Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Afghan Affair – An Old Man by the River
As I trapeze the rickety wooden bridge, swinging into the wild winds across Wakhan River, I find an old man smiling to himself by the river, looking deep and lost into the turbulent waters. I need a shelter for the day and through the grassy fields I could see the top of one at a distance and no one else around save the old man. I have my backpack on my back and I must look haggard and deserted and severely in need of a bath (though that is not a point that gets you sympathy in a land where no one bathes). I stride up to the man, who continues to stare into the waters, timeless like the mountains around. He couldn’t possibly have missed seeing me. I walk closer and he looks up. With my back to the sun he has to squint and so he did but his smile remains intact and then his eyes return to the river. I too look at the river but couldn’t find anything out of the place or interesting for this man to give it such undivided attention.
By now I thought I knew enough Dari / Wakhi to get by. I observe the man. He wore a typical colourfully embroidered Wakhi cap with leaf and flower pattern, a green pullover into which he might have grown up since it was caked with century old dust, a torn collared shirt that peeked from above and elastic waistband trousers that could have been a family inheritance of several generations. Despite his abject poverty and frugal possessions the man drew my attention due to the sublime smile on his countenance.
I stutter: Chator asti? (How are you); he replied: Khob (good). So far so good, I sigh in relief.
I proceed further: Naame ma Satya ast (my name is Satya); he looks at me: Khob, he replies.
Well not exactly the answer I hoped but good enough.
So I ask: takht (bed; in a bid to seek refuge since I don’t know how one says ‘I need a place to stay’ in Dari) and the old man replies once again: Khob.
And only then it dawns that he only says Khob to anything I ask. So I pantomime a bed and he pats the ground next to him. I look up and around but don’t see anyone else.
So we sit for a while in the literal middle of nowhere by the river Wakhan, staring at nothing in particular. Then the old man stands up to his shrunken height and I place him nearer to seventy than sixty. He starts walking and I follow him. I am amazed once again at his radiating smile depicting inner peace and contentment that is found within Zen monks. I try to make conversation but he only laughs and repeats khob several times. I then get a brilliant brainwave; I step in front of him and lie down on ground, making my backpack into a pillow. He looks at me smilingly for a while and then suddenly breaks into a guffaw that opens his mouth to show his irregular and shaded dentures. He leads me beyond a field of green peas and opens the lock of a mud house. That perhaps is my only success in pantomime with him besides one other.
He leads me into a sizeable room with a raised platform, wide enough to put double beds side by side, which runs around the room all along the wall. Several mattresses are piled up at one corner. Two blue windows, which are open, throw some light within. He indicates the mattresses and pulls out two for me to sit. Both the windows offer uninterrupted sight of the mountain we had just been to and I could see the Wakhan River far down below. After a brief disappearance the old man returns with a pot of cold water that soon refreshes my tired limbs and heightens my hunger. I rub my hand on my belly and pantomime the act of eating. This is the only other success I ever have with him. He smiles again and leaves. I recline on the mattress, take out my camera and thumb through the pictures as I retrace my Afghan voyage of the past four weeks.
The old man enters with an aluminium tray large enough to hold an African elephant, and upon it rested several bowls of yoghurt, tea pot, cups and a bowl of dry apricot. He gets up on the platform and from the top of a pillar draws out a colourful piece of cloth (which forms the table cloth, if there was a table), which he unfurls in front of me and literally throws a dry naan on it. People could have been sleeping upon a naan in Afghan or some donkey might even have kicked its hind legs into it and by now my stomach could digest even iron, so I broke it into smaller pieces, since one whole cannot be eaten and digested by a regular mortal, and offer them to the old man. We both eat in silence. He dips his naan in tea, and I into the yoghurt that is delicious, rancid and fresh. And then I fall asleep.
Something stirs me and I sit up with a start to find the old man still at his place, staring at me with his smile. I find it odd; I had presumed he would be gone once I fell asleep. As he sees me move, he brings forward a pot of tea and a glass of water. I feel awkward; I don’t want him to be servile and in constant attendance. I don’t know how to tell him to go, his kind smile is beyond reproach and perhaps the poor man had given up his own home to me. So we sit in silence for a while, he smiling and looking at me, I staring back, smiling like a fool and feeling like one. Though back home I don’t really socialize but on the roads I like to befriend people for I wish to learn stories, their lives and new things. The obvious lack of communication and comprehension between us prevents me to unravel the old man who is now my benefactor. I again try every word of Dari then Urdu then English but make no way except that the old man just guffaws from time to time and punctuates with khob. So I started my sign language skills. I asked for butter, he got me towel, I asked how much I owed him, he showed me a torn page from a school book, I asked about his family, he brought me his donkey, I asked for the toilet, he led me to the kitchen. Either I was really dumb at dumb charade or he was from another planet.
I finally gave up and relapsed into another well deserved silence. But then I climb only due to perseverance, so I had another brain wave. And I said, Kabul, and he said Khob, then said Eishkashim; wow that was a major breakthrough I felt. So next I said Faizabod (another major town around the province) and he said Khandud (the district HQ of Wakhan), then I said Pamir, and he said Pamir, then I said Khob, and he said Khob and suddenly he said Khan Tsering; which stumped me alright. I didn’t know of any place in the vicinity or in the country by that name. I opened my map, read the LP guide, but no luck. It was like an Afghan geographical quiz show.
So I start again, another Afghanistan geographical location name game, and again after few words the old man said, Khan Tsering. This happened few times to be a mistake on my part in interpreting his diction or dialect. This was getting intriguing and bizarre. By then the evening had set in. The old man left on his own bidding and I followed him from a distance but he disappeared suddenly behind the mud house, as if the ground had gobbled him up. And he returned after twenty minutes with a hot pot of tea and naan. Assuming this to be dinner, I ate it sharing with him. And then went out to watch the sun dip behind the distant snow covered peaks of Hindu Kush. The old man was always a step behind.
My face awash with the orange glow I looked at the mountain where we were only few days ago struggling to stay warm and felt the pang of separation of a dear one and the old man literally peered into my face with his beatific smile. His tiny eyes twinkled in some hidden mirth that I couldn’t fathom. He remained my silent and smiling companion as we witnessed the grand arena, something that he must be seeing each day of his life. I felt sad as the sun dipped finally while the old man couldn’t have looked merrier. We returned to the cottage. Night fell suddenly and steeply in these parts and once again the old man disappeared from sight like a ghost. He returned holding the massive tray in one hand and an oil lamp in the other. The tray held a plate of Persian Pilaf though made only of rice, oil and onion and another pot of tea and another naan. He placed it in front of me upon the unrolled piece of cloth.
We ate in silence, from the same plate and I felt as if the old man had a lot to say but didn’t know how to as he kept looking at me through his bright and smiling eyes. He would proffer me the tea or water even before I could ask and I felt embarrassed and uneasy at his servile self. I remembered a dialogue from the Italian film, Life is Beautiful, where the uncle of the hero who is the head steward in a restaurant teaching the protagonist the art of serving: we are here to serve but we are not servants.
After dinner I take my customary walk beneath the starry sky and look up at my friends, my companions on lonely nights upon the great oceans of this world and the mightiest of the mountains. Whenever lonely or forlorn, sad or merry, I would always look up at the stars twinkling above and speak to them what my heart contained. So I walk in the darkness into the silence and the old man follows my steps silently. There’s nothing that I can say to him nor do I wish to, except to thank him profusely for his kindness and generosity. He has been looking after me literally every minute from the time we had been together. I knew in few hours from now, with the first rays of the new dawn I would leave this place and the old man never to return again and I would never even know his name, leave aside anything else.
I return inside as the outside is really cold now and I pull out one of the blankets from under the mattress and settle down for the night. I expect the old man too would follow suit, but he just sits at a corner and looks at me through the feeble glow of the oil lamp. Only his face is illuminated and his bright smiling eyes are shining like Santa as he leans forward and cups his chin upon his right palm. I have no idea how to tell him to go to sleep or what else to tell him, so I shut my eyes and soon drift off into my dreams.
I wake up next morning with the sunrays falling on my face. The old man is still at the same place in the same posture, except he has a fresh pot of tea and another naan in his hand. He smiles as our eyes meet. He laughs, says khob and again Khan Tsering, then guffaws and sets the food in front of me. I eat, drink the tea and pack up my bag. I will be setting afoot again for the next village to meet up our vehicle for the return trip. The old man keeps looking at me and then fills up my bottle with cold refreshing water. I pick up my pack and take out the wallet. I have no idea how much I am supposed to pay him. Even though it is an insult to his generosity to offer money but these people are so poor that I am sure he would welcome any amount I may offer. So I ask him ‘chand ast’ (how much) to which I get his signature smile, guffaw, khob and Khan Tsering in that precise order. I pull out a wad of Afghani currency and dollar bills and show them but his answer is still the same. He doesn’t extend his hand towards the money. I must hit the road before it gets late, so I put a 20 $ bill in his hand, which he takes with the same reaction in the identical order, and then I leave.
As I walk down the slope of the pea’s field, towards the river, I turn around to find the old man affixed to his place as before, looking at me with the same smile on his face. I raise my hand in the universal sign of farewell and he waves back, his face breaking out into another divine smile like a freshly opened sunflower. I am sure he must have uttered khob and Khan Tsering as well.
He remains a mystery and I barely know anything about him and never will but then as each step takes me away from him and his cottage and his fields and his donkey, I again feel that I am receding from a friend, from a pure soul, that was placed there at that moment to save mine. There perhaps was no divinity within that old man more than in anyone else and in a land full of such kind people he was a commoner but to me he would always shine as the old man by the river who told me of a place that no book or maps on Afghan mentions. I smile to myself and to the river, to which now I am united for life and beyond since many a day had I passed looking into its turbulent depths. I take up a tune that I had forgotten and swinging my arms to keep my body warm I step towards the western horizon that was now waking up into another day cheery happiness.
P.S. In the next village when I inquired about the old man, someone told me that once upon a time, long time ago that man was a legendary ibex hunter and had now gone soft in the head and his name is Khan Tsering. And only then did I drop my pack on the ground and rolled upon the earth in laughter clutching my stomach to keep myself from bursting.