A Smile from the past and other stories




Rahim, the wood-cutter’s son, sat outside the rough hut which served as his home, mending the rope which he used for bringing back wood from the jungle. A few yards off his father, Gulam Mohammed, sat deep in conversation with Sabhana, game warden for the district. Sabhana was a good friend of Rahim’s, but today he was not paying much attention to the conversation until some words which interested him caught his ears.

The damage is certainly the work of a bear”, he was saying. “The villagers will not put with it much longer, as the crops in all directions are being spoilt. Chawan Sahib has offered five hundred rupees for his skin, and two of the best shots in the valley have been out looking for the brute for days without so much as a glimpse of him. The situation is really getting quite serious “.

The speaker now had Rahim’s full attention. The boy was an animal-lover having been brought up in the forest all his life, and regarding all the wild creatures as his friends. Still – five hundred rupees ! His father was a very poor man, and knew just how much five hundred rupees would mean to him. There were no crops growing in the middle of the jungle where they lived however, and what likelihood was there of the bear coming in their direction ?

Finishing the rope, Rahim rose to his feet, and went off to bring in his father’s three goats, which had to be brought in for the night, before they could be carried off by cheeta’s on the prowl in search of their evening supper. When he returned with the goats Sabhana had already gone, but his father was still discussing the matter of the marauding bear with his wife.

Not that there is much chance of its coming this way “, he finished up, ‘But only Allah knows how much five hundred rupees would help us !”

Two or three days went by, and Rahim forgot about the bear, although one night he was startled by the sound of a shot in the valley. Two days later he was up even earlier than usual, as his father had given him instructions about some wood to be brought back from a part of the forest some five miles from their house, and Rahim was anxious to get it back before the sun had got too high in the heavens.

He had got the wood and was on his homeward way, when an unaccustomed sound made him stop in his tracks. It was something between the whimpering of a puppy and the crying of a baby, but not quite either. Cautiously he approached the sound – and then the sight that met his eyes caused his heart to give a sudden leap. There, spread-eagled on the ground lay a large dead bear, and snuggling up beside it, but whimpering pitifully, a very small cub of not much more than a few weeks old.

Rahim examined the body of the mother bear carefully, it was obvious that had died of a bullet would which had not killed her straight away, and that where she now lay was probably far from the place where she had first been wounded, which was why her body had not been found.

Rahim was a kindly boy. He was sorry for the death of the bear who had been shot, only searching for food for herself and her cub and equally sorry for the motherless cub which must now have been without food for a couple of days.

Putting the cub in to the inside of the loose Kashmiri Shirt he wore, Rahim hurried home with the wood as fast as he was able, and upon arrived home. His father was already out when he got back, so shutting the cub for a few minutes in one of the woodsheds, Rahim very quickly too a bowl into which he milked one of the goats, and when the bowl was full, took it to his new charge. It did not take the cub long to learn how to drink the milk, and bowl was very quickly licked dry. It now remained for Rahim to break the news to his father.

When Gulam Mohammed came into his mid-day meal, he was greeted by his son, who very quickly told him the news of the dead bear. His father was elated. He was, however, a just man.

If I get the money for that bear skin, you shall have it all !” he said proudly.

No, father – I don’t want any of it”, Rahim answered “But I suppose the money will have to be shared with the man who shot the bear”, he added.

Yes, yes – of course. I had forgotten about him”, his father replied. “But you must have something too”, he added. “It is you who have found the skin”.

Then if I may have what I like, I want to be allowed to keep baby ! “Rahim said earnestly”.

Baby, what baby ?” exclaimed his father.

The cub, It’s only very small, and I promise I won’t allow it to do any damage !”

Gulam Mohammed was not only a just man, but he loved his son. The cub was produced and Rahim gave permission to keep it.

Only remember, you will not be able to keep him when he gets too big. He will then be too strong for you to keep in order”.

So Chhotu, as Rahim called him, was accepted into the family, since Rahim’s mother had never been known to disagree with his father. Days turned into weeks into months, and Chhotu remained Rahim’s constant companion. Life went by smoothly, bust as Rahim’s father had foretold, Chhotu was now getting big and strong and more and more difficult to control. Finally the day came, when Rahim getting back from a neighbouring village where he had been sent to buy atta, came back to find Chhotu missing.

His father greeted him kindly.

You must try not to mind, son”, he said. “Chhottu was getting too big for us, and I warned you that once it was difficult to control he would have to go. I have sold him to a bear-trainer who will teach him to dance. He paid me Rs. 300. It is all yours”.

He held out the money to Rahim, who, however, turned away. His eyes were full of tears, and he could not trust himself to speak.

Wounds which hurt almost unbearably at first, grow less with time. A year later Rahim could think of Chhotu without wanting to weep, but he never forgot the bear or ceased to miss him. Life, however, was still enjoyable, and when his father came to him one day and proposed to send him on an errand to Srinagar, his joy knew no bounds. Srinagar, was the Mecca of all the Kashmiri boys who seldom saw a busy city with all its many lights and shops.

Rahim was to deliver a letter by hand to a friend of his father’s who was arranging a big deal for him in wood. Gulam Mohammed did not trust the post, but was sure that his son should deliver the letter faithfully.

Making the journey partly by bus and partly by hitching a lift on a passing truck, Rahim reached Srinagar without much difficulty and was soon knocking at the door of his father’s friend. Having delivered the letter he then went off to enjoy the sights of the town.

In busy street a crowd of children had gathered to watch some travelling pedlar who was making them laugh. As Rahim drew nearer he saw that it was not the man at whom the children were laughing, but at the antics of a dancing bear which he had with him.

Rahim felt sad to see the indignities to which the bear was put, and felt how wrong it was that a wild creature of the jungle should be so at the mercy of man, that he had to endure them in order to escape punishment. Going closer he suddenly noticed something which made his heart miss a beat. Some years back when still a cub, Chhottu had fallen on some rocks and wounded his shoulder.

The wound had healed, but where it had been, there was a tiny patch of white hair. Could it be possible that the bear was none other than the friend of his childhood, Chhottu?

Pushing himself to the front of the crowd of children, Rahim softly whistled under his breath the same three notes with which he had always summoned the bear cub to food. The whistle had its effect. The bear dropped to its feet and strained towards him but a stick brought heavily down on his nose by his trainer, soon brought him back into a standing position.

Rahim walked away. He felt he could not bear to see his old friend thus treated, but what could he do ? Sitting down on an empty doorstep, he started to think………. After a little while, having made his decision, Rahim went into a nearby hard-ware store, and bought the tool he wanted. He also spent some money on some bread and vegetables. All the time, however, he never want far from the bear, though he kept far enough away from his trainer not to notice him.

At last the day ended and darkness fell. Rahim had noted the Shed into which the bear had been shut for the night. His owner had not bothered to lock the door, feeling that everyone would be far too frightened of a bear to want to steal it.

Rahim waited until the street was empty, and all sounds had ceased before he finally let himself into the shed where the bear was sleeping. Once again he gave the same low whistle, and the bear awoke immediately and strained towards him. Rahim offered him some of the food and then sat down on the straw beside him. Chhotu, his first excitement over, also settled down companionably on the straw, and at last Rahim was able to do what he had come for. Getting the tools he had brought out of his pocket, he began to work on the bear’s chain. It took some time, but at last it was off, Creeping to the door, Rahim looked out. The street was deserted. Again whistling the familiar whistle under his breath, Rahim backoned to the bear to follow him, but just as they were going, remembered one more thing he had meant to do. He put all the saving of his life-time on the straw where the bear had been lying.

Out in the street, Chhotu followed the boy like-trained dog. Keeping well in the shadow they only passed one of two people, who intent upon getting back to their beds did not appear to even notice them. Once off the road and in the jungle, there was no longer need for caution. The one thing important was speed, so that they might be well away from the town before light broke.

They travelled fast, and up hill all the way, till the moment came when Rahim felt he could go no further without rest. It was cold on the hillside, however, so that the sight of a cave in the rocks made Rahim quicken his footsteps towards it.

If Chhotu had not gone in first, it is difficult to know what might have happened. As it was, there was a snarling and a snapping of teeth, and the next moment, a leopard, every hair on it body erect almost flew out of the cave, and disappeared down the mountain side.

Thank you, boy ! I’m not sure, but I think you may have saved my life that time”!

Rahim threw himself down on the floor of the cave which was dry wad warm, and Chhotu lay down beside him. In a matter of seconds they were both fast asleep.

Dawn was just breaking when Rahim awoke. Stiffly he got to his feet, and saw that Chhotu was no longer in the cave. For a moment his heart turned over. Then suddenly he saw him. He was standing on a rock at the top of the hill opposite, looking as a bear should look in his proper background. And then Rahim became aware of something else. A second bear was walking towards Chhotu – a bear slightly smaller than himself. She – Rahim was somehow sure the second bear was a she walked towards him quite fearlessly and the two bears touched noses, and as they did so the sun rose from behind the mountains and bathed them both in morning glory.

Rahim’s heart was very full. “It’s the best thing for him’” he told himself sadly. “I want him to be happy and now he will be. Freedom is the only happy life for a bear – the freedom of the jungle, and his own mate. He’s got all that now. I need never feel sorry for him again !”

And going back into the cave he picked up his rope and the hatchet he always carried, and started on the long climb up the mountain side to his home.

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