These young fellows nowadays, I tell you—not an iota of respect for their betters! These whippersnappers are so horrid, so horribly rude: they’ll look past you on the road, they won’t take any notice of you at all. And if you aren’t careful, they might actually collide with you while you’re walking, as if old men don’t have the right to be on the roads at all! Sometimes they even blow puffs of cigarette smoke right into your face when passing by, giving you the royal ignore even if you scream at them. Ugh!
Even now, when I go out right after dawn for my morning walks every day, I have to be especially careful. I’m still nimble of foot and full of vim and vigour—as much as my age would allow—so it’s easy for me to step aside whenever I see any of those ruffians approaching. Yes, it’s exactly as I say, they’re ruffians, all of them. Good-for-nothing nincompoops, idlers, and layabouts. No manners whatsoever, no regard for the aged.
You’d think they’d show you a modicum of deference, at least. Give you the time of day when they meet you. But no! Uncouth brutes they are, all of them.
I remember when we were in school, how our teachers taught us to be polite, to say ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ whenever we met someone older to us, politely greeting our seniors and superiors. And youngsters nowadays? They’ll ignore you completely, look right through and past you, as though you didn’t exist at all. Humph!
And the dogs, I tell you. Not just the mongrels, the pets, too—each of them should be kept on a tight leash by their owners. The way they bark when an old gent is passing by—quite offensive, really. Haven’t been trained properly, these creatures. Just yesterday—(or was it last week? Mmm, I forget…)—one of those curs kept snapping right at my heels and yapping all the time. It might have had a pedigree, but to me, it was nothing but a cur. It’s a good thing that I wear these woollen socks and my thick-soled boots whenever I go out for a walk. Otherwise, it might well have bitten me to the bone.
Of course, it wasn’t like this always. I’ve been walking, without fail, for the past sixty years; ever since I started at the age of forty, I’ve made it a habit to walk an hour every morning around the park near my house on Rhododendron Avenue.
These morning walks, they make me feel so alive, so vibrant. The tang of the chilly winter air, the green freshness of the mowed grass, the smell of magnolia blossoms…all these make life worth living. But without my friends, without the other members of the Morning Walkers’ Club, there’s no-one to talk to. I’ve to admit it, I do feel a tad lonely sometimes. But I’ll be the only one to score a century—and that’s what keeps me going, me, the last man still standing.
Never have I missed a day. Well, okay, sometimes when I’ve been indisposed, or when I’ve been travelling, or when I’ve been on holiday. Such as during that nasty bout of flu three years ago—(or was it two? I forget now)—which lasted for weeks and weeks. I still have that cough from those days. The doctor said, ‘pneumonia’, ‘that I wouldn’t survive it’, but I showed them, eh? I’m still here—and I’m still going strong!
I’d promised myself that I would score a century; and, since I always keep my promises, I’ve fulfilled this one, too. Here I am, a hundred not out, hale and hearty and going strong. Of course, my eyesight isn’t what it was, particularly after I developed cataract. I can’t see much without my glasses. And I have a limp when I fell down and broke my hip eight years ago, when I turned ninety-two. My movements are somewhat slow, naturally, but otherwise I’m fit as a fiddle—no blood pressure, or diabetes, my heart’s ticking away nice and strong, my head is clear, my liver and kidney are in fine fettle.
I’m the last member of the Morning Walkers’ Club left. All the rest have gone—departed, expired, given up the ghost, shuffled off their mortal coils, or left for their heavenly abodes—as the newspaper obits say.
But then, the others were not as restless or energetic as me in their youths. Let me see—Narayan Bagh, Atin Purakayastha, Sourish Dandapat, Subrata Putatunda, Arijit Bhattacharyya—and what was the name of that young fellow again? That seventy-year-old upstart, oh yes, Ganesh Adhikary—I showed ’em all, didn’t I?
I told them I’d survive, survive the longest among all the members of our club, and I did, didn’t I? I, Samar Aikat, retired Colonel of the Artillery Division of the Indian Army, turned out to be the only centenarian, after all! I, Samar Aikat, who saw action in the wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965, and came away from them with nary a bullet wound.
In school, I’ll tell you, when I was all of fifteen years old, I was the only one to score a century in the cricket match that sent us to the final of the Jubilee Cup, a crucial century as it turned out, for we did lift the trophy that year. I was the Man of the Match and the only one from our club to score three hundreds—and a fifty, to boot—in that tournament. And among the members of our Morning Walkers’ Club, too, I was the only one to score a ton—I outlasted every one of them!
We called ourselves the Morning Walkers’ Club, and the main agenda was to see who would win the wager.
At one point I did get the jitters. I was afraid that Jagannath Som might survive, after all. He was a sprightly old fellow, he was, but an ischaemic stroke got him in the end, when he was ninety-eight. Just two years short, pity that.
Dandapat was the first to go, even though it was he who had first put up the bet with me that it would be he alone who would live to be a hundred. But—aha!—it’s only me, Samar Aikat, who is going to have a hundred candles on his birthday cake!
Well, okay, figuratively, since there’s no-one of our Morning Walkers’ Club left anymore…
To be sure, ours was not a club in the true sense of the word, actually it was more like a gathering of morning walkers of our locality at Calcutta’s Rhododendron Park. We old men would meet every morning at the park and go for long walks. We would chat, have a cup of tea or coffee, maybe a smoke or two, and then sit down on the park benches, and exchange notes. On the events of the day before. Brindaban Haldar’s gout, Hrishikesh Batabyal’s hernia, Surath Sarkar’s sniffles—but all these never did really interest me. Why talk about your ailments when there’s so much else to discuss? Our grandchildren, our childhoods, our professional careers, then politics, art, culture, sports—there was so much to discuss every day. But those old fogeys would keep on grumbling about their aches and pains, about hospital visits and stool tests and doctors’ fees.
Well, maybe a little about God and the afterlife as well. But what’s the use of talking about all these things, I ask you? When there was so much going on in the world.
But what to do, those chaps were always oohing and aahing, and since there was no one else to talk to, I had perforce to suffer their crummy company.
Basudeb Ghosh to a cardiac arrest at ninety-five. Haren Khastogir to a cerebral thrombosis at ninety-four. Though Pradip Patranobis could also have lived to die a centenarian if Alzheimer’s hadn’t got him in the end, at ninety-seven. (He fell down the stairs of his house). One by one, they all returned to the pavilion, but I’ve no regrets—I’ve played the longest innings by far.
I live all alone, true, but I am hardly ever lonely. I have my trusty old Murphy transistor radio—the one I brought in 1987—(or was it in 1986? could have been, I forget…), my old books and magazines, and, of course, my precious photo albums. I suppose that it is one symptom of my dotage (huh!) that I spend long hours poring over my old diaries and photo albums on the dusty shelves, ever since my wife died, twenty years ago. She left me when she was seventy-five, twenty years ago, that was really cruel of her. That was the only unkind thing she ever did to me, abandoning me in my old age. She would’ve been ninety-five if she’d been alive now. But I’ve become used to her absence. . .
Hah! You should’ve seen the delight on the faces of those two nephews of mine when she died, though God knows they tried their best to conceal it. They thought I would pop off now as well, and since we were childless, they’d be able to put their grubby hands on my bank balance and my house, this house in which I live, those two greedy brothers. But I’ve showed them, haven’t I? My wicket’s still intact—I’ve lived to be a hundred!
The last time they turned up was when I was down with the flu, hovering around like vultures, hoping to get the keys to my safe and my almirahs and my bank passbooks. I caught that young fellow—(what’s his name now, I forget…)—ah yes, Bhombol—mixing some pills in my cup of tea. One sip, and I knew They Were Up To No Good. I screamed bloody murder and both of them, Bhombol and his younger brother—(what’s his name now? ah yes, Khokon)—they fled in terror. That was the last day I saw the housekeeper as well. Drat that woman Kokila, God knows where she went off to!
I was ill for quite some time after that, in bed for several days. It took me quite some time to recover.
Oh, I went to the police station, of course. Never will I go again! Never did I feel so humiliated as I did that day! That scowling O-C of our police station simply looked at me and through me and past me, as though I were transparent, ignoring me totally. He didn’t even bother to rise and shake hands with me, what to speak of taking down my complaint and filing a general diary. I told him, I nearly shouted at him: ‘It’s my nephews, Bhombol and Khokon, and that housekeeper of mine Kokila, who’ve vamoosed with my life’s savings.’ And that officer-in-charge just sat and stared at me, his glassy eyes uncomprehending.
I went to Rhododendron Park after a few weeks, as I didn’t want to miss my daily constitutional. No-one noticed me at first. But oddly enough, an old gardener I knew who worked there, took one look at me and fled the spot, stuttering with fear. He looked as though he’d seen a ghost! I ask you!
That was the time I noticed how the other morning walkers at the park looked right through me and past me, as though I were made of glass. Such manners! I, too, ignored all of them, and walked away from them to a secluded corner of Rhododendron Park, where few people usually go, as it’s so dark and dank and dirty there. Just a few tramps, a few idlers and loafers there.
I don’t seem to know any of the people in the park nowadays. None of the usual crowd seems to go there. Not just the older morning walkers are missing, methinks a totally new set is now using the place. Well, I keep myself to myself, I don’t like to mix with them.
Now I’m living all alone, making my own toast and tea, eating tinned food day in and day out. No one comes to visit me except the wind, no one knocks on my door except the rain. This house is getting old, like me, its doors and windows and rafters are creaking, like my joints, but it’ll last several years more. So I’m not really worried. After that, of course, when I’m not here any longer, Bhombol and Khokon, those good-for-nothing scoundrels, they’ll be able to do whatever they want.
Now that I’ve scored my century, I can rest in peace. I’m not lonely! No, no, not all! Hardly anyone used to ever visit us at our home even when my wife was alive. So it doesn’t really make a difference now.
But I do mind the street urchins pelting stones at the windows late in the night, when I’m sometimes awake, playing the radio all by myself when I’m not feeling sleepy. I go around the house, looking at this and that, my photo albums and my vinyl records; my wooden cane knocking on the dusty floor, the echoes unnaturally loud in the silent nights; my memories rambling in the labyrinthine recesses of my brain, meandering through the serpentine alleys and lanes of the past.
All the windows have been shattered by the damned hooligans, as if there were no-one in this house. And those brats are so obnoxious, they go around yelling ‘Bhoot, bhoot’—‘Ghosts, ghosts’—as if this were a haunted house! I ask you!
After all, I’m still here, am I not?