THE OLD MAN IN THE AUDITORIUM
I entered the auditorium and found it nearly full. There were seats available only in the back rows and I wanted to get closer to the stage. I always do that for I like to see the artiste perform from close quarters; gives a better involvement and feel with what’s going on. As my eyes wandered across row by row, my attention was drawn to a hand waving at me indicating that there was a vacant seat over there. The owner of the hand was an old man. I sat down after he removed his handkerchief which was placed there as if the seat was reserved for someone that he was expecting to join him.
He was perhaps at least twenty years older than me and that’s why I referred to him as ‘old man’; not that I was very young! The first thing that struck me was the person himself – lean, thinning white hair on the head, unshaven face, piercing eyes and acquiline nose. He was dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti; looked as if they needed a cleaning, I mean the dress.
As I sat down I said “Thank you sir. But I thought that you had reserved this seat for someone whom you were expecting. I am sorry if I have inconvenienced you”.
‘Absolutely not, the pleasure is mine. I put my handkerchief there as I did not want some idiot to sit next to me. Since you did not look like one, I waved you over” he replied.
I was thrilled that here was one person who did credit me with some sense. But at the same time I was apprehensive that by the end of the concert he may come to the conclusion that I was one, an idiot. This was a classical music concert and though I always enjoyed listening to the music, most of my time is spent in watching the reactions of the audience.
He continued “You see during last night’s concert I was driven to exasperation by the gentleman sitting next to me. Not only did he applaud at the wrong moments but also started singing along and expressing his appreciation with loud grunts. I had to walk out in the middle of the concert for I could not bear it any longer. I only glared at him and did not say anything for we have grown up believing that we should not offend anyone through our words, that’s why I ensured the seat was vacant today. You seemed a decent sort of person and I took a chance”.
“My God!” I said to myself. What an effective way of ensuring that I did not in anyway upset his enjoyment of the concert. This old man was shrewd. His piercing eyes said it all.
The concert was yet to start and the musicians were still busy tuning their instruments. The child in the front row stood up on his seat and directed his attention towards the old man. What a sight it was! Two pairs of eyes separated by at least eighty years staring at each other without either of them giving up. The child then started making faces at the old man and pushed his tongue out of his mouth and then said something, which I guess only the mother sitting next to him could understand. Twice or thrice she cajoled him saying “don’t do that darling, you should be a good boy, otherwise the policeman will come and catch you”. When she found that this had no effect she turned her attention back to the stage.
The old man visibly upset, turned towards me and said “See this is how they bring up the children nowadays. Can you ever imagine such things taking place in the good old days? There is no discipline now, whether at home or in the schools. My mother would have smacked me on the butt and ask me to behave myself. And in the school the teacher used to wander with the cane in his hand to ensure no one misbehaved. Now neither do they discipline nor do they teach. Wherever you go it is only crowds you see and it is only money that makes up your life. In the good old days one could go to a concert, sit on the ground and listen to the artiste sing without the constraints of time. Sometimes the concert would go late into the night. Now the concert ends before the artiste starts to feel the music”.
I knew that I had to be careful with my responses and so I said “Yes, what you say is absolutely true. But I guess we have to accept what is happening now. This is a different era and the world has moved on”.
He gave me a thoughtful look and was about to say something when the concert began. He settled back in his chair to listen to the artiste singing. I watched him and it was fascinating to see the change in his expressions as he closely followed the nuances of the music that emanated from the stage. He appeared to know each and every composition that was rendered, for in between he would lean over and tell me the name of the raga and the name of the composer. During one such break he said “Why do they try to pack in so much in two hours. By the time you get into the mood of the raga, it is over. Have you ever been to the concerts of the past greats? The alapana itself would take an hour. Have you attended a concert of MDR (M.D.Ramanathan)? What an artiste! He used to make each note linger in the air as if he was caressing them”. I did not answer for the next composition had started. I pondered over what he had said. In a sense what he said was true. I myself have been transported to sublime heights listening to Bhimsen Joshi’s abhangs late into the night. You can’t blame anyone. Who has the time now? One tries to pack in as many things as possible within the time available to him. I thought that it was like having mini meals during lunch breaks. But one has to recognise that there is still enthusiasm among the younger generation to learn despite all the constraints and challenges that they are subjected to now. They have created opportunities for themselves and learnt to survive. So it is not always proper to talk of the ‘good old days’ for the reality is different now.
When the concert ended, he asked me where I lived and when I told him he said “That’s not far off and I presume that you walked over here. My house is on the way only and we can walk back together, if you don’t mind”. I didn’t mind for by this time I found that there was something very interesting and genuine about the old man.
As we walked, he asked me in Tamil “So where did you dump all your garbage till now (Kuppai kotinay in Tamil literary means ‘dumped your garbage’ but does not have the same effect when translated into English. That is where I guess translations lose some of the effects of the original)?” and seeing the expression on my face he laughed, “Don’t take it seriously. I only meant to ask you where you worked”. I also laughed and told him that I was in the Bank for thirty five years and retired.
He had retired as a pretty senior official in the State Government. He asked me whether I would be there at the concert next day. I told him that I was not sure. How could I tell him that still a generation separated him from me? What the ‘good old days’ for him were ‘very old days’ for me. I was still in my cradle.
Maybe I shall go to the concert tomorrow, if not the music at least to resume my conversations with the old man.