I heard the snow being crushed under someone’s feet. The night was silent, although the wind made a hissing sound as it blew across the street. I could still hear the footsteps.
I looked out the window. The snow had stopped. The footprints were still there. But the traveller had gone, disappeared into one of the side streets.
“Hatred is not an alternative for love, but he thinks if there is another war, his side could win,” my friend was reading his “A Short Poem for My Neighbour.”
His name, I do not want to reveal because that will show whether he is an Indian or a Pakistan. And this he does not want. It is not because he hides his nationality. He is proud of what he is. He just does not want this poem to be tied to a particular country.
So every time he reads this poem, he asks the audience not to identify him as an Indian or a Pakistani. “It will prevent me from reaching that neutral point in your heart I want to reach,” he argues.
So I have to respect his wish while translating this poem, which is much more effective in its original form.
“He thinks if he burns down my home, he can go back and sleep peacefully in his,” the poet read from a paper he was holding.
“But how is it possible? When a fire rages, sleep disappears, when flames soar, they burn all homes,” he read.
“Whether it is your courtyard or mine, they will all burn, whether those playing inside are your children or mine, they will all become homeless,” he said.
“If you burn down my home, one day, you too will be sitting on the pavement, thinking that hatred is not an alternative for love.”
When he finished, I said to him, “Poet, no home is on fire but you probably will have to sleep in my apartment tonight. You have missed the last train and I know that like all poets, you cannot afford a cab.”
The poet, I will not call him a kavi or a shaer because that too will give away his nationality, laughed and said: “It was already written that I will spend this night in your apartment, so I could not have slept anywhere else.”
I have never seen a person who is more at ease with himself than this poet. Nothing disturbs him, snow, heat or storm. Nothing scares him, not even nightmares. Although he believes in ghosts and finds them “fascinating.” I doubt he has ever met one.
But he gets happy or sad very easily. A good poem, a beautiful woman, a glass of wine; all these make him happy, as do flowers, streams, mountains, the sky, clouds, deserts and snowfall.
And even an autumn leaf can make him sad.
He likes women but he is not a womaniser. Just the sight of a beautiful woman is enough to make him happy. Unlike some other men, he does not desire to possess women, most of the time he does not even feel the need to befriend them.
This does not mean that he has not had girlfriends. He has and still does. But they do not stay with him for long. And none of them left him because he was cheating. He does not.
But he does maintain a distance, even with the people he loves, including his girlfriends. We, his friends, have learned to accept it but women find it difficult.
They complain that even when he is with them, he is not with them. He is often lost in thoughts. He also has the bad habit of praising other women in his girlfriend’s presence. And often says to his girlfriend that while he loves her a lot, he can live without her too.
And when a woman realises that this is how he is, she slowly drifts away from him. He misses them for a few days and then goes back to his poems, and those of other poets. He reads a lot, mostly poetry in four different languages.
But he has one passion, a passion that never subsided in the 10 plus years that I have known him, the desire for peace, not just between India and Pakistan, but also among Arabs and Israelis and among all nations.
His family suffered greatly during the partition, some were killed, some inured. Some women were kidnapped as well and the family lost all it owned, which was never very much, while migrating from one country to another.
Yet, these sufferings did not arouse negative feelings in him. Instead, they mellowed him, made him love people on both sides of the border and ultimately, made him a poet too.
The night he stayed with me, he was in a strange mood. He read out one of Munir Niazi’s Punjabi poems for me: “What is my contribution to being what I am? I am like a listener who hears distant footsteps on a silent night. Can I say this act of listening contributed to the traveller’s pace?”
After he finished the poem, he was silent for quite a while. Then he asked, “Are all our efforts useless? Can we not make any difference?”
I said I believed we could and tried to argue with him but he remained silent.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He was silent for a little while more and then said: “My grandfather, who was born on the other side of the border, died last week without fulfilling his last desire.”
This made me silent too. I knew what his grandfather’s last desire was. I too had tried to help him achieve it. He wanted to visit the city he was born in at least once before his death but in 1947 he had migrated to other side of the border.
We all tried to get him a visa but failed. The embassy of the country he wanted to visit needed a valid reason for issuing him a visa. He had to have a relative, a close friend, or some official reasons such as business. He had none. He could not even fake one because they needed an address that they could check.
The visa officer refused to accept our argument that he wanted to visit the city he was born in before he died. “While I sympathise with him, it does not meet the visa requirements,” the officer argued.
So we decided to use the back channels, and such channels always work in South Asia. We approached a senior official, through another senior official who was the cousin of a friend, and he agreed to help. We were very hopeful that we will get a visa for him.
But his other visa expired before this one came. He was already in late 80s.
“He could not fulfill such a simple desire, what a shame,” said the poet.
“Perhaps, they will make him a replica of his city in the hereafter,” I tried to comfort him.
“Replica of a city that only existed in his dreams?” asked the poet.
“Perhaps,” I said.
“Yes, perhaps we can also have peace in this world one day,” he replied.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.