The animal whose back he came riding on was a horse. That rider was a man. It goes without saying that there is a difference between a horse and a donkey, and that neither of the two who came in was a donkey. Though a horse and a donkey can be burdened with the same work – namely, carrying a burden, whether it be a man, or whatever the man decides to burden the beast with – even then, at the end of the day, a horse remains a horse, and an ass an ass. But there might still be a difference between one rider and another.
The clothes that I had on drew his attention. The clothes that I didn’t have on must have drawn his attention earlier. I was on one side of my clothes, and he on the other. In this way, two “types” could have been made, between which it was possible to create tension if there was none to begin with.
Beyond this tension, there should not have been any other relation between them – but there was. There should have been some veil between them– but there wasn’t. I didn’t have more clothing on than needed, and he wasn’t unduly naked.
Still, taking “more than needed” and “less than needed” into account, there was a difference somewhere, which made him more naked than was needed, and made me guilty for his nakedness in the same proportion.
“Give me your clothes,” he said, without thinking. “But I’m wearing them right now.”
“Then give me the ones you’re not wearing.”
“If I refuse?”
“Then you’d be dishonoured.” He looked at my wife. “Her clothing too.”
I kept silent. It was a matter of clothes and honour, and the man seemed hell-bent on taking them down. “When will you give them back?” I asked, deflating.
“Soon enough,” he answered so quickly that his words might just as well have meant, “Never again.”
I offered him a chair to sit. It was a question of my honour. Though he was content to sit on the floor, because he himself considered anything – to which something as inconvenient as honour was now linked – rather unnecessary. He was powerful in a gruff, baulky way; if honour were to confront him, it would itself get it in the neck.
Now it wasn’t only clothing that was between us, but a chair too. Though that was also my chair, he sat on it like it belonged to him. He brazenly inspected the chair, and found it entirely unsatisfactory. I thought he’d at least squeeze out a “thank you”, but this illusion was also quickly dispensed with... expecting to get anything from him was futile.
“All in all, how many clothes do you have?”
“I’ve never counted.”
“You made a mistake, then,” he spat. “A grave mistake. You can put yourself into a tough spot. This means you have countless clothes...and your wife, and your children too. Your relatives, friends, servants, all of them have...countless clothes. You have all the clothes, and so all the clothes should be taken away from you. You’re wearing them, and hoarding them in your house, and doling them out too...while everyone all around you is naked. Are you not ashamed? Why shouldn’t I take all your clothes right now?”
And for the first time I felt ashamed, because of my clothes. Not for not wearing them, but for wearing them. There was strength in the man’s logic; and even more strength in his anger. My honour was cowardly because I had clothes; and if that man wanted, they wouldn’t stay spotless.
My head was hanging down. I said politely, “If my clothes could cover everyone’s nakedness in the world, take my clothes, but please don’t humiliate me.”
“It’s sly of you to say such things. If there is even one person whose nakedness can be covered with your clothes, it should be covered.”
“Well, these clothes already cover one person’s nakedness! Do you have any special person in mind?”
Anger often gets in the way of good reasoning. And reasoning often gets in the way of a good bout of anger. The man was showing immense anger. But he was also showing his reasoning, which might have had its weakness somewhere. Searching out that weakness, I told him, “You are right. Instead of talking about everyone, if we start with some one person; then if not everybody, we can at least make that one person happy...”
His ears pricked up. First, he looked at me with deep disbelief; then with even deeper belief...and then went on staring. “Could you clarify your proposal a bit more?” he said.
For the first time, I answered with firmness in my tone. “If you permit, I’ll clarify it totally. If it is only one person that we have to start with, then you tell me: who else could we possibly find more naked than you?”
He immediately agreed. He didn’t take all of my clothes. He made a bundle of only some, and went his way. As he parted, he said, “I’ll try my best that both our clothes stay spotless, for it is a question of both our honours...”
Excerpted with permission: the story “Riders on High Horses” from The Play of Dolls: Stories, Kunwar Narain, translated from the Hindi by John Vater and Apurva Narain, Penguin Books.