Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is from Pakistan currently living in Saudi Arabia, where he is Lecturer in English at Taif University. His short stories are well recognized internationally for his unique prose style, and really naive innocence of rural life of Pakistan. His short story Donkey-Man was selected among the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003 in the StorySouth Million Writers Award. His work has appeared in Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books,Offcourse literary Journal University at Albany, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. He exists on twitter as @nasar_peace ,at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and https://www.facebook.com/nasar.peace
Raja and His Buffalo
He was born in December, the month when the frost spreads its icy fingers across the landscape, and turns everything it touches into a hardened, deadly shell gleaming with winter jewels.
With the rush of life, his parents neglected to name the child for several months, but as winter changed to spring, his mother called the child Raja, which meant “her prince”. The irony of his less than princely surroundings, somehow lost on her.
Raja grew up in small village of his birth where snow threatened to fall and a deep chill burrowed its way through the tiny village. It clung to the steep mountainside as if seeking shelter, too small and insignificant to be marked anywhere except on a 1:50,000 military topographic maps. A village noted only when recruiters needed cannon fodder for the war effort.
Every day, Raja's father took him with his brothers to the corn fields, to work for the local landlord, planting and harvesting corn. Raja's mother and sisters worked in the landlord's house, paid in grain. They owned a small hut with a big yard and a buffalo. Not counting the animal and the simple wooden furniture, all their earthly possessions would fit in a dowry chest. They dreamed of a better life, with hazy and unreal visions of what such a life could be. Their aspirations drew from the films they saw once a year in a slightly bigger village, but larger villages intimidated them and made them feel small.
Even these simple people had dreams and longed for a better life, but those dreams and longings were hazy and unreal, based on the films they saw once a year in a slightly bigger village, which was big enough to intimidate them every time they went there.
Raja’s prized possession was a tiny bamboo flute, carved for him by his father. In the long, dreary evenings after their labors, Raja would entertain his family with improvised melodies that floated above their tiny hut past the corn fields into the village beyond.
Their life would never change. A peaceful and monotonous eternity stretched before them.
And then the buffalo died.
If they could have sacrificed a family member to save the buffalo, they would have done so. They faced starvation without the buffalo’s milk. The family met to consider their dilemma.
“Someone needs to leave the village to work in the city and send money home. The money will be saved up for a new buffalo.” Father announced calmly.
None of the family members had ever left the village before, let alone go anywhere as far away as the city. They glanced at one another before looking down, keeping quiet.
“Hassan has poor eyes; I need Subhan to work the cornfields; Rahi needs to help mother in the master’s house; Suraj is too weak,”. Father said. Only Raja remained.
“Raja”, their father announced, smiling down on his youngest son, just eighteen. “You will send us enough money to get a new buffalo.”
His brothers and sisters sighed with relief as poor Raja stared at his father, wondering how he could manage. They tried their best to fill him with confidence and tell him all they knew about the city. But they knew nothing of the city, their advice gleaned from the movies shown in the nearby village.
They told him city- people were very generous. They not only fed their servants, but also gave them plenty of money. He would wear fantastic clothes and ride in a car, not on a donkey. Then he would find a nice girl, one who didn’t have to work in the fields and had hands without calluses. Nothing could go wrong or come between Raja and his buffalo.
So Raja, the savior of the family, left for the big city. His family bade him farewell as he set off on the long journey, along narrow paths surrounded by trees and corn fields, clutching his few meager possessions, including his beloved flute, and some bread and scraps of meat his mother packed for him.
It took a long time for the bus to make its way through the countryside and into the city. By then it was the dark, and, in the city light, the stars twinkled dimly. They were overshadowed by the lights pouring out from every lamp in the streets and shop signs.
Raja had never seen artificial light. Even though it was night time he felt dazzled. Each neon light and shining bulb made him aware of his own poor appearance. His shirt had half its buttons. Dust clung to his skin, between his fingers, under his nails and on his clothes. His pants were full of holes and worn-out. His clothes gave little protection from the chilly December wind.
Worst of all, he had no money, so he bedded down in the street, with the stray dogs for company, and took whatever shelter he could find in the doorways. He soothed himself during these dark, scary, lonely nights by taking out his flute and whistling away the hours; sometimes people would stop and listen. And on rare nights, someone may even toss him a coin in gratitude for the sad melodies. He would play old tunes his family used to enjoy, until ultimately someone would shout at him to knock off the noise.
He still had the food, which his mother had packed for him before he left for the city. When the food ran out, he scavenged food from rubbish bins, amazed by the bounty thrown away by people without a thought.
Many things surprised him in the city. So many people could fit into it and pass each other by, without ever speaking to or communicating with each other. Soon, he became homesick for his small village and family.
One fortunate morning, after sleeping in shop doorways for two months, he knocked on the door of a large residence. A gruff looking servant answered the door and scowled at the ragged boy standing in the doorway.
“What do you want?” He frowned.
“Please, mister, I’m not begging. I’m looking for work. I came from a village two months ago to earn money for my family—our only buffalo died and--”
“Enough! I don’t need to hear your whole sob story,” said the servant, whose name was Ahmed. However, Raja realized that underneath the gruff demeanor, this servant hid a kind heart.
“Listen here. You are in luck. Our master just bought three new dogs and I don’t want to have to deal with cleaning their dog mess. You look like you’ve been around animals—I can give you work cleaning the kennels and caring for the animals in exchange for lodging in the servants’ quarters and a few coins. In no position to haggle, Raja readily accepted the arrangement.
They called it a “quarter”, but in reality, it was a tiny piece of hell buried beneath the rest of the building. Raja didn’t care - he had no time to do anything other than sleep there anyway.
In his time off from his grueling life, he met with the other servants, at a corner of a major road crossing. A shifting mass of people gathered there, which seemed strange to Raja, as other people gathered in their homes, but the servants gathered in the open space of the streets.
There, poor people could spend time with their companions beneath the trees, and the rules that guided normal city-dwellers seemed to fall away. Since they had none, no one talked about their love affairs, and felt free to love and lose as they saw fit.
Sometimes, while his master’s family was taking their afternoon nap, he would go to the road crossing and play his flute. When he played, it seemed as if the entire world stopped to listen to his magical sound, and he forgot about the misery of his life and lived in the melody.
Raja played the flute for his fellow servants, making their evenings brighter. His melodies spoke of deep, ancient forces in the human soul. After a little while Raja, with his flute, became the prince of the road crossing. Then, a little while after that, he met his princess.
He saw her one day, sitting under the tree, a shy smile flitting across her lips. When she thought he wasn’t looking, she would turn her head towards him, and then dart back again.
He asked around the crossing, and discovered that the girl’s name was Rani, which means “queen” in her native language. Raja thought that her mother had given her a perfect name. Rani also lived in a servant’s quarter but hers was far better than Raja’s cell-like room. He learned that she did the laundry for the wealthy family that lived in the center of the city.
My queen, he thought to himself.
He did not believe that this queen would ever pay attention to a poor boy from the country, but one day, as he was whistling on his flute, his eye caught hers. He stopped and clumsily rose, nervous that the object of his fantasies would be watching him so closely.
“Don’t stop!” she called to him. He turned and gawked at her as she timidly approached him. “You play so beautifully. The music is so peaceful—yet so haunting and melancholic.”
Raja blushed and shrugged his shoulders. “I play what’s in my heart. It just seems to come out of my fingers and my lips,” he explained. He was embarrassed that he sounded silly to this city girl, but she smiled brightly.
“That is wonderful,” she breathed. “I wish I had the talent to play music that easily.” Raja handed her his flute. “It’s easy!” he declared. “Try it. I can teach you!” She backed away, as though he were handing her a snake.”
“Oh no!” she insisted. “I have no musical gift. I prefer to sit and listen to you play.”
And she did, gazing at him in wonder, as he played a lively melody that inspired by her dark fluttering eyes. When he finished, he leaned over to speak, but she quickly leapt to her feet. “I must go back to my quarters,” she said. “My master is waiting.” She dashed off before Raja could say another word. He wasn’t sure whether he ruined his chances with his queen or whether this was a new opportunity for him to get close to her.
His fears were abated when she approached him the following day and sat by him again as he played his flute. They met like this for several weeks, Raja making new and more intricate melodies, as Rani listened rapturously, gazing at the sky. They never spoke, and any time Raja tried to engage her in a conversation, Rani would grab her master’s laundry and dash back to her quarters. Raja was flustered, but as long as his queen sat near him and inspired his music, he was content.
One golden afternoon, as they watched the sunset while Raja played a soulful tune, he turned and blurted to her: “Rani, you are so beautiful.”
She blushed with a shy, yet winsome smile. Her eyes flashed a shade of brown he knew, opening a window into the secrets her smile attempted to hide.
But Raja lost his ability to speak; he always communicated through his flute, not through words. He turned pink and carried on playing without talking to her any further.
It was then that Raja started to spend time alone in his dark city quarter – a place where he could be with his thoughts. He never imagined that real love could be as beautiful as Rani. He was stunned when he realized how Rani had penetrated his soul. For someone who enjoyed living alone, this experience was new and different. Where he had once loathed the feeling of loneliness, he now craved it, longing for the chance to be alone with the thoughts of Rani, so he could whisper beautiful things in her ear. The sound of his flute floated above him, awakening his emotions with its tunes.
Two years of this lovely self-torture passed. He worked hard, but still couldn’t achieve his one simple goal of replacing his family’s buffalo. He spent little on himself. And yet, every time he got close to having enough to buy the buffalo, something would happen. His mother fell ill, and he had to send money for her medicine. Then his sister got married and needed his help. Sometimes, Raja felt like he would never have the money to leave this horrible place. The only thing that made the city tolerable was Rani. Their silent evenings together gave him the strength to endure. One night, after one of his improvised songs drifted into the sky, Rani turned to him thoughtfully.
“Your music makes me feel so happy and full,” she said, turning to him. She paused. “How do I make you feel?”
Raja felt his heart leap into his throat. “Like a lost man in the desert who has reached an oasis,”
It was a quote from a movie he once watched as a small child, hidden behind his landlord’s couch, catching glimpses of the television while his mother cleaned. He found it funny he now had an opportunity to use this line in his own life. Rani must have seen the same film, for she laughed at its corniness, but seemed touched by his romantic reply. He took advantage of her query to push his feelings even further.
“Rani, you are my queen. Tell me that I mean something to you as well.”
Rani looked at him, and shyly took his hand. “You do mean much to me,” she admitted. “A girl living alone in the city has to be careful about who she spends time with. If I seem aloof, it’s because I have to protect my own virtue.”
“Rani, I can protect you! I would give my life to keep you safe!” Raja blurted out; his feelings had been bottled up inside him for so long that finally being able to express them, they just flew out of his mouth.
“Oh, would you? Are you my knight? My prince?” Rani said, teasing him about the name his mother gave him.
“I will be your prince, and you will be my queen,” Raja said triumphantly, taking Rani in his arms; she leaned against him as they looked ahead, each thinking about the future they might have together.
“In just a year or two, I will earn enough to buy my family a new buffalo. Then we can go back and start our family there,” he said, breathlessly laying out his plans for their home life together—how his mother and sister would help her with the children she would bear him; how he would work alongside his father and brothers; how they would eventually earn enough to build a small hut of their own.
She finally held up her hand and cut him off.
“Hold on! Raja, what makes you think I would move out to that dull, stinking village?” Raja stopped, dumbfounded.
“I just assumed—you know—that we would marry, and move back to my homeland…” he stammered. But he could tell by the disgusted expression on her face that Rani clearly had not the same nostalgic feelings for the country.
“What’s so good about the village? There is so much more for us here. Isn’t your family struggling for food?” Rani said. “Stay with me here. With both our incomes, and the money you’re saving for that silly buffalo, we can start our new life. Your family can visit us,” she added, noticing Raja’s crestfallen expression.
“It may seem silly, but I cannot bring myself to return to my village without the promised buffalo. My love for you is stronger than the currents in the sea, but the fear I have of disappointing my family is much stronger. I miss my peaceful village, and want nothing more than to have you there, by my side, living life with me.”
There was a brief silence as Rani attempted to process what she had just heard. Raja was hanging every major part of his life – even her – on the purchase of this buffalo. Rani frowned and tried again.
“Look at the freedom of the city. We can move and meet each other and no one else cares. We would never have that in the village.” Rani said, begging him with her eyes.
“Believe me, Rani, life in the village is exquisite.”
“But I can’t live somewhere where even a buffalo enjoys more than a woman does.”
“Buffaloes enjoy more? But how?” Raja asked.
“Yes, the buffalo has a better life there. She is given fodder and shelter and gives milk. But a woman has to earn her fodder and give milk too.”
“You have to work in the city as well,” Raja argued.
“True, but the money I earn is mine to do with what I will. I am free to go dancing or eat at my friends’ house, or,” she added, taking Raja’s hand, “to spend the evening sitting with you listening to your flute. In the village, I would be a servant to you, to your family, I would be expected to bear many children and work long hard hours every day.”
It was a strong argument. Raja thought of his mother, working all day in the landlord’s house and feeding her babies at the same time.
“Yes, that’s true, but the community we live in is so strong. We may not have much, but we have each other. The people are kind and generous, the landscape is beautiful, and there isn’t a constant reminder of how much others have. Here in the city, I am forced to look at the lives of others – lives which I will never understand. Back home, we can live in peace. Yes, we will still be poor, but I do not feel that bad about my place in that world.” It was like a dam bursting. Raja had never spoken so much in his entire life. “I am lost in the city. Even though I am surrounded by thousands of people every day, I am a stranger. There are no neighbors here. No family.”
“That isn’t true!” Rani’s brown eyes flashed. “The servants who gather here every night are my friends—they would be your friends too, if you actually talked to them. They admire you, Raja. They are charmed by your music. You could earn money performing your music. You could be a prince among them, playing your flute, if you would only allow yourself to be present here, with them, and with me, instead of hiding in your corner and dreaming of your pitiful little village.”
Rani got up and walked away. He thought about stopping her, but refrained. He became painfully aware that they couldn't live together in this city. He couldn’t stay in this wretched place any longer. It was crushing him to let her leave, but the city was no place for them to start a new life. The pain swelled deep in his chest; he had not felt such sorrow since his buffalo died. Raja loved his buffalo and tears flowed when he lost her, yet this time, the tears seemed to wash away his heart. Raja thought back to years gone by, longing for better days as he walked the dark, dirty streets.
Raja stopped under a large tree that had seen generations of human heartbreaks come and go.
Sitting on the cool grass and leaning back against the rigid bark, he closed eyes and pulled the flute from his satchel. His fingers danced across the voids and a soft melody of love and sorrow lifted into the sky. He could feel the notes floating across the sea and he continued to play. The song was so pure; it called to souls yearning for healing. It was full of pain, love and loss and had anyone heard, they would have heard the closest Raja could have come to explaining how he felt on the inside when words didn't seem to be powerful enough to express his sorrow.
His world turned dark again. A few happy and lovely days came and then ended quickly, leaving a deep hollow wound on his heart. He decided he would stick to his plan, no matter how hard it got. Every night when he trudged home, exhausted and filthy from cleaning the kennels and grooming his master’s dogs, he tossed his meager coins into his savings jar and tumbled into his bed. He refused to spend money on himself, mending his thin pants and eating what scraps he could scrounge from his master’s cook, who would save bread for him in return for playing a few dance tunes on his flute for her. He got other odd jobs where he could, hauling coal or carrying groceries for his master’s neighbors. Days turned into months of heavy work and tossed coins.
One night, while he was sitting in his room with a small stale piece of bread and dipping it in carrot water that pretended to be soup, he caught sight of his jar, glinting in the sunlight. It was full to the brim, and shone with money.
“Could it be?” he said aloud. He counted out the coins again and again, unable to believe it was true.
Whooping and laughing, he jumped up with his small satchel, knocking over the soup.
“Who needs watery soup? I’ll buy a buffalo!” he shouted at nobody in particular.
Then he set off, marching down the street, grinning like a maniac. People stared at him as if he was crazy, but he didn’t care. He would soon have another buffalo. This thought gave him joy for the first time in months.
He knocked on the door of his Master’s house, and gave a slight bow. “Sir, I have saved enough money for a buffalo and I will return to my village.” he said.
The Master didn’t seem happy, no doubt thinking he would never find such a naïve villager working all day and night for such a pittance. Raja barely noticed though, as he waved goodbye.
On his way to catch the bus, he walked past Rani’s house. He hung around for a while, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. May be she would come out after him. Maybe she would change her mind and he would send for her when he got back to his village. He stood there waiting around for some time, but she never appeared, nor was there any sign that she would return anytime soon. He resolved to go as he had decided. If he did see her again, he rationalized, he was not sure he would be able to bear it.
Sitting on the bus, he turned his head towards the city and whispered: “Goodbye, Rani. Enjoy your city life.” A tear rolled down his cheek and out of the open bus window. As the bus set off, despite his heartache, Raja decided to think about the buffalo he would soon have. He thought of his mother, bowing over the small smoky stove, pounding bread; his brothers teasing him about his flute; he pictured his sisters’ shy smiles, and wondered how big they must be by now. He thought of his old father, who surely must be gray. The more he could hear the laughter of his family and imagine the smell of his mother’s cooking, the more eager he was to abandon the city and return to his home.
Many hours later and very weary; he got off at the stop near his village and went into the small shop to buy a new blue bow and shiny bell to tie on his new buffalo.
Tired but happy, he walked the long and narrow dust path up the mountains to his home village. It was already dusk and becoming dark, but Raja hardly noticed. He knew this footpath blindfolded. This time he wanted to follow his heart, to get back to his family and delight them with his great fortune.
As he walked, his trousers jangled loudly with every footstep he took into the darkness.
If he kept thinking about his buffalo, with her great big shiny bell and handsome bow, he might forget about Rani and the city he had left behind. But try as he might, he could not shake the image of her smile from his head.
“Give us the money now!” A voice shouted out of nowhere in the black night.
Something shined near his face, in the light of the moon; he could see it was a large blade.
“Hand it over. We know you’ve got money on you”, said another voice, to his left.
He could hear the breathing on his neck but all he could see was the white of a pair of eyes and the glint of the knife.
“Now!” spat the first man.
Cold steel thrust itself into his face. Raja swerved. He was ready to fight. There was no way he was giving everything to the robbers. The only thing he had in hand was his wooden flute, which he shoved hard into the face in front of him. He couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but it was enough to get away. Raja began to run, but he tripped on a rock in the road and he fell. As he scrambled to get back to his feet, something struck him on the skull and he collapsed unconscious in the path.
When he woke up by some miracle he was still alive. However, the blow to his head was a severe one. His money was gone, but Raja was no longer worried about his life-long ambition. He looked up and blinked in the early morning sun. He saw the outline of his village, which he could barely recognize. He picked himself up, still dizzy from the blow to his head, blood crusted on his hair, pebbles embedded in his face from where he fell. He did not know where he was supposed to go, or even remember what had happened to him. He saw the blue ribbon and bell lying on the dirt next to him. He picked it up and stared at it, confused. Something about a buffalo, he thought, struggling to shape a thought. As he stumbled down the dusty street, a villager leading his goats to the field came upon him.
“Raja!” one boy cried, recognizing the long-missing son of his neighbor. But the surprise of seeing the boy returned was replaced with horror when he saw the terrible condition he was in. Raja looked at him blankly. Frightened, the neighbor led him home to his family.
His family tended to the wounded boy as best they could, but Raja was never the same again. They said he would not be able to speak or work properly again. All that remained of his memories and his mind was an obsession with buffaloes. They never learned that he had returned with money to buy the buffalo—they never learned of Raja’s life in the city. They never learned about his love for a city girl named Rani. All they knew was that Raja had returned home and now was permanently helpless.
His father begged the landlord for help, and they gave him a job as a shepherd in the fields. Raja spent his days looking after the landlord’s herd. There was one buffalo with big brown eyes he liked the most, and he tied the blue bow around her neck. He was devoted to her and she ran everywhere after him, tinkling her cow bell. Sometimes he would play a halting, simple melody for her. He couldn’t capture the lively, soulful melodies that his flute playing used to have, but there was still a haunting sadness in the whispering, raspy tunes he played, as if somewhere deep in his injured brain, there was a lingering of memories of a love and a dream he couldn’t quite hold onto anymore.
When the children would come to see the buffalo, they would ask him, “Raja what is the name of your buffalo?”
He would stop for a moment and had to force the words out of his mouth, like they were stuck there and didn’t want to come out. “Ra…, Ran… Rani.”
No longer did he have to choose between Rani and his buffalo; now he had both.
~Muhammad Nasrullah Khan