"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.