The old man and an old house

From the outside it looked a nice enough house: sun-bleached brown clay walls with clay tiles for the roofing and wooden windows painted blue. It was an old house, the sort you would imagine as a heritage structure, with a history of people and an essence of the place. There was an air of being lived-in and a feeling of coming of age. You know the type! I had not yet taken a look at the entire house but it seemed fairly large with a huge well in the middle of the courtyard. The yard, enclosed by a waist-high laterite-block wall, topped with a thick growth of moss, had a few flowering plants and no other greenery, except for the tall coconut and areca-nut trees.

I was in Harnai to help a fishery biologist friend of mine, who was studying the impact of fisheries on juvenile fishes, and finding a place to stay was amongst our preliminary agenda.

The house belonged to an old man. He was about seventy years old, I would say. Though his features were not exceptional there was something peculiar that caught my attention. Gray hair, thick eyebrows, a squarish jaw and spectacles that attested a stubborn, never-go-back-on-your-word temperament. He was wearing a faded white shirt and a pair of pajamas. Through sleep-dulled eyes, he gave me the most unbothered look, pretending he was the busiest man in the world.

Then the old man opened the lock of one of the rooms. The old lock, the old key, and the old door made distinct sounds, each different from the other. My friend and I stepped into our room. Inside, it was pitch dark and stuffy, full of hot and stuffy air. Only the thinnest silvery light entered into the room from the cracks between tightly closed windows. I could not make out a thing, just flickering specks of airborne dust. The old man opened windows. Instantly the room was swept with brilliant sunlight and a cool southern breeze.

The room was typically old, built-in the Konkan style of architecture. Study desk by the window, small wooden-framed bed—not the old type though. Bed sheets and pillowcases were of the same colour, cupboard inside the wall, a mirror in one corner and ten big wooden pegs embedded in the stone walls. Overall, I would say the room was refreshingly uncluttered and just enough to serve as a field base.   In no time we settled, cleaned the place, and got ready to explore the village. I got out of the room, closed the open windows and sat in front of the courtyard.

The old man was sitting on the wall, making brooms from coconut leaves. I said hello and waited for my friend to get ready. He had been watching and following my line of vision all along but seemed to be thinking of something entirely different. His eyes were turned in my direction, at the same time he was doing his work meticulously. Yet he wasn’t seeing or saying anything. Then the old man asked me questions, the typical ones. What do I do? How long do I plan to stay? … and so on. Then he spoke of things of his day-to-day-life—of his kids and his grandchildren, of the generation gap between youngsters and elders, of his house and its history, of village life and its politics. He had a peculiar way of saying things, softly of things he agreed with and loudly of things he did not. Everything had a philosophy attached, and the meaning far more profound than I had imagined. Then all of a sudden he stopped talking completely. I looked expectantly at his expressive face, thinking he would continue. But he said nothing. He continued his work, while I stared at him.

He seemed oblivious of my presence that I wondered if I was imagining the conversation. I started to say something to dispel the sudden quiet, and stopped. The picture was too perfect to be spoilt by sound. The old man in his old house…..

Published by Vardhan Patankar