His stomach rumbled the third time in what could not have been more than ten minutes, convincing him that he’d finally have to get up and make his way to the toilet. The digital clock mounted on the wall displayed some numbers, but at his age and in his predicament, the numbers no longer made much sense. There was a time when the numbers had meant everything, and when he used to, at the command of his father, multiply the numbers and present the result by dividing it with some other number before the person using the calculator could. It was his achievement – a son’s feat that managed to bring a grin to his father’s face. But now, he was alone, having outlived everyone else in the family save for his daughter who was married and had been living abroad for the last two months, or three months, or any number of months. And with her departure, he realised that the numbers – that he had doted on and that had earned him all he had in life, ceased to matter anymore.
He rose from the bed and stood by its side for some time. Like an artist having some solitary time before they mount atop the stage and entertain all those who have come bearing expectations. ‘Expectations’. In the dark recesses of his heart, that event had been etched forever. He had told her that he could not, just then, get into a relationship because of the expectations of everyone who would be involved from both the sides. He was not ready. There were arguments, pleadings, and a lot of crying. He knew he had wronged. Committed a sin that would never go unpunished. And this was not the first time these memories came to him, haunting in the dark. He had spent days locked up, inside a room, as an act of penitence. There had been days when he had lost track of the reality, confused between what was real and what was the dream. But before these memories could have debilitated his old heart any further the rumbling returned, and then he remembered that he didn’t know the time yet. Time, he often thinks lately, gains an insurmountable importance to those who have nothing to do.
And so, out of his habit now, he pulled the curtains apart and threw his glance towards Mr Mehta’s house. Mr Mehta had died around three years back but he – and everyone around him – still referred the house as Mr Mehta’s house. He had known Mr Mehta for some 20 years, perhaps even 30, but their bond was strengthened when he had lost his wife and had no one to turn to. It was some eight years back, or it might as well have been nine. Mr Mehta had then hugged him for what had seemed an infinity, and that hug had contained everything a troubled man needs – love, assurance, and hope. He had found a brother in Mr Mehta. And now when he looks at the house and thinks about his love for the man who was once everything for him and was now nowhere to be seen, he is convinced that the silent bonds between two men are further strengthened by a death. Death for him was now more like a semicolon against the believed notion of it being a full stop. In hindsight all deaths are like semicolons; there is always a more pronounced part of the life of the one left behind after their loved one’s departure.
He picked his glasses up, cleaned them with his undershirt, and tried to fix his gaze, but the lights in the kitchen of Mr Mehta’s house were still out which meant that it was not 5 yet. Ahh, the stupid stomach depriving him of his sleep so early, it has to be the ‘Kabuli Chana’ from the yesternight’s dinner. And he rushed into the toilet unable to bear any further.
And minutes later, relieved, he came out of the toilet and threw another perfunctory glance towards that house and the lights in the kitchen told him that it was time. And so he gargled with saline water, washed his face, and headed towards Mr Mehta’s house. He rung the bell and a pretty face – that seemed too young to belong to the age it actually represented despite the evident wrinkles on the surface – greeted him with a smile. She was a woman who had aged more because of the grave loss in her life than the work. She was now always dressed in Salwar suits of light colours.
She greeted him with a smile and he entered the house – bowing down before her, she always asks him why he does that but he never answers – and her smile transformed into a grin. He made his way towards the study of Mr Mehta and picked the transistor up. She went upstairs to bring the book that she had been reading. The bookmark in between the pages bore her husband’s initials ‘D.M’. Mr Mehta had scribbled the initials one night when she was busy talking to a friend over the phone and the book was lying by her aside. She often looked at the bookmark and thought about how we continue to live after we die, sometimes on pages, and at others in the bookmarks that separate any two pages – delineating what has been read and what was more to be explored. And now here were her husband’s initials telling her where she should resume her reading from, and this was coming from a man who had never commanded her for anything while he was alive.
And then they proceeded to the foyer for the tea – now a custom for them. An arrangement in their otherwise dishevelled lives. A company that they both needed but neither had ever expressed the vitality of to each other.
He pressed the button and the transistor came to life. It played ‘Kahiin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye’ by Mukesh, the volume already adjusted to a low-level. He asked her to sit by it while he brewed the tea for both of them. She knew why he did so. This was the song that the three of them, when Mr Mehta was still around them, used to listen together, and the now deceased had decreed it to be as his favourite. She smiled and lipped the song along, thinking about nothing in particular, apart from a stray thought or two she seldom thought about her husband now, or about anything at all. She just kept reading most of the time.
And then he returned with the tea and the biscuits. Picking the newspaper up, he read something in it and tried to lure her into a debate, to which she enthusiastically reciprocated.
A few minutes later. Silence ensued, and he kept reading the newspaper, and she kept reading the book. He threw a glance at her book. She had been reading the same book for ten days or has it been fifteen days, but the numbers no longer seemed to matter to him. So they both continued to read. And they talked intermittently between the reading, perhaps to kill the silence but more to console the other of their company. And neither got up for a long time.
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