I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
I cannot recall a situation similar to this in my life. It is reminiscent of the time I was hanging by the edge of the cliff when I was only seven. I didn’t think I would make it but eventually did. I was trying to assert myself by saying if I could make it through a long cold winter night fifty-three years ago, I could make it now. Hands were trembling like my grandfather’s, and knees were telling me that they won’t be able to carry the body for long.
“Do I look nervous”? I asked my superior. He always had a delirious reply ready when I am around. “No, no, not at all. Those dark crescents neatly hide your nervousness”, he said pointing at my arms and chest. I was sweating through my skin. The shirt was soaked.
I’m a watchman, working in a city a thousand miles away from my hometown. I have nobody here, no friends, and no relatives. In fact, I have no people whom I can call my own anywhere. But last year, something happened. Something really changed.
Like any other day, I was doing my duty at the Institute. The chief of security and surveillance summoned me when I was having my lunch. The newly joined hawaldar came running and said, “Sahab is asking you to come right away. It seems very urgent and confidential”. I wore my cap and grabbed the stick. Without even wiping my hand clean, I went up to the Chief of Security.
“Lick your fingers, I don’t want your cheap food falling on the floor in my cabin”, he thundered. The Superintendent was very glad to hear that. It looked as if happiness in his life is derived only from my misery and sorrow. “Sorry Sir, I was having….”
“You were definitely not eating from the Royal kitchen, now listen.. a very important person is going to come here this evening. We are told that the person is of national importance. So, you know what should you be doing when such people come, right?
“Yes Sir, no problem Sir, I’ll take responsibility Sir,” I said.
I didn’t even complete my meal. I had to rush all around the campus to ensure that proper care and security arrangements were in place.
I spent the next three hours inspecting every part.
A thirty-five something man entered the corridor and a large crowd cheered him as he swiftly walked past me. Dressed in military green, he looked like a knight in shining armour. I stretched my hand to touch him but there were so many people trying to mob him. Being in charge of the security cordon, I should have kept my eyes firmly on the swelling crowd. But the gentleman that he is, he waved at the people gathered there with a signal that he is hurrying and will catch them later. He looked at me and gave me a benign smile, as if he was sympathetic to me, an old man, trying hard to do a job. Here I was, preparing and rehearsing for months to talk to him. All I said were a few “Aargh, Yes, No and Please” to the crowd around, perhaps, by looking in his direction. There was an army of Press Reporters and camerapersons. Not to mention a large contingent of students, interns, young professionals and our own staff. Among them, a young lady, who had an entry badge took undue liberty and came within touching distance of the VIP guest. She was moving suspiciously and when frisked, was carrying a spy camera fitted brooch, a microphone fitted smart watch. The camera and microphone recorded every movement of the guest ever since he came in. Although nothing was established to claim that she was a spy or a terrorist, it was a clear sign of lapse on our part. And, lo, behold, I was suspended for a cool 60 days.
I was taking a deep breath when I suddenly felt a club on my shoulders. “You have become too old for the job; I am going to get you relieved from the duty within a month, for good”. It was my superintendent. Definitely not words of support, care or warmth. But then, why would he offer me any consolation? In his own words, I am a poor man from a depressed class, without any family or progeny with nothing to live for, like a weed, like an insect. A year ago, when I was trying to keep myself warm at work on a chilly December night, this man appeared suddenly. He started off with profanities- he spoke ill about my community and even my parents- all because I was having half a cup of tea that a young cadet had offered.
I am used to hearing such things right from my childhood. Hence, it did not hurt me much. But I couldn’t take the last word he uttered. It felt like being stabbed by a hundred knives and struggling for breath. He called me childless, a man with nobody to cry when he’s dead. “Only your grave digger will be there for your funeral”
I hadn’t been to my village in years. I had a hut that I could call my own, but I had given it to an old pal of mine who was driven out of home by his evil son and daughter in law. I haven’t even visited him in years. He does write me a letter every season, usually telling about the farming in the village or the weather. The world has very few good and honest people left. The world belongs to the wrongdoer, the wicked and the savage. That is why we don’t have proper rains or drinking water, he’d write; in almost every other letter. I did not want to compound his grief, hence made no attempt in asking about his personal life. He too perhaps felt the same and never really asked about mine.
Strange are the ways of the world! He has only one reliable friend; same with me. Yet, we were not in a position to soothe each other’s wounds.
“Men aren’t supposed to show emotions”, we were taught. Maybe that lesson has been strongly etched in our hearts. With our lives spent entirely on handling one hardship after another, we have developed a heart of stone. No emotions, no regrets, no remorse. Ironically, a life many would yearn for!
I decided I would visit my village during the suspension period. It also struck me that this friend of mine might hold the answers that I have been looking for, pretty much the entire second half of my life.
“Knock, knock. May I come in? I asked. Within a few seconds, a man visibly much older than he actually steps out. He takes a few moments to recognise and realise that I have come to see him. He quickly stretched out his arms and gave me a warm embrace. It felt very odd and unnatural. Perhaps, because I had forgotten how human contact felt.
After talking about our meaningless lives and societal hypocrisies, I thought it was time to launch the missile. I finally asked him, “What happened to my wife and my son? Nobody has ever told me the truth. I don’t want to die without knowing the truth. I would give my everything to just see them and talk to them once. “
“I saw this coming, he said. After much persuasion, he told me that my wife was never to be found again after that fateful night. When my boy was little, and I was working at the village school, I once went for a play at night in the neighbouring village. It was the first time my wife had stepped out since the birth of our child. Poor thing, she has been under house arrest for two years. She never asked anything for herself. So, when she asked for a pair of bangles, I promised her I’d get them for her. After several months of saving money from my meagre salary, I managed to buy them for her. The smile on her face said it all! She was very happy. I told her I’d take her and our kid to the fair in a neighbouring village. Late in the night, when we were returning, we were ambushed by dacoits. I was beaten and knocked. “How dare you try to stop us from acquiring the school land you lowly piece of crap,” they said. That’s all I heard. After a week or so, I woke up in a crowded hospital with my severed fingers and broken bones. Nobody knew what happened to my wife or my child. When it was difficult for me to stay alive in my village, a person I knew offered a job in another part of the country. I left, in search of food, my wife, my child and my destiny.
“Sorry, we never got to know what happened to your wife. “And my child”?? “He was given away to an orphanage. Remember, there was nobody to take care of him and it took almost a year for you to come back to proper senses.” But I want to tell you something, he continued, twirling another piece of tobacco between his fingers. “ A few months ago, a young man came to our village that he has come in search of his biological parents. I wasn’t in the village at that time, was away on a pilgrimage. So I couldn’t see him or talk to him. But the villagers said he was very good looking, like a very high ranked officer of sorts. None could believe that he could have been an orphan…”
Anyway, let’s directly ask the grocer. It was him who told me about this man. I am told that the person would come back again to meet me. The grocer might have spoken to him in a way that made him believe that I would be the door to his past.
When we met the grocer, he told us that the man told him that he had found conclusive evidence that he was born in the very same village and was lost in an unfortunate dacoity like event. Nothing was known about his mother, but his father was very much alive and someone had given him to a childless army couple. He then handed us a wallet which contained a photograph of a young lady. “His wife perhaps said the man. Do you know her”?
I strongly felt that this young man would be my son. My friend quickly pointed out that I had felt the same for hundreds of boys in the past. “You even asked a girl who was playing a young man in a play once. Are you my son? Are you my son?? !! Hahaha, he laughed aloud.
So, now, I stood still, perspiring and hoping the event goes smoothly this time. Last time when the man was here, I was suspended for two months. But today is different. It is an honorary rank awarding day. This man was being embellished with a high rank for the service to the country. When on stage, he called out my name. I was trembling with fear when I heard him call me. Till date, I have been called only for giving an order or a mouthful. And nobody of that rank had ever spoken to me.
“I am very sorry that there was a situation during my previous visit four months ago. I heard they suspended you for two months. When I got to know, I was very disturbed. I called the Academy and found out about you. You are the finest person in the entire Academy. I am calling you on stage to honour you and let everybody know that you weren’t at fault. You are like my father, I need your blessings” he said. I never ever wished in my wildest dreams to be treated that way. It was unreal. He gave me a bunch of flowers and his card and asked me to call him whenever I want. “Just think that I am your son. No hesitation, whatsoever he said.”
I was feeling giddy. The bright lights on the stage added to my blurred vision. He almost held my hand and made a volunteer take me down the stairs. Whatever happened was very unreal for me. My breath was pounding and maybe my heart was beating at the rate of a thousand per minute. I made my way to the retiring room, washed my face and had a tumbler of cold water from the water dispenser.
It has now been fifteen minutes. My heartbeat is not yet normal. But I was on duty, on the job; the job that fed me and gave me a purpose to live and serve all these years. I slowly trudged my way back to the ceremony hall. Now, perhaps the award ceremony was over and the man was introducing his family members to the audience. “These are my parents”, he said bowing to them in reverence. “Without them, I wouldn’t be worthy of even waiting the gates of this campus”.
And then “ This is my soul mate, he said pointing to his wife, who then stood and bowed to the audience who were clapping loudly in applause. It was the lady in the photograph that the grocer showed me a couple of months ago. It felt like my world came crashing down. Shall I go the running to the stage and tell him that he is my son? I kept asking myself. No, my inner voice said. “You have done nothing for him, whereas his parents gave their everything to him”. “ If you go back to his life now, you will disturb everyone; him, his wife and kids and most severely his parents. Do you want them to suffer?” my conscience asked. I had no answer. This is utter treachery, not fair play I felt. I shouldn’t be the reason of agony for my son, for whom I have hoped nothing but happiness. He now has a complete life, a loving and caring family. What would I have given him? A watchman like me?
I slowly took out the card he had given me. Tearing it into pieces, I smiled at myself, “ he asked me to call him and treat him like my son. What else do I want?”.
The dusk was setting in. I slowly walked away, with nothing but just the bunch of flowers he gave me. Yes, I shall carry them to my grave.
- Anoop Srinivas