It was the hour of twilight on the day of the Holi festival. A group of village boys, gathered under a neem tree, were playing, throwing dust at one another.
Amrit and Isab came walking arm-in-arm and joined them. Both were wearing new clothes stitched that very day, identical in every respect: colour, size and material. The boys were in the same class, at the same school and lived in houses facing each other at the corner of the street. The boys’ parents were farmers owning about the same size of holdings and occasionally had to borrow money from the moneylender to tide over difficult times. In short, the two boys had everything in common except that Amrit had both parents living and three brothers, whereas Isab had only his father.
The two boys came and sat on the pavement. Seeing them identically dressed, one of the boys asked, “Hey Amrit, Isab, have you changed your identities?”
This gave another boy a mischievous idea. “Why don’t you two have a wrestling match? We can see whether you are also equal in strength or whether one is tougher than the other,” he said.
The first boy thought this was a good idea and added, “Yes, Amrit, Isab, let’s see which of you can get the better of the other.”
“Come on!” shouted another boy. “It’s only for fun.”
Isab looked at Amrit. “No,” said Amrit firmly. “My mother will thrash me.”
His fear was well founded. As he was leaving home, his mother warned him, “You made such a fuss to get new clothes! If you tear or dirty them, you know what is coming to you.”
It’s true that Amrit had bullied his parents. When he heard that Isab was getting a new shirt, he had insisted that he should get one exactly like Isab’s or he would not go to school. His mother had tried to reason with him, “Son, Isab has to work on the farm; his clothes are worn out. Yours are still as good as new.”
“Who says so?” Amrit had cried, widening a tear in his shirt with his finger.
His mother tried another gambit. “Isab was given a thrashing by his father before he was given his new clothes. Would you also like a thrashing?”
Amrit refused to be put off. “Okay,” he said defiantly. “Tie me up! Beat me! But you have to get me a shirt like Isab’s.”
“All right,” replied his mother washing her hands of him. “Go and ask your father.”
Amrit knew that if his mother had said no his father was not likely to agree. But he was not one to give up. He refused to go to school, refused to eat and refused to come home at night. Finally, his mother gave in and persuaded his father to buy him now clothes. She brought Amrit from Isab’s father’s cowshed where he had been hiding.
Having left home smartly dressed, Amrit was loath to do anything that would spoil his clothes. In any case, he was most reluctant to wrestle with Isab.
Just then one of the rowdies of the gang put his arms around Amrit’s neck and said, “Come on, let’s have a wrestling match.” He dragged Amrit on to the open ground.
Amrit tried to wriggle out of the boy’s grasp and said, “Look Kalia, I do not want to wrestle. Leave me alone.”
Kalia refused to let go and threw Amrit on the ground. The boys shouted in glee, “Amrit has lost, Kalia has won! Kalia has won! Hurrah, hurrah!”
Isab lost his temper. He took Kalia by the hand and said, “Come on, I will fight you.”
Kalia hesitated. But the other boys egged him on. The two boys grappled with each other. Isab tripped Kalia and sent him sprawling on the ground. Kalia began to howl.
The boys realised that what had started as a joke had become a serious affair. Afraid that Kalia’s parents might beat them they scattered and ran away in different directions.
Amrit and Isab also left the arena. They had hardly gone a few steps when Amrit’s eyes fell on Isab’s shirt. Its pocket and a six-inch strip were torn. They stopped dead in their tracks overcome with fear. They examined the tears in the shirt. As if this was not enough, they heard Isab’s father shouting from his house, “Where’s Isab?”
The boys’ hearts stopped beating. They knew they were going to have it. No sooner Isab’s father saw his torn shirt, he would skin him alive. He had borrowed money from the moneylender, spent a lot of time choosing the cloth and having it stitched.
Again Isab’s father shouted, “Who’s crying? Where is Isab?”
Suddenly Amrit had a brain-wave. He dragged Isab to one side. “Come along with me,” he said. As they entered the lane between the two houses, Amrit started unbuttoning his shirt. “Come on, take off your shirt. You wear mine,” he ordered.
“What about you? What will you wear?” asked Isab.
“I’ll wear your shirt,” replied Amrit. “Hurry up before anyone sees us.”
Isab began unbuttoning his shirt but could not follow what Amrit was getting at. “Exchange shirts? How will that help? Your father will thrash you.”
“Of course, he’ll thrash me. But I have a mother who’ll protect me,” replied Amrit.
Isab had often seen Amrit hide behind his mother when his father wanted to beat him. He had to take a slap or two from his mother, for sure! But what was a gentle slap from a mother compared to the father’s heavy hand?
Isab hesitated. Just then he heard someone cough close by. The boys quickly exchanged shirts and came out of the lane and walked gingerly towards their homes.
Amrit’s heart was pounding with fear. But he was in luck. It was Holi. And it was only natural that there should be some rough play. When she saw his torn shirt, his mother only frowned, and forgave him. She took a needle and thread and mended the torn shirt.
The boys got over their fear and set off again arm-in-arm to see the Holi bonfire outside the village.
A boy who noticed the exchange of shirts spoilt the fun by taunting them, “So you have interchanged, huh?”
Fearing that the boy had seen them exchange their shirts, Amrit and Isab tried to slink away. By then, other boys also knew what had happened and set up a chant, “Adal-Badal, Adal-Badal.”
The two boys tried to slip away but the gang followed them yelling, “Adal-Badal,” “Adal-Badal.” Fearing that the story might reach their father’s ears, the two friends ran towards their homes.
Isab’s father was sitting on a cot in the front yard, smoking his hookah. He called out to the boys. “Why are you running away from your friends? Come and sit near me,” he ordered.
His gentle tone worried the boys. “It is just as we feared. He knows the truth and is only pretending to be kind,” they thought.
Isab’s father, a Pathan, picked up ten-year-old Amrit in his arms. He called out, “Vahali Bhabhi, from today your son Amrit is mine.”
Vahali Bhabhi came out of her house. She laughed and said, “Hassan Bhai, you can’t even look after one son, how will you cope with two?”
“As from today, Vahali Bhabhi, I am ready to bring up twenty-one if they are like Amrit,” said Hassan in a voice choked with emotion.
The Pathan cleared his throat and told Vahali Bhabhi that he had seen the two boys go into the lane. “I decided to see what the boys were up to,” he said.
The other women of the neighbourhood also gathered round to hear what the Pathan was saying.
What he had to say didn’t take long. He told them how the boys had exchanged their shirts and said, “Isab asked Amrit, ‘What if your father beats you?’ And do you know what your Amrit replied? He said, ‘But then I have a mother’.”
With tears in his eyes, the Pathan added, “How true! Amrit’s reply has changed me. He has taught me what is truly worthwhile.”
The women were moved by the tale of Amrit and Isab’s affection for each other.
Just then, the boys, who were returning from the Holi bonfire, surrounded Amrit and Isab. They chanted, “Amrit-Isab, Adal-Badal, Bhai Adal-Badal.”
This time, Amrit and Isab were not upset. On the contrary, they were happy to be called Adal-Badal.
The story of Adal-Badal spread through the village. It reached the village Headman who announced: “From today we will call Amrit Adal and Isab Badal.”
The boys were very happy. Soon not only the village but even the skies resounded with the cries. “Amrit-Isab, Adal-Badal, Adal-Badal!”
Translated from Gujarati by S. Sundar
First published by National Book Trust, India