woman wearing red and white dresses

The Street Dancer – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

“Saar!” Madhavan repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saar I will leave after you have finished.”

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

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

This lonely existence had become a habit now for him. It was more than five years since Nalinakshi has passed away. He was used to the silence in the house.

The next morning, as usual, Satyan woke him up with a cup of steaming hot tea. Kurup could hear Laxmi sweep the ground in front of the house. The house had a huge courtyard. In the yard, there was a huge mango tree. Every year its branches would be covered with mangoes. There were a large number of flowering plants in the yard. Every morning the ground would be littered with leaves. Laxmi spent half her day sweeping the ground clean.

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

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

“Why?” said Kurup.

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

“Oh! I almost forgot,” said Kurup.

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

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

“I will wait for you, Saar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They rose and stood there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I stay alone here,” said Kurup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can get you some bananas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did those people leave?” said Kurup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know how to make dosas. Here help yourself,” said Laxmi.

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

Laxmi controlled herself with a lot of effort.

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

Laxmi stormed out of the kitchen.

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

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

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

“What is that woman doing?”

Laxmi’s indignant voice brought him back to reality.

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you are leaving?” said Kurup.

She smiled but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was addressing Laxmi and Satyan.

“What time do you come in the morning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kurup saar is that you?” said Madhavan.

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

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

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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.
“What?”
“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.

white envelope with red paper heart

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.