GOWANUS 
Spring 2003
 
THE DONKEY-MAN

By Mohammad Nasrullah Khan & Marlene Amero
 

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Every night on my way home I pass a dark corner and encounter a donkey lying there, a donkey that has worked very hard over the years to carry his masterís load. His front legs both seem broken. At first, I tried to avoid him because he reminds me of our common destiny. He tries so hard to get up. He tries to go on laboring for his master, but he has barely any strength. One night I felt compelled to stop and watch as he struggled to stand. He managed to reach an upright position, but then his body began to wobble and he collapsed. He seems to know where he wants to go, but he only manages to move a few feet each day. 

That donkey reminds me of Hussani, someone who came from a very low- born family but for whom I couldnít help but feel pity. I also learned a lot through making his acquaintance. We may learn to recognize our common humanity by studying literature, but it was through mathematics that I learned how to determine Hussani Poweleyís status in our village. It was when Father was testing me to see how well I had learned to count.

"Son, how many animals are in our courtyard?"

I was sure I had counted nine, but according to my father I was wrong.

"No, there are not nine, my son." 

I thought Father was wrong and to prove it I started counting on my fingers. There were two cows, three goats, one mare, one donkey, one dog, and one Hussani, who I thought was also an animal.

Father laughed. "But Hussani is not an animal. He is a human being like us."
I disagreed. How could Hussani be a human being when he spent all his time with animals?

We brought our dispute to the court of my grandfather. The whole family was present and a decision was announced: Hussani was human. But even though I had lost my case I was awarded one rupee for making a strong argument.
It was hard for me to sleep that night because my tiny brain was not ready to accept the fact that Hussani was human. Questions kept flooding my mind: If he is a man, why does he not live like us? Why is he always with the animals? He even sleeps on the ground with them. In my dreams I saw Hussani eating grass, walking like a donkey and barking like a dog.

Hussani was the only servant of our large family. His big front teeth made him look like he was perpetually smiling. His complexion was like burnt stone. His mother died when he was only ten years old. No one knew anything about his father because his mother didnít want to reveal that secret. I only knew what I knew about him because of stories Hussani used to tell me. After his mother died he was driven away because the village people thought of him as a whoreís son. When they were driving him out of town it was my grandfather, then chief of the village, who brought him back to our house. 

Our village lies at the foot of hot, dry mountains. Due to a very low water level, the land is not suitable for agriculture, and there is only one well in the village for a population of nine hundred. Hussani got up early each morning to draw water from it before he went out to graze with the animals where he remained all day. At sunset he reappeared on his slow-moving ass, looking like a man from the Stone Age. As he rode through the dusty streets the villagers mocked him, saying he had an unacceptable relationship with the ass. They shouted, "Hey, Hussani, the ass moves like you put her to better use today."

Someone else cried from the tea-hut, "No, donít say that. The ass is Huss- aniís sister. How could he do it with his sister?"

Hussani was very much like that donkey I spoke of earlier--big-hearted. He always showed his big smile, hoping he could get people to smile back at him. Though he had no home and his clothes were ragged and worn, he was grateful. He had a mare, but because he was born to ride donkeys, he never rode her. Each evening as I stood at the big front door of our courtyard, I heard the melancholy chimes, like tragic music in an old film, as Hussani made his way down the Black Mountains with his slow-moving animals like a ragged line of retreating troops. He always brought back something for me-- wild fruits, flowers, mushrooms. But better than all these, he had stories to tell. Stories of wolves and other, fantastic creatures. 

Thursdays and Fridays were Hussaniís good days. Those were the days the simple-minded villagers cooked special dishes and left them under the thick trees of the fields, thinking ghosts lived in the trees and the only way to please them was to offer sweet dishes. Hussani secretly ate as much as he could, thus reaffirming the villagersí faith.

I and my friends became young men. Our grandparents died, elder brothers became fathers, but Hussani never changed. His responsibilities only in- creased; he had to lift even more water on his feeble shoulders. My elder uncle became the head of the family. He was very strict and often beat Hussani. Then, rather suddenly, Hussaniís personality began to change. He started to dress differently. He used to wear only one set of clothes that he washed scarcely once a month, but now he began washing them every week. This new fastidiousness did not long go unnoticed, nor did the reason for it.
Hussani had fallen in love with the village beggarís daughter. But the villagers did not approve because they thought Hussani lived too much like an animal and was a disgrace to them all. Too, beggars lived outside the village and were even more detestable than the servants who where lodged inside it. Hussani also had some status by being the servant of the village chief. 
Soon the news of the disgusting love affair reached my uncle.

"Who can love such a donkey--someone who has always lived with ani- mals?" 

He could have punished Hussani for such a presumption, but he decided to make of the news an entertainment for the nobles of the village. For, no one thought Hussani was worthy of any womanís love. The issue was to be de- cided in the presence of an aristocratic assembly. One night all the headmen gathered in my uncleís big sitting room. Hussani sat on the ground in the center of them.

"Well, Hussani, is it true you are in love with the daughter of a beggar?" asked Uncle in his heavy voice.

Hussani sat with his head bowed, not saying a word.

Another voice remarked, "His mother was also a great lover." Everyone laughed, and there followed an interlude during which they all told dirty jokes about Hussaniís mother.

"She was the teacher of our youth. She shared the violent burden of our puberty."

Hussaniís love wilted and died under the stinging laughter. When he rose from the meeting, he felt free of its burden. His mother had taught him how to live, but she had never taught him how to dance with death. He resumed carrying his water pitchers and went back to doing his other chores as though nothing unusual had happened. After that no one ever saw him near the beggarsí huts again.

I left the village in search of a job. When I returned many years later to attend a cousinís wedding, I could not find Hussani anywhere. I was told he was living outside the village, suffering from tuberculosis, and that the disease had almost finished him. I knew no one would take him to a doctor because it would be humiliating to be seen with the donkey-man. 

I found him lying alone in a dark, cold hut. I was barely able to stand the smell. For a few minutes he did not recognize me. When he did he began to weep. He tried to speak, but each time the congestion in his lungs prevented him. It was difficult for him even to breathe. "Hussani,Ē I said, ďdonít worry. Tomorrow I will take you to a doctor. You will soon be all right."

At the door of the hut I looked back and saw the shadow of death on his face. He called me back and whispered, "Khan, life will go on whether I wish it to or not." 

He died that night and was buried the next morning. There was no ceremony, because no one knew what religion he was. I still wonder why the villagers allowed his body to be interred in a graveyard set aside for human beings. He had certainly never been treated as one in life.

He was still smiling when they laid him in his grave. He seemed incapable of abandoning that smile, even if he had severed his ties with this life. It was as if he was saying to us all that death isnít as horrible as we think. 

Now, after so many years have passed, this dying donkey has brought back to me these memories of Hussani. And I again asked myself, "Was he a man or a donkey?Ē But this time I have no hesitation answering the question. Would God that we all could be such a man. 

(Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a Pakistani whose work has found critical acclaim in his own country. He teaches English in Saudia Arabia. Marlene Amero is a Canadian who writes both poetry and prose.) 


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