They walked up the drive in a group talking to one another till they reached the broad steps of our verandah. My mother was there to welcome them and take custody of the child, who generally accompanied them. Each one of these gentlemen occupied permanently allotted arm chairs, while someone or the other from the domestic staff placed a table in the middle. The small boy would, by this time rejoin the group and sit on one edge of the seat occupied by his grandparent, listening to conversation that is now extinct. This child was me and one of the old timers waiting for his customary breakfast of Kashmiri Tea and ‘Kulchas’ was Dr. Muhammad Khan, father of writer and television celebrity Ashfaq Ahmed. As I grew up and developed an interest in Urdu literature, I became a huge fan of Ashfaq Sahib’s writings, particularly the ones that featured ‘Babas’.

On retiring from a successful career and having time on my hands to muse, realisation came upon me that I too had come across some individuals, who could be listed in the ‘Baba’ category. My reluctance to write about them however, stemmed from the notion that I would be intruding upon a theme created by an idol. My better half came to the rescue suggesting that I should go ahead and dedicate the piece to none other than the great man of letters himself.

My earliest encounter with a ‘Baba’ occurred during my stay in a remote canal rest house in Central Punjab, where I had stopped overnight before continuing a long and tiring professional commitment. I lounged in an antique ‘planter’s chair’ outdoors enjoying the mellow late autumn evening, when a figure entered the gate and headed in my direction. As he came closer, I saw a wizened old (nay ancient) rustic face adorned by a snow white short beard topped by a ‘pugree’. A white ‘kurta’ above a dhoti of the same color and a pair of ‘desi’ footwear completed the picture. It was however the face and the eyes that caught my entire attention, for they radiated total contentment and compassion. I was greeted with a hearty ‘Assalam o Alaikum, wa Rahmatullahay wa barakatahu’ as the visitor seated himself on the ground next to where I was seated. I stood up and asked the rest house attendant (who had by now appeared, apparently annoyed at the intrusion) to fetch another chair and some tea for ‘my guest’. I was surprised, when the old man refused the chair saying that he was sitting on the most comfortable seat in the world – ‘Allah’s di Zameen’. He became a little irritated on my insistence and rebuked me with the words that ‘chairs corrupted people’. When the attendant returned with the tea, he was met with the ‘unthinkable’ sight of the ‘Sahib’ sitting on the ground talking to an old village rustic. That evening, a simple rural stranger appearing from nowhere humbled me with his wisdom and insight on life. In return, he asked for nothing, appeared unimpressed by my authority and left me as mysteriously as he had appeared. I drove through the area many times thereafter, staying for days in the same rest house, but never saw the man again and all my queries about his whereabouts came to a dead end.

I stumbled across my second ‘Baba’, while stopping to eat hot ‘roti’ and fried ‘dal’ at a village tandoor near Sialkot. As I stepped down from my transport, I became the object of curious (and perhaps even concerned) glances from locals. Someone ran to fetch a ‘charpoy’ for me and my driver, while another young man produced a table making futile attempts to clean its top. Amongst all this ‘commotion’ I noticed one individual – the ‘tandoorchi’, who did not even look my way and appeared totally unaffected by my arrival. As is wont to happen at such places, a small crowd of curious people gathered around us as food was served and happily accepted, when I asked them to join me. More food was ordered and I lost track of time, unwilling to end the best one hour of that day. I was taken by surprise, when on asking for the bill, I was told that there was none. I looked up at the ‘tandoorchi’, who had so far ignored me and saw a smiling face with a set of eyes reminiscent of an earlier encounter in a remote rest house. ‘Sahib Bahadur, there is no bill since you are “friend of a friend”. I stood stock still for a few moments and could do little, but lean forward and hug the ‘Baba’ with watery eyes. As we drove away, my driver dug into my bag, handing over a tissue with the words “Sahib, I think, the smoke from the ‘tandoor’ has effected your eyes”.

 

The writer is a historian.