CONVERSATIONS IN TIME


“I think I won’t be able to edit the pieces while I am travelling,” she said.

“I have a feeling that we will stay in touch. Even if you are not able to send me a long message, small snippets will do,” I suggested.

“How about sending you Morse code? The pulsations will be a reminder not to stray or get lost. I learned it back when I was a kid,” revealed Judith.

“But why?” I was curious to know.

“My father taught me to use Morse code, probably because we lived near the sea. Have you heard about the Navesink Twin Lights, in New Jersey? Some of the most amazing memories from my early days are from this place. Throughout my life, whenever I would go there it was to make important decisions, at the top of the hill looking out over the Atlantic, where Guglielmo Marconi’s Morse code and telegraphic history is documented at the little museum on the lighthouse property. I had read somewhere that Marconi always wanted to learn about new things, dig deeper into the unknown world, and for that he would abandon the comforts of real life.”

Judith’s monologue ended abruptly and there was no chance of reconnecting due to our varying time zones and bandwidth issues.

Incidents from our childhood are like lighthouses. They emit beacons that resonate, pulse up and down, and continue to transmit a signal throughout our lives, reminding us not to stray from a given path. This is why the moment I most dread is when I am surrounded by a crowd. While I am at peace with the cavernous, whispering galleries of St. Peter’s Basilica, exiting a metro is a nightmare. Tracing this psychological glitch back in time, I can only account for it with a memory from 1986. It was a wedding where I had accompanied my parents and my three-year-old sister. I was five then.

Upon entering the venue, my dad walked his way toward the gents, and my mom joined the ladies. Both believed that I was in the safe custody of the other parent. By the time, the bride was sent off amidst tears, prayers, and assurances by the groom to the bride’s father, the sun was forty-five minutes from setting. My father had to accompany the groom, and my mother had to fill in a similar role on bride’s side. That was when both my parents saw each other and loudly confirmed, “Hassan is with you, right?”

Before an answer could come from the other side, they were darting from one end of the wedding hall to the other. It was 1986 in Punjab, Pakistan, and there was no concept of a rescue service.

What happened was I had ceased to be relevant as soon as my parents got bombarded with relatives and friends. That is when I started playing around. Chasing a cat, I ended up in a busy market. The hustle-bustle and my own loneliness took over. Scared and lost, I stood against a wall with a poster of my favorite ice cream as the only familiar object in the area. The wall was within a shop, owned by a veteran. The twentieth century was drawing to a close, but children were still a collective responsibility, and the old man had seen the war.

I cannot really recall, whether it was the weather, the January loneliness, or the approaching dusk’s gloom that dusted off his memory, but he started talking about his life, his random youth in some unknown town, and people that appeared and disappeared in and out of his world. His prophetic words, however, are fixed in my memory.

“The more surrounded by people you are, the more of a loner you become.”

Once it started to rain, I could see worries settling in his wrinkles.

“Your parents are such an irresponsible lot.” He extended the tarpaulin to cover the empty Coca-Cola crates. All the other shops in the market had closed down.

That was when my father, scared and dishevelled, appeared on his Blue Honda A-80 motorbike and asked the shopkeeper if he had seen a kid. Before my father could provide the description, he spotted me.

The old man started shouting at my father.

“If you can’t look after your son, better give him away to someone who cares.” He then ordered him in.

“Get inside! Otherwise you will catch cold. It’s January rain.”

He gave my father a cup of tea from his thermos flask, and after a good long set of instructions, saw us off.

The old man and I became friends with the passage of time. I visited his shop regularly whenever I went toward that part of the city. The more I grew up, the more we talked about life, though he never stepped into his past again.

Eventually, I graduated and moved on, from local school to boarding school, to college and then Military Academy; from being single to married with two kids. The visits to town became less frequent, but I made it a point, whenever in town, to go and see the old man. I would tell him about my friends, social circle, and people around me, to which he would always respond:

“The more surrounded by people you are, the more of a loner you become.”

Exiting the underground in London at Kings Cross, I realized it was so true. Out in the open space, as soon as my mobile phone received the signal, it started blinking a white light, an indication of incoming messages while I was offline. In came the continuation of a message that Judith must have sent earlier.

“And the decisions that I made from this place changed everything. One such decision was to move to Japan and leave my long-time stomping ground and comfort zone of Latin America, a move that eventually led the way to Africa and, many years later, Pakistan …because I learned that the plunge into the further unknown opens the most pleasant doors of perception. Hope to catch up after two weeks.”


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