Mr.Iyer shrugged into his short sleeve blue shirt and took out his cane. It was four 'o 'clock and it was time for his evening walk. As he moved towards the lift, his wife called out to be back early for dinner at 7.He didn’t need reminding, but she always did that. They had been married thirty eight years, and but their conversations mainly revolved her daily reminders and their granddaughters. As he started walking around the apartments, towards the fountain where, he could spend an hour reading his morning paper again.
People started moving away from him once they saw him. Mr.Iyer’s temper was known to one and all. Be it a 5 year old child who jumped into his way trying to catch the ball or the neighborhood grocer, who innocently parked his cart in Mr.Iyer's car spot, their ears were reddened by his loud outbursts. Mr.Iyer knew what people thought of him and he liked it just fine. He felt fear indicated the respect that they had for him.
As he sat in his favorite spot, all alone, looking at the editorial column and cursing the editor for the umpteenth time for backing the current ruling party, he noticed that a child of about 8 was sitting opposite him. The boy didn’t even bother looking at him, but just sat throwing stones into the fountain. Mr.Iyer let him do it for fifteen minutes and then signed, raised his voice and said
“This place is only for senior people, go play with other kids”.
To his surprise, the child looked up, glared at him and kept throwing the stones.
Mr.Iyer was disgruntled. Even his son never glared at him that way, and now he was a grown man of thirty. He raised his voice even higher and said
“Didn’t you hear me, leave now or I’ll call your parents”
The boy didn’t even bother looking up this time, but the stones and the splashes started getting bigger and louder.
Mr.Iyer finally thundered “Get up now!!!” He was sure the entire apartment heard him.
The boy looked up, glared and spit out
“My parents pay maintenance too, and as per the society bylaws, this part of the apartment complex can be used by anyone”.
Mr.Iyer was shocked. First, no one ever responded to his outbursts, and second this child actually had read the society bylaws. No one did either of those two.As Mr.Iyer grabbed his paper, and stalked back home half an hour earlier, his temper was raging. Its only when he got to house he realized, the boy was still at the fountain, but he had left!
Through the next week, the boy kept coming back and throwing stones into the fountain. Mr.Iyer was sure it was just to annoy him. If Mr.Iyer had his way the boy deserved a real spanking. That’s when he decided to speak to the parents. At least those people would be afraid of him
The next day instead of going to the fountain, he knocked on the door, where the new neighbors had moved in. The door was opened by a sleepy maid. On enquiring about the residents, he was rudely told that the father was on an assignment abroad and the mother would be back late from her meeting. As he walked back to the fountain, he was sure of the reason for the insolence .He had no discipline in his life.
Mr.Iyer decided that he would teach that boy discipline.
As he sat with his paper again, the boy was across staring morosely into the fountain. Seeing Mr.Iyer he brightened up and then started throwing rocks into the fountain.
Mr.Iyer cocked an eyebrow at him and said
“When I was your age, I would have got walloped by my father for being rude to elderly person”.
The boy stopped and looked at him
“Well, at least you had dad around to wallop you”
Mr. .Iyer said “Young man , it seems, that you have never been walloped in your life, so you don’t know !”
“Well, you haven’t spent the last year speaking to a web cam, instead of your dad, so you don’t know!!”.
Mr.Iyer didn’t know the right response to that, so silence reigned for some time.
Suddenly Mr.Iyer heard music, the boy was blaring it through the cell phone.
“So all kids have these cells nowadays, no wonder you don’t know how to talk to people”
“Well that needs to taught by adults, and with you all constantly busy, it’s easier to message than talk” ,pat came the reply
Mr.Iyer was tired of this little smart mouth.
“Don’t you have homework to do?” he asked
“Well did it at school, while waiting for the driver to pick me up. He’s always late, so he can ask mom for overtime pay”
“So who helps you with the homework at school?”
“I don’t need help; these problems in school are so easy. Dad is sure I am genius or something, but in this country he says I can’t grow to my full potential” said the boy puffing with pride.
Mr. Iyer was angry, not at the child but at the father. He had lived through the Indian Independence movement in 1947 and wore his patriotism like a second skin.
“Well don’t say that. This is the country of Gandhi and Nehru, every person can become whatever they want to be”
“Did you ?” asked the boy
Mr.Iyer was dumbfounded. That was the question that had haunted him from the day he retired five years ago. His life had been a steady stream of duties from the day he lost his father at eighteen, He had looked after his six siblings first, then his children and somewhere in there his dreams had withered. He felt angry at everybody - his family , his friends and his colleagues the day he retired. Forty years of hard toil didn’t mean anything. His siblings had their own lives, his children grown and left as soon as possible and his wife, was content in spending the rest of their life alternatively between TV soaps and prayer sessions that lasted days. His colleagues refused to respond to his calls, the day after he quit.
Mr.Iyer didn’t talk to the boy after that . But funnily enough for the next month , the child would sit opposite him everyday and play his video games, or read a book. Not talking , but only silent acknowledgement when their eyes met.
One day the Mr.Iyer was in his usual place, but the boy was missing. He came later, eyes swelled up , clearly he had been crying.
Lowering his paper, he said “did someone finally wallop you? Even if they did, boys don’t cry”
Tear stained face looked up and said “No they didnt !! I am not crying, I have an allergy”
On Mr.Iyer’s silence he continued , sniffing and leading to what happend
“The teacher made a grammar mistake today at class. I corrected him. He looked at me and told me he knew better and I was wrong and that’s why children need school, to learn ,not to teach. Then he asked me to stand up on a bench till lunch time”.
Mr.Iyer said “That doesn’t sound bad!. Lots of times teachers scold kids”
The boy got up in agitation and said “All I do is study and read.If I am not good at studies, then I am not good at anything. . I hate that teacher, and he was wrong. I wish I can make him stand outside the class on a bench for a whole day”
Mr.Iyer smiled and said “Do you know what I did to my fourth standard teacher, who walloped me for talking in class. I climbed up on the roof, waited till he walked in the corridors below and poured purple ink on top of his bald head. He looked like an eggplant for the whole week”
That visual started the pair laughing and the first smile broke through.
Mr.Iyer surprised himself, by offering to teach the boy cricket, so he would be involved in something other than reading all the time. Well he thought to himself that would at least discipline him to a certain extent.
Everyday now, Mr. Iyer looked forward to his fountain time. “That boy” , as he called him, was a quick learner. He had picked up “reverse swing” in a couple of days. That boy was Richard Hadley in the making, he was sure. Without knowing it, slowly a trickle of kids started coming through to the fountain. A club formed and Mr.Iyer as coach, used his voice to ensure that all had chances to play and learn. While the interested played, the others quizzed Mr.Iyer about independence, his days playing cricket on madras roads and days before cellphone.The booming voice now rang with laughter rather than rage. Mrs.Iyer had to come down to see what made her husband smile so much nowadays. She was drawn into the circle of children , that she became the official storyteller of the bunch. Mr.Iyer never knew his wife had the talent to weave tales , that sometimes he found himself listening as eagerly to her stories, than any of the kids around
A couple of months later , he noticed, that “the boy” didn’t come down to play. He wanted to go and check up on him, but his time was occupied by the club matches played with the neighboring apartments. A few days later he noticed a moving truck and he saw the boy helping to load it. As soon as he saw him, the boy disappeared. The truck moved out that night and so did the family.
The next day a card was stuck to the door. It said "open on Sunday". Mr.Iyer was sure it was from the boy
On Sunday, Mr.Iyer woke up at the crack of dawn to open his card. It said
“HAPPY FATHER’S DAY”
“Mr.Iyer I didn’t want to meet you before I left, because I would cry and I know you said boys don’t cry !. I brought this card for my father, but I have to give it to you. You made me smile you were my friend and taught me a lot more than all my teachers did. Could you please let other kid know how you stole mangos into class or walked at the independence march, we never get to read that in the books . Every time I see an eggplant now or play cricket, I will be thinking of you”
Aditya (That’s my name, not “You Boy”)
As tears slipped down Mr.Iyer’s face, he realized men did cry. He started to teach the boy discipline but the child had taught him about his own life. He moved towards his blue shirt, but this time the spring was back in his step after forty years.