Tuesday, 28 August 2012


As the first rays of the sun began to pierce the light mist that had engulfed the city, Mandira turned her side and blinked at the window. She pulled out her watch from under the pillow. It was a little after 8 am. It was a second Saturday and her office was closed. Another half an hour of sleep would be fine, she thought. She got up to draw the curtain a bit when she spotted him across the street. She broke into cold sweat. Now, he has found her house! Until now he had stalked her only around the office area. She was apprehensive. What does he want? He is a serious stalker!

Barely six months after her wedding to Ajit, Mandira was widowed. Those six months were the best period of her life. Ajit, an IT professional had proposed to her after a short courtship. They realized that they had gotten along like two peas in a pod. He admired her wit and her soft mannerism. She was not a striking beauty as such but her presence drew a lot of admirers and Ajit was no exception. When they decided to tie the knot, he had got this small apartment in Gurgaon. “We’ll buy something bigger,” he had assured her, “Right now, I’ve just cleared the educational loan with which I had studied abroad,” he had tried to explain to her. But she was not complaining. All they wanted was togetherness. She had continued her work at a knowledge outsourcing agency and was happy with what she was earning.

The bolt came when they were returning from work one evening. She got off the two-wheeler to get some vegetables. A tempo whirred round the corner and lost its control knocking off Ajit who was waiting on the stationary bike. The end was instantaneous. Post mortem and other formalities later, Mandira had decided to get on with her life and resumed her work. Tears wouldn’t help. For a couple of weeks, she stayed at Ajit’s parent’s house in South Delhi and for another week at her parent’s house in Gurgaon. She couldn’t use them as her emotional crutches throughout her life, she argued. She moved to her apartment and joined a carpool of her office. Brushing aside the snide remarks of some of her relatives that she had been unlucky for Ajit or he should have consulted an astrologer before getting married, she went on her routine duties.

Once, when she was at a mall shopping with her friend she spotted this man in his thirties perhaps, fair and of medium built staring at her. Did he know Ajit or me? A passing thought but she could not place him. She spotted him several times near her office block. Once he was in the parking lot from where she took the transport home. She had ignored his presence a few times but now she got apprehensive. Should she tell someone in the office? The security guy or someone like that? Should she tell the police?. Her mind was dead as she could not find answers. Should she confront him and ask what he wanted?

But his presence near her house was unnerving. He could ring the bell and force his way in, she shuddered. She drew the curtain and sat staring at the wall which had only one photo frame-that of Ajit and herself on their wedding day.

The stalker continued to appear at the most unexpected places, in the office canteen, at the temple which she visited every Saturday. But he only gave her a smile. Never came near her. She had stopped going to the gym as fear continued to grip her. She tried spending weekends at her mother’s place but it was of no avail. She noticed him sitting on the garden bench not far from the place.

Mandira thought that since it was a Saturday today, she would go early to the temple. She got ready and crossed the road and walked right past him without turning her head. She heard steps behind her but they were not close. “Let him catch up and he’d learn the lesson of his life today!” Mandira had made up her mind to break this stalker today.

As she walked a few steps, she heard a voice which resembled that of Ajit’s. “Mandira, please don’t turn. Keep walking. Please listen carefully to what I am saying. I am not your enemy, please. I mean no harm.” Mandira could hear her heart pounding. She slowed down a bit while he talked.

“Your husband Ajit was killed on purpose. It was no accident. He was working on a secret defense project of a friendly country. Some miscreants were out to get that programme. Ajit and I were colleagues at his previous workplace. Please continue walking and please understand that Ajit has narrated this to me after his death. How I don’t know.  As I talk, he talks.” Mandira breathed deeply and stepped slowly towards the road to the temple. If he tries to be nasty, there would be enough people to tackle him near the temple, she thought..

“These guys will target your house shortly and harm you now as they have not found the CDs containing the progrramme.” He spoke softly. “Ajit had been warned and threatened many times. He had kept this as a closely guarded secret. The discs are in the frame of your wedding picture on your bedroom wall. Tomorrow, take the photo to your parents’ place as early as possible and pretend to be sick and don’t come to work for three or four days. Stay put. I’ll tell you where to take those discs afterwards,” he was quiet. She heard him turn and walk away. She turned slightly to be sure. He wasn’t there! Was this some trap? May be he wants that programme!

When she went home, she took the frame and found the back cover had two layers. She undid one and then the next. In between were spread three discs marked A,B,C!. Ajit had scribbled some name which was not legible. Her hands quivered as she took the discs and placed them in a plastic bag. Everything that the stranger said was right!

She packed a few clothes in a haversack and called her brother asking him to pick her up at night as she was unwell. The brother knew that Mandira was going through a bad patch and agreed. He came to her apartment picking up her bags while she held the frame tied loosely with a few twines. “What’s this?,” he enquired. “Oh. While cleaning it fell down and the packing came off. I’ll take it at the shop on our way if possible,” Mandira tried to explain. He shrugged and they both drove off.

Mandira pretended to be ill and stayed in bed most of the time. She called her office on Monday and said that she needed three or four days off as she was having fever. She heard her manager grunt and hang the phone.

Mandira’s mom came to her with the cordless telephone saying that her neighbour was on the line. “Mandira,” a shrill voice shouted, “Your flat has been broken into while you were away,” she screamed. “We have called the building secretary and he has called the police. Come please even if you are sick,” the neighbour was yelling. Mandira told her parents about the incident.

“Thank God. You were not there. These days dacoits will murder even for five rupees!,” self-consoling notes. Mandira got up. She was uneasy and felt that there was some truth in what the stranger was saying. After registering the complaint, Mandira returned feeling more helpless and more threatened. “They will hound me, if they want. Ajit should have been more careful. Why didn’t he tell me this when he had shared so many things with me?,” Mandira felt worse. She thought about the offer she had got from Singapore. Should she quit this and just put all this nightmare behind?

The following week, she resumed her work. Her colleagues sympathized with her more now. Wasn’t her luck really bad these days,? They asked her. She nodded. There was no loss of cash or gold but the house was totally a mess. She had a tough time picking up hairpins and napkins and the jumbled togs from the floor. Mother was of help but Mandira knew the seriousness of the matter. The stalker was not seen for a couple of months. The discs were in her bag which she had left at her parents’ place.

The parents had broached the topic of remarriage-she was young, qualified and without any commitments of kids. She could resettle her life, was the advice of many. She asked for more time. But they knew that silently they should look for a match for her now.

Mandira spent more time with her parents now. They thought she needed some support as she was shaken up with the recent incident. A few weeks passed and she saw the stranger again. He didn’t stare at her. As she got on to the escalator, he was a few steps behind. This time too she was apprehensive. ”Now at least you believe what I say. I hope you do. You have an offer to go abroad. Take it up. Sometime go scuba diving or go on a cruise and drop those CDs as if they fell accidentally in the sea. And by the way, think of remarriage positively,” he got off the escalator and walked towards the food court. She too followed him and sat at the same table taking her coffee with her. Her look was enough to make him speak almost inaudibly.

“Mandira, since my childhood, I have this strange power. I don’t know what to call it. Many spirits- benign-mind you- talk to me and ask me to convey to their loved ones to do something that has been left incomplete. Ajit was a dear colleague. I didn’t attend your wedding as I was abroad. After his death, I had a similar experience and he felt, I should warn you. Hope you understand,” he mumbled. She too mumbled a weak thanks and got up without looking behind. She knew she would be heading to new shores shortly.

Sunday, 12 August 2012


Twin Tales

A few miles away from Meerut, the family of Narain Singh lived in their ancestral house which had a vast open area around it. Over the years, most members had gone away seeking greener pastures. Narain Singh had for some time worked in a public sector company in Lucknow and later in Agra. He took voluntary retirement as he felt that his village home would be deserted if no one took care of it and the fear that the open land could be usurped by some land sharks was what motivated him to come here. He had his daughter Purna married while he was in active service and his son Arjun was studying in Lucknow. Narain Singh had made good use of the land available to him by growing vegetables and flowers. Summers were lean because of the extreme heat but the family did not have any financial problems. Occasionally, his brothers came from New Delhi and as time went by, they took their dues and transferred the property in Narain’s name. He could not have been happier. From an absolute urban, office going man, he was now a farmer!

Arjun completed his graduation in commerce and chose to return to his father. He was “ just not interested in a 9 to 5 job” and would rather do something to increase the trade which his father had started in a humble way. Narain Singh was a little surprised as many of Arjun’s generation were migrating to urban areas but he welcomed him. Arjun used his skills to develop a regular trade link for their products and even brought more land and built silos. He rented them to big farmers. Soon, seeing his progress, Arjun began to receive many marriage proposals and Narain Singh and his wife Ishwari zeroed on  Prema. The girl had studied up to high school and her father was a grain merchant in the neighbouring village. Besides, he had hired a godown on Arjun’s land. When the two families sat together for the negotiations, Arjun had refused dowry-much to the surprise of all as those days graduate boys sported a heavy dowry tag. Arjun’s only condition was that she would have to stay with his parents and look after the house and help him. The wedding was a grand affair as the office bearers of the panchayat and zilla parishads attended the three day long event. Paras was born to Prema within a year and both the families were brimming with joy.

Three years later Prema gave birth to twin girls-Reema and Seema. They were a difficult lot to handle and both Ishwari and Prema were exhausted looking after the rather unexpected load of two infants. Reema was always active and appeared like a happy-go-lucky type.  Seema was just the opposite and cried at the drop of a hat and her weeping sessions seemed endless. Ishwari wondered where all those tears were stored in that little head. Both hated to be bathed and demanded attention at the same time. It was becoming difficult to handle the twosome. The twins were about four months old when Ishwari began to suffer from joint pains. There were frequent visits to Meerut to get treatment for her galloping arthritis. Prema had to manage the twins and the elder son Paras. But the latter was not a difficult child and soon he had started attending anganwadi. For a couple of hours at least, Prema could look after the twins uninterrupted.

Once, while the twins were asleep after a massage and a bath, Prema brought clothes for the girls. Ishwari was sitting on her bed with her legs stretched. Prema began to remove the frock from Reema’s body. Ishwari shouted. “What are you doing? Changing the clothes while the children are sleeping? Combing their hair and putting kajal? Have you gone mad? Prema was dumbstruck. What crime had she committed that her mother-in-law should lose her calm? Ishwari was still fuming when she said, “Haven’t your parents told you not to change clothes when children are asleep?” Prema preferred to be quiet. “Listen, it is said that when kids are asleep their souls go wandering. If they find the appearance of their body altered beyond
recognition, they wander away somewhere and soon the kids would only be mortal remains!” Prema hesitatingly mumbled, “Ma. They are so fidgety, they don’t allow me to change while they are awake. You know their tantrums and cries.” Ishwari had calmed down by then and told her to keep this mind in future. Prema was upset that whole day and kept to herself whenever she could.

Both Reema and Seema were school going. Though they looked alike, their traits were markedly different. Reema was outgoing, played with her friends, participated in most school activities and bagged trophies in debates. Seema was an introvert, did not have many friends and kept to herself most of the time. When she returned home, she would be near the mother or the grandmother and willingly sat down to help in the household chores. Reema was good in academics too while Seema was ‘average’ as her father described her. Comparisons were always there. When Reema did not come home in time, they would praise Seema’s sense of time and duty. When Seema just about scraped through in her exam, they would ask her to be a little more dedicated to studies like Reema.

By the time the girls were in high school, their grandparents had left for their heavenly abodes. Ishwari had died first as her ailment had worsened. Narain Singh was fit till the end and one afternoon had just passed away in his sleep. Arjun was now the sole owner of the property.

Reema and Seema passed their matriculation and Seema had refused to study further. Arjun took Reema to Meerut and admitted her in a girls’ hostel. Prema did not want Reema to be away. “They will take advantage of her openness,” expressed Prema. Arjun argued that today, boys also demanded graduate girls and that this was the only way he could educate her. Prema and Arjun visited Reema at least once a month  showering her with home-made goodies, clothes, etc. Reema was initially homesick but had adjusted herself well to the city life. She had hordes of friends in tow. Seema was 18 and had agreed to get married instead of sitting at home idle. She was married to Raman, a well-to-do businessman. Reema took a whole month off to be with her sister and parents. Seema left for her marital home at Mathura. Arjun had ensured that she goes into a wealthy home.

Seema was content with wearing zari saris and sporting a large bindi on her fair forehead. Her fondness for traditional attire and jewellery was evident. Each day, she would choose her sari with matching trinkets and glass bangles and fill her hair parting with sindoor. From toes to her head, she was always bejeweled. A year after Seema’s marriage, she began to keep indifferent health. From TB to cancer, the doctors had not left out any investigation. Seema had two miscarriages which put her health even more at risk. The doctors in Agra had advised expert opinion from Delhi or Mumbai. Seema’s husband had agreed and got all the investigations done but there was no obvious condition that could be diagnosed. Sometimes, she was perfectly alright and went to the club with her husband or went shopping with a few friends that he had made in Mathura. No one could predict when Seema would fall sick and stay in bed in utter agony. Occasionally, Arjun and Prema would come to meet her. Arjun took permission from Seema’s husband and his parents to take her home for a few weeks and they agreed. While Seema was with her parents, she was fine most of the time and once she just could not get up from her bed. A couple of days later she was okay again. The whole episode was baffling. Arjun left her at Mathura assuring her husband that he would bear the medical expenses if he wished. Raman declined the offer.

Reema was in the final year of  college. She had topped the class each year. She was to participate in a play for the inter-collegiate competition and was in her hostel room with her friends. Togs of clothes lay strewn all over the room, shoes, sandals, books and bags too lay on the floor.  She had rehearsed her part well and needed a little sleep before she went to the auditorium that evening. She was a l little disturbed as her father had told her on phone the previous day that Seema was unwell again. But, by now, Seema’s falling ill frequently was not a matter of concern. It had almost become a routine to hear that Seema was unwell and after a day or two, she was fine. All the same, Reema stretched herself on the narrow cot and soon fell asleep. An hour later, her friends decided to play a practical joke and put a big bindi on her forehead. They took a dupatta and draped it on her left shoulder. Reema moved a little but was very tired and continued to be in sleep. She was lying on her back and her friend put a necklace lightly round her neck. She had put an alarm to wake up at 5 pm. When she wakes up, she is going to scream at her new image, thought her friends and waited for the fun. The alarm rang but Reema did not move. Her friends shook her and realized that the body was cold and lifeless. One of them ran to the hostel warden quivering with fear.

In Mathura, a doctor was monitoring Seema’s pulse while Raman and his mother waited in the room staring at  a still body. It was five in the evening and Seema was lying still for almost an hour. The expression on the doctor’s face too could be interpreted as if the case was helpless. The attendant had wiped Seema’s face clean and removed the bangles in case an intravenous was needed. The doctor took her wrist in his hand to feel the pulse and his expression changed. The toes moved and the hands too moved slightly. The doctor got up as if in surprise. Slowly, the eyes opened and she sat down and looked around in surprise. “How come I am here, jeejaji? My play is to start at seven in Meerut and how is it that I am here?”