The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs, a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store.
He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.
“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits.
The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.
“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy.
He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back. He clutched his heart. He winced. Back? Back to what? To destruction, despair and nightmares. He glanced at the little puppy, whom he had rescued from under the wheels of an oncoming auto rickshaw. The female puppy had become his shadow after that. He had named her Shanti.*
In the city of Pune, this retired high school teacher Mohanlal had been calling home, for the past two years, memories of his earlier village home, in Amrapur, had roused him. He stood up and felt disoriented, so sat down on the stool once again. “Chacha * are you okay?,” enquired the tea stall boy. Mohanlal simply nodded. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, but the memories flooded in, freely.
He remembered that fateful day when he had returned from the 1 week teachers’ refresher course training. He was shocked to see a crowd of people surrounding his little abode at Amrapur. His wife Ambadevi and his son Vikas, were wailing out at the top of their lungs. Immediately alert, he asked them, “ Where is Naina?”. Almost immediately he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could smell kerosene and burning flesh. There lay Naina, his daughter in law, limp, lifeless! “No, you animals! You killed her, you killed the closest thing I had to a daughter!”
Shanti, the puppy, was now, whining as it had now begun to pour. Mohanlal got up and Shanti followed him, eagerly. Tears streamed down his haggard face. He was a lost, defeated man. As much as he tried to repress those memories they kept coming back to him. He had to meet Sukhdev and his wife Sumati. They had befriended him and lived in his locality in Pune. He felt Sukhdev had a plan and it would work. He whistled for Shanti to follow him. Visions kept floating back to him, on the way.
The police were summoned, as a death was hardly a matter for the Village Panchayat. Besides unbeknownst to his wife and son, Mohanlal had filed a harassment case along with his daughter in law Naina, against them, barely a month before the tragic day. His wife Ambadevi had always been an overpowering and domineering woman. They had been married according to the wishes of their parents. Ambadevi was never happy and the simple man that Mohanlal was , he tried his best to please her. Once their son Vikas was born, her attention was diverted and she and her son formed a bond that Mohanlal was never party to. She coddled the boy and pampered him beyond what Mohanlal could tolerate. Being a strict school teacher, revered in Amrapur village, he wished to discipline Vikas. But Ambadevi would have none of it! “Go teach your students”, she would rant. “Stay away from my Vikas and me!”, she warned.
Vikas never amounted to anything and when he was 22, Ambadevi got him married to Naina. A huge dowry was demanded, much to Mohanlal’s dismay. He found Naina to be a caring and kind person. She was the closest he ever had to a daughter. Naina’s parents provided some cash and jewels, that was quickly used up by his greedy family. Then began the torture! Naina used to confide in Mohanlal. This irked them further. Barely six months after marriage, Naina was a broken young woman. Her parents, being orthodox, refused to let her return to them, as it would bring dishonour to their family, they felt. A new bride must adjust! Mohanlal became her saviour at that time. How he rued the fact that he had left Naina in their clutches, that fateful week!
Deep in thought, Mohanlal reached Sukhdev’s home. Both he and Shanti were soaked to the bone. They were shivering. Their daughter Anandi welcomed them in and gave them a towel and warm chai*.
“Mohan, have you thought about what I said. Anandi, Sumati and me would be happy if you consider our proposal. It will bring you, peace, Shanti, if you please”, begged Sukhdev, patting Shanti the pup. “It’s the only way forward, my friend. I have come to realise that. It will indeed bring me peace and closure and Naina would have approved”, answered Mohanlal.
Sukhdev patted Mohanlal on his back and smiled. Mohanlal was lost in thought, once more.
The police quickly arrested Vikas, Ambadevi and Mohanlal as well. Mohanlal spent 6 months in jail but he was released based on the fact that he had been present with Naina when the harassment accusation was made. It was also noted that he had been away when Naina had been murdered. Mohanlal was released, a shattered man. Life sentences were awarded to both his son and wife. He hurt most for Naina, whom he felt he had let down. He had even arranged a job at the local post office for her and was eagerly waiting to inform her of the same, once he returned from the teachers’ training.
The next weekend, Mohanlal was all packed up and ready to leave Pune for good. He was going back to Amrapur , to his forgotten home, to the promise of something new. Shanti happily tagged at his heels. He called out to the tea stall boy.” Chottu* come over here. I am come to bid you goodbye. Here, keep this to cover all my expenses incurred at the chai stall. Also there is a little something extra for you”.
Chottu happily accepted the cash and touched Mohanlal’s feet, as a sign of respect. “I hope you find happiness, Sir. I can see a new light in you”, said Chottu. “ You are a smart boy. You must continue your schooling. Promise this old school teacher this much,” pleaded Mohanlal. “ I promise, and you can come visit Pune and check up on me”, said Chottu. “ I will drop by once in six months surely”, so saying, Mohanlal waved goodbye. He and Shanti walked into the sunset.
It was a bright sunny day in Amrapur village. The birds were chirping their merry songs. Mohanlal stepped out of his home, now renamed ‘Naina Sadan- Home for Women’. Sukhdeo and Sumati were by his side. It had been their idea for Mohanlal to begin something of this manner. A home for destitute women. A reason for Mohanlal to bury his skeletons and move forward. Mohanlal used his retirement money to spruce up his modest home. Additionally Sumati was providing the women with sewing and cooking classes so they could stand on their own feet. Anandi, Sukhdeo and Sumati’s daughter herself was a divorcee. Her parents welcomed her back and saved her from the clutches of her alcoholic husband. She was an educated girl and worked with a renowned media house. She spread the word regarding Mohanlal and donations began pouring in.
Mohanlal scratched Shanti behind the ear. She whimpered happily. ‘Come on old girl, let’s get you something to eat’, he offered. At the opening ceremony of ‘ Naina Sadan’ stood Naina’s repentant parents. They smiled gratefully, looking at Mohanlal, tears in their eyes.
*chacha- uncle *chai- tea *Shanti- peace *Chottu- young one.
Thanks to Jaya mam for the wonderful story. I hope I managed to do justice. If not please forgive me.
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