The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Short Story: The Old Man in Grey

Painting: Greg Cartmell

By Anirudh Kala

It was a bleak dusty evening.

A very old man in a grey gown stood in the middle of the bus, a knobby hand hooked around the railing. There were some empty seats on both the sides but strangely the man with the blotchy skin, chose to stand. His grey dress was unusual, in fact outlandish, because people who sat on the left of the aisle wore white and the ones on the right, black. Any other color, including grey was forbidden and it had been so for many decades and there was no scope for confusion on that count. The robotic bus came to a stop in plumb middle of the road, on two sides of the deep slit dividing the road neatly into two. Doors on both sides slid open. People stepped down mutely, those in white from one side and the ones in black from the other and tip-toed away into their sides of the town. The old man in grey dress was perplexed but only for a second and then shielding with one hand his eyes against the swirling dust, got down from one side and crossed the road to go to the other.

The bus moved away but people at both edges of road stood, frozen numb with shock, on the black or the white pavement, depending on which side they were on. None of them had ever seen anybody cross this road before. There never was a need. All the buses opened on both the sides.

The dust covered parrot in black glass cage fluttered feebly on seeing the old man and his grey dress. The cage had tiny holes to let air in without the bird getting choked by blasts of searing dust. The door opened into an unremarkable family store. A young boy in black sleeve-less vest was bent over an exercise book, at one end of the counter, doing his homework. An unfinished game of patience lay arranged at the other end but the cards blew away as the door opened to let the old man in, and with him, a scorching draft of dust. A man in a black shirt and shorts, presumably the patience player came ambling from a room behind the store and stopped in his tracks on seeing the color grey worn by a very old man with leathery skin whose eyes were soft, blue and trusting. The last was very unusual. The tall old man, bent only a little, looked apologetic for having caused the cards to scatter all over the place. Soon, he was gathering those, from the ground and from the baskets of dust covered vegetables limp in heat. The owner and his son could see his grey embroidered gown, and when he bent under the counter, the shapes of flowers on its back. The boy was surprised because his books said flowers had been extinct for a hundred years and nobody even drew those any longer. The father, whose game of patience had been blown away was intrigued when the old man rearranged the cards, into the unfinished game of patience, his shriveled fingers moving nimbly, at precisely the stage the player had left it. And next to the four columns of black and less black cards and the unused deck on the dust-coated counter, the old man found in a cane basket, what he had come to buy. He picked up a bun and gave it to the boy in the black vest who put it in a black paper bag and gave it back to him.

The young boy had never seen anything like the thick piece of silver, which was round in a clumsy sort of way and had an illegible inscription on one side and the faded face of a bald man on the other. The coin might have fetched a lot of money in another time centuries ago but the only currency that the boy behind the counter, recognized were black strips of serrated paper lying in his cash box. Something in the ageless eyes of the old man made him feel a tenderness the like of which he had never felt before. He returned the coin and gestured to the old man that he could take the bun free.

Later the father slapped him hard, although he himself did not know for sure if it was for giving away goods for free or for an affectionate look for a man who wore grey. Today the look was for a man in grey, the father probably reasoned, tomorrow, it could be for somebody in white. In his mind which went back generations, the general direction was the same.

The old man had gone out, this time taking extra care to close the finely meshed door. The young boy had tears in his eyes but not from the slap to which he was injured. He was missing his grandfather, who had died when he was small.

The   man in the grey dress, with a black paper bag jutting out of a pocket, had, walked slowly but sure footedly, with eyes shaded by his palms against the dust, across the vast road. He stepped casually over the deep gash of the road divider, as if it was just a road divider and was on the white foot-path in no time.

The old man, once on the white side, went into a shop to buy some butter and was told by the woman in starched white shirt and trousers, after she had recovered from the grey of his clothes that butter could not be carried around except in specially made ice boxes because of melting heat outdoors. Instead, she suggested a tin of marmalade to go with the bun, the marmalade would get only better with warmth, she told him, smilingly. Looking at the soft leathery wrinkles on the back of his hand, her heart felt a warmth unknown to her when their hands touched. When her husband came in from back of the shop also in white clothes, he instead of getting angry, for him being allowed free marmalade, because all he had was the same dud coin, walked briskly ahead to open the door.

Similar extra-ordinary stories of fondness towards the strange old man in grey clothes were heard separately in several parts of both the black half as well as the white half, although stories could not travel across the road, there being no mechanism for that, none ever having been thought necessary.

On the black side, towards which part he had hopped back then, stories were passed around of the old man being asked to join a wedding dinner. However, the wedding dinner, normally a somber affair, came alive with people making jokes and laughing with the guest in his preposterous grey gown. The bride in a shiny black velvet dress and a brides-maid in a less shiny one came up to him to touch the folds of the gown to make sure it was real, being grey. The visitor touched the bride’s head to wish her well and she told her friends for days how nurturingly blessed she felt.

And then the old man it seemed, crossed the road again over to the white side, as if the two sides were merely two parts of his own house, to join birthday festivity of a girl who had turned three, where he broke into an impromptu jig, holding the dainty child in white frills against his chest with one hand. The stories went swirling around like the whorls of dust bouncing off walls of narrow lanes on each side, although nobody would actually swear that he had himself witnessed the old man fraternizing like this.

He was also supposed to have just walked into a school, whether on white side or black is not sure, carrying an outsized football with a coarse seam, clearly visible, and started playing on his own. Soon, grown up boys walked out of classes, gingerly at first but then in a torrent and started playing and kicking the ball as one team, the old man trying to introduce some modicum of rules. After a lot of mirth and some bruises, he managed to send the students back, leaving the ball with the teacher who during the game, instead of scolding his charges for deserting the classes, leaned against a wall and sang, “Four and twenty bonny boys were playing at the ba…”

At some point on the third day, the stories took form of bizarre fantasies, and everybody swore that the weather had improved, since the old man came. The wind was much less warm, though not yet cool, people in the buses said, talking across the aisle and then suddenly feeling shocked at their atrocious behaviour. A seventy years old woman in the market recalled that she had never even heard of such good weather except from her grand-mother. And the dust was now just a thin film on glass counters. It seemed one night, men and women on the black dress side gathered in front of the black townhall for a jam session. Since the young drummer from the school band knew to play only marching songs, the old man played whole night with surprising energy, fast and raucous music, which was so mesmerizing for the men and women that people danced like a town delirious with mirth.

And even more unbelievable was the story that people on the white side threw colors on each other, real pink, green and deep blue, the like of which nobody had ever even heard of  except some very old men and women during their childhood, in stories from their ancestors, about times, when there used to be flowers. But the very next morning, you could not find a single soul who had actually seen it happen. Everybody when asked pointed a finger at someone else who seemed to have witnessed the revelry. Somebody remarked that may be the town had been collectively dreaming in colour.

But when the old man was seen next on the  the road, his flowing grey robe and beard  ruffled by the luke-warm breeze, he was not crossing the road but walking along it, in the direction from which he had come, with a bun in one hand and a tin of marmalade in the other. The men, women and children, first a few, then many just followed him like they were ready and waiting. People from both sides started joining in where the lanes reached the Road, keeping strictly to their side of the divider walking in two parallel columns of black and white, each one followed at the end by a man who could not walk, in a wheel chair, one painted white and the other black.

The old man walked surprisingly fast, his robe flapping and the curious bifid column of his followers, in contrasting black and white, getting longer and longer. It was an unusual caravan, which passed through the airport at the end of the highway, where two streams of people skirted around their sides of the solitary air-craft, which too had doors on both sides, with one side painted black and the other white very much like the bus.

And people who were in front could see frothy breakers of the sea which nobody ever went to, because the water was warmer than even the air and the sand like tiny pebbles. The procession was now trailing the old man under a rocky canti-lever jutting out of the hillock at the end of the road, into a cave wide enough to let the two columns cling to their sides of the rugged walls. The road divider had given way to a spring of water flowing in the middle of the cave, and the coolness from the water got to hearts and bodies of people walking on two sides of the stream and not just children but men and women too were laughing and making jokes about their being in heaven. And then nobody knows how it started, but people were hopping over the narrow stream talking animatedly with people from the other side as if there never was a gash in the road and as if black and white were just dresses, and soon nobody could make out which side of the stream was black and which white with people walking in the water too. Singing erupted here and there which merged into a melodious flow and soon we had a slow and rhythmic swaying of a giant salt and peppery column of people.

The men in front had reached the far end of the cave which was shaped like a small amphitheatre, several steps lower, fitted with stone seats with carvings of gods all over the walls and ceiling. A mattress with its filling coming out, lay near the far end, next to a fireplace as if this was where the old man lived. Some clothes hung on a peg, merging with the slate grey walls. Whichever way the visitors turned, they saw black gods and white gods, with their arms and legs and necks intertwined with one another so much so that it was difficult for the eye to separate them and walls and the ceiling were a continuous mosaic of black and white.

Some men in black and some in white who had managed to keep pace with the old man were taken aback by the orgy of bonhomie between gods who were supposed to keep to their sides of the stream. Those men in front, their eyes deep with suspicion, looked questioningly at the man whom they had been following for miles. The old man pointed at the ceiling and tried to explain something, at which moment, he got pushed just a little, and fell on his bed, his eyes fixed and staring at the lace of black and white in the ceiling. Everybody froze in horror. The cave which was in fact a mile long was  not just filled with people but there was a long row of men and women outside and wanting to be near the entrance just for the coolness if nothing else.

But the news of what had happened passed like a wave down the column of people, the murmur becoming louder and erasing the merry-making, as it travelled outwards. The men formed protective rings around women and women put their hands on the heads of the children, and they were all salt and pepper rings. Children in black had on their heads, hands of women in white and the other way around too. A long wail of grief escaped from the cave and the crowd outside started sobbing and muttering, “The man in grey is dead.”

The single column of men, women and children, arranged in no particular manner now, started dragging itself, like a wounded two-headed snake, towards the city, with the men at the back who had seen the old man die, swearing that sea had seeped through the cracks and claimed the dead man and his living room and that the sea water was cool like the water in the brook.

People who tell the story also tell that everybody after that day wore grey, the deep gash in the wide road was filled up and smoothened over and footpaths on both sides painted a nice soothing shade of grey. The buses (and the solitary plane too) were painted grey all around and had doors on just one-side because the road now was just a road and anybody anytime could cross it and go to the other side as many times as one wanted and youngsters did so all the time, to take piano lessons, to have math tuitions, to fall in love or to simply buy a whole grain bun.

And people swear that both sides, which were just one side now with many roads connecting them, had in front of houses, many flowers which came out tentatively in light colours, as if testing waters. And the breeze was balmy and the sea actually cool at least in the evenings.

While listening to the story, a child asked the grandmother, “How could the old man live in the cave all alone for hundreds of years without being found?”

The grandmother conceded that it was unlikely and yes, it was possible that the old man was not real.

“May be he was just a thought,” she said after many seconds and then added smilingly, “But, what a thought!”

But of course she knew that it was not so, as she vividly remembered the faint aroma of the grey gown when on her third birthday, the old man had carried her and did a jig.

Anirudh Kala is a psychiatrist and author of The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition & Madness (Speaking Tiger Publication).


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