We were on the Singapore Metro (or the ‘MRT’, as Amy calls it), though I can’t recall where we were going to, nor the name of the station we were to get down at. The train was quite crowded, so we stood to one side of the door.
He was standing near us – an old man, leaning against a pole grip. His back was to the crowd, and he was swaying gently with the train. I don’t know what it was about him that caught my attention because his focus was firmly fixed elsewhere, below eye-level.
I found myself glancing at him every so often.
An unusually large pair of eyes revealed themselves suddenly to survey the compartment and just as quickly went back under the heavy eyelids they came out of. I was reminded of Ollie, a tortoise we had with us for a while in Dubai. He would draw himself into his shell when he went to sleep. But every so often he would raise his head from his shell, look around, and pull it back in again.
When the old man raised his head again to look out of the window opposite, I noticed a chain of red rubber bands circling his bald head. It took me a moment to realise that its purpose was not decorative – it was holding in place his rather thick, misshapen eyeglasses that might otherwise have slid down his nose.
He seemed to be chewing at something, and a single loose tooth emerged from the confines of his cavernous mouth every so often and retreated as quietly as it appeared.
I could not help but stare. Our eyes met suddenly and he turned away, decidedly ignoring me and every other person on the train.
Rather embarrassed, I was about to look away when I noticed that the well-worn, dirty salmon-pink T-shirt he was wearing was sporting a neat row of half-a-dozen diaper pins at the chest where a pocket would have been. More diaper pins were fixed to the pocket flap of his shabby olive cargo shorts, and next to them, a wristwatch hung from a string that disappeared into the hem of his Tee.
Thin legs ended in a pair of loose grey socks and olive sneakers that looked as if they would give up their ghost any moment. Two heavy-looking cloth bags lay on the floor by his feet, still and alert like obedient dogs.
Try as I might, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. His, however, were fixed on something else by then.
I watched him open a few sheets of folded paper that he had been holding in his hand – a few loose leaves pulled out of a ruled notebook. He started working on them furiously with a red pen.
I forgot that it was rude to stare.
A red arc appeared on the paper, which soon became a head in the old Chinese style, with long hair on either side and a sparse, long beard at the chin. Small eyes, small mouth…
He paused, lifted his huge eyes, gave the surroundings a once-over. Finding nothing to hold his interest, he went back to his paper and began to draw lines around the head, like the rays of the sun. No – like the lines we used to draw in anatomy class to label body parts.
It turned that he was indeed labeling something around the head in a language that looked like Chinese.
That done to his satisfaction, he paused, looked around for a long time, changed pages and started with the pen again. Soon the paper burst out in a bloom of red doodles that looked like small clouds interspersed with jottings in shorthand script – something that called for furrowed brows and unblinking concentration.
After a while, his pauses became longer and more frequent, but he hardly bothered to look up. Soon he was sleeping – eyes closed, mouth slightly open, still holding the paper and the pen tightly, still swaying gently, but never once losing his balance. At times he would come back to the world with a jerk, quickly jot some things down, and then fall back asleep. The bags at his feet stood guard.
When the train pulled into the terminus, he woke up as if to an alarm, gathered his evidently heavy bags, and got down before us – tall, thin and ageless, staggering under the weight of his bags. No one offered help, and somehow it didn’t seem as if he would’ve accepted any.
I looked around for him one last time before getting into the lift.
He was still there on the platform, just next to the door through which he got down. Leaning against the wall of the stationary train as if he couldn’t keep himself steady on terra firma. His bags waited next to him patiently.
I don’t know why, but I still think of him sometimes. A shabby old man lost in a world of his own making. Held together by diaper pins, rubber bands, and handwritten notes. Swaying gently to the rhythm of the train.
And I wonder.
*Illustration: Aditya Shivakumar Menon, aka Son 2, who is extremely dissatisfied with his work.