The China Vase

Jalal Al-i Ahmad

Translated by Iraj Bashiri
copyright, Bashiri 2001


With all the passengers aboard, the bus started to roll. The last passenger to look for a place to sit was carrying a priceless, antique china vase. Cautiously, while trying to maintain his balance in the moving bus, he proceeded toward the rear. The passengers on the back seat jostled about and, with some difficulty, made room for this fifth passenger. He was a man over forty years old, wearing a chic overcoat and a smart, new hat. A new leather glove covered the hand that held the china vase.

Of the four other passengers who occupied the back seat, two were women who, wrapped in chador veils, incessantly giggled at some private matter. As for the other two, one was an elderly man, somewhat bent and preoccupied. The other was a wise guy, reckless and happy-go-lucky, the type that doesn’t wear a collar or a necktie. The cuffs of his shirt that had lost their buttons long ago protruded beyond the stiff sleeves of his raincoat. His long hair fell below his worn-out hat. A stubby, salt-and-pepper beard covered his freckled face clear to beneath his eyes.

From the moment that the dapper man with the china vase sat next to him, the attention of the happy-go-lucky fellow was so intensely attracted to the vase that he could not take his eyes off it.

The vase owner was unruffled. He placed the vase on his knee and held its base with a firm grip. In his ungloved hand, he jingled several coins.

This happy-go-lucky fellow, totally fascinated by the vase, appeared somewhat restless. He raised, lowered, and tilted his head; in fact, he bent himself all out of proportion to gain a better view of the beautiful and delicate vase. It appeared as if he were encountering beauty for the first time or, better yet, it was as if he were appreciating beauty for the first time!

The vase was made of fine china. The skillfully rendered slender handles merged with the painted body of the vase so well that they did not leave a trace. Without scrutinizing the vase, one would not know that they existed at all. The vase itself was fine, delicate, and so translucent that the light from the bus window passing through it created wonderful, quivering designs on the leather glove of the owner.

The man in the raincoat studied all the details of the vase on the side that faced him; but, he was not satisfied. Every time that the bus negotiated a turn and piled the passengers on top of each other, he over extended lurching, almost bending himself over the vase owner, hoping that he could, possibly, get a glimpse of the other side of the vase.

In short, he did all in his power to content himslef but continued to remain unsatisfied. Finally, having straightened himself up and clearing his throat a couple times--actions that drew the vase owner's attention to his distress--he said, "Excuse me, sir. Would you allow me to take a quick peak at your vase?"

"But of course, sir. With pleasure. Here it is."

Then, with both hands, carefully, he handed the vase to the happy-go-lucky fellow, saying, "But please,..."

"Not to worry, sir," the happy-go-lucky fellow interrupted. "I read you loud and clear. I shall be extra careful."

He then began his close examination of the vase. He looked at the front, then at the back. He looked from the top and then from the bottom. He even cast a careful look inside. All this time, his every move was carefully monitored by the vase owner who tried to appear calm and collected on the outside. In fact, he seemed to be reading the van yakod1 Qur'anic inscription that was engraved on a piece of bronze that was nailed in front of the bus driver. From the corner of his eye, however, he followed every move of the happy-go-lucky man's hands as the latter examined the vase.

The happy-go-lucky fellow examined every part of the vase. He even held it against the bus window and put his hand behind it to look at the pink light that defined his fingers. By moving the vase to and fro against the light, he even examined the fluctuation in the intensity of the light it reflected.

At a sharp bend, as the bus negotiated a turn and piled the passengers up on top of each other, the happy-go-lucky fellow too, was destablized more than he expected. Since there were no railings to help him maintain his balance, involuntarily, he let go of the base of the vase. It fell with a thud and broke into three pieces.

The bus was still turning when the gasp of the vase owner was heard, "Oh... no," he said and fell silent, viewing the pieces with consternation. Reaching for the floor of the bus to pick up the pieces, the happy-go-lucky fellow said, "Oh well. Not a big deal. Could have been worse."

At these words, the owner, who had just overcome the shock, blew his top. Red in the face, he yelled, "What could have happened that would be worse than this?"

"Come on sir. No big deal. The vase broke. Some evil clamity destined for you, hit your vase instead. You should be happy."

"What crap!" said the vase owner. "Not only has he destroyed my beautiful vase, but the son of a bitch is trying to take the upper hand, too?"

"Sir, please keep your cool. There is no need for this kind of language."

"My language is fine, you cuckold! Would your myopic eyes have gone blind if you had not examined my vase?"

Other passengers were now aware of the incident. One of the women sitting next to them, assuming a sympathetic stance and said, "Oh dear. It was a beautiful vase! Pity. Then again the gemtleman is right. It was predestined to be..."

The owner interrupted with, "Lady, just what are you talking about? I paid 75 tumans for this vase."

The happy-go-lucky fellow interjected, "It happened. That's all there is to it. Have the tinker mend it..."

The other woman, from underneath her chador, said, "Brother, are all your fingers thumbs or what?"

The happy-go-lucky fellow, still carrying on with the owner and without looking at her, replied, "Who asked you to poke your nose in?"

"Oh well. God forbid. He really is something else. Allow him and he will devour me alive!"

Eventually, after he regained his full composure, the vase owner removed his glove and, holding the pieces, shouted, "All I was trying to do was to act like a human being would. But, what can I say, we are a people worth nothing. He breaks my vase and what does he say? ‘It was destined to be broken!’ What a bunch of crap! He thinks I will let him off easily. No sir, he will have to pay every last rial that I paid for this vase. Money does not grow on trees, you know. I buy a vase. He breaks it. On top of that, he instructs me to have it mended. Lame cuckold that he is. What does he know about antiques? Or about appreciating beauty? Oh boy, I really was an idiot to treat this lummox as if he were a human being...!

Then, as the bus was pulling into a bus stop, he said. "Sir, please stop. The Police Headquarters is near here. Allow me to exercise my right against this bastard."

Then as he rose, he pleaded with the driver, "Please don't let him get off before I return with a policeman. I want all those on the bus to be witness to the incident."

Halfway to the door again he stopped and, addressing the passengers, repeated his request. Then he walked towards the door to get off. Before getting off, once more he made sure that the driver would stay put. The driver assured him that he would wait.

Some of the passengers discussed the event among themselves. A couple acting like spectators, laughed at the whole thing. The two women, even though no one paid any attention to them, continued their giggling. The happy-go-lucky fellow talked to himself, "What happened happened, I didn't do it on purpose. It fell and broke..."

The bus conductor hawked for passengers. The vase owner had walked only twenty paces ahead of the bus when the driver, motionless thus far, sat up at the wheel, ordered the conductor to board, pressed on the accelerator and began to leave the stop.

The passengers were flabergasted. In response to their protests the conductor, who was making himself comfortable on his stool, said, "What is it to us? Someone broke a vase. Does it mean that we must sit idle?"

The vase owner, who was hurrying to the police station, sensed that the bus was moving. He turned around and opened his arms as if to stop the bus. But the bus merely swerved past him and continued on its way. The man shouted, "Hold it...Hold it...the vase...poor driver,... police!

Seeing the vase owner’s desparate situation, the passengers laughed. Soon policemen surrounded the vase owner asking questions, while he continued shouting, "Hold it... 75 tumans...lame bastard... china vase... he is getting away...what was that license plate number...? Police...!

1    And the Unbelievers
      Would almost trip thee up
      With their eyes when they
      Hear the Message; and they
      Say: "Surely he is possessed!"

      LXVIII: 51


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