In Akhtar Mohiuddin’s story of absurd despair, translated by Nageen Rather, the lines between the speaker and the interlocutor blur to create an impression of an internal monologue on death, fear, and inescapable brutality of the world. The story begins with certitudes and generalities —“The chick has died”, So what? Chicks die. Then it starts unravelling in the dialogue between the two characters, “Was it a special chick?”, Does that matter? As we read on, curious to see what about this death has rattled the speaker, the dialogue ensnares us into a complex web of existential questions that can only be responded to with outright dread or ironic laughter.
Much like the vulnerable chick, Mohiuddin’s story is raw and tender at the centre, surrounded by the profound philosophical despair of the loss of innocence and trust. So that even though we circle back to the certitude at the end of the story, we ourselves have been altered by the experience of reading it.
— Shivani Mutneja
The Bombay Literary Magazine
“Hey, the chick has died!” said he.
Has died, and what then, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.
“Do you hear!” he said again, “the chick has died!”
I looked at him and surveyed him from head to toe— he was a good person, wearing laundered, clean clothes. There was no sign of untidiness on him except his ruffled hair. His blood shot eyes bulging out. Holding a little black dead chick in his hand, he continuously alternated between looking at it and looking at me.
I stood totally speechless. It’s normal that chicks die— some are hunt away by eagles, some eaten by dogs or some die without a reason and some come under the foot of a wife and are trampled to death— so what is there to worry for. Die they do.
The chick in his hand didn’t look so special that its death could send a sane person into a tizzy. It had tiny black tinged down, its wings had short and plump feathers; its legs were long, and on its back was a sort of white calvity which I believed was some kind of a filthy stuff. But in a bid to respect his emotions and also in an attempt to learn something about the speciality of the chick, I asked him,
“It must have been of a superior breed, wasn’t it?”
“Hell with the breeds,” he said with a tinge of bitterness, “What had we to do with its breed. It belonged to some breed but perhaps not a superior one. Leave this off,” he said and took a deep sigh. He shrugged and then gazed strangely at the dead chick and said,
“I had no hope….” he couldn’t say in full. Perhaps, he was choking on his words.
“His name will last.” I said only to console him.
“Whose?” he asked in a different tone but didn’t pose the question with an intention to elicit an answer from me. I believed he asked this to his toe, for he was keenly looking at it. I stood helpless. I, however, to my utmost ability, was looking with serious attention at the dead chick to catch any such speciality in it which he himself had found out. I failed to find anything as such. Blackness and dust had made it look even more unworthy. And above all, the white baldness on its back! I asked,
“What is that stuff on its back?”
He fixed his eyes at the back of the chick once again as if he had not got such a chance earlier. With his left hand, he lifted its wings and began to examine underneath. I too was cravingly watching. The chick had some sort of floor smeared all over its back that had dried into lumps.
“Cz…cz…cz…the chick finally died on account of this,” he said, “In reality, nobody belongs to anybody—mother, father, brother, sister— all this is fake.”
I wondered why he gave such a long philosophical lesson. He turned to me and said, “That stuff on its back is the powder the men at the veterinary had applied.”
“Well, now you throw the chick away”, I said, “What more will you gain by gazing at it over and over.”
“Yes, I will do that,” he said in utter helplessness as if he had to bury one of his loved ones.
“Drop it here towards this gutter; either a dog or a crow will eat it,” I suggested.
“See, what rubbish are you talking!” he said, “But after all, you too are a resident of this world.”
Oh, what else will he do to it, I wondered with seriousness.
“I had counted you as a wise person and thought that you will take a lesson, but…,” he said hurtfully.
I fell into a silence as though I had given him a mouthful and was now repenting it.
“Oh this poor chick was eaten by everyone. No one showed any mercy on it,” he said and spread his right hand to lift up the chick straight to his bosom and gazed at it in such a manner as if he intended to freshen up its dead body with the tears from his eyes.
“I myself too, while nestling for twenty-one days in a hay-filled wicker basket, must have come into this world with beautiful longings,” he said, perhaps, to the chick or to himself.
“Have you ever seen a chick resembling a goat willow flower, nestling in a hay-filled wicker basket?” he asked me.
“Yes, I have seen,” I answered.
“How innocent they look!” he said, “A newborn baby, a calf, a chick and a flower— all these are a similar in their temperament. They don’t have the emotion of fear. They believe that this whole mechanism of Nature is in place only for their nurture.” He continued,
“If I abruptly lift my hand a little up, you will take fright, you know why? Because the emotion of fear is extremely profound in you and you can’t do anything about it now. On the other hand, place a cleaver at a little child’s throat, he will give out a smile. Do you understand. Ha ha ha!” he broke into a laugh.
“If a flower will get to know, beforehand, that it is fated to be plucked, it will wilt with fear… I was not laughing, I was thinking. In front of my eyes, there was a big caravan— a pansy flower that looks like a German philosopher, a rose that resembles the lady-love, a golden-dyed calendula, and a heal-all flower donning a Maharaji turban. All were smiling; all happy. Everything around, to the right and to the left—sparrows, mynas, cows, eagles and siren songstresses—all, it seemed, were singing in a joyous chorus.
“His magnificence,” I said.
“Whose magnificence?” he said as if he threw back the words in my face. I was perplexed.
“You took fright?” he asked and gave out a smile, “you too are empty, an empty-headed windbag. You don’t know even a little.”
“This chick was brought over from some far-off places by an eagle. She poked the merciless paws into its breast; she would have killed it after settling down somewhere, yes, killed it, but it dropped down from her grip by mistake and straightway fell into our yard.”
“Oh, is this so.” I began to listen to him with keen attention.
“In the yard only me and a dog saw it, both of us ran towards it— I and the dog. I couldn’t catch it. The dog held it and attempted to kill it. I picked a stone, the dog took fright, dropped it there and vanished. Now l was alone. The chick was running away on its little long legs and was loudly clucking, perhaps calling the one who had breathed life into it in the hay-filled wicker basket. How much more could it run. I caught it. I myself,” he finished saying this, and then he kept silent for a while. A moment later he let out his stuck breath, cleared his throat, then turned to me and said,
“You just imagine that suddenly a lion, a snake, a bear or a mad dog—fifty of them together—appear from nowhere and run after you to kill you. How would you feel? Say, you don’t know. Nobody knows it. Even not the one who has been in such a situation. One loses one’s brains. One wants to run, but where? One doesn’t know. Man sees but what? He doesn’t know; man talks but what? He doesn’t know.
“I caught this chick. Its eyes had almost exploded with fear. Out of fear, it was clucking choo…choo, perhaps it was crying, perhaps pleading, perhaps asking ‘What harm have I done to you? I am just a chick. A chick only. If I grow to be a cock, I will cry cock-a-doodle-do to announce the break of dawn and dusk or if not then I will lay eggs. What wrong have I done to you.’
“We have chicken at our home. The cock announces the break of dawn and the fall of dusk and the hens sometimes indulge in singing, sometimes lay eggs, sometimes sit for brooding— all living a joyous life. They have a house full of pride. A husband has many wives.”
“I thought this chick will live among them and will eventually grow big; then we will slaughter it and then eat it. I held it and released it there to let it live with them thinking that on finding itself among the birds of its kind, its fears and shyness will vanish. Almost after an hour or so when I went to the coop, do you know what had happened there?” he turned his eyeballs towards me. I could see poisonous froth at the corners of his mouth. He was looking at me with such a stare as if he himself was God and I a sinning servant. He kept looking at me like this for a while and then he said,
“The hens and the cock had pecked off the skin from the chicks back. Its backbone was visible. The blood had turned into clots. Lying towards a corner, it was cowering with fret and fear. I caught it without an effort as it didn’t try to run. I held in my hand; it didn’t flutter even a little. It was just clucking in low tones, grieving its fate, perhaps saying, ‘okay, now I will die, are you happy… To you I am talking, oh, man, oh, dog, oh, eagle, oh, cock… I am saying are you happy now? I will die now. I won’t announce the break of dawn. I won’t lay eggs. I won’t do anything now. I will do one thing that could make everyone happy. I will die… pichh…pichh.”
“While holding it in my hand, I offered it rice, it gulped down a few mouthfuls. Perhaps it was hungry or perhaps it thought that if all this will make me happy then it shouldn’t refuse eating.
“Don’t they say that God is bountiful. The men at veterinary put on this powder on the chick, and I gave it some warmth. Now it was not scared of me; was not scared of anyone. It was just clucking pich…pich… Was rebuking me. Was clucking in low tones. And in low tones, was conversing with my soul and asking, ‘Are you happy, oh, dog, oh, man? Now, I am going to die.’ An hour rolled by, it died,” he narrated while his tears were coursing down. Looking earnestly at the dead chick once again, he said,
“Oh, do you hear! Finally the chick died!”
Image credits: Somnath Hore, Untitled, 1981, charcoal and pastel on paper. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Somnath Hore (1921-2006) chronicled through his art forms (mixed media, oils, sculptures, drawings) the ravages of poverty, famine and agrarian oppression in his native state of pre-Independence Bengal. Akhtar Mohiuddin’s story also reminded us that conscience is as much a muse as beauty or sentiment. It seemed fitting the two authors should be in conversation through their works.
Akhtar Mohiuddin (author)
Born in Srinagar city in 1928, Akhtar Mohiuddin was a pioneering Kashmiri novelist, playwright, critic and short story writer, who made significant contribution to the development of modern Kashmiri literature. His work Doud Dag is considered the first novel in Kashmiri language. He was awarded Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958 for his short story collection Sath Sangar. He received many awards during his literary career. The Government of India conferred on him the Padma Shri award in 1968 which he returned in protest against the hanging of Maqbool Bhat. He died in 2001.
Nageen Rather (translator)
Nageen Rather is a university academician, writer and translator based in Kashmir. His stories have appeared in Adelaide (New York), WHLReview (Massachusetts) Dublin Review (Ireland), Him`al Southasian (Sri Lanka), Inverse (Kashmir) Punch (India) Aleph Review (Pakistan) and other magazines and journals of international repute. He is the winner of the Wordweavers Short Story Prize 2020.