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  • Dr. Henana Berjes

LAXMI 

It was the month of June in the year 1994 when I finally reached my home in Jamnagar, a place that I had left twenty years before to make a living in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay. But, things hadn’t worked out, and here I was, standing at the doorstep of the two storey debilitated house that once used to be my home. I was alone in this world. A wanderer without a goal, a hopeless creature in God’s big world, too tired of trying to be anything monumental. I had given up on everything I had once sworn by. Mother had cried and father had scolded me. “What do you expect to do there? You haven’t even completed your graduation.” “I want to be an actor like Rajesh Khanna.” I had simply replied with downcast eyes. My father had finally given up on me after many admonishments, threats to disown and subtle warnings. I was eighteen. He respected my opinion finally. Mother’s tears couldn’t hold me back either. “One day you will be proud to see your son on the biggest screen of Jamnagar,” I had told her She had pushed a few crumpled hundred rupee notes into my hands and then fled indoors without looking back. Now, I stood at the same place, thinking about the moment when I had chosen to risk it all for a dream. Dreams do crash all of a sudden. You can never be sure of them. It’s the way they are and sadly, I had failed to realize mine. The house looked scary. There were thick cobwebs all around the place and the little front yard was full of weed. At some places were risky potholes where you could easily break a leg. It looked misplaced in the quaint and clean neighborhood. Once upon a time mother had planted roses along the borders. Nothing but a few wild shrubs grew in their place now. Mother and father had died five years ago while I had still been busy making a living. People said they had died of food poisoning. I knocked at the neighbour’s door in some trepidation. A thin man, with a patch of coarse grey hair over his temples, opened the door. He was wearing a white under shirt and a colored lungi, which seemed to have been tied up in a hurry. “What do you want,” He screwed his eyes in the bright sunlight. The two ’o clock sun was scorching hot. “I am you neighbour,” I said pointing to my house. “Oh, good thing; did you buy it finally?” he said, beckoning me to come inside. “This house has been desolate for years now. The boy, I don’t remember his name, never returned.” I didn’t answer. I looked around the shabbily furnished room with a single rickety fan trying hard to cool down the stuffy air. A few shaggy antediluvian chairs stood against the wall. He pointed towards one of the chairs and gestured me to sit down. I wanted to avoid all possible questions. “No, thank you. I actually came to ask you if I could find some labourers who could clean up the place. I want to shift there tonight, only.” “Oh yes,” he said, adjusting his spectacles over his thin nose, “you can ask Jagdish. He lives nearby. He may send some men in the evening. It is too hot right now.” “I understand,” I said. “In case you don’t have a problem you can stay at my home tonight while they get the house cleaned,” he said, “It might take some time.” “Thank you so much, but they might need some supervision,” I added hastily. “I think I can manage on my own.” “In any case, don’t worry about dinner. My wife will cook for you until you settle down in your new place,” he said, escorting me to the door. “I forgot to ask your name?” “It is Ramesh,” I lied. “I am lucky to have a wonderful neighbor like you Mr.-” “I am Shrikanth, Shrikanth Dubey,” he added. “I work in the Municipal Corporation here, and you-” “I am a businessman,” I said with a smile. I was really getting good at this. I left the old man swiftly and turned my feet towards the place that he had described to me. Jagdish promised to send his men around five ‘o clock in the afternoon. I had plenty of time at hand so I decided to explore the house on my own. I wiped away the dust that had settled over the rusted lock and broke it open with one blow. The door creaked open as I pushed it and huge cobwebs glared at me from all sides. I immediately put my handkerchief to my nose for the stench of damp air and fungus was unbearable. This used to be the main hall where all decisions were made, the exact place where my father had threatened to disinherit me once. Memories came flooding back in waves. There was the far corner where mother fed me paranthas dipped in pure ghee, while I sat cross legged doing my homework. And then in another corner stood my father’s rocking chair, where he sat all afternoon reading the newspaper. It felt like yesterday but twenty years had passed. I closed the door with a thud and sat down on the sandstone steps outside. A Jamun tree had once stood here and all that was left of it were some shriveled and withered branches which hung in obvious discomfort around the trunk. Uselessness is a curse in itself for then even your own body refuses to bear the weight of things that were once so important. The shade wasn’t plenty it worked for me. I soon fell asleep under the tree. I was woken up at exact five o clock by the sound of a pickup truck that screeched to a halt outside the gate. A few men dressed up in light khaki work wear jumped out from it. Punctuality, I realized with a smile was the hallmark of my city. My father had once boasted about it. “Leave them to their work, and you won’t be disappointed,” said Jagdish patting my shoulder. I looked at him with certain doubt. “Your house will be in perfect condition in a few hours. Looks like you may need to do some renovation,” he said, peeling a worn bit of plaster from the outer wall. “I will leave my card with you. In case you plan to renovate, let me know” he added, handing a white and gold visiting card to me. “I sure will, thank you,” I said. I looked at him as he walked towards the gate, and then turned my attention indoors. The men were hard at work. I took a sip of water from the bottle and stood watching them. Mr. Shrikanth brought me dinner at nine that I ate quietly in the dining space that had now been cleaned. A picture of my father and mother was placed on the bookshelf opposite to where I now sat to eat. It was the first time I had eaten a proper meal in my home after ages. I had missed upon so much in life. “Sir, one of the rooms is locked,” a worker called from upstairs. “Leave it as it is,” I told him. “Just clean the rest.” It was getting late. The workers left at eleven pm, having cleaned most of the house except the locked room and the front and back yard. I decided to do it by myself over the coming days. Soon I would have to begin searching for a work, for the little money that I had wouldn’t last long. It was with a very heavy heart that I retired to my old bedroom, where memories and dreams were woven in every nook and corner. Torn pictures of my favorite actor Rajesh Khanna, still adorned the walls and the cupboards. Mother hadn’t let anyone touch my things, until her very last day when finally nature had taken her course. I couldn’t sleep. I felt I could hear voices from the closed room that I brushed aside as a creation of my tired brain. I finally drifted off to a dreamless sleep around three and was woken up by a loud knock on the front door. I opened my eyes and looked around. Shimmering sunlight was pouring through the window slits .I looked at my wrist watch. It was five in the morning. The knock grew louder. “Coming,” I shouted from the window and rushed downstairs. A frail woman about fifty years of age with silver hair, in a dull brown sari, wrapped tightly around her waist looked at me in anticipation as I opened the door. “Sir, my name is Laxmi. I am here for work,” she said, clenching her hands. “But, I never asked for household help,” “Shrikanth ji told me yesterday. You don’t have anyone to cook and clean.” I doubted my neighbors’ sanity now. I possibly couldn’t afford a household help with the meager money that I had. “Sir, I am a widow and I have no one to look after me. I need a roof over my head and two meals a day. I don’t ask for anything more,” she said wiping the tears from the corner of her eyes I couldn’t refuse. Maybe I should have for otherwise things might have been different or maybe I wouldn’t have written this story. I beckoned her to come in. “You must understand I can’t pay you right away. I am still new to this town and need time to setup my business,” “I do understand Sir. I assure you that you won’t have to worry about anything while I am here and you can carry on with your work at ease,” “I need complete silence during the day. I am a writer,” I said, trying to let her reconsider her decision “I will work during the night, Sir.” “I don’t like to be disturbed at night.” “I am not very loud Sir, I do my work quietly,” she said with certain confidence. “Very well then, let me get the groceries and you can come from tomorrow.” “I can clean the yard until then, Sir,” she seemed too eager to begin working. I uttered a prayer of thanks as I went indoors to shower and change into some normal clothes. I could focus on my work while she would take care of the house. Looking out of my bedroom window I saw her lean form bent pulling out the weeds with her bare hands. It looked like a lot of work for a lonely woman but I let her be. If she really wanted to stay she might as well earn it. I was being selfish but I didn’t have any means of support. I must have returned from the market around eleven am and I can assure you that I actually failed to recognize my front yard. It had been thoroughly cleaned of weed and the potholes had all been filled. Some empty vases stood neatly arranged in line against the fence. The gate had been wiped clean of all dust and now stood erect and neat. Even the nameplate had been scrubbed clean. I opened the door and left the groceries on the dining table. Next I set up a chair and a writing table next to where my father’s rocking chair was and piled up the books that I had bought from the market place in a shelf on the wall. A look at the photograph on the wall confused me. Yesterday, mother had been on fathers’ right side while today she was on his left. I tried to recollect. I had seen this photograph since childhood and remembered the minutest details and well, this change wasn’t minute at all. I ignored it as a hazy recollection. “Laxmi,” I called her. She was nowhere to be found She had disappeared. That night I retired early to my room but as if on a whim, I left the front door unlocked. I didn’t want her to wake me up so early in the morning; there wasn’t much that a thief could have stolen anyway. So I drifted off to deep sleep. Around midnight, I was awakened by a strange sound coming from downstairs. I picked up my torch and gently tiptoed downstairs. I didn’t have a weapon and the fear of thieves crawling around the house was uppermost in my mind. The light was on in the hall and I could see Laxmi busily scrubbing the floor with a wet mop. Her back bent over in agony at the hard work. She appeared to be tired. “What are you doing so late in my house and when on earth did you come?” Laxmi abruptly dropped the cloth and stood up in fright. “You scared me,” she said, all blood drained out of her face, “I thought you said I could work during the night,” It’s okay,” I replied, a bit ashamed of my sudden outburst. Maybe I had been reading too much of horror fiction. Please carry on. Just do it a bit quietly this time.” “I am sorry Sir,” she replied, getting back on her knees. I turned around to go back into my room when I realized that my mother had again shifted back into her original position in the photograph on the book shelf What was going on? I couldn’t understand. “Laxmi,” “Yes, Sir,” “My mother is on the right side in the photograph. Isn’t she?” I asked pointing towards the photograph Laxmi gave me queer look. “Yes, Sir,” she replied. “Good,” I answered, “just remember what you said just now,” “Yes, yes, Sir,” Tomorrow I would ask her again. The next morning I was up early. The presence of Laxmi had brought a certain neatness and with it peace into my home. I was welcomed by the aroma of fresh paranthas from downstairs. A neatly laid breakfast waited for me on the dining table. “Laxmi,” I called half expecting her to have disappeared like the mysterious creature that she was but to my great surprise. She appeared at the backdoor. “Did you have your breakfast?” I asked, shoving in a spoonful of dal into my mouth. It was delicious. “Of course I did,” she said with a smile. “We natives eat early, unlike you Babus from the city,” I smiled back. Mother was still on the right side of father. I thanked God. “Do you need anything?” She asked. “No, thank you,” “I have an entire backyard to clean,” she said, disappearing from my vision. Life was good. At least breakfast definitely was. It had been ages. Soon Laxmi and I got used to each other’s erratic behavior and while I slept peacefully at night ignoring the strange noises that emanated from all parts of the house, she let me work in absolute peace throughout the day. Not even her shadow would fall across my table during the working hours and yet somehow she managed to place food on the dining table at all the right times. She was unobtrusively helpful. I was a lucky man. Laxmi’s entry into my house brought luck to my doorstep. I had been trying to earn a name for me for twenty years without success while here in Jamnagar; I got a publisher within two months of setting foot in my native land. He was willing to pay for my work. “You look happy today,” Laxmi said, placing food on the table one evening. “I signed the contract today. My book is going to be famous,” I answered, savoring the delicious food that she had cooked for me. “I am happy for you,” she said with a genuine smile. “You work so hard,” “You know, this reminds me of the food that mother used to make. It has an uncanny semblance with the one she used to cook for me,” Laxmi stepped aside and looked at the photograph. “You must miss her,” she added ignoring my compliment. “I don’t know, it has been ages now. I never proved to be a good son anyway,” I replied. “A son is a son, and-always a son, however pain or misfortune he might bring,” she said with a sigh “You never told me anything about yourself,” I gently asked. “There isn’t much to tell,” she replied. “Do you need anything? I have to clean the kitchen,” I realized she didn’t want to talk about herself. So I let her be. “Laxmi,” I suddenly remembered. “Yes, Sir,” She turned around. “I was wondering if you could please unlock the room tomorrow. I have been putting it off for so long. It’s time we sorted out the stuff lying there.” “Which room, Sir?” Laxmi asked me in some confusion. “The room at the top of the balcony, the one with the huge lock on it,” “On the top of the balcony,” she repeated slowly “Yes,” “Why do you want to open it?” she asked. “There might be some useful stuff in there,” I added, “stuff that we could use around the house,” “I doubt if there is any useful stuff in there,” she said brushing off invisible dust from the walls with a duster. “How do you know?” I asked her. “I don’t know, I am just guessing. In any case it might all be rusted and damaged by now. And besides, aren’t you happy working on the new book? You have everything.” “Never mind,” I replied getting up from the chair. “Thank you for the dinner,” Laxmi nodded as she began picking up the dishes from the table. I went upstairs with a strange thought in my head. There was something about Laxmi that I failed to understand. I decided to talk to Shrikanth about her the next day but a call from the publisher changed my mind. I entered his office with some concern. “Please have a seat, Sir,” He told me. A burly man in his mid-forties with thick moustaches and sharp features sat in the other chair. He looked familiar. “Mr. Ramesh, I introduce you my filmmaker friend. You must have heard of him. He has casted all the top actors and actresses in Bollywood,” “Glad to meet you, Sir,” I said, my heart leaping in my chest. “He is interested in turning your book into a movie; what do you say?” What do I say? I pondered over the question, tears almost ready to erupt forth from my eyes. It wasn’t the dream I had chosen but it was better than what I had ever dreamt of! I reached back home, walking on air. Everything was about to change. The fortune I had sought for ages had been waiting for me at my doorstep. The dream I had chased was meant to bring me home. If only mother had been alive-If only- It was well past sunset when I reached home. Laxmi was watering the plants in the garden. “Laxmi,” I screamed with joy when I saw her. “Yes Sir,” She abruptly turned around. “Oh, I am so happy, I am overjoyed.” I said rushing to her side. “You won’t imagine what happened today,” I said, holding her shoulders with my hands but in an instance I could feel my hands freeze. I felt like I had touched a blob of ice. She was cold. I instantly withdrew my hands. Laxmi stepped back a bit. It was a moment of reckoning.. “Who..are you..?” I wanted to say. “What are you?” I blurted instead. Laxmi looked away. I stepped back and rushed out of the house. “Where are you going, Ram?” she screamed in a hoarse voice Ram… She knew my real name. “Please..don’t..” I could hear her whisper My heart was filled with certain horror. In much confusion I went up to Shrikanth’s house and knocked at the door. “Mr. Ramesh, I see you have been very busy lately,” he said gesturing me to step in. “I thought it better not to disturb you,” “About the maid, Laxmi-” I asked trying to catch my breath. “Who is she?” Shrikanth looked at me in confusion. “Who is Laxmi?” he asked. “That’s what I am trying to find out. You sent her to my house.” “But I never sent anyone,” he replied, and then in short sentences, I narrated the entire incident to him. He scratched his head as if unsure of what he wanted to say. “She cleaned the entire front yard; she is busy working day and night. Don’t you see her from your window?” I asked in exasperation. “I saw you working like crazy in the yard and yes, I do see you working around the house, even during night, but I’d be damned if I ever saw another person!” He replied. “What is it about-” “Oh my God, Is the house haunted?” He finally said. “We will have all the answers we need right away, come with me,” I said, pulling him towards the door. “I request you to stay away from that place tonight and tomorrow in broad daylight; we will go and find out everything,” Maybe he was right so I decided to sleep at my neighbor’s house that night. It was the longest night of my life. I wasn’t sure of anything. Laxmi had become a part of my life and happiness. I couldn’t let her go. At dawn I slowly tiptoed out of the house having made my final decision. I would ask her to stay. The door was ajar. “Laxmi,” I called out of old habit. No one replied. I checked in the kitchen where she would be cooking but there wasn’t anyone there. I sat down at the writing table and put my head on the desk. Laxmi wasn’t a person, I had eventually found out but she had existed with me in complete harmony. She had been by my side through all those hardships. She knew me inside out. She was like a friend, a mother, an elder sister I had so yearned for all these years and when the time had come to celebrate it all she had disappeared into thin air. I had never felt so alone in my life. I got up and as if on a whim I went upstairs to the locked room with a hammer in my hand. In one swift blow I broke the lock into two. I wasn’t afraid anymore for what was there to be afraid of when I had lived in perfect bliss with an unknown entity for so long? What else could have possibly scared me? The room was filled to the ceiling with broken and rusted furniture. Just adjacent to the door was a broken cupboard. I opened it and saw a few framed photographs stacked in the corner. In one of the photographs was Laxmi by my father’s right side while my mother stood on the left. She was dressed in the same sari that she so often wore. A faint knock at the door jerked me out of this confusion. It was Mr. Shrikanth. He was looking at me in utter skepticism. “You are a brave man,” he finally said with a smile. “I woke up to see your bed vacant so I presumed that you would be here.” “Do you know the woman in this picture? The one standing with my father-” “-your Father? Oh, So-” “I can explain..” Shrikanth sat down near the door. “She is Laxmi..” “Yes, I Know..” I replied. “She arrived around ten years ago, said she was a widow and needed a shelter and two meals a day. Your mother took her in. she used to work around the house, tirelessly, often working late into the night, scrubbing floors and watering plants at sunset. The organization of your house, the way you have arranged your front and back yard is exactly like she used to keep it. Your mother taught her cooking and soon she became one of the family,” “I remember your father telling how she had brought good luck back to your house. He used to call her a lucky charm. His business improved and everything went on just fine until one morning your mother suspected her of trying to influence your father. She accused her of many things and then around five years ago, she disappeared. Soon after your parents died of food poisoning and the house was locked down.” He paused for breath. “That’s all I know,” I sat down next to him, the photograph held tightly in my hands. I didn’t know what to do or say. A knock at the door jerked me out of my reverie. “I guess I must take your leave now,” said Shrikanth getting up. I followed him downstairs. A postman stood outside the door. “There is a letter for you, Sir,” he said, handing me a white envelop bordered in red stripes, it was from my publisher. Somehow I already knew the contents of the writing inside. I opened the envelope with trembling hands. My Manuscript had been rejected on second thought and the filmmaker had found a better idea to work on! The envelop fell down from my hands and I sat down on my doorstep, all energy drained. I am a stubborn man and that’s how I have been all my life. This incident won’t change much in me anyway for I have long given up on my dreams but having come this close to success, I regret just one thing, Sometimes we are too bothered about stuff that we want to know, the unexplained stuff over which we hold no power maybe it is meant to be that way, maybe some magic ought to stay as it is or maybe we shouldn’t try too hard to unravel what doesn’t affect us. I let go off Laxmi, my good luck charm, for no particular reason, just because I wanted to know…! Maybe, I would have been better off unwise… I definitely would have been better off unwise! THE END

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