Thursday, December 23, 2010

The man with many pasts

I stared at his chest for long time. Waiting to trace the rhythm of slow heaves and sighs. The soft hum of breathing. A conformation that behind those closed eyes he is asleep, but alive. A relief. I know it’s childish but for 87 years old I guess possibility is no more a question.

My grandfather lay on his rusted armchair that makes squeaking sound every time he tries to make a slightest of movement. He was lulled into his late morning nap. The sports page of the newspaper acted as a warm cover. The sun was making the shadow of the window grill patterns on the verandah over the canvas of his chest. The strands of his silver chest hair always strangely reminded me of the coir pushing out of the mattress hole in our guest room. The dentures less hollow of his cheeks were hanging loose. When I was kid, he always let me touch the shiny baldness that graced his head. It was an excitement; the warm soft skin on a bony underlay gave me creeps. Today they looked dull in the morning glory.

I instinctively walked up to him and sat beside him on a small bamboo stool served as his breakfast table in morning. Slowly I tugged on the newspaper carefully tucked under his hand. He woke up with a hustle and then subdued, gave me an ample smile, ample toothless smile that always radiated a strange warmth.

"It’s a very bad habit, sleeping till almost afternoon" he said as he always did seeing the cup of morning tea in my hand, and as always I smiled the shy smile of a kid caught dismantling his new toy car.

He slowly glanced at the paper and with a sad melancholy looked at me.

"This city has changed. It’s not dying anymore, it is long dead. I wonder how you people survive in this swelling filth." He said with a fake disgust but genuine intention.

"Janish, once from here you could see the Howrah Bridge and I still remember it being constructed. Year after year the steel bars taking shape, connecting each other, and reaching out to the other end. That was the Calcutta I grew up in."

"But dadu, there must be lots of Englishmen that time, with all etiquettes and rules. Weren’t you banned from big places being brown and all”, I conjured a bit of fake amusement and some real inquisitiveness.

He always loved to tell stories about his youth, always with a tinge of nostalgia and a dollop of excitement. It was like an early black and white movie scene without the background buzz playing silently in back of your head. His words gave them the meaning, the direction and understanding.

"Those were just stories to glorify the agony. Ingrez always minded their own business; they did not go around beating every other man on street. You should have seen those lonely officers’s kid begging to let them play football with us on the cantonment dump ground after school"

"Dadu, you are just coming of in front of me as a big fat bully. Not advisable", I grinned.

"bah!! Bully we were. But yes there was always an arrogance of the white skin that we could never match, and tell you what, they never sweat. I remember how jealous we used to be when after the game we are dog tired and they just pounding on. Kochuris ruined us Bengalis”, he said with an amused smile staring at the left over oil stains of the Kochuris on the empty breakfast plate.

"Ahh!! That explains the reason of being bully isn’t it? Jealousy", I mocked him.

"Haha, call me whatever you want but friendship with those white kids were our only way to meet bideshi women whom they were acquainted with. It’s all give and take", he chuckled.

"Nah dadu, not interested in listening to your love story. No way could you have known English girls."

He gazed silently for long to the newspaper, as if lost in the array of the black and white ink, or maybe just lost in his mental photo album of past.

"Amelia, her name was Amelia", he smiled to himself rather to me.

"Dadu, I am not going to believe that you were in love with your "my fair lady" and survived", I grinned amused.

"My dark lady, you can say. She was dark skinned, worked as a housemaid for boro babu, my boss"

Behind the bifocal lens showing his obscenely magnified eyes there was a twinkle of solace, a comfort in the warmth of past.

"She was an african-american?” I blurted with startle with the inability to come up with anything more appropriate.

"No, I guess neither African nor American, just her, big eyed shining brightly and lush of black hair. At least that’s what I remember of her."

"Tell me more, promise I won’t tell grandma" I smiled trying to cover that strange feeling of excitement rising through by belly.

"That you have to promise, I can’t risk a divorce at this age, can I?” His said choking on his laughter

"She used to come daily evening to sit by the playground, to watch us boys play in the evening setting sun. Daily I used to watch her from distant end. Occasionally she stared at me and gazed intently and did not removed her eyes when I stared back" he voice was distant as if flowing through decades

"Don’t know when I it all started, and when I started getting jealous when she stared at other boys instead of me. I once kicked my own teammate to make her look at me" he told as he gazed intently at me for a reaction.

Smiling I said, "And I guess u did?"

"I did and she did. And I was suddenly sure about something, I don’t know what, but I could feel the surety inside me", he exclaimed with a glitter.

"Then...then what dadu?” I don’t know when an unintended smile filled my face.

"Few days passed, one day coming back from office, I saw her there, sitting all by herself, and suddenly without myself, I walked up to her and sat a few feet away from her. She stared back at me. Not with love, nor with curiosity, but with a strange sadness, sadness that you feel when while watching a movie that you suddenly realize it’s going to end badly, inevitably.", he said with a finality.

"And you just sat there, staring at her. Oh dadu you are spoilsport."

"I did not; I went up to her and tried to say something to her in English. But neither did I understand what I said, nor did she. We just stood there smiling at each other in a desperate way to express ourselves."

"When was the first time you formally talked with her?"

"Never, 2 years later I married Asheema. And somewhere in between Amelia stopped coming to park. I searched for her, but somehow I always wanted to not find her. I told my mother about her the night before of my marriage. And her hysterical laughter still rings in my ears. Leaving my room she said you could have told me earlier, I uselessly wasted so many times to find you a milky fair wife. And she left."

I was quiet for long and for some reason even he was, I could see him loosing the sudden sparkle from eyes and clouds of uncertainty covering him all over again.

The silence was broken when my grandmother, Asheema shouted from her room,

"Won’t you go for your bath today, or are you waiting for the sun to set. I am not going to take care of you if you catch cold this time. It’s just this bad habit of yours, uff baba..."

He smiled at me but a kind of smile that lost the personal feeling it had few minutes ago. Hopping on one leg he went on his way to bathroom.

I could hear him cursing under his breath, "This arthritis will kill me someday"

My grandfather is a schizophrenic patient for the past 10 years.

The truth is he was a small time clerk at an English Oil Mill. He could never look into the eye of his English boss. He always hid himself in the crowd. He never owned a motorcycle or a car. And courage always failed him. He married the only woman he knew in his life, his childhood playmate and his only love Asheema. If anyone asks me to say something significant about him, I will be at loss of words. He always has been that unknown face that makes the crowd, nothing more, and nothing less.

But is it really the truth, because last time I checked truth is what I or we conceive to be true and for my grandfather there are many truths and all of them are true on a particular day and false on other days. And with help of this array of truths he can live so many lives that most successful people cannot dream of.

Given a choice, what would I choose a constant realization of what I could not become or an alternate reality where all my whims and fancies are real to me? I don’t know, but the possibility is surely exciting.

I glanced at the back page of the newspaper lying on the armchair. HBO is screening a new movie on their Friday Premiere at 9, "Amelia"

"As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin' "

-Times they are a-changin', Bob Dylan

P.S: Finally I finished a post successfully... :) laziness and winter are bad combination i tell you.

About the story, it is a pure work of fiction and has nothing to do with any real person. But I imagined my grandfather while writing this post so in a way its a dedication to him, the bravest man I have known. Again the conversations did not had the eloquence I intended, so critical opinions are wholeheartedly invited.

Also I like to point out the constantly changing timeline spanning over adolescence and youth alternately of the flashback was intentional because schizophrenic patients cant follow a fixed timeline in their imaginations.

Hopefully I can do justice to my blog more in the coming Happy New Year to all of you!! :D