Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Shortlist, Ananya Sarkar

Strangers

Urvi first noticed Mr D’ Souza while hanging out her laundry in the courtyard. As she was wringing out the wet clothes and spreading them out on the rope strung for the purpose, an elderly man trudging down the path attracted her attention. The lane was rather empty and with his slow gait, the man was not easy to miss. However, it was only when he made his way to the house opposite hers that she realized his identity.

She had heard about him in the neighbourhood. He was irritable and churlish and was quick to pick quarrels with others. Mrs Gomes had warned her about him. Two days had passed since her arrival at Vasco in Goa but she had not had the opportunity to see him until then.

Though she did not really expect it from him, it would have been good had he looked at her. She could have caught his expression, made eye contact. Perhaps introduced herself as well. Somehow, it did not feel right to judge a person by people’s opinions alone. Mr D’ Souza might as well be surly but she wanted to find out for herself. She watched as the old man closed the door behind him.
She considered it strange that the gentleman had not noticed the occupancy of the ground floor of the house that had been vacant for the past few years. But was it really peculiar, she mused. After all, given that he was a solitary person who behaved whimsically, it purchased the right to all kinds of eccentricities.

“Woof! Woof!” Urvi spun around to find Vanilla, her terrier wagging its tail. She bent forth to caress it. “Good girl! Now its time for your bath…I want you to be on your best behaviour, okay?” The dog jostled around her feet. She stood up to put clips on the clothes and was almost done when she saw a familiar face. From the window, with the curtain parted with one hand, she spotted the grey haired man seen just moments ago looking at her. He seemed to be frowning. Then, the curtain was quickly drawn and the face receded. Urvi, for all that she had speculated upon if she caught his attention, did not get the time to respond.

In the evening, she took Vanilla out for a walk. It was the terrier’s first round in the vicinity and it seemed to drink in the new scenes and people. Urvi looked around too. This was what Morris’ hometown was like, and it was here that she would be staying for the next couple of months. She was advised a change of air by the physician after the tragic incident that had shattered her life. Her Anglo Indian fiancé Morris’ death had numbed and distanced her from everyday life. She had continued living but in an automated manner, immune to all sensations. After she lost consciousness a couple of times at work, her mother took her to the doctor. On examining her, the physician had shaken his head and grimly replied that her health had deteriorated drastically. “You need to go someplace,” he told her, “It’ll be a change and will do you good.”

At first, she was reluctant. She did not feel like going anywhere or doing anything. And then, it struck her. Why not visit Vasco, the city that Morris talked of so fondly? The place that they might have visited together after being married? It would help her to come to terms with the
accident, of the guilt of making it through even as Morris died in the hospital. Yes, she needed a sabbatical to come to terms with her loss and let go of what she was powerless to change.
So she had quit her job in Mumbai and rented the ground floor of a house in Vasco  – Morris’ hometown. He had often fondly referred to the city but when she had wanted to visit it with him, the matter was shelved. “I’d love to see the place that you grew up in,” she had said.

But he was estranged from his parents and hence, was not comfortable with the idea. Even the thought of staying at a hotel could not change his mind. “Someday…I promise. I’m just not ready yet.” And he had put his arms around her and planted a sloppy kiss that made her forget everything.
Urvi flicked a strand of hair out of her face as she walked along the sea beach, a stone’s throw from her new home. The strong breeze whizzed past her ears. She imagined it as Morris watching her. On their outings in Marine Drive, she remembered how the wind would assail them, ruffling the hair and making light the gravities of life. Morris would recount how it was almost like a part of him, given his childhood evenings on the beach. Urvi recalled it like a distant dream and grew wistful.
The sun had just set but the sky was still cast with its golden hue. A few couples and families sat huddled in clusters. The children played with Frisbees. Urvi walked Vanilla towards the sea. No sooner than she let the waves touch her toes than the terrier started barking and tugged at its leash, pulling her into the water. In spite of herself, she laughed as it jumped and splashed in the waves. A child beckoned to her and waved. She waved back. For the first time since the tragedy, she felt a weight lift off her chest.

When she reached home, her sneakers were squeaking from the water. Her jeans clung to her legs. Vanilla looked grimy and Urvi knew it would have to be cleaned as well. After doing the needful, she looked forward to changing into warm clothes and curling up in bed with the
copy of Brick Lane that she had brought. Pondering over what to cook for dinner, she undid the latch of the gate.

“Excuse me, do you live here?” a voice sounded from behind her. She turned to see Mr D’ Souza seated in the armchair on his porch, with a magazine on his lap. His brows were not quite so scrunched up now. For a moment, she was taken aback by the direct address. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve arrived here a couple of days back. I’m going to stay here for some time. I’m Urvi.”
“Hi. John D’ Souza.”
“Hello. ”
“Your dog looks great. ”
“Oh!” she smiled, surprised again. “Thank you.”
It only later occurred to her that with the water and sand, Vanilla was not exactly looking its best. But perhaps he had not noticed carefully.
                                                                     ***

Over the next week, Urvi kept herself busy. She visited Vasco Harbour, looked up an NGO engaged in teaching underprivileged kids so that she could volunteer service during the daytime, and roamed through the streets and tried to get to know them better. The thought of Morris walking down the very same pathways haunted her. Sometimes, she would chance upon her neighbours and exchange greetings. With Mr D’ Souza, it was different though. He would glance at her but his face remained impassive. If she smiled, it would not be returned. He did not nod either. So that over time, she got used to them looking without any sign of recognition. Twice, her mother called and expressed relief to know that she had settled in.
           
One day, after avidly reading Brick Lane for an hour, she realized it had grown quite late into the day. Lunch had not been cooked and Vanilla was yet to be given a bath. Glancing at the clock, she gave a start when she saw that it was half past eleven. “Vanilla! Where are you? Come to me, girl!” she called out, putting away the book with a sigh. Moments passed but there was no sign of the terrier. Urvi began looking in the other rooms, beckoning from time to time. Then she checked the courtyard. A frisson of fear settled on her when she noticed that the gate was ajar. Had the milkman forgotten to put the latch while leaving? Or had it been her own absentmindedness? Realizing that the dog had wandered, she hurried out of the gate.
              
There were few passers-by as usual. Three middle-aged women stood in a corner, closeted in gossip. When she called out to Vanilla, a few stragglers paused to look. She spotted a mongrel slouched in the shade. Did the terrier run into it and get mauled? But then, had such a thing happened, the barks and yelps would have surely reached her ears. She recollected not having heard anything unusual. Had she been too engrossed with the book? She tried to push the thought out of her mind.                             

 She began asking passers-by whether they had seen a white dog and felt her heart pound harder on receiving replies in the negative. Vanilla must have ventured out quite a while back then. Panic hit her. The terrier was the only living link to Morris for her. They had bought Vanilla when it was only a puppy at the time they moved in together at Andheri in Mumbai. Since both of them had a soft corner for dogs, they decided to get one to mark their new beginning. So that when Morris exited her life like a bullet, resembling the hasty correction of a mistake, the dog became a remnant of all the memories that they had shared. Vanilla had mourned for Morris, was sullen for days at a stretch – something that she could totally identify with – and it was the same dog that had helped her to live, to carry on the struggle of existence since then.
             

Close to tears, she decided to report to the nearest police station. Getting her purse and the keys to the house, she turned to leave when there came a familiar bark. Turning, she saw Mr D’ Souza emerge on his porch with Vanilla in his arms. Uttering a cry of surprise, she ran up to him and hugged the terrier as she took it.
            

“Was she with you all this while? Gosh, I’ve been looking everywhere!” She cried. The old man smiled hesitantly. “I was listening to my transistor on the porch when the dog came loitering.  It sniffed things around in here and made itself comfortable. I guess I should have informed you immediately but then I decided that it might as well give me company for some time. And then when I went indoors to settle things, it followed me…”
               

He paused. “Am sorry…I should’ve gone over to you earlier.” Though Urvi felt furious, after the storm that had just passed, she did not want to mince words and worsen the situation. The important thing was that Vanilla had been found and was safe. She would have to be more careful from now onwards. Such an incident could not be repeated at any expense. She simply nodded, “I'd been worried sick.” 
               

That evening, she met Mrs Gomes at the market and casually recounted the incident. The other woman furrowed her eyebrows. “That man is somewhat uncanny…now you see what I mean? Earlier, there was an instance of a dead street puppy in his garden at the back of the house. He called up the municipal authorities to have it removed, claiming all the while that he did not how it had got in there. He had been careful to lock the gate, he said. How did it happen then? It is no secret that he is averse to dogs…so you can’t really blame some people for imagining the worst…”
                

 Urvi put her hand to her mouth. The thought was too dreadful. Was he really so spiteful? It did not appear that way when he was handling Vanilla. But then again, he should have returned the dog to her earlier or at least informed of its whereabouts. Yet, he had done no harm to it. The issue was muddled in confusion. For the present, she decided to put the matter aside and carry on with other things. She remembered the doctor's words, “just let go,” and decided to follow the same.
                 

But as chance would have it, she ran into her neighbour again the next day. While returning from her walk with Vanilla, she spotted him sitting on the porch. “Hey! How’re you doing? I’ve made some new cookies today…would you like to try?” Mr D’ Souza called out. Urvi gauged it was some kind of a peace offering regarding the incident the day before. She found it hard to refuse. After all, it was he who had handed over the dog to her. “Well, I guess I could try some. However, please don’t give anything to Vanilla. Its not feeding time yet and I don’t want her diet to be upset.” “Sure, no problem,” he assured. “Please come in.”
                

She stepped into the living room, which was threadbare with a pair of sofas and a rush mattress between them. The walls were a faded purple. Asking her to be seated, Mr D’Souza shuffled his way indoors. Urvi noticed a wilted plant and a framed photograph next to it on the corner table. She moved closer to get a better look at the picture. It seemed like a family photograph that showed a younger D’ Souza standing next to a woman and a young boy. All were smiling at the camera. The boy looked strikingly familiar to her. Could it be...? Her heart skipped a beat at the possibility.
                

Mr D’ Souza entered with a small plate of cookies.  “It isn’t much really,” he said, as he handed her the plate. She took it distractedly. “Sir, I’m just curious, who is that boy in the
picture?” A shadow flitted across the gentleman's face. “That well, that is my son and next to him my wife. One of them has left her earthly abode while the other, well, you could say is absconding.” There was a pause. He sat down and put his hands on his knees.
“I'm so sorry. You mean you do not know the whereabouts of your son?”
Mr D’Souza shook his head. 
 

“We had a spat. He later left home, never came back since. We left no stone unturned to track him down and contact him. The police were informed, we printed advertisements in the newspapers but they were of no avail. As time passed, we hoped he would return one day and we’d be able to put our differences aside. But…that never happened. Eventually, Suzanne passed away and I was left to manage by myself.”
 

“Oh…I…”
“I moved in to this neighbourhood at that point. That house had too many memories you see, which was not a good thing.”
“Was your son’s name… Morris?” she stammered, heart in her throat.
Mr D’ Souza jerked his head. “How did you know? I’ve never spoken about him to anyone in this neighbourhood.”
She felt a chill at the back of her neck and immediately regretted her words.
“I…I think I should go.” She looked around for Vanilla, her heart hammering so hard she thought it would burst. Spotting the dog near the window, she picked up its leash.
“Wait! Tell me…do you know him? Do you know where he is now? Please Miss Urvi, answer me!”
              

His voice had risen, as Urvi hurried out. Even as she shut the door of her house, she could hear his  cries. How on earth could she tell him that his son was no more? That he had been such an integral part of her life?  Scenes of the car ride, the sudden swerve to deflect the speeding truck, the blackout, and then the drugged consciousness all came back to her. She covered her face and crumpled to the floor.
             

That night, John D’ Souza had a fitful sleep. Tossing and turning in bed, he resolved to find out once and for all about his son from Urvi. Was she his friend, lover, or former colleague? Or perhaps she was a mere acquaintance who did not know that Morris had such a history. But she would definitely be able to give an idea about where he was at present.
             

The next morning, he composed himself and walked over to her house. He would simply ask her about how she knew his son. He would show no signs of agitation. After all, this was
perhaps his only chance to get to Morris. He would have to keep his calm. When he reached Urvi's door, he found the milkman waiting outside. 


 “Madam is not answering the door. Its getting late. I’ll leave the milk packet at the door. Could you please tell her? ” he said. Mr D’ Souza nodded. As the man rode away on his bicycle, Mr
D’ Souza wondered whether anything untoward had happened to the young woman. The thought alarmed him. Just as he was about to press the bell, the door opened and a bleary-eyed Urvi appeared. She blinked on seeing him. 


“The milkman had come. He's left the packet there.”
“Oh... ” She stooped to pick it. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Hey, look...I’m sorry for pushing you yesterday. Its okay if you do not want to talk about Morris. Its your decision and I...I respect it. That’s what I'd come to say.”
He listened to himself, stunned. This was not at all as he had rehearsed. The truth was he had been aching to know something about his son – any little detail that would bring him closer. But what he had just uttered then was out of the blue!
“That's okay...I'd been rash as well. I'm sorry too. ”
He tilted his head politely, indicating that the subject be dropped. It was time to leave. He turned.
“Sir, would you like some coffee? I’ll be making some for myself anyway.”
“Actually..., ” he was about to plead an excuse when an orange butterfly caught his eye. “I don't mind.”
Urvi smiled. He returned it. The terrier, jostling at the door, wagged its tail. A strong breeze blew past them. Urvi knew that it was Morris watching.                            

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