July 1, 2013
Happy Home was an administrative office building during the British Raj. Having not found any use, it was abandoned for many years. When the church took over it, the spacious halls were converted into smaller rooms. Since then it has served as a retirement home.
From the outside, even now, it has the air of a haunted house. If one has to see this gothic structure in the flash of lightning on a dark rainy night, it would give the person a shock of his life. I myself avoid venturing into some of the upper rooms at night; who knows what stories are buried in them.
A few years ago it scared the hell out of my wife. We were new at Happy Home; she avoided going out in the dark. The one time she went out, to attend to an old woman on her deathbed, she claimed to meet a ghost. Soon my wife disappeared. I don't blame her. I too didn't make any efforts to look for her. Sooner or later this house entraps you.
Months later I came to know, it was one of the residents, Santhan, whom my wife had mistaken for the ghost. For some reason Santhan had taken a fancy for walks at night, wearing one of Father Angelo's worn-out white robes. I don't have any doubt in my mind that Santhan has lost a few screws in his head. In the past whoever tried reasoning with these residents have lost their reason.
Who would have thought there would be a long list of people to get an entry in Happy Home? Certainly I didn't! When I accepted this job, I was glad to have a roof over our head, and three square meals a day. I have not many expectations.
A trust looks after the finance, but Father Angelo, who came from a small European country (I keep forgetting the name), is the man in charge here. He's been looking after the place for so long, I sometime forget that he's an outsider. In the initial days of my job, one or two times, he did mention about returning to his native land. These talks stopped after a while. And now, after many years at Happy Home he looks like one of the residents.
Every morning when I see Father Angelo, a feeling of relief comes over me. A satisfaction that everything is as it should be - Happy Home is still in safe hands.
He had informed me two days ago to expect a new member - one Mr. Kamath. Nuns, who come for the daily chores, cleaned and mopped the recently vacated room. The next day I went to the office a little early. I wear a tie during office hours. It separates me from the residents. Also, creates a nice impression when trustee members make a surprise visit.
Mr. Kamath was waiting alone outside in the reception area. Usually family members stay little longer. It's an awkward moment for them, from which they prefer to be relieved at the earliest. No such thing this time. Mr. Kamath was alone. Two suitcases were next to him.
“My name is Raja Rao,” I said. We shook hands. “I'll help you with the suitcases.” I led the way. Suitcases were heavy.
“What's in them?”
“Things I collected over a period,” he said. “I have distributed them equally to help anyone moving them.” I nodded. I wish Santhan had such sense.
He looked around the room. The nuns had done a fine job. I gave him the daily schedule.
“Press the bell, if you need anything.”
“Thank you Sir,” he said. “Most obliged.”
He looked quite cheerful, unlike some new residents, who are sad and gloomy in the first few days. As if someone has cheated them. One look at them would tell you that their end is near.
Mr. Kamath fetched a note from his wallet.
“It’s not necessary,” I said. I noticed it was the only note in the wallet.
“Keep it with you,” he said. “I don't think I'll have any use for it here anyway.”
Two things happened that day: No one had addressed me “Sir” till then, and no one had tipped me with such a large sum.
“Raja Rao come here at once,” I heard Mrs. Singh's alarmed shriek coming from the second floor. I didn't know she had such a piercing voice. I ran in her direction - forgot to thank Mr. Kamath.
Happy Home is quite unpredictable - always buzzing. Something or the other goes wrong. Old people are like children - or worse. We have all sorts of circus clowns in this house. When I took this job, I was not expecting such an eventful life.
This time Manath had locked himself with another resident and was threatening to kill him. Father Angelo was talking to the closed door. He had one ear to the door as if he was quietly listening to a confession. A few of the old people had surrounded him.
“May I be of any help?” grandpa Narayanan asked. He is the most senior resident at Happy Home; also the only one on a wheelchair.
“Who brought you here?” Second floor was inaccessible by wheelchairs.
“Santhan helped me,” he said sheepishly. One of these days I'll kill Santhan, and half of my worries will be over.
“Stay here. Don't go near the stairs.”
A commotion had started.
“Kill the bastard,” Santhan shouted not realizing the presence of priest. “Sorry Father,” he said sheepishly. By then Mrs. Singh had hit him on the head with her thick book.
“Mrs. Singh please,” I pleaded her, though I wish she had hit the fool harder.
“Manath, Manath,” Father Angelo's feeble voice tried to penetrate the closed door. “May I talk to you for a moment? Don't hurt Kazi please.”
This sort of politeness was useless with a beast like Manath - he should have been in the jail.
“Father Angelo save me from this devil,” Kazi's pleading voice came from the other side.
I remembered then, that a couple of window bars of the locked room were loose. I could enter the room from the window. I ran out to fetch a ladder. Instead found a bamboo pole that I propped against the window. At the bottom end, I placed a boulder to secure the pole. Then climbed to the window with the speed of an ape.
Manath was pulling open the door of the closet where Kazi was hiding. He got surprised to find my face at the window. “You stay away from this,” he shouted. Suddenly the bamboo pole started moving. I held the window bars tightly. The pole eased off my feet and fell down. Soon I was hanging in mid-air clinging to the window bars.
“Manath. Manath. Help me inside. I'll fall.”
“Stay away from this.”
“Manath you fool.”
The pole had fallen. I was far above the ground. A fall from that height could have caused serious injuries. It would certainly put me in a wheelchair - make me a resident.
At that time the door opened. Mr. Kamath came in, followed by rest of the gang. He had a bunch of keys in his hand. He looked at me and grasped the situation at once. He and Father Angelo pulled me inside.
“The new man broke the lock,” said Mrs. Singh. Kazi had vanished. Manath stayed stupidly near the closet, staring at the roof.
“May I talk to you for a moment in my office?” Father Angelo asked him. Manath followed like a wet dog.
I collapsed into the near by chair, gasping for air.
In the evening I met Mr. Kamath in his room. He showed me his toolbox; all sorts of tools were neatly arranged in it.
“Picking locks is a hobby,” he said.
Manath knocked the door and joined us. Santhan stayed at the door. They are always together. Though, they met only at Happy Home. Manath is the master-mind behind many of their evil schemes. Santhan just follows the master.
“Nice job,” Manath addressed Mr. Kamath. “You are a useful person, but on the wrong side.” He ignored me completely. “Sooner or later you need to take a stand: friends or the management.” I am supposed to be the collaborator with the management. Whereas the management thinks I am the dark sheep, privy to the schemes of these two fools. It’s an irony. I myself don't know where I belong in this circus.
“I'm Manath.” They shook hands. “My friend at the door is Santhan. Welcome to Happy Home. Obviously you have met our manager. I am sure he has informed you to use the bell in case of emergency. But most bells don't work.” He gave a detached look.
“All bells work. You just need to oil your ears,” I said.
He ignored me and continued: “Management refuses to fix them. My suggestion to you, in case of emergency, is to throw one of your tools at the roof. Santhan stays right above. He doesn't sleep. He'll be at your service with diabolic speed.” I didn't have any doubt on Santhan's diabolism - certainly a devil's man.
“What was the fight about?” I asked Manath.
“I don't need to tell you that, I have poured out my hearts content to Father Angelo,” he said looking away, “But I'll tell you anyway.”
At times I had wondered who's more insane, Santhan or his master, and I have failed to come to a conclusion.
“Kazi burned Gatlu with a lit cigarette.”
“You have a pet?”
He pointed to the door. I went to the door and found Santhan struggling with a rope; the other end was tied to a small animal that was tugging the rope with a fierce hatred towards the captor.
“It's a mongoose.”
“Where did you find it?” The animal stopped tugging, bared a set of pointy teeth, and lurched at me. I jumped aside at the last moment - saved myself from the attack.
“I found it on one of my walks.”
“It's a wild animal,” I said, once at a safer distance.
“Not any more. It's a pet now. Moreover it'll help you catch the snakes.”
“There are no snakes here!” I said in frustration. “I have never seen a single snake in the surroundings.”
“That's because the little-devil here has finished them all.”
I was not going to argue with that.
“Manath, I cannot allow it inside the house. Please leave it where you found it.”
“I have asked Father Angelo's permission. He's fine with having it in my room.”
So far I had only two screw-loose idiots to take care of. Now this animal had joined the gang.
I went straight to Father Angelo. Found him in the garden. A few times, I must agree, I have seen him talking to the flower bushes. That would surprise any sane person, not me. I am here so long, nothing surprises me any more.
“Father Angelo,” I said. “Manath has a Mongoose. It may not - ”
“I know. Where did he find it?”
“I don't know. He claims to found it on one of his walks. He may be lying. It may not be safe to have it inside the house.”
That certainly got his attention, stopped him from whatever he is doing.
“Do you expect someone to harm it?”
“No. I expect the stupid animal to harm one of the elderly residents.”
“Don't worry about it. Mongooses are real quiet animals. One just needs to be careful of its darts. They are real sharp.”
“It's a mongoose, not a porcupine!”
“Oh yes,” he smiled sheepishly. “I missed that. Then we are completely safe.”
Sometimes I find it difficult differentiate the priest from the residents.
“Raja Rao you did a good job today,” Father Angelo said. This compliment was not going to stop me from my other suggestion.
“Father Angelo, I think Santhan has lost it.”
“Whatever there is to lose. He's the one who rocked the ladder.”
“The bamboo pole I used to climb to the window. He dislodged the boulder I had kept for support.”
“Did you see him doing that?”
“Then he didn't do it.”
“He's mental. We should shift him to the mental hospital.”
That made him pause. I knew what he was thinking. We had sent one of the residents to the mental hospital a few months ago. The treatment at the hospital had gone wrong, and the patient had become a vegetable.
“Santhan has not lost anything. He's just little excited.”
He said sternly and turned to the rose bush, indicating the conversation was over. The man is old - incapable of finding faults in anyone.
I left him with his rose bushes, and carried on with my chores. Kazi stopped me at his door - offered me a cigarette. I don’t smoke. That’s one of the reasons for his generosity.
“Why did you put a lit cigarette on the animal?”
“I didn't do that,” he said, “You know me Raj Rao. I won't harm a soul.” The fool has a penchant for dramatics.
“I went to Manath’s room and found Santhan and him playing with the strange animal. Santhan introduced me to it. It has a funny name.”
“Yes. That's it. It is a strange name. Evil-name if you ask me. What kinds of people name their pet Gatlu?”
“Come to the point.”
“You are quite impatient. I offered a cigarette to the animal, like anyone would do when meeting a new person - a friendly gesture. I offered you a cigarette just now. Didn’t I?”
“You offered a lit cigarette to a mongoose.”
“Yes I did. I didn't expect the animal to light the damn cigarette.” The fool won't miss an opportunity to be sarcastic. I regretted putting my life in danger, dangling at the second floor window, for this idiot. “As soon as I offered it,” the idiot continued, “the stupid animal jumped at it, and burned itself.”
Mr. Kamath proved to be a useful man. His little tools were handy more than one time. He accompanied me to the city for the weekly groceries. It's an hour's journey. On the way, he told me many stories of his youth. He had traveled to America in his younger days; that's where he had learned to address everyone as 'Sir'.
Manath and Santhan were quiet after the last incident. I had not seen the mongoose. The wretched animal had scratched all the walls. Mrs. Singh had complained about her books being torn by the rats. There are no rats in the house - only a mongoose. Mrs. Singh read all the time, as if she was preparing for an exam. She was a teacher. She once told me that she didn't have time to read books in her teaching days; now having the world of time, she had entered the world of books. “If only I had read them in my younger days,” she told me one time and, gave me a pile of books. I don't have a choice. She often asks me the status of my reading. At first I felt like a mountainous task forced on me; gradually I started liking the books. I don't have any doubt in my mind that they have certainly helped me understand the world better.
Then there is a couple, I fondly call them The Lovers, behind their back. They are seen together all the time. They found each other here at Happy home. I am surprised to realize how much they have in common. If you ask them a question, about anything, individually, chances are both would give the same answer. They are very polite. It only tells me that they had a tough life before joining Happy Home.
Often days are long. The residents know there are no more goals to achieve, or no tasks to complete. Some realize this sooner, some eventually. It is an unfair life. All your achievements and all your possessions worth nothing—sooner or later you need to leave everything behind.
One day, after I had gone to sleep for a while, I heard a strange noise coming from outside the door. It scared me. Did my wife really see a ghost? I opened the door. The mongoose was scratching the wall. Not making any noise, I picked the brick at the door, which I use as a doorstopper, and aimed it at the wretched animal. It scurried at the last moment. As soon as I did that, someone grabbed me from behind, pushed me to the wall, and made me immobile.
“The next time you do that, I'll kill you.” It was Manath. I felt his warm breath on the back of my neck. The fool was strong for his age.
“Leave me alone.”
“Shhh! Just listen,” Santhan said. “Boss is talking to you.” The fool thinks he is some kind of a henchman.
“I don't have many friends,” said Manath. “If you hurt my friends, I'll hurt you. I don't think at this age I need to care for my actions.”
“Manath you'll break my arm.”
“I am going to hurt you more if you meddle in my affairs.”
“Boss Gatlu has vanished,” Santhan said. “We can take care of this worm later.”
Worm! He would pay for this.
Manath released me. They ran outside to fetch the animal. I took a few deep breaths.
“May I be of any help?”
I had not noticed grandpa Narayanan in the dim light.
“What are you doing at this hour?”
“I can't find my room,” he said. I guided his wheelchair to his room - helped him to his bed.
“How long I have been here, Raja Rao?”
“A little over 5 years.”
“I am forgetting things.”
“I too forget.”
“I haven't seen the outside world for a long time.” We talked for a while, till he was ready to sleep. I kept a glass of water next to his bed and quietly closed the door.
The next day Mr. Kamath didn't come for the breakfast.
“They took him to the hospital,” Mrs. Singh informed me. Apparently Manath, Santhan, and Father Angelo had taken him to the hospital.
After he got discharged, I met him in his room. The medication had made him pale and weak.
“That day I slept late,” I said, “I might not have heard the bell.”
“Don't worry about it,” Mr. Kamath said.
“The bell doesn't work.” Manath joined us. “He threw one of his hammers to the roof. Santhan called Father Angelo.”
At least Santhan did one good deed during his stay at Happy Home.
The schoolchildren came on Saturday. They visit Happy Home once a year. They gathered everyone in the library and played a few games with the old people. Father Angelo sang a song in his native tongue. He had forgotten some of the words. I am sure in a few years he will forget the whole song and only a tune will remain in his heart.
Just before the conclusion, Manath took the mic. I was little surprised to see him at the center. He had never participated in these activities. Everyone went silent; even the children in the front row, who were restless for a long time, were eager to listen.
“First of all, I want to say to the children of Mother Mary Primary School,” he looked around, “Fuck You! You come here once a year; create all the noise. You think you are doing a big favor. Once you are gone, you simply forget us till the next school trip. Well, go somewhere else for the picnic. We don't want your sympathy.”
Sister Miriam, the schoolteacher, gaped in horror. It happened so fast even Father Anglo who was in the front row froze. We all waited for something to happen. Then Mr. Kamath stepped forward to reason with Manath.
“Let me finish - ” he said in a loud voice.
“They are just children Manath,” said Mr. Kamath. “They don't deserve this.” He took the mic and gave it to Father Angelo. We had to wrap up the remaining event awkwardly.
That evening Mr. Kamath peeped into my room.
“Not really,” I said.
“Come to the terrace, let’s have a party.” He had a bottle in hand. “Johnnie Walker Green Label,” he said.
“Where did you find that?”
“Well, I have my sources. Come to the terrace. We’ll talk.”
I finished my chores in a hurry. Manath and Santhan were on the terrace too. The party was to cheer-up Manath, who was not in his usual self after the incident. But after a couple of pegs he loosened up.
“It's depressing here,” he said. “I wish things were different. When I had money, I helped everyone. I wish I had saved some of that.” I had not seen this side of Manath. “What's your story?” He asked Mr. Kamath.
“I don't have a story.”
We drank in silence. It was getting dark; mosquitoes had started buzzing. Father Angelo came looking for Mr. Kamath. He needed one of his tools. We offered him a glass.
“Not for me,” he said. “Done that in the past life. Found something else now,” he said and left with Mr. Kamath. We were little tipsy.
Santhan had a little too much to drink, like the camel who had found an oasis after a long journey. He kept humming an old song.
“Santhan you may leave now,” said Manath. “I'll be here for some time.”
Manath and I stayed back. I drained the contents of my glass and got up to leave. “Raja Rao?”
I looked at him.
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leave this place; you are young. Find a good job somewhere. Don't end up here like me.”
I nodded and went downstairs leaning on the wall. I had not consumed good alcohol in ages. Else, I would have sensed something. Manath jumped from the terrace, little later. No one noticed his absence. In the early morning, Mrs. Singh was the first one to see him from her second floor window. She saw the immovable human structure on the ground and informed Santhan who was roaming in the aisle in his white robe.
Santhan cried and cried. No one could console him. The police talked to everyone who was with Manath on the terrace. One by one we took turns in the library.
“You were the last one with him?” A muscular man in uniform asked me.
“Did you sense anything unusual?”
“Not then. He was little upset that day.”
“How long you have been here?”
I told him.
“What do you do?”
I told him apart from other chores, taking care of the residents was my main responsibility.
“And yet,” he stopped me. He browsed the file in his hand. “And yet, you failed to be of any help, when one of the residents,” he stopped again to refer the file, “Kamath had an emergency.”
I wondered how he got that information. I sensed something was wrong.
“How was your relationship with Manath?”
“Fine. We were not best friends.”
“Did you push him?”
“One of the residents has claimed that you pushed him off the terrace.”
“One Mr. Santhan.”
I closed eyes. “Santhan is mad.”
“We'll find that out soon.”
“He didn't do it.” It was Mr. Kamath. The inspector checked his notes to find the new person's name. “Kamath I am done talking to you,” he said sternly.
“Yes Sir. I was outside the door. I heard some of your talks. I might have useful information.”
“What is it?”
“Raja Rao and I were the last people on the terrace. Though, I left little early, I waited for Raja Rao at the stairs, who joined me soon. Manath jumped much later.”
“Can you say that in the court of law, if needed?”
“Yes sir. Most certainly.”
Mr. Kamath led me to his room. I sat on the bed. Mr. Kamath sat next to me.
“Why did you lie?” I asked.
“I know you are innocent,” he said.
“I can't do this anymore,” I said. An overwhelming feeling came over me. “I am tired of this life; Tired of so many deaths; Tired of ingrate people like Santhan. I have worked day and night for these people. See what I have got into.”
Father Angelo came in a hurry. “Raja Rao It's all a mistake,” he said. “I talked with the Inspector. No one is going to ask you any more questions.” I nodded in silence.
“I want to show you something,” he took my hand and dragged me to the door. A large crowd had gathered at the library door, where the inspector was conducting the interview. I saw Mrs. Singh. Grandpa, The Lovers - in fact most of the residents were there. Kazi had made a placard. It read in bold: “RAJA RAO IS INNOCENT!”
“That’s little extreme,” said Father Angelo. “But the man has a point. They have all gathered there to speak for you. Just because they don't mention it often, it doesn't mean that they don't appreciate what you are doing for them. You are a good man Raja Rao. I want you to know that.”
That night I felt a heaviness on my chest; I suddenly woke up.
“Don’t move.” It was Santhan.
He sat on my chest. In the white robe he looked like a ghost. He held the kitchen knife to my neck.
“What do you want?”
“Did you push him?” he asked.
“Don't lie to me.”
“I’m not lying.”
“If I ever come to know you pushed him, I’ll kill you.”
“You could have told me that in the morning.”
“Yes. But I thought it would be good to inform you at the earliest.”
“Get off my chest.”
He got down from the bed. Sat in the chair.
“Where's the mongoose?”
“I don't know,” I said.
In all this confusion it had vanished.
“If I find out you have a hand in its disappearance, you'll regret it.”
“I regret being here - Taking care of old fools like you.”
“I'll talk to you some other time. Right now, I need to find boss.”
“Which boss? Your boss is dead!”
He ignored me. His eyes were red shot. He looked like a strange person. Like a ghost. He left the knife on the table and went out. Not the Santhan I knew.
After the incident, I was sleepless for days. I started locking the door from inside.
The only person to retain a balance in all the confusion was Mr. Kamath. How much I had started admiring him. Many a times, I had wondered how he maintained his calmness.
On Sunday, I knocked on his door. It was the grocery day. He usually opened the door at the first knock. I waited some time, then lightly pushed the door. It was open. Mr. Kamath was still in bed. I sensed the situation right away. He had quietly passed away sometime during the night. My eyes welled up, and blurred my vision. I sat next to him for a long time, till someone noticed my absence and came looking for me.
Some days later, Father Angelo said one of the trustees wanted to talk to me. I had never talked with any of them, except for the occasional greeting when I served coffee and snacks at the meetings. I was surprised that one of them had something to tell me.
A well dressed man received me at the library.
“Are you Raja Rao?”
“How well did you know Kamath?”
“Apparently you created a nice impression on him.”
“He was good to me.”
“So good that he went great lengths to buy expensive alcohol for you and your friends.”
I looked at him. I sensed he had some sort of anger in him. Before I could say anything, Santhan peeped into the room.
“Raja Rao, I got you bastard,” he said. “I have proof now. It was you who pushed him. Take your time with the gentleman inside. Because the moment you come out, I’ll wring your neck”
Then he vanished.
“Who is he?” asked the lawyer.
“One of the residents here.”
“He looks like a mental case. Do you think his behavior is abnormal? We can shift him to the mental hospital.”
I remembered how Santhan had made my life hell. All those sleepless nights. I wondered what schemes he was hatching this time. He had called me a worm not long ago.
“Santhan is perfectly normal,” I said. “He's just little excited today.”
“If you say so. Anyway, we have more important things to discuss.” He pushed an envelope across the table.
“Kamath's Will,” he said. “He has a small house. Because of his health, he couldn't have stayed alone in the house. He needed constant supervision. He has willed the house in your name.”
I felt a knot in my neck. An involuntary droplet escaped my eye. “It is very kind of him,” I said.
“I can help you with the paper work. You can take ownership at your convenience.”
I took some time to grasp the situation.
“Did you speak about the Will with any one else?”
“Well I am afraid I cannot survive outside this place. I am little used to this place now.”
“Think about it. You won't get this opportunity again.”
“I don't need to think again. I belong here.”
He loosened his tie. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Some of the emergency bells are not working, if you could arrange someone to fix them, it would be a great help.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Well, It can be arranged.” He collected his bag and files. He wished me good luck before leaving. He looked relaxed.
That night I woke up suddenly at the sound of scratching at the door. I opened the door. The mongoose entered the room, and curled up on the gunny bag at the corner. I placed a bowl of water next to it. It drank little, then went back to its slumber. I had a busy day ahead; Father Angelo had informed me in the evening that a new person was expected to join the next day, and asked me to arrange a room for the new resident.
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