She fixed an irate and accusing stare as she pointed a finger at the little old woman with straggly grey hair, who stared back at her equally irate and accusing. “Anusha, who is this old woman in my room,” she shouted but there was no response. She hurried into the kitchen where Anusha was busy preparing her supper. “Anusha, come and see, there’s an old woman in my room. She wants to steal my saris and jewellery.”
“There’s no one in your room, Ma.”
“Come and see,” she insisted.
“But, Ma,” Anusha began to protest.
She came and stood right next to Anusha at the sink where she was washing the rice. “You must come and see. I don’t know why you bring all these people here. They just come to steal my things. You don’t care about your mother. Nobody cares about me. When I die, I will die alone.”
Anusha set the bowl of rice down. “All right, Ma, come; let’s go find this woman.”
“She’s in my room. What she’s doing in my room?”
She led the way in and there was the old woman staring back at her again.
“You see,” she exclaimed, pointing at the old woman, who pointed right back at her. And of all the cheek, she couldn’t believe her eyes! “Look! Look! She brought her friend.” She turned to Anusha in outrage. Then she turned back to the old woman. “What you want here? Get out of my room. This is my room. Don’t bring your friends here.”
But she could see that Anusha, who was murmuring, “All right, Ma,” and pushing her into the living room, wasn’t listening. Just because she was old, her daughter was treating her like an idiot. Anusha mustn’t think I’m a fool.
“What you doing, Anusha? You left those people in my room. They will steal everything—all my saris and jewellery.”
But Anusha, still not listening, was nudging her into a chair. “You wait here. I’m going to chase them away.”
“I’ll come too. I’ll take my saris and jewellery from them.”
But as she tried to get up, Anusha pushed her back in the chair. “Don’t worry, Ma. They won’t take your things. I won’t let them.” When Anusha went into her bedroom, she got up quickly and watched her through a crack in the door. What was Anusha doing? What was she doing with that old blanket? Then Anusha called out, “Come and see, Ma. They’ve gone.”
She went in and looked around – there was no one. Where did she go? She frowned at Anusha. My daughter thinks she’s very clever but she can’t fool me. I don’t know what she did with her, but I know that old woman is still here, somewhere, just waiting to steal my jewellery.
When she was living with her son, Aru, and his wife, Kamala, her things used to go missing there too. She knew Kamala was stealing her things and telling lies about her to Aru. That’s why he sent her away. Her son loved her but he sent her away, all because of that Kamala. Aru didn’t believe her, his own mother; he believed his wife. Even though he knew that Kamala had tried to poison her. Ya, she gave her a plate of porridge with glass sticking out on top. She wasn’t going to eat that. She ran right out of the house to show Devi what her daughter-in-law was doing to her. Devi, would believe her; her son didn’t but her daughter would. Devi lived a few streets away and she knew how to get to her house. She ran out but when she got to the corner there were so many buses, they were making her dizzy. But she had to get to Devi so she didn’t worry about the buses, she just ran. She heard brakes screeching and people shouting but she didn’t stop. When she got to Devi’s house, she banged on the door and pushed the offending plate under her daughter’s nose. “Look, Devi,” she exclaimed, “she’s trying to kill me. See, she put glass in my porridge.”
On another occasion, she saw Kamala in her room fiddling with the bedclothes. Kamala must have known that she kept her money under the mattress. When Kamala left her room, she stuffed the little money she had in a bag, and rushed out. She was taking her money to Devi for safekeeping. But the world is full of thieves. As she was hurrying to the corner, somebody grabbed her bag and when she wouldn’t let go, he hit her and as she tried to get away from him, she didn’t see the bus coming. Then she heard Kamala screaming and pulling her to the pavement. She fought with Kamala right there on the street but Kamala just held on to her and made her go back in the house.
She was so angry, she went into her room and just sat on the bed. She was not going to say one word to her daughter-in-law. She would wait for Aru. When Aru came home, she told him how his wife had tried to steal her money. And what did that Kamala say? She was just changing the bedclothes. What a liar! Then that Kamala told Aru that she had nearly caused a big accident on the street and that somebody had hit her and stolen her bag with her money and that she could have been killed. She had screamed, “Lies, lies, all lies. Your wife is trying to kill me. She took my money.” She was going to hit Kamala but her heart was beating so fast and there was such a pain in her head, she just sat down right there on the floor. The next thing she knew, the doctor was there. He gave her something and Aru took her to her bed.
After that Aru sent her away. He said she wasn’t safe in his house because of the buses and the people. But she realised he didn’t love his mother anymore. His wife had turned him against her. So he sent her to stay with Anusha, far away from him and Devi. She didn’t know this place. She didn’t know anybody in this place. She couldn’t visit anyone. This was like a jail. Anusha, her youngest daughter, was a caterer and people were in and out of her house ordering samoosas or cakes or contracting her services for weddings, birthday parties and so on. I know she wants me to help her because she can’t cook like me. But I won’t. She must stop this cooking business. Too many people come here. There’s always somebody in the sitting room and in the kitchen. This place is like a machenie.
Her saris and jewellery were not safe in this house so when people came to collect their orders, she followed close behind, watching them like a hawk. When they left, she would warn Anusha, “People come to see what you have so they can steal all your goods. I saw someone walk out with a bundle.” Then she would go into her room and begin counting her saris and jewels again.
And today she had found that old woman in her room. Anusha says she’s gone but I don’t believe her. She looked around, opened the wardrobe, looked under the bed but she didn’t see anyone. She couldn’t make head or tail of it. Better count my saris and jewels. Then she saw the blanket on the wall. That was the blanket she had spied through the door. What was it doing on the wall? She crept over, pulled it down and gasped at what she saw. The old lady! She was still here.
Mother dropped down onto her bed shaking with terror. The tabla in her chest began to beat out a very loud and arhythmic tala. She pressed her hands over her heart to stop the dreadful drumming. When Anusha called out to her that supper was ready, she just sat there paralysed. Suddenly Anusha was next to her. She looked very frightened and said she was going to call the doctor. After the doctor’s visit, Anusha put her to bed and sat with her until she fell asleep.
The next morning, when she got up, she searched the room but the old lady was nowhere to be found. She didn’t know what to think. And she couldn’t ask Anusha. Her daughter had acted very strangely, pretending that the old woman wasn’t there. Anusha mustn’t think I’m a fool; I saw her with my own eyes. Why Anusha is hiding this old woman in my room? Then it struck her. Of course! They want my saris and jewels. If only I can go to Devi and tell her. Why I came to live here, in this train station, I don’t know.
She looked around and frowned. There was something different about the room but she couldn’t figure it out. She was staring at the blank wall with the screw holes when Anusha came in and began scolding her. “Ma, why are you up? You must rest. Please, go back to bed.” Anusha took hold of her but she pushed her daughter away roughly.
“No. I want to eat. When you going to cook chicken curry? I want chicken curry.”
“But, Ma,” Anusha began, “don’t you want some nice porridge?”
“I want chicken curry. Why you don’t want to give me chicken curry? I’m starving in this house. I don’t know why you brought me here? You never cared about me. I want my son. I want to stay with my Aru.”
“All right, Ma. I’m going to cook some chicken curry. But it will take time. Won’t you have some porridge first?”
“You don’t care about me. Nobody cares about me. When I die, I will die alone.”
She let Anusha lead her into the dining room and set a cup of tea in front of her. While her daughter was busy in the kitchen preparing her breakfast, she wandered into Anusha’s room. Suddenly, a loud gasp escaped her and she dropped her cup, splashing tea over her slippers and on the carpet. The old lady was here, in Anusha’s room! She was standing there pointing an accusing finger and looking at her in horror. Anusha came running in and began pulling her away from the dressing table, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the old woman.
“Why you hiding this old woman here? Who she is to you? You look after her better than you look after me. Now you take her in your room.” There was that tabla again, pounding out its dreadful beat. She couldn’t stay in this room. She stumbled out and made for the garden. Anusha came after her and tried to take her by the arm to lead her back to her room. But she pushed her daughter off. “Don’t pretend you worried about me. Go away. I don’t want to live in this house anymore. Not with that old woman here.”
“Ma, I am going to chase her away. I don’t want her here. Please come inside and rest. Come and eat your breakfast.”
“Why you got that woman in your house? She wants to kill me.”
“No, Ma. I won’t let her touch you. I am going to chase her away. Please come inside.” She was exhausted and eventually went in to lie down. Later that day, she got up and went into Anusha’s room to look for the old lady but she couldn’t find her. I know she’s hiding here somewhere. Anusha mustn’t think she’s clever. I know she got that old woman here. She decided not to say anything but she would be vigilant.
During the next few days, while Anusha was busy with preparations for a wedding reception at the temple, she quietly alternated counting her saris and jewels with her search for the old woman. Every now and then she would see Anusha carrying stuff – looked like pictures – to the garage. What was she doing? She didn’t understand her daughter and she didn’t know why Anusha was taking better care of a strange old woman rather than her own mother. She’s starving me but she’s cooking chicken curry for that old woman. She doesn’t care about me, only about that old thief. I know she’s hiding her somewhere. But I’m going to find her.
On Sunday, Anusha wanted her to go to the wedding with her but she refused.
“But Ma, you will be alone. Who will give you your food?”
She said nothing. Her daughter didn’t care about her. Nobody cared about her. She heard Anusha telephoning around but no one wanted to come and be with her. Then she saw Anusha going next door to her neighbour. She’s going to ask those two children from next door. They just come and sit in front of the TV for hours. How they can sit like that? Why their mother don’t buy a TV? Then they can sit in their own house. She saw the teenagers, Krishna and Kanthi, coming back with Anusha and decided not to come out of her room. When Anusha came to say she was leaving, she didn’t respond.
After a while, she decided to check on her saris and jewels. When she was sure that nothing was missing, she peeped into the living room and saw Krishna and Kanthi in front of the television. Hmph! There they sitting. Like statues. She shook her head and went off to look for the old woman. She didn’t find her in the house and decided that she must be outside somewhere. She opened the back door and slipped out.
* * *
Krishna and Kanthi had settled down in front of the television and were oblivious to the world around them. When their movie ended, Krishna reminded Kanthi to warm up the meal that Anusha had prepared for her mother. While his sister was in the kitchen, he laid the table and then went back to fiddle with the TV. Kanthi dished out and went to call Mother. But Mother was not in her room. Kanthi looked in Anusha’s room, but Mother wasn’t there. The backdoor was open so she looked in the yard, but there was no one there.
“Krishna, I can’t find Parti. Have you seen her?”
“Maybe she’s in the garden,” Krishna suggested. Kanthi went to the front door and looked out.
“She’s not in the garden. Where can she be?” Kanthi was frowning.
“She must be around somewhere. You haven’t looked properly.”
“She’s not here. I can’t find her.”
“Oh man, what you so worried for? She must be here somewhere.” His sister scowled at him. “Okay, okay, I’ll help you look for her. I’m sure we’ll find her.” They searched the house together but Mother wasn’t to be found.
“Do you think she’s at our house?” Kanthi looked worried.
“But she never comes over, not even with aunty Anusha.”
“Then where is she?” Kanthi became alarmed. “What if she went out on the street? We must tell Ma.” They were hoping against hope that they would find Parti at their house even though they knew their mother would be angry with them for neglecting the old lady. But Parti was not there and their mother, who had heard the stories of Anusha’s mother wandering about on the streets when she lived with Aru, began to panic. She and the children jumped into the car and went off to scour the neighbourhood.
* * *
But mother had not left the premises.
When she slipped out of the back door, into the yard, she found the garage gaping open, it had struck her immediately. That’s where Anusha is hiding her. She knew, without the shadow of a doubt, that she would find the old woman in there. So she picked up a spade that was against the wall and advanced on the garage. She was going to get rid of the old witch once and for all. She peered into the garage but couldn’t see her. She’s very cunning; she knows I’m coming. She moved in cautiously. Where’s the old crone? She turned around and gasped. There she was against the wall. The drumbeats began to pound in her ears. The arhythmia filled her with rage and power. She lifted the spade; her every intention was to bring it down on the head of the thieving old woman confronting her.
But as she raised her weapon, so did the old woman. Her eyes, murderous and compelling, filled her with terror and paralysed her in her tracks. The old woman knew she had the advantage. She sprang and delivered a tremendous blow to the cranium. Mother felt her skull crack open and she fell limp and lifeless to the ground.