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A Stranger in my House

(Short Story - By Eva Bell)

Kavitha walked into the night, her dark brooding eyes intent on what she was about to do. She had combed and plaited her hair and tucked in a red hibiscus, draped herself in her best sari, adorned her arms with green and red bangles, and even smeared her forehead with vermilion.

“One last time,” she thought, “One last time to deck up like a married woman.”

“One last time,” she thought, “One last time to deck up like a married woman.”

Before she left her two-room tenement in a chawl, she took one last look around to make sure everything was in perfect order. The embers in her fire place had been properly doused, the single water tap turned off, and the mattresses neatly piled in a corner. She looked up at the enlarged photographs of her husband and son. Only this morning she had bought two sandal wood garlands to adorn these photographs.“I’ll be with you soon,” she whispered, “No more tears. My mind is made up.”

Kavitha had tried to be brave since the tragedy three months ago. She recalled that day so vividly. It was her husband’s fortieth birthday. She had packed his lunch box and that of her son with special goodies prepared for the occasion. They owned a small grocery shop in the market place which was patronized by ordinary people. Dileep her husband was well loved both by his customers and fellow shopkeepers.“Who wouldn’t love him?” she thought, “I’ve never met a kinder man – always considerate of others. Our son too has taken after his father.”

Dileep had just one regret – that he couldn’t send his son to college. Tarun had discontinued his education after High School, and joined his father at the shop.“Tarun, you can’t be a petty shop keeper like me all your life. You must go to evening college and equip yourself for better things. I have saved enough money for your fees. Your mother and I hope for a better standard of living someday. Only you can fulfil our dreams.”So Tarun had registered at an evening college, and was soon to begin his studies.

That evening, when the news of the blasts in the city reached her, she was at a friend’s house. When the TV was turned on, she saw people running helter-skelter, as bomb blasts went off in different parts of the city. She was so engrossed with what was happening, never once suspecting that it would change her life forever. Almost an hour later, someone came panting up to her.“Dileep Bhai’s shop,” he shouted, “A bomb planted in a bag on a bicycle was parked near by.”

It took a while to register. Then she screamed at the top of her voice.“No, no…..It can’t be true.” She rushed after the boy.“Wait,” said her friends, “We’ll go together. The police may have cordoned off the place.”

As expected, the bombed area was sealed off from the public. People gathered all around, wailing and beating their chests, not knowing what had happened to their loved ones.“It can’t be… it can’t be. Dileep……and that too on his birthday! And Tarun, all set to go to evening college. They must have escaped…..I’ll find them.”

Her friends hung on to Kavitha lest she do something crazy. The hours of waiting were agonizing. There were police sirens screeching, ambulances whining their urgency, crowds jostling, pushing and falling over each other. Then came a loud voice over the megaphone.

“Bodies are being taken to the government hospital. Relatives are requested to go there and identify their relatives.”

There was nothing to identify. Most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Only the ring on Dileep’s finger and the Hanuman talisman Tarun wore around his neck had survived the flames.

“Why must I alone be alive?” Kavitha wept, “Why can’t God take me too?”

During the first few days of her bereavement, there were friends to console and commiserate with her. They ministered to all her needs. The magnitude of her loss struck her only after the last ceremony was over.

“Alone,” she thought, “And far away from my natal home! Though there is no immediate need, I will soon have to find a job to support myself. I don’t want to go back to my relatives. This is a big city and the possibility of finding a job here is more likely than in my village. Besides, there will be too many restrictions placed on a widow. I must think carefully about what I want to do.”

Kavitha was loathe to leave the house where she had been happy all these years. She had come here as a young bride, and together, Dileep and she had turned these small rooms into a haven of happiness and contentment. When Tarun was born, Dileep had not sent her back to her parents as was the custom, but tended her lovingly unlike so many other husbands. They were not rich but didn’t lack for basic needs, and were quite content with what they had.

“Now I’m alone….. it’s terrifying. How will I survive?”She could not bring herself to go out and look for a job just as yet.

The man who knocked on her door was a stranger. She had never seen him before.“I heard that you are in search of a job. Would you consider domestic work? I’ll pay you well. My wife is an invalid and needs caring.”“I need more time to grieve,” she said, “I’m not ready to go to work just now.”

He came the following week, pleading with her to help him out. This lady in her spotless white sari and shorn of all adornment, had a quiet dignity about her which was touching.“Not yet,” she said, “I’m just not in a mood to work immediately. My tears are still wet on my cheeks.”

But when he came back for the third time begging her to help him, Kavitha felt this was some kind of emergency, and she must stir herself out of her grief.“Perhaps his wife is dying,” she thought, “It might take my mind off my own loss if I am preoccupied with caring for this lady.”

The house was a good distance from where she lived.“I wonder how he came to know of my existence. Perhaps neighbours and well wishers have been talking about the loss of my breadwinners.”

Though she had no experience of tending sick people, she was fairly confident that she could manage.

The man lived in an independent cottage.“Perhaps he owns the garage next door,” she thought, looking across at the vehicles spilling on to the road. There were only a few men tinkering with the cars. As it was noon many had probably taken their lunch break.“Oh come in,” he said, a wide grin lighting up his face, “You must excuse the mess. I’m a no-good housekeeper.”

It looked as if the place hadn’t been lived in for ages. Kavitha didn’t like the clutter.“I have my work cut out,” she thought, “It’ll take me a couple of days to clean out the place.”“Come in. She’s in the bedroom”

Kavitha followed him. She looked around for signs of the invalid, but there was no one around. The bed was neatly made, and here and there was a semblance of order and cleanliness.“Where is she?” Kavitha asked.

She looked up to see him smiling to himself. Was this some kind of game?“You brought me here to look after your sick wife. Where is she? Is there another bedroom?”“My wife died last year. What I need is a good woman like you with no encumbrances, to cater to all my physical needs.”“You swine,” Kavitha swore as he came dashing towards her and pulled her into his arms.

His lecherous mouth moved closer to her lips.Kavitha knew she had to flee. “I’ll be damned if this man is going to get me.”

She recalled how a goon in a movie had been overpowered by a young girl. She clenched her fist and jammed it with all her might into his solar plexus He doubled up with pain and she gave him one more solid thump on his back. Then she fled as if pursued by the devil. She didn’t stop until she reached home, locked and barricaded her door. Then she squatted on the floor and sobbed her heart out.

“Is this to be my fate in future?” she wondered, “Is a widow fair game for everyone?”

She had heard about widows being subjected to all kinds of abuses – physical, sexual, psychological. Now she was one of them – the helpless minority who would be hounded by hooligans or trapped as beasts of burden under some heartless employer.“No,” she thought, “I will not suffer such indignity. If I go back to my village it will be ten times worse. The best thing for me is to end my life.”

Now she was on her way to keep her tryst with sweet oblivion. She sneaked out of the back door on to the lane behind her house which was in darkness. She walked swiftly, sometimes breaking into a run, pursued by imaginary phantoms of the night. At the end of the road, a mud track branched off, leading into a dense copse. Beyond that was the village pond which was dense and dirty. She had heard that it was deep enough to drown anyone who couldn’t swim.

Kavitha stood at the edge of the pond. Though there wasn’t much light, she knew she was standing at the spot where the water was deepest.

“I cannot swim. So death will be swift. Hey Ram, here I come.”But even as she prepared to jump, she was distracted by movement just a few yards away. In the dim light that filtered through the leaves, she saw a young boy about to do what she was contemplating.

“No,” she shouted, forgetting her own resolve, “Don’t do it.”She pulled him back from the edge with all the strength she could muster, and made him squat on the ground.“For heaven’s sake, what were you trying to do? Drown yourself?”“Yes, and you shouldn’t have held me back.”“Why?”“Because I’ve no one left to care for me. They’re all dead.”Kavitha’s heart went out to him“Oh dear, we’re both of a kind. I have no one left to care for me too. Tell me all about it. You’ll feel better after you’ve poured out your grief.”

He was young, perhaps not more than 14 years old. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten a square meal in days.“I belong to a village near Hassan. We had a few fields which we cultivated. But the rains failed and the crops were lost. My father borrowed heavily from the money lender. We couldn’t pay him back in time and he unleashed terror on all of us. In desperation my parents and brother committed suicide. The man wanted to keep me as his bonded servant until his debt was repaid. So I ran away from the village and landed in this city. I have nowhere to go.”

Kavitha was touched by his story.“What’s your name?”

“Navin. I don’t want to remain a beggar on the streets. It’s better that I die.”“Let’s go home,” she said, “Until you find a place you can stay with me.”“But why are you here alone at this part of the night?” the boy asked.“Because like you I am desperate and lonely. You know about those awful blasts that went off in different parts of the city three months ago? One of those bombs hidden in a bag on a bicycle killed my husband and son. I too wanted to die…..”“And you changed your mind after you saw me?”“In a way, you saved my life. I was distracted from what I was about to do. Now I realize it was cowardice that made me think of such a step.”

They walked back to her chawl in silence, both submerged in their own private thoughts.“What am I to do for a living?” Kavitha wondered, “And now I have another mouth to feed.”

After lying awake for most of the night, she had an idea. She was a good cook. Her potato patties and bhelpuris would sell like hot cakes.“You will have to sell them somewhere,” she told Navin next day, “Perhaps we could put up a roadside stall in the evenings.”“Oh no, no, no…… I’ll help you with all the household chores. But please don’t send me out of the house. I’m shy and I don’t like meeting people.”

So Kavitha went looking for customers. The two tea stalls on Parle Road agreed to buy Kavitha’s eats. But she had to deliver them at the shop twice a day. All this kept her busy for most of her waking hours. Navin helped her as much as he could, but she was unable to persuade him to step out of the house. Though he was good to have around he never talked unless it was necessary. Sometimes she caught him staring up at the photos of her husband and son, and his face would cloud with sadness. Kavitha thought he hadn’t got over his grief at losing his own family. There were times when she heard him sobbing in his sleep.

There were many things she couldn’t understand about the boy. The burden of his loss was too heavy for his young shoulders.

“I guess he feels guilty that he is alive and the rest of his family is dead. Perhaps he feels resentful that I prevented him from jumping into the pond.”But though he didn’t talk much, his was a comforting presence. “I feel I’m not alone.”To the neighbours’ curious questions, she said he was a nephew from her village who was sent to keep her company.

Life was difficult. In spite of all her hard work, Kavitha’s work just helped make both ends meet. One rainy day, she fell ill with severe chest infection and a swinging temperature. There was no money to buy medicines, and Navin watched with a sinking heart, as her fever raged and Kavitha groaned and tossed on her mat. Cough racked her slender body. Sometimes she was breathless.

“Oh my God!” Navin thought, “I have to bring the doctor to see her. She must not die. No I will not let her die.”

For the first time since he stepped into the house he had to go out. He walked a good three miles to his destination. It was a small tailor’s shop in the narrow Darji Street, smelling because of open drains and overrun by mangy canine inhabitants. The middle aged tailor looked up from his sewing machine.

“Sir, I’ve come for my money.”“I thought you were dead, Man. How on earth did you survive?”“My money. You promised me a thousand rupees.”“You should have claimed it four months ago. Now I’ll only give you five hundred.”“A thousand or I’ll go to the police,” Navin said, moving a step closer.“Okay, okay young man. Here’s the money. Now scram and don’t even darken my doors again. Or else……”

Navin ran all the way back. He had seen a doctor’s clinic on his way out, which was not far from Kavitha’s house.“You must come with me Sir. My mother is very sick. It’s urgent. I’ll pay you well.”

Sensing the boy’s desperation, the doctor accompanied Navin. He examined Kavitha and gave her an injection. He also wrote out a prescription and asked Navin to buy the medicines straight away.

Navin had just returned from the pharmacy and given Kavitha her first dose of medicine when there was a knock on the door. A policeman entered.“I have orders to arrest Navin.”Sick as she was, Kavitha raised her head and asked, “Why do you want him?”“We got a phone call from a man who put us on his tail. We followed him here.”“Whatever for?”

Short story Continued here- Page 2