The Old Man
by Janesh Bakshi
It was a breezy morning in the hot month of May and I was as usual enjoying a brisk walk in the midst of all the greenery inside "The Green Park" in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Rising before the sun and setting out for an early morning walk was a part of my daily routine and that morning was no different, except for the breeze.I decided to take a few more rounds before returning home. As the weather was good and nearing sunrise, the park was full of all sorts of people. The quiet serenity had turned into a cacophony due to the "sweet talks" among people.
My idea for a walk was isolation but the other people came there to debate with their friends. As I was about to leave, something caught my attention. An elderly gentleman was distributing sweets to all the homeless children who had gathered there. He was referred to as "Panditji" by fellows who daily came for a walk. I saw him for the first time as I had never stayed so late in the park .He would come at around 6:00 and sit under the Banyan Tree, reciting his daily prayers.He was about 6 feet tall and resembled my great-grandfather a lot. Panditji looked really old. I thought that he was at least 85 years of age as he had a wrinkled face and even the eyebrows had turned white.
I could not resist talking to him as I really missed my great-grandfather and he exactly looked like him.I went up to Panditji and touched his feet, following my traditions of a Hindu family.He blessed me in return and said "जीते रहो ", which means"live long".I started the conversation, asking about the homeless children who had gathered there. Panditji referred to them as "children of god"and said that it was his duty to serve them .There were about fifty of them and he brought sweets for each and everyone. I told him that people choose to ignore "the children of god " at traffic signals and appreciated him for showing compassion. Panditji refused to take any appreciation and said in return that it was not out of pity that he helped them instead it was their right to have food, just like any other human being.I felt guilty for a moment as someone was showing me the mirror.I was also one of those people sit in their air conditioned vehicles and hardly notice these starved children who struggle for their one time meal.I was really impressed by the way he spoke as it would remind me of "Papaji",My great-grandfather.It was about 7:00 and I had to go back home.
I had decided to stay in touch with panditji and promised to show up on the next day.I met him the next day and told him my name. He even knew the meaning of my name. "Kavish means king of poets",he said.As poets came into the picture, Panditji gave a candid opinion on the credibility of various Indian poets. I hardly knew any of their names, so chose to listen quietly. Days passed and the brisk walk was always followed by a conversation with Panditji. Morning 6:00 to 7:00 everyday, we used to sit and chat about various things.I had shared a great deal of my life experiences with panditji and began to develop faith in him. He would listen to me patiently and finally used to say " बेटा , इज़्ज़त दोगे तोह इज़्ज़त मिलेगी "which means that if you respect someone,you will get respect in return.
I usually had a verbal spat with my parents everyday regarding my career choices.They wanted me to join family business whereas I wanted to pursue higher studies after doing my graduation.I was in a dilemma over this issue.I conveyed this problem to Panditji and he gave a fairly simple answer-"Speak to your parents in an undertone and not authoritatively".I told him that my thinking was not the same as my parents but still he would advise me to be polite and patient.I followed his instructions. To my surprise, my parents budged on my request to pursue higher studies. I got sweets for Panditji as it was the happiest day of my life. He solved my problem and I was ecstatic.
I had known Panditji for over a month. We used to sit beneath the Banyan Tree during the best hour of the day,witnessing ethereal sunshine.I felt as if my great-grandfather was resurrected. Despite having so many
conversations, Panditji was still a mystery man to me. He never said anything about himself and whenever I asked, he would say-"Ishwar ka bhakt hun" meaning " a devotee of God". This would make me curious day by day as I continued to have discussions with him. I wondered who he really was apart from being my friend. I was anxious to know about him because he was a source of inspiration to me. His idealistic views about life had made me his disciple and I was inquisitive about his identity.I even thought sometimes that he would be some "Mahatama" or a priest, looking at his attire. He always wore an orange kurta and had a rudraksha mala in his hand.
Inquisitiveness led to speculation and I thought that he was hiding his identity from me as my questions were still unanswered. 25th December,2013: Panditji was not there in his favourite spot for the first time in a year since we'd met. I started to inquire among people so as to where was he. Even the street children whom he used to feed everyday did not see him that day. One day was followed by a month and Panditji was yet to be seen by anyone.I wondered if he was fine. He was an old man and health issues could be a reason for his absence.It was quite unnatural for me not to see him as he had become a part of my daily routine.I was restless over a month thinking about his disappearance and I had no clue about his identity.It was impossible for me to find him without any address.I was missing his daily quotes and his last sight was recurring in my memory.I remembered his words in our last meeting. He said "बेटा ज़िन्दगी में अपने माता पिता को अकेला मत छोड़ना" meaning "Son, never leave your parents alone". This did not ring a bell in my head and I wondered what did he want to convey to me.
Now a year had passed since Panditji's disappearance and I had also completed my graduation. I was about to leave for Singapore in a few days for pursuing my masters and it was the last few days at home. The absence of Panditji continued to haunt me and I wondered how he was. Was he alive or dead? Such questions would keep on arising in my mind.I was leaving for Singapore the next day, so my parents took me to the Shiva Temple nearby. As I finished my prayers, the priest's attire caught my attention.It was exactly like that of Panditji.I had noticed Panditji closely so I knew that the priest at the temple was wearing the same clothes.It could be a coincidence but I still chose to ask him
:"पु जा री जी ,यहाँ कोई बूढ़े व्यक्ति काम करते थे क्या ?" i.e. "Did an old man ever work in this temple before you?" He said that indeed there was a very aged man who requested him for work as he had nothing to eat.The priest showed me his photograph. It was Panditji, who worked at the temple for a living .The priest told me that Panditji used to serve at the temple for 3 days in a week and he would even sleep there as he had no home.
I asked the priest that what happened to Panditji and why was he absent for a year, and came a sad reply"वह मर चुके हैं". He was dead and he was alone. The priest told me his entire story. Panditji was discarded by his elder son when he was 80. His son left him in "Ramvilas Old age Home" forever and never had an intention of returning, even at his death. Panditji was fed up of his life at the old age home.He wanted to serve God in the remaining years of his life. He went to the temple near the park and asked the priest to let him work there. Panditji took the name of God at every hour of the day.He loved children and would always save "Prasad" for the bunch of starved children by the street.I used to wonder that how could he bring sweets for about 50 children.He had a big heart and his actions reflected the same.His final words to me" बेटा ज़िन्दगी में अपने माता पिता को अकेला मत छोड़ना"had now started making sense to me. His own children left him and his agony is still visible through his smile. ***