I don’t remember a class about colours at my school. For good reason, I think. Wouldn’t the History teacher bring to the topic a perspective quite different from the Science teacher? And wouldn’t the language teachers—certainly those inclined towards poetry—want to have their say as well? I imagine even the PT teacher—mine was an ace judge of the whiteness of canvas shoes—would want to pitch in with a couple of halting sentences.
In SM Ashraf’s Colours, translated from Urdu by Maaz Bin Bilal, we are in a class about the characteristics of colours. This is perhaps the first strange thing about the story, though it is definitely its least bizarre one. The classroom is not too far from a maidan, where sellers of different wares have congregated. These sellers come up and interrupt the lecture repeatedly. The irritated teacher’s reiterations end up swaying wildly from his first delivery—violent differences and reversals find a way into the concepts and imagery. Totem and taboo are smashed together.
Mixing up colours blindly might be a painter’s version of Hell. In the story’s final section—also a stellar performance by the translator—we see the same hell brought to the classroom, and to literature.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Many people of different colours, faces, and occupations were gathered on the maidan outside. They carried a variety of wares to attract attention to themselves. Decorative items packed in shiny wrappings were placed on their heads. He gave them all a cursory glance and entered the school classroom.
All the students stood up. It seemed as if all the windows in the room had disappeared. The students sat down upon his signal. The windows of the room reappeared.
He carried a cubical box in his hands whose sides were no less than the length of a large hand. He kept the box on the table with great deliberation, slowly dragged back the big chair behind the desk, and sat upon it without making a sound. He then cast a long look of inspection at the students. All of them wore different clothes. Clearly, there was no uniform at this school.
Then, he began speaking over their whispers in a voice that he must have practised over time. Nonetheless, the initial sentences were disconnected, ambiguous, and uttered in a low tone. Hardly anyone would have understood them. But this tendency was momentary. Now the voice had become clear, the tone was appropriate, and the words were suitable. All eyes were now focused on him.
“Today… today I will speak on a very important topic. Human life is deeply affected by a few things. Environment, smells, and colours. Environment affects the society of the time. Smells take one back in time. And colours. . . colours tell of the days to come. The future. Get it?”
“Yes, sir” came the response, like slogans.
Immense relief and belief were writ on his face now.
“Environment and smells for another day. Today, we will talk about colours.”
Like a confident teacher he peered into each pair of eyes. They were shining with s ome questions. He had expecte d this. “But”—this one word made the gleam of the eyes feeble and made them ordinary. Seeing this change his voice rose. “But, most importantly, it is necessary that I first help you identify the primary colours, so that you can never complain at any point in your life that you were deprived of any experience.”
Then he stood up, opened that cubical box with some effort, put his hand in and took out four cardboard circles of different colours.
Outside the doors, all of them were still present in the same way. Sunlight was falling in through the windows.
He distributed the four circles in the first row. The students at the back began rising to peep over the heads of other students, when he spoke in a loud voice: “Everyone will get their turn. Everyone will be made to identify the primary colours, and, additionally, you’ll be told of the characteristics of each colour. Along with this introduction, you will also be told about the effects that these colours have on life.”
The students in the back rows sat down straight in their places. The circles of different colours passed from one hand to another. In this interval, he stood erect observing the expressions on the faces of the students. Sometimes, he looked to the windows as well. Only once did he cast a quick and cursory glance through the doors at all those men standing outside.
The circles of colours were back in his hands. He picked each of them one by one. “These are all colours. This one is called green. This is blue. This colour is red and this is yellow. Do you recognize these colours?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” Not one remained silent.
“You have felt these colours fully by touching them with your hands and seeing them with your eyes. This is called experience and observation.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” All voices were loud and full of vigour.
“Now listen to their characteristics. Green is a pristine colour. Many of you already know this.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
“From the trees of the Himalayan Terai to the crops in the farms of the plains, from the jungles of Vasti to the rain forests of the south, from the trees of Lakshadweep to the dense forests of the Andaman islands, from the tea gardens of Darjeeling at the base of the skyscraping Kanchenjunga to the Sundarbans at the Bay of Bengal, only one colour has spread everywhere—green. The colour of leaves, the colour of chlorophyll, the colour of life, the colour of strength and freshness—the colour green. It is the green-coloured flora that cuts through the dense fogs of pollution in the air and purifies its every particle.”
The heads of the students soon started nodding in respectful agreement to the rhythm of the constant refrain. “You experience such pleasure at beholding this colour as one experiences after devout worship. Gazing at this colour improves memory. There’s an ingredient in this colour that percolates from the eyes into the heart and allots generosity to it. Soul, heart, and mind attain union then. Together, they determine the path of the future with the strength of belief, confidence, and purpose.”
He was exhausted after speaking continuously for so long but observing the heads of the students nodding vigorously in agreement thought it better to ask: “Did you understand all that I told you?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” Once again the chorus emerged.
There was movement among the crowd outside as there is when anything, however light, moves in a field of hay. The people were looking towards the classroom. Ignoring them, he picked up the red circle in his hand and began explaining patiently:
“This is Crimson. Red colour. You all have already experienced it by touch and observed it by sight. Red is the colour of cheer and joy, the colour of beauty and elegance. It is the metaphor for intoxication, the symbol of passion. Ripe grapes, a glass of wine, the breast meat of winter birds, the colour of the sky before sunrise, the shade of the eyes of a victorious king, glittering rubies of Badakhshan, ripened apples, arils of the pomegranates from Kandahar—all owe their debt to this colour, isn’t it?”
The magical words that tied up such diverse references into a single narrative set a fire ablaze in the hearts of the students: “Undoubtedly! Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
“Have you ever seen a naked young woman. . . anyway, we’ll keep that question for another day.” This incomplete question was enough to turn the cheeks of many students red. “In short, from a glass of wine to the height of beauty, from the bloom of flowers to the freedom of thought, everything is granted by this colour. This is why revolution is known by this colour, as you must have heard?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” They replied loudly.
The people outside the door tried to catch his attention but he had already picked up the blue circle.
“This is the colour blue. The colour of the sky. The expansive sky’s colour. The colour of silent oceans. The colour of snow frozen on the peaks of the tallest of mountains. This colour has depth and grasp. It has width and majesty. This colour broadens thought and lends depth to that breadth. This colour lends sight to the eyes and wisdom to the mind.
“It has a deep connection to nature as well. In the months of Jeth a little blue bird comes. Nobody can catch it. Let alone catching it, it is hardly seen for long. It wets its beak with a drop of water and flies away. The women of Damascus with their eyes like the deep blue sea are faithful. Only one light sparkles in the pupils of their eyes. The light of their lovers. Everyone else is condemned in their pursuit. This colour is the proof of the depth of love. Are you getting me?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
Now he picked up the last circle: “This is yellow. The colour of emotions. The colour of the dreams of waking eyes. When the mustard plant of the Rabi crop attains the height of an adolescent girl, it blooms with yellow flowers, and we know that spring has entered the lives of human populations. Little girls unacquainted with passion, those about to enter youth, pubescent girls feeling the beats of passion in the soles of their feet, the young women familiar with and constantly forgetting the secrets of the body, the nostalgic middle-aged women who remember seasons of the past and get sad with their memories, and the old women who remember that one glowing affair in the endless night of the jungles of their past with weak eyes—all of them are coloured in yellow. And with regard to their wishes but also to set their own hearts racing, the men also put on yellow clothes. Spring is here, spring is here! It seems as if just one colour spreads from the earth to the firmament: yellow. The fundamental colour of the matter of creation: yellow. Do you not understand what I am saying?”
“No, no, we understand you,” everyone shouted with enthusiasm.
Suddenly there was a thwack: the door hit with a stick. This got everyone’s attention. Among those gathered outside, one group had sent its representative. It wasn’t really a stick but a leather whip with thick knots.
Standing in the doorway he said something to that person. The students couldn’t see the man’s face but in his ugly, strong, and hardworking hands he was carrying ersatz leather goods. There were skillfully-made fashionable shoes, leather bags for clothes, hangers to hang pots in the arches of courtyards, and other similar items.
The man was waving those things around in an agitated way. Everyone saw that the teacher went out of the school and into the crowd. All the people were divided into different groups, but all of them had goods packed in shiny, polythene wrappings that they were carrying around with almost festive joy. Apart from those shiny packages, each group had goods specific to their professions and occupations that they were carrying around for display. Other groups also tried to advance, but the first group stopped them saying that our man had gone first.
After talking to the first group for a while he returned to the classroom. He cast a cursory glance at the circles of colour, and in his customary manner began to speak in his controlled voice: “I have explained the characteristics of these four colours to you in great detail. However, you will be unable to remember the lesson after only one telling. It will be as if only a bare sketch has been drawn. It is paramount that you should be told in brief about each colour again, and also about the effects of each colour on life.”
“Yes, sir. We are ready.”
“Now I will invert the list, that is, I will repeat what I said about yellow first. Listen carefully, I won’t tell it again.”
“The colour yellow,” he picked up the circle with yellow on it. “Yellow is the colour of death. You must have seen old, classic paintings. Scenes of death were coloured in yellow there. No… Don’t raise your hand. Listen carefully. This yellow colour is the colour of intense sadness. Until sundown, this colour paints sadness on all creation. The sun itself, the sun’s rays, crops standing in the fields, trees standing in orchards, and even canals full of pure water—all get immersed in this colour. As you must have guessed it is the most ominous colour.
“Where there is drought, the earth cracks open in the hope of water and what peeks from underneath is yellow, colourless soil. You must have seen that the flowers of the night jasmine in full bloom that transport you to another world on the wings of their scent at night wilt by the morning and turn yellow. You must have observed that when the pink skin of the human body gets wounded and catches an infection then the pus that oozes out is yellow. You must have heard that the soulless and dead soil that astronauts have brought from other planets is yellow. You must have seen this.”
“We got it, sir. We got it!”
“Then shall I take it that you have understood whatever I have explained about the colour yellow so far?”
There was doubt in many eyes and understanding in others. He slowly went on telling them more in appropriate words and the eyes filled with doubt changed their colour and joined those filled with understanding.
Someone from outside called in a berating manner. He went out with dignity. A man was standing with a bunch of fresh mustard flowers in his hands. His group was also behind him. The people were sporadically shouting slogans and making their point forcefully. He heard them out with a nonchalant air. Silenced them. Told them to keep the flowers by the wall. Gestured to them to go away. Then h e came in through the door and picked up the green circle.
“I won’t follow the exactly inverted order. That causes monotony and the death of inspiration. I will repeat what I said earlier about the colour green. That is, in short, green is the repository of filth and disease.”
Everyone’s mouth was left hanging open.
“Don’t you understand this much?” He looked with admonishing eyes towards everyone.
“Don’t you even understand what the colour of poison is? The colour of poison is green. If a snake bites anyone then their body goes green. The colour of poison! Where are most germs found in the world? In slime. What is slime? It is the mixture of leaves. What colour is the poisonous algae that can carry many fungi, and infectious germs? Green. Moreover, don’t you know that green-coloured trees emit poison at night? Carbon di oxide? Haven’t your parents ever told you not to lie under trees at night?
“They have, they have,” many voices were heard in unison.
“You must have observed this too, and observation is paramount, that when something starts to rot it turns green, even something pure and white, such as milk. When meat starts to rot its sides first turn green. Thus, after many examples, we have reached the indubitable conclusion that green is the colour of poison, which present itself in the worst conditions of things. Have you understood this?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” their enthusiasm was starting to come back.
This time, the group wearing costumes as white as storks was at the door. One of them stepped forward. He was standing at such an angle in the doorway that his figure wasn’t visible but the colourful bag in his smooth, pink and white hands was on display. The bag was taut with the weight of the things inside. The students saw him go outside to talk to this man with the bag. Sometimes the two spoke in whispers; at other moments their voices were raised. His face bore the expression of contemplation rather than worry. The students saw him coming back. The sunrays coming in from the window were no longer so bright, but there was enough light for the colour on the circles kept on the desk to be clearly visible.
“I know that it isn’t quite proper that I have been going out repeatedly. Even I realize this. But there are times in this noble occupation, when along with the needs of those inside the classroom, it becomes necessary to take care of the needs of those outside, because one may need the other at any given time. This is such a fundamental maxim that anyone who does not understand this would be called a fool; isn’t it?”
“Of course, of course,” everyone agreed.
“Yes, so now let’s revise the lesson on the colour blue. I have told you that the colour blue symbolizes filth. It dirties whatever it is included in. You must have learnt from your biology teacher that two types of tubes go far into the body to and fro from the heart. One type carries pure blood that goes from the heart to the body. The other carries impure and gross blood from the body to the heart. The pure blood is coloured red and impure and gross blood is coloured…”
“Blue, blue,” they all shouted loudly.
“Good, very good.”
“You must have learnt in physics that blue rays are the weakest.”
“And… and you must observe this daily that those who undertake the vilest profession wear blue. You must have seen the uniform of the sweepers on train platforms. Isn’t it always blue?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. We’ve seen it,” students proclaimed their knowledge loudly.
“So, we have come to the conclusion not just after this brief conversation but also through your observations that blue is the symbol of filth and the contemptible.”
At this, he looked out through the door. His eyes expressed anticipation. The students saw the desolation of wait in his eyes suddenly turn into a glint. There were many sounds at the door. He went out.
“Let one of your men talk. The rest should move away from the door, it affects studies.” The sounds went away. The light outside was fading away, so the students could only see that the man from the group was carrying some things but they couldn’t make out what these were. Something looked like a bow with a small, game animal hanging upside down.
“It is okay. Keep this next to the wall alongside all these things and go away and do your work. Studies get really affected.”
He came inside and picked up the red circle. The light coming in from the window had grown extremely faint but the red circle was still clearly visible.
“This is the last primary colour about which I will tell you once again what I had explained earlier. It is only a case of revision. Nothing new. All of you know, and as I said earlier, the colour red is the symbol of destruction and ruin and it always increases human sorrow and misery.”
A student had barely raised a hand in protest when he gently raised his own right hand to silence him.
“First learn what is being taught. Understand it properly. And if any aspect is still unclear then surely ask me questions. First, listen to me carefully. Then consider what I am saying in the light of your experience and observation and then ask a question. Understand?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
“The history teacher must have told you of the most beautiful city of the world, Baghdad, where the river Dijla was embanked like a canal.1 It cut the city in a straight line, where at every mile there was a strong and magnificent bridge to cross the river, and there were fifty such bridges. On the stretches between two bridges were gardens, and in the gardens there were ripe fruit trees and innumerable flowering plants in bloom with a large variety of fragrances. Gazelle would flash like fast lightening among the low plants. There were palaces on the banks. The gold of their domes lit up the Dijla as the calls of their guards lit up the town at night. There were libraries which had leather-bound books that a group of a hundred people couldn’t count from sunrise to sunset. To this Baghdad came the grandson of Changez Khan. Stinky mules accompanied him. The eyes of his men were buried in their cheeks and their pointed beards were matted with dirt. Then there was battle. And such slaughter and carnage took place that the waters of the Dijla were red for a week. Red—the symbol of destruction. The consequence of devastation. The proof of slaughter. Am I wrong? Speak, answer me!”
“No, no, not at all. You speak truth.”
“Additionally, when the sun that brings light to the world and takes it away sets in the west, what is the colour of the western sky? Tell me.”
“Red, completely red!” they all shouted.
“Calling red their colour, getting people to follow them, many civil wars have happened. Many wars have happened. Do you know this? Has the history teacher taught you anything?”
“We know, we know,” by now their voices were ringing with the bells of adulatory affirmation.
“If there is ever an accident on the road, and you turn and look towards it, the first colour that you will see will be red. The colour of blood.”
“Absolutely, sir. Absolutely.”
“When the lungs under tuberculosis become weak like spider webs and the pulse becomes feeble and the patient vomits for the last time, the colour of that vomit is also red. The last shriek of death, the symbol of death, what is the colour of death?”
“Red, red,” everyone spoke together.
“Well done! Now, you: speak! You wished to say something?” He pointed at the student who had raised his arm a while back.
“No. Nothing. Nothing at all.” He was also excited by now.
“Okay. Now you all revise the lesson of today. Revise it properly. Revise it with full freedom. And in light of your own observations and experience draw your conclusions and then revise. I will come back and test you.” He left the classroom and shut the door behind him so that the noises from outside did not cause any disturbance.
Because of the dimming light, the colours of the different circles kept on the table had now become feeble. Beyond the windows, a bright day was drowning into a dark fog. Inside the dimly-lit room, there was a jungle of red, green, blue, and yellow sounds, where there was a ceaseless hullabaloo and collision of revision by rote.
He came back after a while, arranged the four coloured circles properly in the box, closed it, and gestured to the class to be silent. “Have you understood today’s lesson properly?”
“Have I told you anything false about any colour? Anything opposed to fact?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Have you learnt the lesson well?”
“Who can repeat it?
All of them raised their hands.
“Well done! But we don’t have the time to hear it from everyone. One of you should get up and repeat it.”
They were all sitting like silhouettes in the dimly-lit room. One of them slowly got up. His manner had extreme self-confidence. His tone was complacent yet zestful.
“Smell, environment, and colour have a deep effect on life. Colours have their greatest effect on the choice of future plans. Green colour has that yellow-mixed-with blue matter of nature which helps grow the crops standing in the fields and produces the grain in the pod. And it drains the colours of the ripe fruits of the gardens planted in the flowing city of Baghdad in the canals standing next to it by the mules with pointed beards. When the kohl-lined eyes of the gazelle get caught in spider webs and the veins get entangled, then naked women become the colour of the eyes of victorious kings, glasses of wine, and the arils of pomegranates. Winter birds take a drop of the snow frozen on mountain peaks in their beaks and vomit into glasses of wine their red breast meat. The white poison from the fangs of the black serpent mixes with grape juice to produce such a beat of passion that young women forget the secrets of their body and start feeling through the soles of their feet again. When the pink winds rising from the tropical forests of the south come and hit the open parts of the pubescent girls as tall as the mustard growing at the feet of the Kanchenjunga, then the forests of the plains bloom and turn green, and the trees stand more firmly rooted. The sad middle-aged women wear blue-coloured clothes and take the old women seeking a gleam in the jungles of the past into their retinue and enter human civilization. And everything, all creation, gets drenched in pure and glowing ink at this time. Then the glowing arrows fired from thundering bows split this ink. A whip in the shape of a rainbow flashes like lightning in the sky. It starts pulling from the sky those bags heavy with their own weight that carry some unseen but attractive things that taste like the appetizing smell that comes from freshly-hunted game and the red colour of blood. This mixes with the inebriating fragrance of yellow mustard flowers to create an intense intoxication that cannot be matched by the ripe fruits born in parched earth thirsting for water. Because the pink skin of humans is that glass of wine which by dawn turns the yellow flowers of the night jasmine green like the rubies of Badakhshan, pink like poison, yellow like the sea, and pink like death. Because, the guards of the palaces next to the Dijla sometimes turn the waters of the river red by their voices and sometimes turn it black. As we learnt through our experiences and observations that the blood of two colours circulates in the hearts of humans: white and black. Life is sustained by white blood and black blood leads to all the happiness of life. All the happiness that waits for the day when a brave person with an honest soul will rise from the west and take over all the evil tribes like red algae covers yellow seas, crimson storms cover orange mountains, and dark red clouds cover the green sky. And then rotten meat starts stinking like the red rose. And the colours green, red, blue, and yellow put their arms around each other’s neck and start cheering in joy. And each group of human civilization places decorative items on their heads to dance with small steps only to start sobbing.”
Darkness had entered the room by now. The speaker was silent. Everyone was still and quiet. As if birds were sitting on their heads that would fly away with the smallest movement.
Maintaining a tight grip on the box, and with some hesitation but keeping his voice firm and dignified he asked: “Do you agree with the basic characteristic of colours that I spoke on today, revised with you, and then asked one of you to repeat as a test?”
“Undoubtedly, completely.” The silence broke, and everyone raised their hands in agreement.
“Shall I feel assured that you will never forget this lesson?”
“Never, never.” Their voices were confident, satisfied, and joyous.
“Well done. Please revise this lesson a bit longer.” Saying this he went out through the door. All the groups started towards him. He beckoned their representatives. When all of them had come up and were standing looking at him with expectant eyes, he turned towards the closed door and heard the voices revising the lesson. He cast a glance at the things kept next to the wall and then with great confidence looked the representatives in the eye and with deliberate emphasis on each word said: “Now, as according to your wishes, they are all prepared and ready for your dealings.” Seeing the glow of happiness on the faces of the representatives, the groups raised their goods up in the air and with great joy and small steps started an ecstatic dance as if their feet were not on the ground but on the heads of future generations.
 “safed KHūn” or white blood is Urdu idiom for someone who does not love, care for, or betrays his blood relatives.
Image: courtesy David Zwirner gallery exhibition of Ad Reinhardt’s paintings (click on image for a higher resolution version). Reinhardt painted black squares, Black rectangles. Occasionally, he ventured to compositions of black rectangles. We mustn’t, however, make the mistake of thinking the colour “black” refers to a single entity. For a story that is ostensibly a lecture on the absolute aspects of colours, we felt it appropriate to accompany it with the work of a painter who set out to remove all the extraneous elements in the idea of colour. In an introductory essay, Reinhardt explained that he was pursuing “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art.”
Syed Muhammad Ashraf (author)
Syed Muhammad Ashraf is a critically-acclaimed Urdu novelist and short story writer. He is a retired Indian civil servant. Ashraf was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (2004), the Aalmi Farogh-e-Urdu Adab Award from the Majlis-e-Farogh-e-Urdu Qatar (2018), the UP Urdu Academy Collective Services Award (2013), Madhya Pardesh Govt.’s ‘Iqbal Samman Award’ (2017) and the ‘Katha award’ (1995). Some of his noted works are Daar Se Bichde, Baad-e-Saba Ka Intizar, Numberdaar ka Neela, Aakhri Sawariyan, Lakarbhagga Hansa, and Lakarbhagga Roya. The English translation of his novellas and short fiction include The Beast by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and The Hyena and Other Stories by M Asaduddin, among others.
Maaz Bin Bilal (translator)
Maaz Bin Bilal (b. 1986) is a poet, translator, and academic. His first collection, Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu (2019), was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. His translation of Fikr Taunsvi’s Partition diary, The Sixth River (2019), was also critically noted. Maaz was the recipient of the Charles Wallace Trust fellowship in writing and translation in Wales (2018–19), and the Akademie Schloss Solitude fellowship in writing at Stuttgart (2022–23). He holds a PhD on the politics of friendship in E. M. Forster’s work from Queen’s University Belfast and teaches literary studies at O. P. Jindal Global University. His translation of Mirza Ghalib’s long poem in Persian on Banaras, Chiragh-e-Dair, was released as Temple Lamp by Penguin Classics recently. His poetry has been translated into Bangla, Irish and German. He has created word-art individually and in collaboration with other artists from his poems that has been displayed at various spots in Germany.