Baba Bagloos by Mustansar Hussain Tarar,
Translated from Urdu by Raza Naeem
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On a blistering night in a city melting with summer, the hot lead of a scream which leaves the body cold after squeezing it dry, entered the ears. Baba Bagloos turned over in bed. The scorching stone of another scream fell on his skull and cooled down. Then in quick succession the burning hail of several shrieks rained on his body. What the hell, why do the officials have to extract their confessions of crime only at night? Don’t they know that Baba Bagloos, Old Man Heron, wants to sleep? The evening was spent turning over in bed.

 

‘Inayat puttar! Bari Sarkar did not let me sleep all night.’ Before the sunshine pricked the earth with its initial spears, Baba Bagloos dragged his charpoy from the storeroom to the courtyard and spoke in a plaintive, aged tone to the soldier washing up at the tap.

 

Inayat took the miswak out of his mouth and with a long spit, said, ‘But Baba, BariSarkaris on a tour.’

‘But how can this be?’ Baba Bagloos shook his head in disbelief. ‘All night the screams could be heard. Such horrible screams which only the chittar, the arse-whipper of the BariSarkarcan extract from the holes of men.’

 

Inayat poured the bukof water in his mouth, turning his face to the sky and sounds of grrr … grrr issued from his throat as if a motorcycle plug had short-circuited, and the engine resultantly ran haltingly.

 

‘Am speaking the truth, Inayat, all night…’ Baba Bagloos repeatedly nodded his head.

 

‘Those screams were not from this building baba. And besides, our special rooms are sound-proof.’

 

‘So you think I am lying?’ Baba Bagloos said, irritated.

 

‘Don’t be angry, baba. I am not contesting that you heard the screams….’ Inayat began to laugh and then winking an eye said, ‘Actually, you couldn’t figure out the direction, there were screams, but not from this building, rather from the city, outside.’

 

‘From the city?’

 

‘Yes, nowadays, the screams come only from there.’

 

‘Has a new prison opened up?’

 

‘Not just one….’ Inayat pushed the miswakin his mouth and went to his barrack. Baba Bagloos scratched his white paddy head and began trying to sleep.

 

This group of storerooms, barracks, offices, cellars and square courtyards surrounded by high walls – narrow like pigeon-houses – was hidden in such a corner of a historic building outside the city, that tourists and common residents crossing the road which lay alongside would not even suspect that it was there. But it was there. People carrying picnic baskets, cameras swinging, could only see the high walls and feeling the pressure of the greatness of past kings, would move forward. This building was not a regular type of prison, criminals were only brought here temporarily, and only those whose crimes could not be found in any law book of the world. The beginning would be made with the arse-whipper of the BariSarkar, which would level them, and then confessions would be extracted from them by fastening the latest imported equipment onto their bodies or fitting it into their orifices. Most of the prisoners would quickly sign the detail of the crime which had been sent by the big boss of the BariSarkar. But some dull-headed ones would die in this state, despite the sportsman-like spirit tied up in this equipment, and their corpses would be thrown off the high walls, with the announcement that they had committed suicide; and the truth is that the exhibition of such dull-headedness is suicide indeed, when all a man needed to stay alive was to sign.

 

This building had been here a long time. Whenever the political leaders of the opposition party were brought into these storerooms, they would determine with sincere hearts, while tied to ice slabs that as soon as the reins of government would fall into their hands, they would demolish this accursed building to build a grand children’s park here. But whenever their backsides congealed on the seat of power rather than on the slabs of ice, another place was found for the children’s park and this building, as per the doctrine of necessity, would remain under the supervision of the BariSarkar; those who put obstacles in the path of every government were always present and this building’s existence would remain to straighten them out. That is to say, this building was present, is present and will be present until such a generation appears which will actually build a great children’s park for seven-million, barefoot, starving children in rags. Yes, so criminals were only brought here temporarily and they would go out of here after remaining here for a few days either by spitting blood or after having made an organ or two useless or by almost dying but Baba Bagloos had always lived here.

 

A guide of the Tourism Department, leading a crowd of local and foreign tourists through the red pillars, glass palaces, gardens, halls and underground routes of the historic building entered the museum of ancient weapons. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he directed their attention towards the revolvers, bayonets, spears, swords, shields, armours etc. ‘These bayonets, which we have kept in exhibit after polishing, if they are squeezed, rivers of blood will stream out, and these swords have passed through backbones like fingers through butter. On the mouths of these cannons, the rebels … forgive me, the nationalists were tied and blown up. And thus the rulers of those days were successful in making a strong and positive government. These are the weapons, fearing which, the people walked hunchbacked before the army, but the days of tyranny have passed. These injustices cannot even be imagined in the civilised age of today. Observe, for example, these clamps, which cut fingers like carrots entering a juice machine. Now we have sections in our national laws so that no one can even lift a finger at anyone. We should thank the Lord that we were not born in that savage period but breathe in the free atmosphere of an industrialised society. This historic museum has been preserved merely as a kind of memorial of oppression and injustice; so that today we can take pride in our good fortune. In those times, not only did wrathful rulers oppress the people but the army, in addition to fighting wars, massacred innocent civilians … imagine that….

 

‘That the army, in those days, also fought wars?’

 

When Baba Bagloos woke up as morning dawned, he headed, as usual, to the kitchen, and sitting there digested a few morsels of stale roti, as slim as a kite, with gulps of tea. Then, as usual, he returned to his storeroom and, as usual, sat in a corner to stare at the ceiling. For how many thousand days had he been staring at this ceiling? He could not remember. Nobody remembered. When did the pulses of memory let go, who remembered? He had always been here; as if along with these high walls and storerooms the builders had also constructed Baba Bagloos. As long as the sunshine continued to spread in the courtyard, he would sit in his corner, jaws locked, face raised, sometimes enjoying tickling his white beard and then staring at the ceiling again. When the sunshine lifted upwards, measuring the walls of the courtyard lazily, he would come out and sit cross-legged on a dirty old mat and fix his eyes on the now-blue ceiling. Around him, the officials would pass nonchalantly; busy in their own work, dragging wounded bodies, throwing them into storerooms, repairing the arse-whippers, carrying blocks of ice which were to melt against the heat of naked bodies, they passed nonchalantly, like young couples passing by an old man sleeping on a garden bench, unconcerned and busy.

 

One evening, as usual, when Baba Bagloos came out in the courtyard from his storeroom, his sitting mat was not there and Bakka mashki, going round in a semi-circle in his bare feet, was sprinkling the courtyard with great urgency.

 

‘Is a king going to arrive?’ For Baba Bagloos every officer visiting the prison from outside was a king.

 

Bakka mashki said ‘Huun’ while squeezing the soft leather of the water bottle in the mechanical manner of a sex worker and continued sprinkling water.

 

Baba sat in the corner without his mat and looked at the sky. When the sprinkling finished, a sofa set and few chairs were arranged in the courtyard; then the officials brought a wooden dosaanghi and fixed it in the centre of the courtyard. From afar, it looked as if this stand had been placed there for an artist who would presently arrive and, placing a canvas on it, would paint the prison. But instead of pictures, live models were kept on this stand. In the meantime, some heavily booted ones from the prison arrived with the BariSarkar who was walking in stooped fashion, and they sat on the sofas. Accompanying them was a doctor clad in a freshly-ironed white coat with a stethoscope dangling round his throat, like a cross hanging around the throat of a bishop who, having arrived late to grant a prayer of forgiveness to a death-row prisoner, is walking swiftly. They were laughing while conversing with each other, the heavy boots roaring, and the BariSarkar with relative caution.

 

‘I think we should begin now,’ a heavy boot addressed the Sarkar in an authoritative tone.

 

‘Sir what would be the harm if we have a cup of tea first, it’s almost four pm…’

 

Without waiting for an answer, the roar of BariSarkar’s ‘Tea’ reached the kitchen and an official came dragging the tea trolley into the courtyard (if the bodies of half-dead criminals were dragged on the wet courtyard without too much force, a little sprinkle would suffice the next day, the official thought). Tea was accompanied by other requisites.

 

‘The cake is excellent,’ the heavy boot said, wiping the crumbs from his moustache.

 

‘Sir, I had it brought from Mall Road. My own man brought it.’

 

‘I think that now…’

 

The BariSarkar cast a particular glance towards the storerooms as if the lifeless body of the prisoner tied in handcuffs of that glance had been recovered. Two soldiers were walking closely behind him. The doctor immediately got up and accosted the prisoner halfway as if to welcome him. He casually hammered the chest and looked behind. ‘How many?’

 

The BariSarkar could barely utter the word ‘fifteen’ between burps.

 

‘Okay.’ The doctor nodded his head promptly and then swiftly returned to sit on the sofa as if concerned that the tea in the cup would get cold.

 

The BariSarkar cast another meaningful glance at the storerooms and this time, an ugly-looking man drenched and shining in oil emerged from there, knotting his loincloth. He had a whip in his hand.

 

The prisoner was stripped naked and tied to the tripod. The langotiya looked towards the BariSarkarand upon the latter nodding his head began to stride towards the wall. Baba Bagloos was sitting near the wall, looking, not towards the sky but at this new spectacle.

 

In the last five or six years, the arrival of criminals at this prison had followed a schedule. But, in the last few months, the traffic had increased. Then suddenly on a summer morning, Inayat had told the babain a secretive tone that the big boss of the BariSarkarhad been put in jail and had been replaced by another Bari Sarkar. All prisoners had been freed the next day. A few weeks went by in great peace and security. The officials slept all day and the arse-whipper of the prison sarkar was growing stiff in the sunshine. But then suddenly, traffic resumed; not only that, but there was a regular traffic jam. Dozens of prisoners were stuffed into a single storeroom and the BariSarkarordered several new arse-whippers. According to the sepoy, Inayat, he had never seen such festivities before.

 

The langotiya, reaching Baba Bagloos, set off a sort of a cracker by jolting the whip, then fixing his gaze at the naked backside of the body tied at the tripod, raised a cry of ‘Ya Ali’ and with the measured steps of a horrible kind of dance ran, while fluttering his body, waved the whip as he neared the naked backside but suddenly stopped still, head bowed. He looked at the BariSarkarwith eyes seeking forgiveness and slowly returned to stand near Baba Bagloos, cried ‘Ya Ali’ and with the same special steps, ran in zigzag style but this time too, after reaching the proximity of the naked backside, waving the whip in the air, he suddenly stood still.

 

Bari Sarkar looked towards the heavy boots, extremely embarrassed and then roared, ‘Oye motherfucker! What has happened to you?’

 

‘Sarkar I am out of practice,’ the langotiya said, trembling, ‘by the grace of the maula I will not err this time, mai baap.’

 

He returned near Baba Bagloos with a remorseful face. His face darkened further before he ran and suddenly he turned and kicked Baba Bagloos’ waist. ‘I wondered why I missed the final step before lifting the whip. This motherfucker is sitting here, that’s why! Sarkar, my run is a full twenty steps and this wretch is sitting at this twentieth step. Get up oye.’

 

Babagot up quietly. The langotiya looked with a junkie’s satisfaction at the prisoner, like a bowler who knows that his bowling start of twenty steps is now accurate and he will certainly uproot the wicket, and rip open the skin of the naked backside.

 

Baba Bagloos came to his storeroom and outside, Bari Sarkarand heavy boots kept drinking tea, eating cakes and the skin of the backside ripped open, changing into fine mincemeat.

 

Baba Bagloos had seen countless descriptions of torture making their mark on naked bodies before, but this spectacle was new. Within just a few days, however, the spectacle became really old. Dozens of people were whipped daily. Now the doctors, instead of regular check-ups would issue a certificate of ‘Fit for fifteen days’ by just observing a prisoner once; and the number of spectators also fell. Baba had only one objection to this new spectacle. He could not come out of his storeroom and sit in the courtyard when evening fell because the langotiya had a start of twenty steps and the twentieth step was Baba’s place.

 

Baba Bagloos had been here since the beginning, he was a prisoner, also not a prisoner. He was like a wedding garland the bridegroom had worn that had grown old. This garland lies in some corner of the cellar, it cannot be discarded. But no one can recall when the wedding took place.

 

Why and wherefrom had Baba Bagloos come to this prison? And why was he still here? Neither Bari Sarkar nor the officials had an answer to these questions, and the reason was extremely simple; the Bari Sarkar and officials who were present in the prison at the time had passed on, or retired or were performing important services in other prisons of the country. Whenever a new sarkar arrived and inspection was begun on day one, the first question asked was why this baba was here and the answer was, ‘Don’t know, Sarkar.’

 

‘When did he arrive?’

 

‘When we arrived here, he was already here.’

 

‘Why is he still here?’

 

‘The order for his release never came, Sir.’

 

‘Why not?’ The answer to that was also very easy. Attached to the office of the Bari Sarkar was a record room and Baba Bagloos’ crime record was not there. Upon observing his fibre-infested body, every new Bari Sarkar ordered that his file be found; which sin was this saintly man imprisoned for, after all? But that file never became available and nobody knew where it had gone. Now, since law is the king in every civilised country, and as per the law no person can be released until orders for his release are issued, Baba Bagloos could not be released on lawful grounds (and if we do not respect the law what would be the difference between us and animals). So, he was here from the beginning. There was no restriction on his movement within the limits of the prison. He could come and go where he pleased, could talk to everybody. All the prison inhabitants treated him like a member of the family. But this absolutely did not mean that he had never been out of the prison. Sometimes, after a year or six months, Baba Bagloos – actually this wasn’t his real name, which because of the loss of the file was not known to anyone except himself. Initially he was referred to simply as ‘baba’. Then one day, some official upon observing his white head and white beard crouched in a corner said, ‘Baba you look like a heron from a distance.’ So he began to be known as Baba Bagla, which was corrupted to Baba Bagloos! As I was saying, sometimes after a year or so, Baba Bagloos would become silent, totally silent, feeding the roti which he received for a meal to the sparrows and crows while sitting in the courtyard, hungry; at night he would constantly stroll in his storeroom. Early in the morning, the officials would see that his white beard was drenched in tears and they would know that this was the day when Baba Bagloos would quietly come up to them, his moist beard would touch their cheeks and he would say, a bit abashed, ‘Take me outside.’

 

So, merely to complete the formality, two soldiers would be assigned to him, and they would take Babaout of the historic building into the city. Baba would go around, silent as a damped gong, head bowed, in a mourning state in the noise of the bustling city and never raise his head to look at what was happening in the four directions around him.

 

After exactly an hour, Baba would, in a similar manner, quietly whisper in the soldier’s ear, ‘Take me back.’ And they would take him back.

 

The members of the security staff, additional officials and the Bari Sarkar had a great desire for Baba Bagloos to be released but the lost file always came in the way. Suppose tomorrow the file appeared somewhere and the government of the day inquired where so-and-so baba had gone? What would happen then? So, by a silent conspiracy, it had been decided not to guard the baba and provide him all opportunities to escape. But Baba always disappointed them. A few years earlier, during Baba Bagloos’ annual or six-monthly ‘Take me outside’ city excursion, the sepoy Inayat implored, ‘Baba! Why don’t you run away?’

 

Baba kept his lowered head unmoved and kept walking.

 

The second soldier agreed with Inayat, ‘Look, if you run away we will say, Ji, the Babahas escaped, and your case will finish by itself.’

 

Baba kept his head lowered.

 

‘It’s not as if you are a burden on us. We love you like a saintly man, but Baba, is this the right age for you to be rotting away in prison? Run away!’

 

Baba raised his head and began to smile.

 

‘Run away?’

 

‘Yes, yes,’ they both encouraged.

 

‘Okay,’ Baba said, his mouth open. ‘But how do we run away?’

 

Hearing this question, both soldiers became lost in thought and then suddenly Inayat said, brightening, ‘There was that political prisoner who we had stripped naked and beaten dry. Bus, just like he used to run to save himself from our arse-whippers.’

 

Baba revived the picture of that naked, scared trembling body, stroked his head and said, ‘I am old. I don’t have the energy to run like that.’

 

‘Baba it’s not necessary that you run like that. We will turn our face that way instead of this, and you can disappear into that lane in the front, walking slow and relaxed. We will not follow you, we will return from right here.’

 

Baba jerked his beard a bit by pressing it in his fist, as if making a decision, walked two or three steps, but stood still.

 

‘Now what?’ Sabir asked.

 

‘If indeed I run away, what will happen … meaning what will happen to me?’

 

‘You will be free Baba, free.’

 

‘Okay.’ Baba again opened his mouth. ‘What does a man become, after becoming free?’

 

The sepoy Sabir looked at Inayat as if pleading with him to at least answer this question. At this, Inayat coughed forcefully without covering his mouth and went close to the Baba. ‘What does he become? He becomes free, that’s it.’

 

Sabir did not expect such dull-headedness from Inayat. So he grabbed him by the shoulder, pushed him aside and said to the Baba, ‘There are great delights in freedom, Baba. One can eat murghcholas, cone ice creams, watch the mandva, and then, a free man, can go wherever he pleases.’

 

‘And if he doesn’t want to go, then what?’ Baba asked.

 

‘Then he won’t.

 

‘I can do the same in the prison too.’ Baba began to smile.

 

‘Not only that, Baba Bagloos, in addition to that, freedom holds many delights – one can meet whoever one wants. You too must have relatives?

 

Baba again lowered his head.

 

‘Whatever, Baba for God’s sake run away,’ they implored, helpless.

 

Baba contracted his shoulders and began to walk slowly with the same speed. Inayat and Sabir began to look at each other after assuming very serious countenances.

 

After a pause of about ten minutes, when they turned to look, Baba Bagloos was not present. Both sighed a bit more deeply with relief and began to laugh. Then Inayat spoke, ‘Well yar Sabir! Without the baba the prison will look deserted. Let’s go back now? We will write a report that Baba Bagloos ran away. The Bari Sarkar can only be happy with this news.’

 

‘No let’s not return, let’s stroll around. We will go after a couple of hours, so that the report can also record as a formality that we tried to find him.’

 

That evening when Inayat and Sabir were ascending the steps of the historical building, they heard a ‘huff huff’ that sounded as if it came from the open mouth of a tired old bulldog. Baba Bagloos was following them, head lowered, barely able to control his stumbling legs. His beard was wet with tears.

 

After the failure of this great escape plan, BariSarkar and the officials left the baba to his own devices and following his routine, he spent the day in his storeroom staring at the ceiling and in the evening sitting in a corner of the courtyard staring at the sky. Until that corner of the courtyard was wrested from him. Because the twentieth step was there, and with a start of nineteen steps the crackling whip could not be waved in such a way so as to transform the meat of a naked backside into finely-chopped lumps of flesh.

 

A few weeks after being divested of his favourite sitting place, Baba Bagloos once again became silent. Whatever roti he received for meals he fed to the sparrows and crows. At night, he paced in the storeroom and in the early morning, his beard, wet with tears, touched Inayat’s cheeks. ‘Take me outside.’

 

That day there was noise in the city.

 

Noise was routine but today it was greater and it is usually so when there are more people. They were going toward a jailhouse located on a main road of the city. Baba Bagloos, as usual, kept walking with lowered head. Many people, were overtaking him, stung by uncertainty, pushing his aged body in the process. Two pm was the time that had been broadcast and only three hours remained. Inayat and Sabir also accompanied the baba, walking like mechanical toys. They wanted to present as few hurdles as possible to the enjoyment of his annual or six-monthly excursion. The crowd swelled. Eventually, the baba had to stop as there were walls of bodies in front of him. He lifted his head for the first time and asked Inayat, ‘Is it Eid today?’

 

‘No Baba.’ Inayat smiled. ‘Wouldn’t they have served halva in the morning at the prison were it so?’

 

The three of them proceeded through the narrow crevices of the crowd with difficulty, as if in a trap.

 

The ice cream wallas had no desire to call out their wares as their hands were tired, submerging and emerging from the cold storage of the rehris. Crates of drink bottles were sold, even while being lifted from the delivery trucks. The temporary khokhas of paan and cigarettes were emptying, even while being decorated on the footpaths. The crowd was lapping up the degs of haleem like hungry baraatis. Many families were picnicking under trees away from the crowd as they were wise and had brought their lunch with them. All the nearby shops were closed as even the shopkeepers were in a festive mood today. After all, how often does one get to see such a spectacle? Traffic had been forbidden on the road, so that more and more people could congregate. The field was already crowded with heads, but looking at the surrounding buildings, one might suspect that they were built of bodies rather than bricks. It was a crowd of millions and the rest of the city was deserted. The brave mothers were feeding infant children hidden in chadors but it wasn’t easy as they stood on their heels and looked over the top of the crowd. Nearby was the debris of a destroyed building and its contractor was giving out invitations to people to stand on the pile of debris at the rate of two rupees per person. The pile is obviously higher than the surface of the earth and one can get a clear view standing on it. The platforms and wooden doorframes affixed to them, erected in the last two days, could be seen clearly and nooses were hanging from the frames.

 

As is the custom in civilised countries, punctuality was adhered to and exactly at two pm, a jeep appeared from inside the jail. The murderers’ hands were tied behind their backs and there were black strips on their eyes. They were made to stand on the platforms, carefully positioned in front of their respective nooses, which had probably been fashioned according to the width of the neck. The crowd turned completely silent. Baba Bagloos was already silent. First, the veils were placed on the murderers’ faces. They were led to exactly below their respective nooses by grabbing their shoulders and then, with extreme respect, the nooses were tightened around their necks, turn by turn. There was a sheet of silence over the crowd. Suddenly, from under the feet of the murderers who had been known as humans just a few days earlier, the earth of the wooden boards slipped and they began to sway in the air. The sheet of silence was pierced at that moment and a section of the crowd, enlightened by pure feelings, raised the slogan of civilisation and people began to roar above the top of their voice and participate in the virtuous act, crying out Zindabad, Zindabad. They were mad with joy. Several had tears in their eyes for having witnessed this pure vision in their lifetimes. The murderers’ bodies juddered and then loosened as a goat’s freshly-sacrificed meat judders and ceases to move; as the tail of a fish trapped in the hook judders repeatedly. The waves of torture spreading in the atmosphere when their breath ceased at the point of death, they were winds of eternal life for the crowd, who smelt them, absorbed them in the pores of their body, and became more passionate. They had come to see a spectacle of justice, to be eyewitnesses to the beginning of a new system where the generation of murderers, dacoits and flesh-traders in the county would end. This was the salt which, when sprinkled on these earthworms, would dissolve them forever. After today, crime would be a word which would only be found in books (and then, who would know it wasn’t like that). That is why people had come, to see the last murderer. In addition to learning their lesson, they were raising slogans amidst laughter, and the bodies of murderers, the last murderers in the country’s history, were juddering. As the semi-dead lumps of flesh began to grow cold, the disappointment of the crowd increased. They wanted these bodies to judder forever; when they came tomorrow after having their breakfast, the bodies should still be juddering. When they returned from their offices or businesses in the evening, passing by here, the bodies should still be juddering like amateur dancers. When they came with their children for a stroll in the garden on a holiday, these hanging goats should still be in motion. Why were veils placed on their faces? Had they been unveiled, the people could see their tongues hanging out, like the long hanging tongues of thirsty dogs. Their eyes would boil out. Maybe an eyeball of one or two would fall out and they could pick it up for their children to play with. They wanted to see the bluish trembling of their lips at their final moments. Wanted to hear the croaking from their throats, and that would be possible if powerful mikes were fitted near them (in fact tied to their throats). The administration must not show such negligence next time, but what does next time even mean, for indeed there will be no murderer next time.

 

The murderers were swaying from the nooses and the spectators were mad with joy. Had they got their way, they would have grabbed the feet of the hanging bodies and swung them with greater force, swung themselves – swing me with the swinging motion of their cooling bodies, o fair one. And now, the bodies had ceased writhing. How foolish they appeared, like hanging parcels. The jail doctor looked at his watch and groping the parcels, pronounced them dead. Their bodies were separated from the nooses. The canvas of the spectacle was devoid of the portrait of admonition. The crowd dispersed, muttering.

 

‘Yar, the space was insufficient. One couldn’t get a clear view. They should have arranged it in the stadium, maybe even put a ticket on it and some welfare institution could have been created with the income. The easiest recipe to create a welfare state.’

 

Most of the people were cursing the swift speed of the deaths.

 

‘Just three or four minutes of fluttering and that’s it. If a cricket match can be shown on television, why couldn’t the death of these murderers be telecast?’

 

‘Han, like this billions of people would have been alerted. At least the spectacle would have been seen in close up. We would have seen their faces close, enlarged. In fact these three or four minutes should also have been shown on television like the uprooting of a batsman’s wicket is shown again, in slow motion.’

 

‘There should have been at least six or seven cameras. One camera would have focused on their eyes, the second on the nostrils, the third on the lips; the fourth would have taken the shot of the whole body, and the most important, the fifth, would only take a big, big close up of the necks; and in this way, how slowly the eyes would open in slow motion and an eyeball might also come out. Then, the scene could be shown again in extremely slow motion. The camera focused on the nostrils would also have a fine picture to show, slowly expanding and contracting nostrils. They say that prior to death, blood issues from the nose too. That, at least, could be conclusively established, and how the lips flutter slowly in slow motion, as if flowers are blooming. In the final moments, they turn blue.’

 

‘Han, but yar how can it be known on television that the lips are turning blue?’

 

‘By the grace of Allah we too have colour broadcasts in our country. All these enjoyable scenes, but the real climax would have to be the scene of the necks. The slowly lengthening necks, like rubber. Make up is also very important before appearing on television – it could be done while they stood on the platform. I have heard that the picture is made more clear by the make up. Well, next time, but next time err….’

 

The crowd dispersed. The khokhas of paan and cigarettes were picked up. The rehris of ice cream began moving towards the city. The haleem wallahs were having their empty degs loaded onto the rehras, hands placed on their full pockets. The road at the front had once again been open for traffic. Life went back to normal….

 

Baba Bagloos, as usual, kept his head lowered the whole time. Inayat and Sabir had become tired, standing at the same spot for three hours. They looked towards the Baba, who appeared lost, his shoulders relaxed.

 

‘Baba should we go back now?’ Inayat asked in an easy way.

 

The baba stood silent, as if he hadn’t heard.

 

After something amounting to a pause, Inayat placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Baba Bagloos, should we go back now?’

 

The beard hanging from the baba’s bent face was drenched in tears. He didn’t raise his head, merely saying slowly, ‘No, now the season outside and inside has become the same.’

 

*

 

Published in Urdu as ‘Baba Bagloos’ in Siyaah Aankh men Tasveer, Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2009 (reissued), Lahore.

 

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Translator’s note

Mustansar Hussain Tarar is one of Pakistan’s most illustrious and important writers, and one of the greatest living Urdu writers. He made his name as a path breaking travelogue-writer in the 1950s, and then began writing novels in the early 1990s on themes as varied as the importance of rivers in the sustenance of ancient civilisations, the changing social and cultural fabric of Punjab over the years, forbidden romance, the downfall of the Soviet Union and how it affected a whole generation of idealists in South Asia, the Taliban phenomenon, and even a Punjabi novel, acclaimed as the first modern one in the language.

In terms of sheer variety of topics, his closest associate is perhaps the equally iconic Urdu writer Quratulain Hyder. What has perhaps prevented the work of Tarar from receiving its due, globally, is a lack of translations into English. However, one of his novels – Lenin for Sale: Ay Ghazaal-i-Shab – has just been published in translation, and three others are in the process of being translated.

March 1 this year marks Tarar’s 80th birthday, and for the occasion, here is a translation of one of his earliest, and perhaps his longest stories, published as part of a short story collection in the late 70s or early 80s. The writer expressed a wish to have this story translated into English.

Tarar told me, in a recent conversation, that this story was a metaphor for Pakistan’s worst military dictatorship, the Zia-ul-Haq regime which overthrew the democratically-elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and executed him.

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Mustansar Hussain Tarar (born 1939) is Pakistan’s best-selling Urdu language writer. His novels, short stories and travelogues have inspired generations of Pakistani readers and have a devout following. His novels Bahao and Raakh have been rated as two of the most influential Urdu novels written in the last century. His work is part of the Urdu curriculum in universities at home and abroad, and the topic of several academic works.

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Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently living in Lahore, where he is the President of the Progressive Writers Association. His most recent work is an introduction to a reissued edition of Abdullah Hussein’s classic partition novel The Weary Generations (Udas Naslein). His translations of short stories by Abdullah Hussein and Razia Sajjad Zaheer have appeared in Out of Print. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.