It’s been four days since Mr S died. He of the sandwich-that-everyone-I-know-has-had-it-swears-by store, he of the lender-borrower of David Baldacci thrillers and Amitav Ghosh novels, he of the one always eager to discuss everything from the blasts to the crisp burgers he specialises in.
On Wednesday morning I stepped out to buy a pack of muesli loaves for my colleague. N store but was shut. I was astounded. Never had I seen it closed before except on sultry afternoons. ‘Oh god, is it something to do with Mr S?’
The owner of the store next door happened to be standing outside. I asked him, ‘Uncle, what happened? Why is it shut?’ To which he said, casually, ‘Oh the owner, that old man, he is dead.’ His helper boy gave me a grin.
I walked away.
Today, the same next-door-store uncle informed me it was a heart attack. ‘You know it happens. People die all the time. And heart attack is such a common thing really. Which is why I say, let us all be as de-stressed as possible,’ he smiled as he looked askance at this delivery man who kept nodding his head vigorously in agreement.
I met Mr S two years back when I shifted to this current flat of mine. My colleague’s husband, a food critic, had ranted about his sandwiches and described it as a local Pop Tate’s kind of a hangout. So soon I met him.
An ageing, portly man with round-rimmed glasses and a mustache that was curiously balanced midway between his nose and upper lip; it was trimmed so well that it did not actually touch either of the above mentioned features, it hovered between them oh so carefully (Ignore this weird fascination if you will. But I have this thing for observing different kinds of mustaches. If any of you ever read this short story while in school where in a particular village the caste and importance of the men were determined by the mustaches they sported -- lion mustaches, tiger mustaches, mousy mustaches and the like -- you would pretty much get the crux of what I am babbling about right now).
The moment he heard about what I do for a living he was respectful. I mean I was touched. You can see when one is genuinely nice.
With time I realized that he was an ardent reader. We became book pals. While initially I was just the lender, soon he started lending me books after he had taken permission from their owners. If a particular book of mine appeared to be in not great shape, he actually got it bound nicely so that the pages wouldn’t pop out. Further the covers were always in well wrapped in transparent plastic with no brown cover or so to take away from it. I remember the day I got back an Amitav Ghosh copy in a better condition than I had sent it out, I consciously deemed Mr S worthy of my books.
The last book I had borrowed from him was A Song for a Pagan. A travelogue by this fellow called John Bealby on his journey across Delhi, Pakistan and Afghanistan to discover little known places like Nuristan and Kafiristan in Afghanistan. Mr S had started reading it I remember when I spoke to him last on Friday evening. Did he get to finish it?
The store hasn’t opened till date. I wonder what will it be like to enter it when it does. To not see him at his usual place by the counter inside the store. To know that he will never be there.