|Seeing me buying fruit and getting them packed in a basket, he approached me.|
“You want this basket to be carried?” he said softly.
From a man of his appearance I did not indeed expect this loud voice. A cursory glance at his face was sufficient to assure me that he was not altogether in possession of his wits, so insipid and spiritless was his appearance.
I replied in the negative. I did not like him to walk beside me. If he could still lay a claim to being a man, it was a rather worn out and bothered specimen of mankind that he presented. He did not have more life in him than a grain of mash has whiteness on it. His brow, eyes, lips, neck, clothes, feet, all seemed to have been pressed in one and the same stroke. Not one of his features made an appeal to an onlooker. One would not expect a reply to anything one said to him. The man who carries your luggage and walks beside you, even a common porter, is after all a companion. You cannot get a man to carry your luggage and walk beside, in front or behind, in such a detached manner as if it was a pack animal or a bus. His being does make an effect, however slight, on you.
My refusal had absolutely no effect on him. Perhaps he did not hear it even. I could not trust any of his powers, hearing, speech or sight. As he did not move away, the shopkeeper, perhaps to please me, began to display some temper at him. I was sorry to have been the cause of this insult to him. After all I needed somebody to carry the basket. He would do for that, I argued with myself relenting, and told him to.
As we walked, I grew impatient to know what it was that had so worn him out. I have seen people depressed by hunger and poverty. Many of them had, on the contrary, got some strength from it, had become more conscious. But no, he was not one of those. Perhaps he did not even know that he had faded. At every step I feared his being run over.
“Are you a native of these parts or have you come from that side?” I said, to break the ice. By ‘that side’ I meant West Pakistan.
He did not catch my point. He did not seem at all anxious to answer any query that I might make. Either he did not hear what I said, or did not understand. This second event seemed to be nearer the truth. External sounds, instead of entering his consciousness and eliciting a reply, slipped off him like water off a duck’s back.
It needed considerable effort on my part to scrape out these few bits of information from him:
“Have you come from Pakistan?”
“From which place?”
“What do you do here?”
“Where do you put up at nights?”
“I sleep in the street here.”
“Where do you eat from?”
“From any eating shop, two-anna worth of it.”
“Have you nobody, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, to call your own?”
“No, none!” and he shook his head to reinforce his meaning.
“How much can you make daily?”
“Just a few annas, five, six, or seven.”
So he had come from Sangla, A place which, I had heard, could boast of a small hill, from where stone was hewn for spreading on railway tracks. For that reason, the place is called Sangla Hill.
“Did you ever climb up the hill there?” I asked to resume conversation.
“You have come from Sangla, haven’t you? Did you ever go up the hill there?”
“You know me!” He said, bouncing with cheer. This mention of the hill in connection with him seemed to have injected life into him. He did not remember that he had himself told me of his having come from Sangla.
“Yes, I have seen you there.” I did not want to deprive him of his cheer.
“Is that so?” His face was beaming with satisfaction. He scrutinized my person from top to toe, and then turned that scrutinizing look on himself. It was for the first time, since we had sort of started walking beside each other that he had made an attempt to look at anything.
“You ‘ve seen me there?” He repeated what I had said.
“But I don’t remember having seen you.”
“You don’t, evidently. But I have seen you there.”
By this time we had reached home. I handed him his wage.
“One thing more”, he said.
“Give me some old clothes to wear.”
On account of our newly formed acquaintance, I could not say ‘no’ to him. I found an old suit of shirt and pyjamas for him, and he departed from me in a cheerful mood. Even his step was somewhat agile now.
A few days later one morning he was standing at my gate, shouting to call me out. As I came out, I was surprised to see him. He was very much changed, wearing the suit of clothes I had given him. His hair was combed and well set. His face, and all its features, were quite right. Nearby stood a cycle-rickshaw.
“Will you like to go out?” He asked me. He had now begun plying a rickshaw, and wanted to take me out on his transport.
“No, friend. I am going away and am in fact packing. I shan’t be back before a week or even more. Then I may go out with you.”
After about ten days he came again. I had to sit in his rickshaw, to please him. “Where would you like to go?” He asked.
“Wherever it pleases you to take me”, I said.
He stopped the rickshaw in a lane. He opened a locked door and we went in. A charpai was the only furniture in the room. A lantern hung on a peg in the wall, on which were pasted some pictures of cinema stars, evidently torn out of old magazines and periodicals. I sat down on the charpai.
“Is this house your own?” I asked.
“I am paying rent for it. I thought if I took you out I must have a place to bring you to. I make two or even three rupees a day from this rickshaw, out of which I hope the rent will be paid”.
“What were you doing on that side?”
“On that side I tried many things. First of all I tried a handloom. Gave it up to keep goats and sheep, sold them off to start a small grocery shop. Then my father died. I had no other kith and kin in the village, and shifted with all my belongings to Sangla, to leave them all there with the partition. And now here I am where I have found a friend like you”.
“You must marry”, I advised him, feeling the loneliness of his surroundings.
“I had a wife on that side. One day I happened to give her a few slaps. She began to make a hue and cry, inviting the neighbourhood with her cries. ‘You didn’t have to spend anything on me”, she protested. ‘That is why you beat me. If I had cost you a sum, you wouldn’t.’ The next day she left for her father’s place, never to return to me. If I marry again now, I’ll pay a price for my wife. Even otherwise I don’t think I can get a wife now without having to pay a price. After years of coming over to this side, did I find here one who knew me. You may do whatever you please or are obliged to do, nobody here minds or cares. Don’t know where all the people I knew have passed on to. Marry I must now, I am only waiting for the necessary money to come”.
“If you had begun thinking of that ever since you came to this side, you might have by now saved enough to pay for two wives”, I said humouring him.
“I didn’t quite take in what had actually happened. It was like I was in coma. The first time I feel conscious since I crossed over to this country is now. I was an utter outsider here”.
Translated from the original Punjabi, by
Sant Singh Sekhon