A death in the family – a short story

I first met my uncle when I was seven. I was in junior school and enjoying my vacations. He came to our house with a box full of mangoes. He must have been in his mid-twenties then. Well built, with movie star looks, I later found out that he could also sing. The mangoes were from our groves, my Grandfathers groves, to be more precise. Grandfather knew I loved mangoes. The box was his way of showing he remembered.
As the car stopped at our door, it raised a cloud of dust. The street right in front of our house was untarred. We lived in a rented house. That was all father could afford on a school teachers salary.
My father was an idealist, a dreamer. The only son of a poor farmer, he was the first from his family to graduate. He joined the village school as a teacher and was happy with his job. It was at the school that he met my mother.
She was the only daughter of the richest man in the village. She was also the first woman from our village to complete her graduation. Becoming a teacher was her way of asserting her independence. Her father did not like the idea of his only daughter teaching at the village school.
He had a tough time accepting that his daughter chose the son of a farmer as her husband. For almost five years, he refused to talk to his daughter. My birth eased the tensions. Grandfather came over to visit us once a year on my birthday. The relationship between him and my parents remained strained.
“Father said you liked mangoes,” Uncle said as he took out the boxes from the car’s boot.
I was meeting him for the first time and was too shy to reply.
Also, I was concentrating on the mangoes.
Uncle followed the direction of my gaze and laughed.
“You do love mangoes, don’t you?”
He was supposed to return the same day but stayed with us for two weeks.

Our house had two bedrooms. My parents slept in one while I slept in the other. I was too scared to sleep alone! Most of the days, I would end up sleeping in my parent’s room. Uncle got my room for the duration of his stay. I had no complaints about this arrangement.
He kept strange hours. The lights in his room remained on through the night. Early morning he would go to sleep. I found it very funny.
As teachers, my parents had to reach the school every day by eight in the morning. My lunch would be on a table in a tiffin box. Even at seven, I knew how to live alone.
With no school and hardly any friends, I dedicated my entire day to track my uncle’s activities. I noted that there was a pattern to his behaviour. Around four in the evening, he would wake up, brush his teeth and take a bath. Then he would make his way straight to the kitchen and finish off whatever was there. He had a very healthy appetite.
Then he would come over to my room and play with me. He was a good storyteller. The only problem was, all his stories were about ghosts and haunted houses. One of Uncle’s friends was the projectionist at the local movie theatre. From the theatre, he would bring me bits of movie film strips. We spent hours sitting in a darkened room, shining a torch through those reels. The images on the walls were hazy, but Uncle would weave a story around those images. There would be a hero and a heroine in those stories. He even sang songs full of words I did not understand. He told me about the time he spent at school. He laughed at my jokes.
At about six in the evening, my parents would return from school. Uncle would get up, go to his room, put on his street clothes and leave the house. He would return late at night. I never found out what time he came in, as I would be fast asleep by then.
After a couple of days of this routine, mother looked worried.
“I think we need to talk to him?” she said.

The next day was a public holiday, and my parents were at home. That evening when Uncle came out of his room, they cornered him.
“We need to talk!” said father and lead uncle back into his room.
It was a long talk. I was busy eating a mango when my father came out. He looked worried but one look at me, and he found another problem that required his urgent attention.
“Isn’t that the third mango you have had today?”
I did not realize he was keeping count.
“Let the boy eat, said mother, coming out in my defence. She was in the kitchen, “It is not every day that he gets to eat mangoes.”
“They are so costly,” said father.
He went into the kitchen, and I could hear them talk in hushed tones. I was busy finishing off the mango, but words like ‘smoke’, ‘drugs’, ‘bad company’ made it to my ears. I was relieved that they were not talking about the mangoes.
“What is ganja?” I asked my mother later that day.
“Where did you hear that?” she said.
“I heard you and father talking today.”
My mother never hit me. That day, for a brief moment, I got the distinct feeling that she could be on the verge of starting a new trend.
“It is a bad thing. Something that people should never use,” she said and added, “also good boys should never listen in to their parent’s private conversation.”
“I did not know it was a private conversation,” I said, “What is a private conversation?”
“Have you finished the sums that I gave you?”
Mother had the bad habit of spoiling my vacations by starting me on the upcoming year’s study books. She said it gave me a head start. I did not know about the head start, but it certainly gave me a headache. Life was tough as a child growing up in a house where both your parents were school teachers.

Six months passed. One day in class, I was surprised when I saw my parents at the door. They were teachers in my school but for the senior students. I had never seen them come anywhere near the primary school.
Mother whispered something to my class teacher and then came over to my desk.
“Get your book’s we are going home,” she said.
I saw tears in her eyes. The only time I had seen tears in her eyes was when I had burned my hand playing with firecrackers.
“Where are we going?” I said as my father took my bag.
“We are going to your grandfather’s house,” said father.
Father never went to my grandfather’s house. After my birth, my mother took me there a couple of times. The house was huge with lots of rooms, most of which remained locked. Grandfather lived alone. I had never seen my grandmother. She had died a few years after my mother was born. Father never came with us on these trips.
Grandfathers house was a ten-minute walk from the school. As we neared, I saw a large crowd. I had never seen so many of the villagers in one place. Surprisingly for such a large crowd, there was pin-drop silence there. The crowd parted as we came closer.

“Sit here,” said mother and almost shoved me into a huge sofa in the hall as she went in. Father also followed her. My feet dangling a foot above the ground, I spent my time looking at the curios spreads all over the hall. There were large portraits of people wearing funny clothes. I listened to the tick-tock of a clock that was taller than me. The sound echoed in the room. After a long time, mother came out.
“Come with me,” she said.
She led me into another room. There I could see uncle lying on the floor. He was covered in a white sheet and had cotton balls stuffed in his nostrils. I found this funny and was about to laugh when I caught my mothers stern gaze.
“Pay your respects,” said mother in a whisper.
She told me to go up to uncle and touch his feet. Father came over and showed me how to do it. Uncle’s feet felt cold to the touch, and I pulled my hand back.
“Your uncle died early this morning,” said father, whispering as he led me to a corner.
We stayed in Grandfathers house for two weeks. Every day, I performed several rituals as required by custom. I did not understand any of it and wondered if those asking me to do it understood it themselves!

We returned to our house two weeks later. I was happy to come back and get back to my daily routine. Sometimes I thought about my uncle and hoped that he would come back. I am sure there were stories he had not told me the last time around. An empty wooden box now lies in the yard, forgotten and ignored. I also have some memories of the days we spent swapping stories and jokes. He was twenty-seven when he died

A delicate affair – a short story

The title of post-in-charge on the door sounded official. That was my designation. At twenty-four, I was in charge of an entire district. A district nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. A Government office. The staff headcount was five. The number included me.
The office was one small room in a log house. This structure of wood also functioned as my residence.
Let me be honest there was no work for us to do. Every morning after a leisurely breakfast, the staff would gather around the office table. We would read the newspapers or any magazine we could find. And we also gossiped. When we got tired, we watched TV. Soap operas, to be specific. And yes, the Government paid us for this ‘work’.
One day I was in my office, waiting for the rest of the gang to turn up. It was about ten in the morning. I was wondering what was keeping them when I heard a knock at the door. Nobody knocked to enter my office. They just barged in and sat down on any available chair. Decent behaviour was unusual in my district. But, I did not have time to investigate.
A young woman burst through the door. In a second, she was at my desk.
Not knowing what to do and quite a bit surprised, I stood up. I realised that as the boss, there was no need for me to stand up. I sat down. At this point, my upbringing kicked in. I remembered that it was a lady who had come in. As a gentleman, I was supposed to stand up when a lady entered the room. I got up.

While I was going through this cycle of alternately standing up and sitting down, she just stood there, staring. Finally, not knowing how to react to this situation, I pulled out an old file that had been undisturbed for a decade and started reading it. I wanted to look important. I am not sure I was successful. From what I could make out, the woman was not impressed. She continued staring at me. I must confess that at this point, I was worried.
“Could she be mad?” I thought. Maybe she was planning to attack me. I reached for the jumbo paper stapler I kept for such occasions and as prescribed by the Government manual section VII subsection b.
I was careful not to make any ‘sudden movements’. I had read this in a book on `How to tame a lion in a week’. All the reading from my youth was finally paying off.

“Husband work here!” she said, finally breaking the ice.
I wondered what that cryptic message meant.
Was it the launch code for an impending attack? Were the natives gathering in force and waiting for some signal to storm my citadel?
Was I expected to respond to this code with something like “The Sun shines bright,” I wondered?
“What husband ?” I said, breaking the ice from my side.
“My husband, ” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“What is your husband’s name?”
“John”
The fog finally cleared, and the Sun started shining. I hope the reader gets that I just threw in a metaphor for the actual Sun was already shining halfway through its journey in the skies.
I did have a John on my staff. He was in his sixties. As per Government rules, he should have retired a decade ago. The reason he was still in service was that he knew about sixteen local dialects. This skill made him indispensable as an interpreter during senior management tours in the villages.

“John has not told me of any problem. ” I said.
The woman made a snorting sound, and the portion below her nose twisted weirdly. For a brief second, I was worried she was having a fit. Then I realized she was smirking.
“Problem is outside office. John wants to marry again,” she said.

The fog cleared further. The metaphoric Sun was shining in full splendour. As mentioned previously, the hero of our story John was skilled in multiple languages. He was employing his skills for reasons which were not exactly official. It seemed that in every village that he toured, he ended up marrying a local girl. He was married six times, and the best part was that all the wives were alive. Sitting across me was wife number six. She had come to complain about the soon to become wife number seven. And yes, one point more about the previous five wives, he had not divorced anyone. The tribals had weird customs in those parts.
“The woman is eighteen!” she said.
She was in her early twenties and had married John five years back. That would have made her about the same age as the next challenger in line.

While she was narrating her tale of woe, my mind was travelling in a different direction.
“Here I was twenty-four old with no girlfriend while John was cleaning up the local market. Note to self, check with him and learn his trade secret!”
After all, as his superior officer, I could force him to confess.

She could see that my mind was not focusing on her problem.
“Sir!”
“Yes, yes….hmmm…let me speak to him!”
“No, speak. Only punishment will work!”
No one was going to tell me how to run my office.
“Let me look into it. I need time to think about this!” I said and returned to reading the previously never-read file.
“How much time, you think?”
“This is a government office. We cannot work fast. It is against the rules.”
She stood there and returned to her staring routine. After some time, she must have realized that I was serious and left the office in a huff.

Within seconds of her disappearance, my staff tumbled in. I realized that the idiots were hiding in the other rooms waiting for the lady to disappear.

“I knew this would happen. John was always talking about this girl he met in the market.”
“Who is she? Is she the one with the long plait who runs the tea stall next to the bus stop ?”
“How can he do this? He has three children with this woman.”
“What about the ten from the other five?”
“Is it ten or fourteen?”
” How do I know? Even John doesn’t know the count or remember their names!”
They were all speaking at the same time.

About an hour later, the hero of our story ambled in.
“John! we need to talk. ” I said, putting on my serious face and voice.

Six months later, I got transferred to the state capital. John came with wife number six for my farewell party. She was sad that I was leaving.
“You keep him under control. I worry about John now!” she said.
I took that as a compliment. John offered to accompany me to the bus stand.
“Sir! how about a cup of tea to remember this place,” he said, nudging me in the direction of a tea stall next to the bus stop.
In the tea stall, I could see a girl with a long plait smiling at John.
I gulped down the cup of piping hot tea, jumped onto the first available bus and left that place.

A true servant of God – a short story

I must have been fourteen then. One day, on my way back from school, I saw my father standing at the gate.
He was still in his uniform. A colonel in the Army, I did not remember ever seeing him wait for me.
“Is everything ok? ” I said, “Why are you standing here. Is Mummy fine ?” I shot off a few questions and was about to ask a few more when he spoke.
“There is someone here to meet you.”
I was fourteen. Nobody ever came to see me. I was curious.
Our house was an old Army bungalow, huge rooms with verandahs and gardens all around.
Behind the house, there was a small hut. During the British Raj, it functioned as the servants quarters.
We used it as a storeroom.
Near its door, I could see a frail, old- man standing sheltering himself from the sun.
The man was well dressed, white full-sleeved shirt, black trousers. He even had a ribbon which I found weird. He had come to our house on a rickety old bicycle.
“Go and say hello!” father said.
I had no idea who the man was but dared not disobey my father.
The man was looking at his frayed shoes, lost in thoughts.
As I came closer, he looked up.
He stared at me for some time and then said, ” Good Afternoon, baba! you have grown quite tall!”
The baba and the crisp English accent opened up floodgates of memories.

It was Maria Das.
He used to work at our house way back in the seventies. His job was to drag me to school every morning at eight sharp.
The distance from my house to the school was hardly about a few hundred meters. I would cry every single step of the way.
Two hours later, he would have to hold me back as I tried to run back home.
“Come on baba!, ” Maria Das would say, “Don’t you want to grow up to be a sahib like your father.”
Maria Das was a waiter at the Army Officers mess. He had spent a part of his life serving the British Sahibs and Memsahibs. Post-Indian Independence, the British marched out, and the Indian Army took over.
My father, who was a Captain then, was the mess in charge. Maria Das, hoping to make some extra money, offered to help with our housework.

This fear of school only lasted for a year in my case. I did not need an escort anymore. Maria Das switched over to other tasks around the house. These tasks included maintaining the garden or helping in the kitchen. When free, he would tell me stories about the British officers for whom he butlered. He would tell me stories of how they used to sweat in the Indian Summer or run around trying to avoid getting bitten by the nasty local mosquitos! I loved his stories. That love later developed into a habit of reading books !!

One day he told me the meaning of his name.
“Maria Das mean a servant of Mary!” he said and followed it up with a story about a baby who was born in a crib far, far away. Maria Das was a bachelor and lived alone in a small room near the army mess.
“I cannot afford a family,” he said, ” You, Sahib and memsahib are the only family members I have in this world.”

Now, as I stood there watching him standing a few feet from me, those memories came flooding back. My mother asked him to have food with us. He declined the offer to sit at our table and instead chose to have his rice and chicken in the servants quarters. I wanted to go there and talk to him. I wanted to thank him for what he had done for me all those years ago, but the awkwardness of my youth prevented me from doing so. After his lunch, he thanked us and left on his bicycle, the same way he had come.

The next day we were having lunch when the phone rang. It was one of my father’s colleagues. Father listened for a minute and then put the phone down.
“Maria Das passed away in his sleep yesterday night, ” Father said.
Das had never been late in his life. Finding him missing from the mess in the morning roll call, someone had gone to his room to check. There they found him in bed, in eternal sleep.
They laid him to rest in the old cemetery behind the church. His grave is only a few hundred meters from the school he used to lead me to all those years ago.
I am sure he is serving somewhere high up in the clouds.