He was almost lion-like in appearance. Silver hair swept back off a high forehead like a mane, covering the nape of his neck. Huge, shaggy eyebrows left little need for any other kind of facial hair. Stubble peppered his angular chin. There was a faint shadow of a moustache on his upper lip, almost like an imprint of a former, uniform moustache kept and maintained for years. A Roman nose hung over the spacious gap between nose and upper lip. He looked like the picture of a Pashtun tribal chiefin one of my father’spictorial history booksbut in modern garb.
He was Babajan.
Babajan was neither my father, nor my grandfather. At one of our subsequent meetings, he suggested I call him that. I had refrained from calling him anything, really. Gul Bibi, his housekeeper and the woman who had found me struggling in the hedge, called him Khan Sahib. Her husband, who served as the driver, guard and odd-job man, called him Barra Khan.
“Uncle,” I hesitantly ventured once, “What is your name?”
There was a rumble as he gravely answered, “Abdur Rehman Durrani.” Uncle Abdur Rehman. What a mouthful! I thought I saw him wink surreptitiously at me.
Gul Bibi’s four-year-old twin daughters, rosy-cheeked with impish smiles that continued into their hazel eyes, ran around, stumbling in their voluminous, multi-coloured shalwar kameez. They kept up a steady stream of chatter in Pashto, punctuated by chants of “Babajan!” as they grinned beguilingly up at him.
He in turn gave them gruff replies in Pashto, leading to peals of laughter and the girls hiding their faces in their dupattas in delight. They looked at me in expectation as well, not knowing that I could not understand a word they had said. Disappointed in me as an audience, they treated me only as an occasional playmate.
It was then that this giant of a man, like a remnant from the days of kings and emperors, turned to me and said, “Call me Babajan.”
“Why?” I asked, always curious.
“In my house, I am Babajan. All the children call me that.” He paused. “My children and grandchildren call me that.”
Baffled, I pointed at the twins giggling in the distance, at one end of the lawn. “Them?”
“No, no,” he said, smiling companionably at me from between his broad but stooping shoulders, a twinkle in his eye. “My grandchildren are not here. They live quite far away. Not in Pakistan. Very far away.”
“No, no,” he chortled in answer. “America.”
“North America? We learnt about the continents this year.”
“Yes, North America.” He looked amused. “You know geography?”
“I learnt that in Social Studies class.”
“Social studies! Is that what they call it now? Never mind.” He turned half-way in his armchair. “Gul Bibi.,take the child to the library.” Turning back to me, he explained. “There is a World Atlas on the desk. You’ll know which one. It has a blue cover, with a picture of the Earth on it. Bring it.”
This became a common occurrence. I would ask questions. He would make me fetch a book – an encyclopaedia, an atlas, a history book, anything –and help me look up the answer. There was an entire world of questions and answers, I discovered, and not just confined to books. I would barely stay a couple of hours before running back home just before Farhat Phupo woke up. I had not had a chance to tell my mother about my new friend as yet and I did not intend to tell her in front of Farhat Phupo, who was around all the time. A sixth sense prevented me from trusting Farhat Phupo. I simply knew she would not approve.
Babajan became the well of knowledge I kept returning to, wanting to learn about things that I did not even know of until he told me. He tried to teach me chess, using a decrepit but beautiful old wooden model.
Babajan had of course heard all about my family by now. The day I met him, he made Gul Bibi escort me back home, telling me to be careful in the future. The kittens I had been searching for had found a new home in a ramshackle shed at one end of Babajan’s sprawling lawns, and I was eager to keep an eye on them.
“Can I come see the kittens again?” I asked him, uncertain of this new adult with the ominous eyebrows.
“Of course, but there’s no need to keep tumbling out of hedges,” he twinkled back at me. “Use the side-gate.”
My visits were soon motivated by more than just the kittens. Babajan let me prowl about the grounds as he sat outside in his veranda, having tea. Gul Bibi would usually be nearby, laughingly warning me away from snake holes and beehives.
Sher Muhammad, Gul Bibi’s husband, fashioned a handmade slingshot, using an appropriately cut branch and a narrow strip of flexible leather. Babajan pointed out targets for me to practise on: pieces of an old clay flower pot that Sher Muhammad placed at different distances from the boundary wall.
When I successfully hit the piece placed furthest from where I stood, Babajan let out a roar of approval.
“Wah! Yeh sher hai, sher!”
I learnt how to ride a bicycle. I already knew how to roller skate but the pleasure of cycling had been denied me. It had been a promised gift from my parents since last year and there were still three months to my birthday.
“Take out Ahmed Khan’s old bike, Sher Muhammad,” ordered Babajan. “My grandson,” he added gruffly, by way of explanation to me.The bicycle was a little rusty and had one training wheel but it did not matter. I only went around a few times in the large lawn.
Babajan became the well of knowledge I kept returning to, wanting to learn about things that I did not even know of until he told me. He tried to teach me chess, using a decrepit but beautiful old wooden model. I was hardly any good at it, so we began with checkers instead.
It seemed to me that there was not a single thing that he did not know. There was never a question he did not answer. Except once.
“How many grandchildren do you have, Babajan?”
“Five. Three girls, two boys.”
“How old are they?”
“Older than you, bachay. Much older.”
“When will your grandchildren visit, Babajan?”
He did not answer. I repeated the question. A glower suddenly appeared on his face and he did not look at me.
“Gul Bibi!” He called out and then added something in Pashto. Gul Bibi promptly appeared with a walking cane. He took it, got up and disappeared into the house.
 A courteous or polite form of address, such as ‘Mr.’, used for men. Commonly used by employees for their employers.  Literally meaning ‘bigger’ or ‘older’; used with the name to imply respect or show a comparatively high rank.  Native dress worn in South Asia particularly India and Pakistan. ‘Shalwar’: loose pants. ‘Kameez’: a loose shirt.  South-Central Asian language of the Pashtuns and the majority speaking language of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Abbottabad is situated.  “He’s a lion!” – the word ‘lion’ in certain communities such as the Pashtun community denotes greatness.