A ShaKri Tale
IT TOOK MORE THAN A COUPLE OF MINUTES for Nandini to recognize the old bag and register a mental confirmation. The crooked nose, the hollow cheeks, the ridiculously obvious mole that stood staring back in brazen shamelessness from just below a dangly chin. And of course, the trademark gold rimmed spectacles that had lost its bi-focal power centuries ago yet remained on that bridge clinging for dear life. Yes – there was not an ounce of suspicion left that it indeed was the mug shot which was connected to a sinful hand that had once planted intense slaps across little Nandini’s sobbing face.
The incident back then had consumed a little over three minutes of Nandini’s time and six minutes of the classroom’s but had haunted the girl for over three decades after. The moment she had realized it was her long forgotten nightmare, Miss Devaki Rani, sitting just two seats beyond her on the bus that fateful afternoon, Nandini’s graveyard-friendly fears suddenly made a brief but shocking comeback. She found her hand automatically heading to her right cheek that had felt the sting of a heavily ringed and immensely flaky palm one rainy afternoon back in Vidyavardaka Girls’ Primary School. An image flashed by the following second in black and white where she saw herself as a seven year old standing helplessly in front of a figure larger than any door she had ever been through at her grandmother’s ancestral house. She then witnessed the Hercuelean silhouette barking those unforgettable words – ‘…Why you little cunning witch! You are not even as tall as my thumb and you are already stealing! What do you want to be? A dacoit? A robber? Will that make your mother happy? Is that going to bring your father smiles? Tell me! Should I call the police and ask them to take you away? Should I? Tell me! SPEAK UP!’
As tears flowed from silent Nandini’s saucer cup eyes, she had found further reason to bellow in pain as the large trunk like arm swung up once into the air and flung back on to the little girl’s reddened face.
As Nandini’s head reeled under the ripples of shock that impact had created, her ears had gone momentarily deaf to human sounds. All they could hear was the faint buzz of a telephone ringing in the distance. But before she could inform the furious teacher that the phone needed to be answered….
Two more freshly baked crisps had been stamped on the little one. And with that it was over. The woman had carelessly pushed the child back into her place and had yelled out a stern warning to everyone that any further attempts at trying to find ‘the ghost who lived in Miss Devaki’s purse’ would result in more serious consequences.
As Nandini returned to her present state of nostalgia she couldn’t help but feel relieved. One couldn’t blame her since she had been after all – guilty. Thanks to the endless taunts of her fellow class mates as to how cowardly and puny she was, there was never a chance Nandini would not have dared to explore the five rupee note sticking out of her teacher’s purse while the woman had left the classroom for an errand. What Devaki, on the other hand, didn’t know was the child was actually looking for what was popularly called ‘the ghost in Miss Devaki’s purse’. This had been a trendy way to taunt the woman by the kids as they had all wondered who exactly would release that ‘ghost’ some day. That brave girl! Who would it be? The one who would go ahead and do the impossible! Unfortunately the day Nandini had taken it upon herself to become ‘the one’ was the day she had been stung by the owner of the purse so badly, that it became one of the most traumatic experiences of her entire life. An incident that had come back to her thirty something years later, while traveling to meet her class mate from that very class in her native.
As Nandini struggled with the dilemma of whether or not she should go and reconnect with her nemesis, the old lady’s stop arrived. Despite being four stops away from her original destination, Nandini took a deep breathe, adjusted the long flowing veil of her salwar-kameez, pulled the tiny lock of hair hanging near her temple back behind her ear and got down too.
The first thing Nandini noticed was the location she had chosen to pursue her past. The stop was located in what was easily one of the dirtiest neighborhoods of her city. Strewn with open sewage drains and scantily spread out garbage bins surrounded by trash around it rather than in it, Nandini suddenly covered her nose with the edge of her veil to escape the stench emanating from almost everywhere.
‘Gosh!’ she thought. ‘What sort of a place is this!’ But given the reasoning behind her rather abrupt move, she didn’t have a choice but to see its end. And so she walked slowly behind the frail looking figure staggering a few feet in front of her avoiding cow-dung and other manure.
The vision of seeing Miss Devaki from behind suddenly seemed like a new context. The woman now looked old, fragile and extremely unhealthy. There had always been a rumor that she secretly smoked but considering Nandini had left that school just a year after the ‘smacking’ incident, she knew nothing more about the teacher’s life except the three minute physical ordeal she had endured. Devaki kept coughing into what looked like a napkin as she shooed away stray animals that seemed interested in what she was carrying in her four plastic bags. Nandini suddenly felt insecure as she began noticing that she was the clearly the odd man out in what looked like a lower middle class locality with bare-bottomed kids playing outside with rabid looking street canine and bare-chested middle aged men staring emotionlessly at the well dressed woman who was following an ill tempered old lady.
To play it safe, Nandini did the unthinkable. What had started as a non-plan was now turning into a sequence of meaningful events. She paced herself and joined the old woman who was struggling with her bags.
‘Can I help you, Miss?’ she enquired in her British accented English that had only improved after she had moved to the United Kingdom with her husband a decade ago.
‘What?’ coughed the old lady back as she strained her aged eyes to recognize the stranger offering her needless and intrusive help.
‘I said can I help you?’ she repeated with a genuine smile that she hoped would vitalize the aged soul.
‘Who the heck are you all of a sudden? Go away!’ said Devaki making it clear to Nandini – that she hadn’t changed one atom. Age had definitely not deterred the will of this woman who could only spew bitterness. She was treating Nandini the same way she had fanned away the canine earlier.
‘O! I am no one…’ Nandini found herself saying almost apologetically. ‘I noticed you were being hassled by the dogs…so I wanted to help, Miss.’
She found it odd that she couldn’t stop herself from calling the woman ‘Miss’.
‘No need! I do this every day. Now go away! Lot of thieves these days. I don’t want you stealing my things. You can’t fool me by putting on make up, I say!’
Nandini was shocked. She couldn’t believe Devaki still accused people of being criminals who were out to burgle her blind. Even if it meant random blokes who were trying to be good Samaritans.
‘Miss please…’ Nandini insisted as she found the old woman almost dropping one of her bags. ‘Please let me help. You can hold my hand if you don’t want me to run away. OK?’
Once a teacher – always a teacher. They cannot stand too much whining. And so this tactic worked somewhat. Devaki immediately lost whatever was left of her temper and flung one of the bags at Nandini and grabbed her right hand. ‘Amma!!!!Fine! My God you are a pesky little girl! What a pain! But listen! I wont pay you anything for this service you hear me? I don’t want you haggling outside my door for money!’
Nandini smiled back and responded, ‘That’s OK Miss. I don’t want anything. Let’s go.’ And then they walked. Devaki held on to Nandini with the same sinful hand that had come crashing down on the child one rainy afternoon in pursuit of a rumored ghost. What Nandini didn’t know then was within the next few minutes, she would actually meet the ghost in Miss Devaki’s purse.
End of Part 1
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