A Pack of Cards

Ramnath was a contented man; he had retired after a long career with the IAS, and it had been a no mean achievement surviving the bureaucratic minefields. He was back at his village in Pallavur – Palakkad, spending the remaining part of his life ruminating the past, reading religious texts and building up a new social circle. Parvathi his wife, took good care of her soul mate. It had been difficult times for her too, running around with her ‘transferable job’ husband.

The kids were married off to good families and well settled; Leela their elder daughter had become a pediatrician and married Dr Krishna, a brain surgeon. Now they were well settled in New York, though it had been a time since they visited their parents. Their son Venkat had his own outfit in Bombay. The old parents saw Venkat, Shyama & Vijay the grand child once every two years, when they came down for their summer holidays. It was the best part of their lives, being with their grandson, The grandparents doted on the child, enjoying his merry antics. When Vijay went back to Bombay, it always left Ramnath & Parvathi in despair for many days…

And then, one monsoon day, tragedy befell the family. Parvathi was afflicted with pneumonia and a severe chest infection; she succumbed to it, before medicine & doctors could come to her rescue. That event unsettled Ramnath greatly. For many days, he was like a zombie, his old sister spent some days taking care of him, and then she too left to tend to her own. Ramnath talked little, he was completely lost to the world. Venkat & family were at home for a brief period to console dad, but they could not fill the void. Leela came from NY and spent a couple of days with dad during the final ceremonies, but dad seemed disinterested.

Venkat & Leela had a chat and decided that their dad should spend some time away from all this if he had to recover. Bombay was out of question, dad hated the place. Leela agreed to take her dad to NY during the next available opportunity. Ramnath was not really interested and when told that he had to go to Madras and stand in line for a couple of days to get into the US embassy he simply refused to think about it.


Leela called every weekend, and finally the sheer pressure made the veteran IAS officer accede to his daughter’s request. He decided to go to America, and he thought, ‘maybe I am destined to see the land of freedom before I die’. He agreed to go to Madras and submit his papers for a visa. Little did he know of the difficulties he had to face, the line was serpentine and when he joined its tail end, he had no idea that the wait would take a long three days. He was wondering about the irony, a 65 year wizened old man, once a proud IAS officer, now standing in line for a rubber stamp on his passport? The things he saw while in queue, he saw kids making a quick buck selling food and drinks, caps, youngsters offering to stand in line at night so that the oldies could come back the next day and claim their place. Most of the people in line were of two kinds, students (who of course had abundant energy) or families traveling to meet up with offspring well entrenched in USA. After one night, Ramnath had no choice but to purchase one of these ‘position in line’ services. He had no strength to stand for so many hours and had fainted twice the first day. He wanted to leave the line and go back home, but taking a step backward was not something he favored.

Finally he got into the embassy and obtained his 6 month visa without any problems. Leela had ensured that all the paperwork was complete and as a wealthy sponsor of the old man, presented no reasons for denial to the consular officer.

Soon Ramnath got his suitcase packed and left for New York. He survived the flight; got through immigration, and was met by his daughter. When he saw the ‘home’, he was amazed. What an apartment and what a posh area that was! Ultra modern, on the 20th floor of a building that reached up to the sky, with all kinds of modern gadgets, big screen TV, two cars, microwave, cooking range, bath tubs, a Jacuzzi…what not, really! Outside, the weather was hot and humid.

He asked for his son in law Krishna who was nowhere to be seen. Leela said, ‘Dad, life here is not like in India. Krishna is a very busy surgeon; I too get to see him only once in a while’. Ram was not pleased hearing it, he asked if Leela was happy. She replied that she was and that she too was busy with her consulting and found no time for other activities. They were on the quest up the social ladder. Many more objects had to be acquired, they had to make more money to move to Long Island where the affluent doctors lived…So it was still a long way and the policy was to work hard and make money when they were healthy and young. Ram did not quite accept all this. They changed subjects, had a quick lunch and talked about New York for a while.

Then Leela dropped the bombshell, ‘Dad, I need to go now, I have a few important consultations, I will come late tonight, but I have organized some food for you. It is in the freezer. When it is time, please heat it before eating’. Ram listened carefully. His thoughts were in disarray after the long flight and the new ambience. Leela then gave him instructions on two things that were to determine the course of his future life, the use of the TV remote control and the use of the Microwave oven keypad.

Ram slept after Leela left. He hoped to see Krishna when he woke up a few hours later, but he found the other bedroom door latched and a yellow ‘stick it’ note on the refrigerator door. Little was he to know that the refrigerator door would soon be his means of communication with his busy offspring (No mobile phones those days).

The note said ‘Dad, Krishna here, found you asleep, have an early morning surgery, need to get a quick wink. See you later’. Ram wondered if he should wake his son in law, but decided against it. After all, a surgeon had to be calm and rested before an important surgery.

He got back to the dining table and thought silently for a while. Then he did what most of us do, he ‘channel surfed’, but could not get anything of much interest or to his liking. He opened the fridge to check what was in there, found some rice and a curry, which he consumed after duly heating them as instructed….After a few boring hours, he slept.

When he awoke and went to the dining area, he saw three stickers on the fridge.

One from Leel to Kris…Kris, when did you get in? Did you meet dad? Saw you sleeping when I got in…I have to go as well, we have the Chicago conference the next two days…catch’ya later…

The other from Kris to Leel …Hey Leel, am off for an early surgery, too bad we did not meet last night. See ya later … luv…

He saw the third addressed to him from Leela…Dad, sorry, I have this important conference - forgot to tell you yesterday. I have your food done. It is in the fridge.

This went on for a few days. He did get a few minutes with Krishna one day, but then Krishna seemed caught up with some strange game called American football. Ram tried to follow the game, he did not get the hang of it, it was not like the soccer he knew and they hardly used a foot. Cricket was the only game he liked but he knew that it was not played in USA.


Like before, he finally walked over to the window and looked. The small cars snaked up the winding bridges and fly-overs, and then crawled through the concrete jungles. The only flyover he remembered was the Gemini flyover in Madras and when compared to these, Gemini was puny. The few people on the street looked like midgets. Everything seemed so slow from up there…and the number of planes that came by to land…he had never seen so many in India. Cochin airport had just three flights a day. Time passed by, he had lunch, followed by channel surfing, a short nap on the sofa and it was dusk.

Two days went by thus and Ram had still not had his constitutional walk or seen anybody, he was restless. He decided to go down and check the world out. Going down the high speed elevator was no problem; he got down and only then did he really appreciate the immense tower he was living in. It had at least 50 floors. But that was not it; life down here was so fast. Cars and buses zoomed by, people were pushing past each other, everybody had a purpose. Ram looked around and spotted a park a few yards away, and yes, it had trees and benches…

He went and sat on one of the benches and looked at the people who passed by. He saw colored people for the first time, he had read about them and the famous Martin Luther King during his younger days. He nodded at the other people who came to the park, they were not so friendly, or so it seemed. After a while he went back to his apartment, only to realize that he had forgotten to lock the doors. He chastised himself for the folly and promised himself that he would go out the next time only after locking the doors and pocketing the keys.

The next day was a little better. He met his daughter and son in law for breakfast. They were all apologies, but they explained to the old man that one had to keep running in NY or they fell. Ram did not question this vague theory; he just listened silently, as he had actually given up on his daughter. Soon they left to fulfill their busy schedules.

Ram then decided to go down to the park instead of channel surfing. He had found a pack of cards at home and he took this with him. After walking around the park for a few minutes, Ram sat down in a cool corner of the park and started to play a game of ‘patience (solitaire)’. He laid the 7 cards of the top row, then the next row of 6 and so on…one game followed the other. After a while he saw a pair of well booted feet in front of him. He looked up. A very dignified tall ‘white’ guy!! Ram was apprehensive. The man asked ‘Sir, Can I join you?’ Ram was not sure. In India strangers never accosted you like this, what should he do? He thought for a while and accepted.

It was thus that Ram found his first new friend in NY. The man turned out to be a retired police chief. In the days to come, more people sat down with him for cards. The group comprised some real famous persons of that period, a retired mayor, retired physicians, professors…They totaled eight including Ram. They got along very well as they improved their rummy playing proficiency. The oldies then took Ram around, showed him Manhattan, the twin towers; the Statue of liberty….They too found a new and enjoyable purpose, educating their guest from India on what the US life style was all about. Ram saw the NY buses, the NY subway, the Punjabi taxi drivers…They even took Ram to the ‘Woodlands’ restaurant in Manhattan one day. To put it in a nutshell, Ram was finally enjoying life ….

The old man never told about his friends to his daughter or son in law. It was not that he hid this from them; it was just that they were not interested or around to talk. They did mention on some occasions that they needed to find a week end to take the old man around New York, but when the weather was cooler. The old man was sad at home; he was disappointed at the way he had been treated. On most days the ‘sticky notes’ sessions continued. He sometimes wondered why NY had so many sick people to keep his doctor offspring on their toes. He now understood why they had no children. They did not want anything delaying their quest up the ladder.

The weather changed, and the meeting of our oldies circle had to be moved indoors. They took turns; they all met at the police chief’s house the first day, then the prof’s…and so on. It was Ram’s turn now, he was not very sure if he should invite them home. After some thought, he did.

They had a blast…Ram was a great host; he offered them all the frozen stuff he had. It was the first time most of them were visiting an Indian home. He told them about his gods, about the village way of life, he tried to tell them a little bit about the simple food they ate…and they enjoyed learning all of this.

Suddenly, the door bell rang. Ram was a bit surprised. Normally he never met Leela or Krishna in the mornings or afternoons. Why today? Opening the door, he saw both of them. They said “surprise, dad” in unison. ‘Today is your birthday and we decided to take you out. Shall we go?’

Ram replied truthfully, Thanks, but, I really can’t do that now, I have my friends over today and we are having a party. Leela was flabbergasted. They did not know dad had friends here, they had not expected dad to invite those friends even. Ram introduced his friends to them. Krishna was amazed; Ram had brought home some of the very distinguished people of the locality. How did he know them? Leela was still rubbing her eyes and wondering ‘How did dad know all these Americans on a first name basis? How did he get on back patting terms with the police chief and the mayor? ‘

They had been in US for 12 years and still knew few outside their offices. Their hope was that when they got rich, they would choose carefully and build a circle they wanted. They had dreamed of parties, a big buddy group and so on…how did dad manage all this? Imagine having an American police chief or a college dean eating some left over curd rice happily & chatting away!

After the party ran its course and all the guys left, Ram explained how he met those wonderful new friends of his. He explained how simple it all was, it had required nothing from him….He talked long about the loneliness of old age and he talked of his wanting to be part of his offspring’s lives in some small way. He talked of his dreams, he explained of his ideas of friendship. He told them why he would never lead a life that was not full. And he explained to them why he thought they would never achieve happiness in their busy quest.

I do not know exactly what happened after that. I know that the two took the sermon with a certain amount of sheepishness; I know that Leela felt bad for a number of days after that and I recall that they decided to find more meaning to their life and slow their mad run. I heard much later that they decided to have a kid and were parents of a lovely little girl…

And Ram…he returned to Palghat after his visa had run its course…full of memories of those fantastic people he had met in the park and the times they had. He wrote to all of them. The village post office had never seen as many air mail letters as those which started to come after Ram returned. Ram often regaled village acquaintances of the great sights and sounds of New York. Most people thought him an old fart bluffing away when he mentioned his connections with some well known names…till he showed them the envelopes and the sender’s names…

I heard that Ram died a few years ago. I met his sister the other day at the temple; it seems he died a peaceful death, a contended man. Leela & Venkat had come with their respective spouses. I am told that Vijay had a very jolly time pulling Sam’s legs…Who is Sam? Sam is Samyukta, Leela’s & Krishna’s daughter and an ABCD. I understood that Sam was initially not amused with Palghat and the mosquitoes. But she did like the abundant spaces to run around and quickly got on with her other relatives and new found friends. It seems that Leela was quite vexed when they were to leave since Sam had become very much like the ‘local type’ and all brown in complexion.

Ah! Well! Life continues…

Authors notes:

1. Many years ago I listened to a ‘Baghavad Geeta’ discourse by Swami Chinmayananda. One of the anecdotes he used to exemplify a point remained in my mind. I took some liberties with that ‘one minute’ story, added some characters, some reality and made it into what you just read.

2. It was only in 1996 that the US consulate in Madras eventually decreed that people over the age of 60 would be given a time and a date of appointment upon request and that they did not have to stand in line for days (after the press came out with front page reports). This story was set before that decree. What I wrote here about the visa experience actually happened to my parents. We were living in Istanbul those days.

3. This story is particularly dear to me and was written many years ago, though edited recently. That is why you see references to twin tower, the three flights to old cochin airport, Gemini flyover etc…

Manhattan pic from visitingdc.com

Comments

Aniruddha said…
I read lots of stories on various blogs but frankly this is one of the best I had read.

Loved the way you write. Thank you for this wonderful content.
Anonymous said…
Very touching story and skillfully told. Keep it up!
Kamini said…
Maddy, this is simply brilliant! The writing was so powerful and really drew me into the story, and I couldn't stop until I reached the end. You should really get this published somewhere. I think this is my favorite piece of your blog. Life goes on, indeed!
Neelima said…
This is written so well and so moving.

I have been reading you for a while , this one is my favorite, brilliant writing
narendra shenoy said…
narendra shenoy has left a new comment on your post "A Pack of Cards":

Superbly told! I enjoyed that! You are really a marvellous story teller, Maddy!
Soorya said…
Touching story! Am from Palakkad myself.. loved the pics you hv chosen too!!!
What a lovely post. And I remember as a kid, going to one of my mas cousins place in LA, both busy people, who seemed to have precisely this way of communicating. as far as i could see, they never met only.
Happy Kitten said…
Did not want to take my eyes off the page until I finished reading...

Wow!

nd when shall we get to see a complete novel....
Dreamer said…
Great story! Seems so realistic too.
Lavanya said…
Sir,
This is the first post I have read in your blog and it is really heart touching one.
Life not only in NY is like that, even in my country INDIA, at my place HYDERABAD, life is changing very fast and I am scared it takes no time to become like the one in ur story.
Hopelly people make their life meaning.
Sir, I think it should be published, so as to reach to many people who are just running after money in their life and leaving the most valuable life empty.
A fine piece of writing. Touching on truth in so many ways. I also like that the ABCD is called Samyukta - like my own granddaughter.
Maddy said…
Thanks Anirudha
I hope you continue to visit. Many more stories in the pipeline.
Thanks Anonymous
Thanks Kamini- Curiously i did, twice, only with this story. But the editors thought others better.
Maddy said…
Thanks neelima, Thanks narendra. i have found that unless you have a personal link in the story, the story however well written will not have a soul. Writing this I thought i had one. Thanks for the appreciation & understanding
Maddy said…
Soorya, Cynic, Dreamer thanks.

HK - the mind is willing, but the will is weak - and time is short. I think I have to plan something soon.

Thanks lavanya - I held on to this with that plan, for they rarely pick up a story for publishing which has been posted somewhere. There were no takers, and eventually I posted it as a blog.
Maddy said…
Thanks Raji - curiously Samyukta got into this story a few years ago.
Maddy,
That was brilliance. :-)

-Nikhil
Dear Maddy, This piece is an absolute beauty. Very moving indeed!You have to seriously think about writing some great fiction with great style which you have in abundance.
Maddy said…
Thanks Nikhil..and Murali.
Some years ago I wrote a few more like this and well.. as things went, they remained as bits & bytes in a 64 MB thumb drive. I was quite vexed at that time since nobody found this worthy enough for publication..probably they were right, probably this was meant for few like minded people, not the vast public...I suppose..

And thus I stopped dreaming and moved on to contemporary topics and history..but who knows? maybe one day i will write a tale...
Subhash said…
What a nice, touching story! Reminds me of my parents when they came over with a green card - only to go back to India after one year as they couldn't stand the immobility and loneliness.
Maddy said…
Thanks Subhash...

just the way it always is in life...
This make me feel GUILTY. Me in Leela's role and my mom in Mr Ram's. In fact this visit for my mom was exactly this. She was telling coming to America is punishment. And she was telling even in JAIL you get busy with work and can talk to people, but not in this place.
Maddy said…
thanks D & T - still time to make changes....but it is tough at times...
Ramachandran said…
Simply Excellent.Reads like an RK Narayan short story!
Ramachandran
Maddy said…
thanks Ramachandran..
am working on another story today - hope to finish it soon...

Popular Posts