One narrow gali separated my father's family home and my mother's family home in Old Lucknow, and in that 4-feet-wide alley, more often than not, sat Ghulam. Ghulam, the morbidly obese cross between Jaba the Hut and a (not so) Laughing Buddha who'd pull his charpai bed out from the dank decrepit hole-in-the-wall his family called home, a charpai that would almost barricade the gali with the three tiny gutters running across it, gutters that I'd learned to intuitively skip over during power cuts in the night the way you memorise phone numbers by the movements of your fingers over the dialing pad, gutters that I still expertly skip over in my dreams even though I hear that they've now covered them up. In my dreams, the filthy gutter waters still flow free, and it's always a nighttime power cut.
The mention of the word 'ghulam', in any context, still sends panicky stabs of terror in my heart. The village women who worked in the mohalla neighbourhood - cooking and taking care of their employers' children - had somehow discovered that all children lived in pure unadultered fear of the very sight of Ghulam. We were often warned that he would appear if we didn't eat our food or take our afternoon naps. I remember being 5 years old and sitting on the lap of Rukhsana who smelled like mould and sweat and skin like all the other village women, Rukhsana whose hair and skin were the colour of lead, Rukhsana whose royal Bactrian namesake had married Alexander the Great, Rukhsana who was my makeshift nanny that summer when my family visited India. "Ghulam aa jaayega," she'd told me. Ghulam will come! I forgot to blink and my mouth hung open as the consequences of any bad behaviour from me paralysed me with fright.
If any of us children ever spotted Ghulam while we yelled and played and ran about the mohollah, if any one of us even spotted the slits for eyes and the paan-stained thin-lipped mouth that never moved, if his bloated still face showed up at any window, the afternoon game would be abandoned and we'd run for our lives, screaming, all legs and arms as we'd dive into the nearest house in the moholla where everyone was related to one another. "Kya baat hai, bacchon?" What is the matter, children, and we'd shush and plead the owner of our refuge to please let us hide under the takhat bed, in the dark kothri closet, in the spacious ghusalkhana bath, all 5, 10, 15 of us, Ghulam is outside! Didn't you know, he ate raw eggs! None of us ever mentioned it, but he probably ate children too, or something much worse.
I was marching home from my mother's home to my father's home once in my 10th year. I swerved right to enter the narrow gali and froze. Ghulam had his charpai out in the middle of the gali. He was sitting on it in all his jaundiced slow-motion glory. He turned his head sleepily and looked at me. His mouth moved and I heard his barely-audible lethargic voice for the first time. I saw he had small yellow teeth with brown cracks in them.
His charpai almost barricaded the whole width of the gali. Whenever someone did that, you'd have to squeeze between the wall of the gali and the charpai in order to pass through.
I'd have to approach Ghulam, squeeze past his charpai as he sat there motionless, looking at me stupidly as I passed by him as close as just a foot away. Close enough for conversation, for sharing the same breathing space. It was claustrophobic. The short gali seemed to stretch out in front me into forever. I could see the entrance of my father's home a few meters in front of me, but Ghulam sat there right in the middle of my path. There was no other way for me to reach home except through the gali. I'd have to do it.
I turned and fled the other way, back to my mother's parents' home where I'd been playing that morning, holding back tears in my eyes and an inconsolable wail in my stomach. I refused to pass by Ghulam even with another adult accompanying me. I wanted to go home to my parents but I couldn't, because Ghulam was out there. He'd looked at me directly, he'd seen my face, he now knew who I was. I was done for, my life was over.
I saw Ghulam once when I was visiting India in my late teens. He was still there on his charpai in the gali, and he seemed like he was wasting away. He was still overweight but he was beginning to look like an old balloon that's started to deflate. I wasn't frightened of him, but I had come upon him suddenly, and my first reaction was my primal one, to fight or to flee, or possibly roll over and play dead until he went away. But my mother and I passed him by. My mother even asked him how he was doing. Turns out he wasn't doing so well. He had a lot of health problems. My mother later laughed at my reaction to him, and told me that Ghulam was as harmless as a kitten and probably only 10 years older than I was. I was surprised, he had always been ageless to me, unchanging, like a mountain or a story.
Ghulam's parents found him a wife. I don't know if he had children. I heard he'd lost all his money betting on cricket games. That was some time ago though. I heard he died last week. He'd been very ill.