Saturday, July 29, 2006

Old man

As I sip my Sunday morning tea, my dreamy, half-awake eyes fall on the newspaper headline that reads "A lifetime’s work discovered!" This is about the professor. I had read his obituary a few weeks back.

It was a decade ago when I had first met this strange man. I was attending a seminar in the university where he was teaching then. He was almost sixty and was the most senior professor in the department. By a quirk of fate, I happened to stay with him for a week. The room previously allotted to me was burnt in an accident and there was no other room available. The professor was requested to house me in his dwelling and he graciously accepted.

After exchanging a few pleasantries he took me home, that afternoon, and said - "Please use the bedroom for yourself. I am in the study most of the time." With this he vanished into the study and locked himself up. The gentleness in his voice was soothing and friendly but I was perturbed by his sudden disappearance. I slowly made myself at home. There was a single mat on the bedroom floor. Traveling had exhausted me and I slept immediately. When I got up, it was almost nine and the professor was in his study. I knocked and he came out and said, "I usually cook my own meals. Would you prefer eating out?" Most of his sentences began and ended abruptly like these. I offered to take him out but he refused. Wanting to spend more time with him, I agreed to help him in the kitchen and dine with him.

The professor lived alone. I got to know later that his wife and only child had died in a road accident thirty years back. Ever since, he had lived alone in this house. The house was Spartan - a minimal kitchen and living room. There was a large wooden cupboard full of books except for one of the shelves that had his clothes. The professor was of average height and had a long, rectangular face with a neat crew cut. He was clean shaven and wore simple clothes. He had a relaxed, pleasing look that bore no trace of malice. It was a face that you could trust instantly.

The first thing one observed about him was the silence surrounding him. He was obviously not used to human company and was exceptionally reticent. All my efforts of striking a conversation with him while cooking failed. He answered all my questions with monosyllables or with a few words. But for his friendly face and politeness, I would have branded him an arrogant snob. We ate and washed dishes in an awkward silence.

After dinner, he went back to his study and when I woke up the next day, he was still locked up in the study. I decided to cancel all my other plans and spend the week studying this curious old man. Observing him was easy - he was indifferent to his surroundings and even when you sat in front of him, he ignored you completely until you asked him a question. He spent an astounding 14-16 hours in his study everyday. He slept for 4 hours daily – from 7 to 11 in the morning, ate 2 meals a day and spent 2 hours in the afternoon either walking or taking a class in the university.

I spoke to a few of his students who said that he was a good teacher who knew the subject well but was always aloof and didn’t interact much with the students. The subject he took was a relatively easy one and the students didn’t need to consult him much. Even during the lecture, he didn’t speak much. He would write on the board and then urge the students to think on their own. He would then wait for their queries and diligently reply to each one of them. He was not a popular teacher.

I was particularly fascinated by his eyes. They were dull and dreamy during his daily chores. Occasionally, there would be a sparkle, a twinkling brightness that would light his eyes. I could see fireworks going on behind his eyes in such moments. Once I woke up at night and saw him pacing in the living room with the same glow in his eyes. It was an absurd sight - a paranoid pair of eyes set in a calm face.

After a few days, he started opening up to my persistent interrogation. I learnt from him that he had been working on various research topics in mathematics for the last thirty years. When asked why he was solitary and why he never collaborated with other researchers, he replied almost hysterically –
“I do not have much time left on earth. I have so many ideas that I want to document before I die. Speeches, publications and collaboration do not interest me and I can spend my time better by noting down all that my head is producing.” This is was the longest I had ever heard him speak at one stretch.
“But all your research may be futile if you don’t let the world know,” I pleaded, sounding like a teenager asking his father for pocket-money.
By then, he became oblivious of my presence and walked into his study.

His colleagues told me that nobody had ever seen him do anything other than his personal study and research. When asked to discuss his research he had given the same reply to everyone. He had no hobbies. Nobody had ever seen a friend or relative of his. He had no interest in current affairs or politics or religion. Everyone thought he was excessively shy and soon he was forgotten as nobody ever saw him. There were rumors about great works, about his spiritual powers and even about his criminal links. All of them died simply because nothing ever happened in his life. Unlike so many others like him he was never idolized and put on a pedestal. He was almost non-existent!

I haven’t met a more solitary or laconic man. The article describes his works and comments of other researchers.
“We have found an astonishing 30 volumes of work. Sadly, most of his work is already known to the research community. There are a few results that are ambiguous and a few more that we need to still work on. Right now, nothing spectacular is expected. Of course, we must acknowledge the man’s life-long perseverance.”
Somehow, my heart refuses to believe the expert comments. An entire life, a devoted passionate life – and a futile life!



Blogger Meera said...

where is the promised sequel?

Wed Aug 02, 09:18:00 AM 2006  
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