• Two Recumbent Male Figures Wrestling on a Sidewalk

    John Berger

    January 13, 2017

    Image courtesy The Paris Review

    He has fought alongside guerrillas in the mountains many times in at least two continents. He's also an excellent cook. He will happily spend an entire day preparing an evening meal for friends. His name is Eqbal Ahmad. Once when he and I were cutting up vegetables for a curry, he told me a story.

    It began in 1947. Eqbal was thirteen years old. His voice had begun to break. Sometimes he spoke as gruffly as a man, at other times he spoke in a boy's falsetto. He couldn't control it. But he already had a man's decisiveness, he was already at risk like a man. I imagine the knowledge of that risk was in his eyes but I didn't know him then.

    With independence, India was being partitioned. Twelve million people were on the roads, going in both directions, seeking safety. Eqbal's family had lived as Muslims for generations in India but now his elder brother decided to take the family to the newly created Pakistan.

    The boy's mother refused to leave. Only mothers who are widows can become as immovable as she did. The rest of the family took the train for Lahore. In Delhi they learnt that the train would go no further: the fighting of the civil war was too dangerous. Everybody was lodged in a refugee camp. Eqbal's brother, who was a senior civil servant, telegraphed for a plane to come and rescue them. A whining man, begging for opium in the camp, caught Eqbal's attention. Misery importuning misery, he thought. Some youngsters pushed the man aside. Ay! Charsi! they mocked. Ay! Charsi! Opium-eater who lives in a cloud of smoke!

    Finally the plane from Pakistan arrived. It was an ex-RAF Fokker. At the airport the two brothers were the last to embark. Every place was already taken.

    You can fly in the cockpit with me, sir, the pilot shouted to his brother.

    No, we're two, there's also Eqbal.

    Then would you like me to tell somebody to get down, sir?

    No, take Eqbal.
    It was then that the thirteen year old revolted. He ran across the tarmac away from the plane.
    Go, he shouted, go! I'm going to walk.

    His brother, perhaps because he wanted to accompany his wife and small children, perhaps because he knew how obstinate and bone-headed Eqbal could be, climbed up into the plane and, standing by the still open door, said: All right, but take these! Whereupon he handed down a .22 single-barrel hunting gun, an ammunition belt and a 100-rupee note. Stay here and wait for the next plane, he added. Finally the Fokker took off.

    Eqbal went to a restaurant and ordered in his gruff voice an elaborate dinner. The bill came to 10 rupees. Then he walked towards the Muslim quarter of Delhi. He could see in what direction to go, thanks to the minarets. He took the wide streets. Muslims in the city were being killed but with the rifle slung across his back he felt confident.

    The following day he joined an immense column of refugees who were setting out to walk the several hundred kilometres to Lahore. The same afternoon, when the shadows were long, a portly middle-aged merchant walking behind Eqbal pointed at him and said to his companion that a youngster of his age should not be allowed arms. Let him at least be a gun-carrier, said the companion, like that we have less to carry.

    The column slowly wound its way across the flat plain. Its pace was set by the oldest and most infirm, for they would have no hope of survival if left behind.

    On the third day the column was attacked. Eqbal was among the first to see armed men coming across the irrigated fields towards them. He dropped to the ground, he took his time, he calmly remembered the deer-hunts on the family estate, and he shot down four of the marrauders. After this he had the right, not only to carry his gun, but to fire it. He became one of the column's sentinels and marksmen.

    As he strode up and down the column, he saw the opium-eater who, cut off from any supply of opium, was beginning to walk with a straighter back. He also noticed several young women and imagined their breasts brushing his cheek. One in particular he could not forget. She wore a tunic decorated with white flowers, small as stars. When the column halted, he loitered near her, but he was too shy to speak.

    One midday when people were eating, he saw this woman walk into the mango grove beside the road. A man then followed her. Eqbal tracked the man, being careful to remain hidden. Next he saw the man left the woman's 'ghagra' and pull it over her head, and her struggling to push him away. When he saw this, instantly and without reflection, he raised his gun and fired.

    Murderer! the woman screamed. Murderer!

    The shot and the woman's cries brought men running from all directions. Eqbal fled across a field and found himself up against a stone wall. There he turned round to face the crowd.

    If you take one step nearer, I'll shoot. When he said this it was in his falsetto voice, and his legs were trembling like a dog's a few seconds before an earthquake.

    Suddenly the opium-eater was there, between the boy and his furious accusers. He no longer had a stick and he was standing upright.

    Stop! he shouted. Stop!

    The crowd lowered their voices and the man spoke quietly and gravely. You cannot start killing each other like this. Why are we making this journey, why are we fleeing? Because justice exists no more and because the stronger attack the weaker. The boy has to be given a trial. If you find him guilty, then you can punish him. He turned to Eqbal. Give me your gun. We cannot stop here. You'll march as a prisoner between two men.

    That night a trial was held by firelight and the opium-eater was asked to be judge. What have you to say? he asked the accused. Before Eqbal had time to answer, the father of the young woman stepped forward into the firelight and said: My daughter has agreed that the man whom the boy killed was about to rape her. So be it, said Eqbal in his gruff voice.

    After a few days, the boy asked the Charsi his real name. Moosa, he replied, and they became friends. As the days went by, the opium-eater became the acknowledged leader of the column. It was he who decided the route, posted the sentries, settled disputes, sought help for the sick. When the caravan left Delhi it had numbered 30,000. Now it was half that number. Cholera broke out. Moose organised the burying of the dead and such quarantine measures as were possible.

    Wherever Moosa passed, he left behind him a kind of reassurance. It was a question of dignity. But, at night to Eqbal, he confessed his doubts: It will not be as we dream, when those of us who survive finally get there. Corrupt politicians have already ensconced themselves. They are waiting for us – waiting for us not as brothers but as our masters. They will use us.

    At the frontier between the two newly divided states, the women wrapped themselves in their chadors. It was no longer dangerous for them to be seen veiled. Eqbal gazed for the last time at the woman with the tunic of white flowers. He had never spoken a word to her. Now the column numbered only 8,000.

    Tonight, said Moosa to Eqbal, you will get your taxi and you will drive home. The journey is over for you.

    There was a letter from his mother waiting for him. My boy, in this life we are sometimes forced to eat shit. If this happens, eat as you've been brought up to eat, and wash your hands afterwards.

    Seven months passed. One night, coming out of a restaurant in Lahore, Eqbal stumbled over a figure crouching on the sidewalk. He stopped in his tracks and recognised Moosa. He bent down to speak to him. The Charsi gave no sign of recognition. Eqbal started to shake him. He called out his name: Moosa! Moosa! He shook him harder and harder until he lost his balance. They rolled together on the sidewalk trying to grasp each other. Moosa!

    Overcome with anger and sorrow, Eqbal finally got to his feet, went home and wept. For three days he refused to see anybody. Then he took the decision to become a revolutionary: a decision he has never since renounced…


    John Berger was a well known art critic, novelist, painter and poet. His works include Ways of Seeing, a book on art criticism, and G., which won the Booker Prize in 1972. He died on 2nd January 2017 at the age of 90 at his home in France.

    Reproduced here with the permission of Transnational Institute (TNI)

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