Arts Illustrated Short Story Contest, First Runner-Up
I follow the nurse and attendant as they help Madam into the room and settle her in bed. As chief patron of Sunset Homes, I’ve had my way refurbishing this room. Yet, the shut windows and sheer white curtains catapult me thirty years back in time to a night from hell. I fidget with the glass paperweight on the windowsill till my finger finds its chipped end. As if on cue, an old scar on my left temple tingles.
“I’m sorry…are you…my son?” Madam asks. An apologetic toothless smile lights up her face while she waits for my reply.
She frowns, shakes her head and sighs. “Was my son called Shankar? Oh, I don’t know… ” She flails her arms as if trying to clear the fog in her brain. “God, take me away,” she whimpers.
I kneel beside the bed and stroke her forehead. “Shh... please get some rest.”
I listen to her laboured breathing and wish I’d sought her out earlier. Our pasts are tragically entwined, but the truth of my identity will bring her no succor. I clasp her wizened hands in mine and press them to my forehead. “I’m really sorry.”
“You’ve done so much, Sir. I heard this is an exact replica of Madam’s room in Madikeri,” the nurse says.
I stand up and reach out to open the windows. I’ve ensured this room has the best view: a sprawling lawn bordered with rose bushes, white benches along the walking path, and the cheery sights and sounds of the busy marketplace beyond the low compound wall.
The attendant coughs politely behind me. “Please don’t, Sir. She grows berserk when the windows are open.”
I drop my hands slowly. I regard the miniature nude Thinker on the windowsill with sudden distaste and whisper, “Fool, ponder all you want. There’s no atonement in this lifetime.” I trudge into the garden, find a bench that faces the closed windows of Madam’s room, and sit down heavily.
God knows, I had successfully barricaded any window that could open to my past, until I took my wife and daughters to Madikeri last month. I had not wanted to stop the car, but braked involuntarily at the sight of the dilapidated bungalow. I walked in on a bunch of people watching TV inside. They hurriedly introduced themselves as the cook, housemaid, gardener and driver. I tentatively asked for Madam, and was shown to a room that hadn’t changed in thirty years. My exclamation that their charge looked woefully emaciated resulted in conspiratorial whispers about her insanity. I coaxed them to reveal the details of Madam’s distant relative who had hired them. I called the relative, and he didn’t hide his delight when I expressed my desire to care for Madam; he bought the story of my being a poor orphan she had once helped. It was terrible lying to my wife too, but I had no choice. Over the week we stayed in Madikeri, the relative flew down to officially entrust Madam to my care; there were buyers queued up to buy her property, he explained unabashedly.
I stare at my clean fingers, well-shod feet, and expensive suit till my vision blurs.
I’m ten and grimy, immensely proud to be accompanying my father and his men on work for the first time. The women have just seen us off with lit lamps and prayers. I’m running to keep pace with the sinewy men as we leave our hamlet in the jungle. We don’t converse unless absolutely necessary and stay mostly wrapped in blankets during the train and bus journeys.
We’re met by my father’s friend who leads us through the dark night. The men stop to oil themselves, change into black shorts and vests, and arm themselves with iron clubs. Fortified by alcohol, they break loose like a pack of ravenous wolves at the sight of the isolated bungalows in Madikeri. I’m the trained monkey that is eased into small unguarded windows. I can pick locks and squirm in and out of narrow gaps. I open the windows they order me to, and wait for them outside.
It’s the last bungalow for the night. I’ve just opened the windows of a room to let my father and his men inside when everything goes horribly wrong. A man and a teenaged boy enter the room waving rifles that look like toys. My father charges at them with his iron club and strikes them on their heads, and then again till they stop moving. My father and his men disappear into the house to complete their work. A dazed Madam emerges from behind a cupboard. Her trembling fingers dial numbers on the phone, unaware that my father’s men have cut the telephone lines.
My father’s ruthlessness horrifies me. All his strange lessons and exercises in the jungle suddenly make sense. I’m climbing out of the window when a glass ball hits my left temple. I turn behind to see her crawl under the bed. I huddle under a fragrant frangipani bush and feel a cold mist swirl down. The men leap out of the window triumphantly. I’m nursing my bleeding forehead when somebody grabs my hand, and we’re running again. I’m still retching behind the bus-stop when the bus leaves. My father and his men never return to a place of work.
The NGO that found me days later didn’t probe my past. When normal schooling failed to interest me, they discovered my aptitude for carpentry. My flourishing furniture business today owes itself to their patience.
“Sir, are you ill?” The nurse holds a file that needs my signatures, and a bottle of water.
I wipe my face on the sleeve of my shirt and drink thirstily. I take the file, but continue to stare at the closed windows.
“I wonder what she sees that scares her so much,” says the nurse, following my gaze.
“That’s alright. Leave the windows closed till she’s ready for the view.”
Aryama Pal, For the Urgency of Thinking (Still Life with a Showpiece of ‘The Thinker’, A Cactus, A Rotten Orange And A Curtain), Mixed media on paper, 57.6’’ X 45’’, 2017. Image Courtesy of the Artist and NDTV Mojarto.
Jyothi’s short stories have won the Katha Short Fiction Prize in 2015 (Second place) and in 2016 (Third Place). She was First Runner-up in the DNA-Out of Print Fiction Contest 2017. Her short stories and articles have appeared in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu, literary magazines: Reading Hour, Open Road Review, OutofPrint, India Currents, DWL- Papercuts, The Indian Quarterly (Jan-Mar 2019), Himal Southasian, and in anthologies (The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, The Other 2018, WE: Our Space 2018).
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