Ali Salami

Davoud the Hunchback by Sadeq Hedayat [English Translation]

About the Author

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian author whose contributions to Persian fiction marked a significant departure from traditional literary styles. Widely regarded as one of the most accomplished Iranian writers of the 20th century, Hedayat pioneered modernist techniques that continue to influence contemporary Persian literature. The following story has been rendered into English by Ali Salami.

Hedayat was born into a family of high social standing and received his early education in Tehrān. Subsequently, he pursued studies in dentistry and engineering in France and Belgium, where he came into contact with prominent European intellectuals. This exposure led Hedayat to abandon his scientific pursuits in favor of a career in literature.

Davoud the Hunchback by Sadeq Hedayat

“Nay, nay. This path shall never be mine to follow,” muttered Davoud to himself, as he struck the ground with a short yellow stick, using it as a crutch to aid his labored progress. His countenance was a frightful sight to behold; a sunken head between narrow shoulders atop a protruding chest. His features, gaunt and drawn, appeared hollow and repulsive – a visage of withered lips, curved brows, drooping lashes, sallow complexion, and prominent cheekbones.

Yet, as he trudged along the dusty street, Davoud cut a striking figure, his long and disproportionate limbs wrapped in a coat to cover his humpback, and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. With an air of solemnity, he continued to strike the ground with his stick, striking a pose that might have inspired laughter, had he not appeared so pitiful.

He had departed Pahlavi Avenue and now trod a path that led out of the city towards the Government Gate, as the light of the setting sun cast a vague glow upon the landscape. To the left, the mud-covered walls and brick columns loomed overhead in silent testament to the passage of time. On the right, a recently-filled gully was visible, dotted with half-built brick houses.

The street was sparsely populated, with only the occasional passing of a car or droshky, and even then, they raised a little dust into the air, despite the previous watering of the road. Along the gutter on both sides of the street, saplings had been planted, perhaps in an attempt to beautify the otherwise desolate landscape.

As he trudged along the dusty street, Davoud’s mind was consumed with bitter recollections of a life lived as the object of ridicule and pity. From childhood to present day, he had been an outcast, shunned by his peers and regarded with little more than contempt.

His thoughts drifted back to a history class, where his teacher had mentioned how the inhabitants of Sparta used to kill deformed children. In that moment, all eyes had turned to him, and he had felt a strange and unwelcome sensation. But now, he wished that such a law had been enforced everywhere in the world, or at the very least, that syphilitic people like his father were banned from marrying. For he knew all too well that his own deformities were the direct result of his father’s recklessness.

The memory of his father’s death was etched deeply in his mind; the pale, bony face, sunken blue eyes, and half-open mouth. His father, an old syphilitic man who had taken a young wife, and whose offspring had all been born blind or lame. One brother had survived, but was dumb and an idiot, before ultimately passing away two years prior. Sometimes, Davoud found himself thinking that perhaps they were the lucky ones.

Now, he was alone in the world, worn down by his own existence, and shunned by all those around him. He had grown accustomed to a life apart, where he was excluded from sports, jokes, and other childish amusements that brought joy to his classmates. Instead, he would sit in the corner of the school playground, book in hand, watching the other children from a distance.

In his pursuit of knowledge, Davoud had worked tirelessly day and night, hoping to find a measure of superiority over his peers. Yet, even when he excelled, his classmates would only feign friendship in order to copy his exercises and maths solutions. They were more interested in associating with the handsome and well-dressed Hasan Khan.

Only a handful of teachers had shown him any attention, but even that was born of pity rather than admiration. Despite all his hard work and sacrifice, Davoud remained empty-handed, avoided and ignored by all those around him. He could hear the whispers of women as they passed him by, remarking on his hunchback and deformities. And it filled him with a burning anger, sharper than any pain he had ever known.

Twice, in the bygone years, Davoud had ventured to ask for a fair maiden’s hand. Alas! Both times he was met with scorn and ridicule. By a quirk of fate, one of these maidens, Zibandeh by name, resided nearby in Fisherabad. They had crossed paths on several occasions and even exchanged words. In the afternoons, upon returning from school, Davoud would make his way to her doorstep. The only thing etched in his memory was a tiny mole above her lip. However, when he sent his aunt to propose for her hand, the same girl laughed at him, sneering, “Are there not enough men to wed, that I should take a hunchback for a husband?” Despite her parents’ chastisement, she stood her ground, repeating, “Are there not enough men?” But Davoud’s love for her remained steadfast, and it lingered as the fondest memory of his youth. To this day, wittingly or unwittingly, he often roamed to her neighborhood, and memories of the past would flood his mind afresh. He was disillusioned with everything.

He wandered the streets in solitude, shunning company, for he suspected that each whisper and giggle of those around him was directed at him, mocking him. With his piercing, brown eyes and fierce demeanor, he would crane his neck and torso, striding on with a haughty air. Every sense attuned to the opinions of others, every facial muscle taut. He longed to know what others thought of him.

As he strolled slowly by the side of a stagnant gutter, he poked at the murky water with his stick, his mind awash with distressing thoughts. Suddenly, a white dog with long, matted hair raised its head, alerted by the sound of the stick tapping against a stone. The animal appeared sickly, as if on the brink of death, and could not move from its spot. Its gaze locked with his, and a curious thought came over him. It was as though this were the first time he had encountered such an earnest and unassuming gaze. Both of them, he and the dog, were outcasts, unwanted and abandoned by society. He yearned to cradle the poor creature, to hold it close to his protruding chest, but the fear of ridicule held him back. Dusk had fallen. He passed through the Yusef Abad Gate, gazing up at the glowing, luminous moon, which had appeared in the tranquil, sorrowful evening sky. His eyes lingered on the unfinished houses, piles of brick stacked upon one another, the sleepy backdrop of the city, the corrugated tin roofs of the houses, and the distant, blue-tinted mountain. Fuzzy, gray curtains of thought swathed his mind. Not a soul could be seen, neither near nor far. The faint sound of singing drifted from the opposite side of the ravine. With great effort, he lifted his head, feeling drained, desperately unhappy, his eyes burning with fatigue. His head felt too heavy for his body. Leaving his walking stick by the side of the ditch, he crossed to the other side, wandering towards the rocks, where he sat by the roadside. Suddenly, he became aware of a woman in a chador, sitting close by. His heart began to race. The woman turned her head and spoke with a smile, “Hushang! Where have you been all this time?” Her friendly tone startled him, and yet he felt a sudden rush of joy. From her question, it was clear she wanted to talk to him, but what was a woman doing here at such an hour? Was she respectable? Perhaps she was in love. He decided to take a chance, thinking to himself, “Come what may, at least I have someone to talk to.” As if he had no control over his tongue, he blurted out, “Miss, are you alone? I am alone too. I have always been alone, my whole life.”

His words lingered in the air as the woman, shielded by her sunglasses, turned her head once more and spoke: “Then who are you? I thought it was Hushang. Whenever he graces me with his presence, he tries to be amusing.”

Davoud struggled to keep up with the woman’s train of thought, but he didn’t mind. It had been ages since a woman had spoken to him, let alone one as striking as this. Cold sweat coursed down his body as he forced out a reply. “No, miss, I am not Hushang. My name is Davoud.”

The woman’s smile widened, “I can’t quite see you – my eyes are bothering me. Ah, Davoud! Davoud the Hunch…” She paused, biting her lip before continuing, “I’m Zibandeh. Surely you remember me?” The tendrils of hair that framed her face shifted, and Davoud’s eyes caught sight of the black mole perched at the corner of her lip. A lump formed in his throat as he fought to catch his breath. Drops of perspiration beaded on his forehead, and he cast a furtive glance around. No one was there, but the singing had grown closer. His heart pounded so hard that he felt as though it would burst within his chest.

Without a word, he rose unsteadily to his feet, his entire frame shaking with sobs. Davoud snatched up his cane and trudged back the way he had come. With each step, his voice grew more hoarse and jagged, his whispered words barely audible. “That was Zibandeh! She didn’t see me…perhaps Hushang was her betrothed or husband…who knows? Never…must I shut my eyes…no, I can’t take it anymore…”

He dragged himself over to the same dog that had caught his eye earlier, slumped down beside it, and rested its head against his jutting chest. But the dog was dead.

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