A Horse At Islamabad Villa

This article was first published in Horizon, Winter, 1965, volume vii, number 1. The views are the writer’s own. Writer Denis Shaw was rector of St. Wilfrid’s a downtown parish in Manchester, England. Before his ordination, in 1959, he spent ten years in India and Pakistan, where he studied Hinduism, taught English, ran a tea estate, and had charge of a paddle steamer on the Ganges. He has also been an actor, a stage manager, and a journalist.

It is no easy job running an animal welfare society in Pakistan. When I was general secretary of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for Eastern Pakistan, I found myself in some very rum situation. I shall always remember, for instance, the uncomfortable half-hour I had trying to explain to my honorary president, who happened to be the Governor’s wife, that my plan for the humane killing of the diseased and homeless dogs that infested the bazaars could not be met by sending an army of municipal sweepers out to wallop the dogs on the back of the neck with hockey sticks.

“But it is very swift and painless,” she assured me. “I had a demonstration in the garden yesterday.”

Perhaps the most awkward problem arose when I looked out from my bedroom verandah one morning and saw a carriage driver beating his horse. I lived in an unfashionable part of Dacca (Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, in the shadow of Jehangir’s fort, and the address of my house was Islamabad Villa, Light-of-Victory Lane. Light-of-Victory Lane was no more than a rough track which played havoc with my car in the monsoon season, and which separated Islamabad Villa from the maidan (the common). On the common was a “tank,” or large artificial pond, made, probably, a few hundred years ago. In it the local people bathed, washed their clothes, scrubbed their buffaloes, and watered their horses.

The horse which I saw as I was doing my deep-breathing exercises that morning was a pathetic creature: she was skin and bones, and when her rascally owner, a big, evil-looking man, struck her with a stick, there was a sound as of wood upon wood.

“I saw you beating that horse,” I said in my stumbling Bengali, “and it can be seen by all that you do not feed her. You will hear from me again.” He did not know that I was the “Animal Cruelty Sahib” so his reply was unconcerned, terse, and offensive. I went to the back of the carriage and took down his municipal registration number from his painted tin plate. He had to have one of those. I was then that I became conscious of my dressing gown and pajamas, and marched back, with what I hoped was some sort of dignity, to Islamabad Villa.

Every morning my two uniformed inspectors reported for duty. One of them had the official status of a policeman and he had powers of arrest. I gave him the number of the offending carriage driver and told him to go into action.

Some days later he was able to report that justice had been done. My evidence about the beating of the horse had not been necessary because the creature was so obviously in a state of chronic neglect and ill-treatment. The man had been fined as heavily as the law allowed. When I returned to my house that evening, as my car heaved and bumped along the ruts of Light-of-Victory Lane, I heard a strange sound. A high-pitched wailing, the grief of many voices.

I had visitors, about twenty of them: some women, shrouded in dirty-white burkas and wailing uninhibitedly and many small children who were all dry-eyed but their faces were screwed up with frowning concentration. They were all sitting outside my gate.

Standing in the middle of them, like a chorus master at a community hymn-singing session, was the carriage driver, urging them on. At an upper window of my house, wearing wide grins of astonished delight, stood my servants. They loved nothing better than to see the sahib in some sort of embarrassing situation. There was nothing unfriendly about this; it was just that these experiences were one of the delights of working for that extraordinary race, the English.

“Who are all these people?” I asked the carriage driver.

“They are my family, sahib,” he said, “and you are their mother and father.”

“I certainly am not, ” I said, “and they are stopping me from getting my car through the gate.”

“You are their mother and father, sahib,” he repeated, an expression of indescribably villainous humility contorting his face, “and you have taken the bread from their mouths. These are my wives and my children, and they will now starve.”

The crowd had fallen silent to attend to this conversation, but he rounded on them murmuring something I couldn’t catch, and the keening rose to the skies with renewed fervour.

By this time there was a large crowd of onlookers. Everybody who had been doing his evening washing, all the idlers and strollers and those who had been taking an evening meal in a little bamboo tea-shop nearby, had gathered round.

“This is very bad talk,” said one of them, “that an unbe
liever is doing zulum to a son of Pakistan.” zulum is oppression, and a very useful word in a dispute. “He’s a good sahib,” said my driver loyally, if rather feebly, but the fact that he spoke Urdu and not Bengali was enough to disqualify him as an advocate. There was a rumble of disapproval from the onlookers, and the wailing women and children redoubled their efforts.

There was only one thing to do. I asked the carriage driver to come into the garden, and Nizamuddin closed the gate behind us. Away from his audience the man came immediately to the point. “You must buy that horse, sahib. You have caused me to be fined most cruelly. That horse is too unhealthy for me to use her again with safety. Her condition is hopeless now that you have arranged for the court to say she is sick. But you sahib, love that horse, Allah knows why, and therefore you must buy her. I shall then get another horse, my family will not starve, and they will pray for your long life.”

The argument seemed unanswerable. We agreed on a price of about three pounds (“too much!” my servants told me afterward with glee), and the horse was led into the garden while the women and children trooped off.

At first she was difficult to handle and to feed. She was so accustomed to ill-treatment that she had only to see a human hand coming near her and she snapped viciously. Soon, however, she learned that human hands meant friendly pats, or meals of soaked lentils, or lumps of rough brown sugar. She became a great pet. She was christened Rosie, because the children of friend declared that she was obviously the original of the drawings of Rosinante, in their copy of Don Quixote. But even with good feeding and rest she was still not able to take a man’s weight. But she could take children, and she soon agreed to give rides to my friend’s children when they visited me.

An unforeseen problem arose as a result of my new pet. A few days after she arrived, I spoke to my gardener. “This is very good,” I said, “that we now have a horse. The manure will be even better for the compost pit than the bull’s droppings. Each day you must collect it and put in the pit.” He looked at me with sullen horror and walked off without speaking. Later in the day I received a petition, through my khitmatghar, or butler. It was from the gardener, but he had it written, at no small expense, I guessed, by a professional letter, writer, in English.

“With due respect and humble submission,” it began, as they always do, “your poor gardener, Lal Mohun, wishes to place before you the following facts for your merciful consideration.” The petition went on for about three foolscap pages, and the gist of it was as follows.

My gardener, like most of his calling, was a Hindu, and was therefore bound by the laws of caste. His was a minority group in Pakistan, but as he pointed out, the minority groups had been guaranteed religious freedom by the government. “Now, however,” the petition ran, “your Good Self is depriving your poor servant of his religious freedom.” I was appalled, and read on in growing astonishment. It was true, I was told, that the gardener had been “ever joyful to pick up each day the dung of the sahib’s bull,” but then the bull was a sacred animal and the vehicle of the Lord Shiva himself, and its dung was one of the sacred products. A horse was different. It was not sacred, and its dung was just dung. The work of picking it up was the work of a casteless remover of dung, an untouchable, “which”, the petition ended, “kindly note and ever oblige your humble and obedient gardener and servant, Lal Mohun, who will ever pray for your long life.”

For the first time in my life I practiced zulum in my dealings with a servant. I expect it was wrong of me, but I really could not see my way to employing yet another servant simply to walk round picking up Rosie’s droppings, and I lacked the moral courage to do it myself. My staff would have been outraged and ashamed. Yet there was not one of my seven servants who could do it. Even my sweeper belonged to the wrong subdivision of untouchability. So the gardener and I reached a compromise. I would pay him five rupees a month extra, and he would come back each day after dark when nobody could see him, and collect the horse manure. Further, when I left Pakistan finally, I would give him a lump sum to meet the cost of purification rites.

When the time came for me to leave East Pakistan, I arranged for Rosie to be given a home by the brigadier of the local regiment. “It’ll be nice for the children,” said the brigadier’s wife. Rosie’s departure was a major event at Islamabad Villa. She had become a favourite of all the servants and they turned out to watch as Ataul Haque, the houseboy, prepared to lead her away. Only the gardener was missing; perhaps he still resented Rosie after all.

“Go in peace! said the cook gruffly, offering her a last morsel of brown sugar. Nizamuddin opened the gates ceremoniously. At that moment the gardener rushed out of the little tool shed. “Wait, oh wait!” he called. “I have something.” He gently placed a garland of marigolds round Rosie’s neck. She immediately started to eat them, and Ataul Haque led her off, through the gate, and down Light-of-Victory Lane.

I turned to Lal Mohun. “What is this, Lal Mohun?” I said in surprise. “A horse is not a sacred animal, yet you garland her as though she were the Holy Nandi, Lord Shiva’s own bull.”

Lal Mohun smiled. “She is only a horse, sahib, it is true talk,” her replied. “And yet she is my mother and father. She has obtained for me an increment of rupees five per month, AND a lump sum” (he glanced at me with an expression of anxious intensity) “to be paid within the next few days for my necessary ceremonies.” I nodded to show that I had not forgotten and his face relaxed.

“And that is not all, sahib,”– Lal Mohun turned with a flourish of his arm toward the shrubbery. “that is not all. Behold that beautiful hibiscus!”

By *Denis Shaw*

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