And once more, afraid and trembling he would start sliding on the gleeful edges of the future. Even in one’s imagination, falling from these steep edges one would lose one’s life without a gasp.
Not to say that the chant developing slowly in his soul would promptly step in to save him or else intoxicated by such happy desires the poor dejected fellow, even when committing suicide, could believe that immortality in the form of a shy bride is approaching him hesitatingly…as though the moment had finally come to quench his thirst for such desires.
If Makoji’s chants too had felt dejected and had given up, he would have been baffled and by now he’d have probably committed suicide. But Makoji’s faith remained strong, he himself remained alive and he kept mumbling drunkenly, like one who knows he is intoxicated, that’s all.
“I…my…” Even without listening to his trembling voice I knew what he was saying, because for the past five years or so I had been hearing the same story.
“I have saved some amount of money. Will collect some more in the next four-five years. And then I will resign from this lousy job.” His voice would throb with pleasure at the thought of giving up his ‘lowly job’. “Yes, I will quit then and I will go to Lincoln’s Inn, London, to become a barrister…” He’d stop there and his face would light up as he imagined his successful foray into London.
“When I return wearing the barrister’s gown from Lincoln’s Inn, and take up all those big cases in court, people will marvel at my eloquence. Then you will be proud to be my friend. It’s just a matter of a couple of years before I resign from here.”
“Mwangi, yaar, our boss is very unhappy these days. I sometimes wonder if we’ll actually be thrown out of jobs one of these days.”
I would smile, because he would get very agitated, as though his aspirations were crying like some poor orphaned children. But his innocent blind faith would reassure those children. “Looks like you too have started laughing at me like the others, Mwangi. I feel sorry that you dismiss the bright future which I am waiting for, which must come for my sake. The day when I will live, not to strive for my boss’s approval, but for my own sake. I will become a barrister and ensure that law and justice are upheld.”
My pessimism was defeated by his innocence, and it would slink away and, with our heads together, we would sit for hours, gazing into the rising sun of a bright and happy future. We would then feel reassured and begin to live for ourselves.
“I have saved some amount.” Once again we would snap back into the real world, despairing, dejected and helpless. “I will save some more, and then you see, my friend…”
I watched, watched uninterrupted but Makoji’s story, instead of moving forward, remained entangled in the same very beaten up incidents, giggling and smirking.
Our tables were alongside each other in the railway office. Very often Makoji would stop working, and he would be lost gazing at a picture on the wall in front of him. In the picture there would be a poor African child standing on a heap of rags strewn on the ground, his bright eyes dancing up and down the vast slopes and heights of a distant mountain. It seemed as if the child was about to run up and reach the peaks of that mountain. But for many years we had seen the child standing right there, amidst the rags. The happiness in his eyes was mocking at the helplessness of the child.
Oh, these mountains, these lofty heights! You fool, these heights are way out of your reach. Come let us play around at the foot of the mountain and be happy…
“No, no. I wish to go right up…look there, around those peaks.”
“Look, son,” Father Jacob, an extremely kind English teacher, often used to say to Nikozi, “You are a very intelligent boy. If you wish to scale those peaks you must work really hard. A man reaps the fruit of what he sows.”
Nikozi had sown the seeds of his golden childhood dreams with great love and effort. When the result of his school certificate examination was declared, these seeds had sprouted into tender young saplings with long shoots and green leaves. He was thrilled to see himself get a first division, but how could he quench his thirst before this young tree had borne its fruit? That is why he had to survive by devouring the leaves of the young trees like an animal.
If he were not to be a clerk in the railways, who would repay his deceased father’s debt? Who would take care of his widowed sister and his nieces and nephews? Who knows how many times the youthful golden dreams of Nikoji wept, but he continued to feed on those leaves, to clear his father’s debt, to wipe the tears of his widowed sister. Some times when he was free of these preoccupations, he would stand by the window of his heart, draw aside the curtain and look deep within.
This plane is flying toward London. This is the London airport, This, Lincoln’s Inn… Lincoln’s Inn, welcoming its new students with a legally correct smile and words of encouragement. This well-dressed boy is the son of an African chieftain who rules over thirteen settlements, this the carefree scion of a wealthy Indian businessman, whose pockets are full of new currency notes, that ponderous youngster, whose father is an African English officer, who will become an even bigger officer after studying law here…
And then this one…And that one…and then he…but Nikoji is not amongst them, Nikoji who was one of the best students of his school. People who heard his arguments in debates would often exclaim, “This boy was born to be a lawyer.” But boys born for the legal profession do not study jurisprudence at Lincoln’s Inn, instead they become routine grade clerks in some railway office.
Sitting beside me, Nikoji would be adding up huge sums of money in the ledger. Tired, he would hold his head in both his hands and fix his lost eyes on the picture hanging in front, on the opposite wall. Who knows where he reached this way?
Sometimes during this while my eyes met his and he looked embarrassed with a kind of guilt on his face. He would say, “I haven’t given up hope yet, Mwangi. I never will. You wait and see.”
And then one day I unexpectedly received transfer orders from headquarters…Four hundred miles away from the familiar lanes of my homeland to an unknown coast where the earth dives into the ocean to lie deep down like a corpse.
There were just a few minutes left for the train to leave the station. My friend Nikoji’s deeply sad silence was – as it were- making half-hearted conversation as he looked at me. “Go Mwangi, Khuda Hafiz…goodbye…but I wonder, to whom will I open my heart now?
I went up to him and embraced him. “Makoji, my dear brother, forget about being a barrister and all that. Live your life with a smile and a song. When small people like us have big dreams and make them the goals of our lives, even our small pleasures are snatched away and we die unfulfilled.” My words became blows hitting at him.
“Forgive me, my friend, I am truly sorry. I admire your determination, but I sincerely want you to be cheerful and happy always.”
He made a feeble attempt to smile. “Oh don’t worry, the day is not far when you will see this friend of yours always laughing and joking. It’s not only a matter of my words or my destiny, it is a test of my patience. Let me face this test my friend, I have already saved something, a little more needs to be…” As the guard’s whistle screeched hysterically, mocking at him, I bid him good bye and got into the train.
Sometimes it so happens that when one is separated from one’s dear ones only for a little while, one is not able to meet them for several years. The element of chance takes over a person’s hopes and he remains helplessly looking. For a while I used to wait eagerly for Makoji’s letters. Then this phase came to an end. In the meantime I got married, had a family, the children grew up, one of them even started working. Twenty years went by.
Last month my team was conducting a series of inspections of several small stations under the supervision of an Englishman. One morning as our train sped towards Kikuyu station, I don’t know why Makoji’s face kept flashing before my eyes. The same face of twenty years ago – his delusory eyes, trapped in the web of some uncertain future, the deep inky hue of his hopeful face , the thick tangled curls, and the perfect fat and fleshy, ever quivering African lips.
“Makoji, my friend, where are you?” I felt like flying to his side, wherever he was. Suddenly I felt guilty for not having kept in touch with my friend all these years. Makoji’s dejected, despairing words echoed in my head. “Go, Mwangi, Khuda Hafiz…I wonder, to whom shall I open my heart out now?”
Who doesn’t build castles in the sand in childhood, but who keeps thinking of these castles when one in adulthood?
When the train jolted to a halt at Kikuyu station, I remembered my dear friend and made up my mind to find his address somehow and go meet him. I got off the train and my heart danced with joy like some happy spirit when I saw a familiar face on the platform. I quickly walked up to him. Makoji!
My heart rose to my lips, but no words came out. Instead I just hugged him tight for a long moment. Silently I savoured the happiness, counting the thudding beats of my heart. I was surprised at my unbridled joy. Very often as we tread on new paths we temporarily forget the old and familiar roads. But if Fate takes us down those roads again, the smell of that earth leaves us speechless with prodigious delight and love.
What could be a happier coincidence than our meeting this way? My dream to see Makoji had come alive and was standing stretching before me.
Kikuyu railway station was under Makoji’s charge. His house, a short distance away, beckoned me with open arms. His children were playing in the courtyard outside and his middle aged wife smiled shyly and then looking at both of us , she left all she was busy with and looked at her husband as if asking with her eyes, Who is this man.
“Ari, this is Mwangi, my friend, my brother, my everything…”
After I saw Makoji’s cheerful home, his devoted wife, his growing children, I felt a certain kind of satisfaction. The young man I remembered from a long time ago, driven by a false hope, had got lost somewhere. He had wrapped his sorrowful song in the shroud of practicality.
“Okay.” I was very happy to see my friend in this contented state. He seemed to be very content in the present circumstance.
Different from the Makoji of old times. “Okay,” I put my arm around his shoulders and accompanied him into the sitting room. Several thick books lay haphazardly on a table in a corner. There was also a big shelf again full of books…Roman Law, British Law, International Law, Law and Justice …! They seemed to be loudly mocking at my happiness, like stubborn children dancing and teasing me noisily. Bewildered, I looked at my friend.
He laughed. “I have read all these books, memorised most of them, even.” His laughter seemed to be laced with tears. I have managed to save some money. I will put together some more, then after three-four years I will retire and go off to England. It’s just a matter of a few days now.”
Just then one of Makoji’s young sons playing outside the quarters started crying loudly as if representing his father’s dreams.
For so long this had continued as a futile hope. Spreading along the banks of the future, that same quivering voice of a lunatic, echoing and falling…it was the same old Makoji.
My mind went into the future, and I saw Makoji lying on his deathbed, and Death beckoning him from above his head? And he, in a semi coma, staring at the wall in front of him with his ever hopeful eyes, muttering, “See, just a little more remains…Once that is done, I will leave for England at once…Lincoln’s Inn, Samuel Makoji, Bar-at-Law…Bar-at-…” and Makoji closes his eyes forever. But longevity, like a bashful bride moves forward on hesitant feet. As if after death the moment for the extinguishing of the flame of his aspirations, has finally arrived.
And then in my imagination, the late Makoji’s spirit actually becomes a barrister and enters the god’s courts wearing the elegant black gown of Lincoln’s Inn.
“Milord, I the soul of the late Makoji, in the capacity of a responsible barrister, am present in this divine court to file an extremely important case on humanitarian grounds.” Makoji’s soul, examining his surroundings like a lawyer, looks around seeking support. “Your Honour, humanity seeks an answer from its creator, the almighty, why is man so helpless and poor, why does he have to wait till his death to realise his dreams?”
Translated by Keerti Ramchandran.
“Seeking Answers,” Joginder Paul, translated by Keerti Ramchandran, excerpted with permission from Land Lust, Joginder Paul, edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Vandana R Singh, Neogy Books.