The Old Man

October 24th, 2020 / 01:49 PM

The warden of the hostel was rumored to be a hot-headed person. We had never seen him. When the hostel was constructed many decades ago, it was designed in a way that the only entrance to the warden’s residence was from within the hostel premises. As anyone with a Government job in this country is a tiny God in his self, many Gods who were appointed as the wardens kept adding their own colors to the structure. That is how a gate at the backside of the warden’s bungalow was made. It was an ugly design choice but it made all those who remained in authority escape at the time of need. They used that gate to come and go instead of the main gate which the students expected would be used but wasn’t. That is how we never saw our first and third warden. They had corrupt, money slurping clerks who helped students in exchange for money, a portion of which landed in the warden’s pockets. One of the warden before my time at the hostel was rumored to be a strict pro-religious fanatic who was strictly against the use of VCRs in the hostel premises and anyone whose room was found to have one was expelled from the hostels. VCRs were replaced by DVDs and by the time phones became the hub for videos on demand, my hostel days were over. The first warden was too irresponsible. That is what I feel even today. When the rooms were allotted to the freshmen, he pushed four boys in one room. We were told that it was a temporary move and it would last until the seniors would leave the hostel in the coming days when everyone was supposed to be reshuffled. I, however, was lucky enough to have just two more roommates in those days. The fourth bed in our room remained empty that we started using to place our food mat on. Most of the meals were had at the mess. That bed served as our make-shift dastarkhawaan. We always wondered what our fellow would think and feel if one day we are dining on that bed and he suddenly arrived. A few weeks passed and we forgot that we were supposed to have a fourth roomie.

We were asleep in our room on a Sunday morning, after our Saturday night movie spree that happened inside our room on a rented TV and a rented DVD player. Do you remember those three in one movie DVDs? Yes, we slept to watching two back to back. Someone knocked on our door. It took us a minute to get into our senses. The first feeling that hit us was dread. We thought it was the warden who would catch us red-handed and then he would send formal letters of expulsion to our families and then our parents would come to save us. They would be disappointed in us and their trust would be broken. A lifelong disgrace for us waited on the other side of the door.

The door was knocked again.

We looked at each other. One of us who was a hafiz-e-Quraan too gathered his wits and courage and opened the door. There was no warden there. It was an old man in a formal dress. He wore glasses, a round golden frame. He looked around the age of sixty. He had a small beard that was whiter than his hair. There were some strands of grey hair on his head. His beard had none. He wore a decent dress. At that time he was not wearing the coat which was folded and rested on his arm. His shoes were polished. There was a steel pen that stuck out of his shirt pocket. He was carrying a grey colored suitcase which was made of some thick material. We watched our roommate welcome him inside. In a few minutes, we understood that he happened to be the father of a student who recently moved into the hostel just like us. As everyone is asleep on a Sunday morning, that’s why the uncle was having a tough time locating his son. He told us that his son lost his phone some days ago which is why he had been to three rooms before knocking on our door but only one of them opened before he reached our room. He told us about his son, how brilliant and how hardworking he was. He told us a description of his son but we could not guess which class fellow of ours was his son. Pre-smartphone days and he had no printed photo of his son either or the whole thing would have been easier. He told us that he brought some clothes and stuff for his son as in a few weeks it would start getting colder and his son, being a lazy son, was too careless to bring the needed stuff along with him from home. The old man had a plastic shopping bag with him too. It had some very delicious mithai that he brought from some famous shop in his city. We sat and chatted and discussed random things and ordered breakfast from outside. It was a good day. We offered the uncle to enjoy a movie with us until lunch, after which we offered to go to every single room in the hostel with him until we found his son. The third film from the three-in-one collection ended at lunchtime. Just like breakfast, we ordered the mess servant to bring the lunch into the room, which he did. Filled tummies made us sleepy and so after lunch, we slept. In a few hours, the uncle woke us to inform us that he had a call from a relative in the city and he would be going there until the evening when he will return. He asked us if any of us wanted anything from outside, he would happily bring that. It was his good manners. Then he left. Around the evening, we came to our senses. Uncle was gone. He left no contact number. We became a bit worried when the realization hit us that he left his luggage in our room. It was the era of General Pervez Musharraf and the country had seen a fair share of exploding things. The suitcase was locked. It had no name or address or any phone number on it. We three were very mixed. Our anxiety was rising by the passing time. One option was going to the warden to inform him. But then in the narration, our movie night’s consequences would come into existence. One option was to leave the room for a few hours until we find all boys from that city that uncle mentioned he hailed from. Then we would find his son based on the description of the son and the father. Or we could open the suitcase by breaking the lock. He was an old man. We could simply throw the tables on him that there was no lock in the first place. So if anything frightening was inside, it could be diffused. Another option was to take the suitcase and hide it on the roof, behind a chimney-like structure which I don’t know served what purpose. Maybe that was an extension of one of the pillars of the building they forgot to trim. If inside there was anything that could explode, then it would cause the least harm if placed behind that pillar on the roof. It was dinner time already and we were still discussing. The mess was to open right after the isha prayer but we went early to the empty mess and just sat there to kill time. Each of us was hoping that the old man would return by the time we got free from there. The hafiz said that he wanted something from the room and he would come back in a while. After mess, he left us in the hostel lawn where the farzandaan-e-farhaad and jaan-nasheen-e-majnu spent their long nights. In less than a few minutes, he came running back, his facial expressions of shock. He said nothing and asked us to follow him to the room immediately. When we went inside, the suitcase was open.

Hafiz had opened it as he could not resist the itch. Even I was confused and shocked to see the contents of the suitcase. There were crumpled newspapers and cloth pieces and some red bricks and two or three stones. There were no clothes or items of personal usage as we hoped. Our fears were getting real. That was a clear indication that the old man was not who he claimed he was and obviously there was no son of his who was to be our class fellow. What about the mithai we had eaten? Had he poisoned us already? And when we were thinking all that had occurred since morning, the poison was already in our circulation pushing us to our untimely deaths. Restlessness was gripping us tighter. We decided to ask our next-door senior to hide the TV and the DVD player and then we could go to the warden and tell him about the ordeal. After placing the stuff there, we were about to leave the room, when the door knocked again.

It was eleven o’clock at night.

As we had not seen the warden before, we could not recognize that it was him with the old man. Standing next to them was a hostel guard. Both the warden and the old man were talking as if they knew each other quite well. It meant that the warden would call us soon and take some sort of disciplinary action against us. But he left with the old man after the old uncle grabbed his suitcase, which we had already repacked just before hiding our Saturday night. The old man thanked us and asked us to visit him. We felt that he had already found his son. Then the warden asked the hostel guard to escort the gentleman to the gate and get him a rickshaw or a taxi so that he can reach the lorry adda or the railway station. The guard took the uncle and left. Then the warden asked us to go with him to his residence. There he, against all the rumors and fears, served us tea and told us the fright that still haunts me to this very day.

The old man was indeed a parent, contrary to what we had started to assume by that evening. His son also studied in the same college and lived in the hostel. But some years ago, the boy had an accident and died. After that, the old man kept coming to the hostel thinking that his son is still there somewhere. He used to knock on the doors of people and explained that he could not connect to his son as he had lost his phone some days ago. The suitcase really had had his son’s clothes at the beginning which only God knows how they got replaced by stones, newspaper rolls, and rocks. We could not take another sip of the tea. After coming back to our room, we phoned back to our homes and listened to the voices of those who define our lives.

اس واقعے کا ایک ایک لمحہ اب بھی اتنا ہی تازہ ہے جیسے کچھ گھنٹے پہلے گزرا ہو. اس بوڑھے کا چہرہ میرے ذہن سے نہیں نکلتا. محبت ایک سرطان بن کر ہماری زندگی کا حصہ بن جاتی ہے اس سے جان چھڑانے کے لیے صرف جان سے جانا پڑتا ہے. میری لاکھ کوشش کے بعد بھی میں اس قصے کو نہیں بھلا پایا. ہاسٹل کے دنوں کی یاد سے جڑی دروازے کی دستک اب بھی یہ احساس دلاتی ہے کہ شاید اب جب کوئی دروازے پر دستک دے گا تو شاید دروازے کی دوسری طرف وہی بوڑھا باپ اپنے بیٹے کے کپڑے دینے آیا ہو.

(A “mapped” writing originally which has its strings bound to Lala)