Sunday, 20 April 2014


Ten years ago, when we first moved to this apartment, it was the only one on the street. Today, it is one of the oldest of the many apartments that have sprung up in our locality. That has in fact become the identity, 

“yes, stop near that old apartment on the right” people say to the rickshaw walas.

My wife doesn’t want to move out of this old and slowly dying building, because of its “lucky charm”. She somehow believes this flat is responsible for my promotion at work and the birth of our child (?!)– Sigh. If only a woman could give some credit to her man!

Many things have changed along these years in our quiet residential area – our neighbouring tenants, the neighbouring vacant plots turning into another apartment complex, new security guards, new laundry shops, new mobile shops, new houses, more litter on the street, water scarcity and of course lesser trees.

Water problem has always been very frustrating and the security guards appointed added to the frustration. They were all too old, mostly above 65 years of age, and they were too slow to get up and open the gate or even switch on the motor for pumping the water to all the floors. Almost all the apartments in our locality had old security guards, and faced the same problem. We wondered why they were appointed, as the main purpose of guarding the place was not served, and every night the watchman falls asleep. It was worst in our apartment because there was only one and there wasn’t anyone to exchange shifts with him during the night. It was a daily ritual for us to keep complaining about the poor apartment maintenance and the inability of the watchman, almost every single day.

So when our owner informed that there was going to be a new watchman for our apartment, we all hoped this time it would be a younger, more efficient one, who doesn’t forget to switch on the motor every morning. But this time, it was worse. He was much older than our previous watchman, was sick most of the time and was always sleeping.

Every time I came back home from work, my wife had a new “watchman story”.

“You know he forgot to switch on the motor again, and there was no water the entire day...blah blah”

“Today I had to wait half an hour before the gate to wait for him to wake up and open it.. He is getting on my nerves..the previous one was far better than this old man..blah blah”

“you know what he did today? He did not close the lift door properly and I was stuck in the third floor..blah blah”

It was getting too much. He was a 75 year old man, who could barely walk. Our owner kept proving that each time he got a new watchman, we felt the previous one was better. People loathed the new watchman, though he did not seem to care about any of these things.

One evening, as I was parking my vehicle after I returned from work, I noticed our new watchman was standing so close beside me. For the first time, I looked at him closely. He was medium built, tall, had a wrinkled face, he was almost bald with little grey hair left. He wore a white banyan that was torn here and there and his pants were almost falling off his waist. He was standing there next to me with a sheepish smile on his face.

“What?” I asked with an irritated expression on my face.
“Saar..” He hesitated.
“What is it tell me quickly”
“Saar.. I have a daughter who cannot walk.. She is almost 50 years now. I need some money for her treatment.. If you can be kind enough to lend me some money Saar..I would be really grateful to you”
 He was almost begging me. I checked my pocket and thrusted two hundred rupee notes in his hands and started walking swiftly. I pretended not to notice his bowing of head and saluting.

As I entered home, my wife was ready with her side of the “watchman story”
“You know what he did today?! He asked me money for his daughter’s treatment”
“What? He just asked me that” I said in shock
“Oh these people should never believe them... I gave him two hundred rupees this afternoon. Wait - did you also give him money?”
“Yes, I also gave him two hundred rupees” I replied softly. My wife continued with her ranting about how people take advantage of us being kind to them and how these days it is not advisable to help anyone.

I had to admit she was right. I was getting really annoyed with the watchman – that cheater.

Next day as I returned home late, I saw him behind the gate, smoking cigarette. I honked louder. He quickly put down the cigarette and ran to open the gate.

“Don’t you know smoking is prohibited here? There are children living in this building. And what took you so long to open the gate?” I yelled at him
“Sorry saar.. it won’t happen again” he mumbled.
“Now I know how the two hundred rupees I gave you, is spent” I said with a cold stare at him and went home.

Days passed, the watchman stories continued. Everyday there was something new about him that my wife had to complain. I was getting busy with work as well. Few months later, I started seeing him less often in the apartment. There was nobody appointed to replace him too. The owner promised that he was on a sick leave and he will be coming back. After almost two weeks of absence, he came back. I saw him as I was leaving for work. He had become thinner and he was coughing very badly.

“Why did you come back if you were so sick?” I asked him and as he turned to face me, I noticed the cigarette in his hands. “Yes please smoke a little more, so your coughing can get better” I said, biting my teeth.

“saar..sorry saar.. I came back to ask you a favour.. My grandson is doing his engineering and as I couldn’t work this month, I’m not able to help him pay his fees. Saar..” He stood there scratching his head.

“Listen, I won’t be fooled another time. I have helped you once, and I learnt my lesson. I know all the money I give you will go into ashes like this” I said firmly pointing to the cigarette.
“Saar..” He hesitated. I ignored him and walked away.

As I reached my office, my wife called me on the landline phone.
“Why are you calling me on landline?”
“Please check where your mobile phone is” My wife replied mockingly.
“Oh no. Ok please switch it off for me, I will manage”
“Hey you know what the watchman did as I was leaving” I could hear my wife laughing on the other end.
“You sound just like me, complaining about the watchman”
“Listen, he asked money again for his grandson. Apparently he is doing engineering and needs money to pay his fees” I scoffed.
“Yeah right, first he made us believe he has a daughter who cannot walk and now a grandson who is doing engineering? He is making a fool out of us”
“I know, I just wanted to tell you that, if he asks you again, don’t give him any money”
“Ok.. I won’t be home most of the day anyway, bye”
“yeah bye”

I got off work early that evening after a long time. I happily rode back home and to my surprise found the gate was already open. But there were two three tenants from the apartment having a small meeting.
Oh no. There is no water again? I thought as I got off the car. The watchman was sleeping on the floor unaware of what was happening around him.

I walked up to one of the tenants to ask if he was going to call the lorry for water supply, when he said this: “watchman passed away few minutes back”

I was too shocked to even open my mouth. I looked at him – now a lifeless body. The wrinkled face, torn banyan and his old pants. I felt my hands were getting cold. I always hated this guy but I didn’t expect to see him like this.

“How?” I finally managed to speak.

“He was sick for two weeks apparently, he had wheezing and he coughed out loud and fell on the ground. He was out at that moment itself” said one guy
“Out of all the places, he had to come and die here? As if we don’t have enough problems? What do we do with this thing now?” said another
“Who asked him to come back for work if he was so sick? Now this has become our responsibility” said another
“Does anyone know about his family? Does he have one?” said another.

I was too shocked to recover from this news and the kind of reaction these people were giving was sending me into a state of delirium. How can people be so inhuman? A soul has just passed away and here are people who just want to get rid of this “thing”. I had a rush of feelings inside me, of anger, of guilt, of shame, of helplessness. I had to do something.

I found the watchman’s cell phone in his pant pockets. I noted his daughter’s mobile phone and called her and told her to come as fast as she could. I called for an ambulance. A small crowd started gathering in front of our apartment – “curious on-lookers”, who just want to look. There was someone next to me who even said “Don’t come close to me, you have touched the body. I just finished my pooja you know”. I ignored all of them and all their heartless comments. I just had a new resolve to pay the last respect to this old man, mainly out of guilt that had developed in me somehow, though I know I hadn’t done anything wrong.

An auto arrived and there was a lady sitting inside, weeping. I guessed it was his daughter. I called out to her but she didn’t want to come out. She just kept saying “I can’t” and wept loudly. I was getting restless, can’t she come out to see her own father. I moved closer to the auto and said as politely as I could. “Listen, you have to come down and see your father. I have called for an ambulance”
“I can’t” she wept again loudly.
“See..” As I started again, she showed me her leg. I closed my mouth. “I can’t walk sir.. I need someone to get me off the auto.”  I held my head down in shame.

 I rushed to help her out of the auto and made her sit next to her father. I couldn’t take in the reality. It was too much to handle. I felt as if I was responsible for the whole thing. I wanted to cry out loud. I felt my existence was useless in the world. She sat there weeping. People started moving away. 

I stood outside the gate, waiting for the ambulance to arrive and pick up the body. A skinny young guy almost fell in front of the gate from his bicycle. He was panting so hard. I helped him get up and asked him, “Who are you?”
“Sir I’m his grandson” the young boy was in tears.
“Oh..” I was hesitant to ask but I heard myself asking him “What are you doing?”
“I am studying engineering sir”, he replied wiping his tears.