It was on the first day of the summer break while idling around the colony that I saw her. Surrounded by a dozen cardboard boxes, she was pushing at one in vain. And, without feeling any hesitation that I normally did around strangers, I had run to give her a hand.
Later, in the evening, when I mentioned our new neighbour across the park to my father, he responded with a sparkle in his eyes. “Yoshita Mukherjee? So she has moved here?”
My mother paused, eyeing him. “In the dormitory building, if you want specifics. Your son was the one who dragged her luggage for her.”
“The truck driver had run away when she came back with the keys,” I clarified, turning to my father.
“Not our problem,” she countered. “It’s exploitation to make a kid labour for you, that too, for free.”
“I am fourteen, almost, no kid. And she did give me a book.”
“That’s great!” my father said.
“What great! It’s a novel. What’s he going to do with a novel?”
“I will read it, maa,” I said, annoyed.
“Oh! The library isn’t enough for that?” she snapped, referring to the small colony setup dad used to manage after work for extra allowance.
“It isn’t. All it has is a stock of silly children’s books. I need real ones.”
“The real ones are in your school bag. The kind your brother read to get into an engineering college. Not these useless novels.”
“Novels aren’t useless, Sushma.” Dad looked up from his tea. “Not when Yoshita Mukherjee gives you one, at least.”
Her gaze flicked towards him. “How do you know her by the way? I thought she’d only just shifted in the colony.”
“I just know.”
That was true. My father might’ve just been a driver, but he knew things. His job was to chauffeur important people around, and run their errands. And, he chose to keep his eyes and ears open, while doing that.
“The company has been hiring, again,” he said. “And Yoshita Mukherjee is one of the best to come, from a top firm, and an MBA from IIM.” He got to his feet, ready to leave for the library. “And you won’t believe me if I tell you the salary she’s been offered.”
My mother leaned forward, wide-eyed. “Really? How much?”
He smiled. “Enough to put even Mr Thakur to shame,” he replied, talking about the RWA president, he currently served, and her hand flew up at her gaping mouth in shock.
Two days later, having finished the book, an Agatha Christie, I rushed back to Yoshita’s to get another one in exchange, as per her promise.
“That’s impressive,” she said, standing in her doorway. “You really do like reading.”
“Cool. Come right in, then.” She turned inside, went to the kitchen, and fetched her coffee. “Sit down,” she said, walking back, drawing up a chair before mine. “Now tell me how you liked it.”
And, that’s how the ritual began.
Her room was full of books, stacked up nicely all around. And she introduced me to many of them, in the days that followed, one by one. I roamed around the mountains of Ruskin Bond, marvelled at Sherlock Holmes’ methods, and enjoyed the brilliance of Rabindranath Tagore. And after each of the books, she would sit with me, sipping at her coffee, and listen intently to what I had to say about it.
Soon I was spending my Sundays at her place, emptying her stock of cold drinks and ice creams that I suspected she had begun to maintain especially for me, for she never touched any of them herself.
In between, she would weave in academic topics into our discussions, linking them somehow with my current reads, encouraging me to be on top of my studies too. It was something I appreciated only later in my life. But, my mother did it right then, by sending along some delicacy or the other for her on Sundays.
On those days, sitting chilled out, and laughing, she never looked the intimidating manager my father claimed she was back at work, until one day, when I saw her all suited up, waiting for the office bus with others at the colony main gate.
There, holding her own ground among the men probably double her age, she looked serious, worth all the money she was rumoured to be earning. And in the eyes that were glued to her striking face, as she was speaking, I saw immense admiration and awe.
But the moment she spotted me, she broke into her childlike smile, and waved at me indulgently, immediately turning back into the person I knew.
The next time, when I knocked on her door, it was a surprise to find somebody else answering it. Payal, her name was, Yoshita’s new flatmate. She paused, and looked me over from head to toe from behind her glasses, and the way she did it told me right then that things were going to change.
And they did. Because after that day, it was always she, somehow, who met me at the door, poking out from behind it like a mouse. She knew why I came, yet would never fail to demand a reason, before reluctantly letting me in. Inside too, she made it a point to come sit down in the same room with some files, and just watch us talk, furtively.
It was so invasive and annoying that the very thought of going to the place began making me uneasy. I preferred to sit at home without books than to stand the very sight of that woman. And it was such a delight then, when one day, Yoshita herself stopped by after work, carrying a couple of books for me.
That first time, she just stayed at the door, exchanged words with my mother and me, and then went her way. But thereafter whenever she passed by, maa would pull her inside for a cup of coffee. And soon she got comfortable enough to come by herself, every day. The three of us, and sometimes all four when my father was home early, would sit around the table, talking, like we were a family.
But this for some reason did not amuse the neighbouring aunties. Initially they used to just gawk at her, much the same way everybody else in the colony did. But then, they began gathering around our door, whenever she was in, trying to eavesdrop and peep in through the gap in the curtain. And one day, after she had left, they went so far as to corner my mother, and drill her about the purpose of her visits.
I hated the way my mother stood there, explaining to them, because I believed we owed no one any explanation, whatsoever.
The days flew by and the school was only a week or so away from reopening. One morning, while cleaning our old ambassador car, I saw her jogging in the park.
My father was to leave early that day to drop Mr Thakur and his son to the airport for a cricket match in Mumbai. So he had woken me up at five, and leaving the car to my services, rushed off to the colony park for a quick walk.
Moments later, some boys, clearly annoyed at something, started filing out through the gate one after the other, muttering curses. There must have been at least ten of them, most from our own block. And back in the park, Yoshita stood with my dad, talking gravely, turning to glance back at them.
At breakfast, dad was talking to my mother in agitated whispers, as I strained hard to listen, grabbing hold of whatever spilled out: “…letter box”, “…dirty”, “…phone”, “…night”. It wasn’t much, but combined with my mother’s horrid expressions and the boys back in the park, I had an idea what was going on.
“But the dormitory phone number,” my father’s voice returned to normal, as he was washing his hands, “that’s not even public. I’ve asked her to consult with the committee right away.”
When he drove away to Mr Thakur’s, I went into my room, slightly disturbed. I had just begun writing the remaining holiday homework, half-heartedly, when the doorbell rang, and in came a half a dozen sour-faced aunties, as if on a raid.
“Did you see her guts, Sushma?” one of them cried. “God, how shamelessly was she swaying alongside bhaisaab in the park! That witch!”
“And that too right under your nose,” added another, clapping a hand on her forehead. “We did warn you the day would come. Didn’t we?”
And then all of them were speaking together.
“This can’t go on, didi.“
“You need to talk to bhaisaab, Sushma, and stop this.”
“First your son, then husband. God only knows who will be her next target.”
Target? Witch? I went so livid I couldn’t control myself, and rushed out to yell at them. To tell them to go mind their own business, and get the hell out of my house. But then I caught sight of my mother. Her face was pale, stained with tears, and her head was shaking stiffly at me.
Life had taken a sudden gloomy turn, it seemed. Schools had reopened, and Yoshita was no longer coming home since that day in the park.
One day I heard dad talking about her. He was cursing the committee in the office. “The idiots are questioning her instead,” he was telling my mother in disbelief, “asking her why she is the only one attracting such attention, and not any other woman employee. Suggesting it might be the way she dressed!”
I wanted to go meet her, and talk to her myself, but something held me back. It felt awkward now, somehow. And then, there was her flatmate to deal with too. So, I decided to wait for her to show up, flashing that amazing smile of hers, as the last three books she’d brought me sat read, and unreturned on my table.
On Sunday that week, my father complained of a severe headache, so it fell on me to go manage the library in his place. I had done it before; it was easy enough to make the entries for the books borrowed and returned. But, it was a boring job. And, Sundays were especially crowded.
So by the time I locked it back, it had grown dark outside, and the season’s first rains had begun to patter the parched earth. I stood there waiting for it to subside for some time, breathing in the intoxicating scent in the air, but the rain only got heavier.
The library was situated a good distance away in Block A. Normally, I would’ve loved to walk back enjoying the rain, but the entry-notebook had to be carried back unharmed. So I tucked it in my jeans, pulled the T-shirt out over it, and hurried for home, reluctantly taking the shortcut that ran through the stinking rear side of the buildings.
I squelched through the muddy puddles past the dumping area, as the rain lashed on my back. In the dark, it was very difficult to detect the potholes, and I slipped into them, more than once. And then it struck me. The streetlights in the alley were all off.
Right at that moment, a horrible scream stopped me dead in my tracks. My eyes flew up in its direction, to the tall building on my left, and slid quickly down the jumble of sewage pipes, to settle on a ground floor window. There in the light thrown by the yellow square of it, I saw shadows moving hastily, amid a tumult of thumping and splashing. Instinctively, I ran towards the building, only to see the backs of them merging with the blackness of the park in the distance.
Suddenly I found myself standing alone under a bathroom window, right next to a bamboo ladder leaning against it, a sharp smell of shampoo filling up my nostrils. And, in that moment, even to myself, I looked utterly guilty of something.
Scared, I immediately turned back, but a hand closed around my wrist, yanking me around.
“YOU!” Payal’s pale face looked ghostly in the yellow light, as her eyes darted from me to the ladder, popping out in horror. “Oh my God! Oh my –”
I opened my mouth to explain, but a hard slap jarred it shut at once. And the next few moments were a blur, as she launched into a frenzied attack all over me, slapping, kicking, scratching, and trying to drag me.
I never saw Yoshita coming. I only heard her, as she screamed, “Stop it! Stop it, Payal!” snatching me out of her grip, and standing between us like a shield. “What the HELL are you doing!”
“What am I…?” Breathless, she threw an arm towards the ladder in reply.
But Yoshita was already staring at it, her eyes glued down to its foot. She took a couple of swift steps, and scooped something up from the bushes.
A flash of lightening lit up the whole place for a split second, and I saw it in her hand. And so did Payal.
It was a camera.
Back in the flat, Yoshita sat me down on a chair, and turned around. “Payal, just give me five minutes, and –”
“To hell with your five minutes. Just give me the damn camera!”
“Payal,” she said, “I think I might know something about it. And, I’m going to spare no one – not even him, if he’s involved.”
I felt my breath escape me.
“Vicky.” I heard her. “VICKY!” Her hands were on my shoulders, shaking me. Then a bottle touched my lips.
I took a hurried swig; but it burst out in a violent cough, all over her. “I’m sorry…” I said at last, finding my voice back. “I didn’t do anything… I was just…” I tried to speak, in between sobs, pulling out the library notebook as if that would prove my innocence. “I was just… coming back… I didn’t –”
“You didn’t? You f***ing liar. I saw you –”
“Paayal!” Yoshita sprang up, wheeling around, fixing her with a stare. “That’s a kid there, we’re dealing with. Mind your bloody words.”
“A kid? He?” She glared back at her. “You’ve gone mad. I had told you, told you to stay away from these people. But no. You’d take him to your room. See the result?” Then shifting her gaze to me, she continued, “But not anymore. You will see. You son of a bitch. You just see how I get you thrown out of this colony.”
She spun on her heels and stomped into her room, slamming the door behind her.
Later that night, I lay in my bed clutching my throbbing head, Payal’s threat echoing loud inside it. I had told Yoshita all I had seen, and I thought she believed me. But I wasn’t sure she could convince her flatmate.
The next day turned out to be the longest day of my life. Sick and listless, I managed to stagger through it somehow, curbing every second the urge to just run away from it all.
Dad didn’t return on his usual time. Nor was he home by dinner. So, it was with an immense effort that I pushed the food down my throat before retiring to my room. There I sat in the dark, surrounded by thoughts even darker, when the doorbell rang.
I leaped up, and ran out.
He looked over at me, stepping in, a faint stubble shadowing his cheeks. For a second my whole world stopped spinning as our eyes met. But then his lips curled up in a tired smile, and he held out his arms at me. Sighing with overwhelming relief, I went running into them.
“You should’ve told me,” he said, ruffling my hair, as my mother looked from him to me, confused. “I had a reputation of knowing things you know. It’s all gone today.” He laughed, and began recounting the day that was the longest of his life too.
Payal had been true to her word. My father received a summons from the committee as soon as he was back from lunch. To his utter bewilderment, and horror, a complaint had been registered against me, accusing me of ‘grave acts of perversion’.
Soon he was running from one cabin to another, hearing severe reprimands and consequences, and pleading a relook and inquiry into it. But a decision had almost been reached, to sack him. And if Yoshita hadn’t come to his rescue, carrying the camera and the photographs, we would instead be packing that night.
To everyone’s surprise, except Yoshita’s, the camera belonged to Mr Thakur, proved duly by the pictures of his family from the very trip to the US he had bought it from, a month back. He himself confirmed it when called in. But when he saw the other photographs, he immediately tried to cover it, claiming it had been lost.
These photographs were disturbing, taken secretively. Various schoolgirls had been caught unawares around the campus and out of it, their uniforms all too familiar to Mr Thakur, belonging to the same school as his son’s. On top of them, the committee threw at him the last set of printouts, and they all had one common subject: Yoshita. She going to the office, coming back, buying groceries, jogging. And there was one at the end that showed a blurred bathroom window.
Yoshita claimed the perpetrator was his son, who had handed her the keys of the dormitory flat on her first day in the colony. She had been vaguely aware of his presence around her ever since, she admitted, but had no idea what was happening, until last night.
Mr Thakur denied it vehemently, calling the accusation ridiculous. He maintained the camera must have been used by someone else, after it went missing, until she suggested his phone records be pulled out, as she was sure it was his son who called the dormitory at nights, and sent her those obscene pictures.
My mother was red in the face. “God, he is just a kid,” she whispered, “in 12th class, right?”
“Almost an adult.” Dad shrugged. “And an over-pampered single child.”
“What will happen now?”
“The committee has taken possession of all the documents, and an inquiry will be initiated.”
“Would he be fired?” I asked.
“I doubt that.” Dad drank away the glass of milk my mother had brought him. “But he could well be asked to shift out.”
An uneasy quietness had descended on the colony. No one was walking in the park, and the streets remained empty too. In the evenings, I saw people huddled in one corner or the other, whispering. Even my own parents seemed quieter than usual.
The scandal was sure out of the conference room.
On Saturday, I came back from the school, quickly changed, and headed back to the door. I had been meaning to go thank Yoshita all these days, but it took some time to gather the courage to face Payal again after that night.
“Where are you going?” my mother asked, keeping my lunch platter on the table.
“To Yoshita’s. Be back in a minute.”
“Don’t. She’s gone.”
“Huh?” I turned.
“She left the job, and went back to Calcutta.”
My throat went dry, suddenly. I swallowed. “Left the job?” I asked, waiting for her to laugh out, and declare it a joke. She didn’t. “When?”
“Yesterday,” she said, and went inside her room, leaving me alone, utterly alone.
A month later, my father was still driving Mr Thakur to the office and back. And the month after that too. Then I stopped caring.
I was spending all my time studying my schoolbooks now, with a dedication that troubled my parents, instead of delighting them. But that was the only way I could keep my thoughts at bay.
I had been angry at Yoshita, first, but the anger had dissolved with time. It had left a deep sadness behind, though. I understood now why she must have wanted to go away. Anybody in her place would have felt insecure, threatened even. And the colony was too backward a place for her to live peacefully, anyways. Yet, it hurt to think that she didn’t consider me important enough to stop even for a final goodbye.
The days crept by. Rains gave way to a pleasant chill in the air. And, along came my half-yearly exams. It was during these exams while looking one day for a pen in my father’s cupboard that I chanced upon a crumpled piece of paper. Buried beneath a diary, it was almost out of view, and I would’ve missed it, had it not been for Yoshita’s name, typed in bold, screaming out at me.
Curious, I immediately pulled it out, and flattened it. It seemed like some discarded copy, page no. 3 printed on top of it.
…accounts given by the residents, it abruptly began, including the ones by the night-watchman, and her own flatmate, are ample proofs that Yoshita Mukherjee’s demeanour and her character do not align with the rich culture of the colony that we all take so much pride in; and her presence in the colony is not conducive to a healthy mental development of the children, particularly young boys, as was mentioned earlier.
I felt like a brick had hit my head. It made no sense at all. I immediately emptied all the drawers to find the previous pages, that I was sure must have been kept somewhere, but found none.
I continued reading.
The petition has additionally been signed by fifty concerned residents (please refer to the back of the page).
Note: Please refer to the Attachments 1 & 2 (by her reporting officer) for the other documents related to the termination proceedings.
With trembling hands, I turned over the page, Yoshita’s gentle face, her voice, her caring eyes, and her laughter, all coming back in a rush of memories. My eyes slid down the long list of names of the self-righteous people who considered her a threat to their frail society, an uncultured woman. The very people who ogled at her shamelessly. And, there around the middle of it, wrapped in ungratefulness, and reeking of weakness and betrayal, stood out the names I was dreading to see – of my own parents.
I placed the page carefully back in the drawer, and sat down on the floor, closing my eyes. And for the first time since she had left, I allowed myself a cry.