The Kabbadi Player by Nadir Ali

Translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali

Painting by Amna Ali

Since I struggled with poor health most of my life, I imagined those who enjoyed good health must be happier too. As the saying goes, “Be fit and healthy and the world is yours!” The strong ones can till and plow the land, but that doesn’t win them the world, as far as I can tell. When I was younger, I naively believed that only the athletes at our college were truly vibrant and alive. The entire college and district worshiped Ahsanullah. Kabbadi[1] was a popular sport back then, and Ahsanullah a peacock strutting in the kabbadi arena. He would tag the opponent and remain standing. “Dare to tackle me big guy!” he seemed to say, before slipping away. Clapping his hands, he would be off and running and onlookers would marvel – “There he goes!”

We witnessed a new race of men when the team from Jullundhar’s Khalsa College arrived. The players — tall, big and heavy– were built like wrestlers. Unlike us, they didn’t tackle opponents with moves like the scissor or the squeeze or run with lightning speed. They would simply grab a man by the arm and immobilise him with sheer force. When they were the ones caught, a few vigorous shoves were enough to help them escape. But they failed against Ahsanullah. They couldn’t even touch him. He slapped the opponent, grabbed him in a tight embrace as if a vine had wrapped itself around the Sardar. Then he spun him to make him lose his balance. A carefully applied tug followed, enough to send him crashing to the ground. The Sardars realised that Ahsanullah’s slight frame was misleading. He was strong as iron. In the end, his opponents always lay defeated at his feet. Thanks to Ahsan and Shareefa, Zamindara College came first in all of Punjab. Khalsa College Jullundhar came in second. But gone are the days of college and kabbadi. Zamindara College was never the same and hockey and kabbadi met their demise. What a strange race everyone joined once the sports grounds disappeared.

I remained friends with all the kabbadi players. Shareefa became the head of a police-station and even played for the police. Ahsanullah would be invited to the village or the college for informal matches. Once he got married, worries seemed to swallow him up. Glasses appeared on his studious face. Kabbadi proved useless for all the players, except Shareefa who put it to good use, tackling and hustling even at his prison job. Thana, Bala, Qooma, Abdullah Raja, all my companions, simply disappeared from my life. The game of life is all about money and power. Some of them were even so-called leaders, honoured with titles like Chaudhry of the village, but being a Chaudhry is meaningless without also being a crook. Despite my ill health, I managed some thuggishness now and then. But those farmers didn’t manage too well. Some thirty years passed.

I left my job and moved to the US, but college days remained etched in my memory. Gujrat had turned into a graveyard where my youth lay buried. Lahore swallowed up everyone. And from Lahore I made my way to the US. The United States – a place filled with endless worry and anxiety, in which everyone seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere. The bright lights and women added some colour, but there was no time to look up.

One day, in the midst of all this, a man caught my eye. A partner in misery, he was staring at the ground. He was wearing glasses and sat slightly hunched, but I recognised that jawline of chiseled iron and the long nose sticking out. “Ahsan Sahab!” I called out. He looked up but his face showed no emotion. “I am Nadir Ali, from Dharekan!” I said.

“What fix have you gotten yourself into?” he asked. No greeting, no salam. What sort of a question was this? He shook my hand without enthusiasm and patted my back. “Managed to find any work?” he asked. I had addressed him as Sahab out of respect for my kabbadi hero. But this man was bent on remaining distant.

“Yes, I did, by the grace of Allah,” I replied mechanically.

“The grace of God does not make it to distant places like New York. It has yet to reach me,” he went on.

“What’s the matter Ahsan Sahab? Is everything alright? Are you well?” I asked.

“The night refuses to end!” he said. “Earlier, I worked a night shift. Now I work at a store at the bottom of a skyscraper. By the time sunlight makes it to the ground, it is evening.” His eyes, full of sadness, seemed to be longing for the sun just then.

“We are in a foreign land, Ahsan Sahab!” I said, acting all mature suddenly.

“Well, it is not like Pakistan is our father’s estate either!” he replied. He got off at the 34th Street station in midtown. I was free and decided to accompany him. He was carrying some stuff for the store, and I gave him a hand. It was not a long walk.

We both stood outside the store. The owner hadn’t yet arrived. Ahsan took out a hash-filled cigarette and lit it. “You didn’t smoke back then!” I commented, trying to put him at ease.

“It’s not like I play kabbadi anymore!” he said and smiled sweetly at last. He didn’t seem to be doing too well. He didn’t ask about Gujrat, and I didn’t bring it up. “I get off at six in the evening. Stop by if you are free,” he said, extending some warmth for the first time.

I returned at a little before six that evening and noticed that he smiled again. It was faint, yet for me that smile was worth a million. “Like the road to my village, like the path that leads me home”– words from one of my poems came to mind. He took me to a bar. “Two whiskeys!” he called out and presented cash at the bar as was New York’s custom. He sat silent. He had always been on the quiet side. But we were both comfortable in our silence.

A few drinks later, I noticed a slight sparkle in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. I felt intoxicated. “Brother, I should stop now,” I said, “I have exceeded my quota.” Once we were outside, I blurted out, “Ahsan Sahab, I write poetry.” What a thing to say! I noticed the moon was visible in the sky. “I have never been able to see the moon in New York before! How did it manage to survive the rough and tumble and make it up there tonight? Good lord, the memories!”

Ahsan Sahab benevolently prodded me — “What are you remembering?”

 “You are the moon, Ahsan Sahab! Somehow, God made you appear tonight.”

“But this is the waning moon, Chaudhry!” he replied, sighing deeply.

Two weeks later, he was dead. Someone at the mosque mentioned that they were raising funds to return the dead body to Pakistan. Words tumbled out of my mouth as I helped lift the coffin for the journey. “He was worth his weight in gold!”


[1] Traditional contact sport of Punjab. Players “raid” the opponent’s territory and tag or touch opponents and then attempt to make it back. The defending team tries to stop the player from returning.


This story is a translation of Nadir Ali’s short story, first published in a collection titled Kahani Paraga , published by Suchet Kitab Ghar in 2004 in Lahore.

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 translated a selection of Nadir Ali’s short stories into English in collaboration with Moazzam Sheikh. The translations were published by Weavers Press in USA in a book titled Hero and Other Stories in 2022. She is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

3 replies on “   The Kabbadi Player by Nadir Ali”

Nice job. Amna has captured the spirit of the original, though of course Punjabi speakers should check out the original to get the full impact 🙂

Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s