“Wait, wait! Don’t keep the dishes in the sink yet.” Renuka hurried to the kitchen following Urmi.
“Why? I can’t eat anything more than this now” Nitin declared as he sat up stretched, leaning against the back of his chair and rolling his palm on his stomach.
“Nothing more. But the dishes are oily. The rest of the utensils in the sink will get oily.” Renuka said as she took the dishes out of little Urmi’s hands and placed them on the brink of the sink.
Nitin rolled his eyes, “What difference does it make? All of the utensils also have to be washed right?”
“Yes, but the other utensils are not oily, right? I don’t have to spend too much time on their stains. If you put these oily dishes on them…” Renuka stopped as she observed Nitin’s expressions on the issue – “Leave it, you won’t understand and I am too tired to keep explaining now.”
She turned around to win the battle with the dishes next. Urmi, her five-year old walked out of the kitchen and went back to playing with her dolls.
Times were such that Renuka was barely getting the time for even forty winks these days. Her back hurt as she stood bending over the sink, washing the vessels in the kitchen. When she was done, weariness ached in her feet next and she heaved an audible sigh as she sat down heavily on the couch in the living room.
“I didn’t mop the house yesterday as well. Oh God!” She thought and sighed again. “Who decided that these were all moral responsibilities of the woman in the house? Cook, sweep, mop, clean the dishes, the clothes? Screw those ancestors!” She poured a bottle-cap-full of disinfectant in a bucket of water and began scrubbing the floor with the mop agitated with her thoughts. Her back hurt even more and this time she felt the pain in her knee joints as well.
Just when she had finished mopping the floor and was about to change for bed, she heard a jarring sound. She rushed out of the kitchen at once only to find splintered shards of glass on the floor. The vase from the dining table had powdered down to pieces and Urmi stood just a few steps away from the fiasco. Nitin hurried out of the bathroom as he heard the din.
Exasperated at the sight, Renuka rushed forward and slapped Urmi across her face, “I just mopped the floor! Didn’t you see that? Haven’t you seen how tired Mamma gets everyday doing all this tripe? Or have you lost your eyes as well now, along with your tongue?” Renuka snapped and flung another slap on the sobbing little girl.
Nitin rushed ahead and pulled Urmi away from being attacked again by her mother, “Renuka! What’s wrong with you? It’s just a vase.”
“Yeah, right! It’s just a vase! What about me? Who am I? Am I just a house-maid? Cleaning up your twaddle all the time?” Renuka jumped down his throat.
“Just leave it to me, I’ll clean up that mess.” Nitin squelched. He knelt down and hugged Urmi who was repeatedly nodding and pointing out towards the clutter on the floor. “It’s okay beta. Did any of the glass shards hurt you? Go take your doll to bed now.”
Urmi walked away, still sobbing as she took a last look at the mess on the floor and at her mother with a self-piteous frown.
The exertion of the whole day had taken a toll on Renuka. Today was the third day in a row that she had raised her hand on her five-year old daughter Urmi.
Renuka wondered – Had the poor child been able to speak, she may have said only one thing – I hate Mamma! A tear rolled down her cheek and few goose bumps stood up on her neck as she wondered how she had just imagined her child would have sounded.
Urmi had lost her voice at the age of two when she had experienced a rather vivid nightmare. The girl had sleepwalked out of their house and ventured into the nearby area of land overgrown with tangled vegetation. By the time Renuka and Nitin had realised that Urmi was not in the house, the little girl had woken up amidst the dense jungle. The darkness around her had made her blood run cold. When she heard her parents calling out to her name hard by, she attempted to respond to their call, vainly. The angst had squeezed the voice out of the child.
When Renuka and Nitin finally came to her rescue, Urmi shook like a leaf. They took almost a week to apprehend that the child had sleepwalked out of the house when it happened again on the fourth day after the incident – this time as Renuka had made sure to double-latch the door, Urmi stood near the door and kept fidgeting with one of the latches. The sound awoke Nitin and the couple rushed her back to Dr. Nadkarni who had done a medical check on Urmi, a week ago when she had lost her voice.
“It’s a case of somnambulism. You just need to be vigilant – but this may go away as she grows up.”
Renuka was employed as a medical worker in Gadge Hospital in Yelur. The village had seen an increase in the number of Covid patients in the last few days. The staff had been trained to handle not just the physical requirements of sanitization of the patients and themselves; but also tutored to manage the emotional well-being of the patients. There was panic amongst the patients and their families.
The running around at the hospital, the relentless rituals of sterilizing the equipment therein, the tiresome addressal of the emotions of patients who needed constant reassurances about their health; followed by the errands at home – had all begun to wear her down.
“Suman was shifted to the ICU today” Renuka told Nitin as they got ready for bed time.
“Mr. Deshmukh’s daughter?” Nitin asked. “That’s terrible. He seems to be going through a roof-crash of misfortune these days. His wife’s naulakkha is missing!”
“Arre deva!” Renuka exclaimed. “Lata must be more worried more about that necklace rather than her poor little step daughter now. Mr. Deshmukh should never have married Lata.”
“That woman has accused Chandu of having stolen the necklace. The police raided Chandu’s house this afternoon – of course they did not find anything. Poor man! I hope that woman does not make Mr. Deshmukh fire Chandu. With Krishnatai hospitalised right now, it would be a really bad time for Chandu to lose his job.” Nitin alluded.
“Krishnatai was narrating a story to Suman this afternoon. The girl was so lost in the story. They have developed this mother-daughter kind of bond in the last few days. Grandmother and granddaughter, I should say. Krishnatai was so miffed when we moved her to the ICU in the evening. She was cursing Lata all the time, to have not taken care of the child as her own.” Renuka ranted. “Madhav’s grandfather passed away this morning. In the afternoon, that Yatin seth’s daughter-in-law also kicked the bucket. I am so exhausted with the images of these dead people that keep looming over my head all the time.”
Nitin moved closer to his wife and comforted her with a hug as her eyes began to well up. This had become a routine now. The new normal, as everyone called it.
Renuka began her day with yet another demise at the hospital, the next day. Krishnatai had hopped the twig in the early hours of the morning.
“But wasn’t she better yesterday? Dr. Tambe had said she could be discharged this weekend” Renuka said in disbelief when Nalini broke the news to her.
“Heart attack! I was on duty last night. Mhatari ratra bhar shivya ghalat hoti tya Lata la” Nalini sighed explaining how Krishnatai was upset with Lata about Suman.
“How’s Suman?” Renuka enquired. “Don’t let her know about Krishnatai.”
Suman’s health had worsened that day. Around noon, Dr. Tambe advised Renuka to contact Mr. Deshmukh to inform him that his daughter was at death’s door.
After being informed about his daughter’s critical condition, Mr. Deshmukh reached the hospital in no time; yet not in time to watch his daughter breathe her last. While the staff at the hospital had got habituated to watching devastated family members of the deceased patients; Renuka was disconsolate upon seeing a man of Mr. Deshmukh’s stature whining hysterically over his daughter’s lifeless form.
Towards the end of every evening; Renuka would feel more tired than what she had been on the day before. The travel back home from Gadge hospital was around four kilometres. Renuka would ride her bicycle back and forth. Due to the lockdown, the streets of Yelur would mostly be deserted by 9 p.m. these days; but she had got inured to this setting. Her mind was run through with the visuals of the people back at the Covid ward. That was more disturbing to her than the starkness of the night.
She thought about Urmi as she continued to paddle along the shadows of the trees that fell on the road. She promised herself that come what may, she will not shout at her daughter or beat her up today. On the spur of the moment she saw in her mind’s eye, the limp body of Suman. She watched as the father of the child bawled over the loss of his only daughter. In a split second, the man’s face flashed in front of her eyes.
A waft of air blew the sheet that covered the body of the girl off her face.
Renuka stopped cycling at once and shook her head vigorously to wipe out the images. A long week of leaves, that’s what she needed; she told herself.
As she began to ride her bicycle again and reached the narrow lane, just a few meters away from home; she came across a huge branch of tree that lay heavily in the middle of her way. She looked around. The path was surrounded by trees. For the first time in the last twenty minutes, Renuka became sentient about her surrounds. The night sounded unnerving. The stridulating of the crickets was rather loud and while there was only just a puff of breeze now and then, the trees sounded pretty loud with their whispers tonight.
The street was dimly lit. Renuka moved ahead and tried to push the log of wood out of her way but it was too hefty for her might. After a long minute of trying ineffectively, she walked back to her bicycle and decided to lift it over the log to cross this hurdle. With great difficulty, she managed to heave her bicycle across the barrier. As she jumped over the log to the other side, she brushed the dust from touching the branch off her palms and hauled up her bicycle from the ground. She began to walk ahead homewards but got pulled at once by a force that she did not reckon and she let out a frightened squeak in that instant.
She turned around and gathered that a thread of her dupatta had got caught in the wedge of the log. She pulled at her dupatta and started to walk back home, tugging her bicycle alongside. Just as she reached towards the end of the lane, she looked behind her – her thoughts wondering where the log had come from as none of the trees in the vicinity familiar to her had been cut down.
Terror gripped her, the moment her eyes showed her a vacant lane. The enormous piece of wood had vanished. One moment ago, she had struggled to move that massive log of wood out of her way without success, and now the thing just did not exist. She looked around herself but couldn’t find anybody.
“Who’s there?” she asked, surprised at the tremor in her voice.
Beads of sweat began to roll down her forehead. She could barely feel her limbs. Fear makes most people do what Renuka began to do next. She stood still and began to chant prayers. The air around her suddenly began to feel cold even as sweat dribbled down her back.
“Who’s there?” she asked again, gathering courage at the end of her prayer.
A street dog showed up as he trotted out of the dark with a bark or two, in response to Renuka’s question. She was familiar with the dog and it also snuffled and brushed against Renuka’s feet in acknowledgment to the acquaintance. In a snap however, the dog turned his attention towards the lane from where the log had just disappeared and began to bark frenetically, while cantering towards something that Renuka could not see as yet. The dog appeared to look into the air at a particular distance and bark at the intruder.
Renuka did not move. She watched on with bated breath as the dog barked one instance, in a manner to attack the unknown force it had sensed, but in the next moment faltered and chickened out whining into one of the unlit by-lanes. The whining of the dog continued even as Renuka could not see it anymore from where she stood. Presently she felt a cold wisp of breeze against her ear. Her fingers could not hold the handle of her bicycle anymore. Instantaneously, the bicycle crashed down on the ground and she ran like she never had towards her house, leaving her bicycle there.
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