Saturday 15 August 2020

Ghazala Zaidi, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

One Fine Day...

It was very hot that afternoon. I still remember clearly. I was frantically trying to call the driver to pick me up from the mall I have been shopping at but it seemed the heat had got into the cell phone network too. “Ma’am, please listen to me, please ma’am! My child has got lost. Please look after my bags and I’ll be back in a minute. He must have stopped by the ice-cream stall. I can’t carry all these again through the crowd.” She said it all in one breath. A good looking lady draped in silk sari and perspiration, had dropped her four shopping bags at my feet and with a last pleading look and a confidence of having my consent, she was gone! It was getting late but I had no choice but to wait there for either my driver to have a good sense to look for me or for that lady to come back and take away the burden she had unceremoniously dumped on me. I was wondering on her simplicity to trust a stranger like me. I was getting concerned about her missing child and was feeling sympathetic. “There she is! Search the bags, it must be here only,” I was jolted out of my reverie by a policeman who was now throwing out the contents of the bags that lady had left in my charge. “Hey what are doing? These are not mine! Let that lady come back then you search them. By the way, what are you searching for?” I reacted. “This!” the constable picked out several small packets. Some of them looked like having currency and others had some white powder. “Come on, it’s over.” He looked menacingly at me then he asked the accompanying lady constable, “Take care of her!” Some sense of what was happening was creeping inside my mind but like in a nightmare I could not control my action and the happenings. I tried to speak but only few words tumbled out. “No it’s not mine! A woman, her child, lost, left the bags. These not mine. She-- she must be around, --no it’s not me. Believe me.” Suddenly I realised what a mess I was in. That lady constable was trying to fix handcuffs and I tried frantically to call my husband. God! The network!! It had to be jammed at this time. My plea to call my husband got them thinking that I was trying to contact my aides and the cell-phone was promptly taken away from me. In a few minutes I was behind the bars. Mercifully I was the only occupant at that time. Eventually, because of all my pleading and crying, I was allowed one phone-call. The phone of Ashmit kept ringing. It was getting late.

Ashmit looked haggard and relieved at the same time when he saw me. He had left his cell-phone in his office and when he realised my prolonged absence and driver’s message about my disappearance, he went back to his office to retrieve the phone, but by then it was too late. He explained that he couldn’t do anything now as the courts were closed next day due to a public holiday. The thought of spending the night there was enough to make me mad. And the night spent in that lock-up changed all the aspects of my life.

My agony was prolonged but at least the behaviour of the police was becoming better, or maybe now I was getting used to it! I just could not think clearly, and felt claustrophobic in the cell. It can’t be happening to me. I was confined like a criminal. What will people say if and when I’ll get out? I forcibly shut away such thoughts and tried to concentrate on the buzzing mosquitoes which had settled down on the exposed parts of my body.

I must have dozed off because I did not see or hear them coming. The two havildars were holding a woman and she was fighting off to release herself from their grasp. “Sir, this is the woman we were looking for. What to do sir, they look so similar!” said one of the havildars. I realized that they were referring to me also. The woman was wearing sari similar to that I was wearing. Oh! She was the same woman because of whom I was here. “Sir, sir! Yes, yes this is the woman who had left the bag with me. You liar, cheat, bitch, ##$##$, you have literary spoiled my life. I am here because of you! You f****!” I was shouting in spite of myself. The policemen looked bored as if they had expected this scene and were used to such kinds of literary showers. The inspector said “Release this lady. Let her out and lock up- this woman.” Now the woman was subdued and was merely grumbling. Ashmit, who had arrived early in the morning with my tea, had to restrain me from pouncing on her. Inspector was also by my side immediately. “Ma’m let her go. Please go home and relax. Sometimes we also do make mistakes. You can see yourself that you two look so similar. When I bought you here, I could understand that you were not the one we were looking for. So I did not do any paperwork. You realize that, don’t you? We have got to do such things to sometimes to intimidate first-timers or teenagers. Makes them wary, yet keeps their record clean. I was just waiting for this woman to get caught. Yeah, we knew she was around here somewhere. So now that we have got the right person, you can go. Sorry about everything.” I again wanted to barge in with choicest profanities but Ashmit caught hold of me and pulled me out of the police station. “Enough Rishita! Thank God we are out of this place. At least the inspector had the sense not to put anything on papers. Now we are free from all the trouble.” Too soon he had uttered these words. We had stepped right out of the frying pan into the fire. Straight away we were swarmed down by the TV crew and reporters. With zooming and clicking cameras their words were like lancets. “How was the night ma’m?” “Didn’t you really know what was in those bags?” “Were they really not your bags? How can you be sure?” “She looks exactly like you, are you some lost sisters?” “Are you all mad?” My reaction at that moment was volcanic. Had there not been Ashmit and his support, I would have banged their heads together. I was always a fiery woman and this incident had made me furious. I wanted to pound all the questioning eyes and smash the wagging tongues. “Just leave me alone.” I roared. We took refuge in our car and drove away. Once in the confines of privacy of our car, I started crying. “I am sorry Ashmit, I should have been wiser and not let anybody make a fool of me. I cannot ever trust anybody now.” “It’s alright. Just relax.” He consoled me but now his face was creased with worry. He looked as much shaken as I was. Media can make you or break you.

My ill fated story had reached the neighbourhood before I reached my home. I could sense the cautious looks of the people we chanced upon to meet on our way to our apartment. Thank God! The guard had not seen any TV this early in the morning, so his good morning wish was as crispy and honest as other days. We stepped into our apartment and everything was where it should have been. I wanted to shut off the world outside. Unfortunately the world had entered my home and all the homes we knew and did not know.

Ashmit prepared the brunch while I took shower. It was a holiday, so he would be with me for the rest of the day. That was a comfort. He had put the delicious spread on the table by the time I had changed into salwaar-kameez from my bathrobe. He smiled when I came and said, “The food is ready my Queen.” As we were serving the food, the bell rang. “That must be Laxmi!” He said. “She had come in the morning when I was going to meet you. I had asked her to come later on.” And there she was. She smiled and asked “So how are you now didi? Did they bother you too much?” “Fine!” I mumbled, “No, they were good.” I couldn’t conceal the bitterness in my voice. It was partly because of the recent experience and partly because this woman, a paltry worker in my house, whose drunk husband was the regular visitor of the jail was asking me this question. God, now I was at par with these people whose daily brush with police and law had made them so habitual to the dreary life that my endeavour looked like a usual strolling to a park to her. She looked at me with understanding eyes and went about her work. After Laxmi was gone, both Ashmit and I dozed off. The day ended quietly but I was getting little restless. Why didn’t any of our distant relatives who lived in the same city or any other colleagues, or any friend had called us? I checked my cell-phone. It was fine. I switched on the TV and there was the answer. The media had branded me as co-conspirator of the criminal woman. This can’t be true. This was not happening to me. I couldn’t believe it. Ashmit also got up from his slumber and perched on his arm. He was also as surprised as I was. “But the inspector had said that it was a mistaken identity only!” he exclaimed. “How could these media people say such things?” In the next scene, I was shouting at the reporters, “Are you mad?” and then the havildar, who looked as if he had appended Osama himself, was explaining. “Well, there was no evidence against her so we have to let her go, but such people who help the criminals are a threat to the society. We all must be cautious and keep our eyes open for such conspiracies. Soon we will be able to catch all the miscreants of this gang.” These scenes kept repeating in all the channels we flipped through. No, no! Please God, stop all this nonsense. One moment’s negligence couldn’t be such a big mistake. I needed to tell somebody that I was innocent. No, I had to tell everybody that I was not involved in any illegal deal. “Ashmit, we have to tell the reporters! We will call a press conference and I’ll tell them the truth. They can’t crucify me like this for nothing.” “Stop it Rishita. I do not want to get involved again in this. You should have behaved properly there at the police station. You were shouting at the reporters as if they had you restrained. Just sit tight and in a day or two everybody will forget what had happened. Now let us have some coffee. “But!” I tried to intervene. “Rishita, please, I am not in a mood to discuss it any more. Please make some coffee and let’s watch some romantic movie.” We sat watching the TV on which an English romantic movie was showing. Anyways, both of us were not actually seeing anything, just stared at TV while sipping the insipid coffee. We were confined to our own worlds, struggling with our own demons. Finally Ashmit switched off the TV set and said, “Let’s go out to have some dinner. I am feeling suffocated here.” “There was no need to add the last sentence”. I wanted to say aloud but kept it to myself. The neighbourhood restaurant where we visited often was crowded with teenagers. Obviously it wasn’t dinner time. Rather coffees and sundaes were being ordered around. “Hey, see that Aunty. She is the one, isn’t she?” Somebody whispered but that was enough to shake my self –confidence. I clenched my fist and marched ahead bravely. Our favourite table was mercifully empty. As we were going to sit there, the waiter came abruptly. “Sir, could you please sit in that corner? Somebody has already reserved this.” “But there is no reservation system in here, is there?” Ashmit enquired. “No Sir, but somebody has requested us for this table, so I request you to shift to that corner” replied the waiter. Few other tables were lying vacant but he kept pointing to the most far off corner. We didn’t say anything and stood up. “We will have our food packed.” Ashmit said. “Oh yes, fine Sir. It will be ready in a minute,” he said with a relief in his tone. And only a minute it took for the food to get packed. It was dosas and never the service was so fast earlier whenever we had to order the take-home meals. It was quite obvious the restaurant people wanted to get rid of us as early as possible. I was silently watching Ashmit’s reaction. He was sort of expecting all this and was trying his best to tackle it with dignity. We came back home silently. One incident was enough to build compartments in my home. Ashmit started surfing the net, completely ignoring me. “At least I can write a book about this experience,” I tried to communicate, but his sarcasm was like pouring cold water on any attempt of mine to make us cheerful. He simply said, 'Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes'. I was choked with emotions. I took up a book and pretended to read it. The dosas rested in the package.

I tried to shake away the feeling of settling depression. Summer holidays were going on in the school where I taught, so my days were going to be long. In the morning, I carried out usual work and prepared breakfast and packed lunch for Ashmit. He ate breakfast in silence and left for office. I could sense that he was apprehensive about facing people at office. Laxmi came and went to the kitchen directly. After an hour, she asked me while leaving “I’ve finished all the work. Is there anything more?” “Yes. Laxmi, please take out Dosa packet from fridge and throw it out.” I said. As she took out the packet, she commented, “You did not take dinner yesterday!” I was irritated. “Just do what I told you and go away.” I shouted. “Alright didi.” She left hurriedly. It was a long day ahead. I tried to think of doing something worthwhile. I switched on the TV and turned to cartoon channel. I did not dare to switch to any news channel. The cartoon show was also the repeated one; or maybe my mind was not absorbing it. I felt restless. I took up my cell phone and called Aditi, my friend. She did not pick up the phone. Next was Shammi on my list, then Narang and then Shobita. None of them picked up the phone. Was everybody busy at the same time? I sent them SMS “Please call me when you are free”. Only Aditi sent a message. “Sorry, m out of city. Will call u when m back.” I felt like talking to somebody. I went to Mrs. Narain’s. After full jingle of the door bell, her servant came out and said, “Ma’m is not at home now. Is there any message?” “She is not here! Oh! No, no message. Just tell her I was here.” I mumbled. I did not want to go back home. I went to the next floor and pressed the doorbell of Mrs. Ibrahim. Her daughter –in-law was of my age-group and was a good chatter-box. I rang the bell two more times but nobody responded. I was getting disturbed. Maybe they were not home. But they many servants. Somebody could’ve opened the door! Woebegone, I was turning back when I saw Mrs. Rawat coming up the stairs. “Hello Mrs. Rawat, how are you? Could I...?” “Hello Mrs. Kumar, I am sorry, I’m in a little hurry. Can we talk some other time?” She hurriedly went to the lift. I did not even bother to notice to which floor she was going to. She had never addressed me with my surname before. She used to call me Rishu lovingly. I felt deserted. How could these people ignore me? I returned home. Maybe I can go and see some movie but just the thought of again going to a public place made me sick. I locked myself in, and felt very lonely. How could I cope with this kind of life? I was desperate to talk to someone. I again tried to call my friends but to no avail. When I called up Ashmit, he cut off my phone after two rings. What must he be going through? His deadpan expression was enough to silence me when Ashmit returned home. There was no point in asking him about his day. I could guess what he must have faced out there. Next two days went by without friends and sympathy. It was going to be a long nightmare.

Fifth day I was feeling sick, but I did not tell anything to Ashmit. He looked a little composed now as if he had reached some decision. “Rishita, let’s go to our native village for a while. We both need a break. I’ll try to arrange the house there to be cleaned and stocked. You start packing. We will move as soon I get the permission from the boss.” He said. “But, the schools are going to open shortly and I have to apply for leave! Give me some time.” I pleaded. “Do you really expect them to have you back this session? That’s a prestigious private school where children of influential people study. I don’t think there is any chance for you now.” He explained and went out without breakfast. This was the last blow. Now my identity, my job was being snatched away from me. Besides, there was acute shortage of electricity in the village. The sound and smell of that old generator was too much for me to bear for more than two days. How could I stay there for long period? Moreover, I was retching the whole day. I was sick and couldn’t call anybody, not even Ashmit. I had dozed off on the sofa. Laxmi was calling out my name when I woke up with a start and realized that someone was at the door. Due to the power-cut, door bell was not working. I got up and opened the door and again slumped on the sofa. “Didi, the bar has got finished. Should I take the detergent?” Laxmi called from the kitchen “Yes, no, please go and get one from the shop in front of the gate.” I had forgotten my own shopping bag which was left at the police-station. It had the monthly grocery. Oh no! Now we will have to buy everything. “Laxmi please also get toothpaste, soaps and…” “What happened didi?” She was standing near me and could see my glistening eyes. “Laxmi, I have left my monthly grocery at the police-station. Please get few necessary things. Ashmit will be back very late and by that time shops will be closed. And, I, I do not want to go again….”I sobbed. “It’s alright didi, I’ll get your things. Do not worry. If you need anything more, please write it down, I’ll bring them tomorrow when I’ll be coming here.” I was startled by her kindness. She was the woman who wouldn’t even wash a single handkerchief if it wasn’t her day and now she was offering to do my grocery shopping? “Why, thank you Laxmi.” “I understand didi. People are not kind when you are in trouble. Didi, many people asked me about you. And it wasn’t about your well being. They all think you are somehow responsible for your arrest. I know you are innocent. Sometimes we become hostage of circumstances, the victim without our consent.” She sat down on the carpet. I could see that she was crying. I had never expected this woman to be my only solace. Now with her words she was fast becoming my oasis in the desert of suspecting people. “Laxmi, thanks again for trusting me. But I can’t go on explaining everybody about my innocence. Hey, Laxmi, why are you crying?” “Nothing didi, old wounds have got opened. I was also from a good family, but got married to this guy. Drinking, brawls, police-station, all were alien to me. At first I used to be terrified of all these things. My parents live quite far off. I had nobody to turn to. I took up this job of maid so that I can get away from my husband for some time and earn some money also. But didi, even after so many years, I am not able to forget the humiliation I faced when the first time my husband went to jail. Our basti-wallahs are much better than these colony people. Everybody was sympathetic and eventually helped me to get this job.” Ashmit’s parents were no more and my parents were settled abroad with my brother, and the only true friend nearby turned out to be this woman. “I am sorry Laxmi,” I faltered. I always disdained you because of your husband’s deeds. Many times I had asked Ashmit to do away with you but he always praised your good work and sincerity. Now I understand he was right. Laxmi, I am really sorry about my behaviour towards you. I should have understood your plight.” “Arre didi” she said smilingly, “now I am used to it, but now when I saw you suffering because of no fault of yours, I felt bad. You will see that wherever I will go for my work in this building, people will ask me to stop working at your place!” “Why! Why?” I became agitated. “It happens, didi. These people are like that. They hang the person before the verdict is out. Anyways, in your case you were absolutely innocent. By the way, what had happened?” I had finally got a shoulder to cry on. I told her all the details. “Poor didi, you wanted to help and see how you got framed. Do not worry. Truth always prevails.” “Hey Laxmi, it’s already late for your next assignment.” “Arre, I didn’t realize about the time while we were talking. Any way I’ll complete the work here then only I will go.” She said holding the broom. “No, you go now. Do not worry. You have helped me so much by talking to me. I will do all other work.” I took away the broom from her hand. “Just take the list when you will be leaving the building.” “No didi, I’ll sweep the house quickly .You take rest or go to a doctor. I’ll bring the bar and rinse the utensils.” She cleaned the floor and as she opened the door to go she was surrounded by three reporters. “Is Mrs. Rishita Kumar in?” “Do you work here?” “Is the apartment in her name?” “Her husband is also involved? They asked her they were trying to peek inside my house. “Who are you and how did the guard allow you to enter the building?” She stood sturdily at the door. “You all seem to be very wise; don’t you understand that didi was framed? You yourself have seen that woman looks like didi, that’s why this mistake was made. Was there any report or complain in the police station? None! You should be after the havildar who harassed a good lady like didi and instead of apologizing, was making her look like a criminal!! You better talk to the inspector. I can bet that havildar must have got suspended for giving such information on TV. Now please go and do not harass the fine lady anymore. Do her some good and bring the truth in front of everybody.” I was transfixed by her boldness and choice of words. What my husband could not do in my defence, this seemingly illiterate woman had done. I was cowering like an idiot in my own home and let her handle the situation. The reporters were taken aback. They mumbled and like the flies after the honey, went buzzing out of the building. Laxmi then turned towards me. “Didi, keep the door closed. The guard must have dozed off or these people might have given him some bribe.” and hurriedly went away. I was trembling but now somebody was there to defend me. I was just wondering about my so called friends who had not called for the past two days. They had their own families to think about but still one phone call would have been very helpful. Anyways, now nothing can make any difference. I started getting worried about my job and the attitude of the colleagues. What must be happening at Ashmit’s office? I took some anta-acid. I did not like getting up anymore, but life has to go on. Laxmi came after three hours or so and finished her work. She was smiling all the while.

It was late afternoon when the bell rang. I started. Who this could be, I wondered. Hopefully, not a reporter! I cautiously asked “who is it?” “Rishita it’s me, Mrs. Rawat.” I was relieved. I opened the door. She hugged me and said, “Sorry Rishu, I should’ve come earlier.” “Come inside please” I said. I had not yet lowered my guard. There was an awkward silence. “Rishu, I knew you had not returned home that evening as Ashmit had asked about you. When we saw that footage on TV we were little apprehensive. Children asked us awkward questions, you know. To tell you the truth, we did not want to get involved. But for Laxmi we could have never known the truth.” “Laxmi?” I did not understand. “Yes, she told us the whole story and also made us realize our mistake. We should have stood by you. I am really sorry that we ever doubted you.” “It is alright Mrs. Rawat. Maybe I would have done the same thing.” Before I could finish my sentence the door bell rang again. This time it was Mrs. Das. She also said almost the same thing and showed remorse for not supporting me. Doorbell rang again. Mrs. Talwar and Mrs. Reddy along with Mrs. Narain were standing at the door. Their arrival was followed by almost all the ladies I knew in the neighbourhood. It looked as if I was throwing a party. Everyone said more or less the same thing and showed solidarity with me. It seemed the Laxmi-network worked much more efficiently than the TV network. Mrs. Ibrahim was the eldest amongst us and had brought her daughter–in-law. She called up her home and in a few minutes her servants came with packets of sweets, chips, pakoras and cold drinks. Soon eateries began to arrive from God knows where and it was party time now. Eventually the environment changed to more cheery one and everybody was bonding with each other. Ashmit arrived early and was flabbergasted. With him arrived the male crowd and when everybody jokingly congratulated on being lucky to be on TV and getting rid of the problem so easily, you should have seen him grinning. He was also enjoying all the attention. I also forgot about my illness. Amidst all commotion, I managed to ask him how his day was. “It was fine; people reacted better and with sensitivity.” He said. Meanwhile somebody switched on the TV. The breaking news was that the concerned havildar was suspended for speaking to the media unauthorized. The police spoke-person was explaining that the lady, Mrs. Rishita Pawar was merely detained due to mistaken identity. She will be sent a written apology. There were cheers all around and people started congratulating us. I was thanking the Almighty and Laxmi. I wonder whether she was watching TV. The doorbell rang again. This time it was the guard. “Memsaab, Laxmi’s husband has stabbed her and fled. Poor girl, she is bleeding profusely. Her neighbours have taken her to the nearby hospital but doctors are refusing to treat her. Her friend has come asking for your help.” “Where is her friend?”Asked Mrs. Shambho. Some other ladies had joined me on hearing Laxmi’s name. “She’s downstairs. You were having party, so I did not allow her to come up” he explained. “It’s fine. Please send her up. We will do something about it.” I said. Shanti came upstairs and told us the name of the hospital. Mrs. Shambho worked in the secretariat in the health department. One phone call to the hospital worked wonders and the concerned doctor promised to start the treatment immediately. By now everybody had heard about the incident. “Let’s go to the hospital and see how she is doing”, somebody suggested. I picked up my handbag and made sure that the ATM card was there and few of us left together after ten minutes.

Laxmi is fine now. She lives with us as her wounds have not healed yet. Her husband was nabbed in the neighbouring town with the help of a phone call of Mr. Ibrahim who was very close to our MLA sahib. Laxmi will be filing for divorce soon. Our guard has already proposed to her. Good, she will live in the premises of the building. More-over I am going to need her to look after my baby when she or he arrives after six months. In these Indian cities of chaos, we women need each other to grow together.

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