In the Autumn of Life
written by: Sobhan Pramanik
A shadow on the hall room wall, cast in hot bright stripes of the August sun seeping through the curtains, of his still forlorn head and shrunk shoulders ended abruptly like a cliff on both sides as he sat at the table, was what it took me to look at the despair, the melancholic social abandonment that had gradually descended his life.
Four slices of crisply warmed bread, buttered, waited beside a bowl of chopped cucumber on the plate. Just the way he always preferred—cucumbers separate, brought to bread right at the point of eating, lest it left his toasts dank. Baba. I watched him draw 20 units of Insulin, the vial pierced through its membranous head and raised to light slightly above his face to ensure the right count. The hem of his kurta held up under his chin and the drawstrings of his pyjama unfastened, dangling, revealed two permanently calloused specks of brown on either side of his belly button. He plunged the needle without a flinch and the concoction vanished into his cells. With the emptied syringe in one hand, he smudged the spot with his thumb. A subtle tremor in his knobby fingers as they hung mid-air by the table. Once the cooker’s fuzzy whistle died in the kitchen, I heard the telephone ringing in the backdrop. Baba looked around from his chair before getting up to reach for it. He picked the cordless receiver from its set and strained his eyes across its flashy screen, his thumb hovering unsurely over the keys. There was a strange clumsiness I observed in his gait, as he strode back to the table for his glasses. Meanwhile mother entered from kitchen, annoyance furrowed into her brows for having let the phone ring that long, as Baba lends her the receiver. Fingertips smeared in turmeric and barely wanting to touch the phone, she dug onto the ‘Talk’ button with the corner of her nail and raised it to her ear.
‘Hello’ ‘Ha’ ‘Yes yes’
For what seemed no less than a minute, there was nothing expect mother’s wondering, monosyllabic responses to the caller. Her eyes narrowed in recollection was the only give away, interspersed by deep thinking exhales, before she held out the phone for Baba who sat at the table wearing a phlegmatic look.
‘Noor’ she whispered, as he grabbed onto the phone. A warm reflection from nowhere, like a sleeping child’s disbelief being awoken at midnight to be surprised with a long-awaited wish, I watched, creep to Baba’s face.
There it was. A name. Just a name to whom I was only as close as a reader can get to character in a novel while reading about his antics, and was supposed to distance and wear away, perhaps, with time and new books; but from how I felt with the mere sound of his name mumbled to Baba across the table, I knew there lied a bond unwreckable underneath and, that the affair had just begun.
There was no rain that year; the aridest in the history of our village. Long, toiling months of cauterizing sun had rid the earth with every bit of moisture. Fields had cracked open, as if struck by an incomplete earthquake, and crops had started to wilt. Just a single tube well system planted by the village council at the far end of the fields barely sufficed for the water necessities. Adding to the struggle was failing power supply, rendering the tube well less than two hours of runtime each day to water the crops. There was too little money in the family for us to get peasants dig up irrigation channels to our fields, and the only viable option was to pick a shovel myself. And that, was how I met Noor.
I was digging a trench, the sun unforgiving above me as sweat ran in dripping streams down my head to the tilled soil. I might have been at it for long, for every smack of the shovel felt like a nervous force pulsating through my wearied arms. That was when I noticed him behind me, shoveling along, continuing with the trail of my trench. I was far too exhausted to probe him on why was he doing so and decided to embrace the welcome help as a heaven-sent blessing. By dusk, together we had dug an eighty odd feet trench to our field and spent, we sat on the field. Two zombie figures enswathed in sweat and soil with the setting sun glistening upon us, we watched a silver stream of water travel along the trench to our field.
‘Why did you help me?’ I asked.
‘So the water could come.’ He beamed and washing the chunks of mud from between his toes, hopped onto his bicycle.
That was a rather straight answer, the blatantness of which left me dwelling about the plausibility of my own question. But it was no time to better my question or understand his motives. Smiling, as he cycled away from me down the clay road, I was glad to be witnessing the start of a friendship that was to change the course of my life.
Baba paused, ripping the scales of a sugarcane stem with his teeth for me to chew upon the fleshy part and relish the sweet, sublime juice. It was a Sunday morning and like every Sunday, we were sitting out in the courtyard of our quarter in Dehri. He sat on a lawn chair under the shade of a guava tree, his feet crossed on the grass, a teapot and a cup to his left on a three-legged stool, looking out at the manicured garden, peeling succulent stems of sugarcane for both of us.
The years that saw bud us into one entity. It was a friendship that felt like brotherhood. Our hearts were a vault of trust that held all the laments and glories of our lives without ever once breaking anything to the world. If he were hurt, I could see that in his eyes, and if I were to grieve, I couldn’t imagine anyone but his presence beside me. Some relationships are just like that. You don’t have to make grand efforts, and yet, nothing falls apart. Like a river that continues to flow, carving its destined path without having to be told about the mountains, heaths and forests that lay on its way. We were rivers flooded in awareness about the obstacles in each other, climbing them graciously without a grunt and keeping the lamp alit through turmoil.
Noor came from an affluent family of lawyers in a nearby village, and as it is mostly with doctor and lawyer families, the child is not left with much option but to pursue the same. With my father working at a grocery store, the flow of money into the house never really bettered, and being the eldest son, the onus was on me to assuage the conditions. When I graduated from school, it was Noor who presented me with the idea of pursuing engineering which, back in the 70s used to be a coveted degree and came with lucrative job offers, something my family was in dire need of. But then came to perspective the bigger and by far the most important question: will I be able to afford it? That moment, had it not been for Noor’s helping arm across my shoulder and that clear, endearing smile with nothing but love at its core that I saw on that first day of trenching, life would have been entirely different, a world more difficult perhaps. He went onto enrol in judicial studies and even though we were into different things at the fore, leading engrossing schedules, there was hardly any impact to truth of the bond that held us together. Often on weekends he would come to my place, spend the day in lazy gossips and have lunch. Once he had left, on several occasions I had found in my study rolls of engineering drawing sheets, drafters and other equipment needed for my course. I never told or asked from him anything, but he still saw through me. As if I were clear glass and he, Noor, the light. He truly lived by his name.
After completing my bachelors in civil engineering, I took the test for railways and was soon deployed on probation to a remote town in UP. I were to take the midnight mail to Calcutta. It had been raining continuously for the last few days and that night, it probably got worst. With my belongings—few shirts and trousers, a folder containing my certificates and utensils (a saucepan to make tea, a plate to eat on and a few bowls) wrapped in a bulging holdall, I plodded through swamps and muddy tracks to the station, leaving the village crumbling to ruins under the merciless rain. Only a few concrete houses, including ours, stood through the torrent. Mud houses with their roofs blown, lay heaped on the ground, reduced at the very end to where it originated from.
Just like the trenching day, helpless, when I looked behind and found him shoveling, sharing my labour with a smile; there he was again, my friend, Noor, at the platform in a pistachio green kurta, soaked in rain, looking at me with the saddest pair of eyes I had ever seen. I walked up to him and he embraced me. Cold and rain-sodden, the sky roaring above the station’s tin shelter in blue thunders, I closed my eyes on his shoulder, until our breaths turned to convulsive hiccups and we broke into tears.
The mail drew hurtling into the station, awaking the rain silenced village. Noor handed me a packed lunchbox for my journey and an envelope containing some money. I was reluctant to accept the money, but he held the envelope pushed down in my breast pocket, his palm cold against my weeping heart, until the train whistled and shuddered ahead. Holding my hand he jogged a steps ahead with the rolling train, before letting it go. I waited at the footstep hoping to see his smile, the same smile that put us together, but it wasn’t such a day. He was sad to see me go and there was nothing I could do to make him feel better. At the juncture of life’s beckoning and a friends’ breaking heart, I stood numb and incapable, parting like an opportunist from everything that comprised me. And as the engine groaned harder, rain and darkness stole from my eyes Noor’s last waiting glimpse, that had failed to cry.
A gentle breeze, abuzz with the chanting of parrots and the scent of ripened guavas was drifting through the courtyard, when mother’s calling for lunch cut Baba adrift in his reverie. She arrived at the courtyard combing her freshly bathed hair that lay shinning on her back like a cascade.
‘You should have written back to him.’ Mother said collecting the empty tea-pot from the stool, referring to the few letters that arrived at his office in the initial years of employment.
Baba got up from the chair, his breathing strained and slowly made his way back to the house. There was too much work, I suppose, too much to manage. Two sisters to be married back home, two brothers studying university and parents growing old. Away from home on a distant land, being the lone bread earner, growing me up, playing the loving father and a dutiful husband; somehow had friendship, unwillingly, take the back seat.
But then, as they say it, there’s always a second chance to set things right; and apparently, it took destiny forty years to play his hand and roll the dice again. That call from Noor on a Sunday morning in August 2016, I believe, was all about the redemption that was to be made. For Baba to deboard the train and reach out to his friend, who now needs him, like he needed someone, on that arid day of cutting the trench.
‘HaHa.’ Baba laughed on the call, amber glow in his happy eyes. ‘Don’t worry, I will tell you how the curved tracks are laid so the trains don’t fall off.’
It was a long call and by the time he hung up, it was noon. The shadow was now gone from the walls, as if it were never there, as if he was never lonely. It was the most jovial I had seen him in years. Post his retirement from the railways, he had consciously withdrawn at the social front, never reaching out to anyone beyond his immediate family, choosing to live as a recluse in his Calcutta house. Winding together his chores was a loose thread of habit, and except the desolation that he had consciously invited over to his life, nothing ever would seem out-of-place to an onlooker. After the wellbeing of his wife and children, it was the newspaper, the insurance advertisements promising great retirement returns, the government’s new tax policy and cricket match results that managed to catch his interest. And occasionally, an inflated diabetes result that would see him visit the physician. The world beyond these few elements, as nonexistent to him as the cosmos were to its natives in the pre-Copernicus era.
‘Noor is coming next week.’ He declared, visibly impaired to contain his smile. ‘While travelling in a train he wonders how come it doesn’t fall over in a curve’ Baba guffawed at his dear friend’s innocence.
I imagined Noor— an altruistic character to my mind’s eyes from the tales I had grown up with, now was a week’s time away from being born as real to me—standing at the gate of his homebound local chugging along a blind curve and astonished at the surreal possibility of the speeding iron caterpillar not being derailed.
There were stories waiting to be told, to burst open. Forty years are a long time. They parted to make a life and were now meeting again to reinvent the life lived. To compare the dreams conceived as adults, with a much bigger and accomplished reality in their autumn. Each passing day thereafter was like holding a flood in his heart, and I earnestly waited for the deluge to drown us all.
They were at the Veranda. Noor, a man too handsome for his age, sat relaxed opposite Baba in a cane chair. He was clean-shaven, with high squared sideburns sprinkled with flakes of silver; and his hair, swept back from his temples was slick with oil. His walnut skin eyes overlooking the ridge of his nose, was much like a boat upturned on the shore. And that smile—the hopeful, benevolent sweep of his lips that accentuated the high of his cheek bones, made for the world a man in whose heart trust was still a new-born child, unscathed of vices. He wore a long full sleeved kurta; richly scented. The cuffs starch-rigid held together by a pair of studs and an old HMT model on a silver strap, fastened to his wrist. Strings of vein, blue-green and dilated, emerged from under his sleeves onto the back on his palm.
Behind him on the window grille, a potted hibiscus lazily tossed in the breeze. Beyond and into the open, dusk silently poured, down ribs of drunk kites somersaulting in air, painting the landscape in a pink sheen. Flocks of birds in a tired flight home, rode past the sinking sun. Their shadows on its orange periphery like craters on moon. In the distance, trees were slowly becoming opaque shadows.
Baba was scribbling on a newspaper. Parallel lines crossed by horizontal bars; the way railways tracks are. Tea in two white porcelain cups sat on saucers between them. Tenderness apparent in his throat as he spoke, one word at a time. His eyes downcast and wet.
‘That’s how it is.’
‘The curves screwed to the ballast.’
‘Following Euler’s Curvature Law’
‘It moves on.’
‘It doesn’t fall’
‘That’s how it is. It just doesn’t fall over.’
Noor sat there listening intently. His fingers balled under his chin. But none of it really mattered. Really. Not the mathematics, neither the laws. Two old friends coming together to look back at life, talking about how not to topple along a bend that fate sends along our way. Well, there really wasn’t anything else to be understood.
I watched coils of fumes rise from the tea cups and climbing the curtains, drifted out into the night. Noor reached out to touch Baba on his arm. He looked up as tears fell trickled from his clouded eyes. They lurched forwards in an embrace. They both were crying. But today, there was no train ready to depart.