He was literally a polymath. A book and a packet of cigarettes were all that he wanted.
The Old Man and the Room
He was literally a polymath. A book and a packet of cigarettes were all that he wanted.
I turned right. I saw the door. The familiar wooden door. Once upon a time, the door was painted white. But with the passing of time, it had turned unwhite. Dust had settled in, flimsy cobwebs strewn all over the door. I had crossed it hundreds of time earlier. The door was unbolted, slightly ajar. I pushed gently and it opened with a creaking sound. Inside the room, it was almost dark sans a ray of sunlight coming from an open window on the far side, lighting only that part of the room. On that sunny part, there was the bed. The man holding the book, laying back, reading. As if nothing had changed. Time stood still.
A magic? Might be. The vividity of that image which remained within me for so long was being played out in front, as if on a stage. The ray of the sun coming from the window was the spot light and the bed was the stage. The old man, my Dadu, was reclining on the bed, reading. I was stupefied, my feet transfixed on the floor. I couldn’t move.
The creaking sound must have jolted him. Closing his book, he turned his head towards the door. He could only see my silhouetted body, the only light available there came from the door.
“Who are you?” he asked in a sibilant tone, almost inaudible.
From the semi-darkness, I replied hesitatingly, “Yes…, Dadu.” My voice was meek. After that I spoke a bit louder.
“I am Sayon.”
“Sayon?” he sounds nonplussed, as if he had heard this name for the first time in life. Moments later, his eyes lit up.
“Sayon? Sayon babu? Come, come here,” he called in a muffled voice, chocking with joy.
I came near the bed. He was, by then, half raised on the bed, putting the book away to the side of the wall and extending both of his hands towards me. He had grown old, much older than I thought. He had a fringe of grey-white hair around his balding scalp. His face was wrinkled deep, which seemed to carve a map of his life. Dadu had grown thin, only the bony feature remained. But what was splendid to see was his eyes. Inside the thick glass, his eyes seemed to sparkle as if to gobble up the beauty of this world. And I knew, for him reading was the only gateway to enter into this world.
For sometime, we could not speak. We lost words. Words were hard to come by. We remained silent for thirty seconds or so, I assumed. Eventually, I sat on the edge of the bed beside him.
He was caressing my face, my hand. His fingers were thin, wooden but the touch was so warm, so caring. My eyes welled up.
“How’re you, Dadu?” I mumbled.
He smiled, “I’m ok.” I could feel his voice tinged with sadness.
He began inquiring about my family particularly about my parents. Intermittently he also ran down the memory lane. His memories both warmed and haunted were soaked with smile and sometimes loud laughter. We delved through our sweet memories with
He recounted a particular tale which I had almost got deleted from my memory. I once got lost in the New Market. It was before the conflagration took place and destroyed a large part of it. On a sunny afternoon, my father parked our turquoise blue vintage Austin in front of the Minerva cinema hall, adjacent to the market. Getting down from the car I clutched onto my father’s left hand and walked down negotiating the crowd. My mother followed us. There were narrow alleys in which rows of shops on either sides stood cheek by jowl. In the teeming crowd, I slipped out of the hand of my father. Behind, my mother too went inside a shop, while my father thought I was with my mother. I was lost. Amidst a crowd, it was horrific to be left alone, I realized for the first time. I was only five years old.
How I got back to my parents is another story. But, I remember we had a sumptuous dinner that night. Dadu, too, joined us for the meal. Reliving the story, he laughed and I, too, laughed. Gradually, I looked at him intently.
“Don’t you go to your village? Yes, I remember, Aatpukur.”
“Aatpukur? Yes. Once in a while. I was there last December.” he replied pensively.
A whole minute passed. Silence rolled like oil into every corner of the room. Just at that moment, from the lane below, the distant sound of haman dista came along -thud, thud, thud. Condiments were being prepared for the para restaurant.
“Why don’t you go and stay there? Maa told me you have a house and a big piece of land, don’t you?”
“A big piece of land! That’s true. You know sharks, Sayon. Sharks lives in water. But there are also land sharks, masquerading like human beings. They are in my family and also from outside. For a slice of land, they can do anything,” he paused, breathing heavily.
Dadu was visibly excited.
In the year 1893, Naser Ali set out for Siam, long before it became Thailand, from an nondescript village of Burdwan. What prompted him to leave his native village, Aatpukur, still remain obscure. That was the time when King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of the Chakri dynasty was in throne in Bangkok. At the turn of the century, Siam was in the cusp of change from a primitive society to modern Thailand.
Naser Ali was acuminous and took the opportunity without delay. He came inside the coterie of the royal family soon and got contract of building khlongs (canals) crisscrossing Bangkok. Because of these khlongs, the city gained its nickname, “Venice of the East”. In 1870, King Chulalongkorn implemented a policy to develop the canal system and improve its quality. Khlongs were built for three purposes- floating markets, transportation and sewage disposal. Luang (Royal) Naser rose in stature in the capital quickly and within five years of his arrival to Siam, he called his nephew, Ali Zafar to join him.
Ali Zafar was married but he couldn’t take his wife to Siam and left her in the village. Like his uncle, he too made a fortune supervising the khlongs in Bangkok. At the turn of the century, he married again. This time, a woman from a Laotian origin. But the quirky thing is that after marrying her, he also brought his Indian wife to Bangkok and both his wives started living under the same roof.
Dadu was born from the womb of the Laotian lady. When Dadu was 11 years old, his father went for a sea voyage to Mauritius. The merchant ship, Narubent Butri, was in the middle of the Indian Ocean when Ali Zafar fell ill. He was affected by acute cholera. Untreated, he died within a day. His body , draped in a white shroud, was put inside a black bag, loaded with heavy stones. It was laid on a flat board. There was no janaza, the Islamic funeral ritual. The lascars tilted the board from the deck and the body bag slid off into the sea.
Almost a month had passed by when the news of Ali Zafar’s death reached Bangkok. The devastating news put the household in mourns. Since his arrival in the city, Zafar’s fortune had elevated. Uncle Naser, too, had helped him greatly. Supervising the khlongs had made his fortunes. As an entrepreneur, Zafar was trying to make other ventures. Thus, he was on a voyage to Mauritius, which proved fatal. He owned vast tracks of farmlands in the countryside,outskirts of Bangkok, beside a khlong. In the city too, which was in the threshold of becoming a booming metropolis, he had a sprawling house.
There were some significant events happened aftermath this death, which changed Dadu’s journey of life completely. In a curious set of circumstances, he was sent to India, whereas his step brother, who was all Indian, stayed back in Thailand. Luang Naser was still alive but had become old and immobile but still had sway over the household. He had remained a celibate throughout his life.
Thus, Dadu inherited a sizable portion of land in India and Thailand. He went back to Thailand only twice. Shortly after India got independence, he went to Thailand for a short time. In the meantime, his step mother had returned to India. She came back alone in 1931, but his son didn’t. He already married a Thai girl and settled there. Dadu met her mother after 25 years. After meeting his mother, which was very emotional, he spent some quite days in the rainy Bangkok and returned to Calcutta. He was already into a government job. As a student, he was brilliant. Dadu was also an avid sportsman and football was his first love. He was to play football in Aatpukur every afternoon after school. That continued even after he came to Calcutta. Every Sunday, along with his college friend he used to go to the sprawling Calcutta Maidan and play. Sometime, they watched first division football matches and took immense pleasure when a native team defeated a gora team. India was getting ready to unchain its shackle from the British Raj. Football in particular, was one of the many weapons towards achieving the goal.
The second time he visited Thailand was in the mid 60s. His mother was already a nonagenarian and was suffering from dementia. She could not recognize her son. Lying on a bed, staring a vacant look on his face, did she remember anything? Who knows. The month-long stay in Bangkok made him more lonely. He took a decision- never to return to Thailand. He gave away all the lands belonging to him to the surviving family of his step brother signing legal papers. His mother died at the age of 98. He never saw her again.
Dadu was silent, trying to pacify his sudden spurt of excitement. Suddenly, he rose.
“Where are you going?”
“To the bathroom. Sit Sayon. I will be back.”
He walked, dragging his frail body to the adjacent bathroom. He shuts the door. I was alone.
I gazed towards the bookcase, hanging on the wall beside his bed. Huge pile of books were stacked inside. It was doorless. Almost all the books were in English, some were in Bengali. Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra along with a Bengali translation of Koran. I pulled out a book, whose cover was missing. It was a classic- G.K Chesterton’s ‘A Defense of Nonsense and other Essays’. In the content section, I saw an essay, ‘On Lying In Bed’. It was on page 95. Curiously, I turned the page, which had become yellow and brittle. It began with this line- “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” It was underlined with a pen. It was a second-hand book. He bought it from an old book shop. For Dadu, I felt, it must be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a book and a packet of cigarette.
He came out of the bathroom and looking at me smilingly said-
“After I am gone, these books will all be yours, Sayon. As far as my property is concerned, I have decided…,” he paused.
He was looking outside the window, looking afar.
“I have decided to give away the land to an organization. They will build school and a small hospital there. There are plenty of land.”
I listened intently, trying to absorb what he was saying. The old man sat on the bed again and was taking deep breath. He looked pale and frail. But his voice was clear, firm and above all resolute.
“The papers to handover the land will be ready in a month. It’s much better. Much better than the greedy relatives, ” he stopped for a while and then again continued-
” You asked me why don’t I go back. I am an outcast. My distant relatives, they don’t want me. They just want to grab my land by hook or by crook. Coaxing me to do so. But I know their mischievous ploy.”
I came near him and sat on his left side.
“I am alone,” he sighed. His throat choked.
I felt bad. A man of his age needs comfort, needs attention. But he has no company. No one to look after him. He survives on his pension.
“You have done the right thing, Dadu,” I said, clearing my throat.
“It’s better to give away the land for charitable purposes.”
He glanced at me. At last, his eyes sparkled.
“Yes, this is the right thing to do at this moment. You know, my days are numbered,” he sighed.
My visit was ending. I didn’t want to leave the old man in his precarious state of mind. But I have to go.
” Dadu, I will come back again. Also Baba and Maa will visit you.”
He smiled. Such a sad smile. Of course, he didn’t deserve to be lonely at this age.
But he is determined not to leave the room. He had decided to spend the rest of his life, whatever is left, in that room. It is his last refuge, the only refuge.
The room has become his oasis. His soul partner. The books are his window to the outside world.
I assured him to bring more books.
He lived for another couple of years. We were with him till his last moment. Perhaps he got some solace at the end of his life. Perhaps…