The Old Man

The Old Man

Ah, there he was!

I turned my gaze away from the window to look at the clock.  Exactly 5 pm.  As if on cue, it chimed five times.

I shifted my attention back to him, outside my window, two floors down in the building compound. 

He was standing in front of the gate, clad in his usual kurta pyjama, with a small jute bag slung over his shoulders.  His old umbrella doubled up as a walking stick and support as he extended his other hand shakily to push open the gate.

I was amazed at his discipline and determination to have his evening walk despite his frail health.  I didn’t know how old he was, but the hunched back and wrinkled skin indicated that his age matched my 70 years.  Or maybe more.

I continued to watch him as he stepped onto the road.  It helped that traffic here was thin and was mostly limited to the private vehicles of the nearby residents.

He turned to his right and took slow, tottering steps away from my window.  I watched him till he disappeared from my view.  

And then I turned my attention to the kids playing on the road.

This was my routine for the past one week, ever since that fall in the bathroom put my leg in a plaster and restricted my world to my little 1 BHK flat.

With my son and his family busy in their lives, it was left to a grumpy caretaker to give me company during the day.  Every evening, after my afternoon nap, she would set me up on a chair by the bedroom window so that I could watch the outside world go by.

And that was when I noticed the old man.  “A new neighbour,” said the caretaker.  I knew nothing about the rest of the family.

The pendulum clock on the wall struck once.  Half an hour had passed by.  Precisely at that moment, he returned from the other direction, indicating that he had finished circling the building. 

He had no way to tell the time, but he was always accurate.  After so many years of leading a regimented life myself, I know that self-discipline installs a clock in your head, leaving no need for a wrist watch or alarm.

He extended his shaky hand to pull the gate open, when a young lad standing nearby did it for him.  The shaky hand now waved at the boy and the wrinkled face broke into a smile.

Now where had I seen that smile before?

I was still wondering about the strange familiarity of the face when the doorbell rang.  My granddaughter was back from college.  The caretaker jumped out of her chair, flashed her first real smile of the day and left.

=====×=====

The routine continued like clockwork over the next two weeks.  

I missed my daily evening walks to the market and the temple.  Watching the old man sort of distracted me from the disappointment of my forced imprisonment and my loss of independence. 

I did not have friends anyway.  My counterparts in the housing complex had either passed on or were housebound and technologically challenged like me, so we couldn’t communicate through social media either.  The loneliness of old age was magnified by the stay at home.  I had busied myself in housework for a lifetime.  Now I kept myself busy trying to solve the mystery of the old man.  God had gifted me with a sharp memory even at this ripe age, yet I couldn’t understand where I’d seen him before.

=====×=====

It was yet another day at the window.  The clock struck five, the gate creaked open and the old man set out, supporting himself with the umbrella.  Half an hour later, he returned.  And went past the gate.

I was astonished.  The man appeared too frail to be able to go around the big building twice.  I thought of calling out to him, but who can hear the feeble voice of an old lady from two floors above?  And most importantly, how do I call him?  

Even as I was contemplating what should be done, I saw the old man approach a passerby and say something to him.  The young man took his hand and led him into a neighbouring building.  

I decided to tell my caretaker about it.  But I only ended up realising that I should have known better. 

“Old people are crazy,” she said disdainfully.  “Let him go.  His family will find him.  And keep him housebound.”

“With a grumpy caretaker like you.”

That silenced her.

The old man didn’t return.  The clock chimed six times, then again once.  I was restless.  Finally, my granddaughter returned home.

She had barely removed her shoes when I called out to her.  She listened in fascination as I narrated the whole story of the old man, except the familiarity part.

Finally, she spoke.

“Look out the window, Grandma.”

I saw a middle aged couple and their two teenaged children near the gate, frantically looking around.

“That’s his family, Grandma.  I’ll have a word with them.”  She scooted off.

Sure enough, I saw her going up to the gate, pointing in the direction the old man had gone.  Not only that, she accompanied them there.

Darkness was creeping in.  My body screamed;  it wanted to lie down. But my mind was determined to stay up and watch.

Soon enough, I saw them return with the old man.  The middle aged couple were holding his hands.  The teenagers were clinging to him.  The love and affection was evident as they gently escorted him back into the building.

=====×=====

We had just finished dinner when the doorbell rang.  It was the old man and his family.  They insisted on seeing me.  My son wheeled my chair to the living room.

The old man was seated in front of me.  I looked up at his wrinkled face.  He folded his hands in greeting and said, “Thank you.”

A bright, toothless smile lighted up his face.

I stared at him, open mouthed.  The world is round, after all.

I didn’t know how long I was gaping like that, but I suddenly noticed that everyone in the room had frozen, with their eyes on me.  Except the old man.  I realised then that he could barely see.

The middle aged man spoke.  “Papa can hardly see or hear.  We have told him a million times not to take his evening walk alone, but he’s too stubborn.  And look what happened today.  He forgot the way home.  If not for you and the people in that other building who took him inside, I don’t know what could have happened.  How can I thank you, Maaji?”

My heart went out the family.  And the old man too.  Something that would have seemed impossible half a century ago.

Fifty years back in time, a burly young student in a reputed college got himself famous for all the wrong reasons.  

Apparently, he felt that all the pretty girls were made for him.  He would whistle at the female students.  He would follow them home.  No amount of warnings or threats by the parents of the girls or the school principal had worked.

The girls would cower with fear.  Some of them even dropped out of college.  Except for one girl with a soft voice and a tiny frame, who was known to be scared of just about anything and everything.

He would specially harass this girl.  He would blow kisses at her.  He would send her flowers.  He even proposed to her.  He enjoyed watching her shake with fear.  No one would come forward to help the girl;  they were all afraid of the goons he had surrounded himself with.

And just when this girl’s parents thought of pulling her out of college, she changed.

Education was sacred for her; in fact, so sacred that she decided to put aside her fears, or rather, face them. 

And so one fine day, she decided to ignore all warnings and take on this fearsome lad.  She confronted him in the college corridors at lunchtime, with everyone watching.  There was total silence as she warned him in her tiny, squeaky voice.  He guffawed in reply.  She retaliated by planting a tight slap on his face, much to everyone’s delight.  

The boy walked away, humiliated.

The next day, he extracted his revenge by having his goons attack the girl.  But what he had not expected was the support for this girl.  Even as she lay in hospital, battered and bruised, her classmates’ parents ran a campaign and had him sent to a juvenile home.  

And here he was today, half a century later, reduced to a shadow of his former self.  Guided back home by the very “girl” he had tormented.  She smiled.

Age is a great leveller.

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Archie Iyer
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