“Here’s your soft khichadi and kadhi,” Sujata said keeping the tray on the table in her father–in–law’s room.
“What about your dinner?” asked the old man Sadashiv.
“We’ve ordered a pizza. You won’t be able to bite into the hard crust. Besides, it is difficult for you to digest,” she said leaving the old man with his mushy dinner. This was a regular feature and he had slowly begun to accept it.
The retired chief civil engineer sighed, “If I can chew the hard millet bhakri, would biting a pizza be a harder task?”
He overheard his son Arun and Sujata argue. “Look,” she roared, “my brother and his wife are coming here for treatment. They need a separate room. Ask your father to camp for some time in the enclosed balcony.” Arun’s apartment was a spacious one in a cluster of tall concrete towers in an upmarket suburb of the metropolis of Mumbai. However, Sadashiv considered them to be vertical slums having no soul.
Arun thought over his wife’s suggestion and meekly responded, “He could move in with the kids. They won’t mind. It is just a matter of a few weeks.”
“Oof! You think Paulomi and Anay would agree? Fat hopes! They keep up late with their mobiles and laptops while the grandpa likes to doze off by 10 p.m. And they wake up late while he starts his schedule at daybreak!” the reply was expected.
“It was so different in our childhood,” reminisced the old man, “grandparents meant the world to us. How we waited for the sundown to gather around them to tell us stories. And of course, they were a formidable shield against parental assault – verbal or otherwise. There was a competition of sorts among siblings and cousins as to who would sleep in the grandparents’ room. Things were so different today. Now, under the same roof, we have three different units doing their own number, hmm.” Minimal verbal and more WhatsApp communication was the order of the day.
The next morning, Sadashiv came to the breakfast table and sipped tea, and ate a little poha from his bowl. “Listen Arun and Sujata. In the next two days, I’d like to shift to my old apartment. I don’t think I can get cramped on the balcony. Arrange to get the flat cleaned. It has not been lived in ever since Vishakha passed away. I’m still capable of managing myself.” The two were a little stunned but relieved that the solution was found almost painlessly. Sujata promptly got the old place cleaned and stocked it with the food requirements and other things. The reconstructed old building was equipped with an elevator and piped cooking gas. A small refrigerator was ordered. The flat was compact and minimally furnished and the old man would not need anything more.
It was after a long time he had asserted himself. There was a time when he was surrounded by bureaucrats and government contractors. His rigid discipline had made him stand a head taller than most of his colleagues. Never had he buckled under political pressure. His apartment was in the northern suburb of the city. After his wife’s death, he had moved in with his son and now was as meek as a mouse.
Standing before the security door, he wiped his nameplate with pride. Sadashiv More. He stepped in with pride and authority and looked out through the sliding glass windows which had replaced the old wooden framed ones. Each monsoon, the old couple had to struggle to shut them. Strings and twines fastened the window handles to the grill. He smiled as thoughts of the old apartment crossed his mind. Though old-fashioned, the place was vibrant with the laughter of visitors, neighbours’ children, and the main door was barely closed except in the afternoons and nights.
Sadashiv moved into his flat which had recently got a new look but the old charm remained. There were two wings now. Modern amenities had replaced the old ones. The garden which was earlier a barren ground with a few creepers and bushes was now well laid out. It was an ideal opportunity to catch up with his old neighbours, he felt. In Arun’s complex, the residents who came to walk or jog in branded sportswear were an epitome of snootiness. Not a hand went up to greet anyone. The kids also seemed branded – thought they were exclusive models in this world. They chose their playmates as per the instructions of the parents and not by spontaneity.
A maid was hired for cleaning and making some bland food for the old man. Suddenly he felt so unshackled! There was an air of freedom now. He could order his menu each day and Shanti-the maid- willingly prepared it. He would have to live alone but at his son’s place too he was alone in a crowd, wasn’t he? “Better to rule in hell than be ruled in heaven,” he thought.
Each morning, he went to the senior area in the garden carrying bird feed with him. Other seniors gathered and they too brought fistfuls each day. They had two bowls: one for water and the other for seeds. Meeting his old neighbours was a rejuvenation. The garden was alive with their laughter and jokes. “I can hear my own laughter and voice now,” Sadashiv thought gleefully.
Before they left, they placed both the bowls under the marble benches of the octagonal gazebo. By the time he finished his walk and a chat and went up to his third floor house, Shanti was done for the day. She’d get vegetables and groceries for him willingly. The rest of the day stared at him but he was not going the let ennui take a toll on him. There were newspapers, TV, and music to keep him occupied for some time. Occasionally, he took an evening walk. “Let me make friends with myself,” he muttered to himself.
Sadashiv fixed a plate in the window grill and placed grains for his winged friends. They came singly and later in flocks. The bulbuls chirped while the pigeons squeezed through the grill to pick a few grains. The parrots preferred groundnuts and fruit pieces. The fantails hopped and spread their plumage and broke into a ditty when their tiny tummies were full.
The doorbell rang. Arun had come with someone from his office to fix cameras and security alarms in the house. Sadashiv refused to have the flat under surveillance. “It is ok for you to fix a camera on the door,” he explained. “Even the security alarm going to the building office is fine,” he continued, “but why all this? So many people live alone. If I don’t go down for a walk or don’t answer the door bell, my friends will call you. You have the duplicate key, don’t you?” Arun was nonplussed. “The cranky old man will always have his way,” thought he.
For the senior friends, an occasional clandestine treat at the ice-cream kiosk was a mini adventure! Or sometimes they gathered at some loner’s place to have a few crispy snacks. The greying lot organised picnics and Sadashiv had made up his mind to be here as long as possible. This type of solo life was an elixir for a man who seemed to have lost his independence.
The apartment overlooked the garden and Sadashiv could see the road too. The fast speed of life had replaced the earlier relaxed one. Even when he worked nine or more hours a day, he never suffered any modern ailments of stress and ulcers. “We knew how to take charge of life,” he reflected. He took pride in stating that he never took any medication. The only time he visited a hospital in recent years was when his wife was ailing. After a brief illness, she had said goodbye to this world. On the other side, Arun was barely fifty and his bedside table was full of strips of medicines to control his blood pressure and sugar.
The winged friends were a delight: they told a lot of tales, didn’t they? They didn’t sing for rewards. They were happy and made the best of the moment. Golden Orioles let out a gurgled whistle which brought a smile on Sadashiv’s lips. He whistled back to see them tilt their little heads in wonder. The tiny green and orange Barbets gave out unmatched metronomic calls with rhythmic head movements. They were a riot of colours splashed by Nature. And what a variety of sound! It could beat any symphony, he felt. The winged creatures were his life line.
He stared at the flock of sparrows who had reappeared after a brief vanishing act. They tweeted and picked a few grains hopping freely. They splashed the water in gay abandon when they dived into the water bowl. Sadashiv was experiencing unadulterated bliss looking at these gifts that Nature had given to humans. While the birds hopped and chirped, he valued his blessings. No one yelled at him for dropping curry on the tablecloth. No one mocked at his engineering degree if he didn’t get his mobile apps right. The winged creatures just spread happiness.
Arun called and asked him to come for some time to meet Sujata’s brother Satish. “Baba, I’ll send the driver tomorrow. You come here for lunch and then you’d be dropped back,” he said.
“How long is he going to be here?” asked the old man. “I could talk to him on a video call if you wish. It wouldn’t put anyone into any inconvenience unless of course, you both insist on my personal visit.” Arun gulped at the brusque suggestion.
Sadashiv decided to go by hiring an Uber cab unannounced. There would be no question of preparing lunch. The modern household grazed on burgers and noodles.
Arun and his wife were taken aback to see him at the door. Satish, once a hefty man was now gaunt and looked like a scarecrow! His wife Abha seemed deflated of all earlier arrogance. The old man talked to the patient and wished him recovery. He rose and Arun offered to drop him back. “No.” He raised his hand. “I’ve been able to download the Uber cab app and I’ll manage to go back.” The uneasiness among Arun’s family was palpable. Sadashiv knew that Arun would have to hear a few unpleasant things over the abrupt nature of his visit but now he didn’t care.
That night, Sadashiv felt that he had regained his self-pride. He looked forward to the impending outing which the oldies had planned over the weekend. They were to take a comfortable air-conditioned bus and head to a resort. There would be games and a forest walk, sumptuous grub, and the oldies would let their hair down (whatever little was left on the scalps) and dance and sing to their hearts’ content. After an overnight stay, they would return home refreshed. And there would be enough memories to fall back upon for the next few months!
The youth of the society had also planned a fun fare and Sadashiv was asked to judge a sports quiz. The seniors were given simple tasks while the homemakers were to organise a culinary contest. Some sports events would keep the kids occupied and a fancy dress event would keep all age groups busy! All the occupants were on a roll…streaming suggestions, making arrangements for a pandal and there was never a dull moment. Sadashiv too was going over options for a fancy dress slot and had short listed characters of Dr. No, James Bond, or John Wayne as a cowboy! He would rummage through his wardrobe to get something appropriate! He would go to the toy shop nearby to get two toy pistols to make the character look authentic. Oh! He would need a broad belt with a huge buckle too. Boy! Wasn’t he excited like a child keenly awaiting the school’s annual day! He had missed these moments at Arun’s residential area which would have promptly termed it as ‘middle class entertainment’.
A brief drizzle had kept him homebound that day. After his lunch, he stood near the window and had a sinking feeling. Images blurred and he felt his breaths were laboured. He reached for the alarm near the window but did not press the bell. He looked at the grill and wished that his lifeline would come to revive him. A pair of bulbuls landed as if answering his call. They chirped and pranced from one place to the other. Sadashiv smiled and mumbled, “Chirp, chirp. Birdie. I don’t need a ventilator to survive.” He dozed off till the evening flocks came to take their pick.
The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and has published several features in print and and digital media. She has worked with the Times of India Group and the news department of Doordarshan. She has also published three works of fiction: Beyond Belief (Amazon Kindle), The Pink Periwinkle (Short stories-Notion Press), The Dance of Destiny (Fiction-Notion Press).