Oybek. Childhood (memoir)

Category: Uzbek modern prose Published: Saturday, 29 September 2012

Bolalik (Childhood) by Oybek


An excerpt translated from Uzbek by Carolyn Wei


In the narrow streets of the old neighborhood, in front of the rickety door, my old grandfather chattered with his friend—an old man with a long beard, tall body, and deaf ear. My grandfather squatted and rested his worn out, little body against the wall; his cane thrust between his knees. His friend was coarse and wore old leather kavush slippers over his long hairy feet; his back faced the sun, and in that position he rested sideways on the ground. Horses and carts did not go through the street so there was no racket. The few passersby would certainly place their hands on their chests and say “Assalom.” Either one or both of the old men would answer: “Vaalaykum…”

I circled around the old men. I took my grandfather’s cane or sometimes his friend’s walking stick and rode it as a horse, glancing with curiosity at the lines the cane traced in the dirt. After this, I tossed the two dried-up walking sticks causing them to clatter against each other. My grandfather half-seriously bulged out his eyes from under bushy eyebrows and threatened me with his index finger. I stubbornly returned the walking sticks to their masters. After I embraced my grandfather’s knees, I grasped a handful of his beard, forced open his mouth, and looked at his teeth.

“Where are your teeth?” I asked stretching his lips.

My grandfather, whose black worn-down teeth were showing from his upper jaw, wiggled his finger and made me laugh. Tired of this, I threw my duppi hat to the sky, and it fell to the earth with a plop. My grandfather was unhappy and thrust the duppi back on my head.

“Well, my son, tell us yesterday’s tale! That was a very good story,” my grandfather coaxed me.

I knew that if I did not tell, he would not leave me alone, so I told a story from memory. “Bravo, bravo!” said the two men while also giggling. The old man left me alone.

“Well, now let him tell a story about Afandi,” said my grandfather’s friend while winking.

“I know, I know. Well, my son, tell about when Afandi took oil from the shopkeeper,” said my grandfather while he patted me on the back.

I stubbornly recited a little while. My grandfather embraced me and kissed my face. His friend, his beard shaking, laughed:

“That is not bad. My god, may you live to be one thousand!” said the old man.

I again searched for a game. From under the thin wall, water flowed out, pouring into a little pond. I intended to splash in the water, but, like walnuts on a big tray, two or three injured little apples were dancing on the pond. Near the small waterfall, they plunged one after the other. I gazed with interest at some length. The apples were quarreling with each other—“Do I stay with you?”—as they plunged after each other. No, now my patience was exhausted, so I stooped intending to pick them up.

“Hey, leave them, you will fall down, for God’s sake!” my grandfather complained and struggled to stand up from his place. He caught my hand and took me home. His body was very bent. He walked very slowly. With each step, he prayed for his only son, my papa, who was in the villages, “Lord, I entrust him to you. Let Tosh be safe.”

An engraver had not discovered flowers to some extent, a pair was fading in an old layer on the door that we entered. Columns and thick crossbeams were in the stables, our chestnut cow lying down panting. In the rafters, turtledoves cooed. My grandfather clasped me on one side at the stables, leading me directly home. He fussed over the rug, taking out a big key from underneath and opened the trunk in the place of honor. Rejoicing I planted my eye on the trunk. There were papers containing every type of sweet: sugar, parvarda, Russian caramel and more. I took handfuls and would have eaten my fill. But no, my grandfather, knowing me, scratched this wish and slowly pushed me out. There were merely one or two broken candies and one or two pieces of sticky caramel in my hand and immediately the trunk was locked shut. “Don’t tell your grandmother, do you understand?” reprimanded the old man.

I knew well that this trunk had only my grandmother as its master; she guarded it closely and protected the sweets. For this reason, when I exited to the courtyard, I feared that my older brother and any other child would tease me. In a dark corner at home, I would quickly chew the goodies. However what happened made me jump: my grandmother suddenly entered. A long tall, worn out old woman bulged her big eyes:

“May your grandfather be cursed, why do you not try to be good!” she shouted.

I ran to the courtyard, where underneath the apple tree, my older brother was calmly playing by himself. I teased Isamuhammad. He was usually very gentle, but started becoming fussy and making a racket while trying to see with interest. My mother sat on the porch sewing a duppi, frowned upon hearing my grandmother’s voice, and again drew the threaded needle. She had become the most spiritual and agreeable of the brides in order to stay on my grandmother’s good side, so she did not argue with her.

My older sister Karomat — a young girl who did not yet wear the headcover — returned from school. I knew well this school in our mahalla, the religious teacher’s home. One day I followed my older sister. On the porch many girls – big and little, all mixed together – were sitting in a row, noisily studying their books. The religious teacher was an old, serious, reputable woman. Her thin hands grasped a long stick; her eyes did not move from the girls. She suckedqurut balls, gently hitting and slowly striking the girls with the cane, calling them to study.

I took from my older sister’s bag a thick book – the Koran most likely – and disorderly leafed through it. My older sister became upset and tried to pry it from my hands. I did not give it up. She leapt from the porch as I ran away. The heavy book fell from my hand, and I fell down on top of it. Then my mother took the book from my hand, kissed the case and hung it high from its peg. After I quarreled with my younger brother, I fought with him. Leaning against a post in a patch of sunshine, my grandmother sat mending. I took her eyeglasses and ran away. The old woman, becoming impatient, scolded me. I was however pleased and laughed…

* * *

Noontime. In the shed, a cow mooed. It was not sent to the herd: it had become blind in one eye upon its return with the herd when its horn shattered a streetcar’s window. My grandfather was unhappy about paying the one so’m, half so’m, fine.

My mother was doing something in the smoky kitchen with the high ceiling. I sat playing on the porch, heaping cushions one on top of another. My grandmother was sweeping in the narrow, rather long courtyard. When she came to the porch, she glanced at the baby’s hammock that hung between two posts and suddenly shouted with a dreadful sort of voice.

“I am grieved… Shahodat! Come!”

My mother came running from the kitchen. I also approached the hammock. My sick younger brother Hoji’s jaundiced face had suddenly became unusually clear and his eyes became dreadful. My mother grew pale, and tears spilled out from her eyes. My grandmother trembled and slowly smoothed shut the child’s eyes with her hand.

In no time the neighbors came out. My grandfather leaned on his stick, giving way to his anguish, weeping and sobbing. I turned pale, my neck remained bent. To me everything was empty, everything seemed cold…

* * *

One evening, at an unexpected time, on our street were heard camels’ braying and some unfamiliar voices. My older brother ran, and I ran by his side. On the street, a lot of baggage was being loaded on the camels. They became stuck together in the crooked street as if they were jammed in a mousetrap. Foam spurted from every side, their heads shook sharply with anger. They left with the pitchers hanging from their necks resounding like bells. Clothed in rags with great bodies, unfamiliar people clicked their tongues to make the camels in front kneel. I was squeezed to the wall and suddenly stood. My grandfather tapped his cane from the doorway and asked:

“Is Tosh well?”

“Thank God, Toshmat aka is healthy,” answered a camel driver.

I found out these things from the village, that my father was coming from the front. I greatly rejoiced. Even now, the full camels also seemed to my eye to be likeable. I started saying “Ap-ap” to them.

The camel drivers took big sacks of grains on their shoulders on the left hand side and unloaded them in our storeroom. The children and young men gathered. Noise… Our neighbor gawked, and the villagers started insulting:

“Pull your camel! My wall will fall down now…”

One of our neighbors, a bootmaker, a tall, pale apprentice, drew a knife to one of the sacks and nuts came pouring out with a crash. The apprentice and also other children in an uproar hastily started picking them up. My grandfather found out and drove them away with his cane. Afterwards he pressed tightly against the nuts pouring out, and picked them one by one. He now became very invigorated. In all of this, the old man’s boldness around the camel interested me. He was hunched over next to the noisy camel and was swaying freely…

One day other people started coming to the old man. They placed wheat and nuts in the sacks and onto the big donkeys. Clumps of dry clay were thrown at the landowner, and the very gentle horses were led away loaded. The storeroom became entirely empty. This affair of the old man left me angry. Why was it given away? I did not understand, I felt especially sorry about the nuts. Their cunning eyes twinkling, the quickly ambling mice did not even interest me. I asked my mother, and she laughed:

“Not ours, my son, your papa’s boss’s.”

My mother’s answer intensely clawed at my heart. Frowning, I went out to the street.

At this time, I was not older than four.

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