Old Man on Regent Street

Few days ago, I was walking to my hotel room in Cambridge after dinner at a nearby restaurant.

As fate dictates on unusually cold November nights, it started to drizzle as well. Trees shed rain drops on separation.  Leaves rustled in gentle breeze and circled around; slowly wind blew them away from trees.

Autumn had declared victory over summer and togetherness.

Each year, autumn reminds me of separation and loneliness.  Maybe it is the falling leaves; or it could be the passing year, or even the silent nights.  It might be a mix of all of these; who knows? Lots of simple questions have no answers.

I experienced fall only after coming to England.  At home town in Kerala, seasons nurtured nature with sun and rain, and were kind enough not to impose autumn and its separation.

The first English autumn I witnessed was the most striking one.  Ten years ago on that late October morning when I came out of the bed & breakfast where I stayed during bachelor days, nature presented a completely different front garden.  The Hawthorn, beech and even the weeping willows turned their green leaves to a colourful mixture of red, brown and bright yellow.  Bloodgood Japanese Maple on garden corner was the last one to turn deciduous.  As if to catch up with lost time, instead of going through shades of red and yellow, the bloodgood’s purple leaves left in a hurry to turn the tree with desolate branches.  By December, the once green surrounding turned all grey and white.  From December till March my heart longed for spring.

After grey days of winter when the spring turns up, I always felt that the trees had somehow reincarnated.  Instead of growing old with passed time, they turned more handsome and powerful.  Though they will go through numerous future harsh winter days, each of those days the trees could dream of their newer, younger, powerful self, waiting to reincarnate.

How short and weak the human life is, when compared to this magical transformation!

A bicycle bell ring brought me back from thoughts to Cambridge.  I took a turn in to Regent Street.  Bright lights pushed winter’s darkness away from the street.  Shop windows on either side of road reflected blinking red light from the passing cycle.  As the cycle passed by, shop windows handed over reflections to their neighbours.   After few seconds it was difficult to detect the source from its reflections.  Slowly the twinkling red light and hundreds of its followers glided towards English Martyrs’ church.  Soon the street went quiet.

Freshly fallen leaves and rain water made the pavement slippery.  Ice cold rain drops reminded me of duvet in warm hotel room. I hurried to reach indoors before the light rain turned in to a heavy one.

The street was now empty except for an old man walking towards my direction. From a distance he looked fragile and in his late 70s. He walked slowly, but inched ahead, body swinging from one side to other. I was surprised to find him out on street at that time of night.

When we reached near each other, I looked at him to greet but instead, just stood there. In front was a familiar face from my childhood days.

“Good evening”, I managed to mumble at last.

“Evening”, he replied in a delicate voice. There was a tiny smile on corner of his dry lips.

“Be …” he continued.

I was not listening. Even though I stood in front of him, my mind was busy travelling back to past in lightning speed.

Calicut was – and is – an ever-growing city with bustling market and a trading hub.  Goods to north Kerala passed through godowns of Calicut.  Busy streets crowded with trucks, tempos, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws and hand-pulled carts carried goods from one godown to another.  Hardworking men hurried around in city centre selling and buying things, making profits in each transaction.  While wholesale business occupied Palayam junction and Valiyangadi, retailers ruled the narrow but prestigious SM Street.  Each of these areas and streets has thousands of stories to tell – of Arab, Portuguese and British merchants; and of war stories of Samoothiris and Tipu Sultan.

Those days, my family lived in a rented house near to Corporation Football Stadium, which was a bit far away from the maddening market areas.  With a temple and few grocery shops, the area was comparatively quieter and calmer – except during football seasons.

I might have been 7-8 years old when the old man with his flute was a regular sight on a road-side near our home. He appeared to be in his 80s, wore the same old shirt and a torn off-white dhothi almost every day. He hardly looked up. With closed eyes, the old man played sad tunes on his flute. Infrequently his yellowish eyes wandered around to catch up with time, surroundings or life passing by. As if felt out-of-place, he will quickly look down, close eyes, and continue the music.

Most of the crowd on Pavamani Road walked past him without even acknowledging the old man sitting, playing music. A few offered coins in to the rusted tin in front of him.  Customers at “MohanDas Cycle Repair and Renting shop”, few meters away from his usual spot, too ignored him.  The old man and his music was part of the background, like many other street lives that were part of the same canvas.

It seemed no one knew where he came from, or where he rested in nights.  Some said he used to work in a bank as a senior clerk but drinks brought him to street.  Others said his wife and kids abandoned him when he turned old and became a burden.  No one knew for sure; no one cared.  Whether it was pouring monsoon or scorching summer he was at his usual place, playing music with the rusted tin box in front of him.

How vividly I recollect that dark green clasped Farex tin! Memories are strange indeed. They lie low for so many years deep underneath, without showing any proof of existence. But when bubble up, are as fresh as when they were first encountered.  What other reason could I give for still remembering the shape of the Farex tin and his broken grey-black slippers?!

I saw him regularly on my way to school on weekday mornings. He will be at the same spot, playing flute. Melodious Hindustani tunes will dance around him; but the dance will last only for a few seconds; soon they will get lost in busy traffic noise like small kid in a busy market.

My childhood fantasy yearned for the old man to get up and re-claim his pretty tunes back from the nasty traffic.

“How happy would the tunes be, if they could go back to the flute rather than wandering in horrid traffic?!” I used to wonder. “They would surely start dancing again with joy if only they could re-unite with the flute!”

Of course, the old man was oblivious of the sad endings of his tunes. He would sit there, half-asleep, letting more tunes to dance around him in the air.

On weekends the old man used to visit houses in our area to collect alms. By the time he reached our main door, my sister or I would be ready with a coin from the glass jar kept above bookshelf. The glass jar was meant for these occasions – when milkman asked for change, or when ice-cream vans or beggars turned up.

Once in front of our house, the old man will call “Ammaaaaaa, dharmam!”

I always waited for his feeble cry to finish before throwing coin in to his tin.  We kids were told not to go out when tramps were around. Scary stories of kids – being snatched by beggars and made blind – roaming on streets were good enough to keep us indoors. Hence we always threw the coin out through the grilled main door.

Along with the clinking sound of coins in his tin, a tiny smile will appear somewhere between his dry lips; yellow eyes will slowly close and reopen. Shaking the tin, he will walk towards next door – with body swinging from one side to other. The “Ammaaaaaa, dharmam!” call and clinking sound will slowly drift further and further apart.

Thinking about it now, I realize that he never played flute during those visits. Was it because the artist inside him felt self-pity? Another of those questions, for which I may never get an answer….

Years passed by. Life offered surprises, newer friends and more excitement. Instead of being bored at home on weekend afternoons, we friends started renting cycles and rode all around Calicut.  Initially we were satisfied riding around the Corporation Football Stadium and SK Temple roads.    But slowly we braved ourselves to ride in to busy Calicut city; but speeding buses and big trucks at Palayam junction scared us away from centre of city.  Soon we changed our destination to Calicut beach.  The straight roads welcomed us and our carefree riding. We friends boasted of riding together all the way till Kappad when we grew up.

During those days, I used to see the old man at his usual place. He was always there, but my eyes ignored him; an old man with flute was not an appealing sight for teenage eyes. Slowly the old man disappeared completely from my world.

One wet Sunday evening we friends returned the rented cycles and were walking back home. Someone joked and all of us started laughing; further jokes and shouts followed. Busy enjoying the company, I was not aware of the mud and rain water on road, slipped on the same and fell backwards.

On each second of the weightless-free-fall, I dreadfully expected to hit the ground; but just before the final thud, two hands held me. The weak skinny hands surely lessened the impact, but were not strong enough to stop my body ending up lying flat on back in muddy water.

Friends surrounded me, laughing hysterically. All wet and dirt on T-shirt, I got up.

“Stop laughing you idiots”, I shouted, feeling annoyed and embarrassed.

More laughs followed; this time pedestrians too joined in the fun.

“Are you ok?” one kind soul enquired. I thanked and replied I was fine.

Back on legs, I looked around. It took few more moments to realise what actually happened. Next to me was the old man, sitting at his usual place; his flute, Farex tin and coins all around him.

He looked much older, with most bones visible and skin tuned charcoal black.

“देख के …” (“Look …”) he started saying something, but seeing my expression, stopped.

With the despise only a teenager could offer to someone from older generation, I walked past him without offering sorry or thanks. That was the last time I remember seeing the old man.

Regent St. sketchOr so I thought, till this cold wet November night on Reagent Street at Cambridge. Slowly, I came back from Pavamani Road to Regent Street.

I had another look at the man. Through his expensive M&S overcoat, I could see skinny pale white hands shivering in cold and wet weather.

Of course it’s someone else, my left brain reassured. Or else he should be around 110 years! In his vintage coat and old hat, the respectable English gentleman was miles – and cultures – apart from his charcoal black-skinned counterpart from Calicut streets; also, he looked younger and more cheerful.

At that moment he raised his head and looked straight in to my eyes. There, I swear to you, I saw those very same yellowish eyes.

He slowly closed and reopened his eyes. With a tiny smile on corner of dry lips, he said in pure Hindi:

“देख के चलो, वरना फिरसे फिसल कर गिरेगा !” (“Look where you’re going, or else you might slip again !”).

Then, with satisfaction of finishing an incomplete sentence, he turned and walked away – body swinging from one side to other.

I stood glued to Regent Street; flute tunes danced around me in autumn’s cold Cambridge air.

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