“All’s good by god’s grace, Maiya. How are you?”
Mali Dai’s upbeat nature always amused Maiya. He was a jolly man. He loved life. He perfectly suited his job. She couldn’t tell what he would do if not gardening.
“Good too, a little hungry though.”
Maiya had just arrived home from her morning classes. And like every other day, Mali Dai was there to welcome her.
“Oh you should eat, and eat enough. This body is a machine and food is the fuel,” Maiya pretended to listen as the old man imparted his daily dose of wisdom, “I don’t understand how people can go on without food. We work to feed this body, it’s not the other way round.”
Maiya despised everybody in the big bungalow that she was never able to call home. But she liked Mali Dai.
Maiya lived with her rich father who knew not what fathering meant. And then there were two servants who had no housekeeping skills. There was also a driver, but he, like Mali Dai, came in the morning and left once his work was done.
The house had too many people, too little warmth.
It was time to let go of the bungalow that reeked so much of discontent and failure. She wanted to move into a cozy, small house. But her father was adamant on keeping it.
“If you want to keep this bungalow, you’ve got to find a way of bringing back life to this place!” Maiya had once argued, pointing at the walls that now had patches and the ceiling that now had holes.
“Deal with it, this rut is your mother’s gift to us. Not my fault that the woman who was supposed to look after the house is gone. Get through college and then find yourself a man who can provide you with a house that is ‘desirable’ to live in.” The father had dismissed her immediately.
Maiya couldn’t tell if her father was always like this. But, she knew he had gotten hopeless after her mother disappeared seven years ago; without a goodbye.
The bungalow was sad and lifeless—like the people who lived in it. The garden, however, was always green and alive—like the man who looked after it. Many things had changed over the years but Mali Dai was a constant. How was it that he hadn’t been contaminated by all the misery of the house in all these years, Maiya wondered. And then she envied him.
The sun was warm outside and Mali Dai was cleaning the fish pond when Maiya came out with the lunch in her hands.
“It’s such a good day to eat under the sun,” Mali dai smiled.
Mali Dai wasn’t greedy per se, but he loved food and Maiya knew very well that if she was going to eat outside, she would have to get him something too. “Mali Dai, here’s your khaja. Drink the chiya while it’s still warm hai!”
“You’re very kind.” Mali Dai quickly put the fish back in the pond and joined Maiya for lunch.
The two took the time to appreciate the food and the sun.
“Mali Dai, I cannot wait for the winter to end. It is so cold in the morning. You have no idea how much I need to struggle to just get out of the blanket.”
“Oh don’t worry, just a couple more weeks before the min pachaas ends.”
“What’s min pachaas?”
“The 50 days of winter where even the fish feel cold.”
They both laughed. Given that Mali Dai had dropped out of school at the age of 11, it always struck Maiya as odd that he was so wise.
“I have a question.”
“I am listening.”
“How is it that you are always happy?”
“I am not always happy,” he said, “nobody is.”
“But, are you ever sad or angry?”
“Sometimes. There are times
when I feel awful about everything
I have loved and lost, and things
I worked for and failed. And there
are times when I wish life was
kinder. But there’s only so much you can ask of life.”
Maiya just wondered what it would be like to see this man sad, a man who smiled even as he spoke of sadness.
After lunch, Mali Dai continued with his gardening and Maiya went upstairs to her room for a nap.
When Maiya opened her eyes again, she could hear Mali Dai’s radio right outside her room. The song that played was sadder and slower than what the man usually listened to. And when she poked her head outside, she immediately felt like she was invading somebody’s privacy.
She saw Mali Dai like never before.
Otherwise put together, Mali Dai seemed scattered with his tools spread around him on the ground. The water ran from the pipe unattended, unchecked. He stood at one corner with his shoulders hung low. Hunched over as if he bore the weight of the world on his otherwise broad shoulders, he looked half the man he usually was. With his one arm against the wall he was facing, the other held a cigarette which he quietly smoked away.
It was as if he had let his guard down and allowed his insecurities to surface. It was as if he was taking a break from his happiness.
She had caught him grieving in private.
“Everybody has regrets,” she remembered his words. “Everybody has sorrow. But if we want to move forward, it is important not to feed our demons. It is important not to indulge them. Even when they are an extension of us, we have to prune them, so that we can grow. So that we can move forward.”
“It’s important to give life a chance.”