The elevator stopped at the 2nd floor and he stepped inside it with heavy steps. It was an unusual problem in his hands, and he hadn’t seen it coming. It reminded him of a similar situation long back in his life and that’s why he doubted if anyone else could help him with it.
All his friends were dying and he was not.
Moreover, he wasn’t ready to either.
The anomalous situation took him 44 years back in his life, those days when he was young and seething with energy, when he was racing towards dreams that normal common men didn’t dare to watch. But then he got hammered by that. Loneliness.
It didn’t strike him till it happened. One fine day he realized that all his old and good friends, every single one of them, were married. He didn’t have anyone to call during the weekends because mostly no one picked his calls and even if a few did, the conversations became too dull and routine. While his concerns and dreams were the same, others’ had changed. People were more interested in savings and investments and family planning, and he could not keep on blabbering about managing a business, playing guitar in nightclubs, roaming around cities and meeting new girls in front of those who showed lesser interest in the topics each passing day. Plus, there were his own inhibitions as well. New couples needed time. On top of that, Indian marriages required one to devote considerable amount of time to relatives and traditions. So, he felt he would waste their tired evenings with his meaningless conversations. And thus, even though every single one of them had promised him that things wouldn’t change, they did. Suddenly he was alone in his journey because all others had backed out one by one and restricted themselves to their new families.
What he did then could not be done now. That couldn’t be the solution to his problem. Because 44 years back he had decided to marry, not because he was in love with a girl, not because his parents were pressurizing him to, but because all his friends had married and he had no other option but to start his own family. The equivalent solution to that in his present problem would be to follow the suit of his friends and die. But that’s what he didn’t want to do. There was no greed to live; he just knew it wasn’t the time for him to get ready for death, not yet.
It was just 2 years back when he was happy with everything and everyone. Then, his wife started this chain that never broke. She died in the month of January and left him alone. Not alone actually, he had his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to find peace with. And they were all good. His family was very good indeed. There was nothing he could complain of with them and yet, his wife had left a hollowness in his heart that they could not fill, merely because they couldn’t feel what he felt. Death was the final reality and they hadn’t accepted it the way he had. There was no need for them to do it either and that’s why he kept it all inside him silently.
His good friend Rama was the second one to leave, just 2 months after his wife. And since then, he could not recall a single stretch of 3 months when life did not take away at least someone from him. Death was all around him suddenly. People were dying all over and it seemed that no one was taking notice of them but him. His Facebook friend list was shrinking every day and all his eyes could find now was news of some old friend passing away. In two years, he lost almost his entire friend circle in the town – 9 of them left him.
It was an unusual problem in his hands, and he should have seen it coming.
He lives in a large society of 1080 apartments. There are parks surrounded with trees, slides for children, small shops for groceries and other stuff, a club and a swimming pool inside the premises itself. All that may suit the description of a luxurious life in a metro city. That’s how the India of modern age is developing. No one must have thought that a decade back. His apartment, his son’s apartment, is in block-D, on the 7th floor and he often spends his afternoon looking down the balcony at the empty roads and lush parks.
He moved here in the apartment in Bengaluru 3 years back when he and his wife both realized that they should spend their leftover years with their family. It proved to be a good decision because fate informed him soon after that his wife didn’t have much time left with her. He has been happy knowing that he wasn’t too late in giving her what she wanted.
There is no one in the house but him. His son is travelling for work and daughter-in-law is in her office as well. His granddaughter studies in 4th standard in a school which is very far from here. It takes her almost one and a half hour’s travel to reach there from home. Of course the school bus is there and all the children travel together but he still doesn’t understand why a small kid like her is wasting so much of her life in a school bus. There is the reason of her parents not being able to find time for her during the day which might have prompted them to find a school that could keep her busy till late afternoon at least, even if in a bus, but then he always stays at home and he loves to play with her, teach her, talk to her. He tells his son and daughter-in-law sometimes that they are missing out on something big, the most beautiful years of their child’s life, but he doesn’t like altercations, so, he never pushes for anything. He merely provides suggestions and then takes a silent stroll.
“So what do you suggest we do?” A shaky, tired voice made space around him as he leaned over his glass and tried to find something in his image reflecting in the water in it.
“Wouldn’t I have told you if I knew it?” He spoke without looking at his friend.
“Hmmm. The world has changed a lot.” The old man sitting at the other side of the table sighed. “I am not sure if it is our fault or of the circumstances but yes, the difference is visible now. I feel it in the air here. I have no idea how our children are finding happiness here. All they do is work and stay alone. I can’t imagine living like that.”
“Generation gap, Sunil.” He tapped his knuckles on the table and turned to him with a smile. “This generation doesn’t like struggle. They like to control things, their lives. And we are at fault too. I only taught them the importance of money in life and now I only feel that it is secondary.” He paused. “Maybe we are the wrong ones, mate. We also valued the same things when we were young. Only now that we see what we see, we are feeling different.”
“You shouldn’t have told it to me.” Sunil shook his head in disappointment. “I was happy not knowing it.”
“It did help the other guy. Didn’t it?”
“We don’t know that. Maybe he was aware, maybe he was not. Maybe he is still around and can feel it now or maybe that’s what killed him.”
“What was his name?”
He looks around for a second. There are a few people there, some walking towards him, some away from him. He doesn’t know any of them. That’s how life here is. It’s a young society, mostly with both the partners working. They slog from Monday to Friday till night, weekdays, they call them, and then prefer to spend at least a day of rest with each other and their family of three or four before moving out of the house for groceries, dinners, movies or occasional visits to parents and friends on Sunday. Life is fast and they love it. He has no interest in interrupting any of it by an uncalled for conversation. He has also adjusted to it. He has restricted himself to his family of four as well. He loves them, they love him. Enough.
He walks out of the building and strolls towards the park with his cane in his hand moving back and forth like flaunting a king’s grip around it. It is hot today but he still prefers the mildly moist, warm air breezing around over the cold artificial comfort of the air conditioner back home. He leaves his floaters at the edge of the first bench inside the park like he always does and steps onto the grass with closed eyes. The feeling is amazing, each time he lets his skin feel the softness of cold grass in windy evenings and calm mornings.
With proud eyes, he begins his walk and as he turns to his right reaching an end of the park, he sees him. An old man, probably his own age, is playing with a toddler in the park adjacent. He sees them there every day. By now, he has assumed that the old man plays with his grandchild. There is no need to assume anything else either. He stands in his place silently and keeps looking at them the way he always does. For reasons unknown, he feels jealous of him. He wanted to go to him and say hi at times but he never did. They have never talked. They don’t even know each other’s names but they both know they exist. They both notice each other catching a glimpse of the other person once in a while. It’s an old age thing probably. Every fragile thing is attracted to other weakling, taking comfort in the fact that it is not alone, or maybe hoping to find some soothing in its withering condition, or maybe smiling simply to convey that it is there for it, if the fate ever needs it to be. He waits for the old man to turn his head from the toddler to him for a few seconds and then, he starts walking again.
“We have a perfect life, don’t we?” A cranky, high pitched voice of a woman had joined them. “Why are you thinking like that? Why is there so pessimism suddenly?”
“There is no pessimism.” He replied. “You will not understand my fear because you were not there. You were not there two weeks back and you were not there 44 years back.”
“Years back?” The old lady smiled. “Old age has finally screwed his mind.” She giggled looking at Sunil sitting beside her at the table. There were plates arranged on it now. Their food was about to arrive. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“You all.” He slammed the empty glass on the table. “You all had left me alone back then. You, above all, must remember.” He squeezed his teeth. “You had promised me that you wouldn’t marry. I was counting on you and Ajit. What happened then? What happened? You did. Both of you did and you left me alone, at 35 years of age, wondering how I would proceed with my life without any of you.”
“I didn’t know you are still grumpy about that.” She wondered. “Everyone marries, we did too. That’s not my fault.”
“It’s not your fault, my lady. And I am not grumpy either. I am happy that I married eventually. It gave me the best days of my life.” He smiled finally. “I am just saying that it was me who was left alone and even this time, it would be me left alone. Everyone dies, you will too. Ajit has already.” He shrugged. “I will be the last one once again, wondering how to proceed without any of you. It’s… it’s… leave it. It’s nonsense.”
“Hey.” She pressed his hand slowly. “What are you thinking? We all have lived our lives. We all will move to the next stage just like we always do.” She smiled. “And the next stage is death. Why are you scared of it? Even if you are the last one to go, you follow our lead even this time. The result will be the same – you will be happy that you died.” She giggled.
“No, not this time.”
“Because I don’t want to die alone.”
“Alone?” She laughed at him. “Are you idiot? You have a son, a loving daughter-in-law.” She raised an eye looking at Sunil. He nodded in confirmation. “And a sweet child. People crave to spend their last days with their families. What more do you want?”
“Yes, they do.” He turned his gaze away from her. The waiter arrived at their table and kept the bowls of dishes one by one on it. He watched him leaving from the corner of his eye and spoke again. “But what is the definition of family?”
It’s a pleasant day. It rained in the morning, so he couldn’t go for his usual walk at that time. But he doesn’t have a complaint about it, for the rain has changed the mood of his surroundings completely. From a sweaty, hot day, suddenly he is looking at a blue sky throwing dim light, just enough to give that soothing shine to the trees around, and cold slow breeze which would probably die by the nightfall. The beautiful weather of Bengaluru alone is good enough to love this place. It rarely becomes hot here and when it does, the merciful clouds of black appear soon enough in the sky to help. There is no way he can miss walking on the wet grass in atmosphere like this. He slips into his floaters, picks his cane and strides towards the elevator.
He enters his favorite park amidst the silence around. There are no kids playing in the society right now. All the buses must be late due to heavy traffic invited by road blocks awakened by the rain. He removes his floaters and presses his foot onto the cold damp grass. It pinches his skin for a moment and then bows down to give him the comfort he craved for. It feels better than he had imagined. The wetness of the tiny grass gives him a cold tingling sensation. He always feels massaged by them but today, he feels pampered. He smiles and starts his walk.
He takes another right turn and stops for a second. It has been more than an hour since he is enjoying the beautiful weather. The children have started to fill the spaces around him and his own granddaughter told him just a few minutes back that she would be back after having her milk. She should be here any time now. But something is missing still. He scans the adjacent park with his eyes and starts walking again. The old man and the toddler are not there today. It is difficult for him to believe that they are missing a pleasant day like this willingly. Perhaps it is one of those feelings the weaklings get.
He picked his cane and left the flat for a walk. He looked at the park with a beaming face and crossed it without hesitation. The conversation of last night with his friends in the restaurant was still knocking on his thoughts intermittently. He took the road today. He wondered how it never occurred to him since after the death of his wife that the society was huge and he could use the concrete for a walk as well. There were other parks he had stopped visiting and other buildings he had lost touch with. Till his wife lived, they both explored the corridors of the society quietly with silence doing the talk between them but when she left, everything changed. This was one of those he never noticed, till yesterday.
He walked to the other blocks with anxious steps. His eyes jumped from person to person. His hand waved at each security guard and his smile grew at each face. And then, in maybe what were close to 40 jubilant minutes, he saw someone. An old woman was watching a few small kids giggle and play around sitting on one of the benches.
“What is it you think can be done?” The question had pounded the table once again last night.
“You know what.” Sunil was the one to answer it first. “There was one other option you had back then,” he paused, “when they all got married.”
“You could’ve made new friends.”
He held his cane proudly in his hand and walked towards her.
He is turning sides in his bed. Sleep isn’t easy to come by sometimes. It is one of those days. He hears some murmurs from the hall and gets up. Something is wrong. It is 5 o’clock in the morning and he knows that people in this house don’t wake up so early. He raises his steps towards the door and quietly listens to the conversation. It is his son’s voice, audible clearly. He feels relieved to know that, but then, in another moment, starts to worry about what might be bothering him at this hour. He opens the door and walks into the hall. To his amazement, even his daughter-in-law is awake. They are both talking. Signs of worry are there on either face.
“Papa.” His son smiles seeing him. He was wrong. It isn’t worry. It is something else. “Did we wake you up? Sorry.”
“No, no.” He replies. “I wasn’t able to sleep anyway. I wondered how come you are awake at 5 o’clock, so just came out to check if everything is alright.”
“Yeah, yeah. Everything is fine.” His son stands up and pulls a chair for him. “Actually an acquaintance of mine needed some help.” He pauses. “Do you know Prashanth? Prashanth Kamath? He lives on the second floor.”
“Hmmm. You must have seen his father actually. He used to go for a walk with his grandson, a small child, to the park every day.”
His heart stops. Starts sinking. He is scared of saying yes.
“Lean man. Very tall.”
Yes, it is him. He knows it.
“He expired a few hours back.” His son takes his seat back. “He got drenched in the rain yesterday morning and caught pneumonia it seems. Couldn’t make it even through the night.”
He stops breathing for a second.
“Prashanth didn’t know what to do, so he called me. I went to his flat and made the arrangements. Just 5 minutes back they left in the van for the crematorium.”
He feels a weight on his chest. It grows with each second that passes without him saying a word.
“You should have awakened me.” He says, low. He knows his son won’t be able to understand his loss. He will not know what he feels right now. He will not be able to see him with that little kid ever again in the park. His friend, the one he never talked to, is gone. And he is gone just like that, without anyone knowing of his absence. If it weren’t for his own eyes which saw him every day in the park, no one would know that he existed. No one but his family, one that was there all along but still absent. They will cry for him for a day.
“Now, Prashanth has to leave for Australia tomorrow.” Or probably not. They will go to their offices the very next day and think about him in free time like he was an appointment. “So, he was worried how he was going to handle things. I told him that…..” He isn’t listening anymore. His thoughts are on the old man in the park and the toddler he always played with. He tries to recall but not once he had seen anyone else there with them. All along, he always thought that it was due to the hectic life style this entire generation had adopted. He never complained about it and as far as he can remember, he hadn’t seen a line of complaint on his dead friend’s face either. But suddenly, he feels that maybe he does have a complaint, probably his dead friend might have had it as well.
The conversation goes on for a few more minutes but he doesn’t become a part of it. His son and daughter-in-law go to their room and lock themselves inside it like it was a small aberration in their routine life. But for him, it is something else. He opens the door and moves out. His cane is hanging on the wall behind him.
He knocks on a door. It opens. The lady standing in front of him has tearful eyes. Somehow he feels happy about it. He looks inside, empty. He gulps hard. The silence between the two is becoming uncomfortable very fast. He licks his lips, gathers his strength and finally speaks the words.
“I am a friend of your father-in-law. But I never got the chance to really know him.” He pauses, gulps slowly, looks around in hesitation and turns back to her to let the last few words out. “What was his name?”
The elevator stops at the 2nd floor and he steps inside it with heavy steps. It is an unusual problem in his hands, and he wishes he was not aware of it. Dinkar is dead and so will he be, but not like him. Not like him.
He sat beside the old woman on the bench and rehearsed the words inside his mind once again. He smiled with confidence, turned to her and spoke as soon as she looked at him.
“Namaste. I am Ajay Shastri. I am seeing you here for the first time.”
“Namaste. Me too. Do you stay here?”
“Yes.” His smile grew. “You know, we run a small, pretty club here for old people like ourselves.”
“Yes? I didn’t know it. I have been looking for one myself.” She smiled back.
“It is new. But you will love it. It is called the Journeymen Club.”
- Namaste: An Indian greeting gesture consisting of a little bow while holding the palms together
Genre: Short Story