By Shobha Diwakar
Shivam lived all alone on a farm. His wife Shanti and two kids, Roop and Swaroop lived in a nearby town so the kids could get a good primary education, which was not possible in a back of beyond village. Roop was a five year – old girl chirpy and smart like all five year olds are while her brother Swaroop aged ten was rather shy and not very talkative. Probably his manly genes prompted him to be a wise young boy who was to take care of his mother and sister in an unknown town with his father far away to earn his bread.
In order to run the house Shanti did some odd jobs around to be self-sufficient and wait until she would receive a humble MO from her husband to take care of their other needs. It would be weeks before he himself could come and be with the family and replenish their urgent demands, as the children would drown him with their ecstatic love while the helpless wife looked adoringly at the sight.
Like all loving fathers, Shivam would bring little gifts for the children, which they gracefully clung to and teased each other about whose was the best. While Roop got a doll to cuddle and pamper, Swaroop armed himself with his bat and ball ready to win an innings with the local boys’ team of cricketers… and so the days passed happily with the family tied tenderly with each other. Though poor and living apart, the family bonds were strong and earnest.
A week’s holiday was all that Shivam could afford and soon it was time for him to return to the village and ground himself to the farm while Shanti and the children settled down to their own routine. Their school was quite a distance away from home and since Shanti had started taking care of an old woman nearby she could no longer drop the children and fetch them back. Nonetheless, Swaroop was a responsible boy, so he promised his mother that he would take good care of his little sister and bring her home safely everyday and she was not to worry about her.
The days dragged on and summer followed with school now being closed the children enjoyed themselves with the neighbour’s children climbing trees, breaking guavas from the wayside and playing hide and seek and seven tiles just like all children of their age do. In the meanwhile, Shanti would sit outside watching all of them enjoying their childhood and sometimes wondered how it was that she had missed all the fun during her own childhood. Girls in the villages then were screened from the outside world, draped in a sari, coyly covering their heads and peeping from behind half-closed doors at people and visitors passing their way. That is how girls were graciously protected from the eyes of peeping toms but now times had changed and here her own little one was playing around with boys her own age and older who watched over her with care . Well, she thought soon her little one would grow up and learn to take care of herself. She promised herself that she would never deny her child the privileges she was denied in her own childhood.
A crash and clash of clouds soon dispersed the merry making kids to seek shelter in their homes and so the happy evening ended for the children. Since it began to rain, it was fun to sit by the fire and enjoy a hot cup of tea with ‘pakoras’ that made the day. Of course, who wants to have ‘roti and sabji’ on a wild night like this? So that was the dinner for Shanti and the kids who gobbled up as much as their little stomachs could digest and spinning their yarns of the day to their mother, finally fell asleep while Shanti made herself busy with the cleaning up.
After the chores were over Shanti lay down and soon fell asleep. Past midnight, she felt she heard some noise coming from the back of her house where there was an empty patch of land but which was covered with thorny shrubs so that no one ever ventured there for fear of being stung by those wretched thorns. For a while, she thought it must be some stray cat or dog or perhaps a small wild animal that must have strayed in the vicinity or perhaps it might be some puppy or kitten that must have lost its way, and so fell asleep once again. Yet after a while, she heard a screeching sound that woke her up with a start. She sat upright like a jack-in- the – box and strained her ears to catch the sound. She tried to figure out from which side the sound had come. She was sure it was from that patch of dreary uncultivated land upon which no one ever dared to tread. She realized her kids were still fast asleep and did not wish to disturb them so she quietly got up and decided to peep through the crevices of the termite eaten door which hung by a solitary latch.
As she crossed the threshold of the cluttered room, she felt a tug. A cold shiver ran down her spine and she stood still. A second later, she resumed her exploration and clutching the handle of the door she stood aghast at what she beheld. Her heart- beats grew faster as she gasped at the sight of a not very old hunchbacked woman trying to remove some shrubs from a deserted area. Shanti’s mouth grew dry as she made a vain attempt to hail the woman and ask her what she was doing at this time of the night. Words failed her as she swallowed her words, ‘uh… uh… who…who …r..uuu?’ Of course, the woman was draped in partial darkness and obviously, was quite unaware of the fact that she was being spied upon.
Shanti could do nothing. She remembered when she was walking towards the door something had tucked her but in her anxiety to find out the source of the noise she had quite forgotten about it. Now she turned around to find Swaroop trying to hide behind her. Little had she noticed that he had stealthily followed her and cleverly concealed himself while she in her curious anxiety had simply forgotten about it. Now she looked at him with a quizzical frown albeit with a sigh of relief that she was not alone in this adventurous night. Since Swaroop had not witnessed the hunchback woman, he had a big question mark written on his face. His mother warned him silently and pointed in the direction of the unkempt place where she had spied her. Swaroop glared with sleepy eyes and deciphered a rough figure moving around in the dark. He caught hold of Shanti and made signs to squat down and peep through the broad crevices. Ah, ha what did they witness?
As it had grown slightly more perceptible, they saw that the woman had her face covered with a scarf and the only thing visible were her two brightly shining eyes glaring into the rough space of land. Soon she took out a sharp-edged knife or something that looked like an old -fashioned axe and cut off the thorny edges of the shrubs… and then she … disappeared! Mother and son stood rooted and perplexed wondering whether the night had engulfed her or was she a witch on a broom, or had the earth swallowed her up? They looked at each other quizzically and scratched their heads at the same time pinching themselves to make sure they were not dreaming. Since they could see nothing more still wondering over the situation, they crept back into their room and lay awake until morning broke out and the first rays of the sun fell upon their faces. Roop remained unaware about the night’s adventure and as usual happily went about her childish whims; playing pranks on her brother while the mother and son sat by the fire thinking about the hunchback.
‘What are you thinking mother?’ Swaroop popped the question as soon as Roop was out of sight.
‘Nothing,’ said Shanti.
‘Mother, you look worried. I am a grown up kid and am here to take care of you. I too saw what you did last night and am sure you are upset about it. Don’t wander on that side until we make sure there is no danger…,’ and he wisely added, ‘ please do not talk about it with anyone,’ and there the matter ended. Swaroop then rushed out to check on his sister while the mother busied herself still pondering over the hunchback
Evening dawned, night fell, darkness enveloped the sky as the moon refused to emerge out of its shelter and spread its velvety light. The children slept like babes in the woods while Shanti sat down with needle and thread to repair some worn out clothes that needed mending. She yawned loudly as she surrendered herself to sleep. A bang and a crash wakened her up as she sat upright peering into the dark in time to perceive and catch a glimpse of a shiny flurry figure flash across the threshold. She faltered a while then decided to check the kitchen … and lo! She stifled a smile; the rowdy black (neighbor’s) cat, Devil by name, had filled its hungry tummy with the little leftover milk for the morning tea, which now they would be compelled to forego. She returned to her bed but not before closing the window that was mistakenly left open for the rowdy cat to scamper inside!
Nevertheless, a rugged sound as though something was being dragged woke her up again. Swaroop and Roop were fast asleep so she carefully slid out of her bed and by the help of a torch crept silently towards the back door, and turned it off. She must have stood there for barely a few seconds when she spied the hunchback exactly where she had seen her the day before. This time she noticed that the woman carried a lantern and was kneeling beside those thorny bushes and making an effort to unscrew something beneath the bushes she had cut previously. This time the woman did not vanish. Shanti observed how she carefully scrutinized the place, and then lowered herself into a hollow space. Shanti waited for yet a few minutes but the woman did not emerge, exhausted she turned back into her room and thought about relating the entire happenings to her husband who would then find out what was going on. Finally, she fell asleep.
Next morning she called her husband and narrated the happenings. He too was taken aback and decided to come over and dig into the incidents or report the matter to the local police. However, nothing happened for the next couple of days and wondering whether his simple, ignorant wife had fabricated the story, decided to return to the farm by the next morning much to his wife’s chagrin, but having said so the matter was closed. In the evening, he took his wife and children to the weekly market just in case they wished to buy something for themselves or for the school since they would reopen within the next few weeks and perhaps he would not be here then, so they merrily set out to enjoy a much- earned family trip. Roop, the chirpy one chattered all the way, ‘babu, why don’t you live with us? We miss you. Ma is so busy with the house work she hardly has time for us.’ Swaroop nudged her, ‘be quiet. Let’s enjoy this outing with father, tomorrow he will go away and again we will have to wait for a month before he can return to be with us.’ That made Roop sulk and she caught hold of her mother’s ‘pallu’ who glanced slyly from the corner of her eyes to see a tear rolling down her cheeks. She tried to distract her and just then, she staggered. She was sure she had caught sight of the same hunchback she had seen a few days back on that deserted piece of land but before she could draw her husband’s attention, she / he had given the slip.
Shivam was busy trying to locate a not so expensive eatery where he could buy some snacks for themselves while Shanti peered into the crowd to catch a glimpse of the hunchback to no avail. They sat down to enjoy a plateful of ‘pakoras’ with piping hot tea and some fries for the kids topped with a glassful of ‘kesar’ milk for the children. After all, when would they get another ‘festive occasion’ to enjoy the thrill of an outing?
By the time they walked back home it was late evening. Hand in hand, the kids swung into entertaining themselves, swinging their arms, marching to their own concocted song and skipping to the tunes of the cool breeze that sang merrily with the rustling leaves dancing and waving, as if a goodbye and flowing onwards as though in a hurry. By the time the foursome reached home the kids were tired and so lazily dozed off. Shivam and Shanti sat down to discuss about the mysterious hunchbacked woman; Shanti was confirmed in her belief that this secretive person was not a man. A woman’s intuition you may call it! However, Shivam thought otherwise.
Since Shivam was to leave early morning Shanti decided to cook a lunch pack for him and so went into the kitchen, while her husband relaxed by the side of the children. It was not very often that he availed leave to visit them so he wished to make up for his absence. As Shanti lighted the fire and turned back to knead the flour, she felt she heard the same creepy, screeching sound. She got up and signaled her husband to come quietly and check. Shivam peeped through the same crevices in the door and was surprised to catch a glimpse of the same hunchback about whom his wife had been talking. Without a second thought, he picked up a rod lying nearby and before his wife could stop him, he opened the latch and strode out.
The hunchback was busy trying to clear the space she had covered and did not realize that she had been followed cautiously. Shivam crept closer and closer towards this unsuspecting woman who was busy with her own musings, and all of a sudden, he caught her from behind and held on to her tightly. The woman taken off guard lay knocked down, all tantalized; she had no idea that she had raised suspicion in this godforsaken, unkempt, thorny wasteland. The woman shocked to the core could do nothing. Shivam ordered her to unmask and was shocked to see that the woman’s face was all disfigured. He asked her to tell him why she came there every night and why she had covered that particular spot with thorny shrubs.
The story she narrated was pathetic. She had lost her husband in a fire that broke out long back. Since she lived alone some village rascals and muscle men pestered her to hand over the money her husband had earned, which was quite a neat sum and which they had saved for their old age. Unfortunately he had confided to one of his friends about his savings and ever since that friend had been pestering him for a loan… of course, which would never be returned. So together, they decided to hide the money in a pot on the wasteland, upon which no one ever treaded because of the thorny poisonous bushes. She had no idea that her rendezvous was being watched carefully so she felt it safe to check her savings at night.
‘But why do you cover yourself in this manner when you are aware that no one will expect you to be here at night,’ insisted Shivam.
‘… because, those people have threatened to rob the money, so I come here to check … to make sure it has not been robbed.’
Shivam promised her that he was a god-fearing man and would do nothing to harm her but in fact, would help her so that she could live without fear of anyone. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she asked him to help her roll away a cleverly concealed stone beneath those bushes. Together they did so and Shivam witnessed a wrought iron lid that lay under it. The woman drew out a key. Turned it in the slot and opened the trap, which led into a deep dark hole that seemed to reflect a black shiny pot covered meticulously with a red cloth printed with the picture of a cobra, which as the saying goes, guards wealth.
Shivam felt sorry about how people cheat and frighten those who live alone and suddenly thoughts rushed to his own family and his face lined up with worry. He realized Shanti’s concern about this hunchback and her nightly visits, and how frightened she, (the hunchback) must be of those muscle men who had threatened to steal her savings. Shivam was a kind- hearted man so he decided to stay back another day, and take the hunchback to a nearby post office and help her open a savings account. It was a tedious job no doubt but the job was done finally. . He then took the hunchback to meet his wife and children and so the two women became close friends The hunchback found a loving family therefore she was no longer lonely while Shanti found a friend who remained forever indebted to them for their honest kindness.
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 www.writerslifeline.ca.