The Wait-A Real Short Story
This is the 4th in my series of Real Short Stories-If you do not tell your story, then I shall! The first one being The Heel, which you can read here. The Wait-is loosely based on an incident I have seen unfold in front of my eyes over the years. Of course, I have taken creative liberties.
It was the corner house of a busy intersection of South Delhi. Precisely at a badly manned signal, the ramshackle house faced two roads. The main house facing an array of small and big shops that sold everything from photo-frames to meat, and geysers to Mercedes. The other side of the house faced the actual crossing where through the day and night vehicles honked. This side also had a Pharmacy shop, which in those days was called a Chemist.
The long narrow drive-way of this house was as dirty as it could be. What remained of the once concrete floor were crumpled cement and broken discolored tiles.
It was time for her to come out of the house. You could time your watch with her. Twice a day: 8 am and 5 pm, she would sweep the driveway and go back in. Clockwise precision. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month, and now year after year. Nothing changed.
Except for her body. She was now a shriveled figure. Half her formal self: in weight, vigor, and vitality. The only thing that doubled was her age and hunch. The jhaddoo (broom) in her hand was her age too. It was difficult to say if the number of husks on the broomstick were more or less than the number of hair strands on Lalita Aunty’s head.
Chronologically speaking, the dilapidated house was the eldest, followed by Lalita Aunty and then the broom. Though some mean neighbors swore it was older than Aunty and came as part of her mother-in-law’s dowry. There, however, was no substantial evidence to refute the same.
Both the broomstick and Lalita Aunty only made a formality of sweeping the long driveway. Next to the driveway was the octogenarian house. If you looked harder, you would even catch scrapings falling off every now and then. A chunk falling off the window sill. A lump just about to make a high jump from the balcony railing. The colony legend went that till some 4 decades ago, this Kothi was indeed painted a pristine white and looked impressive and imposing on the other diminutive single floor houses. C-21 always remained the talk of the colony. After all, it was a 2 floor, 6 bedroom Kothi with a puja-ghar that according to folklore was as big as the central-park of the colony. Oh, it also boasted of a servant’s quarter and a shop in the rear end.
It was a Chemist shop. There were two USP’s of the pharmacy. One it was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in times when the concept of 24/7 was unheard of. Two, you would never find a rush.
I shall tell you why.
One: The gigantic shop that could give the present day-departmental store type’s pharmacies a run for their money area-wise, had shelves all over the 3 walls but had no medicines. People swore the first-aid kit at home were better stocked than this chemist shop.
Two: If a customer as much as asked for a harmless Digene syrup, in all probability he would have to be rushed to the emergency. Most medicines had long passed their expiry date. It was a miracle that he still possessed a licence.
Three: A person going into the shop to buy a tablet for a bad stomach would after a visit to the ‘ The Chemist Shop’, for that was its innovative and creative name, would for sure need an inhaler. There was dust all over: on the shelves, the ladder, and the counter and if you looked closer even the owner and the helper.
They were as unwashed and unkempt as the shelves. There yellowed with sweatshirts seemed to have as much grime as the glass counter. Apparently, the shop signage and the shopkeeper both tilted to the right at the same angle.
Even after decades, the shop remained. Even the medicines. The colony people still believe that the medicines are from the first lot bought 30 years ago. The only addition to the shop were candles. Not to be sold, but to light up the shop. Non-payment of electricity bills initially to intermittent disconnection of power. However, over the last 8 years, it was a lone candle that burnt in the shop.
The RWA in fact, had a series of meetings to discuss how the ‘Chemist Shop’ was a source of danger not only to the residents of C-block but also that of innocent passers-by who might harm themselves popping a tablet from the shop. An unaccomplished movement too was started to at least put a small board outside the shop “Buying medicines from here could be injurious to your health” or a smaller warning that would cost less, “Shop at your own risk”.
Passers-by always wondered why on earth the shop existed in the first place. Prime location. On a busy traffic signal. Decrepit with a lone candle burning each night. 30 years is a long time.
The owner seemed to be falling apart as much as the shop. One never caught him on a day he shaved. No one ever saw him cleanly shaven. Neither did he have a beard. Just a dirty shabby look and a white stubble. Giridhar had no friends. A person as grumpy and cranky as him would hardly have any. He also had no family. Well, almost. His wife died 25 years ago leaving him with a candle in hand to him tide through powerless evenings and night.
His lone storekeeper Mukesh, wanted to disappear ages ago. However, good behavior made him confront Giridhar. A few months post his mourning period, he said, “Sahib, I have to take leave. I would not be able to serve you any longer.” Giridhar fumed, “What do you mean not serve me any longer? Is it more money that you seek?” Mukesh, replied humbly, “No Sahib, I seek money. I have not been paid for the past 4 months, and I can see you shall not be able to pay for another four. I can wait no longer.”
Since then, day after day, night after night, week after week and now year after year, Giridhar sat in the round-the-clock “Chemist Shop” that sold virtually nothing.
Known to be selfish, greedy and ill-tempered his real siblings had long since broken their relationship with him. After his wife passing away, he only had one family member to call his own, not that he did! His wife’s brother’s wife. Technically, his sister-in-law. She occupied the front and the main portion of the Kothi.
The half a dozen rooms were at one time fully occupied by the Arora clan. A typical robust Indian joint family with elderly in-laws, one son and three daughters. The grooms for the three precious daughters were apart from the usual criteria’s of good looks, good job, selected primarily on the basis of those who did not have an issue being a ‘Ghar-Jamai’! The eldest of the sibling was married to a small town, modest background Punjabi girl Lalita, who was almost a mother figure for the girls especially the youngest.
They lived happily. For exactly 3 months. With the son getting married, the equation in the house changed. The customary misunderstandings and arguments between the men-folk and the women-folk took ugly turns every other week. Suddenly C-21 became the hub of activity of a different kind. Anyone in the colony having time to kill would pass the ‘Arora Kutir’ to catch some live-audio sessions of the choicest types of swearing and accusations. The high pitched fights were pure entertainment for the passers-by.
Over the next 5 years, everything changed for the Arora household. It was almost as if someone some jealous person had cast an evil eye on the family. The verbal combats took an ugly turn and the father-in-law, the head of the family had a mini-heart attack. Immediately after which the mother-in-law fell into depression. And almost instantly, the two elder ‘live-in-sons-in-law’ took things to heart and decided to storm out of the house. One swore not to look back at the family ever again, and the other the more sensible one felt it was better to stay away and in peace rather than live together miserably. For both the male-prestige took over and the wives had no choice but to follow them.
The youngest sister and her brand new husband, however, did not leave the premises. The live-in spouse believed he would be a fool if he did so. He clearly had married for the money and the prime property. He let his wife know the same. She felt cheated. But neither had the guts to question or oppose.
The inhabitants of the 6 rooms started to thin. In the next couple of years, were left only the youngest sister with the not so brand new jamai and the eldest son and Lalita Aunty, with the in-laws leaving for the heavenly abode one after the other in quick succession.
The senior Arora’s used to pride openly tell any audience they managed to get hold off during their evening walks, “We know we have done one thing right for our children. We have given them a good education and great family values.” Mrs. Arora would especially gloat, “I treat my daughters and daughter-in-law the same that is why they live so peacefully and lovingly under the same roof.”
Sadly, they had no idea they were mistaken. Not only did the family not live peacefully and lovingly under a roof, they actually fought like cats and dogs.
They also made one even bigger mistake. They did not make a will: for the 6 bedroom Kothi in South Delhi’s prime location: on the main road. One could tire adding the number of “Zero’s” while making the valuation of the house.
The old couple could never R.I.P because what followed were long never-ending legal battles between the daughters and son, and the daughter and sons-in-law.
Lalita’s husband on the death bead took a vow from her 20 years ago. That she should not let any of the brothers-in-law take the house. Lalita gave him her word.
While she somehow managed to not let the rest enter the house again, the Giridhar, the smart one who never left the property, managed to stay, though relegated to the ‘Chemist Shop’ that served both as his home and workplace.
Neither had any friends. The house was in shambles and so was the shop. The assets were in a mess and so were they. Though the price of the Kothi soared, their health deteriorated. Household items were sold long ago to make ends meet. A few other properties made by the husband sustained Lalita Aunty’s meager lifestyle. The few innocent who purchased medicines from the shop sufficed for the Rs.10 Chole Kulche for lunch for Giridhar. A side business of selling mineral water provided for a measly dinner.
Giridhar was much younger than Lalita Aunty and in far better shape than her. She bent so much that her hump would put a camel of Jaisalmer to shame. She almost doubled up in front when she walked. Giridhar would smile each day, looking at the sad figure who now had lost her glory and charm. He was simply counting days. The day she would kick the bucket sweeping the driveway. With most relatives gone, his patience and perseverance would pay and he would eventually, demolish C-21, get a contractor and a builder apartment constructed. He had it all planned on paper, for he had all the time in the world to do that in the 24/7 shop. He was also confident that once he sold the floors his brothers and sisters would come running back into his life, ensuring a secure old age with family.
No one, however, knew as much about Lalita Aunty. Apart from stepping out twice a day to sweep the dirty driveway that made no difference, she would be spotted once or twice a week buying mainly potatoes and sometimes onions from the Sabziwala. Grocery items had rice and a few bare essentials on the list that were ordered once in 2 months. Even the delivery boy never managed to peep into the house, despite craning his neck.
Such was their existence. The only time the two got especially ready was when they had a date. A legal date in the courts. These too had dwindled in frequency over the years.
It was a Sunday morning when the local chowkidaar came with the news about the now much-expected tragedy at C-21. Cardiac arrest. Age was not on her side and the constant tension of all the years had to take its toll. He on the hand must be getting ready to put bulbs and tube lights in his dark shop after decades. “The wait” of decades was finally over. It was Diwali for him after all. The lone inheritor of the “Arora Kutir”.
I had reached work. As I unlocked my meat shop, I thought to myself. “I never spoke to her. She did not even know I existed. But I am going to miss seeing her.”
I kept the keys on the cold marble counter. As I raised my head and hands in prayer for her and my day, I saw her.
A humped back. A broom in hand.
Time by the clock: 8 am.
It was Giridhar who had had a heart attack.
*The photos for the real short story-The Wait have been picked from the net only to take the story forward. They have no resemblance to the actual people or property at all.