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Pragya Bhagat


Pragya Bhagat – ‘Portrait of an Old Man’






The man is old, but it’s not necessary that time has aged him. It could have been the sun, or the air, or the farming, or the walking up and down the steep path to the main road that led to his thin-ness, to his old man smell. Even though he is not walking right now, he walks with a wooden cane, dark brown, shiny, with tiny bumps that once held the nodes of the tree from which it came. The cane is hooked on the top, like a shepherd’s cane, so that the old man can hold it with ease. It is raining and chilly, the kind where layers suffice and thick woolens are excessive.

A brown woolen cap sits comfortably on the old man’s head; his head seems too small for the cap. There is a tuft of white hair -coarse, still thick, cut short - on either side of the cap and this hair merges into a peppered beard which is unable to distract from his sunken cheeks. His clothes are clean and simple, well used but ironed. His shirt and pants are stitched from the same cloth, a purple cotton, hemmed at the ankles, cuffed at the wrists. On his shoulders hangs a light brown vest, and on the breast pocket of this vest is a safety pin, piercing the inside of the pocket and closing up outside it. Inside his vest, on either side, lies a pocket lined with black, and the seams on this layer of black are irregular and flimsy. The old man does not wear socks with his shoes, and so it is easy to see the veins protruding from the tops of his feet. His shoes are made of cloth, a cloth sturdier than the purple cotton. On his wrist, his left wrist, is wrapped a black band of cloth with hints of silver thread.

As he sits, the old man’s back hunches, a natural shape for his spinal cord to take after years of back-bending labour, when he hunched to pick up harvested crop and when he hunched to plant the new seeds in his ground, and when he hunched to lift and walk and sit and climb his spine accommodated his curvature, until, over time, hunching became not a possibility but a permanent arc, calcified by habit.

His glasses rest not on his ears but at his temples, anchored by the cap that sits comfortably on his head. When the old man moves his hands, they tremble, and his left leg bounces with impatience. He has a pleasant, brown forehead, it is wide and shiny and mostly free of wrinkles. Only a few horizontal lines remain, faintly visible from the occasional eye-brow raising. The wrinkles are not deep and they are free of worry. As he sits, the cane rests in his right hand, and then he moves it between his legs, then to his right side. When he moves his cane, his fingers tremble some more, right up to his yellowed nails which curve at the tips. Thickened from injury, these nails hold his labour, the countless times he used then to pluck, to pry, to probe. These gnarly fingers with hardened nails and chapped palms press down on the wooden bench on which he sits, and it is so that the old man sometimes supports his hunched back.

Sometimes, the man turns to his right, then to his left, then to his right to look at the rain, waiting for it to stop. When he spent many long years working, weathering his body and his spirit he was the one running after life, but now he allows life to come to him, at its own pace; And so he waits: for the rain to come and the rain to go, for food to enter his body and leave it, for the night to pass and morning to arrive, and then for morning to pass and night to arrive. Every day, he waits to feel alive, and every day, he waits for death to consume him. Every once in a while though, just a few times a month really, he stops waiting.

The old man stands up, and with the support of his wooden cane, shuffles over to a nearby chai shop – it has stopped raining – to talk with the men there about the weather. The rain or sun is not the topic in itself; it is the act of speaking, of connecting, of expressing, that holds greater value for him, the old man. He understands the weather is more than just what’s in the air – it’s what we hold inside ourselves that we let out. He straightens his back, just a little bit, and walks down the path into his village, his left hand resting on his lower back as his right hand, holding the cane, swings back and forth, pulling him up with reassurance.

“All well?” he asks passersby on the cobbled path. They smile and nod and occasionally ask him about his health, to which he replies in the affirmative.

He walks to his home which is a room he shares with his wife in the back of a post office. In the afternoons, they sit together, the old man and his wife, under the shade of a large tree, and the old man reads a book in Hindi. It is a book without a cover, a book he has been reading for months now, repeatedly visiting its frayed pages, his handwritten scrawl in the margins. Sometimes, when the sun leaks through the leaves, the pages appear a painful bright, and the shock of the brightness causes the old man to pause his reading and look up at his wife, her eyes lingering on the cobbled path, now empty. Sometimes, he tells those that stop by about his children in the city, about their success, and sometimes he tells his wife it is time to eat, but most of the time, he is just waiting.

“Did you cook brinjals today?” he asks her. “I wanted to eat brinjals.”

Her eyes linger on the cobbled path.

He goes back to his reading, but his stomach acid churns with hunger, the kind he has grown accustomed to. Sometimes, the young woman who shepherds her cattle drops by and offers him some rice and daal. Other times, it is the postman who brings extra meals. The old man accepts the food with resigned satisfaction. It is an acceptance forced upon him because his wife will not cook despite his requests. He wishes, at times like these, that he had learned how to cook when he was younger. The young woman who shepherds the cattle reminds him of his daughter-in-law, the young thing he married his son off to.

They, his son and his daughter-in-law, live in Delhi with a boy, his grandson. The boy calls often to tell stories.

Dadu, today I have a fever,” he says meekly, “but I wanted to hear your voice.” The boy is five.

“All’s well?” the old man asks, aware of the muffle in his lisp due to his missing teeth.

“Yes, Mammi has given me medicine and I am not going to school today. I watched Chhota Bheem, but it was an old episode, do you want me to tell you about the episode?” The boy tells the old man a story about a boy with friends and enemies, children who like to eat sweets and save the world, but the man isn’t listening to the story, he is listening to the boy. He misses it, the voice of a child. It reminds him of an earlier time, a sweeter time, but he cannot remember what draws him towards the voice, he only knows that he wants the boy to continue speaking.

Dadu, are you listening,” the boy asks and the old man mutters to indicate that he is, only so the boy continues to narrate his tales. A woman’s voice calls out to the boy.

“I have to go. Mammi says it’s time for my medicine. Bye Dadu.” And just like that, the memory of a sweeter time dissolves in the old man’s breath.

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