A Life Of Crime – a short story

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 he had 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 dishwasher 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 policemen 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 to 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 liked 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 target tourists, people who came to visit his village.
As a village, few sights 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 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 off 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 to 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. 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 coloured 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 jeweller. Since everyone in the village knew him he couldn’t 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 jeweller 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 exceeds 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 the 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 the 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 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 walked a few steps when he heard someone shout in pain behind him. He turned and saw an old man who 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-coloured dhoti and had a shawl of the same colour covering his upper body. A string of rudraksha beads was hung around his neck
“Can you move your toes?” said Raghu.
The old man tried and cried in pain.
“Let me get you to the 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 the village clinic.
“It is not broken. You have twisted your ankle. There is nothing to worry about. 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 colours 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 defence 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 centre met me and told me how you had brought the old man there for treatment. We both knew the taxi driver, your friend. With the driver’s 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. Maybe 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 jeweller. 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 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 downcast. 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 – a short story

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 off 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 kilometres 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 the 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, the 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 kilometres 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 kilometre 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 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 roadside tea shop which all the staff members preferred. Thereafter 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 the 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 off 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 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 a 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 signalled 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 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 the seats in the office was 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 ceased 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. 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 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 dumbstruck 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.

The Village Postman – a short story

Narayanan was checking the air pressure in the cycle tires. He pressed down with all his strength on the handlebars. The tires fought him back. He was satisfied. “No need to pump in more air today,” he thought.

He checked his watch. It said five minutes to ten. It was time to start his mail delivery rounds. Every day of the week Narayanan would start his mail delivery round by ten. The route he took depended on where the letters were to be delivered. In the village, it was said that you could set your watch by looking at Narayana making his rounds. Narayanan was proud of his reputation. The salary of a postman was low. Sometimes he wished he had studied more, that would have helped get a better job.

Narayanan’s father Gopalan Pillai was a farmer. A farmer who lost his wife when he was in his early forties. She departed leaving him with two sons still in school. Narayanan and his younger brother Krishnan were good at sports but to excel at studies required more than a healthy body.

Year of droughts interspersed with years of floods ensured that Gopalan’s efforts were all wasted. He vowed that his sons would not end up as farmers. He was elated when both his son’s got government jobs. Narayanan the elder son became a postman and Krishnan joined the army as a sepoy. When Narayanan got married and had a son, Gopalan’s happiness knew no bounds. But as the saying goes all things good must come to an end. One day Gopalan slipped and fell on a wet floor. He slipped into a coma and eventually passed away in his sleep.

Narayanan was an active member of the communist party while still in school. He would have been happy with a simple funeral for his father but that was not to be. His relatives, most of who never helped Gopalan when he was alive, insisted on a traditional funeral. His wife, Kalyani a devout Hindu supported them.

“It is important that al the customs and traditions be followed. If not, the soul does not achieve salvation,” Kalyani said.

All the old-timers nodded their heads in agreement and Narayanan was voted out.

Now all that remained of his father was a photograph, which hung near the main door of his house. Every day as he started for work, Narayanan would look once at his father’s serious countenance and only then leave for the day.

“Please can you post this letter?” a voice brought Narayanan back to earth. This happened every day. People would stop him on the way and hand him letters which they had written but as yet not posted.

“Yes, why not,” said Narayanan and put the letters in a different part of his bag. He would now have to carry them back to the post office and then stamp them and then deliver them to their address.

The letter receivers were usually the same. Housewives with husbands in distant cities, Parents with children in hostels. These addresses repeated after a fixed number of days. Narayanan noted such small details. He also carried money orders. Money sent by post and eagerly awaited by their recipients.

Narayanan had almost finished his round for the day. He took out the last letter from his bag. He looked at the address and for a moment was lost. He had stamped it at the post office but not read the address then. It was an address of a place behind the temple. He had never been there before. As he rode his cycle up the temple road, he realized he would have to walk the rest of the way. The road behind the temple was full of bushes and shrubs. This was no place to ride a bicycle.

“Narayanan, finally you decided to visit the temple!” said Unni, the tailor whose shop was next to the temple. Narayanan had put his cycle next to Unni’s shop.

“No!” said Narayanan and smiled. Everyone knew he was a communist. They just liked to rib him once in a while.

“Is there a house behind the temple?” Narayanan said.

“There are two-three huts not sure who lives in them. Why do you ask?” said Unni.

“I have to deliver a letter,” said Narayanan.

“Rajamma? Anyone by that name here” said Narayanan. He saw only one house behind the temple.

There was no reply. He repeated his question, this time in a louder voice.

Narayanan heard a low cough from inside the hut. An old woman came out of the hut. She stood there holding on to the crumbling pillars supporting the hut.

“Who wants to know? I am Rajamma.”

“There is a letter for you,” Narayanan said handing over the letter to her.

“There is a mistake. I do not have any relatives. This should be for someone else.”

“No! That is not possible. See it clearly say.

Rajamma Amma

Behind Shree Krishna Temple,

East Street, Neyyarinkara Post Office. Trivandrum. 

“The address is correct, but as I said I do not have any friends or relatives who would send me letters.”

“It is from Bombay.”

“I do not have any relatives here in Neyyarinkara, why would anyone in Bombay send me a letter?”

It was a good question. Narayan now had a problem. As per the rules, his job was to deliver the letter at the correct postal address. He was at the correct postal address but the addressee was refusing to accept the letter. Then he found a way out.

“Read this letter. In the first few lines, you will know if this is for you or not.”

“I can hardly see you properly. How do you expect me to read? I do not have money to buy reading glasses.”

Narayanan sighed. This was another ‘service’ that came with his job. Narayanan opened the letter and began reading.

I, Mohamad Usman am a chief mechanic at Bombay Construction Company in Kurla. I am writing this letter on behalf of one of my workers who say he is your son. His name is Sreekumar and he says he ran away from home when he was twenty years old. This incident happened five years back…..

Narayanan stopped reading as he heard a crashing sound. The old woman had fainted. She was lucky that she fell on top of a bed and then slid on to the floor. If she had fallen directly on the floor, she would have broken all her bones.

Narayana ran and picked her up. He lay her down and went inside the house. He bought some water and sprinkled it on her face. When the woman came to her senses she started wailing. The wailing brought Unni and a few of the shopkeepers to the house.

By evening the news that Rajamma’s long-lost son was alive was the hot – topic of discussion in the village. People who never in their lives had seen or known Rajamma spoke about her as if she was a close relative.

The boy’s story was indeed remarkable. He had jumped on a train and reached Bombay. Therefor some time he had begged and survived on the scraps thrown out by hotels. Then Usman had found him and given him a job. Five years later the boy had saved up some money and was planning to send his mother some money every month.

“This is a miracle! Now do you believe in God?” said Kalyani

“Why should this make me believe in God?” said Narayanan.

“Is it not a miracle that Rajamma’s son should return now. The whole village had given him up for dead. Even the police had closed the investigation and now after five years news comes that he is alive.”

“Nonsense think of how much he had to struggle in these five years. He was surviving on scraps from dustbins. And what of Rajamma’s suffering all these years. He was the only support she had. With him declared dead, she was living the life of a recluse all these years. What was her fault that your God made her suffer like that?” Narayanan countered.

“It is a miracle that her son is alive. Your communist brain will not understand it but I know and the whole village agrees with me that it is a miracle.” That was the end of the discussion. They did not speak for two days after that.

A week after the letter the first money order for five hundred rupees arrived at the post office. Rajamma beamed with pride as she signed to receive the money.

“My son has sent this. I do not want his money. All I want is to see him once before I die, “she said to anyone who would listen.

Sreekumar’s coming to the village to meet his mother was the event of the year in Neyyarinkara. The entire village had gathered at the railway station. Very few trains stopped at the small railway station and those that halted stopped for a few seconds. Seeing the massive crowd gathered at his Railway Station the Neyyarinkara Railway Stationmaster halted the train for a full minute. Like some V.I.P the boy got down and was received by a tearful Rajamma. There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. Overcome with emotion the station master offered them a cup of tea in his cabin. Son and mother decided to go home instead.

The next day when Sreekumar took his mother to see a doctor they were again followed by a crowd. Rajamma was weak. All the years of grieving and extreme poverty had taken its toll and the woman was ailing. Most of his leave of two weeks Sreekumar spent on visiting doctors and hospitals. A tearful Rajamma was there at the railway station the day her son returned.

Rajamma’s condition took a turn for the worse after her son left. All the medicines her son had purchased remained on the shelves in her hut. After a few days, the people also forgot all about the mother and son and went on with their lives. Narayanan was the only occasional visits to her house. He went there to deliver a letter or hand her money sent by her son.

One day Narayanan was about to start his mail rounds for the day when the telegraph machine started rattling out a message. It was a telegram. Narayanan read the message and for a moment did not know what to do. He reread the message. It said.

“To Rajamma STOP Son Sreekumar dead STOP Fire accident at factory STOP Call 022 2801234 STOP from Usman STOP”

Narayanan folded the message and kept it in his pocket. He delivered all the mails and came back to the post office. That day as normal he locked the post office at four-thirty and left home. He did not tell anyone about the telegram. It was a telegram and the rules required it to be delivered immediately. For the first time in his career, Narayanan broke the rules. That night Narayanan tossed and turned. He could not sleep. If was not that this was the first death telegram that he had received. He had delivered numerous such messages before. Something was different in this case. He was unable to muster the courage to deliver the telegram to Rajamma.

The next day he used the telephone in the post office and dialled the Bombay number given in the message.

“Can I speak to Usman? I am calling from Neyyarinkara, Sreekumar’s village.”

After being put on hold for some time he heard a man’s voice on the other side. The man identified himself as Usman. His story was short. There had been an explosion at the factory. A few workers had died and Sreekumar was one of them. Usman had got severely burnt but was now recovering. Sreekumar had a saving of a thousand rupees.

“I will send that money as a money order to his mother.

Narayanan did not say anything. There was nothing much to say. A week later the money arrived. Narayanan had not said a word to anyone about the telegram. That day he had forged Rajamma’s signature in his register. Now the money had also come in.

He went to Rajamma’s hut. When she came out to meet him, he gasped. She was hardly able to walk. He helped her sit and then told her that Sreekumar had sent her a money order for five hundred rupees. From the expression on her face, he realized that she was not even able to understand what he was saying. Narayanan went into the house and made a bowl of gruel for her to eat. She was having difficulty in swallowing it. As a little bit of the food went in she asked him to write a letter to her son.

It was a rambling account. Rajamma talked about the time when she had taught him to walk. Of how scared she was he would fall. She narrated about the time when he went to school. She gave the names of his friends and what games he played with them. The effort was too much for her.

Rajamma eventually fell asleep narrating the letter and Narayanan carried her inside the house and laid her on the bed. He covered the old woman with a sheet and went back into the world.

That night Rajamma passed away in her sleep. One of the shopkeepers who was passing, by the way, thought of checking on her and found her dead. The news spread and soon people gathered at her house. They asked Narayanan to send a telegram to her son to inform him about the accident.

“That would not be necessary,” he said, “I have the phone number of his Bombay factory. Let me make a call to them.”

He went into the phone booth and closed the door. Then he dialled the Bombay number, informed Usman about the death of Sreekumar’s mother and put the phone down. As he stepped out of the phone booth Narayanan said, “Sreekumar died yesterday. There was an explosion at their factory. They are sending us a telegram. Let me see if it has come.” He went in a returned with the old telegram. No one bothered to check the date. They were too shocked with the news of the son’s death.

With the money, he had received Narayanan conducted a funeral for Rajamma. The whole village attended. The rituals were done for both mother and son. Narayanan the hard-core communist was in the middle ensuring that all tradition and customs were followed to the letter. More than the villagers he thought he knew the mother and son. He was there not as the village postman, he was there as a family member.