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Rasheed Amjad


In Search of the Seven-coloured Bird

It was over breakfast that he had thought of getting the old string cot standing on the back terrace, re-strung. They had disposed off a lot of their old things when they moved to this new house. Somehow this string cot had got here. For a couple of days they had used it to sit in the sun on the back terrace. Then life became so busy that basking in the sun became a rare treat. The cot had been strung with coarse hand-spun tape. Ravished by the rains and the sun, the coarse tapes soon gave way to hanging listlessly. Then one day his elder son ripped off the hanging strips of the weather-beaten tape from the cot’s frame and stacked it against the wall. For years it stood there, just like that. Sometimes when he ventured on the back terrace he would think of selling it off to the ragman along with other useless things. Then he would forget all about it... Nobody had ever thought of getting it re-strung. It had no utility. There were brand new beds in every room and then there wasn’t any space either, for the string cot. But that morning on the breakfast table, he thought of getting the cot re-strung. Winter was just around the corner and it would come in useful when basking in the sun. They could at least use it on holidays. Eating in the sun gives such a lovely feel. In the old house they had often eaten on the roof, especially in the winters. But now there was a drawing room. There were tables and chairs, but nothing like eating under the sun while basking on a string cot, he reflected. He didn’t mention it to his wife because like always, she was sure to harangue him for useless spending. There was always an ongoing argument between necessary and unnecessary expenditures in the house. There was just enough money to go round. Wasn’t it enough, he would say, that they were living a decent middle class life. But the wife still had to get so many things for the house. There were curtains to change, bed sheets to buy; there were the kids with their demands of this and that. The old string cot featured nowhere in anybody’s scheme of things. Nobody in the entire household supported it, so he put off mentioning its repair until he could get the materials required for its mending and find somebody to do it. In the old locality the cot stringers would hawk their services every other day, but in this new place nobody peddled for such things. Why, there were no string cots in the entire neighbourhood. You had to go into the city if you wanted a string cot done. He thought he would take a round of the old city after work one of these days and bring along someone to string the cot.
He headed for the old city after office.
It wasn’t the day of string cots these days. The cots strung in coloured plastic tape looked so attractive. There were so many shops selling those near the overhead bridge. When he got there, the cots strung in multicoloured plastic tapes fascinated him. He got a flat refusal from the very first shop. The shopkeeper said, ‘You will get the tape but there is nobody to string the cot.’ He said that he would take the cot stringer with him and drop him back in his car.
The shopkeeper nodded his head in the negative. ‘Nobody strings cots these days. The handful who know the trade, are hardly enough to meet the demands of the city market. There is hardly any chance of your finding someone to do the job.’
He got the same response from the second, the third and the fourth shop. The disappointment put a damper on his hopes and the image of the cot on the terrace, strung in multicoloured plastic tape receded into a corner of his mind. ‘No hope at all?’ he asked the man in the last shop.
‘You might find somebody at the old bridge. I think you just might. There is a big market there,’ the storekeeper said.
Venturing into that part of the city at that time of the day wasn’t exactly child’s play, but he braved it. Maneuvering his car at snail’s pace through the narrow streets gave him an inexplicable ecstasy.
‘This is where life really is,’ he contemplated, ‘full to the brim.’
He reflected how, when a couple of years ago he had been living in the inner city, his own life too had been just as full. Overflowing to the brim. A never-ending melee. The camaraderie and warmth of human interaction from all around.
This new locality was all peace. Silence. Every person unto himself. The standard of living had gone up but it was like having moved from the bosom of mother earth and replanted in a pot. But this was his personal sensibility, for his wife and children were happy. At the mention of the inner city they would frown in displeasure, but he himself always found an excuse to wander into that locale. Even now, in spite of feeling ravenously hungry, he was getting a vicarious pleasure in inching through the streets.
The market on the other side was bigger. He parked his car with great difficulty. He got the same disappointing response from the first two or three shops: Bring the cot over.
‘This isn’t possible,’ he thought. ‘The carrier-van will not charge less than two hundred rupees for a one way trip. That will make four hundred just for cartage.’
‘So the cot can’t be strung.’ His heart sank.
In the twinkling of an eye the screeching bird on the back terrace took flight. The same old, cheerless terrace and the old frame of the cot against the wall.
‘All that trouble for nothing,’ he said to himself. ‘I might as well go back.’
‘Come in Sir, I have a great variety.’ He heard the voice coming from inside the shop before which he stood.
He went inside. The storekeeper was very good-natured. He began, ‘Take your pick. The rates are very reasonable.’
‘I don’t have to buy anything,’ he said hesitatingly, ‘I have to get a cot strung.’
‘Hum, you want to get it strung…where is it?’
‘It is a bit of a distance from here, but I can take the chap along and drop him back. I’ll get all the material from you. Just the chap…’ he said hastily.
The storekeeper eyed him for an instant, then, ‘It’s hard to get the chap these days but you take a seat. I’ll go find out.’
The multicoloured bird was back on the back terrace, after a swirling flight in the depths of the sky. The storekeeper left him sitting. He bid his time between hope and despair.
‘The chap isn’t available right now but you can get him early tomorrow morning. You will have to come and pick him up at six in the morning for if he starts work somewhere else…’
‘I shall be here … shall be here,’ he said quickly. ‘Tomorrow is a Sunday. It’s a holiday. I shall be here at six.’
‘Take the material right now,’ suggested the storekeeper. ‘I shall open shop late tomorrow, but the chap will be here.’
Putting the skeins of tape in the car he suddenly thought, what if the chap did not show up the next morning? These four hundred rupees would go down the drain.
He turned to the storekeeper, ‘Look, if tomorrow morning the chap doesn’t ….’
The storekeeper interrupted him midway, ‘The chap will be here Sir, but after six o’clock I am not responsible.’
His wife saw the material on the rear seat of the car as he parked it in the porch. Her glance took in the skeins. ‘What is that?’
He panicked. He would have preferred to have had his dinner first and then explain it all at leisure, but today his wife had come out to open the gate.
‘This…’ he moistened his throat with saliva, ‘I thought, that, that upstairs…on that back terrace upstairs…that cot, it should be re-strung.’
‘What…!’she shrieked, ‘that old cot. For whom…and all this material. How much did it cost?’
‘Not much…’ he stammered, ‘Just three, four hundred rupees.’
‘Three, four hundred…?’  she shrieked again.
‘Four hundred and fifty.’ The words dropped from his tongue in confusion.
‘Four hundred and fifty...?’ her shrieks gathered volume. ‘And the labour?’
‘Two hundred…. two hundred…’ He did not know what to say.
‘Six hundred and fifty…’ his wife slapped her forehead in vexation. ‘Are you in your senses…six hundred and fifty rupees for a useless cot…?’
He escaped inside.
‘Here we are starving to death and His Lordship goes around buying string. I was worrying why he was getting so late today and he…’
He tried to put in a word.
‘Enough, enough,’ she yelled in infuriation. ‘Don’t even talk to me…’
‘Look, please listen to me…’ over lunch, he tried to speak gently.
‘What should I listen to…?’ Her anger knew no bounds. ‘Your priorities are all mixed up. What are we going to do with this cot?’
‘Winter is round the corner. We will use it for basking in the …’
‘Who can afford to bask in the sun? There is hardly any time…’she cut through his sentence. ‘What are we going to do with this cot? There is no place to keep it.’
‘I have lost my calculator. There is no money for that and you have gone and spent four hundred and fifty rupees on the cot,’ his elder son complained.
‘Just be quiet, all of you,’ he scolded.
‘Why should we be quiet…?’ the wife’s temper shot up. ‘You don’t have money for the house and you go around spending it on this useless stuff… Return the material.’
‘That can’t be done…’ he ventured quietly.
‘Why can’t it be done…? Tell the storekeeper to take it back at a discount. If you can’t do it, then I will go with you. I shall talk to him myself.’
‘Okay, then don’t talk to me.’ She got up and walked away. Both the boys followed her. He was left sitting there, all alone.
‘I made a mistake,’ he reflected… ‘Really, what is the use? There is the whole month to go by and these six, seven hundred rupees, all for nothing…I could have bought the boy a calculator for five hundred…He reminds me every day about it. But what can I do now? The tapes can’t be returned and then …tomorrow.’
He moved his head sideways in annoyance…six o’clock in the morning …getting up late on a holiday …such a luxury. I have to get there at six o’clock. That means I have to get up at five. I really messed it up. He reproached himself. This was nothing new for him…he had often worked like that…do something and then reproach himself. ‘This is my fate.’
Despondence rent the air all day. Over tea, in the evening, his wife said, ‘I wasn’t going to talk to you but once again I am telling you, go return the stuff. You are always like that. First you do something and then realize your mistake. You ought to pay heed to me.’
He said, ‘It isn’t possible now. He will never take it back.’
‘I will talk to him. Be reasonable, after all what are we going to do with the cot?’
He moved his head in the negative, ‘I know he will never take it back.’
His wife stomped out in a huff.
It was the same at dinnertime. The boys sat through the meal with swollen faces. The wife didn’t say a word. He couldn’t be silent any longer… He said, ‘Okay, it was a mistake but what can we do now?’
‘This is an old excuse,’ his elder son remonstrated.
‘It’s a mistake each time.’ There was bitterness in his wife’s tone. After all when will you get some common sense? How did you ever get that idea about the cot into your head?’
‘Father has not been to the terrace since so many days…’ the younger son added his bit, ‘I wonder how he managed to see the cot.’
‘It’s all my bad luck...’ The wife slapped her head hard in exasperation. ‘I really don’t understand how this cot got into his head. I have been trying to get the exhaust fan in the kitchen replaced since so many days. It doesn’t work properly. There is no money for that and this cot…’
He said nothing. In any case what could he have said? He was guilt stricken at having wasted so much good money. What would it have mattered if the cot had not been mended? So many other utilities in the house required attention. But never mind, it was the same thing all over again. What could he do now.
Momentarily he thought of going back and trying to return the material. But the storekeeper... his attitude, the whole scenario. ...He was positive the stuff could not be returned. The only remaining option was that six o’clock in the morning….getting out of bed on a Sunday, a holiday …five in the morning. What a mess he had got himself into, just like that.
It was Saturday night. They usually sat up late talking of this and that, but the wife’s mood was so awful that he didn’t dare strike up a conversation. The boys went into their own rooms after dinner. The husband and the wife turned over to their sides in bed. It was tough getting up at five in the morning but he had to be there at six. The man was waiting. On the way back he said to him, ‘Better do a good job. This cot has created quite a problem.’
‘Don’t you worry Sir. I shall do such a good job that everybody will fall for it.’
When he got home everybody was still fast asleep. He took the man to the back terrace. He handed over the bag with the material and came into the kitchen, made a cup of tea for himself and settled down to read the newspaper in the lounge.
‘If you were going to have tea, you might as well have woken me up.’ The bitterness of the night before was absent from her tone.
‘Err…actually… I had to go very early,’ he said softly.
‘So you have brought him over.’
‘Forget it yar...now let it be.’
‘This is an old habit with you. First you do something and then repent over it.’
‘What can I do now…You can’t change your habits at this age.’
‘Darling, that is why I am always telling you to discuss things with me before you go and do something.’
He sighed with relief and went upstairs.
The chap was an expert. He was already half way through the stringing.
The multicoloured bird shone on the terrace in full splendour.
He dropped the man back after two or three hours. When the wife and his sons saw the cot, they were all praise for it. It looked like a seven-coloured bird dancing on the terrace.
‘That was a lot of money but it looks nice,’ said the wife.
 ‘It is beautiful,’ said the elder son.
‘It’s a wonderful combination of colours, Father.’ The younger son added. ‘I am sure they are your choice. The storekeeper couldn’t have given such a lovely combination.’
Happiness enshrouded him.
yar: a friendly and casual way of addressing someone
‘Now where is it to be placed?’ asked his wife. ‘It will wear out in the rains. Let us put it in the verandah for now. I will look up somewhere for it. Hey, it looks great.’
They talked animatedly over lunch. The cot crept into the conversation quite a few times and each time the colour combination got a lot of appreciation. After lunch he took a short nap and went out to see a friend. They started playing cards there. It was late evening by the time he got back. The wife was ready with a list of groceries. They were late in coming back from the market and it was soon time for dinner. He had just got into bed after dinner when he got a burning sensation in his chest. There was pain as well. His breathing grew slightly uneven. His wife called out to the son,’ Quick, get the car ready. Your father is not feeling well.’
The younger son also came along. Both the boys put him into the rear seat of the car. His wife took his head in her lap and began to recite something… He went into stress much before the car got to the hospital.
Perhaps it happened while they were putting him on the stretcher, or perhaps when they were shifting him on to the bed in the hospital emergency. Somewhere in between he lost the race for life.
They returned in the  ambulance. The wife beside him and the sons in a car at the rear of the ambulance. All hell broke loose then. The neighbours came out of their homes. They had brought the stretcher from the ambulance into the lounge, when somebody asked, ‘Where do we put the body?’
Somebody motioned towards the bedroom and the old woman from the neighbours said, ‘There is no cot in the house.’
‘The cot...’   his wife lifted her head, crying.
‘The cot ...’ both the sons looked at their mother between sobs.
‘It’s upstairs,’ the wife’s sobbing turned into a throbbing pain.
They pushed aside the sofa in the lounge and made a place for the cot in the centre of the room. From the stretcher, his lifeless body was transferred on to the cot.
‘So important to have a cot in the house,’ a woman whispered into her neighbour’s ear, ‘and nobody has them any longer.’
In the lounge, the seven-coloured bird, its wings spread out in splendour, chirped and pranced. But its chirping could not be heard by anybody. Neither could anybody see its colours.
Translated from Urdu by Nyla Daud

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Mohammad Hameed Shahid