by Shri KT Muhammed
ALL WHO HAVE EYES TO SEE laugh when they see me. Some burst out in Homeric laughter. They have many funny stories to tell about me.
But I know what they say…what makes them laugh like asses. One reason that they laugh is that I, too, had a sweetheart! More, I married her! How I became a lover and husband is a story they reckon as a wonder which can make them laugh and laugh. If you want to understand this wonderful amusement, they will ask you to have a look at me. After all, I am a human being.
I am a short man, black like coal, with disproportionate limbs. My huge head is the crown of that deformity as well as my ugliness. On my face are two round eyes in deep hollows, a snub nose, a big frog-like mouth, and a narrow forehead between two over-sized ears. There are also marks showing how greedily smallpox, which attacked me in my twelfth year, pecked at the flesh of my face; a fall in my boyhood has left me lame of the right leg. Yes, I am indeed a mountain of ugliness. They tell me that at first sight I create in everyone an impression of a black monkey. But people do not necessarily laugh on seeing a monkey. Their laughter is roused when they realized that the monkey-like animal is a fellow human being. While walking along the road once, I heard a man telling his companion, “This man here reminds me of the Hunchback of the Notre Dame.” Though I am no hunchback, I never stopped to protest. After all, it is not for me to decide what or whom I remind people of. Anyway, their laughter has taught me a great deal about myself.
I shrink into myself like a forget-me-not when I see colorfully dressed young women flitting along the roads, because they turn their faces abruptly, like Brahmans at the sight of an ill-omened owl. It is when they haughtily refuse to regard me as a fellow human being and to respect my feelings as a human being—it is then that I realize my pathetic plight. Endowed, like any of you, with a sense of the beautiful, I, too, enjoy the sight of but you seem to consider it an unpardonable crime on my part. In short, the world clearly announces that people like me have no right to live in it. I know that, too.
My father died before memory had dawned on me, and so my old mother is all I had by way of a home. How far could the influence of heredity account for it—who was responsible for my pitiable and horrible deformity? My father? My mother? No, I cannot blame either. Why blame them? I was born. Perhaps they had not wished or expected that I should be born. We tried to keep the skeleton of a family—I who did not fade, and mother who did not fall. Should not that family tree put forth new branches and keep alive?
The family sense of a man, who is a social being, began to manifest itself through my guileless mother. She asked me, “Son, mustn’t you bring home a bride?”
That question of mother’s was no surprise to me. Restraining my heavy heart, I replied, “Oh, yes, mother, in due course.”
She began to consult her grey-haired neighbors. The consultation lasted for a few days. Returning day after day with a pained look on her face, she became a problem to me. Everyday I would ask her, “What’s the matter, Mother?” And she would say, “Oh, nothing.” Under that “nothing” throbbed a mother’s heart full of despair and helplessness.
Two weeks crept by. Mother stopped going out. Those who had sympathetically remarked, “Poor chap! How hard his mother tried to get him a bride! Oh, God, why did you create a man like this!”
Secretly, I began to try cosmetics. I tried wearing fine clothes. But my attempts only made people laugh louder. Was I becoming uglier? I realized that bathing couldn’t turn a crow into a swan.
To continue my life story. At last, I too found a sweetheart! You must be getting impatient to hear my love story—the story of my humanity. I longed to love and be loved. Is it not natural? The story of my love is a wonderful story indeed—involving a young woman who loved me and later married me, utterly disregarding my appearance, which turned away all eyes and disgusted all minds.
My mother’s struggle to get a daughter-in-law ended in failure. No woman would wish to become the wife of an ape-man. Groaning under the burden of this failure, my mother became a victim of all ailments natural to old age—from which she never recovered. My mother, who used to soothe my burning heart, at least occasionally with the cool breeze of her affection, my dear mother, who kept me bound to this loveless world by the golden thread of her love, my mother, who was my very life, and who found some sort of beauty even in my terrible ugliness—she died leaving me all alone. I shall not weep over it now, for she has no strength to suffer anymore.
And then it happened. There was the tap-tap of a heavy stick against the door, and then a girl’s voice saying, “Something for a beggar, sir?” I cannot see, master.” I looked at her and then her eyes. It was a pitiful sight. Forgetting myself, I thought: “Poor girl, she is young, without eyes—a life in which hearing and touching alone are possible.”
She was not good-looking, but her well-proportioned body had the charm of youth. Poor thing! My heart went out to her. “You may come in and sit down here,” I politely asked her. She began to grope for the door. I got up and led her by the hand. It was the first time I was touching a young woman—with a heart heavy with suppressed emotions. Again, I looked at her face. Despite her sightless eyes, youth had preserved her face beautifully. Her high bosom was not far away from mine. Before I could think, I began to shiver as if with chill. I felt my lips parched, my limbs strangely transformed, my breathing quickened. “You may sit down here.” I led her to the seat at he end of the verandah. Did she feel the trembling of my hands? I gave her a little of the food I had cooked, and a rupee besides.
She told me that her name was Leela, that she and her old mother lived in a thatched hut near a big factory in the city. When she was leaving, I asked her to come again.
Leela began to come often. Then it became a habit. We would talk of all kinds of things. I felt somewhat relieved of the burden of my heart and of my life. Moments of life began to hold attractions for me. Leela’s eyes! If they had sight, they would enhance her beauty. Is not a woman’s glance capable of maddening a man? Though I had learned this only from other people’s experience, I could realize what it meant. My hungry heart, too, had its cravings. If only Leela had her eyes! Not that I did not know how foolish this was. If she had eyes, perhaps she would not be a beggar. Even if she became one, she would not accept from me anything more than mere alms! No, her eyes would not have allowed her to come to me, to talk to, everyday.
I thought so unconsciously, because, I happen to be like anyone else. Is it any fault of mine?
People noticed our meetings, but no one envied us. Being an “ape-man,” I was already a target of their ridicule. Now the story of my love for a blind woman gave them something more to laugh at. They were amused at the alliance between deformity and blindness. Funny, isn’t it?
One day, I asked Leela, “Leela, what do you think of me?” Her shy smile gave a great joy. “Speak, Leela!” I insisted.
“Did I say you are a bad man?” she softly replied. I felt her reply was sincere. I was elated. Even though I had not intended to, I asked her abruptly, in a fit of emotion. “Do you like me, Leela?” She bashfully bowed her head but said nothing. I felt that all the charm of life lay heaped up in that scene.
Leela left soon afterwards. “Leela.” At last, I, too, had a name I could utter with love in this vast, desolate world; someone I could expect with eager joy. Life, which had seemed desolate to me, became sweet and enjoyable. Was it not my luck!
People who laugh at me are my enemies. Suppose they put into Leela’s mind ideas about my ugliness. Had they already done so? Who knows! But how could she tell attractive beauty from disgusting ugliness when she could not tell day from night? She had told me she was born blind. I do not say that she being born blind was my good fortune; but was that her misfortune?
Leela came again the next day. I was thinking about our marriage, how to accomplish it. Should not a representative for God bear witness to the alliance between man and woman? But no priest of God would be ready to officiate at our marriage. There is a reason for it. Those representatives of God have worldly viewpoint which they call “spiritual.” Leela and I were religiously incompatible. They would give us no help, however loudly it may be proclaimed that in this world where there are more women than men, no woman but Leela would wish to marry me. It is only in matters of this that priests who represent God in various names will agree among themselves. Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that I am a Muslim. But after all, is it a fact?
I asked her, “Leela, will you marry me?” I felt she was taken aback. The fact of my being a Muslim must have made her pause and think, “What are you saying?” There was a limit to the sympathy that this blind beggar woman could feel.
“Leela, it is enough if you realize that I am human being. God has sent you to me. Caste and creed are man’s own creations.”
Pleadingly, I looked at her trembling lips. I felt like a murderer awaiting the verdict of the judge. Yes, it was for her to decide whether I should live or die. Leela was silent. Was it not significant? I went on, “Speak, Leela. I went on to protect you. Do promise to make me happy.”
“I shall consent,” she replied at last. “I have heard people say so many things about me contemptuously. When I pass, they say, there goes the ape-man’s mistress. According to them, you have no beauty.”
“What do you feel, Leela?”
She went on, “I don’t understand the beauty they all talk of; nor have I seen an ape. I, therefore, don’t care what they say. Would I feel different even if they said that you are the handsomest man in the world?”
“It is with my heart that I have seen the world. I see beauty and ugliness with my heart. You are a Muslim and I am a Hindu. If you have no objection, I have none. I thought there would be no one in this world to love me sincerely. But…”
“Then why the ‘but’?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes, there is a big ‘but’ behind this beggar’s profession. I have no untainted womanhood to offer you. Though blind, I have wanted to love. But by beggar’s bowl—empty even after the whole day’s begging—laughed devilishly at the empty stomach of my mother and myself. I had to yield to creatures of lust approaching through the horror of night. There is no use to your getting indignant with me. No man puts anything in the begging bowl of a young woman in the name of charity. I thought your first show of sympathy had the same motive. Forgive me. But today I respect no one but you as a human being.”
I was stunned momentarily. There was a silence for a few minutes. “Leela,” I said at last, “it is the story of man’s sordid selfishness. I shall not think of it anymore.” She was silent.
After a few days, the event took place, creating a sensation in my village. Without any representative of God to bear witness, and without waiting for anybody’s recommendation, she and I, Leela and Abdulla—stood together and took silent mutual vow to become partners in life.
The laughter of the people around us became louder. There were guffaws when Leela and her mother came to live with me.
The self-appointed custodians of society looked askance at us. People did not realize that two burning hearts were at the bottom of this story of love and marriage. I tried to cheer up Leela. “Leela, let people laugh. They must be crazy.”
We began to live. I won’t say that ours was a happy married life. It was the maddening urge of our humanity. That was our life. Social ethics and religious conventions assumed a horrible vengefulness upon us. We received no help or cooperation. We had no illusions that we could live happily. But we wanted to live and were prepared to face our difficulties.
And then it happened. Leela was going to be a mother. My being an ape-man and Leela’s blindness were no bar. We ignored the world’s gossip and sneers. Joys which I had never expected in my life had come to me. I became a lover, a husband, and now going to be a father! I thanked God! He is great! Praise be to Him! For Leela’s sightless eyes!
But Leela fell ill two months before the child to be born. I called a doctor. He examined her. I begged him to save her. After a while, he asked, “Is she blind from birth? When I said yes, he examined her eyes again, and thoughtfully remarked, “I can restore her eyesight by an operation. But it is impossible now. Let her regain her health after recovery.”
The doctor’s words shook my heart, my youth, my life! He says he can give light to Leela’s eyes! When she can see, will she shudder to see me, whom she knows as a man with a heart, worthy of love? The moment she begins to see, will she still love me and respect me? What should I say to the doctor? “No, her eyes need have no sight,” I tried to shout out. But what I said was, “Leela, the doctor says your blindness can be cured!”
I was mechanically repeating what she had already heard. How could I explain to her that the restoration of her sight might cut at the very root of my life? What is it that man would not do to keep his eyesight? Is it not great good fortune for anyone to be cured of congenital blindness? Leela, who had fully understood my heart, did not know the worldly side of me. She said, “If I can regain my sight, I want to have it. Don’t you feel happy? If I can see you, I know you will love me all the more.”
Her face was rich with contentment even in that state of illness. Was it only because a new life was sprouting up?
The doctor gave me a prescription, and explaining to me how the medicine was to be given, said, “Come to me when normal health has been restored after delivery. Then I shall tell you more about the operation.” Leela was calm, but a storm raged within me. My mind was afire with violent thoughts. I went to the end of the veranda and sat down. It was only in this small hut of mine that I had some peace. Even that was going to be shattered. My world was small.
“No! Never! You shall not restore sight to Leela’s eyes. Oh, Doctor! You have conspired with the scornful enemies to kill me. But I will kill first. Why have you flung fire into our lives? No, you are not to blame. You have to fight blindness. Blindness is one of the worst diseases. You cannot remain indifferent to it. You may give sight to her. You know nothing of my life. May Leela be able to see! May God give her that great blessing which every human being should have! But I must become dust before that—before she can know what is meant by “ape-man”! Then I can live on her memory as a man rich in love. Will her present love for me and the beauty she sees in me last forever?” My heart was crying.
Leela gave birth to a boy. Society was embarrassed at the birth of an illegitimate child. Some laughed aloud like asses. Isn’t that funny! That child born of an ugly father and a blind mother was innocent. It inherited Leela’s looks and my eyes. Whose good fortune could it be?
Leela regained her health. She reminded me of that which my selfishness had made me keep down. “Shall we go and see the doctor now?”
She did not know what a storm her words created in my heart. I lied to her. “Yes, I had forgotten.” I shall go and find out today.” I knew I was lying. I felt like one tossing in mid-ocean.
I went out and, returning after a couple of hours, said to her, “The doctor is dead!”
That was all I could say. I had thought I would not be able to say even that. I could not make a show of the grief which I, her husband, should have felt over the death of the good doctor who had promised to cure Leela’s blindness. I had to keep down in my agonized heart a secret born of cruelty and selfishness. It was a burden too heavy to bear. What I did for my own safety undermined peace of mind forever. The burning days moved on.
One day, as I returned home, I saw something heart-rending. Leela’s mother had not moved a big copper vessel from the room. Leela, while rushing to the cradle of the crying baby without taking her stick, had stumbled on it. She had dashed against the doorpost. She was bleeding. I rushed her to the hospital.
Lives were being consumed. Do you feel like laughing now? I have no more complaint! Who cares for my complaints!
Leela, my life, my world! A doctor called me and said, “It must have been a terrible fall. The injury is serious.”
I went to Leela. She lay writhing in pain. I spoke to her. She said, sobbing, “Are you here? I am going. If I could see once with my eyes!”
The last wish of Leela seemed to me to be the trial of my endurance. Had she been grieving that the doctor was dead? She was silent.
“Leela!” I said to her. “To see me with eyes is not, after all, a great thing. Have you not seen me with your broad and clear heart? I know that in this world you alone have seen rightly. People cannot see each other with eyes. And so, dear, be at peace. You will soon be well.”
Leela listened to me and then there was a pause. The bright sun had already gone down. Leela began to cry. I was in agony. My grim secret was trying to burst out. I could no longer stand there. Leela’s mother came up and put the little child by Leela’s side. The tiny creature began to cry, perhaps suffocated by the tragic atmosphere. Leela’s mother also began to cry. I felt helpless.
Leela’s pure soul gently flowed out. I don’t remember what I did. The beating of one’s heart stopped; some other’s burst.
The sun had now set and the darkness thickened.
People who could not perceive the currents under my horrible ugliness and my strange love story will laugh when they see me. I sometimes wonder, what would have been my story if I had been blind, too!
Ms Espie says:
A heart-rending confession of a poor man whose good soul has been corrupted by malice, ridicule and discrimination by the society. Would you blame him for preventing the restoration of Leela’s eyesight? Is it right to judge him downright as selfish?
Leela is as much a victim of the circumstances as Abdulla is. Both are restricted by things that they lack, and such deprivation leaves them weak and incapable of defending themselves or finding happiness that they rightfully deserve.
What we say or do has effect on other people. Although it is human nature to raise our eyebrows on people who are different from what society brands as normal and conforming, we have to remember that they, too, are God’s children and they deserve their own space in this wide, wide world.