He tells his stories in the afternoon while my head rests on his belly, bobbing rhythmically to his breathing and occasionally shaken by convulsive laughter. The anecdotes evade any chronology or pattern; they are just random, like all memories are, flitting from this to that, a decoration here, an omission there. These recounting of snippets from his life and of those around him aren’t always original, I’ve heard nearly all of them multiple times throughout the years, but it’s a testament to my father’s art of story-telling, the finer nuances of his hand gestures, the adequate peppering of inconsequential details, the gradual build-up of laughter and its patient wait at the threshold for just the correct time with pauses so befitting, and a sense of observation so keen that my mother can’t help feeling the suspense of how a story would end, despite hearing it umpteen times in their thirty three year old marriage!
My father is a funny man, he could always make me laugh with his quips; but I never fully appreciated the veritable treasure of his humour until I too started to look for it in the little incidents that populate our lives. One mundane morning, we were sitting in the verandah reading the newspaper when we heard a cuckoo bird’s call. Others might close their eyes to lose themselves in this melody, but I tell my father how the cuckoo bird lays their egg in the crow’s nest, and later the parasitic young cuckoo destroys the eggs of the very crow that had raised it as its own! My father listened to it and, without looking up from his paper, he replied, “Hoboi aru. Kauri'r mukh khon ebaar monot pelua sun, dekha tei burbok jen nalage janu?” (That’s expected. Try to recall a crow, hasn’t it always looked like an idiot?) His deadpan humour gets lost in translation here, but I can’t help my snorting laugh every time I spot a crow.
I’ll write a series of my father’s stories on my blog now. No linear chronology; not all of them are hilarious; some are too preposterous to be fabricated even; some are so daring, I shudder. These are just random tales I want to share, about my father’s childhood in a village near Jorhat, his college years, his ‘angry young man’ persona at the start of his career, carrying off astounding acts of rebellion to convention and authority, and mainly his detailed observations of the people around him. Today I begin this series with an incident that occurred to one of his friends. I won’t elaborate every detail. I just assume you will imagine it quite well from what I chose to tell.
The Last Jog
My father's friend, KD was mortified when the doctor pronounced that his paunch would lead him to an early grave. During an evening ‘adda’ session, this knowledge created uproar among his friends as the Jorhat (my hometown) of the early 70s was a clueless virgin of the fitness trend that swamps us today. After a volley of suggestions, they came to the conclusion that physical exertion was the answer. But how can one find means of sweating his brow while living in a town that excludes rigorous physical labour in the immediate vicinity, and working at a 9 to 5 job where the only exercise is when one stretches the hand to get the lunch box from under the table? In an age much preceding gyms, how can a grown man exercise without having to resort to borrowing his daughter’s skipping rope and how would he fit his ‘exercise session’ into a busy day? A wise soul, much ahead of his time, suggested getting up an hour early to go jogging. My father claims everyone applauded heartily at that moment.
So KD, a man given to as immaculate a planning as its execution, bought a new pair of sports shoes and an alarm clock. He continued to have the effusive enthusiasm and support of his friends all through out the selection of the said items. They didn’t want their friend to die. The thought touched him and brought a lone tear to his eye when he was alone.
On the night before his first jog, KD swears he had set the alarm clock for four am. After the shock of the first ring died down, the determined man sacrificed his sleep and tied his shoe laces in the dark, not wanting to wake up his wife. As he stepped out into the dark hours of early morning, he felt such jubilation at the thought of assured longevity that he didn’t quite mind the loss of sleep. The cold air hit his face as he started to jog.
He found it curious that not a single person was out on the road, but reasoned that everyone were fit enough to indulge in precious sleep. He felt comforted by the distant whistle of the policeman on night patrol. After running for around twenty minutes he reached a crossroad with one road leading to the courthouse and a large ground adjoining it while the other continued into smaller by-lanes a little ahead. Now my father describes the area near the 'Judge’s Field’ in Jorhat as quite eerie (‘joyal’ was the word he used) back in those years. There were stories about it being just the place to get clubby with the ghosts of those who were executed by public hanging under the British regime. Now KD wasn’t a brave soul, he was in fact on the opposite end of the courage spectrum. But emboldened by the surge of endorphins and the surety that early-risers would soon be thronging the roads, KD made for the Judge’s field.
He decidedly avoided looking at the century old courthouse and the thick grove of trees around it. He summoned all the Gods he knew as he entered the Judge’s field alone and continued to jog. Suddenly he was startled by a loud sound and cried out ‘Aiyyo Bupai! (‘Aiyyo Father!’ the translation kills it), but steadied his racing heart when he realized that it was the courthouse bell announcing the start of another hour. Four more strikes of the bell will soon follow to announce five am. He waited. And waited some more.
A wild fear crept in the heart which he had steadied only a minute ago. The sun had not risen for so long, the roads were still empty and the bell had rang just once. Of all the places on earth, he was jogging all alone at the haunted Judge’s field at 1 am! Such realizations would have killed a weak heart, but KD survived despite being the possessor of a heart of questionable strength, as he emphasized in so many retellings of the incident to all the people that came into his life thereafter.
He was quick to gather his senses and run for his life at a pace that surprises him even today. Who knows, what supernatural object might have lurked amidst those dark trees and traumatized Jorhat the next morning with the spectacle of KD hanging from a tree, replicating the horrors of the past! This incident wiped all traces of any rigorous physical activity forever, with special emphasis to jogging, from KD’s life. He gave away his once-used shoes to a distant relative and stashed away the cursed alarm clock. He often had nightmares of that fateful night. He continues to have a paunch and still hates courthouses, especially the haunted ones.