They kept talking to him in the half-bantering, half ridiculing way they considered excusable in talking to his community.
Then suddenly they all came to attention, and stood up. The High Commissioner had entered the room. He noticed the Sikh immediately, and called him into his office and asked what he wanted. He listened politely, then called one of his subordinates.
"Don't you remember, we have received a number of letters from Pakistan from people seeking any information we might have, about their relatives missing in the train accident? Bring the file here, and we'll see."
The third letter clipped in the file was from a Mr Imtiaz reporting that his wife had been in the train that met with that terrible accident. She had survived, but they had no information about the fate of their almost five year old daughter, Mona, whom they called Minnie. She had been traveling with the mother in a Second Class compartment.
The address and phone number were given.
Tears welling into his eyes, despite his efforts at self-control, Mahindar asked how he could reach the parents...
"You can apply for an urgent visa, which I will see you get in three days. Deposit the fees just now."
He went with his friend, carrying in his arms a tired and ceaselessly weeping Minnie, to a jeweller's shop in Old Delhi. He got a good price for his gold watch. He took Minnie to a toy shop and bought her a doll. He then paid the fees, and booked their seats tentatively (subject to production of the necessary visas).
For three days he cared for the child, feeding her, playing with her, lulling her to sleep, helping her to wash and dress. All the time he made himself believe he was looking after his beloved Sohini. He would sing to her in his unmusical masculine voice, the lullabies he had sung to Sohini from her infancy onwards, then pat her gently to sleep.
He used himself to put Sohini to bed every night. "I do not want her to feel the absence of her mother," he used to tell his own mother.
The day he got the visas he booked the tickets and the very next day he and Minnie flew to
Karachi. They spent the night at a run-down hotel. He entered Munni's name in the register as his daughter. He told everyone who had asked, the same thing.
Her clothes had got dirty so at night he washed her clothes using the strongly scented cheap soap in the bathroom, the lace-trimmed green dress which Sohini had worn at her uncle's wedding. He twisted the dripping garment and wrung out the water, and hung it on a hanger on the bathroom curtain rod to dry.
He procured with some difficulty from the hotel staff next morning, an old rusted iron, with which he carefully pressed out the small dress.
He could remember the time the real owner had worn it, so proudly, twirling round and round in front of him, to show off the lace trimmings.
"Sohini, oh, my darling Sohini, why have you gone away?
He had not, till this stage, told Munnie that they were at last going home, fearing some fresh disappointment. But now he told her. For the first time she threw her little arms round his neck and kissed him, a sweet moist kiss on his bristly chin.
"Now?" she asked.
Sohini used to be the same. She used to kiss him every evening when he returned from work. She would come running out to greet him. He couldn't help smiling as he remembered that she had a special interest in the daily welcome, because he always brought something for her, even if it was sometimes very small. She would thrust her little hands inside his pockets, making them more and more baggy and misshapen every day, as she probed every corner for the daily treat.
"You naughty girl," he would laugh affectionately, "you wait for me only because you want something from me."
He could still feel her little fists against his body. He could hear her excited laugh.
Ah, my Sohini! How can any one in the world take your place? How can I ever, ever stop thinking of you?
Roohi had lost six pounds in the last fortnight. There were dark rings round her young eyes. Her husband, as shattered as she by the unbelievable tragedy, tried to keep himself under control, seeing her devastated state. "Come, Roohi, you have to stop mourning for her. Allah has a reason for everything He does. No doubt she is at peace in the beautiful next world. Perhaps she is looking at us. You have your own life," he was constantly reasoning with her.
He cursed himself for having unthinkingly shouted at her when he first learned of the tragedy: "This comes of your staying back to go shopping and to enjoy yourself with your useless college friends. Had you come back with me, she would be alive today." Every time he recalled her stricken, horrified look, he wanted to cut off his tongue.
After that first and only, unthinking, cruelty, he was unfailingly patient and gentle with her. At his entreaties she would force herself to swallow down a piece of bread, or some fruit.
But she was like a lost person. She paid no attention to the housework. She never went out. She did not pick up the phone when her friends called her. She knew they would all try to give her meaningless comfort. She stopped getting up early to give Imtiaz his breakfast, which he now made for himself. She stopped praying. All the time she sat and looked out into the empty air.
Once, when she found a doll of Munnie's, left unnoticed by her sister Rabia, who had removed all of Munnie's toys from her room, she hurled it like a madwoman out of the door. "I don't want this! I don't want this! What is this doing in place of my living, breathing Munnie?"
She could sense that her husband was going silently through the same horror. He had loved his little daughter quite as much as she had. Little Minnie was such a loving and lovable child. The moment he returned from his Insurance company office, she would go flying outside to open the gate for him. "Don't let her come to the gate alone," he had cautioned Roohi frequently, "There is always the danger of kidnappers and other bestial men hanging around outside."
The bestial men had not taken her, the bestial river had.
He noticed the photo album lying on the floor where Roohi, as she did twenty times a day, had been kissing and weeping over every page.
The album was open to a full page picture of Minnie. Her round innocent eyes were shining with some excitement, her hair, which used to be so soft and light, was done up in a knot on top – what she used to call her 'palm-tree' hairdo. The picture had been taken on her last birthday.
" When is her next birthday? "
To be continued...