Sunday, 26 May 2013


Gopi Chand and his two brothers who followed their father’s book-binding business in Lahore were the lucky few to have sensed the political upheavals much before the partition. They wound up their business and came to Kanpur and set up shop before the winds of freedom struggle had begun to blow strongly. Lady Luck had smiled upon them as they escaped the pangs of Partition and were able to consolidate their business in time.
The eldest, Gopi Chand had decided to try new skies and had bought a small printing press in Bhopal. He also began dealing with paper supplies and his venture soon was fruitful. He decided to make this place his permanent home and withdrew his stakes from the Kanpur venture. Gopi Chand and his wife had two daughters whom he called ‘debit notes’ and one son Pralhad who being the only son and heir was doted upon by his parents regardless of his wayward ways.
  Pralhad had just about finished his first year in college and decided that studies were really not his forte. He began to help his father.  His ruthless behaviour with the clients often  left Gopi Chand red faced. It was time for the father to work out something more acceptable. He consulted some of his friends and asked Pralhad to diversify into timber. Central India being rich in forests, this was the best option he could offer. Pralhad jumped at it as he would be free to contact people and conduct his own business and that too on his own terms. At least his father would be spared embarrassment. After almost three generations, Pralhad had taken up the family name of ‘Verma’.

Pralhad, with a little financial help from his father had also started dealing in dry fruits like dates and almonds imported from Afghanistan. Both his timber contracts and dry fruit businesses were marking an upward graph. Pralhad had kept the bureaucratic machinery on his right side and got many favours from it.
It was no surprise then, when Pralhad walked off with a big contract after his tender was approved of. The new deal was a shot in his arm. Pralhad had never even in his wildest dreams had thought they would reach this stature. Pralhad moved to Narsingpur after he got married. He purchased a huge plot and constructed a palatial bungalow.

After a few years, he  admitted his two sons in public schools paying a hefty fee and his wife’s locker in her
steel cupboard was now overflowing with gold ornaments. Pralhad knew that there was a cut-throat competition in timber business but he conducted his deals aggressively essaying to be on top at any cost. Gopi Chand met his son occasionally in Bhopal and warned him to take care. People don’t like to see their competitors prosper. “Be humble, opulent lifestyle is easily noticed,” he advised Prahlad, “Be a good listener and moreover, share your wealth with the less fortunate.”

The Vermas now had a fortified house with two durwans-one at the front entrance and one at the rear one. He also had a couple of Alsatians as watchdogs. Besides the Ambassador and Fiat cars which were available those days, he even had got an imported car-he wanted an Impala but had settled for a Merc instead. There were a slew of servants and now he had taken membership of many clubs outside Narsingpur. Whenever he traveled to Gwalior or Ajmer, he would be put up in these clubs. He now drank only Scotch and entertained his cronies lavishly. He bought another palatial house at Raipur where he could rub shoulders with the rich and  famous. His enterprising ways and the material abundance were the envy of many and his brusque mannerism won him many adversaries.

It was the time of Chaitra navaratri when his wife fasted and gave saris to married women. Pralhad wished to renovate his house thoroughly and had asked for professional from a New Delhi firm. He did not want  Bombay architects and interior decorators as he thought that they were tuned to making box like furniture for smaller houses in the cramped city. A Delhi decorator was used to designing with space in mind. The budget was no constraint.. The concerned professionals arrived for inspection and suggested many changes. The main change was to shift the gate towards the north east side so that the main door of the bungalow would not be seen from the road. The idea appealed to Pralhad. He was impressed by the justification the decorator gave with reference to ‘vastu’. In the north east corner of the house, at the farthest end was an old tamarind tree. It would need to go. Pralhad promptly asked his contractor to send a labourer to fell the tree. One morning, the worker arrived and suggested that he would first trim the branches so that it would be easier to pull the tree down with a strong rope and more helpers in the next step. The labourer climbed up and systematically began his work. Half an hour later he fell to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital. He was still breathing. After the emergency treatment, they found that he had suffered multiple fractures. Pralhad was quick enough to foot the cost. The cutting stopped briefly. Another hand was called in. After he worked for a few hours, he got down feeling giddy and went home with high fever. Again a lull. Pralhad asked the decorator to get on with the interior work in the bungalow. The main gate could be handled later.

While the makeover started, Pralhad shifted base to Raipur and visited the house every fortnight. It was dusk when Prahlad walked out with the supervisor. The latter left, walked towards his scooter and drove away. Prahlad turned and stopped in his tracks. An old man was sitting under the tamarind tree. How did he come there? He had not noticed him before. The man had a wrinkled face, scraggly hair, grey beard and he looked unbathed. It was early summer but the temperatures had already begun to soar. In that heat too, the man was wearing a blazer perhaps donated by a kind donor. His trousers too must have been expensive in their days. He was nibbling a tamarind which must he must have picked up from the ground. Pralhad strode towards him and before he could ask a question, the man said, “Imli khatti hain.” Pralhad’s face was red as he yelled out for the watchman. There was no response from the durwan. Finally, he took a five rupee note from his pocket and gave it to the unknown man. “Don’t dare to come inside again. This is not your father’s….” Pralhad was now quaking with anger. The old man staggered to his feet and held up his palm as if to ask  the angry man to be quiet. He walked with a little limp towards the gate and turned right. Just then the watchman appeared from the same direction. He saw Pralhad’s face and knew that he would be in the firing line. The owner stormed, “How could you allow a beggar inside? He was sitting under the tree and merrily eating tamarind and you didn’t throw him out? Am I paying you to allow trespassers? And when I called out where were you? I threw out that beggar right now and you didn’t even bother to catch him even when he walked past you just now? Nalayak.” Such outbursts were not uncommon to Dayal, the oldest watchman employed by Pralhad. But he really had not seen any beggar walk out towards the right just where he was standing.

On another occasion, Pralhad spotted the same beggar but outside the compound wall. He just stood there. Pralhad got out of his car and removed some small change and walked towards the old man. The beggar was staring into space, his hands in his pockets. Pralhad rattled the coins in his hand and the beggar looked at him, took out his right hand as if in anticipation of the alms. Prahlad shouted again and warned him not to come in the vicinity again. There was a blank stare. The man turned right and walked away. Pralhad was fuming. The sight of this man was very disturbing.

When he went back to Raipur, he heard that his consignment of dry fruits was lost in transit. A few thousands down the drain, thought Pralhad. His elder son Vipul was home for a short vacation and wanted to visit Narsingpur to see how the house was shaping up. The doting father obliged. After hopping over wires and wood planks strewn all over, the duo came out and stood under the porch. Again, the old man under the tamarind tree. Pralhad took out a ten rupee note and asked his son to go and give the dole to the old man while he went in again. Vipul returned after a few minutes, the note in hand. He didn’t see the beggar anywhere, he said. “I even went out to see whether he slipped away getting scared of you. I didn’t see him on the road either.” Pralhad did not waste any more time and put the note back in his pocket. He showed Vipul the exotic bath tubs, the fancy fittings and raved about how his house would be the best in state if not the country! Vipul was proud of it all.

On a few more trips to oversee the work in his house, Pralhad encountered the man. He threw a few coins or a note at him and walked away. The man quietly took away the money. One evening, while instructing Dayal about certain tasks to be completed, Pralhad saw him again. “Give me the stick you’re holding Dayal. You people cannot stop this menace. Now I need to handle it myself,” Pralhad shouted and snatched the stick from him and charged towards the tamarind tree. Dayal was dumbstruck. He gathered his wits and ran behind his master saying, “Saab, don’t do that!” but then suddenly stopped. Who was the saab intending to hit? There was no one. Dayal just saw Pralhad bend over and hit the trunk of the tree with full force. Has saab gone crazy? He wondered. When he saw him take a turn he saw that Pralhad was sweating and swearing and took big strides towards Dayal. “That will teach him a lesson. The b…. took my kindness for granted. Mind you, he would not hesitate to pitch a tent right under this tree,” Pralhad was red like burning coal. Dayal quietly took the stick from his hand and moved away. That night after the saab left, he went back to the tree with a lantern and saw a few coins and threads as if pulled out from a garment. He looked up and down quivering. Either the saab had hallucinations or there was a spirit trying to tell us something. He left the lantern near the gate and went to a nearby temple. He spotted the pundit and called him aside and asked him if any entity is visible to only one person while it is invisible to others. The pundit was surprised at the question. “Well, in the scriptures, there are instances when the Lord was seen only by his true devotees and not the sinful people,” he tried to explain. “Dayalji, peepal and tamarind trees are known to have their own marked areas and are said to be the masters of those areas. I have only read about this, I don’t know for sure. But be careful.” Dayal kept a rupee and a 25p coin before him. He was now certain that there was an entity who was trying to say something and stop the tree from being felled.

On his next visit, Pralhad was very busy with visitors, electricians, carpenters but Dayal wanted to have a word with him. He cornered him when he came out to leave someone to his car. Dayal cleared his throat and broached the topic. He briefly told him about what had happened on his previous visit. Pralhad laughed loudly and said, “Fool. I thrashed that idiot black and blue, he could not have got up for some time. You, you of all believe in such nonsense?” Dayal was quiet.

The renovation of the Verma bungalow was almost done when Pralhad turned to do the main entrance. He sent for the labourer who had done only half the work. The man came and told him that he was suffering from high blood pressure and hence had stopped working but he would send a replacement. The next hacker was a young man in early twenties, agile and lithe. He climbed up with the saw and worked for a few hours. He got down to go home for lunch and never returned. Dayal went to call him and saw a crowd outside his shanty. The boy was dead. “Enough is enough,” thought Dayal. He conveyed what he felt to his saab and told him to leave the tree as it is. The present position of the gate had brought him luck and now why did he want to disturb something? Saab would have nothing of it. He decided to supervise this change himself. He left for Raipur and his accountant told him that none of the tenders had been passed for the timber contract. Pralhad was enraged and perplexed. After greasing so many palms and getting so many assurances, his bids were rejected. He would tackle it later, he thought. After, going through some routine business work, he went to Narsingpur. The contractor was there and a part of the wall was already broken. The massive iron gate had been transported to the site the previous evening. It was really impressive. The name of VERMA NIVAS was etched like a crest. Pralhad was happy.

The demolition work almost reached completion and the contractor called Pralhad to ensure the site again. Knowing his foul temper, the contractor did not want to take chances. Once the site is confirmed, then on  the next day the gate could be erected by afternoon, he decided. It was about five in the evening and the workers had kept their tools away. The contractor walked towards the workers to give their wages and Pralhad walked towards the marked site. There were others also standing near the earlier gate when suddenly the tamarind tree came crashing down and crushed Pralhad to death. Everyone was shaken. He was rushed to the civil hospital but nothing could be done.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Urn of Ashes

The Urn of Ashes

The sands of the Kihim beach were warm as Rajan sat with his legs stretched on the shore looking at the horizon. He had taken off from Mumbai, last night for the weekend offer of a quiet tent holiday. He sipped the chilled beer from the can and looked at his well shaped feet. In another hour, Bela would join him. She was to leave her office at noon by the luxury bus and arrive at the holiday camp by evening. He was looking forward to her company. He really needed this break.

Rajan thought of Malini, his wife and their two lovely daughters. Malini has been a loyal wife and been with him through all the initial trials and tribulations when he was setting up his small scale industry in Andheri. She had even pawned her gold to raise some capital. There was hardly anything that he could find as a shortcoming in her. She was pretty and had maintained herself even after two difficult childbirths. She spoke well and was a wonderful homemaker and mother.  Had it not been for her, his factory would not have made profits. Every week, she came to write the accounts and do odd jobs. Even the workers respected this ‘madam’. The rewards came when, Rajan’s industry succeeded and he could replace his two-wheeler with a car and his small flat with a luxury apartment in a central Mumbai complex.

At one of the stag parties that Rajan attended, he had met Bela. She worked for an event management company and had come to set up the place at the Marve cottage. Rajan’s eyes wandered towards her often until it was a stare. Bela could sense the admiration or lust. She looked at him and smiled. After her work was done, she drove off with her colleague leaving two attendants behind. She also cleverly left her business card with Rajan. It stated ‘Bela Guha’ Executive Coordinator.

 Bela was an easy catch. Practically, every Saturday, Rajan picked her up from her office at Andheri and went out. Malini was sensing something different and had asked why Rajan was not coming home early on Saturdays and sometimes even on Sundays he was not seen at home. “As I grow in my profession, I have to float in the social circles, dear. That is how we build contacts and get more orders,” Rajan had justified his waywardness. Malini, however, least suspected her husband to have ‘the other woman.’ Rajan was very careful about his cell phone and deleted all messages from Bela to ward off suspicion. It was like falling in love again with this twenty-something beauty. She knew of the shacks rented out near Erangal beach and they spent a few hours in torrid love sessions almost every weekend.

Rajan was startled when he saw Bela walk towards him. She always wore trousers and body-hugging tops which accentuated her curvaceous figure. She sat next to him and was rather quiet. He put his hand around her waist and kissed the side of her neck. “Rajan,” she spoke softly, “I’m pregnant with your child and I don’t want to abort it. I want to marry you,” the words came like a heavy axe. “Are you crazy? You know I’m a family man and I love my family. Look, look Bela, I had made it clear right from the start that you were only my weekend fun girl and no emotions involved in it. You remember?” Rajan almost yelled and pulled her hair back. “I have no commitments to you, mind you. I’ll give you the compensation and go and abort that unwanted baby. If you’ve been sleeping with me you could be doing this with anyone else too!” Rajan was grinding his teeth now. They kept silent for some time. She was lost in deep thought while Rajan was silently swearing at himself.

She got up and dusted her trousers. “I agree, Rajan. I’ll get rid of the baby. I should’ve known better. I got carried away by your charm. But can you do me one favour. Tomorrow, come to see my aunt who has been my guardian since I came to this city. I’ll try and convince her. Please. I won’t trouble you in future. Let’s part as friends.” They both held hands and walked towards their tent. They forgot about their supper and spent the rest of the night in love-making.

Next morning, they left in his car for the city. Bela spoke to her aunt, “ Masi.. I will come home in about 2 hours. Heh? Ok -the maharaj is there? Tell him to come later when I reach. I do want to send some money for puja. Okay. See you then.” Bela mumbled something like she sends money to Kolkatta for annual puja and the person had come to collect the money. Rajan was not interested.

He first took her to her aunt’s place. A middle-aged woman sat near the road-facing window. She got up when she saw the duo. “Come, come Rajan. Bela has told me everything about you,” she smiled as she uttered the welcome in a sing-song way. “ Rajan sat awkwardly in a red sofa.

Aunty spoke softly, “Bela tells me that you don’t want to break your family. But  naturally. Ok. Pay her the hospital expenses and a little more dear as she would have to go on a week’s leave. Done. Happens sometimes. Bela would get on with her life, I’m certain,” aunty’  s words were reassuring.   The lady then laughed so loudly that Rajan was scared.

A bearded man emerged from the inner room and folded his hands and turned to aunty. The vermillion mark on his forehead, the yellow scarf on his shoulder and a crisp dhoti kurta-must be the maharaj, Rajan guessed. Bela went in and brought out an envelope. After handing it to the priest, she bent to touch his feet. Then she turned to Rajan and said, “I told you about this person, remember, when we left Kashid?” Rajan got up and left soon after the priest had gone.

In the evening, he drove to Bela’s house and rang the doorbell. “On second thoughts, I’ll marry you. But our marriage won’t be legal. I’ll settle my family and I’ll move in with you till we get another house. Don’t abort the baby. We would be man and wife soon!” Rajan spoke with confidence. Somehow, neither Bela nor her aunt were surprised at the change of heart. He asked Bela to come with him and they drove to his house in Worli.

Malini opened the door and saw the young girl holding Rajan’s hand. In total consternation, she felt that her innermost fear had come true. Rajan spoke in an authoritarian manner, “Malini. This is Bela, my love. I value all your love in the past and acknowledge your sacrifices,” there was no sentiment in his voice. The two girls clasped the curtain with fear writ large on their faces. Malini tried to argue but Rajan had made up his mind. “Look I am keeping this flat in your name and all the savings in your name. I’m not changing the nominees on my insurance policies either. Don’t dare to go for any legal action. I can be nasty with my bequests then. Be happy that you have this crores worth of property. I’ll come once a week to see the girls. Don’t trouble me, mind you. I want to start life afresh with a lot of love and romance with this beauty here,” Rajan was exploding. He walked into his room, evidently to pick up a few clothes.

Malini took her dupatta to her mouth and then to her eyes and spoke between sobs, “There is no use stopping you when you have made up your mind and there’s no love left for us. Better you go.” Rajan almost dragged Bela out and drove off. Malini was inconsolable but she saw her daughters’ scared faces and stopped crying. The following week, as promised, Rajan had transferred the flat and the bank accounts in Malini’s name. He left the original policy papers too with her.

Months passed and Malini and her daughters had come to terms with their broken family. Occasionally, Rajan encountered his neighbours’ queries and he shamelessly told them  that he had found a mistress and was living happily with her. One day, a worker came to Malini’s house. “Ma’am,” he faltered as he folded his hands. “Something is wrong with Rajan saa’b. He does not come to the factory regularly. That woman comes and screams at us for no obvious reason. They have a son, whom he brings along some time when that witch hangs out with her kitty party friends.” Sohan hesitated and spoke, “Ma’am there is no bigger sin than breaking a happy family. The woman would realize that soon.”

 Malini asked, “Is there something you have come to ask or is it just this bit of disturbing news that you wanted to convey?”

“No. I don’t want to disturb you. But what is happening is not good for his health. I just dropped by to share this with you. I am not here on a gossip trip,” he turned.

Malini softened. “Please don’t misunderstand. As far as we as a family are concerned, he has cut off all ties. I am helpless too.” Sohan arose and took out a box of sweets. “I had come to Worli for my brother-in-law’s wedding. You had paid his ITI fees, remember?” Sohan smiled and  bent down to touch her feet. Malini was touched by his gesture. “He would come with his bride to take your blessings after he comes back from a trip to the family shrine,” Sohan spoke softly and left.
A few weeks later, Malini was disturbed by a late night call. She saw an unknown number but she answered. “Ma’am,” she recognized the worker’s voice. “Saab is in hospital. He suffered a stroke yesterday while in the factory. We admitted him in the hospital. We informed the other female. But no one has come to see him.” Malini’s heart sank.

 Next morning she dropped the girls to school and drove off to the private hospital where Rajan was admitted. A couple of workers were standing out. She went in and found Bela with her toddler sitting at Rajan’s bedside. He was conscious. Malini inched ahead fearing Bela’s anger. Rajan smiled feebly. She stood there for a few seconds and said, “If you need something send for me.” She walked away with tears brimming in her eyes. The factory accountant walked with her to the parking lot. He shrugged his shoulders to express despair and waited till she drove away. A few days later,  Rajan was discharged. He was almost a vegetable, Malini had heard. Bela went to the factory which was not functioning efficiently now. Half of the workforce had left in good time with their dues. The others were about to follow.

The accountant came one evening to see Malini. ‘I don’t have good news for you. Rajan passed away this morning. Bela had strictly stopped us from informing you. Some nephew of Bela performed the last rites. It was very painful for a loyal employee like me to see Rajan’s world disintegrate like this.” Malini sat speechless. Bela did not want her to take the last ‘darshan’ also. She did not try to contact Bela. What was the use?

On the tenth day, after the nephew had performed the rites at the sea shore, Bela came to the factory and pretended to do some serious work. She asked one of the workers to accompany her to her house. “ Gangaram, you wait with the child in the house. He knows you,” she instructed him. “Aunty and I will go to the seaside and immerse saab’s ashes. It will take an hour, clear?” the worker nodded.

Aunty had worn a white sari and Bela was in a white salwar kameez. Gangaram held the child in his hands and walked towards the road-facing window. The two women waited to cross the road and take a rickshaw from the opposite side. Suddenly, there was a screech, a honk and the traffic had come to a halt. There was a stream of blood and the ashes strewn around. Both the women were crushed to death by a reversing dumper.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Boys' Toys
Celine walked slowly from the lawyer’s office in Dadar. There was a sense of relief but the heart was still heavy. She wondered how she had managed to go through the choppy sea of life in the past three years. She along with her two children, Amy and Paul could now look forward to some better quality of life.

Her eyes were moist as she climbed the stairs of the local train station. She held her bag containing all the documents tightly. Tomorrow she would sort them out and get them photocopied. All the formalities of registration and stamp duty for her small little flat in Kalina were now complete. She got into a slow train for Andheri to avoid the heavy rush and sank into the nearest seat. At Santa Cruz, she hired an auto rickshaw and proceeded towards her little chawl tenement. On seeing her kids waiting she could not hide the lump in her throat and she let the tears run down. It had been a battle for  survival.  The next morning she had said a silent prayer. It was only this faith that had kept her body and soul together.

For one long year Anthony, her husband,  had battled with cancer. Celine had left her modest job as an administrative assistant at Andheri to devote full time and attention to her dying companion. Anthony had been a very supportive person and bore the illness patiently. Most of their savings had been wiped out. Celine’s boss had been kind too and arranged to give her salary in advance and also offered to take her back in her old job. That was a relief. Celine took some tuitions at home to add a few rupees to the waning kitty. Her kids too had been patient and understanding. Last year, soon after Anthony’s demise, there was a real heavenly boon. His uncle who was childless and lived in Goa had left him a few lakhs of rupees. Celine took her two kids with her to sort out the legal matters in Goa and returned to her modest room. The neighbour in the chawl  was keen on buying her room so that she could have a bigger residence. After enquiring with a few local elders she found out  that she could buy a room and a kitchen flat in the area in an old building and still have about 50,000 rupees in the bank. Her colleagues had got her in touch with their lawyer and at a nominal fee,  he had helped out with the formalities. Next week, she would move into the little house which she had just got white washed. A few pieces of furniture she would take with her. She would not have to bother about changing the school for her kids. God, she thought, had been very understanding on one hand but the spark of her life was taken away.  She would start a new life and also resume her job. Luckily, the legacy of Anthony’s uncle had saved her from borrowing.

A few old pals came to the first floor apartment when the priest from the parish came to bless her new home. After performing the rituals, the guests left with their packets of snacks. Celine sank into  a cane chair looking at the blank wall in front. The kids made new friends in the building compound. The family was now settling down comfortably and Celine was back to her work.

Two months passed and one night  Celine got up at night to go to the washroom. She tripped over a small toy. “Paul will always be untidy- never keeps his toys in the basket in the corner,” she muttered. She picked the little mechanical car and put it in the basket. She did not want to fall down in the middle of the night and be hurt. Two days passed and she found a couple of toys on the floor. Paul has to be pulled up, she thought. “He’d break my bones like  this,” she said to herself. . She bent down to pick up the red toy and she felt that it was being pulled the other way. What on earth was this? Some magnet or some mischief? She managed to put the toys with some effort into the cane basket and went back to her bed wondering why the toys were not being easily picked up. She turned her side and slept.

The following weekend, she called her son and warned him not to throw toys on the floor. Next time she sees something like this, she would punish him. She also took up the task of clearing a cupboard in the passage and dumping the basket there at night and latching the panel. For some days, there were no toys on the floor. At times she would lose her temper but then she realized that her two kids were the only ray of hope. She had to be both father and mother to them. Every Sunday morning the family went to church and mingled with their old friends. Paul and Amy had both adjusted to their new abode and made new friends. There was no room for complaints.  She felt the void left by Anthony more on holidays when she was left to be with her children and entertain them and play with them.

During summer holidays, the children were left at home and Celine had hired a domestic help.  That was the only solution for the kids to be taken care of while she was away at work.. One evening, when Celine returned home late due to the heavy load of work at her office, she asked the maid to stay back. The maid agreed. After dinner, they sat before their old TV set to watch some programmes. It was well past 11pm when they suddenly heard some din. They almost jumped out of their skins. Celine got up and so did the maid and went towards the kitchen. From the passage shelf the entire toy basket had tumbled down and all the toys were strewn on the floor. Celine’s heart missed a beat. She took a deep breath and asked the maid to help her put them back. She lifted the basket and shoved into a corner in the kitchen. An uneasy feeling crept over her. How did the latch open? The basket was not so big that the shelf could not accommodate.

It was a long weekend in April when Dias aunty from the ground floor came up to chat with Celine. Dias was a lovable woman in her mid-seventies and people liked her for not being a gossip and also for her helpful and non-interfering nature. Celine treated her to a cup of tea and some pastries which she had got from the nearby bakery. Dias chatted about how she used to travel on a first class pass to Churchgate and how on completing twenty five years in that organization she had been presented with an HMT watch which she still used. “Those days, people valued good secretaries, today neither the bosses nor the secretaries are committed to honest work,” she remarked softly thinking deeply about something. Paul came with a mechanical top which he had bought the previous evening from the Bandra market. Celine suddenly was restless.

“Aunty,” Celine hesitated, “this flat belonged to an old gentleman before I bought it from him, didn’t it?”

“Yes. Mr. Sawant. A jolly fellow. He had an apartment in Malad where he lived with his son. This little place he had kept as an investment or something like that… may be for his daughter who was abroad. He never stayed here. Came occasionally to attend society meetings and pay the outgoings. The last I saw him was when he sold the flat to you. The gentleman that he was, came and wished good-bye to each and everyone,” Dias was lost in some thought again.

“Some more tea, aunty?” Celine asked.
“No dear. Won’t get sleep at night then,” retorted the lady.
“From whom did Sawant buy this flat? Well,  I am not being nosy but the flat deed talks about having a previous owner also,” Celine broached the subject cautiously.

“Oh, that family was  a wonderful one,” she reminisced, “Ashley was a handsome man and had a beautiful wife- Maria. Had two sons Andrew and Richard. Football enthusiasts-all of them! After Ashley’s father passed away, his mother was alone in Mangalore and so he sold the house to look after his father’s business of grocery or grains.. or something like that. After that they have not come to Bombay. Maria’s sister, Lily, stays in Kalina- you know just next to the municipal dispensary. Occasionally, I would meet her in the market. Now, I don’t go that far- but buy things from the local bhajiwala!”

Celine had got some information out of the old lady who was now getting a bit restless. “I must get going,” she said as she got up and straightened her printed dress. “Took a lot of your time but it was good to meet you. Must say you have kept your home very well!  Drop by sometime.” With a certain air of finality she went to the door and loudly said ‘bye’ so that all in the house could hear and went down the stairs holding the flaky walls for support.

“Ashley, Maria, Andrew and Richard-hmm.. what could be the truth?” she wondered., “the local parish would have some inkling of Lily,” she told herself. The next morning she saw a dozen toys on the kitchen floor. A chill ran down her spine as she carefully picked them up again. Each time she scolded Paul, he had looked puzzled at her for her outbursts. That night, she took the rosary in her hand and then put it under her pillow. She left the passage light on.

Celine opened her eyes slightly to see the time and she noticed a small figure near the bed. Her scream got stuck in her throat and cold sweat broke out. The figure was of a male child –about 10 years old and had large eyes that seemed sad and imploring. Celine just froze and never batted an eyelid. After a few minutes which seemed like an hour the figure disappeared and Celine could gather herself and sit-up. “I must ask the priest to  do something- there are means to get rid of spirits,” she thought to herself.

The following Sunday, she went to the church and waited after the service was over. Father D’Cruz waved out and signaled as if to say “all fine?” She waited till people around him had gone away. “Father, I have been very uneasy in this new house. May be you could come once more and bless our home with some holy water?” She fumbled. “Dear me. It takes time to settle after so much agony and trauma. Things will settle. Don’t you worry over that. Keep praying,”  Father assured her. Till now the entity was seen only by her. What if it scares the kids? She shuddered at the thought.

The municipal dispensary was not very far. She took the kids home and asked them to be home and not go out till she returned. She walked towards the dispensary not knowing how she would locate Lily.  In her mind, she thought of different excuses that she would give to justify the visit. She waited at a store and asked if there was any lady by the name Lily. “Surname?” the owner asked. The assistant came forward and asked, “Lily aunty who works in the convent school?” Celine nodded. It was a shot in the dark. The young lad stepped out of the shop and directed her. She thanked and walked with speed.

A well-groomed woman in her forties opened the door. She must have been really beautiful in her youth, thought Celine. “Mrs. Lily?” asked Celine.

“Yes,” answered the person obviously having a sore throat. “You want admission? I can’t help, sorry, sorry..” she almost closed the door. Celine said, “No, ma’m.  Dias aunty talked about you and since I was near your house,  I thought I would just tell you that I am now the owner of the flat in which your sister lived. Nothing in particular.  I am a widow and have just moved in.. so I thought…..”  Lily asked her to come in and pointed to the chair in the balcony. “Please don’t misunderstand, I work in the convent at Bandra and people usually come looking for me thinking I can get their kids admission in the school. So sorry, ” the explanation was terse. Celine briefly told about her job and how her family has quickly adjusted to the new house cautiously choosing her words.

‘Yes, it is a friendly society. Dias aunty in particular. Always cheerful. My sister went away to Mangalore,” Lily stopped at that. “How is Dias aunty? Haven’t met her since Maria went away. Do convey my regards to her,” Lily seemed to fade off.

Celine got up saying, “Didn’t want to trouble you on a Sunday morning. I have not seen you at the church either.”
“Since my work is at Bandra, I attend the mass there. Very rarely I come to the local church. Not very serious about religion..” she shrugged her shoulders. Celine smiled and went out   She was angry at herself for taking the initiative to find this woman called Lily!

Back home, Celine thought of handling the situation in the best way possible. Each night she prayed loudly and both the kids were wondering why this ceremony had started. Each night she asked Paul to keep his toys in place. As days went by, Celine was getting used to the sudden appearance of a figure near her bed and sometimes toys thrown around on the floor. How long would this fear last, she wondered.

A few days later she met Lily at the market. Celine unsure of how the woman would greet her just gave a slight nod. Lily stopped to ask about her family and of course Dias aunty. “I must come and look up the old lady,” Lily said almost to herself. “May be before the school reopens?” she muttered. “

“Should I inform Dias aunty?” Celine made a polite talk.
“No. Knowing her she would start getting impatient about the visit. I’ll give her a bit of surprise,” Lily decided and walked off.

The woman really knows how to be impudent, thought Celine. Rightly enough, she spotted Lily in Dias’ apartment. Both the ladies were standing in the balcony and chatting. Dias waved out and Celine waved back. “Let me take a chance.” Celine felt and asked Lily, “Since you are here, do come over upstairs to see your sister’s old flat.” There was no answer. Celine didn’t expect one either. She went up the steps slowly trying to catch a word or two from the conversation below. Not much luck.

A soft knock on the door surprised Celine. Why was the doorbell not used? She saw though the peephole and spotted Lily! She took a deep breath and saying a prayer opened the door.

“Just thought why not accept your invitation?” said the visitor. Her eyes looked all over quickly. Celine pointed towards the drawing room. Lily sat at the small dining table turning her eyes taking in many details. Celine asked her, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No. No. Dias aunty has made up for all the lost time by stuffing me with a lot of things,” retorted Lily.
Celine sat in another chair but was silent.

Lily broke that silence by saying, “Since I was here, I thought I would see aunty. Nice of you to call me. It’s been so long since I came to this place…” she trailed off. A whiff of the past, thought Celine.

“Maria loved this place but she has adjusted well to Mangalore. There she is better off financially,” Lily was almost thinking aloud. She opened her purse, “Here I have the family photo,” Lily placed a colour snap on the dining table. Celine was dumbfounded. The little boy’s picture was the same as what she had been noticing. She quickly gathered herself. There was a little friendliness in Lily’s voice now. She ran her finger on each individual. “The elder boy Andrew- gentle loving and this brat is Richard. Drove both Maria and Ashley crazy… very fond of toys specially cars of all sizes and shapes. Didn’t want to go to Mangalore. Threw up a big scene here saying he just didn’t want to leave this place. Unfortunately, he died last year of a mysterious fever. Just in one day he was no more!” Lily suddenly noticed Celine’s ashen face. “Anything wrong?” Lily queried.

“I have gone through so much of trauma that news like this really saddens me,” lied Celine. “It must be really painful for your sister to have lost a child,” Celine tried to speak normally.

“Yes. She has not really come to terms with it, to tell you frankly. But strange are the ways of the world,” Lily muttered. Then she suddenly turned to Celine, “Oh. Please don’t give this news to aunty. This fact is not known by many. Dias aunty was very fond of Richard and the feeling was mutual. With her, he was the best behaved boy. Maria would leave him at her house and then go out. Aunty would be shocked if she knows about Richie not being there in this world. She feels when they come for a holiday, she would meet her little ‘Denise the Menace!”

Celine nodded. “I’ll keep it to myself. Rest assured.” Lily arose to leave when the kids returned after their play and started to bring their books out.

“Good you came in that day. I could make up my mind to step here after the tragedy. Moreover, I could face aunty withholding  the news of Richie’s demise. Wish you luck, dear.” Lily left in a hurry.

Celine had seen the figure again that night- half imploring, half disappointed. But she did not get scared. Keeping her eyes open, she murmured, “Richard dear, I know you love this place. You are just like my son,” she paused. “you are free to play with Paul’s toys as long as you want but don’t make a noise in the night. You may stay here as long as you wish..” tears rolled down her cheeks.

For a couple of years more Celine saw toys on the floor and the figure in the house. Sometimes, it came close to her and smiled. She smiled back at him. How and where Richard vanished, Celine did not know. She only wished him happiness.