When I first met Mr Joe, it was pitch dark

Maisnam Bomcha *

drinking problem

If Joe was driven to the spot by a depravity of personal conduct, I qualified for the same that night, if judged by my personal values.

It was one night about fifteen years ago when I met him. I was at Koirengei and I used to visit Imphal often on official and social calls. It was around ten in the night and I was returning along with my family from a visit to a friend's.

There was a light drizzle, it was cold and very dark. Midway the old air strip which lies astride the road I don't know why I glanced sideways, but when I did, I faintly saw a figure settling down under one of the line of bottlebrush trees lining the side of the air strip. Out of pure curiosity I steered the vehicle near to the figure that was making movements as if readying to settle down for the night.

I got out of the vehicle and slowly approached him, I guess; deliberately making noises as I dragged my feet on the ground. He was already seated on some cloth he spread on the ground and he looked up as I got near. In the poor visibility I saw a man of perhaps about my age and I knew he was staring at me intently. Standing a few feet away from him I became clueless as to what to do next.

I think I cleared my throat and asked him who he was. He mumbled a name which I never remembered. I then asked him something dumbest and cruel in retrospection. I asked him, "Don't you have a home?" He said nothing and embarrassed immediately at my lack of tact and the inadvertent insensivity, I stood there for some moments saying nothing, doing nothing. I then slowly walked back to the vehicle with hesitation; totally lost on what was best to do and reluctantly got home to my quarters.

Once there, we discussed the man before dinner. We unanimously decided to do something right away. My wife opened the trunks and took out a blanket and a bed sheet. The children chided us on our foolishness and took out the loaf of bread I purchased while in the town. I rang the driver, gave him the things along with directions to confirm delivery. That done, we ate dinner; discussing the man all the while. The children even suggested I saw a ghost and giggled no end.

The next day I hurried a visit to Imphal which demanded no urgency and I left my office. At the place seeing no one, I alighted from the Gypsy and walked to the spot. The place was as clear and clean as its surroundings. No signs. On my way back from Imphal also the spot and the air strip was empty.

I came back somewhat disappointed but confident of seeing the man again. My wife answered the bell. She was in apparent good mood and very uncharacteristically asked me in English in a sing song voice as to where I had been to. In a fitting repartee I blurted out, "Went to find JOE". Joe was thus born for me. I told the children about my search for Joe that day. They were excited and encouraged me to find him. That perhaps was the end of Joe for the rest of the family except my occasional mention of him to my wife. For me Joe lingered in my mind and nearly became a fixation till I met him the second time.

During this period my drinking problem was nearing the pinnacle. I started going to town almost daily on some pretext, but in reality to find friends to share drinks and good time. Every time I passed the spot my glances were always at the spot where Joe was found; involuntary sometimes as the days passed with Joe in mind. I also made inquiries from the locales but unfortunately none was the wiser.

One night I found Joe again unexpectedly at the same spot under the bottle brush. Many nights when the search was seemingly turning futile, I stopped looking at the direction partly due to the darkness of the nights and partly due to a growing frustration. Many weeks had gone by before that night when I saw a flicker of light at the spot. I saw Joe, it had to be him.

That time I found him standing and fixing something of a mosquito net to the tree. Candles and a net; so Joe has found some prosperity, I almost thought aloud in my drunken haze. There was a spread on the ground and without asking I sat down on a corner. He didn't seem to mind the discourtesy as he said nothing. We talked briefly. Before leaving I offered him a cigarette and I think I gave him a few, maybe two apples to eat. I am sure that it was out of my vanity that I could only remember his mentioning about the things I sent and a few words of thanks.

Joe did the vanishing act again the next day. He was not seen again, day or night. My mental and bodily decay progressed due to alcohol. He was no longer in my mind. In any case, during my forays outside the campus I started driving at break neck speeds with the frightened driver at the back and there were little chances of stealing a look even if I remembered Joe.

Looking back, I have a feeling that I was even willing for a crash to happen. Life was on a fast and crazy lane and the Joes of the world were not worthy co-travellers. One day, crazed by alcohol and driven to anger by a fight I had with my wife I left the quarter quietly in the dead of the night and went on weak and lurching legs to Joe's.

Joe was not at home so I borrowed his spot and lay on the bare ground. If Joe was driven to the spot by a depravity of personal conduct, I qualified for the same that night, if judged by my personal values. I returned only on being awakened by someone sent, on search, by my wife. When I woke up my head was strangely clear and I thought I heard a bell toll in a distance, far, far away.

And I met Joe again for the last time I was in Manipur. Again: one night at the same place and I, on a similar return trip from Imphal. That evening while drinking I had a nagging and inexplicable premonition that Joe was waiting. So, I took leave early and returned. I didn't look; I went there with a purpose and found him. I can't recollect accurately whether I was happy to see him lying down.

He was sleeping. I debated on whether to wake him up or otherwise. I made some deliberate noises. But only the snoring seemed to increase. After smoking a cigarette I took out some money and after carefully tucking it under the spread he was sleeping on, I left. That was the end of my association with Joe.

It has been years since then. Joe comes to my mind, but rarely. I never saw his face clearly nor do I remember his name even to this day. I only remember him faintly as hailing from some outskirts of Imphal. However, as if pre-ordained, I felt a strong connect with that total stranger. I do not know what misfortune made him sleep cold nights under a tree. But my curiosity about the cause of his condition led me to continuously wonder, in those rare moments of sobriety; the possibility of a common cage in which I thought we lived.

I never smelt any smell of alcohol in him; sodden as badly as I was on those rare days I met him. In retrospection, however I am absolutely certain that I escaped a similar or worse fate only because I came across the ways of God and started believing in him in absolute terms.

I have not prayed for Joe even once since that cold, wet and dark night. Today as I write this I pray for Joe.

PS: For those who missed my earlier article: I am a recovering alcoholic. During those dark years I slept through, I was nearly bankrupt materially except for my family who, I am sure, had adequate days and occasions to wonder whether I would live to tell my story. I lived to start afresh because I had Faith.

* Maisnam Bomcha wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition) as part of 'Different People,Different Places,Different Times'
This article was posted on December 16, 2012

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