Wednesday, April 13, 2011

(Short story) A WINDOW IN THE WALL By Dr. Shahzad A. Rizvi

Since I’d rented the room, I’d often wondered about the window. Why was it built? Who built it? On one side, it opened into my room. And on the other, I was sure that it opened into some interior part of the mansion next door. For some unknown reason, it was built into the common wall and did not perform any of the usual functions of a window by providing light, air, or an outside view.

It didn’t take me long to settle down in my little room. It was no more than six by eight, I was sure. I set up the shaky desk and a chair in one corner, and unrolled the bed on the floor in the other. There was no closet, so I left the few clothes I had, underwear, socks, and a few knick-knacks in the jute sack that I’d brought them in, deciding to use it as my pillow, as well. When I brought in my rickety bike, the room was crowded, but my move was complete. During the night, after I turned out the light, I’d hear someone walking around the room. But I chalked it up to my imagination and didn’t think much of it.

Soon, I fell into a routine. I’d get up in the morning, and head out toward the state Department of Education, where I worked as the Special Assistant to the Director who was responsible for all the schools in the state. During the interview, he told me, “You strike me as a very smart young man and you’re exactly what I’m looking for to fill this position. But this will be a very demanding job, requiring a fair amount of travel. If you work out, I’ll make you permanent.”

So I worked extra hard to prove myself, but I had much to learn. And then there was my school. I’d been accepted into the graduate program in English Literature; I’d enrolled at the university and my classes met in the evening. At the end of the day, I’d be so tired that I’d plop down on the bed and fall asleep, but not without thinking about the window.

One day, I came home directly after work. The college break was just starting and I had no evening classes. As I passed the house next door, my feet stopped and I stood staring at the door for several minutes. I set the bike against the wall, screwed up my courage and reached for the knocker with a palpitating heart. I knocked once, twice, thrice—dirt getting all over my hands—but there was no answer. I knocked vigorously; the knocker came off the rotten wood and fell on the stone with a clank, sending spiders and lizards scurrying off. I heard voices behind me. I turned around and looked; a group of people had gathered behind me, with expressions of horror on their faces. I was looking for no one in particular. There was no reason I could offer for knocking at the door. I picked up the bike and dashed off, the expressions on their faces frozen in my memory.

That night I fell asleep, thinking about my experience at the house and wondering about the window. I don’t know how long I had been asleep when something woke me up. When I gathered my wits, I realized that there was a knock. I fumbled in the dark, trying to turn on the lamp, and knocked it down. I walked toward the door and asked, “Who is it?” But there was no answer. I could hear the wind howling outside. Maybe it had been flapping the door? I thought. I opened the door, but there was no one. The knock continued and was becoming louder. Now, I realized it was at the window. My heart began to pound and I was breathing fast.

I turned around and managed to turn on the lamp. It took me a few seconds to adjust to the light; I rushed and unlatched the window. It slowly opened, with a creaky sound. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen was standing on the other side. She had large, dreamy eyes that didn’t seem to focus on anything. Her face was partially covered with tresses of black hair. She was wearing a black sari, tightly wrapped all around her, merging her body into the dark background. The light from my lamp, the only source of light, highlighted her face, making her look like an apparition suspended in the air. My eyes were riveted on her face and no words came from my mouth. Faintly, I could hear music and the words of a song—he will come, he will come—of an old Indian film, coming from her side. I’m not sure how long I stood there.

“May I come in?” she asked in a deep melodious voice.

As if jolted from a trance, I answered, “Yes, yes, of course,” and stepped aside.

Lifted by some invisible force, she glided into the room. My hand pointed toward the chair, but she descended onto the bed. She couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23, my own age, but I felt awe in her presence. She didn’t introduce herself, asked no questions, and didn’t look around. Her eyes remained fixed in one direction. My heart pounded harder, I was breathing faster and a million questions were rising in my mind, but the words were getting tangled up somewhere in my throat.

I heard thunder outside and felt a strong gust of wind. The window shut with a loud bang. The light blinked a few times and then went out. Heavy rain had begun to come down.

“May I spend the night here?”

“What would your people say?”

“There is no one…absolutely no one left!”

“Where’ve they gone?”

“They’ve gone far, far away!”

“When will they return?”

“Do you always interrogate your guests?”

“I’m so sorry. Where are my manners? Of course, you can spend the night here. But there is only one bed.”

“I don’t mind.”

Before I could organize my thoughts around the logistics, she lay down across the bed. As I maneuvered in the dark to find an empty space, her arms reached out and pulled me toward her with great force. Before I could rearrange my body, she planted her lips on mine, sending sensations down my spine that I had never known before. “I don’t have the foggiest idea…” I began, but she put her hand over my mouth and my words came out garbled. She gently guided me and I became immersed in an ecstasy that I had never experienced before. Just as I thought that I had reached the greatest height, she would start me all over again and take me to a level higher than before. This went on until the crowing of a rooster was heard. She jumped up and was in the middle of sailing through the window when I called after her, “Will I see you again?”

“Yes, but don’t try to find me,” she said, her voice echoing as if in a tunnel. The window shut after her and would not open.

For a long time, I sat on the bed thinking about her. Who is she? Where did she come from? She had given me such a transcendent experience, but I knew nothing about her. Will I ever see her again? Tears welled up in my eyes. I had only met her a few hours ago and she had only been gone a few minutes, but I was already missing her. Can it be possible, oh my God, that I have fallen in love with her?

There was a knock and, for a moment, I felt a surge of joy thinking that she had come back. But it soon died down. The knock was at the door. Who could be calling at such an ungodly hour? I got up, feeling as if my body weight had multiplied many-fold. Opening the door a crack, I asked, “Who is it?”

“Babuji, this is Manmohan, the peon. Sahib is waiting downstairs in the jeep. He wants you to come downstairs right away to go on a trip.”

I was yanked as if by an electric jolt into the realities of my life. It was not that my boss hadn’t warned me about the travel, but I hadn’t foreseen that it would be happening at such ridiculously short notice. My inner voice of protest was interrupted by repeated horn honks from downstairs. “Tell Sahib that I’ll be right down,” I shouted to the peon. I threw on some clothes, stuffed another outfit into the jute bag and was out of the door in two minutes.

When I saw my boss, instead of responding to my greeting, he said curtly, “A teacher has been murdered.” His face looked somber, so I didn’t ask any questions, though I was very curious. Quietly, I climbed in the back, and the jeep took off at high speed, sending early morning street sweepers scurrying.

The peon, who was sitting next to me, whispered into my ear: “Sahib hasn’t slept all night. The news of the murder came in the middle of the night. A teacher has killed his wife and another teacher because he found them in bed.” I now understood the urgency of our trip. I also recalled a confidential report of the Principal, forwarded to our office, in which he had expressed concern about this romance.

It was a complicated case, involving our department, the judiciary and the police, and we were gone for several days. But every day, I thought of the mystery woman and eagerly awaited my return so I could see her again.

The case was to go on for months, if not years, but we left. When we arrived back in our town, my boss dropped me off by my building. The first thing I noticed was the absence of the mansion next door. In its place lay a huge pile of rubble. Breathless, I ran after people, grabbing them by the arm and asking them what had happened to the house. They freed their arms, gave me strange looks, and hurried away from me. Finally, I stood desolate, on the verge of tears, when a man with a kindly face tapped my shoulder and pointed toward an old man who was sitting in a little café, sipping tea from a saucer. “That gentleman can answer all the questions about the house,” he said. He cast a look with a strange expression in the direction of the rubble and padded away.

In my comings and goings, I had often seen this old man sitting in the café. Does he have a home…does he have family? I often wondered. When I walked up to him and greeted him with a bow, he pointed toward a chair and gestured for a boy to bring me tea. His brows furrowed, he peered at me through his wire-rimmed glasses and said, “You live in that building. I’ve not seen you for the last eight days.”

The remark surprised me. “I was on an official trip, sir.”


“What happened to the house, sir?”

“Somehow, I had a feeling that you would ask me about it.”

In response, I just bowed my head and heard him order the café-boy to bring a hookah. There was awkward silence. People all around us had stopped sipping their teas and stopped puffing on their bidis—Indian cigarettes—and were intently staring at us. It was making me nervous. Finally, the boy brought the hookah and carefully put it down. He presented its mouthpiece to the old man. Without acknowledging the boy, the old man began to smoke, staring into space, seemingly at things far, far away. Then he addressed me. It took me a few seconds to realize what he’d asked. “Why did you rent that room?”

“I needed a room, sir. And as a student, I couldn’t afford anything better.”

“Didn’t anybody tell you that a murder took place in that room and the room is haunted?”

“Oh my God, no! When did it happen…who was murdered?”

“It’s a long story,” he said. He signaled the boy to bring more tea and asked me if I also wanted some, but I declined. I was eager to hear the story and the suspense was dreadful. Please get on with it, I said saying under my breath. At last the tea arrived and, alternating between puffs on the hookah and sips of tea, he began.

“Twenty-five years ago, a very rich man lived in that house,” he said, pointing toward the rubble. He had a son, the only child. He was born with facial birth defects. He was so ugly that you couldn’t look at him. Kids would harass him and make fun of him, so he had to be accompanied by a bodyguard all the time. When he came of age, his parents began to think of his marriage. According to our custom, proposals are sent by the parents of girls who are eager to see their daughters married off. But in spite of his enormous wealth and social position, no proposals were arriving for this young man. So, after a long wait, the boy’s father, the Seth—as he was called by everyone—asked me if I would look for an appropriate girl for his son.”

“Why did he ask you, sir?” I interrupted.

“Because I worked for him. I was his munim…his chief accountant. Actually, much more than that. I was his factotum; took care of every imaginable thing for him. That’s why he relied on me and trusted me. Anyway, he wanted me to look for a girl and he didn’t care if she was poor…so long as she was of the right caste and was very beautiful. I thought it was strange of my boss to want a beautiful wife for his son, while he was so ugly that he could frighten people in broad daylight. Anyway, for a while, it became a full time job and obsession for me. I had my boss’s confidence that I could do anything and I didn’t want to fail him in this very important task. I neglected the accounts, neglected other duties, but looked for a girl, not any girl but a very beautiful girl. I ate very little, slept very little, traveled far and wide, and approached many families. But they all turned me down. Apparently, my boss’s son’s fame had reached all four corners of the earth.” He stopped talking and leaned toward me. I nodded encouragingly, and he continued.

“Then it occurred to me that the answer had been right under my nose all the time, while I had been looking everywhere. My friend’s daughter in the village where I grew up was the perfect solution. She was beautiful, she was the right age, and she was of the same caste as my boss. My friend was very poor and wouldn’t be able to offer any dowry; but it didn’t matter. My boss had made it very clear that dowry wouldn’t be an issue.

“So I got on a horse and headed for the village. It wasn’t far off. When I got to the outskirts of the village, I found the girl drawing water from the well. Other girls were singing, but she was quiet. When she saw me, she put her pot down and came running and touched my feet. After giving her my blessings, I asked her where her father was. She said he was at the village square, where they were having a panchayat—a meeting of village elders. So, I spurred my horse and arrived where the panchayat was meeting. I was surprised to see that my friend was before the panchs—the village elders—who were deciding his fate. He was heavily in debt and had defaulted on his payments. They were deliberating whether or not to take away his meager possessions.

“My arrival interrupted the meeting. All the panchs knew me; I’d grown up with them. Cutting through their effusive greetings, I immediately came to the point and told them that I had an offer for my friend which, if he accepted, would end all his troubles. I paused, and they all eagerly stared at me—especially my friend, whose fate was in the balance. Addressing him directly, I said, ‘I have brought a proposal of marriage from my boss’s son for the hand of your daughter. Will you accept?’

“As if hit by lightning, the entire assembly was struck dumb. For several seconds, no one spoke or moved. Then they all started speaking at once—except my friend. I had to shake him just to get a word out of him. ‘Yes,’ he said and became quiet again, while everybody congratulated him on his good fortune. My boss was well known in these parts. He was the largest landowner. Needless to say, the panchayat was dismissed on my assurance that I would see to it that all of my friend’s debts were paid off. When I told my friend that he wouldn’t need to provide a dowry or spend a single rupee on the wedding, his sadness went away. He said that he didn’t care what the boy looked like, so long as his daughter had all the comforts of life that he couldn’t give her.

“He took me home. His wife was making kandes—cow-dung patties—to be used as fuel. When she saw me, she pulled the edge of her sari across her face. She quickly washed her hands, brought me a glass of water, and put a bucket of water before my horse. We went inside the one-room thatched-roof adobe house, where my friend’s old mother was lying sick. I touched her feet, as I had always done since I was a child, and she gave me her blessings. I told her that I would arrange for her to see a specialist in the city. We broke the news of the marriage proposal to the ladies and they were delighted. They wanted to sweeten my mouth, but there were no sweets in the little hut. So his wife went to the neighbor, borrowed some tea and sugar, made tea and offered it to me in a chipped clay mug. His wife and mother couldn’t believe this turnaround of their fortune—that now they would be in-laws of the area’s richest landowner. Their days of poverty and misery would be over.

“As we were celebrating, I told them that since they would be his in-laws, my boss was prepared to build them a house, and give them enough land and cattle so that they could live well. The young girl, the centerpiece of all of this conversation, returned from the well carrying a stack of clay pitchers on her head. Her father announced to her what he’d decided. The young woman’s eyes widened in horror, the pitchers crashed to the floor, showering us with shards, and she ran out of the house, screaming as if someone had died. Her father pulled a burning stick from the clay stove and ran after her, shouting, ‘I’ll teach you a lesson for this bad behavior!’ I ran after them and caught the raised stick mid-air before he beat her to death.”

At this point I interrupted the munim, though I was engrossed in the story. “Shouldn’t the girl have had some say in the matter?”

“That’s the thinking of you modern, college-educated, city people,” he said, poking my chest with his finger. “In the villages, they still do things the way they’ve done them for thousands of years. Marriages are still arranged; parents and elders decide where and with whom the children, and I do mean children, will be married; and that’s the end of that. The elders know best. Any objections, any protests, by the boys and girls to be married are regarded as great insults to the elders.”

“Alas, I know that, sir,” I said, nodding. In this day and age, I thought, how can we have these two cultures operating side by side in India?

Oblivious to my inner protest, the munim went on, “I sent my friend back to the hut and sat down with the girl in the midst of a mango grove. Mynahs were singing, peacocks were dancing, and mangoes were falling…and all this had a calming effect on her. I said to her, ‘You’ve known me since you were a child. You would be crying and I would hold you and you would calm down. You’ve always come to me for advice and have listened to me more to than your own father. So no secrets from me. Tell me what troubles you so?’

“She wiped her tears with the edge of her sari and said, ‘Uncle, I love another.’

“Does anybody know about it?’ I asked.

“No uncle, we’ve kept it a secret. He lives in the nearby village. We met at a village fair. He’s handsome and nice but very poor, like us. We meet when I go to draw water from the well outside the village. All the wells inside the village are dry now.’

“I said, ‘Your father is heavily in debt, your grandmother is sick and your mother is exhausted by working day and night with no rest and no good food. You could save them all by marrying my boss’s son. I realize that he’s ugly, but in time you’ll come to like him—even love him—and forget about the boy you love. I strongly urge you to do this. This will be the right thing to do, and the only right thing. This will change your life and the life of your family once for all. You will experience things you never knew existed. If you say yes now, I promise you that I’ll see to it that you’re treated right in that household. If there is any mistreatment, any abuse, I promise you that I will do everything in my power to change it.’ The girl began to cry again and cried for a long time, as I waited for her answer. Finally, she spoke through her sobs, her words almost incomprehensible.

“Uncle, I’ll do it, though it breaks my heart just saying it. I’ll do it to save my family,’ she said and began to cry again. I couldn’t bear to look at her.

“Needless to say, my boss was delighted when I gave him the news of my find. He gave me an immediate raise and a hefty bonus. ‘No time should be lost,’ he said and barked orders to everyone concerned to get busy preparing for the wedding. ‘Money is no object. We’re talking about my one and only son, you know,’ he emphasized. I undertook to rent the elephants for the bridegroom’s procession.

“When the wedding party—seated on golden howdahs on top of ten elephants, bedecked with wreaths and finery, and a hundred-piece band playing in front—arrived in the little village, the villagers were overwhelmed. They were all invited, so they all came deferentially. Wide-eyed men wore their best turbans and women wore their best saris, sitting down under the shamiana, a monumental tent which was set up for the wedding. When the ceremony began, the bride cried inconsolably. People assumed that she was sorry to leave her home; little did they know her real reasons. After the ceremony, a vegetarian dinner was served on palm leaves, which people ate and ate, sitting down on the floor, their legs folded in lotus position. During the dinner, I accidentally spilled a little water on the groom. He slapped me and ranted and raved for quite a while. His outburst marred the occasion, but I tried to salvage the situation somehow. I felt humiliated in front of all the village people I had grown up with, but I tried to put the best face on the situation. Finally, we collected the bride and returned to the city.

“On the wedding night, I was posted outside the room, just in case. I began to hear sounds of a struggle, followed by sounds of beating. The door opened and the girl came out screaming and found refuge in my arms. ‘Uncle, he’s going to kill me!’ The boy stood behind her, with a gun trained on her. ‘I want my conjugal rights. She can’t refuse me,’ he barked. His speech was slurred, his eyes were red, and he looked uglier than ever.

“Of course she can’t, but let me first get you a drink,’ I said, which quieted him. I whispered to the girl that I had something in my pocket and asked her to slip a little bit into his drink every day. The boy gulped the drink down and was soon sound asleep.”

“The boy didn’t get up the next day, or any other day. The best hakims, veds and doctors couldn’t find out what mystery disease he suffered from. Finally, one night, he died in his sleep. His parents and all his relatives held the girl responsible for his death. She was a bad omen…a witch, who had caused his death. According to the custom, as a widow she had to cut her hair short, wear simple clothes with no jewelry, and live with her in-laws. She couldn’t go anywhere or participate in anything. And she couldn’t remarry. From dawn to late into the night, she worked and worked, almost like a slave in her in-laws’ house, and was mistreated to boot. It was a miserable existence. I felt guilty and responsible for getting her into this situation. And I finally decided to do something about it.”

He had barely finished his sentence when the owner of the café came over. “Do you require anything more, sahibs? I’m sorry, but the café is closing; I need to go home.” We apologized and moved to a bench in the nearby park, where the elderly gentleman continued his story.

“Anyway, I brought the boy over, the boy the girl loved, and set him up in the room where you’re now living. There was only a wall between that room and the room where the girl spent her nights crying. As a young man, I had worked with a builder, so I knew all about masonry work, carpentry and plastering. When my boss and his wife were away, I punched a hole into the wall and built a window as a passageway between the two rooms. In the girl’s room, the window remained covered up by a huge almirah, so if anybody walked in, he or she wouldn’t notice it. Besides, no one bothered to go in her room anyway. Now the girl was very happy. She could visit the boy in the little room when everyone was asleep.

“All of a sudden, my father passed away and my mother was very ill. I had to go to my village and was gone for a long time. During my absence, my boss found out what was going on. He hired a hit man to kill the boy. The murder was to take place while my boss and his wife were conveniently away on a pilgrimage.

“Instead of drowning the boy, as the boss had suggested, or killing him in an alley or some such place, the hit man butchered him right in his little room, splattering his blood all over the place. Unable to bear the pain, the girl found a gun in the house and blew her brains out. As if that was not enough, my boss and his wife were in a train-wreck while returning home and were killed. I suppose there was some kind of justice in it.

“When I finally returned after the funeral of both of my parents, the police were investigating the matter. They did catch the hit man; he was tried and sentenced to life in prison. The next-of-kin tried to occupy the house, but they were scared out of there. They claimed that they saw the girl walking around the house, carrying a lamp in the middle of the night. Things would happen to them, without any explanation.

“All these deaths drove me into a deep depression. I felt responsible. All the deaths that took place there”—he pointed to the demolished house and the building I lived in—“I feel responsible for them. I should’ve known better than to force a beautiful young woman to marry an ugly, tyrannical ogre. That started the chain of deaths. I will never forgive myself. I’ve walked around for 30 years carrying that pain in my heart and I’ll carry it to my grave.”

He stopped talking. I was certain that he had tears in his eyes, but in the dark I couldn’t see them. I very much wanted to tell him about my experience, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thanked him for taking the time to tell me his story. I hoped to see him again and try to lessen his pain. Somehow, we are bound together, I thought, and the beautiful woman who lived many years ago is the link between us. I passed by the rubble of the house and visualized her soul now buried there. Then I looked up to the window. The moon had come out from the cloud cover and its light was falling on the window. I’ll never see her again, I thought, and tears rolled down my cheeks.

I went up to my room and turned on the light. I had a feeling that I was not alone. But things were just as I had left them. I sat on the bed and thought of the two lovers who used to meet in this room. Then I thought of my own feelings. They were now all jumbled up. Maybe I dreamed up what happened to me that night? It seemed so long ago…and so unreal now. I was feeling strange sensations all over my body. I couldn’t settle down, nor did I feel like studying. I got up and unlatched the window. Its door swung open and a gust of wind swept in, stirring things inside the room. There was nobody behind it.

The rubble of the house lay still down below. Some dark shadows were scavenging in it. In the distance the whistle of the night policeman and his call “Stay alert!” could be heard. I closed the window and lay down. A lot had happened in the last few days. Fatigue and sleep came over me.

I don’t know how long I had been asleep when a knock woke me up. I got up with a start and listened. It was gentle and persistent. It was clear that it was not coming from the door. But it can’t be coming from the…but it was. I got up and unlatched the window. It swung open and there she was, standing there in all her glorious beauty. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

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