First Published on Stories From The Peninsula
Drizzling, slight rain gets a bad rap for being incomplete. For lacking in passion. Half-heartedness suspected in its soft caress in place of the hard-hitting splatter of a downpour. But it’s the best. Hard rain would be too destructive. This kind of rain, the slight one, was designed for his business. This is when people would buy plastic sheets. Because there was still a chance of their crisp office outfits and precious belongings getting spared.
Raju looked around and settled himself right at the intersection – the place where the passing by office crowd naturally stopped for a respite. The tea stall right here didn’t open anymore; its shutters now permanently pulled shut. But the rickety bench had still stayed right outside. No one really sat down ever; but its mere placement, right at the intersection, provided a perception that it’d be Ok to stop here. Given the NIT and the office buildings all within two blocks and no ledge to walk under, this was a prime location to interject a busy crowd who would care enough in an unexpected drizzle to pay Rs.10 for a plastic sheet. Born deaf and dumb, there weren’t many trades he could pursue. But thankfully, selling stuff on the footpaths could be done with only gestures – as long as what one had to sell was of value. Raju smiled, proud of himself for continuously innovating things that could be of value. This plastic sheet idea, for example, was brilliant. Who’d buy a box of rapidly decaying strawberries or a rose while rushing to work during the monsoons? These pieces, easily made by cutting old tarps and sheets (some stolen, some gathered), were hot cakes.
Mala watched Raju from their kitchen window, noticing him now for the second consecutive day. He had just sprouted with the monsoon, like mushrooms in a wood. This area didn’t have any street vendors and solicitors. One of the very few things she had liked about this lone residential building they had moved to. No colony to colonize in, just eight apartments and a watchman. The nearest playpark and Spencer’s were a block and half walk. Office buildings all around. Office crowds in the day hours, peaking at certain times, and deserted streets after eight pm. That sensitized her further to any changes in the surroundings. Strangers hovering around. Sudden men appearing without any apparent purpose…This man positioned right across from their building dressed in tatters, for example.
‘Where the hell is my food Mala?’ Nitesh yelled. Mala quickly gathered herself and the lunch box and hurried out. ‘Sorry. Here.’ ‘Will you be going out again today?’ Nitesh asked. Mala didn’t want to answer. She was tired of being asked every day since she had started. It’s a job Nitesh. Just like yours. I have to go every day. She wanted to say. ‘Yes.’ She said instead. ‘Ok, I will not take the car then. I will call the garage and have Haru sent over. He will drive you and pick you up.’ Mala didn’t object. There was no point objecting. Haru was their driver on call, paid accordingly. She watched her husband leave with an earlier conversation replaying in her head. I can drive Nitesh. If you insist that I take the car for just a few blocks, at least we can save money we have to pay the driver… Let’s not discuss Mala. You are not driving. I am letting you work but…
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Raju looked at the woman coming out of the building and waiting in the drizzle. The building across had no place to wait under except for the small watchman’s room on the side. She was waiting for her car, Raju knew. A driver would pull up anytime. The rain was picking up though, and she was now visibly wet, just in a few minutes. Raju started crossing the street. She wouldn’t buy a sheet, he knew. But he was going to just lend one to her until her car arrived.
Mala saw Raju approaching through the slow traffic. He seemed to be holding out some sort of a sheet to embrace his object of approach with. Mala could hear the pounding of her heart over the rain. This was an hour past office start time. The crowd thinned substantially at this hour and the rain had caused a total desertion it seemed. Mala looked around frantically, pushing on the watchmen’s room door. Usually, the collapsible gates were pulled close with the door behind it open. Today it was tightly shut. And then, she remembered. There had been a WhatsApp message on this. Men finding victims of opportunity, covering them with plastic sheets, and dragging them into alleys. She started screaming.
Nitesh pulled the shawl tightly around his wife before sitting down. ‘Hope you have learned a lesson,’ he said. Mala didn’t respond. Nitesh’s tone softened catching sight of Mala’s face. ‘No need to go to work from tomorrow. I keep saying this – we can manage well with what I earn. Your job is a hobby anyway. I didn’t dictate earlier but now I have to. Whatever happened is for good. I have told the Inspector to keep an eye and will talk to his higher-ups too if needed.’ Nitesh smiled a warm smile towards his wife as he got up. He had just escorted Inspector Das to the door following a thirty-minute long interrogation during which Mala had stayed mostly silent. The man had been beaten up badly. Mala’s screams had gathered folks within a minute (including the building watchman) who had run to find the man hovering over Mala, trying to cover her with the sheet in his hand, fumbling and gesturing. They had dragged him off her. Something had come over her. Fear – prime and primal – freezing her in place as her screams came out incessantly. And then, the moment had passed. Mala had then rushed upstairs and called Nilesh, who had called the police.
She had caught sight of the bloodied head of the man looking out of the kitchen window – bobbing up from time to time through the crowd, trying to say something it seemed. And then she couldn’t see him anymore. Only the crowd hovering over in the pouring rain…