I was sitting at the window feeling bored as hell. And apprehensive, as the next lot of passengers, was expected to burst out of ‘Arrival’ at any moment.
Yes, bursting is the right word. It is very similar to car drivers, who race their engines in a stationary position, and then zip away, crisscrossing each other to be the first out of the blocks, as soon as the signal turns green. And sometimes before…
Today the flight was delayed and we, Riddhima and I, were expecting some very impatient passengers, eager to reach their homes.
“Riddhima, be ready with the change. We don’t want a repeat of last week”, I laughed.
Riddhima rolled her eyes and gave me a scowl. Last week, one of the passengers hyperventilated and had given an earful to Riddhima, and all because of the lack of change for a Rs. 2000 note.
But it was something which came with the job. A job, booking call taxis at the Airport, which called for oodles of patience towards all sorts of passengers, while keeping a radiant smile pasted on our lips.
Just then I saw him. He was standing just across the road, staring at the ‘Arrival’ gate. His debonair appearance stood out from the usual crowd of people seen at the gate.
The suit which he wore had an old world charm. The shoulders were broad, the jacket was long, the lapels were wide and the waist, narrow. For a person with totally white hair, he hardly flaunted a paunch.
He also wore an old world hat that was perched on his head at an angle. A polished walking stick and an erect posture completed his elegant bearings.
Though I was seeing him for the last few weeks every Thursday, he would have anyhow grabbed anyone’s attention, at the first sight itself. My curiosity was boosted and I decided to muster the courage to talk to him. But first I had a business to attend; doling out the taxi coupons to the swarming passengers.
Finally I was through. “Riddhima, hold the fort. I will be back”
But as I started walking towards him, the old man turned his back on me, and started walking briskly towards the car park.
“Sir…Sir…excuse me…”, but to no avail. He had already zoomed away in his chauffeur driven vintage car.
The man was a riddle.
“Where did you go off to, Ruthwik? Don’t you know we have to report the collections every hour? Now give me an ice cream. I have done the job for you”
When Riddhima pouted with feigned annoyance, she looked, oh so cute.
While handing an ice cream to her, I announced “Next Thursday, when that man comes again, I will not be in my seat. You will have to manage alone.”
“What man? What are you talking about? But no issues. Aye rto that. Another ice cream?”, Riddhima smiled sweetly. My heart went pop-pop-pop…
“Excuse me Sir”, I prodded tentatively. He kept staring straight on and ignored me.
“Sir, can I have a word with you?”, I ventured again.
“And who are you? Do I know you?”, a heavy baritone finally acknowledged me.
“Sorry Sir. No Sir. It’s just that, I see you here every Thursday at the same time, watching the passengers intently as if awaiting the arrival of someone, but then you go back alone. I have been intrigued. Sir…if I may ask…what brings you here every Thursday? I hope I am not being nosy” I blurted out everything in one breath. His personality was over bearing.
The man stared at me with disdain. “Do you spy on anyone who happens to come here? This is a free country, anyone can go anywhere and do anything…or not do anything, for that matter. How does it concern you. Don’t you have anything better to do? Sorry…I don’t wish to talk to you. Go, spy on someone else!”
So saying, he walked away towards his car.
I wasn’t surprised to see him again, the next Thursday. This time I ignored him…or at least, tried to. But something had changed in his demeanour. The usually erect frame was bent over the walking stick. The walking stick was actually being used for support, it was no longer a prop…an accessory.
I was counting the money when there was a tap at the window. “Yes, what can I do for…”, but I was interrupted. “Saheb would like to meet you”, and stepping aside the man pointed out his Saheb.
“Tell your Saheb that I have better things to do. I don’t know him, why should I talk to him”, so saying I busied myself in counting the money again.
I was bent over my desk, engrossed in nothing in particular, when again there was a tap. This time it was the Saheb.
“Hi, I am Faroukh…Faroukh Nauroji. You wanted to talk to me, right? Let’s talk”
“No Sir. As you can see I have some work to do. Please excuse me now, I am busy”, I tried to brush him away.
“Come, my boy…I know you were very eager to talk to me last week. Let’s sit in ‘Oasis’ and talk. I am in the mood to share my story today”, and then he added, “I might not come back here.”
I did not need another invitation. “Riddhima…ice cream…”. She understood and just nodded with her sweet smile.
With steaming cups of Cappuccino in front of us, Faroukh started his story.
“I stay in Dadar Parsi colony. All alone for so many years now. My only companions; my cat, Persis, bless her old soul and Dada, my driver, who doesn’t stay with me, but is just a call away in the outhouse. I lost my wife, Persis about 10 years back…oh, don’t look at me like that. I have my few eccentricities and you have to pardon me for them”
So saying he proceeded to take off his hat…and the hair came away attached to the hat!
Seeing my eyes widening, he bent forward and patted my arm. Running his palm over his bald head, he gave a wry smile and said, “Cancer, you know. It seeps into your every pore and eats you from the insides. But nowadays the head is shaved off immediately, at the start of the chemotherapy sessions. But…but we are digressing from my main story”
“So, where was I?”, he asked.
I reminded him about his wife.
“Ahh, Persis. My wife, she was so beautiful. Many years ago, I had a sweet little family. My wife, my daughter… Nauheed, the apple of our eyes”
Then suddenly he asked, “Hey…what is your name? You never introduced yourself”
“Sir, I am Ruthwik and I work as a booking Manager for one of the Call taxi services, here at the airport. But, why am I telling you? You already know my job, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, my young friend”, he gave a hearty laugh. Then suddenly getting serious, with a faraway look in his eyes, he continued.
“Nauheed was a precocious child, excelling in her studies and debating competitions and a good athlete too”. Then with a twinkle in his eyes, he added, “In the school we were known as the parents of Nauheed, the star student of the school”
He took a pause, his eyes had that faraway look again. “Nauheed…do you know the meaning of Nauheed? A Star…we knew a Star had been born the minute we set our eyes on her.”
Then suddenly his mood changed. Almost shouting he said, “Do you know what a Star does? A Star throws tantrums. Nauheed started throwing all sorts of tantrums upon reaching her teens. Her debating skills were used to argue with us, to wrangle. But still, her wish was always our command and we kept humouring her, or rather, spoiling her”
Suddenly he went quiet. I had no idea why this person, who just last week was not ready to even acknowledge me, was today opening the inner recesses of his heart. I wanted to ask but something held me back. I waited for him to continue.
After ordering some more cappuccino, he continued, “Then she met her boyfriend. She started getting late. She started going out, often late nights and the atmosphere at our house deteriorated. It started affecting the health of my Persis.”
He was fuming now, the words firing out of his mouth, “As if having a boyfriend was not enough, the boyfriend turned out to be a Punjabi. Oh, we have nothing against the Punjabis but the fact that he was not a Parsi was enough for us. Enough, to turn against our own daughter, our Nauheed.”
His hands shook while holding the cup of cappuccino. I could make out his distress.
“One day, after a particularly bitter fight, we turned her out. I and Persis…we turned out our Nauheed”, he sat there in front of me, with his head bent, tears streaming down his eyes, a broken man.
“After that, Persis’ health deteriorated further. She became bedridden. And then one day, she left…left me alone…to fight my own devils”
As I held his arm to comfort him, he said, “Then suddenly, one dark night after many years, Nauheed called. When I took the call, I could just hear crying.”
Then holding my hand suddenly, he went on, “Ruthwik, I could immediately make out that it was Nauheed at the other end. My child asked, ‘How are you? How is Mummy?’ Poor child…she didn’t know about her mother’s death. I had to break the news.”
Faroukh smiled through his tears, “My Nauheed told me that she was coming to India on a visit. Yes, they had relocated to Canada. Then she told me that I am a grandpa to a girl, Shireen. It was the happiest day of my life. Nauheed was coming…Shireen was coming.”
Now Faroukh was very enthusiastic as he told me, “It was Thursday evening. I shaved after many days. You see these clothes…I wore these same clothes that day too. And I was standing there, where you have always seen me standing. I had come a little early, I didn’t want to be late. To pass the time, I was in this same restaurant sipping cappuccino, as I am doing now and…”
The facial expressions changed, the tears flowed, the hands shivered, “They announced that the flight had been hijacked. Hijacked by someone somewhere fighting for his cause…but my child was on that flight, my child’s child was…”
I took his hand in mine and held on to it as I said, “You can stop now. It’s alright. We can talk later. I think, now you need to rest.”
“Rest! I don’t have time. The cancer is in the last stage. You know why I came to talk to you? I had no one to pour out my heart and you wanted to hear my story, didn’t you? You have no choice now, my friend”
“They then announced that all relatives of the passengers of the flight should congregate in one lounge, which had been emptied. We all were very impatient to hear some news of our loved ones, lots of shouting was going on, most were crying fearing the worst…”
His fingers tightened around my hand and turned white, tears rolling down, as he whispered, “The flight had been blown off in mid air”
A long silence followed. The. He asked, the voice weak, unrecognisable, “What does anyone gain by spilling the blood of innocents? How were Nauheed, Shireen, connected in any way to somebody’s fight for his…but no, hundreds have died and thousands continue to die for some unknown causes, and most of the times, for no reason at all”
Another pause, then Faroukh continued, “For the silliest of reasons I threw out Nauheed never to see her again”
Then looking at me he continued further, “I tell you Ruthwik, don’t you ever make the mistake of parting acrimoniously from your loved ones for you never know how life will pan out. For all you know, there will not be a second chance”
Without waiting for my reaction, he added “I didn’t get a second chance. You know, old people go on a pilgrimage to temples, churches, but for me, this airport terminal is my temple. I make the pilgrimage every Thursday since that fateful day, waiting for a miracle. I pray that some day, I would hear another announcement where they would announce that…it was all a mistake, a case of mistaken identity of the flight”
Within a month the poor lonely soul finally lost his fight with the big C.
Isn’t it surprising how the rarest of acquaintances meet you by providence and impart you with such profound lessons of life.