It was a rare weekday evening away from work. Never mind that I had just completed an hour-long journey from Churchgate to home, on my feet. Never mind that I had trouble finding a rickshaw to drop me home. A sunset on the horizon, a song on my lips and the wind playing with my hair, I was all smiles.
I remember flashing a smile at the security guard and the lift-man. I turned the key to open the front door, got rid of my work appendages, wolfed down some fruit and rushed out of the door gym bag in hand.
En-route the gym, I spotted familiar sights and faces. A set of grandparents prodding their grandson to “practise” his walk, propped by hands on both sides; a two-year-old discovering the joys of posing for her shutter-crazy daddy and a six-year-old furiously thrashing her legs in the swimming pool. I saw my childhood in those children gallivanting on the swings, the slides and the jungle gym. They were oblivious to their mothers’ words of caution and the receding light. It was one of the few moments in life that I wished to lock within a photograph. But I also didn’t want to ruin the moment with a rude click. I waved out to a few familiar faces. Well, they seemed familiar in the darkness. And there isn’t anything like too many smiles, solicited or unsolicited. Most waved back, adding to my glee.
I smiled at the trainer and a friend I bumped into at the gym. For once, small talk flowed easily and it felt genuine. I got on the treadmill. Slow, lazy strides soon made way for fast, furious ones. I was at a noisier place than I’d have liked to be. It was also ridden with distraction. But unlike a lazy sunny morning, there was no frown on the brow. I didn’t flinch when the trainer came up to me to exchange a few words or took the liberty to vary my pace.
On my way home, the following line (from an article I had read, earlier this week) came to mind, “I remember thinking: ‘In this moment, my life may not be perfect, but I am so happy.’”
I was at one of my usual haunts for a documentary screening one evening. I think it was Khalid Mohammad’s The Last Irani Chai. Was immersed in my thoughts as usual, oblivious to folks around me. He came and plonked himself in the seat next to mine and said an enthusiastic hello. I responded, albeit with lesser enthusiasm. I was a little upset at being disturbed out of my reverie.
His was a familiar face. We had met a few weeks earlier at another such screening. He insisted in handing over his business card to me, hoping I’ll agree to a drink sometime. I tried declining initially, but then figured it was easier to play along. He’d forget about me eventually.
But now that he was sitting next to me, I knew that he clearly hadn’t. He enquired about the missing phone call. I said I hadn’t really intended to call him to begin with. He smiled sheepishly. He initiated some small talk, hoping to break some quick ice. I wasn’t forthcoming, fingering the pages of my book impatiently. He got the hint, after multiple attempts.
I felt intruded upon. I was craving some alone time and he was being a little adamant about wanting a conversation. No, he wasn’t rude. I probably was. But I didn’t think I was obliged to entertain him.
This city tends to do this to you. It makes me possessive of my space, literally and figuratively. I find comfort in dark, sparsely-lit cinema halls where I can be all by myself, even ignoring the beeping cell phone in my bag. I feel reassured in an unoccupied local train, where the chatter of my co-passengers does not threaten to invade my thoughts. I derive solace when I can spend 30 minutes reading a book every night before I sleep.
He caught up with her when she was ambling towards Churchgate after a not-so nice day at work. Marathon meetings and telecons had constantly interrupted her day. And now she craved some alone time. She didn’t know his name, but she recognized him as the guy in the office cafeteria. More than the face, she recognized his voice, when she’d pick up her landline to call for a quick sandwich every evening.
He introduced himself with his name, hoping she’d recognize/acknowledge him. She did, much to her own surprise. It was a little awkward to begin with. But he kept it simple. They exchanged perfunctory details, who stayed where, how good/bad/comfortable each of their commutes were, what were their respective timings like, etc.
He was rather blasé that he had a 12-hour shift on most days. That he got into work between 6 and 7 each morning, supervised the cooks make breakfast, take down breakfast orders, supervise lunch, do the billing, prepare for snacks and tea, clean up for the day, et al. All in a day’s work! Five days a week. And here she was moping about having to work hard.
He also had a longer commute. But she had never seen him without a smile.
Once they had dispensed with the mundane, he asked her if she enjoyed her work. She muttered a distracted yes and deflected the question towards him. He paused, as if to collect his thoughts. He said he didn’t think there was anything else he could do, if he didn’t do this. “Madam, mein padha likha nahi hai na. Isi liye. Nahi toh, mein aap logon ki tarah computer ke saamne baitha rahta poore din. Aaram se. Lekin abhi mein sirf yahi kar sakta hun,” he replied.
His words conveyed little or no regret. He was very matter-of-fact about it. He didn’t want pity. He simply sought a casual, light-hearted conversation outside the workplace. He thought he had earned it, after a sincere day’s of work.
And he probably went home, with yet another smile on his face. Oblivious that this one simple conversation would leave her feeling so very inadequate.
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, a teenager was upset that he would have to resume school in less than a week. He was to join ninth grade. More number of subjects to prepare for, for number of books he would have to read. He was troubled about how he would cope with it all. Maths, English, the sciences, his head was in a tizzy. He usually fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. But sleep eluded him that night. The fear of academics and the pressure to live up to expectations gnawed at him. He went to one of the city’s elite schools and was also privately tutored at home. But he hated having to study.
He pushed aside his blanket and began pacing around the room, almost delusional that getting worked up in the middle of night about academics was actually going to resolve anything. He went to the balcony for a change of scenery. He glanced up his servant’s family of four sitting down for dinner. The mother was plating food for both her children, a boy and girl, while the man waited patiently. He sensed laughter and camaraderie and a sense of light-heartedness. In their poverty, he saw relief from academics. “These kids no have tuitions or anything. They just have to do okayish in school and then find one or two houses they can cook in and clean,” he said to himself. “Such a simple life they have!”
The lady had been waiting for a while. She looked tired and fragile. Yet, she wouldn’t let go off the bag on her shoulder. It looked heavy. It had been on her petite frame for the last ten minutes. She said she hadn’t far to go. I suppose that was where the problem began.
Any rickshaw would have willingly ferried her to her destination had it been a considerable distance away. But home was less than minimum fare away. She refused to back off. Asked every rickshaw fellow diligently. She didn’t give the spiel of how old she was or the heavy bag that she was carrying. Her face crumpled with every refusal but she was determined.
A friend and I managed to get a rickshaw. She almost swooped down upon us. Requested very politely if we could drop her off on the main road. The rickshaw driver was a little annoyed. We almost declined as well but couldn’t ourselves to utter a no. She climbed in and sat on the edge of the seat. She didn’t press for more space or ask us to adjust, etc. She remained on the edge until it was time get off.
True to her word, as soon as we touched the main road, she requested the driver to stop for a minute so she could get down. She got off as soon as the rickshaw halted. Before the driver could re-ignite the engine, she reached forward with folded hands to say, “Thanks sister.”
She was old enough to be our grandmother. But she didn’t let that get in the way of expressing her gratitude. Gratitude to two twenty-somethings for a ride back home! I felt humbled, embarrassed and rotten all at once. We mumbled a muted goodnight and went along our way.
That night I found myself mouthing silent prayers. For that lady, for my grandparents, for us twenty-somethings.