Bolu and Koona were unable to see Babulal Maharaj leaving the hotel. They looked around, perplexed. Bolu had the freshly sharpened pencil in his hand. Koona remembered that Babulal Maharaj had asked her to write her name down, and that she had to form the letters well when she wrote down her name for him.

“Babulal Maharaj asks people to write down their name after he sharpens pencils for them. I did that. Maybe getting a signature is his way of keeping accounts. Maybe our signatures are a receipt for something,” Koona wondered.

“Write your name in the book,” someone sounded behind them. Bolu turned around. Babulal Maharaj was seated at the table, as if he had never left. “Write your name on this piece of paper, Bolu. Form the letters with care. You should always write neatly.” His buck teeth showed as he smiled.

“Of course,” Bolu said, leaping towards the table. He wrote down his name in beautiful cursive. ‘”ou had left and Kandharu was locking up...”

“Because you couldn’t see me doesn’t mean I had left. As for Kandharu, he likes to finish his tasks ahead of time.”

“Would it be all right if we walked home now?” Bolu asked, turning to face the direction in which his house lay.

“I have a long way to go before I get home,” Babulal Maharaj responded. “It would be good if we all got to our homes at the same time.”

He offered Koona a new twig-pencil as a gift.

“You’ve already given me one,” Koona said. “I’d like to come for the second one when my first pencil is down to a stub.”

Babulal Maharaj offered Bolu a pencil as well. “Hold on to it,” Babulal Maharaj said.

“I am going away for a few days. You might need an extra one while I am gone.”

“When will you return?” Bolu asked, taking a step towards Babulal Maharaj. Kandharu had moved behind, imagining Bolu would step back as he spoke. Now Kandharu went and stood some distance away to avoid any chance of running into Bolu while Bolu walked and talked.

“I’ll return,” Babulal Maharaj said, “when the point of your pencil wears out.”

“I’ll write pages and pages with my pencil. Then you’ll be back soon.”

“But the point of the pencil won’t wear out till I am back.”

“Koona and I will take turns using the same pencil. That way one pencil will wear out fast.”

Babulal Maharaj chuckled. “I am going far away. Even so the point of the pencil will last from the moment I leave to the moment I return.”

“Are you saying that the pencil will wear out not from how much we write but from how far you walk?” Bolu asked. He was walking about as if he was the pencil moving along a piece of paper. The words he spoke were his writing; the words people heard were their reading.

“The point of the pencil will wear out only from my walking,” Babulal Maharaj said. “That’s when the hotel will open, and you will turn up to have your pencil sharpened. Let’s conduct an experiment.” He addressed Koona: “Start writing with your pencil just as I am about to leave. I walk fast. I’ll disappear into the horizon in no time.” To Bolu he said: “You can watch me leave. Koona won’t be able to look up from her writing to observe how I depart.”

“Get ready, Babulal Maharaj,” Koona said and began writing “Babulal Maharaj” on her piece of paper, over and over.

Bolu watched as Babulal Maharaj walked towards the horizon and vanished from sight.

“I’ve finished writing!” Koona announced.

“I’m back!” Babulal Maharaj said. He was seated at his table as before.

“If you look at your pencil,” he added, “you’ll see that the point is worn.” They looked and saw that writing “Babulal Maharaj” over and over had blunted the pencil.

“I get to know when someone needs their pencil sharpened and, therefore, come right back. I lose my way sometimes if a person writes carelessly. At other times, I fall down the slope of their ill-formed letters into a ditch and can’t get back up quickly enough.”

Bolu told Koona that Babulal Maharaj had walked across the open field so Bolu could observe his departure. Bolu’s eyes had followed Babulal Maharaj all the way to the horizon.

Koona was aware she hadn’t seen Babulal Maharaj leaving. She wanted to ask him to leave again so she could follow his departure with her own eyes. She knew she could write “Babulal Maharaj” as many times as she wanted without looking down at the page.

“If I start walking with Babulal Maharaj when he leaves, will I be able to keep up with him? Will I be able to outpace him?” Bolu wondered.

Maharaj-ji’s home was far away,
Koona’s and Bolu’s close
They travelled different distances
But got home nose to nose.

Koona and Bolu looked back to see how far they had come. They looked for the hotel. The hotel wasn’t where it had been before. They couldn’t see it. Which meant the hotel had closed for the day. They looked to see if it might be in the sky. Bolu wondered if what had changed was not the hotel’s site but the arrangement of houses surrounding it. The location of houses around the hotel may have been scrambled. His home might now lie adjacent to the hotel while Koona’s home might lie at a great distance.

“Babulal Maharaj said he and we would get to our homes at the same time. But we’ve been walking at an easy pace,” Koona remarked.

“Let’s run,” Bolu said. “If we start running, Babulal Maharaj will have to run for sure because his house is farther away than ours. But he may have been running already for that reason.” Bolu and Koona lived near one another in the same neighbourhood. They had no idea how far away Babulal Maharaj lived.

Distances should be measured by speed of travel. The same destination can be fifteen minutes away for some people, twenty minutes away for others. Different distances, same destination.

“Let’s play outside,” Koona suggested when they arrived in their neighbourhood. “Babulal Maharaj might need some extra time.”

“He may have a reason to get to his house soon,” Bolu said. “He may be waiting outside his home till we go into our homes. Let’s go into our homes quickly.”

Excerpted with permission from A Silent Place, Vinod Kumar Shukla, translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna, eka.