Krishna had dozed off when the bus had started going around the hairpin bends further and further up into the hills. When it came to a halt, he woke up and alighted. The woman at the agency had instructed him to take the path going to the left of the sign board which would lead him to the house. The path was steep and soon he was panting. The path continued to wind upwards and seemed never ending. Then it abruptly curved to the left and when he turned the corner, he had reached. He pushed the gate open, rusted flakes falling off. The entrance was unlit, but there was light streaming from a room downstairs.
Krishna rang the doorbell. He heard someone approaching slowly, and suddenly the door was thrown open. An old woman leaning heavily on a stick stood there.
“That’s me.” Her voice was sharp.
“I’m from the agency.”
“Ah yes, the assistant. They told me you would be coming today. Come in, that must have been a long walk.”
Krishna was so tired he simply nodded and followed her.
She led him down a draughty corridor to a room that wore a warm and cozy look. There was a fire burning from whence the warmth emanated.
“Sit down, I’ll ring for some coffee and snacks.”
She placed her stick against the chair facing the door and slowly lowered herself into it. He sat down on the sofa facing the fire. She pressed the bell on the wall beside her. When an old man appeared, she said,
“Moorthy, please bring some coffee for the young man along with something to eat.”
Moorthy nodded and left. She gave him a long piercing look. He felt as though she could see through his very soul.
“You are very young. I was expecting someone older. What’s your name and how old are you?” she asked.
“Krishna and I am 30.” He replied, nervous.
“So, tell me why is a young man like you willing to maroon himself up in the hills looking after an old woman?”
“I lost my last job a month ago. My landlord threw me out yesterday and when the agency called with this job offer, I jumped at it.”
“How did you land up in this unfortunate situation?” she asked.
Moorthy came in, placed the tray on the table, and left.
“Krishna, please help yourself. We can talk after you are done.”
She sat staring into the fire. The aroma of coffee and bonda was enticing and Krishna needed no further invitation to eat. When he had finished, he felt so much better.
“You were asking me about my unfortunate situation. Here’s my story and after listening to it, you can decide if you still want to employ me.”
She nodded and waited for him to begin.
“I am an alcoholic and have been off alcohol only for the past 6 months, not because I gave up the drink but because I had no money to buy any. I don’t have anyone to blame except myself. I had wonderful parents and great friends but…I lost everything to alcohol. I came here out of a desperate need to redeem myself. If I had stayed back, I would have resorted to crime or suicide and neither was appealing.”
When he had stopped speaking, he looked at her.
She had her eyes closed but she had been listening intently. When he fell silent, she looked at him and said, “Leave this tray in the kitchen and come back here.”
When he came back, she said without preamble: “Krishna, I am not going to judge you based on your past life, so you can rest easy on that count. I hired you not because I need an assistant but because Moorthy needs help. He’s been with my family for years but he’s refusing to retire. Vasanthi, his daughter, comes in twice a day to cook. The rest of the work Moorthy does, so you see why I need you. Now that you are here, he can take it easy.”
All of a sudden, she looked tired.
“Dinner is at 8. You’ll eat yours in the kitchen. You can clean up after yourself. Moorthy has got your room ready. Go find it.” She dismissed him with an imperative wave of her hand.
His room was small and cozy. The bed was comfortable. The warmth came from a small heater below the window. After dinner his eyes started to close; he fell into bed and slept soundly.
In the morning she told him that a bell had been fixed in his room.
“The bell is to wake you up – I wake up early and need coffee, so you’ll have to make the coffee and bring it to me.”
When the bell rang that night, his ears smarted from the loudness of it. He sat up in bed cursing. It was only 3 am. This was way too early, but he had no choice. He got up, made the coffee and went into her room. She was sitting up in bed, accepted the mug and gestured for him to leave.
This pattern was repeated almost every single night. Some nights he just wanted to throttle her to get some peace. The bell always rang at about 3 am. Sometimes she wanted only coffee, sometimes she wanted him to read.
On nights when the bell didn’t ring, he still woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep.
One evening he had found himself asking her, “I’m a total stranger to you, what made you give me this job? I could easily have murdered you and run away with all your valuables.”
She had laughed, “There’s no cash or jewellery here if that’s what you are referring to. Vasanthi is in charge of day-to-day expenses and money is credited to her account every month. So, if you kill me, it would have been for nothing.”
In the early days of his arrival to the house, he had looked everywhere for something valuable that he could steal and leave. She had been speaking the truth, there really was nothing. Only one room was kept locked and he was eager to find out what it contained.
One morning he had discovered that it was a puja room and Moorthy was inside cleaning. He noted that all the puja items were made of solid silver and wondered where the key was kept. He tried to find out but wasn’t successful. As the days passed into weeks and months, he lost all interest in finding the key.
His health had vastly improved. Every evening at her bidding, he went for long hikes. In the beginning he had resented her for forcing him out in the cold nippy air but as the days went by, he started looking forward to this time of the day. He had become inured to the steep winding paths and was able to cover longer distances. When he was high up, he would stand rooted to a particular spot and savor the spectacular views all around. The fresh mountain air had given him back his appetite. He was eating really well and had started to fill out. Sometimes when he looked at himself in the mirror, he couldn’t recognize the happy healthy face looking back at him.
Before he set out, he always peeped into the sitting room to let her know he was going and she would just wave him on.
This evening just as he was setting out, he noticed that the door to the puja room was ajar. He went to look and found the room empty. This was the chance he had been waiting for, but he found to his surprise that he no longer wanted it. In fact, he was ashamed that he had even entertained such thoughts in his mind.
As usual he peeped in to see her, she waved him in. Surprised, he walked in. She rarely initiated conversation outside of the usual timings.
“So, Krishna, tell me. Are you happy here?”
He sat next to her, silent as he thought. Then he said confidently, “I absolutely love it here. You, this house, the people, the hills, everything. I wish I could always live here.”
She smiled and waved him off.
When he stepped out, the mist had turned into a fine drizzle. He glanced at the umbrella next to the door, but didn’t take it. Rain never hurt anyone.
He was drenched when he got back, so he showered and changed.
When he entered the sitting room, he suddenly felt uneasy. Her head had fallen forward and she appeared to be asleep. Something made him check her pulse.
It wasn’t beating. She was gone.
A deep sense of loss overcame him. He took her lifeless hand in his and began to cry.
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