The Idlers

Translated by Jagriti Gupta from the Hindi translation of the Urdu original, Kaamchor.

Published : Aug 27, 2022 18:00 IST

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

After a long debate it was decided that the servants would be relieved of their duties. After all, what good are these fatsos for! They don’t even fetch a glass of water. They must learn how to take care of themselves. Good-for-nothings!

“You children do nothing all day! There are so many of you and all you do is make a din.”

And we really wondered why we didn’t do anything. After all, what would it cost us to fetch ourselves a glass of water? So, at once, we got up to get a glass of water.

Now it is but natural to push and be pushed while getting to one’s feet. And, of course, we were inferior to none so it was impossible to endure being suppressed by another. So, a bloody battle began near the water-storage. Jugs tumbled to one side, earthen pots to the other. Clothes were drenched.

“They won’t be able to do anything,” Amma declared.

“Why not? Look—anyone who doesn’t work won’t get dinner tonight. Am I clear?”

Lo and behold! The royal decree was issued.

“We are ready to work. Tell us what to do,” we begged.

“There are plenty of things you can do. For instance, look how dirty this carpet is. Can’t you see the heap of garbage lying in the courtyard? Plants too need to be watered. And of course, you are not being asked to do all this for free. You will be paid a salary.”

Abba-miyan, thus, told us a few things we could do. He explained that just like a gardener is paid for his work, we too would be paid if....

“Oh, no! For God’s sake! The house will be flooded,” Amma pleaded.

But dreaming of our pay cheques, we got to work.

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Many of us children gathered around the carpet and, holding it by its corners, started shaking it vigorously to remove the dust. Some of them were also beating it mercilessly with sticks.

Very soon, the house was full of dust. Everyone almost choked, coughing. The dust that was on the floor, on the carpet, now settled on everyone’s heads. Entered noses and eyes. Everyone was in a bad state. We were dismissed to the courtyard. Straight away, we decided to clean that place.

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

Since there was only one broom and so many candidates expecting a salary, the broom turned into pieces within a few seconds. We swept left, right and centre with whatever we could grab. Meanwhile, Amma slapped her forehead. Well, the truth is, no work can be done with elders around. As long as they continue interrupting every second, nothing can ever be accomplished!

Actually, a little water should have been sprinkled before brooming. As soon as we realised our mistake, we threw some water on the carpet. The carpet, which was full of dust in the first place, became muddy as soon as water hit it.

Within minutes we were dismissed from the courtyard too. So we decided to water the plants. Immediately, the house was plundered for buckets and utensils. Those who could not grab any of these, ran away with bowls, cups or even glasses.

Sufficiently armed, everyone pounced on the water tap. Here, too, a gory battle ensued; no one was allowed even a single drop of water, thanks to everyone’s best efforts. A great hustle and bustle! Pots were atop buckets and lotas, pans and bowls on top of pots. First, there was a lot of shoving around. Then, elbows were deployed. Then came the realization that utensils made for great weapons too. Promptly, an army unit of elder brothers, sisters, uncles and powerful aunts was despatched. However, at the sight of the carnage, the soldiers threw their weapons and fled the battlefield.

In this tussle, a few children got caked in mud. The present population of servants in the house wasn’t enough to bathe them. Servants were hired from the neighbouring bungalows and paid four annas per head.

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

We were convinced by now that neither cleaning nor watering plants was our destiny. Maybe we could at least tend to the chickens.

So, with whatever stick we could lay our hands on, we went after the hens. “Back to the coop! To the coop!”

But sir, the chickens too had been instigated against us beforehand. All of them started jumping helter-skelter. Two of them ran, flapping their wings, over bowls of kheer which the domestic help was decorating with delicate foils of pure silver.

After the storm had passed, it was discovered that the bowls were empty; the kheer had deposited itself on Didi’s dupatta and her freshly washed hair. A big rooster jumped into Amma’s betel box, and having covered its claws in kattha-chuna, flew leaving its marks on grandmother’s milk-white bedsheet.

A hen splashed about a bowl of dal and slipped in the drain in such a way that all the sludge spattered on the face of the aunt who was sitting there washing her hands and face.

All the chickens were running here and there. Not even one of them was ready to go back to the coop.

Now, in the midst of all this, someone came up with the brilliant idea of feeding the sheep.

The sheep had been hungry the whole day. As soon as they saw the soup of grains, they attacked it and us so violently that it was difficult to escape them. They climbed atop the cot. It was a very clear demonstration of herd mentality. With their eyes glued to the food, they kept moving forward, jumping over the beds and tumbling over utensils that came in the way.

Bani didi, with her dupatta spread on the cot, was talking to Muglani bua. The sheep dashed unhesitatingly crushing everything and leaving a trail of droppings in their path.

When the storm had subsided, it seemed as if the German army had raided the place armed with tanks and bombs. The sheep followed the soup like hunting dogs follow scent.

Hajjan’s mother was sleeping on a bed with her face covered with a dupatta. God knows which palaces she was visiting in her dreams, that when the sheep went running over her, she started screaming, “Beat them! Beat them!”

In the meantime, the sheep forgot all about the soup and attacked the vegetable seller. The woman was sitting in the doorway, weighing pea pods and handing them over to the cook. Seeing the enemy approach, she got up resolutely to save her vegetables from the imminent attack. If you have ever beaten up sheep, you would know it feels like you are beating a cotton pillow. The sheep feels none of your blows. It thinks you are being friendly. So it climbs over you instead. Within a short span of time, the sheep gobbled all the vegetables, down to the peels.

While here all hell was breaking loose, the other children weren’t lazing about. There was such a huge army which had been threatened with no dinner. They got down to milking the four buffaloes. Grabbing clean and unclean buckets alike, eight hands got to milking the four udders. The buffalo stood up, folding its all four legs, and after kicking the bucket, went and stood at a distance.

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

Illustration: Siddharth Sengupta

It was decided that the fore and hind legs of the buffalo be tied and then, when the buffalo is tamed, it should be milked. Then and there, the rope was taken down from the swing and the buffalo’s feet tied. The hind legs had been secured with the rope of uncle’s cot. The front legs were being tied when the buffalo got startled. When it bolted, uncle first thought that he was dreaming. Then, when the cot collided with the water drum and water splashed on him, he imagined he had been caught in the middle of a storm, accompanied by an earthquake. Soon realising the actual circumstances, he held on tightly to the straps of the cot and abused everyone who had let the children run riot.

It was all fun and games. The buffalo kept on running, all the while dragging the cot with uncle sitting upright on it!

Uh ho! We had made a mistake! We hadn’t freed the calf. So, it was let go at once.

The arrow hit the bull’s eye and overcome by the love for its calf, the buffalo braked for the day. The calf got to work without delay. Those who were to milk the buffalo leapt into the scene, armed with glasses and bowls, because the bucket had landed in a heap of dung. The calf now became rebellious.

A little milk spilled on the floor and the clothes. Two-four streams were collected in the glasses and bowls too. The calf drank the rest of it. All of this happened in three-fourth of a minute.

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A storm struck the house. It seemed like there were chickens, sheep, broken buckets, lotas and children all over the house. The children were dismissed. The chickens were led to the garden. The mourning vegetable seller was consoled and Amma started packing her bags to leave for Agra.

“If you let the children run amok, I won’t stay here a moment. I am on my way to my mother’s place,” Amma challenged.

Now Abba ordered the battalion to form a queue and court-martialled all of us. “If any of you ever touches anything in the house again, you’ll not be served dinner.”

Listen to him! These elders are impossible, we tell you! They are never satisfied! We too decided that come what may, we would now not get up even to get a glass of water.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Source: Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi’s Bimonthly Journal, July-August 2021

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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