A Vote for the Blind Bards

Up until a few years ago, grandpa-Mijat, as the whole village and all the neighbouring villages had called him, was still alive. And it had amazed me even when I was little – even grey-haired old men called him grandpa-Mijat, saying that for as long as they could remember grandpa-Mijat was an old man. I remember him from when I was little and attended the village primary school. His house was near the school and I feel as if I were looking at him right now, strolling gently down the road by the school. Tall, stout, with long grey moustache, longish grey hair, nearly at shoulder length, beard neatly shaved, and long grey eyebrows that almost covered his eyes. He walked at a slow pace, in long strides, and always upright. He smoked a long chibouk[1] made from cherry wood, and a firesteel was always hanging at his hip; across his chest he always carried an old leather pouch, and in it a tobacco pouch made of dried sheep’s bladder, a flint stone, and a few more necessities. His household was a strong, big zadruga[2] with over fifty members. It was probably only due to respect towards grandpa-Mijat that they stayed together, because almost immediately after his death their zadruga split into several households.

Although illiterate, grandpa-Mijat still held school and science in high esteem as if it were sacred, and he rejoiced seeing any child that could read books and write letters, which was a rarity in his youth. He always advised the younger folk to send their children to school to receive education. Sometimes he would sit by the hearth, light his chibouk, letting thick wisps of smoke through his grey moustache that was slightly yellowed around the lips, and the children would read epic poetry to him, or he would tell them about the battles and the heroes of the uprising. When the first uprising erupted he was five years of age, and by the time of the second uprising[3] he was already on the battlefield. Often when telling the stories about those harrowing days, slain heroes, and devastating adversities, a tear would roll down his wrinkled cheeks and he would take the gusle[4], pull the bow over the string – the mournful sound shimmered in the air – and the sombre old voice sounded:

Dear God, a mighty marvel, such portents in the skies
Across the realm were seen, to herald Turks’ demise…
[5]

Once, some two or three years before his death, in a conversation with the teacher, grandpa-Mijat said,

– It makes one wonder, teacher, today we have liberty and literate men and schools and everything, and yet men are only becoming worse!… – and saying that, grandpa-Mijat sank deep in thought, sadly shook his head, and sighed.

Teacher said nothing.

After a short silence, grandpa-Mijat spoke again.

– My child, I will die soon, and would really love to see the children learning in school, and watch what is going on in there.

– School exams are in three days, grandpa-Mijat, you can come to the exams! – teacher invited him wholeheartedly.

And grandpa-Mijat promised he would come.

The exams were like any other: children with their faces freshly washed, dressed better than usual, sitting stiffly on their seats with a terrified look on their faces because the school inspector, that “monster” that teacher had used to scare them throughout the year, had come. The inspector, serious, frowning, sat at the table with an important air. Specially for him they put a clean cloth over the table and a bouquet of flowers in the glass. His face was dignified as if he were preparing to hold a lecture at the University, and when he browsed through the report cards, he did it with such an important and pensive expression that one would think he was in the process of solving some serious scientific problem. Children stared at him, their eyes bulging out, frightened, and from each of their expressions one could read, “Oh, my, how scary he is!”

The teacher also looked scared and changed, as if he were expecting a verdict on which his life depends. There is also another important question tormenting him: “Is the inspector a philologist or naturalist?” The answer will determine how he will proceed with the examination, and, of course, determine its success. The school board, consisting of five townsmen, sat there in all seriousness and pretended to observe and appraise the teacher’s efforts. Pupils’ parents sat at the end of the room and listened to their children’s achievements.

The exam was proceeding as it should.

Grandpa-Mijat came in. Both children and adults stood up. Inspector fretted and waved at the children to sit down and not interrupt the exam. Grandpa-Mijat was given the best seat. He sat and observed with reverence the multicoloured pictures of snakes, cows, birds and other God’s creatures on the walls, and then the abacus, blackboard, maps. On one table he noticed a lump of salt, a small bar of sulphur, a piece of iron, a steel rod, some stones, and dozens of other common items.

All these things around the school impressed grandpa-Mijat as much as the first time he saw the railroad.

And once grandpa-Mijat sat down, inspector called a pupil.

– Ask him the same topic – inspector told the teacher with dignity, assuming a position and expression of deep, solemn attention.

– Tell us, Milan, what you know about sheep. Careful, slowly, don’t be afraid, you know it well.

The child’s eyes bulged, He extended his neck a little, swallowed nervously, looked in fear at the inspector and shouted in a resonant voice,

– Sheep!… (there he swallowed again, stood on his toes a little, and shouted further) Sheep, it has a head…

– Very good! – said the teacher.

Inspector nodded approvingly.

Not knowing what the inspector’s gesture meant, the child became a bit confused, and continued:

– It has a head, neck, body and limbs; on its neck it has long hair that is called mane…

– Careful, don’t talk nonsense! – said the teacher with a slightly stricter tone.

– Have you never seen a sheep, you fool! – the child’s father shouted angrily from his seat and the other guests laughed.

– The guests will kindly not interfere! – remarked the inspector.

– But, Sir, this is my boy, he’s been herding sheep for days on end, and now he’s saying it has a mane. What did you to my child in school?!

The child started crying.

– Be careful, what’s upsetting you, you can do this well – said the teacher and patted the child’s head, although he would have rather slapped him with an open hand.

The child became even more bewildered and proceeded to mix up all the subjects:

– Sheep, it is our domestic animal, it has a head and on it the post office, telegraph and the district court.

– Think carefully. Sheep! Understand: sheep! – said the teacher, all trembling. – What post office are you gibbering about?!

– It has a head, and the national assembly convenes therein!

– Careful! Or I will send to your seat!

– It is a predator; it has two sources, one on the Golija mountain, and other… and they merge into one near Stalać and flow northward…

– Have you lost your mind today?! – the teacher shouted.

– It is our useful plant which ripens in the autumn and gives us a sweet thick-skinned fruit, its young are born blind, and it sheds its fur every year.

– Sit down! – shouted the teacher angrily and wiped large beads of sweat from his brow.

The exam continued with the other pupils.

Grandpa-Mijat was all ears and listened with amazement at the questions the children were being asked, while he knew it all as well as any child, even without any schooling.

He heard that pigs love to eat acorns, that they have a head and four legs, that the young pig is called a piglet, female is a sow, and male is a boar. He also heard that the ox has a head, four legs and a tail, it ruminates, eats grass and pulls a cart, and the cow gives us tasty milk. The ox meat is eaten, and ox hide used for shoemaking. He heard then also that salt is salty, white, and it can dampen; that steel is unyielding and used for making knives, scythes etc.

And there were some children who were unable to say all that. One child even said that horses nest in high trees and eat bugs, and another child raised their hand and said that a horse eats hay, grass and oats, and it does not ruminate; the child also guessed that horse draws a cart and can be used for riding as well.

– There you see who pays attention in class, doesn’t dawdle about, learns all lessons and knows his subjects! – added the teacher, satisfied.

Next grandpa-Mijat listened to the children talk about pears, cherries, apples, plums, and different trees. Where each one of them grows, what kind of fruit it bears, and what it is used for: grandpa-Mijat listened, and he started wondering why he knew all that better than the children without having gone to school.

Then they moved on to fourth grade Serbian language.

Inspector called one of the better students.

– Let him read, or if he knows any song by heart, recite it!

– A song? Alright.

– Which song do you know?

– I know “Departure for Kosovo”.

– Let’s hear it then!

Now when the gates were opened, what time the morning shone,
Then forth unto the gateway Queen Milica came down,
And stood beneath the portal in the shadow of the arch,
What time unto the muster the host began to march.
The spears shone over the chargers…
[6]

– Enough! – the inspector interrupted.

Grandpa-Mijat had just warmed up to it a bit and he liked the song, but frowned when the inspector interrupted it.

– Tell me now, what type of word is spears? – asked the inspector.

Spears, it is a common noun.

– Very good!

–Which grammatical case is it in?

Spears, it is the first case plural, the first case singular is spear, and it is declined by the second pattern.[7]

– Nice, and now tell me what is that word when? “Now when the gates were opened”, that’s how you started the song. So, the when?

When, it is an adverb.

– And what are adverbs?

– Adverbs are words added to verbs to show place, time and method, where, when and how the action of the verb is performed.

– Very nice! And are there any verbs in that sentence?

– Yes, verb shone, from the verb to shine.

– Very good, sit down, you passed.

– Let Milivoje Tomić continue the song! – inspector called out.

The spears shone over the chargers, before them Boško rode
On a bay steed, and his rich weed with shining goldwork glowed.

– Hold it: “and his rich weed”. What type of word is that his?

His, it is a pronoun.

– Carry on!

And the standard that he carried swept round him fold on fold;
Over the steed it bellied; thereon was an apple of gold;
From the apple rose gilded crosses, and tassels from them did hang,
And brushed against his shoulders as in the wind they swang.

– Enough! – said the teacher. – Tell me now what type of word is brushed?

Brushed, it is a verb, from the verb to brush.

– What tense is it? – asked the inspector.

Brushed – past tense.

Grandpa-Mijat started grumbling sullenly because they interrupted the song. This was the only thing he liked from all the subjects that children were taught, and even then they would not allow people to enjoy the whole song.

The next pupil they called continued:

Queen Milica sprang forward to the bay stallion’s head,
And she clasped arms round her brother, and unto him she said:
“My brother Boško, thou art become the tsar his gift to me.
Thou shalt not go to Kosovo; he gives his blessing to thee;
Thou shalt give the golden banner to the hero of thy will,
And be my brother in Kruševac, that I may have thee still.”
Boško answered her straightway: “Get back to thy hall this tide!
I would not turn nor give up the flag with the great cross glorified,
Though the tsar should give me…

– Stop! – the teacher interrupted. – What type of word is me? “Though the tsar should give me…”

Grandpa-Mijat jumped up from his seat, his grey hair shaking violently, eyes shining angrily under his bushy eyebrows, and he shouted,

– You scoundrel, why don’t you let children recite this beautiful song, but keep distracting them with that nonsense?

Teacher smiled at grandpa-Mijat’s remark, whispered something in the inspector’s ear, and the other said:

– We have to, old man, that is the curriculum.

– If you have to, then throw your curricula away, and close down all the schools so that children would not sit there in vain. That curriculum of yours baffled the children with nonsense so that after all this schooling they don’t know what a horse eats, even though they knew it all before coming to school. If your curriculum is like that, then they would be better without it and without schools. Let the blind bards roam the world, sing our old songs and praise our heroes, as it was in my youth, and we were no worse men back then!

Thus spoke grandpa-Mijat with a deep sorrow, his voice trembling. He wanted to say something more, but instead he shook off his hands, sighed deeply, turned towards the door, and sadly shaking his head walked out of the school while the guests, teacher, and children remained inside in silence, taken aback.

– By God, grandpa-Mijat is talking sense, a wise, old-fashioned man! I, too, vote for the blind bards! – a low voice came through from one of the peasants, for whom voting has already become a habit, and thus broke the gloomy, deep silence.

 

In Belgrade, 1902.

For the “Radoje Domanović” Project translated by Vladimir Živanović, proofread by Hannah J. Shipp.

English translation of the Serbian epic poem “Departure for Kosovo” (“Tsar Lazar and tsáritsa Mílitsa”) taken from: Heroic Ballads of Serbia, Sherman, French & Company, Boston 1913, translated by George Rapall Noyes and Leonard Bacon.

 

[1] Chibouk (Turk. çıbık, Serb. чибук) is a long-stemmed Turkish tobacco pipe.

[2] Zadruga (Serb. задруга) refers to a type of rural community historically common among South Slavs. Generally it was formed of one extended family or a clan of related families; the zadruga held its property, herds and money in common, with usually the oldest member (patriarch) ruling and making decisions for the family.

[3] First and Second Serbian Uprising are a part of the XIX century Serbian Revolution, during which Serbia evolved from a province of the Ottoman Empire into an autonomous state. First Uprising lasted from 1804 to 1813, and the Second from 1815 to 1817, after which the semi-independent Principality of Serbia was established.

[4] Gusle (Serb. гусле) is a traditional single-stringed musical instrument used in the Balkans; it is always accompanied by singing, mostly of epic poetry.

[5] First verses of “The Start of the Revolt against the Dahijas”, epic song created and performed by the famous Serbian blind bard (guslar i.e. gusle player) Filip Višnjić (1767–1834). The song recounts the events that lead to the beginning of the First Serbian Uprising, and it was first recorded by Vuk Karadžić in 1815.

[6] Serbian epic poem which tells the story about the departure of the Serbian army to the battle of Kosovo in 1389. The poem was first recorded by Vuk Karadžić from the famous bard (guslar) and storyteller Tešan Podrugović (1783–1815). It was titled “Tsar Lazar and tsaritsa Milica” by Vuk, but it is also known simply as “Departure for Kosovo”.

[7] Serbian nouns have three declensional types, which are further divided into different patterns.

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