Written in the servants’ quarters of a guesthouse
in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1960 when the author was
26 years old.
INSIDE THE COURTYARD
In the morning as soon as it is half light
The flies come.
Those who sleep on hemp beds before their huts
Or on the ground on mats
Wrap their towels around their heads
And go back to sleep.
When the sun falls across them they arise.
In the dusty servants' courtyard
The father squats
And the child squats.
The father puts a white powder on his finger
And puts his finger in the child's mouth.
A hen scuttles by, clucking noisily,
Chased by a red-blue rooster.
With a cupped hand
The father takes water from a shiny bronze lota,
And puts the water in the child's mouth.
The child spits the water out.
The father puts water again in the child's mouth
And the child spits the water out. Three times.
Then the father rises and takes the child's hand
And they go back into the mud-baked hut.
The one rooster is dingy white
With a red comb and a red dewlap.
The other rooster is rusty brown and blue
With a red comb and a red dewlap.
They face each other in the dirt courtyard
Behind the mud huts with the green doors.
They lower their heads.
They throw out their ruffs.
The hens and larger chicks wander close.
The roosters scratch at the ground
And pick up little stones with their pale beaks,
Then one turns and struts away.
The other stretches and hooks its neck
In the walls of the dirt dwellings
The windows which open onto the common
Courtyard are barred with iron bars.
The windows which open onto the street
Are barred with iron bars also.
The sparrows fly between them.
The green doors open
And two little boys come out,
The larger leading.
They are wearing dust-colored knit cotton shirts
Which reach the top of their
Round brown backsides.
They walk as far as the high dirt wall
And turn around.
They go down on their haunches and leave
What they have to.
Then holding their shirts very high
(because the shirts were much longer
when they were much smaller)
They walk back across the dirt courtyard
And go through the green doors
To where Mother or their larger sister
Will wash their backsides.
He is a thin man
Dressed in a khaki dhoti.
He comes each morning
A few minutes after the bent old man
Who sells lentils and graham.
The milk cans clank
At the back of his rusty bicycle.
Children and women come out of the huts
Each with a lota in one hand and
Four to six annas in the other.
Each gives the annas to the man in the khaki dhoti.
Each waits as he dips his long handled dipper
Into one of the metal cans and measures out the milk
Into their lotas.
Sometimes a fly that has flown into the can
Comes up in the dipper.
The man in the khaki dhoti reaches
A rutted forefinger into the milk
And lets the bedraggled fly climb up on it.
Then he shakes his finger and the fly
Drips off into the dust
Where one of the children or a mother
Steps on it with a bare foot.
If the fly in the milk has already drowned
The man in the khaki dhoti fishes it out
With his thumb and forefinger
And flicks it away.
The milk looks very thin and blue but nobody
Accuses the man of putting water in it.
We take our pots of milk and go back into our huts.
One little girl wears trousers
Because she has no dress.
She carries a naked infant pressed against
Her bony hip
And she steps as if she were dancing.
“Ah Salaam, Sa’ib,” she says as I go by.
A boy comes darting
Around the corner of the row of dirt huts.
He runs directly towards me
But doesn’t see me
For I am sitting quietly in the shadows
And then, too,
His eyes are half closed with his laughing.
Another boy appears around the corner and
Throws a stone.
The first boy
And ducks behind a lone Imbly tree.
The stone rolls through the dust and
Stops near my feet.
It is very hot and dry here
And even so the leaves of the Imbly tree
Are fresh and green.
A narrow ditch
Passes in front of the green doors
And runs along at the base of the dirt wall
That forms the front of the huts.
It carries the waste water
Which comes from inside through little holes
In the bottom of the wall.
The sewer is clogged.
Each morning a boy or barefooted man
Takes up the rusty bucket
That lies all day near the high outer wall
And bails out the flooded sewer.
He throws the strong-smelling water
Onto a rock pile in the corner of the courtyard.
For a half hour or so until the sun dries the rocks
The air smells very strong.
On cloudy days it takes longer to dry,
And when it rains hard
The gray-green water rises and floods the whole courtyard.
When the rain stops and the water recedes
The wet yard is covered with a green slime.
When the hot sun comes again
It turns the slime brown, and soon
The soil is just soil again
And soon dust.
In the mornings the man or boy
Bales out the sewer as before
And throws the strong-smelling water
Onto the rocks in the corner of the courtyard.
I have not been brought up to such smells
And I ask if something can't be done
To unclog the sewer.
No", I am told,
"It is not our job.”
"Whose is it, then?" I ask.
The man shrugs, and goes on baling.
His bare feet glisten with the strong-smelling water.
The sun will soon dry his strong feet.
Throw their bottle caps
Seeing which one will land closest to
The high dirt wall.
They run forward,
Gather the caps
And run back to throw them again.
In the white bright sky overhead
The kites on motionless wings
Circle and circle.
The brown dog with the bent tail
Barks every time I walk past, perhaps
Because I limp a little.
I throw a stone at it
And now it pays no attention
As I walk past.
No one here
Ever heard of a dust rag.
The soil is too dry
And the wind blows too much.
From the only faucet
Has stopped running again
One of the children watching from the dust
Gets up and goes into one of the huts.
She is a dark skinned child with large
Deep set eyes
And hair cut short because
It is so much easier to find the lice
When the hair is cut short.
She returns with a small lota of water.
At first I shake my head
But she persists, so
I squat down and rub my hands together
While she pours the water slowly over them.
Below, there forms a dark reddish patch
In the dust.
The little boy is there again
On his hands and knees in the dust
In the corner of the courtyard.
His head is bent low.
The late afternoon sun beats down upon him
Making his golden back glisten
But he stays and stays, scarcely moving.
A sharp call comes from one of the huts.
The boy does not move.
The call comes again.
The boy rises slowly and goes into the hut.
“What do you s’pose he was lookin’ at?”
Asks a young comrade tramp.
He’d noticed him too, a number of times.
My comrade tramp gets up and walks over
To where the boy was kneeling.
“What is it?” I call.
My comrade shrugs his wide shoulders.
“Nothing there.” he says. “Only an ant hole.”
The ant hole is in the corner of the courtyard
Near the high wall.
From mid-morning to late afternoon
The small ants stream in and out.
They follow tiny smooth paths in the dust.
There are paths that lead to the rock pile
Where the sewer water is thrown each morning to
There are paths along the bottom of the high dirt
When the ants emerge from the hole
They carry small particles of dirt and sand.
They carry them far away from the hole before
they drop them.
The returning ants carry small dead gnats,
Small shriveled green caterpillars,
Small chapatti crumbs,
And small flies.
It takes several ants to carry a small shriveled green caterpillar.
The ants are all pretty much alike,
Yet there are differences.
Some are larger than others.
Some have bigger jaws and thicker heads and don't carry anything.
All the ants have two rings
Of tiny whitish hairs around their back ends.
They all have busy elbowed feelers.
When the ants encounter one another along the paths
They rub antennae,
Then they scurry on.
The white sky vibrates under the high sun
And the white dust is almost too hot to be able
To stand in one spot with bare feet.
The boy is bent and motionless in the sunlight.
His dark gold body, naked but for his loins,
Is wet with perspiration.
A gust of hot air shuttles the leaves of the Imbly tree
And stirs for an instant the dust in the courtyard.
He shifts a foot.
The brown and gray grasshopper springs into the air
And buzzes ahead of him.
The boy pursues.
The grasshopper comes down and the boy on top
The boy stands up with the grasshopper in his
His dark eyes shine.
He touches one of the short brown feelers
And watches it move.
He pulls back one of the crisp gray wing-covers
And unfolds the pale yellow fan beneath it.
He holds the insect by one of its stout jumping legs
And lets it jerk forwards and backwards above his
thin raised fingers.
The leg breaks from the body and the grasshopper
Buzzes high up and away and over the wall.
The boy looks for a moment
At the gray-brown leg between his fingers,
Then tosses it away.
Someone has spilled sugar near the Imbly tree.
The ants are busy.
There are no ants coming in and out
Of their hole in the corner of the courtyard.
I saw the boy crouching to look for them
With the light of a match.
It was hard to sleep because
The bedbugs kept tickling.
So I got a match and had a look too.
At night there are no ants.
There is no moon
And the stars are very bright
and very numerous.
Soon it will be dawn;
The baby still cries.
With his fingers
He feels along the rough earth wall
‘Till he reaches the narrow table.
He feels for the box of matches.
He strikes a match to light a thin cigarette.
As the match flares
There is the faint rustling sound of many tiny legs
As numerous dark fleet insects with long feelers
Scuttle back into the crevices and shadows.
If he looked
He might see their dark swiftly disappearing
But he sees only the quietly sleeping forms
Of his wife and huddled children
On their mats.
He lights his cigarette and shakes out the flame.
There is now only the glow of the red tip
And the sound of the sleepers' soft breathing.
He finishes his cigarette and silently takes
His place on the mat he shares with his wife.
He touches her warm shoulder with his hand.
He shuts his eyes. He sleeps.
Noiselessly the dark flat insects
Slip forth again from their crevices.
They will spend the night now, undisturbed,
Roaming the dark walls and floor,
But they will be gone before
The flies come.
Revealing a new day's sun
Not yet risen far enough to touch
The highest mud-roof or seldom tree
A fruit dove flies
High over the slow-breathing sleepers,
Its orange-pink breast aglow.
OUTSIDE THE COURTYARD
On the east side of the city are many new apartments,
Modern and in pastels: some pink, some cream, some light blue or green.
Each apartment building is surrounded by
A green lawn.
Each green lawn is surrounded by an arbor:
Bananas, limes, pawpaws, tamarinds, and the like.
Each arbor is surrounded by a high wall.
Between two of these apartments there is
A vacant lot.
In the lot are: broken stones, pieces of an
old cement wall, a soleless shoe,
a shallow pit with rusted cans in it,
a broken blue bottle.
In the lot also are a few flowers:
white and yellow daisies and one or two
And there, too, is grass
Growing in thin whisps.
In the morning
Before anyone is moving in the apartments
A boy in dust-colored shorts
Comes to the lot with two white cows
And a brown and white Brahman bull.
The cows and the bull eat the grass.
The boy perches on a pile of rubble by the roadside.
When the people from the apartments arise and go to work
The boy watches their big autos and little autos and bicycles hurrying by.
No one waves to him
And he waves to no one.
On glossy cream and black wings
Not yet fully hardened
An early morning butterfly
Dips slowly around the lime tree
From across the wall
Another of its kind appears
And the two
Revolving about each other
Ascend higher and higher into the bright sky
Under a tamarind sapling sleeps
A white cat.
A kite, circling somewhere in the white sky,
"Tea is ready!" calls Taji from the railing.
The sea is always there.
The people put up shacks and stands
And sell betel nut along the beach, but
The sea is still there.
On the shore
There are many tiny holes in the sand.
My friend, Doulat, says they are made by crabs
But if this is so
The crabs are very small.
The family takes care of a large date grove near the edge of the city.
Irrigation ditches wind between the dark trunks of the palm trees and
Many small birds come to the grove to roost and to drink.
Beyond the boundaries of the grove the land is bright and hot and barren.
The mother smiles,
Showing her small blackened teeth.
She is unveiled and wears a gold pin in her nostril.
Before her stands a little girl, maybe seven years
The mother speaks to a little boy at her side.
"Only five rupees" says the little boy in rude
He has bright lively eyes and a clean shirt.
The little girl smiles shyly and looks up at me.
Only five rupees" says the boy again.
"No." I say, and walk away.
"Four rupees!" cries the little boy after me.
I feel the light touch of a small hand on my arm.
She is a very small girl, four or five, perhaps,
With black, matted hair.
She is dressed in torn rags but
Her eyes are large and bright and playful.
She tags along at my side
And holds out her small hand.
"Bucksheez!" she says over and over.
I take an anna out of my basket
And press it into the small hand.
The little girl laughs with delight
And skips back down the broken sidewalk
To a place where her mother is hiding
In the shadow of an alley.
The mother will take the small coin with trembling fingers.
She will add it to a few others in a small square of cloth under her bosom.
She will count the coins and think what they can buy that evening for herself and the little girl to eat.
To the mother it is a matter of life or death.
But to the little girl it is life itself.
It is all only a game.
The little girl's eyes are still bright and large and playful.
He is standing silently
By the wall at one of the busiest street crossings.
His clothes are torn and dirty.
His eyes peer quietly ahead of him.
They do not follow the noisy, hurrying people,
Some well clad, some poorly clad, who stream
Back and forth through the streets.
There are dark furrows on his dust-weathered brow,
And he holds one of his young gnarled hands in the other.
I take a rupee out of my pocket and
Hold it out to him.
At first he seems not to notice.
Then he smiles and slowly shakes his head.
I put the rupee back into my pocket
And move away into the crowd.
The Empress Bazaar is teaming
With shabbily clad men, and children crying out in nasal tones and pushing flat wooden carts piled with pawpaws and dates and hard green pears,
With thin men bearing small balloons or little plastic bells, who stand where people want to pass and shout, "Do anni! Do anni!"
I wend my way through the crowd
Toward a stand where a woman has duck eggs
In a small wire basket which hangs under the frayed canopy.
(Duck eggs cost three annas each and chicken eggs cost three annas each, but duck eggs are larger.)
On the way to the stand with the duck eggs
I see a man I take at first to be a woman.
His hair is long and matted.
One of his legs is deformed, and he walks with a hobble and a hop.
From his left hand are hanging
Three plump curlews.
Their feet are all bound together and he holds
Them upside down by their long greenish legs.
The three curlews are not flapping or struggling.
They twist their long necks as far as they can and blink their soft brown eyes.
The man with the deformed leg takes the three curlews
From one poultry stand to the next
And argues with the vendors.
If he had just one curlew to sell, I tell myself,
I would pay him four rupees
And let the bird go free.
But the man has three curlews: 12 rupees.
I continue on my way to the stand with
The duck eggs in the wire basket.
Silver in the dusty sunlight gleams
The black broad wet back
Of the limping water buffalo
Led by a laughing, shouting, half-starved near-naked boy
Through the dung-steaming, dust-streaming streets of Old Karachi.
Explanatory note added by the author
The Dusty Courtyard was written in my youth near the end of a long, arduous trek by bicycle alone across Europe and the Middle East to India. This “journey to the East” – on which I experienced everything from devastating dehydration to broken bones to near-lethal dysentery – was for me, in every sense, cathartic. It stripped me of clutter and took me back to basics. By the time I took a rest-stop in Karachi to partially regain my strength, I was in a state of mind purged of Western frenetics and complexity.
Because my money was limited and my journey long, I couldn’t afford a bedroom at the guest-house in Karachi. But the kindly guest-house manager, for a pittance, permitted me to stay in the scruffy servant’s quarters flanking the dusty courtyard, out back. The Courtyard is a record of some of the things I saw and felt while I was there. …
A few years after my trip to the Orient (around 1963), back in California, I dedicated this bundle of prose poems from Karachi to a teenage girl, Laurie Friedman, and presented them to her as a kind of memento. Laurie was then a pupil of mine at a student/parent/teacher learning-cooperative called Pacific High School (which I’d helped start). Tragically, Laurie’s mother and father were killed in a car accident when she was on a week-long class field trip with me to the Mojave desert. Following her parents’ death, Laurie and I became very close. Since then, although sometimes years have gone go by without seeing each other, the warmth of our friendship has remained.
With the passing decades, however, I had completely forgotten about having written The Courtyard. … Then -- in the summer of 2015, after Laurie and I had met at the memorial of a mutual friend -- Laurie sent me by post her copy of The Courtyard, which she had safely kept tucked away for half a century. (I had long since misplaced any versions I once had.)
On rereading these forgotten scribblings from my youth, they bought back such vivid memories of that unique layover in Karachi that I decided to digitalize the collection, to share it with friends. To me, at least, this compilation of impulsive sketches of life in that dusty courtyard – which I have purposefully left unedited – has a freshness and unsullied directness that today seems like a dream. Which I dearly miss. From a world so far from home, it makes me homesick.