Happy Birthday! – Sandeep Narayanan

“After a certain age, every day feels like any other day” Mark always said, but today would definitely be different. Today would be symbolic and unforgettable. It was his 76th Birthday.

It was raining when he woke up; it started as a drizzle, increased in intensity and then decreased again. It sounded like John Bonham practicing the drums on his window pane.

Getting out of bed had become a more arduous task these days, one of the side effects of growing old. Mark’s bones creaked more than the rickety old furniture he had in his small one bedroom house. As he stood up he looked at himself in the mirror near his bed and staring back at him was a wrinkly old man with a dozen hair on his brown head sprouted like a patch of grass in a desert. Who was this man?  He barely seemed to recognize himself anymore. In his mind he was younger with fewer wrinkles and stronger bones and a lot more hair.

Mark couldn’t bear looking at the stranger staring back at him from the mirror.

 He slowly hoisted himself off the bed and went into the kitchen.  He wasn’t in any particular rush; after all he wasn’t expecting anyone. He stood staring out of the kitchen window looking at the unpredictable Madras rains and smelling the hundreds of fragrances that were wafting through the narrow by lanes of Mylapore , trying to give each one a name, a memory.

Loneliness had been his friend for a long time now, seven years to be exact. Ever since Neelima had passed away. Since then life had become all about waiting and hoping – waiting for a phone call, hoping for a visit from his children, dreaming about a life surrounded by his kids and their family. But he knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Practicality had killed his dreams. Mark used to take pride in being a practical man and everything he did was ruled by his brain and never his heart. Neelima, on the other hand wore her heart on her sleeves. They made an unlikely couple but she was a perfect foil to his idiosyncrasies. She understood him like no one else ever could.

Neelima had warned him about being so practical all the time, “Keep going on like this and the children will hate you! Can’t you say one nice thing to them, huh? It is always a comparison, or an argument or something to belittle them! I am telling you, Mark, you are pushing them away from yourself”. To which Mark had a standard retort, “You know I love them, Neelu! It’s just that I want to toughen them up and be the be ready for the big bad world that awaits them. I want to be a good father to them.” Neelima used to shake her head in disagreement and mutter under her breath “A father needs to show his love and not be so practical all the time.”

The shrill noise of the doorbell broke his reverie, Mark sprang up in response, could it be them? It was his birthday after all. He adjusted his hair and glasses and walked towards the door expectantly.

It was a kid from the neighborhood. “Uncle! Our ball has fallen on your terrace, can I go get it, please?” the kid asked in a whisper as if he didn’t want anyone to hear. “Go along, get it but make sure it doesn’t fall here again, huh! Okay?!” The kid scampered away like a scared little mouse. Mark smiled to himself as he shut the door. It felt like just yesterday that Sunil and Rahul were running around the house making a ruckus and arguing about something or the other. The memory left him forlorn..…

Mark was not particularly emotional about anything. He never surprised Neelima with flowers or gifts; it was only when someone told him that gifting things to loved ones is a sort of social norm is when he started doing it, albeit like a chore.  He believed in being rational and practical even when it came to love. “All this love and emotion business is just a chemical reaction with some hormones thrown in, if you want to show love and concern, show it in action.” he used to say. And ‘show it in action’ he did. The kids went to the best schools he could afford; they had decent clothes and always had food on their plates. They didn’t want for anything. But along with this came the pressure to perform, the constant comparison with peers, the neighbors’ children and every similar aged cousin they had. Mark had very high standards for his kids and he pushed them to perform better and better. He never hit them but he effectively and constantly put them down with his sharp tongue and constant insults. Mark saw all this as a way of encouragement and motivation. Had he been too tough on them? Could he have been nicer to them? Was he a bad father ? These thoughts kept running around in his head making it hurt but never did he get any answers.

Mark couldn’t stop thinking about one incident which happened when Sunil and Rahul were kids. His memory wasn’t what it used to be but this incident was etched in his memory forever. It had changed and morphed over all these years but the memory remained with him like a flickering candle threatening to extinguish any moment.

Rahul had to write an essay on his Mother and Father. He came to Neelima and him when they were watching TV one evening. “Amma, we have to write an essay on you and Appa” said Rahul. “Oh! Is it? Have you written anything yet?” asked Neelima with a big smile on her face. Rahul beamed when he said “I wrote so many words about you, Amma!! It was so easy”. “And what about Appa?” she enquired. “Mmmmm” said Rahul fidgeting with his pencil “I wrote a little”. Neelima took the little notebook from him and looked at it. Rahul had barely managed to scrawl a few words in his childish writing. Mark grabbed the notebook from Neelima. He stared at it for a bit and said “Enna, Rahul? You don’t have anything to write about Appa?” Rahul looked scared. “Appa…I… I…” he mumbled. “Ha ha ha” Mark guffawed “ I didn’t know a thing about my father  and I turned out fine!! Ask your Amma about me, she will tell you and I am sure you can fill up pages”.  Mark looked at Neelima and winked at her facetiously. Rahul grabbed his book from Mark and ran to his room. Neelima stood up and glared at Mark and said “What is wrong with you, Mark? Doesn’t it make you sad your son doesn’t know a thing about you?” She walked away in a huff.

Mark wasn’t worried. He never hated his parents, they didn’t shower him with attention all the time or appreciate every small success of his.Being a parent is no easy job and he respected his parents for performing it dutifully.

Maybe it started then, maybe he never tried to get to know his sons and that is why they never tried to understand him.

It was just him and his thoughts now, his children hadn’t visited him in years, he wasn’t friends with his neighbors, he never took part in any social functions in his locality. He never felt any practical need to do so.

He decided to get up and make some coffee. The coffee powder was almost finished; he would need to get that from the store. There wasn’t any milk so it had to be black coffee today. He didn’t plan on going to the market to buy the groceries for the month. What was the point?

Mark missed his sons terribly. He missed his wife. But mostly he was angry that there was no one was to celebrate his birthday with. What crime had he committed? All he had done was treat his children like adults and not little babies all their lives. What was wrong with that? It was his so called “harsh” words which had made them who they were. Not  like Neelima who had only spoilt Rahul and Sunil, always babying them.

All that didn’t matter anymore though now, and it didn’t especially matter today. There was no point thinking  about and regretting the choices he had made in the past. There were a lot of things he would have done differently or would he have? There was nothing wrong in what he did, he was the best father he could have been to his kids. All that didn’t matter though considering that on this birthday Mark had decided to end his miserable existence.  His children did not care if he was alive or dead; his wife, his sole support in life had died. What was the point of going on like this? He had thought of this and the only logical thing to do was to kill himself.

How would he do it though, hang himself? The fan was a rickety old thing, wouldn’t probably handle his weight. Maybe a long slit on his wrists? Would be a bloody mess though. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he hadn’t thought it through well enough. His kids hadn’t come, what if they didn’t turn up at all? What if his dead body wasn’t found for days or for weeks till the stench of his rotting corpse became unbearable and some neighbor accidently discovered him.

Maybe for his next birthday he would plan it properly. He could research things better.

That would be the practical thing to do.

Legend:

Amma: Mother

Appa : Father

Enna: What

Sandeep Narayanan is  a writer, dreamer and compulsive info-junkie. A full-time dad to three cats and a dog,he lives in Bengaluru

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