It was really an everyday affair. The woman who lived in apartment number 44/5 troubled Kripesh early in the morning. It was always just after the sun had punched the dusty night sky and when, at last, he was done with the wearying rounds of shouting “jaagte raho” walking the length and breadth of the colony, beating his wooden stick on the road.
All she wanted to say to Kripesh was that he should not let anyone pass near her house door, in the area where she hung her laundry, and which she claimed was hers. She had even put a notice on a blank sheet of paper with the word “Private” for the benefit of the neighbours. It was actually the public road. Understandably, there was no convincing the other residents, who found the road a short cut to many apartments. There was also no way the woman could be told that this part of the road, indeed, belonged to all. She did know this fact, but it could not be said. At least not in front of her. And if said in front of her, it could not have been Kripesh: a guard. Doing that meant shrill yelling at the precise time when the morning freshness filled his nostrils and he was once more hopeful for a kind day.
Kripesh would tell her the same thing every morning, “What can I do?” Her response was a flak. “If you genuinely tell them, they won’t”. She would then narrate how people have become apathetic about her problems. Why could they not use the very convenient longer road? Kripesh bobbed, pretending he sympathised with her. He muttered “Who listens to me?” many times to eventually convince the woman to return home.
So, when she came to Kripesh this morning, he believed that such was the case once again. He looked in the opposite direction, crooned an old song and hoped that his indifference would make her go away. Then he would surely be able to close his eyes for a couple of hours before the humid and agonizing afternoon made it impossible.
The persistent woman stood next to him with her hands on her waist. She declared, “Someone stole my shirt.” He yawned in response, “Someone stole your shirt?” She planted herself in the same posture: lumbering her frame in mismatched slippers, her head slightly bent on one side, clearly irritated by Kripesh’s composure. “It was an expensive shirt. My sister got it for me, all the way from America.” It is true that the cost of the shirt was quite obnoxious. The sister had got the shirt with much love for her.
Kripesh looked at her testily. The more you argue, the longer she will stay, Kripesh thought. Think of three good things. Good things: The morning, the freshness, the air. There was also something new to say! Four good things. “Where did you last keep it?” He asked ultimately.
“It was where I specifically asked you to not let people go.” She reiterated, “It was a very expensive shirt.”
Kripesh nodded, nervously smiling. He took offense at the word expensive being thrown at him. But again, the angrier he got, the longer the conversation would be. The woman did not tire of provoking him, “Why are you smiling? Did you steal it?” He clenched his teeth, momentarily taken aback by the explicit accusation. Even so, it was best to ignore it.
He yawned again, his head slouching on his shoulders. The woman mumbled “We never know people these days.” She turned around and walked back home, her night shirt caught in the crack of her behind. Smirking, Kripesh said to himself, “A very good morning to you” before making himself comfortable on his chair for an early morning nap.
If not for his wife who appeared with Abhithi, their daughter, he would have surely closed his eyes now. Since last week, the ten-year-old girl refused to go to school. The parents tried everything that was possible to coax her. The sad mother even refused to give breakfast to the girl, their only child, to force her to go. No matter for Abhithi. Not only did she say that she was quite happy to give up the breakfast but that she would gladly give up her lunch too. The mother pained by her own actions was now petrified by the stubbornness of her daughter’s. Abhithi acquired the opaqueness of a person. Abhithi was no longer an extension of herself, frolicing around the pleats of her saree. The young girl no longer responded to her voice; she had to be convinced.
“It is okay, if your teacher said that to you,” the mother tried to reassure the girl. The only possibility now was to make her see what was good for her.
“You don’t know anything,” the daughter bawled, her arms crossed on her stomach.
“What did he say? He said your father is a guard. What is wrong in that? He is a guard. He earns his money in all honesty. What is wrong in that?”
Abhithi’s cheeks swelled in anger. “He is not a guard; he is a watchman. And you don’t know anything!” the girl said, emphasizing the word “watchman”. There are no perfect synonyms. She knew that much.
“Whatever you call it,” the defeated mother looked at Kripesh. This argument ensued between the mother and child every day. The mother would pack the girl’s bag, putting in the copies and books according to the school timetable and the girl would take them out again once her mother was done. Kripesh would stand quietly, wanting to say something but unable to find the right words.
After the mother finished venting her frustration, she defended the stubborn child. “What can I do? They make fun of her in the school.” She whispered to Kripesh about the girl’s future. “We can send her back to the village. Maybe she will be better off there.” These days, the girl listened intently to everything that was said at home. She snarled; her voice hardly recognizable to her parents. “I am not going anywhere. This is where I live.” The parents looked at each other, hoping that the girl’s name would not be removed from the school register and a solution would present to them soon enough.
Today the mother insisted that remaining in the house for long hours was not good for the child. She needed to go out and do something. The father must keep the child for the day. Kripesh resisted, “What will she do here?” The mother told him that seeing the children come from school, playing with each other will eventually make the girl miss school. “Maybe then she would want to go too.” Still, uncomfortable with the idea, Kripesh opposed, “She will just bother me at work.”
But it was already decided; the mother instructed him to take Abhithi to the park before walking away.
The rather pleased girl sat on his plastic chair, pressing the red button of the boom gate as the cars came and went by. Many residents were happy to see such a jocund face, grinning from eye to eye as they passed. They wanted to know who this wonderful person was. The father, barely able to hold the weight of his head on his shoulders, was anxious about her presence. He did not fail to mention to anyone who bothered to ask, “She does not want to go to school.” Most of the residents laughed, “All children are alike.” Some shared their own unique methods, “I promise them two Cadburys every time they go to school.” The spinster who lived in apartment number 33/10 even offered to accompany him to the school “to talk to the teacher.” Kripesh was an honest man. He had nothing to fear.
She told him to not worry, “Children are sensitive, but also forgetful”. As the child religiously opened the boom gate when the car was less than one meter from the gate and closed it again when it had crossed, the spinster reassured the father, “Give her some days, she will be fine”. Kripesh groaned, “She has to learn to have a thick skin. I can’t protect her all the time.” He was not angry anymore; he was visibly calm and heartened. The woman nodded, “Let me know if I can help with anything.” He thanked her as she pressed the accelerator.
After almost two hours at the gate, when the traffic was considerably less, the father decided to leave the gate open. Standing at one spot made it difficult to fight sleep. He needed to walk. “Come, let me show you something,” Kripesh said to the girl, who was very invested in the boom gate. Abhithi shook her head, beating her pigtails on her head like a pellet drum. “Come, beta,” he insisted. “You will like it.” He took her to the park behind the red apartment buildings. There were so many trees in it that no ray of sunlight ever penetrated to the ground teeming with orange-coloured mushrooms. When Kripesh came here, he had thought that this was probably a good place for a nap and reminiscence about his childhood in the fields. He climbed trees with his friends in the afternoon and ate the ripe mangoes and lychees. He was wrong. The park was not only humid, but also close to the ring road where the ever honking of the impatient cars was a nightmare of the sleep deprived.
“Do you see that?” he pointed at a small creeper, infested with greenish worms. “What is it?” the child asked in a tone that amply expressed her irritation. “It is sarda. It came from your seeds,” he said, walking towards the melon creeper. “My seeds?” the girl asked, showing some interest. The father reminded her of the time when she watched him slice the yellow melon. Abhithi bit into the croissant-shaped slices of the fruit and uttered “organic farming” for the very first time. He was surprised at the word. The way in which she exercised her lips when she mouthed the expression. It was an important word. A big word.
“I brought those seeds here and planted them.” That was his way of telling her that he lived enveloped in the residues of her life. Abhithi forgot about the melon seeds. He did not. He picked up things that she liked, as she moved on from one hobby to another: melon seeds, crayons, paintbrush, story books. Every passing day, he was sure that she finally found her calling. Melon seeds meant that she will be a biologist, crayons meant a designer in Mumbai, story books meant a journalist.
The father and daughter were interrupted by the spinster and the woman from 44/5. “So do you know now who stole my shirt?” They asked Kripesh unceremoniously.
“No. How would I know?” he responded politely, aware of his daughter’s eyes pressing into his skin.
“You are the guard. It is your job to know,” said the spinster. The other woman added, without letting him respond, “Why do we pay you then?”
Kripesh explained himself, hoping that the affair would die down quickly, “I did not see anyone stealing your shirt. If I get to know anything, I will tell you.”
“How do we know that you yourself have not taken it?” The women asked him. “Why will I steal your shirt madam?” he laughed.
“It was an expensive shirt,” came the answer. What hurt him the most in this sentence was that it was said in a matter-of-fact way. What else could it be?
“It may have been. But what use do I have for your shirt?” The woman, still unconvinced, looked at the girl, “Maybe she took it.”
At some other time, Kripesh would have been infuriated, but given the circumstances he chose to put the interests of his daughter first. He sniggered, “What will she do with your shirts, madam? She cannot count the number of shirts she owns.”
The women, quite startled, asked, “How can she have that many shirts?”
“You know children,” he said, hoping that the mention of children will win him some sympathy. He was evidently lying. Abhithi could very well count the number of shirts she owned. She only needed her fingers from one hand to count. The point, however, was that the small number of shirts that she owned was an impossible number for Kripesh. He never bought anything for himself. He wore his blue uniform to work that the Resident Welfare Association bought him. A uniform so strange that it never creased, never got dirty and looked good. It almost hid his lean figure. It also gave him strange rashes. Not that he was allowed to complain. At home, he managed in a white kurta-pyjama, gifted by his in-laws on his wedding. A decade of scarcity.
But it suited him just fine. He just wanted to be left alone with his daughter. The suspicious women did not like his attitude: his insistence on denying the importance of the issue at hand. The theft of the expensive shirt was of utmost consequence. But since the sun and the humidity were at the peak, they left for the comfort of their homes, whispering to themselves about many things including Kripesh, his daughter and the uncountable number of shirts that she has.
Relieved, Kripesh came back to the conversation he was having with Abhithi. “It needs some pesticides,” he said. He wanted to pretend that the last few minutes had never happened. “I tried it organic,” he tittered, tightly holding his daughter’s wrists. The girl was suddenly matured by the experience of her father avoiding conflict. She responded encouragingly, “Maybe the organic farmers have some other methods to avoid these.” She said that in return for the consideration he has had for her. The dissonance between his facial expressions and his words had revealed to the girl something that she had never experienced before: a little truth about her father, far too complex for her to express, but which she understood, nevertheless. And now that she knew, she could accept him more than she had.
The father was ecstatic by the response of the girl, who till yesterday had refused to eat lunch. He smiled. “Yes. I wonder what it is.” He breathed deeply and tried harder to guard the beautiful moment they had finally carved for each other. Kripesh turned around to point at the jamun tree, “See there. This is something wonderful.” He took her to the tree and tried to pull down a branch. Maybe it was because he had to jump to catch hold of the fruit that he looked at his daughter ashamed. He was not distressed at what had happened, that was something that had to. What more could they expect from a person like him? What he regretted was being him: a person who had to work in the sun everyday, who had to labour, who had nothing to offer to the world except for himself. He was often angry at his parents who never expected anything for him, who were quite content with him, letting him run in the fields in the afternoon. When he stole fruits, they would argue with the landowners, “What do you expect from a child? He saw the fruit, he ate it.” He was angry at their lack of ambition. Wiping the fruit with his pants, he did not want to offer Abhithi the fruit, as much as his aspirations for her. Forget that stupid teacher. He is but a small pebble in your path. Kripesh named her Abhithi, fearlessness, not for nothing. But she was many years away from understanding that.
At last, he mustered the courage to say, “It is almost 100 per kilo in the market now.” The girl looked at the purple fruit as if it is some kind of treasure, “Why is it so expensive, papa?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Seethji decides that.”
The girl bit into the juicy fortune and asked her father with purplish teeth, “Who is the seethji of jamun , papa?”
He laughed again. Seethji of jamun! Only she could have said that.
“There are many seethjis of jamun, beta” Kripesh said.
Abhithi rolled the fruit with her tongue inside her mouth, instantly disliking the dryness of the fruit yet relishing its sweetness. She did not bother to ask any more questions.
The father asked the girl to help him collect jamun and distribute it in the colony. The girl shrugged as she stood there taking a healthy serving of the fruits that her father was collecting, absurdly watching him stumble around the tree, motivated yet heavy-eyed.
The very best of the jamun went to the fruit vendor, a friend of Kripesh, who sold it for 95 rupees per kilo and shared his meagre income with Kripesh. Others were distributed in the colony: a handful to the President of the Resident Welfare Association, another handful to the people who put in an extra 500 rupees for Diwali bonus, and another to the spinster who offered to help the girl in her school.
The woman from 44/5 hounded Kripesh and his daughter at various points during the journey, insisting that he did not do his duty and accusing him of going around senselessly to people’s house. To all those who were willing to listen to her, she insisted that he should be kicked out of his job. When the residents paid no heed to her, she argued that he should not distribute the fruit to the good people of the colony people; for fear that they may be rotten. Kripesh leered. He paid no attention to her words but did not dare to look at Abhithi’s face, afraid of what he may see.
The evening fell. It was time for the cars that had been on work to return home. It was also high time the girl went back. She had remained outside in the unrelenting sun the entire afternoon. She was exhausted. As Kripesh waited impatiently for his wife to come pick her up, the presence of the woman who lived in 44/5 began to irk him, something that had not happened throughout the sticky afternoon.
For some reason, the woman was refusing to let the issue die down. By evening, she had convinced herself that it had to do something with him. The theft of the shirt that was drying on the public street was a mystery and the key to the mystery lay with the guard who was not only careless, but also mischievous.
She approached him again, this time with her daughter, who took offence at his laughing. In the comfortable post-monsoon evening, men and women gathered around the woman, her daughter, Kripesh and Abhithi. The woman suddenly felt encouraged by the presence of the crowd. She had succeeded in making theft of the expensive shirt drying on the public road, a security issue. Everyone had to care. A thief was at their doorstep.
Kripesh let out another caricature of a laugh, “Me? Thief?” He was not as yet worried about the gathering around him. He only wanted his wife to come soon to take away Abhithi.
But since the crowd was aggressive, he found it difficult to laugh at the accusations, “Why would I take a woman’s shirt?”
The woman howled, “How do you know that it was a woman’s shirt? That means that you have taken it.”
“No, I have not taken any shirt. You said it yourself that your shirt is missing.”
“Yes, but I did not say that it was a woman’s shirt.”
He looked at her absurdly. “Madam, the job is why my family is not starving to death. Why will I take your shirt?”
The spinster, who was listening quietly till this point, interjected. “In the morning, you said that your daughter has too many shirts. Now you are saying that you have no money to eat.”
“You are evidently a liar.”
“No, madam,” he persevered. “I have not taken anything of yours.”
“But the clothes were under your watch. You are the watchman,” the woman from 44/5 shouted.
The crowd around Kripesh and his daughter had considerably increased, and Kripesh was realising the potential dangers of the situation he found himself in. It could happen. He pleaded to the crowd, “Let me tell you for the hundredth time, I did not take your shirt.”
It was as if a hand came out from some abyss and grabbed his hair tightly. He could not even turn around to see who it was because the grip was too strong. Another hand sloshed him. I will be blind, Kripesh thought. He was exhausted. It was the third day he had not slept and had no energy left in him to resist. Who will take me to the hospital? Who will pay the hospital bills?
The woman who was accusing him found this the right occasion to hit his stomach with her knee. The crowd was startled. It found the woman’s actions preposterous. How can she do this? If she wants to set the guard straight, there are ways - proper ways. “What the hell are you doing?” “You don’t know what I can do,” she barked at the crowd. Some hand pushed her back, inappropriately grabbing her chest for a couple of seconds and then got lost in the crowd before she could make sense of what had happened.
Abhithi stood quietly. She believed that her father was quite capable of handling situations like these. Could he be? She asked herself now. Shaking her head, she pushed away the thought from her mind and came forward to address the many hands on him, “He didn’t take it.”
“I am telling you, I didn’t do anything,” he cried.
“So did you?” the woman from 44/5 asked Abhithi.
“No, I did not,” she averred.
It worked. The grip on Kripesh’s head loosened, a way out of the situation promptly presented itself before him.
“She is just a child,” he addressed the crowd. The girl looked at him, bewildered.
They would never harm a child, he calculated. “I will pay you back whatever money you ask for. She is just a child,” he groaned in pain. They would surely never harm a child, he repeated to himself. The girl looked at the father, “But-”.
Kripesh did not let her finish, “There is no shirt in my house. You can come and check for yourself, but whatever money that you ask from me, I will give it to you.”
The crowd now saw the reasonability in his argument. “Take the money, and end the matter,” one man said, before violently grabbing a woman’s arm, dragging her with him. A few eyebrows were raised, however they reasoned that the woman was probably that man’s wife.
“What can you do about a child?” another woman exclaimed. “You are stupid to put your clothes outside.” “Yes. That is stupid and inconvenient for other residents.” “Anyone could have taken it; people come and go all the time.” “That habit of yours, to put clothes out. That is not good”.
When the woman from 44/5 tried to riposte, she was shut up by many voices around her: “Why take money from a poor man?” “Yes! Why take money from him? You don’t even know if the girl has taken your shirt.” “You have no proof.” “Don’t put your laundry out from now.” “Yes, that is stupid.” “And also, inconvenient.” “That is a public road.” “That is right, that is not your home.”
The thinning mob now surrounded the woman. Kripesh quietly walked away with Abhithi. The mother was finally here to pick up the girl. He sighed relief; the worst was behind him, and the girl would now go home to safety.
As she walked back home, Abhithi turned back to look at her father, saying nothing. Kripesh stood there, watching her. As the dread of the moments past evaporated, the weight of what had happened dawned on him.