The doorbell twittered and echoed through the whitewashed haveli, whilst the sun beat down from its highest point. It was the time of the midday siesta and whilst Ghulam Mustafa lay resting his old self after eating and praying with his usual military precision, Afzal had been pottering around, straightening doilies atop bowls of fruit in the cool storeroom. Upon hearing the bell, she turned and made her way to the gates.

‘Kaaauuun? Kaaauuun?’ (Who’s there?) she called out in her aged yet tireless voice.

‘O kholi, pehhhn!’ (Open it, sister!)

Sister, hmmm, this is a familiar voice!

Drawing the latch aside she thought about how it needed a good oiling. She pulled the gate aside and saw him standing there.

He was very short, of hobbit-like stature, darkened to a deep steady glow by the sun, in his white stiff shalwar kameez and topi. His ears were very large, as was his nose. His senses were as sharp as when he was in his youth. There are more interesting things to discuss regarding his appearance, but this can wait for now.

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Although he continues to pester Afzal during his stay there, fussing over the contents and quantities of his meals (too hot, too mild, can’t eat this, can only eat that, too much, too little), she often bites her tongue and remembers how Allah had sent him to the gates of her large home, asking for some living space. She had thought to herself, after much deliberation, Allah has given me such a generous abode, a generous lot, Alhamdulillah, is there not room for this old man to stay? This old family helper? So, she decided to let him stay.

I wished he had kept a journal of his own, to record all of his exquisite stories. Patwari is the Punjabi word for a builder or architect. More often than not, it’s used in the way we use the word ‘brickie’. And Lala is simply a title used to address certain elders. Elders indeed, for although Lala Patwari’s appearance would tell you that he was in his late 60’s, he is, in fact, around 110 years old. One hundred and ten years. He claims that at the time of the partition of India, he was no less than 50 years of age.

Grandma, Nania-ji¸ knew him from when she was a young girl. He often looked after her and her siblings as a helper. He had worked in the palace of the maharaja, where my Kurdish great grandfather was once an engineer. He also made the perilous journey with them from Jammu to Sialkot. And then, my mother remembers him likewise, he was around when she and her siblings were growing up, too. ‘I remember him looking exactly as he does now’, she says, ‘and he would tell us the happenings of his life then, too.’ 

He now lives in the servant quarters of Nania-ji’s home in Sialkot, the Punjab of Pakistan (and from time to time he oils the latch). During my six-month stay out there, I was delighted by his storytelling, and dismayed at the fact that very few other people truly appreciated his treasure chest of experience. He only needs to be asked once. Then, he will relish recounting his stories, interconnected, interwoven, a stream of tales that ends only shortly before, isha, the evening prayer, when he retires up to his quarters in the tower. Yes, it is a tower. It is a short turret adjoined to the haveli, or mansion, the stairs of which he can quite fairly climb only twice a day.

From time to time, I will write about what I discovered about him; pictures; notes; descriptions; habits; traits; all that I documented, all that I researched and verified with regards to his age and, most important of all, the stories themselves. For it is up to us to ‘eternalize’ these voices. After they have wasted, they will ring haunting the living- reminding them of the fleeting haste that our souls make, and the voice it dons to speak of its stay in this place.

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