Wednesday 25 October 2023

Short Story 2023 Featured Writer, Sreelekha Chatterjee

Away From Home

I asked my wife, Malati, to walk faster, as we pushed wearily forward on the dimly-lit, paved road, with houses on either side of it.

“The gate of this particular locality closes by eight in the evening.” I alerted her with crowding apprehension, stroking my beard, while keeping a watchful eye on the road, as the fear of getting caught lingered on my mind.

We were heading towards our new home. Malati and my two children—my ten-year-old son, Sonu and my seven-year-old daughter, Monu—had been experiencing the daily dose of abuses showered by my friend’s wife during our two-month stay at their shanty near a posh colony in South Delhi. Stricken by economic crisis, it was challenging for my friend and his family to make both ends meet, and on top of that we had added to his misery by coming over to his place after our house in the nearby village was ravaged and washed away in the July flood.

The charm of the capital city no longer appealed to us, as being harried and emaciated, the only thing that we craved for was a roof above our head, a warm bed to sleep and a hot meal of dal–chawal to satisfy our appetite.

As we took a turn towards the left, we reached a little road-side ruin, which I at once recognised to be the old house where I had intended to take refuge, escaping the dread and tumult of the world that had been a part of our existence for so long. Drained of future visions and driven by the incomprehensible fate, I felt my thirty-year-old self drawn into the labyrinth of new adventures that lay in store for us.

I motioned Malati and the children to stop. Nothing was visible in the faintly-lit streetlight of the side lane. A large Neem tree at one end of the pavement was blocking the light coming from the main road.

The two-storeyed, antiquated structure had an unkempt garden surrounded by a two-feet wall and a front gate, sagging on its hinges, bound by chains, from which hung a large lock. I beckoned my family to move towards the wall which was partly wrecked.

“Now, we will have to climb the wall in order to go inside.” I told them, who kept staring at me, wide-eyed. “What did you think? We were going to stay in a palace. This abandoned house is the best place for us to stay.” I continued, folding the sleeves of my kurta, exposing my thin, hairy earth-brown hands, and the black veins bulged out upon them.

Malati raised her eyebrows, attempted to say something, but I signalled her to keep quiet as I was afraid that somebody would hear us. She was in her late-twenties, a thin frame with black hair always tied in a bun, a pinch of vermillion adorned the parting of her hair. Her round face had a pointed chin—expressive eyes were almond-shaped with dark eyelashes, nose was short and turned up at the end. She had an average height and generally wore a sari with her pallu (edge of her sari) fastened onto her waist.

I recalled the day when I first discovered this place, on one of my trips down this lane, riding a bicycle borrowed from my friend. Soon after coming to the city, I had commenced the work of a kabaadi (junk collector), my own business. I would go around posh areas, from house to house and place to place calling out ‘Kabaadi’ and people would give me old newspapers; plastic and glass bottles; tin cans; metal; broken, worn-out, not-in-use small furniture, utensils, instruments, TV, washing machine, etc.; in lieu of a small sum of money. I sold them in a shop near the ghetto and earned a decent amount of around 100–200 rupees on a daily basis. But I always missed my days as a farmer—although a landless one, working on someone else’s agricultural plot—in my native village.

The dilapidated house stood at one corner of the road, meeting a dead-end. It was a two-storeyed, pale-white building, with a dark, greenish-black moss-covered look, the weeds had exposed roots creeping here and there. The wooden, dark-brown doors and windows were mostly disfigured. The garden in front of the house was no less than a garbage bin that strangely, didn’t have any unpleasant, foul smell. There were one or two mango trees and the weeds underneath had grown unattended almost covering the entire ground floor of the building. The main gate was securely fastened with chains and a big lock along with a half-effaced notice board fixed on it. Being an illiterate, I couldn’t read what was written on it.

On another occasion, I came across a middle-aged security guard with dark, horse-shoe moustache, with whom I could successfully initiate a conversation. He was wearing a navy blue uniform with a design of a plough upside down along with abbreviations—that I couldn’t read, probably indicating the name of the agency that hired him—embossed on his shirt near his heart, while he was on duty on the road, doing his usual rounds. I had asked him about what was being conveyed through the notice boards—illegible to me— fixed onto the gate.

“It says: ‘Trespassers would be prosecuted.’ And something about High Court, you won’t understand. It’s a disputed property, you see.” He said, taking pride in knowing little bit of English, smearing the tobacco on one hand and then putting it inside his mouth with the other one. He continued speaking and I found myself paying attention to the man’s garrulousness.

“Whose property is it?” I had asked, leading back to the topic of the house.

“Who knows, bhaiyya (brother)? I have been posted here for the past five years and haven’t seen anyone come over to see the house.” He said in a nonchalant manner, before walking away.

I heard that legal cases regarding disputed properties remained pending for a long time in the courts. It took ages to get such type of cases resolved. Being the ones devastated by life, all we longed for was a shelter, a place where we would be staying in peace and solitude. The house was the perfect place for us to stay without any stress and anxiety, away from the prying eyes, at least I thought so at that point, overlooking the irony of fate implicit in those circumstances.

We crossed the wall and landed inside on a pile of garbage scattered all over the garden. The pile of rubbish consisted of empty packages of boxes, corks of bottles, remnants of half-eaten food, and plastic packets of household waste and leftover food that people had suddenly felt lazy and conveniently trashed outside, in the garden area of the building, contributing to the dirty heap. Something gluey got stuck to our clothes and shoes. My already-stained, yellowing shirt and pants, covered with dust and filth, got torn as I set my foot on some of the prickly bushes that had grown around wildly. I smiled faintly on observing the grim faces of my family members.

“Don’t worry, it would be difficult at the beginning but gradually we will get used to it.” I said, jumping up a little, as if I had come up with a joyous idea, but my words weren’t received with enthusiasm.

Exhausted, gathering my wretched self together, I walked ahead of them, as the way led, getting past the wild weeds, tall grasses, brambles, gnarled branches of trees overlapping one another, forming a luxurious, almost-impenetrable cover along with the layers of garbage, inhibiting my movement, indicating that the house had been disused and no living soul had treaded on that path for a very long time. After crossing the litter and the tall grass and bushes, we toiled up to the crumbling doorsteps. The weather-beaten, locked front door, with a cracked fanlight, was half broken towards the lower end. We decided to proceed through the wide hole in the door. We knelt down and crawled inside on our fours. The moment we stepped inside, a faint musty odor grabbed my attention—malign smell of molds as well as death and decay. I switched on the torch which I had received a few days ago from someone who had sold the piece considering it to be unworthy of use. The button of the torch had become loose and a lot of effort was needed to maneuver the on-and-off button. In the torch light, we could see that the small room with high ceiling had old-fashioned, battered furniture—a bed without any mattress, chairs, tables made up of wood, their bottoms had become worn-out and mouldy with age. The people who had abandoned the house didn’t take the furniture along with them, I presumed. The blue paint, on the damp wall harbouring fungal growth, had chipped off at places, exposing the once-white coating of plaster that had developed a yellowish tinge. As we walked further inside through the years of deposited dust and cobwebs, we found ourselves facing a dark, narrow passage which connected to three or four rooms that were locked. At the furthest end was a washroom that was left open. Though there was no water supply, one could use it. While moving around the locality I had noticed a tap in the adjoining building on the right. Early morning, car cleaners used to walk in there and collect water in their buckets to get the cars washed in the nearby houses. I could pretend to be a car cleaner and manage to acquire at least a bucket full of water every morning. On the left, a building was getting erected and it would be hard to get water from there, as they themselves lacked enough of it to carry out the construction work and thus, arranged for barrels of water from elsewhere.

At the end of the dingy corridor was a door which probably opened to the back side of the house. The gloomy, uncanny look of it was enough to trigger horror to a superstitious mind. We decided to venture there during daytime and returned to the first room stacked with furniture. I lighted two candles which stood on a side table while we made the room habitable. We had brought a few bedcovers that we could purchase from the market that emerged every Friday near the ghetto, where goods were sold at cheap, affordable prices. Malati cleaned the room with a broom and made the bed by placing the bedcover that we had brought along with us.

“Let’s be careful while moving in and out of the house, so that nobody sees us.” I cautioned them, as I wished to go unnoticed. “If anybody catches you, tell them that you are a rag picker and have come here in search of that.” I added quietly, looking into their eyes one after the other for a swift appraisement of their thoughts.

“We have found a home at last.” I told Malati. My words brightened her face and she smiled for the first time since we entered the house. She nodded in affirmation, placed her head on my shoulder, while my heart did somersaults and my mind soared high above the rooftops.

The first night in the house was an undisturbed one. Though it was the month of September, the intermingling of seasons brought remnants of summer’s heat which continued to burgeon, as we kept sweltering in the sultry weather. Another reason was that the rooms were stuffy without being opened and cleaned for a long time. It appeared to be unhealthy due to the dampness and odour of the decaying house, evoking a feeling of repulsion as we felt a little qualmish. The lone window in the room, where we settled, entertained the breeze inside but to a varying degree. Fatigued and hungry to the core, we ravenously devoured the food—chappatis (Indian flatbread) and pickle—that we had brought along with us. Malati asked me if she could our food somewhere. The inside passage was determined to be an ideal place to cook food on a kerosene stove. I endeavoured to open the backdoor of the passage but found it seemingly locked, probably it had become jammed. Malati and I reposed on the bed, while the children slept on the floor where we had placed a cane mat and covered it with a bedcover for the purpose.

The next morning, I woke up early. I sneaked out the front door and stood outside, observing the pale, cold light of the early morning suffusing across the grey-white of the sky. I took out a beedi (a mini cigar filled with tobacco flakes) and lit it with a matchstick. Though unable to assuage my underlying grief of a lost home, I felt a calm within me that breathed in somewhat peaceful atmosphere of the serene morning, trying to palliate the throngs of an unfulfilled need, the profound sating of an endless pursuit to find a place called home that we came across over there. Gentle, imperceptible winds blew like one mellifluous current, while the sunrays—slowly evolving from the brume—danced through the trees and made their way into the compound, deliberate in an attempt to efface the memory of our habitual loss, a delightful obliteration.

I puffed up the smoke when suddenly something fell in the front garden with a thud. On noticing carefully, I saw that it was a black plastic bag full of waste. The bag fell on the wildly-grown vegetation, adding to the already existing pile of trash. A portion of the bag got torn and inedible portions like peels of vegetables, the outer rind of a water melon peeked through it. I looked around with curiosity to figure out who had thrown the trash, though it was unlikely that someone who discarded household waste in that manner would wait there to be detected after doing the act. As I looked around I found a good-looking lady in a night gown, probably in her early twenties, peeping from the second-floor balcony of the adjoining house. She continued looking at me with her cheek resting on her hand placed on the railing of her balcony. She was as surprised to see me as I was to find someone living in a posh colony to chuck their kitchen waste in that manner.

I realised that it wasn’t good for me to get spotted in that manner. As I was about to go inside, the guard whom I had once asked about the signboard outside the gate was ambling down the lane and happened to see me.

“O Ravi bhaiyya. What are you doing here?” He asked, as a smile flitted across his face.

I felt nervous on realising that my desire to live inconspicuously wasn’t met and that my newly-found happiness seemed to be short-lived. Beads of sweat occupied my forehead. Pangs of sufferings of my homeless past and the destitution of my previous experience suddenly surfaced in a flash before my eyes, increasing my heart beat. With brisk steps, I came near the gate, crossed the wall and alighted on the road outside the house. Before he could say anything further, I quickly knelt down and wrapped my arms around his legs.

“Please allow me to stay here. I have nowhere to go.” I kept on saying while holding onto his feet.

“Arrey… leave me. You can stay as long as you wish, but you never know when the actual owners of the house would land up and drive you out.” He said while pulling me up from the ground, looking straight into my eyes. “Even if they don’t come, how will you deal with the others?” He resumed after a brief pause, his countenance grim as if he was about to reveal something unpleasant.

“Others?” I asked in astonishment, with an outstretched hand, almost screaming in despair.

“Yes, those who belong to the other world. I have heard that someone who lived here, a young guy, had committed suicide. You must have heard about a middle-aged housewife was murdered by her husband right here, in this very house? At night, their ghosts haunt this building. People have heard peculiar, unexplained noises; seen blinking lights and faces at the windows. It’s a creepy house, otherwise why will someone leave such a place worth crores of rupees. I am giving you good advice. You better leave this place or else you will also face similar consequences that those people who lived here have faced all these years. The ghosts had strangled and murdered some of them and others had left this place to land up in mental asylums.” He ended his monologue and looked at me sternly. “After all, it’s for you to decide. I would advise you not to stay here.”

“Don’t stay here!” These were his parting words before he sauntered away down the road.

I watched him go, as I stood bewildered for a moment, knowing not what to do in the present circumstance. After all I didn’t have any place to go. A man could fight with another man, but how could a human being fight against the intangible being?

My mind fluttered, wandered away from the old, derelict building to the lost home of the past. The place where a pot would be boiling on the chullah (mud stove) at one corner of the house, suggesting a warm, comfortable meal for the day. The home in my native village where a day like this was bathed in the luminance of the bright sunrays. Our windows let in soft, cool breeze that blew around us in a gentle swirl. While we watched our children play in the front yard, the green fields in the distance swayed merrily. Any challenge that adversity threw at us were soothed by listening to the sweet tunes of the singing birds.  

Were those days really gone forever? Were we confined to a lifetime of servitude and poverty?

As Malati was firmly ensconced in our new home, I decided not to tell her anything that the guard had informed me. I looked up to see whether the young lady in the adjacent building was still stationed on her balcony. It was comforting to see that she was no longer there. I silently retreated to the room.

Throughout the day, I arranged for an abandoned, old kerosene stove from the shop where I used to sell junk items, and other necessary ones such as utensils required to prepare food. I had earned a little extra money the previous day with which I purchased vegetables and rice. Malati cooked food in the passage. Little daily routines that placed a fresh impetus worthy of our cause to settle down in that house. The smoke from the cooking didn’t get proper outlet to escape, as we were unable to open the door at the end of the passage. We had our dinner and went off to sleep a bit early. I had received an old tabletop clock during one of my usual rounds amassing scrap in the city. It used to work properly except that at times it would stop involuntarily and demanded a hard knock to start functioning once again. The clock had arrived at nine when we all went to bed. I noticed that Malati was fast asleep as soon as she hit the bed. The kids kept talking among themselves—one was narrating a fairy tale to the other—for a while before they fell into deep slumber. I wondered how innocent the kids were, unaware of the chasm between rich and poor. Despite everything they could still imagine a life was full of abundance.

I was unable to sleep, as my mind kept wavering around the thought that we had been victorious in finding a shelter for ourselves, fighting with the oddities and shaping our lives for the better. I tossed and turned in the bed for quite some time assailed by the vague reflection of helplessness and loss that prevailed, perhaps forever, to give a memorable account of its boundless freedom to trouble my soul. Soon my mind drifted in the solitude of worries multiplying endlessly, born out of the desire of letting down my guard, to relax my vigilance on one hand, and developing a fatalistic attitude, experienced by people like me beset by daunting, uncontrollable factors influencing the course of their lives, on the other. Appearing to have caught sight of a fortunate life, in my mind I summoned the delusionary figure of it. Immersed in those happy contemplations, I didn’t know when I had fallen asleep.

I was awakened by a loud noise somewhere from the rear side of the house. The outside world had subsided to silence and darkness by then. A glow of the street light found its way up to our room through the hazy window pane. The dense vegetation outside was indistinctly lit up by an orangish-yellow glare. I descended from the bed and checked the time. It was only ten. I wondered where the sound had come from but couldn’t muster the courage to do a further check. Considering it to be a figment of my imagination, I decided to go back to sleep when I heard irregular footsteps, as if someone was walking upstairs. Frozen with fear, I could feel beads of perspiration crawl down my cheeks. I was reduced to the cataleptic state, my eyes fixed on the ceiling. My breath almost stopped and my teeth grated against each other as I heard soft footfalls. I looked around and found Malati and the kids were still fast asleep. I tried to cry out, to awaken Malati, but my voice died in my throat.

I remembered all the stories that I had heard from the guard. It was believed that the ghosts manifested themselves only to one person at a time. It was unlikely that two people witnessed their presence at the same time. A sense of loneliness washed over me. I felt helpless, all alone in the presence of the inexplicable being. After a while when my nerves soothed a bit, I took my torch along with me and ventured towards the hallway. The torch shined brightly as I moved from the room to the passage. On entering, I tripped on something, I lost my grip on the torch and it slipped onto the floor. The light went out. I crouched down, tried to pick it up but couldn’t find it in the dark. Overtaken by horror and convinced of the inutility of putting in any additional effort, I withheld the search. Fear loomed over my mind as I looked around, trembling to the core. Suddenly I observed something moving around the corner. A pale, yellow light was coming from the lone window pane at one side of the hallway. In that light I could a dark object on the floor, which turned around all of a swiftly. It had glowing eyes—a startled look in them. They were watching me intently as I stood there, numb, paralysed, held in its gaze, till the sinister entity let out a ‘meow’. I felt relieved on seeing it jump out of the small opening of the shattered glass window that I had failed to notice earlier. But then I recalled having heard ghost stories where the spirits had taken the form of cats.

I went back to my bed, feeling more disturbed and uneasy. I couldn’t sleep that night. The following morning I felt relieved when the gleam of the first rays of the sunlight filtered in through the cobwebbed window panes. I sprinted up and crept outside through the broken door to reach the front yard. As a morning ritual, I saw the neighbours dumping fresh garbage onto the garden. I wondered what could be done to get rid of the feeling that I had sensed the previous night.

Throughout the day I was busy with my occupation of accumulating discarded objects. In the evening, Malati cooked the food for us. We had an early dinner like the previous evening and went to bed without having anything else to do.

“We could watch television.” My son Sonu said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll have one soon.” My daughter Monu joined. “Then we can remain awake till long hours like the city-bred children.” She continued.

At my friend’s place in the shanty, they had a TV set. We all used to watch television after having dinner. They didn’t have much money but had still managed to afford a TV with a dish antenna.

I didn’t know for how long I was asleep when suddenly I was woken up by a loud noise like that of the previous night. I could hear the footsteps upstairs, a vague feeling of people passing to and fro. I heard strange sounds, as if a group of men spoke in whispers, yet they were far more distinct than the previous night, which could be possible only if there were nocturnal visitors from the other world, as we were the sole inhabitants of the deserted house. Almost in hysterics from terror, I decided to talk to Malati. I woke her up and narrated the entire episode as it had the previous night as well as what I had been sensing presently.

She listened intently, despite her eyelids drooping with sleep, her hair tousled, and then said, “I can hear a strange sound too. Why don’t you go upstairs and see? Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen.” She took out the torch from under the bed that I had left somewhere in the passage the previous night. “The passage door is jammed. You would need to go to the back side via the garden.” She continued.

Amid the fear of the unseen visitant, Malati’s words had hurt my male ego. Assuming outwardly a calm appearance, I tried hard to put on a brave face.

I rushed hurriedly towards the door, and glanced at Malati’s indistinct face before leaving. She nodded her head in a gesture of reassurance. I used the door and reached the front yard. The stretch beside the house that led to the back was a narrow one with tall grass, dense shrubs and bushes. Unnerved, I flashed the blurry torchlight on the unwholesome vegetation, and walked cautiously through the foul-smelling, slippery garbage.

On reaching the back yard, I spotted a rickety old, iron staircase that arose from the ground level to the terrace. I carefully managed to ascend the stairs, one step at a time. From below, I could see a strange light coming from the first floor of the building. Struggling with the stairs, at last I managed to reach the first floor of the building, sweating profusely. The door seemed to be closed. I pushed it open to find a group of six people sitting cross-legged on the floor, in a circle, and having food. As the door was open, a candle placed at the centre, from which faint light was coming, flickered in the breeze. I was shocked to the core at this unexpected encounter.

For some time we stared at one another.

“Who are you?” We asked almost simultaneously.

“We have been living in this house for the past six months,” one of them said.

“I have come along with my family only a couple of days ago.” I answered, as I mopped the sweat, which had accumulated on my brow, on the back of my left palm and released it onto the floor with a jerk.

“We work during the day and only come here at night to sleep. Getting a decent place to live in the city is very expensive. We are daily wage labourers who have come to the city for work, and have nowhere to stay.”

I realised that there were people like us who were staying in the same house.

I returned to my room and told Malati about them. Feeling assured that we could stay amicably in the building along with our neighbours and that nobody would ever come to evict us, I slept peacefully for the rest of the night.

The following morning I woke up to the thundering noise of earth being dug up in the front garden, and scores of people shouting and vehicles moving about in the neighbourhood. I quickly came out, and to my surprise, I found around seven to eight labourers, with yellow metal head gears, breaking the front wall covering the garden area, and a huge truck was parked outside.

On asking, they said, voices roaring with excitement, “The plan to construct a new building has been sanctioned. We are starting the work right from today.”

I wondered how the disputed property got its resolution within a short span of time.

The day had begun to take on the hues of a morning that was bright for some, replete with its lively colours, but definitely pale, unassuming for us, as by some incomprehensible means we had been tricked, devastated by our fate that had brought back the loss of another harbour, feeling empty and lifeless inside, while the hope of finding a shelter loitered like a forgotten dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment