Rahman Babu, he did not forget his shoes here. Just that those who run our lives made him take them off, right here at this threshold, and with bare feet he stepped over it outside, hoping to return soon. No, little did he know that once one crosses over the threshold, one cannot come back.

No, Babu, the inside of the outside is hardly like what is within us. The inside of the outside is without an end, once entered, who knows where you may get lost. Yes, Babu, when you know not where you have reached, where will you return from? No, now he will never return.

Yes, yes, why not? If the shoes fit you, feel free to put them on, and from here to here itself, wander around happily wherever you may wish. No, if you do not step out of your skin, how will you ever be lost?

No, Rahman Babu, I am not mad...What? Why do I talk to myself? You tell me, Rahman Babu, how else does one reach those who are lost?

No Rahman Babu, I was born in my own land and there I grew till my youth, but most of my countrymen thought a country is made by its religion. They would often bully me – why are you here? Go, live where people of your religion are settled.

When I didn’t agree, and neither did most others of my religion, then the people of my land resorted to riots and strife to herd us out across the border to where people of my religion lived. Yes, Babu, we tried to assure ourselves that now we were amongst our own, what was there to worry about? But the people of my religion branded us outsiders and always kept us at the margins.

Nahin Rahman Babu, when I began to feel stifled, I left there too, in search of my land, and wherever I set down camp strangers met me, in their bazars or even in their living rooms, with great eagerness and warmth, but upon finding me peeping into their bedrooms, they turned their dagger eyes on me as if ready to devour me. No Babu, I could understand their resentment well. No matter how hospitable one may be, how can they tolerate a discourteous guest?

Haan, Rahman Babu, I was looking for my own land, my own home – no, how would I know where my home was? And yet I continued my search and, leaving the place behind, wandered ahead to set up camp again, and from there further ahead, and from there too – and Babu, at every destination I learnt the tongue of strangers and forgot my own.

Yes, Babu, I searched and searched and turned old.

Yes, Babu, how was I to know that I was not destined to reach home before I died. Babu, is it still there the same way – in Mayanapura – in that lane to the left of the masjid, in the dark and cramped corner, does the same old broken home of mine exist there? It surely does?...Yes Babu?

Yes, Rahman Babu, Valmiki was so totally immersed in the writing of his Ramayana that each and every one of his characters came alive.

And Rahman Babu, each of those characters touched their sculptors so deeply that they were in a trance as they created them anew.

And Rahman Babu, those sculptures appeared so holy that their beholders built temples to lodge them.

And yes Babu, this is the root of all evil; without lodging Bhagwan Ram in our hearts we run blindly towards the mandirs – why will there be no riots then?

Yes, Rahman Babu, he is a good story writer but these last few years he hasn’t written anything. What do you mean why, Babu? As always even during these years the stories did keep coming to his doorstep, frequently, hoping that like all the others he would find a way to settle them one way or the other. But soon, tired and frustrated they turned back. No, Babu, what else could the poor things do? Each time, he would be out collecting awards or working towards getting one.

I had seen the story for the first time at a fair, Rahman Babu. She was tiny, alone, and weeping uncontrollably as she wandered here and there lost in the fair. No one paid her any attention in that crowd. At first, even I tried to look past her, but I could not bear the loud sobs of innocence, and moving forward, I couldn’t help taking her in my arms – Where is your home, little girl? – Your name? Your father? Mother? But that little creature did not know a thing.

I thought of handing her over to the police but with her tiny hands she had clutched my shoulders so hard that I just shook my head and brought her home.

Yes, Babu, I have grown very old, writing all the while, but my story is still a tiny little thing and she continues to frolic just the same, in my courtyard. And I, forgetting everything else, stay enchanted by her play and prattle. And thus, enraptured, I have come to the edge of death.

Yes, Babu, although I do not wish it at all, I can’t think of anything but to leave her back at the fair, before I die.

No, Babu, when you have not even left yet, how would you reach? – No, have you even reached here? In your body! No, Babu, we can never depart without casting off our skins!

Keep coming, Rahman Babu, why are you scared? Are you scared of the dark? You don’t know the way?

Arre, Babu, what is there to be scared of? Keep coming, even I don’t know – No, Babu, all are ignorant of the experience of death – of course, what else? That is why they reach there straight.

I reached him at seven, Rahman Babu, he sat there on the floor of the cell, his back against the wall, his head drooping.

But no, Rahman Babu, was he really there?

Who knows, Babu, where he was?

When I called out, he lifted his head to look at me. No, but was he looking at me? Who knows who he was looking at. His eyes were stretched wide, his face the shade of turmeric, and on his lips, a somewhat settled tremor. I called him again, and even as he stared at me the thought that weighed on me was that I was not present there at all.

No, not even with his wide open eyes could he see anything.

Yes, it was him.

Babu, in another five hours – at twelve exactly – when the sun blazes overhead, he will be put to sleep forever. No, Rahman Babu, he’d be hanged by the neck. Only innocent children are sent to sleep with lullabies and caresses. But he was a dangerous murderer.

How alone he seemed at this moment.

How helpless.

Yes, Babu, he had after all killed someone, and he was extremely dangerous; but, just a few hours before his hanging, to see him so exceedingly helpless, a thought troubled me over and over again – why is this innocent being sent to death when he who had killed has already been hanged?

Haan, Rahman Babu, just look how he slumbers in the lap of utter helplessness, and sleeping he sits up with his eyes wide open as if seeing a terrifying dream and while he dreams these people would put a noose around his neck.

How has this poor soul hurt anyone?

No, Babu, the guilty has already been punished.

Yes, Babu, this is precisely what I am saying, those who becomes helpless are always innocent.

The young son of the old mother was breathing his last, Rahman Babu. Yes, we were all very worried about who would take care of the old woman after his death. The young man opened his eyes just for a while as he lay there breathing his last, and staring unblinkingly upon the face of the dejected old woman, mumbled with great difficulty, “Don’t be worried, Ma, I will not pull away from serving you even after I die.” And believe me, Babu, this miracle did happen. After losing her son the old woman’s body filled up with so much strength all on its own that in a few days she began to work just like young people. Yes, Rahman Babu, our amazement knew no bounds.

The Urdu and Hindi editions of the book.

A short note:

Joginder Paul, celebrated as a short story writer and novelist, experimented with the afsancha or flash fiction form and elevated it to great literary heights. Over the years Paul published four memorable collections of afsanche – Silvatein (1975), Katha Nagar (1986), Parindey (2000), and Nahin Rahman Babu (2005). Paul’s main inspiration and intention in experimenting with this form was to use ideas and contexts which lent themselves easily to being told as tales in very few lines. Paul likened the idea of the afsancha to a carefree flock of birds, multihued and descended from out of nowhere simply to settle into the recesses of his mind only to disappear as instantly and startlingly as they had appeared. He in fact, thus, gave out the essence of what this form, this genre, was meant to be – brief, startling, multihued but with the possibility of the endless. Paul placed the words together in each afsancha very carefully and created a new rhythm with the language, doing away with any artificiality or stiffness. He injected each word with such energy that the language of these afsanche became whole and powerful. Thus, Paul created a style that not only fulfilled the literary requirements of Urdu in fiction but also brought to the form respect and popularity. Paul’s afsanche are replete with human emotions and feelings, and with the strengths and flaws of their characters. They reflect topical issues, everyday matters, and even political tensions. Sometimes they assume universal proportions.

These afsanche are a small selection from Nahin Rahman Babu where Paul explores the overarching concept of death and brings it to bear on the little aspects of life, being and creativity, a startling blend of lyrical language with philosophical cogitations, making it a challenge to transfer the experience of the afsanche into English. The book is now being translated by Usha Nagpal for publication soon.

Joginder Paul, the eminent Urdu fiction writer, was born in Sialkot (Pakistan) and migrated to India at the time of Partition, after which he lived in Kenya for a long time. He chose to write in Urdu, with a conviction that Urdu is “not a language but a culture.” Though part of the Progressive Urdu Writers’ Movement, his creative writing reflects a strong modern sensibility. Paul’s fiction is widely read and he has been awarded the SAARC Life Achievement Award, Iqbal Samman, Ghalib Award, the Urdu Academy Award, and others. His fiction has been translated into several languages. Some well-known translations of his works into English are Sleepwalkers, The Dying Sun, Beyond Black Waters, and Blind.

Chandana Dutta is an author, editor, and translator. She translates from Hindi and Bangla into English and was the recipient of the Katha Award for Translation for Bangla in 1999. She is the author of My Other Half: Krishna Paul in Conversation with Chandana Dutta and co-author of a monograph on Joginder Paul. She is series co-editor of the Writer in Context series being published by Routledge UK and has edited the volume Joginder Paul: The Writerly Writer under this series. A Reader on Joginder Paul that she has edited is forthcoming.