The Layman

By Aditya Dev Sood

2010.08.15_3qd_layman_1 Brownian motion at a macro-scale. That's what my working week feels like these days. On Monday I flew from Delhi to Ahmedabad, the next day to Bangalore, a couple of days later to Patna via Calcutta. And now, after a tense hour's delay in Patna, while this decrepit Air-India plane was late arriving into that one-room box of an airport, we're finally off and away. We'll land in Delhi with just the right sliver of time for me to catch the only direct flight to Goa today. We'll be going for a friend's 40th birthday bash on the beach this holiday weekend.

There's hardly anyone on the flight, but they've bunched us up in some artificial pattern near the middle of the fuselage. The whole thing is like a too-vivid dream from my childhood, from the yucky yellow-orange of the seats to the squat, curvy stewardesses in saris that remind me of my teachers in elementary school. They're coming around now with a meal cart. Sir, veg or non-veg for your breakfast? shakahari, the guy next to me says, and then leans over me to receive his tray with shaking, uncertain hands. I'm thinking I'll have the parantha-s as well.

How does one open this, he asks me, holding up the micro-package of jam. I demonstrate by separating the aluminum layer from the plastic layer of my own packet and slowly pulling them apart. He's still going at it several times before I offer him my own packet. Now he's got the same problem with the butter serving, but instead of struggling with it he just offers it to me to open for him. I go back to my parantha-s, when a few minutes later he offers me his ketchup packet. I put my parantha down, wipe my greasy fingers and try to find the entry tear in the packet. The slit I'm making curves away from the pulpy body of the packet towards its edge, making no wound in the sac of ketchup. I hand it back to him wearily, knowing I won't be able to do any better. nahin hua bhai, kya karen? He puts it back down on his tray despondently.

Now he turns to me holding up the fruit cup, and I'm wondering if he's for real. I mean it's just a plastic airplane service cup, aged and flecked and speaking of that misplaced parsimony that only Air-India still excels in, but elegantly taped up all round with saran-wrap. iska kya hai, bus phad dijiye, I tell him. He looks at the object like its form, meaning and logic are only now becoming clear to him, his mind is reading it, and his whole body nods, yes yes, I can just tear the plastic and get to the fruit inside!

2010.08.15_3qd_layman_2 I've never been on a plane before, the man is saying, perhaps to explain his befuddledness, perhaps for sympathy. You know, I am just like a layman, an innocent one. This morning, early morning my son called from Delhi, he said Bapuji please you must come to Delhi. He had forgotten his passport and my wife's passport as well. From Delhi itself he had organized the ticket and sent me the number on my mobile phone. So I went to the airport and there they just gave me a ticket.

Is he leaving today itself? Does he need it to get a visa?

Now, I don't know why he needs it, but it must be urgent, that's why he called me. Today I just go to Delhi and then come back again in the evening. So much expense, but it must be urgent, that's why he called me. He is a doctor in New York. And my daughter is married into a family in New Delhi. But I have a simple life.

As I went through the security checking the guard said to me, why old-timer, you've got a knife on you? I said no, really, I have no knife, but I showed him this — now he pulls out a janeyu, his sacred thread, from under his shirt which to which he's tied a key. If you call this a knife how can I take it? This is my house key. I had to lock everything up this morning after my son called. In any case I was all alone, he's convinced his mother to with him to New York.

My gold and silver, the jewelry, they're in a bank locker, so that's safe. We have three hundred and fifty bigha-s of land, and mostly our servants are trustworthy, reliable. But there are bandits, dacoits, you can't be too safe. I've been going on quite a bit — what is it that you do?

Well, I say, I am an architect, of things like mobile phones.

Oh, so you must be a very high officer! Things have deteriorated in Bihar, you know, despite all the propaganda. Nitish Kumar says he's brought about development, but I say it's only maintenance. He is only maintaining the things in the state they are. Bihar had gone backwards under Laloo, but now the corruption is all out of proportion. And now it is becoming legal. What is that English word? Con-con-consulting? Ten percent of all projects go towards consultants.

Our annual property tax comes to one point two lakhs. But the officer will not give us a receipt for it. He wants two lakhs or else he says he will report it. Now what can we do? We will pay it, there is no one to look out for us, with my son in New York.

My son tells me he wants to give me every happiness in life. I told him there are only two joys for a man — to have a son, and to have him with him in his life. Now my son tells me to go to New York with him. But I won't go. I have seen New Delhi, everywhere life is jammed up, on the roads, in the houses. How can there be joy there. One day, when I was in Delhi, I said I'll go and get some milk. They said to me, Baba, how will you get milk without money in your pocket. And then I saw, yes, you need money even for milk in the city. We don't need money at home. We have our own cows and buffalos and as much milk as we want.

He bangs the seat in front of him. These cities feel like jails to us! Back home it is open, in fields, in the orchards.

My son earns good money in New York. He earns twelve lakhs and spends seven lakhs. One day I calculated that he spends more on his son every month than I had spent in all the time I brought him up, from his cradle to his medical college. He said to me that one's standard, one's status in life depends not on what one earns, but on what one spends, consumes. Now how can one respond to that?

I don't know if you can understand our way of speaking, but in our village we say you cannot live with a son who wants to keep you as a servant. Whatever we do in this life will determine how we are born in the next. If your hands are dirty with karma you will come back as a dog or a pig. In our family when you die your body is taken to Ganga-maiyya in Varanasi. Abroad there is no Ganga, then what will you do? I worry for my son and for his son.

What is your good-name, I ask him. Nand Kishore, he says, but I have a village call-out name, Baccha-Babu. I ask if I can take a photograph of him and he says yes.

Is the flight going to stop in Lucknow? No, I tell him, it is going straight to Delhi. We'll probably land at about 11.30.

How come you've brought your bag on board? Well, a small bag is allowed, I tell him. Oh, what a shame! I should have just brought it with me. There was no one to tell me what to do at the airport! And it has the passports in it! How much time before we can get our luggage? Will my son be able to come into the baggage hall?

What's going on with the ears, he ask me. We're probably descending, I say, you should put your seat-belt on. Just pop that in there, and then pull the loose strap.

The ears… he trails off in complaint. Shake them with your thumb, try opening and closing your mouth, I say. It'll be fine. As he begins shaking out his ears I see a fineness to his his hands and fingers that I hadn't noticed before, they are somehow loose and untrained, the way he himself comes off as a person, as a whole personality. A petty landowner of his generation might never even have attended school.

The plane rumbles into the tarmac, and we look out onto the crazy zoo of airplanes parked at Delhi airport. Have we reached? We've gotten off the skies, I tell him. His cell phone immediately starts ringing, for he'd never turned it off. He explains to his son that although he's not yet on the ground, he's no longer in the air either — the plane is moving on a kind of track.

He gets out of his seat and makes as if to cross me towards the aisle. I tell him it is not allowed. But I just want to stand near the doorway until we stop. No, I tell him, it is not allowed. He'd better put his seatbelt back on. Once we finally stop, he glides past me and swiftly positions himself against the doorway, the better to be the first to rush out of the plane and complete his mission.

I’m not really sure what, if anything, I learned from my meeting Baccha-Babu, which is why I thought of sharing the experience with you.