The way it was: Not a shoe to wear —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The proud young lad, with the physique of a Greek god, turned his head left and right in a sympathetic rhythm, admiring his sizeable biceps. For years we frequented the place not just for his lassi but the way he would fix it

Abdul Butt is a rare Butt, who earns his livelihood in a village. A Butt is fundamentally an urban animal and not a rural bird. They like to show off and this is best done in town. I distinctly remember a fair muscular youth on Beadon road who fixed you the best lassi in town. If you churn the yoghurt a few extra times, scabs of butter start to form, which can ruin the smooth consistency of the lassi. They irritate the gullet when the lassi is downed.

Lassi has to be right. It should neither be too thin nor too thick or puffy, and should always be served in a tall glass, frothing at the mouth. The fair youth, obviously a Butt, wearing a neat vest sat on the front platform of the entrance to the Amritsari Sweets, which was considered a top mithai shop in early 1960s. The platform, as is the honoured custom, encroached upon the road in friendly companionship with the crowded street. Squatting on a cushion, he would be in a commanding position to address his clients as well as the robust silver tumbler in which he mixed the ingredients for lassi. The posture also gave him a better perspective for admiring his biceps when he churned the contents.

While rotating the madani (churner) between his palms he naturally had to move his arms forward and backwards. This alternative movement encouraged him to make his bicep muscles pop up and down. The proud young lad, with the physique of a Greek god, turned his head left and right in a sympathetic rhythm, admiring his sizeable biceps. For years we frequented the place not just for his lassi but the way he would fix it.

One of Abdul Butt’s nephews developed into an excellent Kabaddi player and made it to the Tehsil team. With his physique and speed he could have easily made it to the district team had he not fallen into bad ways. Almost within a matter of 12 months he lost his health and the money he had saved. He is married with children and now shamelessly lives off his father and brothers.

Abdul Butt delights in making sly insinuations, which are actually quite harmless. Some of his conversation can be extensions of akhwans and homilies; while on other occasions he can recount actual episodes and incidents from which Abdul Butt draws meaningful conclusions about the conduct of the principal character. Here is one, which he recounted the other day.

There was an old man named Baba Boora. His four wives, each successively married after the death of the previous one, had all failed to bear him an issue. The fourth still lives with her relatives in another village. While Baba Boora lived he exercised considerable influence over the conduct and affairs of his village. He was a compassionate man and tried helping the poor. He was ingenious and could make profit out of his investments for poverty alleviation. He would for instance purchase sheep and deliver them to anyone he found sitting idle on the terms of Pukka Hadyara.

Pukka Hadyara means that after deducting the actual cost, the remaining amount is equally divided between the two parties. Baba Boora also held a considerable acreage of joint property, which he had parcelled out to suppliant peasants on the bases of sharecropping — one third of the produce would be delivered to Baba Boora, as rent for the land. According to Abdul Butt, he also owned innumerable heads of cattle that were fed and milked by his tenants for the benefit of his patronage.

Baba Boora never liked to wear a shirt and sat wearing a venerable white lungi on a bare charpoi, enjoying the bovine odours, puffing a hookah. The hookah strapped of its decorative trappings by time, now looking as amiable but grey as Baba Boora himself. There were always a few local characters and sodden peasants about him, who needed his favour or advice on one thing or another. Being a village elder he was reputed for settling disputes, mostly in favour of the person he wished to oblige who more often than not was usually in the right. This kept everyone out of trouble.

Boora was wise and prosperous. Maulvi Sahib always spoke well of Baba Boora. Baba Boora never forgot to send his share of wheat and munji, depending on the season, to the mosque. Though he seldom prayed he was a man of God. Unlike the new rich of today who love to display their wealth, Baba Boora out of fear of the All Mighty kept his head low. His modesty, Abdul Butt complained, often verged on thrift.

Abdul Butt has an irrepressible urge to better the world. He never seizes an opportunity to help improve social conduct and morals. He doesn’t realise that people don’t value free advice. He insists on giving it whether you like it or not.

One late Friday afternoon, to Baba Boora’s chagrin, Abdul Butt sauntered into his Dera. Baba Boora was reclining on a bare charpoi, but on seeing Abdul Butt he amiably vacated some space for him on the southern side. After a few essential social inanities had been exchanged, Mr Butt was extended the usual courtesy of the hookah, always kept alive and taza for whoever ventured into Baba Boora’s presence. After a few brief puffs Abdul Butt pulled a few deep ones that made the embers in the clay chilam glow. Abdul Butt had not let the smoke linger for too long in his lungs but the tobacco glazed his eyes. Abdul had come on a mission. He was not there for an idle chat or for the pleasure of Baba Boora’s company, which was always absorbing.

Baba Boora knew how to hold every one’s attention. He had a resounding voice with a tone of finality. It was best not to publicly disagree with him. His conversation was irresistible, soothing, and spiced with wise asides. “Baba! God has blessed you with everything” said Abdul Butt displaying his pink toothy gums, “Why don’t you build a school for the village?” Baba Boora, seated on a bare charpoi was taken by surprise but unruffled he replied without wasting a second, “Son look at my feet, I don’t even have a pair of shoes to wear! How can I build a school?” Abdul Butt was for once silenced.

A few days later it so happened that Baba Boora for reasons of old age took a bad turn and passed on, as we must all, to Heavens. Abdul Butt was there at the funeral. Abdul confirms sadly that Baba Boora on his last journey was indeed without a pair of shoes. Abdul swears that he saw it for himself. I can’t say how far all this is true. Abdul has rarely anything nice to say about others.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist