“Which way is the Avanti ticket office please…”, I asked the gentleman standing outside the glass doors.
He didn’t seem to take notice at first.
I was standing just inside the glass doors of the station building. He was standing outside where people normally step out for a smoke, facing away from the doors. The doors kept opening and closing automatically due to the motion detector on top. I expected him to turn around, but he was looking down thoughtfully. He seemed smug.
I waited a few seconds. Wasn’t he thinking a bit too long? Is he going to respond? Was he secretly smirking at my question…was I at the wrong level or completely at the wrong end of the building or something. Anyway, since he was looking away from me, I couldn’t see the expression on his face in the dark. I now realized he was standing in line for something.
“Do you have any idea how many soldiers died in that bloody war…”, the man seemed to mumble suddenly without looking at me. Tired old raspy voice.
What does that have to do with anything, let alone my question about the location of the ticket office, I thought to myself. His remark was completely out of context. I was in a hurry, but I waited politely for him to complete whatever he was trying to say.
“Did you know that 30,000 British soldiers returned after the war with damaged eyesight…and 3000 of us returned permanently blind” he whispered.
Then it occurred to me that he was blind. But that seemed like a high number of casualties – which war was he talking about…
He seemed to have read my thoughts. He spoke softly now, barely audible. “Is any war worth it? Every war blinds soldiers like me. But the world turns a blind eye.”
He seemed to tap on the shoulder of the person in front. In front of the long line was a uniformed man in an admiral’s cap. He stood tall, despite his crutches. They all stood there quietly. Perhaps waiting patiently for their transport.
I stepped outside the glass doors into the balmy summer evening. Now when I looked at them with a bit more ambient light, I realized to my surprise that they were all blind.
There were seven of them. Each with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front. They started to speak slowly and solemnly like awakening one by one from the dead…
It was now starting to rain. I shook myself out of my reverie. Most shops had closed for the day. It was now past 9pm and I was standing outside the Manchester Piccadilly station.
Our hotel was steps away from the city center. I was trying to secure a seat reservation for the train journey back to London the next day by the high-speed Avanti West Coast Express. We had booked the tickets online and had realized quite late that there was no seat reservation confirmed. Given all the Covid travel precautions, we wanted reserved seats. I needed to get to the Avanti ticket office before it closed. I had no idea where the office of this newly formed train company was, whether it was inside the station building or outside in the city center.
Manchester Piccadilly is typically a very busy station. Over 30 million passengers pass through annually. There are several levels and many exits, and it can be a bit confusing. I had entered the station building from the familiar Fairfield street entrance that is used for taxis and buses. Then someone told me the ticket office was towards the main city center entrance - one level up via the escalators if one were to navigate there internally or up the approach road from the corner of Ducie Street and London Road.
It was perhaps a good thing after all that I got lost there for a while. At this hour, there were hardly any people around. Except this long line of people standing motionless in the dark.
Then I noticed a sign next to them.
This was a sculpture called "Victory over Blindness" to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the first World War.
Johanna Domke-Guyot conceived this whole exhibit. After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), she studied art to distract herself and it worked like therapy for her. Due to MS her fingers were quite numb which makes her sculpture even more amazing. Due to relapses, she lost sight in one of her eyes.
Johanna conceived this monument to be at eye level. The seven blind people stand quietly outside the station amid the day-to-day bustle. She wanted people to be able to touch the sculpture. No platform or plinth is in place, so that anyone including blind people can also touch it.
Johanna wanted people to interact with the soldiers in her sculpture who are on their path to rebuild their lives. I guess she has succeeded beyond imagination in this miraculous effort.
I don’t blink. At least not in public…
With a fixed gaze I looked on at the crowd gathered to celebrate the Fourth. The Petoskey Steel Drum Band was playing some catchy tunes. The jovial bunch of high school kids were with a dozen percussion drums on top of an open red bus. Hundreds of people cheered around them. It was good to see so many people around after a long hiatus.
From where I stand I can see the small but beautiful Little Traverse Bay, off Lake Michigan. The historic city of Harbor Springs is on the other side of the bay. Beautiful scenery here - full of trees and lots of parkland on the waterfront. Vacation communities enjoy boating, sailing, and swimming during summer. There are many beaches, although some are rocky.
Behind me is the City Park Grill. It is housed in one of Petoskey’s oldest buildings. When it was first constructed in 1875, it was a males-only billiard parlor that offered cigars and drinks. Its popularity seems to have not changed much. The restaurant is still overbooked. They say I used to come here frequently in the hey days.
Apparently, I used to sit at the second seat from the end of the 32-foot mahogany bar and wrote the stories that made me famous. Some critics who read my stories keep saying they are childish. Oh well. They don’t get it. I didn’t want to write about everything you see. Leave some for the imagination. Remember the iceberg theory…
It was a different time. Just after World War I. I have seen some nasty bar fights, where opponents go at each other like animals. Gouging out eyes. Don’t believe me?! Just read one of my stories. You know, they still teach my stories at school. They say my books shall never go out of print. Still don’t believe me?! Well check out Netflix or Prime…you will find a dozen movies inspired by my stories!
I see so many tourists come to me and take selfies. What is with these people…why this relentless drive to grin in front of the camera and post pictures on social media. Why can’t they just chill and take in the fresh air…enjoy the music. Why do they have to keep looking at their phones?
We were never so distracted. You see we didn’t have phones to be obsessed with taking selfies. We didn’t have much then. But we were doers. Strivers. Fighters.
An eastern towhee just flew from somewhere and sat on my head. I keep getting blessings all year round. This Michigan bird is known for its characteristic call which sounds like “drink-your-tea”. It is about 7-8 inches long. Red brown on the sides and a white belly. Long brown tail with a white tip. Short pointed bill. Red eyes. I can tell this one is a female, because the males are black in color, not brown.
“Where are you off to, Mr. Hemingway?” the towhee chirped.
I tipped my hat and said – You caught me at a busy time bird, I’m about to depart for a new job in Toronto.
Oh well. That’s what Ernie would have said anyway. I’m just his statue.
“So where can I get gas?” I asked the politely smiling elderly gentleman behind the store counter. He had brown eyes, wore heavy glasses and had a round moustache that drooped down almost all the way to his chin.
“I don’t know!” said the man in a pleasant sing song voice, as if he was trying to mock the whole world.
We were driving back from Munising in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after a long day at the beautiful Pictured Rocks Lakeshore. I had run out of gas. It was past 8:30 pm. We still needed to drive another hour and a half to get to our vacation rental.
The sun sets late in this region and normally there is enough light until 10pm at this time in July, but the weather was getting bad and severe thunderstorms were expected. The phone reception was a bit patchy and it was hard to get the GPS to function reliably. We had found this store at the picturesque little town of Seney. But there was no gas at this gas station or the one on the other side of the intersection. In fact, we had already tried the other one before coming to this store.
“Is there a shortage of gas supply in this area?” I asked again, trying to understand the gravity of the situation. There was a long pause. The man was excruciatingly slow and measured with his responses.
“I don’t know!” said the man finally in the same sing song voice. His brown eyes looked at me kindly as if he was trying to pity me. His response was overly cryptic and honestly a bit annoying to me. Perhaps he was trying not to give me the bad news. He appeared to start closing the store for the day. I looked around to see if I could buy something just to get him to talk some more.
Animal furs, pelts and hides hung from the ceiling. Stuffed deer heads with antlers adorned the wall.
Suddenly there was a loud crack of thunder.
It was now getting darker and it had started to rain heavily. I shivered at the thought of spending the night in the car.
“Sir, when do you think you will have gas? I asked him respectfully - expecting to draw a less cryptic response this time. I could sense a hint of desperation in my own voice.
“I don’t know!” said the man again in the same voice. He now seemed to be gripping on to a wooden handle or something similar, while trying to move out of his place. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing. I thought to myself he could be reaching for his gun. After all, this region had a lot of talented hunters, and he could be one of them.
That’s when I glanced at a little poster on the window that said: “An average 911 response here is 23 minutes. A gun shot travels at 1400 feet per second”. It’s just an ad for a gun, I consoled myself and tried to smile weakly.
The man seemed to read my thoughts. He cleared his throat and finally spoke very slowly: “How far do you need to go?”
I said we were going to Sault Ste. Marie.
He looked at me strangely.
Then he said: “You mean Soo Ste. Marie.”
I felt like an idiot.
I had said Sault as the word “salt”. It was a French word and had to be pronounced as “Soo”.
“Do you have at least a gallon left?” he asked quietly.
Now it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and say: “I don’t know!”.
All I knew was that the fuel indicator needle was almost approaching “E” on the dashboard, meaning the tank was running empty. There could be some reserve gas left, but I had no clue how much was left in the tank.
“What mileage do you get?” he continued to probe.
“I don’t know”, I shrugged again. I had not done such mental math for a long time. It could be anywhere between 10 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon depending on the road conditions.
He seemed to be thinking for a moment.
“Why do you ask”, I ventured.
“Well – you could drive to Newberry and try for gas there; it is 25 miles from here” he said looking out the window.
I was seriously weighing the uncertainty of the two alternatives in my mind. Either wait here until the gas truck arrived - for which there was no guarantee or venture out towards Newberry - where there was no guarantee of finding gas.
The clock ticked slowly towards the top of the hour. I think he wanted to close the store now.
“There’s my gas truck!” exclaimed the man suddenly, breaking my reverie.
He was now slowly shuffling towards the door. For the first time I realized that he was disabled and was walking slowly but steadily with his crutches.
“I have to ask you to move your car, so that the truck can come in”, he said while stepping out of the store to welcome the gas truck.
“Of course!” I mumbled with a huge sigh of relief.
When the gas truck arrived, the whole atmosphere changed. The young driver of the truck jumped out and greeted the store owner. Within minutes he had opened the main valve on the perimeter and was pumping gallons of the much awaited fuel underground, filling up all the thirsty pumps.
“Shall I go ahead and fill up now?” I asked the store person as soon as the refill was completed by the truck.
“Oh Yeah”, said the elderly man. He sounded cheerful and positive for a change.
I thanked him profusely and bowed out of his store. It was now pitch dark, but it had stopped raining. The road ahead glistened in the moonlight as I could hear several cars starting up in the neighborhood. The news of the arrival of the gas truck had spread like wildfire.
“Bapi-every-body-is-going-away! I just want to go back now…” wailed our 6 year old son as he kicked water from a puddle. We had just visited the tomb of “Pacal” - the greatest and longest living Maya King.
It was raining hard and everyone else had already gone back to the tour bus. I was trying to capture some final images of the Temple of the Inscriptions with my ancient video camera.
We were on a 10-day road trip in Mexico. It was raining as expected in Palenque, one of the most fascinating, beautiful and haunting cities that the Maya built. Surrounded by lush tropical forests this place hides some of the biggest architectural Maya monuments discovered so far.
It was a busy holiday period and the place was swarming with tourists. Despite the rain, there was a flurry of colorful but temporary raincoats passing us by. I started recording bits and pieces of what the guide was saying. It was hard to understand his accented voice above all the surrounding noise - including that emanating from our wailing kid.
“Only 4% of this region has been excavated…”, said the tour guide.
Ok so we don’t know what we don’t know. Many questions remain unanswered. But one thing is clear – this was a fascinating age and a talented tribe of people that built these pyramids.
It is evident from the tablets, steles and inscriptions that have been discovered and deciphered - the Maya civilization was an advanced civilization consisting of architects, engineers, mathematicians, artists and astronomers, with their own hieroglyphic writing system and their calendar system called the Long Count. A year was 360 days consisting of 18 months of 20 days each.
The Maya believed that time was circular. One could return to the same place in time and space by completing the circle. They plotted the movements of the sun, moon and planets with remarkable accuracy. The Temple of Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal resides - is an example of the astronomical prowess of the Maya. This building is designed in such a way that a person standing on top of the nearby Palace Tower, on the day of the winter solstice can see the setting sun sink precisely into Pacal’s tomb, perhaps signifying it to be the gateway to the underworld.
During Pacal’s reign the Maya prospered economically due to flourishing trade and commerce. Magnificent palaces, temples and courts were built and decorated tablets were installed to record the wealth and progress of that era.
Suddenly after a thousand years of growth, the Maya civilization seems to have collapsed in the 9th century. The reasons are still not known to us.
It could have been an earthquake or a plague like disease that led to the sudden collapse. One of the theories is that the Maya deforested the region to serve their increasing needs and to produce more of their monuments. For instance in order to make stucco they had to burn stone, for which they needed to get more and more wood from the forests. This could mean a tipping point was reached to trigger a dramatic change in climate.
Another theory is that there was growing inequity between the elite and the masses and a tipping point was reached then revolution broke out, the workers and peasants massacred the ruling class and with their passing the key learnings disappeared and that led to a rapid decline.
There are many such theories, but none are proven to be true yet. I guess any civilization could come to an end - if it reaches some sort of tipping point with the environment or with the social or economic set up.
Perhaps an angry young God became very impatient with the Maya and kicked their entire civilization out of existence. I looked at my son who was impatiently kicking the water from the puddles. Hmmm.
As we ran back to the waiting tour bus, I wondered if as per their ancient beliefs the Maya shall return one day and occupy positions of power and prominence in the world. What a strange thing to believe in today’s day and age. But I guess it finally depends on what we as civilized and scientific minded yet fantasy loving humans ultimately want to believe in.
I looked up at the clear blue sky. It was a bright Monday morning at the end of August. We were at beautiful Cape Vincent in upstate New York.
Set against the backdrop of the blue sky and standing roughly 70 feet above the clear emerald green waters where Lake Ontario meets St Lawrence River, the white Tibbetts Point lighthouse stood in majestic silence. It has towered like a guiding light over the centuries and saved many a ship from getting lost on dark foggy nights. Just for the record - in 1913 it sounded the fog horn continuously for 300 hours.
The Tibbetts Point lighthouse built in 1827 is one of the rare lighthouses in America that still uses the Fresnel lens. This is a special type of lens that keeps the light focused like a laser beam so that it can be seen from a long distance. This is an invention that has saved a million ships.
The first lamps of the lighthouse used whale oil, and then they changed to lard oil. After a few decades it was 50 candle power lamps which were later upgraded to 61 candle power. In 1960 came a 500 watt Halogen lamp with 15,000 candle power.
Although the light has changed over the years, the lens has remained the same.
I feel as though the lens is like the “eye” of the lighthouse. It has seen everything from above. It keeps an eye on all the 1864 islands – nicknamed Thousand Islands. With thousands of miles of coastline. And breathtaking views.
The “eye” looks south and “sees” Grenadier Island, the scene of General James Wilkinson’s ill-fated expedition. Was he really a highly paid spy for the Spanish empire?!
The eye looks north and sees Carleton Island. This island came under British control in 1774. They built a fort there named Fort Haldimand. This fort played a critical role during the Revolutionary War, as a staging area for military actions against the Mohawk Valley.
One of the brave souls the eye saw there was Mary Brant - a member of the Mohawk tribe.
Mary cared deeply for her tribe. Her tribe had to decide their loyalty in favor of one of the military forces – British, French, American or Canadian. She convinced them to side with the British. The tribe had to leave the US due to their loyalty to the British. This is the time when they took refuge on Carleton Island, which was under the British. Later when the British were defeated, and the US took possession of the island, Mary helped her tribe get resettled in Canada. A Canadian postage stamp issued in 1986 commemorated the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Brant.
The eye looks a bit to the east and sees Heart Island. Yes it is shaped like a heart. This is the site of the Boldt Castle. It is named after George Boldt who came as a young immigrant from Germany at the age of 13 in the year 1864. He started by washing dishes at a hotel in Philadelphia, and rose to become the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, the biggest hotel in the world at that time. He employed 300 workers to build a lavish castle for his wife Louise to present as a special gift to her on Valentine’s day, which was also her birthday.
But just over a month before Valentine’s day – tragedy struck. Louise died before the castle could be completed. She was only 42.
Boldt was heartbroken. He stopped all work at the castle. 300 workers dropped their tools and left the island. Boldt never set foot there again. Boldt died in 1916. His son sold off the castle in 1920. It became the ruins and a place for vandalism for several decades.
Just before World War I, an effort was made to purchase Boldt Castle for use as a summer White House for Woodrow Wilson. But the funding didn’t happen in time.
In 1977 the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and started work to resurrect the castle to its original grand vision. It is still work-in-process.
On some special Valentine ’s Day mornings, the lighthouse eye sees a certain couple dressed in 20th century attire walk the grounds of the Boldt Castle and slowly disappear into the mist.
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“Do you need more Porota?” asked my daughter as I stood next to the car, gobbling up a quick tiffin lunch before we went on our long awaited hike at the Letchworth State Park in upstate New York.
It was the weekend after the Fourth of July in 2020 and it was this strange summer where we had been locked down for months due to the virus. Normally we would eat outside at a restaurant when we went hiking but this time we were so scared of catching the virus that we came prepared with our own food.
A “Porota” (as it is called in the eastern part of India – also known as “paratha” in Northern India) is like a flatbread that is a very popular preparation that is made by baking a whole wheat dough on a hot plate and it is often shallow fried to give it extra taste. A Porota is thicker than a Roti or Chapati, as it has been “layered” by coating with oil and it has been folded several times to give it a special laminated appearance. A Porota is often stuffed with mashed potatoes or vegetables to give it an extra dimension.
A Porota is a ready snack. A great addition to any meal. And a truly tasty treat indeed.
We stayed at the same place in Watkins Glen, New York last year during the Father’s Day weekend – but that was the “before time” as they say. Almost everything had changed this year. The roads were empty, the boats around the lake Seneca were stationary, there were hardly any crowds teeming inside the State parks and almost everyone we met was unrecognizable – due to the face masks.
The Letchworth State Park is voted America’s Number 1 State Park as per the public polls.
We parked the car near the “Inspiration Point” which has great views of the magnificent Middle Falls on the Genesee river, right next to the Glen Iris Inn. This Inn was part of the estate of William Pryor Letchworth who donated over a thousand acres to the state park. Today the Inn is a popular wedding destination, offering a historic atmosphere and a great outdoor experience.
This place is popularly known as “The Grand Canyon of the East”. The cliffs are upto 550 feet high. There are at least 3 popular viewing spots – Upper Falls, Middle Falls and the Lower Falls. 127 steps lead down to the Lower Falls – but this year they had closed those steps due to reasons of social distancing. Climbing down was fun but climbing back up was serious work. What a relief. We were forced to save our calories.
The canyon below is over 10,000 years old and yet it is called a youthful canyon. It is all relative you see. When you have an ancient valley right next to you that is millions of years old, ten thousand years sounds like yesterday.
We can see the ancient valley in the distance between Portageville and Nunda, it was carved by the Genesee river before the beginning of the Ice Age. Layers and layers of rocks hide the glacial history of millions of years.
The layers of rocks remind me of the “Porota”. The canyon a cosmic porota for the Gods? What a weird thought.
Glaciers crushed across this land several times. Each time the river changed course. And each time the landscape was transformed.
I wonder if the virus is like a huge glacier crushing through our planet – changing the landscape and our lives forever…
One feels small and insignificant gaping at the huge canyon.
We try to capture the immense and timeless beauty by clicking the camera endlessly. And then you realize it is futile – this beauty cannot be captured. You have to gaze with eyes wide open without focusing on anything. And then wait. All of a sudden, there is this moment of realization – this moment is all you have.
Nature at this scale has to be seen with our inner eyes. It has to be felt. You have to let it crush you - to become part of it.
A one-horned rhino slowly grazed past our jeep.
Head down. It seemed to be looking for something in the ground. Our driver had stopped the jeep for us to be able to take pictures. It was a beautiful morning with birds chirping loudly all around us. The rhino was around 20 to 30 feet away and walking parallel to the road. We hadn’t seen a rhino this close in the wild before. It had the unmistakable single horn bent upwards and positioned prominently on top of its nose.
At the end of the stretch was the gorgeous view of the vast Brahmaputra river. A long necked Great Egret with a black bill in contrast to its white plumage stood elegantly in the distance, ready to fly off at the slightest threat.
It was early January of 2019. We were at the Kaziranga National Park. The weather was very nice, although it could get chilly at night. We were on a 3 day jeep safari, including an elephant safari at 5am. The sun rises very early in this part of the world. By 5am it is actually quite bright. We had experienced an unforgettable elephant safari early in the morning the very first day of our arrival. Today we were on a jeep safari on the East side.
The Kaziranga Park is home to the world’s largest population of the Greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis). After dwindling for many years, due to the greed of poachers, the number of rhinos had finally started to go up steadily, thanks to the hard work of the conservationists.
Meanwhile the rhino we had seen closely, had now walked out of sight. Rhinos weigh more than 4000 pounds on average and graze around quite slowly. It would not have walked that far but we could not see it anymore as it was blocked by the foliage. We asked our driver to move slowly along the narrow uphill sloping road. We hadn’t even driven for a quarter of a mile when we saw the rhino again in plain sight. It seemed to have found what it was looking for.
It was standing next to a dung heap.
We learnt from the driver that a rhino comes back to the same place to defecate. The pile of dung serves as a “message station”. The smell is apparently unique and acts as an identifier. Rhinos can be communal but they are also territorial. Together with urine left along trails, dung piles can act as an invisible border. If it finds the poop of another animal, this could signal a rival, and it would seek to chase that animal out of its territory.
Fresh poop could mean the animal is near. Old poop would mean the animal is no longer around. This kind of basic communication may not be too different from the current social media habits of human beings. And I’m not just referring to the posts that stink. If everyone were to use social media as a communication tool, a recent post or a recent tweet would convey in addition the basic message that the subject was alive and kicking.
The rhino we were following had done its business and was on the move again. Just like the sun rises early, it sets early in Kaziranga. As the sun was setting, I spotted a Little Cormorant with its short neck and rectangular shaped head perched on a branch. We were heading towards the exit when we took a few more pictures of the rhino’s horn.
The horn was its pride. And also the cause for its vulnerability.
The horn of the rhino is referred to as the “horn of despair”. It is often more costly than gold, for its supposed medicinal value. Increasing demand leads to higher prices. Powdered rhino horn fetches a high price in the illegal trade. As demand rises it causes more of the shameful poaching activities.
The safari experience for us was more thrilling and more rewarding than visiting man made tourist attractions. But for this experience to continue we need to come together before it is too late and take action to save the endangered species from extinction.
Once the horn is hacked off by a poacher it leads to the slow agonizing and certain death of the animal.
The existential threat from humans is the worst message for rhinos.
The US, the Soviet Union and other nations sign the Helsinki Accords. Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania are recognized under the Soviet Union. Communists capture Saigon ending the Vietnam war. The Suez Canal is reopened following an agreement between Israel and Egypt. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia is assassinated by his half brother. Emergency is declared in India by Indira Gandhi, the press is censored and over a 100,000 people are jailed. The first Indian satellite Aryabhata goes into earth’s orbit. Chasnala mining disaster happens. Miss Universe Sushmita Sen is born. Angelina Jolie is born. Hallelujah.
So are David Beckham and Bradley Cooper. Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings at Super Bowl IX. And the Cincinnati Reds beat the Boston Red Sox. Elton John sings “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” with John Lennon on the guitar, a remake of the Beatles classic that rivals the original. Marmalade skies! Listen to both and decide for yourself which one was crazier. And oh by the way the album covers of that time were so out of this world. Steven Spielberg directs the thriller movie “Jaws” one of the greatest films ever made and the first major movie to be shot on the ocean. Jack Nicholson wins an Academy award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Dumas Malone wins a Pulitzer for “Jefferson and His Time”. Charles Berlitz writes “The Bermuda Triangle”. The hit song “Mandy” by Barry Manilow went gold.
India won the men’s hockey World Cup for the first time. In Bollywood super duper hit movie Sholay is released that remains the highest grossing Indian film for the next two decades! During this eventful year a little known movie called “Dharam Karam” is launched starring Raj Kapoor, Randhir and Rekha. Music is by R. D. Burman. Lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Mukesh is the playback singer for the hit song "Ek Din Bik Jayega Mati Ke Mol". Translated it means - one day you shall sell at the same price as clay, but your good deeds and your words shall remain.
Here is a humble attempt to revisit this meaningful song, especially in these trying times.
My son and I had a lot of fun with this little project during the lockdown. Take a listen:
1956. Eisenhower elected. IBM invents first hard disk. Non stick frying pans hit the market. Bo Derek is born. Hallelujah. Also David Copperfield the most successful magician ever. Elvis enters the music charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel” the first of 170 hit singles. His first movie “Love Me Tender” opens in New York. Ian Fleming writes the classic spy thriller “Diamonds Are Forever” which is turned into a Bond movie later starring Sean Connery. The super hit musical comedy “My Fair Lady” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” opens on Broadway to start a record run. 8 black students are refused entry at a high school in Kentucky. Pele joins the Brazilian soccer team at age 15. Summer olympics are held in Melbourne. Epic film “The Ten Commandments” premieres, shot in Egypt it was the most expensive film of that time. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Rameses and Anne Baxter as Nefretiri. Fidel Castro lands in Cuba to start a revolution. Oscar winning Philadelphia born Grace Kelly known as a classic Hitchcock blonde, marries the Prince of Monaco. Ok, all of the above is the context of the song “Aye Dil Mujhe Bata De” by the legendary singer Geeta Dutt (born as Geeta Ghosh Roy Chowdhuri, married the brooding thespian Guru Dutt, but died early at the age of 41). The movie is “Bhai Bhai” and it stars Ashok Kumar, Nimmi, Shyama and Kishore Kumar. Sit back, relax and enjoy this class act...
"Hello Old Man...!”
The old car had just turned onto the highway and was now accelerating to reach the speed at which the other cars were racing smoothly on the interstate highway connecting New Jersey to Delaware.
“Hello Old Man...!” The same childish and beseeching tone again.
More awkward silence. The car kept accelerating on the fast lane.
Another failed attempt by my 6 year old son to wake up the Old Man from his unnatural cosmic slumber.
I wasn’t surprised. I knew quite well that there were clear golden rules to be followed before the Old Man would wake up and talk. We were in violation of the third rule. Rule number 1 stated that no one from outside the immediate family could be present in the car. The second rule was that the car could not be stuck in traffic. The third and perhaps the most stringent rule was that the car should be moving at a constant speed. Any sudden acceleration or deceleration would not be entertained and would lead to immediate cancellation of his performance. These were the boundary conditions.
As soon as the car had crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and had reached a constant speed, we could hear a faint snoring sound coming from somewhere behind the dashboard.
And then suddenly a croaking old voice filled the car: “Hello Young man!”.
The voice sounded weak with age as if just woken up from the depths of slumber, quite hard to understand and sounding fragile, as if echoing from a distant bygone era.
My son Jit would get very excited by the Old Man’s voice. He knew the Old Man was talking to him when he said - Young man! Jit would be seated in the rear seats of the car since he was still a minor, and he would now look forward to a fun filled conversation for the rest of the journey.
No more stupid maths questions from his dad. No need to mentally calculate the time it would take to reach home given the distance and speed. No need to calculate the price of gas per gallon each time the car had to stop for refueling at a gas station.
The Old Man was a kind soul and far more interesting to talk to anyway. They could talk about anything under the sun, he could ask the Old Man any question and the Old Man would always respond with a funny, straight from the heart, feel good answer.
Jit (in his sweet and innocent voice): Where do you live Old Man?
Old Man (stuttering intentionally): Oh, I live here…right here, very close to you…I mean inside this car, right under your nose!
Jit (laughing): Right under my nose…no way!
The car was now cruising on the 202. The Old Man had our full attention now.
Jit: How old are you Old Man?
Old Man: I feel very old (coughs)…I am older than you think (coughs repeatedly)…older than you can count…(slowly clears his throat)…but you know sometimes I feel I am only as old as you!
This would go on until the car had to slow down or change lanes. During those odd times the Old Man would fall silent.
Most of the time the discussion between the Old Man and my son would sound ridiculously silly and make no sense at all. And while I would listen quietly to their conversation, I would also be worried about them spending too much time together in La La Land.
After all Jit needed to grow up.
One day as we were passing a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, Jit jokingly asked the Old Man a serious sounding question: Hey Old Man – what is the meaning of life?
I wanted to chime in and give Jit a real wise crack answer like – Life has no meaning in itself but you can give meaning to it by your actions. But before I could open my mouth, the Old Man blurted out.
Old Man (in a very confident tone): The meaning of Life is hidden inside chicken nuggets.
Jit (laughing and looking at the KFC hoarding): What??? No way…what are you saying Old Man!
Old Man (now sounding less confident and more silly): Err…I mean if you are “chicken” in life, you are “nugget” get anything done.
Jit: Old Man you are crazy…
I didn’t like the way the discussion was going and wanted to intervene but the Old Man beat me to it.
Old Man (now whispering): You should “ketchup” with your inner chicken feelings, otherwise you are “nugget” like it in life.
Jit (recovering from this nonsensical exchange): I’m “nugget” talk to you!
The old man fell silent as soon as we took the exit and got off the highway. He went away as suddenly and swiftly as he came.
This kind of exchange between the two of them went on for a couple of years. Until Jit could sit in the front seat next to me. Now Jit could see me talking. While sitting on the rear seats Jit couldn’t see me speaking on behalf of the Old Man, from the corner of my mouth.
A poor ventriloquist act! At first croakingly and slowly but later with practice - steadily and confidently.
As time passed we heard less from the old man. It was a magical time together - while it lasted. Memories full of stories and full of humor. Moments full of laughter and full of love. A time to truly relax and unwind. And build a timeless bond that crossed generations. A bond that straddles the lives of all Old Men - past, current and future.
One day when Jit had grown taller than me and the old car was gone, he suddenly remembered the Old Man.
Jit: I wonder where the Old Man is. I miss him.
Me: Yeah. I don’t know either.
Jit: But why did you stop?
Me: What do you mean?
We were driving back from his music lesson. I looked at him sitting next to me, a head full of curly hair, a faint moustache beginning to form around his upper lip.
Jit: I always knew it was you!
Me: Then why didn’t you say anything…?!
Jit: Well then you would stop and the old man would never come back…
His voice sounded sad.
We were both quiet for a while.
I looked at the setting sun. The sky was turning a brilliant red.
It seemed to me that a certain Old Man and his voice were fast dissolving into the red firmament.