The Hardest Word
Take it from me, if you spend two years in a remote valley somewhere in Africa, where a passing camel every two days constitutes serious and memorable entertainment, some strange ideas will come into your head too. So it was that in the mid-nineties in Eritrea, looking out one late afternoon over the barren rocky landscape that was home, peppered with acacia trees, I found myself thinking of a few people I'd managed to upset or had fallen out with in previous years. The perceived injustices or slights that had led to each altercation had long faded, leaving me with nothing but a troubled conscience for company. The uneasy thoughts bubbled a little, began to simmer and then finally boiled over, and I knew had to take action to appease my guilt.
At that distance, and given that these people were scattered across half a dozen countries, I had no option but to write to them. It took a day or two, but in the end I managed to craft individual personal apologies to all of them. Sent them off, felt quite at peace, and fell to imagining just how surprised they would be to get this missive from a far-off and quite possibly forgotten ex-colleague/friend. But the strangest thing was, every one of them replied. Some gracious, others bemused, but all prepared to answer in conciliatory terms. Of course I never saw any of them again -- our lives had moved on -- but a burden lifted from my mind nevertheless, and who knows, maybe also from theirs.
Reading their responses, I occasionally wondered if the reconciliation would have been as easy face-to-face. Then one day last year I got a chance to find out what such an experience would be like. When I lived here in the 90s, one of my colleagues was S. An elderly, wiry man with penetrating eyes, he at first captivated me with his idiosyncratic way of speaking - cryptic pronouncements phrased in strange, dated English. He would begin each new conversation with 'A thought occurs to me. May I express it?' and would signal his assent to any given point by gravely intoning 'Exactly so'. Despite auspicious beginnings, and a fair amount of early personal warmth, our relationship rather tumbled downhill over the two years. There were differences of opinion about education, coupled with what seemed to me an inability on his part to accept the contributions of his younger colleagues, matched by a possibly intransigent inability on my part to ignore these bright youngsters. No doubt to him, I wasn't not deferential enough to his obvious seniority. And so when I finally left, it was on rather unsatisfactory terms. Nothing was ever said, but it was clear there were bruises on both sides.
I was therefore astonished on a trip to an important provincial capital here last autumn to learn that this conservative, traditional man had become the Principal of the most prestigious college in the town. On an impulse, I decided to pay him a visit and try to heal what had gone wrong all those years ago. With some trepidation I went to the college, popped my head round the door, and there he was, at his big desk with requisite gold box of tissues and plastic pen holder, surrounded by visiting dignitaries, and looking supremely at home. Like all important officials, he had a newspaper open in front of him and a towel draped over the back of his chair. I had to suppress a smile: one of our early battles had been over my refusal to allow towels on the back of chairs in our brand new office. Hard now to think how worked up I got over a piece of cloth. Catching sight of me, S was certainly taken by surprise, but if he was at all displeased, he hid it remarkably well. There was a momentary questioning flicker in his eyes, but then he leapt up to greet me.
In the animated conversation that followed I had just enough time to offer a quiet explanation for my visit, and then, as planned, an apology that we'd left things in that way. I received another one of his piercing stares, followed by the merest suggestion of an acknowledging smile, before his attention was distracted by a hundred papers in need of signing, and a dozen hovering people wanting a word.
A few minutes later we swept out into the campus, to show the visitors around. He guided my arm gently as we walked, the students parting deferentially in front of us and saluting him. On the way, I was impressed by the relaxed way in which he spoke to people, from staff to students, and the easy way in which they smiled in his presence. This isn't always the way with those in authority here, and I was once again forced to rethink my perceptions of this enigmatic man.
The campus itself is from the 1860s, built in the heyday of Empire. Still elegant and spacious, it was grand from the outside, with wide lawns and delicately wrought wooden latticework on the balconies. Inside, though, in the dimly lit pale blue corridors there was more of a musty atmosphere, and rotting buff files teetered in dust-filled rooms. Clerks beavered away in the gloom. Some of them looked like they too had arrived in the nineteenth century and simply forgotten to leave. Or perhaps I was merely seeing ghosts.
Soon it was time to go. I felt relieved that S had been so gracious, and it seemed we were back on good terms. He asked me to sign his visitor's book, so I waited my turn after the moustachioed and rather pompous man next to me. Pompous Man took up his pen and began to write a florid and lengthy message. Over his shoulder I glimpsed the words 'utmost effort and sincerity', 'left an indelible stamp on me', 'an inestimable privilege', 'sagacious service to the nation'. Dickens was clearly living on in this small corner of Bangladesh. Then, for the benefit of everyone sitting around, he proceeded to read his message out, in a booming voice. He was obviously well pleased with his penmanship.
For my part I wrote a more personal message, about how pleased I was to rekindle this friendship, and how relieved to be able to leave in peace. S read it intently and then nodded in grave silence, his eyes once more meeting and searching mine for a moment. There was a brief tacit acceptance. Not to be outdone though, Pompous Man took the book off S and then boomingly began to read out my message too. I was mortified. But not to worry, PM soon got tired of my inferior scribbling, and skipped the personal part at the end. Instead he decided to read out his own again. No one was listening any more, but his voice sailed through the room, making the curtains billow and the terrified geckoes scurry.
Stepping out of the college into the rickshaw-belled evening, I knew that I'd learned what I'd come to learn. Somewhere in my mind a flock of black crows cawed, rose and took flight. And in their place: the creeping silence of dusk.
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