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  • Nayanika Mahtani

Character Building

On my school visits, I’m sometimes asked – where do the characters in your stories come from? Well, most of them just show up, unannounced. Some have been lurking in the alleyways of my mind – and they step out of the shadows when it’s their turn.

At times, I only recognise them when I’m halfway through the story.

‘Ah, it’s you,’ I say. ‘Why didn’t you arrive earlier? I’ve been waiting to tell this story for so long…’

But I guess you can’t rush stories – or the people who inhabit them.


My grandfather had a tattoo on his forearm. It was a word written in Urdu, the language he was most conversant in, having grown up in Rawalpindi and Lahore.

‘What does that say, Papaji?’ I once asked him. I must have been 12 years old at the time.

‘It’s the name of a friend,’ he said, matter-of-factly.

‘Hmm. A girl or a boy?’

My grandfather smiled.

‘A boy. Tarlok. My best friend throughout my school years. One day, we bunked classes and got each other’s names tattooed on our arms.’

‘What!’ Just the thought of my grandfather as a schoolboy was hard enough to grapple with; this truant, tattooed twist was really pushing it. ‘So, did it hurt?’

‘Not really – the tattoo needles didn’t.’ Dramatic pause. ‘But it hurt later, when we got walloped by our parents for running away from school to get tattoos. You must never do what I did, okay?’

‘I have no such plans,’ I said, rubbing my recently vaccinated forearm. ‘That TABC injection was bad enough.’

My grandfather laughed.

‘So how come we’ve never met him?’ I asked.

‘Who, Tarlok? He’s in Pakistan. He hasn’t visited India because visas are so difficult - but he writes to me occasionally. Did I tell you about the time we both borrowed a kukkad?’

‘A cooker? Like a pressure cooker?’

‘No, no – a kukkad, a cockerel. That belonged to our grumpy neighbour. You see, Irfan had bet us 2 annas that we couldn’t sneak into Anand Uncle’s house and smuggle his rooster out…’

And with that, he launched into one of the many tales of his adventures with Tarlok that he’d regale us with, for many years to come.

What he failed to mention throughout his life though was that Tarlok had in fact died in the riots that followed the Partition in 1947. He lived on only in my grandfather’s stories.


In Across the Line, the little boy we meet in 1947 playing pithoo in a little gully in Rawalpindi is called Tarlok.

He showed up one day while I was writing. I hadn’t expected him to come to meet me, so many decades after my grandfather’s passing. But he probably wanted to come by and check if I had kept my word.

I had.

No tattoos on my forearm, see?

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