Birds of the air: A Hindi story in translation

Published : May 29, 2024 17:58 IST - 10 MINS READ

Translated by Vanashree and Bindu Singh

A story from an influential voice of small-town India about two spirited young vagabonds, and their strange bonding.

When the bagghi-cart driver felt that a naughty boy was swinging on the back door footboard, he swirled his whip, yelling: “Get down, you bastard!” Haribol—Harbolwa—jumped down, giggling, and before entering the nearby alley, hurled an expletive: “Ssaaley! You husband of a whore!”

Harbolwa had learned this new expletive from a squabble between Bhujangi the trolley man and Halmaan the vegetable vendor.

Harbolwa was visiting this alley where there was a school for girls. Oh no! The other day, the school peon had recognised him: “Ssaaley, you’re the one pinching my goat’s teats, milking? You live in the butcher’s alley of Sabzi Bagh! What brings you here?” Harbolwa mustered some courage and replied: “I’m just standing. Am I snatching anything from anyone?”

Ssaaley! How dare you talk back? One slap will break your nose. I know what brings you here. Young babies relieve themselves in the drain for ‘three minutes’, and you watch! Ssaaley! Get lost!”

That day, Harbolwa had asked his best friend Furjan: “Ae Furjanwa, do you know what ‘three minutes’ means?” Harbolwa sensed what was going on behind Furjan’s long unhappy face. His uncle had denied him breakfast as punishment. Consoling Furjan, he said: “Yaar, a single day without breakfast and you’re desperate. I am denied food for the entire day, abused, and thrashed. Listen, I’ll show you what ‘three minutes’ means.” Pointing his finger towards an advertisement on the wall in front of him, Harbolwa began peeing on the picture. “Understood? Heh heh heh!”

Also Read | No one like Appa: A Tamil story in translation

It was a holiday. Harbolwa looked around and noticed a drain where all the young girls did it. No, he was not getting his “three minutes” because he was scared of the gatekeeper. He thought that he should pay a visit to his mother’s sister’s house. Slowly, he tuned his newly learnt nasty word into a musical note, a filmi one, singing: “Whore... hubby of a whore... whore, whore…ho ho!”

As he emerged from the alleys, he noticed some children of his age busy tying a broken can to a donkey’s tail. But what a cunning donkey! It would curl its tail tightly inward. Harbolwa dug into all his pockets in order to join others in that exciting game. “Oh yes. A hook-up wire!” Nobody was asking, but he intruded in that group to be of some help in that venture: “Don’t do it this way. Take this hook and knot a rope to it before wrapping it around the donkey’s tail, then secure the hook.” It was a smart technique indeed.

And it was here that he met Sudarsan. Harbolwa clapped happily, running behind the fleeing donkey, with the can tied behind clinking tan, tan, tan. “You came just in time,” said Sudarsan.

“Where do you live? Have you got a mother? Brother or sister?”

Sudarsan told him that he had a stepmother who doted on him. His father, however, was a butcher; actually, his father was the step-parent. When his real father died, this father tricked his mother into marriage, and forcibly applied sindoor in the parting of her hair. Ma began crying, but to what good! His mother finally agreed only on the condition that he would treat her son Sudarsan as his own, “otherwise I will not be your wife”.

Aye, Sudarsanwa! Is that your father coming?”

“Let him come.”

“I’m going!” said Harbolwa. “I have to visit my mausi.”

Yaar, wait!” said Sudarsan.

Sudarsan’s father was approaching, screaming: “You swine! It’s already 12 o’clock, and you’re loafing around?”

“It’s not a workday at the shop,” replied Sudarsan.

“If it’s a holiday, why didn’t you go home until now? Ssaaley, one day I’m surely going to flay your skin black and blue. Leave at once!”

When his father walked further across the alley’s curve, Sudarsan patted his face, as if wiping off the vitriol received, and then sniggered at him from behind. Glancing at Harbolwa, he asked: “Where are you going?

Mausi’s house.”

“And where does she live?”

“Near the madhouse.”

Harbolwa inquired: “And where is your home? Where’s your shop?”

“Here, inside this alley,” Sudarsan said, waving his hand in one direction. Have you ever visited Peer Sahab’s tomb? It’s close by. Let’s go to your mausi’s house, yaar. Come on.”

“You? Why tag along with me to my mausi’s house?” But like a leech, he stuck to him.

Walking further, noticing a broken tap facing the corporation building gushing fountain-like water thrilled both of them.

“How about bathing?”

“And you?”

Sudarsan unbuttoned his pants and merrily let the shower flow all over him. Harbolwa, however, was reminded of something urgent. “How about cleaning my pyjama,” he said, pulling a bar of soap from his pocket and tossing it to the ground. They boisterously played naked in the fountain water, pressing their fingers in the mouth of the tap to enjoy the sensation of water spraying on their bodies.

The mohalla children saw the two unfamiliar boys and began shouting, summoning their entire gang: “Catch-catch-catch hold of these ssaaley!” Harbolwa was scared. Sudarsan, on the other hand, carelessly gurgled and rinsed his mouth with water.

Their leader, a bear-like boy, stepped forward and shouted: “Abey, where do you live? Ssaaley, why have you come here to bathe naked, fools!” Harbolwa quickly changed into his half-dried pyjama. Sudarsan, still unruffled, began laughing. Sudarsan’s laughter irritated the bully-leader further. “This duffer appears wicked, watch out!” warned the leader.

“Aren’t you Dafali?” Sudarsan inquired.

When called by his name, Dafali’s short hair stood up on his head. His pupils dilated. He said: “You... you, where do you live? What’s your name... How did you get my name?”

“Didn’t your mother take you to Hakim’s medicine shop the other day?”

Dafali’s mouth widened in surprise. “Yes!” he exclaimed.

Sudarsan giggled once more.

Arrey, he is known to me,” Dafali said. He and his companions vanished into the alley.

“You know, he’s so big and still pees in his bed!” Sudarsan said.

“That’s why the rascal ran away,” Harbolwa chuckled.

But today, the scowl on mausi’s forehead showed she was not at all pleased to see him. “And who is he?” she asked harshly, eyeing Sudarsan suspiciously. “Didi rightly thrashes you. One day you’ll end up in jail if you loaf around with all the rowdies of the world. Run home right away!”

Harbolwa failed to understand: “Why was mausi so furious?

Walking back, Sudarsan asked: “Yaar, who was sitting inside the shack? Is he your uncle?”

“Uncle? No. Uncle lives in Barauni.”

“Then who was the man in the red shirt?”


Arrey! I peered inside and saw someone. That’s why your mausi hurriedly rushed out, furiously blocking the entry.”

“Oh!” Harbolwa fell silent.

“Will you be offended if I say something now?” Sudarsan asked, but said it anyway: “Your aunt is a shameless whore.”

“Go away!”

“Why should I go? I peeped inside.” Sudarsan’s laughter made Harbolwa’s face resemble Dafali’s. Like when the shameful secret that he pees in the bed was disclosed to Sudarsan.

On the way back, they stopped for a while in front of the public tap of the Corporation.

Harbolwa asked: “So, in which shop do you work?”

“In a notebook shop. Ssaala, the stench of rotting gum will make your head explode. Will you work there?”

“How much money do you get?”

“Nearly fifteen rupees.”


“What more one can get for gluing papers—one hundred? Tell me, do you want to work?”

Some loud noises nearby made them realise that an accident had occurred at the crossing of Makhaniya well. Both did not want to miss that and quickened their steps towards the site. But when they arrived, the game was over. A scooter-rickshaw collision had injured two people, and both had been taken to the hospital. Sudarsan and Harbolwa felt bad for having missed the thrill of witnessing the mishap.

Sudarsan walked up to a beedi shop.

Coming back to Harbolwa, lighting a beedi, he asked: “Will you smoke a beedi?”

“I don’t smoke.”

As Harbolwa began walking towards his mohalla, Sudarsan felt a vague sense of loss, a twinge in his heart. “Aye, listen!” he exclaimed.

“What is it?” Asked Harbolwa, stopping.

“I’ll accompany you to your house?” Sudarsan said.

“No. It’s useless. My mother will burst into cursing you too. “

“Will you work?”

“I’ll ask my father?”

“Let me go, I’m going to be late.”

“Wait a minute, yaar! Really! It seems like I’ve known you for a long time.”

Harbolwa laughed. Perhaps his twinkling laughter captivated Sudarsan. “Do you use charcoal to brush your teeth?” he asked.


“I’ll do it as well.”

“Forgive me if my words hurt you, brother!” Sudarsan said as he held Harbolwa’s hands.

Harbolwa could see in Sudarsan’s eyes a strange yearning and felt his heart stirring. He paused. “What happened?” he asked Sudarsan.

Ssaala! I will be badly battered.”


““Ssaala, as long as I remain a minor, I will be routinely beaten like a dog! I don’t want to go home.... I want to get away somewhere else.” Both stood silent, brooding for a long time near the Bakarganj Mosque, under the shady neem tree. ”

Ssaala, as long as I remain a minor, I will be routinely beaten like a dog! I don’t want to go home.... I want to get away somewhere else.” Both stood silent, brooding for a long time near the Bakarganj Mosque, under the shady neem tree. “Until I’m an adult, I’ll have to put up with kicking and thrashing anyway. Ssaala! Listen! Will you do one thing: selling in salima [cinema] hall?” Sudarsan mimicked the sounds hawkers make: “Fries, fresh from the pan, tuntun bhaaja [fried pakoras]!”

“Bhaaja in salima?”

Sudarsan told him: “There is a tuntun bhaaja company near ‘Loun salima hall. Many of my friends work there. Lots of fun, yaar! But no one is willing to stand in for a guarantee. And why would our ssaala-fathers let us have our own money? It’s twenty rupees a month!” Sudarsan clarified further: “You have complete freedom at work, and you also get to see salima without paying for a ticket.” He had asked his father to stand as a guarantor. “Will the tuntun bhaaja company owner give Rs.100 in advance?” his father had asked. “The owner of the notebook shop had paid 200 in advance.”

Laying his hand on Harbolwa’s shoulder, he asked tenderly: “Tell me, will you work in the tuntun bhaaja company?”

“But who will be our guarantee?”

“We’ll make that happen.”


“In our mohalla, there is one Amjad Mistry. His power alarms people. Once we get jobs at tuntun bhaaja, no ssaala father will have the courage to grab hold of us, bring us back home, and beat us brutally. But, ssaala Amjad Mistry is a rogue,” Sudarsan said, spitting.

Also Read | The Idlers

“What guarantee could he be if he is a rogue?” Harbolwa asked.

“That is why he’ll stand as our guarantor,” Sudarsan laughed.

The drums of a wedding party began to beat somewhere near Bankarganj Mohalla. Both took a deep breath.

Sudarsan laughed: “Who cares! Wedding! We’ll be kids until we grow a moustache and a beard. Let’s go to Amjad Mistry’s house.”

Sudarsan had suddenly become everything to Harbolwa. Sudarsan was the only person in the world he cared about. Only he could understand his loneliness and misery. Harbolwa firmly held Sudarsan’s hand. “I’m scared, though...”

“Scared of what?”

“My father...”

Arrey! Once we join the company. Look, then—everyone, yours and mine—father, mother, uncle, and aunt will pamper you and me. Understand?”

“Will we get this job?” Harbolwa asked, putting his arm around Sudarsan.

“We need to sweet-talk Amjad Mistry.”

“We’ll do it! We’ll do whatever it takes to get this job. We don’t want to return home.... Spit on home!”



Selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment