fourth!’
‘But who are you… what gives you the right to take away what belongs to my children?’
‘I have the right, Hori kaka. Because I am. And I have protected this field!’
‘But I stood you here because you are an inanimate thing and inanimate things have no rights. From where did you get this sickle in your hand?’
Bajooka gave a full-throated laugh. ‘You are extraordinarily simple, Hori kaka. You are yourself having a conversation with me, and then you say I am inanimate?’
‘But who gave you this sickle… and who gave you life? I have not given you these!’ Hori persisted.
‘These I got on my own. The day you sliced the bamboo to create me, when you brought the old tattered clothes of the angrez huntsman, made my eyes, nose and ears on the discarded handi from your home. That day, in all those things, life was fluttering and murmuring, and joined to create me. And I stood here safeguarding the field till the time the harvest ripened, and slowly, little by little, my being, my consciousness gave me this sickle. When the harvest was ready, the sickle was ready in my hand. But I have not broken your trust or appropriated your share. I was waiting for today. You’re here to reap your harvest, and I’ve cut my portion. So, what is there for you to be angry about?’
Bajooka said everything slowly – so that they could understand clearly.
‘No this cannot be! This is a conspiracy! I don’t accept that you are a living being. It’s all a trick. I’ll get the panchayat to weigh in on this matter. Throw away this sickle. I won’t allow you to take even a single grain.
’Hori yelled at Bajooka, and Bajooka, still smiling, threw away the sickle.
The panchayat assembled in the village chaupal – the sarpanch and the panch were all present. Hori was seated in the middle with his grandsons and granddaughters. He was looking off-color, angry. His daughters-in-law were standing with the other women. Everyone was waiting for Bajooka. The panchayat was supposed to give their verdict today; both parties had already made their statements.
After some time, Bajooka was seen in the distance ambling along. Everyone’s eyes turned in his direction as he approached, smiling as always. When he entered the chaupal, everyone got to their feet, unintentionally, and their heads bowed in respect. Hori was infuriated when he saw this tamasha. It seemed to him that Bajooka had bought the conscience of the whole village, bought the panchayat’s justice. He felt like a helpless man, flailing and beating his hands and legs in fast-flowing water.
The sarpanch delivered his verdict. Hori was shaken from deep within. In keeping with the panchayat’s pronouncement, he acquiesced to giving a fourth of his harvest to Bajooka.
Then he stood up and addressed his grandchildren.
‘Listen. This maybe the last harvest of our lives. The desert is still some way off from our lot. I’m advising you that never again should you build a scarecrow to protect your fields. Next year, when the earth will be plowed, seeds will be sown and then rainwater, like life-giving nectar, will nudge the seedlings to life – then, tie me on to a bamboo pole, and stand me in the field. In place of the scarecrow. I will safeguard your field, right until the time the desert finds and swallows up our earth making the soil flaky and sandy. Don’t remove me from there. Keep me standing. So that when people see me, they remember that they should not make a scarecrow, that the scarecrow is not inanimate. That, from your life, it gets animated with a life of its own, and its life-force then hands him a sickle, so then he has the right to claim a fourth of your precious harvest.’
He finished speaking and slowly began making his way to his lot. His grandchildren followed him. Behind them were his daughters-in-law, and behind them, followed the people of the village walking with their heads bent.
When he was close to his piece of land, he fell down and died. His grandchildren began to tie him to a piece of bamboo and the rest of the people stood witness. Bajooka, the scarecrow, removed the angrez hunter’s hat from his head, held it to his chest, and bowed his head.
Surendra Prakash (1930-2002), born in Faislabad, Pakistan, is counted among the foremost Urdu writers, who won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989 for his anthology Baazgoi. His other outstanding anthologies include Doosre Aadmi ka Drawing Room, Barf par Mukaalma and Haazir Haal Jaari. Interestingly, he did not have a formal education. He is known for the highly perceptive symbolisms in his stories. He died in 2002 in Mumbai.
Meenakshi Jauhari is a poet, writer and translator, and has been writing for more than three decades. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in online and physical journals like Volume Poetry, Out of Print, The Little Magazine, Indian Literature (Sahitya Academy), eFiction, IIC Quarterly, CLRI and others. Her poetry volume The Fish Who Flew was published in 2019 by Writer’s Workshop. She’s currently working on translating a classical Urdu work into English.