Shashi stood half-hidden behind the window of her kitchen, which opened towards their next-door neighbour’s yard. The glass of water in her hands was the perfect excuse for standing there. It was late afternoon. Everyone was slumbering. Even the street dogs lay panting under the numerous neem trees dotting the locality.
A young man in his late twenties was hovering at the gate. Dressed in a pair of trousers, their creases perfectly straight, and a blue shirt with rather large checks and larger collars, he seemed trying hard to look respectable. His hair was slicked back with gel. Slick-haired men made Shashi suspicious. In her opinion, there was something unnatural in men putting too much attention on their attire.
He seemed to be debating whether to enter or not. Finally, with a burst of courage, he lifted the latch and walked in. The path to the door was bordered on both sides by periwinkle shrubs, drooping like the dead in the hot afternoon. Instead of knocking he tried the door handle once he reached. To Shashi’s surprise, it was open and the man quietly slipped inside. Shashi was mystified.
Who is that man and what is he doing in Nalini’s house at this time? Is it a paramour? Chhee.. Chhee.. I shouldn’t even think such things.
Nalini Sharma had been her friend for almost two decades now. They had arrived in their respective staff quarters after marriage around the same time and struck up a friendship that only exists in such colonies. Comfortably close but quite competitive. They went to the same movies, bought their monthly groceries from the same shop, and even had their kids in the same year in the same school. Now that they were matrons with matured figures, they even went to the same Yoga class.
Nalini never passes up an opportunity to denigrate me. Didn’t she steal that sweater pattern I’d so meticulously mastered for Abhishek? She even finished it earlier. How she flaunted the sweater on Rajat while I was still finishing my sweater’s neckline?
There was that time I showed her my new gold chain which I got as an anniversary gift. She had to go and get a heavier one for her anniversary. Poor Pankaj ji couldn’t even afford the same and had to take a loan to fulfill her whim!
She always gets the same dresses for Swara that I buy for Aradhana? Always copying everything I plan for the kids. She even bought the same saree she knew I wanted to buy for Diwali last year.
She is doing something underhanded right now. Maybe planning something again! Hmmph. Let’s see how she succeeds!
A myriad of thoughts went through Shashi’s overactive mind, probably the only thing working well in the soaring temperatures. Shashi decided to nip over next door to find out.
It’ll be so gratifying to pull out the rug from under that scheming woman. Just before our get-together, scheduled for my birthday, next week. Nalini will find living down the public embarrassment difficult. Serves her right for being so competitive.
Shashi liked to keep an eye on things happening in their colony. She justified her nosiness by calling it her civic duty. Most women in her circle agreed. If they didn’t stay vigilant, who knows what all would be taking place. As it is, everyone knows zamana bahut kharab hai.
Straightening her saree, Shashi went to her room. After she had combed her hair and tied it into a neat knot at the nape of her neck, she put on a generous dose of sunscreen on her face, once without a blemish but now full of age spots.
I’m not going to expose my skin in this crazy heat.
She unlatched the kitchen door, and peeked. There wasn’t even a breeze to ruffle the leaves of the trees. The sun was blazing. Shashi took a few tentative steps outside, but feeling like a dried up prune within seconds, she ducked back. She needed an umbrella. Otherwise, she would melt out there in the sun like an ice cube.
Her gaze fell with distaste on the ancient umbrella lying near the corner of the door after its last foray outside. It was older than her presence in this household. A fact her husband Vinod was fond of pointing out with gleeful relish every season.
The black fabric had faded to a dull gray in the years the umbrella had faced the elements bravely. The sturdy wooden handle was shiny and smooth with years of being held in clenched fingers. She abhorred the umbrella with an intensity that she had hid well from everyone. Her heart was set on having a shiny silk umbrella, with colourful flowers brightening its border. The kind that unfurled with just a swish of the wrist, smart and confident. Not like this ancient monstrosity that required both hands just to open it.
But she knew the math. When the price of one new umbrella was half of the monthly tuition fees for a kid, such wishes had to remain wishes. Their old umbrella was perfectly capable of doing its duty. Duty and denial were the pillars their middle class existence stood firmly upon.
She stepped out into the sun, the umbrella her protector. With brisk feet she reached next door. She was as familiar with this house as she was with her own. Peering into the kitchen window gave her no inkling of the going-ons inside. However, she heard Nalini’s voice, raised in a sing-song manner, coming from the living room.
I need a peek from the living room window.
As she reached the front of the house, the sound of scuffle and then a scream startled her. It was Nalini.
“Stop! Thief! Help.”
Quick as lightning, she bounded to the door and put the umbrella in the way. The door flew open and someone ran out only to stumble into the umbrella handle. The man unbalanced and was soon sprawled at Shashi’s feet. She saw with some satisfaction that the slicked hair was disheveled and the collars torn and dirtied. He no longer looked like someone who took lots of care with his appearance.
The man was followed on his heels by Nalini, panting. Apparently all that yoga had had no effect on her limited running capacity, Shashi noted with jealous satisfaction.
“Thank God you were here! He was trying to snatch my gold chain and run.”
They searched the unconscious man and retrieved the chain. The husbands were informed. Expectedly the kids slept through the clatter.
“Who is he? What is he doing here now, Nalini?” Shashi asked, not being able to control her inquisitiveness any longer.
Nalini looked at her neighbour. She could predict the thoughts going through that fertile mind and knew it was best to come clean.
“It’s not what it seems. It is your birthday next week and all the ladies wanted me to give a speech at your birthday party. Seeing we are such good friends. In English. I met him outside the bank last week and he promised me he would teach me. I was taken in by his appearance and verbal skills. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at my efforts so I called him at this time. However, finding us all alone he snatched my gold chain and ran. Thank God, you were here. If I’d lost it, Pankaj ji would never buy me another one. And berate me all the time,” Nalini paused to take a breath.
“But why were you here? At this time? Weren’t you resting?”
Shashi felt terrible. She wasn’t going to tell the truth of her thoughts to Nalini. She stammered,
“I came to give you the new recipe chhole I tried. They turned out yum.”
“But I don’t see any chhole…” Nalini pointed out the obvious.
“Oh, it’s the heat. I must have forgotten them at home. I will be back in a second.”
Shashi stepped outside, opened the umbrella and groaned. The sturdy thing had valiantly performed its swan song . The handle had stopped a crime but had perished in the effort.
Vinod ji won’t get to repeat his statement the next year,
she thought ruefully.
Nalini never got the chhole but forgot all about it in the excitement of explaining the events to all and sundry with added details with each retelling. Vinod had a sad evening mourning and reminiscing about the good times the umbrella had spent with them.
At Shashi’s birthday get-together a week later, there was no speech but lots of games and good food. For the first time, all the colony ladies pooled in for a special birthday gift. Shashi squealed like a little girl on opening her gift; A dainty silk umbrella, lemon yellow with red poppies adorning the border, unfurling proudly with just the press of a button.
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