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My first job had taken off – but before it could touch cruising altitude, it dived and crash landed. It was a small, vibrant team and most found their way out without any problems. I stuck on – mainly because I had no clue about 'what next'. In such ‘no clue’ moments (of which there are many) – my policy has always been ‘no movement is movement’. Yeah, I’m the greatest worshiper of inertia. So far, I’m alive...so that’s good. It was weird, a bit depressing even – the silence that had befallen the once boisterous workplace. I think only a few of us remained; perhaps 3-4 of us; we moped around quietly in our corners.
I think Mr Xavier was hired around that time, mostly in an administrative role. He was an elderly gentleman (maybe in his late fifties) with a quiet, unassuming demeanor – a small man with hair neatly slicked backwards, wore specs with a largish frame. I almost always remember him in one of those sleeveless sweaters – maybe the a/c in the office troubled him. On most days we’d exchange a polite hello and make small talk about Bangalore. I think he stayed somewhere near Frazer town...so we’d talk about BTS bus service and stuff like that. He had a deep bass voice – clearly meant for a choir – it rolled about the quiet office whenever we spoke.
It so happened that one afternoon, as I sat intently programming a query, the power went out. It usually took a couple of minutes for the backup to kick-in, and it was only then that I realised I was alone in the office. Well, I mean Mr.Xavier was out there in the reception area – but my other colleagues had left. I figured I’d leave too – but it was pelting rain outside – and that meant the buses wouldn't stop. The backup came on, and I decided to finish my SQL. I heard Mr.Xavier sniffling – poor man, the weather and the a/c must’ve aggravated his sinus, I thought. I brewed a cup of tea for him, got myself a coffee and went to the reception.
Mr. Xavier quickly wiped his eyes and without looking at me, he said a thank you. I figured he was running a temperature and asked him to leave for home. Of course he was in no shape to take a bus. Maybe I should dash outside and engage an auto for him. Or at least go to the medical store round the corner and get him some Crocin. Mr.Xavier shook his head...as if shaking heads would stop me from doing what I wanted to do. ‘No, I am fine. Sit, have your coffee,’ he said. His voice shook. It was only when he spoke that it hit me – Mr.Xavier had been crying.
I fidgeted. Should I leave him alone? Seeing anyone cry makes me uncomfortable...but seeing an elderly man cry is absolutely unnerving. For how long had he been crying? Sit, he said again.
I sat on the sofa facing his reception desk, fidgeting some more. I eventually asked him if there was anything I could do to help him. He shook his head a couple of times. ‘I lost my son.’
At first it did not sink in – the ‘lost’ part. And when it dawned, it turned my insides. I did not want to listen to Mr Xavier. I did not want to see his face twisted in so much pain. I did not want to see his dripping, bewildered eyes. I did not want to hear the tremble and quake in his usually comforting voice. No, no. I was 25. All this happened on another planet. In my world there was only music and stories and turbulent romance.
But Mr Xavier continued. It had happened a couple of years ago. Mr.Xavier’s son – my age, or slightly younger – had met with an accident while returning home one night. His friends had shifted him to a hospital – but he could not pull through. Mr Xavier’s boy never came home. He was a brilliant boy, Mr Xavier told me. Very intelligent, was training under a CA if I remember correctly. He was obviously the pride of the family.
Mr Xavier spoke and spoke. He relived the night he got the call over and over again. He spoke of all the ‘what if’ scenarios. He spoke of sitting in the police station. He spoke of one inspector who treated the bereaved family with much kindness. He spoke of his wife, his younger daughter (and probably another younger son). He said he was sorry to have unburdened on me. ‘You are still a child,’ he said shaking his head. I wanted to tell him to talk as much as he could – but I did not find my voice or words. As a father, he had to hold it together at home. Yes, he’d lost his son – but he still was a father – he still had his two other children. His wife had almost collapsed – it was only now that a dull sense of normalcy was returning. The daughter was in her second year pre-university. Life had to go on. Mr Xavier had come out of retirement to become the breadwinner again. Even so – how difficult it is for a man to grieve. Society and culture puts so much burden on men – as if they have lesser tear glands and steel hearts that can’t be squeezed when faced with such terrible situations.
When we left for the day – the mela at the bus stop did not bother me. It usually was the case on rainy days. The footboard travel did not bother me either. These problems all looked too trivial. I’d grown up a lot more in those few hours.
After that day, Mr Xavier and I had our tea together almost every afternoon. Some days he’d talk a lot about his son. But most days he’d talk about his daughter or something else. I remember once we had a detailed discussion on rasam. He insisted that without a pinch of garlic, it is no rasam. I swore by hing and mustard seasoning. By the end of the unresolved debate, at least I was very hungry. When Titanic was released, he told me his daughter has gone bonkers over Dicaprio. He said day and night, night and day he heard only ‘my heart will go on’ and that it was quite a relief to sit in office. I laughed. He asked me if I’d watched the movie. I said no and kind of changed the topic. There was no way I’d tell Mr Xavier that a friend and I decided there was no point in watching a ship sink, so we watched The Full Monty instead.
One restless day, there wasn't much work to do and I prowled about the empty office like a man-eater. Mr Xavier must’ve got bugged with the stomping and asked me to work on some physics problems for his daughter. I think I made the office boy buy a notebook and in no time, it was filled with motion physics equations. Mr Xavier laughed. He said I could make more money selling exam notes. Maybe you should write a book, he said. So we chatted about books and music and instruments.
So what if you can’t sing? You must learn at least one instrument, he said. You won’t understand now, but if you can make music, you will always have a balance in life, he said. Any new idea excites me (even now) to ridiculous levels. After a detailed discussion, (so intense that it seemed the world would end if I did not have SOME instrument in my possession by that evening) – we settled for the guitar. Mr Xavier laughed so much when I suggested saxophone. He chose the guitar over the piano – because guitars were more accessible and portable. So will you come with me to buy the guitar? We can go right now, I urged. Leave it to me, he said. Guitars can’t be bought like tomatoes.
Ten days later, as I sat in front of his desk for the usual afternoon coffee, Mr Xavier, the smooth operator, brought out a guitar that he had hidden behind the table. Oh what a delightful, hysterical surprise it was! He’d asked someone in the Bangalore School of Music to get it made. For once, I was absolutely speechless. They’d packed the guitar in a neat cloth case with a pocket to hold a couple of plucks and a tuner. The guitar is tuned, Mr Xavier told me, with the widest smile I’d ever seen on his face.. He’d even brought one of those slim books with large representation of the chords. First you learn to read the music. Then you practice the chords. Now, it is up to you, he said, still smiling. That evening, the bus ride was something. Someone even offered me a seat – and that was unheard of.
I bought some books, and did practice...in secret...since my previous disastrous engagement with vocal music is legendary in the family. I’d return from work and sit on the terrace, read the chords by street light and go plink plonk.
Eventually my firm closed down. I got a job that took me to another end of Bangalore. Soon work expanded to fill every waking hour. I kept in touch with Mr Xavier sporadically – greeting him on Christmas mainly. Travel finally cut me off – from Mr Xavier and the guitar. I did take up the guitar years later. The new teacher said Mr Xavier’s guitar was perfect...just needed to be restrung. But the personal bereavement in my life meant I would not touch the guitar for a long, long time.
It’s been over fifteen years since I met Mr Xavier. I bet his daughter has found her Dicaprio and Mr Xavier is a proud grandpa. We often view courage as something heroic – involving saving lives or taking lives depending on which side you are. But this ...what Mr Xavier showed...is courage. Grief is the worst acid – it can corrode your soul and just suck you in. Losing a child is unfathomable. Yet, even that darkness – to bring a smile on someone’s face – that’s courage for you.
I’ve got to finish this business. I’ve got to make music. As a good friend tells me, I owe it to Mr Xavier. And Mr Xavier if you are reading this – Thank You.
©Sumana Khan - 2014