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A short story by KRISHNA BALDEV VAID.

I WAS just about to get off the train when someone gripped my index finger tightly. My entire body quickened with an electric current. The hand on my finger seemed small and rough. I thought it belonged to a beggar boy. When I tried to release my finger, that tiny alien grip tightened. I became nervous but then I got angry with myself: Why do I turn every little event into a major disaster; some poor fellow passenger's little boy must have mistaken my finger for his father's and the moment he realises his mistake, he'll let go my finger and grab his father's. It was difficult to stop because the mad rush of the passengers trying to get off and on the train swept us along, so while being pushed and shoved I looked down and was greeted by the faint smile of a dwarf. My mouth twisted into an ugly wrinkle. Many dwarfs of the circus, cinema, and literature flashed across my mind; so did some long-forgotten stories about the Vaman avatar heard long ago. A shiver did run up and down my spine but there was something in that dwarf's smile now that untwisted and unwrinkled my mouth and softened me. Just as I sat down to talk to him, someone kicked me and remarked: "Look at the dwarf sahib and his father blocking everybody!" I jumped down to the platform and pulled the dwarf — still clutching my finger — after me. I stepped out of people's way and crouched down on the platform. My finger was still in the dwarf's grip and he was still smiling. He must have hurt himself while being yanked off the train but he obviously didn't wish to let me know. Dwarfs are often quite vain. I was hoping that he'd release my finger now, shake hands with me, thank me for helping him off the train, and leave both of us free to go our separate ways. I didn't know my way. I'd stepped off the train at that station out of sheer boredom. All my belongings were stuffed into my pockets — I didn't remember where and when I'd thrown my suitcase and handgrip. Fear suddenly flared in me — Suppose, before going his way, the dwarf asked me why I'd stuffed so much junk into my pockets. Had he done so, I wouldn't have been able to produce an answer. I can't seem to answer any question these days because every answer appears to be false, more or less, and every question wrong and unnecessary, more or less. So, there I was, crouching next to that stranger, a dwarf, waiting for him to release my finger so that I could think about my next move. "I teach in a school." There was nothing dwarfish about his voice. "Once upon a time, for a short while, I also taught in a school, in the same school where I'd studied a few years earlier." "I teach in that very school." At this I jerked my finger free rather forcefully and stood up. As his smile burst into a laugh, I noticed that his teeth were like yellow worm-eaten grains. "What do you mean?" "I mean, I teach in the school where you once taught and also studied once upon a time." "But that school is on the other side, in Pakistan." "I live on the other side, in Pakistan." I fell into a reverie. So this fellow had come from Pakistan. He recognised me but I couldn't recognise him. I tried guessing his age. It wasn't easy. First time I was trying to guess a dwarf's age. "How long will you be here?" "Here?" "In this city? In this country?" "In which country?""In India, of course?"His laughter baffled me."You don't seem to understand. We are in Pakistan right now." I realised that he'd turned Pakistan into a symbol of my ghostly past or, perhaps, my ghostly past into a symbol of Pakistan. Truly speaking, I hadn't realised anything; I was only trying to figure it all out and failing."You are really in Pakistan right now." This time he'd sounded like a child, like an old, old child. He changed into a mirror under my ferocious glare, a mirror in which I could see myself as I had looked at the time I'd taught for a short while in that school, now in Pakistan.Where I had once been a student.(First published in Hindi, 1995. Translated by the author. Edited by Mini Krishnan.)



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