Portraits & Figures
AN INSPIRING MOMENT ON A ROOF TERRACE
I visited India for the first time in the year 1987. If I recall well, it must have been in the months of November-December.
I stayed for a short while in a small village around 140 kms from Hyderabad, with a family who invited me to enjoy a part of my holidays with them. These kind people, with whom I stayed for a week I believe, introduced themselves to me as being Roman Catholics from lower middle class. Means, father was an engine driver and mother a teacher in a local school. They had two daughters and two sons who were all still studying. Therefore, you could say that in comparison with most of the other villagers, they were in good doing. Something you could see, for example, on the two-storey property they owned and lived in.
What I liked the most about their house was the big roof terrace. If you can imagine how hot it could get inside the houses built with brick stones, of which the walls absorb the scorching hot sunrays in daytime, to breathe them out again at night. You will most probably understand that it was for me pure joy and relief, to sit there in the late afternoons or evenings with a cool beer, overlooking the village. And it is about what happened on one such evening that I want to talk about here.
During my stay with them, there were very rare moments that I, for a while, could be all by myself. My hosts saw it as bad behavior on their part, if they could not accompany and guide me through out my stay. This honest or maybe not so honest, after wards seen, hospitality, suffocated me and there were moment that I almost begged them, without sounding offensive, to leave me alone.
And, so it happened, close to the end of my stay with the family Lazarus, that I got the roof terrace for a couple of hours to myself.
To avoid the attention of around thousands or more different kinds of flying and crawling insects hovering around the only bulb on the terrace, I sat down a little distance away from the light source, on a creaking metal folding chair.
Except for a few dogs and a couple of noisy black haired pigs, there was not much movement to see on the mud road below. It was already quite late, after nine, so almost dinner and more importantly, television time. Indians in general eat their dinner quite late in the evenings I noticed, and you can say the soaps and Bollywood movies on television is one of the basic necessities in the lives of Indians. This way they are not much different as the rest of the world population, I believe. What however surprised and amazed me, is that there are more houses without attached bathroom or toilet than without a TV set and this, I am not saying in a manner of speaking.
That said, I sat there sipping my cool beer, counting the few stars left visible in a moonless night sky.
Suddenly all the lights went out, something not so uncommon through out India because there are, for one or the other reason, quite a lot of power failures plus they have, on more or less regular basis, what they call load shedding. In the region I stayed there was no electricity for let it be from 5 minutes to 2 hours, 4 to 5 times a day and with a little bit of bad luck it could even stretch for half a day or so. In principle, I was already well aware of this phenomenon, nevertheless it stayed, especially at night, taking me by surprise.
I stood up from my chair and looked around. As far as I could see, in the deep dark moon less night, I could not sight one single light source, and with the exception of the wind blowing through the bushes down below, a few barking dogs in the distance, there was no sound to be heard.
I looked up, searched the sky for more stars than the few visible but they where all hiding behind invisible clouds. I smelt the air of mud and rotten leaves and most surprisingly, I felt an enormous pressure on top of my head and shoulders as if the whole universe leaned on me and I got something what you could call a revelation maybe or something in that genre.
The whole experience started slowly fading away by every candle I saw being lit in the gardens, on the roofs tops and inside the houses. The youngest son of my host too contributed in spoiling my encounter with infinity, in a manner of speaking, by coming upstairs with a candle and putting it next to me on an other metal chair. To be friendly and to keep me company, he himself sat down in front of me cross-legged on a small carpet he brought with him while everybody else sat in front of the TV downstairs. We passed the time by chit chatting a little bit about everything and nothing.
Later that night in my room lying on a bed with a paper-thin mattress, watching the ceiling fan turn, I tried to recall the strange experience I encountered earlier that night. Never in my life did I find myself in a situation in which I felt being completely handed over to the elements. Even when this remarkable experience did not last much longer than half a minute or so, it left such a deep impression on me that I could not stop thinking about it.
God knows why but I suddenly began to imagine how our poor ancestors, the cave people, must have felt on a moonless night like the one I experienced. For them it was not a simple power failure but an ongoing reality.
Because I did not feel sleepy at all, I put my pillow against the wall and let my back lean on it. I visualized myself being a cave man with a sleeping disorder sitting wide awake at night on a rock somewhere in the grasslands of Africa. I have never heard of stars, planets, comets, galaxies, let alone of a big bang theory or for my sake, any other theory. I only sit there and see what I see, hear what I hear.
Being a stone-age fellow, especially in cloudy weather without moon, when the nights are darker than shadows, knowing that you could be attacked and eaten by everything a little bit bigger than you, including your fellow primates, must have left regularly some brake thrusts in your under pants, in a manner of speaking.
What must have gone through the frustrated mind of this simple creature who was always in search of food, always on high alert for danger. What kind of images did he see in the shadows of the deep night? How did he explain the strange sounds of the grasslands or forests? What kind of visions did he see in the dark grey clouds passing above his head? What did he think about the natural phenomenon of fireflies or lava spitting volcanoes?
Being a primate who could analyze and was therefore fond of finding answers or solutions to the thousand and one questions he encountered on the way through his surreal world, he must have been quite a busy fellow.
For his survival, it was seemingly not so necessary that the solutions he fantasized together stuck with the facts as long as he believed that they benefited him, one way or other, to help discover and survive in his environment. And if he also figured out that it was helping him to get somewhere higher up in the hierarchy of his tribe, then he hit, as a surplus, a bull’s eye, in a manner of speaking.
I imagined, lying there bathing in my own sweat on the mattress which was harder than the concrete wall I sat on that afternoon, that a cave man or a woman alike, with a bit of flexible brain, had an inexhaustible source beyond the horizon of reason, where he could find anything necessary to give his life some meaning.
So that morning in 1987, while the early birds were performing their morning glimmering repertoire and young girls rubbing the steel pots with a mixture of sand and water, the way they wash dishes in the villages in India, I came to the revealing conclusion, that modern civilization most probably found, its cradle in a strange village. A place populated by a tribe who were, softly said, slightly uncommon.
It must have been a village inhabited by a hodgepodge of men, with some mental disorder like epilepsy, paranoia and schizophrenia and a gang of junkies who found their stuff like fermented fruits, herbs, mushrooms etc. easily in the wild. These fellows, with here and there a cracky brain cell, who fed on hallucinating chemicals, and were unable to differentiate between reality and illusion, the so called first breed of high priests. They could have easily seen, in the sun an upper being, made from the moon - an evil night creature, from fire flies – ghosts hiding in the forests and in the clouds they saw families of super beings who threw lightening, thunder storms, rain and hail on their poor prehistoric heads.
In trance and with help of their imaginary super beings, whom they fearfully worshipped, they raised war against every living creature which crossed their path, ruled ruthlessly and unforgiving and used their power to crush everything that showed a spark of common sense.
And like I said this all started with one human like ape, sitting on the top of a rock, watching the night sky.
I could be wrong because I am not a scholar but anyway I love my theory.
I want to tell something
I want to tell something that happened more than 40 years ago, to be precise 43 years. And in spite of the fact that this event occured so far in the past, I remember it so clear and bright as if it happened yesterday, probably because of the immensity of the impact it had on me that morning I stood there, not far from the church, in front of the butcher’s shop, waiting on the 65 to come.
I planned to go with the bus to Antwerp city where my mother lived that time. Not so much to bring a visit to the women who brought me into this world, no, I wanted to take my chances with what was, according to me and my best friend, Deserea’s opinion, one of the most beautiful creature on earth. Something that you normally saw only in expensive fashion magazines or in dreams which never come true.
This one in a million stayed on the other side of the street where my mother and her so called husband, Klem, whom she never really married, ran a television antenna business and where they were living too, a little further up.
The beauty with the gracious name, Anita, was the daughter of the owners of the hardware store and luckily for me, my mother knew them on a friendly basis, so I had, in a manner of speaking, already one foot in the house.
It started slightly drizzling and that worried me because I was completely dressed up in brand new clothes, which I bought a couple of days before with my own money, I worked hard for.
Honestly speaking, I have to admit, that I stood there in miserable weather, watching myself more proud as a male peacock in all his glory, in the shop window of the butcher. Because for the first time in my life, I was wearing, from shoes to tie, what I liked and it satisfied me in so far that I felt myself more or less the happiest person in the world and most probably also the best dressed.
Before it was always grandmother who had the last word when it was going about choosing a wardrobe, because she carried the purse and which gave her utmost power, but that time was over, for ever and ever.
For the beginning I bought myself, without asking anybody’s advice, a pair of Beatles boots with elastic on the side, white synthetic socks, a fire red Bell bottoms pants, a shirt decorated with all tiny coloured flowers, a leather tie and a black Beatle coat with silver buttons till the neck. And with my slightly curly hair that touched my shoulders lightly, I could surely not look any better. I felt for once, extremely selfsure.
It didn’t stop drizzling. This started slowly worrying me. If the bus stayed away too long, I would look, in no time, like somebody who took a shower with his clothes on and that was not the idea. Grandmother advised me before I left to put one of her plastic hair caps in my pocket, one of that kind old women kept on their head to keep the curls in their hair. I asked her if she lost her mind.
The bus I was waiting for had to come from behind the corner, let it be 50 meters left from where I stood. Because of the houses on the corner, I could not see the 65 coming from that side, Kappelen – Mariaburg. So I watched in the opposite direction, if I saw a 65 coming from that direction, from Antwerp to be precise, I knew that my 65 should stop in front of me in about 10 minutes or so.
After plus minus 15 minutes, I saw in distance a bus slowly coming closer. I focused my eyes above the windscreen where the number is displayed in a kind of light box, but I could not see yet if it was a 64 or 65.
The light box became bigger and bigger the more the bus progressed in my direction. In a few seconds I saw clearly that it was a 65 coming, simultaneously I saw in the right corner of my right eye a foggy red shine, which came from the break lights of a dark blue Mercedes, I heard the screaming sound of burning rubber on asphalt. I turned my head in a reflex, in the direction where the sound came from.
I saw a boy 9 maybe 10 years of age on a cycle, being picked up from behind by the Mercedes and launched approximately 2 or 3 meters into the air, to crash down again half on the windshield, half on the hood of the car, to land sadly on the asphalt next to the front wheel. I felt a light current stream running through my veins. For a moment, my heart stopped beating and all sound seemed to be turned off.
I saw cars parking in front of the accident, I saw cyclers putting their cycles on the side of the road, I saw people running out of there front doors. In no time 20 maybe 30 people gathered around the boy in shorts laying there motionless with his arms spread, face to the ground. Somebody picked up the boys leather school bag laying there in the middle of the street. The owner of the ice cream parlor came running with a light blue blanket and covered the child with it carefully.
Because of all the people standing around this spot of misfortune I could not see much of the tumult what was going on, but I heard a man crying and screaming and asking God “why”. I heard Albert of the ice cream parlor shouting at the crying man, who was the driver of the Mercedes, that he had to keep his voice down and asked him, if he was drunk maybe.
Because of all what was going on further up the road, which took all my attention, I did not hear my bus coming. So she took me quite by surprise when she stood there in front of my nose with that typical sound busses make when they open the doors. The bus driver asked me loudly, “are you coming with us”, in a not so friendly manner. I acted like I did not hear him and stepped calmly inside. The driver went immediately in first gear. I lost my balance for a moment when counting some coins in the palm of my hand. I gave the driver correct change, he gave me my ticket which that kind of smile on his face which said, “I got you almost isn’t”.
I ignored him, put myself on my knees on the first seat and watched through window. Despite of running water drops on the window, I could pick up a glimpse of the place where the accident happened while passing. More people than before stood there now in a kind of circle. I saw a man in a dark grey suit, the driver of the Mercedes, in the middle of the circle, sitting with his legs crossed on the asphalt. He kept the hand of the boy, who lay there from head till toe covered with a light blue blanket, in his right hand. He cleaned his nose with a white handkerchief kept in his left hand. The man’s head looked red and swollen he was extremely sad, for sure not drunk. I could know because I knew very well how drunk people look. Don’t break open my mouth. I spent a big part of my young life between drunks and I myself too was not afraid of the smell of beer.
Because the bus was going fast already, I could not see more so I turned around and sat down on a more comfortable way.
I saw the driver watching me through the mirror above him, I knew what he was thinking, “Again one long hair, shy of working, good for nothing”. If I saw people watching me in this way, under normal circumstance, I would give them, almost automatically, the middle finger, but this time it did not interest me a bit. My mind was completely somewhere else. I could not get the picture of the flying and crashing boy and the man jumping out of his car, with his arms up in the sky, out of my head. I also knew how and why the accident happened because I was very familiar with that stretch of the Kappelsesteenweg, in front of the ice cream parlor. And I could tell out of own experience, that especially when the road was wet and the front and back wheel of your cycle got between the cycle path tiles and the asphalt, you should go easily on your face.
I also knew where the boy was coming from. You could see that easy because of the direction he came from, the dress he was wearing, the cycle he was riding and the schoolbag, of course. He came from the Saint Michael College, what meant that he was from nice catholic family, who was going regularly to church and followed his classes without any delay or absence. A little bit opposite of me. This strengthened me, once more, in my conviction that there is no and never was a God.
90 DAYS FROM B TO C, fragment b7 - oil on canvas - 30cms x 50 cms - $-
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