Sunday, October 18, 2009
OLD MAN UNDER THE TAMARIND TREE
I danced to the tunes of the Kucha roads- the crowded bus that usually carried more people than it actually could; the people- vendors, farmers, teachers; and their goods- everything became a part of my life. Years of travel in the same bus, I had learned to be friendly with the broken seats and sweating people. I was a part of their lives, each day- and so, I was a part of their stories. But in my story, there was one man, whom everyone knew- and also, did not!
All day long, he used to sit beneath the tamarind tree. He was very old- some said he was over hundred and a few- over thousand! All I knew was- he was old- he wore clothes that were dirty and torn at odd places. He had an old shawl to wrap himself at night time. Sometimes, he was smoking, what they call- a Beedi. Most of the time- he only sat there- did nothing but stare hard at the sky.
I felt oddly pleased to see that man everyday. Just looking at him, made me smile- I felt that he was inspiring me in some way- I saw no purpose in looking at him- but I looked at him everyday, nevertheless. It gave me a satisfaction! And my liking for him, had what made him a part of my story.
Mausiji. That was how we called her. She was so loud that people at the bus, dreaded her sitting beside them. She sold flowers at the nearby town and that day, I played her host! Mausiji was full of questions. About my name, my family, my profession- and she was full of suggestions. She had her opinion on everything- from the colour of my shirt to the furniture in my house. She said that her generation really knew the way the world functioned. She knew everyone in the bus- and had opinions on them too.
"You see him? The one with the white cap- he sells milk. He had been trying to save all his income. But he has this wife who eats like a pig. Poor fellow! All his saving goes straight into her food! And that Kashiram? He gambles away everything! I always say…"
I switched myself off, mentally, when she came around to that. But suddenly, my attention was brought back when she said-
“See that old man under the tamarind tree”?
“Yes.. Do you know anything about him”?
"Of course. Don’t you know? He used to be a big man- very rich- a Zamindar(landlord). The whole village had belonged to him- but that is past! He’s lost everything. All that he’s got now is- that shawl. He sits there all day long, waiting for his son, who’d gone off, somewhere! They say, he was a very bad father- he’s repenting! I always say…”
Poor man. I wonder how he feels. It is really bad- to own everything and to see them go off your hands- yet, unable to forget the past- for everything always stays in front of your eyes!
All night, I was unable to take him off my mind. I tossed and turned in my bed- I felt sorry for him. The stranger, though he was- however, a part of my life.
Govind, the milkman- was always pleasant. When he smiled at people, they felt light and happy. I’d always liked him.
“… and our Sarpanch(village-chief) told us that he’s speak to the big officers. We’ll soon another bus”.
He had news about the village, about the town- about people.
“… they were telling me the other day that Prakash was arrested- did you know? They’ll soon arrest the old man under the tamarind tree too, I hope…”!
“What? Arrest the old man! Why”?
“Oh, don’t you know? He’s a bandit”?
I couldn’t accept the dear old man being a bandit. A Zamindar worked better with me, however. But, I certainly couldn’t help myself- being curious.
“He was a notorious bandit. Years before, he looted people and killed them, mercilessly. People were terrified. They say, he sits under that tree, all day long, guarding all his booties. No one dares go near him for he had laid a curse upon the tree. If anyone else, but him, goes near the tree, their nose would start to bleed and they’d die. Munshiji told..”
The old man was a bandit?! I couldn’t get myself to believe about the curse, but at least, it proved why he sat beneath the tree, always! I still couldn’t accept him being a bandit- so the information only increased my curiosity.
From that day, I stared looking at him more closely. I noticed that there was a mark on his cheek- a sort of scar left by a deep wound. I was beginning to believe Govind- and I was fascinated. The story of the old man was becoming more intriguing- each day.
It was around 8:00 pm. I was tired. I usually reached home by eight. I had had a busy day. The bus moved so slow. It made me think that I could walk faster than the bus. But I was tired. And all I could do was- to wait till I reached home.
Suddenly, there was a jerk and a noise. The bus had stopped. Break down. Some of us got down and pushed the bus to the nearby village. It was the old man’s village. But there was no old man beneath the tree! I felt strange to see the tree without the old man. It felt odd- vacant!
I joined the others, who were gathered at the nearby tea stall. I bought myself a cup of tea. The people were talking. But I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them- until I heard- “.. the old man under the tamarind tree, vanished..”
I turned around so fast that the man behind me, who was just speaking, spilled his tea all over himself! I apologized and enquired about the old man.
He said, “Don’t you know? He vanished”!
“What do you mean- vanished”?
“Vanished! He evaporated! Gone off to the Himalayas where he came from. He was a holy man- a Siddha- who knew the past, present and the future. He’d been under the tamarind tree- meditating, for hundreds of years; protecting us all. He’s gone back to the Himalayas to finish his penance. We’ve planned to build a temple for him, under the tamarind tree- where he’s left behind his spirit for the benefit of the villagers. The Sarpanch…”
So the old man was gone. And no one knew where- but he had left behind his memories- for everyone to remember and to share. For me, he’d always remain as the old man under the tamarind tree- a part of my life, my story.