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“Rohan, go inside. Leave me alone with them. I will come inside in 3.5 minutes.” Usha said and smiled. Rohan felt a chill run down his spine. He imagined his pretty wife being possessed by an evil spirit.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that once a man gets married, his wife and she alone decides his life path. Rohan was not going to be an exception to this rule, unless some unknown external force decided to intervene.
The auto roared to life and sped through the chilly winter morning towards its destination: Percussion. The occupants of the auto rickshaw, a couple in their twenties, huddled together under a thick woolen shawl. The wind sang in their ears, making their teeth chatter. They huddled closer, hanging on to dear life as the auto rickshaw flew over potholes and tar road alike. The woman kept peering out of the warm cocoon to figure out the arrival of their destination. The dark morning skies seemed to be scheming to keep her inquisitiveness intact.
After some insistent persuasion, the man cleared his throat and asked the auto driver how much time it would take to reach. The auto driver mumbled incoherently in Kannada to which the man grumbled something about rude Bangloreans and went back to the warm cocoon created by the woolen shawl thrust by his overbearing mother at the railway station after a teary farewell. The couple continued to snooze till they reached their destination. Their minds numb and frozen, their ears ice cold despite the woolen caps wound tightly around their heads. The man drew a sharp breath when he alighted. It was frighteningly cold.
A huge white residential complex loomed ahead when the auto rickshaw pulled into the parking lot. A smartly dressed security guy ran up and asked them the mandated questions and put the auto rickshaw through a cursory check before waving them in. The worldly belongings of the newly married couple were few. Some thrust by well-meaning relatives and some belonging to the man, Rohan Subramaniam. They had shifted from Chennai to Bangalore to escape the onslaught of relatives and start their married life, peacefully.
Rohan’s wife, Usha, had grown up in Bangalore and wanted to return to the city after living with her in-laws for three months. Some women in Rohan’s mother’s neighborhood called it the handiwork of the crafty daughter-in-law. Others rubbed their hands in glee. The woman in question: the mother-in-law remained stoically silent.
Rohan had agreed to this arrangement provided they looked for a flat close to his work place and not where Usha’s parents stayed, somewhere near Banashankari. Usha agreed immediately. With the Namma Metro pounding away on the Bangalorean tracks, Usha didn’t have any worries in meeting her folks, whenever she felt like.
The couple found the 3BHK cozy and Usha fell in love with it almost instantly. After paying the down payment, Rohan and Usha moved from Chennai to their new home in Percussion.
‘Rohan and Usha’s’, the nameplate proudly proclaimed, cheerfully welcoming any visitor to the cozy corner flat: No 4.
Rohan resumed his work two days after shifting to Bangalore. Usha got busy setting up the house. She had not planned to resume work for the next two months. Usha had quit her job with IBM after getting engaged to Rohan. She had asked for a transfer to Chennai but was turned down. Eventually, the couple had to move to Bangalore. Usha pulled some strings and after deliberating the delicateness of her situation, she was promised her old job after two months. She decided to put this time to good use by setting up the house, hiring a cook and a domestic help.
Bangalore was at its best in winter. December dawned slowly and with the New Year some occupants of the apartment went off for their annual vacations. Slowly, Usha’s life fell into a routine. She would get up early to make breakfast and lunch for Rohan and settle with her laptop till afternoon. After having her lunch, she would bathe and take a leisurely stroll. While on her way back, she would buy some vegetables and groceries. While at it, she would also chit chat with the other occupants on her floor and use the gym if she felt like it.
After returning home, she would make some coffee and sit in the balcony staring at the almost dilapidated building opposite to their complex, “Jyoti Mata Home for the Disabled and Elderly”. A four-storeyed building with a small vegetable garden with 20-25 inmates huddled together on the terrace helped by nurses in starched white uniforms and ill-fitting white shoes. Usha would stare at them till it was time for the inmates to get back inside for their evening prayers and supper. By 7 o clock it was lights out.
Daily, the routine was same. Monotonous, thought Usha drawing a strange energy from the mundane acts of the elderly and almost invalid inmates of the home. After a couple of days of insistent staring, Usha knew the routine of each inmate on the second floor, which was at eye level of her balcony. Strangely, none of the inmates looked at her. Maybe they were too lost inside their heads and in some strange dimensions that they had stopped caring about the external world, Usha surmised.
But, one day she caught herself wishing for at least one inmate to turn and stare back at her, defying her, challenging her to try and cross the invisible barrier that separated Usha and the inmates. However, they continued living in their worlds, seemingly unconcerned with a stranger peering voyeuristically into their closeted lives. One fine day, Usha had a dream about the inmates.
On one particular day, in her dream, an inmate, an old Punjabi woman, climbed over the railing of the balcony and jumped into the well in the garden. Usha got up, startled. She ran out of her house, through the parking lot, out on the street, climbed over the padlocked gates, and into the garden, screaming in Tamil to save the old woman. But, no one came. Not even one soul appeared to care. When Usha looked down into the well, she found a very familiar face staring back at her. Her face. When she realized that she was looking at her reflection, Usha woke up. Drenched in sweat. Shivering.
She repeatedly saw this dream for a few days. One day, Usha wondered about her state of mind. She had stopped talking to Rohan about things that had initially mattered to them such as movies, relatives and their incessant gossip, rants about Rohan’s mother, and so on. Usha grew quiet. Rohan had also grown busy. With a new responsibility in a new city came immense pressure to perform. He slogged at the office.
She continued doing everything she was expected to do, but, stopped talking.
One day, while watching TV, Rohan realized that his wife had not spoken to him for more than three weeks. He tried to recollect the last time they had had a decent conversation. He realized with a start that it was three weeks almost. It was almost eight months since they had moved to Bangalore and Usha had not asked Rohan to take her to her parents’ house or even invited them over. It was indeed weird given the fact that Usha had never got along with Rohan’s mother and had openly declared that she wanted to go live with her parents and that Rohan also should accompany her. Rohan had meekly agreed after promising his mother that he would handle it in his own way. Surprised at the sudden realization, Rohan looked at his wife. Usha was silently staring at a wall. He called out her name. She did not respond. He shook her. She came out of her daze and smiled.
This silent Usha was freaking Rohan out.
He knew how to handle screaming women. He had lived with his mother and aunts. But, a silent brooding woman was like an alien. After mulling over this new issue that had cropped up in his life, Rohan decided to intervene and figure out what had gone awry. That evening he decided to surprise his wife. He bought her favorite flowers, take away from her favorite restaurant, and some wine. He let himself in and decided to surprise her. When Rohan walked into the silent and dark house, he found Usha sitting in the balcony with a cup in her hand. She was staring at something. Rohan tiptoed silently and closed her eyes from behind. A shrill scream left her lips and Rohan’s skull made contact with something solid. Usha was holding a cricket bat and had hit him with it.
Rohan ducked but could not save his skull from getting nicked. He shouted for her to stop. “Usha Usha, it is me, Rohan, stop!”
Usha stopped immediately and stared at him for a few seconds. After this, abruptly she dropped the bat and resumed staring. Rohan looked around, puzzled at her reaction. Usha was looking at the old age home. The lights were on. He could not see much. What are you looking at? He asked. Usha remained silent.
He touched her shoulder.
“Usha? Want to go catch a movie? See what I got for you.”
Usha continued to stare ahead. Rohan craned his neck to see what she was watching so intently. He followed her line of vision and saw two old men struggling to keep their canes straight. A nurse in a white uniform was holding them by their arms and making them walk up and down the corridor.
“Usha?” Rohan tried to shake his wife out of her reverie.
“Rohan, do you know how wide and how long this balcony is?” Usha asked suddenly turning towards him.
“I will tell you. It is 5 feet by 3 feet.” Usha replied and went back to staring at the two old men.
Rohan decided to give her a break and went inside to keep the food and arrange the flowers in a vase. In the kitchen, he noticed that Usha had not cooked any food.
Had she eaten lunch?
“Baby, what did you have for lunch?” Rohan asked, carrying a cup of coffee to the balcony and standing next to Usha.
“I didn’t eat lunch. I don’t eat lunch.” Usha replied in a monotone giving a pause. Her set face sent a cold shiver down Rohan’s spine.
“Usha, come inside baby, it is pretty cold here. It is not good for your sinus. Come sweety, come” Rohan cooed, pulling his wife’s arm. He realized Usha had lost a lot of weight and her arm had become thinner than he remembered.
God! What had he been doing all these days? Was she ill?
“I am beyond sinus. I am just fine. You go inside. I will come in at 8:32.” Usha turned and replied.
Rohan felt as if someone had punched him hard. What the fuck was 8:32. He looked at his watch. It was 8:15.
What on earth did she mean by that!?
Rohan gave up after a few tries and went in with his coffee. He decided to catch up on news and update his blog. While Rohan was busy, Usha came in and locked the balcony. She then went to take a shower and when she emerged, Rohan noticed a marked change in her.
“Hi baby, how did you arrive so early today? Whats your plan, you naughty boy?” Usha teased, planting a wet sloppy kiss on his lips. Rohan sighed and thanked his stars. His wife was normal again!
“Nothing sweety, I was getting very bored with the routine and I was feeling very guilty that I had not taken you out anywhere. We must plan a vacation babe. Why don’t we look at a few places and then we can book tickets, what do you say?” Rohan asked caressing her hair. Usha looked excited with the plan and they spent the next hour discussing places to visit over a weekend. After finalizing the dates, they had their dinner and settled to watch a movie on Netflix.
When the clock struck ten, abruptly, Usha got up, ran outside, opened the balcony door and stood there. Totally surprised by this sudden turn of mood, Rohan rushed behind her to see what had invoked this reaction. Usha was standing silently in the same place Rohan had found her earlier, staring at an old man hopping around in the corridor. Rohan stared at his wife and back at the old man in total bewilderment. He tried to shake her, but got no response.
Why the fuck was she staring at an old man? That too, at 10 in the night!
“He is not supposed to be out, Rohan. He should be in bed. Hope he won’t try to jump.” Usha spoke so suddenly, Rohan jumped out of his skin.
“Baby, what are you blabbering? Can we please go inside? I am freezing!” Rohan tried pulling his wife inside. Usha shook her arm free and kept staring at the old man. When the old man went inside his room and locked the door, Usha turned and sat down on a chair, and said, “Poor man, he hasn’t gathered courage to do it today. He will get it eventually.” She then slid down and sat on her knees. She bent her head and closed her eyes, praying. Rohan shook her and asked, “Baby, what are you doing? I am totally confused. Why are you behaving strangely?”
“Rohan, go inside. Leave me alone with them. I will come inside in 3.5 minutes.” Usha said and smiled. Rohan felt a chill run down his spine. He imagined his pretty wife being possessed by an evil spirit. Fear combined with dread forced him to think logically. He decided to do something about it. He went inside and called his mother, who asked him a hundred odd questions before suggesting a counselor who was also Rohan’s cousin. This cousin was single and lived somewhere close by, his mother informed. Rohan loved his mother’s practical approach to life. Never once did she suggest that Usha might be mad and that Rohan should find another wife. Feeling better, Rohan called up the counselor cousin and fixed an appointment for Friday. Today was Wednesday.
Rohan waited for Usha to come back. He tried to recall if he had noticed her erratic behaviour in the past few weeks. He could not. Actually, since he was busy with his calls and work, he had ignored her totally and he would not have noticed even if Usha had been busy standing in the balcony. Rohan felt miserable. Had he somehow pushed his wife towards madness? If he had cared enough…
Usha came in just then and she became normal. Regular. She asked him about his day and simply shrugged when Rohan pressed her about her behavior.
Rohan went to work the next day thinking about the turn of events at home. When he placed his ID card at the card reader, it let out a shrill sound and the security guy came over to check. In frustration, Rohan kicked the door. A sharp pain shot up his ankle. When Rohan put his foot down to check for injuries, he realized he could walk. The security guy helped Rohan enter the premises after noting down his ID card number and employee ID. Why didn’t my ID card work? Have I been fired?
As Rohan was about to settle in his seat, the HR Manager came over and asked if they could chat for a minute. Rohan’s blood froze and he instinctively knew that he had been fired. It was happening all over. While the HR Manager faked a smile and explained why they were forcibly ‘letting him go’, he did some quick calculations and realized he could tide over for at least 3-4 months with his savings. He also mentally thanked his stars for having regularly backed up all his data on his hard disk. Rohan realized that he had some browsing history on his laptop. But, now he couldn’t do anything about it. The HR manager took his laptop and handed over the relieving letter once Rohan sent his resignation email. When Rohan stepped out of the meeting room, he found several of his team mates huddled in a corner. Rohan went over and learned from his friends about the reason for the decision. One of his friends had already landed a job and urged Rohan to apply at the same place. Rohan nodded and promised to keep in touch. The security guy escorted Rohan till the door and did a brisk check to see if Rohan was carrying anything in his person. Despite the humiliation, Rohan kept quiet and let the security guy do his job.
When Rohan returned home, he found Usha cleaning the house.
When had she become like this? Hadn’t he asked her to appoint a maid?
Rohan wondered. Usha smiled at him and hugged him warmly and whispered, “Finally.” Rohan opened his mouth to talk, but Usha ssshed him. Rohan swept her hand aside and managed, “Baby…we need to talk.”
Usha placed her hand on his lips and said “I will make you some coffee. Meanwhile, you freshen up. We will talk.” Usha said and vanished inside the kitchen. Rohan looked at her, stunned. When Usha handed him his coffee, Rohan said, “Usha, I need to tell you something…”
“I know. You have been laid off. I heard and I immediately called up my Manager and asked if I could join from tomorrow.” Usha said without batting an eyelid.
Rohan spluttered and spilt some coffee on his shirt when he heard this.
“Don’t be surprised sweety, I know everything. They told me.” Usha said, smiling benignly. Rohan’s heart beat increased rapidly.
“Now, don’t look so confused. You will get a new job in 2.5 weeks. Till then you just chill and take care of… that sprain. I will go to work from tomorrow.”
“Sprain? What sprain?” Rohan asked, his eyebrows bunched together, while getting up from the sofa to keep his empty cup on the table. Within seconds, he screamed and fell back, “Ushaaa, my leg!”
“Baby…I just told you to be careful!” Usha said rushing to help him settle. She pulled a small stool and helped him keep his leg on it. Rohan screamed in pain. Usha rushed to get a pain spray and after applying it on Rohan’s leg, wrapped it with a crepe bandage. “Come, let me help you lie down” Usha said and helped Rohan hobble to the bedroom.
“How did you know I had sprained my leg and when did I sprain it?” Rohan asked as she helped him to the bed. “I just know…” Usha said. She softly caressed his hair. Rohan felt peaceful. Slowly, his eyes closed and he slipped into a dreamless sleep. After spending two days with Rohan, Usha rejoined work once Rohan was able to hop around on his own.
Meanwhile, Rohan started applying for jobs and got called for a couple of interviews. While his sprain abated, Rohan kept himself busy by working on his coding skills and staring at the old age home. He realized that there was certainly something indescribable about the old age home. He found himself slipping into a trance when he stared at the old age home.
After a week or so, Rohan found himself falling into a routine. He would get up when the cook came and after Usha left for work. He would make some coffee and sit in the balcony staring at the elderly inmates. When the cook left, Rohan would update his blog and complete some online course. Then after having lunch, he would settle back in his chair and observe. Usha would return at 8. By then the cook would have left after making dinner. Usha would serve dinner for the both of them and they would eat silently, sitting in the balcony and observing.
“Old man from door no. 6 will jump.” Usha said one fine day. Rohan turned to look at her, sipping his ginger tea.
“Nope, you are wrong; it is the turn of old woman from door no. 8.” Rohan said and smiled as they heard a splash sound in the distance followed by screams and shouts. He snapped his fingers and gave her a I-told-you-so look. Usha smiled.
10 pm: Door no 11, Jyoti Mata Home for the Disabled and Elderly
“What is the status of observer no. 412?” The man in the mask asked.
“Diluted, Sir. We have two new observers.” The diminutive man said bowing low.
“I know, the couple from 4. Let them be. We will decide in a week or two what needs to be done. They are quite resistant I must say. Quite sharp and have caught up pretty fast, eh?”
“Should we get new people Sir?”
“For No 5? Nah, let us wait. 4 will help us. The guy’s mother will move into 5 soon.”
Percussion | Flat No. 4 | Rohan and Usha’s Home
While having their tenth cup of ginger tea, Usha suddenly turned and asked, “Rohan, why don’t we call your mother and ask her to come stay with us?” Rohan nodded eagerly before continuing, “Usha, that is a great idea. I was thinking of renting out the next door flat for Ma. You know No. 5 is empty now.” Usha smiled and nodded.
They continued to stare ahead.
Image source: shutterstock
Book reviewer | Author of 'Once Upon a Reunion' read more...
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Her bed gleamed pale yellow with the morning sunlight, trying to make her aware of the time. Pallavi slowly opened her sleep-ridden eyes with a certainty that she was definitely going to be late for office. She hadn’t been able to sleep properly last night. With memories of Samar playing on loop in her head, she had kept tossing on the bed until 2 a.m. last night. “Was it the right decision to break up with him or did he deserve a second chance? If he could betray her once, he would definitely betray her again?”
While her mind continued last night’s saga, her phone alarm reminded her again of the time. She got up hastily and with a towel in hand, dashed into the bathroom. She got ready in half an hour. This was not her hometown of Himachal, where it took a maximum of 20 minutes to commute from one corner of the city to another. This was Mumbai. Goregaon is just two stations away from Kandivali in Mumbai local and yet it takes more than an hour to reach office from her apartment. Today, she thought of skipping her usual train travel and decided to go directly by auto rickshaw.
"The cops might ask me, if they touched me... They will just ignore what I say until and unless I have been hurt. That’s the problem, we wait for a disaster to happen to take action."
“The cops might ask me, if they touched me… They will just ignore what I say until and unless I have been hurt. That’s the problem, we wait for a disaster to happen to take action.”
The music blaring loud in her headphones, she walked past a bunch of guys loitering on the street, towards her stop.
Naina had no choice but to go by this particular lane from her home to the bus stop. A bunch of jerks would always be at that corner building loafing around. Since people would always be around in the mornings, Naina did not really care about their presence. It used to affect her initially but later she managed to put on her headphones and listen to loud music ignoring them until she crossed that corner. And many a times she noticed, she was not the only one going through the ordeal. Evenings were easier. She would get off a stop earlier and catch an auto directly to her home.