E-Pao! Essay - A Conversation With An Old Man

A Conversation With An Old Man

By:- H. Marly *

The 'Amphibian Shaktimann truck' roared into the truck-stop, the driver pressed the accelerator of the truck one long time signaling the end of a long hard and tiresome journey. The front part of the truck was not hooded as it the norm with most of the Shaktimann trucks of the town of Churachandpur; the over worked engine sputters for a few moments before finally coming to a rest.

Seated on a bamboo bench near a paan-dukan adjacent to the temporary truck stop, I could see the engine of the Shaktimann truck giving out heat; a true indication that the drive had been weary and testing, the tires of the truck were smeared with thick dry mud. The passengers alighted from the back side of the truck; from the back side of the truck where they have fought hard for space with their goods and heavy loads during the more than three days journey (a real ordeal as I have been told) all looking quite relieved.

I was keenly watching the proceeding, when a scruffy old man walked up to the 'Paan-Dukan' where I was seated on a raft like bench. The light from the electric bulb shone down upon the old man's face. I observed him closely, the first thing that he did was give out a sigh of huge relief. He took off from his head, his crumpled old hat and put it inside the left side pocket of his second-hand cargo pant.

His hair was streaked with grey; and the lines upon his face were long and deep, the trip must have been really harsh for he was completely drenched in sweat. His hands were rough and hard, hands that were used to working hard on the fields; hands that had weathered many storms of life's raging sea. His black leather Bata shoes were finally polished with dust – the true colors of the earth. A wizened old man he was; and with a sack tied to his waist, he seemed to be quite a character.

He bought one packet of 'Biri' from the paan-dukan, turning around he tore open the packets' cover, inserted one between his dry parched lips, the rest he zealously tucked away into his shirts' pocket for future provision. He then started to feel all his pockets, apparently looking for his match-box. Sensing his anticipation, I lighted up my lighter and offered it to him; he bent his big old rugged frame and lighted his biri.

He mumbled a word of gratitude. Reverting back to his earlier posture, he stood erect and took one deep puff of his lighted biri. His face contorted; his deep sunken eyes closed in what looked like a peaceful trance as he inhaled as much smoke as he can. He then blew out thin white wreaths of smoke that curled up in such fanciful whorls, merging instantaneously with the cold mist of the descending January winter's night.

The Old-Man then said in a heavy tone "Thank God! We managed to reach Lamka before night falls.... It has been quite sometime since I last smoked my biri without fear". He then raised his finger, pointed towards the aged Shaktimann truck and said "That Gari is a true life saver; you can bet my word on it….. Man it is great to be alive! it is so great to be free.

I never thought I would see a night like this again". The Old-Man seemed to be in a mood to talk, so I decide to join him for a little unofficial impromptu teté –a- teté.

I asked him how was the ride up to Lamka? He turned towards me, a queer look in his eyes, his eye brows raised "Fantastically Horrible". 'How were the roads?' was my next question. "Never better" was his answer. Having broken the ice, the old man came and sat beside me on the make shift bamboo bench. He began to talk at length, puffing hardly at his biri in between; he said he was so happy to be alive and to be here in Lamka this very night. He then went on to narrate at length the hell that he had been through

"It's a living hell out there in the hills he went on; the sadness in his eyes reflecting the truth and the gravity of his statement". Pleading ignorance, I asked him 'Where?', "In the hills my son, in hilly villages of the district interior my son" said the old-man.

"Innocent villagers are victims there between two opposing forces equipped with the most fatal piece of machinery. Two warring forces, who both have promised to make our lives better and our world a better place to live in. But so far all that I have seen is death, destruction, oppression and all the other ugly vices of life. The whole dreadful and nightmarish experiences have left me a confused man"

To whom does your loyalty lies I querulously asked the old man; he seemed to be a bit taken back by such a question: "Loyalty what Loyalty!, I am a simple farmer and what do I know or what do I care about all these fighting, these 'freedom movement' and the need to launch an armed struggle, these endless bloody gun-fights between camouflaged armed groups who each claimed to be the legitimate force.

Life is about survival and as a simple rural village farmer all I want is peace, a peace of mind, freedom, the freedom to work at my own free will, at my own pace on my farms, my mind not to be hindered by fear. Unfortunately, though I really hate to say, the last few months all I have seen is confusion, horror, ugliness and mess.

Life has never been more appalling than it is now; I have lost two of my own fellow villagers who were on their way to work in their fields and who unknowingly stepped upon IED's planted by God knows who. There are also others who have been made permanently handicapped and maimed by these IED's (Landmines). In this pandemonium, it is really hard to differentiate who the real sinner is and who are the saints, the lines kind of blur"

Staring upon the descending night, the old man paused for a moment and willfully remarked "Its great to be alive, it's so great to feel freedom again, I am no better a person than those fellow villagers of mine who have been killed or maimed by the IED's. It is only by the grace and will of God that I am still alive and still in one piece.

We the innocent villagers who have nothing to do with this armed conflict or any of the armed groups are made scapegoat of this whole unholy affair. The camouflaged groups, the men in battle fatigue have been causing immense hardships to us villagers.

They come to our villagers, they do as they please, they took our lands, they took our cows and goats, and they stole our game for their own need. Most of all, they took away our dignity, self respect and robbed us of our inalienable rights as human beings by taking undue advantage of the humanism inherent in us simple rural people"

The Old man then took one long last puff of his biri, threw it down to the ground and stamped the smoke out with his heavy foot and whispered in a mournful tone "These are hard and desperate times no doubt..... but we will come through this, we will survive, we will emerge stronger from this ordeal". The Old man then raised his voice a few notes higher and cried out 'Hasta La Victoria Siempè!'

Sounding extremely puzzled, I repeated out loud to the Old Man 'Hasta La Victoria Siempè!' what is that supposed to mean I asked him, sounding more curious than before. The Old Man then explained to me that it is a saying of a brave and courageous man, whom he had read about in a monthly magazine published from Mizoram.

"I just cannot recall his name or the exact meaning of the saying; but all I can recollect is that he was a brave man who died fighting for what he believed in. A man of valor and great courage, who was always proud to fight for freedom anywhere on the face of this earth and never the one to shy away from challenges; regarding the saying all I vaguely remembered about it is – it is about never giving up and never giving in"

The conversation then touched on many other topics and other vagaries of life, the old man harped upon me the immense value of freedom, and told me to treasure it for the greatest thing in life is being 'Free'. I asked him for his name; for personal reasons or so he refused to divulge to me his true identity and instead asked me to address him as 'PU'.

The Old man thanked me for listening and for lending an ear to his true accounts of woe and miseries. The night had moved on quite a bit, when the old man got up with a start, shook my hand and thanked me once again for being a patience listener, and for the conversation we had and said "I better get going young man". I too thanked him profusely for his company and for the little powwow that we had, and wished him all that he wished for himself.

The Old man then moved his huge rugged frame towards the main road; he stood near the road for quite sometime. His eyes scouting for means of conveyance; he stood there for awhile. Till an auto-rickshaw came his way, he hailed at the auto-rickshaw.

The auto-rickshaw driver brought his three wheeler automobile to a screeching halt. The name of the auto-rickshaw was 'THE CHIKIMS' EXPRESS', the Old man then got inside the auto-rickshaw and made himself at home on the rectangular leather seat of 'THE CHIKIMS EXPRESS'. Before the auto-rickshaw "The Chikims' Express" sped away into the darkness of the night.

The Old man leaned out, waved his scruffy rough hands at me and shouted out loud one last time 'Hasta La Victoria Siempè!'

I found myself shouting back 'Hasta La Victoria Siempè!'

H. Marly contributes regularly to
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]
This article was webcasted on February 12th, 2006

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