From morning until well past dusk, Ali Khan sold balloons, paper-toys and homemade candy to children. He toiled on his feet, from one locality to another, frequenting schools, bazaars and parks. By the end of the day, he was able to make around forty rupees, enough to buy food and the ingredients needed for making candies. Life was tough, but simple. Excepting a sister who lived in a remote village in Sindh, he had no relative. He was forty-four, had a medium built, well-defined features, an aquiline nose and thoughtful, sombre eyes. Neglect and constant contact with sunlight had made his face deeply lined adding to his pensive appearance. Without his paraphernalia he could have passed for a poet or a professor. As a young boy, he had inherited this profession from his father, who taught him selling balloons: spherical, spatula and spaghetti shaped; bunnies and bears that his skilful fingers had mastered to make from the basic material. Bringing smiles to children’s innocent faces made Ali Khan joyful. Their unspoiled purity, cheerfulness and endless energy fascinated him. He had married but had lost his wife Zohra in a road accident. She was in her sixth month of pregnancy when she got run over by a vehicle. Ten years had gone by and all this period, despite his sister's insistence he never married again. The thought of living with another woman rekindled Zohra’s memory who had given him limitless happiness notwithstanding their trying circumstances. She had a merry disposition, which, blended well with his sobriety. He was generally resigned to his solitude, but at times felt like an autumn leaf blown hither and thither by the relentless winds of fate.
On a cheerless, grey winter afternoon, dressed in his usual khaki shirt and trousers, he climbed a steep incline that led to the city’s famous park. A shabby muslin bag hung on his shoulder and his hand clutched a wooden rod which had balloons tied to it. Feeling fatigued, he found a tree-shade to rest. The traffic was sparse; he wondered if he would find any buyers. The neighbourhood belonged to upper middle-class and was a few miles from Chanesar Halt railway station where he lived. Every three to four days, he would meander through this area and sell something or the other. He liked the neat surroundings with big houses, the front-yards and the usually well-maintained lawns.
He started walking again. He had gone a few steps when the sky turned dark and it began to drizzle. Slowly the pace of rain increased. As it came like a torrent, he ran to seek shelter. He was dashing past a bungalow entrance, when a vehicle screeched and stopped a little short of him. The car was entering inside, as Ali Khan had stepped in front.
‘Sorry… I am sorry’, he said hurriedly.
‘No, no it’s okay, came a gentle voice from the rear of the car. He turned around and saw a young girl close to twenty with an old woman by her side. A boy who looked six or seven shouted from the front-seat.
‘Balloons, balloons… look… I want them.’
‘Ask him to come in’, the old woman gestured with her hand.
‘Yes Balloon Wala, come inside, Bilal wants some balloons, you are also getting wet.’ the girl said.
‘Thank you, Bibi.’ He walked into the porch with the moving car and waited for them to get out. The man behind the steering looked like their chauffer. The girl held the old woman’s hand to help her manage the veranda stairs while the young boy hurried towards Ali Khan.
‘Hang on Bilal, let Dadee** go inside. Balloon Wala, wait in the veranda, I’ll be right back.’ He stood there watching the outside landscape dissolve in rain and mist. He loved rainy season. The falling raindrops looked like pearls, a gift from the heavens showered on the weary earth to freshen it up after days of unending toil. The music of falling water and the sensuous odours rising from the rain-soaked soil always had a strange, calming affect on him.
When they returned he rose from the chair and showed the boy his paper-toys and the small variety of balloons he carried.
‘Balloon Wala, give me this, this and that,’ Bilal pointed out. As Ali Khan inflated the balloons and fulfilled his wish, the girl asked, How much is all this? Wait, I will send the money but don’t go away until the rain stops. I will also have some tea sent.’
‘Thank you Bibi; no need for tea, you’ve given me shelter, it is not suitable to ask for money in return for these balloons.’
‘You have to accept the money,’ she smiled, ‘’it’s your livelihood.’
He told them it cost only two rupees and twenty-five paisas. They disappeared again and Ali Khan thought about the girl. She was tall and slightly dark, had shiny eyes and an alluring smile. Though not beautiful, she had a presence of her own.
She returned and gave him a ten-rupee note and refused to accept the balance.
‘You’ve missed some customers because of rain, don’t return the change.’ The driver appeared with tea.
‘Thank you Bibi ji’ he said as he took the cup. ‘Wait… I’ll be right back; it just occurred to me that you could model for my assignment’,’ ‘What do you mean?’ He couldn’t make out heads or tails of what she said.
‘Hang on’, she repeated, I’ll return and explain.’
As the rain had begun slowing down Ali Khan thought he should leave. He gave the cup back to the driver, ‘I think I’ll go, it looks fine outside.’
‘Wait for a while… Ambar Bibi wants you.’ The driver replied.
There seemed to be an argument inside between the girl and her grandmother but the distance made them inaudible. After sometime, the girl appeared, her face slightly flushed.
‘Look Balloon Wala,’ she started, ‘I study art and have been given an assignment … it is like a job, a project to do a portrait of someone… in a locale… like you … it is difficult to explain. Briefly, if you agree, you’ll have to be here several times and sit in front of me while I paint your portrait. Of course, I’ll give you money, more than you would make selling balloons for this period. Then Bilal will give you extra business.’ He sensed now what the two women were squabbling about.
‘Is it fine with your grandmother?’ he could not help inquiring.
‘Yes, Dadee is extra cautious, but I have her consent, otherwise I would not talk to you. We can also arrange for your transport. The driver can fetch you from your quarters.’
Ali Khan hesitated. The girl recognizing his indecisiveness left him alone saying that she would be back soon and offered him another tea if he wanted. He pondered seriously and when she reappeared agreed to her proposition.
‘When will I have to be here? And Bibi, do not bother about my transport. I am in this area often. I’ll manage without difficulty.’
‘Very good!’ She seemed excited, ‘from tomorrow, same time then. You will have to be here for four to five sessions of forty minutes duration. I am learning to draw and paint, otherwise it could have been shorter.’
‘No problems, if I can be of service to you …’
‘Believe me it will be marvellous.’ she did not let him finish. ‘You are the best raw material for my subject. I’ll explain later.’
He left high-spirited. The girl had enamoured Ali Khan. She was bubbly, utterly simple and her animated way of talking reminded him of the melody produced by caravan bells, a long forgotten village memory.
Next day, he was there at the appointed hour. A servant led him to the front veranda. Before Ambar appeared, he brought over a stool, an easel, a large box and several paintbrushes. After a while, she came, dressed in a white outfit adorned with delicate, shimmering embroidery. She looked ravishing! ‘Come here, on the stool.’ She smiled most naturally. ‘Relax, as you normally are. I plan to do a twin-portrait, depicting two moods, one your usual self - as you always are, and one with Bilal, you handing him over balloons.’
‘I don’t understand Bibi, I’ll be the same in both scenes’, he looked perplexed.
‘You do not know Balloon Wala, what’s your name? I’d rather use that than calling you….’
‘Ali, Bibi, Ali Khan.’
‘Okay… Ali Khan, I saw a major transformation in your expression when you were giving balloons to Bilal, your eyes lit up, you looked indescribably happy; you were as excited as Bilal. I want to capture both feelings and show them on the canvas.’
‘Bilal is here only for the next two weeks or so; I want to finish this job before he leaves and then the submission date for this work is near as well.’
‘Where is Bilal going?’
‘Home? Isn’t he your brother?’
‘No he is my cousin, uncle’s son and is staying with us till his parents and mine return from Hajj.’
As Ali Khan settled on the stool, Ambar opened the large wooden box, put an apron on, chose the colours and started her work.
‘Loosen up, you look anxious… just be yourself Ali Khan’ She came close to him and with her fingers, raised his chin. Her soft touch sent a pleasant wave of shiver through him. She continued with her work looking at him and then using the brush strokes on the canvas. The lovely fragrance worn by her was lingering in the air. He could not help stealing a glimpse of her every now and then. Ambar kept saying something or the other as she painted. He got engrossed in her little tell-tales, about the college, her parents and her overprotective grandmother. She spoke to him as if she had known him for ages. He wished she never stopped. He received fifty rupees for the session, sold a few balloons to Bilal and bade farewell until the next appointment.
On the next visit, Ambar welcomed him at the gate. She wore a lively mauve floral dress. He was bedazzled by her dark hair, which hung untied on her shoulders. Preparing her paints she said, ‘don’t I talk too much? Dadee says I am a blabbermouth. You haven’t told me about your family, you have kids?’
‘No Bibi ji, my wife passed away ten years ago. I don’t have any children.’
‘Oh… I am so sorry to learn... What was her name?’ She seemed visibly moved.
‘Do you live alone now?’
‘Don’t you feel lonely…? I mean haven’t you thought of…’
‘Apa…’ Bilal barged in. ‘ Dadee wants you… now.’ Ambar’s question remained incomplete.
‘Bilal you stay here; I’ll be back in a minute…’
The second session finished followed by the third and the fourth. Ambar was kind-hearted, innocent and full of life. She brought joy to his heart as rain gave freshness to the weary earth; enlivened his jaded soul like refreshing spring breeze! His soul had languished in distress for long. After Zohra’s death, he realized first time that perhaps he had wrongly chosen to ignore his loneliness. It had been there, sitting, in one corner of his being, lacerating him from within. He felt alien, a little euphoric yet sad but chose to ignore the latter emotion. Life changed and brightened like a nova! Amber had engulfed his senses like a storm. Her presence was a beguiling fog that held him captive hindering his vision to see anything beyond. Was he chasing a mirage, an ever-eluding phantom? Immersed in an ocean of ecstasy he failed to come above the surface.
The first part of her work was ready now. Ambar was thrilled. Unable to contain herself she yelled, ‘Look Ali Khan …here… this is you! Tell me, how do you like it?’ He stood there bewildered, looking at himself on the canvas: there he was, with balloons in his hands. He thought he looked a little different in reality but found difficult to say it. The painting was done on half side, the other was half-empty. ‘It is wonderful… I don’t have much knowledge about these things but I can feel it is something real good.’
‘This is not the whole job. On the other half of canvas, which you see blank, I will paint you handing over balloons to Bilal, you will have to bring that happy expression again on your face.’
Then, Ambar made several efforts to create the blissful smile that had enticed her to choose him as a model but Ali Khan failed to produce it. He tried but Ambar insisted that it lacked the spontaneity she had first seen. Much to his delight, this increased the number of his visits.
‘For the next meeting, can you come here on Sunday afternoon?’
‘Sure Bibi, why not? Tell me the time you want me here.’
‘Say around one.’
‘Fine Bibi.’ wind
It was a cold Sunday morning. He dressed up and wound the woollen scarf his sister had knit with great affection around his head and ears. When he reached there Ambar said, ‘It is windy today, we’ll work upstairs in the studio.’
The small studio had her painting stuff scattered all over; a few reproductions lay on the floor, one or two on the window- sill. Ali Khan looked at a portrait of an old, bearded man intently, ‘Bibi, you’ve also painted this old maulvi… or is he a fakir?’ She burst into a loud, convulsive laughter and did not stop for few minutes. ‘Oh, my, my…God, Ali Khan… you don’t know… it is not your fault. I wish it were mine. This is Cluade Monet’s Self-Portrait… when he was old. Monet was a famous artist … from France; he died in 1917.’
She called Bilal and left them for a while.
‘Balloon Wala, will you also come to my house after I go from here’ Bilal asked innocently.
‘Yes Bilal, why not’
‘But I’ll miss Apa, she’s so loving I don’t wish to part with her’
‘But you can always visit her and she can come to you. Here, take this…’ Ali Khan’s hand reached inside his bag and pulled out some candies for the child. Ambar returned and saw the same expression on Ali Khan’s face that she wanted to capture so much.
‘That is it! Ali Khan, freeze this look. Keep your smile and your lit-up eyes the way they are now… I’ll manage the rest’ and she got busy with the brush and paints.
After the work got over she brought him her father’s jacket, ‘it’s unusually chilly and you are not protected enough. Keep this, you will need it.’
‘You are embarrassing me Bibi; I have a warm underclothing. It is fine.’
‘Come on Ali Khan, you have to wear this before you step out; it is too cold. Now I need you only one more time for finalizing this and then you are free, my work is almost complete. Bilal, I can easily do any time. Today was the most productive day; you produced that million Rupee smile.’ She also told him that Mr Gulgee, a well-known artist was going to visit their college and evaluate the projects. She said she was going to caption her work, The Balloon Vendor: Changing Moods and explained what it meant. His heart sank! He could not believe his ears. It would all be over! He would not see her again!
‘Where are you lost, here is your money and don’t go yet, I am sending food.’
‘Oh… I am sorry Bibi; you are obliging me too much.’ Ali Khan wanted to stay.
A day before the scheduled visit, as he was returning late night, far from his quarters, he got stranded in a downpour. There was neither shelter nor any transport in sight. He kept walking under the unceasing spell of falling waters. When he entered his attic, he was burning with fever.
The following morning every pore in his body felt sore. Barely able to move he lay helpless. He kept thinking that Ambar would be looking forward to see him but the fever persisted. On the third day of illness, Yaseen, a neighbour forced him to the Municipal Dispensary. The doctor told him it was a mild attack of pneumonia and advised him rest for two weeks. His frustration was unimaginable. Would Ambar have presented her work at college? Given it the finishing touch she said it needed without him. How would he see her again? Bilal would have returned home. Why didn’t he show the driver his place? Endless questions sparked in his mind like firecrackers in the skies.
After much needed convalescence, he rationalised the basis for his visit. There was a reason, the incomplete painting. He would go to get the portrait finished and ask for Bilal’s address where he could visit off and on. Deep down his heart was a more compelling desire, to pour his heart out to Ambar, to tell her how lonely he had been without Zohra. What a burden all these years had been! No sooner he had slept that night than he woke up. His late beloved wife had been in his dream. A pang shot through his chest. He could not sleep again. He rose from bed and opened her trunk, preserved by him like a treasure. It contained her wedding sari, few bangles and her only photograph, which was shown to Ali Khan before engagement. He took the photo out which was worn and wrinkled now, kept staring at it and then slipped it inside his pocket. ‘I’ll show it to Bibi Ji. I’ll tell her what my Zohra was like…’ he mumbled and waited for the clock to strike four, the usual hour of his visit. On his way, he stopped at Barkat Restaurant where he savoured Muska Bun (buttered-bun) with rich tea. The semi-functional TV in the restaurant started airing Meera Jee’s* lyric skilfully rendered by Nayyara Noor**. Chanchal Hansmukh Nari… Pal Mein… Dukh ki Baat Bhulaadi Saari (The blithesome, beaming damsel…In a moment, Made me forget… All my woes!). The rain…the shelter… the shimmering embroidery… the lingering fragrance mingled with paint odour… the sparkling eyes…the instinctive laughter! All came back to his mind. He only longed for one thing: to be in Ambar’s company!
He climbed the familiar slope leading to his destination. A dull, yellow sunlight sifted from a partially clouded sky. The day
was warm after rains had continued intermittently for over a fortnight. As he came within the reach of Ambar’s bungalow,
he noticed that it bore a strange look. The main gate was flung wide open. He rung the doorbell but realized the porch was empty, even devoid of the plants and flowerpots. The veranda and the lawn were bare; the cane furniture seemed to have vanished. He felt awkward, however plucked courage and entered the house. As he observed the curtain-less window-panes from the patio his heart began to beat fast. He was inside now, beyond the foyer in a huge room, unfamiliar to him. It was empty as well. His wandering eyes saw pieces of coloured paper-strips and buntings on the walls as if the place had been decorated for a celebration. On the farthest side was a wooden stand, adorned with coloured ribbons. His eyes drifted then rested on the ceiling, spotting a big, partly deflated balloon in the centre.
But the print on it was loud and unmistakable, piercing through Ali Khan’s being like a sharp rapier. He could not read but the words on it were among the few that he had learnt shortly after starting his trade. Happy Wedding! He read once. Twice. Thrice. Then all over again! Nothing changed! He was familiar with such ceremonial balloons, but their sight had never been so hurtful! He went numb with disbelief. The balloon said it all. He was still staring at it, when a raucous voice tore through his ears.
‘What are you doing inside?’ He saw a Pathan in white turban approaching him. ‘Nobody lives here’ and seeing him holding a stick decked with balloons, continued, ‘You’ll find many buyers on the street’
Ali Khan’s eyes remained glued to the ceiling. ‘What are you staring at? It’s a balloon, a wedding balloon… someone must have got married.’
‘Where’s everyone gone … where is Ambar Bibi?’ His own voice sounded strange to him.
‘I know of no bibis yara… this house was sold recently, I am the chowkidar here until the new resident arrives.’ Ali Khan staggered out of the room and unable to maintain balance, leaned against the veranda-grille. Eventually, he collected himself and came out on the street. His hand reached for Zohra’s photograph in his pocket. He clasped it tight, so tight that his fingers crumpled the wrinkled picture further. The surroundings were rocked by repeated thunders. He looked up: dismal clouds hovered over the horizon but there was no sign of rain. A solitary tear rolled down his eye.
Rewritten Dubai 2002
GLOSSARY OF Urdu Words
Balloon Wala : Balloon vendor.
Bibi : Madam
Bibi Ji : Madam
Apa : Title of respect for older sister/ older cousin sister.
Ji : Yes
Maulvi : Muslim priest.
Yara : Colloquial for pal, bloke.
Chowkidar : Security man.