The Pigeons of The Dome by Shaukat Hayat, Translated by Sara Rai
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The pigeons kept circling around in the sky. They fluttered down, searching, searching for their home, but the old dome was not where it should have been. Bewildered, they flew back into the sky, their wings heavy with flying, blood in their eyes. Surely matters would come to  a head now. And then all around there'd be ...

 

The neighbours' children were up to their pranks again. When people were forced to live in homes the size of hen coops and hens strutted luxuriously in grand halls, it was time to take another look at things. Children were the same everywhere. They were loud whether they lived in an apartment, in a slum or on the street and just as likely, wherever they were, to bring the roof down with the noise they made. The smallest flat of the largest apartment block in the city, but it was the one chosen by the children from all the flats, to get together in and create a ruckus!

 

He lived in a single bedroom unit with minuscule floor area, barely large enough for people to move about. It was hemmed in on all sides like a cage and the only place where one could breathe was the small balcony. But most of that was taken up by flowerpots. There was a profusion of rose, jasmine, zinnia, croton – visible evidence of a zest for life.

 

He was tired when he finally rang the doorbell, having climbed up four flights of stairs, for these apartments did not have elevators. His children flung themselves on him, clinging to his legs and clambering onto his shoulders.

 

‘Where are your manners?’ he grumbled. ‘Look at the other children and the way they behave. It's as if they are not there at all. They don't draw attention to themselves, a sure sign that they come from good families!’

 

But then, when they were quiet, absorbed in something else, and he was sitting on the balcony with a cup of hot tea, there was nothing more that he wanted from life. His tiredness melted away. Could heaven itself be more blissful?

 

The builders had not chopped down the enormous peepul tree while constructing the flats. It made interesting patterns against the concrete, giving the effect of modern art. One of the branches of the peepul had reached his balcony. A flock of sparrows seemed to him to chirp about the beauty of life and a squirrel scampered off, eyes full of mischief, from the peepul onto the balcony and away. There was a nip in the air and the golden warmth of the sun was like a beloved's embrace.

 

‘Life, don't be cruel ... I've put all at stake for you...’ he hummed softly. A cocktail of whisky and beer would be exhilarating, he thought. You could feel as if you were floating high up in the sky and seeing people below, looking like dwarfs.

 

The wind grew stronger, stirring the peepul leaves and shaking loose the fig-like fruit. The chirping sparrows sounded louder today. Sen Dada, the sixty-two-year-old young man next door called out, ‘The heat's not so bad this year, is it? Not like last year. We'll survive it! Life is beautiful and problems disappear on their own if we enjoy everything.’

 

‘No, of course there are no problems!’ he retorted. ‘The children of the entire block have chosen my flat to run amok in. There are all those two and three bedroom apartments, but they must crowd my tiny flat.... It's the same story everywhere. The big fish swallow the small ones, but what if the small fish get together and become like one great fish? What will happen then?’

 

The television was on, tuned in to one of the private channels. Centuries of history swiftly went by on the milky white screen.

 

‘These children really must be controlled,’ he muttered to his wife. ‘They're bringing the roof down with the noise they make, and at such a time when things are tense already. They'll ruin all the new leaves and buds on my plants. I've been tending them with so much care.... Are you listening? Oh well, don't bother to. It's decent people like me who always suffer. Children will be children, you say. Don't scold them,’ he added, as he left the house with Sen Dada.

 

They walked together for a long time. Sen Dada was speaking in chaste Hindi, ‘Well, my dear,’ he said. ‘There's nothing wrong, really. Things are back to normal, and it's not as if the situation remains the same always. You must be patient if you want to lead a happy, peaceful life. I think this year's going to be different from last year. It's been predicted that it will be calm.’ Sen Dada had always spoken to him earlier in difficult, overdone Urdu.

 

There were cars on the road as usual, but it was less busy, for it was a holiday. His neighbour inhaled deeply on the cigarette.

 

‘Oh come on! Why are you looking so sad? You're worried about your plants because the children gather in your house to play. Nothing's going to happen to the plants, I assure you. You'll see I'm right. And now we're visiting friends, do cheer up. Just look at those round domes with their pointed tips.... Why, just the sight of them gets me so excited.... Do you see them?’

 

The domes that Sen Dada was looking at were quite different from the one he was thinking of. He was startled by the emotion that gripped him just then. ‘Dada! At your age...’ he didn't finish the sentence.

 

Sen Dada still seemed to be thinking about the soft domes of a woman's body. ‘You must not think about age,’ he said. ‘Think of yourself as young, for that's the only way to live. To lose yourself in the many colours of life, to emerge only to be immersed in them again!’ Sen Dada looked askance at him. ‘Young man, you've grown old before your time ... you must look around you.’ Sen Dada's grip on his shoulder had tightened. There were three women walking in front of them, their gait bird-like, deep in conversation.

 

‘Dada! Can you see those birds? They are pigeons, wheeling around in the sky. They have no home to go to. The dome where they would take shelter has been razed to the ground. How lost they look! See their eyes? There's blood in them.’

 

But Sen Dada was lost in his own thoughts. He wasn't interested in looking up at the sky; he had the earth, full of delights spread out before him. His eyes had continued to burn with lust long after his wife was dead.

 

He remembered the day the guard had told them that a snake had been seen on the grounds of the apartment block. People were terrified and on the alert. Arming themselves with poles and sticks, they locked their doors and windows. Gripped by fear, they were on the lookout for the snake, convinced that if the lights were switched off or the guard fell asleep, the snake would surely strike.

 

If he had been at all afraid, it was only for the creatures that were frequent visitors to his balcony. He felt as though a shadow had fallen on his menagerie of sparrows and squirrels and on his flowers. He’d sat there quietly, holding an iron rod and a torch. The sparrows had a nest there. Their chirping sounded to him like colourful fountains playing in the light. He had sighed with contentment.

 

His wife had nagged him to come inside, trying to frighten him with stories of venomous snakes. Goaded finally into replying, he told her to close the door from inside if she was so frightened. But his wife was joined by his children, all calling him a stupid eccentric and imploring him to come inside. He couldn't bring himself to ignore the sparrows though, for they were in danger.

 

A search of corners and crannies did not reveal the snake. They went through all the boxes and cupboards, but there was no sign of it. The children were enthusiastic about the search in the beginning, but they soon lost interest. Tired, they fell asleep, lying down whereever they pleased. The adults stayed up all night and decided in the morning that the whole thing had been nothing but a rumour. Investigation revealed the guard to have been the source of it. It was all his doing.

 

Butterflies came with the gentle morning breeze. Bees hummed and sparrows took wing. There was mellow sunshine on his balcony and an affirmation of life came to him. There was so much that he'd like to live for.

 

‘Let's go back, Dada. This isn't much fun. I wonder what those kids are up to. I'm worried about my flowers...’

 

‘Oh, don't think so much about them. Kids must play somewhere, after all. Okay, so they chose your flat, but remember that your children are there too. You do worry pointlessly.’

 

‘Dada, I'm uneasy about those pigeons. Look at the way they go round and round the place that was their home. But the dome is no longer there. Where will they go now, Dada? They can find no refuge...’

 

‘Do learn to be optimistic, young man! If you think of it as one, any place can become a refuge, dome, mountain peak and crevice, the branch of a tree in the forest. You must toughen yourself to withstand  the heat and the cold.’

 

*

 

There were many sounds that he could hear. Firecrackers went off and the dismal notes of a shehnai floated across to him. It was a long moment that seemed to have been transfixed, holding within itself both joy and sorrow. He felt that there was, in the atmosphere, a deep sense of mystery, a terrible silence. It was the lull before the storm.

 

Sen Dada walked on, oblivious to joy or to sorrow and in the homes they visited, his roving eyes rested lustfully on the women. Mr Thomson, whom they dropped in on, was a good host. He placed glasses before them and opened a new bottle of whisky, helped by his efficient young maid, Miss Reza. She fried some kababs for the guests, the delicious aroma emanating from the kitchen sending a tingle of anticipation through Sen Dada.

 

Mr Thomson had already been drinking and Sen Dada too was soon rather tipsy. When Reza entered with a plate of cashews, Sen Dada suddenly lunged out and placed trembling fingers on her warm, bare leg. Reza smiled, took his hand and gave it an affectionate kiss. She poured out a drink for him and held it to his lips. His thirst seemed to be quenched for a while, but then his passion returned with greater force. With blood coursing vigorously through his veins, his fingers crept up her calf to her shapely thigh. Reza was stunned for a moment, though her face betrayed nothing and nor did she protest. His fingers travelled further up. Reza's eyes filled with tears. Sen Dada had made her think of her childhood.

 

‘Reza, my lovely child. Life stretches ahead like an infinite sky and you have such a long way to go...’ There had been dreams in her father's eyes. She had been drawn to Mr Sen at first sight because he looked like her father. She remembered how she used to hug her father and climbed onto his shoulders. But her father had died and she'd been blown from one place to the next like a leaf tossed upon the wind, to settle at Mr Thomson's, who had the reputation of being a respectable person in the district. She'd been forced to accept Mr Thomson's advances, all the while pretending to be happy. There seemed to be no option, for she'd knocked on many doors only to find drooling lechers with bloodshot eyes. Given that, Mr Thomson had not seemed such a bad choice. At least he was clean, smelt good and did not offend her senses.

 

Unaware of what Reza was thinking, Sen Dada had surrendered to sensual contemplation, his eyes half shut with passion. Though he was quite drunk, Mr Thomson could see what it was that Sen Dada wanted. He thought of Reza as his personal property and though he enjoyed company, being a generous host, he had no intention of sharing her. Reza, who'd felt a rush of sympathy for Sen Dada, became flustered when she saw Mr Thomson glaring at her. She wiped her eyes and, picking up the empty plate, she disappeared from sight. When she was needed again, Mr Thomson had to yell for her.

He wondered whose situation was worse, his own or Miss Reza's? The pigeons cooed gutturally as they fluttered over his head. Perhaps their sorrow was the greatest, for they'd have to bear the pain of exile as long as they lived. The dome that had been their home for generations had been demolished. He was annoyed with Sen Dada and Mr Thomson for drinking so much.

 

‘Come on, young man! Don't be morose. Forget your troubles and enjoy yourself...’ said Sen Dada.

 

But how could anyone enjoy himself in such a situation?

 

There was the sound of falling utensils from inside the house and Reza rushed into the room. ‘Uncle, a pigeon flew in. The neighbour's cat was stalking it. Now it's hiding in the kitchen. I've driven the cat away and locked the kitchen door.’

 

His heart missed a beat. He glanced at Sen Dada and then at Mr Thomson, who were both drunk but there was new anxiety on their faces. They sat there with heads bowed, as though a calamity had befallen them.

 

There was a knock on the door.

 

‘Mr Thomson? Mr Thomson!’

 

A frightened, crestfallen Reza opened the door. It was the neighbour, Mr John.

 

‘Miss Reza, is Mr Thomson in?’

 

‘What is it?’ asked Mr Thomson, staggering to the door.

 

‘My pigeon just flew into your house. The doctor has recommended pigeon soup for my mother-in-law. You know she's been sick for some time. There's no sensation left in her hands. I was about to kill the pigeon for soup when it fluttered away.’

 

‘Yes, it's taken shelter here. Miss Reza just told me about it. A cat's been after it too. Miss Reza, bring the pigeon. Do come in, Mr John. Won't you have a drink while you wait?’

 

‘No thanks, I drink only on weekends. Then the next day is a holiday and I don't have to get up early. The wretched stuff makes me sleep too much!’

 

After much inner torment, Reza managed to catch the pigeon, trembling as she did so. Mr Thomson heard her talking to herself – he knew she often talked to herself. ‘Fly away,’ she said. ‘Fly if you can't fight, you miserable wretch. Go! Fly away from here, into the open sky and the dense forests.’

 

But the frightened pigeon huddled there, trying to hide within her cupped palms.

 

‘Thank you!’ said Mr John, reaching out a hand for the pigeon. Something leapt within her. A mere spectator, it was hard for him to tell who was trembling the most. Was it Miss Reza, or the pigeon, or indeed was it he who was the most distressed? Was this one of the pigeons that had been circling around in the sky, fated to die, in order to give life to an old woman's benumbed hands?

 

It was as if someone had jerked open Reza's hands. She let go of the pigeon. ‘Fly if you can't fight, unlucky one! Or aren't you able to fly, either?’ The pigeon flew up and sat on the skylight. A furious Mr Thomson slapped Reza's face and ordered her to put a stool on the table, climb on it and catch the pigeon. Bewildered, Reza did as she was told and climbed unsteadily onto the wobbly stool. She immediately fell down and Sen Dada rushed to help her up. But Mr Thomson had beaten him to it and was holding the trembling Reza against his chest.

 

‘We'll take your leave now, Mr Thomson. It's been a lovely evening,’ said Sen Dada, putting an affectionate hand on Mr Thomson's shoulder, all the while ogling Reza from the corner of his eyes.

 

‘This fellow is always despondent. Tell me now, is there any point in being sad? It's not as if that will solve the problem. I thought a drink or two might cheer him up, but the pigeon and cat have only made it worse. He can't help it, I suppose. It's fate that decides these things. Thanks for your warmth and kindness.’

 

Sen Dada glanced again at Reza who looked beautiful despite her distress.

 

‘Bye, Reza. Goodbye, Mr Thomson. Goodnight!’

 

They'd dropped in on several friends that day. It was odd that no one wanted to talk about the most troubling thing of all, the destruction of the dome. Why did no one say what they truly felt? Some, no doubt rejoiced, even as others grieved. It was strange that both these emotions should co-exist, helplessness and a joy that was present even if unexpressed. People had their own way of experiencing these divergent feelings. But there was one question that troubled all: ‘What would happen now?’

 

He was bored. He'd been drinking but did not feel at all drunk. He kept thinking about his plants, his balcony and the children who must be creating pandemonium there. The thought was enough to torment him.

 

Sen Dada had enjoyed himself thoroughly. He was in a state of rosy inebriation, his brief groping of Reza adding to the feeling of intoxication. He was not so drunk, however, to forget to show concern about the plants on the balcony. His manner all the way home was one of affectionate interest.

 

‘Don't you worry. Everything's going to be fine!’

 

The guard stepped aside, allowing them to enter their apartment block. It was all silent. Had he not been there, Sen Dada would have stumbled and fallen down the stairs. They climbed to the third floor and taking out the key from Dada's pocket, he let Dada into his flat. He made sure that Dada had secured the bolt before he made his way to his own flat. He found that his legs were trembling as he climbed up, a feeling of foreboding clutching at his heart.

 

His wife opened the door when he rang the bell. She'd been crying, her eyes were swollen.

 

‘How are my flowers?’

 

‘Go, see for yourself.’

 

The children were fast asleep, perhaps in the grip of  a nightmare as they slept.

 

His worst fears had come to pass. He stood completely still, overcome with horror, his blood seeming to drain away. The mosaic floor was littered with crushed petals and squashed flowers, earth from shattered flowerpots was everywhere, and the place was strewn with twigs from broken nests. There was no sign of the sparrows. And the butterflies, the bees and the squirrels would be a long time returning.

 

His beautiful balcony had been reduced to detritus. The playing children had ruined him. So he'd been right. It felt as if the children had caught the snake that day and played with it; the venom seemed to have infected them. He looked up at the sky. The pigeons were still there, going round and round the sky, blood in their eyes, restlessly searching for a home, burning with feelings of vengeance.

 

His eyes met those of his wife and he felt as if there was a corpse in the house. Burying it was going to be a problem, for there was curfew outside.

 

*


First published in Urdu as ‘Gumbad ke Kabootar’ in Aajkal, 1995.

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An earlier translation of this story into English by Sara Rai, also titled ‘Pigeons of the Dome’, won the 1996 Katha Award for translation and was published in Katha Prize Stories Volume 6, editors, Geeta Dharmarajan and Meenakshi Sharma, Katha, 1997.

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Shaukat Hayat is a noted Urdu and Hindi writer who has received international recognition. He is the recipient of many awards including the National Katha Translation Award, and the Lifetime Achievement award of the Bihar Urdu Academy in 2010. He is the President of the Pragmatic Writers Guild, Patna.

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Sara Rai is a fiction writer and translator based in Allahabad. She works in Hindi, English and Urdu.