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     Volume 8 Issue 77 | July 10, 2009 |

  Cover Story
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  In Retrospect
  Star Diary
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'Where were you in 1947?'

Syed Badrul Ahsan

It is often a healthy thought knowing that I am in my early fifties. Of course, my friends (and they are in a similar state) often tend to think that I am in fact close to my sixties, if not exactly in them. You see, I happen to be that rare instance in the world of a man who has by and large and through all his life looked older than his years. That is a rather sad thing to happen to an individual. And I have felt it keenly when I have had occasion to introduce some of my teachers to some people I know. These teachers, I can assure you, even now look younger than me. You could say they have held on to their youth, while I have perpetually been searching for mine. But let me not digress. Every time I have introduced these teachers to others, in the process informing them of what it was that they particularly taught me at university, I have observed the disbelief on their countenances. They really thought I was joking, that indeed I must have been the teacher and my teachers had been my pupils.

I guess I have grown to live with that. There comes a point in life when you have few, if any, choices before you. Or there comes a time when it is positively futile to try to correct people's wrong impressions about yourself. I keep thinking back to the instance when someone asked me rather gravely where I was when the partition of India occurred in 1947. I recalled I was sipping coffee when that question came my way and I nearly choked on it. But then, who could blame the questioner? He saw my thinning and graying hair and my quite weather-beaten face and quite logically drew the conclusion that I was indeed a prehistoric animal. Inwardly, though, I kept asking myself why he needed to be so beastly. But let that be. I had to answer his query, which I did pretty sweetly, if you ask me. I put down that cup of tea, looked him straight in the eye and intoned, “Sir, in 1947 my father was a twenty five year-old bachelor about to relocate to the Geological Survey of Pakistan from the Geological Survey of India and my mother was yet in school in a village by the river Sitalakhya in East Bengal and they were yet to meet and marry. Against that background, I really do not recall where I happened to be in that summer of division and death.” And I said it all in good, flawless, Richard Burton-like English. The poor questioner looked stricken, mumbled his apologies and scurried away. I finished my coffee in peace.

Life can be pretty strange, and in a number of ways. My former classmates at the university, men as well as women, are still a vibrant lot. The men are handsome and smart; the women are pretty and graceful. In their company, I am happy to be able to inform you, I have an existence that is independent of everyone else's. A few years ago, at the wedding of the son of a colleague of mine (and that colleague and I entered and left university together and she is still young and does not at all look like a mother-in-law), a former classmate who, having studied English literature has done very well for himself in business (the gods really know whom to pour their munificence on!), salaamed me in extremely formal manner. I knew he thought I was someone else and smiled wickedly at him. And then he realised his mistake, said sorry and followed it up with a devastating question: “How is it that you have begun to look like an old uncle?” That only reminded me of what I once heard Bangabandhu tell the Baluch politician Abdus Samad Achakzai, after the latter had asked the former why he had grown old in prison, “Ayub Khan ne tum ko bhi buddha bana diya hum ko bhi buddha bana diya.”


Yes, life is certainly strange, even stranger than you can imagine. There used to be a time when people called you friend and then big brother and then uncle. It is the changing contours of our faces that change the world around us. And the contours all too often change us too. Or keep us, despite the rapidly proliferating wrinkles under our eyes, riveted to the call of the heart. You see, the heart is a most wonderful musical instrument. It keeps singing, keeps recalling the songs that you heard in your teens, keeps telling you that in your fifties you are what you used to be in your twenties. If at twenty two you felt like telling the beautiful classmate you had a crush on that you were ready to pluck the stars from the sky for her but could not actually tell her, at fifty two you can do that without fear or qualm. She has nothing to lose and neither have you. Neither of you has anything to gain. That is the beauty of aging. When you crack jokes, even seemingly suggestive ones, in advancing age, people enjoy it all and yet know that you are quite harmless. After all, you cannot run away, at fifty-two, with any woman (unless you have some profound psychological disorder). Besides, do not forget that you have a wife waiting out there for you, with either the sweetest of smiles or the roughest of facial contortions, depending on how you have been conducting yourself before her.

Which brings me back to myself. These days, I like to think I am the proverbial lion in winter --- bored, tired, aging --- but happy knowing that the twilight approaches. In the depths of the moonlight-dappled midnight, I call my friend the Mongoose. She is happy at the call, tells me in a voice which speaks of romance amidst husky melody, that she has been humming ei mom jochhonaye ongo bhijiye / esho na golpo kori. The old Aroti Mukherjee song brings us both back to life, to the splendour of dreams as it were.




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