The bookmarks of our lives.
It has been an easy few months since I wrote anything. Not that I had nothing to write about, but more because I couldn’t write. The words were sucked out of my head for lack of a better phrase. Maybe that’s what happens when you get kicked in the gut for being honest. Another lesson learnt in life. Phew, thankfully that’s over.
This note on the other hand was in the works for a long time. You see, the idea of having memories brought back into the forefront of your imagination from whatever corner they resided in needs more than a thought (Promise you, this has nothing to do with Inception). It has to be a combination of an entire tapestry of words, images and sounds. An index or a bookmark for the memories to be fetched. Why I have no idea, maybe the value of the threads currently being processed in your head isn’t close to watching Sepia colored frames from the past. Or maybe its just an escape route from whatever keeps you occupied for now.
For me it happens every evening at work. While I am furiously typing out emails or plans at the end of the day, the door behind me opens. I hear the wheels roll on the carpet and an old man push the trash can across the hall. The custodian is probably the only guy who’s on time in my office, so goes the joke. I for one have to agree, I’m usually never on time, and have been close to being reprimanded for that. But then why go to work on time, isn’t there plenty in the world to admire before being stuck in an office for the next 8 hours? Obviously my boss has other plans.
He walks by my cube and empties the trash can. Wishes me, “ Hey Amigo, how you doing?” I usually never turn back while working, but something in this guy makes me turn back and wish him with a smile. Its not that I don’t want to be condescending but more because, well, I don’t know, seeing an old man clear trash at the end of the day seems like an unfair task in life. The least I could do to mitigate that feeling in my head is to turn back and smile. Not that he cares for it, I’m sure, but these are precisely the things that run in my head soon after. I stop working and start dreaming.
Why is this guy at his age clearing trash? He is Mexican, but where is his family? He wears the same hat every day, maybe the wind messes with his ears. Maybe he is the only provider for his family. Damn, lets not go there. But then I already have.
Mumbai,1991: It was the monsoon of 1991, clearly remember the rains in Mumbai, but that’s all I'm going to talk about that. ( the idea of the monsoons have been beaten to death a million times). It was my first year in India back as a kid from an overseas jaunt. My Pati’s* house was where I was staying, a comfortable little apartment in the middle of suburban Mumbai, overfilled with Gujaratis with a sprinkling of Tams ( both very annoying groups, to say the least, but again this isn’t about that). I don’t remember the days as much, but the evenings were fun with the classic Doordarshan serials, cricket outside and the occasional pepsi-cola we as kids were allowed to afford at the time. And the bhel puri stand outside, right next to what seemed like an uncovered sewage ( Americans, you may want to use your sanitizers at precisely this minute) were always the treat my mom very reluctantly allowed us to enjoy every once in a while. But of all the things in those days, what seemed mysterious to me was this Gurkha who looked after the security of the building. Now for all of you who just checked Wikipedia, the Gurkha race was supposed to be one of the warrior races from Nepal, the types who would keep their word or kill. Always with a dagger in their belts, they needed to see blood if at all the dagger was removed. Which was why many apartment buildings in Mumbai would have a Gurkha as their security guard. Loyalty, that’s the word, Gurkhas were always Loyal to their masters. Why, I have no idea, but they were.
But this was an old guy, with teeth missing. He would just sit there every day looking at the people passing by, smoke a beedi, yell at us kids for shouting too loudly when someone got out in cricket, and clean the cars parked in the building. He lived in a shack at the corner of the building, not even a permanent structure. There were just some sheets of plastic between the two water tanks and his clothes were hung out to dry. He cooked in what seemed like a small wooden stove, never saw him cook though, but could always smell the wood burning. Now the reason I remember this guy was also because, it seemed a very odd life to lead. I always used to wonder, what is this guy doing here, where is his family and why is he living in a makeshift shack when he could live in at the worst case a shack in Nepal among his own. Did the Mumbai dreams drag him down here, after all everyone wanted to make it big in the city of gold. Maybe that’s what he tells his family, that he’s the chief security guard in Bombay. The money must be a big reason, plus with the Diwali baksheesh, must be good to help out a large family back home. I never asked anyone these questions though, but it just registered a blip. If I were to be a security guard, I wondered, what would I do. Maybe start with that annoying pest of a kid, Manish and have him kicked out of the building for violating shouting rules. Nah, that was easy, anyone could do that. Maybe I could get a uniform and a long stick and a cap that said security guard. But that’s easy too. I could probably get a bicycle and deliver newspapers. Yes, that would be cool, a security guard who delivered newspapers.
Each night after dinner, my Pati would ask me to go call the Gurkha. At first I was surprised, why should he come here, or even worse, why cant she call him herself. I would reluctantly pace myself to the shack and could see a kerosene lamp flicker in sheer darkness. “Gurkha-ji, aapko bulaya hai” (Gurkha, you have been called) I couldn’t see what he was doing, but he would cough and reply,”Haan, aa raha hain” (Yes, coming) I would rush back to my apartment and see my Pati give him the leftovers from dinner. That was a daily ritual in my Pati’s life, serve God before we ate, serve the Gurkha after. I admired her a lot for the sense of discipline in her life and still do. I could never do it the way she did, so although I might bring in clauses of discrimination against her method of allocating food, I saw the sense of it all. Rules in society existed because of people like her, if it were left to me, we would all be having a huge party.
I don’t know whether he ate the food or just threw it away though. The vessels would be brought back washed in less than 30 minutes which my Pati asked me to place in the sink again. His washing isn’t good enough? Anyway I didn’t argue and did as told. But it was raining outside. How did he just sleep in that shack when the cloudbursts were as heavy, I thought. But the questions as kids were only good as questions, you didn’t demand answers, you never faced the truth.
And that memory would end up right there, nothing came out of it, and I have no idea why I remembered it. I visited the apartment building last year, the guy had been replaced, I was told and some other young Gurkha took his place. I don’t know if he died or he went back or what happened to him. But every evening when I saw this old guy walk by my cube, I always get transported back to 1991, for no reason whatsoever. Reach the dead end of the memory and come back.
One evening the custodian pointed to the coat I had on the hanger and asked me how much it was for. That was probably the first time we had a conversation, I in my broken Spanish/English combo, said it was around 40 dollars, he said its very “Bueno”, I agreed, it was my coat (plus not a lot of people comment positively about the clothes I wear). And he was about to move on, when I jumped up and asked him, do you want one? He looked surprised and said,” Yes please, I like it”.
I told him I’ll get him one.
The next day I was out in JC Penney looking for a coat that resembled mine. I had bought this coat before my last trip to New York, a winter sojourn many years ago. It was summer now. JCP doesn’t keep winter coats in summer. I looked surprised, almost about to ask the attendant, why not?, but then held back. I never shop for clothes unless I have absolutely nothing to wear, so my ignorance could be excused.
I went back home and started thinking, how the hell do I get a coat like mine? And then it struck me, I had a similar coat that I wore during my winters in Denver that I had buried deep somewhere into clothes oblivion. I searched all evening and finally found the coat. The next day when he came, I gave him the coat. He looked surprised, and said, “This is mucho bueno coat than that, how much is it”. I said, “just keep it”. He just stood there staring at the coat and smiled, I could see he had a few missing teeth as well.
Maybe you always find the answers to the questions you ask.
*Pati: Grandmother (Tamil)