After trying my luck at several places, I got the job of a trolley pusher at the airport. Uff! Not an easy job though. I have to walk all over from the arrival area to the parking lot to collect the trolleys and park them in the trolley bay. If I were young, things wouldn’t be that tough, but now I am 50 with knees going weak and heart filled with sadness. A year back I lost my son to Dengue. When he was alive, I only used to work part-time. We both used to earn considerable enough to live happily. The father and son duo had one thing in common – my wife, his mother. After all the day’s work, we were welcomed by a cheer-filled clear nasal voice of my wife, Bela, “Aagaye!”
Every day, I run around in the parking lot for trolleys. People leave trolleys anywhere, and Terminal 3 in Delhi has three floors parking. Each morning, my wife massages my feet with mustard oil, night shift you see. Bela just got up from TB, thankfully medicines in government hospitals are free. I ensure that she completes her full treatment.
One day, I saw a man older than me seated comfortably on a chair at the airport coffee shop. He sat there, drinking coffee and observing people. Well, I ignored and moved on to my work of fetching trolleys.
For the next few days, each day, I saw him at the same time, drinking coffee. Curiosity made me ask the boy at the Kiosk,
“Does this man come here, daily?”
The boy said, “He’s coming here for the past two months now. Same time, except Sunday.”
“Hmm! Does he wait for someone?” asked the puzzled me.
“I don’t think so. The old man does not meet anyone,” The boy at the kiosk replied.
That night, I told this to my wife. She listened while applying mustard oil on my feet. Apart from a, “hmm” she said nothing. Even if she had, I was snoring away trolleys.
Next day, I walked to the kiosk and stood there for a few minutes. His hair was white as pearl, and he wore a kurta pyjama with tilae wali juti and a walking stick. I sat near him with a distance of a seat between us.
“Sirjee!” I cleared my throat and said, ” I see you here every day, are you waiting for someone?”
“No!” He gave me a brief look and continued to drink coffee.
“Then, why airport?” The bewildered me said. “Uhm! I mean people come to the airport for a purpose, and you?”
He finished his coffee and went away without a word. I could see a slight limp in his right leg; a walking stick, although suiting his style, was his need. After the night shift, I went home and was welcomed by my sick wife. She had a high fever. I took her to a doctor, came back and made tea for her. I am a hopeless cook, and she’s hopeless when it comes to making a chai.
During our happier days, the dreams and cheerfulness never left her eyes. While slurping the tea, she shared her dream with her son, “Your father makes the best chai, and Bela Ki Chai Prem Se, would be our tea shop name.” Listening to this, Mahesh promised to fulfill her dream.
Her slurping voice brought me back from reverie. The doctor gave her iron medicine as she was feeling weak but listening to her slurp, I thought she was all okay.
“You remember the man I talked about,” I broke the sad silence in our room. She looked uninvolved and continued to slurp tea.
“Arre! The mad old man who comes to the airport every single day and leaves without anyone,” I said with a slight drop in my shoulders and closed eyes. But she couldn’t remember. I thought I shared it in my dreams or she was too sick to even recall.
The thought of airport reminded me of the tireless and unrecognized job of mine. I started to press my calves and feet. Bela finished the tea and kept the glass under the khaat. She looked at our son’s photo which was hanging near our small temple. I could see dust on the idols. It had been a year since our son passed away, and a year since I saw a lamp lit in our little temple. In a year she seemed too old, older than me.
I walked up to her and sat near her. “Bela.” She looked at me with eyes which were sad beyond words. Her hair was whiter than mine. I couldn’t ignore the wrinkles under her eyes. She had become silent. Earlier, she used to fight with me if I smiled at any woman in our basti. Many a time she used to run behind me with a broomstick in her hand. Our son used to save me. Now I could only hear the sound of the cooler which was bought by our son, Mahesh. It still stands close to her bed.
“Don’t you think it’s hot here? We need another cooler.” I picked up the chai glasses and walked towards the kitchen.
“The old man is not mad. Maybe he has a reason the way I have a reason to continue with this cooler, even though it fails to cool the room.” Bela turned over and closed her eyes. With her back towards me, I could sense that she wasn’t asleep. Sleeping makes you forget things for a while, and Bela could never forget the night when her son took his last breath on her lap. She shivered then, and she continues to shiver each night till date. I washed the glasses and kept them in the steel rack beside the sink.
The next day, the old man was sitting in the same seat sipping coffee. I tried to avoid him but couldn’t. Our eyes met, and he waved at me. I parked my trolleys in the bay stand far from him and came running towards him.
“What’s your name?” He took out the book from a bag and asked.
“Prem!” I replied, softly.
“Prem, this is the reason I come to the airport.” He gave the book to me and said. I wiped my dirty hands on my pants and took the book from him.
The book was in English. I looked at him and said, “Sahab! Angrezi padna aata toh yahan hota!“
He smiled, “Baitho.” He took the book from my hand and showed the back cover. At the back, towards the corner, the book carried a woman’s picture. “She is my writer wife. Lekhika.” He gave the book back to me to have a look. The old man’s wife had pronounced cheekbones with almond eyes, and hair tied in a high bun. She seemed fair in the photo.
He got up to throw the coffee mug in the dustbin which was five steps from where we were sitting, “She wrote one book after our marriage but couldn’t write further because of the family demands. During those times, I was so lost in my work that I couldn’t support her, but she never complained.” He looked down, smashed his fist on his right leg and said.
“But what brings you here?” I kept the book between us.
“She once told me that to become a writer, one needs creativity and discipline. A writer lives the story in the head, but for the reader to know, it needs to come out of the head. It’s passion with patience,” he said and smiled
He further added, “During all these years she has lost the patience of sitting. She’s always on her toes.”
He laughed and said, “Even if I don’t want anything, after every few minutes she would come and say ‘kuch chaida hain?‘”
“So?” said the confused me. I was trying to look for an answer as I look for answers in my wife’s eyes.
“I want her to be happy, and happiness for her is writing. If I am around, she won’t be able to write. So, I thought to make an excuse of going out for a walk or meeting friends, so that she uses her time for writing.” The old man got up to leave.
“Ohh! But you don’t go for a walk and neither meet any friends here.” I got up and stood in front of him.
“Hmm! Kal bataunga.” He laughed loudly and left.
The entire conversation didn’t make any connection for me. The whole night, I was thinking about the old man. Just like me, he had his wife. I couldn’t work as the old man’s story kept on reminding me of Bela, she was not well. I requested for an early leave and went back home. Bela was sitting in front of the cooler, silent.
On seeing me, she got up and said, “Aaj jaldi aagaye?”
“Dekh tere liye chicken biryani laya hun!” I handed over the biryani to her.
She didn’t cheer-up the way she used to, “Mahesh, ko achi lagti thi,” She said meekly.
“Sun! I want to tell you something.” I took the biryani from her hand, and we both sat on the khaat.
“Today, the old man told me the reason behind his waiting at the airport. He’s coming to the airport so that his wife could write a book. She is a writer but didn’t pursue writing due to the family demands.” I took her hands in my hands and said.
“Bela, I don’t understand what he was saying, but I could understand one thing, that the old man has only his wife, the way I have you and you have me.” I opened the foiled biryani, made a morsel and waited for her to open her mouth.
She opened her mouth to eat, and a tear rolled down her eyes. “Mahesh was my son too.” A string of tears rolled down from my eyes. She wiped my tears and cried.
“I will leave this job and open our, Bela Ki Chai Prem Se.” We both ate the spicy biryani with tears to quench our thirst. “You try to get well soon.”
Next day, I sat near the old man. “Aagaye?” He smiled and remarked.
“So, why do I come here?” He waved at the boy for one coffee.
“Every night she makes me read what she has written and looks at me with a hope of listening something meaningful. I need to know the subject.” He took the coffee offered by the kiosk boy and kept it on the chair between us.
“She is writing about an old man who sits at the arrival daily. What he does while sitting at the airport? I need to step into that man’s shoes for understanding his character. Writing is not easy!” He sipped the coffee.
“Arre Sahab! Writing, I don’t know, but to impress a wife is not at all easy.” We both laughed aloud.
I used to think that an Airport is a place where people come to leave or meet someone. Amidst, the tears and smiles, few people come to the airport for a larger purpose, much beyond welcome and bye-byes’.