Rohan looked at his watch for what seemed like the millionth time, a movement that was not lost on his wife Sonal.
“Why do you keep doing that? It won’t make the flight land any faster!” Sonal said with some irritation. “And stop shaking your leg so vigorously!”
He made a noncommittal sound and picked up a magazine. They were in the airport lounge, waiting for his father Shankar’s flight to land. It was his father’s first trip out of India, but that was not the only reason for Rohan’s nervousness. He had drifted emotionally apart from Shankar ever since he had chosen to work in the Silicon Valley, California six years earlier.
Shankar, who had been a scientist at the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO for short, had hoped that Rohan would follow in his footsteps. Rohan’s choice of settling for a well-paying, comfortable job in a foreign country had disappointed his father for three reasons: firstly, Rohan was not working for the betterment of his country of birth by choosing to settle abroad; secondly, Rohan would not be there for his parents in their old age, something that was expected from every Indian son; thirdly, neither Shankar nor his wife would be able to watch their grandchild grow or be involved in its upbringing.
Rohan on the other hand believed his father’s ideas to be outdated and in his opinion, he had only done what any smart young person would do—he had secured his future, and the future of his wife and yet to be born child.
The relationship had grown even more strained after the passing of Rohan’s mother the previous year. She was the one who had forced them to talk over Skype every week, even if the conversations had barely lasted a minute.
Barring the time Rohan had declared his intention of taking up a job in the US and moving there with his wife and unborn child, there hadn’t been any impassioned fights or exchange of harsh words between the father and son. But they never seemed to share anything meaningful either. They safely avoided topics that could hurt either of their feelings, especially after the way things had gone down that one time, leading to many long, uncomfortable pauses in the conversation.
He checked his watched again, and with a jolt realised that it was well past 2 am! That meant the flight would land any minute now. As they hurried towards the international arrivals gate, Rohan’s eyes were anxiously scanning the faces of people. When he spotted his father, he felt his stomach clench.
How could he manage to look exactly the same year after year, Rohan wondered! Shankar was wearing his trademark white, half-sleeved cotton shirt, was still tall and unbent, and his large white moustaches were still the most prominent aspect of his face. But when he got closer, Rohan noticed that the lines around his eyes had gotten deeper and he looked fatigued. He was seized by a sudden pang of guilt. It must have been really difficult for the old man after the death of his wife. How was he managing on his own?
But he quickly squashed down his feelings; now was not the time to ponder over them. Besides, he had tried to make Shankar come and live with them, but he had stubbornly refused. What else could Rohan do?
“Hope the flight wasn’t too uncomfortable?” Rohan said in the way of a greeting as he helped Shankar with his luggage.
“It was quite alright, thank you.” Shankar said. The father and son stood awkwardly for a minute, looking at each other till Sonal intervened.
“Shall we make a move then? Papa, you must be really tired after that long flight!” She said, ushering her father-in-law and husband out of the airport. “Aryan is very excited that you will be here for his sixth birthday! It is all he has been talking about the whole of last week!” Sonal smiled at Shankar, catching his eye in the rear-view mirror.
Shankar smiled and nodded. He was eager to spend time with his grandson.
The next morning, Shankar woke up feeling dazed and disoriented. He heard a murmur of voices right outside his room.
“But why can’t I wake Grandpa up?”
“Because he is tired from his long flight.”
“But I want to talk to him!”
“Come on down and help me make breakfast!”
“Enough Aryan! Your Grandpa needs his rest.”
Shankar heard Aryan dragging his feet, making as much noise as he could, as he headed down. Since he was just as eager to meet his grandchild, he hurriedly freshened up and headed downstairs.
“Grandpa!!!” Aryan launched himself at Shankar with a squeal of delight and hugged him tightly. As Shankar lifted him high in the air, he felt tears prick the back of his eyes. But he belonged to a generation where tears, especially when shed by men, were considered a sign of weakness. So he hastily swallowed them as he set Aryan down.
“You are growing like a weed!” He said, as he surveyed the thin little brown-eyed boy in his rocketship pajamas.
“I’m almost as tall as you now!” Aryan bragged as only a child can, standing on the tips of his toes, trying to make himself as tall as possible. The top of his head barely reached up to Shankar’s waist.
Shankar picked him up again and held him up high in the air.
“Now you are taller than me!” Shankar said as Aryan wiggled his legs and laughed.
After a while, they both settled themselves down at the kitchen table, with Aryan chatting nonstop.
“I hope we didn’t wake you up with all the noise,” Sonal said with an apologetic smile.
“Oh no, no! I was already awake!”
“Breakfast won’t be long. Coffee?”
“Thank you, yes please.” Shankar said, accepting the cup of strong black coffee. “So Rohan is still asleep then?”
“No, he stepped out very early today. Had to go to the office.”
“I didn’t know he worked on Saturdays.”
“Papa goes to work on Saturday sometimes,” Aryan chimed in, drawing Shankar’s attention back to him. He was sitting on the chair next to Shankar with his feet dangling, not happy to be ignored by his Grandpa for even a minute. “Mom is going to make upma for breakfast today. I wanted to have chocobombs and milk, but she only lets me have it as a special treat.”
“Your mom is a clever woman.”
“I am clever too! Look at my school report! Mom put it up on the ‘fridge! I got an A+ on spelling!
With Aryan talking a mile a minute, Shankar didn’t have to do much to keep the conversation going. As a result, he found himself wondering if his son had stepped out of his home so early in order to avoid him. The look on his face seemed to have given Sonal some clue, for she reassured him.
“This is a really busy time for Rohan, with his promotion due in a few weeks.”
“Oh. Right.” Shankar hid his disappointment. He had made this trip with the purpose of repairing the relationship with his son. But if he worked on weekends, when would he have the time to talk to him? His wife’s passing had made him realise how uncertain life was.
“Grandpa! Grandpa!” Aryan was tugging on his shirt, wanting his sole attention.
“Yes Aryan?” He said with a wide grin on his face. If his son couldn’t spare the time, he would at least enjoy his time with his grandson.
“It is my birthday in three weeks!” Aryan said with an excited grin. The boy looked tremendously adorable, having lost both his front teeth.
“Have you brought special gifts for me?” Aryan demanded.
“But of course I have!”
“It is a remote-controlled car? Is it shiny and red?” Aryan was practically bouncing up and down in the chair.
“No! It is something better!” Shankar winked conspiratorially.
“Something better?” What is it Grandpa? Is it an airplane that flies? Please tell me pleeeeeeeeassssee!”
“Aryan, stop bothering him!” Sonal chided Aryan, looking apologetically at Shankar.
“Never mind, Sonal! This young man will have to wait and see, won’t he?”
The day of Aryan’s birthday party had finally arrived. That also meant that Shankar would be flying back to India the following day.
Rohan had been tremendously busy throughout the duration of Shankar’s stay with them, spending up to twelve hours at work. The only time they spent any time together was in the mornings when Rohan had a hurried breakfast.
On the morning of Aryan’s birthday, Shankar was surprised to see Rohan getting ready for work.
“Dad, are you going to work today too?” Aryan could not keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“I’m sorry, Aryan. I will come back in time for the party I promise,” Rohan said, ruffling the boy’s hair.
“And you know what? On my way back, I also have to get the very special gift I have ordered for you. They have been keeping it at the store you know,” Rohan winked at his son.
“Whoa! Is it extra special?”
“Alright then! But you promise to be back for the party?”
“Of course! Now be a good boy and help Mom!”
With a slight nod in his father’s direction, Rohan rushed out of the house.
The party had been a tremendous success. Sonal had set up an inflatable pool in their backyard, there had been water fights with balloons and water pistols, the kids had the run of the place, and they hugely enjoyed themselves.
After the guests departed, Aryan eagerly pounced on his presents.
Rohan had been only a little late to the party, but after opening his birthday gift, which was a battery-operated flying airplane, Aryan had forgiven his father and hugged him tightly.
“Grandpa look! Dad got me a ‘plane! Can we fly it now please?”
“It is quite dark now Aryan. We will do it tomorrow!”
“Grandpa, you have forgotten to give me your gift!”
“Right you are! Come on in! It is time to give your gifts!”
Grandfather and grandson walked back into the house, with Aryan holding Shankar’s hand.
Shankar opened his suitcase and pulled out an old cloth bag. Aryan was puzzled. In his experience, special toys came out of shiny new packets, not old bags.
“Come on! Sit down with me!”
Shankar and Aryan sat cross-legged on the carpet. One by one, Shankar proceeded to pull out handmade wooden toys. There was a horse that rocked to and fro on its base. There were girl dolls with colourful sarees painted on them and boy dolls with turbans on their heads. There were immaculately painted houses, a small train, many multi-coloured doughnut like rings of different sizes, a cow who had wheels instead of feet, and also some bright yellow ducks. And there was a shiny red spinning top.
Whilst all the toys showed some signs of wear, it was nonetheless evident that they had been lovingly preserved.
Aryan looked at the spread before him with an unsure look on his face.
“Grandpa? What are these toys? Are you sure that they’re better than a flying ‘plane?”
But Shankar hadn’t heard him. He gently picked up the wooden cow with a tender smile on his face.
“I got his particular toy for your dad when he was only two. He tied a string around its neck and dragged it behind him everywhere! Look how these wheels have been worn smooth! And these colourful rings? I got them for him when he was three. See how they stack up on top of each other so well?”
Aryan was fidgeting now, wondering why his grandpa was not answering the all important question. “But Grandpa, how are these better than a ‘plane?”
Shankar looked into the solemn eyes staring up at him and smiled.
“Because my dear, with a little use of your imagination, it is like playing with a different set of toys every time! This house for instance can be a palace today, and tomorrow it can be a farmhouse with all these farm animals. You can create new worlds for your toys every single day with your mind!”
“Cool! Can the farmhouse be near a train station? Then this train can pass through!” Aryan was warming towards the wooden toys now.
“Of course! Whatever you want!”
“That is awesome! Where did you get these toys from Grandpa?”
“There is a town call Channapatna, near Bangalore where these special toys are made. When I was in ISRO, I made frequent trips to the town, to buy these toys for your dad. He was crazy about them. All these toys belonged to your Dad!”
Aryan’s eyes went round.
“Really? Then these toys must be at least a gazillion years old!”
Shankar let out a laugh.
“They are old, but well loved,” Shankar said, pinching the boy’s cheek.
“Which was Dad’s favourite toy?”
Shankar picked up the shiny red spinning top and cradled it in the palm of his hand, stroking the smooth surface with his thumb. His eyes had gone misty and his voice was thick as he answered.
“But what does it do?”
“You pick it up like this and release it like so with a little flick!” With a skilled movement, Shankar let the top loose on the uncarpeted bit of the floor, so that it spun on its pointy end. Delighted, Aryan clapped his hands.
“Can I try?”
“Sure, go ahead!”
On his first two tries, the top just fell limply on its side. But on his third try, it gave a little spin.
“Did you see that? Did you? Did you?”
“Yes! You are a natural at it! Just like your dad!”
“Did he used to play with it all the time?” Aryan asked.
“He used to love playing with it! So much so that I had to take it away from him till he finished his school work!”
Aryan giggled when he heard that.
“Did you play with Dad too like you play with me?”
“We spent hours in his playroom, making up stories around these toys!”
“Cool! Now that you have brought them here, I hope he plays with me too, like he used to. Thank you Grandpa! I love your gifts and I love you!”
Aryan hugged Shankar, and then ran out of the room with the spinning top in his hand, to show it to his mother. He did not see Rohan, who had pressed himself against the door.
But Shankar had spotted him.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Shankar said addressing Rohan as he gathered the toys and started placing them back in the bag. “It seemed apt that I get these for Aryan.”
When Shankar looked up at Rohan, he was shocked to see tears streaming down his face. Rohan, who had followed Shankar and Aryan into the house to satisfy his curiosity, had overheard the whole exchange between Shankar and Aryan.
As Shankar had pulled out toy after toy from the cloth bag, Rohan had vividly remembered the long rainy afternoons he had spent with Shankar in his playroom. Shankar had never grown tired of playing the same game over and over again, spinning the top again and again, even though now as a father himself, he realised how much patience that must have required.
“I am sorry Dad!” he said and rushed in to hug Shankar.