I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in the darkness,
The astonishing light
Of your own being! - Hafiz
The old park in sector three remained largely neglected by the local community since a new one opened in sector five. The new park was equipped with swings, slopes, jungle gyms, and other such things to captivate little ones and drew the evening crowd in large numbers. The old park boasted of nothing except a few old sturdy benches which had not felt the touch of a paint brush for some years. The running track was still intact but the garden in the center was no longer visible in the over growth of weeds. Only one thing remained of its former days of glory – rows and rows of carefully planted trees; gulmohar, ashoka, amaltas, neem, eucalyptus, and others. The park was not much frequented except by old people, seeking a few moments of quiet. Most of them had been visiting the park since it was built. Newcomers hardly ever turned their steps this way. That’s why the old trees were surprised to see a new visitor one evening in early July. The regular ones looked at the newbie and thought there was some mistake. The visitor was a young woman, in her mid-twenties. She hardly looked at anyone as she walked on the tracks several times. After an hour or so of walking, she sat down on a bench and looked wistfully at tress and birds flitting among the branches. She left only when dusk spread its dark wings on the horizon and birds came home to roost.
Then she began to come daily. The old people grew familiar with the younger presence and no longer treated her as an outsider. She would smile or nod to them but she hardly spoke to anyone. One evening after her walk, she sat on a bench under an amaltas. It was getting dark and the park was nearly empty. An old man was slowly jogging towards her. Just as he reached near the bench, he tripped over something and fell.
‘Are you okay?’ she ran to him and helped him get up.
‘Yes, seems so. Lucky I didn’t hit the edge of the bench.’
‘Sit down. Here,’ she handed him her water bottle.
‘Thanks,’ he took a few gulps, ‘I’m fine. I tripped over a root. It’s almost dark.’
‘Happens,’ she smiled. There was no one in the park except them. ‘I must go. Take care.’
Next day, they saw each other in the park. He smiled and walked over to her. She sat on her usual bench under the amaltas. He was an old man, probably in late sixties; strongly built and hair all grey. He seemed to be in good health as he never used a walking stick. She could not help but ask about him.
‘Oh, it was nothing. I should be careful. Do you mind?’ he sat beside her. ‘I’m called Adeel.’
‘Sarah,’ she smiled.
‘Well, Sarah. Do you want to know why I really fell yesterday?’
She only raised her eyebrows.
‘Because of you.’
‘No way. You’re kidding,’ she laughed.
‘I’m not in the habit of joking just to make small talk,’ his voice was rather serious, ‘I have been observing you. It is nearly two months when you first came here and you have talked next to nobody since then. But you have got an expressive face. Yesterday you were thinking of something painful and I thought I should talk to you.’
‘Why, what a good face reader you are!’ she was astonished, ‘I know I am not skilled enough to hide my emotions. But I never thought they were splashed all over my face.’
‘As a matter of fact, they were not. I saw them because I was looking for them.’
‘May I know why?’
‘I saw in your face something which does not suit a person so young. Sorrow and despair! If you don’t mind I’d like to know what you think about while your eyes seemingly gaze at people and birds and trees.’
She said nothing for a few moments. Her eyes followed the movements of a myna circling round a mulberry tree.
‘I contemplate death,’ she spoke slowly, ‘May be death is beautiful… and it holds comfort.’
‘And what makes you think that?’
‘This life. It has got nothing.’
‘I’m sorry… but is there nothing which interests you?’
‘Don’t you have any family or friends?’
‘There are many but I’m not good enough for them,’ her voice grew bitter.
‘But surely there must be someone you trust, someone whom you like,’ he persisted.
‘I don’t trust people. Those that I trusted are out of my reach,’ she said in a flat voice.
‘I see,’ he nodded.
‘And what about you? Seems that life has been kind to you,’ she looked at him keenly.
‘Not very kind, but not unkind either,’ he paused and then continued, ‘I’ve lived long enough to experience life in many shades. I have two sons; married and settled in Middle East. I live here alone.’
‘And where is your wife?’ she asked naively.
‘She is not with me anymore.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. She left me for someone else. They are living somewhere in South Africa.’
She looked away from him. The myna was now perched on a branch, preening itself.
‘And I still trust people,’ he smiled.
They continued to come to the old park regularly. Sometimes Adeel would join Sarah in her walks. Usually he waited for her on the bench under amaltas until she would join him after her daily exercise. There was a sort of tacit agreement between them. They never again spoke of their families or personal life. He knew she lived somewhere nearby, may be in one of these apartment blocks in the next lane. She thought he lived in one of these duplex houses with front lawns. They talked on every topic under the sun but avoided personal matters.
It was a cold grey evening in late December when Sarah came to the park later than her usual time and went straight to the bench. Adeel was already there. A smile was exchanged but both remained silent. The park was deserted for elderly people hardly came out on winter evenings. Crows and mynas flitted from one bare branch to another, occasionally making a raucous noise.
‘Won’t you take your exercise today?’ at last Adeel ventured.
‘What’s the use? I don’t know why I do this. Running in a circle, going nowhere, finding nothing. It’s all futile,’ she spoke in an agitated voice, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever find what I’m searching for.’
‘Do you know what you are searching for?’
‘I guess so… I want to be at peace, with myself, with this world and with people. But I think it’s never going to happen,’ she fell silent and looked away. Her face was drawn and haggard from sleeplessness.
‘Why?’ he prodded very gently. ‘Why such pessimism?’
‘Pessimism?’ she laughed bitterly, ‘I’m being realistic. I’m not good enough for this world and its people. I will never learn their ways. They speak one thing and mean another. I’m not good at deceiving and lying. I’m not diplomatic. I’m not good at recognizing people. I believed in friendship, trust and love. I thought these are the things that mattered. But people don’t need them.’
She paused and then went on, ‘And what good have I done? I’m good for nothing. I do what everyone else does…eat, work, and sleep. I don’t think I’ve done anything that counts. People think I am a gullible fool and they are damn right.’
There was urgency in her voice. Her eyes shimmered. She blinked rapidly and looked down at her hands in her lap. He gave an imperceptible nod.
‘Nothing hurts a good soul and kind heart more than to live amongst people who can’t understand it,’ he spoke slowly, ‘Has it ever occurred to you that maybe it is not all your fault? May be you’ve not found any one of your ilk?’
‘It’s not weakness to help or trust people. It’s a priceless gift. How barren would be life without mercy, trust, and love?’ he went on, ‘Those who think that you are helping them because you have nothing better to do are ignorant of their blessings. They are to be pitied, not despised.’
‘But it hurts a lot when someone betrays,’ there was a catch in her voice, ‘You know, I’ve lost my best friend. We have been together for ten years in school… and now she thinks I’m in her way. I don't know why I give such a long rope to people who pretend to be my friends. I've been very upset last week when she behaved in a very callous manner. She even lied to me. She wants to get a job in which I’m not interested at all. But she feels otherwise. She never told me she had applied for it. I might have even helped her to get it. I tried to talk to her but she feigned ignorance. It was an act of deceit I never expected from her. I'd have gladly parted ways if she had said that our friendship can't go on. She chose deception instead. If the world is full of people who love hypocrisy I wonder if I'll ever find a true friend.’
‘Some people lack the courage to be straightforward, my dear. May be she wanted to leave you and used this opportunity just as a ruse. Life is indeed hard for most of us, and many, if not most, of us develop a hardness that we hope will be equal to what we face. A hardness and a self-protective shrewdness. If we lie, we do it in the name of a greater 'truth', which is that above all we must survive! But a few - like you - choose otherwise. You choose to be loving and truthful. You choose to trust everyone until and unless they give you reason to be otherwise with them.
That is your burden - and, I hope, your reward. Without congratulating yourself for this, you will have the pleasure of knowing that never did you knowingly deceive anyone; never did you speak ill or falsely about them. That you loved all those who offered love or friendship to you; and as for the deep love you hoped for, you waited patiently for it.’
She was staring ahead, into the clear blue sky. There was a distant look in her big brown eyes.
‘You know, I’m afraid I’m growing apathetic. I’m getting indifferent to people. What’s the use of taking it so much to heart? They are not going to understand anyway.’
‘I wish you’d never suffer from apathy. You have a soul capable of love and sympathy,’ he said earnestly, ‘It’s not your nature to be indifferent.’
‘I hardly think so. I have very deep insecurity as to whether I even deserve to be loved!’
‘You know, you are doing a great wrong to yourself. You can’t help loving your family and friends. You are, no doubt, a very capable young woman. So frank and free from ego. Why do you think that your own family or friends can help but love you?’
She opened her mouth to say something but paused.
‘There must have been occasions when your parents stood for you,’ he prodded gently.
She merely nodded in affirmation.
‘Then what makes you think it can’t be like before. They and you belong to each other. True love never fades and what love can be truer than that of a parent?’
‘How can you see into my soul like this?’ she stared at him, surprised. ‘I never mentioned anything.’
He smiled affectionately.
‘I guess we are kindred souls. We share a lot without words,’ he looked into her eyes, ‘Love can be fulfilling in itself, even if it is not returned in the same measure as yours. It has been my experience that everyone you love enriches you in a special way.’
The last red streaks were disappearing from the western horizon as she rose to leave. He also stood up and walked with her to the gate. She waved and turned to go. Suddenly he called
‘Sarah, please do remember that love is a gift, not a favor. You choose to give it. Why not give it freely?’
She nodded and walked away into the growing darkness. Adeel stared at her receding figure and murmured, ‘Ah, a kindred soul.’