The Popeye Man
The next day was Dussehra, festival to celebrate the victory of good over evil, the day on which Shree Ram killed the ten headed powerful rakshasha (daemon) Ravana. It was a tradition for Mukta’s family to buy new clothes for all the boys and men of the family, so that they go to the temple wearing their new dresses. This was a different festival than all others because others always involved getting new dresses and sarees to all the girls and women in the family. Mukta was happy this day as she loved to buy gifts and this time she got a chance to buy a complete dress for Rishikesh, her husband. They were in a new city this year away from their families, and she had already started missing all of them.
She decided to go for the shopping, a day before. She picked her scooter and slowly crossed the corner of the colony road. It was late afternoon, almost empty road with a couple of people heading towards the temple where a small vegetables and fruits market was recently opened in the vicinity of colony. Mukta stopped to tie her scarf properly, when she saw that somebody was cleaning the roadside, ‘maybe the society has employed someone to clean for Dussehra’, she thought. The man seemed to be very dark and shorter than an average human. He was wearing all oversized off white clothes, which might have been white long ago, now they were very dirty! She glanced over his gesture for a while and she felt he was very familiar. ‘Does he look like someone..?’ she stumbled across her own memory lane. After about half a minute, when she again looked towards the guy, she smiled. He looked exactly like ‘Popeye’, the cartoon serial character she used to see in her childhood. In fact, she and her brother started eating unsavory spinach only after they had watched Popeye drinking the spinach juice all along his adventures. He was super famous among the kids those days.
‘Wow, he looks exactly like Popeye’, she thought! ‘Just very dark, maybe… he is black Popeye, incredible!’, she smiled again. She went near the man, keeping not less than 2 feet distance. ‘Hello Kaka,’ she mumbled. He glanced up instantly. He was dark, like coal or like chocolate, she was unsure! Still he was different.
‘Do you work here?’, she asked softly.
He nodded positively. ‘Ho’, his voice was hoarse. He stopped his work of collecting garbage and looked to her eye to eye. His strength was meager but there was hope in his deep buried eyes. He was poor, very poor, strength-less, malnourished, dirty and had no front teeth. ‘But he is not a beggar, that is praiseworthy’, Mukta thought.
‘Will you come tomorrow at the same time? I have something for you’, she had to rush to the market as she had to get back home before Rishi returned. He nodded positively.
At night, Mukta opened her shopping bag. The dress was surprise for Rishi, so she did not disclose it. But she had bought a big sweets and namkin box too, gift wrapped for the garbage man, she kept it wrapped in the other bag and went to sleep.
Next day, she celebrated the auspicious Dussehra with all the prayers, calling elderly of both the families and finally gifted the dress to Rishi. He was surprised and he promptly wore it. They were happy. She almost forgot the time, when her attention was caught up by a fruit vendor shouting. She checked the watch, it was almost the time. She picked up the bag. It was a public holiday, so her husband was resting in the afternoon. She quickly put on her slippers and rushed to the colony corner. He was there, cleaning the other side of the road. She went near him and took out the gift packed sweets box from the bag. She greeted him ‘Happy Dussehra, Kaka’, and looked for his expression.
He was shocked, surprised. There was a question in his eyes ‘What is there in this box’, he must be imagining. ‘Food and sweets’, Mukta was quick in answering, though there was no question asked. He did not know how to thank, and neither did Mukta stop there for any greetings, as they were not necessary. She came home.
The next afternoon, she was curious if he was there. She put on her floaters and again crossed the road. He was there, two blocks ahead. She went near him and asked him to wait. Coming back home, she packed some leftover food and sweets from yesterday and gave those to him. He took the food without any question.
Now it was her daily routine to pack food for him, in fact she cooked one meal extra especially for him. There was almost no conversation between them, but now she could see a smile on his face, a teeth less smile! It was weird, but she never cared for his physical appearance.
Diwali was three days ahead. Rishi did not get leave this Diwali, so they had to stay here and celebrate the festival by themselves. Mukta was sad and a bit exhausted. But she decided to be calm and plan for Diwali. She bought a lot of diyas, candles and got a dress for herself. She got a new shirt and sweater for her new acquaintance, and was planning to gift him on Diwali.
That day she went to give him the meals, but he was not there. She walked all the blocks but to no luck. She got upset. ‘Now what should I do with this food’, she thought. She came back home and sat for a moment calming herself.
That day she remained upset in the evening, but tried to hide her feelings. She didn’t want to put Rishi through a new episode of emotional drama after his long day at work. She skipped talking.
The next day, she again packed the food and looked out for him. But he was not there, anywhere. Now she felt a little worried. Her anger slowly was turning into deep concern she felt towards the man. She sat on a bench and was wondering what might have happened to him. ‘Is he in some genuine trouble? Does he need some help? Is there some way to contact someone?’, she remembered an accident that had happened a day before in the night, when she and Rishi were going for a drive. They could not see the victim, but Mukta remembered a single slipper she saw lying beside the divider. Now her heart was beating faster. She started feeling nauseous and was not able to hide her distress. Blank and scared, Mukta returned home, all the way wanting to cry, her heart was heavy, it felt like she lost something precious, something dear to her heart, and it felt that she will never get it back, the loss was permanent!
Mukta did not make dinner that day she neither could read anything nor did watch her favorite show. Rishi noticed her plight as soon as he entered through the door. Her face was pale and there were no greetings. He sat on the couch and without removing his shoes, asked what was bothering her. And she did burst into tears all of sudden, and started crying, he hardly understood anything.
After a minute, seeing her in such a grief, he too started getting worried thinking what bad could have happened, did something happen at home? He felt the urgency to know the reason, he asked about everyone at home. Mukta slowed down, wiped her tears and told him everything and apologized for not letting him know that she was helping the poor man by donating food! She didn’t want him to worry for her safety or doubt the poor creature!
He heaved a sigh of relief, and hugged her. ‘You are thinking of the worst possible scene. May be he would have got some work at other place. May be he went to some other town or nearby village. As he works on daily wages or so, he is free to go anywhere. You will see him sooner. Be patient and believe that good things too can happen’, he wiped her eyes and asked if she will have some coffee. ‘I will make some coffee for us today, you get dressed up, after coffee let’s go and dine out.’ She shook her head saying no to dining out, she was not feeling like going anywhere. He called a nearby restaurant and ordered some food, Mukta did not eat well that night neither could she sleep.
The next day she again went to check on him, he did not show up! Now she was losing hope, the other day was Diwali and she did not want to celebrate their first Diwali away from the family like this. She decided to cheer up, pray the God for the poor man’s well being and move ahead. She got ready to go for shopping as she was going to make Diwali sweets and decorations that day. She made herself understand that she cared for the person in whatever way she could but God cared for him before anybody else and God will do the same forever. She felt good about herself that she got an opportunity to be of some help to an unknown needy person. She pampered herself that day and appeared jolly to everyone again, to Rishi and all the neighbors.
A couple of days after Diwali, she was out for buying groceries for dinner. Though she agreed to herself not to worry about the man, she did find one reason or other to get out of house around 4 pm in the evening.
And that day was her lucky day, she saw him again! Mukta immediately parked her scooter and walked towards him. She was about to bombard him with all the questions and scold him for what he did, but what she saw amazed her. He was wearing a clean light blue shirt and a cleaner pyjama. He was still picking up garbage, but his face was glowing. She stood beside him, his smile was eternal.
He hurriedly walked two steps towards the adjacent tree and opened his half torn bag hanging from the tree. He took out a small box out of the bag, it was a box of sweets! Standing against her, he offered the box to her, saying ‘Diwali’, her eyes didn’t blink for a moment! She was pleasantly shocked, astonished! She never expected that she will get a gift from a poor man like him. She never thought it was even possible, she didn’t know he noticed and cared for her. Mukta always thought she had everything, she can always give, he had nothing and he can never give.
Her notion was wrong, he proved that he too was a human with a sense of gratitude, he too understood the happiness in giving, gifting! She was taken back by his gesture, she smiled and thanked him whole heartedly. Her eyes were going to be filled with tears of joy. But she had to hide them, she needed the strength to hide her emotions. She didn’t want him to know that she cries, because she always had been a giver, with abundance, she always had been on a stronger tide. She took a deep breath and asked him with a strong voice ‘Where were you in the last week? You didn’t tell me you were going somewhere.’
His face was blank with no answer. He then started showing his new shirt. His voice was terrible as he had a few teeth left and people would definitely find it hard to understand him. But as Mukta always observed him keenly, she understood that he was saying that he bought the clothes by himself from a roadside vendor in the city main market.
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Mukta asked him about the money and he told he could save some as he didn’t have to buy the afternoon meals…
Lo and behold! She stood still, and felt like in seventh heaven, overwhelmed! She quickly controlled her feelings, for a moment she had lost herself, but she came back to the world swiftly and asked him to wait. ‘Kaka, thamba,’ (uncle, wait), she said and ran towards her scooter, getting back to the house. She opened her closet and took out the shirt and sweater she had bought for him and quickly prepared two sandwiches for him and packed them. She gave the gift and food to the man and said ‘Diwali’!
They both exchanged smiles.
She asked him to come the next day and left thinking about the meaning of happiness in the life. She could not wait to tell Rishi what she encountered that evening. She felt the joy from within her heart, the happiness which was not obtained from buying something for herself, the happiness didn’t involve travelling somewhere long distance, neither it involved huge money, nor it involved huge success, neither it involved any dreams coming true nor it involved any expectations being fulfilled. The happiness was so pure, it was the happiness of giving, caring without any expectation, giving without any demand.
This kind of happiness was definitely the God’s gift to his children, as flawless as the God himself!