“I want peace too,” said the old man as some kids shouted “peace, peace” outside his window. It was World Peace Day but he was not sure if these were peace activists or just neighbourhood kids who wanted to tease him.
The old man put some cotton in his ears and went back to bed. But before he could sleep, he heard a knock.
“Who is there?” he asked.
“The milkman,” said a voice. “You have not paid your dues since last month. Pay now or you get no milk.”
“Go away,” shouted the old man. “Today is World Peace Day.”
“OK, no milk on World Peace Day,” said the milkman and walked away.
The newspaper hawker came next. “Newspapers? I want no newspaper on World Peace Day,” said the old man. “Go home.”
Another knock and it was a waiter from the nearby roadside restaurant. The old man opened the door. The waiter put a tray on his table and said: “This is the last tray I bring for you. The owner says no more free food. Clear your bills first.”
“Get out,” shouted the old man.
“OK, OK,” said the waiter. “Who wants to come here, anyway. You never tip me and shout at me too.”
The old man went back to his bed. On one side, he had pictures of his two sons, both settled in America. The last time they visited home was six years ago. They do send $150 each every month. But they are not regular. Sometimes two or three months in a stretch go without any money transfer to his account. The old man is forced to live on whatever he saved from previous months.
It’s not that they do not want to send him money. They do but they cannot always afford to. Both his sons were doing odd jobs in Chicago, one at a grocery store and the other at a gas station. They were struggling but he did not want them to return home.
As long as they were in America, there was hope. Back home, they would be jobless or at the best become clerks like their father.
The old man could have lived comfortably, even on his pension, if he had stayed where he was. But his sons, who grew up in that working class neighbourhood, moved him to a ‘better area.’ “What will our friends and relatives say? Both your sons live in America and you are still living in a poor neighbourhood,” they argued.
So they forced him to rent this one-bed apartment in a middle class neighbourhood, promising to bear all the expenses. But the money they sent was hardly enough for the rent. He had to pay the bills – electric, water, gas – and also for his food and clothes from his pension. So he was often broke.
It was hot and stuffy. The old man looked at the fan. There was no electricity. He had not seen an air-conditioner since his retirement eight years ago. His meagre pension did not allow him such luxuries.
“Luxury?” he said to himself, “fan is a luxury too.”
So is electricity in a country where rolling blackouts are a norm. These days they live without electricity for 8 hours a day and it is an improvement. It used to be 12 hours.
The noise outside was fading. The kids who were chanting slogans had moved away.
But as the day progressed, the heat increased. The sun invaded his privacy from all the slits and crevices in the room – and there were plenty. He was too old to repair anything and had no money for the handyman.
“Ooooooooooo,” he shouted and covered his eyes with an old handkerchief his wife made for him before she died, a year after his retirement. His sons could not come to their mother’s funeral because they had not yet received their green cards.
They came a year after her death, stayed for a month and spent most of their time at her grave. It was during this visit that they moved him to this apartment, which was new but could not prevent the cruel sun from invading his privacy.
“No, no sun on World Peace Day, please,” he said. But the sun ignored him and the heat increased. The first few drops of perspiration appeared on his forehead. Then some entered his eyes from the eyebrows. Few fell on his lips. He could taste his body salt.
He got up, went to the sink – this being a middle class apartment, he had a sink in the living room too.
The old man washed his face. Brushed his teeth. Poured a glass of water from the pitcher. It was not cold but quenched his thirst.
“If only we had electricity,” said he, looking at the silent refrigerator. “But this is good too.”
He headed to the stoves. “Although it is hot, a nice cup of team will be fine,” he said to himself. He reached out to a shelf above the stoves. There was tea but the sugar and dry-milk pots were empty.
He turned on the stove. Luckily, it worked. He looked at his watch, the gas shutdown starts in an hour.
The old man boiled water, threw some tea leaves in it. Placed his half-broken chair near a rickety table. Put the tea-mug near the tray the waiter had brought. And looked at the tray: two pieces of naan bread and a plate of lentils. This was his brunch.
He sighed, put a piece of naan in his mouth and tried to swallow it with the help of the tea. It burned his tongue.
“Ooooo,” he shouted again.
He then tasted the lentil and was about to start his brunch when a fly appeared, buzzed over his head and settled on his shoulder. He brushed it away. It came back.
The old man dipped the bread in the lentil and tried to put it in his mouth when another fly appeared and both jumped on the food he was about to put in his mouth.
He threw away the bread piece, felt his tongue to make sure he had not swallowed flies.
He took another piece. Dipping it in the lentil, tried to eat it but saw something crawling in the plate. Ants!
He looked down and noticed an army of ants from his table to a hole in the nearby wall. They smelled the food and had come for their share.
He quickly picked the bread and the plate of lentils from the table. Took a large clay pot. Poured some water in it, put his food in a smaller pot and put it inside the water. Half of the pot sank in the water.
“Now the ants cannot reach it,” he said to himself.” I will eat it later.”
The old man pulled the chair close to the window, opened the window, holding the tea in one hand. “Good. No milk or sugar. I can drink it in peace. This tea is no good for flies or ants.”
But before he could take another sip, a stone came flying in and broke the mug. He almost fell from the open window. A kid was standing in the street below, holding stones.
“Sorry sir, I was trying to get those mangoes,” the kid pointed at a nearby mango-tree.
“Mango, you …,” he cursed the kid, and withdrew into his room, cursing himself. He tried to get back to his bed but slipped and banged his head against the table.
He remained motionless on the ground for 10-15 minutes, thinking he had fainted. He had not.
So he put both his hands on the floor and pulled himself up. That’s when he heard the shouts again: “Peace for all, long live World Peace Day.”
“World Peace Day, do they have this World Peace Day in America too,” he said to himself and burst into tears.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.