“Is this your seat?”, asked an old man while I was lying comfortably, on my berth, while on a journey,in a train, few years ago.“Yes, it is”, I replied and folded my legs to make space for him to sit. I, then, asked, “Uncle, so is the upper berth yours?”, and he nodded in reply. I was expecting him to ask me if I could swap the berths with him, but he didn’t blurt a single word. May be, he was strong enough to jump to his berth. He was calm, unlike the other young co-passengers. Perhaps, he liked observing people, as I did not find him doing anything, but merely looking at others.
To keep myself distant from the jostling voices of co-travelers, I took out a poetry collection of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. After a while, he broke his silence and asked me, “Is Dinkar your favorite poet?” The question disrupted my joy of reading the pieces. I reluctantly replied in positive. Perhaps, my facial expression made my irritation palpable as he didn’t continue the conversation. I am a kind of person who gets bored with everything very easily and very quickly. It took me no longer than two hours to keep the book aside and start enjoying the sight outside, through the window. “Beta, I am a bit curious about you as I don’t find your generation interested in literature. They usually don’t read, and even if they do, they seldom read Hindi. So, can I ask you a few questions?“, he asked me. Flattered by his words, I quickly replied, “sure uncle, why not“, completely unaware that this was going to be one of the most memorable encounters.
“Why do you read Dinkar? what do you like about him or his writing?“, he put the first question of the sequence, putting me off the second pastime activity that I had taken to. In reply, I began describing how I first read one of his poems in school, and then how I started reading Hindi literature, afraid of being labeled as “Macaulay’s child” by my grandfather. Among all the poets, I liked Dinkar because of his choleric style of writing and the way he talked about the principles of humanity like equality and the qualities like valour.
Unimpressed by my answer, he, then, threw the second question, “Don’t you know equality is one of the biggest lies preached to people?” The question threw me off a bit. That old man was objecting to what I had been taught throughout my life.”To bring stability, there has to be inequality. Take for instance, the royal family of Britain, they can not be charged with any crime, isn’t this inequality? Now take a smaller example, a child can be scolded by its parents, if it commits a mistake but the vice-versa is never acceptable. It is all because, stability is the greater good, compared to equality; and for stability to exist, we need some inequality”. I did not take an exception to his opinion, only because I did not want to offend him, though I did not agree with him. I just said, “you appear to follow right-wing philosophies. What else do you wish to speak about life and world?“
“It all depends on what you want me to tell you about”, he answered diplomatically.
Those days, I was writing a story on college life, and it struck my head like a thunderbolt. I jumped out of my comfortable posture and asked him what he would opine on youth and friendship. He paused for a while, and said with a gentle smile on his face, “Do you want me to preach you philosophies? Son, it’s your age. Go ahead and experience things, come to me only when you are in trouble. If I tell you something today, you won’t remember, when you will need those words, but after listening to, in trouble, you will never forget them. But while in trouble, remember son, ‘to end’ is never ‘to solve’. They may appear similar to you, at times, but they seldom are. The biggest curse on your generation is that you are intolerant. My generation had two kinds of people, patient and impatient; while yours has ignorant and patience-less. You can’t wait for even a second, if you can, it is only because you are ignorant of existence of that thing…”
The TTE disrupted our conversation. He asked us to show our tickets. The old man showed his. As the TTE was returning the old man’s ticket after checking it, I moved my hands towards him but he smiled at me and moved to the next seat without looking at my ticket. The old man was, then, again looking at the activities of other people in the compartment. I was not sure whether or not I found anything in his words for my story, but it definitely made me think for a while. They say, one’s words reflect one’s state of mind. I thought, perhaps, he was having a tough time with his children which might have made him so harsh about my generation. Prompted by the sense of individualism, I gathered courage to ask him if everything was well with him and if he was satisfied with his life. With his typical smile, he began with his style of counter-questioning, “Do I look dejected? Did I lecture you harshly?”
“Of course, not”, was the only thing that came to my mind, to placate him. “Well, I am not dissatisfied, I am ashamed. Yes, I’m ashamed of having failed with time. I failed to protect my institutions when they were being destroyed by the intruders. My land was sacred for everyone but even the ruins of those are ruined now. I lost strength with time, I did not keep apace with the changing tides. It was as ironical as to say that the Oxford had gone illiterate. The present does not belong to me. The onus is on you now, rather your generation and peers. You have many competitors, but turn the pages of history, I was the leader, having no distant second even.”
“Who are you? Some philanthropist or industrialist or statesman?”,I asked inquisitively. “There are many aspects of a person. Everyone has entirely different, completely independent elements of their persona, don’t you agree? And it is unwise to judge a person on the basis of only one. In my case, I am all the three or even more than that”, he replied.
By this time, he had turned from a wise old man to a disturbed raucous co-passenger in my eyes, due to his bluntness and arrogance. “Sorry, though you are that great a person, I don’t recognize you”, I quipped to impugn his disdainful lines. “That’s because I am not noisy, unlike you or your peers. You shout so much for even the slightest of things that you don’t listen to what the other person is saying. Not only that, in the name of liberalism, you don’t listen in your own grief. You don’t recognize me because you are forgetful. Look, how noise has harmed your memory. You call yourself forgiving, but in Dinkar’s words, you are, no way, a venomous serpant who can choose not to bite. Rather, you are a toothless tiger who has to reconcile with his inability to hunt. Don’t decorate yourself with those beautiful adjectives, they don’t look good standing behind ‘ignorance’. And the one who wants to know about me, knows me well. The BBC people epitomize Rome in me…”
“so were you abroad in your days of glory?”, I interrupted.
“No, I was here only. But yes, in my heydays, I was known all over the world. Let us see if anyone from your generation comes close to matching my glory among my opposite numbers across the globe”, he explained, with the shine of impudence on his face like Clark Gable in ‘Gone With The Wind’.
“So there must be pages on you on the internet. Let me look at it, then. Would you please tell me your name?“, I asked, questioning the reputation he claimed to have had. “I am the oldest person alive in South Asia. People have called me with different names across the ages.Between the current fames, someone named me Azimabad…“
Then, I had just started recognizing him, and as I took my eyes off the screen of my tablet PC, to the opposite seat, he had disappeared. There was no one sitting opposite to me, no one in the compartment either. Also, I realized that, definitely, that kind of vanity was hard-earned and rarely deserved.
I kept wondering if that was Charles Dickens’s ghost of past from ‘A Christmas Carol’, or Richard Schenkman’s ‘The Man From Earth’ playing before my eyes.Perhaps, that was the reason, the TTE did not check my ticket.