As instructed by wife over phone a while ago, when I got down at the bus stop, I crossed the road and made my way to Gopal’s Milma booth to buy a packet of milk. As I approached the booth, I saw an entry under the “Obituary” section of the public board erected by the Gram Panchayat. Curious, I moved in closer to see the person who passed away. Mine was a small village, which, in spite of the urbanization phenomena engulfing the entire country, had retained its village charm to a commendable degree. Everyone was everyone’s acquaintance some way or the other and with that, it made it highly likely that the person who passed away would be someone I knew.
On the board, below the text, there was a black and white photo pasted as well. Human mind has a general affinity to pictorial information over textual information and thus my eyes made their way to the photograph before the short text that preceded it. There was no doubt - the photo was of Jacob uncle. The photo was definitely not contemporary, it was in no way an accurate representation of how Jacob uncle looked over the last few years. Probably the photo was taken from his electoral ID card or something. It showed the Jacob uncle at least a decade and half younger. But there was no mistaking that it was Jacob uncle indeed. The text above mentioned that the death occurred late yesterday night.
I have been seeing Jacob uncle from my childhood. I remember vaguely a young and handsome form of Jacob uncle during my childhood. During those days of bell bottomed pants and hippie culture, Jacob uncle used to was the village hippie. I have heard my mother say that he was the first person to wear a pant in our village. Probably inspired by Amitabh Bachchan and Jayan movies, he used to have a distinctive angry young man flair. Those were the days when the whole village was without any fences. Houses continued one after the other, without being interrupted and gridlocked by fences and no one needed to ask permission to pass through when they were moving from point A to point B in between which were always situated, a few houses.
Jacob uncle lived a few houses down from ours and used to pass through our home en route to the marketplace in the village which was where the bus stop was. If my mother was sitting in the portico, they would greet each other and gossip for a few minutes. I could remember days when I would be woken up from sleep hearing the incessant (what appeared to me to be nonsensical) banter ongoing between these two people who were great talke chatter could range from a variety of topics, almost all of them centered on the universe called my village. Both of them liked each other’s company and there were instances when Jacob uncle ended up missing many a bus because he would squat on our verandah and talk with my mother for hours on, oblivious of the fact that he was just passing through my house and was supposed to be somewhere else by that time.
My mother once told me an incident from Jacob uncle’s childhood where Jacob uncle was with his father who was a lineman with the state electricity board. Once when Jacob uncle’s father was atop a post for repairs, someone accidentally turned the line on and his father was seriously injured by electrocution due to coming in contact with the high voltage line for an instant and fell off the post. Even though he fell on top of a pile of hay which absorbed most of the impact of the fall, the injuries caused by electrocution was extremely severe. Seeing that no one was around, and out of options, Jacob uncle, who was in high school at that time, carried his father to the nearest junction over a kilometer away from where he got a taxi to take him to the hospital. Eventually his father survived and the legend of the son stayed on.
If one were to see Jacob uncle in contemporary times, one would have found it really hard to believe such a story. Over the past half decade or so, the deterioration in his health was unbelievable, to say the least. Especially to someone like me, who had seen uncle when he was at his healthy best from the time when he was in his late twenties onwards. The fact that up until that point a few years ago, he was healthy and active and the sudden deterioration of someone who would be considered much healthy for his age around eight years ago was shockingly painful.
During my school years, it seemed everyone had a role to play in my life. Essentially, my life could never be viewed in isolation, it was a reflection of the life of the village. Like the newspaper guy Pathrose chettan, who used to occasionally give me unsold comics without taking any money. Or the village coconut climber Madhu chettan (so appropriately named because he was also the official drunkard of the village, and, by greatest of coincidences, alcohol is a synonym of the word Madhu in Malayalam) who gave me the first taste of toddy. He used to regularly ask me when I was in school, “Son, are you studying well? If you have to get a good job and live in a big city, you have to study well, only then you will get a good job.” On the day I got my job offer, after informing my parents, he was the first person I broke the news. He beamed with happiness and had wished me luck in my new job. Whenever I came home on leave from work, he used to prepare me a big bottle of fish pickle for me to take back to town. He was not a rich person, in fact he bordered on either side of meeting both ends meet and fluctuated too often than he would have liked. On my own volition, I had set up a job for Jacob uncle’s son Jibin at a workshop near my office as a mechanic. But the grime and dust of vehicular maintenance, couple with his asthmatic conditions meant he ended up quitting the job in town in a little over six months and went back to our village. Jibin did well after going back to or village, he finished a carpentry course from a nearby training institute and quickly became a well sought after carpenter in the vicinity. Jacob uncle was extremely disappointed that Jibin could not hang on to a more stable job in the city but I knew what Jibin had gone through and used to side with Jibin in his decisions. He looked up to me as his elder brother whenever he had to take some important decision and I was only happy to oblige Jibin because I felt I owed Jacob uncle after all these years he cared for me.
Meanwhile, my life was undergoing transformations as well. I married a lovely girl who continues to be my wife, had kids. As my familiar responsibilities moved from my parents towards my wife and kids, my visits to the village reduced in frequency and duration. What used to happen regularly every month and quite frequently more than that, was reduced to quarterly and semi annually. And without realizing, I was also losing touch with my village and the other people around whom my life used to revolve once upon a time, including Jacob uncle. My village changed as well. There were fences separating houses and boards against trespassing appeared. Small kachcha roads, over course of multiple election campaigns and promises, became pukka roads. Not everyone knew everyone else. The fabric was transformed, even if the changes were a reflection of what was happening elsewhere in the state and the country as well.
As my visits to my village became few and farther apart, so proportionately did my encounters with Jacob uncle. Since there was a pukka road from his home to the village square, Jacob uncle never really came to our house as often as he once used to. But still, whenever I met Jacob uncle, there was a lot of warmth and affection. He always used to be keenly interested in my professional and personal lives, and by association, with the lives of my wife and children. I had grown up in the strata to what is called by contemporary socialists as the middle class, but Jacob uncle and his family, weren’t quite there yet. They were still on the fringes. He knew that I was well off but he never asked me money, directly or indirectly. There were occasions when I felt I should help, but I backed away due to the fear that it would affect his pride, and subsequently, the rapport between us.
Someday, during the local pooram at the temple, during a casual conversation, one of my neighbors said to me, “Do you know that Onamkaleikal Jacob? He’s the father of the carpenter Jibin.”
“Of course, I know him quite well.”
“The other day, they diaganozed him with cancer. In his mouth.”
I stood there, shell shocked, unable to respond. He used to chew paan, much like everyone else in the village. If I were to throw a dart in any direction from the middle of my village, in any direction, I can tell you that the probability that it would hit someone who does not chew paan will be minimal. Paan was abundantly prevalent and popular in my village and everyone, men and women included, were regular users of paan. The cancer was probably as a consequence of chewing paan for over half a decade even though no one I knew had got oral cancer prior in my village. Sadly, this could probably be the first time.
The next day I went to Jacob uncle’s house. The house was almost exactly as I remembered from a few years ago. There were changes, the kind you expect with the passage of time, but the feel and essence remained. Jacob uncle wasn’t there, neither was Jibin. Jibin’s wife, a cheerful young woman whom I had known for years was surprised to see me. She told me that Jibin had taken his father to a hospital in the nearby town and weren’t expected before sundown. I had to return that day afternoon so as to start in office from tomorrow. Reluctantly I left, making a note to myself to come back in a couple of weeks and meet Jacob uncle. I missed that deadline, as I procrastinated. It was two months after the pooram in the village temple, the first time I learnt of Jacob uncle’s illness that I was able to visit my village again.
As I got down from the bus, I made my way to Kumaran’s tea stall, the focal point of the village news and gossips, just adjacent to Gopal’s Milma booth. There among a lot of familiar faces, I saw a lean figure, with a white towel over his head, sipping tea in a style that reminded me of someone. I took a careful look. It was Jacob uncle. Suffice to say that fter all these years of knowing him, I had to look astutely to actually make out that it was indeed Jacob uncle I was looking at. As if understanding my predicament, he smiled weakly. With the oral cancer inflicting a heavy toll on him, the smile was not pretty, but it was heart warming. “Coming from town?”, he asked me. I replied yes. Both of us took our teas in the hand and stepped outside. I was standing muted near this person, who was only a scant part of himself. “How are you?” I managed to ask. He didn’t reply.
I reached into my pocket and took out a wad of notes which were there. It was a spontaneous reaction, I hadn’t planned on that. I didn’t know how much cash was there. There were a few twenties and fifties and a small number of hundred rupee notes. I didn’t count, I didn’t bother to. In that frame of mind, etiquette was not even close in consideration. I turned around to make sure no one was watching and I tucked the notes in to the pocket of the shirt that hung loosely on Jacob uncle’s shirt. He tried to resist, but his protests were feeble, I was not going to heed to that. It took great effort on Jacob uncle’s part to speak a few words. In due respect, I didn’t talk anything. As we stood there, long after our teas were finished, we heard the sound of an approaching auto rickshaw. Jibin’s wife was coming in that. While we helped Jacob uncle to get into the auto, Jibin’s wife explained to me, “He wanted to come to the the junction and have a tea at Kumaran’s. It had been a long while since he had got out of the house so I told him to go ahead, I said I will come with an auto rickshaw to pick him up after some time. Jibin ettan hasn’t come back from work yet. Do you want to come home?”
“No, not right now. I’ll try to come by sometime later.”
I smiled at Jacob uncle, who was by now inside the auto. He said with his usual warmth, “Do come by if you have time.” I said I will.
I stood there without moving as the auto rickshaw carrying Jacob uncle and his daughter-in-law sped away and disappeared around a curve.
A lot of philosophical questions rushed through my mind. Why had God done this to this person, such a noble soul who lived an honest life and hurt no one, almost verbatim as the Bible preaches, I said to no one.
A few days later, I came to know of an incident. There was an NGO working amongst cancer patients in the nearby town. The oncologist Jacob uncle was undergoing treatment under was a part of their network and as a result, they contacted Jacob uncle and Jibin offering Rs. 10,000 towards funding for Jacob uncle’s treatment. Jacob uncle was weak and tired of repeated treatments, and by contemporary standards had lived a long life. He was in such a state that his doctor was not much hopeful even though he didn’t say as much. But his mind was sound and his thoughts were very much rational. When they approached him with the offer to give a cheque for Rs. 10,000 he politely but sternly refused to take it from them. They pressed Jibin but Jibin said he would abide by whatever decision his father takes without question because it was for his treatment and it was his prerogative to make a decision, not Jibin’s. I got in touch with one of the representatives of the NGO who had visited Jacob uncle who told what Jacob uncle had told them, “It is not right for me to take this money considering the fact that I have gone past the curable stage. I have enough money saved over my life to see me and my treatment through till I breathe my last. My son is doing quite well in his job and can comfortably support his family with his job. Please take this as a request from a dying man - give that money to someone who needs it more to come out of cancer.” In this day and age, where you occasionally hear of people and organizations fudging records to inappropriately claim governmental and non-governmental organizational benefits, that statement from Jacob uncle was indeed an eye opener.
I was woken up from my reverie by a hand which came over my shoulder. Matthew, one of my neighbors. “He was a good man”, Matthew said with a deep sigh. I nodded.
“The burial is in half an hour at the church. I am going there now. Coming along?”
I can buy the milk later. For now, I want to touch Jacob uncle’s feet one last time. To pay my homage to a great individual who lived and walked in this village till yesterday. With a heavy heart, I followed Matthew as he led the way in the direction of the village church.