Ramesh settled down in his chair, stretched his legs and arched his back. His chair was ‘strategically’ placed on a shaded portion of a patch of grass. This patch of green was referred to as ‘The lawn’ by members of the housing society. The five Shanti housing society buildings surrounded the lawn on all sides. Every day Ramesh, the society’s watchman would sit on his chair for a minimum of ten hours. Guarding the society against the evil forces of the outside world. The dull grey coloured plastic chair was his throne. His kingdom. He never let anyone else sit on his chair. Those efforts were not always successful.
An hour ago, or to be precise at four in the evening, he found the old gentleman from B-23 sitting in his chair. The society manager had sent Ramesh to buy some stationery. As society watchman, he occasionally ran errands for some of the house owners. In return, they gave him a few rupees for these efforts. The society watchman job paid him a meagre eight thousand rupees a month. These errands fetched him a few hundred extras. Keeping five hundred he would send the rest home to his parents. He did not mind running errands for the house owners. It was the errands for the society manager that irritated him. He had to do these for free.
The stationary shop was at a short distance from the society. By the time he returned, he found Mr Sapatnekar a retired school principal, who lived in B-23 sitting on his chair. When it came to his chair, Ramesh was very particular. The chair signified his role as the watchman in the complex. Mr. Sapatnekar was not the watchman. He had no business sitting on it.
“That is the watchman’s chair” Ramesh said. He was careful to stand out of reach of Mr. Sapatnekar’s walking stick.
The old man gave no indication of having heard him. Age withered hands were holding on to his walnut walking stick. His glaucoma ringed eyes stared through thick horn-rimmed glasses at something in the distance.
Ramesh coughed. This time Mr Sapatnekar heard him. He slowly turned his head and peered through his thick glasses at Ramesh. After a few seconds, he recognized Ramesh and smiled. The acknowledgement complete he returned to staring at nothing in particular.
“It is a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it ?” Ramesh asked. “I am used to sitting on it for hours.”
There was no response.
“It belongs to society. This chair came along with the chairs in the society office. A set of six chairs. In the society office, you can see the other five chairs.”
Ramesh continued on the subject close to his heart.
“The manager occasionally checks on me. He expects me to be in my chair at all times. Watching and guarding the building complex.” Ramesh said, “He gets angry if he does not find me seated on it.”
Ramesh was dropping all the right hints. Now he waited for a response.
“There was a large pond here,” said Mr Sapatnekar finally breaking the silence. “All round the pond were huge mango trees. I used to swim in the pond as a child. Yes! that was a long time ago. Our house was a stone’s throw from here. That was why I booked this flat when the complex came up. ”
“There are times when the children in the building use this chair as the goal post while playing football! ” said Ramesh continuing from where he had left off. “That usually happens when I go to rest in the afternoon. After lunch, I sleep for about half an hour. I do not like it when the children misuse my chair.”
Ramesh was offering glimpses into his daily routine.
“We used to hold competitions to see who could swim the fastest. Mohan, Jagtap were my best friends. We were inseparable back then. I was well built as a child. Even as a young man, I took part in many athletic events and won a lot of medals. That is how I got a job as a Physical education teacher. Those were the days ……”
Mr Sapatnkar’s voice trailed off.
His mind was far away trying to recall images from a long forgotten past.
Ramesh stood there. Uncertain how to proceed. The society manager would come on his rounds any minute. He tried a different approach.
“It must be time for your evening cup of tea?” he said.
Mr Sapatnekar’s daughter in law worked as a nurse in a local hospital. She and her husband, Ajay, Mr Sapatnekar’s only son, lived along with him in B-23. Ajay, like his father, was also a teacher. While his father had started as a physical education teacher, Ajay taught Physics to senior students in the local government school. The same school from where his father retired as the principal.
“I met Asha at one of the sports events. I won the gold medal that day. She came to the event along with her school friends. In the forties, there were very few schools for girls. Her father was a teacher in one of those schools. It was natural that he wanted his daughter to study in his school. Asha could sign her name in English !! Did you know that ?”
Ramesh was not interested in this information. The old man showed no sign of vacating the chair. Ramesh decided to vacate his post and return to his quarters. He lived in a single room behind the complex. He was about to turn around when he heard footsteps behind him.
It was Melvin D’costa the society manager. D’costa was an Anglo- Indian. A remnant of the British Raj. The Anglo-Indians spread across India still held on to a few idiosyncrasies of their European forefathers. For Melvin D’costa one was that he always insisted on referring to himself as Mr D’costa and the other was that he always wore a tie. India is a hot, humid country and Mumbai is humid the year-round. In Mumbai temperatures at the peak of ‘winter’ hovered in the twenties. Wearing a tie in such conditions was a form of self-torture. Yet Mr D’costa always wore a tie. Day or night, rain or shine there would always be a tie around D’costa’s neck.
Ramesh was sure Mr D’costa would have a solution to his problem. ‘He would surely get Old Sapatnekar to vacate my chair and send him back to his flat’ Ramesh thought.
There was also the possibility that D’costa would get angry at Ramesh for letting the old man sitting on his chair in the first place. A chance he was willing to take if it got him the ownership of the chair back.
“Good evening Sir!”
Ramesh had never heard D’costa speak in a tone of deference before. In the society office, he was always gruff and hostile. Yet here he was addressing the old man as the very epitome of politeness.
Mr Sapatnekar looked up and with a stern look on his face replied, “Melvin, why are you not in your class?”
He never forgot his students, especially the naughty ones. Melvin D’costa, son of Rodriguez D’costa, the village fishmonger, was the leader of the mischief-maker’s pack. How could he forget him?
Melvin D’costa smiled.
“Sir! I am no longer in school and you retired twenty years back!”
“Boy! You always have an excuse ready. Go to your class or I will have to discuss your behaviour with Rodriguez” said Mr Sapatnekar.
Melvin sighed. His father had passed away more than a decade back. Mr Sapatnekar had attended the funeral. Melvin was about to remind the old man about this when his cell-phone rang. He took it out of his pocket, turned and began walking away.
Ramesh felt let down as he saw D’costa leave with his cell pressed to his ear. Mr Sapatnekar was mumbling something. Ramesh tried to listen. It sounded like a tune! The old man was singing an old movie song. Something from the fifties. Ramesh grimaced.
Mohit, the son of the policeman from D-12 was coming. The boy picked up a small stone from the ground and ran imitating a cricket bowler. The boy was twelve years old and chubby. He huffed and puffed as he ran. The boy then threw the stone with all his might. Then like the professionals on TV, he threw up his arms and shouted, “Howzzat!”
On a normal day, Ramesh would have jumped out of his chair and chased the boy away. Last week, Mohit had thrown or ‘bowled’ a stone and broken the windowpane of A-15. D’costa and Raghavan Pillai who lived in A-15 gave Ramesh an earful. No one said anything to Mohit. After all his father was a policeman. The last thing you wanted was to get on the wrong side of the law.
“Are you not going to play cricket with your friends today?”
Ramesh could not believe he asked Mohit that question. The children from the complex played cricket, football whatever was the game for the season in the narrow strip of ground. Normally Ramesh would chase them away. Today he was hoping to welcome the entire lot. All the children running around would mean Mr Sapatnekar would have to vacate the chair.
“I am going out to buy a packet of Cheetos,” said Mohit. “The cable TV guy has started transmitting Cartoon Network on our TV. No one is going to come out to play.”
Ramesh cursed his luck. He had given up all hope when he heard the sound of anklets in the distance. Shyamlee was four years old. Dressed in a colourful frock, her hair tied in a neat braid she was Mr Sapatnekar’s granddaughter.
“Dadaji, it is time for your evening cup of tea.”
Shyamlee loved the silver anklets her parents had gifted her on her last birthday. She loved the jingling sound they made and ensured that they jingled with every step she took.
She ran up to her grandfather, caught his old gnarly hand in both her tiny hands and pulled with all her might. The old man was amused and got up from the chair.
“You always forget that mummy makes your tea at exactly four in the evening. Is it my job to remind you? I have so many tasks to do. I have to arrange my dollhouse. Then I have to complete the picture of the cat. Remember I showed you that picture yesterday? Then I have to practice my dance steps. Dadaji, today I learnt a new step in my dance class. Let me show you how it is done. You cannot try it. You will slip and fall. Then I will have to take care of you. This is how the dance step is done. First I have to bend my knees like this, then ……”
Grandfather and granddaughter walked away towards the B-wing building. Shyamlee’s non-stop chatter slowly receded into the distance.
Ramesh did not waste a second. Finally, he was back in his rightful place. He settled down and was ready for another long eight-hour shift.
“Watchman!” he heard someone shout.
It was the woman who lived in D-23. She would send him twice a day to buy provisions from nearby stores. He always wondered why she could not make a single list. Though he was not complaining, she paid him for each trip to the store. That was all that mattered.
“I am coming!” said Ramesh and jumped up from his chair and ran towards the D wing.