FICTION – Indrani Raimedhi, [email protected]

The agent went forward, unlocking the door. It opened to a small hall. On its left was a sagging sofa. Opposite to it was a squat TV covered by a yellowed lace cloth. On the round glass-topped table was a layer of dust and an ashtray, a couple of books, a glass of water covered by a coaster and a packet of Capstans. Facing the front door were two windows, looking over the tops of nodding trees. There was a tiny foyer opening to the single bedroom. It was rather small with cardboard boxes on the floor. The bathroom window had a broken pane and the cold air came through.

The man looked at the woman. The woman then went to the tiny kitchen. The counter top had thick grime. There was a blue plastic spice rack and empty plastic jars lined on the shelf. The sink tap dripped. She tried to twist it but failed.

The agent came up to them with a discreet cough. “You will not get this kind of deal so cheap. I have other clients who will pay more. It would be good if you make up your mind soon. I have said this and I will say it again… this property is perfect for a growing family.”

“We like it,” the man said hastily, “But could you paint the walls and carry out some repairs? My wife is expecting and we…”

The agent licked his thin lips. “I have parties who are ready to move in today.”

“What about those cartons in the bedroom?” The man asked. “We have no use for them.”

“The cartons have books; the last owner was a cultured man, a writer, but not very practical. He went abroad. Gave me the work of selling this off. He called me up from London last night.”

“So the papers are with you?” The man asked.

“Yes, of course. I have gone through all the legal points. Some signatures and this house is yours.”

The man and the woman looked at each other. They had taken borrowed money. They had found their home. The woman touched her belly. The baby moved.

The agent looked at his watch.

“Have you made up your mind?”

“Yes,” they said together, solemn, hopeful.

Two days later the man signed the papers. The agent said he would only take cash. The man complied, though it was complicated.

Four days later the man and the woman went to take possession of the house. The door was locked from inside. Puzzled, they rang the bell. A stooping, middle-aged man in glasses opened the door. A lit cigarette hung from the side of his lips. There was a book in his hand.

“Who are you looking for?”

The man looked at his wife. “We bought this house, we are going to move in soon.”

The man in glasses looked flabbergasted. “I own this house. Someone has cheated you. What did he look like? Do you know where he lives?”

“I have his number,” the man said shakily. He dialed his phone again and again. Out of reach.

The woman began to cry. The man in glasses shook his head.

“This is my house. I left it when my wife died three years ago; I live in the other side of the city, but I do not want to sell this house; it has memories of my wife.”

Five kilometres away, the agent boards a train to a city far away. His phone has a new sim card.

In another city filled with blue, black fumes, slums, and glittering stores, the agent checks into a cheap hotel near the railway station. Hotel Trident has an alcove of holy icons above the reception desk lit by a conical pink bulb that flashes on and off. The indifferent clerk pushes the register towards him. The agent shows him his false ID, signs on the register and makes an advance payment for two days. He has a canvas bag containing his clothes and the money he made out of thin air.

He is taken to an upstairs room. It has a faded green coir carpet, shiny pink curtains with yellow flowers, a single bed with a candy striped sheet and pillow, a mirror hung on the wall close to a table, and a chair. There is a musty odour in the room, the sound of traffic gets on his nerves. He avoids looking at himself in the mirror. He undresses, wrapping the hotel’s white towel around his middle. He brushes his teeth and takes a bath. He still feels unclean. He orders an aloo paratha and coffee on the intercom, but when the food comes, he is not hungry.

He switches on the television. He hears about scams, murders, protests, dams bursting and military coups. It is a savage world; leaders hector before crowds, television cameras reveal the filth in which the poor live. He knows that a human was supposed to feel what he was seeing. But he did not. It bothered him sometimes knowing what was good and honest in him had shriveled up and died. He has deceived strangers for years now and it was becoming strangely meaningless.

He feels for the bag under the bed. It is there, solid to the touch. He thinks of Sheela, his wife who had never known of the filth he was wading in. He thought of Moloy, his ten-year-old son who saw him so rarely that he was formal and distant before him, his own father. His ma did not remember him; her memory had dripped away like water.

He calls Sheela.

“Where have you been? Have you changed your number?”

“I have to attend conferences. Don’t be angry. I plan to get you the gold necklace you always wanted.”

“Come home, there is something I need to tell you.” She hangs up.

So once again he is on the train holding on to his bag. Sometime around dawn, he falls asleep. When he wakes up, the bag is gone. He stumbles up and down the compartment; his eyes rimmed red with sleep; his hair tousled. All the scheming and duplicity, for this.

He reaches home late in the evening. Moloy kisses him without feeling. Sheela gives a little cry and holds him. Inside, his mother looks at him, smiling. At last, she seems to recognise him. He looks at her broad wrinkled forehead, her cheeks, the delicate nose. Between them is a single diya, its flame wavering. A hoarse cry escapes his lips, “When?” he cries… “When?”