Culture & Society

Short Story: The Peace Of Mind

Exasperated by the irritating habits of their unpredictable and nosy uncle and aunt, a couple in Bangalore hit upon an ingenious plan to make their unwanted relatives leave their house.

Illustrations by Danesh Bharucha.
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Radhika grabbed her handbag and her car keys and raced down the stairs from her third-floor apartment in Frazer Town, Bangalore. Experience had taught her that when in a rush, it was best to avoid waiting for the lift. Running down the steps was faster; besides it was also good exercise. Having just crossed her fiftieth birthday only a month ago, she was conscious of the steadily increasing struggle getting into her old jeans. Edging her car out of the basement parking lot she was hoping she would make it to the Cantonment Railway Station in time to receive her uncle Ranjit mama and his wife Sheila mami on their arrival from Mysore. 

Only a few years ago the short distance between her Frazer Town home and the Cantt Station could be reached in a matter of minutes. But with Bangalore’s unplanned growth and its rapid rise as the IT capital of India, had come transportation woes, overcrowded streets and crazy traffic jams. Negotiating even short distances had become a challenge and one could never accurately determine the time required to reach one’s destination. Still, she was glad that good sense has prevailed with her 80-year-old uncle in making him choose a train that stopped at the Cantt station which was a stop before the City Railway Station. Had he, in his inflexible and annoyingly stubborn ways, decided to choose a train that went directly to the City Station, reaching there would have been a worse nightmare. Her practical mind would have chosen a train not only stopping at the Cantt station but arriving at an off-peak hour, instead of the rush-hour time of 6.30 pm which was the scheduled arrival time at Cantt station of the Mysore Kacheguda Super Fast Express chosen by her uncle. 

Sometimes one had to be grateful for small mercies, Radhika mused with a mental shrug of her shoulders. However, with barely 15 minutes to spare, she felt it was no time to be philosophical as she waited impatiently for the traffic lights to turn green with a long line of vehicles in front of her. Would she be able to cross the signal light before it turned red again? 

Radhika’s uncle Ranjit mama (her late mother’s older brother) and his wife Sheila mami had lived in Mysore for the better part of their lives. Ranjit mama had been a government civil engineer and after retirement had settled into a peaceful retired life in their comfortable and spacious independent house with a large garden in a quiet residential locality of Mysore. Their two sons, one a doctor and the other an engineer, had settled in the USA and made the occasional trip home to visit their ageing parents. Radhika had not been close to her two male cousins but had kept in touch with her mama and mami. She had always felt genuine affection for both of them, although as Ranjit and Sheila had grown older they had become rather set in their ways with little irritating habits which could at times be quite exasperating. Ranjit mama apart from being stubborn could also be unpredictable and Sheila mami was nosy and extremely superstitious. Radhika, herself having crossed the half-century mark, was a firm believer in the dictum that distance makes the heart grow fonder and she often thanked her stars that her uncle and aunt lived in Mysore, a mere 140 km away, but yet not close at hand in Bangalore itself.  Little had she realised what lay in store for her. 

Only a week earlier Radhika had learnt that Ranjit mama had, on what appeared to all like a sudden and whimsical decision, sold his house in Mysore. Was the move intended to gift their inheritance to his two sons during his own life or was the upkeep and maintenance of a large home become too onerous for the couple in their advancing years? Had they preferred to settle in a smaller and more compact apartment? No one would know the reasons behind his action, for Ranjit mama was not offering any explanations.

Alarm bells rang as Radhika shared some further news with her husband a few days later:

"Do you know, Girish, that Ranjit mama has put all their furniture and belongings into storage and has briefed his estate agent to find them suitable accommodation in a rented flat?”

Girish looked at Radhika with a patient smile, but he too hit the panic button when the following day Ranjit mama announced over the telephone:

“Radhika beta, your Mami and I want to give you a pleasant surprise. We are coming to stay with you and Girish in Bangalore for a few weeks until such time as we have settled on an apartment of our choice in Mysore.”

On hearing of Ranjit mama’s imminent plans it had taken Radhika quite a while to regain her composure; nevertheless, having arrived at the station, she braced herself to the occasion as she stepped onto the platform just as the train from Mysore chugged into Cantt Station. She bent low as she respectfully touched their feet as her mama and mami alighted from the train:
 

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Illustrations by Danesh Bharucha.



“Welcome to Bangalore Ranjit mama and Sheila mami. It’s such a pleasure to have you with us.” 

“Jug, jug jiyo” (May you live a thousand years) intoned Ranjit mama as he touched the top of Radhika’s bent head in blessing, while Sheila mami added,

“You shouldn’t have taken the trouble coming to the station yourself, dear. You should have sent the driver.”
 
“What driver? Do you think we can afford one?” muttered Radhika under her breath; but instead, she smiled sweetly and replied aloud,” It’s no trouble, Sheila mami.”

Within the next two days, Ranjit mama and Sheila mami were comfortably settled in Radhika and Girish’s three-bedroom apartment. Apart from the master bedroom, there was a guest bedroom and a third bedroom which was their son Arjun’s room. Arjun was away studying at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and he had made sure that his precious possessions (his sports trophies, books, wall posters and other paraphernalia) were stored securely in his room, and that it was kept permanently locked, to be opened by none. A spare key was kept with his father in case of an emergency.

With Radhika and Girish both at work, Ranjit mama and Sheila mami were left to their own devices during most of the day. Radhika had arranged with her part-time maid to remain in the house an extra hour to serve them lunch and to attend to their needs as and when required. Ranjit mama was a voracious reader and spent most of the day reading in his rocking chair in between bouts when he dozed off with his book or newspaper lying upside down on his lap. Sheila mami kept an unsolicited eye on Radhika’s house help whom she followed around the house like a hawk when she was not busy with her own knitting and crochet. Life settled into a more or less steady pattern until over a period of time, little irritants began inevitably creeping in to irk and annoy Radhika. 

Ranjit mama was a fussy eater and Radhika had a difficult time figuring out and planning the daily household menu. There were more things that he didn’t eat than he did, and this imposed severe restrictions on what Radhika could or could not serve at the table, short of doubling her task by having to make separate meals for him. That apart, Ranjit mama had an addiction to taking snuff of which he took a pinch at regular intervals from a silver snuff box to inhale into each nostril, carelessly dusting off the excess around him, leaving fine tell-tale dust of snuff all over the furniture in the house.

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As for Sheila mami, she could not refrain from snooping and poking her nose into things that were no concern of hers. It was said that no house help could survive more than a few months in her own home. Of late, she had taken to carrying tales and complaining to Radhika about her maid, accusing her of theft and of carrying away things home in her handbag. Radhika’s maid had been with her for over 15 years and she trusted her implicitly. Being in no mood to lose her maid, she just ignored Sheila mami’s rants against her.

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Illustrations by Danesh Bharucha.

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Anguished by the damage she saw coming to destroy the smooth running of her household, she wondered how best she was going to bell the cat. She finally decided to broach the subject tentatively with Ranjit mama and enquired gingerly: 

“Isn’t it time Ranjit mama that you checked with your estate agent about the progress he has made in his search for a flat?” 

Ranjit mama reassured her with a benign smile, “You don’t have to worry, beta. We are in no hurry. We are so happy and comfortable here.”

Radhika swallowed hard and said nothing. Later that night in the privacy of their bedroom, with tears of frustration and rage she cried out to her husband:

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“I can’t take this anymore, Girish!” 

He heard her out and soothed her frayed nerves:

“I agree with you. The situation is becoming uncomfortable and we will have very soon to find a solution to the problem. Just be as patient and tactful as possible. We don’t want to cause any ill feelings in the family.”

The days went by with Radhika and Girish putting up a brave front and trying their best to be as pleasant and amenable as possible, until one day Sheila mami complained of not being able to sleep at night. She said that she was disturbed in the middle of the night by strange sounds that seemed to emanate from the ceiling above her bedroom, like the grating sound of furniture being dragged along the floor. The strange, eerie sounds continued every night at around midnight and made her frightened and worried and unable to sleep. Radhika tried to comfort her by saying that no one else had heard these sounds and maybe it was just her imagination. 

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But the sounds at night continued unabated and offered no relief to the old lady’s troubled mind. Terrified and unable to sleep, Sheila mami came out of her bedroom the next night, switched on the light in the living room, and sat down with her knitting in the hope that it would distract her. She felt a cold shiver run down her spine as she felt a sudden draft of frosty air envelop the room. She stood up and thought of going back to her room to get herself a wrap. 

As she walked to her own room, she passed Arjun’s room and stopped. The cold air seemed to be coming from under the door of Arjun’s locked room, and as she stood frozen and scared to death, she heard a low moaning sound coming from behind the door. In desperation she turned and went as if to go towards Radhika’s room when she saw an unoccupied armchair, resting at a slant on two of its hind legs, being dragged across the living room and moving towards Radhika’s room. She let out a series of loud and terrifying shrieks and slumped down on the floor. Both Radhika and Girish came running out and rushed towards her. Radhika cradled Sheila mami in her arms and tried to contain her trembling body. Ranjit mama having heard her screams also rushed out.

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Illustrations by Danesh Bharucha.



“This house is haunted. Please get me out of here Ranjit,” she pleaded. “I don’t want to stay here another minute!”

It took their combined efforts to calm her down, and she crept back to bed only on the assurance from her husband that he would book them the very next morning on the first available train back to Mysore.

Radhika had to take the day off in order to drive them to the railway station the following morning. This and the inconvenience of the long and traffic-choked ride to the City Railway Station was negligible compared to the relief she felt at seeing them safely off on their journey back to Mysore. Ranjit mama’s desperate phone call to his estate agent that morning had also helped to seal their decision to depart.
Girish too had matters to attend to, and he came home early that evening. He bought a box of sweets and took them up to the neighbours in the flat above theirs to thank them for staying up late on several nights and perfectly carrying out his instructions. Next, he untied the transparent twine he had wound around the auto-ambulant armchair in order to drag it across the floor towards their bedroom, replacing the chair to its rightful place in the living room.  This done, he took out the spare key and entered Arjun’s room. He turned off the recorder and timer button and switched off the air conditioning which he had turned on to “high.” The extra electricity bill next month would be a small price to pay for the peace of mind it had helped generate.

 

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The book cover.

(Excerpted from ‘The Missing Tile and other Stories’ by Saeed Ibrahim)

(Saeed Ibrahim, a Bengaluru-based writer, is the author of ‘Twin Tales from Kutcch’, a family saga set in colonial India. His latest book, ‘The Missing Tile and other Stories’, is a collection of 15 short stories.)
 

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