Friday, December 29, 2006

A MATTER OF LANGUAGE

On a train bound for Calicut

It was a warm day by Mangalore standards. I was happy to get inside the cool confines of the AC coach. I was on my way to Calicut, and was taking the 12.15 train from Mangalore. Placing my bags on the floor, I surveyed the scene. A portly Malyalee gentleman, dressed in an expensive white ‘mundu’ and a white shirt, his hair well oiled and neatly combed, a faint trace of ‘gulf’ perfume around him, was to be my traveling companion. He gave me a toothy half-smile. As I settled down, he spoke to me in Malayalam. I replied in English, that I do not speak the language. He smiled and decided not to disturb me and continued reading his ‘Malyala Manorama’.
The railways were commemorating the ‘vigilance week’. Posters had festooned the walls of the railway station. This is the week wherein your ticket gets to be seen more than once by different Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTE).

And so it was; I made myself comfortable, pulled out the latest edition of Reader’s Digest from my bag and immersed myself in one of those feel good articles. There were a good 10 minutes for the train to depart, when we were subjected to the first of many checks. A uniformed TTE, came in asked for our tickets, had a look at them, made some surreptitious tick marks on the ticket and moved on. A little while later another TTE walked in and the routine was repeated. I was cool about it, as I had experienced this farce, many a times. But I did notice my traveling companion getting a little flustered. He grumbled, of course in Malayalam. I could not comprehend a word of what he said.
The train pulled out at 12.15 sharp. As it crossed the points and made its way to the main track, a plain clothes TTE appeared. He was a short gentleman and looked mean. His demeanor was boorish. He demanded to see the ticket. I routinely reached into my pocket and gave it to him. He too did the tick marks as his predecessors had done before him & returned the ticket. It was the turn of my traveling companion next. He was hot under the collar as he stood up. He towered over the TTE and with a booming voice said something in Malayalam; which to me sounded like he was asking for some identification. The short tempered TTE shouted even louder and pulled out his identification card. Thoroughly chastened, my traveling companion, handed over the ticket.
After the TTE left, the malyalee gentleman adjusted his mundu; by tucking in further the edges into the waistband. Just as he was sitting down I caught his eye. He smiled sheepishly and said, with that tangy malayalee accent, ‘ I don’t show mine to strangers’. I smiled and mumbled, ‘same here’.

The train had picked up speed.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

THE NOTE


On a Sunday morning, it is customary for me to attend the 8.00 a.m. mass at the lovely St. Aloysius College Chapel in Mangalore. My family, and I have frequented this chapel for the last 30 years or so. I was an altar boy in this chapel from class VI to X. Nowadays I am in charge of the offertory collections. (These are collections in monetary form from the congregation) I arrange to have it collected and then place the offerings in an alms box and lock it. The Procurator of the college will open it later and count the offerings. An announcement is made on the next Sunday of the collections made on the previous Sunday. This system has been followed so as to avoid tempting the sacristan (the chapel caretaker) to dip in.

The St. Aloysius College Chapel

(Altar View)

So it was on one Sunday, last year, that I was emptying the collections into the alms box, that I spotted this scrap of paper. I picked it up, placed it aside and proceeded to lock the box. I almost forgot the piece of paper; the priest who had said mass attracted my attention to it. It was folded lengthwise, I carefully opened it. It was a note; written in a plain but legible handwriting and in perfect English. I began reading it and watching my facial expression the Reverend asked me ‘What is it’? I looked up and read the note aloud:

Dear Lord Jesus,

I am really very sorry for the crime of robbery which I have done. I know that I have put me & my parents to shame. I am really very sorry Lord for the pain that I have given you and my parents. I promise you lord never I will rob others money or other valuable things or ordinary things. I will leave smoking and drinking whisky, rum etc which I did without the knowledge of my parents. I humbly ask forgiveness lord, please forgive me and don’t let my parents know about this. I will be a good boy and work for your glory. I will be obedient to you & my parents. Please lord don’t allow to spread the rumour that I robbed the cell. Even my friends name should not come. Please lord. This I ask in your loving name. Amen.

There was silence in the sacristy. I looked at the Padre. He seemed to be startled. Giving me a side glance he said ‘Naïve boy. It must be a student. Let’s go’ and with a booming ‘good morning!’ to old Mrs. Pinto, he was off.

I took the note and slipped it into my pocket and moved on.

The St. Aloysius College Chapel

(Rear View)

That night I read the note again. Questions began forming in my mind. I carefully folded the note and put it in my bag among some papers. It has remained there, until yesterday. I was cleaning my bag and stumbled on this note and once again the questions flooded my mind.

Who was the author of the note? Considering his innocence, a high school student perhaps, probably in the VIII std. or so? What was it that made him write this note? Was he naïve, as the padre observed? Why did he put the note in the offertory collection? Did he think that by doing so, all his acts would be forgiven? What made him think that this note would be read, or for that matter, ignored? Where is he today? Is he well on his way to becoming a Charles Sobhraj or…..a Mahatma Gandhi? Has he made the transition?

Has God forgiven him?

I am preserving the note. When we meet next, please ask to see the note. Maybe what I am carrying in my bag could well be a piece of History!

Visit the St. Aloysius College Chapel @ http://www.staloysius.ac.in/campus/chapel/

Monday, December 04, 2006

QUE SERA SERA, WHAT WILL BE, WILL BE.

It was a Saturday in December, way back in 1982. Or was it 1983? Never mind. It was 3.30 in the evening. I was sipping a cup of tea & getting ready for a game of cricket in the cemetery. (Well not in the cemetery to be exact, but in the bye lane adjoining the cemetery.) Smells of Christmas goodies wafted from the kitchen. My Mother, ably assisted by my sister was frying ‘kalkals’ (a Christmas delicacy in these parts.) I finished my tea and with the usual biding of goodbye, took up my cricket bat and ran up to my friend’s house. He was ready and waiting. We collected the rest of the cricketing gear and made our way to the cemetery. (You see we had to cross the cemetery to get to the bye lane)

Just then we espied the grave-digger coming towards us. He was a gaunt old man; a friendly soul, whom we had helped in the past – either to dig the grave or to fill it in after the burial. He was drenched in sweat. His torso was covered by a thin film of red mud. He must have been digging a grave. He cleared his throat, spat out the phlegm and scratching his legs, said ‘There is a funeral’. He paused for effect and then said ‘Of a beggar’. I waited. The old man continued; ‘The priest has asked you’ll to attend and help in the burial’. He paused; his roomy eyes looked at us. My friend sighed. ‘There goes our game of cricket’. ‘Who is this beggar’ I asked. The old man shrugged. ‘Dunno’ he said. ‘He was found dead in the bus- stand near the church. Seems he has no relatives. He was wearing a cross. The Muncipality has requested the vicar to bury him here’. I nodded. We fell silent as we followed the old man into the cemetery. We couldn’t play today, as the cortege would have to come in through the bye lane. The other members of our motley bunch arrived one by one; enthusiastically – expecting a great game of cricket. The news of the impeding funeral dampened the spirit. Some grumbled and left, some hung around.

A few minutes later an ambulance came up the lane. It stopped near the gate of the cemetery. A driver got out. ‘Come and help, you fellows’, he hollered. The old man stirred, threw down his beedi and motioned us to follow. The ambulance door opened. We peeked in. There in a white coffin lay the skeletal like remains of a an old man. It was difficult to tell his age. His white hair was fluffy – they must have washed it. They had dressed him in some borrowed clothes. We lifted the coffin. The odour of formaldehyde or formalin wafted out of the coffin. We made a slow progress to the grave; there were four of us and the old man. The grave was in a corner of the cemetery. It looked like they wanted to hide the grave. A clandestine act – a beggar among elite; shut away from public glare? The driver followed with the lid of the coffin. Just then, the priest appeared on his mo-bike. He was a pompous man. I had a feeling he did not like us one bit. He had warned us not to frequent the cemetery. He had complained to our parents. Yet, at this moment, he looked friendly; even throwing us a half-smile. He began the customary prayers. In the corner of my eye I saw the driver beating a retreat. The rickety ambulance neighed and coughed as it spurted to life and then with a final blare of the horn, the driver drove off. It drowned the words of the priest’s intonations.

When the priest had belted the final hymn – a solo performance, with the old man humming a few lines in between, we closed the coffin. With the help of ropes, which act as pulleys, we lowered the coffin into the grave. Before we could pull out the ropes, the priest heaved a pile of mud into the grave with the help of a spade. It fell with a thud on the coffin. We too followed with fistfuls of mud. With a swift murmuring of what sounded like ‘Thank you’, the priest took off. We heard his mo-bike start and the sound of the bike faded into the distance. It was quiet once again, except for the sound of the old man shoveling mud into the grave. We hung around for sometime, collected our cricketing gear and then made our way back home. It was getting dark. A cool evening breeze had begun to blow gently. Did I feel a shiver?

That night I lay awake for a long time. Did the man we buried have no relatives? What about friends? He had looked to be in his 70s; but looks can be deceptive – perhaps he had aged prematurely. Did he not have any ambition? Where was he from? He must have been a bubbly baby many summers ago? What went wrong? Did he attend school? Had be fallen in love? Did someone somewhere love him – at least for a moment? Did he have a wife? What about children? Had his mother not sung lullabies for him? What about his father? Had he not held him in his arms with dreams in his eyes? What the hell had happened? I slept a disturbed sleep. Images of a gaunt man, sleeping in a coffin, came floating through the sleep……..


‘When I was just a little boy
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be handsome, will I be rich
Here's what she said to me.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.’

(Adapted:
Originally Sung by Doris Day
in the Movie The Man Who Knew Too Much)

Friday, December 01, 2006

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT

For well over 25 years, I had resided next to a cemetery. I am told that we moved in next door to the cemetery when I was 2 years old. I moved out 27 years later. In my early childhood, I was mortally scared of the place. But as I grew up, the fear gave way to respect. And today I can say I did learn some unforgettable lessons in that desolate place.

When fear gave way to a sense of macabre curiosity, the cemetery became a favourite haunt for me and my two friends. Attending funerals and observing the ritual of burying the dead became a pastime. There were many instances that left an indelible mark on us. One such incident took place in the early 70s. There was this funeral of a 36 year old lady. When the time came to close the coffin the children clasped the lid of the coffin and refused to allow the pall bearers to do their job. The relatives had a tough time consoling them and taking them away. Suddenly, my friend, standing next to me started bawling; a few eyebrows were raised & he too was whisked away. (We had a tough time extricating him from the clutches of the doting relatives) The congregation was moved to tears. It was, to this day, the most tearful funeral that I have attended. I cried too….

The next day, the children came to the grave with flowers. They came day after day. Days became months, and months transformed into years. I observed that the visits of the children became scarce and then one day the visits just stopped.

The years went by. We continued our sojourns in the cemetery. Then one day, in the 80s, 1983 or so, a car drew up to the cemetery gate. The occupants of the car, 3 young girls, got out of the car. They were carrying a bouquet of flowers. My friends and I had reached that golden age when anything in skirts would draw immediate attention. So it was that we gawked at them. They seemed lost. They were searching for a grave. I recognised them as the children at that funeral. I attracted their attention and motioned them over towards an unkept grave. My friends helped me clear the undergrowth. There beneath the wild grass and creepers lay the grave of their mother!

We walked away. There was silence. I looked over my shoulder. The girls had placed the bouquet of flowers on the grave and were gingerly making their way back towards the car. It looked as if they were making a quiet getaway. One of my friends, the same guy who had bawled at the funeral, muttered ‘What’s this life!’


M’mries,
Like the corners of my mind
Misty water-color memories
Of the way we were
Scattered pictures,
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?
M’mries, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So its the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember...
The way we were...
The way we were...

(From the movie THE WAY WE WERE)