“Get up! Its 5:30 a.m. Else, we'll get late for the walk”. Everyday my morning used to start by these words falling on my ears. My grandfather used to call me and wake me up. He used to keep shouting my name until I got off the bed. I was 14 and there was hardly any day when I was spared of this. He made sure that I brushed my teeth and wore my sports shoes before leaving the house. Usually, I used to be half asleep on my way to the park.
Daily, as we stepped out of the house, my first view used to be of an aged rag-picker, collecting bits of garbage and rotten materials thrown by nearby people and putting them inside a huge bag on his hunched back. The old man had a fringe of grey-white hair around his balding, mottled scalp. He had a wizened face and it was pretty obvious that his creaky bones laboured hard to bring about every small movement of his. He had the resigned look of one who knows that at his age life had stopped giving and started taking. He was very aged, feeble and had a very loose skin. He wore torn clothes and was very thin. But whenever I used to look at his eyes, it always had many untold stories in it. Yes!! His eyes said something. A story that he wanted to tell, but could find no willing listener. He would be about 70 years, near about my grandfather’s age. And like my grandfather’s routine, he too used to be there at 6:00 a.m. regularly without failure. Not a single morning passed when we missed seeing him at his work.
He greeted us with a gracious smile which expressed his delight upon seeing us. While returning from our walking session, my grandfather would buy him a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits. His eyes used to light up with pleasure the moment he used to get these. He used to sit on the nearby bench regularly and have them. And this was a routine which was being followed for almost three years now.
Then one day, we did not see him. And that one day became a week and then another week. Initially, we thought that the old man would have fallen ill and hence not appearing. As the days passed, this disappearance strangely turned into a genuine cause for concern for my grandfather. He kept asking fellow morning walkers for some possible information regarding the whereabouts of this old rag-picker. But nobody knew anything; in fact although regulars to the park, many had never noticed the wretched old fellow going about doing his daily job. By the end of the second week, my grandfather frankly admitted that he intended to find out something- anything- about this lone rag-picker but just couldn’t figure out where he would start from.
Each morning, my grandfather would sit on the bench, hitherto, reserved by the rag-picker and gaze around, as if scanning the surroundings for a glimpse of the familiar old face. Actually, he would try to think of ways to start his search. Although, I felt that my grandfather was being a bit too sentimental about that rag-picker and expressed as much to him, my grandfather would only retort that a person who was a regular sight for three whole years just could not vanish into thin air. Suddenly, one day, my grandfather came up with this idea of approaching the security guard of a house adjacent to the park. Chances were that the guard would have noticed this daily rag-picker and knew something about him. As luck would have it, grandfather did ask the guard and the guard certainly knew about this rag-picker. And what he narrated was nothing close to what we were expecting.
The old man was a resident of a house in the next neighbourhood and our narrator’s uncle happened to be the watchman of an apartment adjacent to his house. Some years back, soon after the demise of his ailing wife, his son sent him to an old age home, in order to relocate overseas with his wife and child. The house was put up on rent, a fact that was hidden from the old man.
The old man could not adjust at the old-age home, but upon returning to his house, realised that it was occupied by tenants who had not met him and were not aware of his existence. Grief-stricken, he roamed about the neighbourhood aimlessly for the whole day. A nearby bakery store offered him some muffins and upon hearing his plight, suggested that he seek shelter at a nearby pavement dwellers’ night-shelter. At the night-shelter, the old man came upon various job prospects from fellow pavement dwellers and decided that the profile of the rag-picker would best fit him. The rag-pickers could sell the garbage collected from roads on a daily basis.
Thus, every morning he used to visit streets and collect the garbage and bits of trash and used to sell them to earn a meal for him-self.
The narrator’s watchman uncle, having witnessed the old man’s transition from a gentleman to a rag-picker, had expressed his anguish to the narrator. How could educated people behave in such unimaginable manner? Unable to help in any substantial manner, this watchman uncle would meet him at times to pass on some food and spare clothes. Such times, he would actually express his opinions to the old man.
Amazingly, the old man did not blame his son for his plight. To him, his son was rightfully ambitious to seek better job prospects elsewhere; putting his aged father in an old-age home was a practical and wise decision because there were skilful attendants and same-age group people to give company; renting out the house was also a wise way to maintain it; how could an old man be expected to take care of a house and stay all alone?
Rather, it was he who could not adjust himself at the old age home, hence had left it. In fact, had he shown enough courage to either accompany them overseas or stay back in his own house, possibly his son wouldn’t have decided to send him to an old age home. He had not wanted to inform his son about his flight from the old age home as that would land his son in a dilemma – whether to quit overseas prospects or to stay put there. He had a strong belief that his son would leave all to be at his side, but as a father, where he could not provide better opportunities to his son, he had no right to snatch away the prevailing good life from him.
While collecting garbage few weeks ago, he had contracted some infection that led to his demise two weeks back. In death also, he showed amazing far-sight. Apparently, when his sickness from the infection had intensified, he had contacted the old age home and convinced them to collect him from the night shelter. This was to ensure that he passed away within the walls of the old-age home and keep his son blissfully unaware of the rag-picking days.
Although a bratty teenager with no worldly care, I could still feel the pain upon hearing the old man’s story. My grandfather stood still for quite some time, staring at the pavement, then slowly turned and walked back to the park bench and sat there. “How does it feel to sleep on the floor?” He wondered aloud. “Maybe not any different than sleeping on the bed! After all, sleep is what matters when you are tired; ‘where to sleep’ becomes immaterial then.” I kept quiet while I watched anxiously at my pensive grandfather.
He sat for some more time, then went to the tea vendor and made his usual purchase of tea and biscuits. He pointed out some wild flowers growing out of the bushes near the park boundary wall, for me to pluck. We returned to the park-bench and placed the tea and biscuit packet on one corner of the bench and placed the flowers next to these. We bowed our heads and, am sure, my grandfather’s prayer matched mine when I prayed ‘Rest in peace old man’.
From the next morning onwards, we always left tea and biscuits on the same park bench. It didn’t matter who had them. What was important that, daily, these would have probably brought a joyous smile on some poor soul’s face. We also changed our morning walk path to match the path taken by the rag-picker as if to retrace HIS LOST FOOTSTEPS as a tribute to this unique personality.