the man who wasn't there

Note: Though the characters in the story are real, the incidents narrated are fictional.

He had a noticeable hunch on his back, which was more pronounced when seen from the right side than the left. Sometimes he was seen wearing an orange monkey cap. Other than these, there wasn’t much noticeable about that old man. I am told that he was always found sitting on that bridge over the river. My father says he has seen him there ever since he was a toddler. That might be exaggerating a bit since he himself mentioned on another occasion that bridge was not built till he was in his high school. I think he just meant to emphasis that the old man has been there for a very long time.

I have seen him at the exact spot on that bridge every time we visit our ancestral village with my parents and brother. It was almost a ritual for me to look out through the window of the bus whenever it crossed the bridge. “Wake me up when we cross the bridge” I used to instruct my mom as I dozed off during those 6 hr bus journey.

My father always mention about that great flood of 1970 to everyone, which drowned his village and forced him to move to the city. He says even as the river was overflowing over the bridge, the old man refused from there. He clearly remembers noticing the old man, standing waist deep in flood water near the middle of the bridge as he and my uncle paddled over the bridge on their canoe with all the stuffs they could salvage. As if it was that old man's sole responsibility to stay put. My father appreciate his courage; at the same time,he confessed to us, made him feel guilty - for abandoning his village at the time of distress. When he heard in the radio that his village wasn’t washed away, almost a miracle given the intensity of the flood; he was certain that it was that old man and his will which saved his village.

I believe it was also an act of redemption for him to take my mom, brother and me to his village atleast once a year, visit the temples and meet all his childhood friends, old neighbors, acquaintances or whom ever is left of them. So, even from when I can remember we have been making the trip to that village. And every time we crossed that bridge my father would look out to see that old man; and so would I.

From what I can remember, than man always looked the same, disheveled, and shabbily dressed. He looked weary and tired, but never unhappy. I couldn’t picture him being young. My father said he couldn’t recollect how he looked when young. I believe he was born this old and lived that way his whole life.

I didn’t know anything about him. But his act of defiance against the Mother Nature and the fact that my father admired him was good enough for me to respect him. His constant presence on that bridge made him a cult figure of me and he was an identity of the village whenever I mentioned about it to someone. He was the guardian of the village and I believe his presence there was one of the factors which made us connected to our roots in spite of our city upbringing.

Over the years that village underwent many changes. The panchayat built a check dam over that river not far away from the bridge few years back. And another bridge, bigger one for heavy vehicles was constructed adjacent to the old one. Bus no longer made service through the old bridge and the traffic was confined to pedestrians and light motor vehicles. With less time to dispose in hand with the fast paced life, we switched the bus journey to a faster and sophisticated car trip. And thus we still commuted through the old bridge and never missed the sight of the old man. It was as if, we shifted to car because a trip in bus would make us miss him.

With my studies and subsequent employment, I was not able to make the trip to the village in the last couple of years and I had forgotten about that man for a while now until last year’s vacation. When I was told by my mother that she had planned that trip this time around my thoughts went back to the old man. I realized I never knew him. Did he ever leave that spot? When did he eat? How did he eat? Did he ever have a family? Was he abandoned by them? Or did he abandon them? - I didn’t even know his name. I think I never bothered to know anything about him. I wanted to be detached from him that way. I sympathized with him, yet was not willing to do anything for him. I felt meek and inferior and wanted to redeem myself.

“I am sure that man will be still there on that bridge”. I told my mother, “I think I should give him some money this time” and immediately feared if I sounded like a pompous NRI who pitied the less fortunate, albeit inadvertently.

“Yes, we should”, agreed my father. “And I will inquire more about him and know him better”, I told myself.

A long blast of air horn from a truck behind our car woke me up when we were few mile away from the bridge. “Slow the car when we reach the bridge”, I instructed the driver. As we approached the bridge, I glanced outside to see the man. He was not to be seen. “He’s not there” said my brother. “Not on this side either”, my father said with his head still stuck out the car window on the other side, sounding as if a close relative of his was missing. I could understand, that stranger he has been a constant frame of reference throughout his life; one whom he might have seen more often than many of his relatives.

No one seemed to know anything about him around the temple area. After much inquiry, we were told by the nearby restaurant manager that our old man passed away almost a year back. And no one seemed to care much. He was a nobody to the new generation there. Even to the surviving older folks, he was just a pavement dweller. For some unknown reason I felt that I was more disappointed to hear the news than my father. He was definitely more wiser to know the truths of life.

While going back, I involuntarily gazed out through the window as the car approached the bridge. I am certain I will continue to look for him whenever we cross that bridge. Our future trips to the village will not be the same without that old man on the bridge.

As we were crossing the bridge I noticed the traffic was slow across the bridge. I want to believe it was to pay respect to the man who wasn’t there.


unspoken language

Today at work, my manager wanted me to help him out with some reviewing stuffs. So, I took the material and sat in a empty cube in front of his office room. I was about to return it to him after completion that I noticed someone was already inside his room. So I was there standing on the corridor in front of his office leaning against the wall with crossed legs with a document in one hand and a pen on the other running the tip of the pen going over each line again to make sure I have done a neat work. Just then an engineer passed by me and he impromptu asked ,with a straight face, “Getting ready for exam?” and immediately we both burst into laughter simultaneously. It is not a hilarious incident, but was one of those genuine moments.

Even after he was out of sight I just couldn’t stop giggling picturing myself in his shoes and seeing me standing like that there and I cannot but completely agree with his perspective. t was so true….standing like a college boy right before he enters the exam room, uncertainly going through the study notes for one last time. My body language fitting that scenario perfectly.

It makes me wonder how much your body language and mannerisms can gives away a lot about you. I don’t recollect having seen anyone else in my office who was standing the way I was in the corridor or say, with that kind of body language. I have seen people waiting outside offices, I have seen them with documents in hand; but none ever looked like ‘preparing for exam’.

I do feel at times that I still have that student hangover in spite of having done away with college almost 2 years ago (maybe the after effect of spending a bit too much time there than expected).

It was entirely involuntary from my part to stand there the way I did, but now that I am conscious of it, I do want to change it. Not that there is anything wrong with it, its just that I j don't want it to be that way anymore and I certainly do not know how. It could either be one of the two - maybe there a fine line between acting like a student and a professional which I need to cross....or maybe I just need to grow up!


baby talk

Disclaimer: It is just a goofy post for the heck of it. Neither it made much sense while drafting, nor is expected while reading.

The very first word of a kid holds a special place in the life of his/her parents. And invariably the magic word would be 'ma' or 'pa' (or some other close variant of that). Hence, its of at most joy when he/she starts to talk and they go ecstatic and with much delight they spread the glad news to all near and dear, going over the moon explaining how their own blood called them out for the very first time.

In the last few months, I have been in gatherings/get-togethers where I have come across couple of my married acquaintances with toddlers. And naturally, someone would ask about the kid and the conversation would slip into how the babies are doing their growth developments. In one such gathering the conversation was about how one of the babies had started to talk and an attempt to make him repeat 'ma' in front of the present audience. He did repeat his performance much to the delight of the parents and the joy of the others, but it got me wondering….why is it that the first words of most toddlers are either 'ma' or 'pa'. Why is it always that? And why is 'ma' is the short form for mother in almost all languages around the globe?

Couldn’t it have been the other way round - that sound 'ma' started representing mother since most children manage to utter that sound before any other. Maybe it’s the easiest phonetic that a toddler is capable of producing and hence there so called first word. So the question to ask is not from when the kid started talking, with the word ma; but from when on did ma became a synonym for mother.

I am not an expert of the etymology and no way claiming to be an linguistic expert, but it cannot be just chance that Ma or Pa became mother and father universally!

Maybe some clever elderly in some family many many generations ago might have come up with this idea “first sound produced by all in our family has been ma, since they have been in close proximity with his/her mother, lets make that then synonym for mother”.

.... I still wonder!

(On an personal note, I have been told that my first word was aani or aana. Hard luck either way, since it means nail and elephant respectively in our dialect. Please spare a thought for the horror my parents would have had!)


i, me, myself

Has it happened with you when you did something which you didn’t feel great about but was loved by others? You are given a task which you managed to do just about satisfactorily by your own judgment yet ended up satisfying the others very much. It has happened with me few times in my life and as recently as last week! A trivial example would be during the taped ball cricket I played recently. I had hard time adjusting to this format of cricket and had an ordinary performance. It was much harder and less fun than the real hard ball cricket which I play regularly every weekend. But, somehow, for reasons unknown to me, the captain was so impressed that he wanted me to come regularly. Moreover, he recommended my name to a team in Houston Cricket League (which is the highest level of hard ball cricket I can play in Houston!) who invited me to play for them. Though it has helped me to boost my morale and spirit, the skeptic in me can’t help wonder the reason behind this.

It could be either due to the high self confidence which makes me set high standards for myself in whatever I do - which never makes me satisfied in entirety or the other side of the coin- due to the very low self confidence – that my work is never good enough. Given my track record, I highly doubt the former, and I wish it not to be the latter.

Or it could be due to the low expectations others have from me. They might not have given much into my performance that they were taken by surprise. There is another possibility of some people I have interacted with has low standards set for themselves, but, when it is this random, it can’t be coincidental.

And a third -most likely-reason would be that I just did fine as expected and I am just conjuring up something from nothing.

I used to have a thought process when in school - I used to hope for the worst, be it in exams (or say, when India plays cricket). In that way, if I do badly, it would have been as expected and would have prepared me for it. And if I did well, it would be pleasantly surprised. I know it was a pessimistic way to approaching challenges, but it used to work like charm for me and I have been 'pleasantly surprised' more often.

(It all got messed up once it came to Masters level -I expected it to go bad and it did! Well, that's story for another time.....or never)

Anyway, in spite of all this rambling and confusion, whatever the rationale is; at the end of the day it makes me feel good about yourself and happy for what you have done. Ultimately that’s the only thing that matters. After all, it’s all about loving yourself ;)