house of the nobleman wore a festive appearance. In celebration of some
important function an invitation to dinner was thrown to many relations
and friends. The nobleman was seated in his reception hall, a large room
on the ground floor. The walls were painted with arabesques in different colours, green, white, orange and blue-black. The ceiling was in the famous
There were several large windows, consisting of beautiful lattice work
provided with shutters of wood painted in a fine slate colour.
were mounted with ventilators fitted with glass panes to let the light
in when the lattices and shutters were fastened owing to excessive cold
as on the present occasion. The room was covered with large carpets in
It was pretty
cold outside and the guests arrived severally in their warm clothings, pherans with
fine shawls or finer pashmina woollen blankets wrapped over. They
took their seats on the carpet squatting in accordance with the importance
of their social position or their proximity to the host in relationship.
They shared the class tie, for most of them were landholders or state employees,
and of course, they drew strength from one another. The face of the host
reflected satisfaction as guest after guest arrived to take his seat. Ladies
were being seated in a separate room in keeping with the age-old tradition.
Conversation was warm and cheering.
There was a
feeling of slight embarrassment on the face of the host on the arrival
of one guest. He was neither a member of the elite social circle to which
the host belonged nor a relation. He owed the invitation to his office,
for he was an assistant accountant in the district collectorate. He had
a humble start as a private tutor to the children of the naib-tehsildar, and
an unpaid apprentice in his court till by gradual steps he had attained
this position. He was looked upon as some sort of an upstart by the families
of the landholders, but was tolerated because of his utility in remissions
of arrears of rent. This official was handsome and intelligent and was
convinced of the contribution of a befitting apparel to one's personality.
He was therefore, always well-dressed, in fact dressed a little above his
position according to the sartorial standards of the time. Those others
whose shoulders he aspired to rub socially felt it an encroachment on their
privileges and looked askance upon him. When he came dressed in a white pheran and
a fine blanket into the gathering of the hierarchy it was regarded by the
latter as if he were carrying war into their very camp, for his dress appeared
no whit inferior to that of the "blue-blooded." The host in his exalted
position felt as if the upstart was making an attempt to beard him in his
own den. There was naturally a scowl on his face when the official arrived
but it lasted a brief while as he camouflaged his feelings at once.
It was a challenge
which he was determined to meet there and then. He excused himself on some
pretext to an adjoining room and sent for his trusted servant and steward.
The two were closeted together for quite a few minutes while the guests
outside regaled themselves with the brew of Ladakhi brick tea, a speciality
of respectable and well-to-do families.
The host joined
them soon after. Hubble bubbles moved from one guest to another, conversation
centred round land, clever or lazy peasants, rent, the tehsildar and
the collector. The gunfire from the Hari Parbat Fort announced the dinner
to be served. There was, of course, fine basmati rice served with
a number of courses in meat: roganjosh, kabab or mincemeat, meat-curry
cooked with turnips. The host went round from guest to guest inquiring
after their pleasure and keeping up the conversation. He showered special
attention on the assistant accountant at whose back the steward had taken
touched the early school days of the guests who, one by one, vividly recalled
their maktabs in the house of the teacher and the instruments of
punishment—the mulberry switch, and the rope hanging from the ceiling to
suspend the recalcitrants in the inverted pose. One of them told the audience
how he had once been made to lie naked on the bed covered with the prickly
weed and was thrashed liberally with the same weed for the offense of taking
a bath in the river. Another explained how as the monitor he was asked
by the teacher to stamp the legs of the boys with his own stamp to prevent
their taking a bath and how he (the monitor) was himself discovered by
the teacher swimming in the river. They, however, expressed gratitude to
the ancient school where they got a grounding in Persian and quoted liberally
from Gulistan, Bostan and other classics. They were meanwhile kept
busy with pilau with which pickles of cabbage and radish were served.
The last course consisted of kabargah which when consumed prepared
the guests for washing their hands. Two servants went round, one with a
jug of warm water and another with a basin to help the guests to clean
Those who cleaned
their hands took their pherans and wrapped their shawls or blankets.
When the turn came for the assistant accountant to do so he was bewildered
to find his pheran clipped to shreds with a pair of scissors.
"Who is responsible
for the foul deed?" he shouted. There was a silence as every one of the
guests turned his attention to the victim.
deed?" said the host.
"Who has heard
of respectable guests being exposed to such villainy in the house of the
host?" shouted the guest.
guest has been touched," answered the host, thus clearly holding a clue
to the mystery. "And" he continued, "as to the garment that has suffered
thus, I am convinced that it must be grateful to the scissors for having
been relieved of the unpleasant association with that body, for who has
heard of petty officials making themselves insolent and odd in the presence
of respectable gentlemen claiming nobility in birth for hundreds of years?
Who indeed has seen a humble clerk dressed in pashmina?"
"Are you referring
to my dress?" asked the guest. "If you mistake it for pashmina," he
continued, "you are deceived. I am a wage earner subject to rigours of
hard work. Mine is not the soft pashmina, the garb of the elite.
You could have spared yourself all this labour. The stuff is a mixture
of cotton and coarse wool, though it is well calendered and soft. Why did
you not satisfy yourself before having my pheran torn to shreds?"
There was confusion
among the guests but the host was heard repeating the words: "The upstart
will learn to keep his place. Somebody has misled him into giving himself