It was a clear October evening, but the sky was already turning dark. Every now and then flocks of little birds were hastening home, like children rushing home from school. 11 year old Nandan, watching them from his window, felt a certain kinship with them. But he wondered what they did once they got back to their homes. Perhaps some of the little birds got bored sitting around in their little nests too?
It was quiet around this time of the day – his parents were still to come home from work. They all had recently moved to the new block of flats in the outskirts of the city. He didn’t really have any friends there. It was just him and his grandma in the evenings after school.
Not that he didn’t like Nani…she was the one who waited for him at the gate to make sure he got off the bus all right. Then after going home she made sandwiches and chocolate milk for him, just the way he liked it. And she never minded however fast he changed channels on TV (his dad always tended to get a bit testy)
But Nandan wished he had some friends here. He would sometimes see kids his age hanging around in the courtyard. But he never knew how he could make friends with them. Did he go and talk to them directly? What if they snubbed him and didn’t talk to him? Or worse laugh at him?
“What are you doing sitting in the dark like this Nandu?”, Nani stood silhouetted against his door.
“Nothing”, he answered absently, still brooding against the window.
“It’s not good for a young boy like you to mope around like this – did you finish your homework? Your Ma will be after me if you get notes again from the teacher…”, asked Nani worriedly.
“I got it covered Nani”, he replied irritably.
She sighed. Then came and sat down besides him. “It won’t be long before they come home beta. Do you want to watch TV till then?”
“Nope”, he answered shortly.
“Then why don’t you go out and play with the other kids?” she asked.
“I don’t want to Nani”, he replied impatiently. He turned his back against her, hoping she would leave.
She patted his arm. He shrugged it off childishly. He didn’t know why but he was angry with her. He was madder at his parents for dragging him to this strange new house – but then they weren’t here.
She sighed again and then got up to leave. After sometime Nandan could hear her muttering her evening prayers as usual. Soon after he saw the headlights of a car approaching their building, which meant his dad was home. Another day was over finally, he thought.
The next day Nandan shouted at his grandmother for not washing his brown socks for school. Why couldn’t she even remember simple things like socks? A day later he wouldn’t speak to her until she gave in and signed his teacher’s note for not completing his homework. Then finally he decided he couldn’t stand her reproaching about his studies any longer and decided to go out for a walk. He didn’t return till dinner time.
His parents were worried about him, but he lied and told them he was out playing with the other kids. That made them happy somehow, thinking he was settling down quicker than expected. Nani didn’t say anything.
He started going out every evening from then on. He walked around aimlessly, whiling away the endless hours till it was time for dinner. Sometimes he would stand and watch the construction of the new block of flats that was coming up. At other times go over to the main road looking around the shops. One time he even gathered up courage to walk over near to the other children. But they just got all silent and looked at him, and then he couldn’t think of anything to say either. So he just walked away. After that, he was careful to steer clear of them, even though he secretly knew he was being cowardly.
Everyday during his walks, he saw a strange looking man sitting on a bench across the street from his house. Nandan knew he was a foreigner, from his golden brown hair and fair complexion. He wore a floppy kind of hat and usually had a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Like himself, he too seemed to have nothing better to do in the evenings. Once he saw Nandan looking at him and hailed him to come over.
“Haven’t seen an American before, kid?”
Nandan didn’t know what to say so he just shook his head.
“Well don’t just stand there – lost your tongue, have you?”
The stranger smiled showing crooked and slightly yellowed teeth.
“I am Pat, by the way” He held out his hand
Nandan walked over and tentatively shook his hand.
“I’m Nandan”, he mumbled.
“Well nice to meet you kiddo. Wont you join me for a smoke?” he asked.
At his appalled look, he burst into laughter and slapped his back. “Just pulling your leg buddy”
Nandan didn’t know what to say, although he was gratified to be called “buddy” by this fascinating stranger.
Soon he learned that Pat was half American half Portuguese. He had come to India on some assignment six months back. He came down to the bench every evening to “enjoy a smoke” and because he thought watching real people was more interesting than watching television.
Pat didn’t mind doing most of the talking. He seemed to know most of the people from his apartment complex, who was married and to whom. Who were having guests tonight. Whose maid was leaving the household…
“You spend some time in a place for some time and you keep your eyes and ears open – you learn a whole lot of things, kid”
Nandan was terribly impressed by Pat. He began to come and meet him daily. Pat seemed so worldly. He had already traveled a great deal around the world. He had been to some of the finest restaurants in Europe. He had gone camping in the Australian outback – Nandan hadn’t even known what the outback was, till then. He had even seen the Pyramids in Egypt, which was, for Nandan, the height of worldliness, since they seemed to be showing them all the time on Discovery.
“So how come you came to a place like India?”, he once asked Pat, feeling rather bold.
Pat took a long drag with his cigarette, then said, “Well the thing is, somehow India is the most fascinating country I’ve ever been to.
He smiled seeing his disbelieving look. “It may seem hard for you to believe, but that’s only because you’ve always lived here. What you have in your home always seems ordinary, since you look at it everyday. You come to know it very well. You’ve seen its beauty and its flaws. But because you get so used to its beauty, you would rather concentrate on its flaws. And then it loses value for you. " He paused to take another long drag.
"Then perhaps one day, you leave it or it leaves you. And its only then that you realize what it meant to you. Funnily enough at that time you would only remember its beauty, the good times you had with it and conveniently forget about all the things that you hated about it. "
He seemed lost in his own thoughts now. "And one day, but only if you are lucky, well you still get to go back to it. If not, you have to be content with memories.”
It was all very well for Pat to say, Nandan thought. After all he had been to so many places that he could compare such things to.
Pat continued. “Listen to me kid. Always make memories. Good memories. At some point in life, they are all that matter.”
That night, as Nandan lay in his bed, he tried to think of all the good memories that he had. But all he could dredge up didn’t somehow seem good memories. All he had was… memories!, he thought, suddenly disgusted with his life. He got up restlessly, unable to sleep, and went down to the balcony. He stood for sometime staring up at the stars, wishing he had been born half Portuguese half American too. Or as anyone else but as himself.
“Nandu? What happened beta?” He had forgotten Nani was usually still awake at this time. She stood in the doorway now, looking at him with eyes full of concern. “Not able to sleep? Are you feeling sick?”
“Its nothing”, he replied back.
“Why won’t you tell me, beta?” she asked him. She sighed. “You have grown too big now, haven’t you – to talk to Nani anymore? Before, you would come and tell me everything. And now – you barely have two words to say to me…”
But Nandan was feeling too sorry for himself to pay attention to Nani’s reproaches. He didn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to make you a nice warm glass of milk? It will put you to sleep right away”, she asked.
“Just leave me alone Nani”, he snapped. He stormed back to his room, feeling angry with Nani, with himself and somehow misunderstood all at the same time.
When he went to see Pat the next day, he wasn’t there. Nor the next day. It was about a week when it finally dawned on him that Pat had left without saying Good Bye. It stung a little to know that he was as insignificant as that to Pat. It stung even more when he suddenly realized that he was probably insignificant to most people, except for maybe his parents. And maybe…no definitely Nani. She cared. Whether he got sleep. About things like his homework, which he was sure did not mean much to her. But she still cared because she thought it was important for him. And all this while, he kept pushing her away.
At 11 years of age, there was a minor storm in Nandan’s teacup. It was meeting a stranger from foreign land. And his abrupt departure.
But that evening Nandan made a new friend. With his old grandmother.