I remember this incident very vividly. We were living in Delhi near Humayun’s Tomb in a small wayside cottage. Usman had just come to work at our house as a replacement for our old servant, who had been incapacitated by tuberculosis to run errands. Owing to his expertise in household chores, he soon became indispensable to us. He would sleep at night in our compound, where a rug had been allotted to him.
It was September and the equinoctial winds had set in. Father had to leave for Simla, and Mother had to go to Calcutta to grandmother’s house. I was left alone with Usman. All was well until night. The summer gale howled and shrieked, raging through the city like an untamed beast which had escaped from its cage. The window beside me trembled and thunderstorms crashed in the pitch-black sky.
I could not sleep. The strange noises of the violent storm scared me out of my wits. I kept looking outside the window to assure myself that no one was there, far and near. But I could not stand it any longer, and opened the window from which one could see the compound. I called out to Usman, and asked him to sleep with me for the night. He agreed immediately.
Usman came upstairs and laid his rug on the floor. He quietly slept on it. After a long moment of silence, he said in a comforting tone, “Babusahib, go to sleep. I am here. Do not worry- The rain will die down soon.”
But nothing could stop the wind. Neither could I fall asleep, nor did the wind give any hint of relent. Usman was still fast asleep, or so I thought. I was still uneasy in bed, waiting for Father to knock at the door anytime soon. I kept my eyes closed, trying to get some sleep, but in vain. It was around 3.30 am. Usman suddenly woke up with a shudder, and raised himself to my bed. He glanced at me, checking whether I was deep asleep or not. I did not move.
Then I saw Usman suddenly standing up. I still lay as a dead man. He walked upto the study, pulled the bedroom drawer, very quietly, and started rummaging through the papers. They were mostly Father’s official papers, which he had kept securely in that drawer. I suddenly felt that they were not any more ‘secure’. Usman kept scouring through these papers.
I started getting worried. What was he in search of? Was he trying to steal something of value? I had never, in the past, seen Usman in such a state of desperation. Suddenly, he took his hands out from the heap of papers and I saw a golden ring glinting in his hands. I instantly recognised that it was the watch which my my aunt had sent for me from America. On having found the ring, he leapt with joy and whispered something to himself. He glanced at me once again to ensure that I was not disturbed. I still lay quietly on the bed.
Usman moved around the room to check if any other item of value was there. His eyes fell upon the small, golden case which was placed on my study table. He took it in his hands and examined it with curious eyes. It was my treasured silver pen that I had received as a gift from my father.
Usman put his previous possession into a plastic packet, which he acquired from the dustbin by my table. Before putting his next success into the packet, he once again looked at it. The case itself glimmered brightly in the dim light of the dawn. What a fool I was to have kept that case there!
The clock struck six. The sun had now begun to stage itself in the sky. As soon as Usman put the case in his packet and tried to leave the room, the azaan rang out. Having lived beside a mosque since my boyhood days, I had long accustomed myself to this morning prayer’s call by the muezzin. Suddenly, the packet dropped from Usman’s hands. It seemed as if he was in a trance; he stood still without any movement.
The raw sunlight of the morning entered through the lattice filigree and melted on him like butter as the azaan rang out. Tears rolled down from his eyes. He fell to the floor, indifferent to the world around him. I moaned, but Usman stood, absolutely still like a stone image cut of granite. Only the tears ran down his cheeks. With cupped hands, he cried out “Ya Allah!”
Usman had been about to commit the sin of stealing, but the morning prayer stopped him dead in his tracks. He came to his senses and immediately repented. I don’t think he ever stole anything again in his life.
Azaan- a prayer practice by Muslims.
Babusahib- a form of addressing young children from rich families.
Rehan Sheikh writes short stories, memoirs and articles. His work, The Roaring Himalayas won him the Elan Middle School Writing Contest 2020. Since then his works have appeared in various leading magazines and newspapers. His work has also been recognised by HarperCollins India.