I was a struggling writer then. Apart from a dozen short and long stories and few articles I had nothing much to disclose to anyone except piles of rejection slips. Digital age had arrived, but I was still doing my best to write long hand which I thought was more advantageous for me. Of course, I did carry a laptop, but indulged in it only when certain occasions demanded. I didn’t earn much for making both my ends meet as most Indian magazines paid me meagerly. However, I was lucky in a sense as I had two elder brothers both, unlike me, were married and well settled. They knew my difficulties although I kept my pride. Still they couldn’t let the matter to rest and send me some checks once in a while. I would guiltily except them and make sure to tell them not to send me any. Yet the checks came and somehow I managed.
During those days I had shifted to Adimali, a tiny town, where I had two rooms rented shelter. This was situated on top of a grocery shop, a small restaurant and a hardware shop that completed the bottom part of the unfinished structure. I was the only non-commercial tenant and this was quite okay with me. Although I received the small checks from my brothers, I was quite careful of not spending lavishly and therefore choose to live in this cheap space. What I needed was a calm place for a while where I could write comfortably. I was in constant move so as to get the right location when the earlier place became monotonous and hardly stirred my imagination. When entreated to settle down by my worried parents and brothers, I would assure them that the moment I finished my novel I would do so. This was more like a delaying tactics for apart from short stories I never actually got around to write novels.
I happened to meet Anita at the District Hospital at Kochi. This was about 100 kilometers from Adimali and took about two and half hours to travel. I had gone there to meet one of my friends who had got transferred from Chennai. On my way back from his house I took a short cut where there lay several rusted abandoned electric items left by the State Electricity Department linemen. I nearly tripped over them while walking casually and got my right foot cut. A passerby seeing this suggested that I go to the nearby District Hospital. I beckoned an auto rickshaw and got admitted at the casualty. I was more worried about tetanus infection than the cut which wasn’t too deep.
When I came out of the casualty duly dressed, I saw Anita struggling to get her aged paternal grandmother and great Aunt out of a taxi. I later learnt that she also had her maternal grandmother admitted there last week as the expenses were substantially lesser than the private hospitals. Without any hesitation, I quickly gave a helping hand and soon after got them admitted in the general ward.
Anita looked quite forlorn and I sensed her mixed feelings for her aged relations. There were compassion, love and traces of exasperation that she felt while shouldering such great burden all alone. I later learnt that she worked for a private firm where all employees were entitled for salaries and hardly any incentives.
“Thank you for your help”, she spoke to me wearily. For the first time then I had a proper look at her face and realized that she wasn’t really attractive and was quite thin and frail. Her body was thin too as if the food she consumed was non-nutritious.
“Don’t thank me, after all this is only what I can do in my present condition” I told her frankly. “You see, I am a writer and have enough of my own difficulties.”
“Oh, what is your name and where do you stay?” she asked in order to say something or the other.
“My name is Roshan and I am staying presently at Adimali” I replied.
Her eyes now observed me keenly and she quickly said, “Really! I too live at Adimali. Since the doctors at Kochi are better and the District Hospital offered better facilities, I had brought them here.”
When I told her my location I was surprised to hear from her that we were both only about three hundred meters away from one another’s place.
“How long have you been staying at Adimali? Anita asked me.
“Only for a couple of months,” I answered. “I often change places to get more creative ideas.”
I took leave off Anita when the doctor and the nurses arrived and she got busy with them.
To tell the truth, I only had a few meetings with Anita thereafter. We kept some distance from one another, more so, because we never wished to discuss personal matters. I did so for my own guilt of not being able to settle down in life while she, subject to her own misfortunes, shied away from detailing anything about her family. In fact, we met only few times and mostly on the streets. In fact, both of us were quite happy with this kind of socializing.
During one of our longer conversation at the town centre, where we happened to meet, Anita sensed my need for lots of papers or notebooks as majority of these when written upon were laid aside by me as waste and only a few paragraphs were ultimately selected for sending to publishers. This time she promised to get me a whole lot of waste papers from her office as there were piles of it waiting ready for the waste man to collect on weekends. From what I gathered, most of waste papers offered enough space for me to write on the back while a significant number were torn sheets from the electronic printers and later discarded.
I thanked Anita in advance for her generosity and told her that this time around I had decided to start with my novel the moment I received these papers. Our meeting that day lasted for fifteen minutes.
It was July and was raining heavily all over Kerala. Anita had promised to bring me a pile of waste paper lying to be disposed off at her office. It was Thursday. She usually returned home by 6 pm as female staffs were allowed to go early. As planned, I was to meet her at the grocery shop where I stayed so that she could hand me over the papers and purchase some essential vegetables for herself. She was living alone as her paternal and maternal grandmothers and her Great Aunt were yet to be discharged from hospital. Perhaps, she couldn’t bear the expenses. I always wondered as to what happened to her other relations, but she never divulged it to me. Hers was indeed a miserable and unfortunate case. I wished to help her with some money, but unfortunately at that very period of time I had not received any checks from my brothers since last month. Of course, my pride restrained me from asking from them and so I spent frugally and cut down my expenses.
I waited for Anita to come to the grocery shop that day. It was drizzling and there were few people and vehicles plying along the road on their way home or to shop. Adimali was also a tourist spot and there were always people at the center of the town. However, at the place where I stayed and which was about 2 kilometers away from the town things became quiet just after dark. Anita either took an auto rickshaw or came by foot depending upon the weather conditions and the time she left her office.
I waited below my rented place and when the shops of the unfinished building downed their shutters, I got worried. Anita hadn’t arrived and the time was 7.30 pm. For me it was all right to remain idle as I often did watching people and vehicles going to and fro and also to get some fresh air. I nodded goodbyes to the shop owners who knew me well and left me standing with the street light shinning dimly before the building. I didn’t get wet for there was an extended shade of concrete in front of the shops. Everything was quiet except for the noise of the drizzle. Even the streets too were now empty except for a cyclist or two.
When it was eight and there was no sign of Anita, I decided to retire to my room where I lived. I resolved to see Anita the next day and if she hadn’t turned up at her home then I would enquire about her relations at the hospital. As for the waste papers, it can wait as there were more pressing things for her to consider.
I climbed the staircase and opened the door when suddenly the lights went out. It was very dark inside yet I knew my way about. Quickly, I located the box containing matchboxes and candlesticks. I lighted one and settled down to eat my sparse dinner consisting of rice, some kind of vegetable gravy which I had prepared hastily and a boiled egg.
I was accustomed to these sudden power failures in these parts by now. Often when the power goes off it is usually detected the next day for no linemen ever worked at night. At the town center, as I had heard, power failures were at once rectified as there were several tourist hotels. However, I didn’t have to worry for it was quite cold due to incessant rain and there was no need for the ceiling fan.
I dozed off at around 9 pm and then woke up at 9.40 pm as sleep eluded me. Feeling inquisitive as to whether anything could have happened to any one or more of Anita’s relatives at the hospital, I got up and dressed. The warm sweater and the thick pants were comfortable for this kind of weather. Then armed with a torch and an umbrella I resolved to walk up to Anita’s house and see whether she had arrived there or hadn’t. I had no intention of disturbing her if she were inside her house and thought hopefully that everything was okay with her aged relatives at the hospital.
I locked my front door and was soon walking in the wet rainy climate shielded by my umbrella. I kept the torch shinning all the way as there were several kinds of snakes in these parts. When I approached Anita’s house I saw the glimmer of light from a lantern suggesting that she was inside. My immediate fears were rested as this meant that nothing has happened to her or to her aged relations at the hospital. Perhaps, she may have forgotten to get the waste papers or perhaps the same must have been removed and dumped before she arrived there.
I therefore retreated my steps from where I came giving a last glance at Anita’s house that had empty plots on three sides all belonging to private individuals while on her left was a two storied house belonging to a gulf returnee. The front gates of her house has been left unlocked so it wasn’t difficult for me to take a few steps towards the front door although I quickly thought better of it and returned back the way I came. From the front gates to the door was perhaps only a dozen feet or so. I drew back the small gate and then walked along to the direction where my living quarters were. The rain now came in torrents and there were flashes of lightening followed by thunder suggesting that tonight there would be no respite from pouring water.
However, oddly, during my walk back, I heard loud barking and snarling noises of dogs on prowl. I was terrified for I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. Although the barks came distinctly nearer, I couldn’t see the creatures in the darkness. Besides, the barking sounds of the dogs, I was even more surprised to hear loud cawing of crows and these birds flew around flapping their wings furiously, but always hovering at the same spot near to Anita’s house.
I had only got around to the first turning on the tar road some dozen meters away when I heard a gate closing. I quickly looked back to where Anita’s house was and saw a figure of a man hesitating within the compound gates. He then disappeared from sight. Sensing something odd, I quickly half ran to where Anita’s home lay. Upon reaching the gates I noticed that the man was at her front door trying to tamper with the locks.
I still had my umbrella covering me although I had switched off my torch. The truth is that I didn’t have the guts to confront a stranger especially alone in a night like this. So, I didn’t reveal my presence.
When tampering with the lock failed to yield results, the stranger, who was wet from head to foot and wearing crumpled dark shirt and dark pants, started knocking at the door violently. I held my breath as I heard Anita’s voice asking as to who it was. She then threw open the window near to the door to have a look at the person who had knocked. To my utter surprise I realized that the stranger or the intruder had vanished from the scene.
I let out a sigh of relief as if a great burden has been shifted from my shoulders. In any case I wouldn’t be able to offer much help as my hands were already shivering. Even my shouts wouldn’t have been heard by the folks at the neighboring homes. Wisely, Anita made no attempt to open the door and look outside.
However, the street dogs were making loud barks and snarling somewhat near to where I stood although I couldn’t see them anywhere. Overhead the crows were not just cawing and making a ruckus, but they were, strangely, giving out frequent shrieks that send my blood curling with fright. Why should crows shriek in the dark like this? I couldn’t make out why they made this strange noise.
I quickly withdrew from Anita’s house and this time too I had just hastened a few steps in that dark night when I heard a loud scream. It came from Anita, but the noisy sounds of the rain would have drowned it anyway so that it wouldn’t even reach the next neighboring house.
Horrified I raced back to Anita’s house and realized that there was no one at the entrance. I stealthily moved towards the window which offered good view of what was going inside as it had a large crack. However, the iron bars were solid and assured safety to anyone inside.
What I saw inside sent shock waves all over my body. The intruder whom I had seen earlier had somehow got into the house and was now threatening Anita with a large dagger. Anita sat huddled up in her chair without moving. Obviously, the intruder must have got into the house through the backdoor or through another broken window. Slung over his shoulder was a bag that rattled with assortment of tools that only thieves carried.
“Hand over what you have”, snapped the robber furiously at Anita. “ I have killed several people earlier on and those who try to put in resistance and I wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.”
“I have just today received my salary and you can have all that” said Anita calmly, much to my bewilderment. She then pointed to her bag lying on the table.
The robber quickly pounced on the bag and rummaged it and took out a handful of notes. He then furiously turned towards Anita and snarled in rage, “Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all there is,” replied Anita steadily. “The rest of it I had paid at the hospital. You can go through the whole place if you have any doubts.”
“I believe you, but how will you carry on this month. Perhaps you will borrow, isn’t it? And whose rooms are those?”
“Those rooms and the cots you see are for my paternal and maternal grandmothers as well as a Great Aunt. They are at the hospital.”
He sneered around in disgust and thrust the wad of notes into his pant pocket. It was then the street dogs started to howl and bark ferociously. The crows flying overhead started to make more noise than they ever did before.
“Ah, damn the crows,’ growled the intruder angrily. “Why do the crows shriek at night like this? I can’t understand. Do you?”
As soon as he uttered these words, more crows made a ruckus near to the windows of the room where the lantern light burned. I crept into the shadows and eyed the scene with a sharp lookout for the crows that flapped hither and thither.
“There is nothing else, I suppose?’ asked the criminal.
“Yes, there is something else” replied Anita coolly. She gestured to the small wooden rack where a pile of newspapers were kept. “Go through the topmost pile of the newspapers and you will see my gold locket beneath one. You may have it”.
This time the criminal intruder fixed his eyes on her for a few seconds. He nevertheless went to the pile of newspapers without much haste this time and got the locket. He looked at it without the greed he exhibited earlier. He again looked at Anita. I sensed from my hiding place that never in his life he must have come across such a strange situation before. Even I too couldn’t understand Anita’s strange behavior. Has anything after all happened to one or more of her aged relations at the hospital so as to upset her?
The intruder didn’t pocket the gold locket the way he did to the currency notes and he faced Anita with some confusion. There were again vicious sounds of street dogs snarling and barking. As for the crows they again started to make horrible ruckus. One of the crows sailed and hit the glass pane of the window which cracked into splinters and fell dead with blood oozing out of it.
“Why did you tell me about this locket?” he asked, unperturbed by the falling crow. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of looking inside piles of old newspapers. “ You could have kept quiet. After all, you need something for tomorrow, isn’t it?
I guessed this was again the first time in his life that the criminal was speaking with doubts. All his other victims that he had robbed or even raped may have reacted quite differently. Thankfully, he didn’t try to molest Anita for if he had tried to do so, I had resolved to make loud noises or throw myself in whatever may be the outcome. Also, Anita’s strange behavior deterred me from taking any such action.
“You take it”, replied Anita coolly again, much to my anguish. “It is of no use to me. After all, today is the last day of my life.”
“Last day of your life?” he asked without the usual thrill as his previous exploits did. “Anyway that is not my lookout. Now what have you got there?”
He gestured at the table where there was some utensils containing food.
“That’s my dinner,” replied Anita without moving from her place.
“Then I shall have some,” returned the intruder and he advanced towards the table.
This time Anita let out a scream and shouted, “Don’t touch that food. You will die. It is poisoned.”
The criminal swung around aghast for not even the most hardcore criminal loved death. “Why have you poisoned it”?
“Didn’t I say that tonight is my last,” answered Anita, now getting up and standing upright. I too was shivering at her revelations and shaking horribly dropping my torch near to my feet.
The intruder gazed at Anita as he perhaps never eyed anyone in his whole life. His face lost the earlier vigor and he was perhaps slowly getting the feel of the whole situation. Suddenly, in complete rage he pulled out the wad of currency notes from his pocket and along with gold locket he threw it down on to the floor and stamped out of the front door. I had a last look at his face and realized that his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth very blackish due to his chewing something constantly, but definitely not betel leaves.
I crouched again in the darkness, but there was no need as the intruder, without the least hesitation, had vanished the way he had come. Meanwhile, I didn’t have the guts to face Anita now. I felt guilty of my own timidity and utter helplessness. I was more frightened than she was and couldn’t comprehend the whole situation then. I left the place as quickly as I could for never in my life had I come across a situation like this before.
It was only when I reached home wet to foot with my torch light batteries dead and my umbrella failing to open, that I sensed that Anita must have proceeded to take her dinner. This recollection of the unfolding tragedy was too much for me for the very next few days I was bed ridden with cold and fever and didn’t venture out of my room save to get some milk from the shop below.
A couple of days later I read about Anita’s death in the newspapers. Her body was found in a decomposed state and the police had attributed it to a case of genuine suicide as Anita had left a note on the table. I shivered in my fever as I read the news. I had not been questioned as no one had seen me going to her house. Nor did the police suspect anything. But what astounded me even more was the tragic end of her aged relations on that very night Anita committed suicide.
According to the news report her Great Aunt had climbed down the staircase from the first floor without the knowledge of the nurses and had fallen and broken her neck. She died instantly while her paternal and maternal grandmothers had their throats slit during their sleep. It still remained a mystery to everyone and also the police. I left Adimali after a week or so resolving not to return back again.
As for the crows I still have no idea as to why they shrieked at night around Anita’s house.