Bhalla sahab was a dapper little man, always in immaculate suits and peering intensely through his fashionable gold rimmed spectacles. He was very popular among the students due to his conscientious, yet slightly eccentric personality. He would walk casually into the department with his hands held behind his back and looking around as if looking for something.
His name was Asghar Bhalla and he was a lecturer in the English department of the local university. He lived with his widowed mother and never socialized. He was content with his work and the company of his mother.
Shamoon had recently joined the faculty too.
Shamoon noticed that he would sit in the staff room quietly when not taking his classes and did not mingle with the other lecturers.
‘Sir, would you like a cup of tea’? Shamoon asked him as he went to the tea trolley for his tea.
‘Thank you! Yes, I would love it. Thank you,’ his eyes smiled through his glasses.
Shamoon sat down next to him with both the cups and informed him, ‘I have just joined the faculty and teach second year students.’
Bhalla sahab smiled.
Shamoon soon realised that he barely spoke and mostly communicated with his smile. It was a laugh, a grin, a broad smile or just a hint of it communicated by the twitch of his lips. His eyes were remarkably expressive; dark and twinkling with his smile or piercing and sombre.
Shamoon talk about the mundane and then touched on poetry and soon Bhalla sahab became animated. He would talk and gesticulate with his delicate, sensitive hands and move up and down while talking at length about different poets and reciting their poetry. His eyes would twinkle and glare and laugh!
Shamoon sat there fascinated. ‘What an animated and alive man,’ he said to himself; a treasure trove of knowledge and bursting to share it.
Shamoon would seek him out often after that first meeting and spent hours listening to him and watching him.
Bhalla sahab, though, always maintained a certain detachment. They never became friends.
Shamoon entered the gates of the university and walked towards the English department. He had returned after seven years to this place which was very special to him. This was where he had commenced his career, and had taught for three years; three delightful years of the onset of a journey of learning from his students as he taught them.
‘Shamoon, sir, how are you? When did you come? So good to see you,’ Awan sahab, the department’s store keeper, hailed him from his little store of stationery. He had turned into a dignified grey haired man with a slight paunch.
Shamoon smiled happily and stood with him for a while before proceeding towards the staff room.
The staff room had a couple of new faces but the old faithful remained. He was welcomed with a lot of cheer and exclamations. Somebody went to the tea trolley to get him a cup of tea and everyone talked loudly with a lot of goodwill all around. Soon the teachers started drifting towards their classrooms and Shamoon was left with the ones who resumed their work.
It was then that he saw a solitary figure sitting quietly in a corner with his hands on the table in front of him.
‘Bhalla sahab, how are you?’ He got up and rushed towards him.
Asghar Bhalla looked up and nodded with a slight twitch of his lips.
Shamoon pulled a chair next to him. He remembered with fondness their various sessions of poetry discussions in the staffroom.
Asghar Bhalla got up with a mumbled excuse. Shamoon saw him going towards the door. His arms were hanging loosely on both sides as he walked sloppily, a little unsteadily, towards the door.
Nobody paid him any attention.
Two years later Shamoon was back in the city and met an old colleague. They went into the old tea shop that was in the bazaar adjacent to the old campus of the university and ordered tea. Shamoon recalled that it was quite often frequented by the teachers and students of the few departments that had not been shifted to the new campus.
Bhalla sahab’s name cropped up during the conversation and Shamoon spoke about how he had found him so changed two years back from what he used to be a decade ago.
‘I think he didn’t quite recover from the shock of what happened to his mother,’ his colleague said.
‘They had gone to the bazaar; he had dropped his mother in front of a shop and meant to park the car when there was a bomb blast. He always said that he felt his heart had blown to pieces! Once he regained his senses he found himself sitting in his car and racing it backwards as he saw his mother running towards him in panic. He couldn’t stop the car and kept on staring at his mother and going in the reverse direction for another couple of yards and then jerked to a stop. His mother reached the car and he saw her leg covered in blood. She was terrified, her face twisted in a wordless scream; she kept moving her lips but words wouldn’t come out. They were taken to the hospital.
‘It was later discovered that his mother couldn’t talk. She had lost her speech due to the shock of the bomb blast even though there was nothing wrong with her vocal cords.
‘He was never the same after this incident and blamed himself for his mother’s loss of speech. How could he have driven away and left his mother frightened; letting her chase him in sheer panic and terror! Though he came and taught at the university as usual, he never allowed himself to forget his abandonment of his mother in a crisis.’
Shamoon listened; his tea got cold. He felt bad that he hadn’t made an effort to talk to Bhalla sahab when they had last met. He had just let him go!
‘I must see go and see him sometime,’ he said to his colleague.
‘Oh, he passed away last year.’
Shamoon stared at him. ‘How? What happened?’
‘He had a heart attack. He just didn’t wake up one morning. His old mother had passed away some years back. He was found by his servant when he went to give him his tea.’
Shamoon couldn’t speak.
‘You know, when they emptied his locker in the staff room, they found it full of empty bottles of cough syrup.’
Shahbano Alvi was born in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan and lived for several years in what was then East Pakistan. A graduate in graphic design from the department of Art and Design at the Punjab University (Lahore), she has exhibited her woodcuts and portraits in pastel both nationally and internationally. She is also the founder and publisher of the independent publishing house Ushba. She lives in Karachi and is working on her first collection of stories.