The screeching of a van’s brakes brought me to the window. I pulled the curtains apart and the burst of sunlight made me blink. A truck stood parked outside our apartment building. “We’ve got neighbours,” I said, a note of enthusiasm creeping into my voice.
There was no reaction from Mum and Dad. Their heads bent, they were poring over the scrabble board. “A seven-letter word, and that too on a triple-word score,” said Mum, rubbing her hands in delight as she quickly made BISCUIT. Dad looked a little put off. She had won again. She usually did.
Ravish came into the drawing room at that time. “Mom, I want breakfast,” he muttered. His voice sounded crabby. He had not slept the whole night. The law school exams were around the corner.
“SYNTAX,” Mum said, swooping upon the word TAX, which dad had made. “SYNTAX on the triple-word score yet again.” She let out a cry of delight.
“Mom,” Ravish’s voice sounded unnaturally loud, “I want breakfast.”
“It’s on the table,” she said, her head still bent. “The cornflakes, apple, milk, sugar and orange juice.”
“I want scrambled eggs,” he insisted, his voice peevish.
I got up from the window sill and walked into the kitchen. I put a frying pan on the stove top, broke two eggs into it, added milk, butter and salt, stirred it gently on a slow fire, and within minutes had spooned it onto a plate along with two crisp toasts. Ravish wolfed it down appreciatively and said, “Thanks, di.”
I shot a look of triumph at Ma. Successful career woman, successful wife, and a lousy cook. At least this was one area where I was better than her.
“Stop crouching around the house like a panther in the wilds, Mita,” ordered Ma, while putting another word on the board. Playing Scrabble was her way of relaxing and Dad, recently retired from the army, was pathetically grateful for her company during the weekends. I scowled and went back to the window.
The luggage was still being unloaded outside our apartment building. A large fridge, probably GE, two LG air conditioners, double beds, a dressing table, a piano and kitchenware. I stood a little behind the curtain. I did not want to seem to be prying.
A Honda City stopped by the van. A man stepped out of the car. He was wearing dark glasses and seemed to be of an indeterminate age. An overgrown beardpartially covered his face. He appeared to be lithe and graceful. I could imagine him jogging around Lodi gardens in shorts and a tee shirt. I wondered if his wife would step out after him. No one did.
“Bachelor.” I did not realize I had said the word aloud.
“What?” asked Ma.
“Don’t worry, Ma, it is not a seven-letter word,” I muttered.
“Don’t be silly.” Ma shot me a warning look. It spoke volumes.
I thrust out my chin. Ma was warning me to keep away from the new neighbour. She had not forgotten Nishant, nor had she forgiven me. She still remembered the time when she walked into the house and found Nishant coming out of my bedroom. Out of a feeling of pique, I had not told her that I had called Nishant simply to change the bulb in my bedroom. I was happy to let her think the worst and simmer in anger.
“Don’t worry, di,” said Ravish, winking at me. “Our new neighbour will probably come to borrow a cup of sugar or milk, sooner or later.”
Ravish was wrong; the neighbour did not come to see us under any pretext. I did meet him two days later when we were coming up the lift. He stood in the corner, his head down, as if he was warding us off. I looked at him with curiosity, my eyes roaming across his face, or whatever little of it was visible.
Ma seemed annoyed at me for my open display of curiosity. But there was little she could do about it. Just as the door opened, he left without even a backward glance. His message to us was loud and clear.Stay away.
“There is an air of mystery about him,” I muttered, secretly wishing that we stayed on the eighth floor and not the third so that we could have been together in the lift for longer.
“Probably he is a small-time crook,” Ma hazarded, making her dislike for him very evident.
“Small-time crooks do not live in our kinds of apartments,” I argued. Dad had never stopped boasting that our four-bedroom luxury apartment had cost us two crore rupees.
For days I kept a watch on our newneighbour’s apartment. I had all the time in the world to do it. But I never saw any visitors coming to see him. He was clearly a recluse.
I was preparing for my CAT exam. Ma wanted me to do an MBA. “What else is there to do?” Ma’s eyes spoke a lot.
“Not everyone is brilliant like you,” I said, thrusting out my chin. “Some of us are average, like me.”
But Ma, a Senior Vice President at Hindustan UniLever, would never be able to understand how a girl could be satisfied with being a homemaker. Luckily, she was a realist and realized that the chances of my cracking the CAT were almost negligible. But it made a good conversational gambit. Ma’s statement, “Mita is taking the CAT exam,” explained to her friends why I was lounging around the house for months instead of doing something useful with myself.
Although I did not meet my mysterious neighbour again, I got regular updates on him from our Bai. His maid and ours were friends, which was not surprising. All the bais who worked in the apartments were known to each other.
“All he does is drink,” she disclosed, screwing up her nose in disgust, as though she could smell liquor around her. “He sits in the evening eating Chicken tikka and drinking. He stares at the walls all the time. He does nothing. At times he sketches furiously, at other times he writes furiously. He does not leave the house. He is like a prisoner.”
“A graphic designer or an architect,” I surmised. “That would explain the sketching and the writing. Or a writer-cum-illustrator,” I added as an afterthought.
“Perhaps he has been a prisoner, or perhaps he is not used to freedom,” Ma murmured. “True.” Dad’s voice was mild; he seldom disagreed with Ma. “What do you think he is?” “A small-time crook?” Ma could not hide the contempt from her voice.
“Perhaps he has a disease, or perhaps he is dying of cancer.” Ravish’s interruption surprised me. He took an apple, polished it with the edge of his tee shirt and crunched it loudly between his teeth.
“Can’t be true,” interjected Ma. “He looks healthy—disgustingly so.”
Ravish gave Ma a telling look. He hadn’t finished as yet. “Or AIDS,” he concluded.
Ma’s eyes began to glint. “That is a distinct possibility,” she said with relish.
Perhaps it was this conversation that stoked my curiosity further. So when I found the neighbour’s door ajar, I gave it a knock and walked in. He was sitting on a rocking chair, rocking himself slowly like an old man, with his back towards the wall. He was impervious to my presence. I walked in and stood before him till he was forced to look at me. “I wanted to borrow…some sugar,” I almost said, but stopped myself at the right time. I was carrying no sugar bowl. “The newspaper,” I substituted. “We get the Indian Express at home.” I had already espied The Times of India lying on the sofa. He handed me the newspaper.The gesture signified dismissal. It robbed me of an excuse to stay on.
I went out and stared at him. I realized that I would need to borrow the newspaper every day. It seemed a good excuse for seeing him. The next day I knocked at his door boldly, after I had seen the bai leave. “I wanted to borrow the newspaper,” I requested. “I am preparing for the CAT exams.”
He continued to stare at the wall, as if he could see a unique mosaic on it, invisible to other’s eyes. He did not even turn when I said, “Thank you,” and closed the door behind me.
The third day there was a knock on our door around 11 am, and I saw with dismay his bai standing with a copy of The Times of India. His message was plain.Do not intrude. But I chose to be obtuse. After going through the Delhi Times quite avidly I trotted off to his apartment. I found the door ajar once again. I was sure he had not heard his bai leave. I knocked perfunctorily and then walked in. He seemed surprised to see me.
“I had sent you the newspaper,” he said.
“I came to return it,” I retorted.
“If it is not too much of a bother, just push it under the door, will you?” he asked sarcastically. This was the longest sentence he had spoken to me. I would have called it progress, had he not robbed me of any excuse to see him.
For the next week or so I had no news of him. Then his bai, Mamta, took a week’s leave to go to her village. “How would he cope?” I wondered, although I did not have the courage to barge into his house again. I knew the answer to it soon enough. Delivery boys from Domino’s Pizza, Subway and McDonald’s began frequenting our apartment block regularly. I had no doubt as to where all the food was going.
A fortnight later as I was passing by his apartment, I found him rasping loudly. The door was ajar. The pizza delivery boy had just left and I was sure that our neighbour had no time to close the door. I stopped outside and listened. When he coughed once again I barged in. His face was completely flushed. His eyes were dilated. I put my hand on his forehead. It was burning with fever. “Where do you keep the thermometer?” I asked briskly.
This time he did not argue. “In the bathroom,” he said weakly.
“And paracetamol?” I asked.
He gestured towards the dining table. I took his temperature and was shocked to see that it was 104⁰F. I made him swallow two paracetamol and then asked him if I could ring up his doctor.
“Will you?” he asked humbly. “Dr. Shroff’s number is in my diary.” He propped himself on his elbow and took out his diary.
There was no landline phone in sight anywhere, but I saw his cell phone on the table. I picked it up and dialled the doctor’s number. The phone kept ringing, but no one answered. “Probably a wrong number,” I surmised, and dialled again. This time I got the doctor’s clinic. I handed over the phone to the neighbour, and the doctor, obviously a friend of his, decided to drop by.
I was with theneighbour when Dr. Shroff appeared, and if he was surprised to see me he did not show it.
“Chest infection,” he diagnosed, “Aloo, I am leaving you some antibiotics.”
“Aloo?” I giggled to myself.
The neighbour glared at me. Dr. Shroff chuckled and said sorry, although he displayed no sorrow whatsoever.
“Aloo,” I thought exultantly. I now knew his nickname. I had still to learn his name and surname. His house had no name plate on it. He seemed almost paranoid about keeping his identity a secret. I realized I would not able to learn my neighbour’s identity from Dr. Shroff. “If he can get some good home cooked-food and medicines, he shall be fine,” the doctor told me, possibly misreading our relationship.
I nodded my head. That evening I returned to the neighbour’s apartment with a bowl of homemade soup and some khichri and left it on his table. I would have loved to spoon-feed him, but I was a realist and did not push my luck. His illness gave me the opportunity to show off my culinary skills.
The next day he opened the door and asked, “What have you brought for me?”
“Sabudanakhichri,” I said, entering his house.
“Sabudana,” he blew up. “I hate it.”
Tears sprang up in my eyes. I began to rush out of the door.
“Wait,” he said, getting hold of my hand and pulling me inside. “Serve me the khichri,” he ordered.
“Eat it yourself.” The words were on my lips, thankfully I did not utter them. I spooned the khichri onto a plate and soon found him eating it with his fingers.
“Delicious,” he murmured. “You are a whiz cook, kid.”
Kid! Just how old was he? 30, 35 or 40? I had no clue. But his words filled me with pride.
“Since you are bent upon playing nursemaid,” he said, his smile taking the sting out of his words, “let me confess that I hate brinjal, pumpkin and bitter gourd.”
I smiled. Those were my least favourite vegetables as well. We had something in common, after all. “Tell me what you want to eat tomorrow,” I asked.
“Can you make aloo parathas?” he said.
“No,” I said, “you are ill. Aloo ka paratha is out.”
He made a face at me. The next day when I came I said conspiratorially, “I have got you aloo ka parathas without oil.”
He grabbed the plate from my hand, tore a large piece of the paratha and stuffed it into his mouth. He munched it happily and after polishing it off said, “You have magic in your fingers.”
The next afternoon, when I arrived at his house. carrying pasta in tomato sauce, Dr. Shroff was already present. “Mita, you are a miracle worker,” he said appreciatively. “Your patient’s fever is down and he is much better.”
My heart sank at the thought that my neighbour would not need me anymore. I had come to look forward to his dependence on me.
He surprised me by saying, “I still need home-cooked food for some more days, at least till my baireturns.”
“You must be an excellent cook, if he relishes your cooking,” grinned the doctor. “Your patient is a gourmand.”
This revelation gave me the incentive to experiment with the meals I planned to bring him. For once I was glad Mom was the Vice President of an MNC and returned late from work. I had all the time to myself and no one questioned me about what I was cooking. On the fifth day I made him some Thai green curry and jasmine rice.
“Are you a mind reader?” he asked wonderingly. “I love Thai food. It’s my favourite.”
“It’s my favourite, too,” I confessed.
On the sixth day his bai returned and I realized that I no longer had any reason for seeing him.
A few days later, when I was unable to restrain myself any longer, I dropped in to see him. He was sitting in the rocking chair and rocking himself slowly. He looked at me without recognition. He seemed to have forgotten all about the past week.
“How are you today?” I asked him, but he looked at me as if he was seeing me for the first time. I felt a pang of disappointment. We were back to where we had started. He had become a stranger once again.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice brusque.
“You know I am taking the CAT exams,” I said. “I was hoping that you could help me with it.” It sounded like a pretty weak excuse, even to my own ears.
“The only thing I can teach you is about death; I can teach you nothing else,” he said abruptly. There was no point in carrying on a conversation with him, I realized, and left.
A week later I heard his rasping cough and, finding his apartment door open, I walked in without knocking. He frowned when he saw me. “Why do you keep coming here, Mita?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I did not know myself what drew me to him repeatedly. Was it sheer curiosity? Was it an unknown attraction? Was I falling in love with him?
“I do,” he challenged. “I know why you come.”
“Why?” My eyes widened.
“Because…” he said.
A minute later, I left his room crying. It was unfortunate that Ma came out of the lift just then and saw me rushing into our house.
“Where are you coming from, as though the devil himself was at your heels,” Ma asked me sharply.
“Nowhere,” I muttered.
But Ma had seen that our neighbour’s door was ajar. She figured that I had returned from there. She barged into his house without even a perfunctory knock at the door and said in a loud voice, “Let me warn you once and for all, just keep away from my daughter.”
My face burnt with humiliation as I imagined him retorting, “It is your daughter who cannot keep away from me.” But he said nothing. He continued to look through her, as though she didn’t exist, and Ma confessed that even she was intimidated by his cold stare.
Three days later he left his apartment. I did not know when he had left but I saw a van taking away his furniture. No one knew where he had disappeared. The next day the maid came with a sheaf of newspapers. “Sahib said you may find them useful,” she murmured.
Ma looked at me searchingly while I muttered something about needing TOI for my CAT exams. “You could have subscribed to the newspaper yourself,” she admonished as she picked up the newspaper on the top of the pile and began reading it.
The newspaper was opened onto a page where our neighbour had doodled a lot. He had drawn a long line against the margin of the story. Ma gave but a cursory glance to the main story of a woman who had drowned her two children in the bathtub; the woman had been considered mentally unstable and committed to an institution for life. After all, who was interested in a woman?
Ma’s eyes were focused on the next item, the story of a man who was suspected of brutally murdering his wife, whom he had suspected of infidelity. He was given the benefit of the doubt as there were no eyewitnesses and the evidence against him was circumstantial. The man had left Kolkata, unable to withstand the hostility of his neighbours and acquaintances, and moved to Delhi. Ma was convinced that the man was our mysterious neighbour. “AlokVirmani,” she said ruminatively. “That is his name. Now you know who he is,” she continued. “He must be this man. He must have left the city once again. I had warned you not to go to his apartment.”
I did not pay any attention to what she was saying. I remembered him muttering, “I know what you want,” and pinning me against the wall, looking at me with tortured eyes. “You don’t know anything about me, Mita; you do not know you are playing with fire.”
I had closed my eyes and felt his lips, cracked and salty, on mine, felt his beard graze my face, the bristles hurting me. He raised his head suddenly, as if to clear it, and whispered, “Get out, get out of here, will you?”
I had touched my bruised lips with my fingers and was shaken, both by his touch and the emotions he evoked within me. I rushed from his house, as though the devil himself was at my heels. Now I realized what he meant when he had said, “You do not know anything about me.”
Alok…Aloo…It all fitted in. We had not heard of the case because we had been away for a family holiday to Singapore and had missed the TV news and the newspaper reports. All I felt now was loathing for him, for what he had done, and contempt for myself, for falling for a criminal like him.
I would never have known the truth about him but for a sheer chance. One Sunday, Ma was channel surfing during a two minute break while watching a serial, when she switched to a show where they showed the woman I had read about in The Times of India, the Mumbai resident who had drowned her two children in the bathtub. She had been declared legally insane and committed to an institution. On the screen she sat on a hospital bed, her eyes fixed on a large family photograph on the wall. The cameras zoomed on the photograph and there was no mistaking it-sitting with her and her two sons was her husband. It was our mystery neighbour. “Mannan Aluwalia,” the announcer disclosed.
Aloo! Aluwalia! Once again everything fell into place. His inability to live in his old house, his need to escape from old friends and acquaintances and old memories, his coming to Delhi from Mumbai and shifting to our apartment building almost incognito, his staring into space for long intervals, his abrupt sentences, his long silences, his glazed eyes, the bottles of whisky and his need to be loved.
For days afterwards I sat in the Delhi Public Library and read about the murder in the old newspapers. I read about his wife, a schizophrenic who took her two boys for a bath and then drowned them in the tub. Mannan had returned from work to find his wife sitting beside her two dead children and asking him, “Why don’t they laugh anymore, Mannan, and why don’t they cry?” Suddenly he had lost everything he had held dear, his wife and his two sons. I recalled that there was so much sadness in his eyes and raw passion in his voice when he had said, “Mita, you are playing with fire.”
“You did the young man a grave injustice,” Dad told Ma, a mild reprimand in his voice. Ma bristled with anger initially and then admitted, “I was wrong about him and I would like to say sorry to him, but no one knows how to contact him, no one knows where he has gone.”
I did not admit toMa that I knew how to contact him. That day when he had been down with raging fever, on the pretext of ringing up the doctor, I had first given a blank call to my own cell phone and then claimed that I had connected with a wrong number. I had got the doctor on the second ring.
I closed my eyes and thought about him. I still knew very little about him. He was years older than me. He had been the victim of a grave tragedy. He had built a wall around himself, which no one had been able to penetrate. I had tried my best to do it, but had failed. He was possibly attracted to me. Or maybe he was just lonely. He did not even like me very much and he had made that abundantly clear. But he needed someone to wipe away the pain of all that had happened, and give life another chance. It was a chance I was willing to take. He would no doubt rebuff me, but I was willing to risk it. He had warned me that I was playing with fire, but I was prepared to have my fingers burnt. I went to my room, picked up my mobile and dialled.