Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Roadie's Story

I first met him in Mumbai several years ago. He wasn't looking so old then ,though I knew he really was much older than he looked. He's one of those people who don't have a middle age - the kind that look young until they are forty and suddenly age so much in a year that they look fifty-five. You must have met someone like that too!
I'd put his age at forty-five now, going by the stories he tells about his childhood, though his flowing hair and grey beard make him look ten years older. He's been a roadie all his life - the guy never lived at a place for more than three years at a stretch. Just like me, I thought, when he first told me that. But his case was different. He lived to be a roadie out of choice, not compulsion. Never seemed to want to settle down anywhere, though he keeps coming back to Mumbai once in a while. He always says that he feels more comfortable on the road than in a home of his own.
There are always these two kinds of people you meet - those who don't like to go away from where they were born. They build unusually strong associations with the place, the people, the street names and live to die in the exact same spot where they were born. I think they are reluctant to move due to a sense of insecurity, though that can't be generalised. And then there are those who are always running away from anything familiar. They seek new places, new people, new life and not just for adventerous reasons. They live out of their travel bags and write their lifestories on journey tickets, leaving behind a baggage of memories for someone else to reminisce. The roadie was the perfect example for the second type.
He travelled across the world and had seen a sample of all that is there to see. He's taken part in the bloody revolutions in Africa, danced to the music of Europe, eaten the lard of the promised lands of America and cried with the mothers of Hispania.
"What's the farthest place you've seen?" I asked him once, when he was in town.
He thought for a while and said, "You know, I think the distance doesn't matter, really! I can tell you some names and the kilometres, but that isn't how it goes. You can go to the very edge of the universe and still end up in a city very much like this. The same faces, the same stories. The same cities with ten million lonely people, even a thousand worlds away. Yet, you can find a completely different world two lanes away from where you've lived all your life. If there is a sudden catastrophic event in Mumbai, like a war or a major earthquake, you can meet a perfect stranger in the same guy you've known for twenty years! I think that's what a journey is all about. A catastrophe like an earthquake isn't just an event in the newspaper. It's a journey for the people who've felt it in their hearts and seen their homes and loved ones crumble infront of them. You'd think they are at the same place when it's over, but they aren't!"
"So what is the farthest journey you've made then?" I asked him again.
"I'm yet to make it." he said, "Yet to go there, where I want to go. There is no use talking about it before I do it. I'll tell you when I've done it!"
He limped across the room to pick up juice from the refrigerator. He broke his leg once, climbing a mountain in Mongolia and never regained his normal walk. He looked and dressed like a hippy though he never took drugs. He's strict about his food and had the same diet at the same time every day. He's particular about personal hygiene too and I wondered sometimes how he could manage all that while travelling. But a travel for us is out of the way from our daily lives. For him, that is all that is there to his life. So he lived a clean life even on the road!
"And when people ask you where you are from, what do you tell them?"
"Mumbai" he smiled through his beard.
I wasn't surprised to hear that. "So you do consider Mumbai your home. But why? I thought you were born in ________"
"Ah! Like they say, home is where the heart is! And my heart is in Mumbai. I lost it on a busy highway here once." he said. "A million wheels have trampled it by now. But it is still there, no one's picked it up yet. I even know the exact spot!"
That was the first time I heard him talk about it. "Who was it?" I asked.
"Talking of earthquakes," he smiled, abruptly ending the topic. "I was in Japan once, when one of their biggest quakes in a whole decade hit the very area I was in. It measured 7.8 on the scale. You won't believe it, but only two people died and one of them died of a heart attack!"
"The Japanese know their earthquakes like the Indians know the monsoons. The monsoons come every year, wet the walls of your houses a bit and kill a few thousands somewhere else in the country. You get holidays sometimes because of them, and in an indifferent way, some of us even look forward to the day off. It's a part of your life and you never give much thought to it. But if you pull a guy out of central Europe and put him in an Indian monsoon for a month, he would call that the wildest thing he's ever seen. He'd probably write a book about it!"
"Not the Japanese though", he continued. "It rains much harder in Japan and they know their typhoons better than their quakes. Even their quakes don't kill so many people, because they are always prepared for a quake, no matter what time of the day! That particular year when I was in Japan, I had gone to a port city in the north called Kushiro. It was a small city with a population of hundred thousand people"
"The quake hit at about eight in the evening, when I was in a tiny travellers' hostel, getting down to the restaurant below. It lasted a few minutes, by which time we evacuated the building into the large parking area outside. I could feel the violent shake everywhere around me with the flimsy walls of the building swaying. I thought the earth would open up any moment and we were all going to die. But nothing of that sort happened and the natives around me were as calm as you would be, like I said, in a rain! We stayed outside for an hour for the aftershocks to subside and then someone said it was safe to go in. So all of us went in and finished our meal. By eleven, everyone forgot about it and went to sleep like they did every day!"
"Next day the newspapers said, it was the biggest quake in a decade, measuring 7.8 on Richter and was centered off the coast of Kushiro, deep into the sea. Some river embankments and a few hundreds of houses were damaged. A house on a small cliff near the northern port collapsed along with the cliff, taking a woman down with it. And elsewhere, an old man died due to a heart attack during the quake. I didn't know what that 7.8 measurement meant, until the Latur quake hit a few months later, which measured 6.4 on the scale and killed ten thousand people. I wondered what 7.8 would have done in India!"
"They named it the 'Kushiro-Oki quake'. That translates to 'the Big Kushiro Quake'. The day after the quake, a japanese traveller and I decided to go and see the cliff with the house that collapsed. When we reached there, the funeral just got over, though the ruins of the house were still lying there amid the snow, a long way below where it originally stood. An old man was rummaging, apparently for some family photographs, because that is all he was picking up leaving everything else."
"We went down to him and offered our condolences. He started talking with tears in his tired eyes and told us his story. I couldn't follow much of what he said, but my friend translated it for me later. He was a retired firsherman, who had a small cottage on the ledge with his old woman. The cliff was pretty strong, which withstood several quakes over years and he never thought it would collapse. But it was a pretty big earthquake and there was nothing he could do. His old woman was paralysed in the legs and had been in bed for a lot of years."
"When the quake started, he just stayed indoors like he always did, taking cover under a strong wooden table to escape falling objects. His wife was sleeping, and probably didn't feel a thing. Then he heard the rumble in the ground beneath him. He sensed what was happening and when he came out from under the table, he had a choice to make. To drag the woman out with him and risk his own life doing it, or rush outside and hope everything will be ok. He was old and frail, and he didn't think he could move her. So he rushed out towards stronger ground. He ran for a couple of minutes without looking back and then turned around. By which time, the house was gone along with the ledge. Just gone! Without a visible trace from where he stood. He didn't hear the crash nor did he feel the ground slipping. He just turned around and discovered the thing gone!"
The roadie paused, to take a swig at the juice carton. "Imagine what it feels like! You suddenly turn around to discover that the only person in your world, your only home, the only things that represent you entire life, all gone without a trace! A big void where your life was standing until a minute ago! At that guy's age, that would have been a tremendous shock. I was surprised they didn't report three deaths that day. I mean, if he were younger, he could still hope to rebuild his life. But this man had one leg in the grave already!"
"Yes, it happens." I said. "I know a few people who lost everything in one disaster or the other. But they don't seem to show instant wild reactions. I think the disaster sort of grows on them."
"May be!" he said. "But the same night another man had a heart attack due to the shock. There are all kinds of people!"
"So why was the old man looking for only photographs in the ruins? He had nothing valuable inside the house?" I asked.
"You noticed that too? I was coming to that." he said. "Oh, we asked him about it! He started crying when he answered. He was looking for his wife's photographs because when he turned around to see the house gone, he tried to think of his wife inside. That's when he discovered that he didn't remember her face at all. It wasn't due to the shock of the quake. He doesn't remember when was the last time he saw her clearly! It's like, when the house collapsed, he lost only a woman in the house. But her memories were lost much before that. He's been living in the same house with her, even talking to her daily, but for years he didn't notice the face sleeping in the same room. Even when he did her chores for her, he did them mechanically, without noticing her face even once!"
"And now that she was gone, he remembered to look at her for one more time. I don't know if he could see her dead face when they took the body out. I don't even know if there was a face left. The ruins looked pretty bad to me. We didn't ask the old man about it. May be he could see her face one last time, after all. If he couldn't, I hope the photographs did justice to her!"
"So what happened to the old man after that?" I asked.
"I don't know. I moved to another town that evening."
"And the guy who died of heart attack! He was a taxman!" he chuckled. "People realised he had a heart only after he died!"

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