the man who wasn't there

Note: Though the characters in the story are real, the incidents narrated are fictional.

He had a noticeable hunch on his back, which was more pronounced when seen from the right side than the left. Sometimes he was seen wearing an orange monkey cap. Other than these, there wasn’t much noticeable about that old man. I am told that he was always found sitting on that bridge over the river. My father says he has seen him there ever since he was a toddler. That might be exaggerating a bit since he himself mentioned on another occasion that bridge was not built till he was in his high school. I think he just meant to emphasis that the old man has been there for a very long time.

I have seen him at the exact spot on that bridge every time we visit our ancestral village with my parents and brother. It was almost a ritual for me to look out through the window of the bus whenever it crossed the bridge. “Wake me up when we cross the bridge” I used to instruct my mom as I dozed off during those 6 hr bus journey.

My father always mention about that great flood of 1970 to everyone, which drowned his village and forced him to move to the city. He says even as the river was overflowing over the bridge, the old man refused from there. He clearly remembers noticing the old man, standing waist deep in flood water near the middle of the bridge as he and my uncle paddled over the bridge on their canoe with all the stuffs they could salvage. As if it was that old man's sole responsibility to stay put. My father appreciate his courage; at the same time,he confessed to us, made him feel guilty - for abandoning his village at the time of distress. When he heard in the radio that his village wasn’t washed away, almost a miracle given the intensity of the flood; he was certain that it was that old man and his will which saved his village.

I believe it was also an act of redemption for him to take my mom, brother and me to his village atleast once a year, visit the temples and meet all his childhood friends, old neighbors, acquaintances or whom ever is left of them. So, even from when I can remember we have been making the trip to that village. And every time we crossed that bridge my father would look out to see that old man; and so would I.

From what I can remember, than man always looked the same, disheveled, and shabbily dressed. He looked weary and tired, but never unhappy. I couldn’t picture him being young. My father said he couldn’t recollect how he looked when young. I believe he was born this old and lived that way his whole life.

I didn’t know anything about him. But his act of defiance against the Mother Nature and the fact that my father admired him was good enough for me to respect him. His constant presence on that bridge made him a cult figure of me and he was an identity of the village whenever I mentioned about it to someone. He was the guardian of the village and I believe his presence there was one of the factors which made us connected to our roots in spite of our city upbringing.

Over the years that village underwent many changes. The panchayat built a check dam over that river not far away from the bridge few years back. And another bridge, bigger one for heavy vehicles was constructed adjacent to the old one. Bus no longer made service through the old bridge and the traffic was confined to pedestrians and light motor vehicles. With less time to dispose in hand with the fast paced life, we switched the bus journey to a faster and sophisticated car trip. And thus we still commuted through the old bridge and never missed the sight of the old man. It was as if, we shifted to car because a trip in bus would make us miss him.

With my studies and subsequent employment, I was not able to make the trip to the village in the last couple of years and I had forgotten about that man for a while now until last year’s vacation. When I was told by my mother that she had planned that trip this time around my thoughts went back to the old man. I realized I never knew him. Did he ever leave that spot? When did he eat? How did he eat? Did he ever have a family? Was he abandoned by them? Or did he abandon them? - I didn’t even know his name. I think I never bothered to know anything about him. I wanted to be detached from him that way. I sympathized with him, yet was not willing to do anything for him. I felt meek and inferior and wanted to redeem myself.

“I am sure that man will be still there on that bridge”. I told my mother, “I think I should give him some money this time” and immediately feared if I sounded like a pompous NRI who pitied the less fortunate, albeit inadvertently.

“Yes, we should”, agreed my father. “And I will inquire more about him and know him better”, I told myself.

A long blast of air horn from a truck behind our car woke me up when we were few mile away from the bridge. “Slow the car when we reach the bridge”, I instructed the driver. As we approached the bridge, I glanced outside to see the man. He was not to be seen. “He’s not there” said my brother. “Not on this side either”, my father said with his head still stuck out the car window on the other side, sounding as if a close relative of his was missing. I could understand, that stranger he has been a constant frame of reference throughout his life; one whom he might have seen more often than many of his relatives.

No one seemed to know anything about him around the temple area. After much inquiry, we were told by the nearby restaurant manager that our old man passed away almost a year back. And no one seemed to care much. He was a nobody to the new generation there. Even to the surviving older folks, he was just a pavement dweller. For some unknown reason I felt that I was more disappointed to hear the news than my father. He was definitely more wiser to know the truths of life.

While going back, I involuntarily gazed out through the window as the car approached the bridge. I am certain I will continue to look for him whenever we cross that bridge. Our future trips to the village will not be the same without that old man on the bridge.

As we were crossing the bridge I noticed the traffic was slow across the bridge. I want to believe it was to pay respect to the man who wasn’t there.



Anonymous said...

Aravind - nice one da. I was hooked to the narration.


Manasee said...


that was really moving! i was definitely touched.


Aravind said...

thank you surprised u had the patience to read it through :)

Jaya said...

Ah that's touching and it's very reminiscent of some incidents in my own past. Good one... and hey, I like yr new template. :)

Dilip said...

Hey Aravind,

Nice post. Felt sad about the old man. I wish people gave him more respect while he was alive.

Like someone above mentioned very good narration.

Aravind said...

jaya-> thanks for comments jaya.....actually its only semi autobiographical and i had much harder time fixing on a template than writing :)

dilip-> thank u much for feedback da, glad u liked i mentioned above i might hv made him more pitiable since its only partially real

Anand Subramani said...

yeah Kidangoor Prandhan ( i mean thats how we used refer him) seems to be dead :( . I always felt he was the only normal one in Kidangoor!