Fiction: The Tanner's Yard

Deepak Sharma

Author: Deepak Sharma

Translation from Hindi by Madhu B Joshi

                 Our 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.
                 Throughout 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 suddenly.
               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 roof.
               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 downstairs.
               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 step-brother begged.
              "This one is tricky, it can fly out of your hands just like that."
              "I will hold it very carefully."
               My brother's apprehension proved right.
               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 my brother.
               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 once.
                 "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 other.
                    "Well, say something now." My brother laughed, "Why are you quiet?"
                    "Come." Our step-mother put her arms around my step-brother.
                    "I know 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 upside-down... .."
                    "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 today."
                          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."
                      "Alright," my 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 girls."
                       "Is it bad to be a girl?" my step-brother asked.
                    "Our father thinks there are difficulties involved in bringing up girls."
                       "What difficulties?"
                    "Money. One has to spend a lot to get them married,"
                     "But we have loads of money," I said.
                       "Exactly, because 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 anything?"
                      "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 arrest father?"
                        "No. Nobody called the police."
                         "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 pigeons...."
                   "I want to hear those stories," I said.
                      "Me too," my step-brother said.
                 "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 jalebis that day. 

Madhu B Joshi
Author: Deepak Sharma
Born 30 November 1946 in Lahore (undivided India)
Published 19 collections of stories in Hindi
Reader, and Head of Postgraduate Department of Engish (Retired), Lucknow Christian Postgraduate college

Translator: Madhu B Joshi
Born in 1‎956 Delhi
Communication Practitioner and major Translator
Taught translation and self-designed
Course of Indian Culture
Author of short stories for children
Poet and published articles on socio-political and cultural issues

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