Yesterday, on the occasion of Deepawali, my sister gifted me with a wrist watch. It has been years since I wore a wrist watch. Mobile phones with its multiple utility made wrist watch disappear from many a hands and lives, I believe, including my own. But the moment I saw myself being gifted with a wrist watch the needles of the watch moved backward and I remembered A.V. Jacob, who used to teach in St. Aloysius College, Mangalore when I was a student there.
Those days, I used to see him often in campus but I did not know who he was and worse, I dint even know that he was faculty. With this limited knowledge of him, there was no chance for me to know what he was!
End September 2003. Our department- Bachelors of Social Work- had decided to observe International Senior Citizen’s Day on October 1 by visiting old age homes and distributing soaps, tooth paste and other things of daily use, which we intended to collect from the entire college. We formed a few groups and decided that every group will be assigned to visit one department each and make an announcement of our programme and then collect the things, two days later.
I was assigned the BCA section and on one day I walked towards the BCA department to make an announcement. As I opened the door I saw Jacob Sir lecturing. That was the moment I realized that he was a lecturer. Till then, his appearance in a faded shirt, salted beard, soiled shoes, teary eyes never gave me a feeling that he was a lecturer. I walked in, introduced myself to Jacob Sir and took his permission to read out the notice/ request letter we had prepared. I read out how we should respect elderly people and as a mark of that respect we- the students of BSW- had decided to ‘help’ the elderly people in the old age homes by ‘gifting’ them with soaps, tooth paste and other daily requirements. Saying this I requested all of them to be ‘kind’ enough to be contributing something for the ’cause’ and announced that I would be back after two days to collect the ‘gifts’.
With some pride of a moral science teacher I turned to Jacob Sir to thank him, before leaving the classroom. He was standing right next to me and staring at me. Probably I was expecting him to give me a look which by itself would say, “good work my boy, keep it up.” But his eyes gave me a questioning look. Before I could decipher that look he said, “Write down my name.” I was puzzled. I stood silent. Before the next move of the third needle of the watch he continued, “Even I am old. Will I get toothpaste?” The Rubik’s cube went more away from solution. The entire class burst into laughter. Every block in the Rubik’s cube now appeared a different colour and I could see no possibility of matching anything with anything. I stood still wondering who the fool was- Jacob or I. Who was being laughed at! Jacob Sir turned to the class and said, “Why are you laughing? I am old. I am alone. I do need toothpaste. I do need soap,” then turning to me he asked in Hindi, “Milega na mujhey soap aur toothpaste?” I did not know what to say, as the entire class continued to laugh. I got scared by the entire absurdity of the situation but pulled the courage to ask, “Sir, your name?” as I pulled out a piece of paper from my pocket and a pen. “A.V. Jacob,” he answered. By then I felt ‘pity’ for this ‘old man’ who was in ‘need’ of toothpaste and soap and had decided to ‘gift’ him with toothpaste and soap on International Senior Citizen’s Day. I asked him, “Sir, your address?” to which he said, “Ask the office people they will give you.” This answer made me feel that he was angry and was not actually meaning what he said and that his words had something else to communicate. The entire class laughed as I walked out of the class. This sealed my opinion that Jacob Sir was hitting some other point, which I failed to grasp, and that he was not in need of soap and toothpaste.
I did not feel insulted. I felt intrigued. I wanted to go back to this man. I wanted to speak to him. But there was field-work (an integral part of the social work course) that day and I had to leave the campus. I went back to the institute during lunch hour as I could not work. I went to the students, who in the class had laughed, and asked them what the matter was. They laughed, again, recollecting what had happened in the class. It puzzled me more. Then I decided to talk to Jacob Sir directly and find out what exactly was in his mind during that absurd conversation. I went to the main office and asked for the contact number of A.V. Jacob. They said they do not have it and asked me to enquire in the MCA office. As I was walking to the MCA office from the main office I had to cross the department of English and as I crossed the English Department I just felt like asking Anil Pinto, who those days was a faculty in the same college, if he had the contact number of Jacob Sir. The moment I asked Anil if he knew A.V. Jacob he smiled. That perplexed me even the more. Laughingly Anil asked me why I wanted the contact number of Jacob Sir. When I narrated him the entire morning episode he laughed loud. I, now, wanted an answer from Anil. I sat asking him, through my silence and my eyes, the reason for his laughter. Anil did not tell me why he laughed but he told me that Jacob was a “fine mind” and that Jacob Sir was a “Marxist” who had worked intensely with a tribal group in Maharashtra, hinting at what Jacob Sir was and what he could have meant that morning and what could have angered him that morning.
Later I took the contact number of A.V. Jacob from the MCA office and called him that evening. I reminded him who I was; told him that I wanted to talk to him and asked what time on the next day could I meet him. “I am not available tomorrow,” he said. “If not tomorrow, day after tomorrow,” said the stubborn me. “I come to the college at 7 in the morning and then leave by 11,” he said. As I was travelling from Manipal to Mangalore those days it meant I had to leave by the first bus to reach at 7 in the morning. I was ready for it. “Ok Sir, will see you tomorrow,” I said to which he said, “007, IT block. Easy to remember. Bond,” and dropped the phone. That was his cabin number- 007. Jacob, A.V. Jacob. That last sentence made me feel a bit at ease for that said that Jacob Sir had a sense of humor too.
The next morning catching the first bus I went to college, not to attend regular class but to meet A.V. Jacob and not an ‘old man’ who was in ‘need’ of toothpaste and soap. Sitting in 007, amidst some computer hardware machines which I did not understand, I asked him what he meant the previous morning. He was still angry about it, I could read. “What purpose are you going to serve? Do you even know what those old people need? Have you tried to find out, at least? Is it toothpaste and soap that they need? You are least bothered about what their needs are. All you want is self-satisfaction of doing something, a pride of charity. Your concerns are so superficial that what you do is the only thing that matters to you and not what actually is the need. Tell me the truth, in the very same meeting where you decided to go visit the old age house dint you decide to carry a camera? That photograph you want to click, of you handing over those toothpaste and soap, is so important for your ego. Isn’t it? That matters to you more than those people. Your idea of social work is flawed. You think of people as beggars who need your toothpaste and soap. So you think by giving them toothpaste and soap you are doing some service and social work…” he went on hitting the nail on its head. I felt ashamed of myself and our programe of distributing toothpaste and soap to the senior citizens, for Jacob made me realize how flawed it was. We spoke for nearly two and a half hours that morning, I missing the first class of the day.
A day later when I went back to the BCA department, as I had to go collect toothpastes and soaps, as it was decided earlier and was impossible to back out by then, I hoped that no one would get anything. To my luck nobody got anything. But a lot of toothpastes and soaps were collected from the other department and we- from the department of social work- ‘proudly’ went to old age homes and distributed those toothpaste and soaps. Yes, photographs were clicked too making me remember every word that Jacob Sir had spoken and making me feel ashamed of everything.
In the very next month I organized a lecture by him for the students of Social Work which was way above our intellectual capacity to understand. When I had organized this lecture for us, I had told Abid Misbah- favourite student of Jacob Sir, who was in the BCA class which laughed at me- about it. So after the class Abid asked me how the class went I honestly told him that we understood nothing. He had spoken of Hegel and other tongue twister philosophers of whom we had never heard then. When I said that we did not understand, Abid said how Jacob Sir’s classes for BCA were also ‘high class’ and difficult to understand for his classmates. Saying so he said, “He is too intelligent for all of us.”
In the very next breath Abid had asked me, “Did you notice that he doesn’t wear a wrist watch?” I said I had not noticed it. He then told me the story behind Jacob Sir not wearing a wrist watch. It seems when Jacob Sir was a college student all his classmates had a wrist watch except him. The economical condition at his place wouldn’t let him have the luxury of having a wrist watch. But he desired to have one wrist watch very much. Once highly impressed by his answer sheet one of his lecturers said anything that Jacob asked for would be given to him, as a mark of appreciation for his intelligence expressed on the answer sheet. Then, I was told, it was a wrist watch that Jacob Sir asked for. In two days Jacob Sir had a wrist watch on his hand. He was so much in love with his new watch and so excited about it that he would keep looking at his watch, like a child is completely absorbed by playthings. This, it seems, made him concentrate less on the class which angered the lecture who had gifted him the watch. The anger of the lecturer and the inability to concentrate on the class made Jacob Sir throw away the wrist watch and never wear it again.
Ever since then every time I think of wrist watch I remember Jacob Sir and his story with the watch. Even when I stopped wearing a wrist watch, because of the luxury I had with a mobile phone, I remembered Jacob Sir. When a couple of them asked me, in the last few years, if I never wore a wrist watch, I said, “Forget me listen to this story…” and have narrated the story of A.V. Jacob. Yesterday when my sister gifted me a wrist watch and I had to wear it, for the emotional value it has, I felt that my wrist was heavy for it is, now, not used to carrying a watch. At once and at the same time, along with my wrist even my heart was heavy, for I remembered Jacob Sir as I wondered would he wear a wrist watch now, after so many years of him not wearing it, if somebody gifted him a watch.
A heavy heart has been remembering Jacob Sir since yesterday. When was the last time I met him? That was when I was with The Hindu. His cabin was shifted. But he was still the same. Faded shirt, salted beard, soiled shoe, teary eyes. We couldn’t talk for long that day as he had a class. I left and I couldn’t visit him again. Today, when I am remembering him so intensely I feel like talking to him. But I don’t know where he is. Few months ago when one of my friends joined Aloysius as a faculty I told her to go meet Jacob Sir. After a few days she said there was nobody by that name in the MCA department. I asked her to check once again and gave her the description of him- faded shirt, salted beard soiled shoe and teary eyes. She could not find. Today I called her yet again to ask if she could find Jacob. A negative reply. The I called Anil Pinto and asked if he knew where A.V. Jacob was. His silence made me feel that he too went back in time. “No,” he said after asking if it was the same A.V. Jacob who was in the computer application department. “Yes,” I said and we both went silent for a moment. Telling Anil I will ask a few others I told him, “Some people just disappear.” Anil probably did not hear me properly. He asked me to repeat and I said, “Some people just disappear.”
Some people just disappear. Time doesn’t wait for them to re-appear nor did it stop when they disappeared… It continues to march… Like this watch lying beside me now- tick tick tick tick tick… But “When from the clock’s last time to the next chime, silence beats his drum” all the disappeared people appear again, before the mind’s eye…