“You die from the inside, outwards,” I have always heard him say. “You don’t simply die of old age one fine day. You begin to die from within. When you lose your passion. Your purpose.”
It must be true. Especially if it comes from a person who is nearly hundred.
That is a long, long time, isn’t it? A hundred years? Ever since I can remember, every time my mother would talk about somebody, and that very person happened to suddenly show up, she would exclaim, “You will live a hundred years!”
I don’t know how it worked, but as a small child, I remember standing outside the kitchen on hot summer days, hiding behind the door, eavesdropping on my mother’s conversation with the cook as they juiced the mangoes. I would wait for a while, listening intently in the hope that she would mention me, so I could emerge into the kitchen and live to a hundred years. But as I remember, more often than not, I would either grow tired of waiting, or the scent of the ripe mangoes would become far too enticing, or the summer afternoon far too humid, and I would give up.
My memories of childhood are pretty vague when it comes to what I wanted to become when I grew up. People talk about having wanted to be a doctor or an astronaut when they were little. All I can remember is that I wanted to be taller than the sky, and live a hundred years. When I grew up, I didn’t grow taller than the sky. All I could manage was six feet above the ground. And as for reaching a century, only time can tell. Time, and that old grandpa, probably. The one at the old age home who is almost hundred. Or maybe over a hundred.
It is only when I look at him that I realise how long hundred years must feel. At least since the time I remember seeing him, he has always looked the same. The same clean shaven cheeks just beyond the prominent sideburns. The same hair pattern— bald, except for a bit of pepper-white at the back. The large ears, that seem to be getting slightly longer with each passing decade. And the same passionate life in his eyes. He had to be the oldest, and yet the liveliest resident of the old age home.
He would always be reading something. A book. Or a magazine. Or a directory of metals. The faint winter sun rays would stream into the open veranda, and there he would sit, huddled up in a brand new woolen jacket, the kind you only find in America. Probably a gift from his son. It looked a bit too warm for the tropical Indian winter, but it fit him just right. And he seemed to like it.
And sometimes, I would find him bent over next to a hibiscus plant just outside the window of his room, with a sekator in his hand, chopping away the long, unwanted shoots. “It is my child,” he would smile and say.
It was the envy of everybody’s eyes, that hibiscus plant. It would always be filled with at least half a dozen flowers. Blood red hibiscus flowers. Such a deep red, they seemed to hypnotize you if you stared for too long. Oh, what a beauty that plant was. You could have the most beautiful garden in the village, but you couldn’t simply walk by looking at that plant just once.
But mostly he would be reading. The last time I went to visit him, he was taking a test on biotechnology as a part of an online course he had signed up for. He aced the test. Topped the class of students that were over seven decades younger than him. He showed me the report card on the computer screen, beaming proudly like an eight year old who had just managed to get two stars on his homework. It amused me. Not the report card. But the passion in his voice. The sheen in his eyes. The excitement in his gently trembling hands. What use was a course for a hundred year old, you would think. At hundred, you simply wait for death, don’t you? You don’t go about taking courses and solving quizzes. I thought so too. But you and I would never understand it. He was hundred years young. Because that was his passion. And in some unsaid, but perfectly acceptable way, it was the sole reason he was happy. And alive. Like he would always say, you don’t simply die of old age one fine day.
There is a saying in Gujarati for someone who is extremely passionate and unrelenting. It literally translates to something like eating ginger and being gritty. That is what he would tell me to be, every time I would visit him. I have almost always seen him silent. Calm. Composed. Engrossed in his own work. We never had lengthy conversations. Not even conversations, to be honest. But whenever he spoke to me, he would speak of one thing. Ginger and grit. Working with passion. “Whatever it is that you do, you must be after it like your life depended on it.”
He would sometimes give me engineering books and articles that he had collected all his life and ask me to read them. Dusty books he would retrieve from under his bed. Old newspaper clippings, dog-eared from the corners, and yellowing with age. Hoping I would read them all. Hoping to ignite that same spark of passion in me. Unfortunately for me, and sadly for him, it never happened. I would fall asleep over the technical books. And very simply return them, albeit in a reshuffled order, lest he found out they were untouched. Sometimes I would read through the summary at the back, while making my way towards the old house. Just so I could chip in a sentence or two about some subject of his interest. Just so I could hear him talk of his passion. And see him smile. And see his eyes glitter like those of a child standing before a brand new remote controlled train.
I couldn’t help it. Engineering was never my passion. I never found it extremely necessary to fix a long discarded broken toy, or an electric switchboard, or a defunct microwave oven from the store room of the old age home. But he would keep at it. Toying around with the wires way past lunchtime. And then, when he had finally fixed it, he would emerge from his room, jubilant and victorious, only to be greeted by a solitary plate with cold lunch waiting for him at the table. He would eat alone in silence, the smile on his face saying it all for him.
But in his speechlessly silent ways, he kept urging me to keep searching for what ignited my soul. “That is the secret to living for a hundred years,” he kept telling me, much to my surprise, because I don’t remember ever telling him about that childhood ambition of mine. The one where I wanted to live for a hundred years and grow taller than the sky.
It was an old age home like any other. But he was an old man unlike any other. His son had found a job in America, settled there, had a wife and two boys. For some reason, the old man didn’t mention him very often. And when he did, a strange sort of heaviness would envelope the air around the place. So I always refrained from inquiring about his son.
When I was little, my father used to send me to the old engineer during summer holidays, so I could ‘get my hands dirty’, as my father always called it. We would spend the afternoon building small battery operated train engines that could pull a cart-full of flowers or gravel from one end of the bed to the other. It was play for me. It was passion for him. And as a result, I have spent many of my summer vacations beguiling time on the open veranda of the old age home in the company of the old engineer uncle.
Years passed, and my interests shifted from electric trains to the football field, so I stopped going to the old age home to visit the old engineer. Ironically, I moved to the city soon thereafter to pursue engineering. But after I returned, I didn’t have the heart to visit my old friend. I knew it would break his heart to see a namesake engineer before him. To know that I was not an engineer at heart. Whatever it is that you do, you must go after it like your life depended on it, he had said. I wasn’t sure if I could say that about my choices in life. And so I never intended to visit him.
But the summer that year had other plans for me.
Thirty-two degrees Celsius at six in the morning! Would you believe it? Newspapers are filled with news about some heat wave. Farmers have begun to swarm around the old government office and the agriculture welfare centre in the town, like a flock of starving vultures circling over a carcass. It is much hotter than any summer I can recollect.
At seven that morning, I pass by the old age home. The old engineer would usually be in his room, and simply wave at me through the open window overlooking the street. That was good. I wouldn’t have to stop or talk to him. But today he is outside, watering the hibiscus plant, along with another old resident of the house. I realise I have no option but to stop by and say hello. The impending sunrise is already threatening to jeopardize my run with a bucketful of sweat, and I glance nervously towards the old man, hoping our conversation doesn’t keep me long.
“It is hot, isn’t it?” he says, and I nod, squeezing out a stream of sweat off the side of my jersey. Then he tilts his head towards the hibiscus plant. “My child needs some extra care,” he smiles.
Thankfully, the conversation ends there. But just as I wave goodbye and begin running again, I hear the old engineer mumble the ginger and grit saying to his friend, motioning towards me.
I feel a surge of pride, and a smile spreads across my lips. I don’t know if I start blushing, but I am glad my face is turned away from them. With an exaggerated stride, and a fluttering heart, I disappear out of sight. I can’t stop thinking of what he had said. He would see me day after day sweating it out on the streets. But ginger and grit for me? Really? Am I worthy of living up to that saying?
I run past the rows of mud houses. The sun is beating against my back now. My thoughts keep shifting back to what the old engineer had said. And why shouldn’t they? It is a matter of pride especially when it comes from a hundred year old who has been the protagonist for that saying since forever. But would I be able to do justice to that saying? What kind of commitment does it take to be passionate towards something all your life? I wonder if I would ever be able to match that level of zeal. It is easy to follow a passion for a few months. Or a few years, perhaps. When you are drunk on passion and high on your interests, it is easy to feel you could go on for a hundred years, isn’t it?
I felt the same way too. I thought I would never stop running, come what may. And then injuries came. Somehow I survived. Then my performance began to plateau. No amount of training could bring the times down. I began to lose hope. Other ideas seemed more inspiring. But somehow I managed to hang on.
But would I be able to hang on for ever? For a hundred years?
Something makes me decide I want to visit the old engineer that evening. I want some advice from him. I want to hear some more praise. And I want to take him some mangoes from the farm. But let me be honest. Mostly, I just want to hear some more praise.
Late in the evening, with a white mango box dangling from each hand, I make my way towards the old age home for the first time in seven years.
The old man is sitting silently on a plastic chair right next to his hibiscus plant when I get there. To my surprise his eyes are not glued to his book today. They hover aimlessly over the red flowers and the patchy front lawn, now almost completely brown. His gaze shifts towards the gate, when he hears the clank of the latch. The metal gate still feels warm to touch. The sun has been harsh. The heat wave is working.
He smiles as I enter with the boxes. It is only when I get closer, that I realise how much older be looks today. His neck has shriveled. The cheeks have been sucked in, leaving two prominent masses of cheekbones protruding out like islands on his face. The eyes seem much more deeply set than I remember. When he offers me a handshake, I notice his hand shiver a lot more than the last time. This time he doesn’t just look older. He looks old. Very old. What is the matter, I think to myself.
He shouts for the maid to fetch a chair and a glass of sherbet. I politely refuse the dark-pink fluid, but he says Kokam sherbet is good to beat the heat.
Suddenly I don’t know what to talk to him about. Then I remember his books. “Do you still—” I begin, and he seems to get what I am about to ask.
“No.” he shakes his head gently. He presses his lips together for a while. Then he declares, “I can’t read anymore!”
“Oh, why? What happened, Kaka?”
“The doctors say the nerves in my eyes are degenerating. Cornea or something. I can only see things that are far. The words? Nay. They are just like a jumble. It is not long before I go completely blind,” he sighs sadly.
I am unsure of what to say. All those study books that he read. All the courses he took on the internet. All the clocks and television sets he put in order. Was it all gone? I peer into his partly shut eyes. It was true. It wasn’t just the cornea that was degenerating. The twinkle in those eyes is gone too. The brimming exuberance is no longer evident. I look at his weakening body. Then I suddenly remember the words. You don’t simply die of old age one fine day, he had said, hadn’t he? You begin to die from within first. When you lose your passion. Your purpose.
The memory of those words comes like a painful slam on the head. It sucks away the energy from my body. My knees feel weak, as if in the passage of those two seconds I had run a hundred miles. As if in those few breaths I had lived a hundred years.
Is this what it was? The beginning of the end? You die from the inside outwards. Was he dying from within?
I completely forget why I had come here in the first place. Then I see the mango boxes sitting patiently next to my chair. “I got you some mangoes from the farm,” I tell him.
A glimmer of delight sweeps over his face. He smiles feebly. “Ah, mangoes…”
I help him untwine the string running around the cardboard box, and swing open the flap. The thick aroma of perfectly ripened Alphonso mangoes fills the veranda. His shaky hand fumbles in the straw for a while, and then he picks out a mango and holds it to his nose. He shuts his eyes and inhales deeply. “Waah, good gracious God,” he exclaims, with the most beautiful smile flickering on his lips for a moment. My father would have absolutely loved to see that reaction. He likes it when people like mangoes. It is his favourite pastime in summer— feeding people mangoes.
He turns to me after a while. His lips are trembling. “I haven’t had such a mango in years! They don’t get mangoes in America,” he sighs.
The old man remains silent, as if reproaching himself for having spoken his heart out.
“Who?” I ask again.
“My son in America. He says the mangoes they get there taste like sweet cucumbers!”
I let out a sympathetic laughter. He really seems to feel sorry for his son. I feel sorry for him too. You haven’t really lived your life if you haven’t lost yourself in the blissful feeling of indulging in a farm fresh Alphonso.
“He is extremely fond of mangoes. Just like me.” the old man says.
“Why don’t you ask him to come over for a few days with his family? You can all come to the farm and eat as many as you like!”
And just as I finish the sentence, I begin to wish I had never said it.
“You weren’t even born back then,” the old man is saying. “And your grandfather was still alive. Every Sunday during the mango season, I would get my son to your farm and we would eat mangoes with your grandfather all day.”
“Oh,” I exclaim, smiling. “I had no clue about that, Kaka.”
“They were good days. Oh, how I wish I could turn time around!”
I on the other hand wish I could turn the conversation around. I remain silent. Trying to avoid the look on his face. The old man sets off into a long monologue. A soft voice. Almost as if talking to himself. As much as I don’t want to be a part of those words, I have to lean closer to be able to hear him well. He is talking about his son. And the strange heaviness in his voice, in the air around us has returned. As if the heat wave suddenly intensified only for the two of us sitting on the veranda. I feel the sting of the prickly heat on my back. The words seem to be choking me.
“All my life I urged people to follow their dreams. Their passions. When my son was twenty-five, he wanted to travel to America to pursue robotics. No college in India taught robotics back then. And who was I to stop him. So suddenly one fine day I had to choose between keeping my only son with me, and letting him follow his passion. Without a second thought, I chose the latter.”
He remains silent. I remain silent. I listen to his audible breathing, hastened slightly by the looming coercion of soft sobs. My fingers fumble uncomfortably with the straw peeping out of the mango boxes, trying to drown the sound of his sniffle.
“So he went. To be honest I was happy to see him go. To see him stand up for his passion. To see him chase his dreams. But somewhere America caught his fancy. And his focus shifted to money. And comfort. He found a well-paying job. Work was easy. Good money. Easy money. The weather was easy. No heat waves and such, you know. He began to make as much money in a month there, as he would make in a year in India. Or that is what I heard, at least. He got a fancy car, a massive house. Every time we spoke, he would say he was only planning to work a few years before moving back to India. I asked him what happened to his passion. Asked him what happened to his dream. But he had no answer. The American life had mesmerized him. I felt shattered. Not because I knew he would never move back to India. But because I couldn’t bear the thought of him worshipping money over his passion. You know what? Sometimes I feel I have won as a man, but failed as a father.” He wipes his eyes evidently with the sleeve of his shirt, almost as if I am invisible.
The air around me feels solid now. As if I am trying to breathe through a heavy block. I wonder how long it would be before I begin gasping for air and collapse. I feel terribly uncomfortable sitting there in his presence, saying nothing. But how does one console a hundred year old? I feel sorry for the old, broken man. I wonder why he is suddenly telling me all this today. Maybe because I asked him. Or perhaps, this is what a perfect mango does to you.
There is silence for a while, as he turns away from me and caresses the red hibiscus flowers. This is my child, he had said. The words fill my heart with a renewed heaviness. The heaviness that I would have to carry back home. I wish it was only the heaviness of the mango boxes again. They would feel so much lighter now. But alas.
Around us, the sun has set. The warm summer evening breeze runs through the veranda, trying to wipe the tears from the old man’s eyes. And trying to ease the heartache of the young man sitting next to him. But all the wind can do is sympathize. And perhaps, at the most, carry the sadness across the globe to someone in America.
I lower my gaze to the ground. The toenails emerging from his leather sandals look shabby and unattended. I think of the time many summers ago, when he would ask me to help him clip the toenails that he was too stiff to reach. He would first soak them in warm water so they were easier to cut.
“Do you want me to clip your toenails for you?” I ask.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t want me to. I wonder why. Perhaps he thinks I am too grown up for that. Perhaps it is my facial hair. I don’t look like a boy anymore. Or perhaps, it is because I could never take the place of a son in his life. However far and lost he thought his real son was.
The old man continues to feel the soft petals of his beloved hibiscus in silence, as darkness falls around us. The touch of the only child he could ever hope to be with.
Eight months later, on a cold January morning the old engineer breathes his last. Lying in his bed by the window, he is wearing a cosy woollen jacket. The kind you can only find in America. All his books are neatly stacked on the desk next to his bed. Golden sunrays from the winter sun pour through the mist into the open window, and onto peaceful his face.
A hibiscus plant with a dozen red flowers peeps into the bedroom, bowing low to kiss its father a last goodbye. As if only to say that he was the best father there could ever be.
And its flowers, they say, bloomed blood red that winter. Bloomed with the passion of a zillion rising suns.
Bloomed as if they knew the secret.
The secret to living for a hundred years.
# END #