The King and the Serpents
Translated by: Roshaida Khatun
Kartik, 1392, November, 1985
Bangla Academy, Dhaka.
A band of prisoners – twenty or maybe twenty-two in number – were being led by some five or six guards. It was at the foot of a hill and the road was fairly wide. But what if it were not so? The prisoners, fastened with ropes behind one another, were in fetters. There was no fear of their breaking loose and it hardly mattered whether the road was spacious or not.
Though one could see the lingering snow on the peak of Mr. Alburz, it was fairly warm owing to the approach of spring. Walking was not tiresome, yet they all, even the guards, were out of breath. It was apparent that they had traveled a long way.
A guard loosened his belt and cried out, “Damn it! It’s a bother – belt, sword, dagger, staff and all. Carry the load and walk at the same time!”
His companion did not like the comment. So he quipped, “Why don’t you quit the job then?”
“Hey buddy, what shall I eat then? And what about the kids?” The first guard’s address indicated warmth and intimacy.
“Then keep your big mouth shut”.
The other guards were listening. A third sentry joined in.
“We keep our mouth shut alright, but the livery and the weapons do not get any lighter”.
“Brother, these are royal dresses, they carry prestige”, said the guard bitterly.
The conversation went on.
“We walked for ten days and look at the number of preys we’ve taken”.
“What we’ve found is enough. Young men don’t grow everyday, in a country”.
Another guard who listened in silence, suddenly began to giggle.
“Well, what make you laugh all of a sudden? Some one asked while walking along.
“I wonder -” he could hardly finish before he was seized by a renewed burst of laughter.
“Why don’t you finish first, you rotter, and laugh as much as you like after?”
The man stopped laughing and said, “I was wondering if women gave birth to youths instead of babies, it wouldn’t have been so difficult to find them!”
“Tell the Emperor’s physicians to invent such medicine”, the guard said and began to laugh himself too. The laughing spread among all. But they were tired and this gaiety soon left them.
All this time the prisoners walked silently. All of them were youths. Some of them were very handsome. Weariness could not darken the radiance on their faces though they looked a little languid. A prisoner who was seventh in the line, did not look on the road. He was walking absentmindedly. It seemed that through his eyes, he wanted to come to an understanding with the faraway sky. The breeze made his hair fall on his fair face again and again. It was annoying. But the youth in chains was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not pay heed to it. Suddenly he sighed. The sound of the breath reached the prisoner in front, who was alert. He looked back and had a glimpse of his companion. He could not keep looking for long as he had to keep up with the others. Otherwise the guards would not only call him bad names but kick him with their boots.
Perhaps he was moved by his companion’s face or maybe he was a tender-hearted man. “Where are you coming from, brother?” he enquired.
“Kerman, and you?”
They spoke in a suppressed whisper because the prisoners were not allowed to talk. If the guards heard them they could do anything they liked. Who would dare prevent them? Yet the prisoners carried on the conversation.
“Where’re we going?”
“It’s the order of the Emperor they say”.
They fell silent for sometime and started talking again. But their voices were very low.
The prisoner at the back opened his mouth.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Harmuj. We’ve left behind so many cities in these last two weeks”.
“I’ve left behind my village. I can think no more, I’ve left everything on God’s hands.”
“That’s not too bad. But now we’re in the hands of these beasts”.
“It was such bad luck”.
“I had my father, mother, vineyard, and now things have come to such a pass’.
“How did you fall in their hands?”
“I was sleeping under the shadow of a tree in the afternoon. Suddenly they came and captured me”.
“Strange! The same thing happened to me”.
“Didn’t you shout”.
“They gagged my mouth”.
“They did the same to me”.
“But I’ve done no harm. Why should the Emperor’s people arrest us?”
“There’s no use saying it. We’ve come a long way. They have announced in the inns that we’re robbers”.
“No one would believe us today”.
The guards might have heard something by this time. One came running.
“You son of a bitch, are we to lose our jobs for you?”
“No sir. We’ve walked a long way. We want a little rest”.
“Shut up. Alright, rest can be taken near that fountain. But you mustn’t talk. It’s the order of the Emperor”!
Kubad turned back his face at the coming of the guard. His lips became silent just in time. The listener is not so much in danger as the talker.
The guard had kept his word. But Harmuj lost his old habits while taking rest. He had by now got used to the shock of his abduction. He was ready to settle something. Otherwise why would he call a guard and question him?
The prisoners drank the fountain water and sat down, resting their backs on the hills. The breeze was waiting for this opportunity. It blew on the prisoner’s faces like the caress of a mother. Harmuj breathed in to his fill, but he breathed out the air very slowly!
“Guard”, he called out.
The guards then, were enjoying themselves. They not only drank water, but ate Halwa. So jokes came easily along with the leisure.
One said, “There’s so much dust on my moustache that I can’t open my mouth. The breeze and the dust want to get in the same hole”.
“Let’s go home first. The dust and all these botherations will go away when we get some kisses at home”, remarked another.
“But buddy, my wife’s old!” the third fussed.
“Do you think wives become old?” the fifth guard raised a philosophical question.
“But my unlucky chap, it’s far better that they become old. The time’s not good. There’s court guard near my house. I’ve heard such things from him -”
“What have you heard?” everyone became interested.
“That I shall tell you later”, he replied. Just then he heard Harmuj’s call.
The mood of the aged guard was quite good. At least he did not swear at him.
“Prisoner, what’s it you want to say? Would you like to make wet?”
“I want to ask you something”.
“Spit it out, be quick”.
“Why have you imprisoned us?”
“How would I know?”
“You did it and you don’t know?”
The guard began to laugh this time. Three guards heard and joined in. They also became interested. The rest was not too bad and all wished to have some fun.
One of the guard’s companions asked “What’s the matter, Mabud?”
“This youngster here wants to know why we’ve caught them”.
Harmuj did not get nervous, but calmly asked “Who’s supposed to know if you don’t?”
His words seemed like flattery, so no one got angry.
The old guard replied “If we knew we would have become ministers.”
Harmuj did not have to gather courage. The chains rang at the moving of his hands.
“Strange! You’re doing something and you don’t know why?”
Suddenly the guards fell silent. They thought of the matter. The fellow was right. Had anyone raised the problem before, they could now have given an answer. But they had to remain silent today. Yet the old guard opened his lips.
“We know nothing. It’s the order of emperor Zahuk”.
“Emperor Zahuk’s order?” asked Harmuj.
“Yes, and we’re to do what we’re told.” The guard replied but felt illat east. There must be some cause for arresting these prisoners. He regretted for not having enquired before.
The guards looked at each other. The Kermani youth has pleaded before them a peculiar enigma. Specially the aged guard thought that he had caught so many prisoners during the last ten years, but why did not this question arise in his mind?
The caravan began to move again. But now an evenness came to their steps. Both the guards and the prisoners were silent and were absorbed in their own thoughts. The guards thought about the words of the Kermani youth. That was why they did not pay any heed to the whispering of the prisoners. Given other times they would torture the prisoners if they talked.
They were walking along the hilly area of Majendran. They would have to take shelter in some inn before nightfall. Maybe, they would hit the city in two days.
The prisoners talked not only with the persons at their back but also with the third and fourth behind them. Perhaps the guards were tired, so they did not think of punishing the prisoners for this offence. The prisoners were quite surprised. The guards were human beings, after all. It would be no wonder if they changed.
Harmuj thought of the matter. Although he was raised in the village yet he was taught by a saintly person when he was a boy. Harmuj never saws such a sweet and affectionate man. The memory of his teacher oppressed him. He could not help shedding tears when he remembered him.
His teacher too suddenly disappeared from the village. The rumour was that he stayed in the court for some time and later he was killed for treason. Harmuj did not have any opportunity for education. He had to help his father from his very childhood. It was because his elder brother died and his father whose health broke down, could no longer work in the field. The memory of the teacher mingled with that of his father. Perhaps his absence by now has made his father insane. Or maybe he is looking at the dark road waiting for him. Perhaps the wailing of his mother is rending the vault of the sky. Harmuj’s heart ached. But he was a hard-working youth. He did not break down so easily. He held his breath for some moments. Then he began to hum a tune.
He sang absentmindedly. The sweetness of his voice quietened the quards. The tune flowed on. All the prisoners joined in. The music became louder and it spead. The guards too, did not keep away from singing. They looked like shawdows in the half-lit evening. They cast away their weariness through this a tune.
Mabud, the old guard saw that they were mingled together. How did the difference between the oppressor and oppressed go away? The chorus was still on. But this should not be. He earned his living by the hardness of his heart. The chief guard had told him many times “You can’t obey the Emperor’s orders if you have love and affection. If you have the heart of a woman you better leave off”. But all of them were singing. What was the matter?
“Shut up” Mabud cried out. The singing stopped, but the charm lingered. His companions became annoyed. They were enjoying themselves.”This old man is blunt” they thought. One yelled at him¾ “What happened to you?”
“Stop this rubbiswh”
Later Mabud said calmly – “Don’t you know where we are? If the masters knew they’d kill us”.
“We haven’t yet reached the village off Alam Koh. It’s a deserted place. Who’s watching and who’s going to report?” All agreed with the speaker.
Mabud thought that his crime really was grave. So it was he who addressed Harmuj again and said “My dear Kermani youth, please go on with your singing”.
They valley filled again with the singing. First the tune came in like little drops, later it filled the valley to its brim.
Mabud sang with them, yet he did not feel happy. He was obsessed with the same question, “Why are we herding away these people….”.