Where is Shanta?
Shalu Brar finished her supervision rounds and went down to the canteen at the back of the main building. Some students were sitting on wooden benches eating hot samosas and drinking Fanta and talking nineteen to the dozen. Shalu Brar saw one of the new cleaning ladies- employed two months back, slowly trundle towards the Teachers Quarters.
Clad in a yellow salwar with a black silk dupatta, heavy gold rings and oily swinging plait, Shalu mused over yesterday evening’s curious puzzling conversation- she had just come back to her one roomed house after another grueling afternoon shift at the City Hall, like all women living in the Mall, Shalu also juggled two jobs but her life was much easier and uncomplicated. Her husband was not a heavy drinker and very much present in the house to help with the housework. Late in life, when they had given up hope, she had been blessed with a baby boy!
Now it was her ardent dream to give him the best of everything in life! Ajay was the apple of her squinty eyes and also friends with her neighbor, Shanta Ganshyam’s eldest boy, Vikram. Matron’s decision to fire Shanta had come as of no surprise to her as she was well aware of Shanta’s late timings but had covered up for these indescrepancies in time because she knew for a fact that Shanta desperately needed this job! Her late arrivals were not motivated by laziness and a disinclination to work but, the housework and dealing with three children and an alcoholic husband who did not lift a finger to help her! She had therefore come home with a heavy heat,- practicing all through the bus ride the best way to break the devastating news to Shanta, that she needed to find herself a new job in the mornings from now on. Shalu knew that something must have gone wrong, else Shanta would never have missed a day of work that too without informing anybody! Either one of her children was ill; maybe her drunkard of a husband had fallen off the bus or got into a fight at the corner side pub -- or, it was possible that Shanta herself was unwell! With these thoughts in mind, Shalu had slowly walked home and saw her son and Vikram, still in their baggy school uniforms outside her door!
“What’s the matter?? Why haven’t you changed?” she had roughly enquired, unlocking the door.
“Something is wrong, Ma,” her son had informed her shortly.
“Well…come inside then, its still hot outside!” and she had led both the boys into the cool room which served a multi purpose of drawing room; bed room and study!
“Ma hasn’t come home yet,” Vikram had begun chewing his under lip.
“Really,” Shalu had been surprised, “Where did she go?”
“She went to work, naturally -- like any other day but did not return in the afternoon for lunch -- her next job starts at three o’ clock, you know….well…she never came back…we somehow managed to have something for lunch and pick up Guddi from Dolly’s house….but now its evening and still there is no sign of her. Daddy will be back soon…..what do I do? I guessed you might know where she was…” and had expectantly looked at her.
Shalu had been at a loss – “but she didn’t show up for work at the college! .And our boss was real angry. She didn’t tell me anything! I thought maybe one of you was ill!”
Vikram had shaken his head in alarm, “where is she then?”
Shalu had made him sit down. Her husband had come home from work by then. It had been nearing five in the evening then. She had had dispatched him off to bring the other two kids back to their place and herself had sat down and mentally tried to make sense of everything,
“Maybe someone was ill and she went to see them,” she had suggested,
But the boy had shaken his head, “Everyone is fine. And she has not gone over to anyone’s place, I checked! I am real worried! Where is she?”
Shalu herself had begun to feel very worried and frightened. Maybe Shanta had been a victim of a bus accident. She could just imagine her lying groaning with pain on the hospital bed.
Suppressing a shudder, she had said, “We will find out -- why don’t all of you eat here and sleep with us tonight?”
In the end, it had been decided that the two boys would sleep in their own house with their father and, leave Guddi with them for the night. In the morning, there had been no sign of Shanta and she had fought hard dire thoughts that Shanta had indeed met with an unfortunate end. She had taken charge of the children -- dispatched them off to school -- left Guddi at Dolly’s place and then caught a bus to the college.
The Hostellites had been still arriving and she had not been able to attract Matron’s attention to share her information about Shanta. The Matron, Shalu had realized over the years, despite her tough appearance was a kindly and compassionate woman -- who would immediately react favorably and do her utmost to find out what fate had befallen Shanta Ganshyam. But, after an hour of trying to talk with her in the corridor Shalu had given up! She had gone to the work rooms, signed herself in. The other cleaning ladies were present there already. She had then gone ahead with her supervision duties and then, finally cornered the small built nimble footed canteen assistant, Ramu.
Her objective had been to enquire about around the college and bus stop whether Shanta had been seen in the premises yesterday at all -- whether anyone had seen her enter the premises. Shalu thought it that Shanta had actually missed a working day -- it was very unlike her! And Ramu would now be her helping hand to find out what she sought to discover. Feeling like a detective she had persuaded Ramu to take to the streets near by and ask questions to people usually seen in the vicinity.
Shalu sighed. She hoped Ramu would tell her that no one had seen Shanta near the college premises and then, she would have to focus her attention elsewhere.
She ran into the light skinned Ramu, “So?” she demanded roughly, in the local dialect.
Ramu finished pouring the oil into the pan and said nodding, “Yes, Shantabai was seen yesterday hurrying up the lane and entering through the back door.”
Shalu closed her eyes in despair, “Who saw?”
“Old beggar woman who sits by the back door.”
Shalu nodded -- she knew the beggar by sight and was aware that the beggar woman sat there every day and night, without ever changing position, and so, saw everything!
“So, where is she? She never showed up else I would have written it down! Where is she?” she aired her thoughts loudly.
“Dunno!” replied the assistant now frying the samosas, “Is there anything else?”
Shalu shook her head and passing him a five rupee note, made her way to the hostel to have a serious word with Matron.
Shalu stuck her head in through the open door- Matron was seated behind the desk in the hostel reception room, sorting out some pink colored forms. Shalu cautiously slipped inside and stood there patiently for Matron to look up and see her. When this did not happen for quite some time, Shalu Brar noisily cleared her throat and Matron at once looked up frowning, “Shalu!! What are you doing here?”
Shalu Brar twisted the end of her dupatta in an effort to muster confidence. She was in great awe of Sue Danely and had only conversed with her through monosyllables.
“Yes? What is it?” Sue Danely asked kindly -- well aware that her cleaning supervisor was somewhat shy of her and seemed to avoid carrying on lengthy conversations with her. So, if Shalu had voluntarily come and sought her to say something, it must be something of utmost importance. Matron smiled at Shalu, “Is something wrong?”
Shalu’s left eye twitched dramatically and opening her mouth, she burst into a torrent of speech, “Oh, its Shanta! She is nowhere to be found -- her family says that she left for work in the morning as usual and I checked up and someone did see her entering the college yesterday morning! But she never showed up for attendance and did not come home last night and today morning also! What do I do? She has three small children…where is she? What has happened?” and looked expectantly at Matron hoping that Matron would brandish a silver key- open the closet and display a perfectly healthy and breathing Shanta!
But Matron didn’t do anything of that sort. She simply raised her eyebrows and said, “So, Shanta has disappeared.”
It was not a question but a statement, and Shalu immediately rushed into speech again, “Oh yes, no one knows where she is? She was seen coming in through the back door by some beggar woman who sits by the corner, I asked Ramu to find out….where could she be?…Do you suppose she had an accident…maybe her bus….”
Matron interrupted firmly. Shalu was beginning to sound incoherent and looking all nervous and flustered -- but she had managed to gather the essential facts. Secretly, Matron reminded herself that Shanta Ganshyam was no longer a loyal employee but had been fired yesterday for not coming to work but she had come and then disappeared into thin air once inside the college! Matron involuntarily shuddered and thought, “yes, she must find out!”
She looked up at the skinny dark nervous face of Shalu Brar again. Had Shanta had any…..er….male friends, Matron had enquired very discreetly and softly, only to have Shalu vehemently shake her head and once more lapse into righteous speech, “Shanta is a good woman…three children…..good mother….hardworking…..sweet and kind...”
Finally Matron had heard enough. She assured Shalu that she would at once find out what had happened. She managed to calm the agitated supervisor and send her on her way out to her cleaning activities. Sue Danely sighed and then frowned turning the matter over in her head. Shalu Brar was convinced that Shanta had indeed come to college yesterday and then disappeared once inside the college. She shook her head -- Shalu had been very incoherent and had mixed up facts and timings! She had to hear everything once more, this time more clearly and calmly. She picked up the receiver and spoke into the canteen intercom asking for Ramu.
Shiksha Malhotra climbed down from the third floor to the ground floor, squeezing past girls along the corridor reaching for the stairs, to go to the dining hall for lunch. It was nearly one and she knew that she was very late, but if she was lucky she would be in time to catch Naaz and Palak in action and persuade them to give her some lunch. A girl of medium height with a mass of brown hair peppered with reddish strands matched by lively light brown hazel doe shaped eyes, and a wheatish complexion, Shiksha had a pleasant face and a friendly manner but had earned the reputation of a “snob” at the college owing mainly to her aloof and solitary nature. However, she was not a snob at all! She reached the foot of the stairs and sighing deeply, turned into the back corridor. Her stomach was growling and she knew that she had once again neglected her hunger need.
But there had been nothing she could have done! She had arrived late at ten in the morning, very late and immediately after completing all formalities, rushed off to class. It had not been her fault that she had come in the morning, considering that she had wanted to come yesterday evening. But some emergency had obstructed her again and she had to cancel her plans and sit in the spacious bungalow with the live in maid and her three spoiled little cousins. Her Grandmother had to go off on some dinner out for senior citizens, and, as her grandfather had not yet returned from work, she had to stay back at home. “Living in New Delhi was hectic,” she thought walking towards the hall. “And perhaps that’s why most of the girls thought of her as a snob. The residents of the capital city were considered aloof and snobbish. Perhaps it was her attitude ingrained deep into her shy personality by her city.” Her thoughts continued to roll like swift waters, “Life in Delhi was like a roller- coaster ride. Full of surprises – it always kept you on your toes… always on the look out for some emergency -- especially if one happened to live in a family related to politics.”
Her Grandfather was the Chief Election Commissioner of India. Their bungalow at Barakamba Road was huge -- two floors with each one of them having their own separate bedroom; four rooms on the ground floor; a vast garden as big as a field -- lots of servants -- a cook, a kitchen maid, a gardener, two house servants and their live- in- maid, who had been with her grandmother since the old lady’s marriage and her gradual social climb. Her father was an exceptionally busy man, in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) -- traveling to foreign countries. When she had been small and her mother had been alive, they had traveled together but with the accidental death of her mother sixteen years ago her father had begun making those trips alone, leaving her with her grandparents and her cousins -- who had endured the same fate as her. Her uncle was in the Air Force and so always away -- her aunt dead and her three cousins -- two boys and one girl were all under the age of ten and so no companions to her. Sensing her loneliness, her grandmother, an active socialite and Red Cross Fundraiser had sent her away to Dehradun to Mayfair College, four years ago when she had passed her tenth class public examinations.
She had always gone home to the busy bungalow teeming with political activity and dignitaries for her vacations and been whisked away to parties to meet the most important political figures of India. Holidays had also been going to Red Cross fund raising functions, attending exhibitions; tea parties; luncheons and- going off on outings to Childrens’ Park, the Zoo, exploring the broken down ancient monuments of Delhi and unraveling their history with her wailing exasperating cousins and their live- in- maid. Shiksha had always found history as a subject and as a past time utterly fascinating. She had opted to major in it in junior college and then later in senior college. Her personal album was filled with self taken photographs of the ancient historical monuments -- Purana Qila, Qutab Minar, Jama Masjid, Humayun’s Tomb, to name a few!
Holidays also meant hanging out with her father or uncle if they happened to be visiting -- going to other cities and exploring them. She had seen and discovered most of ancient India in these holidays! Now, she had to read about it in her college books. Shiksha had never been popular with peers but got on fabulously well with small children and teenagers -- owing to the brattish behaviour of her cousins and the happy go lucky sensitive attitudes of her Delhiite teenage neighbors!
She reached the dining hall and ran in just as Naaz was about to wheel the dishes away. Palak arched her eye brows and said, “didn’t you see the timings on the notice?”
“Not really! I was in a hurry, came late.”
Naaz sighed but scooped out a plate of rice for her and handed it to her saying, ‘Tomato soup and fried potatoes!’
“Lovely! Thank you,” said Shiksha taking the plate and sitting down at a near by table. Palak handed her the fork and spoon and proceeded to pour the soup into a cup grumbling about girls who did not bother to read notices. Shiksha paid no attention and started eating, musing over the morning’s lecture on the Mughal Empire. In her first year, she had studied two papers of Modern history, dealing mainly with African history and the United Nations. It had been boring. “But this year” Shiksha thought, “she was going to study two papers on Ancient Indian history. Absolutely thrilling and fascinating!”
For her subsidiary papers she had chosen Mass Communication I & II and English. She had signed up for music this term and had opted to learn to play the Sitar. She smiled to herself, she had moved into her new room -- a change from last year when she to share it with all third year senior college students and the only first year senior college girl had been in the room opposite hers. She had not been a fresher but that had not deterred the seniors in any way -- they had ragged her! For her part, Shiksha hated ragging in all its forms and actually felt sorry for those poor unfortunate souls who were ragged. It was not fair to rag and be mean to students who had simply moved on to the next stage in education!
She finished her lunch, thanked the two women and went out. Walking along the corridor, she glanced at her watch, it was only half past one and she had a Mass Communication lecture at half past two -- the first of the term. Shiksha did not want to go back to the room. “She would meet her room mates in the evening at tea,” she decided. she knew Lata and Parul. Lata Naidu, in her opinion was a sweet girl, unpretentious and amicable- loyal but terribly moody -- changing colors and moods all the time like the chameleon, so that one never knew whether to trust and depend on her. Parul Desai was a totally different kind of fish. Having lived in the room opposite her last year, Shiksha knew that Parul was a social lively person -- the light of any gathering or function. Parul was a serious student who had the capacity to balance her extra curricular activities with her studies! Last year, the third year students had mercilessly teased her about her rather dramatic glamorous looks but inspite of all that glamour and an extrovert manner and dramatic ways, Parul Desai was a highly ambitious academically inclined student, who had topped the humanities stream in her twelfth class public examinations- and wanted to pursue higher studies in the field of Abnormal Psychology! Jyotsana would have to be a fresher, since she did not know her-
“Poor Girl!” Shiksha thought. “Parul enjoyed ragging. Lata and Parul would be the idyllic fun roommates,” thought Shiksha smiling. “Parul was the dramatic one while Lata was the dynamic one. And she was the curious one and maybe Jyotsana would be the sane one!”