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The Play of Dolls- An Excerpt

Kunwar Narain’s unusual short stories broke new ground and rejuvenated the genre when they appeared on the Indian literary landscape in 1971. Half a century later, in vivid English translation for the first time, they seem just as far-reaching: sometimes in the novelty of their insight, sometimes in their transcendence, sometimes in the world views they together uncover.

Read an excerpt from the short story ‘The Court of Public Opinion’ below:

Sadiq Miyan managed to keep his motives in check at first, but then they went awry. A completely new bicycle, stood completely unclaimed—without even a lock to guard it! He glanced around once, then ran his hand over the bike’s glittering handle, as if caressing the mane of a magnificent Arabian horse. He couldn’t hold back any longer, and jumped on the bike. No one objected, nor noticed; and, well, what could the poor bike say either? He pushed down on the pedal lightly. The youthful cycle was ready to take off with him right away. The people nearby came and went by as usual, just as before.

Sadiq Miyan spurred the bicycle on, and it began to fly like the wind. It was his now.

But, alas, what an awful stroke of bad luck! An endless herd of buffaloes came along, straying right into the middle of the road. Sadiq Miyan lost control and collided with one of the stoutest in the bunch—head-on. What could he do, the poor guy? He hit the ground—his own injury less, the cycle’s, more. Bent and broken, the wheel went from being hoop-shaped to heap-like. The handle, twisted backwards, gazed at the seat, and the mudguard took on a look as if it were not a part of the bike but of the buffalo. The buffalo stood in stunned silence; Sadiq Miyan glanced nervously at the crippled bike. What could he do? He’d really landed himself in a strange sort of trouble. It crossed his mind to abandon the bike and make a run for it. After all, it was only the bike that was broken—nothing wrong with his legs!

But in the meantime, a crowd began to gather all around him, as was only natural. Running just then would have meant getting himself in more trouble. Two, four, six . . .dozens of women, men and children began surrounding him. In the middle lay the mangled bike; with the buffalo, chewing cud, on one side, and Sadiq Miyan, head reeling, on the other.

At first, the people pitied the bike that was now a mess, then their hearts were kindled with compassion for Sadiq Miyan, and finally, they got angry at the buffalo. Because there was clear evidence before them of what happens when one locks horns with a buffalo, they decided to tackle the herdboy instead. It was because of him that the hazard of something like a buffalo had sprung up in the middle of the road, and someone upright like a Sadiq Miyan had become the victim of that hazard.

By consensus, it was decided that they should fix the herdboy properly, right then and there. But Sadiq Miyan objected: in his view, it was more important to fix the bicycle first—and the herdboy should be made to do that. Everyone agreed.

The crowd lifted the bike tenderly and delivered it to a nearby cycle hospital with great care, where its wounds were treated for a cost of ten rupees. But when the herdboy was told to cough up the money, he expressed his inability to do so, and asked how on earth was he supposed to come up with ten rupees when he hadn’t even ten paise to his name then?

Confronted by this new problem, an extraordinary debate took place among the ordinary folk assembled there; so many arguments all at once that it was practically impossible to make out any argument clearly. Nevertheless, one solution somehow seemed to survive intact: whatever the herdboy was wearing should be sold to cover the penalty cost of the repairs.

This too was easier said than done, because the herdboy had nothing but a dhoti around his waist and a lathi in his hand. Even if both these items were taken, it wouldn’t be enough.

Anyhow, after the cycle had recovered, it was agreed that Sadiq Miyan and the cycle should be considered free from the whole dust-up. This was deemed incontestable not only in the eyes of the public, but also in the eyes of the luckless bicycle mechanic, who now, having taken the entire burden of Sadiq Miyan’s ten-rupee misadventure on his own head, was an eager prosecutor of the blameworthy herdboy. As for the public, it was surely commendable that not a single person there was willing to step back until final justice had been delivered, no matter what.

Some wise guy then repeated the suggestion that, if it satisfied the cycle mechanic, the herdboy could also be handily fixed, with a flogging worth ten rupees! But nobody paid much mind to this idiocy, though the herdboy was entirely willing to go along. Everyone’s attention was stuck on the intricate problem at hand: how could they wring ten rupees from the herdboy in his present condition?

One gentleman, who had perhaps trained as a lawyer, or was capable of being a lawyer, came up with a novel proposal: by selling that same buffalo which had given rise to all this mess, the cost of the fine could be recovered. The idea wasn’t unreasonable, and his submission was accepted.

The buffalo again became the centre of attention. For five minutes, the people waited. But where would they find a ready buyer for a thing as big as a buffalo? A buffalo isn’t some wad of paan, a bidi or a cigarette that can be purchased along the road, tucked in one’s pocket, and hung along with the pocket on a peg on some wall back home. It was a matter of responsibility, which could go as far as spelling fortune or disaster for one’s offspring. Second, who had the cash on hand worth a buffalo at this time? As a result, this attempt at justice proved unsuccessful as well.

Around now, everyone was sorely feeling the need for some kind of mastermind in the crowd. A few sights fell on one particular gentleman, and remained on him. He certainly looked like a wiseacre—though some others pegged him as a daydreaming wiseass. They held a vote; and it was decided that he was indeed a wiseacre, not a wiseass, though he himself kept claiming to be nothing less than a prophet.

What will happen next? You’ll have to read The Play of Dolls to find out!

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