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A Man who was a Donkey
Muhammad Nasrullah Khan
BIO: "I try to write heartfelt stories based on bitter realities. I belong to a
country where people are afraid of life. Their sleep has lost dreams. I want to
reawaken their oppressed dreams; I want to share their woes; I want to share the
suffering of their shrieking souls. Humanity is dying and I am trying to put a
few drops of water on its dry tongue so that it should face death bravely. My
writing is the echo of their flagging hopes and raging desires."
Muhammad Nasrullah Khan.
Each night, for two weeks, I haven’t slept. A donkey’s eyes torment me.
I saw the donkey on the way home, in darkness of a solitary street, one front
leg broken, not able to move. I tried to avoid its glance. The donkey’s head
lifted and the eyes begged attention, for they bore a remarkable resemblance to
Let me tell you the story of Hussani Powely.
Mathematics, not Humanities, imitated my lifelong search for the true avatar of
humanity in distinction from animals. My father tested me for the first time
with this question:
"How many animals are there in our courtyard?"
"Nine," I replied confidently.
"No, there are not nine, my son," my father replied with the same confidence.
But according to my learning there were nine, and to prove the truth I started
counting on my tender fingers, "Two cows, three goats, one mare, one donkey, one
dog, and one Hussani Powely. So that is nine."
Father laughed and replied, "But Hussani Powely is not an animal. Hussani is the
servant of our family. He is a human being like us."
I did not agree with Father. How could Hussani be a human being when he lived
with our animals? We, father and son, could not settle the dispute on our own;
therefore we presented the case to Grandfather to be adjudicated. All the family
gathered as I boldly stated my case.
"If Hussani Powely is a man," I said, "then why does he not live like us? Why
does he remain always with animals? He even sleeps on the ground among the
animals. As I sleep, in my dreams, I see him barking and eating grass. I see him
walking like a donkey."
Grandfather announced the final decision: Hussani Powely was a human being. I
was sad to have lost the case. I could not sleep that night because my tiny
brain was not ready to accept the fact that Hussani Powely was a human being.
However,Grandfather gave me one rupee as reward for the strength of my argument.
The Powelys were the untouchable people of the village. They earned a livelihood
by doing mean work, such as fetching water and weaving shawls. But Hussani was
not even accepted in that low-cast community.
Hussani's mother never revealed the secret of his father’s whereabouts. She died
when Hussani was ten years old. Hussani's relatives drove him out, reviling him
as a "whore's son". My grandfather, the chief of the village, took pity and
brought him into our home.
Our village stood at the foot of hot, dry mountains. Because of the low water
level, our land was fit not for agriculture but only for grazing. One of
Hussani's duties was to graze our animals all day long in the far-off fields,
but first he woke early to fetch our water. At sunset Hussani would appear in
the village riding our ass, a slow-moving animal.
Because of his big front teeth, he always seemed to be smiling. The region's hot
sun had made his skin the colour of burnt onyx. While sitting on the ass he
looked like a man of the Old Stone Age.
As Hussani rode slowly through the streets, he had to face the mocking remarks
of the higher-class men. A few rascals had propagated the belief that Hussani
had had an illegitimate relationship with the ass. One man would remark, "Hey
Hussani, the ass’s movement shows that you have made good use of her today."
Another man would say from the tea hut, "No, no friends do not say like this,
this ass is the only sister of Hussani. How can he do it with his sister?"
Another insult would follow.
Hussani never replied to his superiors' insults. Rather, he would respond with
loud laughter. Besides the ass, our family also owned a mare. Riding the mare
would not have drawn such derision onto Hussani. But he was a Powely, born to
ride a lowly donkey.
In the evening I, a young child, would stand at the big front door of our
courtyard and peer into the distance. I would see Hussani coming down from the
Black Mountains with the slow-moving goats, a bedraggled soldier leading
retreating troops. In the darkening evening, the bells tied around the necks of
the goats gave a melancholic sound. In contrast to the sweet sounds of the
bells, Hussani's voice resembled the tragic music of an old film.
Hussani never came home empty handed and always brought something for me. One
day he would bring wild fruits, the next day flowers. Most often he would bring
mushrooms. But when he brought home a story of mysterious creatures or wolves
for me to hear, I was happiest of all.
Thursday and Friday were the best days for Hussani Powely. On those days the
simple villagers would cook special dishes to put under thick-stumped trees in
the barren fields. They believed that ghosts lived in those trees and the only
way to avoid the ghosts' wrath was to present them with sweet dishes. Once alone
with the goats in the fields, Hussani would eat as much of the food as he could.
Years passed. I grew older, my grandparents died, my elder brothers became
fathers. But there was no change in Hussani’s life except that his
responsibilities increased. He had to lift even more water on his feeble
shoulders. My uncle, now head of the family, often beat Hussani for his growing
One day an unexpected change occurred in Hussani's personality. He had only one
dress, which he had used to wash once in a month. But it started appearing
cleaner-- he had started washing his dress every week. This behaviour created
much puzzlement until it was learned that Hussani was in love with one of the
The beggars lived outside the village and were even more detestable than the
Powelys. Hussani had won the girl because, as the chief’s servant, he had some
status among the beggars.
Soon the news of Hussani's disgusting love affair reached my uncle. He could
have scolded Hussani alone. But he did the deed in the presence of all.
On the night of Hussani's chastisement, all the nobles of the village gathered
for an evening of amusement in my uncle’s big sitting room. Hussani sat on the
earth in the centre of the crowd.
"Well, Hussani, is it true that you are in love with the daughter of a beggar?"
said my uncle in his heavy voice.
Hussani did not reply. He sat silently with his head extremely bowed.
"His mother was also a great lover," said one of the nobles, and there was much
laughter. The old men told, for all to hear, dirty jokes at the expense of
Hussani's deceased mother. Hussani’s love died under the shame of that stifling
laughter. Late that night, when he rose from the meeting, he was rid of the
burden of love. He lifted the pitchers and started doing his work as if nothing
had happened. No one ever saw him near the huts of the beggars again.
Later, I had to leave the village in search of a job. I settled in the town. The
vicious circle of life slowly dragged me away, and I left Hussani far behind.
After many years, I returned to attend the marriage ceremony of my cousin. I
searched for Hussani but did not find him. He was suffering from tuberculosis,
counting his last days in a barren hut outside the village. I knew he would not
be taken to a doctor because no one would be willing to help that donkey-like
man. It would have been considered a humiliation to give any help to Hussani. I
ran at once to his hut.
Hussani was lying, alone, in that dark and cold hut. For a few minutes he did
not recognize me, but soon his eyes sparkled and he wept with joy. He tried to
speak, but an attack of severe coughing prevented him from uttering so much as a
word. He was experiencing horrible pain with each breath.
Unable to tolerate that stinking atmosphere, I had to leave. "Hussani," I said
before I left, "Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will take you to a doctor. You will soon
be all right."
But, at the open door of the hut, I looked back at Hussani and saw the shadow of
death on his withered face. And, indeed, that very night he died. He was buried
the next morning. There was no religious ceremony upon his death because no one
knew what his religion was.
Now, after many years, the dying donkey in this solitary street has brought back
to me that forgotten image of Hussani Powely. I wonder how the villagers allowed
Hussani's body to be buried in the graveyard of humans, for he never spent a day
of his life among men.
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