That Afternoon

A Short Story By Shobha Diwakar 

 The day was nice and bright. No peeping toms appeared in the vicinity. Since all men folks were on duty and dear women at home tending to their chores, some luckier ones gossiping and basking in the sun, no one was aware that a lousy man was lurking behind the high boundary wall; who he was, where had he landed up from, why was he peeping? No one knew. He pretended as though he had lost his way and was just peering inside to make sure he was not somewhere outside human territory.

 It was by chance that some wayfarer spied him. When questioned he plucked his pocket. Drawing out a sheet of paper, he scribbled something and thrust it before this man. Raising his eyebrows quizzically, the man read some address written in an untidy hand. He pointed out that address in the opposite direction, marked a few landmarks and ordered him to be gone. Saying so, the man departed. The intruder drew a few steps forward until the other was out of sight. Then he retraced his steps and once again lurked near the wall. The wall was not very high and anyone who made a little effort could easily climb up or down. To make matters easier a big strong banyan tree planted inside swung its sturdy branches outside for anyone’s help. The man was smart he did precisely that and once inside, crouched behind a dense bush waiting for the basking women to recede.

 Tired of their gossips and the sun biting into their skin viciously, the gossip mongers decided enough was enough and so turned their steps inside; assuring each other to resume their mongering at the next possible ‘time.’ The ground was now clear. It was just after 1p.m.; the area was dull with the now burning beams of the golden fiery ball. There was pin drop silence, doors were locked and windows closed; curtains drawn up to keep the house cool and no sound from any houses was to be heard. Children were at school still and by the time the bus dropped them home, it would be 4 p.m. or sometimes even later. The men would return from the factory after 5.30. It was a long, long time ahead for whatever was or would happen within those few hours… was anybody’s guess.

 Simmy was humming a tune to herself as she went in and out of the kitchen to cook something special for the children who always expected mom to keep some surprise dish for them, which they hogged to their delight every day. Today’s special dish was baked potatoes topped with butter, cheese and red and yellow bell peppers, delicately sliced, creamed and accompanied with a delectable lava cake. The table was arranged and since Simmy loved to lend an ear to listener’s choice on Vivid Bharti, she heeled into her bedroom to turn on her FM. Even as she heard her favorite song “Aaye gaa… ayega … aane waala… aayega…” there came a rap a tap at the door. Surprised she got up from her rocking chair, lowered the volume, threw a glance at the clock ticking 1.35 p.m. and wondering who it could be, walked towards the door.

 The knock persisted. Simmy hesitated awhile. She was alone and whoever was there seemed impatient for her to open the door. She peeped through the spy- glass but could see no one. She halted. She remembered the backyard door was unlocked and hurriedly crossed the yard to lock it up. Too late the intruder had already stepped inside. He had a ladder and a box of paint in his hand. Simmy wondered if her husband had forgotten to tell her that the house was to be painted. They had discussed about it a few days back, but probably he had forgotten to mention that the painting was to start from today. The intruder interrupted her thought, “Sahab ne putai ke liye bheja hai.” (Sahab has sent me to whitewash the house). “Theek hai, baahar se shuru karo,”  (Ok, start from the outside), said Simmy and hastened to chuck him out and bolt the door. The man was adamant to begin painting from the bedroom and planted himself defiantly before her. Simmy could do nothing. She was aware that she, the so called weaker of the sex was all alone, the phone was in the living room and her neighbors were all locked up in their own nests.

 “Madam kya soch rahi hai? Sahab ne pahle bedroom potne ko kaha hai,” he tooted. (Sahab told me to begin painting the bedroom first). Simmy could not confirm as her mobile was resting on the kitchen top. She had no choice but to concede. She was cornered. She led the fellow through the corridor to the bedroom. The fellow removed a side table and handy stuff outside, rested the ladder against the wall and began to scrub off the dead plaster. Simmy turned and returned to the kitchen to pick up her mobile and call her husband. Little did she realize that this fellow was eyeing her moves? Probably he had guessed that she would call and had stealthily crept down the ladder noiselessly without raising any suspicions. Simmy was taken quite unawares and got a jolt when he said, “Madam koi purana mota kapada milega? Deewaar ghisna hai.” (Can you give me an old rough cloth to scrub the wall)?

 Simmy swung around startled. She looked under the kitchen top, and drew out an old piece of cloth and threw it at him, shivering, stammering, even as she tried to take hold of the situation. The man was doing his work but there was something eerie in the air that made her uncomfortable. She glanced again at the clock it was barely 2 p.m. The school bus must be on its way home with the kids. She remembered it was school- teachers’ meeting so the children would  probably be let off soon but time seemed to stretch beyond eternity. What was she to do? Her mind hammered and seemed as though it would just split. The man was still inside humming to himself, still trying to scrape off the old plaster. She calmed herself, clenched her fist with an attempt to reassure herself that nothing adverse was going to happen. Nevertheless, that gnawing fear did not pass away.

 To calm her nerves Simmy thought it better to sit down and relax with a cup of strong hot chocolate coffee, so she prepared herself a cup, sat down at the dining table, and began sipping it. She had no idea that the man was keenly eyeing her. For a moment Simmy’s mind had wandered away from this frightful experience of being alone in the house with an unknown man right there in the bedroom. She had read so many stories of rapes, murders and loots by those you thought were trustworthy people working as helpers in your homes; this man was unknown and adamant in his temperament. Thinking about it, a shiver ran down her spine. Yet, trying to put up a farce of being bold she called out to him, “Tumhara naam kya hai?”  “Vikas,” he said. “Suno, sahab ke khane ka samay ho gaya hai, tum bahar jao.” She stammered.  (It is time for sahab to come home for lunch so go out), “Theek hai jata hu, thoda kona saaf karne ko bacha hai,” (OK I will go after I have cleaned this corner), he defiantly stated which gave Simmy the creeps. She knew he had guessed that she was outsmarting him, because of the catch in her voice.

 Simmy heaved a deep sigh and thumped her cup of coffee on the table. She did not realize that she had tiredly closed her eyes out of sheer discomfort. She jolted up as she felt a shadow pass near her. “Kaun hai?” (Who is there)? She called out but got no answer. Simmy was now distraught with an unknown fear and felt her legs would give way when she felt a sharp thrust on her back. She all but shrieked until someone behind her rudely nudged her saying, “Hilna mut, mere paas chaku hai. Shor mut karna. Almari ki chabi deo.” (Do not move. I have a knife. Do not make a noise. Give me the keys to the cupboard).

 Simmy knew she was cornered. If she so much as tried to move this nasty fellow would  thrust the knife into her back just like all cowards do. She was after all right in having that gut feeling of uneasiness ever since this fellow had entered her house. Even in this hour of desperate helplessness, her mind suddenly stirred her up. It was a question of life and death. She had to think fast. “O.K, chabi deti hu, tum hato pahle.” (O.K. I’ll give you the keys but you first get away from me). The man knew she was scared and would not try to trick him, so he moved away from her but still pointing the knife. Simmy pretended that the keys were somewhere in the kitchen cabinet and moved towards the drawer where she kept her spices. Suddenly she remembered that she had not capped the chili container and the black pepper bottle too was uncorked. She opened the drawer and pretended to reach out for the keys and before the fellow realized he was being fooled, Simmy flung the red chili powder into his eyes and ran for her life towards the back door, which had not been locked yelling, “Chor, chor, bachao.”

 Some women heard her shrieks and came running out of their houses to see who was shrieking for help. Simmy was gasping. She could not talk. She pointed to her house. “Vaha.” (There). By now, some others who had heard her cry for help also came along and accompanied her to her house to see who the intruder was. Vikas, the fellow was still rubbing his eyes that  were swollen up and red. The deadly knife was lying on the floor gaping upwards.  It was now his turn to feel scared of the crowd that had gathered around him. Since they were so many of them, no one was scared. All of them took out their slippers, some had armed themselves with their rolling pins and together they beat the life out of him. Someone had in the meantime phoned the police who wheeled themselves in blowing their sirens shrilly. The man was kicked and beaten, handcuffed and sent to jail. Later the incidence was reported to the media and it was relayed that Vikas was an old jail- bird who had recently been set free for his good conduct; but it seemed that he was actually a hard nut to crack and was again into his old profession. Now his idea of loot and murder had changed. He had used different aliases to swindle people and this was his latest venture. People were warned not to let strangers into their homes under any circumstances even though they may be genuine callers.

 Simmy had learnt her lesson the bitter way and vowed never again to forget to lock the doors whenever she was alone and not to let anyone inside her house albeit they may be familiar. She warned her children to beware of strangers however much they might seem to insist. The husbands heard the story at the factory and rushed home to find that the ‘fair weaker sex’ had already settled the matter without awaiting their arrival. “Bravo,” they united  and hailed their better halves.

About the Author:  Dr. Shobha Diwakar lives in Jabalpur, India and retired as the head of English department at C.P. Mahila Mahavidhyalaya, Jabalpur. She has published many research papers, stories, poems and essays in national, international and online journals. She contributes regularly to writerslifeline and Indian Periodical. Dr Diwakar  servers on the Advisory Board of and editorial board of CLRI (contemporary literary journal India) for poetry and short story section. 

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