by Anupama Krishnakumar
I first met Mrs. and Mr. Sridhar on a wintry evening at the community park a few metres away from my house. That was five years ago when I had decided that I had had enough of the corporate rat race and it was high time I gave in to an idea that had been wriggling within my head for some years now: the desire to start my own marketing agency.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Anand? You are just 42 and the kids are still young. Don’t you want to give it a few more years?” my friends and well-wishers had asked incessantly with concern. But I had made up my mind.
It was the first Monday after I had said goodbye to a full-time job as the Marketing Head of a big multinational company. I had decided, among other things, that an evening walk had to be a part of my daily routine. I put on my running shoes and my T-shirt and shorts and stepped out. That evening jog was the first time I felt relaxed after years as I took a deep breath and absorbed the sights and sounds around me without any inhibitions, distractions and prejudices.
Halfway through my first round of jogging, I met an old couple. The man was dressed in a blue and red checked shirt with a black sleeveless sweater on top and a deep brown woollen muffler around his neck, and had paired the shirt up with black trousers. He was tall with a lean frame, his shoulders drooping a bit. One couldn’t miss the sparkling eyes that hid behind his black-rimmed glasses. Next to him was a woman, who I presumed was his wife. Dressed in a breezy cotton saree, she wore a beige cardigan and a pale pink silk scarf over her head. I couldn’t help noting how the woman walked close to the man, yet maintained a slight distance. Someone with a discerning eye would easily figure out that she was trying subtly and consciously not to overtake the man.
It’s interesting how I am able to recall my first sighting of them in great detail. It just talks about the impression they made on me. I remember telling my wife a month later, “You know, I wish both of us age to become like them one day.” She had raised her eyebrows in surprise and said with a smile, “Now I have to meet these people who have won your heart hands down!”
From a friendly smile and a nod to a hello to a good evening, our comfort levels with each other grew over time. A few weeks later, Geeta aunty, the way Mrs. Sridhar said I could address her, asked me my name.
“Anand, aunty,” I replied smiling.
“So I finally know your name, young man,” said Mr. Sridhar, extending his hand, “Good to meet you, Anand. I am Sridhar.”
“It’s a pleasure to get to know you, sir,” I told him.
“You can call me Sridhar,” he said with a smile.
I shook my head politely and said, “I can’t get myself to do that.”
He laughed a little.
“What do you do?” That was Mrs. Sridhar asking. I admired her deep voice.
“I am a marketing guy, aunty. I sell brands. But I quit my job couple of months ago. Planning to start up something of my own,” I said.
“That’s nice,” came her prompt reply.
Mr. Sridhar’s response was, however, more measured. He reminded me of my ever-cautious father who I had lost seven years ago.
“That is quite bold,” Mr. Sridhar said, “you seem quite young. How old are you, Anand…” he paused a bit, “if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I am 42,” I replied, adding softly, “I have all plans in place.”
“Good then, and good luck, young man,” he patted me on my right arm and added, “We couldn’t have imagined doing such things during our times. I served a nationalised bank for 36 years! I wonder where I got the patience from,” he laughed.
“Oh, my father wanted me to marry him because of this public-sector bank job,” Geeta aunty spoke with a smile. “It was the model of a perfect life then. A man with a job that gave a steady income. A housewife. Two or three kids. Savings. A house. A scooter. A good education for the children. Occasional outings. Yearly travel. The perfect middle-class existence.”
Mr. Sridhar looked at his wife with quiet admiration. She had summed up their simple yet eventful and memorable life in a few lines.
“Ah, trust her to sum it up,” he said, in response to which his better half blushed.
I loved the lightness of the conversation and found myself opening up willingly.
“My decision to quit was also taken keeping my wife, Sarah, in mind. She is an architect and I thought it was time for her to chase her dream full-time.”
“Sarah?” that was Geeta aunty questioning again. I couldn’t help smiling at the shock in her voice, despite her best efforts to curb it.
“Yes, aunty…she is British. We have been married for fifteen years now,” I revealed.
“You seem to be a man full of surprises,” Mr. Sridhar offered helpfully, trying to calm things down, “it’s like unravelling a layered gift box!”
I laughed. And they joined in.
“Children?” asked Geeta aunty. I could see that she couldn’t contain her curiosity anymore.
“Twins. A boy and a girl. They are thirteen.” I said.
“Wonderful,” exclaimed both of them together, “You should get them all one day to the park, we would love to meet them.”
“I will…but I would be happy if you both can come home someday…I live just couple of houses down this street.”
“We will,” they promised.
That was the first long and meaningful conversation that I had with them. We had known each other for two months.
As the days rolled by, I began piecing together the picture called their life with the bits of information that I could gather from our conversations and I suppose they did too, of my life.
“Our older daughter lives in Canada and the younger one lives in Mumbai,” Geeta aunty told me once. She talked about how she missed her children and grandchildren and how she looked forward to their yearly visits.
“Geeta and I used to travel frequently earlier, honeymoons you know,” Mr. Sridhar said, winking. “But we can’t do that anymore given our health these days.” He said he and his wife ensured that they continued to stay independent and that staying in an apartment complex helped. They had their network of friends, kept themselves occupied by engaging in activities close to their hearts.
“Like what?” I asked him curiously.
“I am an avid reader and I collect books. Rare editions too. I am part of a reading club that has many young folks like you. In fact, I love telling children what they should read.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“But books that come out these days…” he dragged a bit, “are rarely impressive.”
“She is a very good singer you know,” Mr. Sridhar said suddenly, gently tilting his head towards his wife.
“No, no…nothing like that,” she blushed and shook her head.
“No, she’s being modest,” he intervened playfully.
“I am passionate about music, that’s all. I am a part of the Bhajans group in our complex,” she smiled. “I have such good friends there.”
As months turned to years, my venture took shape and even on busier days, I ensured that my evening routine was intact. I continued to meet the sprightly couple and we had our daily dose of ten-minute conversations sitting on the benches of the park – little spaces that the universe had set aside for us to let a beautiful association bloom. It was perhaps the most non-intrusive relationship that I had ever been in because even after having known them so well over time, we had never visited each other’s houses, even with the apartment complex they lived in being just a stone’s throw away from my bungalow. We never thought it necessary to exchange numbers either. In fact, our common world existed outside of our homes: in the confines of the park that brought us together.
I once got Sarah and the kids to meet them at the park and I saw tears in both their eyes as they cupped my wife’s and children’s faces in their palms and blessed us. I met their daughters’ families once too. Whenever we didn’t meet at the park, we always knew we would, in a day or two, until once when I didn’t see them for almost two weeks. I began growing restless, to an extent that I hadn’t imagined. Why did they matter so much to me? I couldn’t say, but every evening I thought I would see an old couple walk down the stony path of the park. But they didn’t. I even contemplated walking up to their apartment complex and enquiring about one Mr. Sridhar, but thought better of it because I didn’t want to intrude into their privacy by landing up there uninvited.
And so, I waited. A month later, I saw the lone figure of Mr. Sridhar walking into the park. I rushed, my breathing heavy.
“Hello, sir. How are you? And what happened?” I enquired breathlessly.
“Good evening, Anand. Been a while, isn’t it? Geeta had an attack, a pretty bad one.”
I gasped. “And…?”
“No, she is ok. But too weak. We are first going to Mumbai to stay at our daughter’s place and then we will be moving to a retirement home in Pune soon. I don’t think we can manage alone anymore,” he answered, sounding a little choked.
“I am glad I got to meet you before we leave. We are leaving tomorrow. I just wanted to visit the park one last time,” he continued emotionally.
My eyes grew moist instantly. I was never the emotional kind but some connections in this world are inexplicable. I bid him goodbye and wished him good health but this time I gave him my phone number. “Please call me once you settle down, sir. I would love to stay in touch with you and aunty. Take care.”
He nodded, shook my hand, wished me luck and walked away.
Two days since, I look at the park from my balcony and I think a walk in the park is never going to be the same again. But change, I suppose, is the only constant in life. So I take a deep breath, put my shoes on and walk down with one thought firmly planted in my head: Life must go on. With that realisation, I jog down the stony path softly, recalling warm memories, watching the evening sun descend slowly into the distant horizon.
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylor90/