The ass is generally known as a beast of burden and its name is often ascribed as adjective to persons of imbecile nature. As with all common sense perceptions, this understanding is not entirely true. The famed Marathi playwright PL Deshpande underscored this aspect when he said that our redoubtable ass is the epitome of moderation – stithapratingyatha – a quality extolled in Bhagwat Gita, by none other than our mythological hero Krishna. The ass is also not very docile and in its hard hind leg kick we can trace the origins of karate. It is worthwhile to read the following keeping in mind this opening remark.
I read the English translation of Krishan Chander’s short Urdu novel ‘Mr. Ass comes to town’, at a very impressionable age and it is etched in my memory even today. The novel set in the early 1960s, the period of Nehru’s dirigiste regime in India. Ours is a changeless society and so evidently the novel remains relevant even today as then.
For the benefit of people who have not read it, Krishan Chander’s novel is abstracted here below:
The ass, our hero, is owned by Dhannu, in Barabanki; and on account of some strange childhood karma the ass is addicted to reading newspapers. While carrying bricks at the construction site of the lawyer, Sayid sahib’s personal villa in Barabanki; it so happens that the ass keeps listening to Sayid sahib’s views on everything under the sun, manages to read everything from Shakespeare to PG Wodehouse at his library; and in the process becomes a scholar of sorts.
When the construction work comes to an end, Dhannu goes on a drinking spree, gives the ass a good beating and turns him out saying ‘I need an ass who can carry bricks…never an ass reading books and newspapers.’ The distraught ass reaches Sayid sahib’s villa, only to find that Sayid sahib, fearing for his life, has fled to Pakistan overnight. A gang of hooligans from the adjacent village has taken over the place, all the books thrown out of the house; and Ganda Singh, a fruit vendor from Lahore has occupied the house. So, the ass begins his trek to Delhi.
On the way to Delhi, the Ass gives a ride to a Moslem carpenter, fleeing his village. A gang of Hindu hooligans stab the carpenter to death and take the ass away. When they have to pass a Moslem hamlet the tables are turned, the Hindu holding the ass is stabbed, the ass taken over and allotted to a Maulvi. When the Maulvi ties the ass outside a mosque and goes to offer his prayers, the ass manages to free himself and flee. The ass has made up his mind that in future he will not help anyone – a Hindu or a Moslem.
In Delhi, as the ass is grazing in the green lawns of the India Gate, a police sergeant finds that this ass can talk and drags it to the police station for investigation by his superiors. The police hierarchy is left wondering whether the ass is a Pakistani spy, a Russian agent or in the worst case scenario a communist. In the end the ass is locked up in the cattle pen and after a week or so is auctioned away to Ramu, the washerman.
The life for the ass, with the washerman Ramu, goes on monotonously, without any book or newspapers to read, without the benefit of gaining any knowledge about what is going on in the world or what progress is being made in science, philosophy, art, culture, learning, as none of these things are of any great significance to the life of Ramu or that of most people in their neighbourhood. The ass makes no special effort to get away from Ramu, an honourable washerman. But tragedy strikes our ass once again. One afternoon, a crocodile seizes Ramu as he is washing clothes in the waters of Jamuna and drags away the screaming Ramu away into the deep waters.
Ramu’s young wife is harassed by Ramu’s customers and even the headman of the washermen’s district. When the ass tries to comfort her, she is startled and at the same time a little frightened. The ass manages to reassure her of his loyalty to the family and goes to meet the municipal authorities to plead for assistance to the destitute family of Ramu the washerman.
After meeting the people lower down in the hierarchy the ass goes on to meet the Chairman of the Municipal Committee. The Chairman gets mixed up trying to assess the ass, his usefulness or nuisance value… Finally, as the papers on his table catch fire when the cigar hanging on his lip suddenly drops on the desk, the Chairman gets annoyed, calls up the Fire Brigade and orders the ass to be thrown out.
The ass leaves the Municipality Office, very discouraged and proceeds to the Housing and Rehabilitation Department. Here the annoyed Superintendent shows him the door saying “…here we give assistance only to refugees, to poor homeless people from Pakistan… You will have to go elsewhere.”
With renewed hope the ass makes his way to the Department of Labour and Industries. Here the ass interacts with two bureaucrats. After a long convoluted deliberation among themselves, the bureaucrats finally decide to accept the ass’s petition on behalf of Ramu’s widow and open a file for the case. The ass is profusely grateful but his happiness is short-lived as the ass learns that it will take about ten years’ time for any decision on the file. It is only then that the most pertinent question props up – How did Ramu die? When it is revealed that Ramu was killed by a crocodile, the ass is directed to take his plaint to the Department of Fisheries.
By now our ass is well acquainted with office procedures. At the Department of Fisheries, the ass starts at the beginning – Window No.1 of Counter No.1 and moves on serially. At each window/counter the patiently ass presents his case to the person manning the counter….The ass is aghast at the way his simple case is misunderstood, misconstrued, misinterpreted in numerous ways. Finally the ass comes to an Anglo Indian clerk and tells him about the crocodile….our ass is happy that the Anglo Indian clerk is taking notes about where the crocodile was sighted etc….only to find that the Anglo Indian has also misunderstood the case as a request for help to find and shoot the crocodile…. At last when Anglo Indian comprehends the true nature of the ass’ request, he cautions the ass saying “…in this day and age it is dangerous to show sympathy for others.” The ass is persistent and wants to know who will help him. After weighing various options, the Anglo-Indian asks the ass to approach the Minister of Commerce.
As usual the ass dutifully follows the advice proffered, goes to the Minister of Commerce and informs him of Ramu’s death and his family’s misfortunes….The Minister says comforting words, shares the grief; and then at last whispers his parting words into the ass’s ears: “This is a Central question….Only the Prime Minister and nobody else will be able to solve it.”…. “Yes…you will have to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and tell him about this case.”
Thereupon, the ass goes to Prime Minister’s house, incurs the gardener’s wrath but manages to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru….This encounter is the most hilarious part… At the end of the meeting, the ass expresses his wish that Panditji should sit on his back and ride him…. The Panditji obliges…..Panditji rides the ass and dismounts before the assembled newsmen, who capture this scene in their cameras.
It is this much hyped meeting and photo shoot with Nehru that catapults the ass to national fame. The ass is now surrounded by news persons and taken to the Constitution Club for a news conference. All the leading newspapers of the world publish a report of the ass’s news conference…..Large crowds of people gather to have a look at the ass. Then the ass meets the wealthy businessman Seth and the socialite Lady Sare Gama Gao.
With the Seth, the ass parries questions regarding his conversations with Nehru, saying that they had talked about ‘Burmah shell, a two hundred and fifty million oil refinery project’ and many things else. The ass is taken in a mammoth procession through the Chandni Chowk. The parents of our ass are brought in from Barabanki come to Delhi with Dhabbu to see their famous son. The wealthy Seth, with extended business interests, takes a liking for the ass. The Seth proposes to our ass a partnership contract and also marriage with his daughter Rupwati; and provides him all hospitality, publicity coverage etc.
Lady Sare Gama Gao introduces the glitterati of Delhi to our ass and the ass is invited to the Wellington Club as a judge in the beauty contest, where he is swarmed by a crowd of beauties in bathing suits. The ass delivers a matter of fact lecture at the Wellington Club and so the beauty contest comes to a sad end. The ass runs away from the scene of disaster and barges into the academy of Literature and meets some celebrated authors. The ass, then, visits the Academy of Music and Dance. The encounters of the ass with the cultural elite here is quite interesting.
The Seth and his men catch up with the ass; the ass is taken to Seth’s residence and Rupwati quarrels with the ass. Rupwati asks the ass to sign the business contract with her father. The ass says that he is agreeable to sign but mentions that there is nothing like a ‘two hundred and fifty million’ worth business contract coming his way. “…you have never wanted to listen to the whole story. There was never any question of a contract in which I was concerned”, says the ass.
The Seth is flabbergasted at this turn of events. The outraged Rupwati raises her cane…the father lifts his stick…Krishan Chander ends the novel with the following footnote:
The talking ass was very seriously injured last night. Several of his bones and ribs were broken…there was no evidence of struggle…The police, who found him, had to drag him to the Animal Hospital. The doctors there say that he is in a very dangerous condition and there is very little chance of his survival. Everything possible is being done to save his life. Our readers are requested to pray for him, so that he may yet recover and spend many more years in the service of mankind.
I am haunted by a feeling that Krishan Chander’s ass has indeed recovered and has bequeathed to us a variety of cross-breed descendents, endowed with our regional traits, everywhere across our country. The progenies in their present incarnation are more worldly wise, obtrusive; but less honest than their famed predecessor. What really made Krishan Chander’s ass catch the fascination of the cream of our national capital then was his tryst with Nehru. Nehru is no more but we always have our substitutes ready. The most aspiring one from the tribe of our new generation of ass can meet President Obama or even John Kerry. Once he manages to captivate them completely our new hero will have hitched his bandwagon to the ever rising star.
Roger Bannister, the sprint athlete famous for his 4 seconds run, in his new Autobiography, Two Tracks, likens his success on the track to the channeling the body’s energy, mental and physical (similar to the knack of riding a bicycle) into a few decisive moments on the track and adds that it also ‘involves a mental trick’… ‘The secret is to lose for a moment one’s sense of proportion. This process, in the greatest athlete, unleashes a will to win that remains locked away in his rivals.’ Taking the cue from here, what is necessary for the most ambitious ass is to ‘channel all the energy and lose his sense of proportion at the decisive moment…unleashing the will to win’; and he will soon arrive at his moment of ultimate triumph and crowning glory.