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Rehan bought flowers and candles and went to the cemetery. He laid the flowers on the freshly built grave of Fida. He lit the candles and placed them around the small earthen hump. He lifted his cupped hands heavenwards and whispered a brief prayer. His face twisted with pain, he begged God and the dead boy for forgiveness. He found himself crying. His hands scooped the freshly-dug earth from the grave, he squeezed the earth in his fists, sobbing quietly. A man nearby who was sticking a smouldering joss stick into a mud grave approached him and placed a reassuring hand over his shoulder. He offered Rehan water from a bottle. “Was a close relation?” he asked, and Rehan nodded his head.
A week later, Sonu reported for duty. Whenever he came across Sonu, Rehan would see the boy flying through the pale misty air. So he avoided Sonu. Even if he saw his back, or heard his voice or saw his name in the attendance register, the accident scene would revive in his heart. Every day Rehan told himself that he should tell his janitor the truth about his son’s death but he could not find the courage.
But this phase did not extend beyond maybe five months. Gradually Rehan stopped thinking about the boy, and Sonu’s face did not trigger anything in his mind.
Fifteen years passed and it was Sonu’s last day at work. His colleagues gave him a farewell party. Everyone said kind words to the retiree. Sonu sat hunched in his chair nibbling at a biscuit as he listened to their short generous speeches. His malnourished body filled only half the space of the chair. Rehan contemplated the janitor’s dark, shrunken face, dim muddy eyes and balding head, his frayed clothes and distressed shoes. “At this age, Sonu’s sapped limbs can’t compete with the monster of life,” Rehan thought. “His son would be doing some job now, had my car not run into him. His son would be shouldering the household’s burden. How the width of centimeters can ruin people’s life! How a nanosecond’s duration can do damage beyond repair.”
One evening a year later, Sonu paid his old boss a visit. He was shown into the drawing room where Rehan sat in an overstuffed sofa. The factotum brought tea.
“What are you doing these days?” The host lit himself a Triple-Five cigaret at the gas heater that stood near his sofa.
“No job. With the retirement gratuity I bought a three-wheeled motor rickshaw. Two months into the business, and one morning my three-wheeler ploughed into the back of a mini truck. I received minor injuries. I sold the rickshaw at half price and with that money I opened a kiosk in the market and sold pakoras but they would not sell, maybe I could not fry them crispy enough. I brought the unsold pakoras to my house and we ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner till all my family had diarrhea.” He laughed a weak laugh, “Now I am out of work. Sir, do me a favour, keep me, please, as a servant at your house.”
“Well, I would love to but we are moving to Canada where my son is living.”
In fact, the date when this move would happen was uncertain, but Rehan remembered the accident and did not like the idea of having to see Sonu every day in the meantime. “Still, let me offer you some assistance,” he concluded, handing Sonu a 5,000-rupee note, just as he had done years ago.
As they were exchanging goodbyes at the gate, Rehan wanted to tell his guest the truth about his son’s death but words failed him. The cold moist streets lay deserted. The streetlights glowed wanly, struggling against the thick bank of fog that was advancing from the east. Sonu wandered off into the fog like a stray cat. Rehan kept gazing after him. Suddenly he saw the boy flying through the pale misty air.
Sonu had been swallowed by the fog. For some time, indecisive, Rehan stood rooted to the place. “We may not get another chance of meeting. I should tell him the truth,” he resolved, and he scurried after Sonu. He opened his mouth to call to him but words would not come out. He found himself bathed in cold sweat. He had no idea which street Sonu had taken. He could see only a few arm-lengths ahead through the fog. His voice returned. He called, “Sonu, Sonu, please stop.” But he did not meet a soul. Gasping, he pressed on till he was lost in the maze of the fog-filled streets. He had the feeling that he was walking over the edge of a cliff. He stopped. He heard a motor, it sounded like a truck. He couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, he didn’t know which way to move. It passed him from behind, closely, clattering in his ear, almost brushing his elbow, and then it was gone. It might easily have struck him. A few centimeters would have made all the difference.