It is a truth universally acknowledged that once a man gets married, his wife alone decides his life path. Rohan was not going to be an exception to this rule, unless some unknown external force decided to intervene.
The auto roared to life and sped through the chilly winter morning towards its destination: Percussion. The occupants of the auto rickshaw, a couple in their twenties, huddled together covering themselves with a woollen shawl.
The man asked the auto driver how much time it would take to reach. The auto driver mumbled incoherently to which the man grumbled something about rude Bangloreans and went back to the warm cocoon created by the woollen shawl thrust by his overbearing mother at the railway station after a teary farewell. The couple continued to snooze till they reached their destination.
A huge white residential complex loomed ahead when the auto pulled into the parking lot. A smartly dressed security guy ran up and asked them the mandated questions and put the auto through a cursory check before waving them in. The worldly belongings of the newly married couple were few. Some thrust by well-meaning relatives and some belonging to the man, Rohan Subramaniam. They had shifted from Chennai to Bangalore to escape the onslaught of relatives and start their married life, peacefully.
Rohan’s wife, Usha, had grown up in Bangalore and wanted to return to the city after living with her in-laws for three months. Some women in Rohan’s mother’s neighborhood called it the handiwork of the crafty daughter-in-law.
Rohan had agreed to this arrangement provided they looked for a flat close to his work place and not where Usha’s parents stayed, somewhere near Banashankari. Usha agreed immediately. With the Namma Metro, Usha didn’t have any worries in meeting her folks.
The couple found this 3BHK cozy and Usha loved it immediately. After paying the down payment, Rohan and Usha moved from Chennai to their new home in Percussion.
‘Rohan and Usha's’, the nameplate proudly proclaimed, cheerfully welcoming any visitor to the cozy corner flat: No 4.
Rohan resumed his work two days after shifting to Bangalore. Usha got busy setting up the house. She had not planned to resume working for the next two months. Usha had quit her job with IBM after getting engaged to Rohan. She had asked for a transfer to Chennai but was turned down. Eventually, the couple had to move to Bangalore and Usha had spoken to her Manager and was promised her old job after two months. She decided to put this time to use by setting up the house and hiring a cook and a domestic help.
Bangalore was at its best in winter. December dawned slowly and with the New Year some occupants of the apartment went off for their annual vacations. Usha’s life fell into a routine. She would get up early to make breakfast and lunch for Rohan and settle with her laptop till afternoon. After having her lunch, she would bathe and take a stroll to buy some vegetables and groceries. During that time Usha would also chit chat with the other occupants on her floor and use the gym if she felt like it.
She would then make some coffee and sit in the balcony staring at the almost dilapidated building opposite to their complex, 'Jyoti Mata Home for the Disabled and Elderly'. A four-storeyed building with a small vegetable garden with 20-25 inmates huddled together on the terrace helped by nurses in starched white uniforms and ill-fitting white shoes. Usha would stare at them till it was time for the inmates to get back inside for their evening prayers and supper. By 7 pm it was lights out.
Daily, the routine was same. Monotonous, thought Usha drawing a strange energy from the mundane acts of the elderly almost invalid inmates of the home. After a couple of days of insistent staring, Usha knew the routine of each inmate on the second floor, which was at eye level of her balcony. Strangely, none of the inmates looked at her. Maybe they were too lost inside their heads and in some strange dimensions that they had stopped caring about the external world, Usha surmised.
But, one day she caught herself wishing for at least one inmate to turn and stare back at her, defying her, challenging her to try and cross the invisible barrier that separated Usha and the inmates. However, they continued living in their worlds, seemingly unconcerned with a stranger peering voyeuristically into their closeted lives. Usha found herself beginning to dream about the inmates.
In one such dream, one inmate, an old Punjabi woman, climbed over the railing of the balcony and jumped into the well in the garden. Usha ran to help her out. She ran out of her house, through the parking, out on the street, climbed over the padlocked gates, and into the garden, screaming in Tamil to save the old woman. But, no one came. When Usha looked down into the well, she found a very familiar face staring back at her. Her face. When she realized that she was looking at her reflection, Usha would wake up. She repeatedly saw this dream for a few days. Usha wondered about her state of mind. She had stopped talking to Rohan about things that had initially mattered to them such as latest movies, relatives and their incessant gossip, rants about Rohan’s mother, and so on.
Usha just kept quiet.
She continued doing everything she was expected to do, but stopped talking.
Rohan realized after a few weeks that his wife had not spoken to him for more than a month. He felt stunned when he tried to recall the last decent conversation they had had. It was almost eight months since they had moved to Bangalore and Usha had not asked Rohan to take her to her parents’ house or even invited them over. It was indeed weird given the fact that Usha had never got along with Rohan’s mother and had openly declared that she wanted to go live with her parents and that Rohan also should accompany her. Rohan had meekly agreed after promising his mother that he would handle it in his own way. But, this silent Usha was freaking Rohan out.
He knew how to handle screaming women. He had lived with his mother and aunts. But, a silent brooding woman was alien. Rohan decided to intervene and figure out what had gone awry. That evening he decided to surprise his wife. He bought her favorite flowers, take away from her favourite restaurant, and some wine. He let himself in and decided to surprise her. When Rohan walked into the silent and dark house, he found Usha sitting in the balcony with a cup in her hand. She was staring at something. Rohan tiptoed silently and closed her eyes from behind. A shrill scream left her lips and Usha hit Rohan hard with something she had been holding in her hand. A bat!
Rohan just about managed to save his skull from getting battered and shouted for her to stop. “Usha Usha, it is me, Rohan, stop!”
Usha stopped immediately and stared at him for a few seconds before going back to her staring. Rohan looked around, puzzled at her reaction. He touched her shoulder.
'Usha? I am home baby. Want to go catch a movie? See what I got for you?'
Usha continued to stare ahead. Rohan craned his neck to see what she was watching so intently. He followed her line of vision and saw two old men struggling to keep their canes straight. A nurse in a white uniform was holding them by their arms and making them walk up and down the corridor.
'Usha?' Rohan tried to shake his wife out of her reverie.
'Rohan, do you know how wide and how long this balcony is?' Usha asked suddenly turning towards him.
'I will tell you. It is 5 feet by 3 feet.' Usha replied and went back to staring at the two old men.
Rohan decided to give her a break and went inside to keep the food and arranged the flowers in a vase. In the kitchen, he noticed that Usha had not cooked any food.
Had she eaten lunch?
'Baby, what did you have for lunch?' Rohan asked, carrying a cup of coffee to the balcony and standing next to Usha.
'I didn’t eat lunch. I don’t eat lunch.' Usha replied in a monotone. The set face sent a shiver down Rohan’s spine.
'Usha, come inside baby, it is pretty cold here. It is not good for your sinus. Come sweety, come.' Rohan cooed, pulling his wife’s arm. He realized Usha had lost a lot of weight and her arm had become thinner than he remembered.
God! What had he been doing all these days? Was she ill?
'I am beyond sinus. I am just fine. You go inside. I will come in at 8:32.' Usha turned and replied.
Rohan felt as if someone had punched him hard.
What on earth did she mean by that!?
Rohan gave up after a few tries and went in with his coffee. He decided to catch up on news and updated his blog. While Rohan was busy, Usha came in and locked the balcony. She then went to take a shower and when she emerged, Rohan saw a remarkable change in her.
'Hi baby, how did you arrive so early today? Whats your plan, you naughty boy?' Usha teased, planting a wet sloppy kiss on his lips. Rohan sighed and thanked his stars. His wife was normal again!
'Nothing sweety, I was getting very bored with the routine and I was feeling very guilty that I had not taken you out anywhere. We must plan a vacation babe. Why don’t we look at a few places and then we can book tickets, what do you say?' Rohan asked caressing her hair. They made love like two crazy rabbits and Rohan felt peaceful thinking about Usha’s strange behaviour. After their session, they decided to look at some vacation spots. Usha looked excited with the plan and they spent the next hour discussing places to visit over a weekend. After finalizing the dates, they had their dinner and settled to watch a movie on NetFlix.
When the clock struck ten, Usha ran outside, opened the balcony door and stood there. Totally surprised by this sudden turn of mood, Rohan rushed behind her to see what had invoked this reaction. Usha was standing silently in the same place Rohan had found her, staring at an old man hopping around on the corridor. Rohan looked at his wife and back at the old man in total bewilderment.
Why the fuck was she staring at an old man? That too, at 10 in the night!
'He is not supposed to be out, Rohan. He should be in bed. Hope he won’t try to jump.' Usha spoke so suddenly, Rohan jumped out of his skin.
'Baby, what are you blabbering? Can we please go inside? I am freezing!' Rohan tried pulling his wife inside. Usha shook her arm free and kept staring at the old man. When the old man went inside his room and locked the door, Usha turned and sat down on a chair, and said, 'Poor man, he hasn’t gathered courage to do it today. He will get it eventually.' She then slid down and sat on her knees. She bent her head and closed her eyes, praying. Rohan shook her and asked, 'Baby, what are you doing? I am totally confused. Why are you behaving strangely?'
'Rohan, go inside. Leave me alone with them. I will come inside in 3.5 minutes.' Usha said and smiled. Rohan felt a chill run down his spine. He imagined his pretty wife being possessed by an evil spirit.
He felt scared and decided to do something about it. He went inside and called his mother, who asked him hundred odd questions before suggesting a counsellor who was also Rohan’s cousin. This cousin was single and lived somewhere close by, his mother informed. Rohan loved his mother’s practical approach to life. Never once did she suggest that Usha might be mad and that Rohan should find another wife. Feeling better, Rohan called up the counsellor cousin and fixed an appointment for Friday. Today was Wednesday.
Rohan waited for Usha to come back. He tried to recall if he had noticed her erratic behaviour in the past few weeks. He could not. Actually, since he was busy with his calls and work, he had ignored her totally and he would not have noticed even if Usha had been busy standing in the balcony. Rohan felt miserable? Had he somehow pushed his wife towards madness? If he had cared enough...
Usha came in just then and things became almost normal.
Rohan went to work the next day thinking about the turn of events at home. When he placed his ID card at the card reader, it let out a sound and the security guy came over to check. In frustration, Rohan kicked the door. A sharp pain shot up his ankle. When Rohan put his foot down, he was able to walk normally so he ignored it. The security guy helped Rohan enter the premises after noting down his ID card number and employee ID. He had a fleeting thought, have I been fired?
As Rohan was about to settle in his seat, the HR Manager came over and asked if they could chat. Rohan instinctively knew he had been fired. It was happening all over. He did some quick calculations and realized he could carry on for at least 3-4 months without a job. He also mentally thanked his stars for having regularly backed up all his data on his hard disk. Rohan realized that he had some browsing history on his laptop. But, now he couldn’t do anything about it. The HR manager took his laptop and handed over the relieving letter after Rohan sent the forced resignation email. When Rohan stepped out of the meeting room, he found several team mates huddled in a corner. Rohan went over and learned from his friends about the reason for the decision. One of his friends had already landed a job and urged Rohan to apply at the same place. Rohan felt tired and decided to leave. When Rohan returned, he found Usha cleaning the house. When had she become like this? Hadn’t he asked her to appoint a maid? Rohan wondered keeping his lunch bag on the sofa.
'Baby...we need to talk. I will make you some coffee. Meanwhile, you freshen up.' Usha said and vanished inside the kitchen. Rohan looked at her stunned. When Usha handed him his coffee, Rohan said, 'Usha, I need to tell you something...'
'I know. You have been laid off. I heard and I immediately called up my Manager and asked if I could join from tomorrow.' Usha said without batting an eyelid.
Rohan spilt coffee on his shirt when he heard this.
'Don’t be surprised sweety, I know everything. They told me.' Usha said, smiling benignly.
'Now, don’t look so confused. You will get a new job in 2.5 weeks. Till then you just chill and take care of...that sprain. I will go to work from tomorrow.'
'Sprain? What sprain?' Rohan said and got up from the sofa only to fall back with a loud scream. 'Ushaaa, my leg!'
'Baby...I just told you to be careful!' Usha said rushing to help him get up.
'How did you know I had sprained my leg and when did I sprain it?' Rohan asked as she helped him to the bed. 'I just know...' Usha said.
Usha rejoined her office and took the metro to work. Rohan started applying for jobs and got called for a couple of interviews. It took a few days for Rohan’s sprain to heal while Rohan kept himself busy by working on his coding skills and staring at the old age home.
After a week or so, Rohan found himself falling into a routine. He would get up when the cook came and after Usha left for work. He would make some coffee and sit in the balcony staring at the elderly inmates. When the cook left, Rohan would update his blog and complete an online course. Then after having lunch, he would settle back in his chair and observe. Usha would return at 8. By then the cook would have left after making dinner. Usha would serve dinner for the both of them and they would eat silently, sitting in the balcony and observing.
'Old man from door no. 6 will jump.' Usha said.
'Nope, you are wrong; it is the turn of old woman from door no. 8.' Rohan said and smiled as they heard a splash sound in the distance followed by screams and shouts.
Jyoti Mata Home for the Disabled and Elderly, Door no 11, 10.00pm
'What is the status of observer no. 412?' The man in the mask asked.
'Diluted, Sir. We have two new observers.' The diminutive man said bowing low.
'I know, the couple from no. 4. Let them be. We will decide in a week or two what needs to be done. They are quite resistant I must say. Quite sharp and have caught up pretty fast, eh?'
'Should we get new people Sir?'
'For 412? Nah, let us wait. No. 4 will help us. The guy’s mother will move into 412 soon.'
'Rohan, why don’t we call your mother and ask her to come stay with us?' Usha suggested.
'Usha, that is a great idea. I was thinking of renting out the next door flat. You know 412 is empty now.' Rohan said and Usha nodded.
They continued to stare ahead.