Authors: Ellis Peters
The Lily Hand and Other Stories
A Grain of Mustard Seed
When I was a little girl in Lahore my father had a friend who was a Muslim. Indeed, he had many, but Mahdar Iqbal was a very special one. He was the shoemaker who used to make our sandals. When we first knew him he was heavily in debt, but my father began to throw business his way, and tell our friends about him, and gradually he was able to pay off his debts, and even to save a little. He had only a poor booth in the doorway of his house, and his dream was to have a shop in the bazaar. By the time of the troubles he had more than fifteen hundred rupees saved up towards it, so he told my father.
In appearance those two were not unlike; both thin, bright, active men, but my father's slenderness was small-boned and frail, and Mahdar Iqbal's was sinewy and tough as his own leather. Two or three times a week I'd see them bent over the chessboard in the cool corner of my father's shop â he was a jeweller, and we were quite well off in those days â putting the whole world right. One thing they had in common was that they both believed it was possible.
It was my father who taught me, also, to believe that God was universal and benevolent, and man was perfectible, and by his very origin disposed to good. I adored him, so naturally I took his word for it.
The bad days were already coming upon us then, though I did not realize it. No need to tell you how it was with us in Lahore when partition came and the hate burst out from nowhere and overwhelmed everything. The time came when we dared not go out in the streets at all. Our shop was looted and burned down. Then the house, although they left us a roof, at least, and there we stayed in hiding, and thought now only of getting away, back to India. It was very strange to us to have to get used to the thought that Lahore was no longer India.
My father suffered, perhaps, more than most of our people, because all his ideas about men were being broken in pieces one by one, and kicked into the dust. At first he would not believe that this hatred and unreason could go on, and he would not run before it. But in the end it was plain that we must run or die.
Those of our people who had left in good time had been able to take some of their possessions with them. By the time we set our minds on leaving we had nothing left to take but the clothes we stood in. And by then, too, it seemed that we might not be able to leave at all, upon any conditions. But at last they said that a train would be allowed to leave on a certain day, and we could go with it; but no one was permitted to take away anything of value.
On the morning when the train was to leave we crept out of the shell of our house, and went to the railway station. The streets were full of Muslims, decent people who had been our neighbours, all screaming threats at us, spitting at us, even throwing stones as we hurried by. It was on my mother we leaned by then; she had never thought as highly of her fellow men as my father had, and therefore she was not so terribly hurt and shattered as he was; she could hate them back, and he could not, and that made her lot so much easier. As for him, he had lost half the little flesh he ever carried, and his face seemed to be struggling with disintegration, as the form had disintegrated from everything he had known and believed in.
They had hardly let us on to the platform when the crowd broke through the barrier and ran after us. And suddenly I saw Mahdar Iqbal's face among them. We had not seen him for weeks; no one dared move about normally, or go near his friends. I saw the flare of hope that brightened the wreckage of my father's face, for one meaningful glance exchanged with Mahdar Iqbal could at least save something for him, the ultimate, necessary thing on which everything else can be built again.
And Mahdar Iqbal elbowed his way through the press, flung himself upon my father, and shook him savagely by the shoulders.
âDog of a Hindu!' he yelled into his face, âLet's see what you've got there in your pockets! Let's see what you're stealing from us!'
He plunged his hands into my father's pockets and turned out everything he had there: his handkerchief, his spectacle case, the fragments he had left from a life, all the time raving and reviling him like a madman.
My father stood like a dead creature, and let himself be mishandled. The man who had been his friend pawed over the last of his possessions disgustedly, spat his contempt on the ground, and laughed, bundling the poor bits back again.
âGo, then, and get fat on it! Take your pocketful of garbage home with you!' he shouted. And he took my father by the shoulders and threw him into the train, so roughly that he stumbled and fell.
My mother thrust me in after him, and put herself between me and the rush of people that suddenly welled down the train, beating at the slatted windows and yelling curses at us. The last I ever saw of Mahdar Iqbal, he was standing on the platform with a demon's grin on his face, shaking a fist at us. But we were in the train, we had a corner to crouch in, a wall at our backs.
There were riots before the train moved out, several people were killed, and others badly beaten up. But we were lucky enough â is that the word? â to escape with nothing worse than my father's broken glasses and broken heart.
People died in the train, too, before we reached Amritsar. We were crushed together so that we could scarcely move. And that was terrible, to be welded to my father's side like a piece of his very flesh, and to know that he was not there with me at all, but somewhere a long way off, and quite alone.
âWhat did you expect?' my mother said to him, sounding angry as she always did when she was most anxious and in the deepest distress. âCould he fold you in his arms, and wish you a safe journey? He has a wife and children to consider, just as much as you.'
My father sat with his broken glasses sagging on his nose, and stared at nothing.
âI know he could not come to me with his blessing,' he said. âBut could he not be content with holding off from me? Was it necessary to lay hands on me in unkindness? To call me a thief? Was he forced to do me violence?'
âHe had to show himself a good Muslim,' said my mother bitterly, âand good Muslims hate us. It is not enough not to love us. He wanted to show how utterly he had cut us off. Do you think they don't know he used to visit us?'
âHe could have put that out of mind better,' said my father, with quiet, hopeless certainty, âby staying out of sight, not by running to be the first to humiliate me. No, he is gone mad with hate, like all the rest, like all the world.'
And after a while of silence he said, in that soft, distant, haunting voice, âI would not have claimed him. He need not have come near me. One look of kindness would have been enough. I could have lived on that, simply knowing he was as he had always been, and that men are not all damned. That there will be a time beyond these times.'
My mother, because she was frightened, began to abuse him a little, saying that there surely would be a time beyond, and that there were still good men in the world; but I knew by the sound of her voice that she did not really believe it. If hate could destroy Mahdar Iqbal, it could destroy every man, and there was nowhere any safe place to hide from it.
My father turned his face to the wall. And in a moment I heard him say in a deliberate and cold voice, as though he felt himself forced to formulate the conclusion to which this betrayal had driven him: âMan is irreclaimable. There is no hope for him. And God does not care.'
I had been listening to every word that he uttered, and I could understand what he meant. But he had taught me so well that I could not believe what he was now telling me.
If God did not care, then why had Lord Vishnu entered the world nine times already to help his people? Why had Christ come to be among men, and suffer as the least and worst of them suffered? Why did the Bodhisattva turn his back on the perfect bliss of Nirvana and return to the world, to show men the way by which they could enter and share enlightenment? Why should God â all the aspects of God in all the world â spend so much time on the reclamation of man, if man was irreclaimable? Who would know it better than he? My heart told me that it could not be true.
It seemed to me that if I really had faith, it ought to be possible to turn this experience inside out, to find in it the fallacy that quite altered its meaning, and would restore, my father to life. So I made up a very short and pointed prayer within my mind, and said it to God. There was no time, and I had no resources then, for ceremony.
âPlease consider, God,' I said to him reasonably, âthat I am only a little girl, and you can't leave it all to me. I know I'm right, I know the proof is there, but I don't know how to find it. Please take my hand, and lead me to whatever it is I need, or else my father will surely die.'
I didn't expect anything to happen at once, and nothing happened. I didn't mind that. I had taken action in declaring myself, and that is always a liberating thing to do. The oppression seemed to lift from me at once, I even felt cooler.
I looked again at my father, and I saw that there were tears streaming down his cheeks among the oily rivulets of sweat. We were so crushed that he could not get his hand to the pocket of his achkan to pull out his handkerchief, but my hand was smaller, and already folded into the hollow of his side, and by wriggling patiently I got my fingers into the opening, and drew out a corner of the handkerchief between them.
And something else came out with it, a tight little roll screwed into a square of tissue. It rolled into my father's lap, and the wrapping parted; we saw the crumpled edges of a number of banknotes slowly uncoiling, and a scrap of white paper in the heart of the roll.
My mother instinctively put out her hand to cover all that money from sight, partly for fear of having it snatched away, partly to hide what seemed almost indecent here, where no one possessed anything.
My father had taken up the scrap of paper in a trembling hand, and was staring from that to the banknotes as though he had been shocked back into life by the certainty that he was going mad.
âBut it is impossible! I had no money. I had nothing, I swear. Where did this come from?'