Shanta Ganshyam hurried up the path from the bus stop to the back door leading to the sports lawn. A middle aged woman residing in one of the slums in the Mall area- Shanta was a plump woman with a weather-beaten face, looking far older than her years -- with lots of grey in her hair and wrinkles and numerous fine lines on her anxious tired face. This face never seemed to loose that look of tension and exhaustion -- juggling two jobs and three children -- one still a baby and an alcoholic husband. Shanta was one of the thousands of low class women inhabiting India. But she was always late -- late to arrive on her first day of employment in Mayfair College as Cleaning Lady, by Sue Danely -- and ever since always a late comer. It was a wonder to her and the other cleaning ladies that she had not been fired yet.
Sue Danely -- herself punctual endured this drawback as it was nearly impossible to find a replacement for Shanta Ganshyam -- a cleaning lady who would be willing to work outside her prescribed duties and hours of work -- a cleaning lady who was honest, scrupulous and hard working -- a cleaning lady who got on so well with the hostel girls and the other members of her cleaning staff and superiors. Maybe that is why, Matron turned a blind eye whenever Shanta emerged from the back door breathless and sweaty and invariably late! But today was different. It always was a rush before the opening of the college for the new term and Shanta had been duly told to present herself at the hostel door and in front of Shalu Brar -- the cleaning supervisor, at eight sharp in the morning.
But as usual how hard she tried, it had been difficult for Shanta again. Getting her two children ready for school -- cooking the lunch -- getting the Tiffin boxes ready and packed for them and her bad tempered husband -- cleaning the house -- washing the dirty dishes -- getting her youngest ready and leaving him at a neighbor’s and in the end getting herself ready to catch the bus from the Mall and endure another horrid long bus ride in the crowded bus.
Shanta desperately clutched the folds of her faded yellow sari breaking into a mild run down the hill to the back door -- she was nearly half hour late. Sue Danely would be sure to fire her this time. Shanta was aware that Sue Danely had deliberately ignored these late arrivals for the past two months and was now loosing her patience and sympathy with her- - and rightly so, Shanta grudgingly admitted to herself -- Sue Danely herself had to answer to authority and she was grateful that the Matron had silently put up with her late irregular timings! But it was unfair, Shanta thought miserably- she could not afford to loose this job. She simply could not -- this job was so important, Shanta sighed entering the premises through the blue painted door. Everyone -- the workmen and the gardener were busy and she slipped past them unnoticed. At the hostel doorway she paused thinking, “she did not want to appear late before Shalu again! Chances were that Matron had not noticed her late arrival yet- she usually noticed these things with her afternoon tea sitting in her chair in the dining hall inspecting the ‘Arrival & Leave’ Register.” Shanta made up her mind – “she would catch up with Shalu later and make her write down her arrival time as 8.10 -- but now she would just go and fetch the bucket and her cleaning paraphernalia and begin working.” Shanta grinned in relief and made her way to the storage room.
Shanta paused- she was cleaning the first floor of the hostel -- the first two floors of the hostel and the Old Church were her work domain. Here she scrubbed, dusted, swept and spring - cleaned till the floor shined in glory and the air smelt sweet. Shanta sighed and glanced out of the window of Room Number 5 and rather to her surprise saw the construction supervisor disappear into the Old Wing. Shanta frowned thinking, “she had not thought that the Old Wing was being renovated and to her knowledge it was not- sop what was the construction supervisor sneaking into the Old Church upto? Wasn’t he supposed to be supervising and directing the workmen?” She puzzled over it for some time dusting the four writing tables. But then as she became more absorbed in her scrubbing- it slipped from her mind as irrelevant and trivial. It was a good three hours later when Shanta picked up her cleaning kit and made her way to the Old Church. This, she knew had to be very clean and sparkling -- the Sister and her entourage performed their daily ritual there and the whole college graced the Old Church on Founders Day and other religious occasions! Shanta opened the door and went in -- it wasn’t so musty as she had cleaned it the last month and the Old Church wasn’t exactly a playground! She sighed and set down the bucket and picked up the duster. Soon the pews were on the receiving end of her ministrations and it was at times like these, Shanta felt completely at peace and happy. She started to hum an old movie song and then stopped -- there it was again -- a scraping sound, as if something was being removed and set down heavily. And it seemed to be coming from the altar -- she gazed at it frowning in deep concentration. The noise came again like a thunderbolt, sounding quite loud in the still Church and she started up towards the altar, duster in hand. She slowly climbed the steeps and puzzled – “everything seemed just like the way she had seen it last but there was this noise, terrifyingly near now!”
She turned round, bent down and examined the carpet, then went over to the piano and touched it. No, it wasn’t any of those things and now it came again -- clear, loud and she knew what it was -- someone was removing something, setting it on the floor- and it seemed to be coming from below. Shanta ran a steady hand over her sweaty brow -- she was tired and now angry as well -- this was her area -- where she worked diligently and no one had the right to come in and remove things and apparently make a mess of the place. She bent down and strained her sharp ears to the floor – “aha!” she thought. It was coming from below and now she could hear the faint sound of someone breathing! Evidently the person below was not used to physical exertion as she was! She straightened up again and debated as to the identity of the person. Suddenly the noise stopped and there was complete silence once again. Shanta frowned -- she did not like this a bit! But she was a cleaning lady, required to help and clean! Maybe she should find out if the person needed help.
“Hello,” she yelled in her bass gruff voice, “Anybody there?”
There was complete silence and Shanta answered herself, “Nobody,” and prepared to descend when she saw something very strange. The wall next to the curtains was missing! Shanta stared bewildered – “why had she not seen this before?” She slowly went towards it hand leaning on the adjacent panel walling. The wall slid back and she stopped in utter surprise -- the wall had appeared now- mystified she rubbed her eyes hard and blinked. This was very peculiar indeed! How could a wall just disappear and then re appear just like that? Work forgotten, Shanta puzzled over it thoughtfully resting her hand on the panes. The wall slid back much to her astonishment and she leant forward cautiously and saw a wooden staircase leading down. Without thinking she went down the creaking stairs pausing only at the bottom to again yell, “Is anybody here? Do you need help? I am the cleaning lady and I can help! Can you hear me?”
“Evidently not,” grimaced Shanta noting the dust and the cobwebs thinking, “Ram, Ram, what a dirty room is this. This place needed a good wash and shine- maybe she should get her bucket and mop down here.” She slowly turned around and saw another small wooden door in a corner ajar.
“Time I went back! This place is creepy! I have so much to do,” she said to herself.
Shanta was feeling a little nervous and apprehensive. Still mumbling she turned around to climb up and go back upstairs to resume her dusting. But she never made it to the first step either -- a sharp heavy metal object was bashed into her head and with a moan she fell back dead, blood trickling from the deep head wound. And then slowly a pair of black gloved hands dragged the body into the inner room where it was pushed into a corner. The inner door was softly closed again, and a pair of legs in dark colored cloth made their upstairs and the wall slid back in proper place.
Nandita Sharma yawned -- there was still an hour to go to fetch the teachers from the station. She blinked sleepily and rubbed her eyes -- she had read a novel last night and got to bed late and had been working since morning, to organize the teacher’s get together and answering telephone calls and doing the usual typing. She yawned again -- it had been a good nap. She ran a hand through her hair idly and she saw a figure in dark brown emerge from the Old Wing. She frowned slightly forcing her sleepy brain into active mode – “she knew for sure that the building was closed to outsiders and the only person who went in once a month was the cleaning lady and the Sisters who prayed their every morning -- but this figure definitely did not resemble the rotund figure of Shanta Ganshyam -- and the Sisters had gone to the Mall Church.”
Leaning forward she strained her eyes vainly for a clearer view but the figure ducked and disappeared behind some bougainvillea creepers. The telephone rang and she answered it absently reeling off the list of instructions to the anxious parent on the other end. She put down the receiver and slowly got up- still puzzling over it – “if the figure had stood straight for even a second, she would have been able to identify for sure but the figure had its head down and the distance between the main building and Old Wing had also played a part.” She sighed and mused inwardly– “Well -- she had better things to do…she had to tidy up and go to the station in the bus now.” She bounded down the long corridor and went out via the back door.
Sue Danely sipped the hot scalding tea and drew in a satisfied breath. She looked forward to her afternoon tea, sitting by herself in her room, reading the black bound Arrival Register. The mini bus had left ten minutes before bearing Gayatri Raghav and Nandita Sharma to receive the twenty odd teachers from the railway station. The workmen had already left -- having finished their work before the scheduled time. The Sisters had gone to the prayer meeting at the Mall Church and would be arriving just in time for the afternoon tea party, to be held in the dining hall. Sue Danely sighed -- she was alone and in charge- the cleaning ladies had gone home and the hostel was ready! She felt a surge of pleasure steal over her -- a perfectionist and a dominating personality; she prided herself on her efficient management of the fifteen cleaning ladies and well being of the hostel girls. Suddenly she frowned and set down the cup with a clatter on the side table- something had caught her sharp eye.
She leant forward and ran a steady finger over the names of the cleaning ladies who had come in the morning. Of course, instead of fifteen names there were only fourteen names in Shalu Brar’s illegible scribble, on the sheet! Matron checked again- Shanta Ganshyam’s name was not written. Evidently she had taken a holiday without informing her! Matron’s brows rose in surprise, puzzlement and anger. She distinctly remembered repeatedly telling Shanta to be at work at eight in the morning and Shanta had given her word. Matron’s frown deepened -- Shanta had never missed a single working day till now- sure, she was always late but never shirked from work! Sue Danely sighed in regret -- she liked Shanta but this was the limit!
Shanta had to find herself another job now -- she had really crossed the line this time! Taking leave without informing her -- to Sue Danely it meant a sign of disrespect and she could not tolerate this from her subordinate. She snapped the book shut thinking, “Yes, Shanta would have to go -- tomorrow she would tell Shalu her decision to fire Shanta and to look for another cleaning lady. How Shalu would tell Shanta was simply not her problem- she had given Shanta too many chances and warnings.” Sue Danely heaved herself to her feet- - her pleasant mood now a thing of the past. She did not like firing people but in her line of work it was necessary to keep a regular check on one’s subordinates and to fire them if necessary.
At the other end of the town, Jyotsana Patel leaned out of the window of her guardian’s house on Kanta road and sighed gloomily. A victim of divorced parents, Jyotsana could hardly remember the time when she had seen both her parents together smiling. Her birth, her paternal Grandmother had often lamented had been the sole reason behind the union of an army officer and a Delhi fashion designer. That had not done wonders for Jyotsana -- who on her fifth birthday eventually found out by eavesdropping on a conversation between her two busy body neighbors -- that her very glamorous mother and handsome father had been divorced for four years. She had always known that theirs was not a normal family, she living with her maternal grandmother -- her mother residing in Mumbai and her father stationed in Madras.
But she had never suspected a divorce! Since then her childhood memories revolved around a huge bungalow with a garden of red hyacinths and lovely bright bougainvilleas and an old lady, spectacled and terribly active -- always making sure that her only granddaughter got the best of everything. There had been holidays in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and journeys to every nook and cranny of India. A widow herself, Jyotsana’s grandmother had suffered deep disappointment when her eldest daughter, Jyotsana’s mother had divorced right after giving birth to a lovely baby girl, gone away to Mumbai- then after a few months remarried and gone abroad to Spain and never looked back. It was evident that she was ashamed of Jyotsana and her early promiscuous life in Dehradun!
Jyotsana stared miserably at the empty, sun lit road below. It was obvious that she did not appear on her mother’s list of priorities -- not like her father who had till the day he died kept in regular touch -- bought birthday presents and taken her out on outings. But then on her twelfth birthday, he had been fatally wounded in Kashmir and from then her life had become more centered around her grandmother. But the old lady too had joined her father a year later leaving her in sole possession of a large estate and annual income. Jyotsana had then come under the care and guidance of her three trustees- and been shuttled off to boarding schools since then. Now after nearly four years, she was back in Dehradun with one of her trustees -- a prim psychologist by the name Ms. Chadda to join Junior College at the Mayfair College for Women, as a hostellite.
Jyotsana sighed heavily again and gazed at her own reflection in the window pane. A pale, small built girl -- with short dark curly hair, dimples and big wide eyes -- Jyotsana had passed her tenth class public examinations with flying colors securing ninety percent, surprising no one in particular being a serious, hardworking, intelligent student. She had been expected to perform well academically and this examination had been her first step. She had proudly written to her mother and received a ready clipped impersonal letter of congratulations -- might as well written that she had got measles! Jyotsana had felt cheated and angry-- her mother’s telegraphic message left her in tears and so morose that she had been invited to a holiday to Ooty to visit her trustee’s parents. Ooty had been paradise and soon Jyotasana had forgotten all about her misery -- which only now came flooding back as she remembered her grandmother and her father -- the happy, fun filled days!