This is a short story about a man named Mr. Philip Vincent who used to live in the Christian Need Old Age home in New Delhi. When he died, he was 82 and used to love playing cards.
I met Mr. Vincent in the summer of the year 2006. I had organised a social service camp & the Christian Needs Old Age home was our first destination.
The place was dilapidated to say the least. It was unclean & unhygienic. The rooms were tiny, depressing and lacked basic facilities like a proper bed. They did not have attached bathrooms and the walls were barren, their paint crumbling off. There was a veranda which had a pile of dirty linen being washed by two ancient looking women, a kitchen were three women (I’m sure they were at least a 100 years old) were peeling potatoes & a dingy bathroom(by far the dirtiest I’d seen till then).
I led the way and soon, the tiny old age home was filled with shouts & animated conversation of 50 young students and 12 old inmates. As my friends prepared for the cultural show we had planned in the veranda, I went to speak to the warden.
She was surely the most devious woman I had ever come across. She took away everything we had brought for the inmates – biscuits, tea bags, sugar, quilts, blankets and bedcovers. She said it would be rationed amongst them.
I then asked her, “What are the problems you are having ma’am? Why are the inmates living in such dire conditions? What are the issues? Is it funds?”
“Why don’t you mind your business?” she said and started eating from a packet of biscuits meant for the inmates. It was appalling.
However, then, I did not know enough and felt I had no option but to trust the lady. I left her room feeling disgusted. The cultural show had begun. One of my friends was performing the Bharatnatyam dance I noticed that an old man was sitting all alone looking downstairs from the first floor corridor. His eyes were vacant and sad.
I went towards him and asked him, “Uncle, why don’t you come downstairs? It’s a really nice show we’ve planned out!”
“Hahaha! Beta, I wish I could, but you see, I have a problem in going up & down the staircase. My lower legs hurt. By the way, my name is Philip Vincent. And you are?”
“Uncle, I’m Suheena Bedi. I’m from DPS RK Puram. Uncle, why isn’t your room downstairs?”
“It is, but my friends are here so they help me come upstairs only once a day otherwise I have to pay extra.”
This reply rattled me. I broke down. My friends helped Mr.Vincent down and he enjoyed the show greatly.
During lunch, I sat with him and helped him eat. He told me a lot about himself. In his youth, he had been a software engineer with Microsoft and had graduated from IIT Delhi. We played a game of cards as well. In the evening, I asked him about the old age home and its facilities. He said, “I don’t want to start an endless tale!”
I promised to return soon and we bade farewell to all & left.
I returned to the old age home the following week. When I reached, I found Mr. Vincent and we settled down in the veranda with our pack of cards. We were playing Rummy when I asked him, “Uncle, why do you live here? What happened to your family?”
What a child I was! I still wonder how I had the courage to ask such a question, but then maybe that is childhood!
“It’s a long story………I wonder if you want to hear it”, he sighed.
“Uncle, please tell me!”
He told me that he had spent most of his life in Bangalore where he worked with Microsoft as a software engineer. His wife was a Bangalorean as well.
“Things were going very well for us, but suddenly one day, our life changed. I was returning home from work, when my car had an accident and some of my vital nerves were damaged. I could no longer continue working. The company paid for my treatment and gave me a generous pension plan but someone needed to take the family’s responsibility and the onus fell upon my son.”
“Was your son very young?”
“Well… he had just completed his graduation in business. He was 21 then. He wanted to study further, do an MBA. He had always been a bright boy………….,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I decided not to press the company for an insurance plan for me as I felt they had already done enough. I didn’t know if I was right in thinking that Thomas would be able to take over the reigns of our family, but as always, Thomas lived up to my expectations”
“Really, was Thomas supportive of your decision?”
“Thomas proved maturity way beyond his years. He upheld my ideals and my principals. I believe that one should never ask for anything unless one has a right. In this case, I thought that Microsoft had done enough for me. Thomas was a pillar of strength for Hema and me. He gave up his dreams of pursuing a doctorate in business studies and took up a job as an insurance agent with LIC.”
I suddenly looked at the time and realised how late it was. With the promise of returning the next day to complete the story, I rushed home.
At night, I only thought about what Uncle Vincent and I had spoken about. I thought about how self righteous and strong he was. One could learn so much from a man who placed his ideals above his family and himself even in times of crisis.
I lay in bed, tossing and turning, ruminating over what Uncle Vincent had told me about the problems of the Old Age home. There was a lot of corruption and the warden was running her own dictatorship. She was not accountable to anyone in the Christian Needs Society. She would often charge people extra for small things and threaten to throw them out. She would charge them extra if they wanted the clothes, books, food & other things people donated. All the money that was supposed to be paid to a cook and a lady servant was pocketed by her. The inmates did all the chores themselves. It was indeed a pathetic situation.
I soon dozed off-mumbling solutions (none of them were feasible) – in my head.
The next morning, I was at the Old age home again. I sat with Uncle Vincent on the first floor corridor. We spent a lovely morning playing cards and talking about the problems in the old age home. He told me he followed a simple philosophy in life.
He said “Albert Einstein once said the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. One should never close one’s mind but always look beyond the ordinary. I’ve never restricted myself from anything new and probably that’s why I was able to develop software!”
We started laughing!!
“Uncle, we still have to complete the story, you know!” I said.
“Oh yes! So where were we………ah yes. So my son took up a job as an insurance agent with LIC. He got a decent commission with every new insurance he sold and a fixed salary as well. Things started moving in the right direction and soon he was promoted to the position of branch manager.”
“Uncle, you never say anything about your wife?”
His face suddenly softened, his eyes sparkled and he said, “She was very special……she was the only real source of my strength, she always stood by me. She never questioned any decision I made. We had an arranged marriage and I think she was quite apprehensive about me initially……hehehe! She was very beautiful and I fell in love with her when I first saw her. She completed me and I feel that since she’s died there is a void in my life………………”
He became completely silent for a few minutes. He had a small smile on his face. I think he was picturing her and savouring thoughts about her.
He then went on to say, “She died very recently, just two years ago, in this very room, in front of my eyes.”
I was lost for words. How would it feel to be locked up in the same room where you actually witnessed your beloved draw her last breath?
Lunch was announced. I was thankful as the conversation had entered dangerous waters and Uncle was not feeling very well. I helped Uncle with his meal and we talked about my school. He seemed to be feeling better.
He said, “What I’m going to tell you now, is the hardest part of the story. I don’t know how long I shall live and someone must know about the injustices I have faced. Be responsible about this information, I’m trusting you.”
I was quite shaken but I managed to assure him.
“My wife wanted Thomas to settle down, he was going to turn 30 and offers had also started reducing despite his handsome salary. Hema felt time was running out but Thomas always managed to evade the issue. One day, a man named Robin Mathew visited us. He said Thomas & he were very close friends. This puzzled me as Thomas had never once mentioned this man before. When we told Thomas of Robin’s visit, he became uncomfortable and brushed the topic aside.
Robin called often and Thomas & he would talk for hours. Robin seemed like a decent boy and he was a doctor. I quite liked the fact that Thomas had found a good friend.
Yet, I always had a feeling that Thomas was hiding something from us. He didn’t talk about Robin with us. My wife was especially curious. One day when Thomas & Robin were talking, she picked up the parallel and overheard their conversation. I remember that day so well.”
He suddenly started coughing very violently.
I was quite scared but brought him water and helped him lie down.
He continued speaking, “You have to hear me out today. You have to help me complete this story today. I know I have very little time left!”
I was stunned. What was I supposed to do? Follow his wishes or get a doctor? I decided to follow his wishes as I thought there probably was nothing seriously wrong. I encouraged him to continue with the story.
“My wife had heard enough to confirm the fact that Robin was not just Thomas’ friend. After much coaxing & convincing, Thomas finally admitted to us that Robin was indeed his boyfriend. Thomas felt very awkward but we supported him and soon Robin moved into our house. All four of us bonded very well.”
I was awed by this man. I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Uncle Vincent, you really are an amazing person. You always follow your ideals of acceptance!”
He laughed and said, “It seemed as though our life was finally filled with joy. Hema also accepted the relationship but what can one do against God’s will?” He closed his eyes and when he opened then, I was sure there were tears.
He said, “On the night of 12th December, 2000, the police broke into our house and arrested my sons. They just threw an arrest warrant into my face and left. Next morning when we went to the police station, they told us that our sons had been arrested under section 377 of the IPC according to which homosexuality is a crime.”
My mouth fell open in horror. I was astonished by this startling revelation.
“Even I did not believe that such a law could exist but our lawyers confirmed it. We decided to plead guilty and try for a light sentencing but the public prosecutor made my sons out to be men who were intent on infecting the society with the ‘menace of homosexuality’. He talked of homosexuality as though it was a disease and it needed to be cured. I saw extremely saddened and on that day, I felt ashamed of our leaders and politicians who had failed to move with time and had not deleted this law. Law-breakers run away scot-free in our country. It is only innocent people like us who are targeted. My sons were sentenced to life imprisonment. We appealed for a lighter sentence many times but no avail. I spent all my life’s savings on the case but even the Supreme Court failed to do justice.”
He broke down and started crying. I was paralysed with shock. I had never seen a grown man cry like this before. I tried to comfort him and gave him water.
“In 2002, we shifted here, Hema and I. We paid the rent through the pension I earn. I still don’t know why my son was targeted and I feel I have failed as a father as I could not get him justice.”
He was very tired and the warden came and ordered me out of the Old Age Home.
That day when I returned home, I told my mother Uncle Vincent’s story. My mother was working with Amnesty International at that time. She assured me that she would take his case to the highest possible level.
I continued to visit the Old Age home and Uncle’s health was deteriorating.
And on the fateful day of 15th February 2005, Uncle Vincent passed away. I received a call from the warden in the morning. She seemed extremely ecstatic when she said, “Mr. Vincent passed away in his sleep last night. Now, you cannot visit our Old Age home for the next 5 years!”
I was aghast. I broke down and cried until I fell asleep. The next I went to Church and prayed for him.
Till today, Amnesty International and Queer Pride are fighting for the removal of section 377 from the Indian Penal Code.