This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 06 Apr 2013 and won INR 500 (US$ 10)
The incessant sound of pouring rain was broken by loud knocks on the door, which creaked open, throwing insufficient illumination from a fly-blown, grime-coated forty-watt bulb. An old man, in his seventies, crouching a little, stood in the doorframe.
“How can I help you?” He inquired of the man and woman standing outside. The man held a suitcase in one hand. They were fully drenched in the rain.
“Our car broke down a couple of kilometres from here on the highway. We need a place to stay for the night. We were told that you run a guest house. Will you help us, please?” The man requested.
“Come in. Come in.” The old man led the way inside. The couple followed him.
It wasn’t much of a guest house but an old dilapidated rural house. The plastering from the walls peeled off at several places exposing the brick-and-mortar insides. The part-Mangalore-tiles-part-tin-sheet roof sagged threateningly. A GI bucket and several aluminium utensils were strategically placed to collect the rainwater that was leaking from several holes in the roof. There were a couple of rooms on the ground floor. A rickety wooden staircase led to the terrace. The whole place was dusty and dank. The smell of stale, damp air engulfed the interior of the house.
The couple settled in a small room. They had changed into dry clothes.
The old man cleared his throat. “Ahem…Are you married? What are your names, children?”
“I’m Rajesh and she’s my wife, Simran. We have two children – a son and a daughter – back home in Chennai. What about you…”
“Where are they?” The old man interrupted.
“My parents are taking care of them. We went to Pondicherry yesterday to attend a wedding. We thought we would be able to return to Chennai before night. What about you, uncle?”
“What about me?” the old man retorted.
“I mean, your family, children…” Rajesh’s voice petered away.
The old man sighed and sat down on a rickety wooden chair.
“I am Raman. My wife died long ago. I live here with my granddaughter, Lakshmi. I had only one son. He and my daughter-in-law died a few years ago.” He fell silent.
“Sorry to hear that,” Simran prodded him, “What happened, uncle?”
“Tsunami; a few years ago. It’s a beautiful fishing village, this Ayyanpalayam. About two thousand people lived here. Two hundred survived including me and Lakshmi.”
A pall of silence fell over the room. The raindrops continued to beat down on the roof.
A few minutes later Raman spoke. “How did you know about my place?”
“We saw some lights in the village and a signpost at the crossroads. A man coming from the village gave us directions.”
“Who? How did he look like?”
“Actually, Simran spoke to him as I was taking out the suitcase from the trunk. Simran?”
“Hmmm…He was very tall and lean; wore a white veshti and white shirt; tied a turban and was holding a palm-leaf umbrella,” said Simran.
“That must be Velu. He is the village head.”
“Where is Lakshmi?” Simran was curious.
“I’ll call her,” he paused, “Will you have dinner? It’s very late but I can stir up something.”
“No, uncle. We’ve got some eatables from the wedding. We’ll eat and sleep; shall leave early in the morning.”
“Son, did you go into the village?”
“We were going, but Velu said that your house was a little away from the village. He pointed to a narrow path and said that that would lead us to your house and we needn’t pass through the village. Of course, the path was under ankle-deep water…”
“Hmmm…Velu; always helpful.” Raman left the room calling out for his granddaughter.
There was a soft knock on the door.
“Come in,” said Simran.
For a sixteen-year old girl, Lakshmi looked a lot younger. She was petite, cute, and definitely very attractive; even in her coarse, crumpled, cotton salwar and kurta. There was something ethereal and elfin about her whole appearance. She adjusted her slightly dishevelled, dry, brown hair and stood in front of them.
“Sit down, Lakshmi.” Simran patted the mattress. Lakshmi sat tentatively on the edge of the bed twirling her fingers.
Simran caressed Lakshmi’s tresses. “Tell us about yourself, Lakshmi. Where are you studying?”
“After my parents died I stopped going to school. I look after my grandfather.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Lakshmi.”
They spoke for a while when Raman called out for Lakshmi.
“I have to help him.” Lakshmi left and returned with her grandfather, carrying a few plates and glasses and set them neatly on a wooden bench.
Rajesh and Simran ate the eatables, while Raman talked about their life and the village. By the time they finished their impromptu dinner, the rain ceased. Lakshmi cleared the plates.
“The rain has ceased. The skies will be clear tomorrow,” Raman said.
“I hope so; got to get our car repaired, though. Uncle, where can I find a mechanic?”
“There’s only one workshop, about ten kilometres from here. The mechanic, Selvam, is known to me. Give it a try.”
“But you may not need it.”
Rajesh was slightly surprised at the prediction.
“It’s late. You children should go to sleep. Good night,” he paused, “And, if you don’t find us here tomorrow morning don’t worry. We’ll be in the village. You can leave whenever you wake up and are ready.”
“In that case, I shall pay you now, uncle.” Rajesh reached for his wallet.
“There will be no payment, son.” Raman chuckled.
Raman continued to chuckle, shook his head and left.
“Good night, uncle.” They turned in for the night and instantly fell into a tired and deep slumber.
The sun was shining brightly. The thick clouds of the previous night dispersed, leaving behind a bright, blue sky. The chirping of birds was a welcome relief from the ceaseless spattering of raindrops. Rajesh and Simran did not find Raman or Lakshmi in the house. After making heavy weather of walking on the slushy path they finally reached their car. Rajesh was putting the suitcase in the trunk.
“Namaste. Could you find the guest house easily?” A pleasant rustic voice greeted them. It was Velu.
“Namaste. Yes. Thanks to you. The old man and his granddaughter were very courteous. But we couldn’t find them in the morning.”
Velu smiled. “They must be in the village. Are you leaving?”
“Yes. I’ve to find a mechanic. I believe there’s a workshop about ten kilometres from here.”
“Yes, Selvam’s; in that direction.” Velu bade good bye and walked away in the direction of the village.
Rajesh and Simran reached Selvam’s workshop by a passing bus.
“I don’t know what happened, Selvam; maybe water in the silencer or the lightning that struck the road in front of us.”
“OK, sir. We shall leave in ten minutes. First, let us have some tea.” He sent his worker to fetch tea from a nearby tea stall.
“When did the car stall, sir?” Selvam asked while sipping tea.
“Last night. Hmmm…Tea is good.”
Simran was looking around.
“You spent the whole night in the car; and madam, too!” Selvam couldn’t hide his surprise.
“No, no, no…We locked up the car safely on the roadside and spent the night in the guest house in the village.”
“Village? Which village? There is no village within fifty kilometres, except this one.”
“What? The man, Velu, the village head gave us directions to the guest house. We walked two kilometres in pouring rain and finally reached the place.”
“Velu? Village head?”
“Which village are you talking about?”
“Ayyanpalayam; we saw the signpost at the crossroads.”
Selvam’s jaw dropped, as though he had seen a ghost.
“Are you alright?” Rajesh asked.
“Where did you say you stayed?”
“Raman’s house; a nice old man and his granddaughter, Lakshmi; both very courteous.”
“Sir, you must be joking!”
“What do you mean?”
“You seem to think that I am the village idiot.”
“Come on, Selvam. I haven’t said anything to offend you, have I?”
There was a long pause.
“Sir, there is something wrong.”
“There is no village by name Ayyanpalayam.”
“What?” Rajesh was flabbergasted. “Now you think that we are stupid? The village head, Velu, the guest house, Raman and Lakshmi, the lights in the village – are we bluffing?” Rajesh was angry.
“Sir, the village Ayyanpalayam was wiped out completely during the tsunami. There’s nothing left now.”
Rajesh and Simran were shocked. Simran held the shoulder of her husband tightly.
“What are you saying, Selvam? We stayed at the guest house. Raman told us that two hundred survived; their house was slightly away from the village.”
“I am telling the truth. There were no survivors. Out of two thousand villagers, dead bodies of only two hundred could be recovered; rest could never be traced. I know Raman, Lakshmi and her parents and Velu very well. The bodies of Lakshmi’s parents were never traced. But the dead bodies of Raman, Lakshmi, Velu and some others were recovered when the water receded.”
“Then, then…what did we see, whom did we meet, where did we stay?”
“I don’t know. I am shocked, too. The truth is there is no Ayyanpalayam. Not a single house or a single soul escaped the wrath of the tsunami. That house survived since it was away from the village and on higher ground. It still stands there. Looks like it gave you shelter from this terrible storm last night.” His voice petered into a murmur. “The village always had a tradition of helping passers-by, visitors and tourists. The question is, does it even now?”
Rajesh and Simran gaped at each other dumbstruck.
The car started without any trouble, as if nothing was wrong with it, ever. Rajesh made a token payment to Selvam, overriding his protests. Before leaving the place, Rajesh and Simran looked around from the high ground of the highway and found no telltale signs of any inhabitation in the vicinity, except the lone, crumbling guest house at a distance. Deeply terrified, Rajesh gunned the engine and sped away from the village.
by Shyam Sundar Bulusu