Apr/May 2002  •   Fiction

Dying Man

by Nasrullah Khan

For many nights when I've returned, late, I've found a donkey lying at the dark corner of a dirty street. One front leg is broken, and I'm sure he cannot move.

Always I make a plan to do something for him, but in the morning I forget. Both my own legs are fine, and I have to do lot of work to survive until my front leg is also broken.

There is something more to this donkey: it bears a remarkable resemblance to Hussani Poweley.

Who is Hussani Poweley?

Let me tell you the story of that man.

When I learned the first ten numbers of calculations, I came to know Hussani Poweley was a human being. Though it is usually the study of humanities that enables us to recognize Man, in my case it was mathematics.

My father first tested my studies by asking how many animals were in our courtyard. I replied confidently there were nine.

"No, there are not nine, my son," my father retaliated 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 Poweley—so that is nine."

Father laughed and replied, "But Hussani Poweley is not an animal. He is human being like us."

I did not agree with father. How could Hussani be a human being when all the time he remained with animals?

The dispute was not settled between father and son; therefore, the case was presented in the court of grandfather. All the family gathered there, and final decision was announced. Hussani Poweley was pronounced a human, and I lost the case, but one rupee was given to me for my strong argument.

That night I could not sleep because my tiny brain was not ready to accept the fact that Hussani was a human being. Questions were storming in my mind: "If he is a man then why does not he live like us? Why does he always remain with animals? He even sleeps on the ground among those animals!"

Not finding an answer, I slept, and in dreams I saw him barking, eating grass, walking like a donkey.

Hussani Poweley was the only servant of our big family. His mother died when he was only ten years old, and nobody knew about his father. His mother never revealed that secret. At the death of his mother, the other Poweleys drove him out of his home because he was a whore's son. The Poweleys were the untouchable people of the village, the lowest of all castes. They earned their livelihood by doing mean work like fetching water and weaving shawls. Hussani was even unacceptable for that low-cast community. When all the Poweleys dragged him out, my grandfather, who was the chief of village, brought him to our home.

Since then, Hussani lived in our home. Our village was on the foot of hot and dry mountains. Due to the very low water level, our land was not fit for agriculture. There was only one well in the village for a huge population. Hussani had to get up early in the morning to fetch water because, still early in the morning, he had to go to graze animals in the far off fields. I never saw him at home in the daytime.

At sunset he would appear in the village with his drove, riding the slow moving ass. Due to his big front teeth, he always looked like he was smiling. Extreme weather of the region had made his colour like burnt, black stone. While sitting on the ass, he looked like a man of the old stone age. Passing through the streets, he had to face the mocking remarks of the people. A few rascals had even spread the evil rumor he had some illegitimate relationship with the ass. They would call, "Hey Hussani, the ass's movement shows you have made good use of her today." One 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?"

Hussani would offer only laughter in reply.

There was a mare, too, but he never dared to ride it; I am sure he was not allowed to do so. He was a Poweley, born to ride donkeys.

In the evening I would stand at the big front door of our courtyard to see him. At a distance I could see him coming down from the Black Mountains with his slow moving animals like a ragged line of retreating troops. In the darkening evening, bells tied around the necks of animals sounded chimes of melancholy like tragic music in an old film.

He never came empty handed; he always brought something for me: wild fruits, flowers, and very often mushrooms. Above all he had many stories to tell me, stories of mysterious creatures and wolves. Thursday and Friday were the best days for Hussani. In these days the simple villagers would cook special dishes to put under the thick trees of barren fields. They believed ghosts lived in the trees, and the only way to placate them was to offer sweet dishes.

Hussani Poweley would secretly eat as much as he could and affirm the belief of staunch believers.

Years passed, we grew older, our grandparents died, elder brothers became fathers, but there was little change in Hussani's life. His responsibilities increased, and he had to lift more water on his feeble shoulders. Eventually my elder uncle became the head of family; he was very strict and often beat Hussani for his growing lethargy.

A strange change occurred in Hussani's personality. He started wearing very neat clothes. He had only one dress he used to wash once in a month. But he started washing his clothes every week, and his fastidiousness did not long go unnoticed, nor did its foundation.

He was in love with one of the beggars' daughters. They lived outside the village and were even more detestable than the Poweleys. Hussani Poweley had some little status, being the servant of the chief of the village. Soon the news of the disgusting love affair reached my uncle. He could have scolded him in private, but it was to become an event of great entertainment for the nobles of village. The issue was to be decided in the presence of all.

At night all the nobles gathered in the big sitting room of my uncle. Hussani was sitting on the earth in the centre of crowd.

"Well, Hussani, is it true you are in love with the daughter of beggar?" asked my uncle in his heavy voice. Hussani did not reply and sat silently with his head bowed.

"His mother was also a great lover," said one of them, and there was great laughter. Now there was a rude session when they narrated dirty jokes about his mother. An old man said, "We owe much to Hussani's mother: she was the teacher of our youth; she was sharing the violent burden of youth."

Hussani's love wilted and died under the stifling laughter. When he rose from the meeting, he felt himself free of the burden of love. He lifted the pitchers and started doing his work as if nothing had happened. After that nobody saw him near the huts of beggars.

Later on, life dragged me into its vicious circle, and Hussani was left far behind. I had to leave village in search of a job and settled in the town. After many years, when I had to return to village to attend the marriage ceremony of my cousin, I did not find Hussani anywhere.

On enquiring I found he was counting his last days in the barren hut outside the village. He was suffering from tuberculosis, and the disease had almost finished him. I knew he had not been taken to any doctor, because nobody would be ready to go with that donkey-like man. They would consider it humiliating. I at once ran to his hut. He was lying in the dark and cold. For a few minutes he did not recognize me, but soon his eyes sparkled, and he started weeping. He tried to speak, but an attack of terrible coughing denied him uttering even a single word.

It was obvious even breathing caused him horrible pain. I could not tolerate that stinking atmosphere and came out saying, "Hussani, don't worry. Tomorrow I will take you to the doctor. You will soon be alright."

At the open door of the hut I looked back at him and saw the shadow of death on his withered face.

That very night he died. In morning he was buried.

There was no religious ceremony because nobody knew what his religion was. I still wonder how they allowed his body to be buried in the graveyard of men, for he never lived the life of men.

Now, after so many years, this dying donkey has refreshed that forgotten image of Hussani Poweley.

I do not know why man claims to be the most civilized creature of the universe. Well, if making big brick walls, possessing nuclear power, and conquering Mars is civilization, then definitely he is right in his claim. Otherwise man is still dying in the cold and dark hut. I do not know who is the real man. One who is conquering space, or another who is dying in darkness? God knows!