A story by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali
A peculiar dream replayed itself in my mind recently. I am the kind of man who always thinks deeply about dreams. When I lost and then initiated the arduous task of recalling my memory, I went in search of all those times I could not account for by raking through my dreams. We rarely make sense of the surreal glue that holds dreams together, reconstructing them as if they are stories. Indeed, sometimes they chronicle our longings, other times they unfold our ardent desires reaching fulfilment, as in the union of a man and a woman! In essence, words lay the foundation, not only of the inner world, but also of our dreams. Words illuminate this journey we undertake in the pitch dark. They help us penetrate the maelstrom of existence!
This is how the dream began. I address a seated man, apparently a doctor, I recognize as Shahabuddin. He transmutes into a woman when I sit down across from him. She has the most beautiful eyes. Dark-complexioned, she appears to be Bengali. I find her very attractive. We take a stroll to the front of the Zamindara College in Gujrat. I point out Nawab Sahab’s grave to her. She moves closer to me as we approach the college hall. We continue onward to the back of the college. My heart turns tranquil as the dream fades.
I did not have to venture far to find the rungs that would help me comprehend my dream. Ah, I had recently read the translation of the Musaddas by Sir Shahabuddin. Since Shahabuddin had tanned skin, he visited my dream as a woman with dark complexion. Again, it was he who dissolved into Balo Jati in my dream because he belonged to the Jat caste. I rushed to Balo and narrated the night’s dream. “Lady, I have to remove curtain upon curtain to find you, even in my dreams!” She laughed and explained, “Such a distance lies between an old man and his youth!” I persisted with my interpretation of the dream. “I showed you Nawab Sahab’s grave to indicate that I am old and decrepit, yet I live on, like Nawab Sahab’s name lives on. We went to the back of the college to excavate my youthful days.”
“Lahore, Chaudhry Sahab, is overflowing with young lovers. My most prized beloved, though, remains this old man. He is a parent and lover rolled into one. People need conversations to share our joys and sorrows, no? Who would I converse with if I don’t see you Chaudhry Sahab?” Balo’s words lifted my spirits. My dream bestowed its blessings and then was forgotten. Two months passed.
Yesterday, as I sat reading the biography of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti – the Consoler of the Poor*, Bundu dhobi* appeared in my thoughts out of the blue. Consider that one of Khwaja Sahab’s miracles or the secret of caring for the crushed! My mind was reminded of the two-month-old dream. I pictured the dark-skinned woman’s eyes. Ah, exactly like Bundu’s! So, the woman was in fact Bundu the washerman! Bundu is the only person I remember fondly from my two-year stint as a professor at Gujrat’s Zamindara College. He transformed me into a Sahab during those youthful days of surviving on the pittance I was paid as a novice professor. I wore the best starched and brightest white shalwar kameez in the entire college.
I also happened to be the college hostel warden. One day, Bundu appeared with a plea.
“Sahab, it is impossible to find accommodation in the homes seized after the exodus of the Hindus from the city. The Neighborhood of the Untouchables too is under the police’s control. They have escorted so many women there, turning it into their own personal cantonment. It is indeed not befitting for real men to spend nights at the police-station! Please if you get me a place at the hostel, I will manage.”
I arranged lodging for him at the hostel. Meanwhile, I found it hard to manage my expenses after sending two hundred and fifty rupees home each month. I had rashly jumped on the marriage bandwagon too. I ended up renting a house in Madina village situated on the outskirts of the town. Bundu would walk the two miles to my place. I had a bicycle at least.
Bundu never learnt to ride. “It has a mind of its own! What if the damn machine decides to carry me to Momdipur from Madina village?” Bundu would tease.
The marriage ceremony and monthly expenses drained us of all our money within a month of marital bliss. One day, my wife announced, “Someone named Bundu dhobi is asking for you.”
I stepped outside to meet him. “Sorry Bundu, I am penniless this month. I won’t be able to pay you,” I told him.
“Sahab, I am not here to receive my payment. I am here to pick up the dirty laundry. Moreover, I haven’t even congratulated you on your marriage. Your wife is one lucky woman. A good man usually finds a good match.” Little by little, Bundu developed the routine of picking up our laundry from my wife multiple times a week, instead of once a week. Thanks to the care he showered upon our clothes, my wife and I climbed up the social ladder. When the college let him go, he managed to rent a small place that used to belong to Hindus in Muhammadi village. We remained broke.
One day, my wife took out some old bills. “Bundu heard us fighting about the expenses. He left thirty rupees with me.” I expressed my anger. We didn’t have a penny. How were we going to repay him given how impossible it was to borrow from anyone in our village?
“He said we could repay him after one month. He placed the money in my hand,” My wife tried to allay my worries.
Bundu played an important role in my transfer to Lahore when our principal accepted a position at the university and took me along. “You are the best-dressed man in all of Gujrat!”, the principal had said. From Lahore, I went on to Dhaka University in 1965. My children and I took to Dhaka, but luck was not on our side. We were spared the perils of detention in 1971 as we had returned to West Pakistan for the summer holidays. But I remained affected by 1971. I became very ill. I lost my memory during my treatment. Once recovered, I made a trip to Gujrat after a gap of twenty-five years. Bundu had passed away by then.
Today, Khwaja Muinuddin, the Consoler of the Poor, reminded me of my Consoler of the Rich, a most loving and kind-hearted man. Perhaps even Khwaja Sahab had been softened by such love from people! After all, a poor person can also be a benefactor of the rich! Such are the links of love. The foundational bond, too. As in the love between a man and a woman! In my dream, he appeared as a beautiful, dark woman. He was a very handsome man. How can I ever forget his deeply telling eyes?
*Also known as Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz (Consoler of the Poor), he was a sufi saint and founder of the Chistiya Sufi order in the early 13th century
*A dhobi is a washerman
Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a Punjabi poet and short story writer. In 2006, he was awarded the Waris Shah award for his collection Kahani Praga. Coming late to writing, particularly fiction, Nadir Ali is credited with spearheading a unique style, blurring the boundaries between significant and petty, artistic and ordinary, primarily due to his preference for and command over the chaste central dialect understood by the majority of Punjabi speakers. He is also noted for writing and speaking about his experiences as an army officer posted in East Pakistan at the height of the 1971 war.
Amna Ali is Nadir Ali’s daughter. She is currently translating a selection of Nadir Ali’s short stories into English. She is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.
(Published with permission of the author’s family)
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