I used to see him every day on my way to office. It has been almost a month. I would hurriedly walk past strangers stealing quick glances at my watch. And there he used to sit under an Ashoka tree on a rugged jute sheet, on what used to be a bag I think. He was an old man with unkempt grey hair, unshaven and his shirt was stitched together in parts. He would neatly put in line a few shoe laces, a leather piece or two; a few bottles of shoe polish and on his side is a radio that hummed old Hindi songs. Often I used to notice him humming along, adjusting his old glasses as he mended a shoe. I would smile and walk past him. Every day he would be in the same spot sometimes too engrossed in his work to notice the passers-by, at times, he would be tuning the channels of the radio or merely looking at strangers jostling away unaware of his existence, his mysterious brown eyes looking far away as though he was thinking of someone.
I am not sure if he knew me or if he realised that I used to slow down my pace as I approached him only to stride faster as I walked past him. I did not know why…may be he inspired me in ways I can never comprehend, as he cope up with this city just as I was struggling my way through, may be it was sheer respect. I don’t know. I do not know where he came from. I used to see him only in the morning. Is he a thousand miles away from home just as I am? Does he also yearn to be at home? Does he earn enough to support his family? Does he even have a family? I would wonder the few minutes he comes in my life every day and the thoughts would fade away as he disappeared out of sight.
And then the rain came. It had been a rather hot and dry July. My friends had asked if I wanted to go for a movie but I wished to stay back, enjoy the view of the rain from my window as I catch up with the book I am reading. My thoughts drifted away and I remembered the old man and wondered where he might be. I hoped to see him the next day. A new day dawned. As I stepped out of Hauz Khas metro station, it was drizzling. I took out my umbrella and started walking towards my office. I was searching for the old man from a distance, carefully placing my feet so as not to step on the muddy puddle along the pavement, but he was nowhere in sight. The place where he used to sit was empty except for a few wet leaves and twigs that lay nonchalantly. I reached the spot and stood there for a few seconds looking around if he was nearby. He wasn’t there. I left the spot, a hint of disappointment and worry. Is he sick? What happened to him? Will be come again? I brushed aside my thoughts and began my daily ordeal. The next day he didn’t show up again and so did the next and the day after that. He was missing the entire week. I felt uneasy. I just wanted to have an assurance that he was fine. The week ended with no sight of him. I could not believe that I was actually missing him. I felt as though I had lost a friend…a friend whom I had not even said “Hi”.
Monday came and I silently hoped that I would see him. The sky was clear and everything around seemed cleansed by the recent rains. As I walked in the pedestrian pavement I saw from a distance “my” old man arranging his kit, sitting in the same spot and all his tools placed just the way it used to be. A wide grin plastered on my face and I walked swiftly towards him and stood in front of him. I gasped. He looked up to me. I just smiled and said “Namaste uncle”. He said “Namaste beta”. I just stood there…my happiness profound on seeing him. He raised an eyebrow as if to say “What’s next?” I did not know what next to do or say. Should I tell him that I was worried about him or that I thought I would never see him again? I just stood there not saying a word. Suddenly, I reached my bag and took out my umbrella and gave it to him.
In a surprised tone he said “But its not raining”.
I just smiled and said “Uncle, please use it when it rains”. He sat there too stunned to say anything.
I took a step back turned around to walk towards my office. A smile played on my lips. My old friend is back in town. And yes, I did say "Hi".