2 Aug 2014
I didn’t know where to begin. Or how. The old woman looked straight in my eye. Whether her glance reflected gratitude or contempt, it was not obvious. The old man, frail and bound to the wheel chair, held the book close. His fingers ran fondly along the name of the author, as he tried holding back tears. Briefly, the woman, sitting beside, held his hand gently. Neither of them said a word, but each one knew how the other was feeling. I felt like an intruder to a most private moment.
“Let me get you a cup of tea”, the woman said affectionately and stood up.
“Please don’t bother, auntie”.
“With a few cookies too”, she smiled, as she paced toward the kitchen.
That morning when I woke up, I realised I had particularly nothing to do. The return flight was at late evening, so I had the entire day of leisure ahead. I knew I would die of tedium if I stayed at hotel. Quickly I took out the book from my bag. Twenty-two years before when my Dad brought it home, I took an instant liking for its cover. “I found this in the train”, my Dad said. “Luckily, it has the address of the owner. We will send him by post”.
I was barely into my teens and still didn’t lose the fascination for collecting things that I will never use. Having liked the book, I didn’t like the idea of returning it to its owner. When Dad went into another room, I picked up, furtively, the book, rushed into my room and put it behind a pile of books.
After two days, Dad left for Europe and by the time he returned after two months, both of us had forgotten about the book.
After many years, I opened the book for the first time. Untrampled, read the title; Karthik Srinivasan was the author. I was never fond of reading, so I just glanced at a few pages. It appeared to me like an anthology of poetry. What caught my interest was the name of the owner, with address. Would he be still looking for the book, I doubted. The book had aged, and its pages gathered a yellow tinge. For some strange reason, I decided I will find that man and return the book.
In my previous visits to Bangalore, I could not find time. So during that trip, when I found time, I thought it was the best chance.
It took a couple of hours to find his house. I gathered he was a well-known, respected man in the neighbourhood. Srinivasan T Palani, I noticed the name plate. Retired Justice. The house had two Ambassadors in the garage, and had a well-maintained lawn. An old woman, who looked graceful and learned, opened the door. When I told her I wanted to meet Mr Srinivasan, she received me politely and led me to a study. I saw him reading a book. The room resembled a library. I wondered if he even remembered that book.
Shy as I was, I didn’t spend much time in introduction. I kept it to the point and told him I had come to return that book. I thought it would finish with a simple “thank you” from them, and I would leave. Strangely, although I had never read the book, when I gave him it felt as if I was relieving myself of a persistent burden. As he held the book, he was overcome with emotion. The woman too partaked of that feeling but showed more restraint. His fingers trembled a bit when he opened the cover and read his name.
He wiped a tear at the corner of his eyes, looked at me and offered a hug. It was so effusive I could not refuse. Yet when he hugged I felt awkward. “Thank you very much”, he said. I didn’t understand why a simple book would effect such a rush of emotion. Maybe he was too mushy by nature, I thought. It appeared as if he got back a precious box of memories which he had, in a moment of carelessness, lost two decades ago. That is perhaps why the book had become heavier with time, for it preserved, on each of its page, the memories of unforgettable times.
As I sat back in the chair, and the woman looked at me, I was overcome with a sense of guilt. Neither asked questions about how I had found the book. The story was rather irrelevant for them. Yet if they ask, where should I begin the story, I reckoned. I didn’t know where to begin. Or how.
It had just begun raining, so I felt good that Mrs Srinivasan would soon bring a cup of tea. Before she walked in, the old man recollected briefly. “This is my son’s poetry collection”, his eyes brightened. “I always thought he lacked a poetic bent, and often made disparaging remarks. The day I retired, he sent me this book. The only signed copy. We were not on talking terms that time, so he lived in Mumbai”.
As he recounted fondly, I could slowly connect the threads of melancholy. Just then, a little boy came running into the room. “Grandpa, who mixes salt in the sea?” he asked impatiently. “Whenever you refuse to eat what Grandma gives you, the salt in your food goes and mixes with the sea water”, Mr Srinivasan quipped. The playful exchange must be familiar, for the boy didn’t care to hear an answer. He laughed and said, “How does it go to the sea? Does it fly? Does it have wings?”
As impatiently as he ran into, he ran out of the room.
“My grandson”, Mr Srinivasan looked in the direction the little boy had run.
“Very adorable”, I said. I remembered my six-year-old daughter.
Mrs Srinivasan walked in, and offered me tea. Very gracefully, she put the plate of biscuits on the stool beside. She must have followed our conversation, so she added, “one incorrigible brat, he is!”
She sat beside Mr Srinivasan, as he continued. “When I read the book, I broke down. I called him up and absolved my shame. I told him I was proud of him; I wept. I asked him to visit us. In hindsight, that was my biggest blunder. The following weekend, just an hour before they were to reach the city, their vehicle met with an accident”. It appeared to make him recollect something more. “A few years ago, my daughter too met with a similar accident. Only this little fellow survived”, he referred to the little boy.
“I am very sorry, sir”. I then realised why the book was especially precious to him.
The old man sighed. “We learn our best lessons in life that way. It’s all about the art of losing”, he pondered. I followed him earnestly. “He had a great writer in him. I lost my son; the world lost a writer. A poet”, he emphasised.
Mrs Srinivasan reminded me of biscuits again. “He used to carry this book everywhere. Everywhere. On one of his trips to Calcutta, he lost it”.
“In train”, Mr Srinivasan added.
“He was heartbroken that day”.
“And remained so! Till you walked in and gave it in my hands”, he smiled at me.
The more gratitude they expressed, the more guilty it made me feel. I also felt proud of my father who always taught me that every little thing has a value. Twenty-two years before if he hadn’t told me that he intended to send the book to its owner, it would have never occurred to me to visit Mr Srinivasan.
I wanted to apologise, but Mr Srinivasan picked a poem to read out. “See how beautiful this one reads. It’s titled Chasing the Light”, he said.
“Between the fringes of the leaves
That she spots in shadows
She tries to catch the light
She breaks into laughter
As her fists close tight
The light between her fingers
Draws the lines fine
As it slides along her palm
Which, in her youth, some man
Will hold with love and admire
The leaves sway, her fists open
The shadows fall apart, forlorn
And curse the gleeful breeze”
As he read a few more, the little boy again walked in and sat in his grandmother’s lap. I knew the title of the book but for the first time, I read it carefully. Untrampled. The irony hit me – by not walking into their life, by not taking the steps I was supposed to, till that day, I had left twenty-two years of their memories trampled. What occurred to me as a casual trip to kill the purposelessness of a boring day, ended up as a most fulfilling experience. I sought their blessings as I got up. I wanted to leave my address with them, for I wanted to hear from them of their well-being. I fumbled as I tried to pull out pen from my pocket, and everything fell down. A few business cards, some currency, and some coins.
Embarrassed, I quickly gathered everything. The little boy rushed in, slid his hand below the sofa, stood up and hastily walked toward his room. Mrs Srinivasan stopped him, “Vijay! Show your hands”. The little boy unfoled his fists. It was a coin. “Give it back to uncle”, she said. I didn’t surely mind the kid fancying a coin, but I also liked how obedient he was. “Thank you, Vijay!” I appreciated when he returned. He disappeared into his room. I gave Mrs Srinivasan the address slip, thanked them and took leave.
That evening when I took the return flight, the airlines misplaced one of my bags. I left a complaint and made it to home. I always traveled light, so the bag had just a couple of pairs and toiletries. Or so I thought, till the next evening when my little daughter came running into my embrace and asked me to show her the keychain she had chosen for me as a birthday gift, five months before. It had a meticulous carving of the Buddha, and I always carried it with care. Every time I returned from a trip, she would check if I kept it safe.
To my utter disbelief, I could not find it in my trousers. I searched frantically, but it became clear I had lost it. Even as I was angry with myself, I broke her little heart. As it was raining the previous night, I had packed a few things in the bag at the last minute. I told her how one of my bags was lost, and assured that the airlines would find it and send. But nothing could convince her. I couldn’t sleep that night. Neither of us would ever forget that event.
Twenty-four years have passed since that day. The morning was bright, but clouds have gathered now, as I recline and leisurely reminisce those times. Time moves on, but you remain anchored to some moments in the past. They refuse to let you go.
I followed up with the airlines for three years and gave it up. They apologised for the loss and offered compensation. I declined, for what I had lost was priceless. My daughter still, on occasion, taunts me about my carelessness and I still try to convince her I couldn’t have been careless about her gift. And I fail.
Six months after I returned that book, Mr Srinivasan died. I attended the funeral, and that was the last I saw of Mrs Srinivasan and their grandson. I heard from her, though, for a few years. Six years after Mr Srinivasan’s death, Mrs Srinivasan died. Her cousin’s family took Vijay to Europe.
Briefly, my grand-daughter walks toward me and gives me a stone. “Grandpa, keep this in your pocket. And don’t tell grandma”, she says. “Here, my precious”, I tell her as I slip it into my pocket. She smiles and walks into the lawn again. She remembers something and turns back, “Don’t lose it, Okay?” I smile and assure her, “Never, darling!”
I hear a knock on the door. “I will just be back, precious”, I tell her and walk in to check the door. “Mr Siddharth?” the young man asks. “Yes”, I confirm. “Hi! Hi uncle, I am Vijay”, he says, extending his hand. The name sounds familiar, and before I get it, he helps me, “Mr Srinivasan’s grandson”.
“Ah, of course! What a pleasant surprise!” I invite him in. “How are you, boy?”
“Very fine, uncle. How are you?” His tone is firm and affable.
I ask him about his years in Europe, his education, job and the rest of it and he answers politely. Curiously, I ask how he could find my home. He refers to some technologies which I vaguely understand. Nonetheless, I find it impressive. “My wife has gone out for a while; let me get something for you. Would you like coffee or tea?” I enquire.
“Sure, I can do with a cup of coffee, uncle”, he replies. A pause later, he adds, “but before that, I have something for you”.
As I follow eagerly, he slowly takes out a small box from his pocket. It is neatly wrapped. I remove it carefully. When I remove the last strand of paper, tears rush in my eyes. For a minute, I feel it to my fingers. The complacent, content Buddha on the metal. I look at Vijay and tell him, “I cannot thank you enough!” I walk to him and embrace. Twenty-four years ago when Mr Srinivasan embraced me so, I felt awkward. I can understand if Vijay feels awakward, too, but I also understand Mr Srinivasan couldn’t help it. “Let me get you coffee”, I tell him and walk into the kitchen.
For a few minutes, I clasp the keychain and sob. It might be a romantic notion, but it feels as if the keychain too had been looking for me. Isn’t that why when it slipped off me, it found the right person to be spotted by, who will preserve it for decades and eventually find me and return it? As did that book, too, forty-six years ago? And when one loses something so it finds him again, even after decades, he has mastered the art of losing.
I come back with coffee and find him chatting with my grand-daughter. She picks up one cookie and runs out into the lawn. Sipping coffee, he asks me, “Uncle, that day when I returned the coin, why did nobody ask me to open the other hand?”
“Just so, twenty-four years later, you knock on the door of an old man’s and make his day!” I smile.
My grand-daughter walks in and comes to me. “Grandpa, will you tell me a story this evening?” I caress her face and say, “Absolutely! I have a very nice one for you”. She is delighted. “What is it about, Grandpa?”
“Dear one”, I explain, “it’s the story of a lost book”. Three of us smile, and hear the gentle sound of rain drops.