“Ok bye, Baba*. Take care. Please eat the lunch Sayalee has kept on the table. Eat properly.”
“Baba, your medicines are on the table. Please take them after lunch.”
“Don’t play too much Candy Crush. Take rest. And..”
Madhav finally interrupted Ajay and Sayalee. “I know, I know. Don’t fuss so much. You leave my lunch on the table five days a week. Just because it’s Saturday, you don’t have to give so many instructions.”
“And Baba, don’t call on THAT number till we’re back.”
Madhav just smiled.
Ajay, Sayalee and their 5 year old Chinky were to attend the wedding of Ajay’s colleague, leaving Madhav alone at home as he didn’t want to strain himself.
It was an ordinary Saturday morning. The moment they left, Madhav’s thoughts turned to the extraordinary events of the previous evening.
Madhav was taking his usual evening walk within the building complex.
He stopped at the chemist’s shop for a bottle of massage oil.
The lady at the shop gave him two crisp 200 rupee notes as change.
Then the skies darkened, as if to rain.
Madhav hurriedly shoved everything into his pocket and rushed home as fast as his walking stick and 75 year old arthritic legs would allow him.
Once home, he sat on his armchair and pulled out the notes, meaning to put them in his wallet. As he admired the barely creased notes, he noticed a name and number on the watermark portion of one of them, scrawled badly with an unsharpened pencil.
Chandrakant Govind Mahar
The number was obviously a South Mumbai landline. Madhav knew this from his years of working in the business district.
But the name? Could it be HIM? Chandu?
His crinkled eyes opened wide and his bent form sat bolt upright as the name instantly rekindled memories of that fateful afternoon many, many decades ago.
“Baba was right. You are a sweeper’s son, so you don’t have brains.”
How the words hurt him even now!! Words that he had uttered more than 65 years ago, in childish ignorance, not realising that they carried such deep rooted prejudice within them…
Madhav Deshpande was born in the small village of Ambegaon in interior Maharashtra, a few years before India gained independence. His was a Brahmin family, but the waves of social reform sweeping the country were particularly strong in and around his village. And so there was no caste segregation in public places.
Thus it happened that Madhav and Chandu, the son of the village sweeper, attended the same school. Not only that, they sat on the same bench and shared everything from books and pencils to homework and lunch boxes. They would play and study together on the village square that doubled as a huge playground. They would also fight with each other the way only children can fight. And they would make peace within an hour or two, or by the next morning, the way only children can make peace.
Madhav and Chandu were like chalk and cheese. Madhav was a sensitive and emotional kid, who believed in forgiveness. He once got late for school and endured caning by his teacher because he’d spent time climbing a tree to put a fallen chick back in its nest. Madhav would even weep at the sight of dead animals and birds. Chandu, on the other hand, was the practical type who believed in giving an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He was better known as the class bully and would often land in trouble with his teachers for getting into a fight with a classmate. Madhav was brilliant in studies and would painstakingly teach Chandu, who was an average student.
Madhav’s father worked as an accountant in the District Collector’s office. Ganpat Deshpande was a man with a commanding presence and a deep-rooted set of principles and prejudices that ranged from honesty and integrity to a condescending attitude towards the lower castes.
One fine evening, Ganpat returned from office in a particularly irritated mood. While having his evening cup of tea, he grumbled to his wife.
“That office sweeper demanded a raise today. What nerve!! He can’t clean the floors properly.. we’re thinking of ending his contract and replacing him next month and there he comes, asserting that he’s doing us a great service by keeping the place clean. I say, this sweeper category has no brains at all. They are all fightercocks.”
His wife didn’t bother to explain that one tardy, belligerent sweeper wasn’t representative of the entire community. She knew her husband never valued her opinions.
She turned around to see Madhav standing behind her. He had heard it all.
“What are you doing here when two elders are talking? I thought you had homework.”
“Aai*, my pencil broke.”
The next day, Madhav’s teacher gave some mathematical problems as homework. Madhav and Chandu decided to solve them together, under the shade of their favourite mango tree in the village square.
Early in the evening, they settled down at their place and began. Though Madhav guided Chandu, there came a problem which Chandu couldn’t understand, no matter what.
Finally, an exasperated Madhav blurted out those fateful words.
The inappropriateness of what he said hit him the moment the words left his mouth. But it was lightning that hit Chandu.
A speechless Madhav watched Chandu’s face darken in anger. He instinctively realised that this wasn’t the anger they usually expressed during their childish fights. This was real.
Finally, Chandu spoke. His voice was cold. And it held a firm resolve.
“I didn’t expect this from you, Madhav. I thought at least you were unaffected by such comments from elders. But no!! Listen, Madhav. I may be a sweeper’s son, but I’ll become a very big man one day. Bigger than you.”
And he stormed off, leaving behind a bewildered Madhav.
Madhav went home and confessed everything to his Aai.
Aai was shocked. But she very gently explained to Madhav that he was not supposed to pass derogatory comments like that. Madhav wondered how his Baba was allowed to say such things. But he quietly nodded in affirmation. In 1953, children did not question their parents’ ways, they just obeyed.
Madhav prepared an apology in his mind that night. He would win back his friend. He will never degrade any community ever again.
The next morning, Aai gave him a small dabba of kheer. “Here, share this with Chandu at lunchtime.”
But Chandu did not come to school. No one knew why.
After a restless day, Madhav went to Chandu’s house, only to find it locked. The neighbour said, “Bandu Kaka fell sick, so they all went to Bombay.” Bandu Kaka was Chandu’s father’s brother, who lived in Bombay. Family relations had a lot more value in the simple old days.
Every evening, Madhav would go to Chandu’s house and return disappointed after seeing the lock.
He later heard that Bandu Kaka was admitted in hospital for some big illness. Chandu’s family never came back.
Two years later, Madhav’s father got transferred to Bombay and took his entire family with him. Madhav went with hopes and dreams of finding Chandu there, but realised that the city was too big for him to search.
Years passed. Madhav completed his education, got a government job, married, had a son and a daughter, raised them, got them married and became a grandfather. His parents also left for their heavenly abode at a ripe old age.
At every milestone of his life, Madhav would remember Chandu and wonder where he was. He still felt guilty for those words and wanted to meet Chandu once, just once and apologise.
Years flew by. Internet and social media made their inroads into people’s lives. Madhav, with the help of his son and daughter, combed all social media sites for traces of Chandu, with no results.
Tragedy struck when Madhav turned 70. His wife finally succumbed to her prolonged illness. Madhav felt like a rudderless ship, but Ajay and Sayalee nurtured him so well that he recovered fast.
Now he was alone. Ajay and Sayalee were at work all day and little Chinky in school, dance classes and daycare. His friends circle started dwindling as all of them were old men. Old age senility slowly started creeping in. He now had only one aim in life – to find Chandu and apologise to him before he left this world.
His son would often tell him, “Do you think your friend will remember you if you find him? You had said he’s a practical person with no value for sentiments.”
Madhav would give a belligerent reply, “Of course yes. If I remember him, he’ll also remember me.”
And so it went on. Till Friday evening, when fate presented him this opportunity on a platter. But was it really him? Or a namesake?
Madhav showed the note to Ajay, brinming with excitement.
“Ask the chemist where he got it from.”
“Ah, this name and number.. I’ve been searching high and low for it,” said the chemist.
“That person is the owner of CGM Pharma, my main distributor for the past 6 months. Diwali is nearing and I plan to visit with a gift, so I had taken down his full name and number on this note. There was no paper handy. My wife was attending the shop when you made your purchase, right? She mistakenly gave it to you. His office is located somewhere near Bombay Stock Exchange. I can take you there when I go, next fortnight.”
Ajay returned home. Madhav now asked him to dial the number. No one answered.
“Baba, this is an office number. And it’s 10 PM. Let’s try tomorrow.“
Madhav couldn’t sleep that night.
Next morning, they tried the number at 8 am. No answer.
“Too early. Or maybe Saturdays are off, Baba?”
“No way, Ajju. I don’t want to wait till Monday.”
“Ok, we’ll try when we return from the wedding. Baba, please don’t try the number in our absence.” Ajay feared that the excitement could damage his frail father’s health.
And now, with them attending the wedding, Madhav was all alone at home.
He couldn’t wait any longer. He picked up his smartphone and dialled.
He tried hard to control his excitement as he heard the ringing on the other side.
After what seemed like eternity, a female voice answered, “Good morning CGM Pharma..”
CGM. The initials of Chandu’s name.
Madhav was sure she could hear his heart pounding. He breathed out. “May I speak to Chandrakant, please?”
“Who’s calling, please?”
Madhav heard some tiresome music on the other end. Then it stopped and a commanding male voice said, “Hello”.
Madhav stopped breathing for a moment. And then, with bated breath, he asked:
“Is this Chandrakant Govind Mahar?”
“Yes,” said the voice.
“Hello, I am Madhav. Madhav Ganpat Deshpande.”
“Yes, what do you want?”
The impersonal response startled Madhav. But he pulled himself together. After all, it had been decades.
“You are from Ambegaon?”
“And you are 75 years old? Born on 1st June 1944?”
“Yes. What’s all this? Who are you?”
“I am Madhav. Your childhood friend.”
Madhav continued. “You studied in Ambegaon Public School? Upto Std IV? And then shifted to Bombay?”
“Yes, I did..”
Madhav suddenly felt his chest tighten. Instinctively, he felt that time was short. He must speak out. Now or never. He couldn’t carry his guilt to the grave.
He blurted out, “Do you remember me, Chandu? We used to study and play together. Then one day I insulted you. But before I could apologise, you left the village. Chandu, I’m sorry I was so mean. I had spoken without thinking. I hadn’t realised that it could have had such an impact.”
“What’s all this nonsense?” The voice on the other end was shouting now. “I said I don’t know any Madhav. Preeti, why can’t you ask who it is before passing this madman’s call to me?”
The line went dead.
Ajay, Sayalee and Chinky returned home. Chinky bounded over to her grandfather. “Grandpa has once again fallen asleep on his chair,” she playfully exclaimed. As Ajay went over to wake him up, he saw his Baba’s mobile on the floor. At the same time, Sayalee noticed the uneaten lunch on the table.
The next two hours were a blur. At the end of it, Madhav was lying unconscious in hospital, surrounded by endless tubes and machines and his family.
48 hours passed. The doctors gave him a slim chance of waking up. “He can hear,” they told his family, “talk to him.” But despite all the talk, Madhav remained motionless.
Numbed by all the stress, Ajay finally remembered to find out the cause of his Baba’s condition. He checked Baba’s mobile. The last dialled number was exactly as he had expected. He redialled it.
That evening, a tall, elderly, well dressed man came to meet Madhav, accompanied by his wife. He sat on the edge of the bed, took Madhav’s fragile hand in his and said, “Madhav, I’m sorry I was so mean. I had spoken without thinking. I hadn’t realised it could have had such an impact. I was so engrossed in making a life for myself that I had forgotten all about you. And when you popped up after so many decades, it took me time – a lot of time and a lot of prodding by Ajay – to rekindle my memories.”
“Madhav, please wake up!!”
Madhav lay still.
The tall man’s wife was shocked to see a tear glistening in her husband’s eye. Her husband was ever the practical one and pretty unemotional.
Suddenly, one of the machines beeped. Madhav stopped breathing. Nurses rushed in, followed by the doctor. They sent the elderly couple out and started pumping Madhav.
Minutes passed. Minutes that seemed like hours to everyone outside the room. Especially Chandu. He folded his hands and looking skyward, uttered a silent prayer. His wife mutely watched the transformation of the atheist.
Finally, the doctor emerged. “I’m sorry.” And he walked away, leaving them all to gather around Madhav, distraught and crying.
Chandu knelt at Madhav’s feet and closed his eyes, sobbing.
The tiny, weak voice startled them all.
Madhav had opened his eyes.
Three months later..
Chandu and his family were visiting Madhav.
Chandu commented, “It was God’s miracle you came back.”
“Yes,” replied Madhav. “I was up there.” He gestured towards the ceiling. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, he proceeded to describe exactly what had happened in the hospital room during those fifteen minutes.
“When I saw you crying, I knew I must come back. So I did. From beyond. It was indeed God’s miracle.”
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