Monday, February 29, 2016

Unclaimed red bag

The central station was bustling with noisy activity. I came half an hour earlier and took my berth in the train. The compartment was getting filled up. An old man with his wife was sitting opposite to me. There were two young men on the side berths. There was another 15 minutes to go for the train to depart.
A young muscular man rushed in with a small red travel bag and sat by me placing the bag on the other side of the seat. He smiled at me and asked “How far are you travelling?” I returned the smile and replied Ernakulum.
He said “I am travelling up to Thrissur on my way to Guruvayur.My uncle is waiting outside. I will take leave of him and be right back. Can you please keep a watch on the bag?”
I nodded my head and he left immediately. The final bell and the engine whistle were heard. There was no trace of the young man. I saw through the window and there was none rushing to board the compartment. The train picked up its speed. I was worried whether he missed the train foolishly talking to his uncle oblivious of its departure. Thirty minutes passed by and there was no sign of that passenger.
On seeing my worried face, the old man in the opposite berth said ”Days are bad and we hear lot of warnings about unclaimed objects. Why would he stay away leaving the bag behind?”
Someone from the side berth remarked “I did not like the look of the guy. Let us tell the TTE and request him to remove the bag from here and deal with it as per rules”
I am by nature timid and wont to avoid all problems. At the whiff of a trouble, either I leave the place or settle for an amicable resolution. My apprehension was what if the guy comes after sometime to claim the bag. No TTE was however seen. There was some agitation and it appears only very few TTEs were deployed for the trains.
The lady in the opposite berth was heard telling her husband ”Could there be a bomb? Is it safe to travel with the bag in the compartment?”Her husband signaled her to remain silent but the point she made was not lost sight of by others.
It was then one tall man in Khaki uniform in his early thirties, with a long moustache and a baton in hand, was sighted at the end of our compartment. All our eyes were on him with much relief as he walked erect towards us oozing the authority that the uniform gave him. As he came to our bay, he stopped and tapped his baton on the side railings.
“What is the problem and why are you all staring at me?” he asked in a gruff tone.
The elderly man on the opposite berth explained our predicament with an unclaimed baggage on our bay and the owner not in sight.
The khaki man looked at me sternly and asked “Do you know that passenger? If not how can you accept baggage from an unknown person? What if it contained an explosive timed to certain hour? Do you hear any tick tick sound from inside. Have you told the TTE about it?” and added when I tried to place my ears on the bag”’t touch it. These scoundrels are up to anything. Tell me what do you want me to do?”
One of the two men from side berth spoke “You are on the train to protect us from any harm. Please take the bag away far from here and deal with it as you deem appropriate.”
As he produced the hand, I nudged the bag towards him. He seemed to hesitate for a moment and then took it in his hand and walked away briskly telling that he would carry it to the end of the train and do the needful at the next station.
There was a sense of relief as we settled down comfortably and started discussing about crime, violence and bomb culture. After about 15 minutes, to everyone’s surprise, the man who had left the travel bag appeared and sat down on the seat.
“Sorry folks, I almost missed the train talking to my uncle and by sheer luck I could board one of the compartments at the end while the train was in motion. I had to wade my way to reach this place” he said and turning to me, he added “I hope I did not inconvenience you much.”
“Inconvenience you say, you literally scared the hell out of everyone in the compartment leaving an unclaimed bag. We waited with fear for a long time. Luckily a constable appeared and we handed over the bag to him. He will be at one of the front compartments. Please go and collect it from him” said the side berth man
“How could you hand over the bag entrusted to your care to a constable? If I do not trace him, I will hold you responsible. One of you please accompany me to identify him” he said angrily.
They returned after walking through the entire train unable to find the man in the uniform. The aggrieved young man shouted at me, “I can find no one in khaki uniform. I had kept 3000 rupees and a watch for my father for his 60th birthday. I hold you responsible for the loss. Either get me my bag or compensate me for the loss.”
“I never agreed to watch your bag. You just kept it by my side before going out” I replied
“But you nodded your head” he retorted but softened down pleading, ”I am a poor man and cannot afford the loss.”
The other passengers were watching with interest while the old man from opposite berth said that I cannot be held responsible as the owner left the bag at his own risk.
But the man insisted that I should compensate him for the loss for my having nodded while he left the bag by my side .Realizing my mistake in not refusing, I agreed to pay Rs.1000 the maximum I could even though I was not certain the bag contained money and the watch. After haggling, the amount was settled at Rs.1500.Before I took out the money, the old man asked him to show his ticket. He stared at the old man with hostility and left in a huff.
Meanwhile one of the side berth passengers who had gone to toilet saw a tall man with mustache seated at the end bay. He was however not in khaki uniform but in a new dress. The baton by his side that seemed familiar raised his doubt. He lingered for a while till he saw the protruding red bag under the man’s seat. That turned out to be a giveaway.
With help of other passengers he was dragged to our seats. The bag was opened only to reveal the discarded khaki uniform. After a bit of roughing up by others, he confessed to their modus operandi and pleaded for mercy. With no TTE or constable in sight, no loss sustained and it was late for bed, he was let off. I dozed off peacefully  with no problem to rankle my head

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The initiation

Guna was eating alone a bun for lunch outside his class when Mano, his school mate one class senior, sat by his side.
“Guna, you seem to eat almost daily only bun or puffed rice. Doesn’t your mom give you idly, dosa or some rice item?” he asked with a friendly concern. Guna kept silent with his head bowed down.
“Hey, aren’t you hearing me?”he asked a little testily
“I heard you. We are poor and make food only in the night.Even this, mom gives with much difficulty,” replied Guna.
“Would you then like to make some easy money? I do and my purse is always filled with money”
“Do you work anywhere after the school hours? How do you make?”asked Guna innocently
“I work only for two hours after school in the evenings and the income is handsome. I can take you to my master. He will train you and take care of you. You can carry home daily a tidy sum. You can then have idly and dosa made by your mom. My master needs young boys like you,”Mano spoke in a tempting manner.
“Will the evening work be strenuous?”asked Guna
“Not at all. It will be exciting involving no physical strain. I see you run fast. That will help occasionally. You will get good dress and not appear poor as you are in your tattered clothes. Come with me this evening” encouraged Mano
Guna was fantasizing in the class totally oblivious to the presence of teacher about the happiness in her mom’s face if he were to give her money daily. His young mind could not comprehend how one can make money without work when his dad puts in hard labour.
Mano took him to an abandoned shed a few streets away. There were about a dozen boys of his age seated on the ground before the master who sat on a plastic drum. Guna did not like the look of him in a lungi and a tight fitting red T shirt with a black scarf around his neck. He had a thick bracelet on his right hand. When the master turned to look at Mano and Guna entering the shed, Guna found his face scarred. The man evoked more fear and dislike than respect when he smiled displaying his pan stained teeth.
“Is this the boy you were mentioning yesterday, Mano? What is his name? Has he agreed?” the master asked
“Guna, Sir. He comes from a very poor family. I think he will agree if master explains to him there is no risk involved and after training he will be fine”
“Guna, come near me” called master. The boy went near him with some trepidation. The master stroked the boy with warmth and asked “You look hungry. Have you eaten anything?”
He took a 500 rupee note from his underwear and asked one of the boys to get dozen packets of biriyani.After the boy left, the master asked him to show his hands. He examined the fingers and threw a cigarette packet on the ground asking Guna to pick it up with two fingers as fast as he can. When Guna accomplished it easily, he put an old purse that slightly protruded in the hip pocket of another boy and asked Guna to lift it in the wink of an eye. Guna initially fumbled and did it successfully only the third time. The master repeated the test with various objects. The nimbleness with which Guna lifted after a few trials elicited a sabash from the master.
“Practice for three or four days before you accompany others. I will teach you how to divert attention, the use of blade to remove buttons from the pocket and also make a tear on the pant without anyone being the wiser. In a fortnight you will become very adept. Keep a smiling and never an agitated look”
All of them ate biriyani with gusto and the boys went out leaving Guna behind with master. Master gave him 100 rupees and said” You will earn daily much more. Do not be afraid. I have contacts. No harm will come to you from the conductors and drivers as I know most of them. Whatever you lift, quickly pass it on to one of the four who would accompany you. Never hold it in your hand if there is slightest commotion. If you cannot pass, just drop it a little away from where you stand. Will you do it?”
“I am afraid I may get caught. If my amma or appa comes to know of it, they will kill me” Guna said
“The fear will go in a week. Tell amma you are helping in book binding shop, pasting stickers and in dispatching pamphlets, etc. Do not tell the truth. If you do not like the job, I will allow you to leave” he said in gentle manner caressing his hair.
When Guna gave his mother the hundred rupees telling her the work he did in a book binding shop, she hugged him in great joy and pride and told him “Do not ever tell daddy. If he knows, he will take this money too for alcohol. Do not neglect studies because of this work”
Guna could not sleep that night and he knew it was wrong and that he may be caught one day however careful he were to be. But the poverty in the house and sadness on his mother’s face blinded him to the criminality of the act.
Even as he was being trained, he found the other boys returning happily with the day’scollections.The purses and bags were put in a basket kept centrally. The boys thereafter picked at random the purses one by one and emptied the contents in the presence of master. The collections were kept aside. The purses were thrown away and not allowed to be retained. Depending on the day’s collection the master paid the boys some amount equally before they left for homes. Some festival days and holidays fetched them much more.
That was to be his first day after the initiation. Seeing him sweating profusely the master put his arm around him before telling “Be natural and calm and do not attract attention. Being the first day, you can return after you get one purse. Good luck.”
The bus that .Guna with three others boarded was overcrowded. With sharp eyes the boys were looking for potential victims.Guna luckily was behind an old man with thick glasses and a dangling hearing aid.Unluckily for the old man, he had not pushed his thick wallet deep into his hip pocket. It was protruding making it a light work for Guna. As he could not see the other boys, Guna got down in the next stop and walked back to the shed. There was no one and by 7pm all the boys were back.
Master on entering asked, “Guna, any luck on the first day?” The boy produced the thick wallet. Looking at the stuffed notes of Rs 500 denomination, master let out a shriek of joy and said “Though short in height and small in build, you are big in luck and skill.”
With all purses in the basket, the boys picked one at random. With excitement running high, Guna picked one. When he opened it to remove the contents, he got the shock of his life when he saw a faded picture of a couple. On a closer look, it was his daddy and mom. Someone of the boys had relieved his dad of his purse with his meager earnings after a day’s back breaking work. Tears swelled from his eyes at the thought that only the poor and not the well to do travel by public buses and these thefts hurt them most.
He decided then and there what he should do but remembered what Mano had confided once that despite master’s initial assurance, he never let go the rebels alive. He ensured their permanent silence for his safety. But this did not deter Guna.
“Guna”, he heard the master calling and telling “You have done a great job. It was a big kill on day one. I have given everyone Rs300 but give you Rs 500 being the first day and in appreciation. “
He saw the tears in the boy’s eyes and said “Why are you crying? Happy at being successful, is it?”
Guna contrived a faint smile. He did not walk back to his home but trudged his way to the railway station to go to an unknown big city to work his way up honestly. The thought of his mom waiting for him hurt him but did not deter him from his determination. He will make her happy one day, he thought.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A story for Valentine’s Day

It was a small house situated at the end of the lane. I lived in the single room on the terrace that I could access by a staircase built outside the house. A spacious room well ventilated on three sides including a window that opened to the terrace. My office was just 15 minutes away by bike. There was an Udupi hotel at the end of the lane on the main road where I had my daily breakfast and occasional dinner.
I am happy here after a year of living in men’s hostel with smoke filled corridors, long queues for the toilets, the noise till late night and the litter of bottles and wrappers all around in the mornings. I liked the tranquil here, the fresh air from the window adjacent to my bed and an exclusive bath and toilet for me. There was one thing that embarrassed me.
Whenever I tried to start my old motor bike in the mornings, it just refused to come alive in sheer petulance. It needed repeated cajoling and hard kicks. I think I saw every time someone partially hiding behind the window of the house watching and smiling at my failures. Though I have seen on occasions a tall and slim girl of about twenty standing at the door step of the house watching me enter the compound, I had not asked out of propriety, the middle aged couple with whom I had interacted initially, whether there was any other member in the family. I was waiting for disbursement of loan to buy a new one and save myself from the daily derisive grin.
One day I noticed by chance some strange thing. I am by nature a very organized and stickler for order. I keep things at appointed places. I keep in small box things like pens, pencils sharpener, quick fix and small scissor. This morning when I looked for cello tape, I found to my surprise the box at the centre of table displaced from its usual place at the top corner. I was intrigued. There was no way someone could enter as I had the only key. The landlord had said the other key was lost and that I should be careful not to lose the only one I had. I dismissed this incident as possibly a lapse on my part.
A few days later there was another episode that put me off. I keep the daily newspaper neatly folded one over the other in chronological order. It was a Monday and after reading it when I went to keep it on the pile, I did not see the Sunday Times of India but Saturday’s paper on the top with Sunday’s below it. I would have never done it. I was sure that someone was in my room, but that was impossible as the door was secure when I returned. I decided not to ignore it lightly but to unravel the mystery. The next day I put a towel on the mirror hoping if it is the girl, she would certainly remove the towel to see herself in the mirror.
As I expected the towel was lying on the chair signifying that someone had tampered with the lock and entered my room. I went down and asked the land lady ” Mami, did anyone come up the stairs looking for me?”
“Why do you ask? No one came and I would have known from the noise when the front gate is opened”” she replied
“I was expecting a courier. Never mind, may be a neighborhood urchin would have come”
“Is something amiss? No one came to my knowledge” she replied.
I saw the shadow of her standing behind the door and heard a very faint giggle.
“I usually close the window doors shut to prevent dust. They were ajar today and I thought a courier boy would have come. It is not a big thing. Just wished to make sure that I had not missed the parcel.”
“I will keep a watch”
Two days later, I saw a paper torn from a note book with words “Do not be afraid. No ghost here” with a symbol of a ghost.
I wrote beneath it “I know it is no ghost but a beautiful elf that never comes when I am here. May be it will appear on my off day, day after tomorrow on Valentine’s Day”
The next day evening I saw a happy smiley with word “Surely but after dusk when parents have gone to temple”
I was restless wondering whether she would be beautiful, qualified and be a right match for me. I wished to talk to her for long without these fleeting appearances.
It was around 8pm, she appeared outside the open door of my room. What a bewitching beauty and mesmerizing eyes. I beckoned her inside with a smile.
She came and said “Amma and appa would be back from temple anytime. They saw your bike outside and know you are here”
“Tell me first how do you enter my room in my absence when I have the only key?”I asked.
She kept silent and asked me “Aren’t you happy that I am visiting your room? What does it signify?”
Elated at the response I said “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and picked up a box of chocolates and offered her
“Happy Valentine’s Day to you too! Do not bother about the other key. Is it lost?”she giggled mischievously and added “Trust in my capacity to reach you”
“No need. You can continue to visit and leave your foot prints and little epistles. I would be happier if you can contrive to come frequently when I am here. What do you do? Have the chocolates.”
“Let the box be here. It is ours. I have been selected in the campus and hold your breath, it is in your company.”
I jumped with joy and cried aloud “Wow, did you say ours?” even as my hands tried to clasp hers. But she managed to wriggle out and say “Beware, I hear my parents coming. See you later” and ran away in a trice.
The landlord and his wife came up the stairs and entered my room. After being seated, he said “My wife was telling about your doubt whether someone is having access to your room. There is no key besides the one I gave you. This place is very secure and not one theft has taken place within my knowledge in this locality”
“Sir, I think your daughter has not revealed to you that she has the lost key and the mystery is now unraveled “I said with a big smile
“What are you talking, young man? Are you telling me that my daughter has found the key and told you? Did she talk to you and when was this?” he asked in a confused anger.
“Just a little while ago. She ran away when she heard you entering the house, I think”
“I must have noticed as we were coming in. We have no daughter. The one I had committed suicide three years back.Pray, do not ask me why?”
A chill ran through my spine and I fainted
“Wake up, you sleepy head. It is 7.30 am and late for you. I have brought coffee for you,” the young lady was heard telling even as she was shaking my shoulders with one hand and stroking my chin with the other.
I rubbed my eyes and blurted in fear “Are you real? Your parents were here and said…”
She closed my mouth with her palm and said with a big smile “I am as real as you are.. Feel this pinch. They never came here. Stop dreaming. I have broken the news to my parents. They are very happy at the development. Here is the duplicate key I have been using.”
I pulled her close to me and she gleefully moved near..

Monday, February 8, 2016

Grandma’s last wish

My dad worked as a teacher in Town high school Kumbakonam. He had let his lands in the nearby village for tilling to the farmers who gave him a portion of the proceeds. We lived in a house in a street that ran parallel to one side of the school. That was my school too and my memory is still vivid of my scaling the short wall opposite my house instead of walking to the gate.
My maternal uncle’s house was next to ours. He lived with my grandmother(patti), his wife and a daughter three years younger to me. I do not remember what my mama(uncle) did for living except that he went early to the big bazaar street daily to work in a shop and came home late doing some additional work in some other place. He had no landed property to fall back. They led a frugal life but never looked to us for any support. My dad sent them a few sacks of rice after harvest, but I suspect my mom ordered extra provisions each month and gave them to my aunt when mama was not there. She did not give the entire provisions at one time but in installments lest she refused in embarrassment. My dad knew it, I believe, though no word was spoken about it.
My mother went daily to see her mom in the afternoon while mama came occasionally to our place. Even on Sundays, he would be doing some errands for extra income.Bhooma, my mama’s daughter, who studied two classes lower to mine was a school topper and well known in the school for distinguishing herself in varied activities like sports, essay writing, debate and music competitions. I used to be jealous of her when she repeatedly appeared on the stage to receive cups and medals from the President of the school while I rarely went up the stage. She was popular among her friends and tended to dominate the group with her loud laughter and banter.
I was an introvert seeking comfort in the company of story books and mostly my patti (grandmother). She was very fond of me and relished telling me about various temples, lives of alwars and their hymns.
I still remember the day when Bhooma in my presence told my grandma, “Patti, you are making Sarangan a useless guy telling him, as if he is a child of five years, mythological stories and slokams. He can as well read them in Chanda Mama. He is not doing very well in studies. He is also shy walking with his head bent and rarely talks to me in the school, let alone my friends.”
“Keep quiet, you silly girl. He is not loud mouthed like you but is quite intelligent. He can recite easily from memory entire Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam without faltering and knows many hymns of alwars. Be respectful to him as he is older to you by three years. He is a good boy and is naturally unwilling to talk to unknown girls. “Bhooma left in a huff jabbing her shoulder on her jaw in contempt.
”Ignore that brat, Saranga.I will tell her father to reprimand her. It is not good for a girl to be so egoistic and proud” consoled my patti as if I was hurt by her remark.
“It is Okay, patti.She told the truth only as I am shy by nature and also not a topper like her. She means good” I replied
“May be. When she gets married, she must learn to be respectful. Anyway I leave it in the hands of Lord Oppiliappan” I could surmise even at my young age patti’s secret desire that I should marry her and relieve mama of much expense towards marriage.(In our parts marrying maternal uncle’s daughter was very much in vogue)
I have never spoken to patti about Bhooma or what I thought of her. Though tall with lustrous hair falling up to hip, she had a bulbous nose with a shrill voice. Dominating and outspoken by nature, she did not endear herself to me though I held her in good esteem for her attainments in many fields. We often argued on petty matters and she ascribed this to my jealousy of her.
Years flew by and I had finished engineering and was working in a leading IT company at Pune.Bhooma had finished her graduation on scholarships and topped the university. She was selected in the campus by a reputed bank and was waiting for the offer letter. I had not visited home for nearly three years. Meanwhile there was a family function which my mom insisted that I should attend mainly for seeing my patti who was keeping indifferent health. She had grown old, very weak and was falling sick often. It seemed she expressed a keen desire to see me at the earliest.
The day I reached my home, my mom took me aside to the kitchen after the initial pleasantries, and told me”Saranga,I wish to share with you the piquant situation I am in before you meet your patti.She is not keeping well and doctor says that she may not live for long. She has been insisting that I promise her to have Bhooma married to you. I told her that this is a matter concerning you and that I cannot assure her anything without discussing with you. It is not that I have anything against Bhooma but feel both of you should warm up to the suggestion. Now that you are here, she may ask me again or even talk to you directly. I mentioned to your dad and he said this is something to be decided by you. What is in your mind?”
“Amma, frankly I have not thought about marriage at all and I am certain that Bhooma is not someone whom I would like to marry. Do not make any promise to patti. You can tell her the truth in plain words. If mama wants financial support for Bhooma’s marriage, I can pitch in some amount along with appa.I will certainly not marry her” I said
“I understand but remember patti is my mother and I cannot be as blunt as you are. Again you have not seen Bhooma recently in the last two years. She has changed a lot into a beautiful maiden and has turned very soft in speech. She has been selected for a nice job..You may even change your mind, if you see her. I am not trying to influence you. Anyway be prepared for patti’s query on this. I would not accompany you when you go to meet her” she replied.
When I went next morning to meet patti, the front door was ajar and she was alone. Mama as usual, had gone out and mami to a nearby temple.Bhooma was not to be seen. Patti sat up with difficulty and hugged me with affection and said ”Saranga, I am extremely happy to see you and was really worried whether I would be alive to see you again. I have only one desire to be fulfilled before I shed this coil. I spoke to your mom but she is dodgy. I rely only on Lord Oppiliappan to open His eyes and your willingness to carry out my last wish.”
I grabbed the short pause as she was catching her breath and told her”Patti, I know your wish and I am sorry to tell you that I cannot fulfill it. If it is Bhooma’s marriage with me, let us not talk about it. If mama needs financial help, I can offer it to him. Sorry for being blunt. Please do not mistake me. I love you very much”
Her eyes became red with anger and she shouted “Who needs your financial help? Your mama is not a beggar to take it from you. Bhooma would earn enough for her marriage. I had lot of affection for and hope in you but never knew you were disrespectful to elders. I would not like to see your face again till my last breath. Please go away immediately from here.”
As I lingered and said “Patti, please listen. You cannot impose”, she cut me short with a scream  “Get lost now” and fell down on her side with her face turned away from me.
It was then I saw a shadow fall upon me and I found Bhooma entering the room from the hall. I could see her eyes moist.”Please leave her alone, Saranga.She is really sick and tension is the last thing she can have” she said softly. I knew she must have heard our conversation.
I could not believe my eyes how beautiful she had transformed in the last two or three years even as I stood transfixed before her.
”Saranga, please go away immediately. We cannot afford another hospital trip” she pleaded.
It was barely 30 minutes after I reached my home, we heard the front door being knocked repeatedly and loudly. It was Bhooma crying aloud that patti had breathed her last and her mom is yet to return from temple and that someone should send word to her dad. With utter disbelief and shock, we rushed to her house. Patti’s face looked as if she was under some pain and I knew who had caused it.
“Patti, please open your eyes for one last time. I wish to say that I would carry out your wish wholeheartedly. My disinclination to marry Bhooma stemmed from my inferiority complex as she always excelled me and my fear she may want a better person. I am sorry I displeased you at the fag end of your life.Please, will you open your eyes oce?”I pleaded
Meanwhile a doctor was fetched by someone and after examination, he said “She had only fainted, may be due to weakness. Who said she had breathed her last? I have given her an injection. She should be okay soon. Please give her some warm beverage. There is nothing to worry”
From the corner of my eyes, I could trace a mischievous grin on Bhooma’s face and a much relieved amma. The tightness in Patti’s face seemed to have vanished. I could not resist the wicked thought whether Bhooma, patti and amma had in unison enacted this drama.