It was a dull morning, without a hint of sun. We were on our way to school, shivering with cold and hanging our school bags carefully at our waists, moving as quickly as we could. We bantered back and forth as we passed the shops: there was the sweet seller, the old lady with the ink pots, and the gentleman who sells sonf, or anise seed. It was Pheeqa, Kala the black, me, and Waliullah. We were a crew. After everyone gathered for the first prayer, all the boys ran across the big courtyard to their classrooms, in lines. We arrived just in time at the big school gate and ran to catch up with our class. None of the teachers saw us sneak in: there was too much of a ruckus as the boys rushed in after prayers. The teachers gossiped among themselves as usual, too, so they didn't pay us any mind. One had to be careful, though, when rushing in lines like that. If someone pushed someone else out of line from behind, or if someone slow or weak suddenly fell, that child would be beaten. This was our daily routine.
Every day, after entering the class, we ran to our benches. Each of us had our own. In the primary years, we had only a coarse sackcloth to sit on, but there were benches and desks in the higher grades. After we rubbed the cold benches with our school bags to warm them, only one thing came to mind, like a blast of cold air: don't get beaten. Everyone kneaded their hands together and blew on them to keep them warm: the cold was so intense that we could barely hold our pens. In winter, our only desire was not to be beaten in the first or second period. In the intense morning cold, the pain was just too much.
It was time for class with the Urdu teacher, Mr. Altaf. Unlike the rest of us, Mr. Altaf's mother tongue was Urdu. He always wore pure cotton—a long white kurta and pyjama pants—and makesh, a kind of boot. He chewed bright red betel leaf in his mouth, was of medium height, and spoke hesitatingly in an ostentatiously cultured and refined way. He was one of the few teachers who didn't carry a stick in his hands, so the boys weren't too afraid of him.
But he did have his own special method of punishment. He would call a student to him, very close, and would twist the student's ear so forcefully that the boy would twist and turn in front of him. Mr. Altaf wouldn't move a muscle, nor would he allow the boy to move away. Then he would make jokes about it, addressing the class, "He looks like he is enjoying it, don't you think? He's dancing so well!" The boy would be so close to him that his betel leaf–soaked breath would sprinkle deep red juice on the boy's face. Sometimes, for a change, he would pinch a boy on the abdomen instead and stand steady and tall; the boy would twist around, back and forth, and the class would be doubled over with laughter. Of course, if anyone laughed too loud, he'd be called up to the front as well. While pinching the boy, Mr. Altaf would watch the class closely, chewing his betel leaf, as if he were asking for accolades for his special skill. "Look at how beautifully I do my work," he seemed to say. According to him, his method of punishment was both a pragmatic technique and an art. He had earned this skill after working in schools for many years.
But sometimes something else would happen. Trembling with anger, he would ask a boy to bring a stick from the teacher in the adjacent classroom. This would only happen once a year or so. Punishing with a stick wasn't his thing. So, when he did it, it went all wrong. He would beat his victim blindly, screaming abuses, and there seemed to be no end to it. "You fucker! You motherfucker!" he would yell. The class would become deathly silent. As the student left to bring the stick from the other class, Mr. Altaf would walk among the rows of benches and wherever he would stop, it was as if death itself had struck.
This would happen when someone made a joke that crossed the limits of his patience. It happened, for example, when a new oil to grow hair had appeared in the market. It had become quite famous. It was called "Zaidal," or something like that. That day, because of the cold, no one had the heart to open their school bags or books. After taking attendance, as usual, he asked the students to open their books. That's when someone mentioned the oil. Even though it had been whispered, he had heard it. He was bald. And he became very angry. He asked the boy who was sitting in front of our bench, who was also the class monitor, to bring the stick from the next class.
Suddenly, it was as if someone had forced our hands into ice. Not only our class. It seemed as if the whole school was engulfed in silence. When the boy came with the stick, we sat lifeless, as if we had lost our very souls. We all knew the joke had been made by the son of Phaje the butcher. At the end of eighth grade, he quit school and started working in his father's shop in the bazaar.
Mr. Altaf walked once or twice between the benches and then came and stood near us. Our hands were already numb at even the thought of a beating. When I think of it today, it seems to me that perhaps Waliullah had moved a bit, or that he didn't have the same kind of fear on his face that the rest of us had. It was rare that he would be chosen. But that day our Mr. Altaf asked Waliullah to come out, gesturing with his stick. His face turned red with fury and betel juice seeped from his lips. Waliullah continued to look at him as before. His face was unreadable.
When Mr. Altaf decided to deliver his punishment, there was no question of justice. Whether someone was guilty or not, he would suffer. In reality, Mr. Altaf usually didn't have a clue about who had made mischief. He would just call a boy up to the front of the class, any boy, and beat that boy blindly; anyone he called upon had to put out his hands for the beating. If a boy tried to speak up or say something in his own defence, the beating would be all the more severe.
Mr. Altaf raised his stick and Waliullah put forward his hands. The beating began, and it continued. We sat there, frozen. Some boys from other classes watched stealthily from the door. Waliullah was beaten just past the threshold. Only God knows what happened to Mr. Altaf: he struck with rage, with fury, and at last Waliullah's hands began to hang limply. His eyes filled with tears. But brave Waliullah! He neither wept nor cried out. The stick broke after the hundred-and-second strike. Silence engulfed the school. By recess, everyone knew. "Waliullah has been beaten!" Everyone said his name loudly, stretching it out. He silently left school. His hands were swollen and red, and someone had covered them with a handkerchief. Until he left for home, we blew over his hands, with the handkerchief over them, soothingly. He did not move them.
Waliullah was our friend, our companion, the connecting tissue of our group. He was short in stature and a bit frail. He lagged behind the other boys in class. His nose was long like a parrot's, and on his head he always wore a filthy cap, the kind used by those who perform the namāz, or Muslim prayers. He always bowed his head down as he walked, as if something had fallen and he was looking for it; then his nose would look even longer. He was the most gentle and good-hearted among us. He was so weak that he couldn't even play some of our games. When we would play, he would sit near us and act as a judge or take care of our shoes or other things. Whenever some disagreement arose in a game, he was the one to decide what was fair.
The boys from the higher grades also respected him, but not for the reasons we did. He was looked up to because of his ability to call on God's power, chanting Qur'anic verses and then blowing on a person's forehead as a blessing. This was why everyone called him "Waliullah," the friend of God. His real name was something else. A boy would lean his forehead towards him and say, "Waliullah, blow on my forehead." Waliullah would stand very seriously, clasp the boy's forehead gently, and after reciting something under his breath, blow on it. That warm and gentle puff on the forehead seemed to reach deep inside. The boys were so enamoured of this that sometimes they would crowd around him and, one by one, come forward, stepping back only after receiving his special breath. Most of them did it so that with this, perhaps they might be saved from being beaten. Some must have had other wishes, too. There was trust, warmth and comfort in Waliullah's breath.
Now that he had beaten Waliullah so severely, we all were sure Mr. Altaf would not be spared. "How could he have beaten Waliullah?" Then the expected happened. We reached school the next morning and found that it was closed. Mr. Altaf's wife had died. Now everyone repeated Waliullah's name with awe. Instead of going to Mr. Altaf's home to pay condolences, half the school went to Waliullah's home to enquire after his health. Everyone from the school wanted to feel his breath upon them. Even women from the mohallah started to seek out his blessing. After that, he was never beaten again. We came to know many years later that Mr. Altaf's wife had tuberculosis, and she had already been very sick for a long time. But that didn't matter.
Waliullah was not only my classmate; he also lived in my mohallah. I can't say now how long we had been friends. It seems to me that we always were. After the partition of Punjab in 1947, our fathers used to sit together every evening in Tufail's tailor shop. I remember that there was a large low wooden table, and on one side a sewing machine and an iron that would be warmed by coals: the hookah was prepared from the coals used to heat the iron, or sometimes the hookah's coals were used to prepare the iron. In this way, the two lent each other smoke. Tufail the tailor never measured any of his customers. He would just look at a person carefully, or he might put his hand on the man's or child's shoulder, examine him from head to foot and say, "You can have your clothes day after tomorrow." In the Daultana years, just after Partition, people would gather there in the evening after work for news of Amritsar and Gurdaspur on the Indian side; this continued on through the Ayub regime, Bhashani's leadership in East Pakistan, and then Bhutto's time at the helm. All these politicians and politics came and went. All the black turned grey. Then Tufail's shop was closed, and a medical store opened in its place. Now there is a big bakery there, with huge glass windows.
When school finally finished, we waited for our results. In those days in Lahore, special editions of newspapers were published with the results of the final exams at the end of grade 10, and news hawkers called out loudly to sell copies. When the news finally came, we found out that Waliullah had failed. We felt no joy over how we did or didn't place. We couldn't bear the grief of Waliullah's failure. We sat together in silence on the side of the road, in the centre of the mohallah, for a long time. Back then you could hire a bicycle for just a few pennies, four or eight annas, per hour. We were so upset that we hired bicycles and rode like mad all over the city. Cycling frantically, we tired ourselves out, but we still found no peace. It used to be deserted beyond Bund Road, at the edge of the city. There were thick trees and fields. Among them were some wells, the barking of dogs, and the tolling of bells. We went and sat at one of the wells. Pheeqa brought out a packet of Woodbine cigarettes, which he had stolen from his father. We all lit up cigarettes and became exhausted from coughing. But even then, we could not relax. We had no idea that from that time on we would never be relaxed again, that this pain was only the beginning. Some of us went on to university, and one suddenly left for Karachi. Another was sent abroad by his father. Some took care of their fathers' shops, others became bus conductors, and someone joined an office. One or two boys went back to their villages. There were just a few of us left who knew each other from those days. It seemed like the whole world changed.
Waliullah's father had a book-binding shop. What a place it was! Built on a pile of dirt in a corner of one of the narrow lanes in the main market, it was just a kiosk of tin and wood, attached to a small two-story house they lived in. Children's magazines, detective novels, political and other magazines, old and new, all used to hang there as the book-binding work carried on. In the evening, the shop was transformed into a gathering place for people to gossip and discuss politics. When Waliullah's father grew old, his son took charge of the shop. That is how it was supposed to be, so that is how it was. At the same time, Waliullah's sisters needed to be married off, and it seemed to us that Waliullah had become even more frail from the heavy burden he carried. Then we, too, were forced to leave the mohallah. I never thought it would happen to us, but it did, and then to Waliullah as well.
I used to visit the old neighbourhood once or twice every year, and whenever I went, I would visit Waliullah's shop. He had turned completely grey and was even thinner and smaller. His cap was even muddier than before. His father was bedridden. One or two sisters had been married, and one or two, perhaps not. He himself had gotten married, too, and had children. The old mohallah and marketplace in Lahore had changed. The price of land had skyrocketed. The bazaar filled with people. Whenever I used to visit, there were always one or two new shops—but if one thing remained unchanged, it was Waliullah's shop. But the building was under dispute. After Partition, as a refugee from the now-Indian side of Punjab, his father had occupied the upper portion of the house. Someone else took up its lower portion. The case regarding who was the rightful owner had been in court ever since. Waliullah was very worried about it. There were other problems with the shop as well: things and places that used to be secured through long-standing personal relationships were being torn apart under the onslaught of the new cash economy. When I would sit in his shop, we would talk about the old days. The place was tiny. Showing me to a stool, he would call for tea. The tea would be served in a glass, with a small saucer. He would pour half the tea into the saucer and give me the glass. Then, it was as if he opened the book of the mohallah to read from, and he would start to talk.
"A year has gone by since Fareeda came home. One day, there she was, with three children. She asked about you, and I said I didn't know where you were. Lali sold his house and moved to Defence, in the new part of town. We heard that they built a big house there. It looks like Lali's father had his hands in a lot of things . . . Kala is still operating a printing press, and he probably always will. Pheeqa opened a hardware shop, and his wife is a schoolteacher. She never leaves him in peace. But then again, he never managed to say much before, anyway. Sukky has given into heroin. Pakaure—he used to love eating those salty snacks!—spent two months in jail after stabbing the son of the goldsmith. Naifey's fish shop is doing very well; he was the oldest in the family. Dullah still hasn't settled down yet. He has left his life of crime behind, but he still has no steady job. He was saying that he might start selling chickens. Aftikar Allahi became a senior officer in a bank." So many things to discuss, to finish up with.
Then time passed, and I hadn't had a chance to visit the old mohallah for a long while. Finally, one day when I happened to be in the area, I went to Waliullah's shop. But I couldn't find it. Part of me was not surprised: places in this part of the city change like newly rich relatives. I looked closely and now shoes were being sold where his shop used to be, and another person was sitting in his place. Women and children were standing around, waiting to buy something. There was never such a crowd at Waliullah's shop. I asked the new shopkeeper about what became of Waliullah, but he didn't answer; instead, he got annoyed and said he didn't have time to talk. "Besides," he added, "why are you asking about him?" Inquiring at many shops, I finally reached Bashir Hamam, who ran a hamām and barber shop. When the first public protest movement against President Ayub was launched, Bashir was the first in the whole market to hang a photo of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in his shop. One time, people from the Islamist party came to vandalize his bathhouse, and he had stood alone in front of it, holding a naked razor. No one dared to come near. This made him very famous in the bazaar, so much so that during the first election, when Bhutto visited the area, Bashir posed with him and others for a photo that he displayed in his shop from then on. But now, I saw, Bashir had grown very old. Most of the work was done by boys, and he would just help to bring soap and towels to customers. I asked: "Do you recognize me?" He replied: "Even if you came after one hundred years, I would recognize you. I cut your hair for twenty-three years."
There was a flash in his eyes when I asked about Waliullah. "How long has it been since you last came around? He lost the court case over his house, and those people threw his things out into the street." He continued: "People say that some big gangster was involved or that someone bribed someone. Anyway, no one did anything about it. It was just a small shop. I heard that he got a bit of money by selling off things from it and is now living in some place called the ‘Township.' It's a new neighbourhood, not yet fully built." Bashir didn't have the exact address. Then he quoted something Waliullah had once said: "I have lived here fifty years, and it came to nothing."
"I have grown old," Bashir said, starting to become angry. "What can I do? I was barely able to save this place myself. They were after it too. God knows where they get their forged papers. Land is like gold, Bairy, just like gold." He kept on talking, calling me by my childhood name.
"I had advised Waliullah's father to buy some land. It was so cheap back then. But he was always busy with politics. He was a great lover of the People's Party government. And Bhutto, too. He adored them, just like I did. But what did the People's Party do for us?"
I couldn't listen to Bashir any longer, so I left him. Waliullah was gone.
It doesn't mean anything, but sometimes, when I am going to work on a cold winter morning, I imagine Waliullah before me. I place my grey head in his hands and say, "Oh, Waliullah! Breathe. Give me your blessing!"