By Shaheda Rizvi
Editor’s Note: Shaheda Rizvi lives in Montreal, Canada. She narrates the tragic story of a Pastry Man who used to visit her house in Westridge, Rawalpindi in 1956.
While living my own challenges, I have often thought of my childhood city, Rawalpindi, of kind souls, and unsaid good-byes. With that came many other thoughts, of friends, of schools, of flowers, of fruits, of roads and bridges, of houses and more, and then of folks who left a permanent image on a young psyche. Image of gentleness, of kindness, of modesty, of sensitivity, of deep secrets, and of sorrows unexpressed.
We always called him ‘Our Pastry Man’. A very gentle and soft-spoken man who wore a smile each time we jumped with joy, watching him walk the gravel pathway from the gate to our house. His eyes would light up knowing well that we wanted all his pastries, but must choose just one.
We lived at 125 Westridge Road in a lovely house given to us by the Pakistan Railways. The house was situated on a large estate in the Westridge Section of Rawalpindi. As a child I was told and later I read that all the large houses on Westridge Road, once belonged to rich families, mostly Sikh families who left Pakistan for India at the time of Partition.
It was usual for him to enter through the side gate. Looking at the Google map, it appears to me that the road has been renamed as Zahid Baig Shaheed Road. He always exited from the front gate connecting the Westridge Road.
The year was perhaps 1956. Once or twice a week, our Pastry Man, worn by the weight of the load on his head, visited our house. The load was a result of a heavy tin trunk, silver or slightly rusty- grey in colour, which he carried every day for about eight hours a day.
The tin trunk hid the most magical pastries. I can’t even describe them. Some layered with light pink frosting and a touch of lemon, some yellow with white flowers, some white with pink pansies. All meticulously settled on trays, that rested firmly within the trunk. My mother would buy each of us a pastry and would tell the Pastry Man to return after a gap of two or three days, which he did, very promptly, always wearing the same sweet smile and asking us, to choose our favourite one. My mother ran a sort of credit with him, and paid him at the end of the month.
Our Pastry Man stopped at a few other houses along Westridge Road as he exited our house, and some houses along the railway tracks, up the hill, and then down the hill, past the Railway Hospital. At the Railway Hospital, he had a few permanent customers and many temporary ones, I think. I often wondered whether he rested under our Peepal (Banyan) tree. Some days he traveled as far as the Railway Station, which was about three miles from our house. I know in my heart that while walking from house to house, with his gentle gait, he wished that folks would buy that which was in his tin trunk, and perhaps lighten his burden for just a day.
We had been waiting for a good half hour and no Pastry Man. That had never happened in over a year since his visits began. He had neither been late nor absent, ever. “Probably he has come down with some flu or cold”, I heard someone say.
I imagined he might have rested under our 200-year-old Peepal tree, and perhaps overslept, and will soon be at the gate. But no, days passed into weeks, and no Pastry Man. And then one day, he was at the gate. I saw him, walking down the long driveway and a cold chill went through my heart. The tin-trunk with its magical inhabitants no longer occupied its familiar seat. He walked laboriously, more like an old man, who had lost his best friend and wanted no more of this earth.
Within minutes we were around him, asking him a hundred questions: where is the Sandooq ( the tin trunk), had he been sick, had he gone away, and the more we queried, the sadder and graver became his face, until he could not stand the pain and wept like a child who had lost his favourite toy. He said that his Sandooq was stolen and that the bakery owner wanted him to pay for the Sandooq, plus he had lost his job, and had not a penny for food. He asked my mother if she could pay him the credit she owed. She promised to do so on his next visit because she had none to pay then.
And so, days passed into weeks, and our Pastry Man did not appear at the gate and then one day my mother told us that our Pastry Man had committed suicide. We lost his memory while living our own challenges, moving away from Pindi to a larger more congested city was the first challenge, and many others followed. I had forgotten him along with everything sweet that Pindi was, the scent of Apricot trees, when laden with pink and white Apricots; the Apricot blossoms, that promised fresh fruit each year, and of course our Peepal tree.
Lately, as I recall my childhood stories for my children, this great soul, that is, our Pastry Man, has started revisiting me often. How often I can not say, but with each visit my heart longs for Pindi, and with each visit his pain seems to own me, and with each visit I wonder whether our Peepal tree cried out for him as it too was being chopped off for developers to build a hundred new homes on that sacred soil.
I am extremely thankful to Brig (R) Tariq Saeed (2nd SSC), who lives in Westridge and took the trouble to locate my house and took all the above pictures (except the pic of pastries) which have embellished my article. Thanks Brig Sahib!!!!
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