REMEMBERING CHRIS: In the days of war on terror

by AH Ahmed Kamal

DURING the summer in California, my wife and I sometimes go to Goleta pier for fishing. Goleta valley is on the Pacific shores of Santa Barbara county, which is one of the most attractive tourist spots in the United States.
A wooden pier with a crane fitted to it is built to lift up and down the engine boats going out to the ocean for fishing or sports. The pier I am writing about is close to 600 yards in length, made of sturdy wooden planks and standing on sturdy wooden pillars supporting the platform, strong enough to brace occasional turbulent Pacific waves.
During summer when schools of fishes and resident crabs gather around the pier, that is the best time to go fishing. Mexicans, Chinese, and local white Americans crowd on the pier for fishing. However, I have not met any South Asian till now who come to fish. One reason for that may be the thin demographic presence of the latter among the local residents, and fishing is also not registered as their hobby.
In summer, mackerel, sardine, rock fish, perch and crab gather around the wooden pillars covered with ocean weeds for food hunting. And that is the time to catch them. At least close to 50 people line up every day along the railings of the pier with fishing rods of various sizes and some bring nets to catch crabs. The fishing population includes the old and the young, males and females, of the ethnic groups I mentioned earlier. Those who do not fish spend time looking at the ocean sitting on the wooden benches laid out on the pier.
My wife loves fishing but I lack that patience; instead, I love to watch people catching fish, particularly the struggle of the hooked fishes to free themselves and the excitement of the crowd who would gather to watch. Once the hooked fishes are landed on the floor of the pier the crowd will cheer up the angler. Sometimes I walk on the pier from one end to the other to compensate for my after lunch walk in the grove on Coronado street. Often I talk to people who wait too long for their catch. The local whites, mostly elderly, catch fish in order to spend time. ‘As a hobby it is very relaxing,’ they would tell me. Unlike the others they do not take their catch home and give it away to willing takers who I call fish beggars. In fact, I am one of them. Noticing this practice for the first time I asked them why they were giving the fish away. ‘These fishes are full of tiny bones and difficult to clean; you can take it if you want’. Well, why not! After collecting those, mostly mackerels and few rock fishes, we used to come home with bucketful of fishes. Seeing the volume of the catch, the excitement and pleasure this fake accomplishment of ours would give our grand kids kept the secret undisclosed.
One day, in one of those fishing sessions, I found an old white man fishing sitting on a bench with his bike leaning against the back of the bench. A big-sized bag, containing all the essentials of his everyday life, was tightly tied to the bike. A man with flowing white beard, and long hair associated with a sub-culture that rejects conventional norms. He was wearing faded jeans and an over-worn khaki full sleeve shirt. His face was wrinkled but dazzlingly white against the setting sun. He had a pair of seductive sunken blue eyes.
Noticing that he was throwing away the fish he caught back into the ocean made me curious. As I went closer, I saw him talking to a fish he had just unhooked and then let it go back to the ocean. I asked why he was doing that. Giving me a reluctant look he told me, ‘I want them to stay in the ocean’. ‘What do you tell them?’ ‘Well I tell them not to be greedy and grab unknown and tempting food.’
‘They have enough in the ocean.’ ‘But they get this knowledge through a painful process. They have to bite your hooks’, I said. ‘No knowledge is without pain.’ ‘How do you know they understand your language?’ Keeping his eyes on the line, he threw back my question at me. ‘How do you know they don’t?’ ‘Well’, I fumbled, without any answer. ‘Why do you believe when you talk to your god that he understands you?’ Chris asked.
‘It is your faith. Every aspect of your life is based on faith: Your enlightenment, your modernity and what have you. The sanctity of family, marriage, love, market, even reason, the most sanctified aspect of your so-called modern life — all exist because of faith. In fact this society exists on faith.’ The profoundness of this philosophical statement made me dumbfounded for few seconds. I felt a magnetic attraction to the man. The sun hanging in the horizon was slowly getting ready to sink into the ocean. The old man started packing his fishing gear. ‘Would you come tomorrow for fishing?’ I asked very politely. ‘I don’t know yet. I might’. I had so many questions to ask. After folding his fishing rods, he said bye to me. I walked back to the spot where my wife was fishing. After sometime I drove my wife back home. On the way back, I told my wife about this interesting old man. Being impatiently curious, I convinced my wife to come for fishing the following day.
Next day we went to the pier little earlier than other days. We waited for him at the pier without any luck. There was no way I could find him. The next day was August 22, just a day before I was all set to go to Canada for three weeks. I decided to come back the next day in case he turned up. We came even earlier than other days and there he was. He had a music box with him and was playing Nat King Cole’s 1948 immortal song, ‘Nature Boy’ composed by Eden Ahbez, an unknown composer till then.
Going closer, I saw him talking to a fish he caught and then letting it swim back to the ocean. I refrained from asking why he did not turn up the previous day. Instead, he asked me to listen to the song. After the song was played, I had asked him to tell me the story of his life. ‘I am Chris, if you are interested in my name. You know why am I listening to this song? Today is August 22, this song’s 69th birthday. On this day, Nature Boy was recorded. It is a pious day for many of us and we celebrate this day.’
‘Why pious?’ I asked. ‘Well, I come from Malibu, a beautiful southern California beach town. Have you heard the song ‘I am a Malibu Boy’? I said, ‘Yes.’ In fact, this is one of the songs I still love. The memory of the song got us connected like two strangers looking for a shelter in an unknown place. He continued, ‘In the early sixties of the last century, I was a senior undergraduate at Berkeley university. Then began the Hippie movement that swept college campuses like a tsunami. It was unprecedented in the US cultural history. For the California college boys and girls, it was an alternative back to nature lifestyle, facilitated by its warm climate. It drew its inspiration from the Persian Mazdakist movement, rechristened in the early 20th century California as Nature Boy movement which practiced communal living, sharing of resources, vegetarianism, and free love and sex. The movement professed minimum living and rejecting all material greed that dehumanizes life. Greed had no place in that community of new life practitioners. Society thriving on greed, you call capitalist, faced the most serious cultural threat in its history.
‘I left college, a drop-out like many others, and became a hippie. Beatles, drugs, LSD, marijuana and sex became the other side of hippie life. Parallel to this was the anti-Vietnam war protests. Life was noisy and psychedelic as it should have been. Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan were the new prophets. The new generation in their demonstration of love and hatred against greed, excess of material power and war shook the American society like a tectonic movement. However, in the process many got lost, many abandoned the new community, and many returned to the mainstream life.
‘About that time Frank Sinatra revived the song Nature Boy by giving it a fresh spirit of the age. In the song I saw the light that keeps my life still shinning. Since then I celebrate the arrival of the song on 22 August.’ Suddenly there was a pull in the line. He let the fish take the bait.
‘Where do you live? What do you do for a living? I see in your bag everything you need for a living. What about family?’ ‘You are asking too many questions’. With slight impatience, he looked at me and moved his eyes away from the floaters.
‘My partner left me long ago and left the lifestyle we adopted. She is somewhere in the east coast, most likely in Florida. I don’t know exactly.’ ‘Where do you live now?’ I asked. ‘You mean where do I sleep? Right there.’ He pointed his finger towards the grove along the bluff. ‘I breathe the purest ocean air and live in nature.
‘I listen to the songs of the birds and insects when the city sleeps. I see the dancing of the fire glows. I see the moon changing its shapes. I see the sun rise and the sun set in the Pacific with all its majesty. And the rhythmic lullaby of the Pacific waves put me to sleep. Sometimes the policemen come and ask me to go to the homeless shelter. I tell them, “All those shelters have made us homeless. What is a better home than living in nature?”’ I had no answer. He turned on the music box. Nat King Cole sang, ‘The greatest thing you ever learn is just love and be loved in return.’
Chris packed his things up, folded his fishing rods, and moved away with his bike saying bye to me. I kept my eyes fixed on him till he disappeared from my sight.
I realised that, as it was in the song, ‘It was a magic day he passed my way, while we spoke many things.’ That was the most poignant moment in our meeting which reminded me of a magical time, of another society, of another dream that got shattered by uncontrollable greed of the few and the noise and destruction in the name of war on terror. What kept ringing in my ears was, ‘The greatest thing you ever learn is just love and be loved in return.’

AH Ahmed Kamal teachers history in the University of Dhaka.

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