February 5, 2017 1 Comment
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November 5, 2016 18 Comments
Ever since we landed in the same suburb, I have met B off and on in the vegetable market place outside the railway station.
A week ago, out of the blue, a cryptic mail from his daughter M carried the news of her mother’s unfortunate demise. When I had met B last, he did tell me his wife was unwell and M left her job months ago to take care of her mother. And I had then questioned the need and wisdom of M leaving her job that she had finally snagged after a lot of bench time, not thinking much of the poor lady’s sickness. The family, living on B’s pension, sorely needed the money the young lady was bringing in, I thought.
M did not reply to email-request for house address to call on them.
A bit of a background about B at this point:
B was a topper in the class, well mannered, darling of teachers, easily a good looker, a singer with a mellifluent voice, liked by all…
But life is a bitch. I’ve no idea till date when, where and how things went awry for him. We had gone on separate ways after the college.
I do know he retired as a staff in a nationalized bank not very far from where he started out eons ago. An anticlimax I had never imagined for an eagle of the blue skies that he was. He dabbled in dramatics, didn’t go far. When I met him years later – I moved into the same suburb where he lived – he was a very different man. Unkempt beard over sunken cheeks, hard of hearing, he sported strings of beads (rudraaksha) around his neck and many rakshai’s (lucky charms) tied on his wrist. He spoke of visions and favorable portents in his life with a religious fervor. On another track, he sounded excited about his ‘research’ on neem juice, experiments, results – he thought it to be a panacea for many ills. He expected Tata’s and the Ambani’s to line up anytime soon outside his residence for rights to his work. On the whole, he didn’t seem to be the garden variety we had matured into.
He was shunned by many as an incurable and a delusional bore. I did not, I’m glad, by thought or action. When we met I usually heard him out, managing now and then to get a word in on his parental duty to set and support his girl firmly on a course of education-employment-marriage just the way it is for other kids of her age; and gently easing myself off only if I had to.
Today I decided to visit the nearby bank – B had once told me he went there regularly to collect his monthly pension – hoping to get his address from them citing the unusual circumstances. I knew this was not impossible as our systems and staff continue, despite the scorn heaped on them, to be sensitive to genuine problems. When I went in, unstopped by absent security, I saw a man appearing to be a senior staff, generally moving about and a few ladies lazing before their terminals – the bank had closed its operations for the day. I went up to tell him the purpose of my visit: To know whereabouts of B. Showing no surprise at a stranger popping up suddenly before him after working hours , without further ado, he asked me to follow him to the end of a short hallway. And there I find who else!
After the initial surprise and happiness at this coincidence, I expressed my condolences over his loss and my anguish at not being around to stand by him.
What followed from B:
‘Her time had come, what could we do? It all started with a minor accident four months ago. She even recovered very well. But then…’
‘Don’t worry about me, take care of yourself. Don’t you forget your health issues…’
‘I’m quite ok financially. I get my pension which would get revised up very soon…M’s earnings till date are safely set aside for her marriage. In two to three years I’ll get her married off…My brother would help if needed. He is doing well…’
‘I came here to check on my loan application for a small amount. They told me it’s approved…’
‘M and I took her to the hospital at night by a three-wheeler. An ambulance, I was told, would cost Rs 9000…’
‘Don’t feel bad. I wasn’t alone. Lots of relatives and neighbors turned up for the funeral. On purpose I told my daughter to inform you only after it was all over. Given your health…’
‘Don’t trouble yourself coming home. These days both of us (B and M) are out almost all day. M’s running around to complete insurance formalities…’
‘Her people came in very late…’
What left me in dismay:
‘No priest would come to conduct the rites at the funeral. They wanted a full contract all the way for the following ten days of rituals at nothing less than Rs 80,000. Finally I cremated her without a priest, without the rites…’
‘My brother paid for the ambulance…’
‘It’s ok, I can feel her atma (soul) is with me all the time…In fact she told me at the end not to spend unduly over the ceremonies…My daughter and I gave away food to some poor…’
If you perceive contradictions in his observations above, it’s the truth trying to peek through despite his naïve attempt to paper over or reconcile certain unpleasant realities in his own mind.
In the fifteen minutes or so we were together, he was moved to tears for a moment just once as we hugged, as much bemoaning his loss, as over an old mates’s solicitiousness
When I left him, he. was not a broken man. He lives in peace and reconciliation in his own world very real in parts. I thought it is too cruel to ‘help’ him out of it. Nor I consider myself equal to the task.
Try as I might I’m unable to put down a vague sense of unfairness of it all continuing to nag me out of my peace.
But I know I’ll move on.
September 17, 2016 5 Comments
As the sun dipped out of sight below the horizon, the feathered folks were finding their way back home..
The Wise One saw a forlorn Kaga and knew at once not everything was right with the latter.
‘Kaga, you don’t look your usual self.’
‘Yes, my friend, you guessed right. These days when I go out, I’m not sure if I would be back in the evening with hair and hide in place.’
‘Well, you know I love those berries on the lone tall tree behind the mirasdar’s house.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen you stuffing yourself nonstop with those little things I don’t particularly care for. Am not surprised you’ve problems taking off after your fill.’
‘You with your evil eyes – it isn’t going to happen anymore.’
‘Why? Has the tree stopped producing berries? Has some one hacked it down?’
‘All this time, no one paid any attention to those trees in and around – they were on no-man’s land. Suddenly the mirasdar is now claiming the trees are his.’
‘Still there’s no way he can fence them off to keep you away from the berries high up on the tree. Can he?’
‘An evil mind is devil’s workshop. He has a dog and a man to keep watch. Whenever I alight on the tree and take the first bite – mind you, I do it absolutely noiselessly that would not awaken an insomniac – the blessed dog somehow catches sight of me and starts howling his head off. This gets the man to the spot from wherever he is and whatever he is doing to launch a fusillade of stones and pebbles with his slingshot. He’s quite good with it – he almost brought me down earlier today… frightened the blazing daylights out of me. So, my friend, my favorite feeding ground is now out of bounds for me. Don’t know where the next meal is coming from.’
The Wise One commiserated: ‘So sorry to hear. It’s cruel to snatch the food off someone’s mouth.’
There was silence with either having little to say.
‘I’ve a suggestion to make, if you care to listen and do as I say,’ spoke the Mango Tree so far passively listening in on Kaga’s sad story.
‘Anything for those juicy berries, dear sir, as long as I live to see the sun set.’
‘Tomorrow, when you alight on the tree, don’t be sneaky. Make a show.’
‘Yes, no cawing – that’s not what I meant. As soon the dog begins to announce your arrival, tell him you’re not amused, display your temper by vigorously shaking the (tree) limb you’re perched…jump up and down on it like you were on a hot brick, push with your beak like you’re fighting off a vulture…whatever to show your annoyance. Keep at it for a minute and you’ll have a peaceful meal. After a while your friend on the ground may open his loud mouth once again. At which instant you repeat your act. If it ever gets hot at anytime like today with pebbles and stones beginning to fly around you, make an immediate exit without losing a moment. Go back if you must not before allowing an hour or two for matters to cool down.’
‘Well, sounds quite doable…no harm in trying it out. Anyway things can’t get any worse from here.’
Once Kaga moved away for the night, the Wise One threw a quizzical glance at the Tree saying ‘Man, have you gone senile?‘ and received a signal in response to wait and watch.
The following day was like any other day – the birds lodged in the leafy Mango Tree headed out early in the morning seeking food and adventure, and returned in the evening flapping their tired wings looking to a night of repose.
And there was Kaga gliding in gracefully. The glow on his face said it all. He thanked the Tree profusely: ’You know, after a few rounds, strangely the dog appeared to be amused by my act more than anything else. I almost got a feeling he opened his mouth now on purpose to get me going and entertain himself. In the afternoon he even went so far as to wag his tail a few times! Thanks very much, sir, for restoring my lifeline.’
‘Just as I expected. Keep the show on and note all that jumping and pushing helps your digestion too.’
After Kagha took leave on this happy note the Wise One turned to the Mango Tree:
‘Just as you expected? All this song and dance – mind telling me what’s all this hooey?’
‘Nothing out of the ordinary…it always good to share…’
‘Soon Kaga will figure out for himself why it works for him. They are a team now – the dog is hooked on the berries that Kaga shakes down!’
June 14, 2016 3 Comments
The Wise One chatted up: ‘A Guru has come into the village.’
‘I know,’ said the Mango Tree.
‘You know? How?’
‘They rested right here under on their way to the village.’
‘Oh…last evening, had gone to the hut where he is staying…a steady stream of people kept up going in.’
‘Hear any wise words from him?’
‘No, there was no pravachan. Just people fussing about…he seems to enjoy all their attention and adulation…just like us.’
‘Well, his way of staying connected with the world for what it is, I would think. And be reminded, yes, he’s just like us.’
June 7, 2016 4 Comments
It was June 15, and in two days I would be turning thirty. I was insecure about entering a new decade of my life and feared that my best years were now behind me.
My daily routine included going to the gym for a workout before going to work. Every morning I would see my friend Nicholas at the gym. He was seventy-nine years old and in terrific shape. As I greeted Nicholas on this particular day, he noticed I wasn’t full of my usual vitality and asked if there was anything wrong. I told him I was feeling anxious about turning thirty. I wondered how I would look back on my life once I reached Nicholas’s age, so I asked him, “What was the best time of your life?”
Without hesitation, Nicholas replied, “Well, Joe, this is my philosophical answer to your philosophical question:
“When I was a child in Austria and everything was taken care of for me and I was nurtured by my parents, that was the best time of my life.
“When I was going to school and learning the things I know today, that was the best time of my life.
“When I got my first job and had responsibilities and got paid for my efforts, that was the best time of my life.
“When I met my wife and fell in love, that was the best time of my life.
“When we came to Canada and started a family, that was the best time of my life.
“When I was a young father, watching my children grow up, that was the best time of my life.
“And now, Joe, I am seventy-nine years old. I have my health, I feel good and I am in love with my wife just as I was when we first met. This is the best time of my life.”
Note from author: October 2008 update: Just a little background to this short story. After I had that conversation with Nicholas in 1990, I would share that conversation with people, who were anxious about their upcoming birthday. The birthday that usually represented the next decade in their lives. After approximately 4 years, someone advised me to send it to “chicken Soup for the Soul”. It was subsequently selected for their upcoming “5th Portion”. By the time it was published I had moved and attended a different Fitness Center. I never knew Nicholas’ last name and will probably never know if he, or anyone of his family members were aware that he inspired so many people with his philosophical comment on life. Interestingly, his commentary flowed out of him completely without taking time to ponder. Eighteen years later, he may still be with us or has passed on. Hopefully, he, or someone close to him will have made the connection.
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June 3, 2016 4 Comments
Rushing past the Mango Tree, the Wind mocked: ‘Don’t you feel sorry you can’t move, go places, meet people…?’
‘No more than you do, my friend’ the Tree shrugged and smiled, ‘when you can’t stand for a moment and savor the beauty of those places and people on your way.’
May 5, 2016 3 Comments
It was beyond the end of season.
Their chattering was hushed by the Wise One who spoke up:
‘The man is nearly passed out from hunger, I can see…struggling to keep himself up. We must get some food to him without delay.’
‘Aye, Aye,’ they chorused.
‘But we’re small, our beaks smaller to carry chunks of food for him,’ one from them bemoaned.
‘I’ve thought about it. Here’s what we could do. Each of you, go for a kitchen in the village. Bring back cooked rice as much your mouth holds. Make many trips until we’ve collected enough. All this in double haste.’
They liked the plan and knew what must be done now, taking off from their perch right away for the village. All but one.
‘Why aren’t you gone like your friends? Don’t you want to do your bit?’
‘It won’t work…the plan.’
‘Pray, tell me, wise guy, why would it not?’
‘At this hour, the kitchens would be closed with pots and pans washed and stowed away.’
‘You, silly bird, that’s exactly right for us.’
‘All the left-overs would have been collected in lidded pots beyond our reach. And cooked rice…’
‘We’ll see about it soon…okay, brilliant guy, you doing anything besides nay-saying?’
‘mmm…I smell somewhere here…’
‘Going after a teeny rat, you twit?’
Safe to assume the words were lost as the bird had long disappeared into the thick of leaves and branches.
Soon it was peck, peck…peck and a soft thud waking the man up from his stupor.
Gathering his last ounce of energy, he reached for the mangoes, semi-ripe, landed on a bed of dried leaves at arm’s length.
A while later the distant chatter of the birds drew closer, growing louder by instant, signalling their return. How could they…with their mouths full? Ah, it must be they were returning to the Wise One for his Plan B?
Now they knew cooked rice in villages is always saved overnight with lots of water standing over.’