The Caretaker

Published in Ripples by APK Publishers, an anthology of short stories by Indian women writers.

Shekharan, the peon, was furiously working across the keys of his typewriter.
“O God! This damned thing is again skipping spaces.” His voice seemed irritated and exhausted, fatigue showed in his blood-shot eyes. He carefully pulled out the sheet from the typewriter with his gnarled hands, as if it were something very precious.

It was a dark room with soot-eaten walls. His possessions were few but immaculately kept and neat. Only the table where he was working looked grimy because of the residue dripping from the oil lamp that was burning, emitting a pale yellow light that encircled the man and his object. Rest of the room lay in blackness.

It was a strange sight: a thin, balding man, with hollowed cheeks and thick glasses was poring over thick journals that spoke in technical jargons of wind velocity, atmospheric pressures and ocean currents. It was the kind of journals one would expect in the hands of a bespectacled, well-fed professor with an intellectual high forehead teaching in a class-room or preparing papers in some research and development department as a scientist.
Shekharan, in his crushed peon’s uniform hardly looked the kind. And yet, he was there and studying, forgetting his dinner that was simmering in the corner and dripping softly onto the floor, feeding a queue of ants.
Dr. R. Rajan was fumbling across his table. His study looked tornado-struck. He anxiously pulled the whole stack of files toward himself and began going through them feverishly, overturning his table-lamp and causing a paperweight to fall and shatter into a thousand pieces of glasses, sparkling like tear drops on the floor. Then he sank, his head in his hands, exasperated. What would he do? His papers were gone - the papers he had to submit the next day were gone.

Dr. Rajan worked as a scientist in the Indian Institute of Oceanography. He had joined there six months ago. He researched on ocean currents and giant waves. His current work was based on Tsunami- the under-water earthquake. He quickly called his guide Dr. Edward Thomas to ask if he had a back-up file of the missing papers on his computer, for his own computer refused to budge.
“Dr. Thomas, have I in any case, left the Tsunami papers in your study this evening while discussing it over tea?”
Sensing urgency in Rajan’s voice, Thomas’s eyes opened wide in spite of the late hour. He snapped on his bed-lamp.
“No Rajan, but, what’s the matter?”
“Dr. Thomas, the papers are missing!” There wasn’t time, or the occasion to feel guilty of being irresponsible.
“O no! Are you sure? Might they be in your cabinet or in your office?”
Thomas wasn’t sleepy anymore. His eyes were alert and his brain was working furiously.
“No Dr. Thomas. They were with me. I left my study at half past eight to have dinner. When I came back, the window was open and the room bore signs of a strange presence. Nothing valuable is gone, but, but my papers are missing… they’re stolen!”
He said the final sentence heavily and could speak no more.

Stolen… stolen! It reminded Dr. Thomas of the other two incidents. Last year Dr. Mehra’s paper on Tsunami and a year before Dr. Khanna’s papers on Tsunami were mysteriously stolen. As he was the editor-in-chief of the bi-annual journal of the institute, both had, just like Rajan, panicked and called him up. Dr. Mehra’s paper had been complete and in his office, from where they were stolen. They were anonymously mailed to Dr. Thomas after a week. Something similar had happened in Dr. Khanna’s case.
Edward Thomas’s brain was full and buzzing at the mysterious lost-and-found games.
“Hello.. Dr. Thomas, are you there?” Rajan’s voice seemed broken.
“Yes.. Yes, I’m sorry... I kind of drifted away.” Replied Thomas distractedly.
“I wanted to ask, sir, if the Tsunami file is stored on your computer.” It was Rajan’s last ray of hope. If the data, observations, calculations and results were available, he would stay up for the next few nights and rewrite the whole thesis.
“I think so. Relax, Rajan. I’ll mail your file to you. See whatever can be done. I’ll give you more time of course. In case you need help you can come over.” Thomas’s words were like fingers soothing the creases on Rajans’ forehead. He felt immense gratitude.
“Thank you, sir. Good night.”

Forgetting the phone dangling down the side-table, Thomas threw back his covers, pulled on his dressing-gown and lit a cigarette. He paced his balcony ignoring the chilly droughts lashing him like a whip.

“Both times the papers were gone. But both times they were anonymously returned, rather mailed directly to me without stamps or address. If it were a conspiracy, same papers should have been published elsewhere under spurious names. But nothing of the sort happened. Dr. Mehra had even been nominated for the international award for his outstanding findings. No one tried to steal his credit.”

Deep in thought, poking his mind for the umpteenth time, going over the last two incidents, Thomas lighted his fourth cigarette. In the dead of the night the man was invisible, so were the rings of smoke rising lightly and dissolving into the cold air, like the different possibilities the creature creating them formed and discarded in his mind. He was only a dot of fire moving to and fro, like that one object in his mind- to solve the Tsunami paper riddle.

His chin held between his thumb and index finger, propping against the railing of his balcony, Thomas saw the seam of the sky tear open revealing a pink-gold on the horizon. Dawn broke and cheerful orange streamers fluttering from the fireball of the January sun plunged the world into a new day. And like the dawn, suddenly Thomas remembered something.
January2009, the year before - the day the journal had come out, Dr. Mehra had come to Thomas’s office clutching a copy. He had opened his article ‘Tsunami 2004’ and placed it in front of Dr. Thomas. Puzzled, Dr. Thomas had looked up from the pages to find Dr. Mehra’s eyes bewildered. Amused, yes, but bewildered.
“Did you notice something in my papers when they came to you?” asked Dr. Mehra softly.
“Like what, Dr. Mehra?”
“There are a few changes in my original work. There are new data, new calculations and new findings. The last part is not mine. But indeed, it is some great mind that has worked it out.” Mehra had spoken slowly, emphasizing every word.
“Strange, very strange. Are you sure?” Now Thomas had appeared as bewildered.
“Absolutely. I can show you my rewritten thesis. I’ve never had this new concept at all. It is not mine.” Mehra spoke clearly and truthfully.
“Ok Dr. Mehra, but keep this to yourself. We’ll not tell others about this. It might bring the wrong kind of publicity to the Institute and our Journal. Only when someone claims that the work is his, we’ll need to see what can be done. But do not talk about this with anyone.”
Dr. Mehra had retired that July and no claims had been made yet. Khanna had also told him of some changes in his work but hadn’t spoken of new findings. Perhaps he was enjoying the compliments that came his way.

By the time the sun had risen fully, Thomas made up his mind. “Let the plan work. Please God, just let the plan work”, he prayed.
He drove to the post-office earlier than the working hours. He waited for some time before Raja, the postman who delivered letters at the Institute came whistling.
“Good morning, Raja” greeted Thomas merrily.
“Morning, sahib.” Raja was disconcerted for a moment when the otherwise grave Dr. Thomas cheerfully wished him.
“I need your help, Raja, a small favour.”
“Yes sir. Whatever I can do.” Raja replied, clumsily climbing off_h bicycle.
“My mailbox in the office is broken. All the letters fall off the broken bottom and I sometimes lose valuable mail. Please deliver all my mail in Dr. R. Rajan’s mailbox for the next few days.”
Raja took the fifty rupee note from Dr. Thomas’s fingers and grinning widely repeated, “Dr. R. Rajan. Sure, sir, no problem, I’ll do that.”
“Thanks, Raja. I’ll inform you when my mailbox is mended”, shouted Thomas as he drove away.

Thomas then went to the electronics shop and bought a sophisticated, ultra-sensitive alarm. Now, the action was strange, and the happiness in his red, puffed-up eyes looked stranger and he looked little mad, perhaps out of excitement and expectation together.
He was late for his class that day and he seemed distracted. His tongue slipped a dozen times and he banged into walls and cabinets all day.
He waited for something to happen all day and for the next few days. All his work seemed futile when Rajan came into his office a week after the burglary to say that he had nearly completed the rewriting and that his papers would be ready in the next couple of days. He kept the first half of the papers titled ‘Tsunami 2004: A New Insight’ on Thomas’s desk and left.

Thomas inwardly prayed for something to happen. He decided that he would not go home that night, as he had done for the past few nights.

Shekharan, the peon, was checking all the cabins and locking them after switching off the lights. He seemed distracted and preoccupied as he hurried homeward after handing over the keys to the night watchman.

Thomas drifted into sleep around midnight, still praying for something to happen. He was woken by an alarm screeching in the building and the racket created by the slamming shut of the exits.
“Yes! Got him!” he shouted in glee as he ran toward his mailbox. The mailboxes were on the wall under the stairs, right at the entrance.
The watchman also reached the source of noise and finding Thomas there gave a full military salute. But Thomas’s eyes were fixed on Shekharan who was standing with a thick white envelope half stuffed into Thomas’s mailbox. He stood stupefied with wide fearful eyes.
Thomas inwardly thanked the device and alarm system for working effectively as he snatched the envelope from the peon’s hands, tore it open and stared at “Tsunami 2004: A New Insight” in disbelief before switching off the alarm.
The peon, still as a statue did not understand what had made the alarm go off as he had pushed the papers into the mailbox.
“Shekharan, is it you? Why? Was it you who stole Dr. Mehra’s papers and Dr. Khanna’s? But no, it can’t be. They were edited in an outstanding way.”
Shekharan, now fully aware of the situation finally found his voice.
“Yes sir, it was me.” He said quietly.
“Why, Shekharan? How?” Thomas managed to squeak.
Shekharan, on being caught and asked decided to talk to Thomas. “Sir I’ve collected lot of information on Tsunami, especially the one that hit eleven nations in 2004. I have been attending the Open Evening Classes of the Institute and doing my own research. I wanted to share the latest findings so that the best preventive measures could be designed and people don’t suffer like the lakhs that did in December 2004. Who would have taken an undergraduate peon seriously? So I decided to publish my findings under eminent names.”
“Why, that’s commendable, certainly. But Shekharan.. I mean… well, you’re right but…” Thomas could not talk coherently. He was undoubtedly impressed, but all the same, this was unprecedented!
“Sir, let me tell you something about me. Before coming and settling here, I lived in Nagapattinam. I lived with my wife and my 18 year old son Ramesh. He was a champion athlete. That morning on December 26,2004 he went to the beach to run. My house was a few metres away from the sea and a little high up. I saw my son proudly as he jogged toward the water. I saw him run and that was the last thing he ever did. Before I could comprehend, a huge wall of water came and crashed all over the place. My son was being pulled into the sea. I stood stupefied, could not move. Tried shouting, could not speak. Frozen, with my mouth hanging open, I saw my son’s head bobbing for a second over water before I ran. But the crowd running in opposite direction knocked me over. I was trampled over by frightened people running for their lives. “Where’s my son?” was the last thought before I fainted. When I revived, I was on my bed and my wife sat crying.
“Ramesh”, I shouted and ran out of my house. What I saw made my stomach turn. There was nothing but the sea everywhere. No houses, no people. Our house was saved because of being at some height. Dead bodies littered the beach. I ran from corpse to corpse. Ramesh was not there. Two days later, rescue-workers brought back his bloated body. My wife saw his body and died of shock. I lost both of them in that one instant.” Shekharan’s voice shook and faded.
He spoke in a stronger voice, “It is then that I decided that I will not mourn endlessly. I did not want people to keep suffering like that. So I came here and worked for the Institute. I studied day and night. Whenever someone researched on Tsunami, I wanted to give all that I had.”
Thomas was speechless. He held the old man’s shoulders. Silent tears on Shekharan’s creased face made, for the first time look 58. The peon turned and walked away.
Thomas watched the exhausted steps of the old man who had indeed been the ‘caretaker’ throughout. He hadn’t realized perhaps that his head was bowed and his joined hands paid tribute to the man walking quietly away.

1 comment:

  1. I see your future as writer very bright.. All the best for all your endurance u take as writer!!!