Mr. Apte entered my life when I was figuring out what the whole fucking deal about life was! I was living on my own when everyone else I knew was still caged within their cocoons.
I’m sure Mr. Apte rented that room to students to overcome his own loneliness. He was a man of principal. He had the demeanor of a soft spoken old man, but you had to hear him when he was angry. It was scary. Having spent most of his life as a government employee (He was working with the Air India) He had a different class. A bit aristocratic. He would sit in front of the TV for hours on end. He loved eating cabbage bhaji. It’s been eleven years and I still hate the sight of that bhaji I saw every single day.
Sometimes he thought it was his duty to discipline me.
I was never a rebel but I enjoyed my freedom and hated any interference.
I remember times when he would pick up the phone extension and listen to my conversations. Once, he caught me talking to my friend when it was supposed to be my mom and screamed. I cried.
There were times he was sweet though. He took immense care of the schizophrenic servant who stayed with him. Treated him like his own son.
I guess that happens when your own children abandon you.
By the end of the first year I was so engrossed in my new life, college, friends and boy friend that I forgot he existed. I would enter the house, lock my room and stay there. No conversations.
I wonder if I was being a typical teenager or just building a wall between us. I felt guilty at times when I didn’t talk to him for days on end. But there was so much more to do. I didn’t want to waste time talking to a ninety year old.
One day in February 2000 he had a stroke. It was a couple of days after my birthday. His daughter took him to Bombay. I saw him once after that at his home in Bombay. I went to tell him that I had topped my college. I don’t think he recognized me. He passed away soon after that.
I continued to live in that house for another year. It never bothered me that he was not there. I had ignored him long enough.
The years that followed taught me a lot. I became less reckless. I became more sensitive. A couple of years back, one fine day it finally hit me that Mr. Apte had died. I cried.
I think of Mr. Apte once every. That day happens to be my birthday. The old man taught me something I will never forget.
The two birthdays I spent with him were sweet. One year he got the servant to make gajjar halwa and the other year he got me mithai. (I think these were things he secretly wanted to eat! : ) )
On my seventeenth birthday (my first in Pune) He knocked on my door and said, “Wish you a very happy new year!!” I laughed and told him, “Uncle, it’s my birthday.” And he said, “It is a start to everything new, it’s your new year.”
He did the same thing the next year, a couple of days before he had that stroke.
It took me sometime to realize the depth in those words. He was not around for me to tell him that.
Every year on my birthday I remember the complete honestly that man had when he told me that ‘it’s a start to everything new’, it is your new year.’
Every year on my birthday I think of him, wish him well and promise to myself I will not ignore people who care for me.
Every year on my birthday I expect a knock on my door, I wait for someone to say – “Happy new year”