Aakesh rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as he walked to the park. Late nights made his morning walks quite a chore now but he wasn’t ready to give them up yet. As he entered, he took his hands away and blinked at the greens unfurling about him: tall trees with red and yellow blossoms, ropes of ivies and vines that clung to the fences, beds of rose and hibiscus flowers and grass, lots and lots of prickly green grass.
Grey had turned to green like changing filters in a photograph, he thought. One moment he had been walking his dusty old street, the next he was looking into this paradise.
Shaking his head, Aakesh strolled the stone-paved pathways with a dreamy obliviousness in his stride. A tornado of plans and resolutions circled inside his head, wrecking the peace required for an ideal morning walk. But for Aakesh this was a daily ritual: preplanning his day with tasks he hoped to accomplish. Anxiety and self-doubt was always the cherry on top of these long contemplative sessions. And Aakesh had constantly tried to chase them away all his life. He’d started going for these park walks in the hopes of creating a positive energy. He’d thought the fresh air and solitude would help him do it. But soon he’d come to understand that he couldn’t possibly flee from his own head, regardless the place.
He stopped walking abruptly, discerning a person approaching him from afar. People didn’t come at this hour often, at least not to directly talk to him. Pulling away from his web of thoughts, he focused more intently on the figure.
Humped, ragged clothes and a dirty sling bag, he noted from the distance. Definitely, the old man, he thought. The old man – as he was called in the regional language – was a beggar of the street. Aakesh had often seen him talking to people and sometimes getting shouted at for doing so too. He also knew that the old man wasn’t an ordinary beggar solely because he had never been seen…well, begging.
But instead of turning to Aakesh as he’d expected, the old man neared and seated himself in one of the park benches quite close to where he was standing. The old man was heavily wrinkled with folds of skin sagging down. His hair was a clear white and his bones jutted out as a result of his shocking thinness. But despite these imperfections, his eyes held a certain light of joy that always left Aakesh bewildered. Because how could a starving beggar be happy?
His eyes still shone as they raked Aakesh up and down. Feeling uncomfortable, weary and curious, all at once, Aakesh went and sat down in the opposite bench, returning his gaze with equal intensity.
He didn’t know why he was doing this when he should probably be resuming his walk and time blocking his day but something attracted him to this man as if he were a magnet.
He was certainly not an ordinary beggar.
‘Hello,’ Aakesh said in a low feeble voice and cringed inwardly. He felt very awkward and had no idea as to how to spark a conversation with this odd sorry creature.
‘Another one from the fishbowl.’ Said the old man, shifting his sling bag to a side. He otherwise seemed unmoving.
‘What?’ asked Aakesh, thrown back. He’d expected a weak voice greeting him a hello back but instead gotten quite a strong tone saying something else.
The old man smiled as if sensing his surprise. He had a nice smile, thought Aakesh. Something genuine and human about it that made it rather endearing.
‘You are trapped young man. Trapped in your world like everybody else.’ He replied, his face suddenly unreadable.
Aakesh felt this was an inkling of the man’s ageing mind but curiosity prompted him to push further. ‘What do you mean?’
The man leaned forward with a glint in his eye. ‘Do you know that it’s spring?’
’Of course, I know. I’m not living under a rock, am I?’ Aakesh looked at him incredulously, and then as if to make sure, at the trees and plants adorned with blossoms. Sweet scents of fresh grass and flowers hung heavy on the air. He hadn’t noticed it before.
‘But you are. You are. You are.’ The beggar laughed gruffly and then fell silent with slow puffs of breath. He held an aura of mysteriousness that Aakesh didn’t quite like.
‘Your generation’ he began, waving his hands pointedly. ‘Is blinded by glory and ambitions. By materialistic things and prosaic duties. You, for example, come here at every sunrise with your feet on the ground and heart in the clouds. You never think of this world and it’s people unless it’s yours. Tell me, boy, when will you ever stop floating and begin to anchor yourself back to life? How many dawns will it take for you to waken and feel alive? Because look around you! It’s spring!’
Aakesh did look. He looked at the old man, barefoot and in tatters and at his wrinkled face set in an expression of wonder, his eyes gleaming.
How could a starving beggar be happy?
A fallen yellow flower lay crushed beside his feet and he kicked it. ‘Listen, old man, I have enough work to do. I haven’t got time for-
‘What do you do, Aakesh?’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘Doesn’t matter, what do you do?
Aakesh shot him a long measured look before he answered- ‘I’m a teacher. I teach English.’ He must’ve learned my name from my stories, he thought. From old newspapers.
‘But that isn’t what you only do. And it isn’t what you only want.’ The old leaned forward.
‘No, it isn’t,’ replied Aakesh subdued. And it was true. It was his way of filling his pockets but not his dream. What he liked to do was writing stories for magazines, newspapers and such but he wasn’t getting enough fame or popularity for which he felt daily bouts of sadness, anger and frustration. He was currently working on a novel but he had to force words and inspiration to come to him. He’d been working a lot lately, prepping for classes, grading papers, writing, editing, doubting…
Aakesh? The old man was calling out to him. Aakesh snapped back into focus and listened. ‘Years ago, I was once like you, very driven by my ambitions and always ever so unhappy. Like you, I used to set bars of expectations to fulfil, in hopes of achieving happiness and peace. I was blind to everything else around me, everything else that would’ve easily given me what I’d wished for.’
‘And then what did you do? End up like this?’ asked Aakesh, suddenly curious.
The old man shook his head. ‘No. I learned to appreciate. Appreciate everything I had in my life and everything I did not have too, for its existence alone gave me bliss. Even as I was left penniless and poor, happiness never left me. As god had written my fate to be this, I have come to appreciate it too.’
Aakesh thought about this. ‘But what is your fate? What exactly do you do, old man because you clearly don’t beg.’, he said.
He smiled at him. This time a softer one. A smile you’d give to a child who wouldn’t understand. ‘I observe and help, Aakesh. That is all.’
And somehow they felt their conversation nearing the end. Aakesh heard distant sounds of people bustling about and he got up from the bench, his head spinning a new web of his newfound thoughts, or rather realisations.
The old man looked ruefully in the direction of the noise. ‘They have begun to live their day just to sleep again. I only hope you don’t.’
Aakesh looked at him but said nothing. He fumbled at his pockets to take out a few notes and then he turned and thrust it into the old man’s hands. Looking at him carefully in the eye he said ‘Thank you.’
As quite a few of them oversaw the children in the cafeteria, the teachers’ room was rarely packed during lunchtime. It was the time when Aakesh liked to be inside it.
Always in the darkest depths of his mind, lay a shadow of certainty in his failure. It now slowly crept into the forefront, enlarging into a sea of foreboding until he felt his sweat wet and pulse quicken. The sleek screen stared back at him, as black as obsidian. Impatient and excited, he hastily clicked his computer on and went straight to open his mail.
No. No, of course, nothing. He scrolled up and down. Nothing.
Aakesh sank into his chair, dazed. Disappointment burned in his heart. There was no denying it, the light had been there as well as the shadow, almost constantly at odds. But now he felt that the shadow would cloth it possibly forever.
Aakesh had sent his piece of writing, something he’d worked on for several weeks, to a highly viewed website, hoping it would be chosen for publication. But the inbox was empty and the deadline for acceptance had passed. This usually didn’t happen to him, not when he’d put in a truckload of effort. Had his writings regressed to end up like this?
He sighed and leaned back in his creaky chair, staring at the patterns cast by the clear bright light of the room.
‘Aakesh’, called a voice and before he could register and recognise, he turned towards it in the way of reflex.
It was Rita Laxman, head of English department, highly paid, graduated uni with flying colours, mostly likely to be future principal because of that and his boss.
Aakesh groaned inwardly and stood up. It wasn’t as if Rita was horrible but she was nice, which was far more worse.
She was behind him, leaning against a desk and her face glowing in earnest. ‘So Aakesh, I was asked to speak to the A block students this Monday, encouraging them to focus on studies and homework. I’m going in preferably at the third hour and I was wondering if you’d like to help me.’
‘Help you? asked Aakesh taken by surprise. What did this perfect woman need help for?
She smiled and nodded, pulling a strand of her hair back. ‘Well, I suppose the students wouldn’t want to hear me preach about good grades all the while so I figured you could step in halfway and narrate about your own personal experiences while throwing in a few pointers about revision, you know and stuff like that.’
Aakesh couldn’t think of anything to say. She was literally asking him to back her up and act like a miserable little sidekick. That was his first thought that flashed across his mind. The second thought was that he absolutely had to get out of this. Especially when he had a lot of work to do now.
Aakesh ran a hand through his hair. ‘I’m sorry, Rita but I have a huge stack of assignments to skim through and I think I’m due for a class then too. I can’t do it.’
‘Oh.’ Dismay turned her brown eyes a few shades darker. ‘You were really my best choice but I guess I’d have to find someone else then’., she said and went to talk to somebody before he could respond.
Aakesh gratefully slumped back into his chair and stared after her for a while. Jealousy twisted inside his stomach. She probably had everything in her life: a good job, loads of money, popularity and adding to that was her intelligence and bland niceness. She was perfect only in the she could be. He hated her for that, for always reminding him that he wasn’t, for always reminding him of his own misfortunes, of his piling failures.
Watching her now, he felt he would always hate her and a fresh rush of jealousy coursed in his veins but Aakesh knew better. He turned his head away and started staring at his desk, suddenly tired. It was an aching sort of tiredness where it was more mental than physical. The day’s strong emotions had taken a toll on him. He sighed and closed his eyes for a minute or so, lights playing inside his eyelids. He opened them again to the sound of birds chirping. Momentarily his eyes rested on the window beside him, the wind rattling the blinds softly. Something about the stripes of blue peeking through the gaps was beautiful. So was the way his back felt fortified by the chair, protecting him from a fall, the way he felt his breaths but couldn’t quite feel it like it was some invisible magic. He shifted his eyes back into the room to see a few heads bobbing behind computers.
‘Tell me, boy, when will you ever stop floating and begin to anchor yourself back to life? How many dawns will it take for you to waken and feel alive?’
In his mind’s eye, he saw the face of the old man, with all those wrinkles and his happy eyes. And Aakesh suddenly felt light as if he’d shoved a huge load was off his shoulders. He felt all his frustrations, worries and sadness vaporise for a moment. And before he knew it he was calling Rita’s name, telling her that he’d be able to it, that he’ll speak with her.
Rita’s eyes went wide and her smile did too. ‘That’s great Aakesh, I um’ And for a slight second Aakesh witnessed her curtain of perfection slide, revealing her dying insecurity and genuine relief as she said ‘Thank you!’
It was a harsh night, brimmed with warm winds that aroused hunger. But the old man walked with a spring in his step, knowing well that he wouldn’t face hunger pains tonight, that he would sleep soundly without the agonising emptiness in his stomach.
He strolled further and settled down in his habitual place, under the shade of a lonely Gulmohar tree. Stretching his legs out and setting aside his bag, he unwrapped the package of food he’d bought from a local shop nearby, food that was available as a result of the money he’d received. How lucky it’d been that Aakesh had chosen to give him that money. He could smell the nourishing aroma of fresh hot rotis. How so lucky.
He ate with his hands trembling, taking in piece after piece continuously until he had to pause at a point. He slowly tilted his head back to see the sky studded with stars like jewels in a mine. He felt his body screaming for more and more but he slowed his pace, gazing at the night and feeling each and every bite. It rekindled energy inside him that steadied his hands and calmed him to enjoy. Midway through his meal, his mouth in a break from chewing, the old man clasped his hands together in a prayer. His eyes were focused on a single bright star in the sky when he silently uttered the words- ‘Thank you.’