A swarthy man in the front, wearing a black worn-out bowler hat reminded me of the tramp waiting for a certain Mr. Godot in that outlandish Samuel Becket play. In the worn post-office lobby, surrounded by surreal heaps of envelopes and forms, me and my brethren patiently waited for our turn.
* * * * *
My mind gets transported in place and time to a daily waiting exercise during my youth in India—waiting at the bus stop. This was accompanied by wayside real-life diversions. Hustlers trying to push their wares—alphabet books, spiced guava, stinking dried fish, coconut water. Romeos sporting centipede moustaches would strike romantic poses and furtively glance, not look, at the waiting bevy of coy college girls. Some played cards for cheap stakes, and sometimes there would be a preacher, wearing a morally indignant look along with a long black beard, trying to scare us with graphic descriptions of a blazing hell, where the fallen souls suffered from incurable toothache.
* * * * *
A grumpy clerk is explaining to a grumpier customer that large parcels to Canada need customs declaration forms. Even Canada? The old man sneers at the border laws. A matronly woman standing in front of me turns around in a Paris Hilton three-fourth posture, to grimace. I try to humor her, “We should invade Canada.”
“But not the French part,” comes the comely rejoinder.
From the busy street outside I can hear the reverberations of rap, threatening to damage the eardrums of some of the waiting elders fitted with hearing aids. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of two youngsters in a beat-up Chevy, impatiently waiting at the lights with their windows down. Emenem spewing well-rhymed bile at his ex-wife who divorced him twice. A man somewhere behind our line observes in a sardonic tone, “The sound of music.”
* * * * *
My thoughts meander to an idealistic period of my life; much before the prudent arms of Calvinism rescued and put me on a much-trodden safer path. Seeking the meaning to everything was like a passion in my youth. When existentialists like Sartre and Kafka pronounced man to be a creature condemned to death, it was manna for my rational young mind. Then I tinkered with Buddhism, where souls don’t exist, and the general drift is that we are merely choice less observers in life, like waiting in a line. Later, I nibbled a bit on the Advaita School, which spread the message that the pawn, and the hand that moves it, are the same, well, in the long run.
Eventually my net persuasion became a Macedoine of several Eastern faiths, which at times made me wonder if we are akin to players on a stage, with predestined scripts. Like jilted Hollywood actors, we could whine about the lousy role dished out to us, and nag our Agent Angel to get a cushy casting next time. My agnostic side ponders if our life is a book waiting to be completed, by some wannabe author pondering to add ghastly twists to our story line to impress some publisher. I hope their audience is mostly female, looking for Hollywood endings. Oops, I am rambling instead of closely watching the mail clerk’s body language.
* * * * *
Anyone here just picking up mail, with no cash transactions? Like a windfall tsunami the waiting of several of my mates is cut short.
The young, impressively dressed executive, the one with the broad cell phone, decides to call off the waiting and walks off in a huff.
Handing my large envelope to weigh for stamps, I remark to the stone-faced clerk, “Long line today.”
“It’s the same always. Never ends. You don’t see the same people, though.”
Like Roman priests who read entrails of sacrificed animals for divination, with age I have begun to dig for deeper meanings in trivial words or acts. Back in my car, the philosophical angle to the clerk’s seemingly commonplace words dawns on me. The National Public Radio station interrupts my train of thought. Fresh Air is doing a special on old Broadway musicals. They play the theme song from Zorba the Greek. The lyrics have such startling clarity that it stuns me; I almost hit the brakes.
The scene is a pub in a rustic Greek village, where the folks are in various stages of inebriation. A man asks in slight stupor, “What is life?” It’s a man with a woman; it’s a slug of Ouzo; it’s an olive branch; each comes up with a personal favorite. Suddenly a woman, with a deep mysterious ring to her husky voice, stops them all. “Wait. I will tell you what life is,” and there is a pregnant silence as the smoke-filled bar braces for the revelation of some divine truth. She pauses and delivers in a hushed, soft tone, “Life is what people do while they are waiting to die.”
The author’s 22-year-old son, Anand Kamicheril, died of a heart seizure on the morning of Aug. 31, 2006, while jogging. He had no past history of any ailments, just a normal healthy kid. This essay was written two weeks later while the family kept trying to cope and find meaning in life.