Shiv had been standing in the shadows for over an hour. For the past week, he had haunted this area, taking in every single detail of the lay-out. Sheer desperation had finally given him the courage to put his plans into action.
“It’s either this or starvation,” he thought, “And tomorrow the land-lady has threatened to hound me out of my room.”
He had first thought of tackling the flats. But they were too public for what he had in mind. People were walking in or out, during all hours of the day or night. Besides, the security guards were like hungry mastiffs, waiting to pounce on any intruder.
His choice fell on a small independent house set in the middle of a garden. It seemed a safe place to loot. There was not much activity inside. He had sometimes seen a light in one window. The rest of the house was always in darkness.
Tonight he could see that the light was still on. But in a few moments it was gone. A man carrying an over-night bag stomped down the steps, as though he couldn’t wait to put distance between him and the house. He threw his bag into the back seat of his car and drove away.
“This is my lucky day,” thought Shiv, “I hope I’ll find what I’m looking for.”
Shiv tried the door knob and it gave easily. “Why, the man must have been in such a hurry, he couldn’t even bother to lock the door. Serves him right for making it so easy.”
Then on second thought, “Is it some sort of trap? Perhaps he’s seen me prowling around the neighborhood.”
With the light of his pen-torch, he searched the house. It was an old bungalow with spacious rooms and high rafters. “Must have belonged to some retired officer,” he thought. There were things of value which he could sell for a good price.
“It hasn’t come to that as yet,” he thought, “ I just want some money to pay the rent and buy some food. I’m not going to turn into a professional. But look where I’ve reached! If my mother ever comes to know, it will be the death of her. Shiv her beloved son, gone off to the city to find a job. A graduate with a teaching degree to boot! What went wrong?”
He had to hurry. No time at all to doodle. Suddenly his eyes found what he was looking for. “Well, if I haven’t hit the jack-pot!” he thought, as he spied the small wad of notes pinned under a paper weight on dressing table. Shiv pocketed the money. Then he saw the letter. He swore angrily as he read it.
“An unfeeling callous jerk!” he cursed. “This guy has just walked out on his wife because he thought she was hitting the bottle too much.”
The note said “Enough to tide you over till you find help. I’ll send for my stuff when I’ve decided what to do.”
A groan from one corner of the dark room made him jump with a start. The torch rolled from his hand. Shiv froze, not daring to move. The groan became a shriek of pain.
“Oh my God! I’m going to die. Ramesh, please turn on the light. Don’t leave me. I’m going to die.”
Shiv groped around for his torch. “Take the money and scoot before the lady realizes that this isn’t Ramesh,” he told himself.
He pushed the bundle of money further into his pocket and edged towards the door. This time it was a cry of agony.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! I’m going to die.”
He could hear the heavy breathing and flailing of arms. Dared he turn his torch on the crying figure? No. Not unless he wanted to be caught and handed over to the police.
He had almost reached the door. This time the yell was blood-curdling. He had to do something. The woman was probably in some kind of pain. Shiv shone the torch in the direction of the cry. “Holy Moses!” His blood ran cold. The woman was in the throes of labour. Alone in a dark room. How could that fellow have deserted her?
He moved closer and bent over the woman. Her breath reeked of alcohol. She was in an alcoholic stupor from which she temporarily awoke when the pains gripped her.
“Get out,” a voice kept warning him. “Don’t get involved. You’ve got what you came for. Now vamoose.”
But the woman’s blood-curdling yells held him transfixed. He finally reached for the switch and turned on the lights. It was a decent well-furnished room. It must have held a thousand secrets of two lives that had once loved, but had now gone awry. There was a bottle under the cot, and an overturned glass beside it. The ash tray was overflowing with stubs.
The woman writhed and sobbed as the pains hit her again. Shiv’s eyes fell on a framed picture of a young couple smiling into each other’s eyes.
“How sad!” he thought, “Youth’s shattered dreams! But I can’t leave her here alone.
I have to get her to a hospital.”
He shook her by her shoulders. “Tell me who is your doctor ? At which hospital are you registered?”
Though her eyes were tightly closed, she grabbed his hand with one of her’s. With the other, she pressed her swollen belly.
“ I’ve landed in a right royal mess!” thought Shiv. “Well, I’ll just have to take her to a hospital.”
He carried her in his arms, and walked to the gate. He knew there was a municipal hospital close by. Luckily for him, an empty autorickshaw was on its way home. The driver seeing his distress, offered to drive him.
“ Hurry to the hospital,” Shiv said, “ She’s going to deliver any moment now.”
The nurse and attenders put her on a trolley and rushed her into the labour room.
“ Wait here,” she said, “ I’ll come back later to take down her history.”
Shiv could hardly control the trembling of his limbs. Could he just walk away? This was a complication that was so unexpected, that he was stumped.
In a little while, the nurse was back.
“Congratulations Mr……” she said.
“Ramesh,” he replied.
“You’ve got a little girl. But she seems as deeply sedated as her mother. We’ll have to keep her under observation in the nursery. You can take a peek at her now.”
“And the lady….. I mean my wife?”
“She won’t get up till tomorrow. She’s soundly asleep. Where was she registered? May I have her name and age?”
“We don’t belong to this town. We came here for a family function, and she went into premature labour. Her name is Suja Ramesh and she’s twenty-four years old.”
How glibly the lies rolled off! First theft, then lies. “Will I be able to live with myself again?”
He addressed the nurse. “I’ll let her rest then. You say she’s perfectly O.K. I’m sorry she had a bit too much of drink at the party.”
“What a good patient! The drink actually helped her through the labour, though I hope it doesn’t have a prolonged effect on the child.”
“I’ll come in the morning with her breakfast and other requirements.”
The ordeal was not yet over. Somehow he had to reach her husband. At the risk of getting caught, he had to go back into that house and find the man’s name and address.
Rummaging in a table drawer, he found what would help. It was the pager number of Ramesh Chauta. He relayed a message through the paging service and walked out.
But sleep was far from coming. What an adventurous night it had been! He had done his good deed for the day. He hoped the poor inebriate girl and the baby would be reunited with that cad Ramesh. Perhaps the baby would bring about reconciliation. But Shiv was also frightened for himself. He had foolishly left his fingerprints all over the house. The police could be swooping down on him any minute. Finally he fell into a sleep of exhaustion.
Though the temptation to visit the hospital was intense, better sense prevailed. Besides, he had his own problems to think about. The land-lady had been paid, and for once he had eaten a decent meal.
The card from the employment exchange was like manna from Heaven. It was a temporary vacancy for the post of lecturer, for a period of three months.
“At least that’s a beginning,” he thought. “Now perhaps my luck will change.”
Shiv was a good teacher. His students took to him at once. A couple of young girls even began to give him the “glad eye.” But romance was furthest from his mind. Inside was a deep shame that he had stooped to theft, and a fear that it could so easily happen again if he became desperate.
He began scanning the Ads every day. Many applications were sent off to different colleges. Shiv began to worry. The mail didn’t bring him any solace.
Then one day, he was summoned to the Principal’s office.
“You’re in luck, young man. We are in a position to extend your job for a year. After that, who knows!”
“Thank you, Sir.” Shiv beamed.
“Actually it’s a sad story. Mrs. Chauta was an excellent teacher. Marital problems, infidelity of her husband and loneliness turned her to alcohol. She’s decided to get hospitalized and dry out. She wants to put her life together again come what may. But
I don’t think she’ll stay in this town with all its bitter memories.”
“And the baby…..?” Shiv could have bitten off his tongue.
“Ah! So you know her?”
“No. I just heard some talk in the Staff Room.”
“Unfortunately, it didn’t survive. Too premature and over-sedated with alcohol. That’s what shook her and made her resolve to get help.”
“And the husband?”
“He’s too rich and too spoiled to care. He was already living with someone else when this happened. Anyway, someone else’s misery has solved your problem.”
Shiv was restless for the next few days. If only he had known, he might have visited her in hospital and befriended her. Somehow he felt drawn to that lonely soul who had clung on to him in her moment of pain.
A month later, through a conversation he heard in the Staff Room, Shiv discovered in which Detox centre she was admitted.
“Will I recognize her?” he wondered, as he nervously approached the place. She was sitting in the garden, reading the book, a slim girl with sad eyes.
Shiv gave her the flowers he had brought.
“For me?” Her face lit up in a smile.
“I don’t know how to say this,” he began, “I wanted to thank you……, you see I have your job.”
He didn’t know what to expect. Tears ? Anger? Remorse? She was silent for a few minutes. Then she said “I’m glad for you. Take care of my students.”
As he rose to go she smiled up at him.
“Will you come again?”
“If you want me to,” he assured.
Someday soon, he would have to tell her the truth. But not just yet. Perhaps when she was stronger.
“See you soon!” he said, and saw her face light up with smile.