For everyone, she was a mad woman who spent all her time writing letters to someone whom people knew not. She was all alone in her little shabby house that belonged to the Government Authority. Her husband died in a road accident. This was muck. The real story was utterly different.
She could be seen writing letters all day long. She had no pals and as far as my brain can recall, never had any relative paying a visit to her since her husband’s death. She was very lonely and probably had no children. What amused me was that no one dared to go anyway near to her and though she looked like a witch, she actually was not. None ever talked to her. Even the women of the colony kept themselves away from that house, I bet you would not call that a house if you saw it.
The place was old and was a barrack. The condition was so appalling that even a banshee would hesitate to tolerate a filthy place like that. Sometimes, I wondered, was that woman mad? I was young and small and could not understand why people kept themselves away from that poor woman. Is this how we are to treat an old and helpless woman? Why cannot all the people of the colony collect money and help the poor woman.
However, thinking about all this is useless. People can be very cruel, very cruel indeed. The story I am going to tell is a story from which you can learn about life, the way it changed my outlook of life. I never thought that it would be sensible on my part to keep mum and think like the rest of the people in community around.
When I had first come to this city, Allahabad from Khajurao, my friends used to say that this woman was wretched and they were not allowed to even roam near her house. I could not understand why such educated people had left this poor woman all alone instead of mingling with her and supporting her financially as anyone at first sight could tell that she was damn poor. She had no means of support.
One day I came to know that she did have kids, two of them I guess. What I learned from my friends is rather pitiful. It was my birthday, the seventh, I believe and the rain would not call it off that night. There was no electricity in the colony due to heavy rainfall. Then as of a miracle, the downpour stopped. Quite boring, all my friends’ were restless and asked me to come out of the house.
“What shall we do? It’s raining,” I asked.
“Come man! It has stopped raining,” Begged Gautham, my friend.
“All right, wait a minute.”
It was not raining anymore and the sky was clear by the time I got out of my house on to the road. The moonlight was bright enough for us to see each other and our surroundings.
“Wow, man do you know we are going to Shimla this October,” Boasted Venkat.
“You are now going to Shimla what about the trip of yours to Singapore which you had planned last summer?” teased Akash who was walking beside me.
“Oh, so you think I’m lying. This time it’s true we are sure to go to Shimla this October”.
“So, you admit of lying earlier, don’t you?” It was Yashwant this time.
“What the heck; you think I was lying, no! My relatives had come last summer so we had to just cancel our trip”.
Yashwant, Varun, and Akash could not stop giggling and Akash snorted so loudly that made the three laugh even more loudly.
“Stop it all of you, stop teasing Venkat. He is our friend, ok?”
Everyone controlled his laughter and Venkat felt embarrassed. However, it did not take us long to cheer him up.
“What man, cheer up. We were just joking don’t we make fun of each other.”
“Alright, but don’t tease me again, I don’t like it.”
“Oye! What’s up Rahul? Why are you so dull tonight, it’s your birthday man,” Gautham asked me putting his arm around my shoulder.
“It’s nothing I’m just thinking of that old woman across the street. She would be feeling so lonely.” I replied.
“Yeah, but she is not alive she is dead. It’s her ghost we see.” Akash grinned devilishly.
“Shut up, it’s not the truth. I know the reality of her,” Interrupted Venkat.
“Oh, so you know the truth. How, she told you about her isn’t it,” Teased Varun.
“Will you shut up” I screamed.
“Ok, Venki, tell us what you know and if we realize that it’s just a make up on your part, we will simply batter you black and blue, understand?” I warned him, showing him my fist.
I wanted to know everything about her and this was an opportunity. However, you cannot really believe in his stories. Like the one, he told us about his uncle in America having many adventures fighting the smugglers. Moreover, when we asked his mother about him she said that he was not in America but in Mumbai. In addition, he was a teacher in a private school and not a secret agent. Still who knows, this guy really knows many a things that we do not. By this time, we had reached the park.
“Let’s go over that slide and sit there, it’s good to sit and watch the runway from there.”
Akash pointed his finger towards the slide in the park. Many of my sweet memories are related to my eight years of happy stay in this colony. When someone talks about Allahabad, I just remember my delightful days with so many friends that I spent in this colony. The reason was that the children were simple and had no kind of head-weight. There was no disparity of any kind and this made it possible for all of us to play and spend time together.
However, today in big cities, I find that simplicity lost. The children are very diplomatic, make groups among themselves, and plan to take grudge against other. They take pride in their parents being rich. The children are no longer as active as we were. We used to play all day long without having distant thoughts of books. Today, children do not find time to turn their heads away from their books and if they do, their parents send them to some coaching. The freedom is lost. I pity them. Well, the times have changed and so should we. Let us get back to the Venkat.
“You might know that this lady is all alone and stupid,” began Venkat.
“Hey, Venki have respect for her, will you?” I stormed.
I do not know why I was so emotional about her, the poor old woman who had nothing.
“Ok dude, be cool, let me start the story and don’t you try to tease me or I will surely box your stupid ears,” Warned our great storyteller, Mr. Venki.
Therefore, the story begins as by Venki……
‘This woman was here in that house nearly five years ago. She was here with her husband, two children, Rohan and Nilesh. She was not like what she is now, though old may be in her 50’s but very kind.’
We all drew nearer, oh! Boy, this is going to be an exciting story.
“She was very shy and rarely talked to others and the others never bothered to talk to her too. The family was very happy. They were often seen happily talking to each other in the verandah in the evenings. The boys were very studious and never went out to play and so had no friends.’
“What about their father, he must have had friends in the office,” Interrupted Gautham.
“No, he was not working in the ONGC, but was allowed to stay here as he was the H.O.D in IIIT, the college in which Madan’s elder brother pursued his engineering.’ (Madan is the younger son of Mr. Patel, the director on the office and the colony’s principal). Venkat continued.
‘You know, they were very much secluded type. They never had any parties or anything.’
“They might be so boring,” interrupted Akash.
“Don’t you butt in you silly, I may lose my track?” thundered Venkat.
“Where was I? Yes, so they were contented in themselves. One day, however, the misery came in their lives too, the elder brother Nilesh failed in XII Board exams.”
“What are board exams? Do the questions come on the black board?” asked Yashwant.
“No stupid, the Board here means the central council which conducts the X and XII exams all over the country.” Explained Gautham to us..
“Ooh!” we all exclaimed.
“So, the question paper would be the same, isn’t it?” It was Akash this time.
“Yes, and if you have finished your discussion on board exam, we can carry on with our listening to Venki’s story.” I shouted.
Venki on track again, “Fine, now that he had failed the exams and you can well imagine the quandary of the family. The family became even more secluded. The boy started feeling ashamed of himself, that the son of the H.O.D couldn’t even pass XII boards.”
“He must not have worked hard, or else he would have the passed the exams.” Interrupted Yashwant and looked at everyone. Everyone gave him a disdainful look.
“Ok. I won’t barge in anymore.”
“And do you know what he did?’ paused Venkat, his eyes were wet, they usually get wet when he tells any horror story or some unpleasant incident. Everyone waited for him to continue. What could have happened?
‘He committed suicide!’ said Venkat in a chill voice.
“What, but how, why, where?” asked Akash mystified.
“At his home, he consumed poison,” Said Venki, his eyes more sodden than ever.
We all felt silent. Seeing this Venkat continued.
“His father thought that it was his fault, that he pressurized his son which resulted in his death. He resigned from his post and one night he clandestinely left the house and never returned. The family now only had the mother and the younger son. They did not have much money, the mother was little educated and her son had just passed his X.’
“Poor people, their family got traumatized at once. How can god let that happen?” cried Varun.
We felt the same in our hearts too. Some have so much and still cry that they lack something or the other while, some keep tight-lipped even with so much grief in their spirit.
“Don’t you assume that this is all, there is much more to lament upon,” Said Venkat in wobbly voice.
There were tears in our eyes that we did not dare to stop.
“Don’t snivel now, there’s much more to hear” said Gautham.
The story began without further ado, in the words of Venki.
“Rohan was now the only responsible person in the house. Therefore, he went in search of a job. After a few months, one fine day, the mother received a phone call, that her only surviving son was killed in an accident in Chennai.’
“Oh gosh! What is happening to the family, man? How did the son die? Was he really dead?” exclaimed Akash.
We had the same questions in our minds; it might have been an omen for them to come here. The whole family was smashed.
“Yes, it was true, he was in Chennai searching for a job. He was heading to the workplace for interview by means of the local train and was hanging out of the door like some of the youths of his age do when a displaced pole nearby hit his head,” said the battered story-teller.
“And he died of the blow?” enquired Varun.
“Yes, it was a fatal blow. His body was later sent to his mother.”
I wanted to cry and ask god what sin did the family members commit that they were being punished so callously.
“The dreams of the mother would have been smashed to the ground.” I sobbed.
“No one should ever talk about that poor woman so stupidly. Hereafter we should tell everyone to respect that woman and include her in other activities taking place around here” fumed Gautham.
“Yes, we were so wrong about her, in just one and a half year time her family was devastated. I swear that I will help her all my life.” Proclaimed Akash proudly, holding his head high with his hands on his chest.
Well that was a bit too much but still he was right. It was our stupidity, that we believed in those muck, rumoured all around considering her a witch, a mad woman who writes letters all the time. Oh, whom does she write letters to?
“Hey, Venki what about the letters, man?” I asked.
“Why do you care about her letters a*s, let us plan how to organize our friends and help that pitiable lady?”
“Will you just let me talk you baboons?” screamed Venkat.
“She cannot stay here.” He shouted.
“But why, why can’t she stay here?” We all kept quite waiting to listen to the crucial sentence.
“Because, she does not work in the office and that none of her family members do.” Venkat started howling.
What do you want, oh god? What else is remaining? Why do not you end her pains and at least let her live peacefully in her small shabby barrack?
“Madan’s father had sent a notice to her earlier too. However, how can you expect her to leave the house? And where will she go, poor woman?” explained Venkat.
All was quiet when he had finished speaking. It seemed as if even the plants around us were sobbing.
“It’s getting late. Let us go home.” I said.
Everyone agreed. All of us got up and started walking down the lane. No one talked or made even the slightest noise. The moon shone bright and there was enough light on the boulevard so we had no difficulty at all walking on the road. We had not the slightest thought of where we were heading to and unexpectedly, Akash whispered,
“Hey, guys where we are?”
We were right in front of the shabby barrack, which was the address of the old woman. We were thinking of something when all of a sudden Varun whispered,
“Let us go to her and apologize.” It was a weird idea but at the same time a good one.
“But what for dude?” I exclaimed.
“For insulting her, for so long, not going near her and calling her mad,” answered Varun.
“Yes, let us go, and tell her that we really care about her,” Said Akash excitedly.
“But, the electricity hasn’t come yet and I don’t think it’s sensible to go in at this time of the night. She must be resting.” I warned.
“Shut up and anyways we are not sensible,” Venkat chuckled.
At last, after a lot of convincing done by my silly friends, I too agreed to go along with them. It was all dark in the veranda. The windows had no glass it was as if no one had been residing here for past a decade or so. What will they gain by taking such a ramshackle? Does this poor woman not even deserve a ramshackle? Shame is upon the people trying to take away this house.
Sometimes, I wonder why they tease a lame person, a blind, a deaf who tries to live with a pride of his own. What right do we have to make a distinction? We are nothing special, they do not have legs or eyes but have the excellent heart and soul whereas we do not even have a heart to throb for poor people, then in what way, are we blessed to boast in front of them. The only thing that made that ramshackle a house was that it had a door and that too half eaten by termites. Looking at all this, my temper soared through the scales. Those wretches want to take away this beautiful palace, couldn’t they wait for some more months.
“It’s all silent here, maybe she is in the inner room,” Guessed Varun.
“Yes let us get the heck out of here,” I said.
You can call me a wet blanket or whatever, but yes, I was afraid of being caught by the old woman while sneaking around.
“Will you shut your stupid mouth, Rahul?” Akash attempted to yell at me though keeping his voice low.
We went in through one of the broken windows. It was all murky and silence made things worse for me, making the scene creepier. We held each other’s hand in case we got lost and that was the worst thing I would have ever dreamt of happening to me.
“Do you see anyone around?” Asked Varun, may be to me because I was just next to him.
“Nope,” I replied “and I don’t wanna see anybody.”
We continued to wander here and there inside the house for nearly about 5 minutes and we went deeper and deeper inside the barrack that usually has long corridors. It’s said that the British soldiers used to stay here in the barracks and had their horses tied to the concrete pillars in the veranda. We tried to keep our voices as low as possible, whispering stuff.
“We all came here to talk to the old woman, let us search for her then,” I asked Akash, who was just behind me, as if I really meant it.
“Oh! if you have guts why don’t you search for her,” came the reply.
“We are searching a way out, I think we are lost and if you shut up it will be of great help,” scolded Varun, grinding his teeth so that I could hear them.
“What! We are lost, what do you mean? I warned you and now you see we are lost. How the heck will we get out of here?”
“No, I’m the youngest of you all and it’s my birthday today and I don’t want it to be my death day, do you understand you Idiot. I wanna get out of here,” I cried feebly.
“Shut up you baboon, you will get us all wedged,” someone from back howled.
“Shh. Shut up, can you hear that?” cautioned Varun.
“Somebody’s coming this way from the other room.”
“Did you hear that you filthy swine, we will all get caught,” Gautham punched me.
We all fell silent, listening to every possible sound.
“Whoo’s there. Come heeere,” came a rasping voice of a woman.
We could feel the sweat, the darkness, the wraith like silence, as if something dreadful was going to happen. My bones froze, my heart forgot how to pulsate, and I felt as if this was the end. We all stood frozen like zombies.
“Whoo’s there. Ok I am coming, wait you thief.”
Came the voice again and we could hear the footsteps, it was as if our end was nearing us. It was dark, it was very dark, it was very very dark, and you can well realize my quandary. Well she called us burglars, what did she have that could be stolen, except filth. We stood there for another two minutes waiting for the old woman to come not knowing what to do, our minds working as slow as the hours hand.
At last, the dreadful thing happened. The outline of her body was visible through the corridor. The flowing silvery hair, the thin and frail body, the eyes that shone as if she was an unearthly creature and all this added to the ghostly touch, the background was dark with faint moonlight coming into the corridor through the ventilator. She was slow and walked like an android. I became numb and guessed the same with the others. The hands were wet.
She came slowly towards us; we did not even dare to toss down our saliva. We stood scared stiff not knowing what to do. At last, I could not endure it anymore and shouted at the apex of my voice
“run fools run. Run for your life,”
and stood there while all the hands left mine. Everyone screamed and cried like real baboons. Everyone ran in all directions except me, I stood there still stiff.
‘What are you doing man, run idiot run she will catch you’, I ran in the direction of the front room.
I could hear the screams of others and ran even faster. While running through the main room I accidentally kicked a small table that lay in the way and fell on the floor. Many letters lay scattered just about me. Suddenly, a voice came
“don’t try to break out you fools.” It was the old woman.
I quickly picked up a letter and ran for my life and after running a few meters; I came near the same window through which we had entered into the barrack. Thank goodness, I was safe. I came out shouting and by this time, the electricity had come back, and luckily, all others, the baboons, were waiting for me outside the gate.
“All here? Alright let us get the hell out of here,” Shouted Yashwant.
We panted all the way home. We came to a halt.
“What an adventure man, this buffoon Rahul made us run or else we would have been dead,” laughed Varun panting.
We bent, panted, and took deep breaths. It sure was an escapade. So was I the hero.
“This fool might have woken up the lady or else she would not know about our presence,” said Akash taking a deep breath.
“So why did you go in, you coward?” I fired at Akash.
“It was everyone’s plan and don’t you dare to call me a coward or it’ll cost you heavy.”
Moreover, before I could say a word Gautham interrupted
“shut up its ok you don’t have to quarrel now”.
“It’s late and none of you dare to say a word to anyone,” warned Yashwant.
We bid goodbye and headed back home. As we had promised, we did not tell anything to our parents or anyone. As I climbed on the bed, least caring to change, I felt the letter in my pocket. My hands trembled to open it. There it was, such a beautiful handwriting, I read.
How are you my dear? Why, are you so busy that you even forgot your mother? I miss you very much. Tears come into my eyes when I try to remember the happy days in the past. Why did you leave me son. Did I fail taking care of you properly? All that I want to say is, I am coming to you all. They are not going to allow me to stay here anymore and besides I have nothing left in my life.
This will be my last letter to you because tomorrow they are going to take me away to a psychological hospital. I just want to ask them why can’t they let me live and die with pride that I died in a house and not in a hospital and, that too a mental hospital. Are they so merciless? Why do I have to suffer so much? Why don’t they understand that I am old and feeble and need just peace for some time? Couldn’t they at least pity me? Do they think I can fight for my right even at this age?
I am helpless they consider me mad, to whom should I complain, to whom I should tell my grief. There is no one to listen to the sorrows of an old crazy woman. Yes, I am mad I lost everything and have nothing to lose anymore. God has given me enough anguish, and now this is it, I cannot live here with these crazy people who do not even have a heart. I pity them. I cannot suffer any longer. Sorry if I ever troubled you my dear, that you took such a drastic step. I will die like you. I will leave a letter beside me so that the police does not suspect anyone and cause any trouble to anyone. Meet you soon. Happy birthday.
Mom. 23 may 1996.
‘Oh my god! What can this mean? Looking at the date I realized that it had been written today. I felt tired and fell to sleep in no time.
“Hmm”, I stretched out my legs and arms, ‘what, already morning’ the day shone brightly through the window of my room filling it with its golden radiance. I looked at my watch; it was ten in the morning. I got up and brushed my teeth. While having my breakfast I stared at my mom who was eating beside me and enquired about my Grandma.
“How’s grandma doing, mom,” and unexpectedly something struck me.
“My god! The old woman.” I ran towards the door.
“Where are you off to Rahul?” my mom cried at me standing at the door.
“Will be back in ten minutes, mom.”
I replied as I ran out of the house into the veranda I ran as fast I could towards the old woman’s barrack. Thorny thoughts occupied me. How, where will she be? On reaching there, I saw many people gathered in the courtyard, they were all silent. I walked slowly towards them, panting. I spotted my friends, all baboons. I walked up to them; I could not believe what I saw. There was someone lying on the ground, covered from top to bottom in white. The face was not visible, but I guessed what I shouldn’t have, the worst.
“What’s going on?” I asked Gautham as I stood beside him.
“She’s dead. The poor old woman is dead.” He hissed.
I noticed tears in his eyes and I too could not control mine.
Nothing more could come out of my mouth as it went all dry. Everyone was silent, lost in deep thought. My heart was heavy and I drew away from the crowd and walked towards my home remembering everything that made my heart cry. The poor old woman could not bear the pain any longer so she ended the chapter by committing suicide. She had to take her own life, what grief, what grief. I reached my home and slowly went inside. My mother was still having her breakfast.
“Where did you go Rahul, you didn’t even finish your milk.” I could not answer and headed straight for my room.
“Why are you so gloomy this morning? What’s happened dear?” asked my mother standing up.
I could not control it any longer, I ran to my mother weeping, and hugged her as tightly as possible.
“She is dead mom. The old woman is dead. She took her own life. She is dead, mom, she is dead” and kept repeating it.
There was silence for few seconds and then my mother consoled me.
“Don’t cry, dear. Everyone has to die; she must have faced lot of pain so she felt it better to take it herself. How long could she suffer, tell me, so she ended her life.”
That evening I met Madan; he looked bright on that dreary evening.
“What’s up man?” I asked.
“You know that old witch is dead. Now we can go and play in that shabby barrack.” He replied, a big smirk on his face. I felt like smashing his face with a dowel.
“You think she was a witch, no, she was a very kind woman and do you know who the devil is? It is your dad yes, your dad who has no brain to think and a heart to feel someone’s pain. Moreover, never dare to call her a witch or I shall smack the dung off your skull.”
Saying this I left the skunk pondering over what I spat on his face. I felt proud, that at least I did not allow him to insult the old woman in my presence. He never again dared to. As the time passed, people realized their mistakes. They felt sorry, but it was too late now. The old woman could have been alive if we all respected her and understood her sufferings. We should have done something for her.
The human heart is polluted; we do not even consider helping an old helpless woman. As time passed by, people forgot about her as they got some other topic to discuss about. No one ever talked of that old woman again, me as no exception. She had taught me a lot indirectly. You are not the one to decide about others, no one is completely blessed. We have no right to abuse or tease anyone. If you cannot make a change, then the greatest thing would be to shut up. Thus, this was the story of the old woman who lived in the grungy barrack. She will be in my memory forever. I kept the letter with me and later read it out to my friends.