Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Sudha Viswanathan, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Jackpot

The sun was about to set on the horizon. The scarlet-colored sky swaddled the earth. As they scampered to reach their nests, the chirping of the birds filled the air with melodic sounds. Everything seemed so very pleasant that one would wish to set aside all essential matters to savor this natural abounded beauty.

But in a small dingy room, in the deepest suburb of Mumbai, three girls, Ratna, Suman, and Trishna, were restlessly pacing, often bumping into each other. They were nervous because their landlady Tarabai was going to bring in a fourth tenant of her choice.

Though an extra tenant would lighten their financial burden on paying the rent, they were apprehensive about how a newcomer would fit into their groove. They were girls from a modest background and had easily got adjusted to each other because they shared similar issues back home.

Trishna, who was the only one among the three to have passed 12th std; with basic knowledge of computer operation, held a job with a decent salary of 4500pm.

Ratna worked as a cleaner in a hospital, toiled twelve hours a day, and earned nothing more than 4000 rupees per month.

However, some kind patients left behind a tidy sum for her services. Though it was against the hospital's rules to accept 'tips,' Ratna did not mind defying the rules as she desperately needed the extra money.

Suman had a nimble finger and was an expert in embroidery and tailoring. Her mother had sent her to the city, assuming such kind of job would fetch good money.

It wasn't that easy to establish oneself in this field. Suman worked with a lady who ran a stitching unit with nearly 22 sewing machines. Suman was paid 15 rupees per hour and was expected to work for at least 10 hours a day. Since her embroidery and knitting also caught the fancy of the supervisor, she gave her extra work to be carried home and was paid per cloth some stipulated amount.

All the three came from houses that had seen nothing but adversities. However, the girls carried themselves with grace. No one would judge their poverty-stricken background or their modest education from how they learned and understood things.

A distant cousin of Trishna, who worked in a restaurant in Mumbai, referred her to this boarding of Tarabai. One of his friends stayed in the vicinity. He had informed him about the vacant house for rent, modest enough for Trishna along with some roommates.

The three girls, coming from small-scale towns of Maharashtra, had brought small amounts with them. After coughing up 4000 rupees advance rent for a month and a thousand each for what Tarabai termed as 'deposit,' they were left with very little cash to survive for hardly a month.

However, after they found jobs for themselves, their position somewhat stabilized. They had somehow paid up rent for the last three months, but unfortunately, they were expected to send some extra money back home urgently.

School fees had to be paid for Ratna's siblings, and that demanded a conspicuous extra sum.

Trishna had to part away with a decent amount from her salary every month. The roof of the house had fallen and needed immediate repairs. That meant an extra amount to be sent.

Back home, Suman's father was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lungs and was unable to take care of the grocery shop. Left under the supervision of her good-for-nothing brothers, the shop was on the verge of getting mortgaged. Suman worked hard beyond the ten hours schedule and brought extra work home, but still fell short of money, as she had to meet her father's medical expenses.

They had no other option than to accept the person that Tarabai would bring as their roommate. As long as it proved instrumental in saving them from the nagging house owner, they did not mind adjusting with anybody. It would also mean lesser rent from the following month.

The doorbell rang, heralding the arrival of Tarabai with the new tenant. Suman opened the door with Ratna and Trishna in tow, anxiety writ large on their faces.

They did not have to strain their neck to see the newcomer.

NO SOONER THEY HAD A GLIMPSE OF THE 5FT 10 INCHES TALL FIGURE, THEY FROZE. All of them held each other's hand for some support.

"What are you girls staring at? Can you people move aside to allow her to come in?" yelled Tarabai, rudely pushing them to make way for both of them.

Tarabai referred to the new entrant as 'her,' but apart from the cascading hair, there was nothing feminine about the new tenant. However, they all noticed that she carried an air of sophistication on her. Though her demeanor was frightening, she wore a welcoming smile on her face.

"Hi, I am Shalaka," she said, attempting to introduce herself in a voice that sounded like the one generally victims of severe burn injuries have due to a contorted mouth. She offered a handshake to the girls. Her baritone intonation rankled the girls.

Tarabai intervened in this introduction session and said in a matter-of-fact tone, "You girls better adjust with her. She has already paid me her deposit amount and rent for two months. You girls pay up your rent for the previous month." They nodded mechanically, least interested in her statistics. It was so embarrassing being chided at in front of a new tenant.

More awkwardness followed once Tarabai left. They watched with rapt attention as Shalaka opened her suitcase and took out a set of clothes, and walked into the washroom. No sooner than she bolted the washroom door, the girl's gathered.

"I am afraid," Ratna almost began to cry. "Do you think she will misbehave with us at night while we are asleep?" The same fear allied in the mind of the other two also, but they tried supporting each other morally.

"Don't worry; we are three of us. She will do nothing to harm us," Trishna gave a sermon of solace, even though she was dead frightened.

Shalaka came out of the washroom in an attire that looked like a nightgown.

They almost dropped dead when she looked at them and said in her commanding voice, "Have you girls prepared something to eat? Let us have dinner. I am famished."

The three girls always prepared food on a limited quota. They couldn't afford the extravagance. Three rotis per person, a medium-sized bowl of daal each, and a side dish made out of 250 to 300gms of vegetables, distributed equally among them, would be their daily preparation.

Ratna reluctantly laid four plates and looked quizzically at the other two, who had sad appearances on their face.

However, they saw Shalaka open her second luggage, a blue bag. She took out two packets, and instantly the aroma of vegetable biryani filled the room.

"Come girls, let us eat, I have bought biryani for you too, and if you could tell me your names, it will sound better," Shalaka’s friendly smile assuaged the fears of the girls.

They meekly introduced themselves while she liberally served the biryani into their plates, keeping a very inconspicuous portion for her. This kind gesture by Shalaka, made the girls cringe in shame for having been parsimonious.

The girls knew this biryani was sold in the restaurant at the end of their lane and were aware that it costs 42 rupees per parcel. They could never afford to buy it. Shalaka had spent 84 rupees; the money with which the girls managed to get vegetables that would last almost one to two weeks.

They shared the food, and, soon the initial resentment slowly began to thaw. They appreciated her avuncular nature. In spite of her boisterous appearance, somewhere in her was hidden some soft qualities of a female.

Shalaka seemed to have some good amount of money on her, then why did she land up in this dingy place? They wanted to know more about her, but not today.

The girls were dead tired. They spread their sheets to sleep. There was no place for Shalaka to lie down in a parallel position with them. She spread her quilt in between their head and the wall to adjust herself in a horizontal position.

The girls clasped each other's hands in fright but soon let them loose in their deep slumber!!!

Trishna was not sure how long she had been sleeping when some weird noises that jolted her from reverie. It was the sound of whining.

Petrified, Trishna concluded that Shalaka was emitting these sounds. She ventured to remove her bed sheet with which she had covered her head. Flashing her torchlight, she looked at Shalaka but found her sleeping peacefully.

It was then that Trishna realized that the agonizing cry was coming from Suman lying next to Ratna. Trishna woke up Ratna, and in this chaos, Shalaka also woke up.

Suman had clutched her stomach and was writhing in pain, lying almost in an arc posture.

The time showed as 2 o'clock.

"Come; let us take her to a hospital. She seems to be having some severe problem," Shalaka suggested.

"At this time of the night?" asked Ratna skeptically, while Trishna added, "We do not have much money on us."

"It could be some indigestion," suggested Ratna.

They could see that Shalaka was cross to hear this. "Do you mean to say we should allow Suman to wriggle in pain and die while we all watch coolly? Stop making self-diagnosis. If it were indigestion, she wouldn't be writhing in pain like this. There is something serious about her agony. What is up with you people? Get her things in a bag while I go and fetch a transport." Shalaka had already picked up a dress from her suitcase and gone to change.

She came out dressed in a striped shirt and pants. Her cascading black hair was neatly tucked inside a hat. She was looking entirely like a man. "No vehicle guy will deny a transport to me, be quick and get ready," she said to the girls confidently.

"Don't bother about the expenses; I have enough money on me. We will settle it later. Right now, Suman needs medical assistance." Shalaka made herself very clear.

The girls were appalled at her selfless attitude. Shalaka was indeed a kind human being. She had just got acquainted with them a few hours ago, and that too they had not exactly been very kind or hospitable to her; still, she didn't harness any hatred in her mind.

They followed her instructions obediently, not daring to oppose her.

Suman was admitted to the hospital where Ratna worked. The duty doctor confirmed that this was appendicitis, and the patient has to be operated upon soon after consulting the chief doctor, who would arrive by 8 am.

Suman was administered with saline and a sedative to make her oblivious of the pain for the time being. Shalaka took it upon herself to make all necessary arrangements for the operation estimated to cost 10 thousand rupees excluding medicines.

Both Ratna and Trishna held her hands with misty eyes. "We do not know how and when we will be able to repay you?" Trishna said uncertainly.

Patting her, Shalaka replied, "You don't worry about that. We stay under one roof. From now onwards, all cheerfulness and adversities should be a joined affair."

"Shalaka, we would like to know about you," said Ratna, gratefully holding her hands. "Looks like you come from a family that has no shortage of money. There also seems to be an air of sophistication about your demeanor. You are well educated. What has brought you here to this dingy chawl?"

****************************************

Shalaka unraveled her life story to them the following day after Suman gained consciousness after the operation.

"I was born in a town in Ahmednagar district twenty-two years ago," began Shalaka. "Being staunch devotees of Lord Shiva, my parents had decided to name their child Shalaka if it was a female and Kailash if it was a male.

I was born a girl, maybe; that is why they named me after Goddess Parvathi as Shalaka. Unfortunately, some complications during the delivery time forced the doctors to remove my mother's uterus, sealing all her future hopes of having yet another kid. My parents doted on me, their only child.

My father was the right hand of a local politician. Being associated with a politician helped us a lot. My father secured my admission in the best English medium school.

Everything was going smooth till such time I began showing behavioral changes. My mom soon realized that there were biological issues with me. Our family doctor unraveled the horrible truth that I was a transgender. I was thirteen years old then, the age of puberty. I may have been born as a female, but I slowly began to develop the features of a male. My height, as you see now, is beyond that of an average woman.” She got up and stood her full height, rolling her eyes.

“I was too young or relatively immature to understand why mom was always sulking and often cried. I had never been audience to marital discord in my house. My dad, who spent most of the day with the politician family, always came home to be welcomed by my smiling mother. Dinner had been a cozy family affair, and we relished my mom's cuisine. All this seemed to have come to a sad end when the doctor revealed the truth about my gender. In the couple of years that followed, there were frequent quarrels at home.” Shalaka paced up and down the room, as if she was getting restless while narrating the incidents of her life.

“Dad had started seeing another woman. After all, he needed an offspring called either a male or a female, and my mother was incapable of giving him this status.

Then my mother went ahead and made a horrible decision. Not for a moment did she think about me or my future." Shalaka was trying hard to fight back her tears.

"She took the trouble of pouring kerosene all over her and set herself ablaze." Shalaka lost her battle at this juncture that she was fighting with her surging tears all this while. They flowed down her cheeks incessantly.

The girls were dumbstruck to hear this horrendous happening. They hugged Shalaka to give her some solace and Suman dissuaded her from further narrating her story, if that was disturbing her.

However, Shalaka continued, composing herself. "My life that had already been thrown out of gear was further pushed into a mess when my dad brought home the other woman. They had two kids, a set of twins, a boy called Arudra, and a girl called Isha, hardly two years. I took an instant liking to them, they adored me too, but my stepmother would appreciate neither of these. Dad was forced to send me away from home.

I was sixteen then and was to join a college for graduation. Using his influence, dad put me into a college away from home. I still remember the filthy glance that the lady principal threw at me. Still, she couldn't deny admissions as the politician for whom dad worked had given huge donations to this institute, and there was no rule banning entry to a transgender person.

Then the hostel warden gave a foul smirk and said, ‘We have a male hostel and a female hostel, but we don't have a …..’, then she chuckled as if she had cracked a million-dollar joke."

Shalaka wiped her moist eyes and, with a sad look, asked, "Why don't people realize that they were stabbing me right at my heart by their words?"

Trisha offered her a glass of water. After drinking it, Shalaka continued.

"Dad put me up in a rented apartment all alone. With his duty done, he left, leaving me to face the daily taunts and criticism." She gave a deep agonizing sigh as if she was getting reminded of those days.

"I had intended to complete my graduation in Computers and paying no heed to any gratuitous remarks, I continued concentrating on my academics. God compensated for His mistake of making me transgender by giving me enough grey matter in my brains. Much to the annoyance of many co-students and some staff, I topped every exam. I graduated out of college a couple of months ago." She smiled at her achievement, and the girls patted her to show their appreciation.

"College life was no smooth ride. I met with abhorrence where ever I went. Girls categorically kept me away from their group and boys…." Her voice choked at this point even as Ratna tried comforting her by putting a hand on her shoulders. "They called me names," she said. "Names that were synonyms for a person like me in vernacular. It was disgusting." Shalaka hid her face behind her cupped palms.

"My stepmother never allowed me to visit them, worried that her kids will mingle with me. My father was too busy to pay attention to all this." Shalaka smiled poignantly, but the girls noticed the deep affection and love she had for her step-siblings in her heart. Having been denied meeting them was indeed painful.

"Then all mayhem broke one day," Shalaka continued in a stifled tone. "The politician for whom my father worked has a son; a prospective MLA. In a state of ecstasy, the boy ran his car over a pedestrian.

The politician directed my father to take the blame upon himself, for which he was paid a sum of 6L. There was way my father could defy his orders. We were reeling under the charity of the politician's family. My father was convicted for six years. Before leaving, he handed over 1 lakh rupees to me, and the politician's family also secured a job for me here in this city.

Though the company was not very keen on absorbing me, they did not dare to oppose the political figure; whose wings of influence had spread in vast areas. The company did not have any valid reason to deny me employment either. My certificates and testimonials spoke about my merits. I am joining duty from the day after tomorrow for a monthly salary of 18 thousand rupees."

The girls almost dropped their jaws in utter astonishment when they heard this.

"You could have afforded to rent a better place, then how come you landed here in this dungeon"? Asked Trishna.

"I took a hotel room and tried hunting for places to stay, but I only met with disparagement wherever I went. Exhausted with the exercise of hunting for accommodation, I slumped on the bench in the tea stall at the end of our lane. It is from there that I learned that Tarabai was looking out for a tenant. I wasted no time meeting her. It did not take me much time to realize that she understood only the language of money. That is how I landed here." Shalaka concluded her story. She then asked with an expression that begged for an assertive answer, "Girls are I not welcome to be one amongst you?"

"Of course you are," assured Trishna, while the other two nodded in total agreement. All three put their palm reversed on top of each other's and placing Shalaka's palm over it assured of everlasting friendship.

Suman was discharged from the hospital that evening, but she was distraught as the doctor had advised her to refrain from using the sewing machine or take a sitting posture for long hours, at least for a fortnight.

"My mother had expected that my work would fetch good money here, but I am still struggling to make both ends meet," Suman groaned.

"You never know when destiny chooses to smile upon you," Shalaka smiled reassuringly. Then she quickly added, "Hey girls, destiny, reminds me, I am going to buy the bumper draw tickets of four crores for Diwali this year. I promise to distribute it among all of you," She added as if the jackpot was assured for her.

"You are incredible Shalaka, what makes you think lady luck will shower the rain of benevolence upon us? Till date, misfortunes have only been our comrade. We continue to suffer at the hands of providence, and, still, you believe that the weather will turn its course and start blowing luck on us? You will only land up spending 400 rupees unnecessarily on the ticket." Trishna admonished Shalaka.

"Not one; I am going to buy four tickets, each one from each series," giggled Shalaka like a school kid, rolling her eyes, while the three looked at her in awe. 'She was going to spend a good thousand six hundred rupees that were going to go down the drains.' They sighed.

If the girls had thought that Shalaka had only exuberantly stated about the Jackpot tickets, they were mistaken. True to her words, she bought four of them the very next day.

Devotedly placing the envelope with the tickets under the feet of Lord Ganesha's idol, she told the girls, "The draw is on 26th October midnight that ushers us into the festival of lights. Even if it slips my mind, do remember to check the result. The jackpot is ours." The girls guffawed at her confidence.

Life wasn't exactly smooth going for all four of them. Shalaka was constantly being taunted and ill-treated by her colleagues. Though troubled by their attitude, she worked with full enthusiasm as her boss Mr. Bakshi, had assessed her potentials and inclination towards working on programming on computers. She had his moral support that enabled her to take this roller coaster ride in the establishment.

Trishna faced a constant threat from a male colleague, Kedar, who made menacing advances.

Ratna’s blooming affair with a ward boy, Pramod, sadly came to an end. Pramod was being sent to Dubai for a job, by a relative in return for a favor. He was forcefully betrothed to the relative's only daughter with some physical drawback. Pramod needed the job badly to help his family from a severe financial crunch and could not deny the offer.

After recuperating, Suman had gone to give a test. The supervisor would select 15 people based on their talent in stitching and embroidery. Those fifteen were then expected to go through another round of apprenticeship. At the end of the apprenticeship they had to appear for yet another test from where five people would be sponsored for a unique course and later absorbed in the company sponsoring it.

It was a challenging competition. Like Suman, many girls were highly talented and had the additional advantage of being groomed under some expert or other auspices during their learning period. Something that Suman could never afford to do. She had mastered the art in her way, struggling to understand its intricacies.

The day before, Suman was to hear from her supervisor about the selected 15 workers; she could hardly sleep. She kept tossing and turning on her bed, thinking about her mother. 'Mother had been so confident that I will find a job somewhere with my nimble fingers. God let me somehow make it to the next round, at least for the sake of my mother.' Suman tried stifling her sobs, worried it would wake up others. Then she suddenly heard some noises in the kitchen.

She realized that Shalaka was doing something in the dim light of a torch bulb. Suman tiptoed to the kitchen and was thoroughly shaken to see what Shalaka was up to. She scrambled back and vigorously shook Trishna and Ratna. Suman could speak nothing but kept pointing towards Shalaka's empty mattress and the kitchen with a void look.

The girls hurried and were equally shocked to see Shalaka consuming sleeping pills from a vial.

Ratna had the presence of mind to snatch the bottle that Shalaka was holding.

Shalaka had till then consumed seven pills out of the hundred that she had planned to take one by one and end her life. Ratna, who worked in the hospital, was aware that giving saltwater would make Shalaka throw up.

Shalaka was troubled by the attitude of her colleagues and superiors. Her boss was out of India. Taking advantage of his absence, the next superior purposely rejected her project and made lewd remarks like, 'Why do Eunuchs like you want to compete with us in this profession?' and everyone in office ruthlessly joined him in his laughter.

It took some time before the girls consoled her and said things might take a better turn once her boss returns from his overseas tour.

The following morning Suman went near the Ganesh Idol to take His blessings before leaving, to find the results of the first test that she had given. She caught a glimpse of the Jackpot tickets. "Hey there, remember these tickets that will make us prosperous," She teased Shalaka.

"On the day of Diwali, we will be giving a morning bath to the Lord and decorate Him with flowers." Then she winked at her friends and said, "We will be reminded of the tickets our doorway to richness." Trishna nudged Ratna, gesturing sarcastically towards Shalaka, who made a face of mock annoyance.

There was jubilation in the evening because Suman had made it through the first round. She would start an apprenticeship with a decent stipend now.

The following Thursday, Shalaka was celebrating her birthday.

Shalaka had promised to give a treat to the girls. The joy turned out to be a dual celebration because Shalaka's boss Mr. Bakshi returned from his overseas tour and declared that he was posting her in their office in Seattle.

"Mr. Bakshi recommended my project to the Seattle office, and guess what he told the mouse who calls himself the project manager; 'It is good you rejected Shalaka's project, she now gets an opportunity to work in our Seattle office. She will move to a place whose culture accepts people like her with open arms. She has been given a permanent posting there.'

Shalaka continued with sparkling eyes, "My VISA interview is scheduled for Wednesday, but Mr. Bakshi assured me it would only be a formality as the company is deputing me to take charge as a chief programmer. I am expected to join the office on 1st November. My tickets will be fixed for 27th October early morning flight."

On the eve of Shalaka's departure, the three girls felt sad, and so did Shalaka. By 1 am Shalaka left for the international airport. The girls bid her a teary farewell as she boarded the cab. "Right now, we do not have any contact number to give you. You, too, will be getting a new number. So you can contact us later in the grocery shop down, which is closed till 20th of November. The owner has gone to his hometown for Diwali. "

Shalaka tried to hide her tears and said, "If there is anything important, you can write to me at my Seattle office address that I have left on the table." They nodded and, with a heavy heart, waved their hands at Shalaka's receding figure as the cab slowly began to fade in their eyes.

The jackpot results had already been checked by Shalaka on her laptop at midnight from home. Yes, she had hit the jackpot, but she purposely left the ticket in the same place. She wanted the girls to distribute the money amongst them and live a peaceful life. As for her, she would earn enough to keep her happy in the US.

But then Shalaka was a normal human being, and she looked forward to hearing from the girls about the jackpot. That is why she had deliberately left an envelope with her Seattle office address written on it. Of course, she was going to refuse to take the prize money.

However, she was thoroughly disappointed not to hear a word from them. As days passed into weeks, she felt cheated, and when she could take it no more, she called the grocery shop owner and was dismayed to know that the three had shifted.

'They have gone to greener pastures for sure. With this huge money, they could even purchase a flat each.' She felt the pang of deception on their part. 'Not a word they uttered to me. After all, it was only money they too wanted; all talks of friendship have been dissolved in water.' Shalaka couldn't stop her tears from flowing. She felt lonely and sad.

However, the following morning her eyes caught sight of an envelope on her office table with her address written in her handwriting. With mixed feelings of guilt, happiness, and excitement, Shalaka opened it with trembling hands, and out fell many papers. A letter was written in Trishna's handwriting and a set of six demand drafts with different denominations adding up to the prize money after requisite tax deduction.

 'Dearest friend Shalaka, we hope you are well settled in the new environment. Not a day goes without your name being mentioned at least once. We miss you. 

Suman has got through the selected five for a fashion designer course. We have shifted to a place nearer to her institute.

Ratna is getting married to Pramod. His fiancé was high-minded enough to admonish her father for forcing him to marry her. Being well aware of her drawbacks, she didn't wish to spoil the life of a young guy like Pramod.  

Your boss has called me to collect my appointment order on 21st after a formal interview last Tuesday. Thanks, Shalaka, for referring my CV to your boss. 

And guess what? I gave a good piece of my mind and slapped Kedar hard. He won't dare to fool around with any girl now.

Last but not least, you have hit the jackpot, and we know you are aware of it. If you thought we did not see you checking the website, you are mistaken. All three of us, pretending to take a power nap, watched as you scrutinized the results and quietly put the tickets back. We, however, miscalculated that you were disappointed that you haven't hit the jackpot and, to escape from our criticism, have placed it back without hue and cry.

We were elated to see the results in the newspaper the following day and realized you had deliberately left the ticket for us to reap the prize money. Shalaka, we have always lived an impoverished life, but now all of us have found lucrative job openings. It may take some time, but we will definitely make some money and eventually get married and have a family. Maybe not lavish, but we will live a contented life with people around us.

For you, this prize amount would make a lot of difference. This money will be bait to lure someone to take good care of you in your retreating age. You are the kindest-hearted person we have come across, and we pray that God always keeps you blessed. 

Sorry for the delay in writing, but we had to finish the formalities with the ticket money after consultation with a tax expert. Take care and write us your number. We, too, will be getting mobile handsets soon, and then we can talk till eternity.  Bye for now. Our new address is given below. Send your number to that address.'

Shalaka stood there like a statue carved out of stone.  She felt thoroughly ashamed for having harnessed such foolish thoughts about the girls being greedy and selfish. They had so generously sent the total amount, not even bothering to keep some for them.

She should send them back their promised share!!!






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