Nothing lingers stronger in my boyhood reminiscence than the thought of Alexandre Brito. We both went to the same Junior Basic school and later together to the Central Library to read books.Barito read classics and books of deep content. My choice instead was fairy tales and science fiction. I have wondered often, how Barito acquired this uncanny knack of sticking to the grand and majestic throughout his life. It ought to be otherwise, taking into account that his father was an astute businessman and also a notorious moneylender of our town. But Barito did not have his father’s ways. This earned him a group of loyal friends among whom, I was one.
In his youth, Barito was charismatic and he used to visit our house often.
My house was in the country and a river was at a reachable distance and Barito and I would sit on the bank. We would look listlessly at the barges floating along and the maple trees near the sidewalk whose branches blended with the morning breeze. Those were bright August days. Some boys pedal bikes and later take rest on the grass. Occasionally, tourists will come and go, ask route in altered accent. Most of our chats revolved around books or colleagues. I must acknowledge with gratitude that Barito molded my thoughts largely. It was astounding that he never told a lie nor did he make fun of people’s frailties, unlike pranksters as us. Barito lived in an alluring two-storeyed house behind the Central Library from where markets forked. The library was an old Gothic edifice having
huge marble columns and a layer of concrete steps and a compound of chestnut trees. In those days it was befriended by intellectuals and dropouts. For two years, Barito was my classmate at university before he went to a bigger city for further studies. During those college years, I met him at his house whenever I went to the library. Here, Barito would relax in most opulent splendor in an armed chair, that was once used by his great-grandfather. His room contained all sorts of papers, tools, and chess boards.
The maid always left the room partially clean, as she had to rush for a day- job somewhere near. Though there was no dearth of servants in our town, this lady was kept chiefly because she was his mother’s confidant and perhaps an adviser in some issues of concern. Barito used a cot made of the flexible mattress, guarded by strings and whenever he jumped into it, the cot lifted him up to a moderate height and again backward as if to teach him Newton’s laws of motion.
The greatest trouble, Barito told me once, was his brother. Though his brother was younger to Barito by several years, he did not respect him. Their common disputes focused on issues such as who should engage the modish shower or sometimes over the apparels they shared and as to who the primary owner is. Though these points seem trivial, when they transpired, a minor volcano erupted, sufficient enough to defile a day’s repose. Sadly, the end point was that these divided the brothers to further ends. In some families, I have visited later, the brothers did not fight till they matured. Later the topics of estate slithered in and all of them would have children whose fees they had to meet, or their spouses would prompt them, though with ample reasons, to raise a family of their own. But the same siblings at a yet succeeding state are perceived to embrace a lately generated amity and confess to each other, albeit not getting back the days of youth.
In Barito’s chamber, there was a family photograph of a happy Houdini with his mama and wife. It was subsequent to his learning board skills from an acquaintance. He had also finished several portraits with noteworthy merit, emulating some of his ancestors, who as the line claimed, belonged to Utrecht Guild. Those early sketches were deemed as an heirloom and were on exhibit in the foyer. They were principally representations on convivial life and matchmaking and depictions of the countryside. His maternal grandsire had desisted to give them off, notwithstanding several appeals from private collectors. His mama served in the Energy Sector, a modest female who conserved a portion of her payroll without her husband’s knowledge because she had stings of the panic of old age and a forsaken end. One evening, when Barito and myself were hiking along the way of our former academy, he told me that he had no model personage in the family. I suggested that he could be his own hero. Barito smiled and agreed graciously that he is the One he is waiting for. It was, in truth, an echo of a strain we both understood and sang together.
My father had business in Salamanca where he spent half of the year. While in Munich, where he studied, he was in the cream company that included probable Nobel Laureates. My father could not continue his studies, mainly due to certain dispositions that channeled his energy to unlikely directions, making him uneasy at formal learning. Later he was to travel extensively, squandering some family wealth, but in course of time, was able to set up business in Salamanca. While with us, he would take solo jaunts to the interior where he had inherited a farm overlooking moors. Eventually, when his business expanded, he bought a bordering land that hosted bald cypress and marsh helleborine. It had many water spots, ducks, herrings and owls.
Further, mother expanded it with her share of turkeys and swans. When I was in the heyday of youth, my father thought me irresolute and lacking fire in activities. He claimed that he had it enough in his youth though he could not particularly apply it in academics. So he sent me to a revered friend of him in another city, to importune advice. When I met my future mentor, he was coming out from a chamber after zazen along with his private students. He asked me of my plight and after listening, told me to write down an area in life where I needed improvement, in case I got a reprieve or a second chance after a calamity. After considering the options of being the richest or the wisest, I wrote that I wanted to be the kindest[ knowing well that I cannot eclipse those saints]. He said that whatever I did, would not matter, so far it is not sabotaging to myself or to humanity in general, but I proceed with ardor. He said that roads will lead to broader roads and I will possibly get guidance. The next morning, I met a poor girl on the street who asked me some money. As I had only the train fare to go back home, I gave the watch. The girl, though perplexed for a second, accepted it.
Forthwith, I found myself surrounded by a group of people who probably mistook me for a prince incognito. Somehow I managed to scram and rushed to the nearest station to catch the rail. Further experiences revealed that my guide was more or less right. That was the year I met my future wife, a dark and sagacious lady.
In our house, there was a room in the upper story and one could reach it only through a spiral corridor. This gave the room an advantage of privacy, where my grandfather, a retired soldier would sit and drink ale. Sometimes he would relax on the balcony writing something in a diary with varied expressions. We had an uncle who was a lawyer and a fan of Conan Doyle and a member of a club that professed good service. When his practice was at an ebb, he wrote mystery plays that were rarely staged.
My elder sister also studied in the same college with me. Because of her, many senior students talked to me. She was an active member of the Culture Club which held weekly meetings of philosophical nature. The meetings were largely attended by the senior students of a university nearby. She also served as an apprentice to a Women’s Liberation leader, until she became disenchanted with the latter’s private life, which my sister ought not to have mixed up with the public one. Also, a very unfortunate thing happened in the Club. She became enamored by a man of dubious values though she could not suspect it in the beginning. Later she found out that this man had no love but only private ends. Those were all days of intense vexation for our group. My uncle found out that his father was a culprit in a casino brawl and had a clandestine meeting with dance maidens. The young man took part in our weekly meetings and claimed that he had read all of Spinoza but his rivals challenged that all he could entertain were sleazy thoughts. I must acknowledge the help I received from Barito to salve my sister from the impending depression. Later she was to get engaged to a mountaineer and still further along time, both met with a disaster on their climb to Kilimanjaro just above Barafu camp, making her invalid for the rest of life.
Before he went to the city, Barito stayed with us on the farm for a couple of days. We had a good time near water spots and the night owl’s habitats. Then I lost touch with him. We took different routes and had different lifestyles. Meanwhile, my father’s business dwindled and he came to hometown to settle there permanently. Still a loss, as far as wealth was concerned, he retained composure, only knowing rather late that certain things are beyond repair, and we should not incur further loss thinking about those. I married and took frequent trips to hometown to see my parents. Once, from mutual friends, I knew that Barito was there with his American wife. Together with our wives, we met in the tulip garden behind a row of windmills. Barito had slightly gone flabby on the mid-portion, and that evening he told me about the death of his father. Though far from an ideal figure, the old man held tremendous influence over his young son, enabling him to live an extraordinarily luxurious life. That evening, we met at Barito’s residence.
After coffee, Barito invited me to his room. I was surprised by the change. The family photograph of Harry Houdini had given way to the poster of a blue-eyed Italian action hero. Barito noticed the shift of my eye and told that his wife is a fan of Italian actors. After the ’Last Tango’, I had not seen any Italian film and then too, spent half the time in the side hall, hanging around with friends. Now, my eyes fell on the most elegant cot that had replaced Barito’s old flexible one that taught him once Newton’s laws of motion. In the same evening, we met in a newly constructed restaurant in the City Square. Barito had the fish tacos and iced tea. I took sweet yogurt, having had a stomach upset.
After that, probably a decade passed. Or may be more. While traveling in North, once in a train compartment, I met a friend of college days and among many other things, he conveyed to me, the changes that had come to Alexandre Barito. My friend did not know in detail but suggested that Barito was into a new life of religious contemplation. ‘ How about his medical practice?’, I asked.
’Though he attends the hospital, his wife is managing everything ’, the friend said.
Luckily that year, when I came home for vacation, Barito was in the town. I took this opportunity to see everything at first hand and hear from the horse’s mouth. The gardener opened the gate and guided me to his room, that remained unchanged from outside. When the door opened, I saw Barito on a mattress close to ground level. His face had changed. He had shaved his head and the eyes drooped marvelously still. On the wall stood the picture of St. Bruno meditating on a skull. He said that he had a dream of a reaper entering harvest time and that changed his life. He had
prevailed over some unlucky addictions of the recent past. I asked him if he followed the Carthusian Order, but his reply was in negative.
He was only trying to live in the world as if he were in a desert, in order to have the best of both worlds. He chose his Lauds, Vespers, and Psalms at his own notion. He said that he was arriving at clarity, which was fairly evident from his movements. He also said that he was translating a religious text into a Dutch dialect of his ancestry. It was, he said, not for publication, but for focus. When he inquired me of my concerns, I told him that I was trying to speak and be in the company of children as much as possible, in an attempt to get back a seemingly lost innocence. I invited him for a final time to the river bank by my house, and Barito conceded. We walked for a whole afternoon looking at the barges, and on the sidewalks that sold silverware, avoiding pellets of the long-eared owl.
From that, a few years passed and I had no news of Barito. But eventually learned from other sources that he was spending half the year in Vancouver and the other half in the hometown, imitating an Indian king. While he was at home, the gardener allowed only chosen visitors. His contact and contemplation of the world became threadbare. His doctor who was also his classmate visited him at times and prescribed drugs and potions. He was suffering from an unknown ailment. One day, I met a mutual friend at the airport and he told that Barito suffered an internal hemorrhage while driving but had escaped fatality. And now he is convalescing and is able to carry along his routine. I wrote to him. He wrote back if I could make his home, my next stopover. It was a tremendously beautiful letter, better than all the good books I had come across. In this small epistle, he had recollected some old tales. There was neither morbidity nor philosophy. And he mentioned a few old jokes too. I wrote back that we will write a joint autobiography and perhaps some youngster will find it thrilling. I am waiting for his reply.