“There, Tania Madam,” said the caretaker, pointing forward, “at the end of this lane, is your house.”
Your house. It sounded so unreal. Calm down, Tania told the butterflies in her stomach. She had better get used to the fact that the sprawling bungalow that stared at her from the other end of the road was now hers. And it was the biggest of them all.
And ill-maintained too. Tania could see the peeling paint and broken windows as she neared it. She wondered what the caretaker did, if the house had not been taken care of.
“Champa,” she turned to the caretaker, “looks like no one has lived there for years.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Ajji’s children took her away to stay with them many years ago.”
Ajji was Saraswatibai, a feisty woman who brought up four children all on her own. Yet, she was unable to help one of them and could only watch as the young girl was thrown out of her marital home because ‘she had cancer.’
It was Ajji’s niece– sister’s daughter- Tania’s mother, who took the girl in and cared for her till the end. Ajji promised to compensate her, but her financial struggles wouldn’t allow it. Not that Tania’s mother wanted any.
The matter was completely forgotten till Tania received a letter from a lawyer’s office a day ago, asking her to drop by.
Tania recollected the contents of Ajji’s will she had read at the lawyer’s office. Ajji had few investments other than the bungalow and these were bequeathed to her surviving children, two sons and a daughter, while she got the most prized possession of them all.
Tania had wondered aloud as to how Ajji’s children would have reacted to this. The law firm had cleared her doubts by connecting her with her uncles and aunt, who spoke to her warmly and invited her to take a look at the place along with the caretaker. “We will honour our mother’s last wish.”
And so it happened that Tania was here the next day.
On the one hand Tania was feeling that she was taking away something that should have ideally gone to her uncles and aunt. And on the other was the financial mess she was in. At forty, she was single mother to her five-year-old Sasha. It had been four years since her husband had left her for another woman and refused to take responsibility for their little girl. Her job as a clerk in the forest department of the Government would have met her needs, if not for the mounting medical bills of her parents. Her thoughts were more in the line of selling the bungalow and paying off her debts.
Now, looking at the house, which stood like a huge bhoot bungla among a bunch of immaculately maintained houses, she was quietly assessing it. Maybe rupees 5 crores, she thought, for the plot alone. After all, it was a prime area.
The gate was intact and locked. Tania could not help notice that the lock was dust free. So this place was not totally neglected after all, she thought.
It was the same with the front door. Tania observed that though the lawn was shabby, the path was well-worn and there were no cobwebs around the place. Then why does this place look vandalised, she thought. Something made her hold back from asking the caretaker.
Tania followed Champa into the house. She was greeted by the sight of a totally empty hall.
Though momentarily surprised, she presumed that the furniture might have been shifted to prevent their decay.
A small noise made Tania turn back and look out the door. She saw a couple of residents peeping out from their houses, their curiosity aroused.
Champa whispered, “Ignore the neighbours. They’re just curious. None of their business.” The voice echoed through the emptiness.
Now Tania’s curiosity was aroused, too.
Moving from room to room, Tania saw that they all were as bare as the main hall. And that there were plenty of broken windows and glass shards on the floor. She was now confused.
“Where is everything?” She finally asked Champa. The house is so empty.”
“Ah, yes, we have kept it that way because it was unoccupied,” came the dismissive reply.
Tania decided to calm down.
Half an hour later, Tania had sized up the ground floor of the house- a hall, a kitchen, a bedroom and a pooja room. The duo then made their way upstairs.
While on the stairs, Champa suddenly asked, “Do you really want this house?”
Tania was momentarily taken aback, but she collected herself and replied, “Of course yes, I’ve inherited it in a legitimate manner. Ajji’s children are already well off and they don’t mind. Why do you ask?”
“Because you can see it’s in bad shape with paint peeling, door locks missing, broken windows… can you afford the cost of even setting the place right, leave alone furnishing it? And it’s located so far away from your place. You can’t stay here, considering your job and responsibilities. Besides, you already have a house of your own.”
“We’ll see.” Tania smiled. Anyway, she was going to sell it.
The first bedroom was as empty as the entire floor below. Tania was surprised to find some things lying on the floor in the second bedroom.
The daylight streaming in from the window was sufficient for Tania to make out what appeared to be carelessly thrown around the place. Broken windchimes. An old fashioned photo album.
There was barely any dust on them. There was hardly any dust in the house, for that matter – Champa was obviously doing her job. But the glass shards?
Tania picked up the windchimes. They were simple, with tiny, colourful apple shaped beads. The tinkling sound soothed her mind. But there was something familiar.
Tania thought hard. And then it all came to her.
These were the windchimes she had offered Ajji as a gift, thirty years ago, during one of her visits. But what was it doing, left behind in an empty house?
Tania was transported back to the good old days, when she as a kid would spend her summer vacations with Ajji and her uncles and aunts, till life happened and they lost touch. Till now.
She looked at the photo album and the numerous black-and-white photos scattered on the floor.
She knelt down to take a closer look.
The album was empty.
Tania then turned towards the photos lying on the floor.
What she saw shocked her.
These were old photos, taken of her and her family when she was just a kid, posing along with Ajji and her uncles and aunts. She wondered why they were lying around, torn into two.
She turned around to ask Champa. But the caretaker was engrossed in watching something outside the window.
Tania got up and made her way downstairs, wondering if any meaning was hidden in the fact that the house was totally empty, except for the windchimes and photos, which were the only things associated with her. Was someone trying to shoo her away?
No, she told herself, my uncles and aunt had accepted me as the inheritor of this house.
She reached the hall to find a curious lady from a neighbouring bungalow standing outside.
The neighbour asked, “Are you buying this place?”
Tania decided to reveal little and learn more. She smiled and said, “I came to see the place. How did you guess….,” she paused.
“Because Ajji’s children and Champa shifted all the furniture out yesterday. Thank God, because there was a robbery attempt last night. Windows were smashed, but there was nothing to steal.”
Tania’s instincts told her it wasn’t a robbery. Then what was it?
A cough made her turn around. It was Champa. The neighbour quietly left.
Tania merely raised a brow.
Champa directly came to the point. “We’ll pay you Rs.50 lakhs if you give up the house.”
Tania’s instincts were right. It was an attempt to keep her out of the inheritance. She knew that Rs.50 lakhs was nothing, though it would make her debt-free.
Champa took some papers out of her purse and thrust them into Tania’s hand. “You can sign this and we’ll pay you the money upfront.”
Ah, how relations go for a toss in the face of money. And how it’s the ones who already have everything who desire more.
Tania looked at the first page of what looked like a stamped agreement awaiting signature. One look at the survey number, plot number and village name and a smile appeared on her face. She asked, “Do I get it immediately? Within two hours?”
It was Champa’s turn to be startled. But she decided to act fast – no one gives yo property so easily. A few phone calls later, she said, “Yes.”
Tania signed the agreement. “We’ll wait here till I get the UTR number.”
Five minutes later, that too was done.
Tania left quickly. She knew exactly what would happen the next day. A notice would be delivered by registered AD to all the bungalows in that lane, asking them to vacate without any compensation. After all, it was forest land, once allowed to be encroached upon.
Tania should know. After all, the notices were drafted, typed and despatched just a day ago – by her.
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