(This story by me was first published in an anthology '31 Sins' by Numerique Publications)
An uneasy feeling gripped his senses as the sunrays began entering the room through the tiny opening of the window. The room had three beds stacked on each other, an almirah, a wooden table, heaps of newspapers dumped in a corner and a cot in which he was lying hopelessly. A number of tablet wrappers were scattered all along the table. A wheel chair and a Goddess Laxmi’s photo adorned the wall. He had always welcomed sunrise with an upbeat mood but not this time. The bedridden octogenarian had barely gotten a moment of sleep last night despite him being weak mentally and physically. Only a few months ago he could continue with his daily routine like any other normal person. But an unexplained ailment had gripped him, rendering him motionless and glued to bed. The room was filled with the stench of his urine. Nobody had bothered to change his bed sheet since previous afternoon.
As the sunrays increased in number and intensity, he shuddered. The uneasy feeling only grew further. The feeling was difficult to contain as he neared the conclusion that he was living his last few moments on this planet, inhaling those precious few breaths allotted to him. The inevitable death was knocking ruthlessly on his door. The old man looked around for water but the copper tumbler kept on a wooden table at a few steps away from the bed was beyond his reach.
The wall clock, right in front of his bed, indicated that it was seven. The old man presumed that his two sons, daughter-in-laws and grandkids were busy in their daily routine. They hadn’t paid a visit to his room, situated in a corner of the second floor, since late last afternoon. They weren’t even bothered to check if he was still breathing! His daughters-in-law were busy in getting their kids readied for school, he concluded. His elder son left for the club early in the morning and returned only at around 9. A fan of tennis, the elder son never once missed his early morning practice at the city club. Was the practice more important than his ailing father? The old man wondered. The younger one usually woke up late in the morning, alcohol often kept him awake late during nights. Last night was one such example as the merrymaking of his friends and the filthy, abusive language used by them during their conversations had reached the old man’s ears till late in the night.
As the old man struggled for water, his hands trembled and his dried throat waited quietly for the elixir that would provide the much needed respite. Unfortunately, his hands barely moved despite applying full strength. Even though he could feel sensations in his limbs, the strength required to move them was missing completely. The moment of death seemed to approach faster than he had anticipated. There was simply no energy left in him to summon the occupants of the house for help. His voice appeared to have been choked by his own vocal chords. And then he remembered her. This struggle for survival took his thoughts back in time and he mentally travelled with lightning speed, stopping exactly a year ago.
The old man was a dominating force in the market area of Gulbarga city. He was popularly known as Rangaiah Seth. The affluent yet stingy Rangaiah ran a jewelry shop. Close political links with the heavy weights of the city and a devoted customer base, surpassing all his competitors, gave him an edge over them. Rangaiah’s uncanny business sense provided him success but there was also a spiritual angle to his personality. He was an ardent devotee of Goddess Laxmi and performed her pooja religiously. All his day’s earning would first kiss the feet of the Goddess before making its way into his secret vault. Rangaiah was aware of his sons’ business credentials and was proud of the fact that even at this age he held complete control over the business empire. Most of his profit was stashed with utmost care in his secret vault in the darkness of the night. Nobody had a clue where and how the bundles of high currency notes vanished from the modernized steel safe placed in the shop. Rangaiah preferred not to share the secret with anyone as he had no confidants. His children would waste no time in siphoning off the money if they sniffed his covert activity.
Rangaiah had erected a 3 feet silver statue of the Goddess in his shop. Every small or big transaction was routed through the Goddess and this resulted in definite success, only increasing his devotion further. There were moments when he felt he was interacting with her live. She was very much a reality for him. The penny-pinching, superstitious Rangaiah belonged to the old school of thought which was evident from his attire.
On a summer afternoon, Rangaiah was seated comfortably on his cushioned seat in the air conditioned section of his showroom. In spite of the running AC, he could sense beads of sweat precipitating though his body. The summers were simply horrible in this part of the country. Just as his eyes were surveying the outside, a young lady entered his showroom. Wearing a sari torn at several places, a blouse ragged near the shoulder showcasing her soft skin, a dirty cloth bag hanging across her shoulder and heaps of disheveled hair gave her a clumsy look. A feeling of disgust engulfed Rangaiah as the shabby lady began peeping into the glass cases displaying the priceless and artistic jewelry. How could she even dare enter my shop? It would be great insult to entertain her even for a second, he concluded.
The lady enquired about a glittering necklace to one of the shop attendants. The puzzled boy looked in Rangaiah’s direction with fear stricken eyes. The influential owner would never tolerate his employees wasting their time on a slumdog window shopper, who even in the wildest of her dreams wasn’t worthy of such a grand necklace made of gold, emeralds and rubies. Her mannerism only surged the blood flow in Rangaiah’s veins. Filled with tremendous loathe, a sturdy, bald headed Rangaiah Seth took slow but impatient steps towards her. His white dhoti and a jet black kurta complemented his Wheatish skin. Each and every finger of his was adorned by a noticeable gold ring with different colored stones embedded into each. There were creases on his forehead and a wicked smile on the sagging face. Two of his teeth, made of 24 karat gold, glittered as his smile widened on approaching her. His gait suggested that he was approaching one of his most esteemed customers. The lady was insisting the attendant to let her feel the necklace once. Even though her appearance was shabby, her face radiated unexplainable aura and her body language oozed with confidence.
“I have never heard a better joke than this!” Rangaiah remarked.
The lady looked at him with humility, an uncanny smile crossing her lips that moment.
“Have you looted a bank or something?” Rangaiah took a potshot.
The lady opened her mouth only to let out a vicious laugh this time. Nobody had ever dared to insult the tycoon Rangaiah in as many years as he could recollect.
“Where are you hiding your loot? Under your blouse?” he impatiently taunted her.
She suddenly turned silent. Even the surroundings appeared to have been devoid of any sound in that moment. There was fury on her face and her eyes had turned into a raging volcano. She stared at him for few seconds and then calmed down.
“Arrogance seems to be getting to your head,” she remarked, leaving Rangaiah’s other five employees stunned.
“Shameless lady, have you looked at yourself in the mirror anytime?” Rangaiah hit back at her. The initial smile on his face faded away owing to the turn of events.
“Nobody has ever insulted me like this! And definitely I didn’t expect such treatment from you,” she remarked.
The sentence which was tailor made for Rangaiah was being uttered by the shabby lady. For a moment Rangaiah felt that she had read his mind.
“I appreciate your guts! But I simply refuse to entertain you anymore. Get lost,” he screamed.
“You will regret it. I warn you!” the lady spoke so defiantly as if she would shoot some kind of a curse at the octogenarian businessman.
“Insane lady! Consider yourself lucky that I didn’t instruct my men to throw you out of here the moment you entered this place,” he said. His jaws were stiffly poised against each other in rage.
His employees were wondering why the Seth was engaged in a meaningless argument with her. He rarely handled the customers directly. The only thing he did was to monitor the customer gallery from the comfort of his posh lounge. And here he was, taking a shabby looking lady head on! This was more baffling than the arrogance shown by the illiterate customer.
She smiled. It was the best smile in the world the workers had ever seen.
“Ok, I shall leave but before that kindly fetch me a glass of water,” she said with all earnestness.
A huge earthen pot was placed next to the cash counter on a wooden table. Most people in the region still preferred earthen pots over refrigerators as the water remained chilled in it and the clay changed the taste of the water considerably. The pot was kept at only a few steps away from the lady.
“Oh, now I understand the reason behind your entry!” Rangaiah remarked as if his brain had solved the most complex puzzle till date. The huge earthen pot was clearly visible from outside and Rangaiah presumed that the lady entered in search of cold water as nobody in the neighborhood had installed clay pots in their shops. Even the nearby hotels wouldn’t have entertained someone like her requesting for water. Also, there was a price to pay for water in the modern era. Nothing was free. The lady appeared incapable of paying for it and sneaked into the store intentionally to try her luck. Rangaiah looked at her lips. They were the most beautiful lips he had ever seen. Perfectly shaped and pink, but they had turned dry due to thirst.
“Can you please fetch me a glass of water?” she requested.
“I appreciate your audacity, young lady, but I cannot let the glass become dirty due to your finger imprints on it or the impression left by your lips,” Rangaiah retorted.
“Seth, I see that you have disposable plastic glasses.”
“Everything comes at a cost, stupid lady. You are incapable of even affording a glass of water,” Rangaiah mocked.
The lady remained silent but was in no mood to leave anytime soon.
“You must appreciate that I asked for permission instead of helping myself with the water.”
“You dare touching the pot or the glasses, bitch! The consequences will be painful,” he thundered. The discussion had reached an all-time low now. Rangaiah was losing patience and turning a petty issue into a matter of pride and prestige.
“I always thought that you were a compassionate and loving human being with high moral values,” she remarked.
“Always thought? Since when do we know each other? A beggar is giving sermon to the great Rangaiah Seth!” he said and laughed out loud.
“Have you people ever witnessed a much bigger joke than this?” He asked his employees, who shook their head in disagreement.
“This bitch won’t budge easily. Let me teach her a lesson,” Rangaiah said, and holding her by her hair, started pulling her out of the showroom. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Rangaiah’s store boys took the matter in their hands and in a matter of few seconds the lady was dragged out mercilessly. And just then Rangaiah received the shock of his life. That instance, he saw a fierce appearing divine feminine figure in front of him. The lady had taken the form of Goddess Laxmi whom he devotedly worshipped daily. She gave him a ferocious stare which lasted only a split second. His heart skipped a beat and all the hair on his body were raised as if charged by a battery. Before he could return to his normal senses, the divine figure vanished into the huge crowd which was busy in its routine activities in the huge market area. Rangaiah ran urgently in no particular direction. His body was sweating. The lady was nowhere to be seen. His store boys were bewildered at their master’s reaction. They expected a jubilant response from him.
Exactly after 1 hour the octogenarian returned. He appeared defeated and his face bore a somber look. His showroom witnessed not even a single customer that day. It was only a beginning as the trend continued in the days to come.
Rangaiah expressed his worst fear before his family, which straightaway rejected his apprehensions that the lady was none other than Goddess Laxmi. It was a clear case of hallucination, his sons assured him. His daughters-in-law laughed at his imagination and his store boys further reinforced the fact that the lady visiting the shop that day was one of those shabby poor females who wander through shops in the market area to meet their daily quota of essential supplies. The store boys also testified before Rangaiah’s sons that the Seth was in an irritated mood that day and his behavior was unusual. And finally it was concluded that work related stress was rendering the old man insomniac and it was time for him to retire.
In a few days’ time, Rangaiah was forced to confine himself to the single room on the second floor of his home, his two sons now taking over the reign of the business. Rangaiah’s protest fell on deaf ears as his adamant sons had their way. Rangaiah had to lead a secluded life.
Shockingly, the brothers found that there was minimal money available in the safe vault of the jewelry showroom and the current account of the business. They fretted over the fading memory of their ageing father who failed to provide any clear idea for the missing liquidity. His incapable sons’ erratic routine and lavish life style began showing its effect on the business. The tens of lakhs worth of business transactions every month were magically reduced to thousands in a span of few months as the balance sheet reflected tremendous losses in business. To add to the woes, the younger son incurred huge losses in cricket betting and gambling. His alcohol consumption was at an all-time high. A debt worth of lakhs of rupees was soon reflected against his name in the payment sheets of one of the biggest private finances of the city. The daily ritual of performing Laxmi Pooja at the showroom came to an abrupt standstill. Things reached such a low point in the next few months that the two brothers planned to sell off the Silver Goddess statue and distribute money equally between them. Everything was happening quickly and magically.
Already ridden with immense guilt for his inhumane behavior with the lady, Rangaiah found it difficult to digest the recent development. The day the two brothers striked a profitable deal for the antique silver statue, Rangaiah took to bed permanently. In another six months even his residential bungalow was mortgaged by his inefficient children.
As the painful mental journey ended, Rangaiah’s thoughts returned to the present. Despite the tumbler of water was placed at a stone’s throw away, he was finding it difficult to quench his thirst. His lips were dry, exactly like the lady’s. Even death wouldn’t embrace him easily as there was regret in his heart. He apologized to the Goddess one last time. But before his eyes closed permanently and he exhaled the precious last breathe of his life; he was desperate to reveal a secret to his family, a secret that would change their fortunes forever. His eyes were transfixed on the door, waiting anxiously for a visitor. Slowly his legs fell cold as he began losing sensation of his limbs. Life was slowly leaving its old cage. With the burden of the secret playing heavily on his mind, he exhaled for one last time. Hours later a maid discovered his lifeless body and informed the ignorant family.
The funeral rites were performed as per the traditional Indian customs. The funeral pyre was lit by the elder son and the very next day all his belongings were disposed in the open just next to the cremation ground in the outskirts of the city. As per Hindu customs, a person’s belongings are either donated or disowned soon after his death. The almirah, cot, beds, his cloths and every other belonging that was Rangaiah’s was now scattered in the open ground. His sons’ preferred to dispose off his belongings rather than donating it to someone. Even the portrait of the Goddess which adorned his room was not retained.
After a few days, the city woke up to a bizarre incident. A middle aged, mentally unstable man was found tearing off thousand rupee currency notes worth crores of rupees and throwing them on the road. The mad man rejoiced in his insanity, dancing all throughout. The news spread like wildfire and scores of citizens headed towards the cremation ground in excitement. When the police reached the spot the damage was already done. The mentally unstable man had torn off most of the currency and thrown it in the nearby drain. Some of the money was stolen away by the lucky travelers who crossed the road when the insanity was in progress. Preliminary investigation revealed that the insane man had accidentally stumbled upon the currency notes while resting on the beds disowned by Rangaiah’s family. Each of the massive sized bed could easily hold one crore. Rangaiah’s family cursed the police for a delayed action as most of the currency was already lost by the time they reached the spot. The secret chest of Rangaiah Seth met with a miserable end like its master.