my father’s only favorite song not written by Bach.
my father’s only favorite song not written by Bach.
some things never change… but some things do
A few days ago, a man I knew in India passed away. His name was Gerald Jayaraj. Gerald was the type of eccentric elderly fellow you read about in books — his hairline, although receding, was meticulously dyed jet black, and he stubbornly rode around on a sputtering motorcycle right up until his death. Although our home was directly opposite his, he and his wife Meera rarely ventured outside due to their many physical ailments. Despite his acute joint pain, however, Gerald usually made his way up the road to church on Sundays, with his hat, cane, and unevenly-dyed mustache, and one could hear him grunt in mingled agreement and resignation at sermons referencing the thorn in the side of St. Paul. On an everyday basis, he wandered around in worn white vests graced with curry stains secured in place by black suspenders, petting the stray dogs lying near his front gate.
At a dog-themed birthday celebration of mine many years ago, he stood up to recite a poem about canine loyalty he had written for the occasion. Sharing his little contribution, the wizened face and prominent jowls which gave him an expression of perpetual grumpiness flushed, for the moment, with great affection. Gerald’s brief poem concluded with the winning line : “…and when you spell “Dog” backwards, it spells the name of God!” My grandmother, a contemporary of his at seventy-five, took care of abandoned children, and Gerald did what he could for abandoned dogs. They would flock to his gate in the mornings, awaiting their metal bowls of rice and meat. He would reach over to stroke their matted, flea-ridden hair, and they would bark sorrowfully after him when he retreated inside.
I have always wanted to remember men like Gerald. Not because of any great feat on their part, but because of their distinct originality and their complete lack of presumption. I barely knew him, but I had seen him enough times for him to have made an impression. Gerald seemed, to me, to be one of the last remnants of a life unhindered by self-examination. His wife was a great beauty in her youth, her cheekbones are still high and rigid, her hair is still thick and long. I wondered, sometimes, when I saw the drooping, liver-spotted skin around his eyes, what their love story was, and how it came to be that someone as dour and ordinary as Gerald had won her as his wife.
Maybe my admiration for Gerald lies mostly in what he wasn’t rather than what he was. And there is a sadness to that as well. Throughout my seventeen years, I never heard mention of any children, any family visits. It is possible that is why so much attention was devoted to the unruly street dogs. Or it could be that my nostalgic, rose-tinted vision of him is colored by the fact that I knew him only when he was elderly, vulnerable in his physically weakened state. I am sure this is at least partially true… Perhaps old age simply reduces people to a more ‘concentrated’ version of themselves.
Yet, all of this does not discount the fact that Gerald symbolized a generation of men who have taken life at face-value, unhindered and untainted by the Modern Epidemic of Knowledge: “I have known them all already, known them all / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…” wrote T.S. ELiot. Gerald existed outside of our age, our age where we have the capacity to “know” everything; everything is at our fingertips, thus our growth is accelerated and we return, disillusioned and drowned by an abundance of prerequisites and an infinity of possibilities. He was just an Anglo-Indian man — whose life, I’m sure, was measured out to an extent with spoons of chai masala and idli — but he lived out each day, tending to his sphere — his wife, his home, his motorcycle, his inimitable canine friends –without any fear that he had been cheated of any excitement or novelty, but simply, with great attention to what God had allotted him.
He once caught me at a gathering my Grandmother threw for the community, and spoke passionately about a road trip he went on in America. America the new and exciting, America the land of the free to the foreigner, America untainted by the political turmoil or racial rifts so obvious to one acclimated to it. It touched me to see such wonder in a man so old. Gerald was so often cooped up in his two-story yellow house flanked by his loyal fleabags, that imagining him somewhere else, in a car on a wide road in the desert plains, was nearly unfathomable.
In one hundred years, I wonder if there will be men like Gerald. Men who are able to look outwards, without having to look inward first, or at digital castles in the pixelated air. But there is hope: “Everywhere in the world,” wrote Steinbeck, “There are Mack and the boys.” Throughout the earth, there will always be people whose intentions, although unsophisticated and often tentative, are pure, lacking any ulterior motive or vainglory.
At times, I cannot really even come to terms with the fact that he is dead. I believe this is in part due to my religious upbringing, and in my depths I assume he lives on somewhere. But it is more than that. It is not because of overwhelming grief, but because his sheer presence was so integral to how I had conceived of the India I retreated to, when the tides of the West had reached an intolerable height. Gerald will always remain resolutely a part of my imagination, My India, for in a way his life was very much a metaphor for Her: wedded to her roots, caring for her stray, undaunted by illusion… yet ever open to the numinous.