Arvind jogged around the park five times. Now sweating and feeling tired, he looked for a place to sit. But all the benches were occupied except for one on which two elderly women sat talking. With their permission Arvind occupied the vacant place.
He was fifty-two and had taken voluntary retirement two years ago. He was a bachelor and lived alone. Before sunset he would come to this park for his daily jog and stayed until dark. Aravind maintained himself fit and agile. Except for a few gray strands, the age did not show. His body was trimmer, more active and agile than many younger ones.
Arvind liked this part of the day most. He would sit and watch the scenes around him. The park was small compared to the other city parks, but was well maintained. The grass was soft and green, there were flowerbeds on the sides and shady trees over the jogging track. The place was a favorite of small children who loved to play in the open spaces. Arvind would sit and watch the children. They walked with unsteady steps, giggling, trying to run away from parents and tumbling on the soft grass. Some had large colored plastic balls and played with other children. One would feel refreshed watching the kids.
Arvind sat there watching. After sometime the two elderly ladies finished talking for the day and left. Aravind was absorbed in himself when someone asked, “May I sit here, sir?”
Startled, he looked up and saw a smiling young girl of about twenty-five. A small child with a large red plastic ball in one hand was holding her finger.
“Oh, sure. Please sit down,” he replied.
The girl sat on the bench and the child played on the grass. He tried to kick the ball but fell. Both Arvind and the girl smiled. After several such failures, the girl asked the child to throw the ball to her. They both started playing catch. A few times the ball fell on Arvind and he returned it with a smile. He also enjoyed playing with them.
Arvind had seen the girl with the child earlier also. There were so many like them coming to the park and there was no reason to remember them, except that this particular girl had something indefinable in her face or stature that made her distinct from others.
The boy and the girl played with the ball and enjoyed themselves. After a while the boy was tired, stopped playing and quietly sat down beside the girl.
“Your son?” asked Arvind.
The girl blushed. “Oh no, sir. He is my brother’s son. I am not married yet.”
Arvind felt slightly embarrassed. He should have noticed.
“I am sorry”, he mumbled.
They sat silently for some more time, and when the street-lights were on, the girl said, “Sir, we should go now.”
Arvind nodded, “OK”.
She got up and left with the boy. Arvind sat for some more time and when it was dark, he too walked back to his apartment. For some unknown reason he felt elated that evening.
The next day the girl was there again with the child. She came and sat on the bench next to Arvind.
“Good evening, sir. How are you?” She smiled.
“I am fine, thank you.”
The child started playing on the grass before them. He giggled and laughed. The girl kept an eye on him. Arvind asked, “Do you come to the park every evening? I have seen you before as well.”
“Yes, I do. He starts crying if I do not bring him here”, she said pointing to the boy. “Both my brother and sister-in-law are working. I look after the child all day. In the evenings, he gets bored and wants to come to the park. It is alright, I also get some fresh air.”
“By the way, I do not know your name.”
“I am Nandini.”
Arvind told his own and then said, “Excuse me, you said the whole day you are alone with the child. Do you not work or go to college?”
“No sir, I have completed my Post Graduation in Comparative English Literature and have not joined any service.” Then shyly added, “My brother is looking for a good match for me.” (Arranged marriages with elders fixing the match are common in India)
“What do your parents say?”
“They are no more. I stay with my brother and sister-in-law. They are very nice. I never felt the absence of my parents.”
Arvind thought about his own brother and sister. How much he loved them. He even sacrificed his personal pleasures for their sake. He said, “In the absence of the father, the elder brother should look after the siblings. But few do that. You are very lucky to have a brother like him. You are doubly fortunate to have a sister-in-law like yours.”
Nandini’s face became soft. “Yes I am very fortunate. She is like my own elder sister.”
After a pause she asked, “Sir, I find you here alone everyday. Where is your wife? Why do you not bring her along? I would like to meet her.”
“There is no one , Nandini. I am a bachelor.”
Surprised, Nandini asked, “Why did you not marry, sir?”
Arvind softly smiled at her, and then said, “It is already late for you, Nandini. I shall tell you tomorrow.”
Reluctantly, she got up holding a hand of the boy and started walking back home. Once she looked back and smiled at Arvind, who was watching her with a tender affectionate smile.
The next evening Nandini came a little early and smiled when she saw Arvind coming. No vacant bench was available that day and so they sat down on the soft grass. A few feet away the boy played with his new-found friends. The two sat silently for a few moments, then Nandini turned to him, “Sir, yesterday you promised to tell me about yourself.”
She was smiling with expectation.
“Yes, but there is nothing much to tell. I had a very uneventful life.”
“No! Please say whatever there is.” Nandini insisted.
“Well, Nandini, after post graduation I was only two years into service when my father passed away. Alone, I had to support my mother and college going brother and sister. My brother graduated in computer engineering and got an opportunity in a US firm. He is now a permanent citizen there, married and well settled. My sister, also an MCA married her colleague, a software engineer. They tried and managed a posting in the USA. Now, both my siblings are away from the country. We maintain regular contact over phone and e-mails. Earlier, when Mother was alive, they used to visit India once in a couple of years. But now visits are less frequent.”
Arvind was silent. Nandini was also so for a few minutes. Then she said, “But why did you not get married? Was there any heartbreak, sir? You are so handsome even at this age. I do not believe that you had no affair.” She smiled mischievously.
Laughingly he said, “Thanks for the compliment. But frankly speaking, I never got time for an affair. None was to my liking either. When alive, my mother insisted that I get married, but after her death the chapter was closed forever. Taking a housing loan I purchased an apartment. I spend time reading, watching TV and listening to music. An elderly lady comes early in the morning, cleans the house and prepares food for me. She leaves by ten and then I am left all to myself. And now as you know, I do jog in the evenings. I am quite happy with my life.”
Arvind smiled. But to Nandini it appeared to be somewhat sad. After a few moments she asked, “Why not try now, sir? You may find someone to your liking.”
“No Nandini, it is too late now. Rather, we should try to find a suitable boy for you. Are your people looking for a good match for you?”
Nandini looked down, “Yes sir. My brother advertised in the newspaper matrimonial column and yesterday we received a few responses with details and photographs.”
“Very good. You must have seen them. Could you select any?”
Nandini blushed, “Yes sir. One of them is good. I have already given my consent. Tomorrow evening the groom’s party will come to our place and decide everything.”
“So, tomorrow evening you are not coming to the park?”
“No sir, but the day after I shall be here and tell you the details. I shall bring the boy’s photograph also. Oh, I must go now, it is getting dark.”
Nandini got up and smiled at Arvind. She looked very happy with the prospect of a good marriage. After she left, Arvind sat for some more time. He had a mixed feeling. He was happy that the girl was getting married. At the same time he felt sad as he would miss her company. She was a nice girl. He slowly walked back home when it became dark.
They met the day after. Nandini showed him the boy’s photograph. A handsome young man. Tall and well built with a broad smile. As he looked at the photograph, Nandini told him about the boy’s qualifications, job, family etc. and eagerly awaited his reaction.
Arvind returned the photograph, “A very good match Nandini. You are lucky.”
Nandini looked happy with his comments. “Thank you sir. I value your comments most.”
Arvind asked if the marriage date had been fixed. “Yes sir, on the fifteenth of this month. Another ten days. You will attend, sir. Will you not? I personally invite you.”
Arvind was silent for a minute. Then said, “See Nandini, I do not know any one except you in your family. You will be busy with the ceremonies and will not be able to introduce me to the others. It would be very odd. Anyway, thanks for the invitation. What time is the marriage?”
Nandini told him the time.
“I shall bless you both at that time.”
Silently they sat for some more time. Then with a deep sigh Nandini got up ready to go.
“Sir, I am not supposed to go out till the marriage. That is the tradition. So we may not meet again. Sir, I shall miss you.” Her eyes were moist.
“Me too.” His voice was heavy.
Nandini started walking towards the exit gate. She looked back once and waved at him. Arvind waved back and kept on looking, as long she was visible, then got up with a sigh and slowly walked back home. He had a peculiar feeling, as though someone very near and dear had departed forever. He unlocked the main door and entered the lonely house.
Arvind had a strange feeling. He remembered he had a similar emptiness when his mother had died. But that was his mother. Nandini was a young girl full of hopes and going to be happily married to a handsome young man. Soon she would forget the casual acquaintance - an elderly person whom she used to address as ‘Sir’. Not very successfully, he tried to put her away from his thoughts.
Arvind continued to go to the park to jog as usual. For the first few days he occasionally thought of Nandini. On a few occasions he was startled when a girl called someone ‘Uncle’. Sometimes he would remember how much he enjoyed her company. They had common interests in literature and arts and discussed various subjects. Mentally they matched well, though she was half his age, called him ‘uncle’ and met for a short time every evening. The feelings reduced as the days passed.
One day after about six months, Arvind went to the bank. While coming out he suddenly noticed Nandini at a counter. Pleasantly surprised he went near her and smilingly said, “Good morning, Nandini.”
Startled, she turned to him and said, “Good morning, sir. Will you be going now? My work is over, I shall also come along.”
They came out of the building and started walking on the footpath towards their apartments that were in the same area. While walking side by side, Arvind tried to initiate some conversation, but Nandini responded only in monosyllables. Something was amiss. She was not the usual effervescent young girl. Perhaps she had become reserved after marriage. But why should she look gloomy and run down? Was she not happy? He was puzzled.
They reached Arvind’s apartment building and stopped.
“Here is my apartment. Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?” Arvind asked.
A moment’s hesitation, then she nodded, “Yes.”
Arvind unlocked the door and asked Nandini to come in and sit down. He went to kitchen to prepare coffee. She sat on the sofa and looked around. The apartment was fairly spacious and well furnished, but things were not arranged properly. Absence of a woman’s touch was evident.
“Should I come and help you, sir?” Nandini called.
“Oh no, coffee is ready. I am bringing the cups.”
They silently sipped coffee. Arvind was watching her and she avoided his eyes. She looked thinner and there were shadows under her eyes. She was unusually silent. Definitely something was wrong. He was curious to know.
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