His bench- the one that was unofficially reserved for him every morning at half-past six-was not vacant today. Retd. Colonel Sharma, a surprisingly fit man (in worn Reebok track-pants his oldest granddaughter had gifted him last year) for someone who’d had 68 birthdays, was not amused. In fact-he was almost going to scowl. But he stopped. And with good reason.
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Life had been decent to him, he liked reminding himself lately, though it had been a bitch too, at times. That’s only fair, he’d reasoned-because you win some, you lose some- that’s the way the cookie crumbles. He’d learnt this precious lesson the hard way. After all, he’d never known how to give up or stop fighting-with everything-till a few years ago. Loneliness had mellowed him down, a very recent change in the tough-as-nails personality he wore.
Serving the Army had been an obvious choice for the passionate, hot-blooded young Deepak; and he’d pursued his dream with the determination of a dog trying to relocate an erstwhile hidden bone. The battlefield offered the perfect outlet for his pent-up, seething, bubbling energy and razor-sharp insight- and he had survived. Like a proud, upright tree standing tall even in a tremendous storm, relentless and occasionally humbled by the elements, but never submitting, never crumbling. Blood and gore, loss and betrayal, success and sweat, love and tears- he’d seen it all. They had curried his Dish- these myriad spices, and he had learnt to appreciate the delicate blend. But then- he was Army man- nine parts steel; with the strength of a rock, the patience of a man who’d learnt something every day.
Col. Sharma, with his tireless years of discipline and hardening of spirit, was, behind the exterior, a loving, deeply loyal and tender family man. Losing his wife five years ago had made him continue his early-morning walks unaccompanied and alone, and encouraged him to do some soul-searching on his own; without the gentle support of the woman he had loved above all else on this earth, and who he missed terribly.
When they had shifted to the posh, up-market residential colony of G.K-II six years back- Col. Sharma had been a self-satisfied, content man. His years of struggle were finally over, and he could look back with pleasure at the dividends his shrewd investments had borne. The children were well- settled, a tiny brood of adorable grandkids kept him on his toes with their endless energy (they were growing up so fast, he’d wonder aloud to his wife, that he’d figuratively have to catch his breath in amazement!). Their home was a haven of tranquil peace and quiet beauty- mementos they’d collected throughout their nomadic traveling peeped out of showcases, hung from the walls and filled the corners; each breathed of a memory, a moment captured and treasured forever. Their old, loyal cook turned out the best gajar ka halwa this side of Punjab, and was ever obliging with his offerings (though always in strict helpings, as per orders). And his wife- his walking, talking, scolding, nagging, smiling world who had stood by him through all the seas he had sailed. Indeed- there was little else that Col. Sharma could have asked for, and he looked forward to growing old and unwinding, with the quiet satisfaction of being part of a life well-lived. All was well-till he lost his wife. His world just stopped short of falling apart, and he retreated. Like a cantankerous crab on the beach- he sought solace in his shell, behind a fiercely independent, tough exterior. He kept his loneliness to himself, because although his family was loving, they could not completely understand his sense of loss- which he tried to fight, but gave up in despair. It was the one battle he had lost through and through.
Besides, they had new neighbours that year. Mr. And Mrs. Mainkar, straight from Maharashtra, a quaint twosome with a business they ran together, and a dog they adored together. Col. Sharma had had a verbal exchange with the unassuming, comfortable-looking Ajay Mainkar on the first day itself. The movers had dumped the packaging material onto the pavement right outside the Sharma home, not to mention the dog’s mess at the doorstep. Ajay Mainkar, on the wrong side of 50, but with the sprightly, life-is-beautiful-anyhow stand of a man who believed that being young had more to do with your attitude than the grey in your hair, hadn’t understood what the fuss was all about. He’d smiled brightly at the sullen Colonel, standing akimbo and glowering like he would at a nervous young officer who had committed a huge blunder. The smile was not returned. He had tried apologizing, veiled in simple humor, but had only succeeded in irritating his neighbor further with his clumsy attempt. This was just the beginning of the discovery that they couldn’t get along- not with peace anyway. Other incidents, big and small had followed- fuelling the strange (almost amusing- to onlookers) feud between the two old men –separated in age by barely 5 years, but separated in thought by a huge, towering wall of ego and a general, unexplainable dislike for one another.
Their unannounced war had phases- of angry bickering across the compound wall, silent, cold indifference and icy contempt. Their families had long given up the ‘bury-the-hatchet’ theory, after all their attempts at peace-making had flopped miserably. The 2 old men just wouldn’t relent. One- a podgy, stubborn businessman who’d prefer being pleasant, but lacked the patience to try smiling at the surly Colonel next-door; the other- a growling, lonely, equally stubborn Army man who looked down upon the ‘laziness and thoroughly untamed’ mentality of his neighbour.
And so- they had survived, nearly just, five years of living next-door to each other, with several spicy showdowns but mostly ample indifference.
This morning, however, things looked set to change-for better or for worse.
Ajay Mainkar’s growing tummy, wife’s constant nagging and his huge, restless Labrador Sitara had combinedly made a bid for his starting a morning-walk routine. Today was his first day and three rounds of the sprawling District Park had literally taken the wind out of Mr. Mainkar’s lungs, and he’d eased himself onto the only vacant bench in the park, with the sigh of a man who’d seen better times. Sitara was busy running round and round in circles around the bench, churning up the dust with her swift paws, tail wagging happily, tongue hanging out of her mouth loosely like an elongated, pink, well-chewed chewing gum.
Col. Sharma’s first reaction was the expected wave of mindless anger. “What the hell does he think he is doing, sitting on MY bench like that?” And then, he’d stopped, most unexpectedly-to observe the little charade happening before him-an old man obviously doting upon a crazy, happy dog- playfully smacking her nose, pulling her ears and grinning widely while the canine whirled around like a merry-go-round, with wings on her paws and an endearing energy in her wake. The sunlight caught the gleam in her eye and the twinkle in her master’s, and spilled all that brightness across the sky like shimmering, molten gold. And the Colonel softened-and melted, a cube of butter on hot toast, and wondered why. Suddenly he envied the innocent bliss on his neighbour’s face, noticing for the first time the genuine smile-an upside-down rainbow starting from the mouth and reaching the eyes, and he wished he could smile that carefree smile too.
He watched silently as five years of unreasonable, stubborn dislike loosened itself and struggled to escape from his heart, inching out slowly …bit by little bit-he had no clue why. Sometimes, it’s true, that little things brew magic and can change images in fleeting seconds. He just stood there, a few metres away, smiling a wry smile- at the sight, and decided he didn’t want to scowl after all. Smiling seemed easier, somehow.
Ajay Mainkar, tired of hollering at his quicksilver pet, took a moment to catch his breath and look up- he saw his fierce neighbour wearing-he couldn’t believe- a very nice smile, and without much effort (because he didn’t usually like frowning)-he smiled back.