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Fire and water, and human duty

Here in Bangkok, the sorrow of Japan feels painfully near. Two days ago on Sukhumvit Road, I saw a motorcycle ahead with a huge wreath propped up behind.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2011 22:47 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Here in Bangkok, the sorrow of Japan feels painfully near. Two days ago on Sukhumvit Road, I saw a motorcycle ahead with a huge wreath propped up behind.

The broad ribbon in the middle bore a Japanese name with the person’s company name below it. It was natural to wonder if the wreath was headed for a memorial meeting being held by the person’s Thai colleagues. Seeing it brought back this poignant story that came to me in December 2006, which I’d retold in the paper.

There was once an antisocial old man in Japan living alone atop a hill, who felt he had good reason to despise his fellow beings. Their stupid, vain chatter about unimportant things, their petty quarrels and jealousies, their mean thefts and malicious tongues made them repellent to him.

The old man preferred his own company, catching fish in the little mountain stream below his hut, harvesting his few peach trees, growing rice in a terrace in his backyard, weaving his own cloth and drying his own noodles on a wooden frame. He ate his simple meals from a wooden bowl with chopsticks both carved by him. Afterwards, he would stare contently out to sea.

One morning though, his eye was caught by a new rock far out from the shore. The water seemed to have rolled right back to this rock. The old man frowned, recalling a tale his grandfather had told him of his own youth. Just so had the water receded until a submerged rock had suddenly revealed itself.

Soon after, the tsunami had sprung out to swallow the village and miles of countryside inland. The old man remembered with a shiver that that very day was the annual fair for which the whole village gathered on the beach. He forgot about being antisocial. A greater power called human duty had seized him.

Too far away to anything else, he set his hut on fire. Seeing the smoke, the villagers cried out in alarm and ran uphill to save his life. Seconds after they reached the safety of the hilltop, the tsunami engulfed the beach and everything below.
However, it’s a line from Ernest Hemingway’s book, ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ that this tale should rightly end with, for Japan today an for us all: ‘But a man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture
shebaba09@gmail.com

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