My critics often ask me why I write so much about animals, food and things paranormal. I do this because I am passionate about good food; I love animals as they are selfless creatures intent on preserving themselves in the food chain and the paranormal interests me for I was raised in a home which spawned much of what I have written about things that go bump in the night. This week’s piece has nothing to do with either food or pets, but contains a passing mention of things unseen. It is about someone who came into my life and filled it with colourful memories.

He was a jolly, robust looking individual, who was always impeccably dressed in western clothes, when walking out. His pleasant face was made more so, by a pair of rimless gold spectacles and an ever present smile. He was an indispensable part of our family, not because he was my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, but because of the benign aura that surrounded him. It was to him that family members, irrespective of age, turned for advice and succour, for even if he could not solve their issues he gave them a patient and intent hearing.

Chotay Nana (for this is what we affectionately called him), and my grandfather were inseparable. He would walk from his home inside the walled city to meet the elder brother opposite the Montgomery Hall in Lawrence Gardens. This meeting point was a bench and one could set a watch around the punctuality of the event. Their morning walk over, the pair would walk back to our home on Queen’s Road to have breakfast and lunch together. It was in the afternoon that the younger individual took his leave and walked back all the way to his home.

The house in the old city of Lahore, where this unique man lived alone, was accessible from both Bhaati and Mori Gates. It however became the venue of the annual family reunion during the Basant Festival, which was perhaps, the only occasion when the rendezvous in the Lawrence Gardens was not kept.

Entering Chotay Nana’s home was like crossing the threshold of time. Antique furniture, stained glass windows and wood panelling made it a mysterious place, where a story lurked in every dark nook. There were however, two rooms in the house that riveted my interest. The first was his library – an elongated unlit space, where every possible inch was covered with books. I consider myself privileged to have been allowed unrestricted access to this treasure trove of information and was even more privileged to receive one gem from his collection on each of my birthdays.

The second room was always locked and had strange stories attached to it. I am not sure whether it was the stories or some other thing about the room that sent cold shivers down our spines, whenever we passed it. Nonetheless, this particular spot became our test of courage as cousins began daring one another to stand at the door and knock, but even this simple act gave us goose bumps. I often asked my mother as to what was in the room, but reflecting back on her response, I now realize that she always side-tracked the answer. This house was sold years later and perhaps even torn down, leaving behind our questions unanswered.

It was on a sunny morning in 1960, when Chotay Nana descended the stairs and walked out of the front door only to return and enter the adjacent attached house where his sister lived. He sat down in a recliner, asked for an orange and appeared to fall asleep, never to awaken.

I heard the news of his demise in school, when our driver came to the Principal’s office with a note. We buried this man amidst a multitude of mourners, many of whom the family didn’t know, but who lamented the passing of a benefactor, a protector of widows and orphans. As for us, our home was never the same without his effervescent presence.

The writer is a historian