Nose squashed against the glass, the nine year old saw the corn kernels sizzle in the butter and pop. His breath fogged the glass and the sweat on his nose ran it down. His eyes squinted every time a kernel popped close to his side of the glass box. His father scooped out two paper cups, powdered it with flavours and handed it to him. He ran to the couple sitting on the bench with ice cream cones and handed their order to them. He stood smiling as the girl retrieved cash. She looked at him, slipped an extra note into his hand and said, “Go have some ice cream, popcorn boy!”
The old man had been unwell for more than a couple of days now. The fever wasn’t breaking. He wasn’t worried about himself though. He was worried about his garden. He’d newly planted Canna Lilies in them. They were Madam’s favourite. He would have instructed his helper how to care for them well but the helper was on leave. Either ways, he wasn’t too keen on his helper’s work.
This evening, he’d tried walking out to the garden but he barely managed to reach the door of his own room. The doctor had been called. He prescribed some medicines and assured it wasn’t anything to worry about. The old man chided the cook, “I told you so.”
It hadn’t rained for a week now. It was unusually hot. If it didn’t rain soon, his garden would start wilting. In a long time, he wished his helper was here. Or at least the rains were. Either wish seemed far from being realized.
His son was around the same age as his helper. Every time he saw his helper, it reminded him of his son; a reminder that wasn’t happy or heart-stopping, a reminder that was melancholic and heartbreaking. His son was a charm with plants, but didn’t see the charm in them. “I want to do something bigger,” he used to say.
But the old man didn’t know anything bigger. Sure enough, there were bigger businesses he knew about, like the one Sir and Madam were doing. But at the end of the day, even they would come and admire his work. “What was bigger then?”, he thought. Even after his son had started working in another city, he stayed back with Sir and Madam. They loved his work and he used to love working for them. They’d given him a place to stay in their servants quarters.
After the doctor left, he tried sitting up to look at what he could of his gardens. It was dim now post dusk and his feeble eyes didn’t help either. He spent his evening alternately watching the blades of the fan rotate and dozing.
Night fell early and in spite of having slept almost all day, he slept like a log through the night too. He awoke well after the Sun had risen. He was rolling in sweat and blankets. The fever had broken. He turned towards the window and there were drops of water clinging onto the grills of the window.
Hopeful, he went up to the window. It wasn’t an easy walk but far less painful than yesterday. Indeed, they were water droplets. As he stood in the pool of water below his window, his eyes saw moist and glistening grass outside his window. The flowers were gleaming and waving at him in the morning breeze. He was ecstatic. The God loved His work too!
Today, he’s missing. For the past two weeks, actually. Should I rather say dead? Because he was barely being able to walk twenty days ago. A friend, on the man’s request carried him two feet away to where he wanted to sit. Then we saw him take out a packet of smokeless tobacco (Wiki pages lead to dipping tobacco being the most suitable variety) and consume it.
My concern for him suddenly vanished when I saw the pack of smokeless tobacco (commonly called khaini in India). I hastily concluded that he must have brought this situation upon himself. You must be wondering why I was concerned in the first place?
Jump to a month ago. For many days, I’d routinely noticed him and his actions. Those five seconds when I crossed him almost every day. He had a plastic bottle suspended from a rope and he would be moving it in a circular motion. I’d have put up a picture of it, if I had one, but I deliberately chose not to click his picture. I didn’t want to intrude into his privacy or whatever was left of it at least. Out of curiosity, the aforementioned friend asked him one day what exactly was the man doing. You know what he said? In a clear voice, in English, “Life is a circle”.
Another day I caught him muttering something. Seemed a little foreign to me. I heard more carefully, and it took me back to my seventh grade science classes.
He was muttering :
You must be wondering that he must have picked up the formula from someone, somewhere. Or that he must have been hit with early school days memories. Or that he may be a man of good education befallen to such hopeless and helpless times. I don’t know which one it is. And I’ll forever keep wondering.
Coming back to khaini, today it dawned upon me that maybe that was all he could afford to eat! Or maybe that was his escape from reality. Harsh, but true. Unacceptable, but needs to be accepted. Painful, yet routine.
Once at God’s door. No more…
P.S. : Every one has a story waiting to be said. We never spoke. But he still compelled me to wonder about his.