Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Chowkidar, a short story by Ahmed Asif

Dr Asif wrote this a couple of years ago and it was published earlier in http://www.viewpointonline.net/. OK, the family was never that cheerful and happy and most of the house was pretty much a hovel even in the good old days, but hey, its a story...

Our story is heartbreaking, but worth listening to, if you have time, sir. You see us in rags, fearful of rats, and disheveled living in this dungeon, the dingy basement of our own house, and you may think that we were always like this. But that's not the case, sir. Ours used to be a house, bright and airy, with sprawling lawns, old trees, exotic plants, and vines climbing over the marble pillars of our front porch that overlooked a fountain and a pond filled with colorful fish. At midday when the sun was high, a rainbow appeared on the sheath of mist by the fountain.
The house had many sections, each lived-in by a distinct family having a unique trait, yet the living was harmonious and filled with laughter: Children running about playing hide and seek among the evergreens; birds chirping in the foliage of the fruit laden trees, and peacocks dancing with their plumes open, like bouquets placed over a carpet of green, the pasture--crisscrossed by a bubbly stream, carrying water pure and sweet; and on the horizon towered a mountain chain, their snowy peaks glimmered like gold in the rays of the setting sun.

An old banyan tree stood at the entrance of the house, and from its branches hung, like a woman's curls, twirly threads--their tips touching the ground; and it was around its trunk where all the family members used to get together from time to time. We used to have guests from all over the world; and some would like our place so much, they would choose to stay and become permanent residents of our home. The food was plenty, the fields were fertile, and we thought things would go on forever in the same way. But as you know, sir: Nothing remains the same.
Some dispute arose among the family members: nothing so great which couldn't have been solved if we'd all wanted to--after all we'd lived together for centuries. Needless to say, the family quarrel got out of hand; and lets not get into details, sir, for they are messy details, really messy. To cut it short: The house was divided. We got to keep the east and the west flank of the house, and our cousins got the center with the banyan tree in the middle. We were not used to this kind of fragmented existence, but we knew there was no chance of ever going back to live like one unified family again. We felt insecure in our new living arrangement, and so we hired a Chowkidar.
This nice looking fellow with resolute eyes, a rifle on his shoulder, and a smile under his stiff mustache--for us was hard to tell if it was a genuine or a fake one--reassured us about our security, and we gave him a generous sized quarter, one in each flank of the house, to lodge. We fed him the best of foods, clothed him in an expensive uniform, and gave him the top salary. But sir, there was something about him which always made us uncomfortable and doubtful about his intentions. We began to feel that he may not do much to protect us in the time of need. We were right, sir: He got fat and lazy, and many a times we found him snoring at night when he should have been up keeping a watch. In the end, it's all our mistake, sir. We let the matter go unnoticed for a long time. Of course, in due time we found out that the chowkidar had been planning to control all the affairs of the house right from the beginning, from the very time we hired him. It was too late by then.
To keep his grip on the house, he started inventing all kinds of stories. For example, he threatened us by telling us how the neighbors, the ones with the banyan tree, had been planning to attack us and take over our house. Sir, in reality, the neighbors had been busy dealing with their own problems. They had no interest in taking over our crumbling building, which over time needed some serious maintenance work. One day, during the monsoon, the east flank was flooded after a heavy downpour, and the chowkidar, instead of saving our family members, actually killed the ones trying to swim to safety. We were all told to shut up and mind our own business, sir. Scared to death, we knew at the time that things would only get worse.
It was then that a realization hit us: We had lost our say in matters pertaining to the upkeep of our house. The Chowkidar meanwhile devised all kinds of schemes to make sure he'd continue to keep us hostage to his way of looking at things: to see our existence as an ongoing fight against the neighbors; and he convinced us to see this fight as a Jihad.
In the absence of any alternative, many of the hostage owners, that is us, sir, got brainwashed over time. We forgot our identity; and now sir, we live in this dark and damp basement of our own house, infested with cockroaches, rats, ticks, dust mites and molds of all kinds. Our chowkidar has confiscated all the rooms of the house in the upper stories. They are beautiful rooms, sir, with large windows that open into the surrounding lawns, with views of snowy peaks and lush valleys.
You will agree, sir, thinking requires plenty of fresh air and oxygen; and due to lack of both, we the owners have stopped thinking a long time ago. To tell you the truth, sir, most of us now just simply believe whatever comes out of the lips of the chowkidar. The sad part is, sir, that we fully well know that the air we live and breath has been deteriorating for a long time. Many of us feel the pressure on our chests; we feel suffocated, choked. When we complain about this to our master, the chowkidar, telling him that our lives have been getting more and more difficult with each passing day, we are told: "You people are destined for a very big role in this world; and this has been divinely ordained and foretold; your reward is in the next world."
When we tell him that before we fulfill that divine role, we need simple stuff, such as clean water, electricity, basic repairs, oil in the creaky door-hinges, pest control and an inlet for fresh air, he tells us: "The house--which is now his, for we, the real owners, live within its basement--is a Fortress."
Lounging on a luxurious sofa, which once belonged to our great grandfather, and smoking a pipe which smells of expensive, imported tobacco, he says: "Get up, fight and be prepared to give your life for the noble cause of defending your house. He says: "Great people die for glory; they make the ultimate sacrifice; they don't care if they are annihilated for a noble cause—Let us protect this Fortress." And then taking a puff and blowing all the smoke on our faces he narrows his eyes, twirls his mustache and says: "You complain of bad air, lack of clean water and fresh food and electricity, and pests roaming all around--these are all part of a Test--a divine Test!"
Sir, for how long this test will last?

Just for a change of pace, here is what our Japanese friends are in to these days...