It was getting colder. The onset of winter, and to think that it was only October. But out here in Munnar, it was always cold.
Gazing out of the window, Saraswati amma, as everyone fondly called her, could see fog enveloping the tea plantations all around. She was petite and rounded. Of late, her eyes felt glazed. The cataract surgery for her left eye had been due a month ago. The workers seemed to have gone home early today.
It was her idea, to come and settle in Munnar after retirement. They had sold off their house in Thrissur and some property too. Parameshwaran Nair had unwillingly given in to her persuasion. Or had she been outright stubborn? Didn’t matter anymore. Her children were not happy with the decision. What with them being so far away, they wanted their parents shifted to a flat in Kochi. A flat! The very thought of being enclosed in a small space, sharing walls with strangers irked her.
She fell in love with this house as soon as she stepped into it. It probably was the windows that did it – large French windows with beautiful frames. There was a fireplace even! Then there was a tiny garden upfront. The view from the bedroom was beautiful – she had of course chosen it as hers. You could see the sun setting over the hills. They had been happy there.
Parameshwaran Nair had passed two years ago, yet she decided to stay on. She had help, ofcourse. There was Neeli who came every weekend – to clean the place, make beds. There was always a little bit of dust here and there, some cobwebs on the ceiling, even after Neeli ‘cleaned’. Domestic help was so hard to get these days, so she held herself back from complaining too much. Then there was Velappan, the gardener. He was a drunk, but very good at his job. Loved plants and talked to them even.
She watched the sun slowly go down behind the hills. She wasn’t feeling very well. Maybe she had forgotten her blood pressure medicines? She couldn’t recall. There were guests today, Velappan and Neeli had mentioned. She went around the house, checking if the bed sheets were clean, the bathrooms scrubbed and the water heaters working.
Fatigue washed over her, as she yawned. She wanted to creep into bed, rub her feet with some of that oil, a concoction Neeli had given her, and sleep. Yet she decided to wait up until the guests arrived and exchange pleasantries. She had always been this gracious hostess. Rude otherwise, she thought. Why were they getting so late? Had they lost their way?
At around 9.30 or so, she heard the keys rattle and the door opening. Velappan must have handed them the keys. He knew she slept early on some days. She opened the bedroom door a little and took a peak- Two men, hefty and tall, entered. The idea of exchanging pleasantries now took a backseat in her mind. On some nights, when there were guests, Velappan’s son Kannan came over to sleep. He wasn’t there today. Exams or something, Velappan had mumbled.
She made a mental note to herself, to tell Velappan only to let in families hereafter. Not that there were any valuables in the house, but can’t trust anyone these days.
Resignedly, she decided to go to bed. The Hellos could wait until morning. Somehow, sleep evaded her. She tossed and turned. Was it something about those men that bothered her? Or was it her aching calf muscles? Smoke from cigarettes wafted into her room. Again she got up and opened the door a bit. The door creaked a little. The hinges needed oiling – another mental note. The creak caught one of the men’s attention, and he looked up. She quickly moved aside, but then he got distracted. There was alcohol- Of course Velappan had sourced it. They spoke in hushed voices. Were they planning something? Or was she just being plain paranoid?
How embarrassing to have been almost caught spying secretly on your tenant. Parameshwaran Nair would have chided her if he was here. It had been his idea, to let the bungalow out to tourists. For him, more than a source of additional income, it had been for company’s sake. He was a social being. Always surrounded himself with friends and family. Loved to talk. She on the other hand was a loner. Always had been one.
In fact, the day Parameshwaran Nair died, they had guests. He was sitting with them, narrating tales from his childhood in Madurai, when the pain struck. And that had been it. Not much of a struggle, no suffering. Didn’t even make it halfway to the hospital. Soon after, her children had taken her with them to Houston. It was all good for a while, grandchildren and all. But she longed for her own space somehow. She longed to be back home.
Pressing her ear against the door, she listened intently. No sounds at all. No hushed whispers even. She had locked the door, just in case. Were they secretly lurking outside her door? Were they on the other side of the door, ears pressed against it too? Was that a shadow moving outside her window? She quickly walked over and drew the curtains.
Never again, she vowed. No more guests- No families, no groups of men, no one. It was so cold anymore. Was she sweating? She glanced over at the old cuckoo clock – it was just about two in the morning. The sun wouldn’t be up over the plantations until at least five. Not a wink of sleep. Her body stiff from the stress, she closed her eyes tightly and prayed.
“Where are you from, Sir?”, The old man asked, folding his newspaper and took a long drag from his beedi. It was really cold The two layers that they had thought would suffice were proving otherwise now. “We work in Kochi, but we’re actually from Varkala and Kozhikode.” Tiju and Sumesh were regular techies, and roommates. This trip had been an impromptu one. Both had set out on their bikes in the evening and gotten here by night.
Their tea had gone cold. “Where are you staying here, in Munnar?” The old man was curious. Not really. He made his living out of the meager commission that home stays and tourist guides paid him. “Oh! At that homestay, Spice Valley? A couple of kilometers up this road, to the right.” Tiju explained. “Ah! Velappan must have taken you there, right?” The woman running the shop joined in the conversation, bringing them another glass of tea. “Belonged to a kind couple. The man passed away few years ago. The children are away, far off somewhere. Took their mother with them, but somehow she always wanted to come back here, I guess. Six months ago or so, she passed away in that foreign land. They didn’t even come down to cremate her. Poor soul.”
Gazing out of her bedroom window, Saraswati Amma watched the sun slowly go down behind the hills.