The late afternoon autumn sun was caressing me with its warmth, as I sat relaxed on the bench in the local park.
The park was well maintained with manicured grass lawns. There were also plenty of seasonal flowering plants, showing off their blooms on both sides of the clean pathways. It was quite a treat to behold, especially in our town known for its infamous smog and dust from its numerous factories.
A decade ago, the park used to be a great attraction for the local residents. In the afternoons I used to observe the kids running around and enjoying themselves, while their mothers huddled around chatting and knitting. But of late, the mothers seemed to prefer to stay at home and watch the soaps on cable TV and the children were engrossed in their video games. Ergo, nowadays, the park remained mostly empty except for a few derelicts.
I let out a big sigh and went back to reading the paperback edition of a crime novel, a 19th century classic. Since my school days I have been addicted to the printed word. I possess an insatiable appetite for classic fiction, particularly short stories. Whenever I read a book, I forget my surroundings and get completely transported to a different world and time.
After sometime, I realised that the sun had started to set and the light was beginning to fade. I closed my book and looked at my watch and saw that it was only 5 pm. I still had an hour before my shift started.
I worked as a clerk at the reception of one of the more decent hotels in town that was just a five-minute walk from the park. The hotel was very popular with business travellers as it was close to the railway station.
Just when I was contemplating whether to leave the park and go to the hotel, a nondescript middle-aged man came and flopped on the bench. He then proceeded to cover his head in his hands and let out a big groan.
“This has been the worst day of my life.” I looked up and saw that he was addressing me.
I remained silent as I preferred not to start a conversation with a complete stranger.
But he persisted, letting out a huge sigh, “All my life I have been a miser, but today my miserliness has cost me heavily.”
He looked at me for some encouragement, but I remained silent.
In fact I was in no mood to hear him out and wanted to leave the place.
But seeing my intention to rise from the bench, he handed me his visiting card.
I glanced at it without any interest, when the typical South Indian name caught my attention. It stated that he was one Mr SVSVR Reddy and he was the marketing manager of some private firm based in Hyderabad.
I have never been to any place in South India but I have read a lot about their culture and picked up a few words of greeting in all the four languages. Also, South Indians on business trips frequent the hotel where I work and I make it a point to greet them in their own tongue. They are, without exception, overjoyed at my efforts.
In the meanwhile, the man beside me went on to relate his story, “You see, I reached here today early morning to meet some prospective clients. I finished my business by 1 pm and had my lunch afterwards. By the time I finished my lunch, it was only 2 pm. My train to Calcutta is at 8 pm. I could have taken a room in some hotel, but being niggardly by nature, I decided against it. Upon seeing this beautiful park I lay down on the grass, resting my head on my briefcase.”
I now had no option but to listen to him.
“I must have dozed off for quite a long time when suddenly I was rudely awakened. Three rough-looking characters stood surrounding me and one had a knife at my throat. They forcibly took my wallet along with my train tickets, briefcase, identity cards and also my wrist watch. Then they jumped over the railing and took off on a motorbike. There was nobody else around.”
“Did you go to the police?” I asked.
“What’s the use? They will detain me with their formalities. But I have to reach Calcutta by tonight so that I can catch the early morning train to Hyderabad.”
“But you must have informed your office to help you out.”
“You see, that’s the problem. We do not have any base here. I have come here for the first time and I do not want to put myself in an embarrassing position by going to my prospective clients with this problem. Also my boss will be furious if he gets wind of this.”
He hesitatingly added, “If you can kindly spare me 120 rupees, I will be able to buy a ticket to reach Calcutta. There I have business associates who will take care of me. If you give your address, I will ask my associates to send you the money by postal money order immediately. I will be ever so grateful for your help.”
Seeing my hesitation he pleaded with me in a broken voice, “It is quite natural that you don’t believe me. But I have only one thing on me to prove that I am the person that I claiming to be.”
He then brought out a wooden card case. On it was his name engraved in golden letters.
But somehow I was not convinced by him. In fact, I was having a strange feeling of déjà vu. I mumbled an apology and hurriedly left for my workplace.
Reaching the hotel, I had a nagging doubt in my mind and wondered if I had been rather unsympathetic in my response to him. Then I remembered that I was still carrying his card. To satisfy my curiosity I put a call through to the landline number on the card.
A female voice answered, “Good evening, M/s … Private Limited. How can I help you?”
“Can I talk to Mr SVSVR Reddy please? My name is… I want to have a meeting with him.”
“Sir, Reddy sir is not in office. He is out of station.”
“Can you tell me where he would be now?”
“I am not sure sir. He may be now in Calcutta or he may be still in…”
I nearly jumped up from my chair when she mentioned the name of this town.
“Madam, my business is urgent. Can you please tell me when he will be back in Hyderabad?”
“Sir, he had booked a ticket for the return journey from Calcutta, by tomorrow morning’s train. So, he will be in office by day after tomorrow afternoon. Sir, I will tell him about you as soon as he joins office.”
I hung up after thanking her. By now, I was so ashamed of myself that I left my desk in the care of another clerk and left the hotel in a hurry. I had to make amends for my behaviour and help out the hapless man.
I reached the park running, but it was now closed. There was no one about.
I frantically ran to the station but he was not to be found. Then finally when I had almost given up I saw him near the ticket hall with a wretched look on his face.
I called him, “I am extremely sorry for my rude behaviour earlier. I called your office and they confirmed that you have come to this town. Sorry for suspecting you, but times are bad, you know. If 200 rupees will be of help to you, I will be glad to lend it to you. You can repay after you reach Hyderabad. Here is my address. Your train is not due for another hour. So have some food and have a safe journey.”
He mumbled something which I could not comprehend. But I saw the poor man shaking from head to foot, as I waved him goodbye.
Returning to my desk, I started to work with a satisfied mind.
Just then a gentleman came to my desk and said, “I want to check out please. I had checked in only this morning at 10 o’ clock. My room number is…” He handed me the room key.
When I opened the register I was shocked to see the name. Written there in neat capital letters was the name SVSVR Reddy, Marketing Manager, M/s … Private Limited.”
I was just on the verge of saying something to him, when he said, “By the way, I lost my card case. I may have misplaced it in the hotel conference room. But, I also went for a stroll in the park with a client after lunch. So, it may have dropped out of my pocket there. It is not very valuable, but I like it very much. So, if you come across it please keep it for me. I will be coming next week.”