The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ruskin Bond's Novella, "A Flight of Pigeons": For a Sweet Reading Experience

 Ruskin Bond's Novella, "A Flight of Pigeons": For a Sweet Reading Experience

I just completed reading “A Flight of Pigeons”, a novella by my favourite author Ruskin Bond. It is one such story I had long thought of going through, especially after viewing its film version, “Junoon”. This is, incidentally, one of the very few movies that I have seen twice, enjoying all the way its star-cast befitting the demands of the script, its scrupulously composed sets, its subdued tone, and its authentic treatment of a historical episode. Then what more did I desire from reading the original story? Well, a story by Ruskin Bond is always so very special: it must be read in its text version for the real pleasure of enjoying a story. This is my impression, nay my considered opinion. His works ever guarantee a sweet flow of narratives and his language skill is such that it does full justice to the theme of the opus. And now, after reading the novella, I am sure that it contains all such elements that a reader would expect out of a historical fiction save the bulkiness: it is merely some eighty pages of text! Ergo, I enjoyed the delightful experience of reading it, even more than I liked watching the movie.

The story is simple or, rather, the treatment of the story is straightforward with very little crisscrossing as it progresses. The background is the First War of Indian Independence, 1857 when the inspired but less-than-properly-organised Indian mutineers of British Indian army march to Delhi, restore the old poetry-loving emperor Bahadur Shah his long-lost throne and nearly succeed in uprooting the British suzerainty over Delhi and its surroundings. But then the mutiny does not come without bloodshed and communal acrimony. The British people are targeted. At Shahjahanpur on a fateful summer Sunday the congregation at the local church is attacked by the local mutineers causing loss of lives of many of those who are present there and praying. The female lead of the story Ruth Labadoor who is present there with her father witnesses the macabre scene of her father getting injured while resisting the attackers. She has to leave the scene, her father, now too weak to leave after profuse bleeding, left behind to succumb to his injury. Then follows the flight of Ruth and her mother Mariam Labadoor, the grandmother of Ruth; Anet and Piloo and their mother. There are many that came to their help, the first one being Lala Ramjimal who, without so much as bothering to think about the consequence of giving shelter to the dependents of the enemy, goes ahead providing food and other bare necessities to these helpless fellows. There they change their names to the ones familiar to Muslim society: Ruth becomes Khurshid, Anet is called Nanni and Pilloo as Ghulam Hussain. They take to Muslim dress and, as for their medium of communication, they being fluent in Urdu face no difficulty.

With all these, they cannot succeed in hiding themselves for long. There is one Javed Khan, a Pathan ruffian who intends to take advantage of the plight of the Labadoors. Especially he is besotted with the beauty of Ruth the teenager whom he wants to marry. He was already married with a wife living but despite that he aspires to marry her because he is entitled to take a second wife as per his religious custom. So one day when Lala Ramjimal is out of his house, Javed enters his house and takes Mariam and Ruth, the mother and daughter duo, to his house. That creates tension in Khan’s house yet Javed goes on persuading Mariam to give her daughter in marriage with him. However he does not misbehave with them. Mariam cleverly postpones her decision saying that she would have to consult her brothers and then only she would be able to say anything regarding her daughter Ruth’s marriage. All that would be possible only after the conclusion of the mutiny in Delhi. Jeved grows impatient yet manages to restrain himself from doing anything untoward as he had given word to the religious mendicant that he would not harm the ladies.

Days pass by. After a month and half, there is a new Nawab in the small town of Shahjahanpur. Pilloo and her mother as well as Granny and Anet continue to remain at Lala Ramjimal. Here at Javed Khan’s house, Ruth and her mother Mariam stay in constant fear, trying their best to buy time and keep the ruffian guessing. And then there arrives a visitor at Javed’s—his aunt referred to in the novella as Kothiwali—who happens to be a compassionate lady. Mariam on her part is successful in kindling a feeling of compassion in the corner of Kothiwali’s heart by telling her grief stories. Kothiwali also tries to dissuade Javed from harbouring such marital ambition when the object of his fascination is a poor fatherless girl in turmoil. She even goes to the extent of saying that the English girl is not as beautiful as Javed’s original wife but the latter does not relent. Javed’s wife’s brother-in-law one Sarfraz Khan reaches there to eliminate the English ladies (granny and Anet included) but the fearless challenge given by Mariam and the invocation of the name of Allah calms him down. Then Javed’s wife is invited to her another sister Qamran’s place and she goes there with Mariam, Ruth and Anet. There the decent ladies impress their host so much that one day Qamran’s son-in-law promptly comes forward in the defence of the English guests when they were vilified by some querulous neighbour.

While Ruth and her mother Mariam are there at Qamran’s place, the mutineers’ fate takes an unfavourable turn. The rainy season is over in the meantime. The patience of Javed Khan thins faster and faster every passing day. In his frustration he brutally whips his half-brother and the maid. Even the singing boy in the street of Pathan Mohalla is not spared. The other day he goes to Mariam to beg some medicine, a fact that shows that he is only too willing to admit his own sick condition. He is also psychologically broken harbouring compunction even for killing a pigeon. The ladies return to Javed Khan’s house only to go to his aunt Kothiwali’s place. There they conduct themselves with dignity enjoying the hospitality of their reputable hostess. Then there is winter. Mariam starts receiving the credible news about the reverses in the battle faced by the mutineers of Delhi. By the middle of April 1858, the Nawab of Shahjahanpur is routed in the Battle of Bichpuri. Then is the turn of Kothiwali to flee and with them go Mariam and the girls. Their desperate march ends in Bharatpur where the brother of Mariam receives the ladies.

The foregoing is the short synopsis. This in itself does not make it a great storyline. What makes it special, then? Well, it’s not a piece written to glorify the heroism of our mutineers, the harbingers of an era of patriotism. There is enough literature of that particular flavor. This piece is rather written to portray the human cost involved in such historical uprisings. Even at the time of national upheavals there are people who come forward to espouse the human cause. At that moment it is not their consideration whether the fellow to be helped is a Hindu or a Muslim, or an Indian or an Englishman. Writing a short prologue to the novella, Ruskin Bond underscores this very point: “I published this account as a novella about thirty years ago. I feel it still has some relevance today, when communal strife and religious intolerance threaten the lives and livelihood of innocent, low-abiding people. It was Pascal who wrote ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’ Fortunately for civilization, there are exceptions.” How true! There is one Ramjimal and two unnamed Muslims culling together the bodies of three Christians and burying them to accord some posthumous honour without so much as bothering that they were openly showing their sympathy with the foreigners. There is one wandering Muslim hermit who makes Javed Khan say on oath that he will do no harm to the ladies he takes home as hostages. Again, take for instance the treatment shown to the ladies in distress by Kothiwali, Qamran, her son-in-law Hafizullah Khan—sometimes it appears that people from the enemy camp compete among themselves to accord hospitality to the suffering ladies.

That said, let me ask a hypothetical question: Had Rudyard Kipling taken up this theme what would have been the result? Well, my answer is that he would have made such a monumental mess of the work that it would have been difficult for us Indians to read it. Rudyard Kipling has written a lot of Indian stories but most of them stink of his colonial conceit. In his thinking, even a European ghost ranks superior to all the Indian ghosts bundled together! [Rudyard Kipling's short story: The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes A theme like this would have got a very distasteful treatment in his hands.

A book of historical fiction should be different from text-book history. Fiction made out of a simple historical anecdote demands a high level of literary touch to make it immensely readable. In his novella Ruskin Bond has left humour interspersed across the text. Two wives giving expression to their jealousy through sardonic remarks and their husband deserting them in favour of a life in hermitage is an element of humour in the story. And then one of the two illiterate wives gets a letter composed to be delivered to her husband [mark the language], ‘O thou who has vanished like mustard oil which, when absorbed by the skin, leaves only its odour behind; thou with the rotund form dancing before my eyes, and the owl’s eyes which were wont to stare at me vacantly; wilt though still snap thy fingers at me when this letter is evidence of my unceasing thought of thee? Why did thee call me your lado, your loved one, when you had no love for me? And why have you left me to the taunts of that stick of a woman whom you in your perversity used to call a precious stone, your Ratna?’ And then there are scary but funny moments full of ghost stories of jinn falling in love of the beautiful hair of a girl, of a ghost of a Brahmin youth dying before marriage choosing a pipal tree as his abode to unleash his scary tantrums against the bullocks of the passing bullock-carts. There are ghosts of immoral women—churels—who appear naked with their feet facing backwards, ghosts with long front teeth sucking human blood; and ghosts that take animal forms. There are means to know as to what form a particular departed soul would take in the domain of ghosts. Quite funny! Ruskin Bond never misses an opportunity to implant his ghost characters! All is just for fun’s sake!

During my reading sessions there were at least two occasions when I the reader felt like Ruskin Bond the writer. ( Funny is my way—even I had once felt like Valmiki while pondering over the episode of Hanuman uprooting Gandhamardan the mountain: see my blog post at this link.) Well, the first one is when Lala Ramjimal comes to Mariam to ask her as to what he should do with her dogs left with him. Mariam replies, ‘Keep them, Lala, or do what you like with them. It is going to be difficult enough for us to look after ourselves.’ There is a story of mine—“The Apt Disposal”—that I have included in my book “The Remix of Orchid” and in that there is a similar situation: the caretaker Aloto at Port Blair seeks instruction from his master relocated at Pune as to what he should do with the dog the former has left behind. The owner of the dog who has no more interest left in the dog says—let me quote from my book—‘Um, I’m not sure…. Do as you feel. I’m sure you’ll do the best possible.’ The second occasion when I had such a feeling of affinity with the author is when Javed fires at a blackbuck but injures a pigeon by mistake. Then he is informed that pigeons are people who come out of graves on Thursdays for a little fresh air. Lo! This, too, matches in some way one of my Hindi stories that I have included in my book “Virasat” [See its translated version: कबूतरों के साथ With Dear Little Doves at this link]. Now, just to keep a reply ready before being asked a question: Believe me, Bond Saheb, I’ve not copied the ideas from your lovely novella, “A Flight of Pigeons”. 
A N Nanda



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