So what if some old man said she was going to die?
It’s not like there’s a rule that old people have to make sense all the time. In fact, as part of civilization it’s the younger generations’ duty to bear with the temperamental outbursts which old people are given to every now and then.
And as for the person who delivered the bad news of her impending demise to Indu, he was someone who lived in the streets for many years. Such a lifestyle-if it could be adorned with such a fancy term would affect anyone’s psychology.
The traffic was heavier than usual today and Indu had a lot of time to think when she got repeatedly stuck in traffic lights. The stereo in the car was in repair, otherwise the voice of the VJ and the sound of the music-always pounding rhythm, would have prevented any thoughts from straying into her mind. Not that she was completely psyched out by the memory of the old man’s prophecy: You won’t live to see the next year.No, Indu was equally amused by it.
Here is what happened. After sending her son-her only child, 12 years old with the attitude of a rockstar successfully to school that morning, Indu was reclining in the divan sofa. The mornings are always the most hectic as sending a child to school can be as intense as sending an astronaut to space-especially on the days when the child in question didn’t like to go to school, which in the case of Indu’s son, was almost every day.
So it was that she had her eyes closed, taking deep breaths and trying to clear her mind of all the thoughts- a technique she learned from a meditation lesson she once saw on the TV- when she heard the calling bell ringing. The sound of the cuckoo made her open her eyes. Praying that her errant son hasn’t come back(it has happened before) she walked to the front door. Opening it, she saw someone she would never want her son to become- an old man in tattered clothes and head full of white hair, matted because he has gone so long without washing it, a crazed look in his wide open eyes, standing just beyond the front steps. He was scratching the side of his body when she opened the door- with a meaningless grin on his face.
Indu has seen the man before. He usually comes every Sunday, begging for money or food. She has even talked with him a couple of times-that’s how she knew he had for his dwelling place the streets and that the man came from somewhere in the Northern parts of India,a place he left when famine hit and he lost all his farmland in a trap set by a greedy landlord-at least, that’s what he told her.
But this wasn’t a Sunday. At first, Indu was surprised but then she thought it stupid to think that begging has to be performed on designated days.
But it wasn’t just the day of his visit which was unusual this time. The look in his eyes was also so unlike the man’s. In fact, as far as Indu could recall, the man rarely smiled at her. He would be standing there, scratching the back of his head with a hand, a slight look of apprehension-as though he was unsure if he was doing the right thing or not- that was his usual appearance.
But today, he didn’t look unsure at all. He looked cocky.
Deciding not to mind it too much, Indu walked back inside the house and went into her bedroom. Finding some loose change that was lying on a table, she brought a few rupees out.
She was nearly shocked out of her skin when, on her way back, raising her face, she saw the old man standing in the living room. He was looking all around- especially at the walls, on the paintings that hung on the walls and the chandelier which dangled from the ceiling. Indu had the impression that more than the individual objects what the man was actually appreciating was the vastness of the space. Her late husband has left her enough money for her to continue living in this lavish house without her having to work.
Indu thought of saying something to the old man as a way of admonishment. But then, thought better of it. Suddenly, she felt that all she wanted was to be rid of the man.
Like most of us, Indu was also trained to think benevolently towards the dispossessed, but at that moment, seeing the man looking at the interior of her home with what could only be termed as lustful eyes, there wasn’t an iota of benevolence floating inside Indu’s mind.
“Here!” she said rather gruffly, extending the money to him.
The man looked at her, his grin if anything widening. “It’s such a big house you have!” he said without taking the change.
Now that she was standing close to the man, the stench of street and stale alcohol rose off him like heat waves. Indu covered her nostrils with one hand. The old man didn’t seem to notice it. He accepted the money from her. Seeing him hesitate before leaving, Indu looked up .
His grin hasn’t faded, but it has definitely come down a notch. He seemed to be contemplating about how to say something. And when he did speak, it was devoid of any excitement. Assuming the most reasonable of tones, he said:
“I know you are upset about me stepping inside your home without your permission. But, I couldn’t resist. I just needed to see what sort of place you inhabited- the insides, I mean.”
“Why is that?,” Indu asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
The man looked at her closely. The grin broadened on his lips, exposing his yellowed, half-decayed teeth more than ever before.
He now spoke in a gentle tone, he spoke like the wind, “I just felt like I wanted to see. I always get curious about such things-when the person in question is about to die soon.”
When the person in question is about to die soon..Indu juggled the words in the phrase, parsing them out of their regular syntax, but no matter how many permutations and combinations she used, she couldn’t see the sense in it.
“You must be mistaken,” she said, “You must be confusing this with some other household.”
In the same neighborhood, just three doors away from her, an old woman was on her deathbed. Indu thought that the beggar was confusing this house with that other one.
But the old man’s next words dispelled that doubt of hers: “I am not mistaken! It is you who will not make it past this year!”
More than the words, it was the laughter which rose from his throat immediately afterwards which sent shivers down Indu’s spine. The mad man’s laughter echoed inside the living room and the place suddenly felt cramped.
The laughter ended as abruptly as it rose.
“You don’t have a maid, madam?” the old man asked. He can be refined in his articulations when he wanted to. The mad gleam was in his eyes still though, as was the grin.
Indu shook her head. She realized that she was seriously getting scared now. The man was obviously mentally unstable. And just the other day, she had seen in the television images of a mad man stabbing someone to death on a street side. The news reporter said that the man wasn’t even convicted by the court since he was mentally unstable.
Only the mad and the rich go free in this world.
Indu eyed her cell phone of the diwan sofa behind the mad man. If the man makes a sudden move, will she be able to evade him and reach the sofa, get the cell, make the call to the police station and give them the location? No, she would probably have to try for the front door which was thankfully still open. Or should I retreat back to my bedroom? Thoughts of this nature were swirling inside her mind, creating a veritable vortex of confusion.
“Why, madam?” the old man asked suddenly.
“What?” Indu said, her voice quavering a little.
“Why don’t you appoint a maid? You could definitely afford it.” The man said this while jingling the loose change in his hand.
Indu wanted to tell him it was none of his business. But she didn’t want to cause anger in him. She didn’t know his tipping point, she realized. She silently cursed herself for leaving the door open while going in to get the money. “I..” she began, her throat suddenly dry, her voice raspy .”I like to take care of my son myself. But of course, a lady does come every alternate day to do the laundry and to clean the house. But there are no permanent maids.”
Hoping that that would have satisfied the old man, she looked at him. She wasn’t aware that she was holding her breath.
The old man looked at hear, steadily out of unblinking eyes. There was a moment when it looked as though he was going to pounce on her, or at least so it felt to Indu. And she was ready to scream at the top of her lungs. But the man simply shifted his weight from one leg to the other, making Indu pull back from giving the neighborhood a taste of her vocal chord’s power.
Pocketing the change in his hand, the old man pointed a finger at her and said, “That will be your last thought-Who will take care of your child after you are gone?”
And with these words, the man exited. The stench of his being lingered for a few moments more and then that too was gone.
A car honked loudly, urgently, bringing Indu out of her reverie.
The signal had changed. “Shit!” she muttered under her breath and shifted the gear, moving the car ahead. Taking the right turn that came immediately after the signal she saw a banner strung across the entrance of the lane-the words stenciled in red letters, Farewell 2015, Happy New Year!
A logo on the right bottom of the banner made it clear that it was sponsored by the very supermall to which she was driving.
It was the last day of the year and it began for Indu as usual-groggy eyed and sleepy she had made breakfast. The fact that her son’s school hasn’t reopened after the Christmas holidays meant that mornings were not that hectic these days. She could take it slow- a luxury. It also meant that her son declined to go with her to the supermarket.
“Supermarkets are for old people and little kids, ma!” the boy had said. “And I’m neither.”
“So what are you going to do?” said Indu. She suspected that he might have plans to go out with friends to play in the nearby ground.
He shrugged and said, “I think I’ll just watch some TV.”
Since her husband passed away more than three years ago, Indu has raised the kid all on her own. Occasionally, her mother would visit but she was old and the victim of a million ‘lifestyle diseases.’ She was in no position to help out her daughter, and she preferred staying with her younger daughter who lived in the city-the kind of medical care you get there cannot be replicated in the small town where Indu has her home.
Ever since Indu has taken charge of her son’s upbringing she has been worried if she was giving him too much of a leeway. She didn’t want him to be a spoilt brat but the temptation to cuddle him, to love him to the point of spoiling him was too much and she did give in to that temptation all too often.
It was only as she set out on her short trip to the supermarket that she recalled what the old man had said to her. It was while turning a curve when the sun’s rays fell right on her eyes and she was blinded for a few seconds. She heard a loud horn-like that of a truck but it took her a couple of more seconds of rapid blinking to clear her vision. Seconds in which panic set in her mind wondering if she was going to crash into an oncoming truck.
The truck passed her by peaceably enough but the memory of what the old man said more than two weeks ago came to her mind. And it stayed there like a pin stuck in a wad of sponge.
It wasn’t easy finding a parking spot at the supermarket- owing both to the fact that it was crowded and also that the supermarket never really bothered to provide enough parking space to accommodate their patrons’ cars. They knew that the nearest mall which gave the customers such product assortments was quite a way off.
After a few minutes of driving around, Indu did manage to find an empty spot. One that was about to be taken by an Opal Astra but which she comfortably beat using her humble Ford Figo.
Soon as she stepped out of the air conditioned car she was hit by a wave of heat though the sun was on the descent.
It’s as though the sun isn’t done shedding its heat on the year that’s ending, she thought. And wondered why she thought that way. Indu was never someone who gave into thinking philosophically. She was of the opinion that every moment spent thinking philosophy was a lost opportunity for making a buck or two.
Shaking her head at her own weirdness, she walked into the supermarket, the sliding doors letting her in to the house of conveniences.
There were a lot of people inside, as she expected. People doing their new year shopping. Indu herself was here to get a New Year’s Gift for one of her girlfriends. She has eyed that object before- a beautifully designed gym wrist band. It told the time but that was just peripheral. It kept track of bodily functions as you exercised and since her friend was a body building enthusiast, she was sure that she was gonna love it.
The section where they have the electronic gadgets was on the extreme left on the ground floor. But something kept Indu from turning to that direction. Something that caught her eye. She turned around to see that her suspicions were true- the old man was standing there, on the parking lot, looking inside, looking at her.
Though she had a thought to just leave him and walk towards the object to be purchased, anger suddenly seized her. It was due to the wretched old man that I am in a grumpy mood, she thought, openly acknowledging to herself for the first time that she has been in a grumpy mood that day.
Clutching her handbag(rose colored with silver buckles) firmly she walked out to the parking lot. Somewhere in the back of her mind, images of the man disappearing behind a passing car arose, just like in a movie but the man was still there when she approached him. Immediately behind where he stood was a pole on which was fixed an advertisement for a sanitary soap. Indu had half a mind to ask him to wait there for her to get the soap for him, just out of spite.
Nearing him, she saw that there was no mad gleam in his eyes anymore. Also, he was smiling at her amicably enough. If it wasn’t for the dust-smeared state of his dress and his matted hair , one would have thought he was a perfectly ordinary citizen.
The man hasn’t come around to her house after that day. Indu’s plan was to ask him about that but now that the initial anger at seeing him had evaporated and she stood close to the man who didn’t at all look crazed-only downtrodden, she realized how stupid a question that would be.
A car honked, she moved aside to make space for it and she locked eyes with the old man. She was at a complete loss as to what to say. She was thinking that she ought to bring out some money from her handbag and give it to him to save the situation when the old man spoke.
“I came to say farewell,” he said, smiling amicably. “Madness is also a way of accessing information-valid information which the so called sane are not privy to. Like your impending death, for instance.”
Indu opened her mouth to say something but then thought better. She shook her head slowly at the old man, an expression of sadness on her face, though it was contempt which was in her mind at that moment.
“You are mad!” she whispered.
The man smiled in response, “I never denied that!” he said.
Shaking her head once again, Indu managed to find some loose change from her bag which she gave to the beggar. “Please don’t come to my home anymore.” Before the man could say anything, she turned around and walked back to the supermarket.
She found the gadget she was looking for soon enough. She had to wait a few minutes for it to get gift wrapped- the queue was pretty long for gifts on this day. While she waited, she moved to the vegetable section, gazing at the different produces, seeing if she could find something exotic among them. It was her habit to cook something offbeat every now and then and she was planning to make something special that night-a vegetable she didn’t usually use would give her some space for experimentation.
But nothing caught her eye-lettuces, cabbage, carrots, onions, cucumber..it’s all the usual varieties.
It was the smell which alerted her first. But when she turned around, the old man was already pointing the gun straight at her forehead. Behind him she saw a jar of chocolates- Cadbury Bubbly which was her son’s favourite.
It all looked unreal to her, the chocolate and the veggies and the old man with the gun. How did he manage to bring the gun in? Aren’t there scanners at the entrance? She thought. But of course, they put the scanners at the exit-to check if you are carrying some stolen object out of the store.
People were screaming and running all around them. But none of the sound entered Indu’s ears-only the pounding beat of her own heart.
Looking at the old man’s eyes which were extremely calm and composed, she asked just one thing, “Why?”
The old man’s face broke into a grin, a million wrinkles forming on his skin but the hand that held the gun, held steady.
“Because,” he said, “I’m not a beggar. I am a killer!” And the sound of the gun shot mingled with that of the laughter which arose from his throat. Before consciousness left Indu for good, she had one last thought-about how she would have loved to bring a Bubbly back home to her kid, and who would take care of her dear son from now on.
The old man, aside from murdering Indu injured two others in the supermarket before he turned the gun to himself and shot himself dead. A police investigation later revealed that the man once did use to be a farmer with his own plot of land. As he had related to Indu, the land was lost due to famine and the devious scheme of a major landlord in his village. Dispossessed and abandoned by his family, the man began wandering. At some point, his tipping point was tilted.
According to a forensic psychologist who was involved in the investigation, the man was quite proud and somehow got into his head that murdering as many rich people as he could was a matter of honour for his kind. Though lacking in conclusive proof yet, the police found connections with the man and multiple murders in different parts of the country.