Allam and Son
translated from the Urdu by Uday Kanungo
I know, knew this before too, that after reaching a certain age, an ordinary man begins to forget several thousand, or maybe several hundred thousand things daily, but for many years he does not realize that something is disappearing from his memory. His store of memories is so large that thousands, or hundreds of thousands of things continuously getting lost from it does not, till a certain time, raise suspicion of any loss from that store. Therefore, sometime before the period of my employment ended, I had accepted the reality, without even feeling it, that now I was forgetting many things every day. Then a fit of something resembling stupidity fell over me, and much of my time kept getting wasted in fruitless efforts to remember what things I was forgetting. Then I made some efforts, and emerged out of that fit. But not many days had passed before an even greater fit of stupidity fell over me, and I started wasting time in trying to remember which things have not yet disappeared from my memory. This effort was not fruitless, but from it I gained nothing other than confusion.
Around the time of this hobby, my period of employment concluded, and I was left with an abundance of time to waste. After wasting a considerable amount of time on this hobby, finally I understood that whatever was still remaining in my store of memories, its calculation was not possible. I remembered a lot of things, but among them very few were extraordinary ones. A spell of weariness fell on me and those select few extraordinary things too started appearing ordinary to me. Finally, I gave up this hobby too.
After this my memory became even weaker. Now I no longer needed to remember what things was I forgetting. Names of people, faces, details of past events, and many other big and little things, remembering which I remembered very well, now I could not remember even after straining my mind. Sometime during that period, or maybe a short while after, I don’t remember exactly, my memory started making mistakes too. Sometimes I would call a friend by another friend’s name; sometimes, meeting some acquaintance after many days, I would take him for another acquaintance, or blend the details of a certain event with the details of others. Sometimes this would create difficulties, but I was not troubled. I had from the very beginning an anticipation of this situation arriving, and I was prepared to accept this reality too.
But even in those times countless memories of my childhood and adolescence remained fresh in my remembrance. Children of my household would listen to the tales of those times with great interest, and would also be surprised at how well I remember such old things. I was not surprised. I knew that memories of childhood stayed secure in the mind of a man even at that time when, in his waning years, he starts forgetting things that happened only a couple of days ago.
Sometime during this period, I once fell ill during the change of seasons. For many days there was a high fever and the children were stopped from coming near me. After my health recovered, I got to know from family members that in the delirium of fever I had rambled on endlessly. They also said that, with my eyes closed, I had kept recounting in greater detail those very same tales that the children used to hear from me.
At that point I had the revelation that now I no longer remember anything of my childhood as well.
This reality I was not prepared to accept, therefore, a third fit of stupidity fell over me and I started listening from the kids those very tales that they used to hear from me. When nothing was achieved from this, I strained my mind over and over in trying to remember the memories of my childhood. When nothing was achieved from this too, I thought up another trick. Before my illness, occasionally something like a scene would flash suddenly in my mind, and it would not take me long to recognize which memory of my childhood did this scene belong to. So now at nights, well before the time to sleep came, I would lie down with eyes closed and, as much as I could, empty my mind of all thoughts. Then, in the darkness of closed eyes I would try to see something. Most of my attempts remained fruitless and I would fall asleep doing this. But sometimes, somewhere in this darkness, a spot of very faint light would develop and in it some unmoving image would shimmer for a mere moment and disappear. I was certain that those images had a connection with the memories of my childhood, but save this certainty I gained nothing from this pastime. Even after straining my mind more and more, I could not understand which of those images was connected to which memory. The images, then again, were strangely vague. Sometimes a bullock cart standing under a dense foliage of trees and its reflection in a puddle of rainwater; sometimes some faqir with a small kettledrum in his hand; sometimes copper-plated cooking pots on brick hearths in some unpaved courtyard surrounded by canvas tents, with sunshine spread over half the courtyard. Myriad varieties of men's and women’s clothes were there, but the faces of the people wearing them could not be seen, or maybe before my gaze could reach them the image would grow dim and disappear. These old-fashioned costumes were mostly of a great cut and style, and came in brilliant, loud colors. Among them many were of pink, turquoise, yellow, and purple colors, and the color of black was never there.
However, one night, I saw that over a fading colorful costume, a scrap of black cloth formed and then disappeared. That night, I saw this scene many times. The next night, that scrap was visible till late and I recognized it. This too was a kind of costume which was prepared by ripping about a hand-and-a-half long slit in the middle of an unstitched cloth. Putting the head through the slit, either ends of the cloth were left hanging by the chest and the back. Open from both sides, this sleeveless costume was usually the color of white. On seeing it, the kafan of the dead would come to mind and it was called kafni, but living people wore it and it was very rarely seen.
The black kafni disappeared and again became visible. This time, unlike with the other costumes, there was a slight movement in it too, as if the body of the one wearing it was shivering, and then, before growing dim, it suddenly disappeared, and simultaneously a shivering started inside my mind. I kept waiting till late for the kafni to appear once more, but I didn’t see it again. No other costume was seen either.
After that night, the sequence of images broke. Now before my closed eyes not even a blank spot would form. Like this, the farce I had witnessed since many nights ended, and once again I started to lie down on the bed only at that time when with sleep my eyes would begin to close on their own.
Now I had no way left to while away time at home, so I started going out of the house again to roam and stroll, or sit with friends and talk about this or that thing. Earlier this was almost my daily custom, but after the mistakes of my memory had increased, I had ceased this practice, because these mistakes had many times displeased friends or embarrassed me before acquaintances, and had sometimes even caused them to mock me as well, but now, after rising from my illness, when I would sit with them, they themselves would start recounting the stories of the mistakes of their own memories too.
One day, I was sitting with many friends and the topic of mistakes in recognizing people had come up for discussion. There was lots of guffawing too. Just then a friend said:
“ Well, I don’t get troubled so much on mistaking an acquaintance for a stranger. I make do by just apologizing. But when there is an illusion of some acquaintance in a stranger…..”
Now these kinds of stories came up. Almost every friend recounted some story of their own. Some stories were especially long and genuinely interesting.
“Yes, with me too something similar has started happening often”, a friend who had been quiet since a long time, spoke, “but just this last week a strange coincidence happened”. He somewhat paused, and then said, “In the old bazaar, from afar I saw this fine fellow”, he pointed towards a friend, “but on reaching closer I realized it was some other elderly person...”
“I’ll say what happened next”, that friend said, “now then, this elderly also had an illusion of some friend of his on seeing you, and for a long time you two…..”
“At least let me finish”, the first friend said, “so, on reaching closer I found it wasn’t you. But a little later, what do I see but you really walking towards me - in the flesh, and with this exact wretched face.”
With a jolt, something like a vault bolted open in my mind. I remembered that with me such coincidences had occurred many times, so many times that they could not be called coincidences; in fact, the kind of coincidence that had never occurred was that of my having an illusion of some acquaintance in a stranger and after a short time not seeing that very same acquaintance. If this took a long time, then a restlessness would come over me, but eventually that acquaintance would definitely be seen. This was the most extraordinary thing in my life that I could not remember during those times when I used to count the rest of my remaining memories.
Among friends the conversation was still going on. Many friends had been faced with such a coincidence, but none of them had faced it more than once.
“Yes”, after listening to their stories I said, “with me too such a thing has happened.”
But I did not recount any of my experiences. I felt some regret too as to why something similar had happened with them even once.
After this other topics started being talked about.
Next week, I, with a friend I had played with in my childhood, was roaming in the Purana Bazaar, which used to be called the Bara Bazaar before. After many days of close, stuffy rainy weather, bright sunshine had appeared, and the sky was absolutely clear. Just as we both were talking of this change in the weather, or rather of the weather before this change, the sunshine started to disappear and soon the atmosphere became even dimmer than the days before. My friend made a face and said:
“Can’t understand where the clouds suddenly come out from”.
“Nor can I understand where they suddenly disappear to”, I said.
Right then in the distance, I saw a bearded, black-clad man coming. In my mind, again something like a vault bolted open, and from my mouth escaped:
Then I started laughing to myself.
“Allam?”, my friend asked.
“Forgotten Allam?” I asked too, although I myself had remembered him only just then.
“Can anyone even forget Allam?” my friend said. “But how come you remembered that poor soul at this moment?”
The man was inching closer to us. When a distance of only a few steps remained, I took a good look at him. His face did not match Allam’s at all. With his long black shirt’s loose sleeves rolled up till the shoulders and collyrium smeared in his large eyes, the man seemed akin to a custodian of some shrine. He came close to us and passed by. My friend was saying something. I turned my attention towards him. He again said the same thing:
“Can anyone even forget Allam?”
“I had forgotten him',' I said.
“And his son? Forgot him too?”
“His son? Oh, that wolf? Yes, I remember. He had bitten you.”
“Almost peeled away a piece of my flesh, the damn wretch! Here, look”, he showed me the mark of the wound on his right wrist. After that we began to talk of Allam. Many things I myself had remembered, some my friend reminded me of. One thing that I reminded him of was that Allam always wore a kafni of black cloth.
He sometimes used to come to my father, and if he found me playing near the gate, he would call out from a distance and say:
“Young Master, tell the deputy sahib Allam the rascal is present at your service.”
My father was not a deputy of any kind. He taught in the biggest school in the city. In accordance with the grandeur of the school, his lifestyle was in the manner of superior government officers and he always went out from the house in his personal carriage. That is why the people in our neighborhood, who mostly were of ordinary status and with little education, called him ‘Deputy Sahib’. When I would inform him of Allam’s arrival, he would come to the verandah to meet him and, sometimes standing in the verandah, while sometimes making him sit in an outer room, would talk to him for a long time. In our home too he would mention him and say that Allam was a friend of his boyhood and for some days had been his classmate as well. From him only did I find out that he was the son of a famous and well-respected religious family of the city, and was quite clever in his studies but had fallen into bad company. Defeated by his continual disobedience and insubordination, his father threw him out of the house, and then declared his disowning him. After this, his hooliganism kept increasing and now he usually would be seen along with a gang of the city’s notorious rascals. These were law-breaking men. Kidnapping women was their special job, and wrapped up in their conspiracies, sometimes Allam would also be imprisoned in the police lock-up. He would somehow or other send information of this to our place, and my father would get him released on bail. After getting out from the lock-up he would come straight to our place and, seeing me playing at the gate, would say that one same thing:
“Young Master, tell the deputy sahib Allam the rascal is present at your service.”
But in appearance he did not look like a rascal. At least to me he merely seemed to be some mysterious man. His black kafni, black tehmet, and thick round black beard would not allow any surmise to be made about him, and in that state, he could have seemed like some harmless man, but in his hands he always kept a small hatchet. Over the hatchet’s blade a sheathing of black cloth was always covered. Probably no one had ever seen the blade uncovered, but this everyone knew, or understood, that the hatchet he kept close was for defence against the animals of the jungle, and from that only it became known to me that in the vicinity of my city there were jungles as well.
From those jungles he would catch many kinds of animals and bring them to the big bazaar. Maybe that itself was his profession. I would often see him standing at his regular spot, holding a rope tied to some dozing animal’s neck or waist, with people having formed a crowd around him. I would also enter into that crowd and stare at every animal with amazement. One day I saw a bijju with him, about whom it was famous that it would enter into fresh graves and feed on the flesh of the dead, which is why it was also called a qabr bijju.The hedgehog too I saw near Allam only, and found it smaller than I had imagined. Till that time, I had seen with the roadside medicine sellers only the quills of hedgehogs, which were used in magic charms and witchery. I saw near Allam many other animals as well, some among whom I had heard only the names of, some whose even names I had not heard, and some whose names even Allam himself did not know.
One day I saw him standing at his regular spot in this condition: a coil of rope was swung around his shoulders whose both ends were dangling over his chest, on his face and hands there were long-long scratches, the kafni too was torn in many places, and, with great enjoyment he was narrating that inside a dark cavern of the jungle he had sensed a slight footfall, and he fearlessly entered the cavern. He was trying to see in the darkness, when suddenly some animal pounced on him and, after scratching and mauling him, disappeared into one of the inner curves of the cavern.
“So I too took the path back home”, he said, stroking his hatchet, “but walking back I did tell him that ‘Uncle, today you got me, but I won’t leave you. I’ll come again and get you too. For now, go back to your hideout in peace.”
And sure enough, next week around him a greater crowd than ever before had gathered. From the chatter of the crowd I came to know that Allam had caught that animal. People were trying to identify the animal. I had attempted to enter the crowd but I was stopped; indeed, that day no child was being allowed to enter the crowd. Standing to one side, I was trying to guess the shape of the animal from the conversations of the people, but nothing could be known to me except that its paws were of a peculiar kind and like the other animals brought by Allam it too was dozing, and that it is a female. Suddenly, I heard cracked screams and people began falling over each other. In this stampede, Allam’s voice became loud and resonant:
I got so scared from that stampede, and even more than that from those beastly screams, that I ran straight back home.
That perhaps was the last occasion when Allam had brought some animal from the jungle to the bazaar. After that, I saw him four or five times after long intervals, wandering here and there, all alone. Towards the end his beard had become scraggly and somewhat unsightly, and while walking he had started to totter a bit. He had stopped coming to our place as well. In the big bazaar, I had started to observe new people of interest to me. Now the thought of Allam occurred to me only at those times when, occasionally while walking on my way I would see his son. He had grown up into a young man and was starting to closely resemble his father.
This son of his was my age. Among those boys of the neighborhood with whom I used to play in my childhood, sometimes he too would be there, but our group would always stay at a distance from him, because he would get angry very quickly and in the mutual fistfights amongst us, he would end up biting his rivals. Among us kids, no one knows how, a story became infamous that only a few days after he was born, wolves had carried him away. For many years Allam kept going to the jungle and searching for him, and finally one day rescued him back from the wolves. Some older boys of our group went as far as to say, indeed claimed to have seen with their own eyes, that even after being taken home, till many days Allam’s son would walk on all fours and eat nothing except raw meat. Another boy said that around that time near Allam’s house the imprints of a wolf’s paws were found, and ever since that time Allam started to keep a hatchet with him at all times. We decided that the boys were absolutely telling the truth, and started feeling afraid of Allam’s son. But I never had any fights with him. He himself never bothered with me, maybe because of the reason that sometimes he too with his father came to our place. Sometimes he would come alone as well and tell my father:
“Father’s locked up.”
As some time of his youth passed, his beard became quite thick and round, and he had started wearing a black kafni now and then. Seeing him at that time, it would seem as if Allam had turned from old to young. But I never used to have any greetings with him; in fact, now he perhaps did not even recognize me anymore, and with indifference used to pass close by me.
After that, maybe only one or two times have I had the passing thought that Allam’s son too is not seen around anywhere.
In my heart of hearts I was feeling glad that some of my memory has returned to me, and I started making an effort to remember some other things of those times, in which I was even having a kind of nominal success. Just then, I suddenly realized that my friend had departed from me at some turn in the bazaar. It had been quite late since I had gone outside. Keeping in mind the concern of my family members, and partly because of the increasing dimness of the air, in which things in the distance were not clearly visible to me, I walked back with brisk steps. Just after going a bit further than the square nearest to my house, I saw on the other side of the street that custodian-like man, or rather I should say his clothes, one more time, and one more time I had the suspicion that he was Allam, and one more time I laughed to myself. Then I remembered Allam’s son and my laughter disappeared on its own.
The next day I saw him standing at the same spot. I was on the other side of the street, but in the light of the sun I observed him a bit more closely. He was not that black-clad man with collyrium-smeared eyes, whom I had yesterday seen in the Big bazaar. Over the next few days, several times I saw him silently standing at his regular spot and casting a glance on the coming and going passersby. I also saw that he kept wearing a black kafni. But one or two times when I passed close by him, he glanced at me indifferently, just the way he looked at other passersby.
Around that time, one of the children in my family told me that on the street I keep talking to myself as I walk. This was bad news that my family members had, perhaps knowingly, kept hidden from me. I found people who talk to themselves eccentric, and more than eccentric, foolish. I ceased going out, and even when I did go out, the whole way I would keep focusing only on whether I have been talking to myself. In doing so, I would often not have any idea of my surroundings.
One day I was returning home. Advancing a bit further than the square, suddenly I had the suspicion that just now I had said something to myself. I stopped abruptly and started thinking what it was I had said. Just then I heard behind my back a voice: “May you remain safe! May you remain safe!”
Then the sound came of some wooden thing falling, and I turned around and looked. The man with the kafni, greeting me with both his hands, was advancing towards me, but after a mere couple of steps he staggered, and it appeared as if he was wanting to go in many directions at once. Then he fell on the ground. Many passersby rushed towards him. I rushed too. With difficulty, we picked him up and made him stand. But his entire body was trembling and in that state he, as if to himself, said: “I can’t walk. I just stand.” Then he started reeling and becoming a bit light-headed.
No one among the passersby knew him, and no one could understand what to do with him. Finally, I said: “I know him. Please take him to my place.”
Those people knew me. Many men, nearly dragging him along, brought him to my house, and I made them seat him in a chair.
After those people had gone away, I was thinking of something to say to him when, still sitting, he began bending towards one side in such a way that two legs of the chair lifted up off the floor. I rushed forward to stop him from falling. He too made some effort and steadied himself, and said:
“I can’t sit either. I just stand, or can lie down.”
In the room there was nothing to lie down on. I was thinking that I should have someone bring a cot from inside the house or spread some bedding on the floor of the room. Meanwhile, supporting himself on me, he stood up, and after straightening his body, said:
“Now let go.”
His body shivered slightly, and I asked:
“You won’t fall down, would you?”
“No, I’ll stand.”
“If you would like to lie down, then the bedding”
“No, I’ll stand.”
I very slowly let go of him. And indeed, he stood up firm on his spot, and then somewhat in a tone of pride, said:
“Whole day I can stand like this.”
My problem was that I did not feel as much fatigue while continuing walking as I felt while standing. But I suppressed the desire to sit down in the other chair and asked him:
“Since how long have you had this problem?”
“Been many years”, he answered nonchalantly.
After that, for a long time he kept squinting his eyes and looking at the room. At last he said:
“It has changed.”
“Times have changed too.”, I said, and then asked, “How’s your father?”
“My father? He has been dead since long.”
“What had happened to him?”
“Just old age”, he again answered with the same nonchalance, once again ran a glance over the entire room, and said:
“It has changed a lot. When I used to come here….”, then he changed the subject and said, “I can see very less too.”
Has this man accepted every reality? I said to myself and felt somewhat envious of him, and then asked:
“Over there, who had…..you come to the square with?”
“Yes”, he said, startled, “She must have come to take me. She must be getting worried.”
“Shall I send someone to look for her?”
Right then, in the verandah there was a footfall and a boy of the neighborhood peeked into the room through the open door and said to someone,
“He’s right here. Here, standing.”
Behind him a burqa-clad woman was there. The boy went back, and hesitantly she entered the room. As soon as she saw my guest, she said in a slightly satirical tone:
“You’ve just made me worried to no end. From now on just stay at home only.”
“So what?”, he said with tranquility. “This too is our home”. Then he pointed towards me, “He has done us many favors. When I was locked up in this business with you, then he only had bailed me out.” At that point the woman greeted me.
In the verandah there was a footfall again. The boy of the neighborhood entered the room. In his hand, there was a hatchet with its blade covered in a sheathing.
“This had fallen over there”, he said, and after handing the hatchet in the hands of the woman, returned back.
I stood silent for a long time. He too was quiet and standing perfectly straight, but his head was bowed and eyes were closed. I looked at him closely, then I heard the voice of the woman:
“Wake him up. He falls asleep like this, standing up.”
I was not surprised. A pahadi watchman in my neighborhood also used to fall asleep for some time standing up, and used to say that in two or three naps like these his entire night’s worth of sleep gets completed. I looked towards the woman. She seemed to be in a hurry to return, but still I asked her:
“Where is his son nowadays?”
“All this trouble is his doing only.”, said the woman, “he slept at home one night, and in the morning the bed was empty. From that day, to this day, he goes out to search for him only. He can’t walk, I somehow hold him and take him outside. Sometimes on this street, sometimes on that street, for hours he keeps standing. Insists on going to the jungle too. Tell me, from where would I bring a jungle for him now? A long time ago he used to bring animals from the jungle. One time some animal had……”
He was still dozing, but now he got startled and irritated, said to the woman:
“What are you telling him, doesn’t he know?”
The woman fell silent. I asked:
“Where does he stay?”
The woman said that his house was in an alley just behind my house itself, and that more than half of it had collapsed. The way to reach till the house passed through many alleyways. The woman described its location in detail but I forgot it before I could even memorize it. At the back of my house, a veritable network of narrow, dimly lit, and some roofed alleys had spread out. Of those alleys and roofs, some I had only heard the names of, and some whose even names I had not heard. I recalled my late father’s saying - that the alleys of our neighborhood are tangled like the human brain, and some stranger, after getting trapped in that labyrinth, cannot get out by himself. I was already feeling myself being trapped in that labyrinth, or rather, remaining unsuccessful in efforts to get out of it. Just then the woman said to him:
“Alright, now are you coming along or not? Don’t you see since how long the poor man’s been standing?”
“Much obliged, much obliged”, he said, greeting me with both hands, and taking the support of the woman, started walking out of the room, then suddenly stopped, and, stretching his hands here and there, he said in an anxious tone:
“Here it is, with me”, the woman said, and handed over the hatchet to him.
Till the gate I accompanied both of them. Even as he was going, he was saying something, but his voice was somewhat muffled. Perhaps he was even giving me blessings. I only remember this much that upon reaching the gate he had said:
“Didn’t see the Young Master. By now, he must have grown up, God be praised!”
Text copyright © The legal heirs of Naiyer Masud 2022
Translation copyright © Uday Kanungo 2022
Naiyer Masud was an Indian scholar of Urdu and Persian Literature, a short story writer, and a translator of notable literary works. He was born in Lucknow, and spent almost all his life in the city, working in the University of Lucknow as a Professor of Persian. His most famous short story collections are Ganjifa, Itr-e-Kafoor, Simiya, and Taoos Chaman ki Maina. For the last, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for it in 2001, and the Saraswati Samman in 2007.
Uday Kanungo is a writer and translator whose fiction has been featured in Indian Quarterly and The Bombay Review. He has also written reviews and essays for publications such as Newslaundry, The Hindu, and others, and he was the winner of the Toto Award for Creative Writing in English in 2022.