“What has struck me so suddenly? Why am I dwindling and shrinking? I celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday last month. And what’s happening now? I look like a lost little boy. And my room? Where is my table full of books and the mantelpiece with Buddha’s bust and Bhagat Singh’s photograph on it? Why is everything receding into the mist? What is happening? I am wandering through a forest. Just moments ago, I was sitting in my room reading the epic of Heer. How did my room turn into a forest? My Allah, where am I? Who is that old man walking towards me? He looks gentle. He must be a Pathan who kidnaps children or a savant.”
“Boy, who are you and what are you doing here?” What am I to tell him? The old man will think be to be an odd one out. Where have I lost my room, my twenty-six years? What can I say? “Have you lost your way?” I am quiet because only those who have a destination in mind look for the way. I had not ventured out at all. Which way will lead to my room, to my youth? “Say something, son! Why are you standing here?”
“Babaji, I have lost my twenty-six years!” I say at last.
“Come, we will look for them together. But can you recognise your twenty-six years?”
“My face looks like my father’s but my age is more like my grandfather’s,” I said. The Baba heaves a long sigh and holding my hand starts walking. We walk a long distance and then we reach a city. What is this? It is my city, but the walls have been covered with posters. Looking at the posters, the Baba quickly steps into a by-lane. He says, “Did you see these posters, my boy? These have been pasted to arrest me. The government wants to crucify me.”
“What may happen if someone sees you walking about?”
“My face is on the posters but my years are not to be found in those printed words. The government has already crucified me twenty-six times. But my age returns again, assembles the body and start doing the rounds of the villages and towns.”
For a moment the old man’s face resembles the face of my grandfather and I say, “You look a lot like my grandfather.”
“Who was your grandfather?”
“Even uttering his name is a sin against the present government. He too was crucified.”
“What was his sin?”
“He refused to let the boys from his area fight in the world war. He said, ‘Sahib, you want boys? I will not even give you the street dogs.’ The British crucified him and now you?”
Just then the police alarms shriek. The Baba lets go of my hand and says, “The police has encircled us. You are but a boy, slip away somehow.” I am puzzled but the old man pushes me to a side and moves forward. Many sepoys form a circle round him. With handcuffs on his wrists, the old man walks with his head held high. I run to the bazaar. There are posters with the old man’s face all over, declaring him a proclaimed offender. I read the poster: “The Punjab police are looking again for Waris Shah. The proclaimed offender has already been hanged to death twenty-six times. But he refuses to die and the police are looking for him once again. His sin is that he was born in united Punjab. Punjab has been partitioned but the name of Waris Shah has not yet been partitioned. As long as his name is not partitioned, he will be sent to the gallows again and again. Whoever catches the offender, dead or alive, will be rewarded.”
Reading the poster, I notice that the walls of the city are crumbling and the whole city is vanishing into mist. I find myself growing tall. My body, which had shrunk beyond recognition, is now becoming bigger. “What is this? How was I transported from the bazaar to my room? That is Bhagat Singh’s photograph and that is the bust of the Buddha on my mantelpiece! And there is my table laden with books! Everything is as it was before. The epic of Heer is lying open in my hands on the page that I was reading. Only a few pages are moist. Why is that so?”
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.
Ahmad Salim is a well-known Punjabi writer in Pakistan, based in Islamabad.