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The Guest

by Rochelle Potkar

part 1 of 2

A distant siren wails. It could well be the police.

As I drift off to sleep on the moonlit terrace, Chatterjee comes into my dream. He taps at the gate of the bungalow and asks, “When will the Deshpandes return? What have you done to them?”

In another dream, I search for Lakshmi everywhere and find her sitting on the third shelf in the refrigerator. She has shrunk to one-third of her size.

“What are you doing in there Lakshmi? Come out!”

“This place is too large for me, Jaggia.” she says weeping.

I sometimes find the Deshpandes at a party and no matter how much I call out to them they aren’t listening. Then suddenly I see the old lady rocking herself in her favorite chair, her pet bitch on her lap, watching me till her eyes turn hollow.

Mornings, I go to the film studio in the same bus I take to come home. The bus swells with people pressing their faces to the window for air or pounding at the doors for a foothold. The seats at the aisle are also crammed. Even if I stand in the center there is hardly any air to breathe.

Once I got lucky. I had a window seat and immediately dozed off. When I woke up I had passed my stop and reached the end of the line. It turned out to be a Moslem graveyard.

Presently the bus jerks to a halt. I get off the bus and set out to walk to the studio, which is located at the far end of the hills and under the direct gaze of the sun. When we stand in line for our auditions, the heat beats on our backs, making tiny drops of tiredness trickle down the skin of our legs. The audition lasts for barely ten minutes and at the end of it I am told to go home.

The rejection does not sadden me. In fact I am getting used to it. When I was in the village I used to dream of making it big in the city, of being the heroes of all the movies I saw at the tin theatre. Now, I dream of the village and its open breezy fields.

In the evening, the bus is filled to the hilt. People are pushing like terrorists. I wrestle through the mob of alighting passengers and get off the bus a few lanes ahead of the house, venturing to a place I had always wanted to go.

To hell with the old man’s rule. He wanted everyone home by seven to draw the mosquito nets.

I part the flowery curtain holding a promise of alcohol. Men are talking and swaying against their own looming shadows. The blare of the music is raw and unfamiliar. I step into it and sit down beside a creaking table fan as a boy fetches a bottle and a glass.

By late night, I am vomiting by the side of the road. When the road slopes upward, I move back. When it tilts forward, I surge ahead. I finally reach home and Lakshmi comes running to me.

“Shush, Jagdish, why are you making such a commotion? There is a call from a man who wants the master’s foreign telephone number. What should I tell him?”

She stares unblinkingly at me.

“What have I always told you, you bitch? What have I always told you?” I miss slapping her hard across the face as she runs to answer the phone.

“And mind, if you go into that room beyond the storeroom, I will kill you.” I slouch my way up to the terrace.

The moon is full tonight, a light gauze of cloud surrounding it. When I first came to this house, the lane was quiet and there was not a single other house except the one by the turn of the road. Now house-stones are being laid at every street corner. A builder even came up to me the other day to ask if the bungalow was for sale.

“Whose is it?”

“Mine.” I said. “And it is not for sale.”

He squinted his eyes, studying me before leaving.

I lean over the parapet taking in the view of the lawns and the trees of the night.

“This is a beautiful 80-year old bungalow.” I hear the old man’s trembling voice approaching from behind and quickly turn around. The air crackles with a chill. I tug the woolen muffler tighter around my ears and sit on the charpoy.

To the corner of the compound wall not far from the water tank lies Maya’s grave — the old woman’s pet bitch. “Maya is the illusion of the transient world.’ I now hear the old woman’s sweet and distinctive voice.

I steal a glance behind me. Of course there is no one, I mumble as I gently lie down on the charpoy.

Crickets are chirping in the bushes below, talking in strange dialects. I have to press my palms to my ears to suppress the voices rising inside my head: the old lady’s, the old man’s and my own.

I killed Maya...

No, not like that.

No, not in the way it now seems to be...

When sleep comes over me, I dream of the pet bitch digging her own grave. As I call out to her she buries herself deeper and deeper. What I reach at finally are disturbed lines of grass.

I wake up with a start. It must be six o’clock. The air is cool and the voices of the night have receded.

In the village I used to have different dreams — better ones — of movies and heroines and song and dance. I search for the moon, which has traveled across the sky to a different position. It has almost faded into the light blue.

I take the early morning bus to the studio. Today is another day of auditions and I hope it’s my lucky day.

I was pretty naïve to think I would get into films easily.

“Have you seen your face in the mirror?” they would ask and laugh. Jerks! What would they understand about obsession?

I am rejected again. A man who calls himself a senior-junior artist comes up to me at break time and says, “A word of advice, brother: you are here to only form part of the crowd. The camera will hardly catch you. There is no need to overact.”

I feel a heat rising inside and a need to bash him in the face. He reads my face and leaves.

In the evening I stop by the watering hole.

It is good that the Deshpandes didn’t have any children. Otherwise in addition to deflecting the innumerable calls we would have to deal with some unexpected visits home. Lakshmi handles most of the calls nowadays. I have told her what to say.

First, “They like the place and have decided to stay.”

Second, “They will telephone us when they are due to come.” And then if the person at the other end is still not convinced: “We are waiting for their call too.”

Lakshmi obeys me like a child. I got her from the village a month after the Deshpandes left. For a week, I searched into every crevice of the bungalow to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hid the suitcases and dismissed the cook and cancelled the monthly home-delivery orders of milk and vegetables. I searched through unpaid bills.

Each morning I would find myself going slowly over a pile of mail, using whatever I had learnt in the village school to decide whether a piece of mail was urgent or not. Not one scratch I was willing to show on the calm surface.

But the damn Deshpandes had their fingers into everything, which made my sorting difficult. They were members of every goddamn society and club on earth: natural history, film, poetry, drama, travel, laughter, holiday and religious. They had even been models for an insurance company. One day their faces sprang out suddenly on glossy photographs from a strange brown envelope; they as grandparents surrounded by young people and little children. “Old-Age-Plan,” it read.

That was a day before I went to get Lakshmi from the village. I used the first few fifty thousands I had gotten out of the Deshpandes’ bags to buy train tickets. When I brought Lakshmi here she was so happy. She had never seen a kitchen that was bigger than most of the houses in the village, except the landlord’s. She was so happy to get away from Munshi, her drunkard husband. He had killed all three of her girl children by drowning them one by one in the river.

I assigned her all my work at the bungalow.

Presently I unbolt the gate and walk through the lawns making sure I do not look at Maya’s lumpy grave.

“You are back so soon?” asks Lakshmi.

“Don’t ask stupid questions. Get the food ready.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Rochelle Potkar

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