The path from the railway station to the village seemed to have hardened and tired out. It had witnessed people from all walks of life come and go. During the earlier years, Amir recollected, it had been a little track cutting through the fields, and people treading it looked rather large. It had been considerably widened now. “Or,” Amir examined his person smilingly, “perhaps people had gone narrower.”
Walking to the village with his suitcase, Amir got captured by vivid memories of his childhood days when he and his friends spent most of their time, footing this path to visit the railway station or just taking long aimless walks. His friend Swaran had a craze to see the railway engine entering the station and puffing huge smoke clouds into the clear atmosphere. Yes, he told himself, it has been a very long time indeed. He had left the village to complete schooling from a good urban institution. His father, a well-to-do farmer of the village, had kept aside a lot of his wealth to see his son walk and talk with dignity like the people in the big cities. He was always awe-struck by the talk and mannerisms of these people. “If only he could have recognised the inherent dignity the simple villagers carried!” But alas, the old man had expired before he could truly see his vision come true in respect to his son.
Amir’s stay in Delhi after his graduation in engineering, had deprived him of partaking of life in his native village all these years.
The entire village, built on a naturally elevated patch of land, looked like a picture from an album, recording all the dear old memories. Pausing, Amir placed his suitcase on the ground and silently gazed at the tree about a hundred yards away. It was here that his best friend Kartara, Swaran and he had taken a vow of eternal friendship. Thinking about it now, he was touched by the tender and innocent thoughts they had relished so many years ago. The same old child-like spirit of gaiety returned to him. He lifted his head and got a partial distant view of the village. The minaret of the old mosque still dominated the horizon. He was tickled by the remembrance of how Rashid and he, like impudent brats, always evaded a visit to it. They used to go and hide next door at Kartara’s, whenever they had heard the loud call for prayers on the loudspeaker. He also recalled Kartara once having attended the prayers at the mosque, dressed in a kurta-pajama* and a Turkish cap. Nobody had recognised him. Maulavi* Baba had taken him to be the village land officer’s nephew from the town. Those days had been replete with fun which they enjoyed so much together.
A blast of air which ruffled his hair, brought him back from the past. The village still looked very much the same except that it had expanded and projected a more congested appearance. It had been so many years since he had last been here. This was because someone from home had always kept visiting him, and as a result, not giving him an opportunity to plan a trip to the village. Amir smiled warmly and rather excitedly at the prospect of now spending a few days here. Seeing two villagers passing by, he cheerfully greeted them loudly. They looked him up and down, and then at each other, before walking away surprised at his behaviour. He was of course, a stranger to him.
Amir gave a laugh and picking up the suitcase, started walking towards the village.
A stray dog had been following Amir for quite some time. Amir paused and gave the dog a steady look. The dog also stopped at a distance from him, cautiously staring at him. “Had the dog recognised him?”, he wondered. The dog vaguely reminded him of Kartara’s young pet. His watery eyes showed a transparent blankness. Coming forward slowly and sniffing a few times, he then indifferently turned and ran back in the other direction. Amir shrugged his shoulders and walked ahead.
The prospect of meeting his younger brother Asghar overwhelmed him. His brother had always been everybody’s darling. Amir and all his friends, specially Tarun, had always been jealous of the special attention he received. “He must be the rage of the village girls these days.” Nusrat had once confided in him innocently about her plans to marry his brother- she must have grown into a lovely girl now. He quickened his pace, impatient to get back into the old world. “It’s the old world that endures,” he told himself, “Everything else changes.”
The walk in the fresh and open atmosphere had a rejuvenating effect on him. He noticed a villager approaching from behind. Instinctively, he was about to give him a joyful-wave, but the villager’s arrogant look subdued him. What surprised him was the almost nil traffic on this path, which earlier in those days had a constant flow of people, bicycles and carts.
Amir soon reached the village chowk*. The first change he noticed there was its emptiness. In one corner stood a group of four or five policeman. “Strange,” murmured Amir. The chowk* had always been the heartbeat of the village. People of all ages gathered here and openly vented their feelings. It was here that Waseem had fallen into the gutter. There! - Yes, he fell just here and broke his leg. The poor fool! Waseem and he had always been up to some mischief or the other. But the quiet that pervaded the chowk puzzled him. He looked around for somebody he could talk to. A young boy of eighteen came out of a side lane just then. Amir walked up to him and asked, “Where is everybody? - I mean all the people of the village.”
The boy stroked his sleek mustache, and looking suspiciously at him, asked, “Are you new to the village?”
Amir smiled and said, “Of course not! This is my own village.”
“Then why do you ask me? You should know.” The boy quickly walked away down the main street, not wanting to communicate further.
Amir was bewildered. Probably the urban impact had sneaked into the village also, he thought. He stood there for a while, absorbing the chowk environs, which today had an eeriness attached to it. His feet then automatically moved towards the lane which led to their house.
“Oh! To be back home!” he exclaimed. The lane still radiated a familiar coziness to him, except that it was at present devoid of life. He thought of an old trick which he and Samir played here. They used to knock at the doors and scamper away. Kartara’s mother had once caught Samir red-handed and spanked him till his bottom turned pink.
To his astonishment, all the doors in the lane were shut. Amir walked along, the child in him urging him to knock at every door as in the old days. The street almost echoed with his laugh- Here! It’s Amjad’s house! He knocked at the door excitedly. Instead of the door, a window opened after a while and a young girl’s face peeped out. Amir smiled and waved to her. But seeing him, she quickly closed the shutters. The smile on Amir’s face faded and rather taken aback, he continued walking.
Amir spotted the entrance to his house. His eyes shone. The door had been changed and the name plate was missing. He remembered that the name plate had been painted by his brother and him after a fight as to who would paint the alphabets. A nervous happiness took over him. Nobody at home expected his arrival. It was a sudden decision he had taken to visit them. He tried to visualize his mother’s reaction. Wouldn’t she go crazy with joy? And his brother? It was difficult for Amir to contain himself. All sorts of thoughts coursed through his mind.