आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

अंक 13 / Issue 13

Donkeys: Annie Zaidi

Once upon a time, I was in love with a donkey.

I did not know he was a donkey right away, of course. He had read so many books and he told me so many new things. Actually, he didn’t so much tell me new things as made me see old things in new ways. This made me fall in love with him quickly, the very second time we met.

To some people, it may seem like two meetings is not enough to decide whether someone is worthy of your love or not. But you will understand how it was so easy, as I tell you the whole story.

He was introduced to me through wily purpose, by a few old men who wished that I would stay on at their farm but were afraid I would leave if they didn’t quickly find somebody to hold my interest. So when he showed up, they held him there until I could be persuaded to take an interest in this new creature. He had a nice face. Not a handsome one, but nice. Like the name of those biscuits the old men would buy for me if they wanted me to have something special to nibble in the afternoons – ordinary biscuits with gleaming crystals of sugar sprinkled on top. He was like that: ordinary, but with an extra sweetness about the shape of his face and the lankness of the longish hair about his neck. His eyes were gentle and his ears small and he was an even pale brown all over.

When he first spoke, he asked a lot of questions. It seemed like he was really interested in me. But I later discovered that this was his way. He was intrigued by new things. But later must come later.

The next time we met, he talked about history. About long swathes of grass. About what it might be to look at the sky without tilting your neck backwards and how it might be if clear pools of liquid existed at the venue of our thirst, so we didn’t have to push our tired bodies to the faraway ponds. He talked about taps and knowledge and fences. It is hard not to love one who talks like this. Although, I should have realized at this point that he was a donkey.

We met a few more times, and each time, I wanted to see more of him. When I could not see him, I grew restless and wandered about, as if I did not know my right from my left. This is when I realized that I was caught up in the throes of what the world calls love.

One day, I met his father. He had taken me home to meet the old man because I had complained that I did not know his family at all, and besides, now that we had met each other enough times, we should plough ahead.

It was his father who pointed it out. The old man had looked at me up and down and said, “What is a lovely creature like you doing with this donkey?” and I knew at once that he was right.

They say, love is blind. It is not. But to love is to extend yourself, stretch yourself beyond the limit of what you have thus far recognized your self to be. It is to allow yourself to be persuaded that another creature can make your life fuller and that, together, you are better than apart.

So I tossed my head – but kept my eyes lowered since it was his father and I had to be respectful – and said, “What is wrong with donkey? I like donkeys.”

The old man’s lips quivered but he did not smile; he only asked, “Really? But donkeys are stupid beasts.”

I said, “I don’t know about stupid. But donkeys are gentle. They never hurt anyone unless they’ve been provoked beyond all reasonable limits of tolerance. Even then, they only kick out to stop those who are making them mad; they never hurt you for the sake of causing hurt. They are also strong; much stronger than they look. They don’t complain much and they are so hard-working that any other beast would just collapse and die if you worked them so hard. They don’t mind what you give them to eat and they don’t ask for constant amusement. They are glad just to stand there and rest, and eat. They mind their own business, but are not unsocial. They are open to affection if it comes their way, but not mad about it, like a dog. In their own way, they are loyal. After all, they stay. What more can you expect from somebody you want in your life? That they are never bored with you, and that they stay.”

His father laughed and stamped his foot on the floor; he was that amused. Right away, he gave his blessings.

As for him, my donkey, he was not amused at all. He had heard the conversation and he was so upset he was showing his teeth. Later, he asked me if I meant to say that I too thought he was a donkey.

I said, “What if you are? I told you, I would rather have a donkey than any other kind of beast.”

But he would not be comforted. He went from place to place, pacing, his eyes not resting on mine. I kept on trying to talk to him. I said that donkeys are the sturdiest, not only in body but also in mind; you never hear of donkeys having nervous breakdowns. That there was not one sector in this world where they had not contributed – whether it was agriculture or construction or travel or dairy or services like laundry or serving as a form of currency. I even tried to bring god into it. I pointed out that donkeys were divine creatures since they are associated with the birth of Jesus. He only snorted. He did not believe in god.

He would not come to the farm any more and when I tried sending messages, he would make up excuses like not being able to find the time. This hurt me very much and for days, I could neither eat nor sleep. Over and over, the conversation with his father and later, with him, would play itself in my mind. With time and repetition, I grew even more convinced of my own arguments. Donkeys were really the best creatures of all and nothing but a donkey would do for me now. The old men at the farm clicked their tongues into an emptiness of their own and made their peace with the imminent loss. I had to leave.

There was no other way. If I had stayed on, chewing food where we had once sat together to eat, drinking in the place where we had played with each others drinks – nobody can live like that. So I left that place and went to another, and then to another. From place to place, I wandered, working my way through the years.

Then I landed up in a place where there were a lot of donkeys. So many, that the cars hardly moved on the roads because there was always some donkey trying to cross over with his cart. These donkeys were strange, for they never made any sound and their heads were always bent. As if they were willing lambs about to be sacrificed.

I soon found out why. They were worked too hard and beaten too often. My heart would ache to look at them. For in loving one donkey, I had opened the floodgates to the love of all. Not that these donkeys were in the mood for love. They only wanted a little sleep and food, but their masters were brutes of the worst kind. Maybe they were made more brutish than their basic natures because there was so little food to go around that even the masters were eating loaves made of grass and wild seeds. Maybe it was the brutishness that had pervaded the very air and water of this place. Everywhere, people killed and maimed each other. There was little looting because there was little to be looted, but there was enough to be destroyed and there were enough willing to destroy.

But still, life must go on. People still went to work, and with them, the donkeys worked too. The crisis, however, had come to a boil and one day, one of the donkeys was killed right in front of me. He was a young donkey and had decided that enough was enough; today, he would either rest or die. He would not move one step further with that huge cart laden with grain and his master beat him and beat him until the donkey stopped breathing.

The whole marketplace stank of this murder and there was not one dry eye amongst the men. The donkeys did not cry, though, because their backs hurt too much and their legs trembled still. No matter how much the masters sorrowed, they would not relieve their own donkeys of the burden, not even on this day of mourning. That day, it was not just one donkey killed: it was the trust and will of a whole generation.

The next day, another donkey died. He simply walked into the great big river on whose banks this ancient town was built; cart and all. The owner mourned with much shouting and screaming though, from what I understood, a lot of the noise was about the goods that had been laden on the cart.

The third day, two donkeys died together in a suicide pact; again, by walking into the river. Other donkeys began to take longer beatings with thorny sticks and rag-whips, refusing to move if they would rather not.

The rulers were now disturbed. If things went on this way, the town might face a shortage of donkeys. The prices of everything else were already high as the sky. If donkeys too were going to cost more, the rulers of the land might as well pack their bags and flee in the dark of the night, while they could.

The keepers of the law were worried too. There were riots in town already. Until now, the one thing that kept people going was the calm strength of the donkeys: the one fixture in their lives for centuries past, who seemed to be untouched by the madness around them, and who allowed them to believe that this too would pass.

A team of doctors was called in and they went about the main roads, lifting a donkey chin here, checking a pulse there, feeling for the heart. Most of them stood up, shaking their heads. The team pronounced that the hearts of many donkeys were broken and there was no known cure. In the meantime, they issued a general prescription of rest and food. However, this was medicine beyond the means of most. Food there was little of, and if the donkeys rested, there would be even lesser.

The pall that hung over this place was so heavy that I thought of leaving. What was the point of staying to watch so much pain? Yet, I could not leave. Some part of me could not tear itself away until the donkeys found help of some kind. Or else, until they gave up on life itself. The very thought made me shudder.

Some madmen suggested mood enhancers and some owners who could afford them even fed the donkeys a bit of magic mushrooms. However, once they saw the effects this had on the beasts, they quickly started eating the magic mushrooms themselves. This led to another problem. Thieves would wait for owners to get happy and then steal the donkeys. Usually, a donkey would raise an alarm if he was being carried away by force, but in their current state, they really couldn’t care less. Ultimately, the keepers of the law forbade the use of mood enhancers whether for man or beast.

But in such times of strife, who cares about the law? Magic mushrooms, opium balls and husk and drinks laced with something more pleasant than truth made their way into little dens that everybody knew of. Donkeys disappeared in ever-larger numbers.

As word got around, there were further reports about donkeys running away of their own volition as well. Like soldiers deserting in a war, they would chew through their securing ropes and walk away. Usually, it was country donkeys who were being sold off to work in the town, where life was hardest and food rare, but there were also many donkeys who were escaping from the town stables, the ones who faced the other side of the river, where the land was wild and rocky. It is said that some drowned, but many made it across, particularly after an old bridge was discovered.

On the other side, there were patches of dry grass in the forest that kept them alive for a week or two. There were some natural caves to shelter in. There was no kicking or whipping. Wounds healed. Ears perked up. Their gait no longer dragged.

Soon, the rains arrived and made it almost impossible for angry masters to cross the river and come looking for their beasts. It also made it easier for the donkeys to survive on their own, for new grass was sprouting everywhere. Nobody was in any hurry to go back to the town. On silent, damp mornings, you could hear them cry out with a catch of pure relief in their gravel throats.

It is not polite to speak of your own work, so I will not say who discovered that old bridge or how so much opium found its way into town.

I wish I could say that, somehow, through a miracle or telepathy or sheer good luck, my old love heard about this place and about me and came back. If he had, I would have caught hold of him and never let him go again. But that donkey seemed to have forgotten all about me. Nor did I fall in love with another donkey, despite meeting so many.

And I left that place finally, but with a lighter heart. I even fell in love again, with one of my own kind, though he did not stay long. This did not hurt much, maybe because I had gotten used to leaving myself. I don’t even miss my donkey so much.

But one thing I must say. Even now, if somebody uses the word as a term of abuse, I cannot stand it. I always retort, “What’s wrong with donkeys? I like donkeys.”

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  1. may be you should give a chance to the donkeys once in a while. I’m sure you might find a steed worth riding

  2. sadly humours,, I wonder how much of it is auto biographical

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