DEV S. SUKUMAR writes from Bangalore: Right through our conversation, I thought those were slices of raw meat there, placed in water on a plate, all bloody and flies hovering around it.
Later I realized it was a beetroot. It’s hard to make things out in the dim light of a single bulb.
Rafiq’s been eating raw beetroot.
The man I spent so much time with, partly wishing I had inherited so many of his remarkable skills, is sinking.
It’s a horrible time to be him, a free spirit in a body becoming fast dysfunctional, memories playing tricks, abandoned by his wife, robbed of his fond possessions, his works of art, and having to depend on the charity of neighbours for food.
The last time I saw him, at the south zone climbing championships, I had a hint of the trouble he was in. His voice was slurring badly, and he was moving with difficulty. He was invited to the dais along with his contemporaries – three or four senior climbers – and when he spoke he broke down, briefly, as he wished them luck.
I had never seen Rafiq breaking down.
Rafiq was a character. I’d heard something of him, that he kept a snake at home and that he was a maverick artist, but the first sight of him startled me. The first thought in my head was that his Maker had put random things together and constructed him.
His bulging eyes were set in the middle of his face; his hair and French beard, all spiky, seemed nailed for good on a face that was leathery and weather-beaten. Tufts of hair exploded from his ears, and that on a head with no neck.
He had a generous midriff, cloaked in a jacket in which he had all sorts of things. And he rode a Bajaj Bobby – a sort of daschund among bikes — that had become extinct in the 1980s. The overall effect was of watching some character right out of a comic book.
But what a character! Rafiq was the most carefree person in the world. You could drop by at his place any time of the day or night, and he would talk – of animals, birds, insects, bike engines, snakes, mountains, grasslands, hills, boulders, photography.
He was your outdoors man.
He knew every insect, every plant, every bird and every reptile – their Latin names, the calls they made, the games they played. He could distinguish male bird calls from the female, tell you whether it was a mating call or something else.
Where and how he could store all this information, I do not know, for Rafiq was not an academic. As far as I knew, he hadn’t even been to college. He had picked up everything himself.
Similarly, his talents at art were self-developed and just as remarkable. He would do murals from dealwood, which was then considered just packing material. He told me he’d learnt it after seeing a documentary on TV.
He would take a plank of wood, study its grains, and see something in his mind’s eye: Cleopatra; a herd of horses; various forms of (his favourite) Ganesha.
He was just as good an artist of junk. He would go to the scrap yards, pick up some piece of metal – a discarded engine, a handlebar, a shock absorber – and weld it all into some magical piece: an armoured knight; a praying mantis.
He had made an owl out of dealwood. It was something between a mural and a sculpture, an owl on top of a pier.
“You know, that’s because owls have no more place in the cities,” he told me. “This is an owl at the edge of its existence. The pier is its last place on land… our cities have made it impossible for birds like this to survive.”
He had made the mural after the Surat plague, which he blamed on the extinction of natural predators of plague-carrying rats.
I’ve spent days and nights with him, listening to his tales of the Himalayas; of rock climbing in Ramnagaram or Savandurga or Turhalli; of the names they gave those rocks based on the difficulty of climbing; of how he once had a monkey named Jango and what a hit it was with the girls; of how snakes belong to the wild, they can never be domesticated.
(He once told me of the time he tried to carry a cobra in a train; he had put it in a bag, and soon the thing starting wriggling and scared the wits out of everybody.)
We used to sit in his office next to his house. He called it his machan – which it was, because you had to climb into it through a narrow ladder, and he kept all sorts of things there, including his sand boa.
With Rafiq, all of the outdoors came alive; it was not just facts or interesting information – it was lived knowledge, something that came with deep love and personal experience.
What made it all so special was that he was like a sage of the wild, always cheerful and ready with another wilderness story. Somehow, with such a man, you’d never expect anything to go wrong.
Of course, there was his fondness for pan masala.
I remember one conversation vividly. I knew a guy named Riki Krishnan who was an expert on bats, so one day I took Rafiq to meet Riki and they hit it off well. Apart from their common interests in other living things, they shared a love for pan masala. I’d heard horrible stories about it, so I asked them if they shouldn’t be dumping the habit.
Riki grinned, and said, yeah, I know all about it, how it causes fibrosis, how it screws your mouth and taste buds so you can’t eat anything else, but you know, once you’re hooked on to it, you can’t do without it.
And Rafiq nodded.
Riki’s dead. He was diagnosed with cancer.
Rafiq’s barely able to speak.
He says it’s due to a stroke he had after his studio, with all its equipment, was burgled. But he’s barely able to open his mouth, and his words are slurring, so I guess the pan masala must have something to do with it.
I think the burglary of his studio broke him. He had some expensive equipment there, and once that was gone, there was nothing to fall back upon. He told me he’d lost all his prized photo slides as well.
He had some excellent collections – of insects, birds, reptiles – that he would show school children during camps. Rafiq was so good with kids. He was like a Santa Claus of the wild, and he had a fund of stories and a booming laugh that made them all love him.
Once he told me, long ago, that he had had such an adventurous life, he wouldn’t mind it if he “kicked the bucket right now”. But right now he’s a shadow of that brave old self.
His words are slurring, he doesn’t have food to eat, and he weeps at every other thought.
“Life’s a funny thing,” he told me today. After a while he asked me: “What’s your name again?”
(Sports journalist Dev S. Sukumar is the author of a Prakash Padukone biography titled Touch Play)
Those who wish to help Rafiq may contact him at:
No.285, 20th Main Road
Marenahalli, Off Chord Road
Vijayanagar, Bangalore 560040