“One coffee.” He used to slowly approach the counter and murmur. A short old man, always dressed in a formal shirt and trousers. Must have been in his late 70’s. His hands often used to tremble, whenever he tried to pull money from his wallet, to pay for the coffee. And like always, when I asked, “Which coffee sir? Hot or cold?” He would stare at the menu on the wall but was never able to make a choice. So I would choose for him. “Cappuccino?” He would pull up his spectacles and nod. Still remember that nod, that short yet warm smile.
Delhi is a big city and so is its airport. I didn’t know that one day, in this hustle-bustle, he would just appear out of nowhere and become a story you would never forget.
This old fellow came into my life when I was working at a café at Terminal 3, arrivals. I had just started my graduation through correspondence and thought it would be great to get some pocket money while I prepare for my IAS. Like any other 20-year-old, I had dreams, plans. I had it all figured out. Graduation, IAS, government job, powerful position, my own bungalow at 25, marriage at 27, kids at 30 and retirement at 60. But that man changed me. He changed my perspective on life.
Our café was right outside the arrival gates. All sorts of people came to our café. Some came to pick someone, some waiting for their pick up. But he was different. When I joined the café, everyone told me about this old fellow. Every Sunday he came sharp at 4 pm. Sat for an hour. Had coffee and left. For this entire time, he kept staring at the arrival gates. At my age (that time), you never bother much about anything. I was in my own world. But one thing even I didn’t miss was that his clothes were always ironed. He never met anyone, no one ever came to meet him at the café and he never stopped coming. After a few months of his routine visit to our café; some of my colleagues started making fun of him. They would ask each other, “Hey, why do you think he comes here every week?” Someone would even say “Hope he’s not a terrorist.” Not their fault actually; when you work at the airport, anything is possible.
But no one ever mustered the courage to approach him and ask. Not that he was rude or looked like Hitler, but because as far as he paid for his coffee, no one ever bothered much.
That Sunday, it was already 4 pm but there was no sign of the old man. After 10 minutes the jokes started to turn into worry. We started imaging the worst. It was raining heavily since morning and roads were jammed. Even the flights were delayed. All of us were eyeing on the door.
I saw him getting down from an auto and screamed: “Uncle is here.” We all burst into laughter.
The old man opened the café door, unaware of the fact that we all were worried that he wouldn’t turn up. He wrapped his wet umbrella and approached the counter to place the same order in the similar fashion. This time I had already ordered his coffee. “I know uncle, one cappuccino.”
“You sit, I will get it for you.” I had this big smile like it’s been ages I had not met him.
He gave me the same old short smile, went back and took the corner seat at the café.
When I was walking towards him with the coffee in my hand, I was contemplating:
Why does this uncle come here every Sunday? What if I ask him and he says “none of your business”. Doesn’t seem friendly. What if he’s planning a hijack? I don’t think so, he limps while walking.
Before I could decide, I reached his table. I delivered his coffee and came back. After that week, not even a single day passed without doing a hypothesis on the old man’s life. Finally, one Sunday, the Sherlock Holmes inside me pushed me to approach the old man and find out what’s the story behind his weekly visits.
I had all my questions lined up, with all the possible cross questions that I would have to his answers. I had already imagined a whole dialogue with him in my mind.
The moment the clock struck 4, he entered the café. Before he went to order his coffee, I started walking towards him.
“Sit uncle, I will get your regular coffee.”
He nodded and sat on the same seat where he usually sat. He did not seem to be a talking kind. Usually, elderly people can start a conversation with anyone at a frequent place they visit.
I picked his coffee from the counter and gathered all my courage.
The moment I placed his coffee on the table, I asked him abruptly “Uncle is someone coming?”
It was the most inappropriate way to ask a question that would end any conversation before it even started.
That’s what exactly happened. Very easily the old man replied. “No”
I stood there and started again.
“Uncle, I work at this café. I am seeing you coming here every Sunday. You are never late. Always here at the same time.”
The old man didn’t make any eye contact with me. He looked at the glass exit door. I wondered what he was staring at. I felt I should just leave him alone before he complains to the manager.
“My son,” he said in a low voice. “Pilot” He spoke as if he had trouble speaking.
“Oh, so you come to see him?” More questions started coming up in my mind.
“Which airlines?” My curiosity started to rise.
He turned his eyes towards me. It felt as if his eyes were digging for something in my face or maybe he was judging me.
“Indian Airlines” He answered without breaking the eye contact.
I had this urge to find out what’s the story. I kept throwing my questions at him. “You keep waiting for him alone here. Why do you come here to meet him? Doesn’t he stay with you?”
For the first time in so many months, I saw the old man smile. He pointed his finger upwards and said “He loves to stay in the sky. That’s why I have to take out time to come and meet him.”
I suddenly had this strange feeling. I felt empathetic towards the old man.
“He doesn’t come to see you? Doesn’t he miss you?” His face turned pale on my question.
“He has his own limitations.” He said and looked down at the coffee table.
I felt his helplessness and loneliness. I tried to lighten up his mood a bit. “His wife must not be allowing him?”
He smiled again, but this time it was the same old short one. I am sure, it didn’t amuse him.
But I didn’t give up, I kept trying. “Don’t worry uncle, you ask him to meet me. I will set both of them right.”
This was surely an icebreaker. The two of us hit it off. Even the old man started taking interest in my life. “How old are you? You look young to work at a café?”
“Uncle, I am doing graduation from correspondence. Papa and mummy both are working in government jobs so lots of pressure on me to become an IAS. If I sit at home, they will keep eating my head. So I work here.”
That day the conversation ended early but after that day my Sunday lunch break shifted to 4 pm. I started looking forward to seeing the old man. Turning his one hour into fun had become the sole objective of my life.
That Sunday I took a half day and was excited to see where the old man lived.
“Uncle where do you stay?” As soon as he arrived at the café, I started bombarding him with my questions.
“Why do you ask?”
“Now we are friends. You should invite me for lunch at your house someday. Let me meet aunty and your family.” I said excitedly.
The old man again looked at the glass door overlooking the arrivals gate. “My wife left me years ago. She died in 2005. She had cancer.”
“My son was appearing for his aviation exams. It was a very tough time.” I saw wrinkles frowning on his forehead.
“My son came to me and said that I should not worry if mother has gone. He promised me he would not leave me alone.” He poured his heart out, which I supposed he had not done in a long time.
“You stay alone?” I failed to see how heartless can a son be. I cursed the people who killed a girl child just to let the sons throw them away like garbage.
“No No. I stay with 50 people.” He tried to shift the focus from his son. Even after we became friends, he never spoke much about him.
“50?” I tried to act amazed.
“I stay at an old age home nearby.” He pretended to be excited.
“Where does your son live?” I was not so thrilled though and couldn’t help myself.
Suddenly he looked at his watch and said he had to leave.
“Are you going to meet your son?” I started taking it personally.
“I have to be back at the old age home. They have rules.” He totally ignored my questions.
So I gave up. “But uncle I thought rules are for kids like us. Don’t you think you are too old for rules.” I tried to amuse him with my humour, but I failed.
“Let me drop you to your old age home. My shift is over.” I drove him to the old age home. On my way back home I kept thinking, imagining my parents living at an old age home. This made me more determined to earn enough money in life that I don’t have to shy away from my responsibilities. Also, I started to hate the old man’s son, without even meeting him.
Apart from Sunday airport meetings, I decided I visit him at his old age home as well. I was excited to share the week’s happenings with him. Though we had a huge age gap I connected well with him. When I visited the old age home, I was spending time with him as well as his other oldie friends. I had become the life of the old age home. I felt all the oldies, especially my old man, were an important part of my life.
My IAS and final year exams approached, I took a month off from my job and decided to stay home to prepare for the same.
As soon as the exams were over, I had to join back work. I got so occupied at work that I could not take time out to go meet my old man. I called and checked if he was visiting his son that coming Sunday at the airport.
“Hey, dude.” He sounded as excited as I was.
“Are you coming to meet your son this Sunday?” I was desperate to meet him.
“I will come to meet you this Sunday.” I had a big smile on my face when I heard that.
“Cool. I’ll see you at 4.” He hung up and I immediately calculated the days left, in my mind.
I took an early shift that Sunday. I also bought a pink t-shirt for him. I had the whole evening planned. I would go drop my old man to his old age home and spend some time with other old fellows. That day it felt like the time was crawling. Finally, it was 4 pm. I prepared his coffee, punched out of the shift and was sitting with his coffee in his usual seat.
Suddenly the time started running. In seconds it was 15 past 4 and I started to get restless. I decided to call the old age home. The number of the old age home was not working that day. I told my colleagues that I am going to visit the old age home and in case the old man comes to the café, they should inform me.
On my way to the old age home, my heart was pumping fast. I had imagined all the negative possibilities and that I would not be able to meet my old man again. As soon as I reached the old age home before I stepped down the cab, I looked up and prayed to god. I wanted to see him alive.
I walked towards the reception and asked for my old friend.
“He is at the hospital.”
My heart sunk inside my chest.
“Why?” That’s the only word that came out of me as my entire body had frozen.
“He had a heart attack this morning.” The receptionist informed me.
“Why didn’t you call me? Which hospital?” The world suddenly was unfair and brutal. I felt the fear of losing someone I love for the first time.
I immediately rushed to the hospital that the receptionist told me. I saw his close oldie friends at the hospital reception. They told me that he was gone. I was late. I could not say the last goodbye to my friend. A sudden guilt started to surface.
Did I leave him alone, like his son? Why didn’t I check on him? I was not there when he was dying.
I turned towards other oldies and said, “Did you inform his son?”
They all looked at each other and then gave me a surprised look.
“Don’t you know?” They all looked astonished.
“What?” I shouted. All the pain of losing a friend turned into a rage for the son who was ruthless and ungrateful.
“His son died in a plane crash, 2 years ago.” One of the oldies broke the news to me.
“But he came to the airport to meet him every Sunday?” This news shattered me. I felt broken. I carried hatred in my heart for someone who was dead. I didn’t know my old fellow carried such burden around.
“He never talked much about it. Initially once when we asked him he said, going to the airport makes him feel like his son is around. We have a weekly outing every Sunday. He likes to go to the airport. He never talked about it and we never pushed him. And then he met you. We thought he found his son in you.”
That very moment I felt like hugging him. I never hugged him.
“Can I see him? Once last time.” I requested the nurse.
“He had a last wish.” One of the oldies behind kept his hand on my shoulder.
“He wanted you to cremate him.”