A Smile from the past and other stories
The sun blazed down with remorseless intensity, as Prem Nath, attired in his best holiday clothes, turned the corner into the main road. The heat did not worry him for he was on pleasure bound, and pleasure did not come very often into Prem Nath’s life, as the hard worked only servant of a large and demanding family. When he was not doing the shopping, cooking the meals, or scouring pots and pans, he was washing clothes, taking or fetching the older children from school, or bathing the baby. His day started soon after five a.m. when he arose to heat the bath water and make his employers’ morning tea, and often did not end much before midnight when after cooking and serving a late dinner, dealing with the various needs of any friend or relation of his employers’ who might happen to drop in, having finished the washing up, he finally betook himself to his charpoy under the stairs.
Today, however, was a red-letter day, for the family had gone off for the weekend leaving Prem Nath in charge of the house but with permission to take some time off when his work was done. So now having finished all his chores; dealt with the washing which had been left behind, and fed the fowls, he had locked up and left instructions with the next door mali to keep an eye upon the premises, and was off to see his brother who was in service some ten miles away.
In the pocket of his bush shirt was the one rupee note which was for his bus fare. He had nothing very much beyond, since it was nearing the end of the month, and most of his wages had usually gone before the second week was out. However, he had enough to meet his needs, and his spirits soared at the thought of several hours of complete freedom before him.
In the main road the traffic moved lazily in the heat. Outside the Imperial Hotel a little group had gathered, watching the antics of a performing monkey. The monkey which was still not full grown was a female, and dressed in a sari and trailing skirt, she twisted and turned with amazingly human gestures, as she performed her dance, her eyes ever fixed upon the stick above her head.
The end of her performance brought a little murmur of applause from her audience.
“Gee – but she’s cute isn’t she ? “ exclaimed an American tourist. “I guess the kids would just about be tickled pink if we took her home for them to play with ! “
“Oh, George – what an idea ! What should we do with her on the voyage I should like to know ? “ his wife expostulated.
“Poor little thing !” chimed in the voice of another foreigner. “It’s too hot to make her dance like that in the sun, and with all those clothes on. I bet she doesn’t lead half a miserable life !”
“Yes, and look how terrified she is of that stick !” it was an English voice speaking now. “I don’t think this sort of thing ought to be allowed !”
In ones and twos they drifted away, and having collected his bakshish the monkey’s owner squatted back on his heels and waited for another group of foreigners to arrive. It was at this point that Prem Nath appeared upon the scene. It was not the first time that he had seen the monkey and its owner, but up till now there had always been two monkeys.
“What has happened to the other one ?” he asked, pausing in his tracks.
“Dead”, replied other briefly without looking up.
“Dead ? But how ? It looked quite well last week “.
“It bit me, so I beat it”, replied the monkey owner laconically. “It died “.
Prem Nath made no comment, but something in his heart gave him a swift, sharp stab. He was a hill boy, and had kept a baby monkey as a pet as a child. He could remember now how he had loved it, and shared all his food and sweets with it. How awful to think that such human little animals should be at the mercy of a man like this. The little female looked cowed and miserable. Perhaps she was mourning of the loss of her mate.
He moved a few steps away and bought a banana, and breaking off a piece threw it to her. It fell short and she dragged at her chain, and was immediately rewarded by a sharp cuff on the head by her owner.
“Why do you want to do that ?” Prem Nath cried angrily. “She is hungry !”
“If she is, then that is my business, !” retorted her trainer as beginning to walk away, he swung the little monkey on to his shoulder by her chain.
Prem Nath shrugged his shoulders. It was useless to argue. He was just about to walk away too when something happened which stopped him. A boy on a bicycle had come round the corner, an Alsation following him. It was at this moment hat the Alsation caught sight of the little monkey being swung through the air, and decided that it was fair game. He swerved in his tracks, and hurled himself upon the monkey-owner in his efforts to get at the monkey. The dog was a heavy one,
and taken unawares the man was the next second sprawling upon the ground, letting go of the Ridge was in the opposite direction to the way he was going, and if he went there first there would be little time left to visit his brother afterward. Prem Nath did not hesitate, however. He must finish his task and not abandon it half way.
Again snuggling the little animal under his bush shirt, Prem Nath unobtrusively left the gardens, and was soon trudging along the road in the direction of the Ridge. Many buses passed him, but he did not dare to board one of them in case his carefully hidden burden was detected. As time went on his journey became more and more difficult, as getting tired of the warmth of his body the little monkey became restive, and made this known in no uncertain terms. At last as the population began to thin out he allowed her to emerge, and she travelled the last part of the journey, sitting upon his shoulder.
Finally they reached the Ridge itself but Prem Nath was nothing if not thorough. With the small change in the pockets he bought some peanuts and bread from a wooden stall, and, breaking away from the road, took a narrow footpath through the scrub, leading to a spot where he had once seen monkeys before. To his relief he found them there again. Sitting down under a large tree he quickly undid the belt, and allowed his small captive her freedom. At first she seemed in no hurry to leave him, but sat contentedly enough by his side eating the nuts and the bread which he had placed in a little pile under the tree.
It did not take long, however for some of the other monkeys to see that she was eating and to draw near. One small monkey, his curiosity getting the better of his fear came rather nearer than the others, and somewhat to Prem Nath’s alarm his own small charge ran forward by way of welcome. His fear that the little monkey might be attacked, however, was without foundation for the two seemed to make friends at sight, and as he slowly withdrew, it was to see the pair of them running off together, each with a hand clasped full of food.
His mission accomplished, Prem Nath made off with a light heart. It now only remained for him to catch the first bus which came along, and he might still keep his appointment with his brother after all. Within a few minutes a bus lumbered into sight, and he quickly boarded it.
“Where to ?” the conductor beside him had his hand outstretched for the fare.
Prem Nath felt in the pocket of his bush shirt – at first automatically, then desperately.
“My money – my rupee –it has gone !” he cried.
The conductor looked at him sardonically and reached for the bell.
“I’ve heard that one before. Get out !” he said.
Prem stumbled out of the bus, back onto the road. What had happened to his rupee ? Presumably it must have fallen from his pocket during the struggles of the little monkey. Was this the way she repaid him for all his trouble ? He could never reach his brother’s place now on foot, and his heart was heavy and bitter within him.
And then suddenly he remembered some words – words spoken by a wise old Sadhu he had know as a little boy, away up in his home in the Himalayas. What were they ? Yes – something like this . “He who saves one of God’s creatures from pain, shall be saved from pain, and he who gives it peace, shall himself know peace and happiness “.
Peace and happiness ! Yes, that was it. It was something which happened automatically and didn’t depend upon whether you had any money in your pocket or not. Prem Nath squared his shoulders, and with happiness in his eyes and peace in his heart, prepared to face the long walk home.
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