Milestone

Print edition : August 09, 1997
Swami and Friends Frontline - Editor, Frontline R.K. NARAYAN

I AM obsessed with the expression ' Syndrome'. 'Syndrome' means a symptom, I suppose, though I am not sure. It is an American expression with a variety of meaning. According to R.W. Burchfield's new edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, it is generally understood as "a set of symptoms... a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, behaviour, etc."

The milestone seems to me the most firmly planted object on earth, staying put where it has been planted, displaying the distance the wayfarer has covered and the 'miles to go'. We must add to the list of national holidays a thanksgiving day for the pioneers (with a VIP garlanding a milestone), the hardy men who must have gone about with their tapes measuring and marking, the stone-masons following with the blocks of granite and the tools for cutting the blocks to size and chiselling and planting them. The milestone serves no purpose other than marking a distance. By its very design, it offers neither shade nor shelter nor a seat - except for a crow or a sparrow for a brief halt in flight.

At ninety plus, which is literal, unmitigated old age, one loses mobility. One's legs, after years of bearing a load of flesh and bone, begin to protest and wobble. The knee-joints will not readily function when you try to use them. "Don't get up abruptly," advises my doctor, adding: "Stand still for a few minutes before taking a step. 'Don't have a fall' is my only prescription for you."

He might as well sum up his advice as "Be a milestone", which is the normal state at ninety. I am a fixture in a verandah easy chair woven with Singapore cane of golden hue, not the Shimoga variety which is darkish and lacks lustre. The colour bar functions insidiously in the world of furniture too. "Of course, the Shimoga would be cheaper but it's not for homes like yours. We recommend the cheap cane for wayside tea-stalls and waiting rooms."

And so by the cabinet-maker's snobbish choice, I pay a heavy price to settle down in the golden-hued easy chair all day, with my feet resting on an equally opulent moda from Kashmir. There I remain as visitors, servants and autograph-hunters come and go, and being the oldest man for miles around, I am not obliged to rise for anyone.

It is as much as I can do to avoid having my feet touched - but it happens all the time. All my life I have got along without touching anyone's feet. (When a Jagatguru once sent for me, I pleaded that I would salute him reverently from a distance but would not touch his feet or take off my shirt. He was gracious enough to accept my plea, explaining that he was not responsible for such rules and conditions, which were set by busybodies around him.) But being a milestone I am not able to avoid it, short of unscrewing my feet and putting them out of the way. It seems there is no escape for me now.

A milestone is a utility, not a god, but once I noticed a milestone which passers-by revered. An enterprising man had smeared a tenth milestone on a rock with turmeric and kunkum, decked it with marigold, lit a mud lamp, and placed a brass plate with a couple of coins at its feet. It did not take long for people going their way to notice this. They put more coins on the plate and circumambulated before going their way.

Perhaps remembering the episode in the Ramayana where Ahalya, wife of a rishi, was cursed to become a wayside stone for submitting to Indra's caresses while her husband was away. Her redemption would come when Rama passed that way. Aeons later Rama, on his way to Mithila to marry Sita, did pass that way. At the touch of his feet, Ahalya won her redemption from a petrified state and stood up in her radiant womanhood.

Aeons later, a Minister for Highways declares a national holiday in honour of milestone-makers. His staff arranges a function at a tenth milestone for the Minister to garland, with the media in readiness to flash news of the ceremony round the world. The Minister inspects the spot and demands that it be shifted to a fiftieth milestone in honour of fifty years of Indian Independence.

The fiftieth milestone happens to be in a jungle. He orders the jungle to be cleared and security men and forest guards to protect the milestone, which was painted black originally since elephants tended to pull out white painted stones. The Minister refuses to leave it black since the colour is 'inauspicious', and orders special armed guards to protect it night and day. But elephants in the jungle do not care. On the day of the ceremony, the Minister finds the milestone gone.

R. K. Narayan

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