Hardcover, 224 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books India (February 2015)
Selected by Chiki Sarkar
“One of the trends in South Asian publishing in recent years has been the growing popularity of writing in translation. India has 22 official languages and contemporary regional literature is arguably far richer and more intellectually bracing than the writing in English. Ali Natiq writes in Urdu. Born in rural Punjab, he trained as a stonemason. The stories in this collection are like modern-day fables and bring rural Pakistani Punjab vividly alive.” —Chiki Sarkar
Ali Akbar Natiq originally worked as a mason, specialising in domes and minarets. He has written two volumes of poetry in Urdu. What Will You Give for This Beauty? is a collection of short stories translated from Urdu, about the subtle details in countryside life from the rural Punjab in Pakistan. Pastoral undercurrents are cut through with tales of religious animosity, class divisions and destructive gossip.
The graveyard lay between the river and the town, but this river was no longer the same. Once it had been four kilometres wide; now it was a little wider than a canal. It had many legends associated with it. One such was how, 800 or 900 years ago, Pir Jatti Shah had sat on the banks of the Beas for three days begging the boatmen to take him across but they wouldn’t, saying, pay us first. But where would a man of God get money? Finally, on the third day, he lost his temper. He folded his loincloth above his knees and stepped into the river, saying, “Behold, after today, there will be no river for you and your boats.” As Pir Jatti Shah waded deeper into the river, the waters kept dropping, never rising above his knees. When he got to the other side, the river had shrunk to a canal. Seeing this, the boatmen pleaded with the holy man but by then it was too late. Ever since, the Beas has been just a canal, 200 metres wide and seven to eight feet deep. But even this is a blessing for those living around it. For example, in our town, there was lush foliage all around. Everywhere you looked, there were verdant meadows. The entire town depended on agriculture, and the landowners had thrown wide pipes into the canal and installed Peter engines on the banks to suck the water out and irrigate their lands. Some people had dug small connecting canals and taken them out over great distances to their plots of land. Because of this, there were lush green fields and bountiful orchards as far as the eye could see. Both banks were covered with tall, shady trees; there were shisham, neem, pipal and banyan trees, too numerous to count. Their cool shade and the refreshing breeze invited slumber. There were hundreds of jamun trees and countless cattle which bathed in the canal every day. Fish were so plentiful that anyone could dip a net in the river and catch some. The women of town came to the canal to wash their clothes and bathe. Every Friday, long lines of women stood on the riverbank unconcernedly washing their clothes, their wet saris creating quite a spectacle. The river was a source of much amusement for the boys too. They spent most of their time in the water. In short, it was less an actual river and more a stream of blessing for the area. Except for one flaw: every year, one or two people drowned in it. As far back as I could remember, there had never been a year when someone had not died. At some point, a bridge had been built on the river but it was just a narrow walkway and underneath it the water was very deep. Someone or the other inevitably fell in because of carelessness and drowned. In the rainy months, the bridge got submerged and then boats plied the river for two or three months. Those bathing their buffaloes or us boys who were at the river all the time knew its ups and downs, but every year a stranger or two drowned and died. It had thus become lore that the river demanded one or two human sacrifices every year. This was its payment from the locals for their use of its water. Gradually this became a firmly held belief. Sometimes, the whole year would pass uneventfully but then, right at the end of the year, someone would drown. These events further strengthened the belief in people’s minds. However, one year, the river took 10 lives; it came as a shock. The whole area was in an uproar and fear reigned all around. There was a large school in our area where about 500 boys studied. They were children from the town as well as the surrounding villages. It was the rainy season.