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     Volume 11 |Issue 42| October 26, 2012 |


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Between Basu and Foot

Syed Badrul Ahsan

All too often these days, I take the liberty of examining myself in front of the mirror. If the mirror doesn't happen to be there, I sit back and reflect on what I was, what I should have been and what I have indeed become. Let me take you to that mirror question first. It is clear, without any shadow of a doubt, that I am aging, am indeed looking a whole lot more than what my actual age really is. Everywhere I go, or let's say most places I visit, turns out to be a painful experience. Where were you at the time of the partition of India in 1947? Chances are that the people firing away such questions are older than me by at least ten if not more years. Well, the answer is simple: I wasn't even born in 1947, my parents hadn't even met at the time and indeed would not until six or seven years later. I happen to be, just in case you were curious, a child born in proper wedlock.

But, of course, I don't blame those who ask me such silly questions. They have a point, even if it is asinine, as my mirror tells me. I look old, I have lost very significant portions and clumps of hair and whatever remains of it is marvellously white. Little wonder then that the ayah at the school where my nephew and niece are acquiring an education once took me for their grandfather. 'Your dadu has been looking for you. Where have you two been?' After such knowledge, to borrow that poignant line from TS Eliot, what forgiveness? But I do forgive such innocent, naïve people. If I don't, the pain in me will only go up by leaps and bounds.

The other evening I was watching myself on a television talk show (a recorded version) and almost failed to recognize myself. The figure before me appeared to be a cross between a very aged Jyoti Basu and a socialistically tranquil Michael Foot. And then I realised, to my intense horror, that it was me out there, a faux symbol of one who has retired from service and is rapidly proceeding toward his sunset. Which reminds me of all the times I keep telling my friends that my sojourn on earth is about to end and that I intend to depart in a grand manner. It is of course Allah who decides how and where we will die, but given a choice I would like to transit to the world beyond this one on a twilight of gathering darkness in my village, my eyes focused on the grey sky beyond the date palms. My only regret would be, in the event of such a death, is that I wouldn't be able to be part of my own qul khwani. But, wait a minute! Couldn't the one who knows he will die someday arrange to have his own qul in advance and share in the joys that will come of such a coming together of friends? You see, a normal qul is occasion for much unnecessary weeping. But if you on your own do things a little ahead of your death, it could turn out to be an occasion for festive joy.

Think about it. Our death is not in our hands, but our qul and our chehlum could be. But I must confess, now that the wife is not around, that she does not take kindly to such jokes. Dying, she says, is no laughing matter. I have promised her, though, to die laughing, in raucous manner. But, again, married men at some point in life begin walking and feeling and talking like dead men. They may be alive corporeally, but it is really the ghost in them which takes over. They are unhappy men. Most married men are. And most married women too. That reminds me of an anecdote, probably an apocryphal one, of a young man aiming to get a place at university being asked the rather simple question of when John Milton had written Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. His answer was sharp, prompt and decisive: 'Sir', said he, 'Milton wrote Paradise Lost the day he got married; and he wrote Paradise Regained the day his wife died.' How's that for ingenuity? But, sshhh! Never breathe a word of it to the mother of you children. The skies will fall. The heart will break. Your head could crack.

And now to that matter of reflections on yourself, myself to be precise. I began life in school with far too many ambitions than I could cope with. A doctor, a lawyer, a university teacher. All of these played in my imagination in childhood, until the day came when I thought (having sat behind the drivers of huge buses many a time) that the Almighty had ordained for me the life and career of a bus driver. Nothing came of that, though. I moved on, until someone called Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan inspired me into persuading myself that I could be president of Pakistan. See the progression? I moved straight from being a bus driver to being a head of state.

These days I reflect on why I didn't end up becoming president after all. The reason, as a friend once told me, was that I had set for myself too high a bar, that I should have settled for something on the lower rungs of ambition's ladder. Such as? My friend, wicked to the bones, gave it to me straight: you could have tried becoming president of something called the Jatiyo Gamchha Samity. Come to think of it. That wouldn't have been a bad idea. So many ideas come with the gamchha, so many ways in which you can use it, so many ways in which you can drape this flimsy cloth around yourself before letting it slide to the ground that you can only marvel at the imagination of the first human being who discovered the gamchha. Gamchhas off to him!

But let's come back to reality, with a crack and not a thud or jolt. I use the term 'crack' because it explains a goodly number of things about myself these days. My aging knee, once a force for speed (and many other adventurous enterprises besides) hurts these days when I try going to bed or attempt coming out of it. I can hear that crack in the knee as I climb some innocuous stairs. And the cracking sound is louder when, mistaking my accidental, purely unintentional brush with her feet under the table for a hint of my progressive devilry, the woman I am having lunch with gives my knee a sensually vicious kick. I wince and, dazed, hear her tell me, in a voice full of love and sweetness evocative of the saqi pouring the heavenly drink called love into my empty glass, 'Not here, not now, you idiot!'

I limp out with her. She observes my shuffle and gives me a withering look before late afternoon enfolds her in its autumnal warmth. My imagination runs riot with thoughts of the delight in her knees.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.

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