I tripped while climbing the narrow flight of stairs and would have fallen backwards, right down to the base, had I not gripped the iron railing in the nick of time. My clumsiness had cost me a bruise on my palm and a sore knee. I felt like a knife had pierced through my joints, but the stairway was isolated and unmindful of my pain, so I lifted myself and straightened up quietly to walk ahead. There were three more floors to climb, and an out of order lift. So, for all the good reasons, I knew why I was walking up eight floors.
The appointment had been fixed for 11 am. He was a big man to reckon with and I, still a fresher. It was March 2009 (so much for the accuracy of the month and the year; I still fail to remember the date). There were only two offices on the eighth floor. Recognising my destination, I pushed open the translucent glass door on my right, to enter the small bureau office of the regional Indian newspaper.
Boasting of just one staff member and a peon, it was a reflection of the quaint Indian offices of the 60s and 70s. The office’s old-world charm almost fitted the man who ran the show here daily. A veteran, he had exposed the underworld with his remarkably well-researched stories during his hay days as a crime journalist.
Now, a healthy 65, he still believed in reporting crime with an overwhelming sense of passion. He was seated on a cushion chair, in a sky blue shirt and a pair of casual jeans and was skimming through a heap of newspapers of the day, when I caught his attention.
“Oh! Sorry, didn’t see you come in… take a seat,” he said, as I moved towards the wooden chair that he had now dragged opposite his own.
Noticing me limp, he almost instantaneously asked, “If I am not mistaken, our building stairs did that to you”.
I smiled agreeing. “Don’t be embarrassed, it happens to me almost every second day,” he said and broke into a fit of laughter.
The next 30 minutes went quickly. We had a lengthy chat, one ranging from his experiences as a crime journalist for over three decades to all the big stories he had broken during that time. Most importantly, he shared his contacts to help me with my research, and a 500-page thick book on the leading global Mafia men of the 70s and 80s.
“The stories in this book are quite interesting,” he said, “Part of my favourite collection from my library. It shouldn’t take you more than a month to read”.
“Oh! That’s amazing,” I said and in my moment of enthusiasm, added, “Give me two weeks. I shall return it to you”.
“A month is fine, but if you can return it in two weeks, nothing like it. Sorry for being so fussy, but most of my journalist friends have borrowed my books and then lost it later. Since then, I have become extra careful.”
I nodded in agreement. “I know how it feels. Losing a book is like losing an ornate jewel from your neck piece,” I said.
He broke into a fit of laughter. “Do you know of this saying,” he asked, as he went on, “He who lends his book is an idiot. He who returns it, is a bigger idiot… I think I am a plain idiot, my friends aren’t”.
“Anyway I think this old man is boring you a little too much”.
“No, not at all… but I shall get going now,” I said, and got up to leave, “Will meet you in two weeks”.
“Yes hopefully. That is if you like being a considerate idiot and would oblige by returning my book”.
We both laughed. He dropped me till the stairway, and as I was getting ready to walk down, he shot another of his laughter-inducing jokes, “Don’t limp again. Be safe”.
It was November, 2009. The chill of the wintry month was already in the air. I was walking past the building I had visited some nine months ago, when a feeling of guilt overcame me. Alas, I had chosen against playing idiot. It was not like I did not want to return the book, but after sitting with it for over three months; I just did not have the courage to give it to him. While I had assured him that it would be on his desk within two weeks, procrastination had got the better of me.
“With what face would I go back there,” I thought to myself. I had half-a-mind to visit him and apologise, but the book was not with me, also a signage on the board at the entrance of a building, stated that the lift was out of order. “Not again,” I muttered to myself and walked away instead.
Months went by and the guilt of not having returned his book slowly started eating me up. As a last attempt at saving face, I decided to go and meet him and handover his book. I wrapped it neatly in paper, and wrote a small note with the saying that he had first mentioned to me, ending it with a “sorry” and “smiley.” A box of chocolates came in handy.
When I reached the building, I was relieved on seeing a liftman at the passage and rushed inside, lest it stopped working any moment.
“Eighth floor,” I said. “He pressed the lift button. For a change, I had assailed to the floor effortlessly.”
I smiled to myself as I got out, remembering having limped my way up the last time.
On reaching, I opened the door of the newspaper office.
There, sitting on the cushioned seat, was a young woman, who seemed to be in her late 20s.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I wanted to meet Prashant sir”.
“Oh!” she squeaked surprisingly, “Please have a seat”.
“You had some work with him,” she asked, noticing the chocolate box and package I was carrying in my hand.
“Yes, I had to return his book”.
“Oh! The mafia book you mean”.
I looked down embarrassed. “He must have told everyone, about how I was like all the other journalists, who had failed to return his books,” I thought.
“Yes,” I said.
“You won’t believe it, some months back, he had left a note with his peon for a girl who would return with his book, just incase you’d visit the office in his absence. I suppose it was for you.”
“Yaa.. may be,” I mumbled.
“Give it to me, I will return it to his wife.”
“Wife? Where is he? ”
She hesitated for a second, “Uh!! Sir passed away in November last year. He tripped from the steps of this building, and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors say that he died of shock. He suffered a heart attack ”.
For a moment, my legs froze. It was just a year ago, that I had met him in this same office. His death was life’s greatest ironies. The stairs, a part of his everyday comic tale, had now become part of his death tale.
I left the office quietly, when the girl stopped me. “Hey, I forgot to give you the note,” she said, placing the chit on the palm my hand.
I opened it. It read, “You are such an idiot.”
My eyes couldn’t hold back a tear.
P.S. Partly inspired from a true story