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An Incident

The evenings in the Peshawar valley in the winter are long and dark and intimate. They are cold and bleak and full of whispers. Therefore one loves to sit by a log fire look into the flames and mix up dreams with realities. It was a cold winter night and I was sitting by a crackling fire alone as usual. I heard the quick step of my dear old friend, Murtaza Khan outside. “Where are you, friend,” he shouted from fifty yards. “Come in, come in,” I shouted back and opened the door for him. His two bodyguards saluted me and went away to join mine and Murtaza stepped in. He was slim and of more than medium height. He had a long head a large forehead and a dimpled chin. What you noticed at once was his thin determined mouth. Shrewd suspicious eyes, a very lumpy intellectual head and the revolver slung round his shoulder. His clothes were not very clean and his hands were brutal and dirty. You would never think of letting him into your room, but I opened the door and my heart to him, because I knew him and his father knew my father and his grandfather my grandfather.

He was the eldest child of a proud Khan and had to defend that pride at a very early age when he shot another Khan, who had insulted his old father. He became an outlaw at the age of fifteen, was caught when he was thirty and for fourteen years sampled the torture of Indian jails. On his release, he joined the Nationalist movement and went to jail again and was a notorious prisoner, for he was too weak for and too old for hard labour. So he did what he pleased and caused many headaches to his jailers, and nervous breakdowns to their deputies. He walked in and settled down by the fire. I took the opposite chair. “Commander,” I said, “how is life?” We always called him “commander” because he was a Red Shirt (Khudai Khidmatgar) Commander in 1930. He looked long into the fire and said he was growing too old to know about life. I looked at his suspicious eyes. They were dreamy and straight. They had accepted me as a friend and had dropped their suspicion. So I ventured the question that I had always wanted to ask: “Murtaza, what made you kill your best friend, Atta, just before you were caught?” He looked deeply into my eyes to reassure himself, then looked back into the fire and said, “It was my uncle, the one I hated and still do. You see, I had been and outlaw for twelve years. I had a band of brave followers who robbed people on the roads and in the villages and brought me their booty, because I insured them against starvation and lack of ammunition. I was therefore the pet of my ambitious uncle. He feasted me and supported me and I intimidated his powerful rivals for him. I added to his importance in the eyes of the English rulers, and to his striking power in the minds of the other Khans. I did not know this till too late. I thought he loved me for my sake, because I was his flesh and blood, the son of his brother, and I returned that love and generosity with sincere respect and devotion.

“One evening he sent for me. Out of my hide-out in the bitter cold I went to the warmth of my grandmother’s hearth. He came – my uncle – and related a long story of how Atta had conspired with his enemies to murder him. He held my feet and wept. He implored me to save him and the family honour. I hated his tears and his clinging hands and refused. Then my aunt joined in. She did not cringe or weep but looked at me with deep sorrowful eyes and asked if I would stand by and see my father’s brother killed. ‘He is old and grey, she said, and you are young and strong. Do you owe nothing to the family that brought you into the world and gave you its name and prestige’? ‘Your father Abdullah, never shirked a nasty job. He was born a Khan and lived like a Khan and died like a Khan’. That finished me. I promised to do it”. “How?” I asked, for Atta was a notorious outlaw, brave and unscrupulous, heartless and daring. He had escaped the law of the Government as successfully as he had escaped the law of the people. I had always hated Atta, in spite of his fine looks and the stories of superhuman daring that were told about him, because he had killed a dear old man, the father of one of my school friends.
I was too young to know then that the dear kind old man, owed a debt of blood from the days of his youth. He sowed in youth and Atta grew up to make him reap in his old age. For the blood of a Pathan cannot be paid for except with blood. There are some things that he holds dearer than his own life, and there are many more that he holds dearer than anyone else’s life. This dear old man was young, and reckless once had trampled under foot the rights of some weaklings. But the weaklings produced Atta. He grew up. He saw his mother hang down her head in shame, he saw his brothers look at the ground when certain things and people were mentioned. He understood that he must kill the dear old man or hang down his head in shame like his mother and look at the ground like his brothers. He was too young, too handsome and too strong for shame. So he picked up his gun and blasted that shame out of this world and thus established his right to be taken notice of and respected. But I hated him for it. Because I did not know the history of the old man. I only knew his grey beard and kindness, only the kind beautiful wife in his house and not the circumstances that led to her being his life. All men admire an outlaw, and if he is brave and handsome, they are likely to forgive him anything. Atta was handsome and undoubtedly brave. The old condemned him, but the young idolised him. Then one day he was found dead near my grandfather’s watermill. The whole village flocked to see him. So did I. I was only twelve years old then. As soon as he was dead, people remembered all his crimes and gave the place of honour to Murtaza who had killed him. So did I. Murtaza had avenged the murder of my dear friend’s father and I loved him for it.

I saw him soon after in chains. Several platoons of police, reinforced by thousands of villagers, had surrounded him. He had fought all right, eight men against the world.

When his ammunition was exhausted he had dropped his rifles into a well and given himself up to the police in daylight. He did n6t dare give himself and his party up at night for the police would have shot him; they were bribed by his enemies.

I saw him first when he was in chains, with his head bandaged where a bullet had grazed his forehead. He was marched into the village with his outlaws behind him. He was full of laughter and insolence. He ordered cold drinks for his captors, all the police force. He smiled, cut jokes and laughed and jeered. I was proud to tell the other village boys that he was a distant cousin of mine. They led him away to the sub-divisional jail. The British tried him, who had killed a murderer, and sentenced him to twenty years hard labour.

I met him many years later when he had served his term in jail and I mine in a high school and an American college. We became great friends. I found his stories of death and murder and dacoity as fascinating as he found my stories of sky-scrapers and co-education and French girls and Spanish boys. “How did you manage to kill Atta?” I asked. “It was easy enough,” he replied. “You see, he was a born killer. He had many scores to settle in the village. He was always asking me to help him shoot someone. Well for once I agreed. We started from our hide-out at about three in the morning to shoot one of his many victims. He had no servants, he could not afford them. I had three. I had asked one of them to shoot him when I gave the signal. We walked in single file, as is the usual habit of outlaws, until we reached your flour mill. There I signalled to the servant and walked away from the group on the pretence of making myself comfortable. Atta was explaining to the servants how they must shoot some poor wretch that he hated. I had gone a few steps only when I heard the shot. I turned back and saw another servant repeat it. Atta dropped and we bolted and ran for five miles through fields and ditches until we reached my hide-out.

“But why did you run? o’ 1 asked. “Surely no one was following you.”

“We were running from the dead man,” he replied with a shiver. “I wanted to put the world between him and me but I have never succeeded. He is always with me, I never saw him dead. He is always with me, the living Atta. He talks and laughs, bravely and recklessly.” “Were you afraid of him?” I inquired. “You see, my friend,” he said coldly, “I have never feared anything except death by disease, when you linger and cough and sneeze and are a nuisance to your dear and near ones. But an outlaw is always afraid. There are too many enemies who will pay for his death and too many good reasons to justify it. I was not afraid of Atta. I did not trust him. If he could kill my uncle he could kill me and when you have to choose between your neck and another’s you always choose the other’s. Anyway I hated it and I hated my uncle for making it impossible for me to do otherwise.” He shivered and a look of agony came into his brown eyes. “I tried to shoot that uncle of mine to pay for it, but I could not. I was caught and sentenced and when I came out I joined the Red Shirts and became non-violent. So that my uncle had a long life and I a sad conscience.”

He smiled bitterly and shrugged his shoulders. Any-way he was going to kill my uncle if I had not killed him first. But come, my friend,” He said, “play us a tune.”

I picked up the sitar and played a sad sorrowful tune and we both looked at the flames and said no more. There was no need to. I knew; I too was a Pathan.

I had always found Murtaza fascinating. This thin lipped friend of mine was a myth. He was a notorious outlaw and he was a Red Shirt. “Non-violence,” I asked, “how was it, how could it ever be your creed?” He looked up. “You see, I was a little saint for those four years. I made an effort, I tried to live up to my dreams instead of my desires. It was great, it was a miracle. I refused fortunes for a hope and spared lovely girls because they trusted me and looked up to me. You cannot help loving those that love you and you cannot hurt those that trust you. I tried to live up to what the people thought I was. Then the moment ended. I dropped down from the clouds into my own world of desire and envy and lust, and have wallowed in it ever since.

“It is hard to be a saint and a Khan at the same time. I became a good Khan. It was easier and more natural, for men are evil and must be punished. Saints forfeit the power of punishing. Law is the essence of life and a saint is a lawbreaker as much as a dacoit. Only it is harder to be a saint. I chose the easier path and settled down to be a man, bad and selfish. I found my blood warmer than my brain, and customs harder to break than hearts, and ideals harder to live up to than life.

“Nature is merciless and does not indulge in ideals. Life is hard and plain and rugged. The dove is lovely to look at and coos soothingly, but the hawk and his claws are more alive. I chose to be a hawk because I was born one. And if the doves do not like it they, can lump it. For the world is not full of butterflies, and the golden eagle is respected more than the humming bird.” I looked at his thin lips and agreed. Murtaza had been a hunted outlaw too long to understand doves and sunsets and rainbows.

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