Posted by Tejas Doshi on Sep 3, 2017
At one point, after reading The Gift by Khalil Gibran, Harshida aunty invited everyone to share a story about a gift that we have received and that has impacted our lives for good in one way or another. Amongst a few wonderful stories shared, including a story about a math teacher by Prahallad, I was encouraged to share a story of an angel, an unknown old man, who awakened the joy of reading in my life.
It was during the year 2000-01, when I was staying in a hospital in Ahmedabad, India, with my uncle who was going through a critical medical issue that called for a major surgery. During my six month stay in the hospital, which included pre and post surgery periods, life presented me the opportunities to witness itself in its full glory of joy, reunion and hope as well as those dark days of suffering, loss and the pain of separation. As I quietly observed patients and their families battling diseases to the best of their emotional and financial circumstances, it was heartbreaking to see suffering with no visible end.
During those days in the hospital, I used to have a few down hours in the afternoons/evenings post the morning blood draw, previous day’s test results, making runs for specific medicines and meals, meetings with the doctors for the decisions on next steps and communications with my dad on decision making. I tried filling the down time with conversations with sisters (nurses) at the nurse station, relatives of other patients and, the cashier at the drug store. Conversations would usually be around giving a hand with bringing meals, doing medicine runs, and occassinsaly helping other patients/relatives with finances. Evenings would usually entail going on a walk to the Hanuman Temple in the military cantonment in Sahibaug area.
I would encourage four older men, relatives of patients on the same floor, I called them Dadajis, to walk with me to the temple. The path, once we entered the cantonment area, was quiet, dimly lit since the tall healthy trees on both the sides of the path covered the street poles. We would walk to the temple, do darshan and sit on the steps talking. I would listen to them exchanging stories about their lives. There is something very special about human behavior. When you see your suffering is common to that of the people around, conversations become more candid as hearts pour out and stories flow. Maybe it is that innate tendency of finding strength in unity. Occasionally I would interrupt their conversation by asking questions when curiosity about something would get the better of me. Sometimes, I would go to the cash register guy in the drug store on the ground floor OPD area. During weeks of my stay at the hospital and standing in the queue for getting medicines, I made friends with him. I would go sit with him during slow hours. He was an incredibly generous man who used to find creative ways of bringing free sample medicines to a few patients in the general ward.
But these walks, conversations with sisters or the cash register friend would not always happen given different circumstances these friends would be in. There would be at least a couple of days in the week where I would desperately try something to keep my mind occupied. Witnessing a lot of suffering around, there was always a possibility that I would feel isolated and slip into negative thought patterns, especially during the weekends when things will turn slow and I would have no-one to talk with. My uncle would be more often than not in a bad physical state. Sitting by his side and comforting him, and a few other patient friends, I would need a breather. I would need a walk or someone to talk with. During those days, I wasn’t much into reading.
On one such weekend, I happened to be talking with a sister at the nurse’s station when I noticed a bunch of books on the counter. I just randomly picked a book and skimmed through it. It was a Hindi translation of a few of Gibran’s poems. It caught my attention. The other book was Osho’s book on meditation. As I was looking through these books, the sister, with a broad smile, offered me the books to keep for some time if I felt like reading them.
Pleasantly surprised, I said thanks and grabbed the books and went back to the room. It felt like I had something to hold on to during the weekend. I read the books and pulled out my journal to pen down reflections. The weekend went well. The Hindi translation of the poems brought some kind of joy. A couple of days later, after the morning rush, I went to the sister station to return both of the books. The sister there asked me to skim through the bunch of books on the counter again and offered me the books to borrow. And I did. It felt like I had found a way to keep myself busy during the weekends when things got slow and when I had no company. Reading inspired me to reflect, which in turn inspired me to journal my thoughts. It became almost like a regular practice.
After a few weeks into borrowing and returning books a sense of gratitude prevailed. I asked the sister about the books and who brings them to the hospital. She shared that these books were brought by an old man. She said, “This Gandhian old man comes by in his khadi kurta and a khadi bag. He brings in a bunch of books in his bag and replaces the old bunch on the counter with the new one.”
The pressure of joy in my chest was building up as my eyes lit up. Excited, I expressed my wish to meet this wonderful old soul. I wanted to personally express my gratitude to him for this wonderful gift of reading. Sister shared that the old man does not talk much. He does not have a fixed schedule. He randomly shows up anytime wearing a gentle smile on his face, walks in with his stick, his khadi bag full of books, replaces the books and walks away.
I asked sister for his name. She said, “We do not know his name. We have tried asking him for his name, but the old man refrains from telling his name. He just gently touches our shoulders, smiles warmly, and walks away.”
I have been wondering about this soul whose gift has since created a blessed change in my life. I have not seen him, I do not even know his name, but he and his gift will stay with me all of my life. Oftentimes, I wonder what he might look like. Maybe like an angel, formless and shapeless, or maybe like a feeling in your heart, shapeless and formless but that brings you joy.