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May 2006

 

Better than ever

- Hero

In October 2005, Roger Harris, one of Auroville Today’s founding editors, met with a severe accident. Hero, a good friend, has been following his progress.

Roger playing an Irish ballad. Photo by HeroIn the garden outside the bakery a small and popular café begins serving breakfast at seven in the morning. Both the main English-language newspapers, ‘The Hindu' and ‘The Express' lie on the tables and it's often hard to find a place to sit as Aurovilles's blue-collars fortify themselves for the day.

On the morning of October 31st last year, I was sipping my third chai and contemplating the international section of the paper, when Roger Harris, an Aurovilian who's been here since 1982 and an old friend, joined me at my table. He spoke hardly a word and looked agitated. But then, this was hardly unusual when what he called ‘the black dog' was upon him, and I didn't think further about it.

As we left together, his agitation seemed more pronounced. Both of us live in the same central part of Auroville so seeing him driving close behind me, I assumed he was going home and this relieved me: I knew the surroundings of his apartment would calm him. I had no presentiment of trouble.

I had got back and was reading, when some five minutes later a neighbour arrived to tell me Roger had had a serious traffic accident and been taken to hospital. Stopping only to tell some of his friends I met on the way what little I knew, I drove as fast as I dared and reached the hospital barely half an hour since I'd last seen him.

Inside, doctors and orderlies were running through the halls with a gurney on which Roger lay, unconscious and his body covered by a sheet. I asked an orderly if it was true that his arm had been severed. Yes, he said, between the shoulder and elbow. He'd washed it with saline and put it on ice.

Sitting outside with several other Aurovilians, we waited for the doctors' prognosis, which was shortly forthcoming. Things looked grim. They were trying their best to save his life – as to his arm, well… At the moment they needed blood, lots of it. Volunteers leapt up and mobile phone calls went out; “What's your blood type?” I wandered off to smoke a badly-needed cigarette and think things over.

Roger and I had spent countless evenings discussing just about everything with the exception of “Auroville's appalling politics”, a subject that polite society drops after 18:00 hours. We shared a mutual love of English literature, European history, an interest in translation, (Roger is a skilled translator and has done several books) and in things arcane and curious – though some of his preoccupations, as with crop-circles, I viewed with utter bemusement.

Though we would often call on each other at home, Roger's true element was holding forth at a table in the local dive down the road where he drove us all to distraction with his endless replaying of his favourite music. For a few months it would be Country and Western, then a particular recording of Dylan or the Stones. But generally when he got up to play, say an Emmylou Harris track for the third time in an hour, he'd be shouted down and forced, grumbling about “Philistines”, to accede to popular demand.

I remembered one evening, showing him with some enthusiasm a book I'd recently come across. He flipped through a few pages and asked me if I really couldn't see that it was just a silly rehash of Beowulf? “Oh.” I said, seeing, and sat back down suitably abashed.

Another time I mentioned in the conversation that I'd just read of the death of the writer Anthony Burgess. Roger took this like the loss of a personal friend and refused to be consoled for the rest of the evening, retreating into glum silence.

Again not very long ago, I had been working on a translation, one of Baudelaire's poems, and showed him where I simply could find no way to scan, or even find the equivalent of a French word in English. We discussed it for some time and then went on to other topics. Some months later a postcard reached me from Paris in which he outlined Aurobindo's comments on a disciple's problems with the same word in the same poem!

And then one evening, about nine years ago, I was on casual leave from my job overseas and looked in at the local to see if Roger was there. He was, and I sat down and began to talk. He was looking at me but I slowly realized he was no longer seeing, or even hearing me. We lapsed into silence for two hours and then I got up to leave. His total verbal contribution to the evening had been three monosyllables. This from a man who had so delighted in words and repartee. I left dismayed. Over the years he began to oscillate between the two states – flashing wit and brilliant monologues or morose and silent, somewhere distant, inaccessible, ‘the black dog'.

So when the doctors finally told us, that October afternoon, that he was going to live and not leave, I wondered what this meant. ‘God does not play dice' Einstein assured us. Nevertheless I wondered, and wondering, wandered home. When the news came through that the surgical team had successfully reattached his severed arm, I was amazed, and although Roger continued to be in a coma, his terrible

accident began to look less random. Over the coming days and months, when many took it in turn to tend to him as he ever so slowly made his way back to us, would this I wondered, be what it took to shake off his ‘black dog'? If so, why such violence?

A few days ago I walked down to Henri's house where he was staying, out of the hospital for the first time, and sat down to talk to my old friend. Haltingly, but in a clear voice Roger talked, smiled and looked around at the garden, remarking on it with great pleasure. He seemed never to stop smiling and had about him a gentleness and sweetness that I'd not seen in years. Indeed never had seen. He was my old friend, but he was not the same man I'd spent innumerable evenings with. He was certainly not the man I'd had breakfast with last October. He was, if anything, better than ever.

 

Read Roger's poems

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