It was a lazy hot summer afternoon in the month of May. I had just finished my Sunday lunch and was about to hit the bed for an afternoon siesta. As I lay on the bed my mind started wandering. Useless thoughts started pouring in. How I was heading in my professional career to how much financially secure I was so as to think of an early retirement….about my personal life. I also remembered my father, my Baba to me. Mind is like a universe. There is no circumferential limits to it and for that matter no visible horizon as well. So, the thoughts have the liberty and the opportunity to travel far and wide.
I was into these thoughts with some amount of sleep in my eyes when suddenly I heard a loud bang on my main door. I was surprised. Today being a Sunday, who could be there? As it is I don’t have many visitors at home and my only visitors on weekdays were the postman or the courier guys. I could not re-collect if I was expecting some one in this hot afternoon. I thought may be the cable guy has come and as I reached out for the main door, I heard a voice …’Sahib!’ and there was again a bang on the wooden door.
’ Sahib! ’
And again the bang!… and this rhythmic process continued. I pulled up a vest on top of my black shorts and headed towards the dining area. It had the side door leading to the main entrance in front of of my beautiful garden.
’Sahib’…this time the voice was more firm and louder. I opened the door and was amazed to see an old man in front of me with folded hands and a smiling face. On a second look, he seemed to me very old. He appeared to be around eighty or eighty five five years old. He was dressed fully in white attire though not very clean. He had a white head gear which in Rajasthan, men wear it as a symbol of prestige and is called as ’Pagdi’. It’s like a turban. He had a white subtle of 3-4 days. There were lot of wrinkles on his face but the most remarkable thing about him was his pair of eyes…bright and smiling! He was wearing a white kurta sort of shirt and a white dhoti with black old leather shoes. Somehow, he had a striking personality and his smile was mesmerizing donning that toothless face!
He was still folding his hands the way people do a ‘Namaste’. The first thing that I uttered seeing him was ‘Baba!’… I could see the similarities in the old man’s and my father’s eyes when he was alive. I often wondered if most of the old men looked alike with those wrinkles and toothless mouth? I was impressed and not minding the hot summer wind blowing across my face and body I heard me saying ‘yes Baba…what?’
‘Can I clean your garden…there seems to be lot of wild grass around’.
‘But you want to clean it now…in this afternoon heat?’.
He laughed loudly and said ’no problem…I am used to it’. How wonderful he looked when he laughed with his toothless face!
‘I’ll clean the whole area’ he pointed out with his fragile hands and a serious look…he was not smiling now.
‘Twenty five rupees!’…he said and smiled again. He quoted his price in a manner that there was no room for any negotiation. Anyways, I would have given him hundred rupees without letting him do anything. He was just too old…and I had a soft corner for the old people. I was in a dilemma now…the man looked very old and fragile to me but at the same time he was asking for work and not begging. For a moment, I quickly did a stock taking of my house to see if any worthwhile work could be allotted to him. At least that would spare him to work in this heat outside. But nothing clicked to me at that point of time. The hot afternoon blaze was making it hard for me to stand outside . The summers in Rajasthan could be horrible.
As I turned towards the old man, I saw him already getting down to his work! He had brought a small sickle with himself which he took out from the old plastic bag that he had kept near the gate. Even before I could provide him some directions as to what needs to be done or what needs to be cleaned, the old man was at his work. This really amazed me. A thought crossed my mind then. So this is what my Bosses always expected from me. This is what they always meant by saying ‘be proactive’. I believe every Boss’s expectations from his subordinates would be to be ready with all the plans and processes as soon as any new client is on boarded. I am sure my Bosses would have liked this old man seeing his pro-activeness and his focused nature. I just smiled at my thought.
I saw the old man start working from one corner of the garden. He was working very slowly but that’s how one would work at his age. Rather, he was doing very fine considering his age and the hot summer.
‘Baba, just remove the wild grass and only the weeds’. Finally, I instructed him.
He did not give any ear to me. Just like my current Boss! I thought again. He also never gives any ear to any of my valuable idea or advice. But sometimes he does appreciate my ideas which results in a lengthy email by him and circulating it to all important people with the subject line ‘Just a thought’! How shameful! …But I am sure my Boss would have liked this old man for being so focussed at his work. This ‘being focussed’ has been a point of discussion in many or almost all my appraisals so far…’you are doing a good job! But you need to be more focussed…you know! The Boss would say. No, I never knew until I saw this old man working in this hot afternoon with all the focus. Now I understand what ‘being focussed’ really mean. I am sure my Boss would have given this old man an excellent rating! Suddenly, I had a feeling of respect for this old man…after all he did taught me some good work ethos!
The heat was too much to bear now. I looked at him again and asked ‘Baba, you need water?’
This time he looked at me and smiled nodding his head in negative.
‘Ok then. Call me when you are done’. I told him and turned to get into the house.
As I entered, I could really feel the difference between the outside temperature and the coolness inside the house. I started the water cooler again and lay on the bed with soft pillows beneath my head and by my side. I don’t know why but I started remembering my father. He would sit for hours in the garden doing nothing but picking up the leaves that would fall from the tall Ashoka trees. He would also water the plants that were there in the garden. He was very proud of the house and the garden that he built. Our garden was the best maintained in the entire neighbourhood. This gave him lot of pride. He used to sit there, practically the whole day irrespective of seasons on his easy chair and would watch the garden as if he was sitting on the promenade of marine drive in Mumbai and staring at the sea. There was so much of joy and contentment in him doing all this activity day in and day out.
Sometimes I really wondered that if life could be this simple? So much joy out of nothing…When I had gone to Mumbai (then Bombay!) for my career prospects, I had requested both my parents to come and stay with me in my flat there instead of staying alone here, in Jaipur. My mother agreed but my father never agreed. He wanted to live and die in his ‘own house’. And ultimately he succeeded in doing that… and with full pride. I too felt proud of him! I still do. Deep into the past, I did not know when I just dozed off…
‘Sahib!’ I heard the old man calling me. I quickly got up and went out to see if he was done.
‘Yes Baba. Done?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Please check’. He said putting his old sickle in the torn out old polythene bag that he brought.
‘Ok…you have done a good job!’ I said seeing how nicely he had cleaned the whole garden. I went inside and got a fifty rupee note.
‘Here Baba, take this’. I said handing over the fifty rupee note to him.
‘I don’t have change’ he looked at me holding the note.
‘No, keep it. You have done a good job.’ I praised him again.
‘Thank you Sahib! So kind of you! He said folding the note and keeping it in his side pocket of his kurta. He turned slowly and without saying a word more, took his baby steps to proceed towards the main gate. I was slightly perplexed and disappointed. I thought he would talk some more showing his gratitude as to how grateful he was to receive twenty five rupees more but alas…
Next Sunday, early in the morning when I was reading the newspaper in the garden having a cup of tea, I heard somebody opening the gate. I turned around and saw Baba…with his baby steps he came towards me and gave me a warm smile.
‘RamRam Sahib!’ he said with folded hands. (‘RamRam’ is synonym to ‘hello’ in Rajasthan and normally people fold or join hands while greeting each other. This is a tradition and a great culture which I really admire.)
‘Baba…Good morning! How are you?’
He just laughed without saying anything. Again, how wonderful he looked when he laughed with his toothless face!
He sat on the lawn. I went inside to get some tea for him. I handed over the cup to him and he held it with both his hands. I folded the newspaper and kept it aside. We chatted for some time. He told me about his family. His wife passed away few years back. He had three daughters and two sons. All his daughters were married and were staying with their husband. The two sons were also married but they stayed with their mothers-in law. I questioned him about that and he answered with grief that both the mothers-in law were better off than him and that is why both his sons deserted him. What a pity! I thought. And how shame full. What is the use of having a family which you bread all through your life if no one is around you in your old age.
I truly believe that this evil is present in all section of our society and across all classes. How can the sons and daughters become so selfish to desert an old man who is their father? …We chatted for some more time and I told him about myself and my job, my mother and father etc. He listened with great attention but did not ask any question. Then after some time he got up on his own and left. Before leaving, he washed his cup at the garden tap, and then took his baby steps towards the gate. I don’t know why but I felt good and liked his company. To be honest, I liked him the first time I saw him!
This became a ritual on every Sunday. I would wait for Baba to come in the morning and then we would have tea together discussing his family issues. I updated him about all the developments at my end. I would ask him about what he cooked that day and would joke with him that I’ll come to his house for lunch one day…and he would laugh loudly hearing this and then smartly point his hand towards my stomach saying that I had a big belly and for this reason alone he could not afford me for lunch! He told me that normally he made Bati and Dal (Dal Bati is a traditional Rajasthani dish made of wheat balls known as Bati heated or grilled usually over coal stove. This is served with hot Dal which is a cereal along with butter or ghee).
Seasons passed…from hot summers in May to rains in August and then to winters in December. Baba was regular at my place on Sundays. We chatted and had tea together.
Initially, I gave him some clothes on my own including a new Nike T-shirt that I had bought for myself. I made him wore in front of me…how happy he was and how wonderful he looked wearing a Nike maroon coloured round neck T-Shirt. Slowly, as time passed, he started putting forward his demands. And his demands related to the change of seasons like an umbrella, a pair of socks, a warm cloth, a blanket etc. Every Sunday he used to come and after having our morning tea, I handed over his things that he had demanded last week. To be honest, I liked it. The joy of giving this old man was very satisfying and fulfilling. Nothing else mattered to me at that time except to see him happy. On days when there was nothing to be given, I would give him some money then.
As days passed by, he took this for granted. On some Sundays if I would still be sleeping and he would knock the door, I would just open the door and hand over the money to him. And before closing the door, I would see with my half open eyes his toothless laughing face with folded hands. How wonderful he looked when he laughed with his toothless face! He would take the money and would proceed towards the main gate with his baby steps.
Life continued and my fondness for Baba grew to the extent of caring and concern. I used to be worried when he did not turn up on any of the Sundays. My first thought at that time would be ‘Did he die?’…he was so old that anything was possible. But before my concern could turn into a worry, Baba would show up the next Sunday!
My job was becoming more hectic now. There was lot of pressure on me. But I believe this is part and parcel of life when you are into job. The corporate culture these days is of ‘push & pull’. You have to pull down someone to push yourself up. The environment sometimes becomes really polluted in this pushing and pulling game. It so happened in this pushing and pulling game that I got transferred to Mumbai again. It also so happened during this time that Baba did not turn up on two consecutive Sundays. As I was worked up in the office matters, I did not pay much attention and hoped that Baba would surely come the coming Sunday. The Sunday came and passed but Baba did not turn up. Now I got worried. I had not informed Baba about my transfer to Mumbai and I had just one month’s time left in Jaipur. I called up my close friend Jaiprakash and told him everything. He was already aware of my friendship with Baba. In fact, out of curiosity, he did visit me one Sunday morning just to meet Baba. Jaiprakash told me that we will go out this weekend to look out for Baba in my neighbourhood. I was not sure why but it was my innermost desire to meet Baba once before I leave the city.
The weekend came and myself and Jaiprakash went out in the neighbourhood to look out for Bab. We went to the nearby temple, to the cycle shop, the only road side tea stall in the area and few other places as well where there was a possibility of locating Baba. Some did talk about him but no one had any idea as to where he lived. We returned without getting any concrete information about Baba. Jaiprakash told me to forget and concentrate on moving to Mumbai. Baba did not turn up the next two Sundays as well…I gave up the hope to see him again. I just prayed to God that he be well wherever he is. ‘Did he die?’ the thought crossed my mind few times. I knew he stayed alone like me and hence I was worried more. Though winter was receding and it was month of Feb, I was concerned if Baba died of cold…I remember giving him a new blanket that I was using for myself and hoped it helped him in the cold.
Now I had just one week left before I was to move to Mumbai. There were lots of matters that need to be settled at the office before I was given the release order. There were matters at home as well that need to be looked into. And on top of it, my eighty five year old friend was missing…I was not sure which issue was to be given the top priority! As the week was drawing towards end, I was feeling sad from inside. I was sad for leaving this beautiful city, sad for missing my close friend Jaiprakash’s company whom I have known since my school days and very sad for not able to meet my Baba for the last time. I accepted that now it would not be possible for me to see Baba again for whatever reason and hence gave up the hope. I asked Jaiprakash to see if it would be possible for him to look out for Baba again in my locality after my departure. He assured me that he would do it with all sincerity.
That Sunday, my last day in the city, was really hectic. My packing was almost done by the movers and packers agency guys. How things have become easier these days! I remember during our father’s time how each one of the family was involved in packing the household things whenever a transfer happened. Even the neighbourhood families used to get involved. Life has become easy today. I was to catch the evening flight after loading of the goods was done in the truck. The goods would reach Mumbai two days later that is what the agency guys had promised. Jaiprakash brought some homemade meal cooked by his very efficient wife. We had the meal in one of the empty rooms after all the packed goods were uploaded in the truck. While eating we talked of the good time that we had during my stay in this city. We discussed our future plans and Jaiprakash promised me that he would visit Mumbai sometime in the near future. We remembered Baba as well…about his naughty laughter and his innocent demands. I told Jaiprakash that this would be my only regret of not meeting Baba one last time before I left Jaipur…
As we were discussing all these there was a mild knock at the door. I thought it must be one of the packers and movers guys…I got up and went towards the dining area which had the side door leading to the main entrance in front of the garden. I opened the door and got the shock of my life….!!! It was Baba standing right there in front of me, fully attired in white dress including his white turban. His hands were folded doing a ‘Namaste’ and he was laughing. How wonderful he looked when he laughed with his toothless face!
My whole body was filled with joy and with great excitement I heard myself uttering ’Baba!!!’
Note: Written during summers of 2010