On the day of his retirement Narayan got out of bed early, before dawn. He had not slept the whole night, not a wink, twirling restlessly in his bed. His dry eyes burned and his face was swollen. It had drizzled all night intermittently. Wet clothes were scattered all over his bed, as he couldn’t hang them out on the clothes line due to the rain. His room felt moist and there was a damp smell hanging in the air, his books had become soft from the moisture. Out of the window he saw dragonflies floating up and down, and small insects fluttering in the dim light of dawn. Sun was near the horizon, lurking behind the heavy clouds which hung low in the sky without a bite. It would rain all day, it was in the forecast for the coming three days. Birds who long used to visit his balcony were not around. They did not visit his balcony anymore; he had stopped keeping food and water for them.
Once he had a bougainvillea bush in his garden, where little sparrows, babblers, bee eaters would start chirruping at the break of dawn. They would fight with one another and hop from one branch to another branch in the safety of the thick and densely packed leaves, away from the evil eyes of kestrels and owls prowling for them. Before his wife’s death he used to keep crumbled bread, a small amount of grain and water for birds daily in his balcony. He glanced at four nest boxes, all empty, nailed up on the wall and remembered how a carpenter had been called by his father to furnish a bed. He had flattered his father all day for those. He had promised his father to study hard and obey him always if he would order the carpenter to make those nest boxes. He remembered how he would look daily at them, sitting there for hours, watching for birds, spying at them. He waited eagerly for the slightest clue of a nest, keeping nesting material there for them, bringing dry grass from the playground of his school. He wouldn’t let go anyone near them. You’ll scare my birds, he would shout when the maid would come to wipe the floor. This guy is crazy, the maid would mumble and he would pretend he didn’t hear. He was passionate about birds. It amazed him when he saw a sparrow entering in through the hole of the nest box to roost. There was no limit to his happiness when he had heard the amorous cries of the hatchlings in the box for the first time. He was so ecstatic to see the birds sharing their home with his, the tiny family members of those little birds hopping around his house, perching on the bookshelf, filling the whole house with their calls. Their home pleased him.
He recalled a couple of days after his wife’s death how with a crestfallen countenance he had gone out to his garden. The birds’ shrill calling had annoyed him so much that he dug out the soil with a spade around the root of the bougainvillea bush, and uprooted it to throw over the wall. He then put up a ladder and climbed up to seal the entrance of all the nest boxes he had nailed up on the wall of his balcony.
He was reading the newspaper when someone knocked on the door. He knew who it was, his maid always in hurry. Who else could knock on his door so desperately? Nobody else came to his place. He had stopped picking up the calls of his relatives, since the day his wife died due to cardiac arrest. He could visualise clearly in his mind the day he woke up early to leave for a meeting to be held in Lucknow, when he had a morning train. He had insisted that his wife not cook anything as he knew she wasn’t well. He had told her he would buy something good on the station, but she didn’t budge and went into the kitchen before it struck four in the morning. He was still in his bathrobe when he saw his wife lying on the floor of the kitchen, unconscious, shivering terribly. He had rushed to the hospital, and was still on the way when she died. His only son, Bhaskar had come back from America after two days when the last rites were over, and left after staying only for a week, due to some indispensable work. Bhaskar lived in America with his American wife, and worked for a multinational company. He’d thought of asking his son to stay with him for a while, but when he saw them coming with their two huge suitcases trailing behind them, he didn’t say anything. From that day he lived alone, lamented alone. He shared his grief with no one. His son would call him once in a month or sometimes forget to do that, but he didn’t mind. He would never call his son.
There are no vegetables to cook, sir, his maid jolted him back to present.
Narayan stood up and went to his kitchen, he opened the door of the refrigerator. It smelled of rotten vegetables, there was a rancid smell of leftovers kept there for too long. The kitchen was in a state of disarray with nothing in its place. There were cups of tea scattered in the sink. He saw stains of tea spilled on the kitchen floor. Her maid would cook anything left in the refrigerator. She never asked him before cooking. She wouldn’t wash vegetables properly. Her food would always be either overcooked or undercooked, and after cooking she would cover it with a lid and run away reminding Narayan to eat later before leaving for work. After his wife’s death he never ate hot breakfast; he would serve himself later what his maid kept for him in the refrigerator. She would come early in the morning. He thought of looking for another maid several times, but Savitri seldom took leaves, and in spite of her poor cooking abilities she had this quality which exempted Narayan from the trouble of cooking himself. Where would a septuagenarian widow go at this age to look for work, he thought every time the idea of firing her crossed his mind.
Give me five minutes, I’ll buy some vegetables from the shop, Narayan told Savitri. You have tea for the moment, he added.
When Narayan grabbed his umbrella hanging on a nail, he saw his son’s umbrella hanging next to it, folded, with a square canopy, square aluminium shaft and square rubber finished handle, exactly as he wanted. Bhaskar was firm on getting that, no other umbrella but the square shaped one he wanted, which his friend had brought with him to school. Narayan had looked for it everywhere in the city, searched in every shop. Rashmi, his wife had advised him not to give in to child’s every demand so easily, but seeing his child so restless perplexed him and he had bought one eventually.
Narayan went down the road to the vegetable vendor, whose shop was in the next street. When Bhaskar was a child, he would persistently insist that Narayan take him to the vendor, every time he had to go there. He would hold Narayan’s index finger tightly, and Narayan would feel soft grip of his little hand, his tiny fingers curled up over his index finger. He recalled when Bhaskar stood up for the first time, staggering and falling several times; it was magical to see him approaching on his tiny feet, when he stood stretching out his arms to embrace him. He felt so proud and elated as a father. During those imperceptible moments, he had never realised that one day he would miss the intimacies of their touch, lost in time. Before departing for America, Bhaskar had touched his feet, but the touch felt foreign to him. It wasn’t the same as when he used to hold his hand and embrace him, it had changed with time like everything else.
When he returned and handled fresh vegetables to Savitri, she had already made daal, rice and bitter melon. “There was some bitter melon left in the freezer, I had forgotten to check that”, she told Narayan while rushing out.
Narayan ate his cold breakfast alone, with a Videocon television set turned off in front of him; five chairs of the dinner table were empty, as they were for a long time after his wife’s death. There was a time when his wife and son would constantly ask him to pass bowls full of daal and rajma and the variety of dishes his wife would cook, while arguing about whose turn it was to get hold of the remote control, and it was for those family moments that Narayan dreamt of retiring soon so he could eat his lunch with them daily, not only on the weekends as he did then. He would tell everyone in his office that he would take VRS soon, that he was tired of working and wanted to spend his future time with his son and wife. He had been planning to take a trip to Europe with his family with the funds he would get after retirement.
He was still planning when his son got a prestigious job in Boston. Narayan wanted him to work in India, but finding his son very enthusiastic about working in a foreign country, he persuaded his heart and bid him farewell with a heavy heart. It was hard for him to see his son boarding a flight, going far, miles away from him. He didn’t go to the airport as he didn’t want to cry in front of his son, he didn’t want to show him how weak he was. He wanted to cry in his privacy. Sometimes he would take his son’s photo at night, his long hairs cascading down his neck, a flute in his hand, dressed as lord Krishna, and he would start sobbing when his wife would beg him to be strong, but the pangs of separation were too much for him, he truly was a family man. After a few years Bhaskar stopped picking up his parents’ calls, phoning them after a couple of days apologizing and blaming the heavy work load, then one day he told them that he had married an American girl. Narayan saw his daughter-in-law’s photo when Bhaskar mailed them after one week of their wedding, giving the same excuse as always.
Narayan put on his white shirt and black pant, pulled on a half sweater his wife had knitted for him, and left for work, for the last time in his life. After his wife’s death his office was the only place where he felt engaged and could forgot about his lonely life.
On the way to his office all the time he thought about how much he had worked hard to get this job. He recalled how he would study from morning to night taking little tea breaks to relax himself. His wife would make tea every time she saw him, suppressing yawn. His father had insisted that he get married long before he was in a job, and would seize every opportunity to push him to get married. Narayan wanted to marry only after he could stand on his feet, but he had to succumb eventually, tired by his father’s constant nagging. In the beginning of his career he was very excited about his job and did his work diligently, but with time his interest faded. He would daydream about the Europe trip he would take with his family, he would remind his colleagues that he was not going to do this job for long and would soon take VRS. His boss would come every now and then to his seat to warn him about the mistakes he often made. Sometimes he would post letters to wrong addresses, sometimes he would pass a bill without checking it properly.
When he reached his office everyone congratulated him.
“So the day finally came for the Europe trip. We’ll miss an efficient employee like you, Narayan,” his boss said as he patted him on the back.
In the evening everyone gave a farewell speech and gifts. His boss dropped him home that night with all of his gifts. Narayan’s eyes were misty, and he was overwhelmed when his boss left. He had never thought in his life that retiring would be so painful, that he would resent the sight of his boss leaving.
Next day he started dressing again, he put on his white shirt and black pant, then he knotted the tie up to his neck and put on his favourite suit. Bhaskar had called him the night before, just after he came back from his grand farewell. He was expecting Bhaskar to ask him to move in with them but he thought of refusing, telling them he was too old to be deracinated now. He would tell him that he could not adjust to American norms of living, and had already prepared himself to say that, but when his son called he only congratulated him on the successful and immaculate completion of his career and advised him to keep Savitri as a full-time caretaker now. “Dad, you should talk to Savitri to ask if she can be a full-time caretaker, as you will need someone now,” he had said. Narayan had cut the call, replying to him precisely that he would, don’t worry about me. This was the last thing he had said to his son.
Before entering his office, he noticed that when he had first joined his office the area around it had been deserted, and that the scenery had changed drastically with time. Tall buildings and skyscrapers had sprung into existence imperceptibly. Time had flown unnoticed in his life, changing everything beyond his imagination and control.
He went straight to his seat, sat there and started poring over the wilderness of his papers. He asked the peon for a glass of water as was his routine at work. All of the colleagues were astounded to see him again. When his boss saw him through the glass door of his chamber, he came out to Narayan’s seat.
“Narayan, didn’t someone remind you, you’re retired, you should enjoy at home,” his boss said.
‘Home’ echoed in Narayan’s mind, and he got up from his seat, dropped to his knees and started sobbing. His boss grabbed him. “Narayan, are you okay?” he asked.
“Sir, sir, let me be here,” he repeated and repeated; his mind wandered to the place that he used to call home, something of which nothing remained in his life.
Vivek Nath Mishra is a city flâneur walking through stories. His fiction has been published by The Hindu and the Australian publication Urbaine and Insane. Instagram: @readerofvaranasi