He had already received the country's prestigious literary honour, the Sahitya Akademi Award, for his novel, Kothe Kharak Singh. But in the early 1990s, celebrated Punjabi writer Ram Saroop Anakhi was still the uncle next door for the children who lived on his street.
Many stories floated around about him and Shobha aunty, his barefoot wife who spoke broken Punjabi and socialised with everyone.
People often said that none of Anakhi's wives from the three marriages had survived, so he had got Shobha aunty from Gujarat. Somebody would say she had started out as a corresponding fan of his writings in Hindi magazines. "Anakhi bought her from Bangar," some other neighbours would say out of jealousy; but it was just fiction, just like his imaginative village, Kothe Kharak Singh. Nobody knew the real story.
Children, however, loved Anakhi uncle, who would speak softly to them and never scold us even if we ran on his roof chasing the kites in winters. His was the only house in the locality where we children could enjoy hide-and-seek, a game then played only between Khalistani terrorists and Punjab Police. Children's ruckus bothered him rarely.
"Who sent you here?" One evening, we heard somebody shouting outside. A crowd poured out on the street; we came out, too. Barnala was still a small town, more like a big village, never impersonal such as Chandigarh; it is not even today. It was Anakhi uncle, raising his voice at a young man. Anakhi uncle, and yelling? Unbelievable!
The man had come to him looking for a book, London-based Veena Verma's new short-story collection, "Mul Di Teeveen (Bought Wife)". Before approaching Anakhi uncle, he had gone to another prominent writer of the town, Pritam Singh Rahi, who had told him in jest that he didn't have "Mul Di Teeveen" but Anakhi would. "Rahi Saab sent me," the man said, explaining his reference. "Get lost," uncle yelled back.
Baffled, the man picked his bicycle fast and started pedalling back. Soon, he was out of sight.
"What happened?" a good neighbour asked uncle. "Nothing; he asked me if he could borrow my 'Mul Di Teeveen'," said Anakhi, and laughed. "Look, at the courage of these shameless youngsters," the neighbour walked away, mumbling.