On Meeting a Stranger

“Sorry Sir, I cannot confirm to you when the flight will be departing. The runway is flooded, and with no sign of the rain stopping it is impossible to guess the time, it will take to clear the runway. I would suggest you rest in the lounge and maybe try to go by road to your destination. Though that can also happen after the rain lets up. At the moment, the visibility is almost zero. The roads will be treacherous.” This speech by Rakesh, the airline clerk, was punctuated by repeated growls of thunder. The listener, Mohan Malhotra, listened in dismay. Mohan was stuck in a small airport where his flight to New Delhi had been diverted due to bad weather. There was chaos in the terminal not used to handling so many people. He tried giving his deadliest glare to the clerk, but that too failed to give Mohan the answer he wanted. The weather was controlled by Gods, not men, and definitely not men like Rakesh, who quaked with nervousness looking at this sophisticated man. Frustrated, Mohan ran his hands through his hair, wondering what to do next.  “Fine”, Mohan barked, “Show me your first-class lounge!” “Yes sir, sure sir, this way sir!” said Rakesh, eager to please. Nervously coming out from behind the counter, Rakesh scurried down the direction of the lounge, with Mohan impatiently wheeling his bag behind. After about two hundred metres, Rakesh came to an abrupt halt. “What happened?” asked Mohan. “The lounge, sir,” said Rakesh, pointing to the door. “Well, what are you waiting for? Open the door!” roared Mohan at the hapless man. Rakesh jumped to do Mohan’s bidding, opening the door and waiting for Mohan to step inside.  Muttering under his breath, Mohan entered the small room giving a contemptuous look around. As lounges go, it was a sorry sight. There was a tired-looking sofa set, a rickety coffee table and quite incongruously, two rocking chairs in front of the window, which was periodically being lighted by the flashes of lightning from the storm raging outside. He was surprised to see that he was not the only one who was destined to spend time in the lounge. In one corner, was a high back chair, occupied by an old lady, who calmly sat knitting as the storm raged outside. Mohan was surprised to see the old lady, but a rumble from his stomach brought him back to the fact that he had missed lunch as he had been in a hurry to catch this flight. He turned to Rakesh, who hovered apologetically behind. “ I am hungry. Get me something to eat,” Mohan ordered Rakesh. He saw Rakesh’s ears turning red before he said, “Sorry sir, there is only one coffee shop in the airport, and the roof started leaking there, so all the food got spoiled.” Mohan couldn’t believe his ears.  “Great”, he muttered under his breath, “Not only am I stuck in this godforsaken airport when I am supposed to be in Delhi for a meeting, now I have to stay hungry too”. Looking at Rakesh, Mohan said, “Get lost, you fool! I have better things to do than talk to country bumpkins like you”. As Rakesh left the room in a hurry, Mohan flopped on the sofa that sagged as soon as he sat. “Imbeciles, nincompoops the lot of them,” he said to nobody in particular, though he was sure the old lady had heard him, the clickety-clack of her needles had paused. Ignoring the lady, Mohan pulled out his laptop from his overnight bag, deciding to spend some time working on his presentation. The meeting was one of the most important in his career.  So important that he was missing his wedding anniversary for it. A meeting, if successful, would make him the new CEO of his company, making his professional dream come true.  “Are you travelling to New Delhi?” the old lady asked. Mohan groaned internally. He was too frustrated, too hungry to indulge in small talk. “Yes”, he curtly replied. “Me too, my son has called me there”, the old lady said, eager to continue the conversation. “Forgive me, I have some work to finish”, Mohan replied brusquely, his tone implying that further questions would not be encouraged. The lady took the hint and refrained from asking any more questions as Mohan turned his attention to his laptop. The room fell silent as Mohan concentrated on his presentation. The only sounds were the tapping sounds of the keys of his keyboard, the clackety-clack of the needles, interspersed with the rumble of thunder from the storm that refused to abate. The minutes passed slowly until constant rumbling from his stomach could not be borne any longer. Mohan closed his laptop and looked around, too hungry to concentrate on his work anymore. His eyes were drawn to the old lady on the chair. She hadn’t moved from her chair, totally engrossed in her knitting. It seemed as if whatever she was knitting had grown longer considerably. Mohan observed her carefully. Her saree was simple cotton, a little crushed. Her face was soft with wrinkles, haloed by wispy grey hair. She did not look as if she was used to air travel. There was something very maternal yet rustic about her. He wondered idly how she got knitting needles though. As far as he knew, they were not allowed in baggage. Sensing his scrutiny, the lady looked up and seeing Mohan’s eyes on her face, smiled. Caught staring, Mohan blushed, smiling back weakly in return. “Quite a storm, huh?” Mohan said, trying to cover his embarrassment. “Yes”, replied the lady, her voice soft, without any irritation at Mohan’s earlier brusqueness. “Aren’t you feeling hungry? I am starving! I didn’t have any lunch today,” said Mohan, warming up to the conversation. There was nothing to do but wait for the storm to pass, and the lady gave off such comforting vibes that the irritation that had followed Mohan ever since he had come to know about being stuck at the airport had started to dissipate. “ I have some mathi in my bag if you want some?” said the lady. “Oh, please, I would love some. Let me ask Rakesh if that nincompoop can at least arrange a cup of tea for us. First-class lounge my foot, it is worse than a railway station waiting room,” said Mohan bellowing for Rakesh. As Rakesh came scurrying in, Mohan asked him sarcastically,” Can we at least get a cup of tea since there is no food available?” Rakesh flushed at Mohan’s sarcastic tone and said, “ There is an electric kettle in the staff pantry. I will get tea for both of you”. “ Thank you, Rakesh,” said the old lady politely, making Mohan aware of what a nasty brute he had been. “Yes, yes, thank you Rakesh”, said Mohan a little more softly than he had spoken to him till now. After Rakesh left Mohan bit into one of the mathi’s the lady held out and gave a soft sigh of pleasure,” I haven’t had mathi ever since mother died”, remarked Mohan. “Oh?!” said the lady, her single word containing curiosity as well as sympathy. Later, when Mohan would remember that night, he would wonder why he unburdened himself to the lady. Maybe, it was the maternal air about her, or maybe, he just needed someone to listen to him sympathetically, or maybe, it was just fate. But that night, he opened up about all the emotions he had suppressed for so long. “Our family lived in a small town. Not wealthy, not poor, just normal middle-class people, surviving from month to month on a salary. Father worked in a government office while mother was a homemaker. Despite financial hardships, I was sent to the best of schools. There was always an unspoken expectation to concentrate on my studies and get a well-paying job. I was supposed to be the one to pull them out of the monthly anxiety of making the salary stretch. And I did. I studied hard, kept aside anything or everything that would distract me until I got the job that would make my parents proud and happy”. “They must have been so proud of you”, said the lady softly.  “Yes, they were.  But unfortunately, being successful also meant staying away for long durations. I tried to visit them often, but then I got married to Anita. I had an obligation to her as well. Anita tried to make me cut back on work. To spend more time with family, to visit my parents more often. But, I wanted to scale higher professionally. I was always travelling. A few years ago, both my parents passed away. But eating this mathi made me remember the joy on my mother’s face when I would praise her cooking. Somehow, Anita’s cooking doesn’t come close to ma’s cooking.” The old lady paused in the act of sipping the tea that Rakesh had just served. “Does she enjoy cooking? Anita?” she asked. Mohan shrugged, “I don’t know. I am home so rarely, so I am not sure if she enjoys or even cooks anything. Sometimes, I wonder if it is the same Anita whom I married twenty years ago. She is always complaining about the amount of time I spend travelling. She just doesn’t understand”. As he finished this statement Mohan, felt surprised. It was the first time he realized that maybe Anita was not happy with him. “Have you thought about cutting down on your travelling?” asked the lady. “If I don’t travel, then how will I earn enough money to keep us in the style we are used to?” retorted Mohan, irked by the lady’s question. “But is money everything?” the lady persisted. “If not money, then what else?” replied Mohan. “I have showered Anita with gifts and given her a swanky home, but if she still isn’t happy, then what more can I do?” “Maybe, Anita wants more than expensive gifts and a swanky home. Maybe all she wants is your companionship”, replied the lady softly. “Companionship?” scoffed Mohan, ”Will companionship offer her protection against the elements. Give us a comfortable income after I am retired so that we can have our own farm after retirement? Will companionship put our children in the best universities in the world? Only people who have the luxury of being wealthy can talk about words like companionship. The truth of the matter is we middle-class people have to work hard to achieve our dreams. And working hard means sacrificing personal time!“  “And your dream is to have your own farm after retirement?” asked the lady. Mohan nodded yes. The lady didn’t say anything in return, merely smiled. The two sat in silence for a few minutes. The conversation with the lady had put Mohan on the defensive about his work and long absences from home. For once, he did not have work to escape his feelings. His eyes softened thinking about the early days of marriage with Anita. They used to have so much fun together. It was Anita’s dream actually to have a farm. Mohan just adopted it as his. Just like he had adopted his parent’s dream of being successful. But what was his own dream? Did he know? Mohan felt uncomfortable following that train of thought. He decided to do some prodding of the old lady himself. But before he could open his mouth, the lady spoke. “Do you want to hear a story?” she asked. Mohan was bemused. Story? Did he look like a toddler to be pacified with a story after her prodding, personal questions? Yet, for some reason, he nodded yes. Keeping her knitting aside, the lady started narrating her story. “Many years ago, there was a gentleman. A man who wanted to achieve many things in life and was ready to work hard for them, no matter the sacrifice. He went about his work with determination, focused on all that he wanted to achieve. But one day, he fell in love. The lady he fell in love with was a pretty damsel who wore her heart on her sleeve. She too fell in love with this determined young chap. They married and set up house together. After the first flush of romance faded, they realized how difficult it is to make a marriage thrive and grow. The young man in the determination to achieve his dreams and provide a life of luxury to his young, lovely wife, worked harder each day. The wife left all alone in the home, missed her husband more each day. She felt trapped in the duties, with no one to offer her comfort or companionship. She became incessantly complaining and whiny. The man, when he was free from his work, wondered when had the vivacious woman he had married changed into a virago. “  Mohan's eyes narrowed in suspicion. Was the lady repeating his own story to him? Taking a pause to have a sip of water, the lady continued. “And then, one day, the man came home to find the house empty. The wife, unable to bear an empty house filled with only possessions had fled. The man searched high and low, but he could not find his wife. Life lost all meaning for him. Instead of love, he was now consumed with hatred. Hatred for a woman who had left him alone. He threw himself back in his work with renewed vigour. He vowed to himself that he would be the richest man in the town within ten years. If his wife ever came back, she would repent leaving him”.  Here the lady paused again. “So, did he become the richest man? And what about the wife? Did she return and repent?” asked Mohan, completely drawn into the story. The lady smiled and continued. “ The wife, after running away from home took refuge in a Tibetan monastery. She spent her time doing chores and meditating. She became more aware of herself and what she wanted. While it was true that her husband had provided her luxury, it was not what she was seeking. She wanted more. She wanted love, intimacy, companionship. Things that her husband could not or would not give her. Thus, five years passed. The husband was busy in the race to become the richest man in town, while the woman spent those years in the monastery discovering herself.  And then, one day, their life changed again. The woman was seen by an acquaintance of the husband. Hearing the news, the husband hot-footed to the monastery, ready to drag the woman back. For you see, even though he said he hated her, he was possessive enough to think of her as his possession. The woman refused, but the rules of society were on her husband’s side. Unwillingly, she was sent back with her husband. The husband, happy to have back in his power, exerted his petty revenge on her. He started controlling whom she talked to, whom she met. She tried escaping a few more times, but the husband was now richer and cannier. He now kept her under surveillance. She couldn’t step out of the house without him coming to know of it. The wife became a shadow of her former self. And then, she discovered she was pregnant.  The husband was overjoyed. Finally, he would get an heir to whom he could pass on the wealth he had accumulated. The wife though remained unmoved. It seemed her energy was being sapped by the greed of the man for more wealth. Finally, unable to bear her loneliness any longer, the woman gave up her fight and passed into the other realm. But not before giving the much-wanted heir to her husband. Her passing away did not make much of a difference to the husband. His love for her had turned to indifference for her much earlier. Handing over the child to nannies, he continued to accumulate wealth and power.  It was after a month of his wife’s demise, that he received a letter from her. In the letter, the wife had written about how much she had loved him once. And how that love had slowly been buried under the weight of loneliness. Until finally, all that she could feel around her was loneliness. She stopped feeling pleasure or pain, finding herself under a dark cloud always. The wife finished the letter by begging the man to do right by their son. To be a dad, instead of a distant father interested only in making money. The husband tried to dismiss the letter from his mind, but he couldn’t. That night when he reached home, he went to the nursery to look at his son. He had seen his son only a handful of times after his birth, having been too busy in negotiating lucrative deals. That day, the letter seemed to play in his head on a loop as he gently picked up the babe from the crib.  The baby yawned and blinked his eyes sleepily. Trying to focus on his father’s face, the baby gave a toothless smile. The man couldn’t help but gasp at the pang in his heart. The baby’s smile was a copy of his mother’s down to the dimple in one cheek. As the baby continued to coo and gurgle, the man wept silent tears of the love he had lost. He realized that having money did not give him the peace he had felt when his wife had been by his side. Repentant, he stopped going to work, he stopped meeting people, he stopped living, becoming a shadow of his former self."  The room fell silent as the story came to an end. Mohan tried to absorb the feelings racing through him. He felt sad, even a little belligerent. Maybe, she had told him the story to prod him into making more time for his family. But no, she also seemed to be moved by the story, she was wiping her tears with the pallu of her saree. Before either could speak again,  Rakesh rushed into the room. “Mataji, your son has sent a car to take you to Delhi”, he announced. Mohan looked around in surprise. There was no sound of thunder or rain anymore. The storm seemed to have passed while he had been engrossed in listening to the story. Shaking himself, Mohan too got up. Reality seemed to be intruding again. He also needed to go to Delhi for the meeting. But after hearing the story, he actually wanted to go back home to his wife. A wife whom he had neglected for years, though she had always stood by him. The old lady got up from her chair and collecting her knitting needles, put them in the bag. She walked over to where Mohan was standing indecisive, not knowing what to do. She asked him, “ Do you want to come to Delhi with me? It will not be a problem“.  Mohan stood silently for a few minutes, his heart and mind warring with each other. Finally, he said, “No, thank you. I think it is time I went back home.” The old lady smiled and gave him her pack of mathi before leaving. Mohan did not become the CEO of his company. He did, however, become a farmer and spent many happy years growing organic tomatoes with Anita. And he daily thanked his stars for having met that stranger in an airport lounge, which gave a new direction to his life.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!