My Muse - Bench in the Park

Author: 
Subhash Mathur

Subhash Mathur was born and brought up in small towns in Rajasthan. During his school and college education at Jaipur, he was keenly involved in sports, journalism and public speaking. His civil services career has given him a platform for spreading his ideas about modernising tax administration to benefit the common man. Post retirement he is devoting his energies, along with his wife Tilak, to public and humane causes.

Raman retired from Municipal Corporation in 2014 after 37 years of service at the middle level. He started humbly but rose in hierarchy by the dint of sheer hard work and dedication. His bosses trusted him fully. He was the ‘go to’ person in his office. He was often the recipient of the ‘Best Employee of the Month’ award. The Commissioner himself presented that award in glowing terms.

But it was not a one-way street all the way. His wife Ratna died in a freak accident in 1985 shattering his cocoon.

Ratna and Raman married after a whirlwind courtship. It was a campus romance that matured into a happy loving marriage. Ratna was a practising clinical psychologist till the birth of her daughter Saritha. She then devoted full time and energy to upbringing of her children.

Raman was on the railway platform to receive Ratna who was standing at the door of the train compartment, eager to get off. Ratna wore a big smile on her face. She looked radiant and happy to be home again. She had spent nearly two weeks with her younger sister, Kunti, exploring the temples and monuments of South India. It was jolly good fun.

The train stopped with a screeching halt. Just as her foot searched for the second step, Ratna lost her balance, slipped and fell. She hit the platform with a big thud. Then, in the blink of an eye she slipped below the bogie and on to the tracks. Just as she went down under, the train jerked and moved just a fraction. But that was enough to seal Ratna’s fate to be crushed under the wheels.

Raman went into denial. Stupefied and mortified, Raman stood rooted to the platform. Then swooned and fell awkwardly on the platform. Hell broke loose. Many hands rushed to extract Ratna. The Station Master materialised and barked out many instructions at the same time.

It was all futile. By the time Raman regained consciousness Ratna’s mutilated and mangled body was on the gurney.

Why he could he not help Ratna when she needed him the most was a question that haunted him for the next several years. After all, he was only one foot away.

It was a blow that took its toll on his health. His output in office also dipped. Colleagues hoped for an early revival. His poor health and even poorer performance in office impacted his two children adversely. They also started eating indifferently and skipping classes on minor pretexts. Their grades fell.

His teenage daughter Saritha turned out to be a great anchor to lean on. Saritha too suffered intensely. She was very close to Ratna. They shared many secrets. They had even given Raman a secret name to unknown to anyone else including Raman. Ratna and Saritha loved to keep secrets with a straight face.

She missed her mother badly. Now she worried after her father. He needed support to overcome the tragedy. She gently coaxed her father to return to lead a more meaningful life. She organised outings and mini picnics. On Saturdays they went out to Dosa & Dosa for rasam, idli and masala dosa. Alternate week it was a visit to Kebab & Curry for Indian Chinese cuisine. Both were Ratna's favourites.

The family outings helped. Raman started looking forward to these outings and even agreed to go to the movies. He enjoyed Tanu Weds Manu Returns immensely. He laughed his heart out. After several years.

After observing the changes, Saritha took her father for consultations with a physician and a nutritionist to decide his lifestyle and food habits. The doctor prescribed a few supplements and advised daily walking as the best way to keep fit.

As time rolled by, his mood changed. He started eating more. His health improved. His bosses became happy again as his output improved.

Retirement in 2014 came as a big relief. The severance package helped him wipe out his financial debts.

Raman felt happy to stay at home indulge his passions. He started some serious reading. He preferred the philosophy of Social Contract as propounded by Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke over the Utilitarianism of Bentham, Mills and Braybrooke. “Life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.”

New Gen authors like Sheldon, Archer, Grisham and Baldacci lifted his spirits. He loved the intrigue, the twists and mystery endings. He tried to read Kafka and Camus but soon gave up. Too morbid, too confusing.

Good health became the top mantra for Raman. He selected his daily meals with great care and largely followed the advice given by nutritionist. Avoid carbs and gorge on proteins. Milk twice a day. Oats in hot milk at breakfast thrice a week.

He loved his small garden with a mix of English and desi roses. They exuded hope and fragrance. Just like his wife Ratna. Early morning was spent pottering around the garden.

Park of Joy being close to home helped tremendously. He decided to walk morning and evening, at least five days a week. To feel like a regular he outfitted himself appropriately. For winters, Raman selected a dark blue track suit with yellow stripes running down the pant length; a lemon coloured wind cheater for the warmth and a few Gaylord full sleeve Tee shirts. He added Nike shoes with air ventilation and Zoom air heel unit. And five pairs of Hush Puppy socks: black, blue, grey, cream and white. He gave away the last two to his nephew. For summers, Raman settled on Jockey Sports shorts, V collar Crocodile tee shirts and a Nike cap. ‘Just do it’. Raman made sure he was appropriately attired when he stepped off his Ignis. With the 200ml water bottle tucked away in his back pocket.

In any case Raman stood tall at 5’ 9”. His darkish hue added to his good looks. He still sported a thick greying crop. Now dyed lightly with L’Oreal no 4. For the brown tinge.

He preferred to drive to the Park of Joy as return was comfortable. The Chowkidar always greeted him very decorously. Raman made sure to exchange a word or two about the weather before moving on. Raman had mapped out his daily 50 minute route. He rarely, if ever, deviated. He walked the distance at a clip. At times he also broke into short runs as advised by the Doc.

He always took a small break at the half way mark. He chose the same bench every day. A few gulps of water, followed by five deep breaths, Samsung Prime was next. Check out the messages on Whatsapp groups. They made him feel happy.

Raman could easily spot the other regulars after a few weeks on the track. Amongst them was a woman probably in her late 20s. She was a serious jogger. He saw her practically every day. She dressed casually in a track suit and red sneakers. She nearly always had speakers plugged into her ears. Was she married? No tell-tale signs but he couldn’t make up his mind. She vaguely reminded him of someone but he couldn’t pin it down to anyone in particular. He often caught her looking at him from the corner of her eyes. Raman could also detect a faint smile under the mildly angular nose.

One could never tell with women.

Then one day she broke stride and moved towards ’his’ bench and sat next to him. And nodded gently. Out of courtesy, Raman reciprocated. He then started looking at his phone even more intently. Suddenly the woman looked away from her phone and spoke up.

‘Hello. Can I have a word with you? Do you have a minute?’

Raman was startled but nodded.

She introduced herself as Kangana. What she narrated next left him in state of shock. In short, clipped sentences she told Raman that she believed she was Raman’s wife, Ratna, in her previous life. She was reborn just two days after the death of Ratna. She could easily recall many things from her previous life. She knew his name and that of his daughter and son. She rattled off his landline number and even his cell number.

Raman sat muted for several seconds. His mind went into a spin. Finally he spoke up.

‘I think you are totally mistaken and in any case, I don’t believe in birth after life. Are you trying to con me? Please go away.‘

At the same time, he was desperately hoping that she would talk a little more.

But the woman persisted.

‘I know your office cabin was the last one on second floor and your boss always wore white outfits. I know a lot more.‘

Oh Lord! Help me here. What exactly was happening?

Much of her info could have come from Google but the clothing of the boss – way out of the way. That was 25 years ago. Sharma Ji always wore whites like our Bollywood Jeetu. Even shoes.

‘Remember that near drowning incident in Naini Lake.’

And her final revelation:

‘Sir, I know Saritha used to knit sweaters for the Barbies. But did a hash job. I want to meet Saritha again. We were attached. I miss her a lot.‘

With that Kananga got up abruptly and left. Raman sat stunned and in utter disbelief. Hey Bhagwan! His world had turned on its head. With no warning. No omen.

Raman knew that Ratna and Saritha had a close bond. But rebirth and reincarnation. It was sheer bunkum. Karmic cycle was just a convenient theory invented to keep the flock in check. Many paranormal cases had been reported over the years. But they all fizzled out. How about this one?

Raman continued to sit and stare at his phone mindlessly. His mind was in turmoil. Going over her words, again and again. He was feeling too scared to even go home. And face the children with this secret in his bosom. Should I share?

He decided to hold his silence. For the time being. He needed time to think this through. This utter rubbish.

He remained unusually quiet for the next few days. To keep up the pretence he continued with his exercise regimen.

He did not see Kananga again for almost a fortnight. He was beginning to feel relieved. He was convinced that the nightmare was already over. Normalcy was on its way. Perhaps it was all delusional. That meeting never happened. But he was also aware of Murphy’s Law ‘if anything that can go wrong, it will’.

Sure enough Kangana reappeared suddenly one evening. She again struck up a conversation. She suggested that Raman take her home to meet Saritha. She badly wanted to meet her good friend.

‘Take your time. No rush.’

Raman’s mind slipped into turmoil again. He even decided to switch to another park for his walk but that would have only added to his anxiety. And not resolve the dilemma. He joined a ten-day Vipassana course to calm his mind. In the end, he decided to put an end to the farce.

One evening he picked out Kananga from the walkers and informed her that he would take her home the next day. They agreed to meet at the West side parking at 6 pm. That made him feel a bit easier. The nightmare would finally be over. What Karma and what Rebirth. Just mumbo jumbo.

They drove over as planned. The bell jingled loudly inside the house. As they waited for the daughter to swing the door open they exchanged final glances of fear and anxiety.

Sure enough, Saritha came to the door, flung it open and as usual greeted her father with warmth.

And then she froze.

Kananga and Saritha looked at each other for stupefied 30 seconds.

And then both cried out ‘Rustom’ loudly. In unison.

Ran to each other and hugged.

And cried.

And the house exploded.

The smouldering embers continued to haunt the family forever.

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