The weather was warmer than usual this morning. By the time I completed my run I was completely drenched. I was one of the lucky few residents of Mumbai who had a green patch at accessible distance. Early morning runs, sitting here on this bench, listening to the morning birds chirping was wishful thinking for me till a few years ago. Felt good breathing in this air.
‘Beautiful morning, isn’t it? A warm smiling face greeted me. I turned to the elderly gentleman sitting on other side of the bench peeking out of a newspaper and nodded, returning the smile. His grey hair and glowing face giving him the warmth he was exuding.
‘Morning walk, Uncle?’ I checked, trying to make conversation.
‘Yes my dear’, he exclaimed and went back into his newspaper. I greeted him good day and pushed myself up looking at my watch. It is a great feeling living by precision of the clock considering the fact that, not long ago, life would pass by in approximate values of time. My life was clearly defined around the clock. Next 40 minutes would include rush back home, a quick shower and breakfast. After that it would be 10 hours of bustling fast paced activity we came to term as work. It was like getting onto an ocean current in a calm ocean. You get in; and straight away you are running against time – double the speed.
Next couple of days I met the gentleman every day; different benches though. He would be engrossed in his newspaper and we would exchange casual morning greetings and I would be on my way. If his disinterest was not obvious, I would have had a feeling that he was following me. The day after, I saw him again. This time I went to the bench where he was perched – this is where I would find him from now on – till the time I would be meeting him that is. This bench was quite secluded, at the farther part of the garden and I could make out Uncle was not someone who liked to have too many people around him. I wondered what actions I owed the privilege of his company to. Somehow these morning greetings made me feel good too.
‘Good morning Uncle. Getting warmer by the day, eh – this weather?’ I tried to strike a conversation. I wanted to sit some time off today. I was getting into my periods and could feel the cramps kicking in. I could use a bit of stretch and relaxation. Moreover it was Saturday and I could give my clock a bit of rest.
‘Yes my dear. Days are getting hotter irrespective of the seasons’ Uncle replied folding the newspaper half way.
‘Do you live nearby Uncle? I don’t see you walking anytime’ I probed stretching my arms over my head. I strained my neck to see his reaction.
‘Oh I have done my share of walking already around here. Now I enjoy watching children like you running their part in life’ Uncle threw a strong philosophical reply at me.
‘I used to work for the Municipal office here in Mumbai, spent a lot of time in this garden. I was in-charge of the maintenance here. Every bench and tree here knows my touch.’ I could see his eyes warming up to the surroundings. ‘Are you new to this part of the city?’ He asked me.
‘Yes Uncle’ I said, a bit relaxed now. ‘I used to live in the suburbs and recently moved to this part to accommodate to my work location.’
We shared some more pleasantries and discussed the headlines. I left the garden wishing him good day and a tacit promise to meet again tomorrow. On the way back I wondered how much companionship and attention we humans craved. As a working woman living alone in Mumbai city, my companionship for half of the day were my office colleagues and outside of office few faces in my residential society with whom I was starting to get acquainted. We get very few chances at building lasting relationships which may not carry any social definition. I was craving this companionship and somehow Uncle fit the bill for my morning hours. I got into my routine, smiling, thinking of this.
During the day when I spoke to my dad, I introduced this new morning friend of mine to him during our status update discussion. He laughed out loud when I told him that Uncle reminded me of him and that I might not miss him around here as much.
‘Be wary of strangers in Mumbai my dear’, he warned me casually, still chuckling away at my comment of not missing him. My mind wandered as to how quickly we were moving to a trust deficient society.
I could not make it for the walk for next couple of days. Late routine combined with my periods had made the push towards my running shoes all the more harder and I gave in for that extra hour of sleep.
The next day Uncle was at the garden before me and had taken his seat nearer to the gate, all alone, his eyes looking into the distance as if thinking really hard. I smiled when I ran past him and he smile back with a satisfactory nod. As I was ending my rounds, I saw Uncle on the same bench where we usually talk. I was a little surprised as I had not seen him walking and there he was right where I could relax. That day, among other things, he told me about his family, about the struggle most Mumbaikar go through to make sure their children get the best possible attention and their family the best possible care. I was a bit uncomfortable when he told me about how he had cut corners at work and made the extra money to satisfy the increasing needs of his family. He had the aura of submission around him as if he wanted me to empathize with his situation. During our exchange, he told me about his retirement benefits and how much that would mean to his family. His eyes moistened when talking and he had his hands to this brown bag kept next to him on the ground. He quickly ended the conversation with few customary questions about my daily routine and we greeted each other and I went off to done my routine shoes.
I did not see him the next couple of days and I did not pay much attention to his absence either. Mumbai is a peculiar city, you may meet someone and become soul mates in hours and same person can get out of your life at the same speed – all this without any warning. After the third missing day, I sort of resigned to the fact that my Uncle would have found another best friend in some other part of the world. I would still run by the bench he normally used to sit just to make sure I don’t miss him in case he was around. It also made me run to the farthest part of the garden helping me with my work out. It is one of these days that I noticed something familiar lying at the side of the bench where Uncle used to sit, his brown bag.
I immediately went and picked it up and opened it – wary thoughts running through my head. How could he be so careless to leave his retirement benefit papers around like this? With too many thoughts in my head, I decided to help reach this package back to its rightful owner. It just meant couple of hours late at work since the address in the document was not very far from this garden. I dropped a short message to my colleague and took a taxi from outside the garden.
I reached the society indicated in the documents and relieved my ride. An elderly lady opened the door at flat 201 of the Sriram Society. I assumed her to be his wife. She had the customary enquiries you would get at a Mumbai house before she let me in. The house was up and about and I could feel the pace in the air – the one which meant the onset of routine.
The lady of the house was ecstatic when I told her about Uncle and how I found the bag in the garden. Her eyes gleamed at the documents when she ran through it and called out her son who without even looking at me started flipping the documents with the smile on his face widening with each flipped page.
‘We cannot tell you how thankful we are to have these documents back’, he looked at me smiling when he was done flipping through the documents. ‘The crazy old man was out of his mind. He had misplaced these documents with no concerns of his family’.
‘I tell you my dear’, the lady started, ‘We were fed up with this man. All these years he was just living for himself and his stupid garden. If only he could have done something for the family’. She handed me a glass of water with all the gratitude she could give out.
I was starting to wonder when these people would ask the important question as to where Uncle was and that is when my eyes fell on the picture of this gentleman with a glowing face. It was as serene and calm as I saw during my casual meetings with him with an exception of a garland of fake flowers adorning the picture.
Without much explanation and response to the greetings from the family, I picked my aghast self and left the house. I could imagine the torture Uncle would have been through for misplacing the last source of income he generated for his family. In the taxi back to my routine, I was wondering how long the garland had been there and if I would see Uncle again and would he thank me for the purpose I had fulfilled for him.
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