Balram Singh owned a talking donkey, but he never listened to him. He treated this donkey like any beast of burden and made it carry flour, bricks, and any amount of dried goods among the potholes of the Punjab. But Balram’s donkey, who came from a long line of talking donkeys, was born with a speech impediment. He could speak, but he only spoke the truth.
Balram was not the sort to tolerate lip from his beasts of burden. Whenever his donkey described his illustrious ancestry, Balram cut him short and beat him with a merciless wooden paddle, which he used with equal fervor on his sons and his animals.
Usually his gifts came into play at the worst times. Once Balram Singh tried to sell a merchant three bags of milled flour. The merchant tossed them on the scale. A little white cloud rose from each, and the merchant’s hands were dusted white as well. His nose tickled with the scent of lilacs.
Balram’s donkey commented, “Equal parts ladies’ talcum powder and flour have made you sneeze, Rajubhai.”
Balram, thundering and cursing, denied mixing ladies’ talc and flour. Rajubhai laughed, “I hope you didn’t—ounce for ounce, ladies’ powder costs a lot more than flour!”
Balram’s brown skin went a few flour-dusted shades of pale, and he denied the charge again, but meekly. As they were leaving, Rajubhai blessed the talking donkey and offered him a carrot.
“If I eat that,” said Balram’s donkey, “I will have to go hungry for a week.” Then he saw his glaring owner, and he decided to take the carrot. “If I don’t eat this,” he corrected himself, “I will have to go hungry for a week and a day.”
If Balram’s donkey did not suffer from his crucial handicap, Balram Singh would have been cuckolded long ago. A donkey as good-looking as Balram Singh’s would have nuzzled up to Guddi Chand, the lady of the house, and clip-clopped off with her thighs slung over his back like silken saddlebags. She would have scratched his ears and convinced herself she could change him, change his stubborn ways. But Balram’s donkey could not have seduced a she-donkey in heat. He essayed Guddi Chand once, blinking through the kitchen window as she worked a rolling-pin with her stout arms.
“I came here to see your eyes,” he confessed in a throaty whisper, “but I can’t get past your eyebrow.”
The rolling-pin hurtled through the window and landed in a puddle. As Guddi Chand came storming out, it became clear Balram Singh learned to curse from his wife. “Look at this!” she screeched, snatching it off the ground and waving it as though he had thrown it there. “You soiled my rolling pin, donkey, and now I have to wash it!” Reasoning she might as well beat him with it while it was dirty, she laid into his sides and rear. Balram’s donkey decided he preferred the husband’s paddle.
Only his eloquence worked against him; otherwise he was an attractive specimen. His gray coat was not the usual donkey gray but a deep, monsoon gray. His eyes were hooded in a way women mistook for sensuality and men mistook for sleepiness. When he spoke, people were just as impressed with his teeth as they were with his articulate tongue, incredibly white for a mouth known to snack on Guddi Chand’s discarded okra nubs and tea grounds. Balram’s maltreatment of his donkey might have had an edge of jealousy, too—in addition to the scoundrel’s hatred for a truth teller—because Balram’s mouth, after years of chewing tobacco and Guddi Chand’s prolific sweets, did not compare favorably. All in all, Balram’s was a stately, cosmopolitan donkey, in all but gait more upright than his owner.
That comparison was easy to make on the morning in August when Balram Singh brought out his donkey and walked beside him. Saddled with no load, he kept looking at his owner with his eyebrows at a perplexed height. For a while he thought they must be fetching wood from Ramu Baba’s farm, but they passed that gate too and got on the main road. With sudden affection, he said, “This is the first time I’m on this road without a load,” wondering if they were out on a stroll together, man and donkey. Balram grunted and kept walking. He did not notice his donkey had stopped until he was several paces ahead.
When a donkey stops and “refuses” to move, to human eyes it seems stubborn; actually the donkey is not stopping, but pausing contemplatively. Balram did not know the difference between taking rest and being given pause, so he clapped his hands. Getting no response, he went back and pulled his donkey as he pulled his sons in similar situations, by the ear that didn’t listen. This broke his donkey’s motionless reflection, and, hurrying several steps until his owner let him go, he commented, “I don’t mind carrying a load of sunlight.”
Balram grunted again, or at least it sounded like a grunt, because immediately afterwards he cleared his throat nervously. The donkey saw why the master proceeded to tug his cuffs and align his turban just so: Down the road, with a clay pitcher atop her head and her arm out at an angle to her hips, swayed the delectable Champa Devi. Eighteen years old, Champa Devi had outgrown her bodice four years earlier. Her legs were disproportionately long, too, allowing a man to inspect her ankles and anklets in context. She had three dots tattooed on her chin and bits of mirror sewn into her clothes, and rabbits thumped for mercy when she passed. The ears of Balram’s donkey pricked up at the sound of her hoarse voice singing a Hindi film song. Master and donkey both held their heads higher, and the donkey was tempted to high step with his front hooves.
In a voice that his wife Guddi Chand, having been courted through the proper intermediaries, had never heard, Balram Singh said, “And where are you off to, Champa Devi?”
He veered away from his companion and sidled up to the girl, who brought the clay pot off her head and set it on her cocked hip. During their banter, Champa Devi glanced down her cleavage suggestively before answering anything, and old Balram several times cleared his throat and tugged at his sleeves. His donkey got impatient and slightly annoyed at being left out of this flirtation between members of a different species, and he approached the pair. In fact, he stuck his head between the two and blinked at Champa Devi’s chest (even his body language was truthful). Balram, controlling his fists, took advantage of the intrusion to boast, “This is my donkey. He speaks.”
Champa Devi looked at her cleavage again and found something there that made her giggle. “Really? You mean he can repeat what he hears, Bulloo uncle? Like a parrot?”
Before Balram could explain, the donkey correctly observed to his owner, “Champa Devi has amazing breasts!”—unintentionally creating the illusion he was repeating words he had heard his master say many times. Champa Devi, after a thrill of pleasure that gave her goose bumps, spat at Balram Singh, called him a lecher, and ran home sobbing, the clay pitcher splashing at her side.
Balram’s donkey was set upon with a fury not seen since Biblical times when his ancestor crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. Balram climbed atop his donkey and pummeled him while being carried down the road—“for the sake of efficiency,” he explained, “because this beating is going to take a longer time than usual, and we mustn’t be late to the city. And you better not bruise or bleed, or else twenty fists more for you! I want you looking good today.”
Balram’s donkey did not understand that last comment, but the blows taught him one truth he would not have inferred otherwise.
“It isn’t always the best idea,” he learned at last, “to speak the truth!”
As they approached the city, Balram Singh did not want to be seen riding a donkey with his sandals brushing the dust, so he dismounted and rubbed his pink knuckles. The walls had grown lively with drawings in childlike black paint of lotuses, the local party’s emblem. Some posters, too, clung in shreds to the walls and trees, opposing slogans mangled by the politically neutral heat and wind. Balram’s donkey stopped at a poster and tried to read it, but his gift did not extend to written language, and even if it did, he probably would have been enabled to read only the truth—putting newspapers, political slogans, and history textbooks out of his ken, and leaving him with mathematics and poetry. He could tell these were words, so he drew his lips back from his elegant teeth and chomped a sizable fragment. Balram pulled him away, this time by the scruff of the neck, and warned him, “If you keep doing that in public, you’ll get us both a beating, and I’ll have two sore asses instead of one.”
That bite of political poster had a strange effect on Balram’s donkey, who felt the infinite possibilities of falsehood open up to him at once. The ink of polemic took away his inhibitions like a strong drink, and he said, “You are right as always, Balram Singh.”
This statement, which confirmed one of Balram Singh’s age-old suspicions about himself, took him off guard, so he grunted once and kept walking. His donkey explored the newly active muscles of his tongue, flicking and curling it. They walked farther into the city until they found the visiting circus with its tents and cages.
“So this is why I have no load today!” thought the donkey. “Balram Singh wants to sell me to the circus!” He did not say this aloud because he didn’t have an urge to speak the truth anymore.
Old Balram went up to the circus keeper and advertised, “Here’s an act for you: A talking donkey who always tells the truth! Just now he told me something about my personal life, and I thought I was the only one who knew it. You could charge ten rupees a head for people to come have their fortunes told. You could even open a civil court and dress him in a judge’s wig.”
The circus keeper, turning a rolled whip in his hands, was a shrewd man. He wasn’t about to waste a leash and a cage for a donkey unless it were truly a special one. “If he always tells the truth,” he said, leaning forward, “let him tell me how much I should pay for him.”
Balram smiled, for he knew this was the test circus keepers give any animal alleged to speak the truth.
Balram’s donkey, in other circumstances, would have told the truth and made a fortune for his owner: It is standard circus practice to give half of the price a talking animal quotes, and Balram’s donkey would have truthfully accounted for his ancestry and his gifts. Behind the circus keeper, though, he glimpsed emaciated lions, elephants kidnapped at birth, and monkeys so depressed they didn’t even throw their shit at strangers anymore.
Stepping forward and clearing his throat, Balram’s donkey let out a tremendous bray.
The circus keeper, sprayed with drops of spit, shot back in his seat and shouted, “Get your donkey out of here!” He snapped his whip a few times against the ground to show his displeasure.
Back in the street, Balram Singh hissed, “Just wait till you and I get home.”
“Before you give up on selling me so easily,” the answer flowed suavely, “why don’t we negotiate? Your talc-and-flour mixing is thwarted daily by my blather, and my hind quarters are paddled daily by your unfailing sense of justice. Neither of us wants to live together, so why don’t you sell me somewhere I want to go. I promise to sell myself.”
Balram, persuaded by the dexterous liar, nodded and couldn’t see why not.
“Lead me to the Party headquarters of this town—the same fellows who have been drawing lotuses all over the place. I am going to write speeches for a living.”
“But you don’t have any fingers,” Balram pointed out haughtily, pleased to have found a flaw in the argument. “How will you hold a pen or tap on a typewriter? Dumb ass!”
“Loquacious asinine,” he said primly. “They can take dictation, can’t they? Let’s go.”
To be sold to the Party, Balram’s donkey knew, he would have to be sold to the Party officials who roamed the streets. These men chewed paan as vacantly as cows chewed the cud, marking the ground around them with crimson spit as telltale as goose droppings. They strutted like cocks and claimed territory like rams, and their collective temper was as unpredictable as a stray dog’s: Balram’s donkey felt like he was approaching a second menagerie. Balram Singh saw them where they sat outside the police station, and this time the man stopped while the donkey kept walking. But he could not bear to seem less brave than his donkey, so he hurried to catch up.
The gently going jaws of the Party officials stopped. One spat juice disdainfully at the donkey’s hooves. “What’s your business, old man?”
“Yes, well … I wanted to sell you, that is, sell the Party …”
“Sell us what?”
“My talking ass.”
“Your ass talks?”
“What does it say?”
“It wants to …”
“I’ll tell you what my ass says!” At this the Party official passed vociferous gas, and the lot of them fell to laughing. They might have seemed like jolly fellows if they didn’t keep lathis propped against the wall and empty bottles of vice about their feet. Balram glared at his donkey for putting him in this position.
“I want to become a member of the Bharat Lotus Party,” lied the donkey, getting their attention. They sat up and stared at his mouth.
“And what good would you do the Party?” asked one official.
“He could carry enemies of the Party home, when we’re through with them,” suggested another official.
“I could be a spy,” Balram’s donkey proposed. “And by the way, my hind legs kick harder than any lathi can hit.”
They looked at each other and nodded appreciatively. Balram, wondering when his donkey had mentioned spying, interjected, “Generally, in the sale of a talking animal, one asks the animal what he is worth, …”
His donkey continued for him. “… but you’d be fools to purchase a donkey spy until he’d shown you proof of his loyalty. My loyalty to the Party is so great, I am willing to inform on my own former master.”
“What?” cried Balram.
“That’s right, he’s a beef-eating, pork-hating enemy of India, this Ali Kaaba alias Balram Singh alias Paak ki Puksh Mehn. He taught me to speak to infiltrate the Party through me. ‘You will swim noiselessly among them like a water snake,’ he says, ‘and I will snip the Lotus at its stem.’ Just look what he makes me do, five times a day like clockwork.” At this he bent his front knees and put his forehead to the ground, bowing towards the west and murmuring all sorts of asininity. Balram flushed from toe to turban while his donkey went on, “I refused this morning, and oh Mother India, the bruises he gave me!” He submitted as evidence his viciously beaten sides from earlier that day. The Party officials were hollering “Ayodhya!” by now, and Balram Singh received a beating that canceled, in one afternoon, all the beatings he had given his donkey—who trotted off under cover of ruckus, headed for the bazaar.
Rajubhai recognized him at once when he entered the store. “Oh-ho, Balram Singh’s talking donkey! A truth-saying soothsayer of an ass, a well-proportioned, good-looking ass!”
“Good afternoon, Rajubhai!” he greeted the old merchant, who sat among his sacks of grain and baskets of vegetables like a god of plenty. Rajubhai leaned over and picked out a thick carrot for him.
“Where is your master Balram?”
“He set me free,” the donkey lied casually, accepting the carrot in his mouth like the cigar of his private victory. “Upgraded to a mute mule.”
“A mute mule!” Rajubhai was appalled.
“‘Better than a sassy donkey,’ he said.”
“Balram has no common sense.”
The donkey nodded with a long-suffering look to his eyes that was completely honest. Meanwhile a housewife had brought a bag of cucumbers up to Rajubhai, who dropped a few black, hexagonal weights on the scale. The woman, in accordance with the custom of the bazaar, began haggling.
“Come on, Rajubhai,” she said ritually. “We can do better than that.”
“Those are great cucumbers, mehm-sahib!”
“Fifty anna less.”
The donkey interrupted. “Please, mehm-sahib, those cucumbers are a steal at fifty anna more, and you know it.” His voice mixed charm and insistence, and his smile shone white. “I saw you eying the ones at Gurudev’s two doors down, and your thumb sank in their rotten sides. If you’re as shrewd as you are lovely, mehm-sahib, you’ll nab a few of these carrots while you’re here—let me tell you, I’ve got one in my mouth and they’d be great in halva tonight …”
By the end of her spree, a bag full of superfluous produce dangled in the crook of either elbow, and she had invited the donkey over for dinner. After she left, Rajubhai gasped appreciatively, “You, my friend, are a born salesman—and if you like, my paid assistant.”
“Carrots, clean water, and a bed of hay at night?”
“And no loads to carry but sunlight?”
“And no beatings?”
“The worst you’ll endure is a pat on the back at day’s end.”
Another customer stepped into the store and stopped short to see a donkey talking to a man. Rajubhai’s donkey winked at his new owner and went to work.
Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic radiology resident in Cleveland, Ohio. He also won the first prize in Katha 2004 for his story “The Troubles of Taqlif Husain.”