The Old Man – a short story

The day in our village Neyyarinkara started early. By five in the morning, most of the villagers would be at the river bank. We went there for our morning bath, to brush our teeth and wash dirty clothes. As I was eight years old, I did not have to wash clothes. I could also have done the bathing and brushing at home with the water from the well in our backyard. Mother did not allow me to go near the well. The river was a kilometre from our house. The street which ran across our gate ended at the river bank. During the sunlight hours of the day, I ran up and down this road a thousand times. Running off to school, returning from school, going to the market to buy groceries – I knew every bump and bend on the road but in the dark of the early morning hours, I would hold on to mother’s hand for support.

At the riverbank, I recognized most of the people. They were the regulars. The village policeman was there. I could also see the teachers from my school and most of the shopkeepers. Even Raghu the village thief was there, bathing at a safe distance from Gopalan the policeman. Mother took a lot of time to finish her bath. First, she would wash all the clothes she had bought along with her. Then she would brush her teeth and finally take a dip in the gentle waters of our Neyyar. I would finish everything in a couple of minutes, come out of the water and wait for her on the sandy river bank. I loved to listen to the conversations of the elder folks as they stood there preparing for their bath. It was while waiting for the mother to come out of the water that I first met the Moopan.

In Malayalam, the language we spoke at home, Moopan meant old man. The man was old. To my eyes, he looked as old as my grandfather if not older. He was sitting inside his shop. It was more of a big wooden box than a shop. Wooden planks held together by rusted nails on three sides. A tin sheet on the top to keep the rain away. In front of the shop had an opening. A portion of the wooden planks was cut in half and was held up by hinges. The old man was inside the shop at all times. There were ledges on the walls of his shop which had jars of different shapes and sizes.

“What are you doing here all alone?” the old man said as he spotted me standing there all by myself.

My first reaction was to slide away and go back to standing near the river. One look at him and I realized he could not be dangerous.

“I am waiting for my mother to come out.”

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Kalyani,” I said.

“Oh! you are Narayanan the postman’s son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I have never seen your father coming to the river for his bath.”

“He has his bath at home. We have a well at our house.”

“And you like coming here so early in the morning?”

I shrugged and kicked at some sand which was lying in a heap. The old man smiled.

“Don’t you go to school?” he said.

“I am in the third standard at the Government Boys High School.”

“Are you good at your studies?”

“I stood first in the under ten boys athletics competition. I got a gold medal for that.”

“Does that mean that you are not good at studies?”

I winced. It was a trick question. I hated trick questions. Adults always had this habit of trying to coax answers out of us using such trick questions.

“I got a B grade in my exams. That is not bad, but I am better at sports,” I said.

“Your grandfather was also good at sports,” the old man said.

“You knew my grandfather?”

“We were close friends during our school days. I had to stop studies after the fourth form, he continued till his sixth. He stood first in all the sports competitions.”

“I got my gold medal for coming first in the under ten boys division,” I said happily that I was being compared with my grandfather.

I loved my grandfather. He used to play with me. He would tell me a new story every day. I used to sleep in his room at night.

“Grandfather is now in heaven,” I said.

“I know,” the old man said, “most of my friends are now in heaven.”

He became silent. The light from the single wicker lamp burning in his shop added more creases to his face.

The Moopan’s shop specifically catered to the early morning bathers. Coconut oil, ummi- kirri powdered burnt rice husk which we used to rub on our teeth, small one-inch pieces of soap different brands for bathing and washing clothes – he only stored such items. He also stocked the stalk of coconut leaves with which we used to clean our tongue. All combined these essential ingredients for morning bath cost ten paise per person. People found it easy to bring a ten-paisa coin rather than carry all these from home.

“Is my son troubling you?” mother’s voice stopped our conversation.

“Oh no! He is a smart boy. He tells me he is good at sports,” the old man said.

“It would have been better if he had paid more attention to his studies,” said mother.

Mother was always like that. Putting me down in front of others. She firmly believed that you should not praise you, children, before others. It invited the ‘evil eye’. I did not believe in the concept of an evil eye. Then you could not argue with their mother. I could get spanked right there on the street. Father was easier to handle. I stood there, head bowed inspecting my toes as they played with the sand.

“Come boy lets go to the temple,” said Mother.

That part of the morning program was why she dragged me along with her every day. Father did not believe in God. Mother said he was a communist. I did not understand what that was but knew that they were happy people who did not have to get up early to go to the temple. I knew that I would also grow up and become a communist – anything that could get me a few hours of extra sleep. Not that the temple was a bad place to visit.

Our village temple was small but beautiful. It was in the shape of a square. A series of square-shaped structures one within the other. In the inner, square was a small roofed house where the idol of God was kept. Mother would stand at a distance along with other people all with still wet clothes and pray. Mother had taught me how to pray. I followed her instructions to the letter every day. My prayer was always the same. I would ask God to set easy question papers in the exam. It never worked. I knew God would have only himself to blame if I eventually became a communist.

Every day after my bath I would run-up to the Moopan’s shop and watch as he served his customers. After he had served them all, he would turn to me and we would resume our conversations. I told him about the school. How difficult mathematics was and how confusing science could be. I told him how much I enjoyed athletics and football. The Moopan told me about the rhinoceros beetle and the red palm weevil which could destroy coconut trees. He told me about his wife who had gone to heaven when he was thirty, leaving him with a son who had eventually run away from home – never to return.

One day as mother and I reached the river bank we found a crowd of people gathered near the Moopan’s shop. The shop was closed. It was the first time I had seen the shop closed. It was the first time any one in the village had seen the shop closed.

“Why has the Moopan not opened his shop?” someone asked.

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?” someone else replied.

“I cannot have a bath without coconut oil in my hair,” said another person. I looked at the man and saw that he had about a hundred and fifty strands of hair on his head. There was not much that the moopan’s hair oil could have done for him.

The next day the scene was repeated but this time the number of people standing were far less. Some had come expecting this to be the case with their hair already greasy and small pouches of ummi-kirri.  When the shop remained closed on the third day, people stopped asking questions about the moopan.

“Why is the moopan not opening his shop?” I asked mother on our way back home.

“I don’t know Kittu,” Mother called me Kittu, “maybe he has gone to heaven like your grandfather?”

I did not like her reply. It made me sad. I said nothing on the way back home.

That day after school on the way back home I took a different route. During my conversations with the Moopan, he had told me where he stayed. It was a place behind the temple. Normally nobody used that road. Our temple had a paved street right outside its main gate. The other three sides were full of shrubs and wild overgrowth. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting cut by the thorny bushes. In a distance, I could see a small thatched hut.

“Anyone at home?” I said.

There was no reply.

“Is there anyone living here?” I asked again this time almost shouting the words out.

There was a faint cough from somewhere inside. Cautiously I went into the hut. It was dark inside and it took my eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the light. The smell inside the hut reminded me of my grandfather during the last days of his life. Grandfather was always in bed during those days. He did not have the energy to walk around and sometimes soiled his clothes. The hut had that same smell. In the dim light, I could make out the Moopan lying on a cot in a corner of the room.

“Don’t worry grandpa,” I said, “I will get someone who can help.”

I ran towards my house, halfway through I changed direction and ran towards the post office. I knew that in a situation like this it was my father who could be able to help better.

“Father….father, come quick. The moopan needs your help,” I said as I entered the post office.

It was a weekday and people were standing in a queue at the counter.

“What are you doing here?” said father his head popping up from behind the counter.

“Father the old man needs help. He is not well,” I said.

“Which old man?”

“The Moopan. The old man who runs the shop near the river bank.” I said.

“How do you know that?” father asked.

“I went to his house. I saw him lying there in bed. He cannot get up. Hurry he needs help.”

“How do you know where the old man lives?” one of the men standing in the queue asked me.

“He told me,” I said, “Father please can you come now? He needs help.”

“I need the stamps and the envelopes,” said another man standing in the queue.

“My money order is urgent. My son needs the money for his college fees. He is staying in a hostel.” said a woman standing behind him.

Father looked at the clock on the wall behind us. It was two-thirty in the afternoon. The post office was open till four in the evening.

“Today we will close early,” said father and the queue moved closer to the counter.

I waiting at the door. I could never understand adults. A man was suffering and all they could think of was stamps and money.

“Kittu go home or your mother will be worried,” said father. He also called me Kittu at home.

“I want to come with you,” I said.

“No. Go home take my tiffin box with you and give it to your mother,” said father this time his voice was firm. I obeyed.

“Where were you?” mother was at the doorstep.

I told her everything.

“Why did you go inside that old man’s house?”

“Amma, he is not well,” I said.

“Have I not told you not to trust strangers?”

“Amma he is old and sick.”

“Kittu he could have hurt you,”

“Amma, he reminded me of Appupan,” I said. I could not stop the tears as they poured down my cheeks. I repeated, “He reminded me of Appupan.”

Mother smiled and bent down and lifted me.

“Such a big boy and you still cry. Don’t worry your father will take care of him. He will take care of the Moopan. See! you are so tall when I carry you your feet touch the ground!”

I laughed despite my tears as I saw that she was right. My feet were touching the ground.

The shop remained closed after that. Every morning I would stand near it and wait for my mother to return after her bath. Somewhere in my mind, I hoped the old man would come and open the shop. I knew that it was not possible. Father along with a few villagers took the old man to the hospital. He sat there besides the old man for a few days, coming late at night. Every day he would tell us what the doctors had said about the old man’s condition.

One day my father came home early from the post office. I was playing in our courtyard. As I ran in father caught hold of me and picked me up. He kissed me on both cheeks. I was embarrassed. Father never behaved like this. It was my mother who hugged and kissed me and I hated it.

Father handed me a package wrapped in an old newspaper. He asked me to open it. I tore open the paper. Inside was an old photograph of two boys.

“Do you know who that is?” said father pointing at one of the boys.

I looked carefully but did not recognize the face.

“That is your appupan – my father. And this is the Moopan standing with him,” he said, “this is a photo of them from their school days. This is the only photo of my father from his school days that I have seen. The Moopan wanted you to have this picture. The Moopan died today in the hospital.”

Father choked as he said it. Mother was standing there listening to him. I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt sad too. Then I looked at the photo. A photo of two boys holding hands, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world and then I felt happy again.

I knew that my Appupan and his best friend were together again.

A random act of kindness – a short story

It was supposed to be a punishment transfer. In my case, I got it because I had just joined the government service. I was packed off to a remote village, high up in the Himalayan mountains. There were no tarred roads in the village. A dirt track linked it to civilization. A bamboo hut with a corrugated-sheet roof became my office cum residence. On records, I was the district-in-charge and had a staff of four who reported to me. These four were local villagers and hardly ever attended ‘office’. Most of the time I was alone in my office. I read books and listened to music a lot those days.
I was twenty-four year old and took all this as a challenge. There was no work as such. We were there to keep an eye on the village and its inhabitants. I would send out long reports to bosses in distant cities. To while away the time I went on long walks around the village. That was how I made a few friends – two shopkeepers and a beggar. The villagers were poor and the shops in the village stored a few provisions. My radio operator knew how to cook. He taught me how to boil rice and make chapattis. That was how I survived during my one year in that village.
One day around halfway into my posting, I had to meet the District Magistrate who was visiting the neighbouring village. I went for the meeting along with one of my staff members. It was a distance of about five kilometres. Over the muddy roads, it would have taken about three hours. We took a short-cut. Walking through the mountain pass and stepping around massive trees we reached in about two hours. Needless to say, I was tired. My assistant suggested we rest for some time at the house of his friend.
The house was more of a hut with cracks in the mud wall. It was dark inside. By the time my eyes got accustomed to the light inside, I realized that the family was having dinner. It was about four in the evening. People in the hills slept by six, so dinner was early. With no electricity and no money to buy oil for lamps, there was no point keeping awake after dark.
Without a word, the lady of the house put out another plate for me. The family – My staffer’s friend, his wife, the man’s mother and his four children were all sitting on the floor eating out of steel plates. The children were staring at me as they gulped down handfuls of rice mixed with a watery stew. As I stood there in my designer jeans, t-shirt and brand new sports shoes, I was acutely aware of their tattered clothes and the ragged condition of the hut. I did not want to eat. These people were poor. I was tough for them to get enough to feed their children. Add to that an extra mouth to feed… I refused
“ Sahib, they would feel bad if you do not eat!” my staffer said.
I looked at their faces, they did not understand my Hindi and I could not speak their language. I could see that they looked offended.
I sat down on the mud floor and began eating. Silently we ate. Nine of us in a dark room as pigs ran outside the house. It was getting dark and I did not want to be late for the meeting. So I gobbled up what was on my plate. The second I finished the lady of the house filled my plate with more rice. I protested and she gave me another hurt look. She pored a watery stew and added huge chunks of some vegetable. The food was bland,it had no spices, no taste. All that it had was a pinch of salt to make it edible. Again, I finished off the entire plate. This time I covered the plate with my hand to prevent her from filling it again.
“We have to leave,” I said, more to the people in the house than to my staffer.
I thought I would give them some money but was prevented by doing so.
“They will feel bad. You are a guest in the house. Guests do not pay.”
I felt odd but thanked the people in the hut and quickly walked out. No one came out as I left. With two plates of rice in my stomach, I was finding it difficult to walk but we had an appointment to keep and I returned to my world.
Over the years, I have seen and read a lot about acts of charity, generosity and kindness but I am yet to come across an incident which comes anywhere close to what I experienced in that hut three decades back. It takes a big heart to give when you have almost nothing of your own.

bright sunset sky over modern city

Age and Wisdom – a short story

“Is your grandfather sleeping?” said Krishnan to the boy who opened the door. He was standing outside his friend Raman’s house.

“My grandfather died ten years ago,” said the boy.

“Died…Don’t you live here?” said Krishnan

“No! I live in the house across the street,” said the boy as he ran past Krishnan who entered the house.

“Grandfather is having his breakfast. He has asked you to join him,” said another boy who came running out of the house.

“No that is ok. I just had my breakfast. Who was that boy who just opened the door and ran out?”

“That was Ismail. He lives in the house across the street. Every morning he comes here and has breakfast with us.”

“Do they not make breakfast in his house?”

“They make it a bit late. He has two breakfasts in the morning. After he finishes off here, he runs over to his house and eats his second breakfast there.”

“No wonder he was in such a hurry! He must be Abdul Kadir’s grandson.”

“His father’s name is Basheer. I don’t know any Abdul Kadir in that house.”

“That is because Kadir died ten years back. That is before you were born.”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and ran back in.

Appupan says he does not want to eat. He had his breakfast.” Krishnan could hear the boy shouting inside the house.

He smiled. The old boy had addressed him as Appupan or grandfather. Krishnan had never married so had no grandchildren.

“Since Raman is having his breakfast. I might as well check the books here,” said Krishnan.

He went towards the bookshelf. The wooden bookshelf was six feet tall and about six feet wide. Books were stacked in neat rows on the shelf. He picked up a thick volume from the shelf. He went over to a chair near the window, sat down and began reading.

“Did you know there is a reference to the Ganges in Dante’s Divine Comedy?”

said Krishnan as he saw his friend Raman Unni come out.

“Where did you get Divine Comedy from?” said Raman.

“From your bookshelf where else,” said Krishnan.

“It must be one of Sumi’s old textbooks. She did her Masters in Literature. Most of the books on the shelf were purchased by her. After she became a lecturer she moved out of the house. Now all that remains are the books.”

“You have a great collection of books on that shelf. How many have you read?”

“Not even one. I do not like to read highbrow books. I am more of a light fiction reader.”

“These are classics, my friend. You can explore the world, its history, art and culture through these books. The best part is you can do all that exploring from the comfort of your living room!”

“I hated reading in school. Now it is too late to change.”

Krishnan shook his head and said, “So what do you read these days?”

“I saw an article in the newspaper yesterday. There is a new cure for cancer. Doctors in the U.K have come out with a wonder medicine. It is still being tested, but they are optimistic. They think it can detect and destroy cancerous cells in the body.”

“Maybe it can be cured if detected in the initial stages. I do not think there is a cure in the final stages.”

“This cure is going to be released commercially soon.”

“Any way who wants to live forever. You are eighty-two years old now. That makes you one year younger than me. You married early, had children, then your children married. Now you are a grandfather. If that girl, your grand-daughter marries, who knows you might even get to be a great-grandfather! What more do you want from life?”

“I do not want to suffer. I do not want to end up with a disease like cancer. I want a painless death!”

“If wishes were horses … you know the rest, don’t you! Let us not waste our time arguing. Remember today the panchayat library is being inaugurated.”

“Oh yes! I forgot all about that. Give me a minute I will get a shawl and come.”

The two old men walked towards the library. There was no hurry. The function was at ten. It was only eight-thirty. As they passed the gates of the Neyyarinkara Shree Krishna Temple, Raman stopped.

“Wait here. I have to pray. I will not take long,” said Raman and entered the temple gates.

“But you came here in the morning!”

“It does not hurt to say a quick prayer. Wait for me here.”

Krishnan moved over to a shady place and looked around for a place to sit.

“Uncle, come and sit in my shop,” said Unni who was the owner of a tailor shop nearby.

“Thanks, Unni. How is your father Gangadharan now? The last time I heard he had slipped and fractured his leg.”

“He is recovering. He is in his seventies… so you know… recovery is a bit slow.”

“I know. I am eighty-three. At my age, there is no recovery! Did he slip in your house?”

“No uncle. He had gone to stay with my sister in Trivandrum. She has built a new house near Pattom. It is a huge house with lots of rooms. The floor was made of polished granite. It was slippery and Father slipped.”

“My son Mohan, also wanted to convert all the flooring in my house to marble. I told him the rough cement floor we have at present is good enough for me. After my death, he is free to do whatever he wants. He can change it to marble, wood, concrete whatever…”

They could see Raman returning from the temple, his forehead adorned with a sandalwood paste tilak.

“‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ do you know who said that?” said Krishnan.

“Karl Marx,” said Unni.

“Right. See what it does to old people Unni! Stay away from religion and opium!”

Unni laughed as the two friends walked away.

“You are an atheist by choice. That does not give you the right to convert others to communism,” said Raman.

“Tell me, my friend, what has religion done for you?” said Krishnan.

“It gives me a sense of reassurance. A feeling that someone is there looking out for me,” said Raman.

“Does that make you happy -safe?”

“Yes. I get a handsome pension. Today I am earning more money as a pension than what I got as a salary when I was working!”

“That is your definition of being happy- making money?”

“Yes! What else is there in life? If you have the money you have everything.”

They had reached the Panchayat Library inauguration venue. The show organizers were still arranging the chairs, setting up the microphones and adjusting the loudspeakers. About fifty chairs had been arranged in neat rows. Raman and Krishnan occupied two chairs in front.

“I have a cough since yesterday night,” said Raman, “Do you think it could be something serious?”

“What?”

“Are you not listening? I said I have a cough since last night.”

“What cough? I have not heard you cough even once in the last two hours.”

“It comes all of a sudden,” said Raman. He tried coughing a couple of times.

“Do not make it up if it is not there. For now, keep quiet and listen to what these people have to say.”

Two hours later the two friends were on their way back home.

“You know sometimes I wonder who will take care of me when I fall ill,” said Raman.

“Our village library should have better quality books. Something like what Kurup has at his house. I wonder if Kurup would lend some of his books to the panchayat library,” said Krishnan.

“I wonder if my children would take care of me if I were to fall seriously ill,” said Raman.

“Maybe we should ask him. Let us go to his house and talk to him,” said Krishnan.

“Do you think that is a good idea to talk to only one of them?” said Raman.

“One of them?” said Krishnan.

“Only Devan stays with me here in Neyyarinkara. Sunil and Suma are in Trivandrum,” said Raman.

“What are you talking about? I am talking about going to meet Kurup.”

“Kurup?”

“Gopinathan Kurup.

“Why are we talking about him?”

“We should go and meet him.” Said Krishnan.

“I am talking about who will take care of me when I fall ill.”

“I am talking about us asking Kurup to loan some books for the Panchayat Library.”

“Why do we need more books in the library?”

Krishnan shook his head. “Are you coming or not?”

“You know Kurup remarried recently?”

“Yes, I heard, he married some woman he met at the festival in the temple.”

Everyone knew Kurup in the village. He lived in a huge house near the temple. He never refused any request for help. People with financial problems went to his house, told him about their problems and he helped them with small sums of money. They were free to return the money whenever they had it. He never charged any interest for this ‘help’.

` “During the morning hours he can always be seen in the verandah reading a newspaper,” said Raman.

“I know, I have come here a couple of times to talk to him, “said Krishnan.

“Kurup!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“Kurup!” said Raman now almost shouting the name out.

Still, there was no response. They looked around.

“That is strange. What was the name of that boy who worked for Kurup?”

“Satyan,” said Krishnan.

“Satya! Satya!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“Maybe there is no one here,” said Krishnan, “Let us go.”

They turned and made their way towards the gates.

“What do you want?” they heard a woman’s voice from inside the house.

“We came to meet Kurup,” said Krishnan as the woman came out.

“What do you want from him? If it is money then forget it. You villagers are a bunch of free-loaders. Everyone is trying to get some money out of him.”

“Now look here,” said Krishnan, his voice tinged with anger, “We came to meet Kurup. Not everyone in this village lives on hand-outs.”

“I know your type very well,” said the woman.

“He will be in the temple,” another woman’s voice from inside the house called out. A young woman came out of the house. She said, “He must be in the temple. He can be usually found there.”

The two old men walked out of the house.

“What an arrogant woman,” said Raman, “I heard after his marriage Kurup has lost all control over his property. The woman who came out first must be his new mother in law. The other one is younger. That must be his wife.”

“Now you know why I did not marry,” said Krishnan, “I could never stand such arrogant women.”

“You never married because no one in the village was ready to marry his daughter to you. You were the fire-brand communist youth leader -in and out of jail. Who would want to marry you?”

“Ha. Well, I know you meant that sarcastically but yes, that was a reason why I never thought about marriage.”

The two men had reached the temple gate.

“Can you go in and look for him?” said Krishnan.

“You want to meet him. Not me. It is you who wants to discuss books with him.”

“Come with me, Raman. I do not know my way around a temple.”

As they walked through the gates of the temple, Krishnan said, “You know this is the first time in my life that I am entering the gates of a temple!”

“It is never too late to convert. Communism is dead. Eastern Europe, USSR all have thrown communism out. China has something that is a mix of capitalism and dictatorship. You should start thinking about turning to religion.”

“I am impressed. For a change, you are talking about issues which are not about health and medicines.” Said Krishnan.

“Is that Kurup?” said Raman.

A man was huddled in a corner of the temple. As the two men went up to him they realized it was indeed Kurup. The once handsome, well-built landlord of the village was now a thin, unkempt shadow of his former self.

“We came to talk to you about the Panchayat Library,” said Krishnan.

“The Panchayat Library?” said Kurup.

“Yes. There are very few books there. We were wondering if you would lend us a few books from your collection.”

“From my collection?” said Kurup.

“Yes! If possible. You have one of the best collection of books in the village, if not in the whole district,” said Krishnan.

Kurup did not speak for a few minutes. His eyes screwed shut he was a picture of concentration.

“I think I will donate my entire collection to the library,” said Kurup.

Krishnan almost fainted.

“All your books?”

“Yes, nobody reads them anymore. This way they will benefit the entire village. Please have someone come and take them tomorrow itself.”

“Thank you, Kurup. This village and its people will forever remember this contribution of yours,” said Krishnan.

The two friends walked back a few steps when Krishnan stopped and went back to Kurup.

“When you say all the books, you meant your copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica as well, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Take that as well,” said Kurup.

“Thank You, Kurup. Thank you very much.”

As they walked out of the temple Krishnan was charged with excitement.

“I cannot believe what just happened. Imagine we just added about five thousand books to the panchayat library. We also got the only copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the whole district!”

“See that is how God helps you. Remember I prayed at the temple when we started in the morning,” said Raman.

“God has nothing to do with this. Do not spoil my day by saying this was a miracle. Now I have to get someone to cart the books out of his house first thing in the morning tomorrow. We need to move fast before he changes his mind!”

A week later it was Raman who came to Krishnan’s house in the morning.

“What happened? Why are you here this early? Said Krishnan.

“Come let us go to the library. I want to read up about a few of my medical problems. The Encyclopedia is supposed to be the ultimate authority on all definitions so let me check-up some of my problems.”

“I should have known better. Why can you not go to Dr Shivaraman and have him look at you? He retired as a Professor from the medical college. He would know what your problem is.”

“I went to him and he said it is age-related. He asked me to walk regularly, eat light food and get plenty of sunlight.”

“There you have it. Now, why do you want to go to the library.”

“I want a second opinion.”

An hour later Raman was more confused. The explanation was given to his problems only made matters worse.

“I think I have cancer,” said Raman.

“How did you arrive at that conclusion genius!” said Krishnan.

“I know. The book does not say that but I know. Cancer of the throat can start with a cough. Do you remember Devaki? The girl who used to come to our house to sweep?”

“No, I do not remember girls who come to sweep your house.”

“Well, she had a cough for a few months. Then she went for a checkup and it was diagnosed as final- stage cancer. She died four months later.”

“There could have been several other reasons as well. Do not jump to conclusions. I am not a medical expert. Even then I know that one should never self-diagnose oneself. We have a small hospital in the village now. There is Dr Shivaraman as well who can advise you.”

“I do not trust these people. This is a small village. Why would a good doctor come here? I will go to the Regional Cancer Center in Trivandrum and have this tested. Will you come with me?”

“I am not going to waste my time on such silly issues.”

“You think it is silly to treat cancer?” said Raman.

“You clown! You do not have cancer. Why are you assuming things?” said Krishnan.

“Have I ever asked you for a favour? This is the first time I am asking you to help me and you refuse?” said Raman. His voice choking with emotion.

“Ok… Ok, I will come with you. Ask Dr Shivaraman if he has any contacts in the hospital. That way it would be faster,” said Krishnan.

A week later the two friends, got on a bus which took them to Trivandrum. From the bus stop, an autorickshaw dropped them at the Cancer Center. Raman had not informed his children about the trip as he did not want them to worry.

“This is a super speciality hospital. I hope you understand what you are doing. This is a place where actual cancer patients come. We are coming here just because you doubt in your mind. The doctors here are super-busy with patients. The last thing they want is some old man coming here just to confirm his doubts,” said Krishnan.

Raman did not answer. He was not even listening. His heart was beating rapidly. He was sure that the doctor was going to confirm his worst nightmare. He would be diagnosed with cancer and then be told that he had the most malignant form. He knew he had just a few days left to live. Raman was worried about how his wife Parukutti would live without him.

“My children will take care of her after I am gone,” Raman thought, “but I do not want to go so soon. I want to live to see Sumi’s children grow up.”

Raman began to sweat. There was a ceiling fan just above him but he still sweated. The fear of the unknown was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.

“You sit here. I will go and book an appointment,” said Krishnan and went with Raman’s documents to the reception. There was a row of chairs and Raman occupied one of the few empty seats and looked as Krishnan went and stood in a long line of people waiting at the appointment counter.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

Raman looked up and saw a middle-aged woman standing there. She held the hand of a young girl.

“No. You can sit there,” said Raman.

“Sit down Jessy. I will go to the counter and book an appointment with the doctor. Do not wander,” said the woman. The young girl sat down next to Raman. Before the woman walked away she turned at Raman and said, “Sir, please look after her. I will be back in a minute. We have come here a couple of times so I only need to check if the doctor is available.”

Raman nodded and the woman disappeared into the crowd. Raman looked at the crowd. He tried to find Krishnan in it but was not able to find him.

“Are you a patient here?” said the girl.

“What?” said Raman.

“Do you also have cancer?” said the girl.

“I do not know,” said Raman.

“I have cancer. Blood cancer. I am undergoing treatment under Dr. Swaminathan for six months now.”

Raman looked closely. Then he noticed the spots on her head where the hair had started to fall. The girl saw him look closely at her hair.

“Mother says it is because of the treatment I am getting.”

“How old are you?” said Raman.

“I am eight years old,” said the girl, “How old are you Sir?”

“I will be eighty-two this September.”

The girl thought for a minute and then said, “You are seventy fours years older than me. That is a lot of years.”

“Yes, it is a lot of years. I have children and grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is four years old.”

“I do not know if I will reach nine,” said the girl, “My mother says I will get well, but I know she just says that to keep me happy.”

“You will get well, child!” said Raman.

“How do you know? Are you a doctor?” said the girl.

“God will heal you,” said Raman.

“Mother also says that,” said the girl, “My mother is coming back.”

“Come child, let us go and see the doctor,” said the girl’s mother and lead the girl away.

“Goodbye Sir!” the girl said and waved at Raman with her thin hands, “You will also get well.”

Raman got up and went towards the queue in front of the appointment counter. After a minute of searching, he found Krishnan standing.

“Come let us go home,” said Raman.

“What do you mean, go home? I stood there for half an hour and now I will reach the counter in five minutes.”

“Krishna, I am perfectly alright. Let us not waste the time of the doctors here. They have more important things to do that treat an old man at the fag end of his life.”

Raman grabbed Krishnan’s arm and pulled him out of the line.

“You are a fool. First, you make me stand in that line and now you say you are fine. What is the matter with you?”

“I am fine Krishnan. Come lets us go home. I am perfectly fine.”