Guwahati,

Fiction

A Chance Meeting

 On an anonymous night, I, with a deep troubled thought, had walked into the taciturn house; a house fraught with wear and tear of age and neglect. In fact my arrival itself, it seems to me now on reflection, was a matter of prophetic accident: I was, so to say at that time, a bachelor and a new visitor in the big city, looking for a place to stay, and more than that, I wanted to feel at home in whichever lodging I could get. And then, someone informed me that there was a room available for rent at a house where an old couple lived; they had lost their son only a month ago and they would be glad to let out the room to another young man.

I went and knocked on the door. After a long tedious wait, an old woman opened the door. She was so frail and thinly built that it seemed that a gentle nudge would break her to pieces. When I spoke about the room, the old woman's face lit up with a toothless smile. She said, "I can let you in, if you promise to stay here as a family member; we are so alone these days." 
I could sense her deep sighing thoughts, and immediately agreed to take that room. In fact, I shifted the very next day with my minimum change of clothes, baggage of bedclothes, mug and a bucket with few utensils and a gas stove. However, just before I went in, something gripped my heart; a foreboding of someone trying to stop me from trespassing into someone's private chamber. But I quickly shooed away that stray thought and walked in. The room was well furnished with proper layout and upholstery, and at once I felt quite at home and that wild fear was suddenly gone. In a few days, I settled down well.
 
***
Then, about a week later, I heard a faint knock on my door. I recognized it; it was the old woman, and yes indeed, but what she said was beyond my reckoning, "My husband would like to meet you." I found it rather strange that the old woman had so long not mentioned anything about her husband. I went with her and just as she opened the door to another room, a strange awful smell of something rotting assailed my nostrils. It was a smell I had never come across in my life. As I stepped into the room, I could make out in one far corner the crumpled shape of a man lying prostrate on a bed, and there was another bed empty, probably the old woman slept on it. 
The old man looked ghastly, almost half-dead, his grey hair dirty and long, his beard reached up to his chest, and his clothes were almost nondescript plastered to his thin bony frame. I braced myself up, something gave me the will to face this; it was indeed a challenge to test my capacity to reach out to another man's suffering and ordeal. 
I examined the apparent wounds, and saw that if I removed his clothes and washed the wound, my task would be accomplished, almost done. There was suddenly a willed determination in me that I must succeed to bring this old man out of his ruined body as it were, that body was then to me a temple,  and that I am obliged to cleanse and awaken the man within.
I rolled up his shirtsleeves and gently told the old man, "Koka, I am going to help you sit up on the bed, please cooperate." He accepted my nudge with a faint smile. I held his shoulders with a tight grip and pushed him up on the bed, and after a few more struggling efforts, could lean him against the bed-stand. The effort seemed almost a herculean task for both of us. And then, something caught my eyes; there were things moving on the bedclothes - swarming, white faggots crawling scrambling on top of each other. 
They were awakened by the sudden disturbance. I dragged the old man out of the bed, faint and bloody, at last freed from the enclosure of his bed and the swarming insects. His back resembled the color of burnt soot and ashes, mottled as it were by those faggots that had profaned his body like a holocaust for so long. The old man would have gone from this world thus, alone and dishonoured and I had come like a saviour at the foot of his pedestal. There was the apparent weakness of flesh in him but the will to live still flickered and that called for an unconquerable plan from me.
A cold fear still gripped me; the old man now sitting on a chair looked tomb-like against the crumbling wall of a faith. I embarked on my plan; I gently stripped away the clothes that were soiled and sticky and washed with soap suds and water and put a fresh shirt and a pair of pajamas on him. But when it came to the matter of cleaning his nails, that posed a tremendous setback - they were long, twisted like gnarled roots of an old tree filled with his own dirt and filth, sweat and shit, certainly. I then pleaded with a barber to do the barbaric task of snipping off those ugly extensions. The barber, at first hesitated; I appeased him with a hundred rupee note, saying, "See this as your way to honour an old man's wish. He will bless you."
 
*** 
By now the old man looked rather fresh, the blood had come back to his wrinkled face and a warm smile greeted me as he spoke for the first time in a hoarse whisper, "I am hungry. Give me something to eat."
So long, rice and a thin gruel was the only thing that the old man got to eat. So long, the others stood always at a distance, never coming near him to see if he needed anything. The others feigned perhaps to understand his mutterings as though they thought that the mere act of listening would redeem them from their hollow pretences. The old man too seemed, most of the time, caught in between the web of sleep and waking, where he pondered over some phantasm that had no real meanings to others. He could never sense that he was surrounded by imposters - he still believed that goodness prevailed, especially in his own daughter who would come no doubt to visit him, though not to show any sympathy but to question how long the old man would continue to live.
On the fifth day or so, I realized rather bitterly that I could not expect a miracle to happen, as there was that occasional whimper of objection whenever I tried to cleanse his wounds. If the old man had questioned my intentions, it would have been easy for me to explain. However, each time I observed that the old man ate his meal on time and slept well, I realized that this was what I could only wish for. The old man would sleep for more than three hours from daybreak to noon, and at every mealtime, he would throw up a mild tantrum indicating that he must be fed by me. Though his progress was slow, laborious, I was not ready to give up. Something drove me from inside, to heal this old man. 
Sometimes a mild change amazed me, especially when the old man seemed to ramble emerging out of the cobwebs of a past - his glories and triumphs as a student, how he had been to Oxford for his M.Ed degree and lived a year teaching nuances of education to British students. I took these in the beginning to be the ravings of an old man's delirium, like a tired derelict traveller on a desert-land fooled by a faint distant light from an oasis. I believed that when the old man had so long spent alone, he somewhat welcomed this new opportunity to reopen his past like a mere interruption between his sleep and waking, though a rather useless pursuit, so to say.
 
***
But a few weeks later, the old man urged me to open a chest of drawers where I found piles of old worn out paper cuttings; these spelt out the proof of all those glories that the old man had claimed were his own. However, I was then pursuing my final year as a commerce student and understood very little about the merits of those citations and certificates. But the old man would go on repeating, saying, "I have lived through these glories." And that utterance truly made him proud.
However, after a month had passed by, a call letter came for me; I must travel to Kolkata for an immediate appointment at a reputed bank. I hesitated since I knew that the old man was now so used to having me around, attending to all his errands that he would not welcome my going away. So I had to tell a small lie, just to keep the old man happy in awaiting my return. In fact, I had thought that I would be gone only a while, a month, at the most. But it took me more than that.
By the time I came back, the old man had passed away. A man who was unable to stand, inept, who could hardly do the elementary task of lifting a spoon without me, had left this world and I was now left alone, relentlessly alone, though alive but trembling to touch the feet of the old man once more. I had indeed thought that the old man would somehow come back to life but now that the last rites have been performed, he was no longer made of flesh and blood - only a statue made of stone stared at me from a pedestal. It was not going to be a deserted house; the old man shall keep his eyes upon it.
Postscript: Time has failed to dim that particular chance meeting of my growing up years, and my soul seemed so long determined, albeit stubborn not to speak the truth, but today, forty two years later, though it may burn my tongue with its raucous sting, as it were, fate has decreed it. The memory has no trace of bloodshed or any opposition to withhold the normal instincts of a man, in fact, its narration has had a generous objective that require the story to be fully acknowledged as true. 
Yet, I have kept it a secret, not open to all, in fact I saw in it the mysteries that were unfolded to me, like the intricate labyrinth of a fate that go into the making of a man by God, or someone mightier above, because my one act had decided the destiny of that old man who would have otherwise remained imprisoned within the dark dim periphery of his room. There was no one to upgrade him as his body lay mutilated with severe wounds of neglect; this was a dishonour close to death itself.
Life often surrenders to chance meetings until the time a nameless terror gripped that old man, and strangely only I could feel his innermost fears on our first meeting, perhaps because no one until that time had bothered to know it. There was that atrocious monotony in his daily doings that had to be broken like a cocoon to let the butterfly emerge to fly out to a new destination.
(This piece of fiction is based on a true story, as told to the author by Simanta Deka.)