Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Close encounters of the third kind

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 2, 2011

The smile that was about break out on my face on account of the very interesting turn of the phrase in the book got stopped mid-way by a gentle and unexpected tap on my shoulder. I turned sideways to find a smiling old Sikh gentleman looking at me. He shoved the boarding pass held in two very pudgy yellowish fingers at me tapping with yet another pudgy left index finger at the place where the time 7:45 was printed and asked in thick Punjabi accented Hindi:

“Is this the time we board the plane or is it the time the plane takes off?”

I glanced at the boarding pass for a while and said “that’s the time to begin boarding”.

I was in no mood to continue the conversation and had wanted to return to my book but something compelled me to take a closer look at him. He was an old thickset man and instead of a full turban had a small piece of cloth covering his hair. The mustache was occasionally black and for a Sikh he was clean shaven. If there was one striking feature in his face, it was his eyes: there was a thin film of water in those eyes which I suspect is a characteristic of really very old people or people who are used to hard work involving manual labour and whose face has never been properly protected.  I could not say why but he was full of industrious rusticity. I began to marvel at his courage to do air travel without being fully in the know and concluded this as yet another example of the enterprising nature of Sikhs in general. Armed forces, agriculture, industry, emigration, sports, high spirits – literal and abstract, delicious cuisine, good looking girls, a general zest for life, material progress, martial past, the pains of partition, vigorous music, Bhindranwale and the turbulent 80’s, occasional target of mild jokes, Kushwant, Manmohan, Montek and Milka – this is what Sikhs have come to represent to me.   

It was clear that I had to bid my reading good bye for a while for the man appeared intent to extend our conversation. I did not want to come out as an indifferent and self-absorbed youngster. (The reference to self as youngster is in a relative context)

“I see you are off to Bangalore. I will let you know when the announcement gets displayed on the TV screens” I said

“Hai jee, where are you off to? He replied in Hindi warming up the conversation. There was an acknowledgment of my offered help in the way he spoke to me

“I too am off to Bangalore but I am on the 8:45 flight”

“There is time for you. I need to be off in another 45 minutes” he said looking at his watch. It was an old watch of HMT make and appeared to be ticking well despite its age, like some old people who continue to tick with dependable vigour despite the ravages of time and number of years under their belts

“How come Bangalore?” I asked

“Hai jee, I am visiting my distributor in Peenya. I supply machine parts to him”. I’ve started to realise that this placement of “Hai jee” at the beginning of every sentence was more a habit built over a period of time to give him time to collect his thoughts and structure his answer

Machine parts? I said

“Haan, haan, I manufacture small mechanical printing presses and the machine parts are spare parts” he replied. The existence of mechanical presses in this age of desk top and software fueled publishing appeared inconsistent. I wanted to quiz him about the industry dynamics of his trade but waited and allowed the curiosity to die on its own.

“This business of yours… is it big?” I asked

“Hai jee, I have a factory in Ludhiana and employ about 20 people. You can call it big. For me it is big. I do about two crore an year” he replied

“It is definitely big” I said

“Hai jee, it depends on how you view things. My brother has a power press factory and he does around 20 crore and my jijaji.. my sister’s husband, he does around 800 crore an year” he said

“wow!” I exclaimed mildly. “800 crore is something”

He was silent for a brief while and then said “It does not matter how big it is. One should know how to manage everything in life well. What is the point about 800 crore? His son shot himself dead one fine day. My bhanja.. he simply shot himself dead” He smiled at the mild shock on my face and kept looking at me while making me uncomfortable. I remained silent.

“What do you do in Bangalore?” Now it was his turn to ask me questions. I was not sure if he asked me with genuine interest or for the purpose of killing time

“I am in the software industry” I said with a touch of pride. That software was eating up his industry was a reality and I was bracing myself for a potential lecture from him

“Badiyaa jee, I have to say one thing about software though. It makes people weak” he declared. “From morning to evening they sit at the computer, have no exercise, muscles become loose and people grow weak” he explained his logic. I did not know what to say at this unexpected accusation of my profession and then he continued “In my younger days I used to regularly cycle from Ludhiana to Bhatinda over two days and still managed to make a living. It is about 120 kms”. I was genuinely impressed with this claim of physical endurance. Later when I checked on google maps the distance was shown as 131 kms. He was not far off from truth if he employed some shortcuts through village roads. Maybe if we had maintained that tradition of cycling we too would have produced a couple of tour-de-france winners, I told myself. The “we” was more a reference to my compatriots in Punjab. In my parts of the world such acts of strain are a rarity and cycling is frowned upon

“But why cycle?” I asked

“Hai jee.. there was no money and what little we had we had to save. On our way we used to stay in jain dharamshalas at Bhotna and Kaisian. The food used to be very good. Eight annas and we used to get two subjis, daal, ghee, a piece of jaggery, unlimited rotis, fresh water from the well and in the morning a large glass of tea. Sometimes we cycled just for the love of the food. These dharamshalas have now become hotels and lodges”

“No lassi?” my hungry stomach forced me to ask

“One anna extra jee” he said. The fact that he avoided mentioning lassi and for that matter other probable menu items which were charged extra did indicate the lack of money and need to save whatever he had then

I suddenly had this inexplicable urge to change the conversation and asked him “You would have been young during the Punjab unrest. What was the environment like?”

“Which unrest are you referring to?” he questioned back calmly

“Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, Khalistan and all that” I said hesitantly providing him with a few clues to jog his memory

“I would not know” his voice continued to remain calm and his eyes now had a mild twinkle

“How come?” I said with a tone of surprise in my voice. This ‘how come” mode of questioning was something that I had developed on my job. It was a catch all question and indicative of the desire to elicit all the responses from juniors without asking too many questions in succession. It was a way of asking them to tell me everything that they know and can think of while on their feet

“Hai jee.. you see I was in jail myself and hence did not know much about what was happening outside” he replied without any hesitation. I kept silent and was almost concluding that like many other young Sikhs he too may have been involved in the movement and hence was not keen to dig the wounds of past, when he said suddenly “aisa hai jee.. I had a domestic issue with my neighbour over property, we had a heated argument, things reached a point of no return and the bullet moved from my gun and I was jailed”

“Oh!” was all I could muster to say.

“The bullet moved from my gun”.. what an expression it was!!! Despite its sinister implications and the entailed misery in families on either side, I found it was full of untold originality from an aesthetic angle. It was as if a vicious monster is lying in its dark, noiseless, damp and comfortable lair undisturbed and then somebody or something goes and pokes to provoke the monster’s rage only to face the unstoppable consequences

We then fell into a thoughtful silence as is the wont with traveling strangers who meet one another and in a moment of inexplicable urge, led by an unexpected flow of conversation reveal a personal secret and then quickly relapse into a no word, no voice and non-acquaintance zone. It is the inevitable starting point they revert to giving them an excuse to leave without any formal farewells and goodbyes. We remained seated for around five minutes and the man got up lumberingly on his ageing knees, picked his plastic briefcase and simply walked towards Gate 14 to board his flight. I kept looking at him but he just kept walking never turning back eventually mingling and vanishing into the teeming crowds

It appeared that my chances of meeting an alien from outer space were far higher than my chances of meeting this man ever again. He was in a way my close encounter with the third kind

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