A Three Wheeler
By Syed Abdul Malik
Translation: Jugal Kalita
He waited serenely on the platform. It was a pleasure to see him. He came forward to greet me as soon as I alighted from the train. His light green car was parked outside. He drove me to his house. We did not speak much during the ride. I was not very tired. It was comfortable traveling first class on the train. But, Mr. Jaweed looked tired. Maybe, he was under a lot of pressure at work. Now-a-days, even well-placed judges worked as hard as the clerks. I appreciated that he came to greet me at the station soon after receiving my telegram. Judge Jaweed's younger brother Aftab was married to my daughter. That was how we were related. My son-in-law did not live with his older brother. He and my daughter lived in Delhi. The youngest brother lived in state capital of Shillong. He received a promotion at work recently, and became the Deputy Secretary of an important government department.
It was nine in the morning when we arrived at the judge's house. He had made all necessary arrangements for me. His wife and children were vacationing in his brother's house in Shillong. The servants and other employees were the only others at home.
The house was calm and quiet. It was a very expansive, government house with a large number of rooms and a presence of its own. The judge had a well-appointed library with high shelves full of books. There were many law books. Among the rest were novels, and books on psychology. I felt inspired in the tidy library. There was the touch of Mr. Jaweed's methodical hands everywhere.
In the early evening, Mr. Jaweed and I sat in the front yard and talked in general about our families. He was cultivated and perceptive. We did not talk about the court or about the law.
I came to him seeking advice on a lawsuit in addition to taking a vacation. I had sent him all the relevant documents earlier. My brothers and I were in the middle of a lawsuit involving tea estates inherited from our father. I was not happy with the verdict of the lower court. So, I was planning to appeal to the high court. I came to visit Mr. Jaweed hoping he would give me useful advice regarding my chances at the high court. I had also planned to buy a new car in the city before I left. Mr. Jaweed also made a request, ``I hope you will not leave right away. I am sorry my family is not here to be your host. Please stay here for a few days, if you do not have any other pressing engagements back home.''
``Your family is away. I don't intend to give you any trouble during their absence. Anyway, it will be my pleasure to spend a few days. with you.'' I replied courteously.
Mr. Jaweed left for the court at nine, and was back exactly at three thirty. He was very punctual. Since he was refined and earnest, he appeared learned and introspective. I liked the company of such people. He never uttered anything irrelevant. He was extremely polite all the time. Speaking with him, one could vividly discern a clear and uncomplicated mind. It was as if his intense eyes, and his fair and handsome face portrayed the peacefulness one normally finds in a place of worship. I liked him very much.
My son-in-law was just the opposite from his brother. Maybe, it was because he was a lot younger. Also, he had already made a lot of money. So, I could live with his restlessness. One of his hobbies was to buy new cars and sell them after a while, making a tidy profit. It seemed my son-in-law was almost addicted to this process. I would not say anything about this though. He took very good care of my daughter. He was also very close to the judge. Their relationship was more like that between a father and his son.
Early morning on Sunday, I went to pay visit to a few acquaintances I had in town. The judge did not have to go to court. So, he offered me the use of his car. It was about eleven when I returned.
A security guard saluted me at the door. He had seen me during the past few days. He recognized me.
``Is the judge home?''
``Do you know what he is doing?''
``He is dusting and cleaning his vehicle, sir.''
In surprise, I stared at him. Why should the judge clean his own vehicle in a house full of servants, drivers, peons and security guards? I surmised, Judge Jaweed was a very genteel and upstanding soul.
``Where exactly is he?''
``Follow me, sir. I will take you to him.''
``You are back already! You didn't have to come in here! It's pretty dirty - full of dust.'' I met the judge on the way out from wherever he was.
``Why do you have to do a servant's job?''
The judge was holding a dirty rag in his hand. He smiled like a child, ``They have a lot of cleaning and other work to do in this big house, anyway. Let's get out of here now.'' He then said a bit loudly, ``Daxarath, I am going to take a bath now. Prepare the bathroom for me.'' Then, he continued, ``Why don't you take a little rest before lunch? You can take a bath too, if you want.''
The judge sounded a bit flustered. It was as if he was trying to hide something from me. I felt it was improper for me to follow him unannounced when he was engaged in private work in his own house.
Since I did not see exactly what he was cleaning, I became curious. I asked the servant who brought water from my bath, ``Why was the judge cleaning a vehicle? I didn't see anything there anyway.''
``Oh! It's a vehicle alright. But, it is not a car. It is a three-wheeled pushcart. The judge dusts and cleans it regularly. He doesn't let anyone else touch it.''
It was inappropriate for me to talk to a servant for long. So, I closed the bathroom door as soon as he stepped out.
Every man of fame and fortune has some eccentricities. Some of the most famous people have silly sentimental quirks and weaknesses. Judge Jaweed had an air of steady earnestness about him. It would be strange if he also had an eccentric streak in him. My curiosity deepened.
But, I did not want to embarrass him asking personal questions. All of us have secrets we do not want to share with others. They are sometimes pleasant, and sometimes sad. But, they always give us something to cling on to, and to cherish as our very own.
We went together to buy a car. I bought a beautiful car for eighteen thousand rupees. The judge did not make many comments. He just volunteered, ``It's beautiful. Gray is my favorite color.''
My new car introduced some interruptions to the peaceful regularity in the judge's daily routine. Every evening, we took long drives in the car. I also felt a little relieved getting away from the house, the tea estates, and the constant talk of lawsuits. It seemed that the judge also welcomed the little pleasure that spontaneity and irregularity brought into his life.
The evening before I was scheduled to leave, we were quite tired after a lot of riding around. We had let the chauffeur drive us wherever he felt like. We spent a beautiful evening enjoying the scenery. We discussed my lawsuit at length. Although the judge did not discourage me, he told me to settle without going to the higher court. The judge made the recommendations based on his long experience on the bench. I did not tell him what my decision would be. I profusely thanked him for his advice.
It was a pleasantly warm evening in the middle of May. After dinner we sat in the front yard on lawn chairs. The moonlight was faint. The new grass was still sparse in places. There was a steady, low breeze. The mild scent of fresh grass was overtaken by a strong fragrance wafting in the wind from gardenia flowers somewhere in the neighborhood. The interplay of smells was augmented by a mild but pleasant aroma drifting in from the judge's own flower garden.
My new car was in addition to the car I bought last year. I broke the silence between us and commented, ``Owning a beautiful vehicle is a very pleasant experience, isn't it?''
Perhaps, Mr. Jaweed was thinking of something else. He seemed startled, ``Oh, yes! Sometimes a vehicle can mean much more than even a human being.''
I did not expect such a comment from the judge. I kept quiet.
The judge might have become a little preoccupied in his own thoughts. I handed him another cigarette, and he started puffing at it. Observing his eyes and his earnest face, I concluded he was in the middle of some deep personal reflection.
We did not have any particular topic to talk about.
The big house stood still and silent. There was some metallic noise in the kitchen at the very back of the house. Some servants were washing the dishes. The judge spoke slowly, ``You were talking about cars, vehicles in general; weren't you? Yes! It's true; sometimes a lifeless means of conveyance can do much more than a live person.''
Hearing him mention the same topic twice, I concluded that he had something particular in mind. But, I could not think of a way to ask him directly about what bothered him. Still, I added, ``Well! Judges encounter different kinds of people on the job; you learn many engrossing and eventful stories.''
He got an opportunity to introduce the issue. Mr. Jaweed started slowly, ``The cases which come up in the court are sometimes colorful, but they are normally distorted. In their zeal to be on the good side of the law, both parties invariably alter their stories to fit. In reality, the situations discussed and argued over in the court are creation of the fertile minds of the lawyers - they are very different from the real incidents they are supposed to represent.''
``Yes, that's why it seems to me that the power of the lawyers is stronger than the power of the law. Still, don't you know something really interesting?''
``Not all incidents deliberated in the court are out of the ordinary. But, there are many things that happen outside the court that are far more fascinating, and at times unbelievable. Are you sleepy?''
``No, I am not sleepy. It is a beautiful evening. The sweet fragrance of the flowers is adding to its warmth.''
Instead of waiting for any response from me, he continued, ``Let me tell you a story from real life.''
He started slowly. ``It is a story about property and inheritance. There were three brothers in a poor farming family. The oldest one was very naive, straight-forward, and down-to-earth. Till the day their father was alive, all three lived in harmony. But, arguments and quarrels started soon after the father's death. All three had married by that time. The oldest one had three sons, no daughter. The younger two also had young children.''
It was as if he was casually recounting a story he could clearly visualize with his own two eyes.
I listened silently.
``Finally, the scant inheritance was divided among the three. There was not much liquidity in the estate. In terms of real estate, there were only eight acres of farmland. The three got equal share of the land. But, it was impossible for a family of five to survive on such meager acreage. So, the oldest one, wanting to start a new life elsewhere, sold his share of the land to the next brother. At such a time, suddenly his wife passed away. And, thus started a new chapter in his life - a chapter of endless struggle, and extreme pain and suffering.
Mr. Jaweed waited for a few moments. He lighted a cigarette. I also lighted one for myself and started smoking. I had expected the story to be eventful, and mysterious. I was a little disappointed listening to this simple and ordinary story.
He started again.
``His brother bought the land, but hadn't paid for it. The informal understanding was that he would pay slowly over time. Being illiterate and extremely naive, he never distrusted his younger brother. At his younger brother's urging, he even went to the court and signed the sales deed stating that he had received all the money. Later, the younger brother refused to pay up. The older brother was at his wit's end. He was clueless regarding what his options were. A few advised him to sue his brother, but others told him that there was not even the remotest possibility of his winning. So, blaming himself , the older brother ruefully decided to accept what fate had in store for him.''
I expressed superficial sympathy for the man I did not know, ``Oh, dear! What an unfortunate situation''
``It is nice that you feel sympathy for him. But not a single soul in the village said a word on behalf of this simple and naive man who was cheated out a livelihood by his own brother. Finally, one day he sold his dead wife's jewelry to his youngest brother for a sum of seventy five rupees, took his three sons, and left his dear village for ever.''
Once again, I commented with outward sincerity, ``Our society has become self-centered and cruel these days!''
``Selfish and self-centered! Some definitely are! But, not everyone is. If a section of the society is selfish, there is another section that is upstanding, open-minded, and helpful beyond the remotest expectation. If it were not so, the naive and the simpletons in the society could never survive.''
``What happened then?''
``Oh, yes! Let me continue. With an uncertain future, he moved to the city. He brought his three little boys with him. All he had was a sum total of a hundred rupees. The kids were not old enough to understand the cruelties inflicted upon them by the society. But, luckily the very day he arrived at the town, he discovered a new path to survival.''
``I feel a little better for him now.''
``There was an old woman at the edge of the city. Kindly, she offered shelter to the father and the three kids for the night.
``Well, who will let a stranger stay with them, even for a night, in the city?''
The moon had traveled quite a bit down the sky. The smell of fresh grass was invigorating. The sounds from the kitchen had quieted down. Judge Jaweed continued.
``The old woman sold ground spices in the bazaar. Till the middle of the night, she ground turmeric roots, cumin seeds, black pepper, coriander leaves and other spices in a tall, traditional mortar called ooral, with her own hands. Then, she divided them into small packets. The next day, she carried the packets in a box on her head and hawked them. In the bazaar, in the restaurants - wherever she could. She made a very small profit, and managed her sorry life with her meager earnings. She felt sympathy for the uprooted father and his motherless sons, and gave them shelter. Not just for a night, but for eleven long years.''
``For eleven years?'' Only now, I could find some mystery and life in his otherwise dull story.
``He did not know a soul in the city. He did not know where else he could go. So, when the old woman invited them to stay, he accepted gladly. It became more than a family. In the beginning, the older boy and his father helped the old woman grind spices in the mortar. But the woman forbade the children to do this menial job. She enrolled the three children in the public elementary school in the neighborhood.''
I was a bit sleepy-headed by now. But, I liked the flowing story. I continued to listen in silence.
``They ground spices day after day. But, they devised a different plan for street peddling. During the day, the woman cooked for everyone, washed clothes and took care of other household chores. There was no time for her to walk the streets. So, it became the father's responsibility to carry the box of spices daily to the market on his head, and sell the packets. Since he was a man, his profits soon increased.''
He stopped for a short while and lighted another cigarette.
``The boys were gifted. They were excellent students. They might have never gone to school if they had lived in the village. But, being in the city, they got the opportunity of their lives. So, they studied with all their hearts and their minds. Soon, the older boy won a prestigious scholarship.''
Mr. Jaweed stood up from the lawn and started walking back and forth. I also stood up to give him company.
``One day, the woman told them that she felt a pain in her chest and laid down on the bed to rest. She passed away the next day.''
The judge fell silent. I also felt a tinge of sympathy for the old woman.
``The woman did not have any relatives. But, probably there are very few people more loving and accepting than her. There are very few mothers who nurture and attend to their own children more lovingly. The old woman left behind her thatched hut and the mortar; those were her sole possessions. She also left behind a piece of advice to the father, ``Don't ever take your children out of school, no matter what. Let them study by any means, to the best of their abilities. Also, please don't give up on the business of spices. The time is good for this business. But, how long can you carry the box of spices on your own head? Buy a little vending cart.'' ''
``Every afternoon and evening, one would find the three- wheeled cart at the entrance to the bazaar. Everyone bought spices from him. The spices were fresh and of excellent quality. The sons helped the father at night. They ground dried roots, fruits and leaves in the mortar; they used a sieve to filter only the finest powder; they made neat packets containing one, two and four ounces of various spices. They also studied and did their homework at the same time.''
The judge came back to his chair. I followed him to mine. Darkness had spread all around. The night was deep. At such a time, people's simplicity and naivetŽ show through their facades; they become less guarded. They divulge their deepest secrets and pains without the slightest hesitation.
Mr. Jaweed continued at his easy pace, ``It was difficult for all four. They ate a full stomach only in the evening. They passed days with light snacks. Three boys had to go to school; they had to be fed and clothed properly - there were a lot of expenses. Despite the struggle, the oldest son started attending college in a few years.''
``It may sound incredible, but they did not go back on the word given to their benefactor, the old lady, at her death bed. Yes, it sounds impossible - the son of a barefoot spice peddler attending college! And, yes, it was also very improbable that the son of pauper would win a coveted scholarship for excellence in state-wide matriculation examinations, competing among tens of thousands, some very privileged.''
``Never for a moment did the father ponder over himself, over his own life of complete deprivation. He never boasted that his sons attended college. He did not feel ashamed hawking spices on the streets even though his sons were star students in college. In his own mind, his life was not his own, his life was solely for the good of his boys. When his sons would do well on difficult examinations, and would pass milestones with flying colors, he would be energized, he would find more strength in his body to work the mortar. Once in a rare while, his sons would buy a new shirt or a new pair of pants with money saved from selling spices or their hard-earned scholarship; they would also buy a shirt for their father. At such moments, a divine smile would brighten up the tired face of the aging father.''
`` ``You didn't have to buy anything for me!'' He would turn around to hide his face soaked with tears of pride and satisfaction. Over the years, his hair slowly turned gray, he lost a few molars; his face became shriveled and lost its luster; his eyes became weaker - but the strength of his two arms never decreased a bit. He pushed the three-wheeled cart to the market every day of his life. Neither the scorching sun nor pouring rain, neither the chill of the coldest winter nor the unbearable heat of tropical summers could bring any irregularity to his life. How could his customers cook their meats and vegetables deliciously without the superior quality spices only he sold?''
So long I had concluded that the jurist was a staid man, not given to emotions. But, I realized he was not the man I thought he was. He had a very soft heart. I had always thought tender-hearted judges were good for the society.
Since he was silent for a few minutes, I surmised that the story had ended. I became curious to find out how the judge came to know of this moving story. Was the story gleaned from a case that was decided in his court? Who sued whom and why? Was there a relative of the woman who appeared out the blue determined to drive the hapless family out of the only shelter they knew? Whom did the judge decide the case for?
Just as I was going to ask a question, he resumed, ``There are many stories and anecdotes about the sacrifice mothers make for their children. But, there are also many instances of remarkable fathers making the supreme sacrifice of their lives for their children. A mother receives her inspirations from the limitless love she possesses, but a father's inspiration derives from a sense of binding duty. Isn't it true?''
I never had the time to ponder over such lofty topics. So, I respected the judge's observations. It was remarkable that he was able to discover moral principles underlying the facts of life. I agreed with him, ``Yes, that's very true. Sometimes, even the most ordinary man or woman sacrifices immeasurably for the benefit of the progeny.''
My comment hurt him.
``Ordinary man or woman? No, no, these are not ordinary men or women! An ordinary man can give a hundred thousand rupees to a charitable cause, donate an expensive house or a hundred acres of land. But, do you realize what these ordinary spice vendors do? They sacrifice their own lives, ounce by ounce, day by day, for the sake of the children they bring forth to this world. An ordinary man doesn't consciously abandon every hope, every desire, and every pleasure, and lead an existence of selfless asceticism, just for the sake of his children. Only an extra-ordinary soul does, a spice vendor does.''
His voice was impatient and carried a hint of deep pain and hurting.
I had difficulty understanding the significance of the judge's outburst. The sacrifice of the spice trader was extra-ordinary, but the sacrifice of one who gives a hundred thousand rupees sheer ordinary! I was a bit astonished with his conclusions.
After a short break he continued, ``These men are born to suffer and sacrifice. Their fate doesn't allow them to even get an isolated breath of pleasure and enjoyment. Are you tired? Have I bored you with my monologue? Yes, such ordinary stories of real life irritate successful people like us.''
``Oh, no! I am sorry if I gave you such an impression. Please tell me, what happened to the boys.''
``The older boy graduated with honors from college with a BA in philosophy.''
``He received a BA?''
``Yes, but he could not liberate his old man from daily drudgery. He graduated from college, but could not find a job right away. But, his father wanted his younger sons to continue studying. So, he continued peddling.''
``About six months after graduation of the oldest son, one day, the father came back from the bazaar and said, ``My body is aching all over. I may be running a fever. If you can, go ahead and grind the spices for tomorrow.'' He did not eat anything that night. The intensity of his fever and aches shot up during the night. After a long life steeped in the travails of hard menial labor, it was as if his blood had all drained out of his mortal body in the profusion of sweat over the years. His eyes were lusterless, his mouth dry. His sons arranged for medical treatment that they could afford. But, it did not help the shriveled body of a man who had borne the brunt of many years of strenuous physical labor. And, just before he died...''
The judge's voice quivered, he sounded restless. He stood up from his chair and deliberately said, ``Let's go inside. It's very late.''
We walked inside. He turned the light on. I looked momentarily at his face. It seemed to me that it was not Judge Jaweed who stood in front of me, it was a strange old man from another planet. His eyes looked pathetic, his lips were pale. He must have been crying in the darkness outside for a long time.
``Just before he breathed his last, he heard that his oldest son had passed the very competitive Civil Services Examinations, and had been directly appointed to the high government position of E.A.C - Extra Assistant Commissioner. He was too weak to respond. However, hearing the news, his pale eyes regained a little of their lost shine. It was as if he had succeeded in capturing, at long last, the coveted fruit of his lifelong sacrifice. It was as if all the sweat he had lost over many long years had been amply rewarded.''
Suddenly, I looked at his face intently. Was Mr. Jaweed telling me the story of his own life for so long? Without letting me contemplate for long, Mr. Jaweed added, ``Let me finish the story.''
I followed him as he walked along the long corridor of the huge house. ``Never in his life did he ride on a vehicle of any kind. He just pushed a cart till his death.'' His voice had the touch of a dark night - damp and deep.
He unlocked the door to a large room, and turned on the light. I saw a three-wheeled cart on top of a large table. It seemed that there was a disembodied voice trapped in the room, a voice still sighing in pain.
He walked to the vehicle, and said in his moist voice, ``This is father's vehicle. Father and his cart kept us alive, and made us what we are. The vehicle is here. But, our beloved father is no more.'' His voice sounded as if it had traveled through a deep canyon in the mountains.
Slowly, he continued, ``I could not do anything to repay my father. But, father continues to live for us in this vehicle. This cart is more valuable than the lives of all three of us combined. All of us, now, own several vehicles each - very expensive four-wheeled automobiles. But, this vehicle, this three-wheeled pushcart has done so much for us that no automobile can ever do. I dust and clean this vehicle myself. It has the touch of my father's sweat, the sweat that dripped from his forehead every day. None else can understand the honor, respect and veneration which we have for that sweat.''
The story is a translation of the story called "Tinisakiyaa Gaari".