Stories of this world
Fast food and casual sex are such perplexing oxymorons. What truly nourishes us requires effort, and cannot be made convenient and what has deep significance cannot be made casual. A good life lived well is one fully entered into, engaged, and savored; we are changed by taking such an active part in life, and by living passionately. I think of my friend Mamad.
I met Mamad in 1970 almost a half century ago in Berkeley. I had been there some 10 years, had (finally) graduated from the university, was working in a local wine shop, was happily remarried, and expecting our first child. My horizons were then as narrow as my assumptions, and went no further. Then he knocked at my door.
Mamad had been born on a remote island, among people who knew nothing of the world that lay beyond the sea. They lived simply in those days, eating the fish and fruit that were readily available, and passing the time telling stories to one another stories that explained the nature of their life, and taught how to live in their world.
However, as he grew older Mamad began to notice that the stories he heard were wearing thin, from having been told and retold so many times. He became curious, even eager, to find new stories to tell, so one day he pushed his little boat out beyond the lagoon and into the broad sea, traveling farther than anyone he had ever known had ever gone before.
After sailing many days he came to the great island of Madagascar, where he entered into an enormous world that had been unknown until then, beyond his little island home. Throughout the years that followed he worked his way around the world, traveling great distances everywhere, and listening closely to the stories that he heard in Africa and Europe, and in the Near and the Far East, and finally in the Americas.
He listened with an ear well-trained from childhood, and knew how to retell the stories that he heard; and so I learned how this world appears to such an attentive visitor. The stories Mamad told were about how this world will unfold itself to the naturally inquisitive mind that wants to hear. These were, after all, what he had sailed so far to learn: stories of the inconvenient significance there is in being human.
One story I remember in particular was of how he had first heard about war, and Christmas, one warm aromatic evening at the Taj Mahal, where he had found a young man softly weeping alone in the moonlight. When Mamad asked why he was so sad, the young man told him that he could not go home for the Christmas holidays to be with his family because he had run away from a war, in a country called Viet Nam.
The poignant footnote to this story is that his island was later taken over by our armed forces as a military air base, and the people who lived there were relocated to the metropolis of Mumbai and quickly absorbed into the 20th century.
I dont know for certain if Mamad had been able to return to them before all this took place. I like to think that he did, and could tell them the stories that he had heard, stories that would have helped them to meet the inevitable disruption of what had been once an idyllic way of life.