Star Crossed Lovers – a short story

Nannu and Kuttapan were the owners of the only two shops at the Neyyarinkara Railway Station. The station had two platforms. Platform one had the office of the station master. The entrance to the railway station and the ticket counter was right next to the station masters office. Platform two was just a long stretch of concrete with a roof.
Nannu ’s business establishment had started as a tea shop. Over the years he started stocking sweets and snacks. With the change in the climate and the frequent droughts, he started storing bottles of mineral water. He stored them in a small cooler which was his pride and joy. The cooler had cost him a small fortune and also took up a quarter of the space in his shop. The investment paid off with an increase in business. Customers were always ready to pay a little extra for the ice creams and cola-bottles that he stocked in his cooler.
Kuttapan ’s shop was adjacent to Nannu’ s. Kuttapan stocked newspapers and magazines in his shop. He was a young man and unlike other men in the village was educated. His marks in his tenth board exams were good and could have got him into one of the better colleges. The only problem was Kuttapan did not want to continue his studies. He wanted to start a business. He argued with his parents. Kuttapan ’s point was that he did not see any merit in continuing his studies with little or no guarantee of a job in the future. Disregarding the objections of his parents he decided to set up his business. His parents never forgave him for that and cut off relations with their son. He started distributing newspapers in the village. He did that by walking door to door. From that, he progressed to a small stall near the bus stand. A year later he rented the shop on the railway platform. He employed a boy whom he gave charge of the newspaper stand at the bus stop. Business was good as there was no competition. He and Nannu did not get along well. It was not a business rivalry as they dealt in different commodities. It was something more than that. Nannu was Kuttapan ’s father.
For the villagers, it was a funny state of affairs having a father and son as owners of adjacent shops but not on speaking terms. Nannu ‘s wife Kuttapan ’s mother agreed with her husband’s stand and had stopped talking to her son. The parents had great dreams for their son. They had wanted him to study and eventually try for a government job. The boy had inherited his stubbornness from both his parents. Now in his mid-twenties, Kuttapan was living on his own and enjoyed the freedom it gave him.
“Nannu bring two glasses of tea and some sweet buns to the Station Master’s office,” said Nagappan, the licensed porter at the station.
He was Station Master Kalidasan ’s right hand. Every morning he would have a cup of tea with the station master while reading the morning newspaper. They would discuss the world and local news while dipping the sweet buns in the hot cup of tea. There was a scientific principle behind the dipping of the sweet buns in hot tea. Dip it in for too long and it would turn soggy and fall into the tea. Dip it for a very short time and then it would not soak enough of the tea. The art was to get the dip-time just right. Both the Station Master and the porter had mastered the art of the dipping. They practised it every day.
“Ask Kuttapan to bring the morning newspaper,” said the station master as Nannu the tea vendor, placed the two cups and the plate of sweet buns on his table.
Nannu did not answer. As he went out of the station master’s cabin, Kuttapan the newspaper vendor stepped in. He was waiting for his father to come out of the room. He did not want to be in the same room as him.
“This morning’s paper, saar!” said Kuttapan, “I have still not received last month’s payment. Just wanted to remind you, the total was about two hundred rupees. I included the magazines and children’s books you took for that official’s visit.”
The previous month a government official and his family had come to the station. They had picked up some magazines and comics from Kuttapan ’s shop. The bills were yet to be settled.
“Yes, yes I know. I have sent a request to my boss to sanction the funds,” said the Station Master.
“It is two hundred rupees! For that you need to send a request?” said Kuttapan.
The station master detected the tone of sarcasm and cringed.
“Yes! Even if it is a rupee I have to apply to my boss for permission to spend it.”
“No wonder nothing happens in the Government!” said Kuttapan in a low tone as he walked out of the office.
“What? What did you say?”
“Nothing Saar! I was saying that it would be great if I got it by the end of this week. I need to pay the vendors.”
“Arrogant kid,” said the station master.
“Kid! He is about twenty-five!” said Nagappan.
“Does not know how to talk to elders.”
Kuttapan made his way towards his shop. As he came close he saw a young woman standing there. He smiled and the girl smiled back. Nannu, Kuttapan ’s father and owner of the tea shop, could not help peep from his shop. He noticed that the girl was wearing a scarf which covered her hair and just showed her face.
“It is seven and you have still not opened your shop?” said the girl.
“I reached late. Had an accident in my kitchen this morning.” Replied Kuttapan as he opened the shutters of his shop.
“What accident?”
“Well…I was making tea. The water was boiling and I was about to pour in the milk when Shanku jumped.”
“Who is Shanku?” the girl said.
“My cat.”
“You have named your one-eyed cat Shanku?”
Kuttapan nodded, “He reminds me of a friend from school who was a good football player.”
“I do not remember any one-eyed football players in our school?”
“He joined after you had left. He was not one-eyed. It was just that most of the times when he kicked he would miss the ball and fall. It was funny to watch him play.”
“I thought you said he was a good football player.”
“Yes, he was good as a source of entertainment. We always had a good laugh when he was playing. My cat is like that. Always bumping into things. Even when he can see it with his good eye he bumps into it.”
The girl laughed and Kuttapan joined her. On the empty platform, the sound carried in both directions. From the station master’s cabin Nagappan the porter who has just finished his tea poked his head out.
“Saar! Did I not tell you that something is going on between Kuttapan and that Muslim girl!”
“What Muslim girl?” said Station Master Kalidasan looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
“That girl, Saar!”
Now Kalidasan poked his head to look.
“Who is that girl?” said Kalidasan.
“That is Nadira, Najeeb the butcher’s daughter. She studies at a college in the city. Every day she travels by the seven-thirty train to Trivandrum. In the evening she returns by bus. She is a final year B. Com student at the Women College in Trivandrum.”
“Naga, how do you know so much about that girl?”
Nagappan had to answer quickly to clear his reputation.
“Sir, I see her standing near Kuttapan ’s stall every day, talking and smiling. I thought of doing a quick ‘background check’ on her.”
“What are you two doing?” a voice from behind made both the men stand up straight.
It was Dr Shivaraman, a retired professor who was staying in the village with his daughter. His daughter was a teacher in the village school.
“What are you two government official doing peeping out of your office? Are you not supposed to be doing your work?”
“Good morning, Doctor,” said Nagappan. He was the first to recover. Kalidasan sprinted to his table and sat down.
“I want a ticket to Trivandrum,” said the Doctor, “You did not tell me what was so interesting, that both of you had to set aside your office work and peep out of the office.”
“We were just discussing if something is going on between Kuttapan and Nadira, Najeeb’s daughter,” said Nagappan.
“Najeeb the butcher?” said Dr Shivaraman.
“Yes, Doctor. Her train is at seven-thirty but she reaches the station at six-thirty and stands near Kuttapan ’s newspaper-stand and they talk the whole time.” “Is it against the law to talk? I was not aware that there was a rule against talking on a railway platform.”
Both Kalidasan and Nagappan understood what the Doctor was trying to convey.
“All right doctor it is none of our business,” said the station-master, “here’s your ticket.”
The Doctor pocketed the ticket and walked up to the platform.
“Do you know what your son is up to these days?” said Nannu, the minute he reached home that day. Seeing the blank look on his wife Janaki’s face he continued, “He is in love.”
“What?” said Janaki.
“Yes. He is playing the role of Majnu in real life.”
“Manjan who?”
“Majnu. Laila-Majnu. The woman did you not go to school. Have you not read the story of Laila-Majnu the star-crossed lovers?”
“I went to school, but we were not taught romantic stories. What has that story got to do with our boy?”
“That son of your ’s is in love.”
“If I am not wrong you were also responsible for his birth. Who told you about this ‘love’ thing.”
“I see it every day. Right in front of my eyes.”
“What do you see every day? Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what is happening.”
“Well, there is a girl. A Muslim girl, who comes to his shop at six in the morning. She stands there and talks to him till the seven-thirty train arrives.”
“What happens when the seven-thirty train arrives?”
“She leaves for Trivandrum on that train.”
“She comes from Trivandrum to talk to him?”
“No! Are you even listening?” said Nannu, “She is from this village. She gets on that train and leaves. She does not come on that train.”
The next morning Kuttapan was talking to Nadira when he saw someone familiar climbing the stairs to the railway platform. It was his mother. Kuttapan had not seen his mother in months. She looked older and weaker. She had a folding umbrella tucked under one arm. From a distance, Janaki could see the young woman standing near her son’s shop.
“That is your mother, isn’t she?” said Nadira.
Kuttapan nodded. He had never seen his mother come to the railway station. He wondered what had happened to trigger the visit. Nadira knew a little bit about the history between mother and son and moved away from the shop.
Janaki ignored her son all together and went up to her husband’s shop.
“Is that the woman?” said Janaki.
“Yes. That is the woman.”
Janaki walked up to Nadira who now stood with the crowd waiting for the train.
“Are you from this village?” said Janaki.
“Yes. Aunty,” said Nadira.
“Did I say you could call me Aunty?”
“No. I just call all elders Aunty.”
“You did not tell me if you are from this village.”
“I am Najeeb Mohammad’s daughter. He has a shop near the mosque.”
“Najeeb the butcher?” said Janaki, she had meant the butcher to come out like a slur. It did come out as she had intended it to. Nadira nodded her head. She found it strange that people who had no problems eating non-vegetarian food considered the butcher’s profession as inferior to other job’s.
“Yes, Najeeb the butcher,” said Nadira stressing on the butcher.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for the train, like everybody else.”
“Why does anyone wait for a train? To travel. I study in a college in Trivandrum.”
“What are your subjects in college?”
“I am doing my B. Com from Women’s college.”
“What com?”
The train had arrived at the station and people were slowly walking towards the coaches. Nadira started walking towards the nearest door.
“Are you coming, aunty?”
“Keep away from my son,” said Janaki.
In the commotion, on the platform, Nadira did not hear that. All that she saw was that Kuttapan ’s mother was not getting on the train. She found that surprising.
“Nannu I hope you are aware that the girl who stands near your son’s shop and talks for hours with him, is a Muslim?” said Nagappan.
Nannu had come in with the usual two cups of tea and the sweet buns.
“What girl?” Nannu replied feigning innocence.
“The one who can be seen talking to him every morning.”
Nannu did not reply.
“Look Nannu. I know this is none of my business but you should be aware of the consequences. You son is a Hindu and that girl is a Muslim. If the villagers get a whiff of this, they will descend on this platform and set it on fire. You should advise your son to stop this nonsense.”
“I know, Saar, but the boy does not listen to me.”
“You are his father,” said Nagappan, “You should make him listen.”
Nannu went back towards his shop. He could see Nadira standing near the shop. For a minute he contemplated going up to them and giving them a piece of his mind. Then he remembered the last time he had tried it with his son. It had been some other problem then. Kuttapan had not held back and had shouted back at his father. There was a sizable crowd which had gathered for the train. The last thing Nannu wanted, was to create a scene.
“I will ask him, mother, to talk to him.”
The office of the Hindu Samajam was next to the temple in Neyyarinkara. It was not a part of the temple but the office bearers considered themselves as the torchbearers of the religion.
“We need to call a meeting!” said Sunil. He was the local secretary and he was addressing the local area committee president Anil.
“For what?” said Anil.
“There is a problem that has come up. There is this newspaper vendor at the railway station, Kuttapan who is love with a Muslim girl.”
“Kuttapan? That tea seller’s son?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Know him? He was my classmate. He was the smartest boy in our class. He always scored the highest in math’s and science subjects.”
“I am not sure about him being the brightest. If he had any brains he would not have gone and fallen in love with a Muslim girl.”
“Are you sure about this? The Kuttapan I knew, that tea seller’s son was a very practical no-nonsense type of boy.”
“I have got this information confirmed through a number of our party members. Every day they can be found talking at the railway’s station for hours.”
“Hmmm. The last thing we want in this village is a Hindu boy converting to Islam.”
“We will not let that happen as long as we are alive.”
On the other side of the village, the office of the Muslim Youth Majlis was also in session. Abdul the convener of the forum was in discussion with Sajid his youth wing leader.
“Is this true -this story about Nadira?” said Abdul.
“Yes. It is confirmed. I have seen this myself.”
“Is she out of her mind? Are all the Muslim boys in this village dead that she goes and falls in love with a Hindu boy!”
“I was wondering the same thing! We need to go and talk to Najeeb. He has to control his daughter.”
“That will be of no use. He will not listen to us. Remember what happened when we went to his shop the last time.”
Abdul thought for a moment. It was the annual fund collection drive for their Majlis. Abdul along with five of his associated, all dressed in their Sunday best and carrying receipt books were going door to door in the village. They had targeted the Muslim shopkeepers and household only. There was no point in going to the Hindu households. The Hindu Samajam members also never came to the Muslim areas to collect funds. That day, Abdul and his group had reached Najeeb’s shop while he was cleaning his chopping knife.
“Assalamualaikum Uncle,” said Abdul.
“Waalaikumsalam….” The response from Najeeb came automatically.
He knew Abdul and his friends well.
“What brings you, boys, to my shop today?”
“Uncle we have come to collect funds for the Majlis,” said Abdul.
Najeeb did not answer. He continued sharping the blade
“Uncle, how much should I put in as your contribution? Will be a hundred or five hundred?”
“Write zero,” Najeeb said.
“Uncle it is for the Majlis’ activities. We help poor people, children and women in this area with these funds?”
“Really do you now? Then how about helping me. I am poor. I need money for my children’s education. I will also like to get some funds to repair my house. It has started to leak in some places!”
“Uncle, are you making fun of us?”
“It is you boys who are making fun of the villagers. Why don’t you earn something and donate your money for your majlis and its activities? You will never do that, will you? Instead, all that you want to do is to run around with these receipt books.” By now he had finished sharpening the blade and looked ready for business.
Abdul remembered the last meeting with Najeeb quite clearly. He did not want to repeat that experience.
“Lets us go and talk to our leaders,” he said.
“That girl is standing there talking to him,” said Nagappan, “It is like clockwork. Every morning she is there.”
Nagappan was standing outside the station masters office.
“I hope I am transferred from this station before anything bad happens,” said the station master.
“But Sir! You told me that this is your last posting before retirement.”
“That is true. I do not want to be in the middle of a riot. I want to spend the rest of my life living comfortably off a government pension. I do not want to die in a silly riot in this village of all places.”
The office of the Hindu Samajam was packed to capacity. All leaders big and small had gathered. Those who had already occupied the few available seats held on to them for fear that the others might grab them. Some wiser members were sitting on the ground.
“This problem has to be resolved. We cannot let a Hindu boy marry a Muslim girl. Next, he will want to convert to Islam. Then we will have more Hindu men and women wanting to convert. That cannot be allowed. I will not allow that to happen as long as I am alive,” thundered Anil the leader of the Hindu Samajam. The office of the Muslim Majlis was seeing similar activity. The leaders there fretted and fumed and instructed their members to be prepared for any eventuality.
Inspector Gopalan was preparing the weekly crime report summary for the Circle Inspector when constable Dhanapalan burst into the office. Inspector Gopalan hated it when his staff members disturbed him. He looked up and glared at Dhanapalan.
“Have you forgotten your manners?” said Gopalan, “Have I not instructed everyone that they should knock before entering my office?”
“Sir! we have a problem. There is a chance of riots breaking out here.” Said Dhanapalan, in his haste forgetting to salute the inspector.
“What riots?”
“Riots sir. Between Hindus and Muslims.”
“Here Sir! In Neyyarinkara.”
Gopalan had always been a bit slow at grasping the crux of important matters. You had to explain things slowly to him. Which may have been the reason why all his batch mates were now his senior officers.
“Sir! there is a chance of rioting here. There is a rumour going around the village that a Hindu boy is preparing to elope with a Muslim girl. Both groups will come to blows if that happens.”
“Is this news confirmed?”
“Sir the part about both the groups preparing to hit back – that part is confirmed.”
“Who are the leaders of the groups?” said Inspector Gopalan.
The gravity of the situation finally registered on him. He picked up the phone and dialled his boss the Circle Inspector. Two hours later two trucks packed with policemen in full riot gear stopped outside the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Gopalan called up the Neyyarinkara Village School Principal.
“Let me summarize what you asked. You are asking me if fifty policemen can set up tents in a corner of the school playground?” the principal said.
“Yes,” Inspector Gopalan said.
“Why?” said the Principal.
“I cannot tell the details at this point. You must support me on this matter. I can have the Circle Inspector call you up and make this demand.”
The principal thought for a moment.
“As long as they do not create a problem for my students, I do not have any issues.”
That night the tents came up and the riot police set up a temporary headquarter near the football goal post.
The next morning Inspector Gopalan looked at the line-up of his constables and began assigning tasks to them.
“You there, I want you to go to the office of the Majlis and get the names of their leaders. Ask their leader to come and meet me today at ten a.m. sharp.”
“You go to the Hindu Samajam! Do the same. I want their leader here by 10 a.m.”
After the two had saluted and left he called Dhanapalan, his special branch man.
“Find out what kind of weapons have been collected by each group. Be careful, this could be dangerous.”
Gopalan then called up another constable and gave him a different set of instructions.
“I want you to fetch Kuttapan ’s parents.”
With his men dispatched in different directions, Inspector Gopalan called his boss and updated him on the progress.
“Let me know in case there is any trouble. I do not want this to escalate,” his boss’s voice came over the phone. I will inform the Superintendent of Police, who will inform the District Collector.”
By ten a.m. Inspector Gopalan’s office resembled the Neyyarinkara Fishmarket on a bad, rainy day. In one corner stood the bearded, skull cap-wearing members of the Majlis and on the other side stood the Hindu Samajam members dressed in saffron. In between the two groups stood Nannu and Janaki, Kuttapan ’s parents. The area around the police station was cordoned off by the riot police.
“Start from the beginning,” said Inspector Gopalan, “When did this romance start?”
Nannu looked at Janaki and she looked at the impressive wall clock behind the inspector’s table.
“I am asking you a question?” said Gopalan. He was losing his temper.
“How do I know. I noticed this a few days back. That girl is always standing there talking to him.”
This comment incensed the Majlis members.
“She is being forced to come to the stall every day by that vendor,” said one of the Majlis members.
“How do you know this?” said the Inspector.
“Why would anyone in her senses come to a newspaper seller at six in the morning?”
“Does she come there at six in the morning?”
“More like seven,” said someone, “The platform is closed at six. The station master unlocks the gates around six-thirty.”
“Then why did you say six?” said Gopalan trying to find who had provided that wrong information. He could not spot the person.
“That girl is after our boy,” said the Samajam members.
Nannu and Janaki nodded their head vigorously.
“How do you know that?”
“He is good looking and has a steady income. She is after him for the money,” said Janaki.
“Who said he is good looking?” said a majlis member, “Our Muslim boys look better.”
“Stop this nonsense and do not speak unless I ask you to,” said Inspector Gopalan, “Does anyone here know when this romance started?”
“They were in school together,” said Abdul, the Majlis leader.
“How do you know that?” said Inspector Gopalan.
“I was in the same class. We were all in the same class till the sixth standard and then Nadira moved to the Girls high school.”
“Were they friendly in those days?” said Gopalan. All the heads in the room turned towards Abdul eager to hear his answer.
“Not that I recollect. Kuttapan was a studious boy then. He had his head in his books at all times.” said Abdul.
“That is true Saar. My boy was a good student in school. This girl has spoilt his life,” Janaki pitched in.
“Let him speak for himself,” said the Inspector, “Who is Kuttapan?”
People turned and looked around. Then someone said, “He is not here Saar!”
Inspector Gopalan realized his mistake. He had missed calling some key members in the episode. He called one of the constables and asked him to fetch Kuttapan.
The crowd came out of the Inspector’s room and waited on the Police Station verandah. The Muslim’s on one side the Hindu’s on the other. The riot police surrounded the station. After a long half, an hour Kuttapan arrived.
“Come here, let me see the hero of our story. So, you are the boy who has created all this problem,” said Gopalan as Kuttapan stepped into his office.
Kuttapan did not understand what was happening. Then he remembered.
“Saar! I have asked the Stationmaster to pay me the money. I remind him every day. I will pay the vendors the two hundred rupees the minute I get it.”
“What two hundred rupees?” said Gopalan.
“The money I owe the newspaper vendor… for the magazines that were taken from my shop. You called me to discuss by when I would be paying that right?”
“No. Someone, please explain to him why he is here,” said Gopalan. He could feel a throbbing sensation in a corner of his head. He began massaging his forehead with his finger-tips.
“We want to know about your love affair?” said one of the leaders from the Hindu side.
“Love affair? What love-affair?” said Kuttapan.
“The one with the Muslim girl,” another voice said.
“Which Muslim girl?”
“Nadira.” About ten voices from different corner of the room said this together.
“What about her?”
“Explain your love affair with Nadira,” said the Hindu leader again.
Kuttapan just stood there staring at the crowd of people. The conversation did not make any sense to him. The constable who had come to his bookstall had been very rude and had warned him of dire consequences in case he did not come immediately.
“Are you in love with Nadira?” said Inspector Gopalan, finally decided to do the interrogation himself instead of letting the villagers do it for him.
“No. What nonsense! Why would I be in love with Nadira?” said Kuttapan.
The crowd started murmuring amongst themselves.
“Inspector Saar, apply your third-degree methods on him. The boy is lying,” this bit of advice came from none other than Janaki.
“You are his mother are you not? You want us to beat him? What kind of a mother are you?” said Gopalan. Janaki slid away from the room.
“I am not lying. I know her from my school days. Whenever she comes to the station she comes over to my shop and we talk. What is wrong with that?”
No one had an answer to that question. This was a twist in the story that was not expected.
“What about your plans to convert to Islam once you got married?” the Hindu leader fought back.
“Who spreads such silly rumours? I am an active member of the communist party and an atheist. Has anyone of you ever seen me in the temple?”
Those present there thought back. There seemed to be some truth in that statement.
“Call Nadira and we can prove this,” said someone from the Muslim side.
“She would be in college now,”
“Then get her father Najeeb here,” said someone from the crowd.
Again, the crowd settled down to wait for Najeeb to come. They sat down in the police station verandah where ever they found space. This time the lines between the two groups were not so distinct. Kuttapan sat by himself not aligning with either of the groups or his parents.
“Do you know this man?” said Inspector Gopalan to Najeeb.
“Yes, Saar. He is Kuttapan. He runs a newspaper stall at the station.”
“Your daughter studies in a college in Trivandrum, does she not?”
“Yes, Saar. Talking of Nadira, Last week, I finalized her marriage. It will be two months from now. Since you have asked me to come here I thought I would bring you an invitation card as well. Please come even if for a few minutes and grace the occasion.”
“Who is she getting married to?” said Inspector Gopalan.
There was pin-drop silence in the police station now.
“The boy works in Dubai in a construction company as a supervisor. He only has left for three weeks and we have set up the marriage during that time. After the marriage, he and Nadira would fly to Dubai.”
“Has the marriage been fixed with your daughter’s approval?”
“Yes, Saar! They know each other. Saar, you did not tell me why you asked me to come here.”
Inspector Gopalan did not have an immediate answer. Nor did he have a reason to continue the questioning. Najeeb and Kuttapan were allowed to leave.
The crowd began to melt but Inspector Gopalan asked them to stay.
“So, who was the person who started this rumour?”
No one replied to the question.
“Because of you fools now I have a lot of explaining to do to my seniors. Clear out of the compound before I throw some of you into the lockup for spreading false rumours and disturbing the peace.”
Within minutes the police station was empty. An hour later the riot police, pulled out their tents, loaded them on the trucks and drove out of Neyyarinkara.
The next day morning as Nagappan finished his morning cup of tea in the Station Manager’s office he stepped out. He yawned. His last night’s sleep had not been proper. He had tossed and turned. Every time he tried closing his eyes he would see the face of Inspector Gopalan chasing him. As he looked at the two shops on the platform he saw something which stopped him in his tracks.
A young girl was standing near Kuttapan ’s newspaper stall, talking and laughing. For a second, he thought it was Nadira, but then he looked carefully. It was not Nadira, it was someone else. The girl has a shiny cross around her neck which she was playing around with while speaking.

The Dream House – a short story

Chandran was happy. He was still in his thirties and had achieved what most people required a lifetime 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 were 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 kilometres 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 lifestyle. 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- kilometres 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 kilometres 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 about Neyyarinkara.”
“Why is that?”
“People here are very helpful. If you walk a hundred meters from here, you will reach the temple. The riverbank is on 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 the house now.”
They had paid off 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 neighbours. 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 moonlit 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 call 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?”
“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 favourite 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 a 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 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 the 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 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 the 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 points 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 affected 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. 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 favourite 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 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. The 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 moonlight. 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 all that,” 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. His 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 were 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 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 woollen 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 practising. Not someone who is retired.”
Chandran did not argue and they went to Trivandrum. Thereafter waiting for three hours in the reception of a paediatrician they got a similar diagnosis.
“Did you notice that the Pediatrician and Dr Shivaraman had the same story to tell? Only he charged us a hundred rupees more.”
“You are counting money when your son is suffering?” said Savitri.
“I was just mentioning that. You know I would not compromise on Ajju’s health.”
Chandran was 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-coloured 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 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 sign.”
“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 doors. 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 Perfect Couple – a short story

Neyyarinkara was a small village with none of the trappings of the big cities. The arrival of Lata and her husband Suvarnan changed all that. Suvarnan came to the village after his appointment as the Manager of the State Bank’s local branch. He was an important man in the village hierarchy. He came in a taxi along with this wife Lata. Behind them came a truck with their belongings. Traditionally the Manager of the bank lived in a rented two-storied house which belonged to Kurup one of the richest men in the village. Suvarnan continued that tradition. It was a big house and it took two days for the Manager and his wife to settle down.

Suvarnan or Suvi as his wife called him was ambitious and hard working. He was the third-generation ‘banker’ in his family. His father had retired as a bank clerk. Suvi’ s grandfather also worked in a bank at the turn of the century. Suvi was the first in his family to became a manager. He had a few other firsts to his name. He was the first graduate and Post graduate in his family. He was also the first in his family to travel outside the state.  He set that record when he travelled to Madras to receive the best employee award for the southern region. He got the award twice. Suvarnan was ambitious. With his track record he saw himself reaching the level of a General Manager in the fifteen years.

Suvi married into a rich family. Lata’s father was a rich business man. His business interests ranged from the export of sea-foods to owning timber mills in remote hill ranges.

Suvarnan first met his father law as part of the processing of a business loan application. Lata Exporters had applied for a loan for a couple of lakh rupees. The government had rules in place to ensure that no business loan could be sanctioned without multiple levels of approval. Multiple level of approval in business meant multiple people to be taken care of.  Suvarnan knew that if he was honest and diligent he would retire as a clerk – like his father. He bent the rules a bit and the loans got sanctioned. A grateful owner of Lata Exporters was indebted to this young bank official. They became friends. That friendship developed into a relationship. Suvarnan married the only daughter of the owner of Lata Exporter’s, who was also named Lata.

Lata was a graduate, a student of the Trivandrum St. Xavier college for women. The daughter of a multi-millionaire she never had to jump on buses or walk. She had a car and a driver at her disposal throughout her school and later college years. She and the brat pack friends from the college haunted the shopping malls and theatres of Trivandrum. All that stopped or at least came to a pause with marriage. Her father arranged for three full time servants to accompany her wherever Suvarnan went. Lata would have preferred to stay with her parents but for once Suvarnan stood firm. Reluctantly she agreed to come to Neyyarinkara.

“Suvi, it is a village,” said Lata.

She has shortened Suvarnan to Suvi on the first day of their married life.

“Not exactly. More like a town. After some years it could even become a revenue district.”

“But it is still not Trivandrum!”

“Trivandrum is just twenty kilometers away. You can visit it all days of the week.”

“I do not want to visit Trivandrum. I want to live there. All my college friends are there. There are movie theatres, parks there. Places you can visit with your friends. Shops where you can buy things worth buying. This place is a village.”

“There is a cinema theatre here,” said Suvi.

“And what do they show there? Silent movies from the previous century!”

“Come on Lata! It is not that bad.”

“Not bad? This is horrible. This is my worst nightmare. The only difference is it does not end when I open my eyes!”

“We could stay in Trivandrum and I could commute daily but I do not want to spend half my day on the bus. I will remain here. If you have made up your mind then you can stay with your parents.”

Lata thought about that option for a moment. She saw that the plan had some inherent demerits. First of all, there were the neighbors.

‘Why is she staying away from her husband?’

‘Has she separated from her husband? But she was married for less than a year’

‘That girl was always aggressive, even as a child. No wonder she does not get along with her husband.’

No, that idea would not work.

“Our neighbors would make my life miserable.”

“There is another option. Stay here in Neyyarinkara. I will apply for a transfer on medical grounds. I should be able to move out in about six months.”

Lata liked this idea better.

“Six months? I want you to promise me it will be six months and not a day more.”

“I promise.”

Suvi agreed with Lata on Neyyarinkara not being a very hospitable place. Especially for someone who was born and brought up in a big city. He had promised to get her out in six months but he knew that was not a good idea. He could make up a story about not finding the climate suitable. But if he said that there was a difference of just twenty kilometers between Neyyarinkara and Trivandrum. A person who had a medical problem in Neyyarinkara would have the same problem in Trivandrum as well!

Then there was another even bigger issue. If he mentioned medical problems as a reason that would impact his career as well. Someone who was medically unfit at an age of thirty- two could have serious problems later. That could seriously impact his promotion prospects. Requesting for a transfer after just six months in an office would definitely show up as a red flag on his resume.

Suvi decided to drop the idea of applying for a transfer. That decision was easy. The difficult part was to let Lata know about it. He decided he would make her stay in Neyyarinkara as enjoyable as it would have been had she stayed in Trivandrum.

One week into their stay Suvi has an idea.

“Remember the time we had lunch at that hotel in Trivandrum. Let’s go out and have lunch in a hotel here,” said Suvarnan. He knew of a hotel which was close by. It was a place where some of the staff members in his bank usually had lunch.

Hotel Krishna was not more than a hundred meters from their house. Lata was excited about the visit. It was the first time she would be leaving her home after coming to the village. She wore her finest silk saree for the occasion. The walk up to the hotel should have given them a hint of what to expect. People on both sides of the street stopped to watch them. Lata felt like she was a movie star and lapped up the attention.

The hotel sign had a few words missing and said ‘Hote K ishn ’.

Inside the hotel the seating arrangement consisted of cracked benches and wobbly stools. The floor was plastered mud. The roof was cracked in places and sunlight streaked through those holes. Husband and wife tried to find a clean table. There were none. A radio was playing old movie songs in a corner. There were some patrons, all of them men a few of them shirtless, were having lunch in the hotel. They all stopped eating and looked at this couple dressed in fine clothes standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.

“Saar! What happened? Are you lost?” a man came running from behind the counter.

“We came to have lunch here,” said Suvarnan.

“You want to have lunch here?” said the man unable to decide if what he had heard the bank manager correctly.

“Yes.” Said Suvarnan still hoping to salvage something out of this disaster.

The man stood there looking at them, he looked at their fine clothes and then at the benches in his hotel.

“Sit here Saar,” the man said.

He wiped a bench and chair in the corner of the room with a piece of cloth.

Lata collapsed on one of the wooden stools. She had not recovered from the shock of seeing the hotel. She forgot all about the expensive silk saree she was wearing and just sat there too shaken to say a word.

Suvi saw her expression and he tried to act normal.

“What is on the menu?”

“Menu?” said the man.

No one had ever asked for a menu in his hotel since the time his grandfather had started the business.

“What can we eat here?” said Suvi changing the question to suit the environment.

“Saar. You can have rice and fish. We only have that.”

“Can you get us a cup of tea?” said Suvi.

The man placed two small glass cups of tea before the couple.

As if in a dream Lata reached for her glass. It had a crack on the side. Something was floating in it.

“There is something in the tea,” said Lata her voice cracking.

The hotel owner peered into her tea cup and saw an ant floating in it.

“It is only an ant. Must have been in the sugar. Here let me take it out,” he said and put his finger in the cup and after a few attempts was able to successfully take the now dead ant out.

“Let us go home,” said Lata whispering.

Suvi has seen some of these people who were eating in the hotel in his bank. He knew he could not just leave the place without at least drinking the tea. They would feel offended. He took a few sips of the tea.

“Do not drink the tea,” said Lata whispering again.

The tone was slightly different now. Suvi realized it was time he paid for the tea. The couple got up and made their way out. Lata did not speak on the way back home. Suvi did not insist. They did not speak for a week.

“Do you think I am putting on weight?” said Lata. The episode at the ‘Hotel’ was forgotten and the warring factions were back on talking terms.

Suvi knew this was a trick question. Whatever the answer she would get angry. He chose to be diplomatic. He asked her a question back.

“What makes you think you are putting on weight?” said Suvi.

“I am filling out my clothes. Look at this blouse. It is now tight around the sleeves. It was loose at the time of my marriage,” said Lata.

“I think you look just the same.”

“No! I know I am putting on weight. I think I should start doing exercise.”

“Exercise? What exercise?”

“I will go jogging. During my school days I used to be good at sports. Wake me up at six in the morning. I am going for a jog. I have my old track suit. I will wear that. The road outside out house is just perfect. There is never any traffic on the road. Good thing I bought my jogging shoes along.”

“You bought your jogging shoes with you. I did not know you were an athlete while in school,”

“You do not know a lot about me, mister. Wake me up at six tomorrow.”

The next morning at six sharp Bank Manager Suvarnan’ s house was a scene of hectic activity. Lata squeezed into a track suit and put on her jogging shoes and as the clock struck six fifteen she was on her way. The road before her house was usually empty.

She had run about ten meters when she started panting. She slowed. The panting did not stop but increased. She started walking. A group of women were coming from the other side of the road. They had baskets full of vegetables balanced on their heads. The women were on their way to the village market. The sight of a woman in figure-hugging clothes stopped the women in their tracks. The women had seen such dresses in movies. They stood there with their mouth wide open. One of the women was so shocked she lost control of her basket. All the contents of the basket spilled on the street.

Dineshan, a young man who milked cows was coming from the opposite site. Dineshan forgot he was riding a bicycle as Lata went past him and crashed into a lamp post. He fell flat on one side of the street while his bicycle rolled over and fell on the other side.

Lata continued, un-concerned with the events unfolding behind her. She jogged for about ten more meters and then stopped. Her knees and ankles were hurting. Her breathing could be heard at a distance of a hundred meters. She turned and started back. She passed Dineshan again. This time he stopped his cycle and looked at her. Lata walked on. By now the women had gathered all the vegetables scattered on the road and had placed them in the basket. They were smarter than Dineshan and did not place the baskets on their heads. They stood there and watched Lata as she slowly hobbled past them and disappeared around the bend.

“So how was your morning run?” said Suvi as he saw Lata stagger back ten minutes later.

“Not bad,” said Lata. She did not elaborate further.

“You said you were good at sports when in school. Which sport were you good at?”

“Carroms!” said Lata, “I am tired now. Tomorrow I will run for an hour at least.”
That tomorrow never came. The next day Lata woke up with an intense pain in her legs muscles. The pain was such she was unable to walk properly for a week. By the time the pain subsided the track pants and jogging shoes were back in the box.

“Why don’t we go for a movie?” said Suvi one day.

“Have you seen the theatre in this village?” said Lata.

“From the outside? Yes. It would not be all that bad. Let us go there once. There is a new movie showing there this week.”

That Sunday Lata was more careful with her dress. After the experience with the ‘hotel’ she had packed all her silk sarees away. Instead she selected a plain churidar. That decision proved to be unwise. In sleepy Neyyarinkara where wearing a silk saree was a novelty donning a churidar was a revolution.

Lata was the cynosure of all eyes.

“Is she a Muslim?” she heard some say.

“Must be. She wearing a Muslim dress. Maybe she is a Punjabi!”

Lata thought she would correct them, but Suvi restrained her.

“Let them say what they want. They are villagers. They have not seen this dress before.”

The theatre was a large rectangular hall with chairs. The roof was corrugated iron sheets. Ceiling fans provided the cooling effect inside the theatre, but once the doors were shut it was like being slow-roasted inside an oven.  The crowd was boisterous. Cat calls, whistles and witty comments flowed in all direction throughout the movie. By the time the movie ended Lata and Suvi were drenched in sweat. They rushed out of the theatre both sure that they would not be returning any time soon. This time there was silence in the house for two weeks.

“Why don’t we call-on our neighbor’s?” said Suvi.

“We do not know them,” said Lata.

“Exactly. That is why we should go and meet them. That way we can, you can make some friends here and may be then life would not be so boring in this village.”

This time Lata wore a simple cotton saree. Not exactly the type that women wore at home but also not the kind that dazzled and stunned.  A few hundred meters from their house there was a beautiful cottage. A family had moved in that house and Suvi thought this was a good opportunity to get to know them.

“This man bought this house with a loan from our bank. I think his name is Chandran,” said Suvi as they neared the house.

As Lata and Suvi walked up to the door the door opened and a man stepped out.

“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said Lata.

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

“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan. He 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.”

Lata now had a friend in the village.