The Doctor Is In

In Neyyarinkara, people did not usually fall ill. If they did fall sick, they went to the village vaidyan. The vaidyan is an ayurvedic practitioner. Govindan was the village vaidyan in Neyyarinkara. He was in his eighties. Traditionally Ayurvedic vaidyan’ s asked a lot of questions. From the minute the patient would arrive till the time they left, it would be series of questions. What did you have for breakfast? How was your sleep? Are you motions regular?  Yes… the questions could get personal. Govindan Vaidyan was an exception. He rarely asked questions. He had served three generations of the villagers. He knew the medical history of each family in the village. His consultation rules were simple. You went to him and told him the problem.  Govindan would then disappear into the inner rooms of his hut. After a few minutes he would return with a medicine. His hut was full of strange smelling herbs and decoctions. The older generation in the village had absolute faith in his healing powers. In the village they said that if you died in spite of Govindan’s medicines, well, that was just bad karma. The present generation of inhabitants in the village did not agree with this view point. They preferred Allopathic doctors and medicines. They preferred travelling twenty kilometers to Trivandrum to get healed.

The scarcely populated medical fraternity of Neyyarinkara received a boost with the arrival of its first Allopathic Doctor – Dr. Shivaraman. Technically he did not come to the village as a doctor. He came along with his daughter Rukmini. Rukmini or Rukmini teacher as the villager called her, was posted as a Malayalam teacher at the Neyyarinkara Village School. The school admitted both boys and girls. It offered classes from first to tenth standard. Neyyarinkara did not have a college. If you survived your tenth exams, you had to trvel by bus to join the colleges in Trivandrum. A bus would take an hour to make the journey. Few students from the village needed to take the bus. On paper, Rukmini was assigned to teach the students of fourth and fifth standard. As there was no other Malayalam teacher in the school, she ended up teaching all the classes.

Rukmini’s mother died years ago. Her father Dr. Shivaraman was a retired professor of the Government Medical college. After his wife’s death his dominating sister stepped in. At first, his sister tried to get him to remarry. He refused. Then his sister told him to marry off his daughter the day she turned eighteen. Again Dr. Shivaraman refused. He wanted her to be financially independent. He had hoped she would become a doctor like him. Rukmini rejected that idea. She wanted to become a school teacher. She got a job as a government school teacher. Shivaraman’ s pension was far more than what his daughter earned as her salary. He was not going to let her stay alone in some far away village. He came to Neyyarinkara along with his daughter. Dr. Shivaraman planned on spending his free time reading. He came to Neyyarinkara, armed with a truck load of reading material – old newspapers, novels and magazines. He had collected them over decades. Dr. Shivaraman had another talent a more practical talent. He was an excellent cook. In their house he would cook while Rukmini did the dishes and washed the clothes. That was the arrangement between father and daughter. Dr. Shivaraman did not believe in engaging maids and cooks. He believed in the dignity of labor. He was a socialist at heart and a follower of Gandhi.

“Rukmini how are you finding life here in Neyyarinkara?” said Raman Kutty, Head Master of the Neyyarinkara Village School. It was a month since she had joined and the school.

“Sir! The students are bright, hard-working and eager to learn. There are a few who are weak in their studies but that is because they have no one at home to guide them. This is my second posting and I am really happy I have got an opportunity to work here.”

“I am happy you feel that way. Where are you staying?”

“I have rented a house on the corner of East Street. My father lives with me.”

“Oh! that is good. Is he working or was he working before?”

“He is a retired Professor of the Medical College. Now he spends his day reading books.”

“He was a Professor in the medical college at Trivandrum?”

“Yes Sir! he retired five years back.”

“That means he is a doctor.”

“Yes Sir. He was a doctor.”

“Once a doctor always a doctor.”

A week passed since Rukmini had the conversation with the headmaster. It was ten in the morning and Dr. Sivaraman was sitting in the verandah reading a science fiction novel. In the novel the aliens had landed and were slowly making their way towards the cities. That was when the doorbell rang. Dr. Sivaraman hated it when he was interrupted while reading. All through his career he never got the time to read anything. He intended to catch up on all the lost time. He continued reading. The door-bell rang again.

“Must be supporters of some political party on a campaign to collect funds,” he said muttering to himself.

At the door he found a man standing with a young boy.

“Doctor Sivaraman?” the man said.

“Yes! What can I do for you?”

“This is my son. He has a fever. Please can you have a look at him.”

“What? No! I am not a doctor. I mean I do not practice.”

“You were a professor at the Medical College, Right Sir?”

“Yes, I was but I was the administrative head of the college and have not practiced medicine in years. Also, I am retired now.”

“I understand all that Sir. Please help us. We do not want to go to the vaidyan. He is in his eighties. He can hardly see and has trouble hearing. I do not mean any disrespect to him but I do not feel confident going to him.”

“I… I … do not have any medicines.”

“Please can you look at my son and tell us what to do. It will take an hour to reach Trivandrum by bus. I do not want to take him there in this condition.”

Dr. Sivaraman sighed and said, “Ok come in.”

He did not have a stethoscope to check the heartbeat nor did he have a thermometer to measure the temperature. Instead he used his watch to time the pulse. his palm placed on the boy’s head told him the severity of the fever. Luckily the boy had a slight fever and Dr. Sivaraman prescribed some rest and analgesics. He did not have the medicines, nor did the shops in the village stock the medicines he had prescribed. That did not matter as the boy’s father was not planning on purchasing the medicines anyway. He had come to meet a doctor. He wanted the doctor to reassure him that the boy would be fine. The boy’s grateful father told his wife she spread the word around. Within a week of the incident, Dr. Shivaram was in business. It was as if the flood gate of disease and ill health had been opened in Neyyarinkara.

Sharath Achari was one of the richest people in the village. He owned a string of jewelry shops in the village. He was thirty-eight years old and weighed a hundred kilos. He sat in the main office. Every day he would be at work by eight in the morning. He would be there till eleven at night. His job was such that he never got to leave his shop. He had a car and a driver to drive him around. It was his wife who was the patient. Compared to his wife Sharath was thin. Shalini had trouble climbing the three steps of the house and collapsed on the chair in the hall. One look at her and Dr. Shivaram knew what the problem was. Still he let his patients do the talking. Sharath’s wife Shalini was a graduate. She was the daughter of a rich business man from Trivandrum. She hated Neyyarinkara. The couple did not have any friends and hardly if ever spoke to their neighbors.

“Doctor, I cannot walk. I cannot sleep.  My knees hurt. I do not feel hungry. Please help me I think I am going to die,” said Shalini. She had to stop talking as she was having problem breathing.

Dr. Shivaram let her regain her breath.

“So why do you think that you would die?”

“Doctor, as I told you I feel uneasy. I cannot sleep at night and have to sleep during the day.  Please help me Doctor.”

“Pardon me for asking do you have any children?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“No Doctor. I do not like children.”

“So, explain to me how your day goes by.”

“Doctor, my servant girl comes by seven in the morning…”

“You have a servant?”

“We have three. One girl sweeps the house and cleans the bathrooms, another one does the cooking and washes the clothes. There is a man who help with the purchases- vegetables and groceries.”

“Three servants and how many people are there in your house?”

“Two of us. Me and my husband. They stay with us so are available the whole day.” She said pointing at Sarath sitting next to her. Sarath smiled at the doctor and wiped the sweat from his brows.

“This is what I want you to do. To start with I want you to send your servants home by lunch every day.”

“What about the work to be done?” said Shalini.

“You can start doing some of the work at home. The problem you have is that your body does not have any exercise.”

Sharath was looking at his wife and smiling at the doctor’s comments.

“I meant both of you. You can start by reducing the working hours of your driver. There are a lot of places in the village where you can walk and reach. You do not need to travel everywhere by car.”

Now Shalini was also smiling.

Dr. Shivaraman had an unconventional way of treating his patients. He reduced the dependence on medicines and advocated more exercise and a healthy diet.

“This is the impact of modernization that people in a small village like Neyyarinkara are being affected by obesity and blood pressure.”

“Father, you always needed a place to implement your idea. Now you have got your lab and your test subjects.”

Dr. Shivaraman smiled, “After all it is for their own benefit.”

Every day of the week Rukmini would return from the school by one forty. The house was a ten-minute walk from the school. She would reach home, have a bath and then father and daughter would sit down for lunch. With Dr. Shivaraman ‘s ‘practice’ now flourishing that schedule looked difficult to maintain. There would be people standing outside the house when she would return. She would lay the food out on the table but the chances of Dr. Shivaraman coming to eat it was remote.

“Father are you planning on continuing the practice.”

“Do I have an option here. The people are just not ready to listen to my excuses. It has been years since I practiced medicine. At the hospital I was managing the staff, setting up the duty roster and granting leaves. That type of work done over years dims the mind. I have forgotten the names of most of the medicines! What I am doing is ethically wrong. I tried explaining all this to the villagers but they just do not seem to understand. For them I am a doctor – an allopathic doctor and that is all that matters.”

Somebody was knocking at the door.

“I am coming. Just having my lunch,” said Dr. Shivaraman shouting. He was chewing at that time and ending up coughing.

“Father you will have to set up proper consultation timings. Read up on your medicines and yes most important of all buy some basic doctor equipment – a Stethoscope, a thermometer and that thing which is used to measure blood pressure,” said Rukmini.

“Sphygmomanometer,” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“Yes, that too,” said Rukmini.

Dr. Shivaraman finished his lunch, washed his hands and came out and saw a young man waiting for him.

“Sorry Doctor. My name is Balan, I am a medical representative. Please can I have ten minutes of your time?”

Inside the hastily converted consultation room of Dr. Shivaraman the young man spread out the medicines from his bag on the table.

“Sir, this is my card. This is the list of medicines manufactured by the India Medical Pharmaceuticals company. We offer a commission of …”

After half an hour later when the young man left another man came barging in.

“Sorry sir! I need two minutes of your time. I am from Relief Pharmaceuticals. I am their area manager for sales. This is my card. When you recommend my companies medicines you get a commission of ….”

That evening the last patient left by about eight. Dr. Shivaram had a supply of medicines on his desk. He had cards, calendars, brochures and stickers from various medical companies.

“This profession has become a business,” said Dr. Shivaraman as Rukmini washed the dishes in the kitchen.

“Father does that surprise you?”

“I know, I know child but this is no way to work in the medical profession.”

“So, what are you planning to do about it?”

“I am yet to decide what needs to be done.”

Balakrishnan Pillai was the Panchayat President. The Panchayat was the local government body. He was in his sixties and had been a member of the village panchayat since his twenties. As he climbed up the steps of Rukmini’s house, she was rushing out.

“Are you late for school, teacher?” said Pillai.

“No, I have asked a few students to come early. We have organized special classes for them. Some of us teachers will be taking special classes for students who scored poorly in the last exam.”

“That is a good initiative. Please convey my regards to Raman Kutty, your head master.”

Rukmini smiled, nodded her head and ran out.

“Your daughter is hard working and sincere. Raman tells me so,” said Pillai.

Shivaraman beamed with pride. He said, “I know. So, what does the Panchayat want from me.”

“Ah yes! Let me explain why I have come here this morning,” said Pillai as he settled down in a chair in the Doctor’s room.

“Doctor! First of all, on behalf of the villagers I would like to thank you for starting your practice. Govindan Vaidyan is getting old and half the time is not very coherent. The people you have been treating have been talking and they are recommending you to their friends and family members. Now the panchayat has decided to submit a proposal to the government to start a full-fledged hospital in the village. It may not be big but about ten beds to start with but it will be a start.”

“That is a good idea. Let me know how I can help?”

“Ah yes there is something you can do. You were a professor at the Medical College. You are practicing as a Doctor. You can help us draft the letter to the government. We will need your help to come out with the proposal.”

“Definitely, I am at your service.”

With the state elections due in a year’s time, the proposal as drafted by Pillai with inputs from Dr. Shivaraman was approved. Funds released and work started on the construction of a hospital. It took two months to be completed. The local member of the legislative assembly the M.L.A was called to inaugurate the hospital. The hospital had a full time doctor a few nurses and some basic medical equipment to help with the treatment of patients. People flocked to the inauguration function. Post the function most of the villagers lined up for a checkup. Work at the hospital began in earnest.  That same week Govindan Vaidyan the village Ayurveda expert passed away. Among the few people at his funeral were Dr. Shivaraman and Rukmini.

After the start of the clinic, the people coming to visit Dr. Shivaraman reduced drastically. Not that he minded it. The few who came included Sharath and Shalini. The couple had taken the doctors advise seriously.

“Doctor, we have started going on a morning walk,” said Shalini. She had lost a lot of weight but was still way above the acceptable body weight.

“Sharath you have lost some weight. So how does it feel?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“I feel lighter doctor! Every morning we walk for about a kilometer. It is not easy but we try.”

“That is good. Being healthy is a state of mind. You do not have to take medicines to feel better. Do you still hold me responsible for reducing your driver’s duty hours?”

Both husband and wife laughed.

“Doctor, I promise you in a year’s time we will walk up to your house. That will be two and a half kilometers either way from our house, but we will do it.”

“I will be waiting at the gate to receive you.”


The Dream House

Chandran was happy. He was still in his thirties and had achieved what most people required a life time to do. He was the owner of a house. It had not been an easy buy. He took a loan plus the down payment had cleared his bank savings. Savitri his wife had pitched in with half her gold ornaments. He had registered the house in both their names as an acknowledgement of her efforts. It was not a new house. The previous owners had got a job in Dubai and was planning on settling down there. He was not returning to Neyyarinkara. The property was going cheap. Chandran was in the right place at the right time. He grabbed the opportunity.

Chandran was from Ernakulam. That was about two hundred kilometers away. He worked at the Secretariat in Trivandrum as a section officer. There was no chance of a transfer. He was sure of working for another ten years in the same office. Ten years ago, when he had joined the office he was a bachelor. He stayed at a lodge near the Trivandrum Central Railway station. The room and the food were cheap. He saved a lot during that phase of his life. His marriage with Savitri required changes in his life style. At first, he tried to get a house on rent near his office. The rent rates shocked him. Finally, he had to settle for a house twenty- kilometers away from the office. It was a village but there were regular bus services.

“What is the name of the place?” said Savitri.

“Neyyarinkara. It is more than a village and less than a city,” said Chandran.

“Twenty kilometers away?”

“Yes. It is the only thing that fits our budget.”

“I guess for now we do not have other options.”

“It does not make sense to take a house on rent. Plus, this could be an investment in the long term.”

“That is what my father always says. Real estate is the best form of investment.”

The reference to her father irritated Chandran. The old man never contributed financially but was more than generous with his wisdom. Savitri was her father’s daughter. With her it was always ‘father says this’, ‘father says that’. Chandran seldom spoke but when he did it was after considering all a lot of thinking. Savitri would partially listen and then pip in with what her father would have said or done in a similar situation. Those were the times when he felt he could punch her on the nose but he refrained from doing so. He liked his wife but her ‘my father knows best’ attitude drove him mad. He thought he would be able to cure her eventually. After all they had only been married for a year.

The couple was not enthused when the bus dropped them in sleepy Neyyarinkara. There was no one to receive them. Not that they were expecting anyone. They caught an auto rickshaw and reached the house.

“You are moving in here,” said the auto driver.

“Yes,” said Chandran.

“It is isolated. Not that you need to worry in Neyyarinkara.”

“Why is that?”

“People here are very helpful. If you walk a hundred meters from here, you will reach the temple. The river bank is in the opposite side. There is a school here. Have you got any children?”

“No not yet,” said Chandran. Savitri blushed and look away.

“Where is your luggage?” said the auto driver.

“This is all. We are newly married,” said Chandran.

The auto driver laughed and said, “Two suitcases? You now have all the time in the world to set up house now.”

They had paid of the auto driver and entered the house. The house had a rectangular hall and a room on either side. The hall led to another room, part of which was the kitchen. Outside the house was a bathroom and a toilet. The house had a well in the compound.

Chandran placing the two suitcases on the floor of the hall.

Luckily the house was partially furnished. The previous owners had lived there for two years. They had left behind beds, sofas and curtains.

“Savi, you know, we are lucky. This house is furnishing and has a small ground around it. It cost us only one lakh rupees. If I go by market rates this house should sell for a minimum of five lakhs rupees. We are indeed lucky. This is my dream house”

“Father said he could have bargained a better deal.”

“Yes, I know. If he had bargained we might have got the house for free!”

“Why do you always have to criticize my father? He only means good for us.”

“I know. He thinks I am an idiot.”

“No! he does not. He always says that Chandran is a smart boy. He will do well in life.”

“I do not need anyone’s certificate to prove my worth.”

The argument was interrupted by a knocking at the door.

“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said a middle-aged woman standing outside the door.

“Yes. My name is Chandran and this is my wife Savitri.”

“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan works in a bank. I call him Suvi. He said you took a loan from his bank.”

“Yes, we needed a loan to buy this house,” said Chandran.

Lata clasped Savitri’s hand and said, “I am happy that you came in here. Now I will not be bored. I came to invite both of you for dinner at our place.”

That evening it was ten by the time Chandran and Savitri walked back to their house. It was a moon lit night. The road on either side was empty and Chandran and Savitri held hands as they walked back home.

“If this was a movie, I would have been singing a song right now,” said Chandran.

“Talking of movies is there a movie theatre here?” said Savitri.

“Yes, I saw one near the Bus stand. It even plays fairly new movies.”

“That is good. At least we will not be bored here.”

“Bored? Why should we be bored?”

“Do you think I should ask my parents to come and stay with us?”

Chandran let go of her hand.

“Why do you have to spoil a night as romantic as this by bringing in your parents?”

“They could help us settle down here.”

“I can all my parents over. They can also give us equally worthless advice on how to settle down.”

That comment put the whole issue in the right perspective.  Savitri was not comfortable with Chandran’s parents.

“For now, let us not call anyone,” said Savitri.

“Good idea. Have you ever thought about having a baby?” said Chandran and again clasped her hand.

“I know what you are thinking,” said Savitri and ran inside.

Savitri and Lata became good friends and soon enough were making trips to the market together. They went shopping at the local market. The options were limited but the prices were cheap.

“Have you two gone to the movie theatre here?” said Savitri.

The two friends were on their way back from the market.

“Yes, we go there every week. The theatre in the village is quite good. Cushion seats and ceiling fans all over. Why do you ask?”

“Chandran and I have not seen a movie in months. Before our marriage I never missed a single movie at home. My father is a huge fan of Sarath Babu the superstar.”

“Sarath Babu is my favorite as well. Suvi my husband is jealous of him and avoids taking me to his movies!”

Both laughed at this.

“Chandran is not interested in movies. The last movie we saw a week after our marriage. Then we were in my home town.”

“There is a new movie coming up this Friday. Get Chandran to come. All four of us can go as group.”

The two families had a great time at the theatre. Soon this became a regular part of their lives. Every fortnight they would plan on going out for a movie. At times they even got on a bus and travelled all the way to Trivandrum to watch the latest releases in the theatres there.

Then Suvi was posted from the village. He was a bank officer and had a transferable job. It was a tearful farewell that Lata and Savitri had. Savitri was now alone. Chandran tried his best to comfort her. There was not much he could do about the hours of the day when he would be in office, while she would be all alone at home. Then one day Savitri told him that he was going to be a father. Chandran was extremely happy and scared at the same time. He had no idea how to take care of his pregnant wife. With no other options left he had to call her parents over. He could have called his own parents but Savitri vetoed the idea. She said she wanted her mother with her and that was it.

Savitri’s father Chellapan was a retired school teacher. Chandran’s relationship with his father in law was never good. They treated each other with utmost courtesy. Chandran preferred to put in extra hours in office while his in laws were at home. He would leave by seven in the morning and return by nine at night. That way there was minimum scope for interaction between him and his in laws.

One evening Chandran was returning from office. At a distance he saw someone standing at the gate. As he neared he saw that it was his father in law Chellapan.

“Is Savitri ok? What happened?” said Chandran. He was worried.

“Savitri? She is ok. Guess what happened today?” said Chellapan.

Chandran stood there with a confused look on his face. He could see that Chellapan was excited.

“Let me tell you what happened. Today a movie producer came to our house.”

Chandran still did not understand what was happening.

“They are planning to shoot a movie in our house. Guess who the hero will be?” said Chellapan and without waiting for Chandran to guess, he blurted out, “Sharath Babu!”

Chandran rarely watched movies before his marriage. He liked reading books. His movie watching had increased exponentially after marriage. There were many point about his in laws that he could not understand. He never understood how a man in his seventies could behave like a teenager whenever this film star’s name came up. The man was a hard-core fan of Sharath Babu. He never missed his movies. He even dragged his wife and children to these movies. It was through him that Savitri had acquired a fascination for movies.

“So, what do you say?” said Chellapan.

Chandran had not responded at the gate but had walked in. It was half an hour since he had come in. Chandran was at the dinner table and Chellapan could not hold it any longer.

“About what?”

“About letting them shoot the movie here. In this house,” said Chellapan.

“No!” said Chandran and continued eating.

“Why?” said Chellapan. He could not imagine anyone saying no to an opportunity to see Sharath Babu at close range.

“What do you mean why?”

“Why do you not want them to shoot the movie here?”

Savitri was six months pregnant and showed it clearly. She came in slowly with some water for Chandran. Chandran pointed at her growing stomach and said, “That is why. Where would we stay if they are shooting here?”

“We were planning on taking Savitri to our house next month. That way there will be no problem for Savitri.”

“What about the inconvenience I would be facing? Where will I stay with a hundred-people roaming around the house.”

“They are ready to pay you twenty thousand for a week’s shooting,” said Chellapan.

He said that in a low voice but it still had an effect on Chandran. He swallowed without chewing and had to cough to clear his throat.

“Twenty thousand per week!”

“Yes, and the shooting will go on for a minimum period of a month.”

Chandran calculated rapidly in his mind. That would mean that he could clear his bank loan in a month’s time. If Savitri was not going to be there, he could stay for a month at his old lodge.

“Plus, if there were any damages to the house during the shooting the studio will pay the complete repair cost. They are ready to give this in writing.”

For the first time in his married life Chandran agreed with his father in law. This was a sound financial proposal. He could be near his office. Savitri would be with her parents during the crucial stages of her pregnancy. As if all that was not enough he stood to make a lakh on this deal. He agreed immediately.

A week later the deal was signed.   It was a legal document so Chandran was not worried. He agreed to hand over his house to the movie studio for the duration of the shooting. The rates were as Chellapan had mentioned – ten thousand rupees per week for a minimum of four weeks. The deal became sweeter after that. Any additional week would be charged at fifteen thousand per week.   There was a clause of payment for damages caused to the structure.  Chandran read the document four times. He ensured the numbers and the number of zeros were correct and then signed it.  Savitri left along with her mother the same day. Chandran went with them.  Chellapan stayed back in the house. He said it was to keep a watch over the house. He was not fooling anyone for they knew he wanted to watch his favorite star in action.

The movie shoot got extended. The team stayed for two months. After a week they asked Chellapan to leave as he had become a nuisance on the set.  Chandran stayed in his old lodge for the duration of the shoot. The charges at his lodge had increased but the standards remained the same.  After two months Chandran got the news that the movie studio was done with the shooting. He could now return to his house.  The first thing he did was he went to his bank and checked his account. The balance was substantial.   Savitri was not due for a month so Chandran was alone in the house.  The first day itself he wrote a letter and informed the bank that he would be making a prepayment of the loan.   The number he had seen on his bank account was more than enough for him to write off his loan and still have a decent balance.  He was happy.  For once Chellapan had come with a good suggestion. Now he waited for Savitri and his child to come home.

Two months passed.   Chandran lived alone in the house.   He perfected his cooking skills. He knew Savitri would need some time to get back in the kitchen.  He found a girl who could help with the cooking and washing.  For the first three months it would be important to have someone full time in the house. Chandran had the money and could afford a full-time maid.    Savitri had a boy. It was a momentous occasion for both the families. The boy was the first grandchild for both the grandparents.  After two weeks Savitri returned to her house. Her parents came with her.

The boy was named Arjun. On his sixteenth day of birth Chandran’s father whispered the name in the baby’s ear and formalized the naming. Chandran and Savitri had named him Arjun after the hero from the Mahabharata.   Chellapan   had his own reasons for being happy with the naming.

“In the movie ‘Inspector’ Sharath Babu was named Arjun!”

Chandran had a strong desire to change the boy’s name there and then but with a supreme effort controlled himself.

Chellapan and his wife returned to their house after six months. It was the longest six months of Chandran’s life. Had it not been for the baby he would have preferred to return to the single room in the lodge.  Arjun, his son was a bright spot in his day. Every day he would look forward to the time he got to spend with the child. After Chellapan and his wife left, Chandran set about making the house safe for Arjun.  He had started crawling and that increased his range of activities.  The girl whom he had hired was now working full time in the house. Savitri had returned to the kitchen and Chandran’s life was slowly getting back to normal.

One day Chandran was on his way back from office when he saw a movie poster. It was a new movie.  There was the photo of a house on the poster. Chandran thought the house looked familiar. He had walked a few steps when he realized that it was a photo of his house.  The movie was the same one which was shot in his house.  He hurried home to tell Savitri.

“Let’s go to see that movie. It has been more than a year since I saw a movie.  The last time was when Lata and her husband were here.”

“What about Aju?” said Chandran. They called the boy Aju at home.

“He will come with us. do not worry about him. He will be fast asleep by the time the movie starts so would not be a problem in the theatre.”

Chandran did not want to refuse Savitri’s wish. Besides he wanted to see how his house looked in the movie.  The Movie theatre was packed.  The villagers of Neyyarinkara flocked to see the movie shot in their village.

As they returned home that night the couple was silent. It was not because they did not want to wake up Arjun. They boy had slept through the movie as predicted by Savitri. He preferred waking up at night and also keeping his parents awake. His parents were quiet because of what they had seen in the movie. The story was different from the usual Sharath Babu ‘thrillers’ where he played the handsome cop who wooed the beautiful heroine with songs and dance. This was a horror movie. The story was about a family involving a husband, his wife and their child. They live in a small house in a desolate area. The house was haunted. The ghost mercilessly kills first the baby, then the wife and finally the hero! The audience loved it. They were clapping and whistling when the movie ended. Critics had claimed it as an award-winning performance by the hero. Everyone was applauding except for the family which now made its way home.

It was ten in the night as they walked down the street. Savitri had walked down this road a thousand times before. Earlier she had not noticed the long shadows that the tall coconut trees cast on the road in the moon light. In the stillness of the night she could hear the sound of their slippers on the tarred road. She heard the jingle of anklets and for a moment froze. Then she realized it was the sound of the anklets on her feet. Never before had she heard the sound of her anklets so clearly.

“Walk a little faster,” said Savitri. Chandran was holding Arjun and a few steps behind her.  It was not Arjun that was slowing Chandran. He was deep in thought.  The movie had disturbed him.

“Close the gates and lock it,” said Savitri as she rushed in.

“Lock? We do not have a lock,” said Chandran.

“We will have to buy one then.”

Normally Chandran would have argued the point but instead he thought she had a point.

“I will get one first thing tomorrow. Here take Ajju.  Let me take a bath.”

“I will never understand this habit of yours of taking a bath whenever you come back home. It is ten in the night. You might catch a cold if you take a bath at this time.”

“I have this habit since I was a child.   Too late to change the habit.”

The bathroom was outside the house. As Chandran walked up to it he noticed the massive banyan tree behind. He had never noticed it before.  It had huge roots which hung from its branches. In the movie the banyan tree was where the body of the heroine was strung by the evil spirit. The blood from the body had dripped on to the bathroom below. Chandran wondered how the movie escaped with those gory murder scenes. As he turned on the tap he noticed a stain on the floor.

“Is that blood?” said Chandran. He touched the spot with his feet and poured some water over it. He looked again and now there was nothing there!

“I must have imagined it” he said to himself and turned on the shower.

Inside the house Savitri hugged Arjun close to her. The ceiling in the house was made of huge logs of teak. The logs had a deep coat of varnish which made them look dark brown in the light from the electric bulb.  Coconut wood planks were arranged across the teak logs. The tiles in the roof were arranged on the planks in neat rows. The house was hardly three years old but the effect of these planks and tiles made it look a hundred years old. Savitri stood in the middle of the room with Arjun in her arms.  She looked all around the room.  She felt as if she was seeing the room for the first time. In the movie in the last scene the hero’s body was found hanging in this room.  Savitri looked at the ceiling.    For a brief moment she could see the body dangling, swinging gently in the breeze blowing in through the open window. At the moment there was a power failure.

It was the sound of Savitri’s shrieking in horror that made Chandran rush out of the bathroom. He had just finished his bath and was wiping himself dry. He wrapped the towel around him and ran out.   For a few seconds he could not see in the dark.  He could hear Savitri screaming. He could hear Arjun crying as well.

“I am coming… I am coming,” said Chandran as he stumbled towards the door.  He feet struck the stone steps in the dark and he winced in pain. He stumbled in the house. In the dark he could dimly make out the shape of a woman standing. The sound of screams was coming from her. In the movie there was a similar scene where the hero mistook the evil ghost for his wife in a dark room.  For a moment Chandran hesitated. Then he heard Arjun wailing and he forgot all about fear and dashed in.  At that moment the electricity supply was restored.

“Where were you?  You left us alone,” said Savitri tears pouring down her cheeks. Arjun was crying.  Chandran reached out to take him in his arms. Then realized his towel was slipping and tied it firmly. He took Arjun in his arms. The child was reassured to see familiar faces around him and stopped crying.  He reached out for Chandran’s face and said, “da, da.”

For a few minutes there was silence in the room.

Then both husband and wife said, “He spoke his first words!”

Arjun’s first spoken words was the top news item for the next week.  Savitri ‘s parent came over and a day after they left Chandran’s parents came over to celebrate the achievement.   After they left, the house was back to its normal occupancy of three.  The servant girl would come in the morning. She would stay during the day and leave at five in the evening.

Chandran returned from office by six.

“Can you come in a bit early. The girl leaves by five. I asked her to stay a little late but she says she has to catch a bus which leaves by five fifteen.”

“You know that is not possible. The buses are jam packed between five and seven.”

“Can you at least try to come early? It is a bit difficult to be alone in this house after dark.”

A week later Arjun had a fever.  The child was shivering and coughing.   Chandran took a day off from office to take care of his child.  They took Arjun to the nearest doctor in Neyyarinkara, Dr. Shivaraman.

“You do not have to worry.  He has a chest congestion.    Have him inhale some steam. Do you take him out after dark? Be careful while you do it. It is a bit chilly after dark.  Have the child wear some warm clothes. A woolen cap if possible.”

“I do not trust this doctor.  Let’s take Arjun to the city and have a proper Doctor examine him.”

“Do you know he retired as a professor at the Medical College in Trivandrum?”

“That is why I want to go to a doctor who is still practicing. Not someone who is retired.”

Chandran did not argue and they went to Trivandrum. There after waiting for three hours in the reception of a pediatrician they got a similar diagnosis.

“Did you notice that the Pediatrician told us exactly the same things what Dr. Shivaraman had said. Only he charged us a hundred rupees more.”

“You are counting money when you son is suffering?” said Savitri.

“I was just mentioning that. You know I would not compromise on Ajju’s health.”

Then Chandran feel silent. After a few minutes he turned towards Savitri and said,

“Do you remember in the movie the child had a fever. The fever subsided when the snake came into the house.”

“Do you have to remind me of the movie?”

“I just remembered that scene.”

That evening Chandran was on his way to the bathroom when he saw something glow in the dark. At first, he thought it was a log. He shone his torch in that direction. It was a long, dark colored snake.

“I will not stay in this house with my child,” said Savitri, “buy me a train ticket I will leave for my parent’s house first thing in the morning tomorrow.”

Chandran did not try to hold her back. The circumstances were such. He called Chellapan and sent Savitri and Arjun along with him.  He had his office to attend. After a few days alone in the house Chandran decided to stay at the lodge. He locked up his house and return to his own haunts.  Days passed.  Whenever the subject of returning to the house came up Savitri would reject all suggestions.

“What are you doing?” said a man passing by the house as he saw Chandran nailing a board at the gate.

“This house is for sale. I am putting up a board.”

“This is the haunted house from that movie, right?” the man said. “the house where three people were brutally murdered.”

Chandran did not reply.

“Good luck with your attempts.  I would like to meet the person who has the guts to buy a haunted house.”

The man laughed and went on his way. Chandran checked all the windows and locked all the door’s. Then he nailed the ‘For Sale’ at the gate and walked away.

It is said that Chandran or Savitri never returned to that house. The house remains locked with a fading ‘For Sale’ sign dangling on the front door. To this day no one dares enter the haunted house.

The Street Dancer

“Kurup saar!  You have to go home now. I need to lock the temple gates,” said Madhavan.

Madhavan was the guard at the Neyyarinkara Krishna Temple. He was the only guard and he was in a hurry to go home.

Madhavan’s duties started at four in the morning when he opened the temple gates. After opening the gates, he would go around of the temple to ensure everything was in order. Only after his ‘all-clear’ would the priests enter the shrine. Once the priest entered and started their rituals Madhavan relaxed. His duty ended at eight in the night when he would lock the main gates. Come rain or shine the routine never changed. Madhavan took his job seriously. It was eight fifteen and he was getting late.

“Kurup Saar! I have to close the temple gates” said Madhavan repeating his request.

Gopinathan Kurup was in his mid-forties. He looked younger for his age. Had it not been for the bald patch on his head he would not have looked a day above thirty-five. Clad in a pale white dhoti a silk shawl thrown around his bare upper body, he was seated on the ground in a corner of the temple courtyard. With his back leaning against one of the massive stone pillars.

“Saar!” Madhavan repeated.

“Yes! Yes, I am leaving. You know I like to sit here. What will I do at home? There is no one there,” he said.

Madhavan nodded his head. He had heard this from Kurup a thousand times. There was nothing he could do about it. Madhavan’s house was considerably smaller but it was full of people. His son, his daughter in law and his grand-son lived with him. Madhavan looked forward to reaching home in time. He loved to play with his grandson. If he did not reach home in time, the boy would be fast asleep.

Kurup got up, brushed the dust off his dhoti, rearranged his shawl around his shoulders and began walking. His house was less than a kilometer from the temple. He inherited the house from his father. Besides the house he got hundreds of acres of paddy fields and coconut plantations. He was one of the richest men in the village. Unlike other men who inherited riches Kurup had taken care of his estate. His was the perfect life. Nalinakshi Amma was the perfect wife Kurup could have asked for. Everything was perfect till the cholera epidemic visited the shores of Neyyarinkara. The disease did not differentiate between rich and poor. By the time the disease was under control it had taken the lives of fifty villagers. Nalinakshi Amma was one of the first to fall victim to the disease. They did not have any children. Kurup was left alone in the world. People who earlier envied him for his riches now sympathized on his tragedy.

“Master! The hot water for you bath is in the bathroom,” said Satyan. Satyan was Kurup’ s cook cum house keeper. He was standing at the gate, patiently waiting for his master to return. Kurup nodded

“Once you have your bath I will serve your dinner,” Satyan said.

Satyan looked after the house with care and dedication. Besides cooking food, he ensured that the house was always neat and clean. He was assisted by his wife, Laxmi. Laxmi worked in the house during the day. She came along with Satyan at seven in the morning and left by five in the evening. Satyan remained till about nine.

Kurup finished his bath and stepped out. He could see Satyan had laid out the table and was waiting for him.

“Go home. Satya!” said Kurup, “Have food with your wife and children.”

“Saar I will leave after you have finished.”

“Do not worry about the dirty utensils. I will cover them up after I have finished. Go home.”

After Satyan left, Kurup began eating. The sound of his chewing echoed in the room. He looked at the table. It could seat eight people. Kurup sighed. He had relatives and some of them had offered to come over and stay with him. He knew they were after his money. He kept them at arm’s length. After finishing his meal, he covered the plates, washed his hands and went to sleep.

This lonely existence had become a habit now for him. It was more than five years since Nalinakshi has passed away. He was used to the silence in the house.
The next morning, as usual Satyan woke him up with a cup of steaming-hot tea. Kurup could hear Laxmi sweep the ground in front of the house. The house had a huge courtyard. In the yard there was a huge mango tree. Every year its branches would be covered with mangoes. There were a large number of flowering plants in the yard. Every morning the ground would be littered with leaves. Laxmi spent half her day sweeping the ground clean.

Kurup was reading the morning newspaper sipping tea from a cup.

“Sir would you want to wear anything special today. Let me know so that I can iron it out for you,” said Satyan.
“Why?” said Kurup.

“Saar, I hope you have not forgotten. The festival at our temple starts today. It will be ten days of non-stop entertainment in the village.”

“Oh! I almost forgot,” said Kurup.

He has seen the preparations going on in full swing for weeks. Pandals were erected. The path leading to the temple was watered to prevent the dust from rising. Dancers and artists from all over the state would come to the village for the festival. Every day a different art form was displayed. It was the start of the harvest season. For the villagers of Neyyarinkara it was the time of the year when they celebrated. Schools and colleges had four days of holidays while government offices were shut for two days. Everyone celebrated.

“Keep my shawls clean. The Kathakali performances will run through the night. It can be a bit cold that late in the night. “

“I will wait for you Saar.”

“No need Satya! Just keep the food covered and leave. I may not be coming at my regular time for the next ten-day. You and Laxmi would also be attending some of these dance recitals, right?”

“Saar if you allow, can Laxmi and I sleep in the back yard during the festival days? It will be late by the time the programs finish. I do not want to travel with her in the night.”

“Why in the back yard? There are so many rooms in the house. Use one of them. You know Satyan, I consider you and Laxmi as my family members.”

The temple festival was the high point in the village calendar. For ten days the entire village would deck up and celebrate. In the temple the day would start with special poojas. Teams of priests would conduct elaborate rituals. In the evening the activities would shift to the pandals outside the temple. Dancers who were expert in classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi would perform. Singers of classical music would sing ragaas in praise of the lord. At night the Kathakali artists would take over. Their performances would continue through the night. People came prepared for the long hours with bed sheets and pillows!

On the first day of the festival Kurup left early for the temple. He hoped to find a place to sit before the crowds came pouring in. There were a few empty seats and he grabbed one of them. It was six in the evening by the time the curtains went up. People were still coming in and occupying seats. The loud speakers and microphones were not correctly tuned. After a few false starts the performances started.

The first dance performance of the day was a Bharatanatyam recital by an unknown dancer. Temple festivals were the place where upcoming dancers performed for the first time.

The dancer was nervous. It was her first performance in front of a live audience. She was supported by a small group of musicians who were equally nervous. This was a troupe from a distant village. The people noticed the ham-handed performance and hooted their displeasure. Some of the rowdier elements threw crumpled paper balls at the dancer. The performance was stopped and the curtain hastily dropped. There was chaos. Some people stood on their chairs others demanded that the performance be restarted. The organizers of the event had a tough time controlling the crowd. After half an hour of shouting, screaming, hooting and pacifying, the crowd settled down. The same dancer was given a second chance to perform. Despite some minor hiccups she completed her recital and ran off stage.

As the night progressed more seasoned artists came up. It was about ten in the night when Kurup finally decided to leave. A narrow lane led from the temple to Kurup’ s house. It was a full moon night and he was half way home when he saw a group sitting on the road

“What are you doing here?” said Kurup as he came up to them.

They rose up and stood there.

“We are from a village near Tirunelveli. We missed the last bus. The next bus leaves in the morning, “said a woman in the group.

Kurup saw that it was the dance party that performed first that evening. The girl who had been hooted off the stage was also there. Without her makeup and out of the dance costume she looked different. Kurup thought she looked more beautiful without the makeup.  Her large expressive eyes were staring at Kurup. Somewhere deep inside he felt a surge of sympathy for the group.

“Come with me. There are enough room in my house for all of you. You can stay there for the night and leave in the morning.”

The group hesitated. No one in his right mind offered to share his house with a group of strangers. Kurup saw them hesitate.

“Do not worry. My house is just around the corner.”

Kurup lead the way and the group of four, three women and a man followed. When they reached the house, they were stunned. It was a mansion.

“How many people live here?” one of the women in the group asked.

“I stay alone here,” said Kurup.

Satyan came running as he heard the gates open. He stopped when he saw a group of weirdly dressed people carrying musical instruments following the master of the house.

“Satya, these people are from Tirunelveli. They came here for the festival and will be returning tomorrow. Take them to the guest house and see to their needs.”

“I remember, you are the group that performed first today,” said Laxmi as Satyan opened the doors of the guest house.

The guest house was a separate construction in the compound. It was used on rare occasions when relatives from distance places used to come. Those visits happened when Kurup’ s father was alive. After his father’s death it was opened once in a month to be cleaned.

“Who lives here?” asked a woman in the group.

“No one. This is the guest house” said Laxmi.

She had taken an immediate dislike for this group. The woman looked too aggressive and the man shifty eyed. Satyan noticed that too.

As Laxmi prepared to leave them one of the women in the group asked, “Can we get something to eat?”

“It is ten in the night,” said Laxmi. She tried to sound sarcastic but the affect was missed on the group.

“Can you make something for us. We have not had anything since lunch.”

“Is it so?” said Laxmi. She would have something nasty but Satyan stepped in.

“I can get you some bananas.”

“That will do for now,” said the woman, “By the way my name is Vasanthi, I am this girl’s aunty. Her name is Komalam. This is her mother Anandavalli and he is our brother Sugesan.”

Neither Satyan nor Laxmi bothered to remember the names. If they were leaving in the morning there was no need to get friendly with them. Within minutes the plantains he had fetched disappeared. They still looked hungry. Laxmi had never seen anyone eat plantains and still feel hungry.

“There is a well in the house. If you are still hungry, drink as much water as you want. Don’t worry the well never dries.” said Laxmi as she went out of the room.

“Sometime, Saar does the most irresponsible things. I don’t think we can trust these people. We should send them away, first thing in the morning,” said Satyan. Laxmi was in complete agreement with him.

The next day the husband and wife woke up early. Satyan rushed to the guest house and found it locked from inside. Their guests were still asleep. He knocked on the door but there was no response. He would have banged louder had he not been worried about waking up Kurup.

Kurup as usual woke up at six and came out of his room. He had his tea reading the mornings newspaper. Laxmi began sweeping the yard and Satyan was busy in the kitchen.

An hour later Kurup was having his breakfast when he remembered about his guests from the previous night.

“When did those people leave?” said Kurup.

“No saar! They are still sleeping!” said Satyan.

“Sleeping? Who sleeps till seven in the morning?”

Then he recalled something and added, “They must be tired after all that travelling. Let them rest.”

His guests woke up around ten. One by one they came out of the guesthouse. The women first and then the man. They sat there outside in the courtyard basking in the sun.

“You missed the morning bus. The next bus to Tirunelveli leaves in half an hour,” said Satyan.

“Can we get something to eat?” said one of the women.

“There are a number of hotels near the Bus stop. You can order whatever you like,” said Laxmi.

Kurup came out of the house. Seeing him they rose and did an elaborate namaste. He smiled back.

“I thought you had left. I hope you found the guest house comfortable?”

“It was ok. Just that we were hungry after all our travelling.”

“Oh! that is not a problem. You can have something here. Laxmi will cook something for you.”

It was rare that Laxmi and Satyan disagreed with Kurup. This was one time both of them had a urge to argue with their master.

“You know how to make dosa’s. Here help yourself,” said Laxmi.

“Can you make it for us. We are your guests. In our village guests are not allowed to cook. It is the host who cooks.”

Laxmi controlled herself with a lot of effort.

“We do not have any such customs here. Also, you are not guests here. The master allowed you to stay for the night out of sympathy. Now either you make your own dosas or you remain hungry. Your choice.”

Laxmi stormed out of the kitchen.

Kurup spent a good part of the morning hours in a wooden easy chair. Seated comfortably on it, he would read newspapers, books and periodicals from his collection. He loved to read. He had a room full of books in his house. Neatly arrange and catalogued, it was the only ‘library’ in the whole of Neyyarinkara. He even had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in his collection. School teachers from afar used to come to his library to read and refer books from his collection.

Kurup was seated in his favorite easy chair reading a novel when he heard the sound of water being splashed.  He looked up and saw a sight that took his breath away. Komalam, the young girl, the dancer from the previous night was taking a bath, next to the well. She was in her early twenties and not exactly a girl. Kurup noticed this. She was barely clothed and whatever was covering her was all wet with the water from the well. Kurup forgot the rules of gentlemanliness and stared. A few buckets of water later she realized that Kurup was watching her. She stopped abruptly, looked at him and smiled. Kurup immediately looked elsewhere. He covered his face with the novel and pretended he was reading.

It had been years since Nalinakshi had passed away. Kurup had lived a saintly life ever since. The sight of this young woman bathing in such close proximity brought back long forgotten emotions in him. Kurup struggled to continue reading.

“What is that woman doing?”

Laxmi’s indignant voice brought him back to reality.

“There is a bathroom outside the house. You do not have to bath in public. This is not the river bank and for God’s sake wear some clothes!” Laxmi shouted out the words, hoping to drive some sense into the girl. Laxmi understood what these people were up to. A man living alone in a huge house, a man who had lost his wife.

Laxmi went up to the girl and exchanged some more words which Kurup could not hear. He could see that the words were not having much of an effect on the girl. She turned towards Kurup and smiled again.

Lunch time came and the group was still there. By now both Satyan and Laxmi were desperate to get them out.

“There is a bus for Tirunelveli every half an hour from the bus stand. The last bus leaves at five,” said Satyan dropping hints which he hoped his master would catch. His attempts were in vain. He saw the four come up to Kurup.

It was one of the woman who spoke, “Saar you have been very kind. Not many people are so kind and helpful towards those who are in need.”

“So, you are leaving?” said Kurup.

She smiled but said nothing.

“It was always our wish to come to this temple. Now I feel bad that I have to leave in a day,” she said.

Then pointing at the young girl, the woman continued, “She wanted to see the dance performances of the experts. She is young but keen to learn. It is sad that we are not able to spend more time here.”

The girl looked at Kurup with her large eyes. Kurup had his limits. The big round eyes, her beautiful smile and somewhere in the back of his mind the images of her bathing that morning – all helped Kurup reach a quick decision.

“All of you can stay in the guest house till the end of the festival,” he said.

The last day of the festival was set aside for a grand procession. On that day the idol of the lord was carried on a richly decorated temple elephant and went around the village. The streets would be packed with people. Floats in the shape of animals and birds, decked with flowers were carried. It all ended with a massive display of fireworks. As the sound of the crackers faded in the distance, the people, artists and priests who had come for the festival would say their good byes and return to their homes.

One house where no goodbyes were being said was the Kurup mansion. Over ruling Satyan and Laxmi’s protests Kurup had opened his house and heart to the family. From the fifth day of the festival, Kurup and Komalam started attending the dance recitals together. It did not take much time for the villagers to notice this. Some of his friends and well-wishers tried to dissuade him but love as the saying goes is blind.

“They are jealous of your happiness,” said Komalam, fluttering her eyelids. The eyelids distracted Kurup. He readily agreed.

Vasanthi and Anandavalli the two women took over the administration of the house. Sugesan the uncle began visiting Kurup’ s fields and coconut plantations.

“An extra pair of eyes never hurt anyone. My uncle is good with workers. He knows how to handle farm hands. Mother and Aunty are expert cooks. We will take care of you,” said Komalam, “I will take care of you.” As she said this, her hand brushed Kurup’ s gently and his breath quickened. All he could do was nod his head and agree to her.

One month later Kurup got married to Komalam. It was expected to be a grand affair. Almost the entire village was invited. None of Kurup’ s friends or relative turned up. That was compensated by a large delegation from Komalam’ s village. Food was arranged for all who attended. There were chaotic scenes in the lunch hall as some of her relatives almost came to blows on the question of who would get served first. The rituals to solemnize the marriage was to take place after lunch. Most of Komalam’ s relatives left after they had their lunch. When the time came for the marriage to be solemnized there were very few people left.

Komalam looked beautiful in her wedding saree. She was decked in jewels. Kurup had purchased both the saree and the jewels. The previous day he had handed them over to Anandavalli.

“I think the two women are wearing some of the jewels that was meant for the girl,” said Laxmi as she watched the proceedings.

Satyan shrugged. There was nothing else he could do. He knew his master was making a mistake. Satyan hoped he was wrong in his assessment.

After the marriage, Kurup and his wife went on a trip to all the holy places. It was meant for the newly married couple to get the blessing of the Gods, but her relatives tagged along.  After a tiring three week trip the group returned. Thankfully Sugesan and Vasanthi were missing. Only the mother in law came back with the couple.

“Get the bath water ready. It should not be too hot,” said Anandavalli to Laxmi.

“I know how warm it should be for the master’s bath,” said Laxmi.

“It is for me. After that Komalam will also take a bath,” said Anandavalli and went inside.

Laxmi and Satyan looked at Kurup but he said nothing and quietly went to his room.

“There will be some changes here,” said Anandavalli.

She was addressing Laxmi and Satyan.

“What time do you come in the morning?”

“You have seen us, we come in around six.”

“That is what you say. I do not get good sleep at night so get up at nine. I need a cup of tea as soon as I get up. Komalam will get up when ever she feels like it. She will also need a cup of tea when she gets up.”

“Does this rule change once your sister and brother return?”

“They will not come back here. We had a …….” Anandavalli said, “You do not need to know all that. Servants should know their place in the house hold.”

“Kurup Saar gets up early. He needs his tea by six. I give it to him along with the morning newspaper,” said Satyan.

“You don’t need to worry about your Kurup Saar. Komalam will decide what he wants and when he wants it. You two will listen to what I tell you.”

Both Laxmi and Satyan looked at each other. This was worse than they had imagined.

“The lunch you make is bad. It is too bland. I like my food to be spicy. There should be at least three different vegetables every day. Why don’t you make fish here? I want fish with every lunch.”

“The master does not eat fish or non -vegetarian food,” said Satyan.

“That is his problem. I want fish every day. Komalam loves fish and chicken.”

“Non-vegetarian food has never been cooked in this house,” said Satyan.

“Can you cook it or not? If you cannot then I will get someone who can.”

“I – we can. We eat non-vegetarian food at our house. I was just mentioning that non-vegetarian food has never been prepared in the Kurup house.”

“I told you at the start there will be changes. Lunch will be ready at twelve o clock sharp. There will be fish at every lunch. Along with …….”

The changes were many and sweeping. It started with the kitchen, moved to entire mansion and then extended to Kurup’ s properties.

Six months passed. Madhavan, the temple guard was checking the keys for the temple gates. They were there in his pocket. It was time to lock up the temple. He looked around one last time. In a corner he thought he saw someone still sitting. He shook his head.

“These beggars are a nuisance,” he said to himself as he walked towards an old man huddled in a corner.

“I have to lock the temple gates. You have to leave now,” Madhavan said.

The man did not stir. He was sleeping with his head resting against the pillar.

“My friend. You cannot sleep here. You can go outside the temple complex and sleep in the garden there.”

The old man slowly got up and started walking. As he came under the light Madhavan looked at his face. It took him a few seconds to realize that the person walking towards him was Kurup. He looked old and weak.

“Kurup saar is that you?” said Madhavan.

Kurup nodded his head. Six months of marriage had changed his life. Changed it for the worse. Within the first couple of months Komalam had convinced him to make her the owner of his properties. Once the registration deeds were legalized, he became a guest in his own house. First to go were Laxmi and Satyan. Food came from a nearby hotel. It took Kurup some time getting used to the smell of fish, but he had adjusted. At first his love for Komalam had masked all his smells and logic. Then reality crept in and the scales fell and he realized he had been fooled. He had let himself be fooled by a wicked woman and her mother, but he did not feel sorry for himself. He thought he deserved what had happened to him. He should have known better. All that education he had received the books that he had read they all added up to nothing when he forgot to use them in real life. He made one smart move before he signing over his property, he donated his collection of books to the local school. Komalam and her mother did not have any problems with that. They never had anything much to do with the books. It was the land and the money that they were interested in.

Madhavan looked on in wonder as he saw Kurup walk slowly towards the public park, opposite the temple. There he saw Kurup lie down on a bench and drape himself with his shawl. There was nothing that Madhavan could do. He locked the gates of the temple and went to his house. He had a story to tell his grandchild.

A Life Of Crime

Neyyarinkara was a small village. Everyone in the village knew everyone else. Raghu was one of the most ‘popular’ men in his village. He was popular for all the wrong reasons. Householders and shopkeepers were uncomfortable when he was around. Women quickened their pace as they passed him. This was not the case with the village children. They adored him, for them he was a hero. Raghu was the village thief.

Destiny played a crucial role in Raghu’s life. He was named Raghavan Nair and his was a normal, happy childhood. That is, for the first seven years, when his grandfather was alive. After his grandfather’s death, Raghu’s father splurged his family inheritance on liquor and friends. Once the funds ran out his ‘friends’ left. Next his wife left him and was never heard of again. When Raghu’s father died of alcohol induced liver complications, the boy was still in school. With no one left to take care of him, Raghu was moved to an orphanage. From that day onwards, people knew him only as Raghu.

The Sisters at the orphanage taught the children different skills. Skills of a more practical nature like book-binding, embroidery, basket-weaving and candle making. Raghu remained in the orphanage for seven years. When he turned fourteen the Sisters asked him to move out of the orphanage. The rules were clear. The orphanage only provided shelter for boys till the age of fourteen. Girls were luckier and got to stay till they were nineteen. It was assumed by that age, they should be able to fend for themselves.  For the second time in his life Raghu was orphaned.

For the next couple of years, he tried his luck surviving through honest hard work. He worked in a hotel as a part-time dish washer and full-time sweeper. Business was bad and the hotel downed its shutters and put Raghu back on the streets.

Next, he went to the city and worked in a garage. It helped him learn how to operate machines. He learnt how to dismantle and fix broken gadgets, vehicles and machines. He realized he was good at this type of work. The garage owner took a liking to the young hardworking boy. The garage owner had a son whose main occupation was wasting his father’s hard-earned money.

One day some cash went missing from the garage owner’s safe. It was money he had kept aside for his daughter’s wedding. A part of the money was recovered from a locker where Raghu kept his belongings. Raghu denied having taken it but no one listened to him. The police men mercilessly trashed him in an attempt to get him to confess to the crime. Raghu’s denials fell on deaf ears and he was thrown in jail.

Three months into his sentence the remaining money was recovered from the garage owner’s son. The boy unwitting blurted out stealing the money while in a state of intoxication. He also confessed having planted the money to get rid of Raghu. The confession got Raghu out of jail. Once he came out of jail no one wanted to hire him and he returned to his village.

His first step into the world of crime was by accident. He was travelling on a jam-packed bus. The passenger next to him got up and left. In his hurry he dropped his wallet. Raghu who saw the wallet fall, put his feet on it and hid it from view. Later when no one was watching he pocketed it. The wallet contained a thousand rupees. He was about to throw the empty wallet away when he saw it had a concealed pocket. Inside that he found a driver’s license and credit cards. Raghu thought for a moment and made up his mind. He would return the license and cards. He was not in the business of destroying others lives. He took an envelope and on it wrote the name and address showing on the driving license. Next, he placed the cards and license inside the envelope and added a small note. ‘I only needed the money. Sorry.’ He sealed the envelope and posted it.

Two days later the local newspapers reported about the ‘Thief with a Conscience’. Raghu like that caption. He decided that he would target only the rich, like the robber whose story the sisters told him as a child. The one who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. There was a problem with this idea though. In Neyyarinkara there were no rich people. Everyone was equally poor, some were poorer than the others. Raghu slightly modified his rules to adjust to the conditions. He decided never to rob people from his village. He decided he would targeted tourists, people who came to visit his village.

As a village there were few sights that attracted visitors to Neyyarinkara. One of them was the village temple. The temple had an interesting story behind it. The story was from a time long before the temple was built. A prince was being chased by some ruffians. The prince’s life was saved by a shepherd who showed him a place to hide. Not able to find the prince the ruffians went away. The prince emerged from his hiding place but was not able to find the shepherd. The prince was convinced it was God who had come down to save his life, disguised as a shepherd. He vowed to build a temple on the spot. Years later when he became the King he fulfilled his vow. The story was hundreds of years old and it attracted tourists. This was the crowd that Raghu targeted.
Every morning at ten the first tourist bus would arrive. The buses came and went till five in the evening. This time period between ten to five was Raghu’s ‘office hours’. He did not steal much. A purse here, a gold chain there. Just enough to meet his immediate needs. If he got anything extra he would drop that in the temple donation box. Raghu liked to keep his life simple. Too much money would attract a lot of attention. His profession required anonymity.

One day Raghu saw a young couple get of a bus. They looked like a couple of newlyweds. They had that casual, do-not-care-about-the-world attitude of the rich. They were holding hands, smiling and giggling a lot. The woman had a carry bag slung on her shoulder. Her husband carried a small pouch in his hand. Raghu walked closer to them.

“See that tree? That is where the king hid,” said the husband.

“How do you know? Did he tell you?” said the wife and she giggled.

“Yes, I was one of his bodyguards,” said the husband.

“For now, you concentrate on my body. The King will take care of himself.”

Raghu winced. This was the type of silly conversations one heard in the movies. He tried not to hear what they were saying. Instead he focused on the bags in their hands. He noticed that the man had a firm grip on his bag. The woman walked as if she was not bothered about her carry bag she had slung on her shoulder. Raghu devoted his attention on the small bag in the man’s hand.

Entry into the temple was through a narrow-carved stone door. The door was only five feet high and required a person to bend to get through. It was meant to signify that an individual had to bow to enter in the presence of God. The crowd had to squeeze through the door to get in. Raghu positions himself right behind the couple and while they were busy trying to get in, he slit the lower portion of the bag. A small pouch fell down. He picked up the pouch and instead of going into the temple he got out.

“Raghu, what are you doing in the temple?” said Unni, a tailor, whose shop was right outside the temple.

“Why? Am I not allowed to enter the temple?” Raghu said. He held one end of his dhoti is such a way that the pouch in his hand was hidden from view.

“I was joking. Off course everyone is welcome here. This is God’s house. Who am I to restrict entry here.”

He laughed and Raghu joined him.

At a distance from the temple, Raghu reached a desolate road. Ensuring that there was indeed no one around Raghu took out the pouch. As he opened it he almost let out a shout of joy. Out tumbled a thick gold necklace, a couple of gold bangles and a gold ring with some colored stone embedded on it. Raghu was no expert in evaluating gold, yet he knew that what he had in his hand would be worth a lakh in rupees. This was the biggest hit he had ever made.

For a brief moment, he felt bad for the couple from whom he had stolen.

“They looked wealthy. They can easily buy more jewels,” he said and consoled himself.

Raghu had a few ‘friends’ in the village who helped him dispose of his ill gained riches. For this situation he knew just the right person – a jeweler. Since everyone in the village knew him it was not possible for him to go in through the main door. He used a back door to enter the shop.

“This will be worth at least one and a half lakh if sold legally,” said Sarath, a jeweler and Raghu’s friend.

Sarath knew it was a gamble dealing in stolen gold. It was the heavy bargain that he made on each deal that made him do it.

“I need seventy-five thousand rupees,” said Raghu.

“Ten thousand.” said Sarath.

“Nonsense! Sixty-five,” said Raghu.

“Twenty” said Sarath.

Finally, they agreed on forty thousand.

Sarath took the gold inside and came out with the cash.

“Now disappear before someone sees you. “said Sarath.

That evening Raghu was in a country liquor bar. He had to celebrate. It was the biggest hit of his career and he wanted to enjoy his success. He was not a drunkard and he never exceed his limit of two pegs. A middle-aged man came and sat down next to him. The man had previously been sitting at the other corner of the room. He had been to the loo and after coming out forgot where he sat previously!  The waiter brought the man’s glass over.

“You know this money is for my daughter’s fees” said the man without an introduction.


“My wife asked me to deposit the money at my daughter’s school,” he said and laughed, “I say what use is it to teach girls? One day she will get married and for the rest of her life she will wash dishes.”

“You are that truck driver joseph’s son, aren’t you?” said Raghu.

“The truck driver died years ago. I am still alive,” said the man.

“What class is your daughter in?” said Raghu.

“Seventh or eighth standard. She is a student in the Little Flower convent.” said the man, “They will throw her out of school if they fees are not paid. That will be the best result for all of us. Why waste money studying in a costly school? I told my wife the government school for girls is good enough. There she can learn for free. Again, why even go there? What is the use…”

Raghu did not answer. He finished his glass and walked out of the bar. That night he could not sleep.

“I do not need all that money. The fees are just a small amount. It would not make a difference to me. I would still have a lot remaining.” He thought as he tossed and turned in bed.

Early next morning he went to his old orphanage.

“I want to meet Sister Stella,” he said.

“Wait here,” said a sister, “and don’t take anything from here.”

“As if there is anything worth taking in this place” said Raghu.

“What did you say?” said the sister.

“Nothing. I just said that I wanted to meet Sister Stella.”

“Raghu! what brings you back to the orphanage son?”

Sister Stella loved all the children in the orphanage equally. It did not matter to her that Raghu was a thief now. For her he was someone who could be reformed through love.

“Sister! I need your help. Do you know anyone in the Little Flower school?”

“Little Flower? Yes, the principal there was one of my students.”

“That is great Sister. This is what I need you to do for me….”

Coming out of the Orphanage, Raghu walked to the bus stop. It was time for the tourist buses to arrive. At a distance he spotted something which made him stop. It was a police jeep. Police Inspector Gopalan was standing near Unni’s shop. Raghu could see Unni talking to Gopalan and vigorously shaking his head. Raghu slid away from there.

Raghu realized he had to keep low for some time. He had to keep low and at the same time keep out of Gopalan’s radar. He walked towards the river bank. He must have hardly waked a few steps when he heard someone shout in pain behind him. He turned and saw an old man had slipped on the road behind him. Raghu ran over to help.

“Can you get up, sir!” said Raghu.

“I think I broke my leg.” said the old man.

The old man was wearing a saffron colored dhoti and had a shawl of the same color covering his upper body. A string of rudraksha beads were hung around his neck
“Can you move you toes?” said Raghu.

The old man tried and cried in pain.

“Let me get you to a hospital.”

Raghu saw a taxi at a distance. He knew the driver. He had repaired the taxi once when he worked at the garage. He hailed the taxi and together they carried the old man to village clinic.

“It is not broken. You have twisted your ankle. There is nothing to worry. I will write you some pain-killers but it will heal with some rest.” said the Doctor, “Did you come to visit the temple?”

“Visit? Yes, I came here for a week. I am staying at my son’s house. My son works here,”

Raghu settled the old man’s bills at the counter and left. Earlier he had paid the car driver the fare as well. It was good to have money in your pockets. It was bad that it was running out fast. Raghu checked his pockets. He still had about thirty thousand left with him.

“Enough good deeds for the day,” he said to himself.

He began planning what he would do with the remaining. He could do with some new clothes. Nothing fancy, just a new set of shirts, trousers and a pair of dhotis. That would cost about two thousand rupees.

He was planning on what colors he would buy when he felt a firm hand land on his shoulders.

“You thought you would escape and make us look like?” Inspector Gopalan along with two of his constables caught hold of Raghu.

Before he could say anything in his defense he was bundled into a jeep and rushed to the police station. There the remaining thirty thousand came out of his pockets and then there was not much to say.

By evening the news of Raghu’s arrest had spread in the village. People were discussing it everywhere. Inspector Gopalan was gloating in his office. He had heard about a thief in the village. There were doubts about Raghu but there was no evidence. Now he had the man in his grasp. He began writing out his report when one of the constables came into the room and saluted him.

“Sir! There is a Sister from the orphanage here to meet you.”

“Send her in,” said Inspector Gopalan.

Sister Stella came in. She smiled and for a moment even Inspector Gopalan smiled back.

“Please sit-down Sister. How can I help you?” he said.

“Inspector. I heard you have a man in your custody.”

“There are a lot of men in custody. Who are you referring to Sister?”

“Raghavendran Nair, you may know him as Raghu,” said Sister Stella.

Gopalan stiffened. The smile disappeared and he began twirling his moustache.

“Sister he is a thief. I caught him red handed with a lot of money. Thirty thousand rupees to be exact. Why are you trying to protect him?”

“That is my money. I gave him the money to start some business.”

Gopalan almost fell out of his chair.

“What do you mean you gave him the money? Where did you get that money from?”

“That is the church’s fund. We have a fund to help our children set up business ventures of their own. He grew up in our orphanage.”

“I don’t believe you Sister.”

“Ok then you will believe what this woman has to say,” said Sister Stella and turned her head and called out, “Janamma can you come in.”

A middle-aged woman came into the Inspector’s office.

“Janamma can you tell the Inspector what you told me.”

“Sir, Raghu used two thousand rupees from the money the sister gave him to pay off my daughter’s school fees. This is a fee receipt from the school.”

Janamma placed a receipt for two thousand rupees from the Little Flower Children’s School on the Inspector’s desk.

“Perhaps you would believe this man then,” said Sister Stella and two more men came in. One old man and the other a young man supporting him.

“I slipped and fell on the street and Raghu took me to the hospital. He took me there in a taxi. There he paid the bills and cleared all my dues. This man helping me was the taxi driver.”

The taxi driver nodded his head, “Yes sir! Raghu paid me the money for the taxi.”

“Why should I believe all of you?” said Gopalan.

He was getting irritated by this parade of Raghu’s supporters.

“If you wait for five minutes you should get a phone and then maybe you would believe us,” said the old man.

“I do not understand. Why would I get a phone call?” said Gopalan.

He wanted to say something more when the phone on his desk started ringing. An angry Gopalan picked up the phone.

“Hello, Neyyarinkara Police Station,” he said gruffly.

Then a transformation happened as he listened to the voice on the other end.

“Yes Sir! said Gopalan, “Yes Sir! Right Sir. Yes Sir” he kept on repeating.

“4723,” Gopalan shouted.

Inspectors had a habit of addressing constables by their serial number. The constable came running and saluted Gopalan.

“Set Raghu free.” said Gopalan.

The constable was surprised.

“Sir! what about the report we are drafting for him?”

“Just listen to what I say. Throw that report in the dustbin. Set Raghu free.”

“Inspector, can I have the money back. The money you got from Raghu. That is the orphanage’s money,” said Stella.

As Sister Stella, Janamma, the old man and the taxi driver came out of the police station, a surprised Raghu followed them.

“I do not understand how this happened. Sir how did you know that a call would come on the Inspectors desk?”

The old man laughed and said, “That was my son. I told him how you had carried me to the hospital and also paid for my treatment. He has asked me to thank you.”

“That was nothing. I just did my duty towards a fellow villager, but I still don’t understand why did the inspector listen to your son and let me go?

“Oh! my son is the deputy superintendent of police for the district. He is Gopalan’s boss. Gopalan has to listen to his boss.”

The old man laughed. He got into the taxi driver’s cab and they drove away.

Janamma thanked Raghu for paying her child’s fees and she went her way.

Only Sister Stella and Raghu remained.

“Sister, I do not know how this happened. He also handed back the money.”

“When you came to me and asked me to pay the child’s fees I had my doubts about the money. When you were arrested I became sure of what had happened. Doctor Krishnan at the medical center met me and told me how you had brought the old man there for treatment. We both knew he taxi driver, your friend. With the drivers help we contacted the old man who agreed to come and speak for you. Janamma was more than ready to come with us when I asked her.  I was only trying to find people who could create an alibi for you. It was a coincidence that the old man’s son was a senior police officer. That was not something that I had planned. May be that was God playing a role in helping you.”

“Sister the money… I got it by selling the gold…” Raghu could not complete his sentence as Sister Stella interrupted him.

“My story did not end there. I may be living in a convent but I do know what happens in this tiny village. I know all about your friend Sarath the jeweler. He told me everything. I will give him back whatever money is remaining. The money you have already spent is my price to keep quiet. Sarath is ok with that. He has returned the gold ornaments back to the young couple. They are not filing any charges against you now, because they do not want to spend time in courts. Now let me come to you. What is the matter with you?”

Raghu stood with his eyes down cast. He could not look at Sister Stella.

“Son, you have a good heart, you help people who are in need. Why can you not do something good with your life. This time you were lucky God saved you. That might not be the case the next time. Now, I leave it up to you to decide what you want to do with your life.”

Sister Stella walked towards the orphanage leaving Raghu standing there. It was getting dark. He looked down the road. On one end of the road was the bus stop where the tourist buses came every morning. In the opposite direction it led to the orphanage. He thought for a moment and then started walking towards the orphanage.  He was going to meet Sister Stella. He knew what he was going to do. He was going to teach the children at the orphanage how to repair machines.

Along with the broken machines he decided he would repair and rebuild his own life.

A Love Letter

Gopalan looked at the clock on the office wall. It showed five minutes to nine. He smiled. As usual he was in office before time. Gopalan was always the first in office. At times he had come in before, Shyamalan the peon. It was Shyamalan’s job to open the office. Besides opening the doors, he was expected to sweep the floor, wipe the dust of the tables and arrange the files on the shelves all this before the office staff came in. Shyamalan was also supposed to be there by eight thirty. He never came that early. Gopalan always reached before Shyamalan.

Gopalan came by bus. He lived twenty kilometers away and used the state transport buses for his commute. Every morning he would get up at four, meditate for half an hour and then do yoga for an hour. A quick bath later he would go to the kitchen and prepare both breakfast and lunch. Gopalan lived alone in a rented house. His village was about four hours by train. His parents lived there. The only son of a retired school teacher, Gopalan was happy he had landed a government job by the time he was twenty-four. It was not a high paying job. He was a lower division clerk but it was a government job. He was sure with his hard work and dedication he would rise through the levels. After all he was sincere and hard working. No one could deny him that.

It took Gopalan an hour by bus to reach his office. He would get on the bus by seven thirty and reach office by eight thirty. By eight the buses would be crammed with college students and office goers. Gopalan avoided that crowd by thirty minutes. Not that the buses would be empty, half an hour earlier, but at least he did not have to dangle on the footboards.

This was his first job and he was determined to make it a success. Within days of joining he had realized that there was no way the office doors would open early. Shyamalan lived near the office. Someone who knew said that his house was within walking distance. Yet he came in just five minutes before the official office start time. Office hours were from nine in the morning to five in the evening. This was for weekdays. On Saturdays office was over by one. This was the rule- what was written on the faded board in a corner of the office. In reality the staff would come in by nine thirty or ten and by four thirty the office would be empty. Saturday by twelve Shyamalan would be preparing to lock the doors. That is if Gopalan would let him.

Gopalan also believed in God. Every Sunday he would go to the village temple and pray. Not that Hinduism expected him to go on a Sunday but that was the only day of the week he was free. Gopalan had tried to get a house on rent near the office. The monthly rent amount had shocked him. On his fifteen thousand rupees per month salary, the rent he could afford got him a house which was twenty kilometers away. Luckily, he did not have to send any money home to his parents. They were both retired school teacher and their combined pension was more than their son’s take-home salary.

As Gopalan waited outside the office door he saw Shyamalan at a distance. Shyamalan came on a cycle. It was one of the fancy geared ones. It looked costly. Gopalan wondered how he was able to afford such a costly cycle on his peon’s salary. Gopalan checked his watch. It was eight fifty-five. Shyamalan was in no hurry to reach office.

“My God! Is that clown circling those college girls?” thought Gopalan.

Shyamalan was indeed going around in circles around a group of girls who were walking down the street. There was a girl’s college a kilometer away.

“This man is a nuisance. Not only is he late but he is also harassing girls on their way to college.” Gopalan thought

By the time Shyamalan reached the office it was five minutes past Nine. Gopalan was furious. For the first time in his six months service he was going to be late. There was a register in the office and Gopalan like all the staff members would sign his name and add the time while entering and leaving the office. There was no check to verify the details entered. It was all on trust. Gopalan was proud of his entries. It showed a time before nine every day but today that record was going to be broken.

“Do you know that you are late? The office is to be opened before nine in the morning. Today I am late because of you.”

Shyamalan pretended not to hear him. He was humming a tune. It was one of the latest movie songs. He had seen the first day show with his friends. The memory was still fresh in his mind. The tune was a catchy number and he had been humming it since the time he had heard it.

“Can you open the door. I have to start my work.” Gopalan said.

“What is the hurry? There is no one else here. They do not come before nine thirty. What is the point in opening it so early?”

“That is the rule. Government offices are to start at nine AM sharp. “

“Rule!” Shyamalan yawned.

By the time Gopalan reached his desk it was ten minutes past nine. He had wrestled with his conscience as to what time to enter in the register. He had come early but entered the office late because the door was not opened. Should he enter 9:00 AM or 9:05 AM he thought.

Finally, he entered 9:05 AM and attached a comment next to it mentioning – Door was not open had to wait for five minutes outside.

Gopalan was not happy with that. He would complain about Shyamalan to the Section Head. Paulose Joseph, Gopalan’s section head came around nine thirty. After reaching office he would immediately rush to the toilet. Fifteen minutes later he would come out and go for a cup of tea. The office canteen supplied tea at the desk but there was a small road side tea shop which all the staff members preferred. There after downing a leisurely cup of hot tea, Joseph would amble back towards his desk. All this would take about an hour. At ten thirty when Joseph returned to his desk, Gopalan was waiting for him.

“So, what is the problem?” said Joseph.

“Sir! He should open the door on time. I was late by five minutes in entering. I had reached by eight thirty-five but had to wait for thirty minutes outside the door.”

“Why do you come so early?” said Joseph still not able to understand the nature of the complaint.

Gopalan stood there for a moment. He thought of presenting his words with a different logic.

He started again.” Sir! The rule is that the office doors should be open by nine a.m sharp. Also by then the tables should be cleaned and the dust bins emptied. For that to happen Shyamalan should be in the office by eight thirty. He comes just a minute before Nine.”

“Have you completed all the assessment reports I sent you yesterday?” said Joseph.

For a second Gopalan was silent.

“No Sir! There are fifty files in that bunch. I completed twenty yesterday and will finish the remaining before leaving for home today.”

“Good! Now instead of wasting your time talking why don’t you do that. After you have finished those files write a summary report. You are good at writing, write that report and give it to me. I need to send it to the Director by noon tomorrow. Now go.”

Gopalan went back to his table and was soon immersed in his files. He forgot to drink his tea, finished his lunch in ten minutes and was back at his table. He hardly looked up but feverishly worked at the files. A loud laugh distracted his attention and he looked up. He saw Shyamalan sitting on Joseph’s desk. They were laughing at some joke. Gopalan shook his head in disgust and got back to his files. He stopped complaining about Shyamalan after that.

A week later Malati joined the office. She joined as a lower division clerk in Gopalan’s section. Long plaited hair, big expressive eyes, slim figure – Malati was distracting. Joseph had asked Gopalan to explain the working of the office to her. Gopalan would start explaining in earnest but then when he looked into her eyes he would forget what he was speaking and stumble on his words. She was assigned a table opposite to Gopalan’s desk.

Malati also had the habit of coming early to office. She would reach the office door by eight forty-five. For Gopalan this was a God sent opportunity. All the time spent on Sundays visiting the temple were finally paying off. He started paying more attention to his dresses. He always wore a white shirt, full sleeves. Sleeves folded up to the elbow. That was his style. Simple but elegant. It went well with black trousers. Gopalan ensured his shirt and trousers were well washed and crisply ironed. He started cleaning his sandals every day. All the jumping on and off buses added tons of dirt and grime to it. He kept a dirty rag in his desk to wipe the dirt of his sandals. As they waited outside the office door, they talked. Just casual chit chat. Malati would talk about movies and dresses while Gopalan explained to her how to balance a ledger and how the annual statements were prepared. Malati listened carefully nodding her head at all the right spots but the minute someone else came she would leave the conversation and go with them.

Gopalan and a few of the older staff members got their lunch from home and preferred to eat at their desk. Gopalan began cooking and carrying a little extra in his lunch box. He hoped that someday he would get to share it with Malati. She lived near the office. Malati could easily go home, have lunch and return. All well within the lunch hour. Yet she preferred to have lunch at a nearby hotel. Most of the younger office staff went there. She tagged along with them.

After a month of Malati’s joining a miracle happened. He saw Shyamalan coming to office by eight forty-five.

“You are early!” said Gopalan trying to make it as sarcastic as he could.

Shyamalan ignored the jibe he looked at Malati standing there and said “Good morning!”

Malati smiled back at him.

“Did you have to wait for long?” Shyamalan said.

“No! I come around this time every day,” Malati said.

“I come around eight thirty,” said Gopalan but Shyamalan ignore him.

“I will come at this time then, “said Shyamalan, “Then you would not have to wait.”

He continued addressing Malati.

She smiled again and said, “Thank you!”

Gopalan felt as if someone had slipped a hot burning piece of coal down his back. From that day onwards, Shyamalan came early. He would open the doors early and dust one table and arrange its files – Malati’s. Shyamalan would remain there near Malati’s desk till the other office staff members came in. Gopalan tried to join in the conversation. Shyamalan and Malati spoke about movies, actors, clothes and fashion. Areas where Gopalan had nothing to contribute. He would just stand there listening to the conversation. After a couple of days, he stopped trying.

Gopalan’s parents were pestering him to get married. They argued that they were now old. They said that he needed to settle down. Gopalan agreed to all their terms. He disagreed with them on one point. He said he would choose the girl. For that he did not have to look far. Right across the room in his office was the person who he thought fitted the bill perfectly. He decided to take things into his own hand. He decided to write Malati a letter and confess everything.

Gopalan believed in horoscopes and palmistry. He believed in omens and good luck charms. He chose a good day to write the letter. What better day than a Sunday. After returning from the temple Gopalan sat down. He put pen to paper and poured his heart out. He wrote about how he felt the first day she stepped in the office, how he felt every day when he saw her and how he looked forward to seeing her every day for the rest of his life. Words became sentences and sentences combined to form paragraphs. Gopalan filled up two sheets and only then did he put his pen down.

Most people hated Mondays. Gopalan was looking forward to it. Monday signaled the start of a whole week when he would get to see Malati sitting at her desk, across him. He was also eager to hand her the letter and express his love for her. It would have been easier to just say the words but the problem was of privacy. She was always with someone else. In the morning hours it was Shyamalan who loitered around her like a parasite. During office hours Malati would be with other staff members. A letter, Gopalan thought, was the best way to convey his feelings. He put the letter in his pocket and went towards her desk.

Malati was working on some file and did not notice him standing there. Gopalan cleared his throat and she looked up.

“Are you not feeling well,” she said.

“I am perfectly well.”

It was a long awkward minute as Gopalan stood there. Malati looked up again from her work.

“Is there anything else?”

“No nothing…. I…. are those files still pending from last week?” Gopalan said pointing at a pile of files on the locker behind her.

Malati turned to look. In that brief moment Gopalan took the letter from his pocket and placed it on the table. He placed it right in the middle of the desk and started walking away. At that moment a gust of wind from the open window blew the letter off the desk and onto the floor. Gopalan did not notice this as his back was turned. Shyamalan who was passing by saw the paper fall, picked it up and handed it over to Malati.

“This fell from your desk” he said.

Malati took the paper from him, smiled at him.

Malati looked at the folded piece of paper. She turned it over and looked at it from all sides. She was certain she had not seen it on her desk earlier. She opened and began reading. By now Gopalan had returned to his desk. As he settled down in his chair, he stole a glance at Malati and saw her reading his letter. His heart was beating wildly. He had chosen the words with care. His teacher in school would have given him full marks for the choice of words in that letter. That is if he ever dared to hand over such a letter to his teacher.

Most dear Malati, the starting line captivated her. As she read the letter Malati’s face turned a bright shade of red. In her entire school or college life no one had ever written such a letter to her. That she had always studied in girls-only school and colleges may also have had something to do with it. Growing up on a steady dose of Bollywood and Malayalam movies had conditioned her mind to a great extent. By the time she had finished reading the letter she was in love. She looked at Shyamalan who was standing at a distance and smiled. Shyamalan who was holding a bunch of files saw the smile. There was something different about the smile from Malati. It was not the usual thank-you-for-cleaning-my-desk or thank-you-for-fetching-my-cup-of-tea smile. This one was different. The cheeks were all red and the eyes were acting coy. The files fell from Shyamalan’s hand and spread its contents on the floor.

Gopalan was eagerly waiting for the response to his literary efforts. He looked at Malati, first on the sly then amassing some courage he looked straight at her. He noticed something strange. She was looking at Shyamalan who was also staring back at her! Gopalan did not understand what was happening and that too during office hours!

“I did not know you could write so well” said Malati still blushing.

The office group was walking towards the hotel during lunch hour and she was at the back walking along with Shyamalan.

“What?” said Shyamalan.

“It was poetic. I have never seen such fine writing outside classical poetry,” said Malati.

Shyamalan had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, but he was not going to let that show on his face. To cover his confusion, he smiled.

Later during lunch, others in the group noticed Malati and Shyamalan’s chairs a bit too close to each other. The two were so busy talking to each other that they hardly-noticed when the others finished their lunch and left. They came in ten minutes after lunch hour ended. Not that it was a big issue as other than Gopalan none of seats in the office were occupied. Gopalan was worried. He had anticipated a torrent of emotions towards him from Malati. Instead she completely ignored him. It was as if he had cease to exist.

“She is a decent girl. Maybe she is too shy to express her feelings in front of others. I will speak to her tomorrow morning.”

He thought and comforted himself.

The next morning Gopalan was walking towards the office by eight thirty. That was when he saw another miracle! He saw Shyamalan was already there! Gopalan saw someone else standing with him. It was Malati! She was standing there talking to him.

“That ruffian! He is now trying to steal my Malati!” Gopalan thought and almost ran up to the office.

The two were laughing at some joke when they saw Gopalan.

“Oh! You had to come in so early!” Malati said.

There was disdain in her tone. She seemed upset that he had come early! Gopalan did not understand what had happened. Seeing her he had thought that he would use the opportunity to speak to her and continue on the base which the letter had set up. Instead Shyamalan was there.

“Open the door for him, “said Malati. Shyamalan immediately complied.

For the first time in his one-year tenure at the office the doors opened for Gopalan by eight thirty-five. He signed the register. He felt happy as he looked at the office entry time next to his name. Then he went and sat at his desk. That was when he noticed that he was alone in the office. He ran to a window and looked out and saw Malati and Shyamalan walking up to a near-by restaurant. This was not what he had expected. He looked at the pile of folders on his desk, sighed and got down to work.

After a few days Gopalan had stopped looking in Malati’s direction. He returned to his old ways. He stopped cleaning his sandals. Some days his shirt would be crumpled but he did not care. He stopped carrying a little extra food in his tiffin box. He knew his life was going through a bad phase and hoped that matter did not get much worse. That was until the day someone came to his desk and handed him a cover. It was a wedding invitation. Inside it printed in neat artistic font were details of the marriage of Shyamalan with Malati!

“This will be the first marriage between office staff in this office,” said Sathy Devi. She was the senior most typist in the office. In her fifties she was due to retire in a year’s time. She was discussing with Kartikeyan the new section officer. The other staff members were listening in. Shyamalan and Malati were on leave – in preparation for the wedding. Gopalan as usual was at work, ignoring the conversation at the desk a few feet away from him.

“Do you know Shyamalan is getting a car in dowry?” someone said.

“He does not need a dowry. He comes from a well to do family,” someone else replied.

“Has to be. If someone can afford to live so close to this place, he has to be rich.”

“Malati also lives somewhere close. I always wonder what it was that attracted them to each other?”

“Oh! she told me once. Shyamalan had written her a nice love letter. She was floored by the words. That is how it all started…”

Gopalan had heard enough. A cry of anguish escaped his lips and he jumped up from his desk. Everyone turned in his direction. Gopalan ran towards the door. There was a limit to how much a man could tolerate. This was unfair. He had poured out his feeling on the piece of paper and someone else was benefitting from it. This was definitely not right. He ran out of the office.

“What happened to Gopalan?” someone said.

“Who knows. I always found him a bit weird. Do you know he comes in half an hour before office time?”

“As if all that extra work gets you any extra money!”

The office staff returned to their gossip.

Gopalan was out on the street. It was about eleven in the afternoon. He had never come out at this time of the day. The roads were jam packed with traffic. Car, busses, scooters raced each other on the street. People crossing the street at random, brakes screeching, driver putting their head out and abusing the pedestrians, traffic policemen trying to control the madness. Gopalan had never seen this world. He was dazed. He usually came in and left when there was little traffic. He stood there dumb struck for a few minutes stunned by all the madness unfolding around him. Then at a distance he saw Shyamalan and Malati.

The two were standing in front of a huge shopping mall. They were looking at the mannequins on display. Gopalan could see them talk and laugh. He could imagine what they would be discussing. It had to be about the clothes. He had heard enough of their morning discussions to know what they always discussed. Then he saw Shyamalan point towards something, Gopalan’s eyes followed in the direction and saw a huge movie poster hanging outside the Mall. It was announcing a new movie releasing that week. The couple could be seen in an animate discussion. They had big shopping bags in both hands, everywhere there was traffic and noise and yet the two seemed to be oblivious to their surroundings.

Gopalan watched them from afar, saw them smile and then something happened. It was as if an electric bulb had popped in his brain. He saw before him a couple that was perfectly matched. Malati and Shyamalan complemented each other. Their interests, likes, dislikes all matched perfectly. Gopalan felt as if a weight had been lifted of his shoulder. He went back up the office stairs walked up to his desk and sat down. He looked at the files scattered around on his table. He began arranging them in neat piles. Then he took out a cloth from the lower drawers and cleaned his sandals. Satisfied that they looked neat he settled down to work.

Life was back to normal.

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