A lot of things had happened in the last 10 years. I'd completed my graduation and post graduation and wasted 6 long years learning nothing, Boris Becker had finally retired, India had become a nuclear power, Shah Rukh Khan had attained superstar status from being virtually nobody, IT and ITES had suddenly become 'the buzzwords', terrorism occupied newspaper headlines ever since Osama Bin Laden had attacked the world's most powerful nation, famine and hunger had taken millions of lives in Somalia and an Italian lady was now calling the shots in my country. The whole world had changed.....and so had father Thomas.
From the plush pink cushions at the reception, I stared down the corridor at the shriveled frame sitting behind the brand new mahogany table. The sight in front of my eyes was something I hadn't quite prepared myself for - disheveled hair, sunken eyes, a flowing robe that had clearly seen better days and of course, that famous cane stick he'd always used as a walking aid. He had aged so much in the years since I had passed out that he looked well past 80.
I was very edgy. Would he recognize me ? What would his reaction be ? Maybe coming back after all these years wasn't a great idea after all. I glanced towards Preeti who appeared calm and composed.
"Now don't forget to greet him as soon as you enter but do..."
" ...not be very loud. Do not make it obvious that you know that he is deaf and dumb..."
"Please. Don't ever refer to him that way. It sounds so demeaning. Let's just say that he can't speak and is a little hard of hearing but hey, he is very sharp and can lip read. The accident was really harsh on him, you know. They say he was a man who visited hell and came back."
"Honey, relax. I am sorry, I didn't mean to offend. But that’s the 12th time you have reminded me these things in the last one hour. I didn't know this thing meant so much to you."
"Of course it does. He is one of the finest human beings I've ever met"
I could no longer sit there and wait. I walked out towards the balcony and paced the floor nervously lighting up a cigarette.
I remembered the early days when Father Thomas was head of our school's stationery department and how we children would raid his store at the start of every academic year choosing school bags, water bottles and colored cartoon labels for our textbooks. He had always been a very kind soul liberally throwing in a lot of freebees for us rowdy kids. Then he had moved on to becoming the cultural co-coordinator, sitting silently in one corner of our auditorium watching us students match wits in literary and debating competitions and picking teams to represent us in external festivals. Even though it was a well known fact that he was 'deaf', I remembered the days when I would come to his office and lament on the latest failure or tell excited stories about how I had won the last quiz. He had always been very encouraging and it was during this phase that I had come to respect, love and idolize the man. When I had reached high school, a lot of changes happened - principals moved on, staff members retired or resigned but Father Thomas continued to remain and was in fact, promoted to bursar. I was now class captain and a member of the school student’s tribunal and in this capacity, there were more than a few occasions when I had to interact with Father Thomas. During all our exchanges, he impressed me greatly as a man of wisdom and understanding. So many wonderful memories but suddenly I was interrupted in this trip down memory lane by Preeti's ringing voice
"Honey, I think you should come in now."
I peered from where I stood and saw that Father Thomas and the visitor were now up on their feet. After exchanging a quick hug and a few parting words, the visitor departed. The peon who had been sitting outside walked in with my visiting card. Father Thomas threw a hasty glance at it and signaled to the peon to usher us in. I quickly extinguished the stub of the cigarette on the floor and joining Preeti, walked into his room. No sooner had I entered than I felt like I was back in surroundings which seemed all too familiar to me. I went straight to his seat and embraced him warmly. Father Thomas had recognized me easily and there was even a naughty twinkle in his eyes. I introduced Preeti to him as my fiancé and settled down to sipping the cup of coffee that he had laid out in front of us. Gesticulating with his hands, he asked me what I had been doing these last 10 years to which I responded with a quick update on the highlights of the last few years. The years had not affected his memory one bit and he proceeded to question me on some of my fellow schoolmates to which I answered with whatever precious little I knew of them. He then offered to show us around the school and for the next 30 mts we were taken on a guided tour of the new state-of-the-art auditorium with videoconferencing facilities, the astro turf hockey ground, the huge library, the computer labs and of course, our school zoo. We came back to his office and it was getting late for it was New Year's Eve. I greeted him in advance for the New Year, gave him the invite to my wedding in Cochin and earnestly requested him to make the trip since I knew he had relatives there. He promised to try and make it and bid us farewell. I was about to leave when he asked to spend a few minutes alone with Preeti. I was mildly surprised and looked anxiously towards Preeti but since she seemed more than eager to entertain the request, I left them alone and walked towards the parking lot.
Fifteen minutes later Preeti came out of the office and silently walked into the car. We drove silently for the next 15 minutes but I could sense that Preeti's mood had inexplicably changed. She was radiating happiness and could barely contain herself. I had seen this before and asked her if everything had went off well. She mumbled an incomprehensible reply. I preferred not to press the issue. Another five minutes went by and then she said
"I saw all those wonderful cards you sent him every New Year - he's preserved them all in an album"
"Hmm.. well.. so what.."
We drove on for another 10 minutes and then suddenly, from out of the blue, she kissed me on the cheeks. I was totally taken aback and did not now how to react.
"He told me all the stories - the first quiz you won in Std 6, the football trials you didn't make through...everything !!"
"You understood his sign language ?"
Screeeeeeeeeech ! Swerving towards the footpath, I slammed the brakes hard and brought the car to a grinding halt.
"He spoke to me. He can talk. And hear too."
"Don't swear, honey. And he also told me something"
"That I am a very lucky girl and I should never let go of you."
I was speechless. What a way to start the New Year !