"Father’s duty": the Most Famous Novel of the Western Armenian Writer and Genocide Victim Krikor Zohrab
The novel of Krikor Zohrab (one of the prominent representatives of the Western Armenian intelligency, writer, politician and lawyer) is originally called “Chitin partqy” (Ճիտին պարտքը) which is translated as somebody’s obligation and responsibility.
This dramatic story takes us to a small neighborhood in Istanbul (Polis in Armenian), to the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century, the period of time when Zohrab was actually living. This is a story about old merchant Housep agha, who is desperately trying to earn money as an intermediary trader.
Housep agha is broke. The time and social status do not allow him to meet the minimum needs of his daughters. Every single day he leaves the house taking with him his “friend of life”, his blackened leather bag and passes the day in hope to fill it up.
The original language of the novella is Western Armenian.
With a leather bag in his hands, he was wandering the streets all day long. That sturdy leather bag was an inseparable friend of him. He was keeping bread and meat in it and was taking them home every evening to feed his little children, who were gathering around it every time he returned home.
Everything, he earned by then and labor, was in that bag. For thirty years he had been trying to fill up that bag to no avail. Only miseries did fill up it: it was encompassing his struggle for existence. His joy, his pain and memories were in there. He was carrying the bag both in happy and dark days: its fate was as mutable as its owner’s, its soul was like the soul of its owner. However, which of them was the boss? After thirty years, when the bad luck seized him, the man realized that the senseless bag had always been the boss.
Housep agha is now of average height, bearded and gray-haired. There was a time when he was a merchant and a shop owner, but bit by bit he pulled back and became an intermediary trader: ha was delivering cotton and laundry shop to shop, door to door. Day by day he was playing an unsuccessful role of a mediator between customers and sellers, which were so stubborn that in the end desperate Housep agha was remaining empty-handed. As a former merchant, he was well aware of crises of the job and now that crisis exactly was dominating him. It was dominating his modest life and was threatening to bring him down.
Ah, if he were alone! Nothing would be important then. His two daughters were waiting for him full of childish charm and dreams. They are not babies at all, they are reasonable little girls who already have their wishes and expectations.
These children – all his happiness- now pressure him with their innocent fourteen-fifteen- year-old girlish smiles, in which the father was seeing accusations. Every time he comes back home, he feels like an offender , sentenced to poverty and deprivation, in front of these two souls. He returns home hiding under the mask of a happy man, but under that mask he is lost and helpless.
Their small house was situated on a hill near Skyutar (a neighborhood in Istanbul). The father and his daughters, whose mother had died long ago, were living there on payment of a monthly fee. The young woman in the portrait on the wall of the small room is Her. She died suddenly because of the breast disease about which you can guess looking at her pale bloodless face in the portrait. However, the memory of her is still alive. In the evening, when the girls go to beds, the impoverished merchant still stands in front of his untimely dead wife’s portrait. He is silent and despondent and in those unblinking eyes, looking from the gilded frame, he still seeks support and assistance.
His vital energy, like his once existed capital, was decreasing day by day. Now he feels that the bravery is also exhausted. From dawn he is already at the dock, with the bag in his trembling hands, waiting for a job, like charity from the merchants. Then he is waiting around and sometimes is intervening in their conversation, expressing his opinion – always profitable and efficient.
He was always walking behind the merchants, holding the inseparable bag with him. Having seen that the merchants were bearing large losses from others, he was getting angry with them for cheating his merchant, that honest man. In joyful moments he was entertaining the merchants with his slam beautiful stories, and was making them laugh in hope to get job in the future. The merchants did like that aged man, who was not insidious at all.
The merchants were thinking about new ways of savings and the duties and chancellery payments were a burden for them. Housep agha, walking behind them with the blackened bag in his hands, now is trembling.
- Housep agha, this does not concern you, - were assuring the merchants, - you are our man.
The poor man let out a sigh of relief, however the job was becoming less day by day, the day time earnings were becoming а hard labor while the debts were accumulating from all sides. However, his clothing was always clean and neat hence nobody could guess about his awful situation by the way he looked.
He was still carrying the bag which became a useless thing. What if he threw it away and accepted the hopelessness of his situation. What would this world say seeing him empty-handed?
This evening he sold his small copper watch for thirty coins and managed to fill up the bag a little bit.
The house was full of joy and happiness. Sometimes the daughters were asking father about his state, maybe anticipating something.
- How is your work, father? – asked the elder daughter.
- Don’t stay there so long, - added the blue-eyed little girl, who was looking just like her mother.
- Everything is fine with the job, and it will be better with God’s help, - answered father with smile in his eyes.
- Come home earlier tomorrow and take us for a walk.
And poor man promised that. He promised many things.
Imagine a picture: you see a hole in the tunnel with dark stone walls, but you will never see expected rays of light on its other side.
Early in the morning, he leaves for Polis on the first boat, clenching the empty bag by his weak hands – the insatiate enemy which had never been satisfied during thirty years. He was clenching it as he was trying to strangle, to destroy that empty stomach.
How does that happen that a man has no money for bread or has to stay put as he has no money to buy tickets for the boat?
At the same time Housep agha was thinking about these questions, trying to find answers for them and was walking the streets fingering his empty bag. Instead of going home, he was wandering streets and was thinking about his honey children. In that way he was trying to forget about his poor state for just a minute and instead was feeling rich and powerful. He would be able to leave that small house and put children in more luxurious house, to buy for them not only things that were necessary but new clothes and new hats. He would see their admiration and that would make him really happy. What a simple and heavy happiness!
The bag was trembling in his hands and returned him into reality.
Then he made last attempts – miserable and awful - to find means of survival: under the cover of repair he started taking away the things from the house and selling them for a small price. Every day he was addressing different shops and was getting close with different merchants in order to get loan. All that was a useless waste of energy in order to fill the demanding bag, which he was still carrying, but did not understand why: unnecessarily, just unconsciously.
This morning his elder daughter gave him the bag and said:
- You forgot to bring meat, fruits and cheese yesterday. Don’t forget today.
While Father was leaving, she was still whispering her small requests.
He was clenching in the hands three coins which he was going to take to Polis. How will he return in the evening? He was sorry for he had settled in the neighborhood Skyutar, as he could not reach Polis from there by foot and he was not so brave to return home empty-handed.
On the boat, he sat far away from his familiars, put the bag beside him and was carefully fixing its wrinkles. Then he was attracted by the sound of wheels “pf- pf, pf-pf”. He enjoyed listening to the sounds. There was nothing than that sound in his head: who is he? What is he looking for on that boat? Where must he go? He really did not know.
Among the merchants of Polis he met only frawn and brutal faces. You should be so courageous to tell the man, opening and closing the cash, that you have promised your children to bring food in the evening. No, he was not able to say that.
He was wandering the market, silent and depressed. He was looking inside several shops then he passed an hour admiring the brilliant jewelry: he couldn’t present his daughters anything like that. Suddenly he remembered that his daughters were waiting for him. He asked what time it was. It was already dark and he started running, but then stopped for a minute. He needed bread and was ready to ask for it any of the passerbies. It was amazing: he had so many familiars, but met none of them there.
Walking for a while, he reached the bridge and stopped for a moment. He could not pass it. He has no money. That moment he realized that something was not enough. He started asking questions himself and released that had forgotten the bag. Returned for it, and started running. But why?
A man’s body was splashing and swinging on the sea. That was a fit man with opened, surprised and unblinking eyes and bold glance, looking at the sky.
The part of the black bag, tied around his neck, was still on the water and was splashing with him, dipping his head into the water. At that moment, the head was raising, trying to get free of the heavy bag.
On the silver surface of the sea, the body and the bag tied on the neck were looking like a ship with an abandoned boat. The leather bag filled by stones was not meant to be empty anymore. Its place was not in the man’s hands where it was chocking for many years. No. The bag with its stubbornness and emptiness was the reflection of the man’s duty. Its true place was his neck, where it is now.
For the first time in thirty years it found its true place. The bag was happy and was fondling the man’s face with its rude hide with every wave splash.