Short Story – AGE NO BAR

The phone rings. Mr. Kapoor tosses in bed cursing his alarm to go off so early. Still in sleep he tries to snooze it, but the phone goes on ringing. It takes him half a minute to realize it’s not the alarm but an incoming call. Blurrily he looks at the time and the name flashing on the screen, “Chaudhary?” he mutters.
“Chaudhary, is everything alright? Are you okay?” asks Mr. Kapoor in panic fighting his sleep. An unexpected call at an odd hour can be very unnerving.
“Yeah I am fine, Kapoor. Everything’s okay” replies a composed Mr. Chaudhary.
“Then what on earth made you call at five in the morning? You scared the hell out of me” chides Mr. Kapoor still confused but relaxed.
“I have a plan for today for the three of us.”
“What plan?” interrupts Mr. Kapoor.
“Let me finish man” cuts in Mr. Chaudhary “Banerjee, you and I are meeting for breakfast at the Woodlands at 7.30 like old times and then we just take off for the day.”
“Huh? Take off where and what for?” questions a baffled Mr. Kapoor.
“There’s no plan, that’s the plan my friend! Now relax and sleep for a while but be there on time.” Mr. Chaudhary is about to hang up when he suddenly adds, “Kapoor, come on your Enfield. We’ll hit it on the bikes today.”
Mr. Chaudhary informs his other friend Mr. Banerjee likewise.
The three senior citizens gather around the same table under the tree in the open air restaurant. Of late Chennai was soaking itself in the unusual monsoon of July.  It was a fresh morning, moist and cool with last night’s thunder showers.
Buddha ho gaya, but the old chap won’t let go of his style?” teased Mr. Chaudhary.
“Kapoor, what are these dark glasses for on a damp morning?” Mr. Banerjee guffawed.
“You guys have barely reached sixty five and turned senile. You think the entire day is going to be cool and cloudy?” Mr. Kapoor takes off his sun glasses and quietens his bantering friends.
They settle for a hearty breakfast of steaming hot idlis, ghee drizzled pongal and vadas simmered in tangy rasam. The table, the menu and the time, was all a tradition since their college days.
As they savoured their filter coffees, Mr. Banerjee commented, “Now what boys?”
Mr. Chaudhary checked his watch, “Let’s hit the Marina. It’s been so long since strolling on the beach”
The others agreed and they strode to their bikes.
“Banerjee whose pillion you wish to be, mine or Chaudhary’s?”
“Anyone is fine yaar” he replied nonchalantly then added, “Okay I’ll go with you Kapoor.”
Mr. Chaudhary on his Yamaha and Mr. Kapoor and Mr. Banerjee on the Royal Enfield zipped through to the Marina Beach. Having parked their bikes, they just stood on the promenade gazing at the grey sky, breathing in the sweet smell of the dewy sand and the cool sea breeze. Mr. Chaudhary outstretched his arms as if lifting his soul into the folds of the horizon.
Mr. Banerjee broke the quiet reverie, “Hey Chaudhary, how come this sudden plan of us meeting like this?”
Mr. Kapoor interjected, “Arre Chaudhary gets filmy sometimes. He must have thought Kal ho na ho so we might as well enjoy the idlis and pongal today itself.”
Mr. Chaudhary slapped his friend’s back, “Kapoor is right. What if we are not there tomorrow or worse, Woodlands shuts down?” They all laughed aloud. “Jokes apart guys, when was the last time we went out on impulse or simply loosened ourselves? We may not be young anymore but that shouldn’t restrain us from enjoying life.”
They absorbed the thought. “What you say is so true Chaudhary.” Mr. Kapoor held his friend over the shoulder.
We tick off a lot of years in life. And after crossing a certain number we call ourselves old. But old doesn’t imply being lonely, cranky or confined. Old is simply the opposite of new and young. It is not the opposite of fun and excitement. A sun has seen a billion years pass by but its age doesn’t stop it from rising bright each day, so goes for a man. 
The three friends were looking in the distance taking in the delights of the beach when Mr. Kapoor beamed “Let’s have some fun” glancing at his friends “and we are going to drag Banerjee in the water like old times.”
The three friends hurried towards the water in a new wave of enthusiasm.  After soaking their feet and enjoying the spray of waves, they reminisced their carefree college days and all that followed – marriage, kids, responsibilities and the present day. 
Mr. Banerjee was a cricket fan and played for various clubs and tournaments during his college days. He spotted a bunch of boys playing at the far end of the beach and exulted, “Come on folks. Enough of chit chat, let’s get into real action.”
“Banerjee don’t tell me you still wish to lose to me in a bout of boxing” teased Mr. Kapoor.
“Forget your boxing voxing, let’s join those lads for some cricket, man” he pointed to the group.
“Banerjee are you nuts? We haven’t touched the bat for years and now you want to make fools of us in front of those young boys. Not a good idea” dismissed Mr. Kapoor.
“It’s not such a bad idea after all Kapoor” cajoled Mr. Chaudhary, “we don’t know them, they don’t know us. So who cares how we play. We’ll play some balls and leave. Now don’t be a spoilsport.”
“As if you guys ever listened to me” complained Mr. Kapoor and walked reluctantly with his friends.
Mr. Banerjee took the lead and approached one of the boys, “Hi there.”
“Hello” replied the boy politely.
“You guys play here every Sunday?” asked Mr. Banerjee.
“Yup uncle” replied the boy.
“Do you mind if we oldies join your game for a while” he asked the boy pointing towards Mr. Kapoor and Mr. Chaudhary.
“Sure uncle. It will be fun” he replied at once looking excited.
“But we won’t be playing the entire match” warned Mr. Kapoor “That’s alright with you?”
“Yeah, no problem uncle. You play as long as you wish to” consoled the boy chuckling.
Mr. Banerjee was in his element. Despite playing after a long hiatus he smashed the ball one after the other. The boys cheered him loud, it was a charged atmosphere and the sheer joy of playing was evident all over his face.
But Mr. Kapoor was truly the surprise element. It was finally his ball which took Mr. Banerjee’s long sought wicket. Mr. Kapoor was so thrilled at his feat that he broke into an impromptu Gangnam style dance and the boys went crazy seeing his antics. There was jeering and cheering.
The three friends exuded a new sense of free spirit. Eventually the cricket frenzy subsided and they thanked the boys, promising to return the next week.  Sitting on the promenade, they recouped with the tender coconut water and broke into bouts of laughter for no apparent reason.
“Banerjee your bald head really shines man. It’s a sign of a heavy bank balance” Mr. Chaudhary joked.
“Nothing like that. I was a simpleton back then and am the same now” spoke Mr. Banerjee.
“Sincere and studious that’s how I really remember Banerjee in the college. I was the frivolous one” remarked Mr. Kapoor.
“You still are Kapoor” added Mr. Chaudhary laughing.
“That’s about me but what about you Chaudhary? Remember how the poor guy’s heart tugged every time Sandhya crossed him.” Mr. Kapoor badgered his friend raising eyebrows waiting for Mr. Chaudhary to react.
“You still remember her name, Kapoor?” asked Mr. Chaudhary in surprise.
“I remember everything” Mr. Kapoor peered towards Mr. Banerjee and they smirked seeing Mr. Chaudhary flush.
“Okay, okay that was long time ago” Mr. Chaudhary tried steering the conversation. “Tell me what we do now.”
Mr. Banerjee checked the time and suggested, “Let’s go for a ride on the East Coast Road. It’s fine weather.”
They all agreed, got onto their bikes and drove down to the ECR. ECR is one of the most scenic drives through Chennai. Past all the debris and unorganized construction in the outskirts, characteristic of every Indian city, you will find yourself on a beautiful serene drive lined with vast stretches of palm groves and lapping back waters.
Add to it a cloudy sky and nippy breeze with three friends hanging out. It doesn’t get better.  As the senior citizens accelerated on the clear highway, the clouds also packed denser. The noon sky now resembled dusk and slowly trickles of rain felt cold on their faces.
“Wow Chaudhary, this is so much fun man” exclaimed Mr. Kapoor thoroughly enjoying himself licking the rain water off his lips, “I hate to admit it but you are actually the smartest of us. Great plan.”
“Thanks buddy but I knew it all along that I am the smartest” Mr. Chaudhary replied grinning cockily.
“Yeah Chaudhary, we should do such things more often” yelled Mr. Banerjee from behind Mr. Kapoor.
Just then Mr. Kapoor spotted a fritter stall at a short distance, “Boys we can do with some hot tea and bajji in this weather.”
The two bikes followed in the direction. There was a speed breaker just before the stall and the stall itself was on the side dirt road. Mr. Chaudhary, normally a safe and attentive rider, didn’t notice the bump and the bike jerked hard. Just as he realized it, he tried steering the bike into the dirt track. The rains had made the roads slippery and the dirt track was slushy. He couldn’t maintain the balance and the bike skidded.
“Chaudhary!” shouted Mr. Banerjee in disbelief. He was the first to notice him fall and rushed to his friend.
Mr. Chaudhary luckily fell on the dirt track but was pressed down with the weight of the bike on his chest. However, the helmet ensured that there were no head injuries.
Mr. Kapoor was flabbergasted at the sudden turn of events and hurried towards them. He and Mr. Banerjee lifted the bike off Mr. Chaudhary’s chest, making him sit upright. He gnarled in pain.  His limbs were badly bruised but there were no serious cuts. They lifted him off the ground with some locals’ help, supporting him on their shoulders.
But as he tried taking a step, he was not able to move his left foot. There was shooting pain and inflammation. They dragged him cautiously to the wooden bench and made him sit.
Mr. Kapoor inquired about the closest hospital or clinic around from the locals while Mr. Banerjee looked out for an auto rickshaw to take them to the hospital.
Chennai has several medical and engineering colleges on the ECR highway and fortunately for them the Shriram Medical College and Hospital was only a kilometre away. They quickly found an auto rickshaw, carried Mr. Chaudhary and rushed to the hospital.
Mr. Chaudhary was immediately admitted to the ward after all the formalities. A resident doctor attended to his injuries and bruises while they waited for the attending doctor to come. An X-ray of his left foot and chest were done.
As they waited for the doctor, Mr. Kapoor made small talk to lighten the atmosphere, “Chaudhary in whose thoughts were you lost man, to miss that huge bump?”
“None yaar. It’s just that I wanted to give you a chance to do my seva” winked Mr. Chaudhary, with the pain easing a bit.
Mr. Kapoor retorted, “Really? Okay so while in service of you I missed my roadside tea, you better make up for it in some five star lounge.”
The three oldies had a hearty laugh.
The attending doctor entered just then, knocking the door lightly. She was reading through the resident doctor’s report in her hand and glanced up adjusting her glasses, “Mr Chaudhary?”
“Yes doctor.” And as the doctor and the patient looked at each other they sensed an old familiarity.  They looked for a long moment but neither was able to place each other in memory.
As the doctor was examining his foot, he noticed the name badge on the doctor’s lab coat, “Dr. Sandhya Kamath!” he read aloud.
And it triggered his memory, “Dr. Sandhya from Hinduja College?” he asked in astonishment.
The mention of their college name made Dr. Sandhya recall the past. She was skeptical but hesitantly confirmed, “So Mr. Chaudhary, you are Brijesh Chaudhary from Hinduja, Engineering Dept.?”
“Yup” smiled Mr. Chaudhary broadly. They looked at each other in amazement. They were seeing each other after nearly forty years.  They had been in touch for a few years after college but lost contact eventually.
To break the element of awe Mr. Kapoor chirped in, “And I am Gautam Kapoor, remember?”
Dr. Sandhya turned to him, “Of course I remember, the stud Gautam Kapoor”
Mr. Kapoor flushed and Dr. Sandhya smiled.
“And you are Sunil Banerjee, right?” she asked expectantly.
“So you remember the entire gang” smiled Mr. Banerjee.
“Well yes.” she replied “but how come this accident?” she enquired.
Mr. Banerjee narrated the events to her.
“Hmm. Got to be more careful, Brijesh” she spoke kindly and turned to Mr. Chaudhary continuing her examination.
“Well Brijesh, nothing to worry” she consoled “I have checked your X-rays. Thankfully the ribs are all okay but there might be some inflammation due to the pressure of the bike on your chest. However, there is a minor crack in your left foot” she diagnosed.
“Don’t tell me you are going to plaster it for months?” asked a concerned Mr. Chaudhary.
“Nah, we’ll just bandage it with a crepe bandage provided you agree to take proper care with no unnecessary movements.” She faked sternness but allayed his fear.
“As you say, Doc” promised Mr. Chaudhary.
“Alright, then I’ll instruct the resident doctor and will see you around later after my rounds.” And she left.
By the time the doctor finished bandaging Mr. Chaudhary’s foot it was past four o’clock. They hadn’t eaten anything for lunch. Mr. Chaudhary insisted that Mr. Kapoor and Mr. Banerjee have some snacks in the canteen while he just wanted to have a cup of coffee.
Dr. Sandhya returned just then to check on him. “So how do you feel now?” she asked in her pleasant voice.
“Quite better after those tablets” replied Mr. Chaudhary smiling and straightening up on the bed. “So when did you come back to Chennai? I had no idea you were practising here.”
“Actually my daughter is settled here. So after Sanjay passed away she insisted that I come and stay with her” replied Sandhya in a matter-of-factly tone.
“Oh I am really sorry Sandhya. I didn’t know about Sanjay” Mr. Chaudhary felt strangely sad.
“That’s okay. It was five years back in a cardiac arrest” she informed looking downcast but immediately regained her composure, “How about you? How have you and your family been?”
“Well my son is working in Singapore. Doing well there” he smiled vaguely “and my wife Preeti, I lost her two years back. She was suffering from cancer.”
Sandhya listened sadly, “I too am sorry.”
“That’s life” Mr. Chaudhary sighed but tried to lighten up, “So here I am all by myself.”
Dr. Sandhya managed to smile. She could empathize with Mr. Chaudhary completely.
In the dusk of life, the need for a partner or rather a companion becomes manifold. Your nest is empty because your off springs have their own lives to lead. Life has its own strange ways. When you depend on your partner’s emotional and physical presence the most, he or she is gone. You don’t stop living or laughing without them but a quiet bareness surrounds you.  
Soon after, Mr. Kapoor and Mr. Banerjee returned. “So old friends catching up?” Mr. Kapoor asked blithely.
Dr. Sandhya simply nodded.
“So Sandhya, can we take him home?” enquired Mr. Banerjee.
“Yes of course. He has to continue with the medicines and avoid putting pressure on his left foot. In a couple of days the inflammation and pain will subside considerably” assured Dr. Sandhya.
“Then I’ll call for the taxi” interrupted Mr. Kapoor.
“Okay fellows I’ll take your leave now. Have an operation lined up” Dr. Sandhya got ready to leave, “it was so wonderful and unexpected to meet all of you again” she beamed gleefully “and this is my number Brijesh, if there’s any problem please feel free to call anytime” she waved from the door “and we must keep in touch now.”
Mr. Chaudhary thanked her and they all chorused “Bye.”
In the taxi, Mr. Chaudhary told his friends about his conversation with Dr. Sandhya.
A week had passed since that Sunday. Mr. Kapoor and Mr. Banerjee had been checking on Mr. Chaudhary regularly. In fact Dr. Sandhya also called twice to assess his recovery.
It was a Sunday again and the three friends were sitting at Mr. Chaudhary’s residence recollecting last week’s events from the fun to the fall and then meeting Dr. Sandhya out of the blue. The mention of Dr. Sandhya lead their conversation to their college days and Mr. Kapoor teased Mr. Chaudhary about his feelings for her back then. But apparently they shared a great rapport as friends.
After a while the laughter quietened down and they were musing about life when Mr. Kapoor suddenly spoke up, “Chaudhary, why don’t you go out with Sandhya?”
“Kapoor, what are you talking about? I don’t make any sense out of it” rebuked Mr. Chaudhary.
“Listen calmly, Chaudhary” placated Mr. Kapoor “you both shared a great understanding then. You enjoyed each other’s company. Today both of you are alone. So why can’t you be each other’s friends again?”
“Are you really out of your mind, Kapoor?” reproached Mr. Chaudhary in irritation, “Talk some sense into him, Banerjee.” And turned to his other friend for support.
“What Kapoor says is not wrong.” Mr. Banerjee spoke gently pressing his friend’s shoulder.
“Banerjee have you also lost it? I thought you would be more sensible” spoke Mr. Chaudhary visibly agitated.
“Chaudhary, relax man” rebuffed Mr. Kapoor. “We are not suggesting that you to take her on a date or start some superficial relationship. We are simply telling you that at this juncture in life you can be each other’s friend and companion. Sharing your thoughts, your interests and your emotions.”
Mr. Chaudhary listened carefully without speaking.
“Chaudhary, we are grownups here, rather oldies. What we are talking here is a sensitive, respectful bonding between two individuals. Opening yourself to her as a friend might let you complete each other’s emptiness that comes with the loss of a partner.” Mr Banerjee assuaged his friend’s agitation patiently and kindly.
Mr. Chaudhary was pensive and silent. He could see his friends’ perspective now but was not quite sure.
“Think about it Chaudhary. You don’t have to work for it. Just let the flow of your friendship grow naturally buddy” Mr. Kapoor patted his friend on the shoulder and left.
His friends’ words kept whirring in Mr. Chaudhary’s mind long after they left. He retired to bed but Mr. Banerjee’s words kept him up.
It had been fifteen days since the accident. Mr. Chaudhary’s wounds had healed well and the bandage had come off as well. He had been thinking about his friends’ last conversation a lot.
Finally he picked up his phone, “Hello”
The other end replied “Hello”
“Hi Sandhya, it’s me Brijesh” spoke Mr. Chaudhary nervously.
“Oh yes Brijesh, how have you been?” replied Dr. Sandhya pleasantly adding, “Hope all is well. Do you still feel any pain?”
“Oh! no. I am fit as a fiddle now. Thanks to you” replied Mr. Chaudhary easing up.
“That’s good news” she smiled at the other end.
“Sandhya I was wondering if you are free tomorrow night, would you like to join me for dinner?” asked Mr. Chaudhary in great apprehension.
Dr. Sandhya could sense his hesitation but she was placid, “Tomorrow is Saturday” she muttered to herself then continued “Yeah Brijesh, tomorrow suits me fine. I’ll be winding up early anyway.”
Mr. Chaudhary relaxed at her response, “So I’ll pick you up at 8?”
“Sounds perfect” replied Dr. Sandhya radiantly. “So see you tomorrow”
The dinner was a beginning of a new friendship between Dr. Sandhya and Mr. Chaudhary where they revisited old memories and made plans for new. The companionship of watching theatre together, attending musical performances or simply watching the change of tides was their joy… and the Sunday impetuous plans of the three friends was undoubtedly a fresh way to live a tired age.
There is truly a sunny time for every age.  An individual’s celebration of life is not bound by his age; it is bound by the society’s perception of his age. When we choose and dare to look beyond those perceptions there is still sun and water on our side.