Article by Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh
Group Medical Director
‘A penny for your thoughts’
She was startled hearing those words, clearly and firmly spoken, over her shoulder. She turned to look.
This was the old man she had noticed striding along the walkways in the park. She often went there to sit on the bench and gaze at the ducks in the water. As she did not want to be distracted or disturbed by anyone she always chose a bench close to the water, with her back to the walkway. She would sit for hours lost in her miserable thoughts and utter loneliness. She had however noticed him. He looked very old, with a thousand wrinkles on his face, but stood tall, straight and trim. He had a briskandsteady walk. She found that very unusual. He had smiled at her every time their paths crossed but had never talked to her. She never smiled back, but occasionally she would look down the path to see whether he was back on his next round.
That day he broke the ice.
‘Mind if I sit down?’ He inquired, in a very soft, gentle and polite voice. She noticed the twinkle in his eyes and an amused smile hovering at the corner of his mouth.
‘I may not be the company a pretty girl like you may prefer. Perhaps you think I am a hundred years old? Well Iam actually 105’ he laughed. His laugh was light, bright and self-deprecating.
She was at a loss for words. She was by nature an introvert and it was hard for her to cheer up instantly. It was not easy to climb swiftly out of her well of depression and despondency.
‘Oh No’ she stammered. ‘I thought you looked good for your age’.
‘Ah, that is a complement you do not get often from a young lady at my age, thanks’. He was pleasant and gallant. Much to her surprise she felt herself warming towards him. It was such a strange feeling. She could not remember when she last talked to a man young or old so spontaneously. ‘You are quiet and thoughtful. Also sad and distant. That made me wonder what is on your mind. I should not be asking, I am a perfect stranger, sorry’, he said.
She was silent. She thought over what he said. He waited, patiently, as though he had all the time in the world.
She bent down, took a stone and threw at the water. It fell ‘plop’ and created a ripple. He picked a few stones and threw them, at different spots on the water.
Many ripples were born, grew and expanded. The ducks scattered in alarm.
It was as though those ripples flipped a hinge and opened a flood gate.
Thoughts and memories came rushing out of her mind and tears began to flow.
They flowed for a long time. Gradually her world began to appear lighter, brighter and more hopeful. She had not felt this way in a very long time.
She did not know how much time passed. She sensed him sitting patiently, utterly relaxed and quiet.
When at last the tears ebbed, she turned to him with a shy, apologetic smile. He smiled, got up, and said’ ‘I will see you soon’ and walked away.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He would often joke about it and say ‘The Beauty and the Beast’.
Words began to come out easier each time they met. Staccato words grew into sentences and then, into paragraphs and pages. The ropes with which her feelings and thoughts were strung together with tight knots began to unravel slowly. Her crowded, chaotic and confused memory began to see light, and shed its dust and cobwebs.
Finally she concluded the story of her life which she had begun to tell him in bits and pieces. ‘I do not even know how I ended up as the last leaf in the tree of my family. I remember the shouts, screams and the gunshots and recall the numbing fright as my mother yanked me up to tuck me around her waist, grabbed the hand of my brother and ran behind my father to the boat. He was holding firmly the gnarled hands of my grandparents and dragging them along.
I sensed we were leaving our island country behind in a great hurry. Tightly holding my mother’s slender waist I turned back to hear more gunshots very close to us, see my grandmother falling first, then my grandfather who had paused to reach for her. Then I saw my father arch like he was hit by a thunderbolt. My staggering father, my mother, brother and I tumbled into the boat. The last thing I remember was being drenched in my father’s blood, and getting very cold and afraid. I drifted off to sleep hearing my mother crying.
Subsequently I heard her crying for the next 20 years of my life. When news came from the island that my adolescent brother who had gone back some years later to settle the score for the family’s loss had also died from the last gunshots fired on that island her tear glands had run dry and had no more tears to shed.
Every day my mother used to take me to gaze at that vast expanse of water that separated the east coast of India from our Island. She sat there frozen for hours as though she was waiting for the two men lost in her life to be resurrected and return. When she died she was buried in the coastal sands as she had wished.
My parents had married in the thick of war. I was born and grew up in times of war. Ultimately that war killed my whole family. Long after the war was over on the island, it raged inside me, hurting, burning and wounding. I don’t think I ever healed’
When she finally finished, he placed his thin, bony hand with its parchment thin skin over her hand and said softly ‘There, I am glad it all poured out to the last drop. Shut the lid. I am sure things will begin to look better from now onwards’.
She believed him.
Days later he abruptly asked her ‘You are a nurse, aren’t you?’
She was aghast ‘How did you know?’
‘ I see your caring look when you see people who have disabilities-those who find it painful to walk, who are very slow, who peer from poor vision and those who quickly get breathless and have to pause or sit. When you hear the blaring siren of a rushing ambulance I know you wonder who is ill and hope that someone will take good care of them’
‘Yes, I am, but am I so transparent?’ she asked him
He laughed and continued ‘You are fortunate to be a nurse and so are those under your care. Your pain will help you to recognize those in distress and help them. When their pain washes off, I am sure some of yours will too’.
She thought about it for a while and responded ‘I feel better while at work but am unable to cope when I am alone, so I come here to be with the ducks’.
He did not react to that but picked up the conversation a few days later.
‘Do you like music?’ he asked.
‘What do you think?’ was her response, she was getting used to his clairvoyance.
‘Yes, you do. You have long, slender and beautiful fingers that seem to like strumming. Less often they tap and I can sense they are keeping the beat with some inner music playing in your mind. I do not know why, but I feel there are two people making music in your mind’.
She was not surprised to hear what he said. Probably she expected that from this variation of Sherlock Holmes who was employing his power of observation to study his wayward subject. But she became thoughtful and distant once again.
‘Mother played the Veena beautifully. In the tea estates where we lived before we headed for the beaches, no one played classical instruments, she was the sole exception. If she could, she would have carried the Veena that night when we fled, but she held me and my brother instead’. Tears began to fill her eyes.
She went on ‘My brother played the drums for her. He would miss a beat now and then and she would turn to look at him and he would give a sheepish grin’.
The memory brought a smile through the tears.
Then, one day, he would not let her sit on the benchany more. ‘Come on, the ducks are tired of you looking at them all the time, they are getting nervous.
You jog, I walk, let me see how many rounds you do when I do one’.
The tea estates had winding roads all along the tea fields and up and down the rolling hills. She would race her dog, Chupparamanian. One never knew who would win. It depended on who put more heart into the run that day.
As all good things do, that came to an end one day. She and Chupparamanian were running neck to neck towards the finishing stretch. Turning the corner at break neck speed they came to a dead halt when they saw soldiers coming with guns cocked and ready to shoot. They turned around at lightning speed and ran back. They should have turned into the tea bushes but habit kept them on the track. The soldiers too turned the corner, she heard them laugh and then the crack of the shot. She heard Chupparamanian yelp with pain and continue running with a limp. She heard laughter again and heard yet another shot and saw the white ribbon she loved to tie around his black tail turn crimson. Then he dropped. It was only then that her impulse for self-preservation kicked in and she ran into the bushes, a mini-forest from which only the children of the plantation knew their way out.
She resumed running once again in the park from that day on for Chupparamanian’s sake, as a homage to him, and as her run away from her past.
She never sat again on the bench at the park facing the water and the ducks. Her feet took wings and she just ran as if to out run her pain.
One day, very abruptly, he asked ‘Is there a man in your life?’
For the first time in many years, may be the first time after her childhood was lost, a mischievous twinkle sparkled in her eyes as she turned towards him and looked him in the eye.
‘Ah, not me, I am an old fogey’ He laughed out loud. ‘May be, if I was 70 years younger I would have gone down on my knees to hold and kiss your hand but I think you have a better candidate in mind. Tell me about him’.
There was a time when it was difficult, if not impossible, for her to have opened up, but now she did it with ease. ‘I have to thank you for that. He is a doctor and we work together. He liked me and would try his best to cheer me up. The way I was, I would not respond. He became very unhappy and dejected and began thinking about leaving and taking up another job far away. Then I met you. One day I laughed out loud in the tea room and he sensed immediately that something has changed in me.
Now we are together again’
She paused a moment and began to laugh, loud and long till tears came once again to her eyes, after a very long time.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me why I am laughing so much?’ She asked him, at last, when she caught her breath.
‘No, because I know’ he answered.
She raised her eyebrows.
‘He is jealous of me’
She shook her head in disbelief ‘You are unbelievable’.
No other day, or night, was ever so deeply imprinted in her mind, and life, as those 24 hours that came to pass soon after.
That day began like any other day.
He said, quietly, slowly and clearly as ever ‘It is time to go’.
‘Where?’ she asked, absentmindedly.
‘To go away. My time has come’ he said.
Her mind was suddenly alert, razor sharp.
He spoke very softly but very distinctly ‘I have studied horoscopes and practiced astrology all my life, like my ancestors. I knew it before and I again examined it this morning. I saw that the last planet would move out of my horoscope at midnight today. The chart would empty and I would enter the void’.
She sat stunned.
‘Today Imade one person very happy, I informed my landlord, who has been waiting since long to hear that news that I was leaving and that he, who was eager to dispose of the house and land to a construction company to build a supermarket, can have the property tomorrow’.
He was silent for a moment, perhaps waiting for what he said to sink into me.
‘Can you come one last time to my house, which by now you know so well, this evening? But tonight I will have a Veena for you. Can you play it for a while as I go to sleep? Take it with you when you leave’.
His parting words were ‘Don’t wait for midnight’.
But she did, she played Ksheerasagara Shayana overand over again on the Veena, well past midnight, till she fell asleep on the chair beside him.
It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well.
It was the strangest feeling ever.
‘Who was he? She wondered ‘He never told me’.