Mr. Apte and I
When I turned sixteen and my school, a stellar institution in a small, dusty town in the North of India didn’t have the subjects I wanted to study, I moved half way across the country to a city called Pune for college. Of my peer group, I was the first to leave town and explore the world on my own.
It was liberating to have a new sense of freedom. In a new city, I was anonymous. I was not the daughter of the sixth grade English teacher nor was I the girl in the second last row with two pigtails and the shiny black shoes. In Pune, I could be anyone I wanted, I could do whatever I wanted. The possibilities were endless.
Everyone I knew since I was born was a twenty-two hour train ride away. I was beginning the journey of college all by myself.
Situated in western India, Pune is surrounded by verdant hills and beautiful lakes. Known as the Oxford of the East because of the number of universities that it hosts, it is very different city from the small town I grew up in. I started to realize the differences in language, culture, food and climate soon after I moved. The potatoes tasted sweeter and took longer to boil. Rain fell differently here. I was used to heavy showers that would result in rainy day holidays at school and allow us to spend our day making paper boats. The rain in Pune fell like a sprinkle of powder and it went on for days. It was the kind of rain you could walk in. I loved it.
For the first few days, I stood for hours in long lines filling endless forms for my admission. To kill time while waiting in line, I would, from the corner of my eye observe what other girls were wearing. They were all so confident and carefree in their torn jeans and tank tops. I was more intrigued than scandalised. I would eavesdrop on conversations and pick up the cool college lingo. I did this because even if I was the odd one out here; I knew I was a hero back home. Everyday, I had a new story to write about in the numerous letters I sent to my friends.
As soon as I was admitted in college, I found a room in an apartment ten-minutes away from college.
Mr. Apte, the landlord who occupied the master bedroom in the apartment was a temperamental ninety-year-old man and had been widowed for years. He had moved to Pune from Bombay when his children left for the United States. He lived with a caretaker who followed the routine Mr. Apte had created for himself each day without fail.
When I met him for the first time, Mr. Apte scanned me from top to bottom with his glassy green eyes and approved of my soft spoken and conservative demeanor. He asked me if I planned to stay out of the house post seven thirty and, as I shook my head with a strong no, I paid three months rent in advance and moved in.
Before he retired, Mr. Apte was a high-level government employee. Somewhere in his wrinkled face there was still the remains of a handsome man. After his morning tea, he sat watching television in the living room until lunchtime. Lunch was always steamed cabbage. The smell of cabbage lingered in the house all the time. Later the caretaker would take him to his room for a nap. He awoke around four for tea whilst staring outside his window. When I was home and I would sometimes pass by him looking at the trees outside his window. I always wondered what he was thinking. How lonely was he? Did he miss his wife and kids? Did he try and remember each of the 90 years he had lived everyday?
He came back to the living room after tea and sat in front of the television for dinner that was always tomato soup. No one visited him and he rarely went out.
For the first few weeks after I moved in, I would sit on the huge armchair next to him and chat about my day. Sometimes he was interested, at other times he just grunted. When my birthday came, he asked the caretaker to prepare sweets and made sure I ate an entire bowl. Being away from home and slightly lonely myself, I enjoyed the attention and the casual chats.
However, as months passed by and I got engrossed in classes, friends and a new boy friend, I forgot he existed.
I returned home each evening on the dot at seven thirty, locked my room and stayed there writing letters, listening to music and deciding what I was going to wear to college the next day.
He didn’t like this. Perhaps he had got used to our little five-minute chat in the evenings. He would pass the occasional comment of, “Do you live here as well?” When I would give him the months rent.
At times, I felt guilty when I saw him sitting in the living room by himself. “I should go and talk to him, ask him how he is doing.” I thought to myself. But there were so many other things to do. I didn’t want to waste time talking to a ninety year old who would complain about my behavior.
One day, around eight months after I had moved in, I was in my room and could hear him grumbling loudly about me being a stranger in his home and the loud music I played everyday. I got quite angry. Who was he to disciple me? I walked out and shouted at him. “Please let me be the way I want to be, you are not my father.” I said as I slammed the door shut on his face.
After around five minutes I heard three loud thuds on the door. I presumed he was knocking to have a conversation about my rude behavior so I remained still. I put on my headphones, turned the Walkman to its loudest volume and wrote furiously in my journal.
I opened the door after a few hours and the house was quiet. I presumed he was sleeping. I went out and came back in the evening and no one seemed to be home. The next day passed the same way. After two days, the caretaker knocked on my door. “Mr. Apte had a stroke,” he told me, “He fell on your door the other day, we took him to the hospital.”
Embarrassed and unsure of how to react I said nothing. Mr. Apte passed away a few days later. I met his daughter who came down for the funeral and she allowed me to stay in the apartment until the year ended. My exams were approaching soon and they were all I thought about. It never bothered me that he was not home anymore. I had ignored him long enough.
It was only a few days ago when I was visiting my parents and my mother made steamed cabbage for lunch is when it hit me that Mr. Apte had died. He had died perhaps of the shock that I was rude enough to slam the door at his face. The soft spoken, conservative girl from a small town had become the rebel teenager. Or maybe his heart just failed at that moment. I would never know what happened.
The smell of steamed cabbage lingers on and so does my regret. Somewhere deep in my heart maybe it has lingered for the past fifteen years.
Remembering Mr. Apte made me realize the mortality of everyone around me. It is easy to shut our doors, put our headphones on and live in an isolated world. It takes effort to seize the moment and make sure we give the people who are important to us our time.
If we do, perhaps when we are ninety and staring out of a window, we will have happy memories to reminisce.
There is no ways I can go back and change how I behaved back then. There is nothing I can do now. All I can do is say a silent apology and hope that wherever he is, Mr. Apte is happy with lots of steamed cabbage and tomato soup.
And then I can call my family and friends, ask them how their day was and tell them how lucky I am to have them in my life.
Please note: This essay is part of an assignment I am working on for The New School. It is part fact and part fiction. Mr. Apte did die with three loud thuds on the door, and I was too scared to come out. I have lived with the regret forever. I have added some drama here and there - I wasn't that intimidated when I moved to Pune, I haven't been home in months. But yes, the rain in Pune did fall like powder.