Sunday, June 19, 2005


It was evening. Anywhere else, it would have been a good evening.

In the centre of a town, shabbily clustered around a group of factories that belched forth inky smoke towards the heavens, an old man walked with a heavy rucksack thrown tiredly on his aching back. His face and clothes were stained with tarlike dirt and coal residue. He let forth a torrent of heavy coughing, and black dust mixed with saliva flew from his breath. The torrent of hacking went on, having gained a veritable life of its own, creating painful reports of noise that reverberated on and on, continuous and agonizing to the sympathetic ear. At last, out of breath, the old man desisted and the painful tension of truth, palpable in the evening smog, faded away. It seemed that the normal bustle of miserable noise, having retreated meekly to the unseen corner during the coughing fit, came back in full force, as if the old man's bout had been a dream, immediately forgotten upon waking.

Exhausted, the old man stumbled on the bare path, following unconscious instinct that had served him every evening for the past three decades. The fit of coughing had left him drained of strength. He tried to draw in a deep breath, but the filthy presence of oily smog only made him gag. He would have vomited, if there had been any food in his stomach. There was no choice but to stumble off the edge of the track towards a fallen log. He needed to rest. Get his bearings.

He sat, shivering with hunger and cold, his old eyes squinting at the intermittent few who, like him, were trudging on the track back to their homes, in time for whatever dinner their families could scrounge. The old man allowed air to whistle through his yellowing teeth, drawing long, unsatisfying breaths to reenergize his stamina, a technique learnt from thirty years of working in this town. A technique to minimize the foul stench of smoky air.

The day's wages were in his pocket. Two grimy coins, denominations unseen through the caked dirt, barely sufficient to tide by a day or two on bare flour and cabbages. The old man stared at the miserable coins, and slowly, tears welled up in his old eyes and slid softly down his wrinkled cheek.

After a minute or two, the old man rose painfully to his feet, joints creaking, muscles aching, back burning from arthiritis, hauled the rucksack up with all his strength and trudged the remaining length of his journey back to his home.

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