His face stood out in the crowd. Even on a hot day it radiated peace. Silently he stared at the long queue of patients waiting for their turn to meet the doctors, in that huge hospital. Life indeed had taken him places. From a small village in Kerala to a wealthy financial professional in the states, he had been through a tough journey. His face maintained a serene look, when the nurse came back to him.
“He’ll be at the Perinthalmanna hospice,” she said, “we discharged him long ago. Here’s the address.” She handed him a piece of paper. He thanked her and walked out of the hospital. It seemed like his journey was taking him to the place where he wanted it to go. He got back into the taxi, and asked the driver to drop him at the bus stop.
“It has been ages since I travelled on a bus,” he thought to himself as he walked to the enquiry counter. “When is the next bus to Perinthalmanna?” he asked politely to the clerk on the counter. “12:42” replied the clerk, without even lifting his eyes scouring the newspaper. The noon sun was getting intense and the people huddled below the shade wherever they could find it. It was only a 10-minute wait for the bus to Perinthalmanna.
As he got into the bus, he observed that the bus had aged, the rust was showing and so was the dust and dirt accumulated over the years. As it had been during his college days, he sat at the window seat, where he could catch the breeze as the bus sped along the road. It was very hot but the breeze coming through the windows was cool, and soon he was asleep, oblivious of the valiant efforts of the bus tackling the potholes on the road.
Niket was the quietest kid in his class. Although not exceptionally good at studies, he always managed to get a good marksheet at the end of the year. Everyday during the lunch break, he used to have food with his friend Manikandan before running off to the playground for a football match. The school had two big football grounds, though it would mostly be occupied by cricket players.
Niket and Manikandan always played with the small kids, where they both joined opposing teams and enjoyed the match on a silent corner of the ground, till the school bell called for the afternoon lessons. The scores never mattered. The piled-up chappals served as the goalpost and a small rubber ball served as their football. Barefeet on the warm ground, they played with abandon, hating the school bell for sounding the end of the recess period.
It was one of those days that Simon, the school bully, began to interfere in their matches. He usually was accompanied by some of his other bully-friends who would start kicking away their temporary chappal football-posts. Eventually, Niket and Manikandan got irritated and decided to give up playing with the kids altogether. But Simon didn’t want to give up. He followed them everywhere.
One day Niket decided to stand up to Simon. “He might be a bully, but he had no right to pester me.” He told Manikandan defiantly, “and I am going to play with the kids from tomorrow again, if you want you come… there is no point in getting scared.” He didn’t give him a choice, as Mani did not have any other friends. He decided to stick with Niket.
The kids were happy to see both of them back during the afternoon session. The chappal-goal-posts were up again and the match began. Soon enough, the goalposts were disarrayed, the ball being kicked around by Simon and his bully-friends who had turned up from nowhere.
Nevertheless Niket decided to confront him. “Why are you interfering, we are not disturbing you, why don’t you let us play in peace?” His face turning red with the effort. Before Niket could finish with reasoning with him, he felt a painful blow on his face. He could not avoid it, though he raised his arm to block the next blow, and the more that followed.
“Saar, Perinthalmanna hospice is next stop,” the conductor gently roused him from his sleep. The bus was already crowded, and he started making his way to the door. The bus stop was just opposite the hospice. His feet were firm as he walked into the hospice office. His long search might soon be over. The caretaker looked up from his desk with an inquiring face. “Yes, he’s at bed no.13… very terminal stage of cancer…nothing can be done now, even the painkillers don’t have any effect. He’s just waiting for death.”
“You can see him if you want to,” the caretaker added.
He saw the emaciated bald figure lying on the bed. The figure was groaning in pain. He moved closer and looked into the eyes of the figure lying there and could see nothing but pain in them.
He briskly walked out of the hospice. He had a smile on his lips, and his eyes – triumphant.