“Savitabai, fill the water bottles, quick!”
“Savitabai, here 10 rupees, get a cigarette for me. Tell my name, the boy knows which one I smoke.”
The Khurranas had their house just beside my maternal grandparents’ house. My grandparents live in Bandel, a sub-urban town of West Bengal, India. The locality was, and still is, a pretty old one- the ones you can find in Old Delhi or North Kolkata or in the heart of Pune city. And thus, there is no town planning concept here- houses have such small gaps in between, that only one narrow alley passes in between which can accommodate only one pedestrian or two-wheeler at a time, and any both way traffic will cause a traffic jam, followed by the typical fights in Indian ‘mohallas’. Thus, with the Khurranas living at such a distance away from our bungalow, I could tell you when they were siting to dine or when one was leaving for work, just by eavesdropping their conversations, which was not even intentional- you could sit in our balcony, or at our window facing their drawing room, and even just move about our house in a quiet afternoon, and hear their voices.
The Khurranas had come here when I was in class five. The house was initially owned by some Mukherjees, who had been putting it out on rent since the last Mukherjee moved out of the locality to some entirely different city possibly in the UK- nobody remembers for sure as the incident is that old.
I, along with Ma, used to visit my grandparents during the summer and winter vacations. And during the summer vacation of Class Five, I had heard one of the many summons of Savitabai, some of which I have stated earlier. And whenever I was in any doubt during my stay in Bandel, Dadu (my grandfather) was my go-to person. I used to give my mother some respite from my regular calls for even the silliest reason, thinking that she should enjoy her days here, and not approach her unless she called me or unless it was absolutely necessary.
“Dadu, who are here in the Mukherjee house now?” I asked my grandfather one fine afternoon.
Dadu kept the newspaper aside, looked out of the window, straight at the house, and said, “Random people keep coming here, Munni. I often lose track of who are the tenants here. I’ve just heard from the grocer a week before you came to visit us that some Khurranas are here. I don’t know much details about them- just that they have a maid, Savitabai, that too because they keep calling her more than they keep calling each other.”
As a 10-year old child having nothing much to do other than completing the ‘holiday homework’ and playing around, the Khurranas became my new fantasy. I kept wondering who were they, how many people lived in the family, and how did Savitabai look. She seemed to be there throughout the day, as I heard them summoning her during dinner time as well.
The next day, when Ma asked me to get two packs of bread and three packs of milk from the grocery shop at the end of the alley, I grabbed the opportunity to fuel my thirst of investigating about the Khurranas even more. Thus, I bought everything and took a detour towards their house. I found the newspaper still kept between the hinges of the door, and it would fall off anytime. I rang the doorbell, with the paper in my hand. The door opened, and a lady, emerged. She looked as old as my mother, so probably she was in her the mid-thirties.
“Umm..I’m sorry but I saw this paper fallen in front of your door. Is it yours?” I asked softly. I peered a little inside the house curiously, and found it well furnished. I also spotted an old lady- not very well clothed, with wrinkles all over her face, a big mole on the side of her forehead, and unkempt salt and pepper hair. She slid into oblivion as soon as we made eye contact.
“Thanks,” said the lady curtly, and closed the door on my face with a loud thud. I shivered a little, got scared and ran back home, without looking in any other direction, and stopped for breath only after I reached home.
“Dadu, dadu, I met the Khurranas!” I started shouting in excitement.
“Munni, shhhh!” said Dadu hastily. He resumed talking only after he made sure that none of the family members- Ma, Dodon (my grandmother) and Mama (my maternal uncle) were anywhere around the room.
“Look Munni, I understand your eagerness to unravel this mystery. I know, I was just like you as a child, forever curious, forever adventurous. But my little Miss Marple, times were different in those days. The world was safer, the people were more empathetic. I’ll ask Mama to enquire about the Khurranas sometime later, and let you know. Till then, please do not visit their house, ever. You see, even I can’t go running after you now. My knee joint is almost surrendering to the Almighty’s mercy, it seems. So, Munni is not going to the Khurranas, right?” said Dadu and stopped, waiting for the obvious affirmation from me.
“OK, as you say, Dadu,” I murmured reluctantly.
“Now, open the fridge. There are exactly four bowls of ice-cream. Bring two, one for each of us, quick! Don’t let anyone know I’ve asked you, they have literally debarred me from going near the fridge! Now hurry up before you get caught!” said Dadu, almost in a whisper.
“Dadu, not again!” I screamed. But even I wanted a cup of ice-cream in the scorching heat. I had no other option but to obey Dadu. And the discussion on the Khurranas ended for the day.
Almost a week later, I was sent to the market again. And while I almost finished buying and paying the amount, I saw an old lady, with unkempt hair messing with the breeze, with the left hand supporting her half-bent back, clad in a worn-out, purple saree. I immediately recognized who she was.
“One pack of agarbatti, one pack of cigarettes,” said the lady in a loud, unruly manner. But she looked equally approachable and kind.
“Khurranas?” asked the grocer.
“Yes yes, why do you keep asking me every day? Now give me quick!” said the lady angrily.
The lady glanced in my direction. She kept staring at me, while her eyes twinkled. Her eyes were jet black and deep- they looked mystical, almost captivating. Her eyes wished to hide some story which the society shouldn’t know. Her lips quivered a little. But I remembered what Dadu said, and ran back home. I only stopped after I reached the main gate, and turned back to glance at her direction. I couldn’t see her properly, but I swear I could make out that she was still staring at me.
“Dadu, Savitabai, Dadu, I saw her, market, staring, Dadu..” was all I could manage to say, for I kept panting and shivering.
“OK, OK, I get your point Munni. Here, drink some water,” said Dadu and offered me a glass of water. I gulped it all down in a single breath.
“Now, tell me exactly what happened. Do not miss a single detail,” said Dadu calmly.
I described everything. Dadu kept looking at the house, while listening to me. After I stopped, he said, “If you meet Savitabai again, no need to run. Greet her, smile at her, and once you finish your work, bid her adieu and leave. No need to divulge anything about yourself, or ask her anything about herself or the Khurranas.”
The next week, I went to the market again. And this time with Mama, for Ma and I were going back home the next day, so I was sent to select my favourite chocolates and other titbits as parting gifts for myself. Yes, I was a pampered grandchild. And I met Savitabai on the way. I smiled at her, which missed Mama’s eyes, and entered the local grocery shop. After almost fifteen minutes, when I stepped out of the shop, I found Savitabai on the opposite footpath, buying vegetables. We walked past her, and when I almost reached home, I turned around, and there she was, looking at me.
The next day, Ma and I left for home- Papa had come to receive us. The car was being loaded with our luggage, and all the food items Dodon made for us with love- this happened every time, and that was the only bit I liked about departing from my grandparents’ house. And when the car revved up and started moving on the road, I saw two things- my grandparents and maternal uncle at the main gate, and Savitabai from the Mukherjee terrace, looking down at our moving car- and eventually me, while I was peeping out of the window to wave back at Dadu, Dodon and Mama. I kept ignoring her, but when I knew that all of them will soon be out of sight, I made a short, quick wave at Savitabai too, and sat back inside the car. I kept thinking of her- her enigmatic eyes, her beautiful smile featuring gaps owing to a couple of fallen teeth, her face covered with multiple crisscrosses of wrinkles, her posture, until I dozed off.
Life went on, and I eventually forgot Savitabai. I kept asking Dadu about the Khurranas for a couple of days since I was back home, but even I don’t remember when I stopped doing so. Time was indeed a magician, but life was also no less a brilliant player- for Savitabai was to be back in my life soon, and mostly stay there forever.
We used to have our winter vacation almost six months after our summer vacation. And when I visited my grandparents’ house for the winter vacation during class five, just 6 months later, I had totally forgotten about Savitabai and the Khurranas even when I had passed by their house. And it was no fault of mine- for the house was being remodeled into something else. And thus, I asked Dadu about the reason behind this remodeling.
“Umm..even I don’t know Munni, my dear, all I know is, the Mukherjees have sold it to some departmental store chain. Let’s not think about it. How is your school going dear?” asked Dadu. I knew something was wrong, for he looked away from me quickly.
“Dadu, you’re hiding something from me, no? I promise I won’t tell anything to anyone. Okay, I promise I will give my share of ice-cream to you for this whole week. Now tell me please, Dadu, please..” and the pestering continued till Dadu finally agreed to tell me the truth.
“You never listen, my child. Your mother was never so stubborn! And no, I don’t need your ice-cream, keep it with you. I don’t wish to hide anything from you, my child. I’m only scared about its repercussions on your tender heart. OK, now listen. Do you, by any chance, remember the Khurranas? OK, Savitabai?”
My memory had immediately gone into a flashback of events that had come up like unconnected postcards- that house, Savitabai in the market, me running away from her, the curt Khurrana lady who had opened the door, me looking at Savitabai from Khurrana house’s terrace when leaving….
“Dadu! What happened to them?” I almost screamed, after jolting back to reality.
“Yes, my dear Munni, you will come to know everything gradually, be patient. After almost two months of your departure, when your half-yearly exams were on, the incident happened. One evening, we heard terrible screams, a quivering voice which was wailing and pleading, breaking of things, and finally an ear-splitting scream. The entire locality rushed to the Khurranas. The door was broken down, and Savitabai was brought out of the house. She had bruises that no one would pray for their worst enemies to bear. The police was called, the Khurranas were captured- who had managed to run away from the door opening at their backyard. Savitabai was admitted to the nursing home. She slowly showed signs of recovery, and by the end of the month we heard she was fine. The police approached her so that she could lodge a complaint against the merciless Khurranas- it was evident that they were the ones who had thrashed her. However, she refused to lodge any complaint. She kept saying that it was all an accident, and the Khurranas weren’t to be blamed. Your Mama had gone to visit her, a couple of days before her release from the hospital. She said that she will tell her story only if he promised that the Khurranas won’t be harmed,” said Dadu and stopped to drink a glass of water.
“And what did she say?” I asked anxiously, the Miss Marple bug in me completely impatient by then.
“The Mukherjees’ tenants were Ravi and Sneha Khurrana, a couple married since the last five years. Savitabai was a permanent domestic help of the Khurranas since Ravi was a toddler. Savitabai had seen Ravi growing from a toddler to the man he is today. She was his favourite childhood playmate, and loved to hear bedtime stories and lullabies only from her- instead of his own mother. Ravi lost his mother seven years ago, and things went downhill after that. Both Ravi and Sneha started ignoring Ravi’s father, treating him like an unwanted burden on the family. It seemed like Ravi wanted to get rid of the father too- and was not very sorrowful when he lost his mother. The situation became bitter when one day, Ravi announced that the father will be sent to an old age home. Ravi’s father protested, saying that he still had his savings, he could feed and clothe himself, he just needed a shelter as all his friends and relatives had passed away. But Ravi paid no heed. The father refused to give up, he threatened Ravi how he owned the house and he could sell it off and make them homeless at any point of time. And this truth made Ravi Khurrana furious enough to throw a heavy metallic flower vase at his father. The locality members rescued the father, just like we rescued Savitabai. They wanted to hand the boy and his wife to the police, but the father resisted. Thus, the furious locality members decided to punish the two themselves, by boycotting them, and they had no option but to search for an alternative staying place. And when they left, Savitabai decided to accompany them. She was worried about Ravi- how could the little boy take care of himself. Her motherly love blinded her from the harsh reality that was in front of her- the Ravi in front of her was devilish enough to not deserve any form of mercy or love from anyone in the society! And strange are the ways life work- she faced the wrath of her blind love within a year!” said Dadu angrily.
Both of us were silent for a while. I resumed speaking.
“Where is Savitabai now?” I murmured.
“We don’t know dear. Mama enquired about her to the hospital authorities, who said that she informed she would go back to the original Khurrana house- though I have my doubts. I hope she is safe and happy wherever she is. And Ravi and Sneha were absconding then. I don’t think anyone from our locality knows about current whereabouts of those two, or wishes to know anymore,” said Dadu with disgust.
“So that is why the Mukherjees..”
“Yes Munni. The Mukherjees were shocked. Never in their wildest nightmares could they think of something this ghastly. Hence, they decided to stop giving the house for rent, and sell it off completely.”
Dadu got up, and got two tubs of ice-cream for me.
“Here, both of them for my dear Munni. But before that, Munni needs to stop crying, OK?” said Dadu, while wiping my tears. I didn’t even know when tears started rolling down my eyes.
“Savitabai enquired about you, to Mama. She said she liked you- your well-mannered nature, your mischievous eyes, and the eagerness to investigate something,” said Dadu with a giggle.
“Really? What did Mama say?”
“He said, you are our youngest family member. Also the sweetest, cutest, kindest and bravest. And that, you went off home, your school had resumed. You came here just to spend your vacation.”
“Oh,” I said, and let out a short sigh followed by a smile of contentment. The lady remembered me even when I was gone. In spite of being in such great pain. Wow!
“Munni, I hope, with time you will forget the gruesomeness of this incident. But here is a promise I want from you, for life. You will, right?” said Dadu calmly. He never spoke to me in this way before. I was surprised, and skeptical.
“What promise?” I asked.
“You see, there will be people who are pivotal for your existence. There will be people without whom, you wouldn’t achieve whatever you will, in life. There will be people who will console you and save you, when others will rob you of everything. Recognize them, and never take them for granted- even in your dreams. Never make them feel unwanted, uncared for. And you need not do anything outstanding or groundbreaking for that- just stay humble, kind, grateful, and respectful to them. Make them feel prioritized in your life. That’s all you need to do. And I know you will. My Munni can never go wrong, right?” said Dadu, his solemnness eventually converted into the softness in his voice that I’m used to, when he speaks to me.
I nodded, a little overwhelmed by the turn of events.
It has been years since this incident had happened. I have no vacations now, and the departmental store now makes annual turnovers in crores I believe- as it a popular one in the entire town. I’m sure the entire locality, even my grandparents, or Mama or Ma doesn’t remember the incident as intricately as I do. There are some incidents from your childhood that never turns hazy, no matter how much it gets drenched in the waves of time. For me, this is one such incident- which will remain etched in my memory for eternity.
© Copyright by Debasmita Ghosh. All rights reserved.