family owned the town’s oldest tannery. It had a large backyard.
We dealt in leather.
We bought the hides of dead
animals and sold cured leather.
The business was good.
Carts rumbled in and out of our
yard at all hours of the day.
the day men could be seen either unloading dusty hides off carts or loading
them with stacks of tanned leather.
Our house, a two storied
affair, was above the main gate of the tannery. The stairway descended to the
road. The women and children of the house were not supposed to enter either the
shop or the yard.
Father had married a second
time. My brother and I were born of his first wife. Father married his second
wife after our mother died.
Our step-mother gave birth to three
children. Only the son survived.
My step-bother was the darling
of his mother. She loved him dearly. Her behaviour towards me was alright. But
she couldn’t stand my brother.
My brother had always been
cantankerous. He loved to bandy words and to pick up fights. He would bicker
with us children and even argue with father. And father never said anything to
him. If my step-brother and I didn’t go to school or study or press his feet at
night, father would give us a tongue-lashing; but if my brother played hooky
for days in a row, father just kept quiet.
The secret was revealed for us
My brother kept pigeons. He had
failed twice in the seventh standard and had no intention of sitting for the
exam again that year.
The pigeons were kept on the
Attracted by the pieces of flesh
and hide, kites and crows hovered above our roof.
For this reason the pigeons were
kept in a box. It was a huge box. The pigeons slept in pigeon- holes at one end
of the box. In the remaining space they flew, pecked at grains of millet, drank
water, strutted around and cooed.
As soon as he woke up my
brother would go to see the pigeons with a notebook in hand. In his notebook he
kept an account of the names of the pigeons, their eggs and chicks and the
number of days it took for the eggs to hatch.
My step-brother and I often
followed my brother to the roof. We would then be charged with the
responsibility of fetching water for the pigeons. Our brother would give us a
bucket and we would scamper to the water-pump downstairs. In the fifties, when
we were children, there was only one water-pump and it was in the yard
That summer, we had to fill two buckets for
the house before we were allowed to fill one bucket with cold water for the
pigeons and carry it up to the terrace.
“What did you write
today?” we would ask as we handed to him the bucket of water. “Nothing.”
My brother often evaded the question. We would despondently gaze at the pigeons
from a distance.
One morning my brother started the
conversation himself, ‘the big hen-pigeon is sick today.”
“Let us see!” My
step-brother and I were excited.
“Be careful.” my
brother said, as he put the sick hen-pigeon in my hand.
My step-brother’s eye rested on
a big, healthy pigeon.
“Can I hold it?” my
“This one is tricky, it can
fly out of your hands just like that.”
“I will hold it very
My brother’s apprehension proved
My step-brother had just about
caught the pigeon when it wriggled out of his hands and flew to the parapet.
My brother dashed after it.
Unaware of the danger, the pigeon flitted from one parapet to the other teasing
A huge kite swooped down on the
pigeon and carried it off.
My brother hit the kite with a
stone. It staggered for a second then continued its flight faster than before.
The pigeon and the kite
vanished into the distance.
Mad with rage, my brother
caught hold of my step-brother and started thrashing him.
Scared, my step-brother
shouted for his mother.
Our step-mother arrived at
“Leave him alone,”
she screamed, “or I shall call your father. He will slit your throat and
throw your body into that tank.”
“Which tank?” My
brother let go of my step-brother and turned towards our step-mother.
“Oh! I don’t know, how
am I to know?” Our step-mother’s face turned ashen.
At the other end of the
yard there were two large tanks. The raw hides were soaked in a solution of
salt, ammonia and sulphur in one tank, and the tanned hides were washed in the
“Well, say something
now.” My brother laughed, “Why are you quiet?”
step-mother put her arms around my step-brother.
everything,” my brother laughed again, “but I am not afraid of
anyone. I suckled at the breast of a tigress, not at that of blind bat hanging
“Whom did you
call a bat?” Our step-mother spluttered in rage.
“I called a
bat, a bat?” my brother spat in her direction. “He threw two of your
daughters into the tank and you didn’t react. My tigress mother died fighting.
As long as she lived no one dared to strangle her daughter…..”
“You two come with
me.” Put out of countenance, our step-mother looked at me. “I bought
some jilebis for breakfast
I loved jilebis, but I held the sick hen-pigeon
tightly in my hands.
“You go,” my step-brother
said, as he freed himself from his mother, “we shall come down soon.”
step-mother said as she turned to go. “But come soon.”
“Why were the girls
thrown into the tank?” I stood close to my brother – real close.
“Because they were
“Is it bad to be a
girl?” my step-brother asked.
“Our father thinks there are difficulties
involved in bringing up girls.”
“Money. One has to
spend a lot to get them married,”
“But we have loads of
money,” I said.
there is money, it has to be saved,” my brother laughed.
“How did mother
die?” I asked. I knew nothing about my mother. There wasn’t even a
photograph of her in the house.
“There was a struggle about the little
girl. Father beat her, but she was brave. She struggle against father as
bravely as she could, but he was stronger. He stuffed her dupatta down her throat and she died.”
“You didn’t do
“I tried. I scratched
and pinched his arms and his back, I even bit his legs, but then he punched my
face so hard my teeth rattled…..”
“Didn’t the police
“No. Nobody called
“What was she
like?” I was curious.
“She liked beads. She
made bead-pictures. I used to bring her beads from the market.”
“Did she love
birds?” my step-brother asked. “All those pictures are birds.”
There were bead- pictures in all the niches of the house.
“Yes, she made cocks,
parrots and pigeons. Her favourites were pigeons. She used to say that pigeons
are intelligent and loyal…… She knew so many stories about
“I want to hear those
stories,” I said.
“Me too,” my
“But she hated leather
passionately. She spat all the time and she said that the stink of leather had
pierced her heart.”
“I don’t like leather
either,” my step-brother said.
“When I am older,
I’ll leave this yard,” my brother smiled. I’ll go away, to some other town
and set-up a bead factory there……”
None of us ate jilebis that day.
Translated by Madhu