My life felt hollow.
As if the very purpose of my living was robbed away. Just like a drowning man I too clutched at a straw, to surface myself from the sea of miseries. Unfortunately, the sea churned and a powerful whirlpool sucked me into the dark depths. I’d heard people saying that hope is seductive, that no matter how dark are the times, you’ll find a way toward hope. Alas! my fate was cursed for I see no light of hope. Only eternal darkness.
If hope was a coin, then I was a beggar at that moment.
“What’s the matter?” A deep voice broke my chain of decaying thoughts. I opened my eyes, blinked a couple of times, and looked at the man sitting at the other end of the bench. Mr. Khare looked the same he was a week before. His white hair reflected the wisdom he gathered in his sixty years of learning and wit danced in his eyes. Age wrinkled his face, but his smile was as fresh as the morning itself.
I was about to greet him with a smile when a sudden realization struck. “Where were you from a week?”
Mr. Khare straightened his back, rested his arms on his knees, and turned his neck sideways, exercising. “I met with an accident, a terrible one. My car was totaled.”
I inspected his condition and found him unharmed. “Lucky you. Not even a scratch on you.”
“It’s not the luck that brought me here,” Mr. Khare said. “It's hope that pulled me, Ankit.”
I sneered at the mention of hope. “We believe in hope and think that everything is happening is for a reason, and in the end, everything will be fine. In reality, we are fooling ourselves.”
For a long moment, both of us sat wordlessly. The faint honking of the morning traffic began to disturb the calmness of the park. The prolonged silence began to worry me. “Sorry, uncle. I didn’t mean to offend you. Things are not just well with me.”
Mr. Khare’s smile broadened and I wondered about the mystery behind it. “Ankit,” the senior revealed, “thanks for calling me your uncle. Now, at least we have a relation.” He raised his hand, surely to give me a pat on my back, which I needed desperately, but something stopped him and his hand again dropped on his knee.
It had been six months I was meeting Mr. Khare in the jogging park. Every morning, I used to come here to take a run, while he and his retired mates used to vibrate the air with their cheerful laughter. After his laughing session and my four rounds of the park, we both used to sit on the bench. We hardly talked for few minutes and all I knew about him that he was a retired manager of a textile industry. But during these brief patches of conversations, I always referred him as Sir. The word uncle from me must have surprised him.
Something was odd for I found none of his mates in the park.
“Son,” Mr. Khare said, distracting my observations, “you can tell me.”
My gaze fell on the grass between my feet, fingers clutched the edge of the seat tightly as the hurricane began to swirl inside me, challenging the little bit of courage I had mustered. I shut my eyes to pacify all hurtings, but the pain was too much. Words reached to my throat and vanished. Will he even understand what I am going through?
“My wife used to say,” Mr. Khare’s concerned voice rippled across my consciousness. “Darling, tell me what worries you. Don’t hide. Talk. Because when you start hiding things that make you worried, it makes me worried, and then I used to look at her, and tell her everything.”
I opened my eyes and watched Mr. Khare staring in distant at the gray winter sky, reminiscing. “And did it work, talking to her?”
“She barely understood my problems,” he remarked, “and I don’t blame her. My problems were related to my profession and she had no knowledge about the subject. But she used to listen to my ramblings, and the feel that I received after talking to her was motivating. All we need is someone to listen.”
I pondered at the learning of his experienced life and thought about all the people that were dear to me. I hadn’t talked about my worries to anyone, thinking that we all have our battles to fight. Why should I thrash my problems upon them? I guess I was wrong all these time. I need to tell someone, but who? My parents had high hopes for me; my pathetic condition would eventually break them. They must remain in deception, thinking his son was well and fine. I thought to call my best friends and then realized that they were facing the same phase of life. One thousand connections on social media website, but when it came to open my heart and talk about my worries, all I found were the sky and the sea as listeners. Mr. Khare was fortunate to have his wife, while I was still...a thought struck. “What do you mean by she used to say? Is she…”
“Hell, no!” Mr. Khare almost jumped at my trailing question. “She is alive!”
The wrinkled lines of his forehead deepened, the wit in his eyes got replaced by the regret. “I left her.”
The latest revelation muted us again, but questions screeched in my mind. Why would he leave his wife who was so supportive? He didn’t look like the person who could have an extra-marital affair. There has to be another reason. I was about to voice my queries when I felt someone’s presence. A teenager, with a worn-out sweater and a short pant, was shivering in front of him. “Sir, a tea?” He offered, raising a kettle.
I nodded. “Make for us.”
The boy was blank for a moment, and then he moved toward the bench, fulfilling the order. Meanwhile, I pulled out my wallet and took out two notes. The boy accepted the amount, counted it, and gave back me half of it. Bewildered, I glanced at the seat, expecting two paper cups of the steaming tea. Instead, I found one. I was about to demand other one when Mr. Khare interrupted my action. “Let it be. I am not fond of tea. Plus, with age comes the sugar problem.”
I picked up the cup and slurped the sweet liquid. As I pulled the paper rim away from my lips, I said, “Uncle, I don’t know from where I should start. Many things are happening with me at the same time and I am unable to manage myself. I don’t see hope in anything. It’s…” I failed to complete the statement.
“Hope comes from the strangest places, son,” Mr. Khare said, assuaging my anxiety. “And you never know who’ll be coming for you as a hope. Remember,” he pointed toward the mid of my chest. “Hope is always there until that thing beats within you.”
“Don’t get me wrong, uncle,” I said, “but why are you so concerned about me?”
Mr. Khare took a moment before answering. “Because thirty-five years back, a young man was seating where you are now, and someone showed him a hope. And all I decided that one day, I too would do the same for someone.”
I did a quick calculation and smiled at the subtraction. “So my hope, I mean you decided to help me ten years before I was born?”
“I told you, hope comes from the strangest places,” he winked. “This bench and my wish anchored me to help you. My ears are all yours. Now speak, son.”
I took a deep breath and started revealing every suppressed feeling to him. My eyes moistened, my hands quivered, my voice shook, but I continued. And he listened to me with rapt attention, without interrupting me. And when I emptied myself, I looked at him, and he gave me again his fatherly smile. There was something heavenly about him, as he was radiating positive vibes.
For six months, we both had shared the same bench, but for the first time, we both were sharing parts of our lives to each other.
“How does it feel?” Mr. Khare asked.
“Good.” There was still heaviness inside me, but something was altered. The worries hadn’t dulled, but somewhere deep inside me, I found a warm, homely feeling. I found…
“Hope,” Mr. Khare said as if reading my mind. “I told you, hope comes from the strangest places, and one of them is you yourself. The moment you start expressing your worries, you actually create space for hope to seep in.”
I still doubted his philosophy, but there is a certain positive change I was experiencing. Maybe that’s the secret to find the slice of life back.
A ping from the scheduler of my phone told me that I was getting late for my work. I rose to my feet. “I need to go, uncle. Meet you tomorrow.”
“Maybe we won’t meet tomorrow,” he replied.
“Why?” I emptied the cup of tea and was looking for a bin. “Are you going somewhere?”
“My wish is fulfilled,” Mr. Khare beamed at me. “You found your hope.”
“Thank you, uncle.” There were few questions about his past that still troubled me, but I decided not to inquire at the moment. Someday I would ask him why did he leave his wife? I felt a push on my back, and I was about to stumble. Somehow, I managed to keep myself balanced.
An old man with specs on was staring at me. “Sorry, I just ran into you.”
I immediately recognized who he was. He was one of the Mr.Khare’s friends. “You are late for your laughing session.”
“I’m afraid there won’t be any laughter in this park for a long time,” the old man said with a shaky voice.
“And why would that be?”
“He couldn’t win the battle,” the old man sobbed. “Khare passed away last night.”
NOTE: This short story is nominated for the SALISMANIA.com Best Short Story Of The Year Award 2017.