Gotcha!

He knocked on the door, moved back two steps and waited. After a minute, he knocked again. After few minutes, he was knocking on the door with his ear pressed against it. He had seen the old man going in; he wondered why he wasn’t responding.

On the other side of the door, the old man was standing, irritated of the incessant knocks. When he heard the first knock, he sat munching his gopal double paan after smothering the chair with affection. He managed to say ‘enter’ but the sound melted inside his mouth. Then he heard the second knock. He looked around to spit out. There wasn’t any spittoon or dustbin. His mouth had only become fuller. He croaked again with great effort. “Come in”. Nothing happened. When he was walking up to the door to check, a fresh wave of knocks startled him enough at that old age to pause for a moment and he began mumbling.

When he opened the door, the young man fell on his like a flag pole in dry sand. The old man expressed his dislike for him in a full minute of stare and silence. The young man quietly savored it, not knowing what else to do.

“The door was open, didn’t you hear me”, said the old man after spitting out his pan-induced-saliva on the spittoon across the hallway.

“No sir, I couldn’t”

“You couldn’t hear from outside”, said the old man. He had gone back to his chair, taken out a file from the left side on the table and was trying to fish out a pen in one of his kurta pockets. The young man stepped forward and gave him a pen from the pen stand. In return he received a sign to be seated. He hesitated for a moment thinking whether he should first make his case or sit down. He was about to sit down and wait, when the old man said, “You dint really hear from outside. Let’s go check it out’. His buttocks hung momentarily mid-air then sprung up.

The old man went outside and shut the door. An eerie silence inside descended in the room. The young man looked around. Two walls hid behind the selves with bound volumes of old and unknown books. On the third wall were nailed artworks, calendars and a number of assorted items, some of them recently taken out but still claming their place. But his stare was fixed at the table. There was no way one could have got that thing inside in one piece, or could take it out-if the claims of refurbishing the library had any truth in it. He turned back to the door, at first he marveled at the size, which was still smaller than the massive table, then he touched the magnificent wood- gone black with time,  he felt the artistry in it. The door opened and the old man smiled at his awestruck face and said,

‘I couldn’t hear you either. This room is soundproof.’

Right then, it occurred to him he should have said something. Shouted may be. He thought to explain but he liked the red-moist-toothy-paan-smile on the morose face he last saw. He could fake a guilt-ridden smile.

When both were seated again with the massive table between them, and the old man picked up the newspaper instead of pretending to be busy, the young man broached the talk. He was the kind of guy who disappeared within the walls, among classmates, who were often a name without a face, a face without an impression or just shadows. That self-consciousness drew him the required attention that day, and he spoke,

“I just need you signature here.” He sought to trivialize the issue to keep the lightheartedness intact.

The old man adjusted his glasses, and began to read. He groaned, “But these books were expensive.”

“That’s why I want the waiver, Sir. You see, I am only…”

‘Rules are rules. I can’t change anything.’

“This is not a change of rule sir, just an exception. It’s your first day; of course you are going to make some eventually”

“What do you mean?”

“Obviously there is going be a spittoon behind your desk. And since it is soundproof, you can have a radio and listen to cricket commentary, occasionally”, the young man suggested with emphasis on ‘occasionally’.

That’s right, that’s right”, the old man had started interrupting, trying to contain his laughter. He had to step outside again to spit out. He came back to the chair, took out another paan from his tiny silver box with absolute affection and put it in his mouth saying, “I spent 28 years behind various counters and tables in this library, none of us knew it was soundproof. Do you chew paan”?

“No, sir”

“But you understand. That’s unlikely for man of your generation. You don’t appreciate the importance of good things. You don’t chew pan, there are paan masala now. You never had paan?

“Umm…occasionally mitha paan.”

Mitha paan are for girls, at least saada paan gives you true taste of betel leaf.

“Yah, it just tastes like grass, only scented”.

That cast an abrupt silence. The young man felt he lost all the good will he earned in last half-an-hour. The old man moved his right palm up down to his kurta pockets. The young man gave him another pen from the pen stand and remarked how spacious the table was.

The old man signed the waiver, and held him out the paper. Also a question with it, “what’s this book, Sex-determination”

‘No, no, no. It’s not a book about sex…I mean it is about sex….rather sexes actually…but, It is…umm, what can I say, not about how to do it… its not even about human beings…

As the young man fidgeted explaining what the book was about, the old man squirmed and flinched.

 “It is on trees.”

“Sex on trees?”

“No, it’s a book on tress, I mean on plants. It is not at all about people.”

The old man was grinning as before. Between the brown-teeth and the strong smell of tobacco and paan, as if he was saying, “gotcha”. The young man thanked him, got out and shut the door behind him. The old man picked up the newspaper.

Once outside, he undid a chest button and those of the sleeves, pulled out his nicely-tucked-in shirt and and said,

‘What a knucklehead’

The old man spurted out a little red on his paper.

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