He sat at his writing table, sipping his evening tea, gazing out into the wilderness, looking at nothing in particular. It was almost sundown and a brilliant ochre sky loomed above. An orange Kanchendzonga peeped from behind the pine leaves, gently swaying in the light breeze. The old man had witnessed evenings like this day after day, year after year; It was part of a routine that he had grown accustomed to, during these seventy years of his life. Winter had set in; soon it would be dark and cold. His wall to wall carpeted room was cosy and warm, a room heater at his feet. The view was magnificent, and this was the best room in the entire house. The walls had wooden panels and an extended bay window ensured no dearth of light or scenic beauty of the distant hills, the pines and the mighty snow-capped Kanchendzonga. The window overlooked the famous Himalayan toy train tracks and the sound of whistling every time a train came by, brought fond memories of near and dear ones living in faraway lands.
His reverie was disturbed with the entry of the middle aged housekeeper. After carefully placing a hot water bag beneath the quilt to keep the bed warm, she crossed the room, pulled the curtains and stood in front of him, head bent as a mark of respect.
“Dinner is on the table. If there is nothing more, may I take your leave Saab? “
“Yes. Tell Bahadur to come by 9 in the morning tomorrow. And ask him to bring his axe.”
“Yes Saab. Please close the door, it’s getting dark”. She was a trifle perplexed and wondered why he wanted Bahadur to get his axe.
The evening was getting dark and cold. A chilling breeze was blowing outside. The old man bolted the door from inside and returned to his table. Three envelopes lay in front, one from France, one from Bombay and the other from Kolkata. They would all be Christmas and New Year greetings from friends and relatives. He had dispatched the last bundle of Christmas cards earlier during the day when he visited the town post office. He visited the small hill town twice or thrice a week, walking five kilometers through the unmetalled mud and stone road. The return journey was always by car, the old World War II land rovers plying between the town and the outskirts. He would get down midway and climb a steep hill up a trail to reach the solitary house, on the top of the hill, surrounded by huge dark pine trees.
It was lonely up in the house, but he had grown accustomed to this solitude. Even a decade ago, the house was bustling with activities, sounds of constant chatter and laughter, visitors during summer and a different menu each night. His nephews and nieces had grown up, got married and left the place in pursuit of their own lives, career and families. Not that he minded, he was fond of being by himself. He had a library full of books and letters to correspond, a poultry and piggery to tend to. And a garden blooming almost all round the year.
The next morning was bright and sunny. The housekeeper came early and brought his morning cup of hot tea and two Marie biscuits. Breakfast would be at eight sharp. He hurriedly completed his morning ablutions, shaved and dressed. The housekeeper noticed he was unusually unmindful, preoccupied with some thought. He finished his breakfast of scrambled eggs, two slices of toast and a hot cup of milk tea in a haste, impatiently looking at his watch with an eye on the pathway. A little later Bahadur, a short but jovial man in his late forties, ambled along the narrow road, axe in hand and a song on his lips.
“Good you’ve brought the axe. Now let’s go towards the hen-house. Hurry up and get the food and baskets. And don’t forget the axe.”
The two left the house from the kitchen door and proceeded towards the poultry. The old man and Bahadur let the hens and the rooster out of the hen-house. The tiny yellow chicks scattered around the yard in varied directions, chirping in a chorus. Deft as he was, Bahadur immediately put a couple of cane baskets over them, lest they get lost.
The old man had brought a can full of chicken feed which he and Bahadur scattered across. Bahadur surveyed the shed for eggs laid overnight and gathered fourteen, carefully placing them in a basket which he had brought. The old man scurried out and stood in front of a giant pine tree, an old and mature one. He studied the tree carefully and beckoned Bahadur to come along.
“See that branch? I want you to cut it carefully, not hurting the other branches.”
Bahadur climbed the trunk and reached out for the branch. “Why do you want to cut it Saab?”
The old man did not reply. He only smiled with a twinkle in his eyes.
Having accomplished the task, Bahadur dragged the branch behind him and put it on the courtyard, in front of the kitchen. The old man examined it and gave a sigh of approval.
“Perfect! Just what you need for Christmas.”
Next Episode on 25th December 2020