Reading Time: 6 minutes

Sparrows by Kwaja Ahmed Abbas draws the portrait of a man with a large and gaunt frame but a poor soul; a person hardened on the outside but deep within is still a kind person. It is a wonderful story where nature teaches man to behave himself. What human beings could not demonstrate nature’s tiny creation a happy sparrow-couple could effortlessly achieve this story is remarkable not just for its narration but also for its characterization of the infrahuman, yet ultra humane sparrows. This is a very moving story of the sorrow and disappointment of a supposedly hard-hearted man. His transformation from utter cruelty to one of endearing love and compassion forms the lifeline of the narrative.

The bird sparrow keeps appearing in literature and always with meaning. Some say it symbolizes vigilance, joy, creativity, and wisdom while others say it signifies love and kindness. However, the existence of these in Rahim’s life is highly questionable. The sparrows appear in the latter half of the story and take away the title. That’s because kindness is the one thing that never left Rahim. Just like the sparrows had built their nest in the corner of the hut and Rahim noticed it much later, sympathy had homed in a corner of Rahim’s heart and nobody noticed.

Across Literature and the various forms of art, the significance of rain also varies from foreboding to romance, from melancholy to determination. Its meaning has been transformed in whichever way the artist preferred. In Sparrows, rain signified renewal of his kindness, cleaning his soul within himself, and introspection. He goes out to mend the ceiling only to protect the sparrows from rain, an act which might never be noted, let alone rewarding. Rain signifies purity.

The house that stands aloof from the cluster of the other huts in the village symbolizes his loneliness and aloofness from the society, the leaking roof symbolizes his broken home or family, the interior of the hut is dark symbolizing his nature and the crack in his door symbolizes the crack between his personal and private life, through which any passerby can peak through and make a judgment.

Literature gives us a chance to steal a look into ourselves. Sparrows did it too. Abbas has named the characters with a motive, apparently. Rahim, which means mercy, is now a merciless gaunt man who beats his wife and the bullocks. A fat sweet-seller bears the name Nanha, which means small. The officious zaildar is Ramnath, the name of Lord Rama, who is lying. The incomplete love of Radha has a reference to the Hindu mythology Mahabharat and Nuru signifies light. An important thing to be noted, Rahim’s wife remains nameless throughout the story. The sparrows, the youth love, the kids, even neighbours bore a name but not Rahim’s wife, signifying her worth in Rahim’s eyes.

In Sparrows, we have the theme of cruelty, fear, resentment, tradition, connection, redemption and change. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Abbas may be exploring the theme of cruelty. As Rahim is walking home, his neighbours silently talk about how cruel he has been to some of the animals in the village. The reader is also aware that both of Rahim’s sons have left him due to his cruelty and his continuous beating of each son for no reason. It is also noticeable that all of Rahim’s neighbours stay clear of him. Possibly like Rahim’s sons they too are afraid of what Rahim might do to them should he lose his temper. A temper that has been solidly built up over the years since Rahim was a teenager and his parents forced him to follow tradition rather than allowing him to join the circus or marry the girl that he loved.

If anything Rahim resents, it is his parents enforcing tradition onto him and he has spent the entire life taking his bitterness towards his parents out on his own family and others. Which would leave the reader understanding as to why Rahim may have no friends or why people in the village are afraid of him. On the surface, Rahim is not a pleasant man though he does manage to change when he sees the sparrows in his hut. It is as though without knowing it Rahim has an epiphany and changes as a man. No longer is he cruel to either animals or others in the village and appears to redirect his life in a more positive direction. Something that is noticeable by the fact that Rahim calls out to the children who run away when they see him. Rather than wanting to beat the children, he wants to show them that there is no reason to be afraid of him. All this has been achieved through Rahim’s ability to make a connection with the sparrows in his hut.

It is as though the sparrows allow for Rahim to redeem himself. Even if others are unable to see Rahim’s redemption. He becomes a kinder gentler man. Though again those in the village do not notice this change in Rahim such is the fear they feel with regard to Rahim. They do not take the opportunity to engage with him in a meaningful way and assume that Rahim is the same man that he has always been. People would prefer to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to engaging with Rahim. It would be foolish for a person to engage with another person who is prone to violence without having their guard up.

The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that Rahim thought he may have died alone. He has died a content man. Having changed his life and seen the beauty in the simple things Rahim manages to let go of all his anger and understand life that little bit better. The reader is aware that the change in Rahim is based on his caring for the sparrows in his hut. Unfortunately for Rahim, he was not able to show others that he was a changed man and this may have been the reason why people tread carefully when it came to seeing if Rahim was okay at the end of the story. Here, Abbas is making a point – it is difficult for people to see a change in another individual when they are so used to seeing only one (violent) side of that person.

Through Sparrows the author, in no way, intends to tell the readers that they have the liberty to treat others miserably because they have been through the same. His point is to tell the readers that there’s kindness in every soul, for some it is on the surface for others it is buried deep. As an individual, we need to find the light in ourselves and be as less a judge as possible. Through this story, we will be able to show that anything can be achieved under the sun. All that is needed is a sense of compassion and sincere love expressed towards worldly creatures. Only true love can elicit a true relationship is the message of this story.

Kwaja Ahmed Abbas at work

K A Abbas was as much a renowned author as he was a filmmaker and screenwriter and not only has he received awards for the excellent films he made, including National Film Awards in India, and internationally his films won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He was a master at writing short stories, presumably influenced by O Henry. His work presents a different picture of India and is mainly based on humanity. He was the contemporary writer of that colonial India when the cinema used to run in black and white. Reading K A Abbas means exploring the old culture of India. His stories genially reflect the feelings of the downtrodden and the poor. Sparrows is a typical example.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.