The Old Man’s Tales

How wonderful it would be if we could preserve a complete audiovisual record of our passage here between the cradle and the tomb.

But as this is just futuristic possibility then we have to fall back on our books, photos and other grandparents’ stories to take stock of our past.

Today, what could gladden a parent’s heart more than if their child should tell them that he would like to pursue his academic studies? Not so in the 1920s, it was a different story. When dad suggested that he would like to continue his primary classes, his father objected and replied: “You want to go to school while I’ll be toiling in the cane fields? No, join me in the fields.” A sad day for my father, which has haunted him for the rest of his life. It did inspire him to give ample educational facilities to his children, and pushed him to look up to the more educated with a sheen and envy in his eyes. His motto had become ‘move with more intelligent than you’.

This is the lead to our first story. There were two good friends, a man and a gorilla, who went for a long walk in the forest. Soon, being tired, they decided to take a nap in turn, while the other would repulse insects with leafy branches. The gorilla had his nap first while the human friend did his best to keep the mosquitoes at bay. After two hours the role was reversed. Try as it could, the gorilla could not chase all the moths and flying nuisances. Suddenly one came to sit on the nose of his friend, so the gorilla took a stone and crushed the poor insect. The moth died, so did the friend. And the conclusion, dad told us, was that good faith is not enough –always move with the more intelligent!

Children or paupers nowadays would look askance if offered a three-rupee tip. But for my paternal grandfather it had meant a change in the course of his life: working as coachman in a southern sugar estate he was drawing a 15-rupee monthly salary in the 1930s. Then one good day, someone approached the boss and offered his services for 12 rupees. So, my father told me, his dad lost this fairly ‘soft’ job, and suddenly the family was on ‘la paille’. Did this ‘betrayal’ hasten grandfather’s demise at age 43? Possibly. Finally in the 1940s the fatherless family moved north to Beau Bassin, nearer to other relatives for material and financial support.

That was the ‘le temps margoze’. Dad, being young and the elder of the family, took upon himself the onus of finding work. Along with his mum he saved enough, some one rupee fifty, to buy a big basket: this would be his initiation into the vegetable business. He started selling vegetables, which he carried in that roundish basket placed on the head. The other youths of that time saw in that new style a funny side to that job, and laughed at the embarrassed boy. But as that was honest work and hard experience, one day it would pay off.

Being a serious man, rarely demonstrative with his feelings, Dad was not heartless. He may not have known how to express his deep love for others, yet he showed signs of maturity and the knack to distinguish between basic right and wrong. And he had the talent to tell us many stories to illustrate his convictions. But one of his tales still leaves us a bit puzzled: if we take a cup of pure milk and add a drop of dirty water in it, that milk becomes unfit for drinking; but take a cup of dirty water and add a drop of milk in it – does it become pure milk? Maybe we of the present generation would find food for thought here.  

The transition generation

That transition generation of the 1940s was discovering for the first time what party politics were; many individuals were ganging up together to explore that new way of engagement and social upheavals. Dad was no exception. One good day one of his political friends, all loyal to the IFB movement, quizzed him: ‘Who is more important – your wife or your friend?’ Difficult question; his buddy gave Dad the answer immediately: “It is your friend, of course. When you die, your wife will stay put at home while that friend will carry you on your last journey to the cremation ground!” An eye opener to the young man of that time. But as fate would have it – that being the Great War period — there was shortage of food and money. Once Dad approached his ‘mentor’ and asked to borrow some Rs5 to buy food. That pontificator replied, with regret, that he had promised his wife to buy her some jewellery and it would be unfair to deprive her of her wish Yet another eye opener that made Dad a wiser man; he realized that friends are important in one’s life, but ‘chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous’ was a better motto. That incident made him cross the floor and join the Labour Party movement, and finally drew a riff between his old buddy and himself.

People from those decades of hardship would have a lot of stories to tell us about the lack of jobs, of money, of food and negative discrimination when poverty was the common factor. And they would have loved to leave something of the memory of those hard, heroic, struggling days behind for future generations to appreciate. And what better occasion could have presented itself to express that pathos of that time than the timely coming of Raj Kapoor’s film ‘Boot Polish’ in the mid-50s. Yes, Dad took his children to the Royal Theatre in Rose Hill to see the film.

One unforgettable poignant scene in ‘Boot Polish’ was of rain dripping everywhere in the old cabin where sister and brother, living in rags and abject poverty, tried as best as possible to shield themselves with newspapers. Perhaps the old man wanted to relive his own difficult times and to share with us children his memories of his childhood, or just to convey to us that life can be extremely hard and unpredictable. Our tears would have spoken volumes. 

A more rational future

The knowledge of our dead parents is just patchy. Each generation witnesses a lot of social and economic upheavals; nowadays we have the electronic revolution. So some geniuses are already hinting to equip each newborn with a microchip camera or some other future sophisticated apps so as to record all events, activities, emotions and feelings, the EEG, ECG, physiological, hormonal changes from birth to death. Of course, the problem of privacy invasion would be real; one may not like his negative values to survive him. However, if Mr X is a famous Nobel Prize, at his death his children may love to go back and relive their father’s life through the records. But what if he is a notorious criminal? How will his children react; will someone dare to erase it?

Some children may agree, others may not. Will such records be our virtual consciousness and virtual self? Will the government, historians, sociologists and other experts step in to preserve and archive that human ‘patrimoine’, so that we can replay them to understand our species better? Are we not already thrilled to watch the VHS or DVD record of weddings of 25 -30 years ago, and see how our children were in their childhood, or listen to the voices of kith and kin who have departed this life?

If only we had had a micro audio/video record since the dawn of the human race, maybe we would not be fighting about land, about superiority of so and so and the pertinence of such and such God. We would know the very first version of the supposed ‘Sacred Books’ and not their revised, polished latest one. We would know the ‘truth’ since the beginning of time.

Already Marie Le Pen of France insists that the Holocaust and gas chambers never existed! The Turks adamantly deny that the genocide against the Armenians ever took place. Could we prevent such distortion of history to occur again by storing the life memories of everyone of the 7 billions of us? Will the human race gain something, and become wiser from such electronic records and steer us to a more rational future? Or must we go on listening to Dad’s own version of history? 

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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