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The Stories in My Life: Isaac Bashevis Singer's story set in Warsaw just before WWII explores complex ideas with simplicity

There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.

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The story I have chosen to share in my April post is called Pigeons. It was written by Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish and later translated into English jointly by the author and Elizabeth Shub. I found it in a wonderful collection by Singer called A Friend Of Kafka And Other Stories, first published by Penguin Books in 1975, reprinted in 1979, a year after Singer won the Nobel Prize. No matter how many times I read it this story has always struck me as being one of the greatest things ever written, speaking to the reader in a calm, level voice that can do so much with so little. So many complex ideas are stated with spare, serene simplicity, each line written with astonishing rightness, such chiselled purity, that the big questions of life suddenly show themselves up as our elementary and intimate companions.

 The Stories in My Life: Isaac Bashevis Singers story set in Warsaw just before WWII explores complex ideas with simplicity

A Friend Of Kafka And Other Stories

The story is both a portrait and a meditation. An old professor of history lives with his books and birds in a humble quarter of Warsaw some time before World War II. This is a Poland already in the throes of an anti-Semitic surge. Professor Vladislav Eibeschutz, who is Jewish, has chosen to retire on a small pension, just enough to cover food and rent for himself and his ancient maidservant Tekla. He has retired because his students at the Warsaw University have grown too rabidly anti-Semitic. They insist that Jewish students sit on ghetto-benches. ‘They would come to class, wearing their gold-embroidered fraternity caps… always ready to provoke a fight.’ They even looked all of a kind, all true to type, ‘- as if their common hatred of the Jew had turned them into members of the same family.’

The professor is an old widower, cared for by his devoted servant, who had promised the professor’s dying wife that she would look after him in the lonely years ahead. A promise she loyally keeps. There is a quality of otherworldly saintliness about both Professor Eibeschutz and Tekla. They have lost their teeth and Tekla cooks soups and stews which very old people can have without excessive strain to toothless gums. They wear old, outdated clothes because they don’t need to buy new things. Professor Eibeschutz has willed all his possessions to Tekla who has no one in the world.

The professor’s house is bursting at the seams with books and manuscripts. And he loves his birds. He has cages full of birds and the doors of the cages are left open so that the birds fly about all over the house, perch on curtain rods and bookshelves, on the Professor’s bald head and the stem of his glasses and even his index finger as he writes. When Tekla complains about the mess the birds make he retorts affectionately: ‘Little fool, everything that belongs to God’s creatures is clean.’ The conversations between master and servant are among the most endearing things about this story: ‘I’ve boiled the milk.’ ‘I don’t want any.’ ‘ Your throat will get dry.’ ‘Where is it written that the throat has to stay moist?’ ‘ It’s time for the professor’s medicine.’ ‘ What medicine? Silly woman. No heart can pump forever.’ They are two ancient people living in peace and what comes across as a scarcely noticed detail, because it hardly matters, is that while the Professor is a Jew, Tekla is Christian.

The Professor also loves feeding wild pigeons in the street. Every morning and afternoon he takes a bag of feed and scatters grain for hundreds of pigeons that sit waiting for him on the tiled roofs and treetops. Seeing him, they swoop down in massive swarms, even alighting on his hat and sleeves, jostling one another in their headlong haste and hunger. The professor tells Tekla that for him feeding the birds is better than visiting a church or synagogue. God is not needy but the poor birds are and there is no better service of God than service of His creatures.

Isaac Bashevis Singer. Image courtesy: WikiCommon

Isaac Bashevis Singer. Image courtesy: WikiCommon

The professor is a philosopher. For years he has been searching for the central truth of history, why races and nations seek to destroy one another, why there is hatred and violence, why wars happen. His mental life is a long interior dialogue with philosophers and scientists long dead. He has lost his early belief in materialism and moved towards an awed recognition of some overarching, transcendent purpose in the universe, but what that purpose is eludes his understanding. He watches his birds, notices cases of infatuation, love, jealousy, and murder. And yet birds have no sense of history. When he feeds birds he sees how the able-bodied overpower the feeble, how hunger drives even meek creatures to violence. Still, when he studies biology, zoology and other natural sciences, seeking his answers there, he is struck by the miracle of intelligence in nature. ‘He would pull a hair from his beard, place it on a slide and inspect it through the microscope. Each hair had its complicated mechanism. A leaf, an onion peel, a bit of moist earth… revealed beauties and harmonies that revived his spirit….It was not easy to have faith in God’s benevolence, but God’s wisdom shone in each blade of grass, each fly, each blossom and mite.’

But if there is intrinsic brutality in nature, there is equally a pervasive presence of mercy. His own tender care as he watches over his birds, attending to each one’s trouble and urgency, his kindly regard for the comfort of his tired old servant, all point at some benign impulse present in the scheme of things. Professor Eibeschutz is a gentle, blameless scholar of Christlike compassion, living in close touch with the wonder of living things, partaking of their and magic and mystery.

One afternoon, as he feeds pigeons in the square, he is hit by a stone aimed at his head. More stones follow. He staggers home to a shrieking Tekla, who tends to him, calls down curses on his attackers, runs for the police. Evidently, the police do not arrive, for attacks on Jews hardly merit their attention. ‘If this is our Poland, it should go up in flames!’- Tekla screams but the professor calms her down with the words: ‘Enough, Tekla, enough… there are many good people in Poland.’ In the privacy of his thoughts, he realises: ‘Sooner or later you have to feel everything on your own skin.’ The physical injury is bad, the hurt to his soul is worse. ‘Have we reached so low?’ – he asks himself in anguish. It is the wicked who are the makers of history, he hits upon the core truth he has been seeking, yet he drops off to sleep thinking ‘Still, it can’t be that simple.’

That night he dies of a heart attack. At his funeral the next day, thousands of pigeons escort the hearse to the Jewish cemetery, like the heavenly host. The sky is dark with their wings. An ominous shade descends, overwhelming the city, for dark times are to come. That night someone paints a swastika on the professor’s door.

There are many layers to this perennial, sublime story. Discover them for yourselves.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2019 22:22:03 IST

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