I wrote this piece almost 6 years ago but for some reason never posted it. Cleaned it up and sharing it today with a lump in my throat.
I could have gone back to bed but I was certain that sleep would not come. Besides it wasn’t important. Sitting on the couch in the living room, being one with my thoughts was what I wanted at this time. I looked at my wallet on the table, carelessly strewn across from my laptop, the credit card used to reserve the flight to Patna still outside. A little piece of plastic with so much power.
It was early, by several hours. The only time I could remember waking up before sunrise was to catch either a flight or a train. This time however, I wasn’t the one that was traveling. A father had passed away and a son was getting ready to board a flight to light his funeral pyre.
Memories are such a magical way of reliving the past. We were getting a new driver for a second car that my father was buying. This one too, just like the previous, an Ambassador. He was a young man with a slight frame, sitting behind that enormous wheel, easily maneuvering the monstrosity of a car through crowded Calcutta streets.
I remember his signature handlebar mustache covering most of his gaunt face. Looking at him, all one saw were the flamboyant whiskers above his lips and his smiling, twinkling eyes. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes that twinkled as much as his did. He used to call me maalik loosely translated to ‘boss’ even though I was just a young boy. I never thought anything of it back then and I guess he did it was because I was the only male among us five siblings. I shamelessly called him by his first name without a tag of bhaiya for ‘older brother’ or ji to show respect.
He used to live in a little room that was below our apartment, most of the time by himself. His mornings consisted of exercising, washing the car and getting ready to take my dad to his factory at 7 am. Sometimes I would watch him doing what-seemed-like an endless number of push ups. Even though he had a slight frame, he was an incredibly strong man. My best friend and I would sit on his shoulders and he would take us for a walk. I feel horribly guilty about it now. Looking at him one could never imagine that he could be as strong as he was. You may find hard to believe what I’m about to write - if I hadn’t actually been there to see it for myself, I would laugh it off as myth.
There was a rock that used to sit in Tilak (his name) ji’s room about the size of two bricks joined together. My closest friend at the time and I would try our hardest to move that rock from it’s spot using every bit of strength we had, with absolutely no luck. But then we were just a couple of kids and this wasn’t just any ordinary rock - it was much talked about and people would come from across the city to try and lift it, including some weight lifters. Nobody however, could get it to even budge the slightest bit. Each time the person would give up, Tilak, in his 5’3” lean frame would walk across to it, bend down and with one powerful grunt, lift it from the ground and slowly bring it up as far as his arms could go. His son, Rajesh, who now works for me, tells me that when his dad was moving back to the village, he carried that rock from the taxi to the train all by himself because no porter could handle it. I now believe that all this strength came from his mind, which was way stronger than his body.
When, a few years ago, my mother was confined to her bed and he came to visit her, the mustache was primarily grey but the twinkle and the smile were just the same. Every morning he would wake up early, shower, shave, get into his perfectly starched kurta and dhoti and spend time with my mother, doing everything he could to make her more comfortable. We always glorify the dead but everything I say about this man is completely true. He was the nicest, gentlest, most sensitive person I have ever come across. His heart was filled with love for everyone but when it came to my mother, he literally worshipped the ground she walked on.
That was the last time I saw Tilak ji. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time with him - people like him are rare and just being in his presence would have been so much more enriching than my corporate career. We go through lives with such warped priorities and by the time we realize what’s really important, the opportunities in most cases, are long gone.
I had a slight smile on my face, even though tears were streaming down my eyes. It was no small thing growing up, being blessed with the presence of such a human being. And as I sat on my living room couch, my mind taking me to places that I hadn’t been to in a long time, I realized that today an important bit of my childhood had left me. Had left me craving for more.