Raj walked by the window again. There was no one outside, just the alley. The alley as it was always, dark and lonely. He perched himself on the window sill, glanced in both the directions; dead end towards the right, main street towards the left and a windowless brick wall directly in front of him. He had deliberately selected this apartment. He didn’t want to see any of his neighbours rather he didn’t want anyone to see him. Assured that nobody was outside, he climbed down from the window and sat on his bed.
Pipe, he thought. His pipe was missing. He was looking for it when he felt that someone was watching him through the window. He was so sure about it that he totally forgot what he was doing. He started the search again. It was on his study table an hour earlier. He had kept it there and yet all that was on the table was a set of old books. He ran a finger on the spines of the books that he had. These were old, very old. He picked up his favourite; A Thousand Splendid Suns. He opened it and saw the yellowed pages. Ten years, he thought. Ten years had passed since the day he had first laid his hands on it. He kept it back and counted his books; seven. Only seven remained. It had cost him much, getting rid of his books. There were around seven hundred of them, his prized possessions. He remembered the day he had to part with his dear books. The café owner was reluctant at first and then happy having received so many.
"I am grateful to you. I am sure my customers will put it to good use." The old, balding man had said.
"I am sure of that." Raj had said.
"What do I do if someone wants to borrow them?"
"It is up to you now, isn’t it? They are yours. You can do whatever you deem fit."
It had been two years since he had left his hometown. He had to leave, he had no other option. The fear of being watched had intensified so much. Nearly everyone in the surrounding few kilometres of his flat knew him. He couldn’t help feeling paranoid. Then there were his habits. The neighbours never complained but he had a feeling they didn’t complain for a reason. Pipe, he remembered his pipe again.
He started looking under the table for the hundredth time. There was nothing there. He stood up and adjusted the lamp, nothing behind it as well. Behind the books, near the window, under the bed, upon it, shelves, he looked everywhere. There was not a trace of it. He picked up his box. There was nothing inside it except for a few dirty pieces of cloth, an empty matchbox and weed. He extracted the patches of cloth that weren’t usable and the matchbox to throw them in the dustbin. He saw the pipe. There it was inside the bin. He picked the old brass pipe. He must have thrown it instead of the matchbox when he had last used it. He cleaned the pipe and refilled it. He picked up another matchbox from the shelf and lit it.
What had he done to deserve this? What was his mistake? Whatever it was, he was sure Azka was not one of them. Azka was the reason he had to leave his family but he had never regretted marrying her. Azka was an orphan and he had found her in a friend's house, where she worked as a housemaid. She was a year younger than him. Simple and quiet, she had drawn Raj's attention the first time he had seen her. She was abused. He had tried asking her but she never said anything. And then he had seen it. His friend's father was the one abusing her. He had beaten him to pulp resulting into breakup with the only friend he had, a friend who he regarded as a brother. Raj had brought her home causing an instant uproar. His father had ordered her out of the house and Raj had followed her. He was 25 then. He had rented a flat where Azka was the queen. A year into the marriage and Azka was dead. Her death had remained a mystery to him, but the intervention of the orphanage authorities was a greater mystery still. Azka was turned out of the orphanage when she was 18. Then out of nowhere they had turned up at the hospital to claim her body.
"You are a Hindu. The body will be disposed by us." The warden had said.
He could do nothing but let go. He was not even able to see her for the last time.
Three years later, he had left the city. He couldn’t trust anyone. He couldn’t stand talking to anyone. He had even stopped going for meals. He would randomly choose a store to purchase snacks, careful never to repeat the same store.
And now he was here. Everything was perfect in the beginning. His job, the apartment, the non-existent neighbours, everything was exactly as he had planned before leaving his city. Soon, he had started doubting everyone, his boss, his workmates, even the man who came to deliver milk. His paranoia was on its peak. The doctor had advised him to stop smoking but then he doubted her as well. Why in the world was his doctor, Ms Amisha, supposed to resemble his dead wife?
He rubbed the bruised tattoo on his arm, the tattoo which he had got at the age of 20 but only recently he had run all over it with a blade. The wound felt unnaturally fresh and stingy after the smoke. He heard a tap on the door and got up to answer. His neighbour Mrs Gokhle stood there with a platter in her hands.
"Would you like some food dear? I cooked rice and solkadhi. It's Jeet's birthday."
"Thank you Mrs Gokhle." He stretched his hand to receive the food. Mrs. Gokhle was the only one Raj didn’t doubt.
"Have you been smoking again dear? I thought you had given up."
"Just cigarettes." Raj said placing the platter on the table.
"I can see your pipe."
"I cannot help myself."
"Meditate. You will feel relaxed."
"Raj. Priya was asking for you. Why don’t you let her talk to you?"
"Mrs Gokhle, I am married and you know that."
"And you don’t even tell me what her name was. You have to move on Raj. She is dead. You are still young and Priya is nearly the same age as you. She even has her mother convinced. Marry her. Call your family and fix everything."
"Mrs Gokhle, please. People I care about have a habit of getting hurt."
"It isn’t the same every time. Have your food and tidy the room. I'll tell her to visit you after an hour."
"Shut up. I am not listening to another word." she rebuked and left.
He did as he was told. The room was cleaned and the air was refreshed. He used his deodorant to clear the odour. As soon as he was done cleaning the burnt matches he heard another tap on the door. Priya stood there. Dressed in white, she literally looked like an angel. Her fair face was blushing and she smelled of lilies.
"Can I come in?"
"Yes, please come." He moved aside to make way and Priya entered the room.
"You have been cleaning." She said sweeping her eyes through the apartment.
"Mrs Gokhle..." "Understandable."
"You know why I am here." She said. It was not a question.
"Priya. I cannot marry you."
"Why? You don’t like me?"
"Not that. I cannot get married. Not to you, not to anyone."
"Raj, you are being foolish."
"I am not being foolish. I cannot stay with people. It terrifies me."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Priya, I am paranoid. I fear people. I doubt them. I think people around me are up to something. I think there's a plot to harm me, to murder me."
"This is insane."
"It is but I cannot help it."
"You need to trust me."
"Trust is something I long for. If I can, ever, trust anyone again, I will be the happiest man alive."
"You cannot possibly think I am here to kill you."
"I cannot help it. I know it is absurd but I always deduce connections between people. I always think people are here to know about me, to make their plans."
"Raj, I believe you. But trust me, I love you." Priya said.
It was the first time she had said it. She blushed as soon as she realised what she had said.
"I respect you Priya but I cannot be with you. I am sorry." Raj said after a long pause.
Priya sensed the dismissal and left. Raj went into the bathroom to clean the utensils Mrs Gohkle had left. He was soon carrying them to her apartment. His knock was answered within seconds.
"Did you meet her?" Mrs Gokhle asked taking the vessels.
"I explained it to her. I explained my paranoia."
"You are an idiot." Mrs Gokhle said. Jeet, her son, came out.
"Hi bhaiya!" "Hi Jeet! Happy birthday. How many candles?" "Fourteen bhaiya. You will come in the evening? We are celebrating."
"I'll see what I can do. I might have to go out. I will surely come if I am here."
"It is Sunday." Mrs Gohkle said this time, "You don’t have work today and sorry to say, you have no friends. You will come here in the evening."
Raj nodded his head, gave a weak smile and left.
Back in his room, he sat rummaging his suitcase which he kept under the bed. He found out what he was looking for. The phial was carefully secured in his sweater. He wondered if he would ever use it. He placed it back carefully and kept the suitcase back.
Evening arrived. He dressed himself to go to the party. He had just finished buttoning his shirt when he heard a knock.
"I thought you wouldn’t come." Priya said looking at his clothes.
"I thought so too."
They were at Mrs Gokhle's within a few minutes. Several guests were occupying various chairs.
"I sent Priya to see if you were ready. Judging by the time she came back, you were." Mrs Gokhle said.
"Here." Raj said handing her the packet in his hands.
"You didn’t have to do this." Mrs Gokhle said.
"It is nothing. Just one of my books. He will like it. He had an eye on it ever since he saw it."
"Give it to him yourself. Here he is."
"Where were you? We already sang the birthday song." Jeet asked.
"I was getting this ready." Raj said waving the packet.
"What is it?"
"A book." "Cannot be the one I want, can it?"
Jeet started tearing the wrapper. He stood transfixed when he saw the title.
"A Thousand Splendid Suns. Now that is some book." A familiar voice said from behind Raj. He turned to see his doctor.
"Azka, you are here. We were waiting." Mrs Gokhle said.
Raj turned to look at her. He wasn't sure what he had just heard.
"What did you call her? She is Amisha. She is my doctor."
"Oh yes! We call her Azka. It is her nickname." Mrs Gokhle replied.
He turned again to look at her doctor. There was a smile playing on her lips. A familiar smile. A smile he had adored. He dashed out of the apartment and went back to his. He closed the door behind him and for several minutes ignored the knocking. Mrs Gokhle, Jeet, Priya and even his doctor tried to persuade him to come outside. He didn’t. He couldn’t stand doubting Mrs Gokhle.
The next day Mrs Gokhle went to check on him but all she found was the lifeless body of Raj with a crystal phial near his outstretched fingers.