It was not the best way for him to spend the rest of his life. Rather, it was not the worst way either. Mr. Srinivasan Iyengar was sitting at the courtyard of his house observing the usual day to day activities. Except for a few aberrations, life seemed to move on in exactly the same way as the previous day and the day before. Mr. Iyengar was meticulous with his time, a stickler to perfection, and a man, for whom honesty and integrity were virtues that occupied the highest echelons in his dictionary. When I say that Mr. Iyengar was meticulous with time, it is not that he followed up every activity at the exact specified hour. In fact, he was so used to the activities around him that he could call out the time just by looking around him. As the vegetable vendor dragged his wares on a cart past the house, Mr. Iyengar would sub-consciously be guided into the house, and people at home instantly knew that it was time for his morning breakfast. If the little kids were returning from school in the evening, he knew it was time to have his cup of coffee. There was a sense of meaning and understanding that he could connect with the rest of the world, and more importantly, to himself.
People in the area had so much respect for him that he was seldom addressed by his first name, and even, when using his last name, they made sure that the Mr. stood out prominently. It was not that he was a war hero or a national figure; it was just that, there was an air of simplicity about him, which automatically translated into a tremendous amount of respect. He was easily approachable, whether he was inside the house or at his usual spot at the courtyard. He always had a sizeable number of visitors, a coterie, who were keen to have his views on almost everything under the sun. People wanted him to be the President of the colony, but he politely refused, stating that his days of responsibilities were over, and it was time for somebody from the current generation to take over. He would have made a great President for the simple reason that he never exhibited any of those emotional traits that can become the undoing of an individual during testing times. Years of experience had bestowed a calm demeanor on him, and after seeing so many things in life, nothing could surprise him. In spite of staying in the colony for many years, nobody had any idea from where he came or who his family members were. All that people ascertained from his life style was that there was a maid and a cook who took care of his daily needs. As for the rest, nobody knew. That was one of the things about Mr. Iyengar. It was easy to get to him, but till date, I am not sure whether anybody has got close to him.
I moved into the colony about five years ago. I was exactly two houses away from him and on the same side of the street. Whenever we crossed paths, I was greeted with a pleasant smile. He was particularly fond of my eight year old son. Many a time, I have seen him conversing with my son, and he would somehow figure out what he was trying to convey, and act accordingly. It used to surprise me to no ends when I saw the eight year old and the eighty year old converse in signs and gibberish. At the end of the conversation or rather exchange, both of them used to have a sense of contentment. I had a feeling that my young son had gained a deep insight into the old man's mind. My wife, who had lost her father at a young age, considered Mr. Iyengar her father, and so during festivities and other important occasions, we would invite Mr. Iyengar for an afternoon fiesta. Mr. Iyengar was a light eater during the evenings, and so he was never called for dinner, for we felt he wouldn't do any justice to his appetite.
One of the good things about Mr. Iyengar was that he was a voracious reader. He had as good an idea about Shakespeare as about any Russian author; he almost always quoted something in relevance from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, one of his favorite authors. Talking about Ernest Hemingway's works in the context of Mr. Iyengar reminds me of one of the famous quotes from the book, "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated." If I had to summarize Mr. Iyengar's personality in a single sentence, this sentence would be the perfect way to characterize the man. It is only poetic justice that he be praised from the author's works. His views on the political system and the politicians were clear from the word go. He would often be heard saying, "Politics is not for me. We are like oil and water. We can never mix."
Over a period of time, my respect for Mr. Iyengar grew tremendously. I definitely saw him as a father figure and would invoke his blessings whenever I set out on an important task. It was also no surprise when other people in the colony, if they wanted to find me, they would first try to seek me at home, and if not, automatically would head towards Mr. Iyengar's home. More often that not, I would be sitting there listening in rapt attention to what he had to say. In spite of the closeness, I always sensed that I knew so little of the great man; great at least, according to me. I had no idea where he had come from, if or when he was married and so on. I never saw anybody other than the maid and the cook at his place. Though I knew so little of him, I never went out of my way to probe any of the details about his personal life. Maybe that's what Mr. Iyengar respected in me. I was happy to maintain this relationship for what it was. I expected no material gain out of my friendship with him, and I can say the same for him.
One day, he called me to his house. It felt like any other usual visit. Invariably, we would end up talking about everything under the sun. Even at this age, he was a powerhouse of current affairs. He kept a track of which treaty was signed between which two countries. He would give an explanation as to why the relationship between the West and the East was so fragile, and so on. Expecting my day to move on with one such conversation, I went into Mr. Iyengar's house. He was sitting on the armchair, and motioned me to sit on the adjacent chair. I could see the bereavement in his eyes, but I did not know the reason.
"Is everything alright, sir?" I asked. I always had this confusion whether to address him as sir or Mr. Iyengar, and depending on the moment, I preferred one over the other, and again, for no apparent reason.
Of course, of course, he said. It was a softened "of course".
"Venu, I need to tell you something", he said. "Yes sir, please", I said.
"Venu, I was married to a beautiful young woman when I was twenty five. She was eighteen at that time. It was a late marriage considering our times. That was not the only thing unusual. She was well educated up to the tenth class. Those days, girls were not allowed outside the house after a certain age. But she defied all odds to complete her tenth class before she was married to me. We were blessed with three children - two boys and a girl. After the birth of our last child and a few years later, I somehow got disillusioned. I would say that it was the darkest period of my life. I abused my wife for no reason of hers, and I also treated the children with absolute disdain. Every night, after my arrival, the household would resemble a battlefield. I threw whatever I had in my hand towards them. They would cringe in fear holding to each other. I never cared about anything. I gambled, got myself heavily drunk, and would pressurize my wife so that I could pledge her jewelry. When she refused, I would literally hurl her to the floor and kick her mercilessly. The kids would watch in fear. Nobody dared to stop me. If this was not enough, I also began seeing a woman outside the house. My wife tried her level best to stop me from seeing her, but all she got in return was a flurry of abuses and thrashings."
Mr. Iyengar was talking without a pause.
"One day, when I came back from my usual activities, I found that there was nobody at home. Not realizing anything untoward, I went to bed. When I got up the next day, everything felt like a dream. I ran all around the house looking for my family. I went to the village to see if my wife and children had gone to my in laws' place. It was a shameful moment to confront them and tell them that their daughter and the children ran away from the house. There is nothing more humiliating than to go to your in-laws' house to tackle such issues, when all along you know that you are the one to be blamed. They denied that she ever got there. Knowing them, I am sure they wouldn't even have allowed her to stay there for a minute. I searched for her in all possible places and invariably, gave up any hope of finding her. She was a strong woman. I should have known that she would never have gone to her mother's place. She could hold herself independently. I am sure as a single wife, and with three children, she would have still survived with grace. Strong woman she was." Mr. Iyengar reiterated that again.
I was listening patiently, not knowing what to say until then.
"Sir, what do you mean by, she would have survived with grace? Don't you have any idea where they are? Do you mean to say that you have not found her as well as your children in the last fifty years? At least, didn't she or the children try to find you?"
Mr. Iyengar continued further.
"I searched all over the place. But, Venu, she was such a kind of lady. She would give you a chance up to a point. After that, she would take a decision and stick to the decision, come what may. She made sure that I never found her, so the question of she trying to find me never existed. I am sure she would have easily got a job in a bank or some government service and would have raised the kids in an honorable way."
"Sir, she must still be somewhere. I will assist you in all possible ways in finding your wife. I am sure that with concerted efforts, there is no way of missing her. What do you say?"
Mr. Iyengar took the newspaper lying on his lap. In the last page, located in the middle, was a small black and white photograph of an old lady with the name, Mrs. Meenakshi Sundarambal Iyengar. It also had the following postscript.
Mrs. Meenakshi Sundarambal Iyengar passed away early in the morning two days ago following a massive cardiac arrest. She is survived by her two sons and a daughter. The last rites will be performed at her native place, Srirangam, on the arrival of her daughter from USA.