When You Are Old…

 A summer afternoon long ago. From far away echoed the tumbling laughter of a class having it recess.  

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep; 

Sunlight pattered in through the old and dusty windows of the Year 7 class, making undecipherable patterns on the black cuddapah tiles. Old,wooden benches stood embellished with the stains of ink, tired notebooks bore doodles in the margins of the foolscap pages and the scribbling sound of notes being made filled the air as the words of WB Yeats were read out aloud by Ms S. The charm of childhood and perhaps teenage to some extent is that you do not fully comprehend the intricacies and the complexities of the journey that lies ahead. Eternity isn’t a reality when you are a child; it is a mere concept of a time far away, a place beyond the safe fences of your imagination. You do not appreciate the convolution of love anymore than you understand the realities of old age. You do not understand that there is a love that remains when age has staked its claim and that this love is quite different from the love of shy glances and stolen kisses and hastily scribbled notes.

Ms S was a person I adored unconditionally. She had a soft but firm voice with a gentle lilt to her dulcet tones. She was a strong personality with a face that asked you to maintain your distance if you were not sure of yourself. She was a tall, well built woman too, who strode down the school corridors leaving a trail of discipline and an aura of awe in her wake. You prayed that you wouldn’t be summoned to her office because while she never raised her voice, she used her words carefully and often acerbically. I adored her because I looked up to her, because her tough exterior made me feel safe and made me feel that she was in charge which she always was. Mostly I loved her because she taught English and because she always had time for my ramblings and essays, because she took the time to make me look up the dictionary if I dared use a word without understanding its meaning and because she knew just how much the English classes meant to me.

But this is not about Ms S, not really anyway, for when you are a child, and when you look up to an adult, you don’t see the adult for what they are but rather for what you want them to be. And so it was that when Ms S took me along to an Inter School Dinner, I tagged along eager and honoured. We chatted like acquaintances for a while and when a tall, handsome man with greying hair came up to chat to us, I felt annoyed that my little party was being intruded upon. This was my day with her and I didn’t want him stealing the limelight.

“Will you alright by yourself for a few minutes?” she asked me even as she got up to go away, “The Colonel and I would like to catch up since I haven’t seen him for long”. So he was a Colonel and so she knew him. Was he a friend, I wondered idly? She had been a spinster for as long as everyone knew and the Colonel didn’t exactly look very young. I stayed inside the hall by myself for about 20 minutes and then I decided I wanted to see where she was because I was sure it was time to go home. The air was redolent with the smell of jasmine and the ground smelled of the first bounty of rain as I stepped out into the night.

It took me less than 5 minutes to find them, they were under a jasmine laden rotunda and he had his arms around her, her head on his shoulders. I stood there for eternity staring at the woman that I had always thought was incredibly strong and yet the vulnerable look on her face, taught me my first lesson about the truth that lurks behind facades. I should have looked away but I watched dumbfounded as he whispered sweet nothings in her ear and she blushed. And again before my eyes, the woman who could silence you with a mere raised eyebrow stepped away into the shadows and in her place I saw a woman whose features had been softened by the evening. She saw me then and broke free from his embrace. The magic of the moment receded into thin air as she walked towards me as in control as ever and took my hand. “Shall we leave?” she asked, “Shall we get something to eat first?”

I don’t remember my answers but I shall always remember the feeling of the air going dull and heavy around us as if the last traces of life had been sucked away from the evening. If she was upset that I had intruded upon a special and rare moment, she didn’t show it. It was as if she switched roles and my peek into her world ended as she closed the windows. She took my hand and led me inside, turning around to acknowledge him only once, as we opened the doors to the hall and merged with the milieu inside. I saw the look on her face then, and learnt that hope and love and heartbreak are a  family. That time always manages to have the last word no matter how much is at stake.

When I mentioned this encounter at home, I was told that the Colonel was a much married man with a family of his own in the next town. Nothing more was ever said on the topic and I didn’t tell anyone though it was the kind of thing that a 12 year old on the cusp of teenage would have loved to share with friends and giggle over, in the comforting recesses of her room. I didn’t tell anyone not because I thought I would get her into trouble by mentioning this daring display of affection in an era of supposedly gentle sensibilities but because that brief encounter opened my eyes up to the love that the moment exuded. I would understand it many years hence but suddenly I knew that love even when it is at its messiest and fragile best, rises above the confusion and the shackles that bind it, and anoints itself as the one magnificent force that has the power to change lives and fates. And in that romantic interlude between Ms S and the handsome Colonel, this power of belief impressed itself upon me more than their sad situation and the frailties that both of them had to contend with.

I saw her again, years later, the ravages of time had peppered her hair with white strands and crows feet and the first appearance of wrinkles had changed her face with firm reminders of how the years had treated her. Her voice was the same; the unmistakable lilt was the same. “How are you?” she asked me with the same warmth that had graced me all these years. I could not take my eyes away from the small ‘mangalsutra’ that adorned her now. “The Colonel and I got married”, she said, as I got up an hour later to say goodbye. It is almost like she owed me this explanation for the evening many, many years earlier. A plethora of questions rushed to my aide but she answered all of them with a mere “He couldn’t leave his life and start anew – so we lead our lives as before. We do meet every now and then when he is in town”.  There were no more questions after this, because I knew that she didn’t have any more answers.

But yet, I pretended I hadn’t heard the resigned sigh in her voice, I pretended that the strands of white hair were not due to a fate that took victims of those that dared gamble with life. I wondered if she lived with her memories of the future as she once dreamt it, I wondered if his was the face that made her smile as she taught us Yeats years ago. Did she believe in eternal love? Does one ever stop believing in eternal love? When the future arrives and it is not the sepia spool of your dreams, do you dream again or do you sift through what once was?

I saw her getting ready for a class and I muttered a goodbye. My eyes roved to the lesson she was teaching for the day, the same words of Yeats she taught me many summers ago, came back to stand between us, this time though, they were real and solid and full of painful truths.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. 

It may not have lasted and the love may have vamoosed in a crowd of stars. But I know that love visited her doorstep however briefly. How do you ever force a gypsy to stay? Don’t you merely gather a slice of the night and a dying ember of the fire and wait for the gypsy to pass your way again?


22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Altoid
    Feb 21, 2008 @ 00:43:45

    Wow Scarlett! You dont write often, but whenever you do, you never fail to make the eyes go moist and the heart go mushy. Lovely and smooth.


  2. bronxmoon
    Feb 21, 2008 @ 03:24:00

    How do you ever force a gypsy to stay? Don’t you merely gather a slice of the night and a dying ember of the fire and wait for the gypsy to pass your way again?

    awww man that was beautiful. and really, how?


  3. IW
    Feb 21, 2008 @ 06:25:06

    Brilliante !! Read this after coming back from my lunch break. I was still catching up my breath (after a 12 min walk under balmy tropical sun) as I settled in my seat and immersed myself in your words. Slowly my breathing started to settle into a steady rhythm under your calm poised words and by the time I finished, I found myelf almost lulled into a HBO/Hallmarkish torpor.. ( No, I am quite sure it wasn’t the South Indian Thaali, with extra helping of the sweet dish which propelled into a trance like state ) So once again – Brilliante..

    p.s. : On a tangential note, I find the use of the word “redolent” bit of eye sore.. Maybe coming from an average writer, that word would still seem passable, but you definitely don’t belong to that category. I feel that word has become a cliche in this particular genre of writing. Also I find the word “vamooosed” bit too teenagy 😉


  4. IW
    Feb 22, 2008 @ 01:56:49

    Darn.. now that it’s morning and my head is clear & thought process linear. I feel my post-script about the word “redolent” was totally uncalled for.. I completely absolve you for using the R-word. But the second charge about “Vamoose” still holds true 🙂


  5. Aria
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 20:04:30

    “Eternity isn’t a reality when you are a child; it is a mere concept of a time far away, a place beyond the safe fences of your imagination.”

    One of the many lines I loved and relished. As usual, read it more than once ..
    Your lovely words are capable of wringing emotional nuance from every experience. In fact I am left wondering if virtue or the mysteries of love really are at the heart of domestic bliss..


  6. Scarlett
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 04:21:57

    Altoid, Billy, thank you for your words. You cannot really cannot get the gypsy to stay – part of the charm is the unpredictability of the night, I suppose 🙂

    IW mere bhai, thank ye, thank ye. I love the word ‘vamoosed’ by the way. I first chanced upon it when I was about 10 and it was one of the words that gave the effect of the action if you know what I mean 🙂

    Aria, thank you kindly. For ages, havent romantics been trying to pair up the transience of love with something as stolid as time, isnt that a pair doomed for failure?
    Your words mean a lot, thanks 🙂



  7. priyamvada
    Feb 26, 2008 @ 20:24:18

    How do you force a gypsy to stay? Hmmm…you take a snapshot of the gypsy, and replay it when you can. You sigh, and you smile – and wonder at the springtime and summer that passed.

    zindagi bhar nahi bhoolegi voh barsaat ki raat

    Stolen moment, or treasured moment – its precious.



  8. Unmana
    Feb 27, 2008 @ 12:22:56

    What a beautiful and heartfelt story! This is my first time on your blog, but I’ll return often.


  9. asuph
    Feb 28, 2008 @ 11:30:06

    scarlett: this is lovely. you don’t need me to tell you that, but i’ll say it anyways. very very special scarlett piece. loved it completely. this has to be my shortest comment on your piece, so that says it all.



  10. ano
    Feb 29, 2008 @ 03:58:45

    exquisite writing – it’s a real treat!


  11. Trackback: Thought Raker » Gypsy Love
  12. Chitra
    Feb 29, 2008 @ 07:14:46

    Sighhhhhhhhhhhh! Love requited….and yet unrequited…….


  13. Shruthi
    Feb 29, 2008 @ 09:02:39

    That was magnificent. One of the best pieces of writing I have read.

    A beautiful story, beautifully told.


  14. Trackback: When you are old at Blogbharti
  15. Scarlett
    Feb 29, 2008 @ 10:35:45

    Priya, in the hurry to get away, the gypsy always leaves a memory behind – and we live with the remnants of that memory 🙂

    Unmana, welcome to my blog. I am glad you liked it, please do come back 🙂

    Asuph, I had been waiting for your comment. I am glad you liked it. This piece had been simmering in my head for the past several weeks and unlike my other pieces, this one took huge amounts of editing and the capturing of nuances wasnt easy at all. Thank you. Sincerely.

    Ano, I am mightily honoured by your words. And by your kind and very much appreciated act of linking to my post from your blog. I consider myself honoured that you did that. 🙂

    Chitra, thanks.And welcome to my blog.

    Shruthi, thank you. And I hope you come back 🙂

    Thanks people,
    A very delighted Scarlett


  16. Motorama
    Mar 09, 2008 @ 18:45:59

    “Eternity isn’t a reality when you are a child; it is a mere concept of a time far away, a place beyond the safe fences of your imagination.” — now..thats a thing of beauty..and i love the fluidity in this piece..showing ur a skilled writer..


  17. Dee
    Mar 14, 2008 @ 02:53:19

    This is my first visit to your blog…n’ I ended up reading most of your post’s.Beautiful writing..will drop by more often now:)


  18. Sanyukta
    Apr 07, 2008 @ 13:57:53

    I just discovered your blog and really, what a beautiful post to begin with. Your writings are so poignantly beautiful. Do accept my heartfelt compliments..

    have a great week ahead.


  19. Scarlett
    Apr 08, 2008 @ 05:15:07

    Motorama, thank you for your words, please drop by more often.

    Thanks Dee, I hope to see you around 🙂

    Sanyukta, thank you for your visit and your lovely words. Briefly visited your blog, you have a pretty one for sure 🙂

    Do keep visiting, people.



  20. sanyukta
    May 23, 2008 @ 16:23:08

    Where art thou? 😦


  21. Scarlett
    May 26, 2008 @ 12:38:06

    Hi Sanyukta,
    I am around, just have been very busy travelling and catching up with work.

    Will be back for good, soon, I promise.

    -who has been running around like a headless chook


  22. HP
    Jun 01, 2008 @ 09:35:19

    Loved the post!



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