Monday, October 09, 2006

Number Nine Bungalow - End

Final part of the short story, Bungalow Number Nine....

Ruchi rose slowly to her feet, inching forward towards the house. Before her, the silent bungalow loomed large and frightening. The sun glinted off the windowpanes and she wondered if Death had seen her approach. The pebbles rolled and crunched under her feet, the weeds scratched her bare legs as she forced herself to walk steadily up to the front door.

Once she stumbled as she walked. She put her hands out before her. She did not fall but hit her hands against the pebbles. The lock was heavy and crushed her fingers as she hit the ground. There would be scratches, but when she looked down at her hands, there was no blood. One of her hands had touched a scorpion-grass plant, however, and began to itch. She felt tears well up in her eyes and forced herself to not wipe them off. The poisonous grass would make her eyes burn too if she took her hand up to them.

She looked back and Gompo-la was still crouching on the ground beyond the garden. He smiled at her and motioned her forward, swinging his right arm in a high, wide arc. She nodded and gathered her courage. She would tolerate the itching and pain until she got back. Then Gompo-la would find the plants to take the hurt away.

The first step up to the veranda began to creak before she remembered what Father had taught her. She removed her foot gently and then slowly replaced it, shifting her weight to tread silently. Slowly, quietly, almost holding her breath, she climbed up to the veranda.

Then swiftly stepping across the wide floorboards, she reached the door. Fumbling, nearly dropping the lock, she struggled to place it on the loop of the bolt. The door shook suddenly, banging against the frame, pulling away from her hands. Was someone trying to open it from inside? She started, her heart beating wildly and half-turned to run away. But then, she steadied herself, reaching for the bunch of keys in her pocket.

Concentrating fiercely, she found the shiny brass key, the only one in the bunch of its colour, and managed to fit it into the lock. “Om mani padme om,” she chanted under her breath, using all the strength in her arms to twist the key in the slot. The key was stuck and refused to move. She jiggled it in the lock, tugging at it, struggling to turn it. Finally, she felt the lock click shut. She tugged at it once, twice, before removing the key. For an instant, it caught in the lock again, and she had to twist it before it snapped free.

Triumphant, she turned, holding the bundle of keys up for Gompo-la to see. He jumped up and waved and laughed. She thought she knew what Father felt when his operations were over. Taking a deep breath, stifling the urge to run away from the house, she climbed steadily down the steps and walked through the garden and out on to the path. “Well done, baba, well done,” Gompo-la shouted. As she drew closer, he smiled at her solemnly and struck out his hand. Ruchi took it in hers, shaking it as she had seen Father do with his officers. “Thank you for your help on this mission, Gompo-la,” she intoned her father´s words, mimicking his tone.

Gompo-la smiled and nodded, a different gesture this time. It was a crisp duck of the head, an almost-salute that the guerrillas used to acknowledge each other. Then, he bent down and put his hands on her shoulders. “Very good,” he announced, looking solemnly, deeply, into her eyes. Ruchi was glad that his hands were strong because her legs shook with the pent-up fear and relief. He smelled different from Father, of sweat and cigarettes and of cooked meats from the kitchen. For a long moment, he stared at her, his eyes narrow and inscrutable. Then releasing her shoulders, he stepped back, rose and clicked his heels together. She looked up to see his wide grin.

Without a word, she held out her hands to him and he leaned over to inspect them, noting the red itchy rash that had sprung up on her fingers. “No problem. Behind our house there are plants that will stop the itching. You will be tip-top by the time we reach home,” he announced.

When she looked up at him, he was smiling. She laughed out loud, joyously, relieved; a laugh so infectious that he joined in. And so laughing, they began their walk back down the mountain.


When Ruchi awoke the next morning, Father had left on operations. She ate her breakfast in silence and then found a seat on the veranda, the place where she always sat to wait for his return. She knew it would be some days before Father came home, but she watched the road twisting down the hill anyway. And softly, under her breath, she chanted.

The sun was high in the sky when Gompo-la came, having finished his chores, and sat on the steps, next to her stool. They smiled at each other conspiratorially. Watching the road together, they began to chant the sacred words, the words of hope:

Om mani padme om!
He is still alive. He is still alive.
Om mani padme om....

First published in Days of Innocence: Stories for Ruskin Bond, ed. Namita Gokhale. Roli Books, New Delhi, 2002.

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