The Lady With The Perambulator
Dr Bhupati Das
My wife, Shreya, kept reminding me that it was time to go out for our evening walk in the downtown park in Bellevue. Riaan, my son, had not yet returned from his office at Microsoft, Seattle. It was about 5 pm and the Sun was still strong. I was debating in my mind whether to wait for Riaan who then could go through the regular drill of locking up the apartment, switching off the lights and such other chores.
Riaan was taking time today returning and Shreya was getting impatient, she being careful that this old frame shouldn’t catch a cold. So, I decided to take the plunge on my own. Getting up from my arm chair, I put on my walking shoes, wrapped the muffler around my frail neck and asked Shreya to lock up the back door. I checked and then double -checked that I had taken the keys. Walking out, I carefully checked that I had locked the front door, turning the door knob once and then again to check, just in case. Walking down the stairs, Shreya again ran back to check that I could really lock the front door.
Talk about a careful old couple and we surely are. It also speaks volumes about her confidence on my abilities. The park is a bit away, say about a mile (in America, they still follow the imperial system whereas the rest of the world follows the easier metric system. They have to be different somehow like driving the car on the right). There are a few road crossings and some uphill climbing which is a bit hard on my old bones. But on a walk, I am like the lion pursuing an easy prey. Shreya asked me to slow down as we were approaching the first road crossing.
Then, I remembered that this wass not Guwahati and one just can’t cross the road at one’s sweet will. I looked for the ‘walk’ sign on the corner post which I found it after deep searching though Shreya remarked it was starkly visible. I pressed the walk sign and it said ‘wait’ as the red light was on the road signals. In line with my careful self, I pressed it again and it said ‘wait’. After a few seconds, the white light started blinking and I ran to cross though Shreya said there was no need for such tearing hurry as the white light stayed long enough for everyone to cross.
Notwithstanding, I did the same thing in the next road crossing and then we were on the downhill road to the park. There was no further arguments with Shreya and we reached the park safely. The circular park is well laid out with walking tracks, water bodies along the circular walking trail, huge green lawns and lots of shading trees. There are sitting benches parked along the circular walking track spaced reasonably. One round covers 600 metres.
Normally, I do about seven rounds whereas Shreya usually plonks herself on one of the waiting benches after two to three rounds. The park was fairly crowded with children riding bicycles, feeding the carefree ducks on the water bodies or generally running around. I noticed the diversity – people of all shapes, sizes, colours, age groups and walks of life doing their own things with not a care in the world.
I saw groups of people, both men and women, playing volleyball on the lush green field with makeshift nets, their gleeful shouts after scoring a point drove a tinge of jealously through me, always competing, not accustomed to clean fun on simple acts. The usual revellers were all there. I noticed an old man jogging past me when Shreya and I just started walking on our first round. Inspired, I was just about breaking into a brisk run when Shreya quickly reminded me that last time when I did such an over-enthusiastic act, I broke my leg. That took the fuzz out of me and I fell into my usual pace of walking. There were lots of walkers, some old, some middle aged but more young, single as well as pairs. It would be wrong if I say that I did not notice with more than a little interest the pair of beautiful girls in shorts ambling along, chattering and giggling. Oh, if I could have remained young. That tinge of sadness was rudely interrupted by a ring from Riaan informing that today was ‘Rakhi’ and Simi, my niece who was on a brief holiday in town, would be visiting us to tie rakhi on him in the evening. After promising him that we would return early, I resumed my walking. I noticed through the corner of my eye that Shreya was only a few steps behind. I was immediately overcome with a sense of competition and began walking faster.
When I was just about completing the first round, I first noticed the young lady with the perambulator walking ahead of me. She looked of Asian origin and I found her quite attractive. Her hair was falling quite nicely to her hips which undulated in rhythm with her steps forward. She kept adjusting her goggles and wore an interesting look. I noticed briefly that central to that look was the curious smile and the anxious glance she offered to the baby in the perambulator she was pushing. I thought it was quite natural for a young mother taking her baby out for some fresh air. As I overtook her in my second round, I could not help noticing the hint of the curious smile playing on her lips. I was not sure she noticed me and she fell behind as I was walking much faster than her leisurely stroll on the round. I also realised that Shreya had also fallen behind by a fair margin.
I increased my pace as if eager to see the lady in the next round of walk. I looked back every now and then to keep a track of how much she had progressed in her leisurely stroll. In my third round, I realised that she had noticed this old man- she glanced through me and then turned back to look at me again. By that time I passed her. I started walking faster with a zeal only a old man with a young picture in mind could have. By then , Shreya was already resting on a bench near our starting point impatiently waiting for me to finish my walk. But I had something else in my mind.
My mind was full of the image of the gracious damsel pushing the perambulator in rhythm with some tunes playing in her ear. I stole a glance backwards making a show of my casualness as I was not about to reveal my real intent to Shreya, who was sitting not far away and looking at me curiously, or so I thought, the tell-tale sign of a guilty mind. By now I was on my fourth round and was breathing heavily. Notwithstanding, I accelerated and searched with my eyes for the lady with the perambulator. She was not ahead of me. I looked behind me and then searched again with some urgency but could not locate my point of interest. By now I was gripped by an unreasonable sense of panic. I threw all caution to the wind and turned squarely back to investigate through my eyes the whole walking stretch . The lady is gone! Vanished! With a pang of sadness pounding my heart, I resumed my walk rather listlessly.
As I was coming to terms with the harsh realisation of the missing lady in my fifth round of walk, I noticed at a distance through the corner of my eye the lady sitting on a bench with the baby happily chattering meaninglessly in her lap. Actually the perambulator caught my eye first and then the human form, legs first, then the baby on the lap and then the beautiful Asian face. I was overcome with a sense of euphoria because I noticed her looking at me with more than a casual interest. I was intrigued! Was it my hallucination? Hiding my curiosity and assumed self-fulfilling satisfaction (male chauvinistic pig even at this advanced age) with great effort, I passed her with an expressionless face, though I noticed her looking at me intently.
In my sixth round also, I kept walking briskly ignoring my cringing bones, impatient to encounter the damsel of my by-now central interest. I was eating up the distance quite fast when I was distracted from my mission by Shreya who had decided to take in another slow round . I slowed down a bit while I overtook her vaguely aware that she would not be too pleased seeing me huffing and puffing. I found myself a bit irritated yet happy to find her so obsessed with my health and my old-self. But by then I was totally consumed with the other thought of that curious look. I could already make out the outlines of her form with the perambulator in the fading light sitting by the side of the bend.
As I approached her, I distinctly noticed her looking at me again intently. By the time I reached near the bench where she was sitting, she moved to one side of the bench as if making space for me to sit, all the time playing around with a colourful thread with her musical fingers. With my heart beating at a speed faster than ever , I sat down on the empty space in the bench created by the lady . And then I was hit by this unkind realisation that the colourful thread, I thought, she was holding was actually a sacred ‘rakhi bind’ she was lovingly clutching on.
She looked at me unseeingly lost in thought. A thought struck me; she must have missed her brother back in India on this rakhi day and I must have resembled him. This should explain her scrutiny of me, though it did not do my masculine ego any good. While my mind was dwelling on this dichotomy, she got up abruptly, gave me her trade-mark far-away look, hesitated as if to speak, shook her head in a strange way and started walking pushing the perambulator, the rakhi- strap still dangling from her fingers. I kept sitting there half-dazed till my reverie was broken by the ringing of my cell phone. That was Riaan informing me that Simi has already arrived to tie the rakhi. I signalled to Shreya that it was time to go. We started walking back home slowly, the image of the curious smile of the mysterious lady with the perambulator not far from mind.
Dr Bhupati Das, formerly Managing Director of Numaligarh Refinery Ltd and subsequently also of Bharat Oman Refineries Ltd, a multinational company, Dr Das presently works as an independent consultant, coach and trainer. He had also served a tenure of two years as Emeritus Professor of Dibrugarh University. He is an acclaimed poet and a fiction writer and writes in English