THE ETERNAL QUESTION
Alexander was in his late twenties at the time of the conversation, more an acquaintance than a friend, and a distant relative. Our remote consanguinity produced a certain awkwardness in our relations. I was never quite certain whether I could be open with him, as one usually is with kinsmen.
Our previous meetings were too fleeting, too fragmentary. A christening here, a wedding there. Certainly not the right place to strike a friendship.
Only one salient impression from our prior meetings remains in my mind. It was a wedding, if I remember correctly. I chanced to direct my gaze at the opposite table, and just at that moment, a certain uneasiness or perhaps rather a vague anxiety crossed Alexander's face, like a shadow, and was gone in an instant. Such a mien stood out like a dark rock amongst the sea of bland, drunken faces.
The Fates, whose ways are unknown to the common man, noticed our separate paths. And so it came to be that on the last weekend of September 19-- an invitation was extended for me to attend a gathering at the country estate of my maternal grandaunt. It was unclear to me of what relation she was to Alexander. Nonetheless Alexander too received an invitation.
I gladly accepted the invitation, being only too happy to leave the metropolis where I had spent the last ten years working for the local mining company.
As I remember, we had a long happy day of outdoor activities. We were carefree and acted almost like children in our innocent happiness. The fresh country air was a welcome change and we savoured it like a delicacy. Our dogs took eagerly to the great open spaces of which they had no prior inkling, having been brought up in the crowded city.
It was nearing the eleventh hour. The wonderful day was coming to an end. Our companions had long retired to bed, sleeping the sleep of the saints. Such a sleep only comes when one knows that all that possibly could have been done in a day has been done. Too often sleep is an interruption, an annoyance that prevents us from engaging in our favourite activities. And so we retire to sleep in frustration and have dreams for consolation. The sleep of the saints is without dreams, for dreams are for those who do not live their lives to the full.
I, too, longed for the saints' sleep. But Alexander was in the study room with me. A fire, the only illumination in the room, was greedily devouring its offerings. Now and then I could see Alexander's face lit up by the last flicker of a dying ember. Deep thought was etched into every line of his face, ageing him indefinably.
It occurred to me that I have waited long for this moment, to be close to Alexander, to glimpse into his unfathomable soul.
I believe it was the combination of the lateness of the hour, our seclusion and the wonderfulness of the day that had passed that allowed him to open up to me, as he had never done before.
He started speaking, his voice detached and hoarse, his speech directed more at fire than at me. But I listened, avariciously catching every word that passed from his lips, my yearning for bed long gone.
"Every word is a bloodless being, its life-force sucked out from it a long, long time ago. An insurmountable mount exists between the sublimeness of the feelings that filled my inner being as I gazed into the infinitude of the heavens tonight and the utter mediocrity of the words that we use to describe our precious inner possessions. These thoughts, these sensations are the very essence of my identity and to equate them with some words is to deny the very uniqueness of my experience. Yet tonight I feel an inexplicable desire to communicate.
Throughout my life a certain question has held a pincers-like grip on my mind, refusing to vacate its dwellings, until it has been demolished by the indubitable answer, a proof. To quench that insatiable doubt became of paramount significance and overshadowed all other interests that a normal, balanced young man would possess. I often wondered if I was the only one affected by this damned malaise. A thought terrorized me: was this question, this doubt a valid concern or was it due to the wanderings of a spoilt mind, the product of an undisciplined and self-absorbed character.
If the question could be given a crude physical form, then it roughly translates into something like: why am I here on this Earth? Who is responsible for my existence? My parents, that is obvious, are directly responsible. But I wanted to search out the fundamental raison d'être. I believe I have finally found it. History holds the ultimate responsibility. My chronic doubts were soothed by the indubitable facts of the past.
So often people scorn history. But history is people acting in unison, people being more than just independent units. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The depth and ferocity of pent-up frustration, aggression and idealism that is liberated by the great historical events is unparalleled in any other human endeavour. People become prey to rabble-rousers, willing to sacrifice all that is precious to them for the Great Cause.
My very existence is directly and intimately caused by one such cataclysmic historical event. My genesis was a catastrophe, war was the seed from which my existence germinated. A chain of cause and effect links connect my life to that of my ancestors in those momentous times. Somehow I feel that time to be an integral part of my very being.
The turning point in the life of my forebears was the Revolution. The Revolution facilitated the union of the maternal and paternal branches of my family tree. It would not be inaccurate to say that the maternal branch was grafted onto the paternal tree trunk. Only the Revolution could make this kind of intermixing possible.
The paternal side was always a seemingly incongruous mixture of lofty idealism and urbane sophistication. If one word could characterise it, it would be the word "intelligentsia".
Before the Revolution the paternal side threw itself into a wide range of intellectual enterprises and philanthropic activities. When the Revolution made its fiery entry, the forebears on my father's side unhesitatingly accepted its demanding principles.
All over the country at that time intellectuals who previously fought only with words and ideas were asked to defend the aims of the Revolution with arms. My paternal side did so outstandingly, volunteering for the local revolutionary brigade. I believe some of them were machine-gunners on an armoured train.
While these momentous historical events were taking place, the maternal side of my family was busy looking after their old decrepit grocery store in a sleepy provincial town. They came from a long line of small traders, and had a decidedly narrow outlook on life and its possibilities.
They welcomed the Revolution for pragmatic reasons. It was their hope that the new regime would help them solve the problem that the old regime was never able to solve. For years the family had been trying to obtain the shop next door as they wanted to expand their business. Year after year the case went in and out of court. The family had to endure the legendary inefficiency and ineptitude of a bureaucracy in its waning years. Those were the nadir years of the monarchy. I will not bore you at this hour with the petty case details."
The last ember died away, giving up the vain fight against the primordial all-consuming blackness. I did not stir for the fear of interrupting Alexander's story. He continued, his inner truth providing the illumination that was lacking without.
"One fine September day, as the summer was bidding its adieu, the Great War arrived, unwelcome and unheralded. It brought with it suffering on an unprecedented scale. No longer was there time to deal with cases not vital to the security and well-being of the country. The family's hopes of settling the case collapsed.
With the Revolution came the heartfelt belief that all the wrongs would be righted and true justice would prevail. It would not be inaccurate to say that the grocer's family were not interested in the new social order nor in fighting for the principles of the Revolution. They were the quintessential opportunists and looked excitedly to the day when the new rulers would cut the Gordian knot and enable them to obtain the shop next door.
Little did they know that the new regime had its own ideas on the concept of private ownership; ideas which, unheard of at the time, were justified by the abstruse field of philosophy.
The family, of course, was unable to obtain the shop next door. The real tragedy befell the hapless family soon after the take over of the town by the insurgents. Their own shop was confiscated by the revolutionaries and became the national property of the Greater Socialist Collective - a dubious honour.
One of my ancestors on the father's side was a rising star in the revolutionary battalion, which was stationed for a time in the grocer family's town. He cut a striking figure: fiery black eyes, a great moustache that was curled up according to the fashion of the day, splendid insignia and uniform as befitting his high rank.
The duty of justifying the actions of the revolutionaries to the local populace fell on his shoulders. It was no easy task under any circumstances. The heads of the families of the town were asked to attend a meeting at the local public hall. To say that the atmosphere of the meeting was charged would be a great understatement. Amongst the audience was the grocer still hoping that somehow, in some way, the flow of the events could be reversed. But the tide of history is irreversible.
Always a man of action and never lost for words, the enterprising grocer managed to persuade the revolutionary to come to his home by the promises of delicacies and a comforting drink. The revolutionary, having endured the hell of soldier life, was an easy target for the grocer's bribes.
The grocer had a young daughter, barely out of adolescence, shy and always quick to blush, and possessing a certain homespun charm.
An unlikely match they were! He, a revolutionary commissar, imbued with the fresh principles of Justice, Equality and Freedom. She, a mousy daughter of a provincial grocery store owner.
He needed the comfort of a family that was sadly missing from his hectic life, she wanted to break out from the claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere of her home. They fulfilled each other's needs to perfection.
Their fates became intertwined during those heady days, months and years of the post-revolutionary society. As events rolled inexorably towards their climax, a child was born, a child of the Revolution."
Alexander fell silent for what seemed to be an unbearable duration. I was not sure which would cause the greater offence: my staying or my leaving, and I let my mind wander over the fine points of etiquette. My restless ruminations were cut short by his words, spoken slowly and decisively, without the shadow of the inner torment that darkened his earlier speech.
"When the winds of change blow, we are merely leaves, picked up, carried by the current and arbitrarily rearranged.
But I have said enough for tonight. It is time that we retire to beds."
On waking up the following morning the memory of the late night conversation immediately came to my mind. After attending to the morning toilet, I almost ran out of the room so eager was I to see Alexander again. But, alas, he was nowhere to be found. The hostess was in the dining room. I enquired of his whereabouts only to be informed that he left early in the morning without leaving any message or even saying adieu. The groundsman who saw him leave said that he looked rather distressed and seemed to be in much hurry to get out of the estate.
I have never seen Alexander since. His closest relatives have given me only vague answers to my persistent enquiries as to where I could locate him. Even if he does not want to see me again, his words will be with me forever.