Original in Hindi and translated by Haris Hasan
Every New Year refreshes my memory of that strange incident. Every time the wind chills me to the bone, I’m reminded of that incident. This incident comes back to me every time I slip on the icy pavement. However, this incident may not be what you may call ‘extraordinary’. Stranger and often much more sinister events have occurred, and still do. The papers still report the deaths of poor souls freezing in the cold. I still meet the occasional beggar on the streets in cold winter mornings in Washington DC. He holds up a piece of cardboard box with the words ‘homeless’ written on it. It is still not uncommon to see a stray soul squatting on the horizontal iron grills in the ground, or another one spending the night sleeping next to a majestic high-rise. The steam escaping the horizontal grills from underground train tunnels seems like the condensed breath of some fuming giant, warming the homeless.
But before that incident, none of these other incidental observations moved me. I was aloof from everything. These other incidents were events which happened to ‘other people’ who lived in some ‘other places’ and seemed to happen in a reality that was different from mine. The (nameless) ‘people’ in those other incidences were not humans. Neither was their hunger or their suffering the hunger or suffering of humans. There vitals – their body temperature and their blood pressure – were merely controlled by some unseen ‘biological clocks’.
It was the night of the 31st of December. Or was it the morning of the 1st of January? Well, it’s the same thing, but it was night. It was one ‘o’ clock at night. It could be called the morning of the next day, but to me it was one ‘o’ clock at night. I could never figure out when it was okay to call the night morning and when the night actually ended. I was never interested in these technicalities, and I still am not. Neither, I think, was that young man who I found that night – or the morning of the 1st of January – on my way to work.
That night there was a New Year’s party. Not just any party, but a new year’s party: which is why, I still remember it. But if it hadn’t been a new year’s party, I wouldn’t have remembered that there had been any party at all. The new year: to not be invited this night to any party can in itself be quite a tragedy. At a time when houses and restaurants are decked up and when streets are overflowing with revelers drunk on beer and champagne, anyone sitting at home alone would indeed be in a tragic state. This aloneness can turn toxic and frightful. It becomes imperative to be at a party to escape this state of being. I too went to one, with my family. I don’t remember where the party was or who the hosts were. I don’t remember the names or faces of the people I met, or what we talked about. I don’t even remember what I ate. These blanks in my memory are not because I had too much to drink – I wouldn’t have remembered these details even if I hadn’t had any, because they did not mean anything to me. My introduction to the people I met there was confined to their names. I had not asked them what they did for their living. I had considered this an appropriate question, and ‘bad manners’. Still, I can say with some certainty what might have passed on in that party. There must have been loud conversations about politics and philosophy and life. Pegs upon pegs of whiskey must have been poured down many throats. Rogan josh and tandoori chicken must have filled plates and stomachs. The revelry and music must have gone on till late night. I, too, must have contributed to the noise with my tuneless braying. ‘Happy New Year’s must have been exchanged between recent acquaintances all around. The lights must have been switched off a few moments before 12 ‘o’ clock. The loud ‘pop’ of a champagne bottle opening must have been heard, and the cork from the bottle must have hit the ceiling. Everyone must have yelled together, ‘Happy New Year’. I can say all this with certainty because it had been so for many years. The same faces talking about the same old things. Even the photographs each year had the same poses with the same backgrounds. Pictures from one year were virtually indistinguishable from the ones taken in any previous year.
But now, when I look at those pictures, I think about that one face, even though that face is never in any photograph. The fair complexion further blanched in the cold. The hair stiffened and dry and the face scratched by the sharp wind, like the random cuts from using an old razor.
I had gotten out of bed to go to work, but with great reluctance. For the first time, I had cursed myself for being a radio announcer.
“Everyone will sleep late into the day on the first day of the new year. But I! I have to get up and go to the broadcasting station even if there is not a single listener.” I had thought bitterly to myself.
It was still dark when I left my house. There was hardened snow on the windshield and glass windows of the car. When I tried to scratch it off, it began to glisten unevenly like a cracked mirror.
When I started the engine and switched on the heating, the ice began to melt. Then I noticed that the whole car, even the tires and the mud-guards were ice-infested. The ice was hard like a rock. When I tried to kick it away, it felt like I had kicked a piece of rock. I also felt stiffness in my hip. Then I remembered that the night before, I had slipped in the ice. Actually, when we were all leaving the party, a man walking ahead of us had slipped in the snow. When a few of us hurried to help him, some of us slipped too. The man who had slipped first, slipped again. The few women who were with us first let out an instinctive and sympathetic ‘are you okay?’ but then quickly turned stern, “why did you have to drink so much? And this is just the first day of the new year, who knows what you will do the rest of the year.”
I remember one woman commenting, before this incident, “this cold is so severe that one could easily die being outside even for a few minutes.” Like most other men there, I was also sufficiently drunk. I had said, in a faltering voice, “This is not ‘cold’. It feels like a soft, soothing breeze.” Everyone had broken into laughter. It was a frivolous thing to say. But for the intoxicated audience, it was all the same.
For a moment, I thought I heard the flirtatious rippling sounds of the river. It seemed like the nearby Potomac River was being a tease. I said so, aloud. Someone else said, “Rubbish, the Potomac is frozen for miles.”
When I was driving to work the next day, I happened to glance upon the Potomac. It did not look like a river, but a slab of ice, stretching for miles. It looked like a car could be driven on it. And then I remembered that a few years ago a whole plane had crashed into this river. It was in these very days, in 1982. It was an Air Florida airplane. But, to be honest, even if it had been any other day or month, it would not have made much difference. I am a radio journalist, so I know the importance of the ‘whys’ and the ‘whens’ and the ‘wheres’. Thus, I also remember these details. That day, slabs of ice were floating on the surface of the water. The airplane passengers were drowning. Many passengers wanted to swim to the shore but their muscles had stiffened in the freezing cold water. A woman was wildly struggling in the water to save herself. Seeing this, a young man jumped in the water to save her. He did manage to save her but had to be taken to hospital himself. When he returned from the hospital the next day, he was swamped by journalists. They began asking him all manner of questions: ‘what is your life philosophy’, ‘what is your religion’, ‘when you jumped, what was going on in your head?’ His name was…um… yes, Scotnick, I think it was Scotnick. He seemed disoriented by the bombardment of questions. Suddenly he said, “What philosophy? She was drowning. If nobody had jumped, she would have definitely drowned. So, I jumped.”
I was thinking about what I would do if I had been faced with such a situation. Would I have jumped in the river? I was thinking this while I drove to work. Suddenly I had a feeling that a large black heap had moved on the side of the road. If it had not moved, I would have assumed it to be a garbage-filled bag left on the pavement by some compulsively clean resident, to be hauled away by the garbage truck in the morning. Then it occurred to me that it might be some animal, maybe a bear who wanted to attack my car. I was petrified. It was still too early in the morning to be bright. My eyes opened wide like an owl’s. But when I passed the ‘bear’, I saw that it was not a bear or even a moving garbage bag as I had first thought, but a man who was now standing and, with his extended thumb, motioning me for a ride. I did not stop. I never stop, or give anyone a ‘lift’. This was a man, and therefore possibly even more dangerous than an animal. Animals simply get run over by cars, but men… he could have been a murderer. He could have had a gun, which he could have pulled out at me in my own car. He could have killed me for my money. He could have been a drug addict. Though honestly, I have never heard of an opium smoker ever killing anyone. I stepped on the accelerator and moved forward. But then, for some reason, I decided to stop. Now, when I think about it, maybe it was because I was still influenced by Scotnick’s heroic deed. He had after all jumped in the freezing cold water to save a drowning woman. Could I not, on this freezing cold morning, even give this poor man a ride for some distance, I thought to myself. When I stopped, the man came running up to my car and, with his hand, motioned to me where he wanted to go. I scanned his whole person from head to toe, and wondered if he was some thug.
“Sure”, I said, inviting him to sit on the seat next to mine.
He opened the door and sat next to me. I had never been so close to anyone like him before. He was wearing a worn out dirt-stained jacket, and had a cloth-bag in his hand, probably a sleeping bag. His eyes were red, and I thought that he must be drunk.
So I said, “so, looks like you’re just returning from some party.”
“No”, he said “I’ve been out all night.”
I became alarmed. I looked around. There were piles of snow on both sides. Water dripping from the leaves and branches of trees had frozen in motion, like stalactites hanging in a cave.
I lucidly remember the whole conversation that followed.
“So you are not coming from any party?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I am unemployed.”
“Where is your home?”
“I am homeless?”
Then I remained quiet. I felt that my inquisitiveness had crossed its limits and could almost be considered rudeness. I asked him things which I would not even have asked my so-called ‘friends’.
He had answered all my questions about who he was, what he did, where he lived. Was it merely because I was giving him a ride worth a few miles? I studied his face seriously. He smiled, but did not look at me. It occurred to me that I had mistaken him for a bear. Why would there even be a wild bear in the city? I felt an urge to make this amusing confession, but remained quiet.
I wanted to touch him and feel how cold his limbs were. His pulse, his blood pressure, his temperature: were they also controlled by the same ‘biological clock’ that I also had in my body? I broke the silence:
“And your parents?”
“They live nearby.”
“Why don’t you go to them?”
“They are not home. And besides, they have their own life.”
Before I could ask another question he said:
“They have done their part by me, and now, if anything, I should be the one taking care of them.”
When we reached the roundabout which he had indicated as his destination, I asked,
“Where will you go?”
He pointed towards a restaurant and said, “I will have some hot coffee.”
“But the restaurant is still closed.” I said.
“It will open by 8” he said, “I’ll wait outside till then. Happy new year.”
By the time I extended my hand to shake his, he had gotten off the car. I wanted to ask his name, but then didn’t. I reached office and wondered to myself who was colder: he or I? Or maybe the both of us.
Were his nervous system and heart beat also controlled by a human biological clock like mine were? Were mine controlled by any such ‘clock’?
I searched for my pulse, but couldn’t locate it.
I began my broadcast with a ‘Happy New Year’. Even during the broadcast, I repeated this phrase many times, and every time it made me think about that young man. I had not even asked his name.
You will surely wonder why I was telling you this apparently trivial and commonplace incident. You will feel a little indignant that I wasted your time by writing a whole story on this meaningless incident. Surely, you are aware of other, more dramatic, more powerful incidents that take place quite frequently; incidents in which the protagonist has actually died of cold.
You are right. I read about these incidents in the news too and even read them out to the public during my broadcast. In fact, I read some out the very same day that this particular incident happened. I had reported that very day that about two hundred people died in the severe cold.
But to read out a piece of news is entirely different from actually witnessing a person sleeping on the grills in the ground or next to a sky-scraper, and from talking to one such person. After exchanging even a few real words, that person ceases to be an alien from another universe or a remote being. It makes you realize that you don’t need a catastrophe or a calamity, or any great philosophy to connect with a person. All you need is to listen to his heart beat, just like a human being.
The cold spell had not subsided. However, some cars could now be seen on the roads. But then I realized something. Because of the public holiday on the first day of the new year, all shops and businesses were to remain closed till 5 ‘o’ clock. Including all restaurants.
About Haris Hassan:
Haris Hassan is a business professional, poet, and literature enthusiast, living in Karachi, Pakistan. He is currently working on a collection of Urdu ghazals.