Gauran placed the keys on his dining table and walked to his room. He would usually leave a light on so that when he came home late, he wouldn’t have to struggle to find his way. This morning, he had left in a hurry forgetting to turn off the geyser switch and turn on the little lamp. He was unusually tired and as he reached his room, instead of flicking the swith, he simply threw himself on the bed. The springs squeaked violently and reminded him that it was time to get a new mattress. He closed his eyes and stretched his arms, letting out a loud yawn. He turned his head to either side to release his tense neck muscles. He felt stiff and made up his mind to have a hot shower, and though he had at first felt guilty about leaving the geyser on for the whole day, now, he was slightly pleased that he could shower without having to wait. He reached for the lamp as he opened his eyes. As soon as the light came on, he could see her standing in the corner staring at him.
He jumped in fright but then sat back as soon as he realised that she had not reacted to his fear. This wasn’t the first time he had seen her. She never said anything, nor reached for him. She just kept watching him. It was eerie, but he had in a strange way, got used to it. It startled him, then he always regained his composure. Her dishevelled hair and large eyes set over a pale face gave her an appearance of a woman who had survived a fight and then frozen amidst the rage. Many nights he slept knowing she sat at the corner of the bed watching him. She never reached out for him or made any attempt to speak to him. She often snarled or just glared at him. It terrified him when she started appearing over two months ago. Now he just watched her. She would mostly sit still, but on occasion, she had crossed the room and walked away into the darkness of the living room. She never touched any of his belongings nor did she attempt to threaten him. Her expression remained frozen, and her motive, unclear. Today, he edged past her and headed for the shower.
Once in a state of panic, he had mentioned her to his older brother, Ajay, who ended up taking it too seriously. He began enquiring after her. He wanted to know if Gauran had spoken to her and if so, what it had been about. He started coming over to visit Gauran more often and sometimes even dropped by without notice. She didn’t appear for a while then. He told Ajay that she had never appeared again. Of course he had lied. He had seen her just the previous night sitting cross-legged in his closet. It scared and annoyed him at the same time. He had slammed the door in half-panic and half-anger. He waited to see if that would get a reaction out of her. He soon fell asleep and in the morning when he opened the closet to get his shirt, she was sitting there exactly as he had left her. This didn’t frighten him and that’s how he had come upon the decision to tell Ajay that she no longer visited him.
As he showered, he began to wonder why she sat there and why she never spoke. He brushed his teeth in silence and then gently stepped out of the bathroom. She had left.
As a child, Gauran had always been looked out for by Ajay and mostly, the kids in school, left him alone. He never got bullied nor beaten. So he had felt bad lying to Ajay, but he wanted to be left alone. After mum and dad had passed away, Ajay and his wife had pestered Gauran to live with them. But Gauran saw no reason why a 48-year old man like himself had to live with another family. Besides, being older than Ajay, he was reluctant to take any favours.
He lay on his bed and was finding it difficult to fall asleep. He was tired enough but his mind was occupied with a frenzy of thoughts. He also missed his mum dearly. Besides her, Gauran was comfortable speaking with Ajay’s son, a quiet and astute adolescent. Both of them seemed to be the only people who looked him in the eye. He couldn’t understand why the others either avoided his gaze or just looked at the ground when he was around. He recalled how mum always asked him not to make friends with people who didn’t look straight into his eyes. It was difficult to make friends keeping mum’s advice in mind. It was well past midnight when he finally began to feel sleepy again. In his drowsiness he noticed that the lady with disheveled hair had reappeared and was staring at him through the window. But it didn’t bother him and he soon fell asleep.
He woke to the sound of the shrill door bell. Shoba, the house maid, came over every morning and tidied the house. She had never looked directly into his eyes and that always made him feel she was dishonest. But as far as he could tell, nothing had gone missing from his house. He began to observe that with every passing year, people got more polite or simply gave a weak smile, whenever they chanced to meet him.
Years ago, he had been a local hero of sorts. He had just moved into the apartment that he currently lived in and was returning early in the evening from his job at the local dairy. He noticed a middle-aged man in the basement seated in the driver’s seat of a white van. In itself that was not unusual, but, the man had suddenly looked away from Gauran and that had got him thinking. Why had the stranger looked away from somebody he had nothing to hide from or be dishonest about. Was it because he was worried of being recognised? This thought had occupied Gauran all night and the next morning he went to the security guards and told them about the man in the white van. It had so happened that minutes after Gauran had seen the stranger in the van, a girl from the same apartment had gone missing. From Gauran’s description of the man the security guards were able to identify who the kidnapper was and eventually led the police to him. Soon everyone in the apartment building knew about Gauran.
A few months after the girl was rescued, Gauran had spotted the same man walking upstairs towards the very floor that the young girl lived. Gauran had rushed to inform her family. The family at first, were surprised and tried to reassure him that the kidnapper was in prison. But upon Gauran’s insistence, and not wanting to take any chances, they alerted the police. The next day the girl’s father came over and told Gauran that the police had called back and confirmed that the kidnapper was still in prison. Gauran was convinced that there was something amiss, but he said nothing on that occasion. But the following week, the man showed himself again, this time following Gauran all the way to his front door. The man quietly stood there for the next two days.
Gauran was frightened and decided not to venture out. Instead he remained indoors and consistently called the girl’s father and the police. None of them came by. Two days later, when the man had left, Gauran stepped out and from then on, people were either extra polite to him or barely acknowledged his presence. He never understood.
Shoba finished her chores and left without a word. He got ready and left to the dairy. At work, he was mostly to himself. He had to help check all the tetrapaks before they were filled with milk. If there was any undulation or an imperfect edge he would press the orange button that ejected the faulty pack out of the assembly. He never got bored with his job. It was outside the factory that he felt distressed. He missed his mum dearly. When she was around, he spoke about all the things he did in a day and his mum always had something to say about every person or incident. After work, he always looked forward to sitting at the dinner table while his mum heated his food and asked him about his day. When she abruptly died, he had lost his only true friend. He began to empathise with neighbours and colleagues who had lost their mothers. Sometimes he would walk up to them and console them. They smiled politely but did not reciprocate his gesture.
On his way back home, he suddenly had the thought that there was something wrong with him. He wondered if all people were treated like the way he was. But then he looked around and felt that everybody seemed to have many friends with whom they could laugh and share stories. He slowly began to piece together that since he was singularly treated the same way by everybody, there was a certain picture people formed about him and ‘that picture’ was the same in all their eyes. He tried to step out of his body and look at himself. He found it very difficult to do. If mum was there, perhaps she could have helped. What would he look like to other people? Could they see themselves as others saw them, if they wanted to? He got tired of all this and sat down in a park and began to watch a group kids playing.
Watching the kids playing at the swing reminded him about Ajay. He saw an older girl help her younger brother onto the swing. The boy had a weaker leg so he limped. She was so scared he would fall down, that she kept running along with the swing back and forth. Gauran began to laugh and a thought suddenly crossed his mind. In that instant he realised there was indeed something wrong with him. He had known many colleagues and people in the apartment to have a sibling. But how many siblings accompanied or watched out for their brother or sister for these many years. Ajay was babysitting him, looking out for him because like the boy on the swing, he was handicapped. But what was his handicap?
His mind began to race and he impulsively rushed towards Ajay’s house. His younger brother was seated on the porch beside his son. On seeing Gauran, Ajay instantly smiled and gestured to come and join him. Gauran now hesitated to speak and began to stall. Ajay asked his son to go inside and affectionately asked Gauran to sit down beside him, while patting the floor. Gauran was finding it difficult to contain himself and he reluctantly sat down. Ajay put his arm around Gauran’s shoulder and gently asked him as to what had bothered him so much, that he had come rushing to his brother’s house on his own accord, for the first time, in many years? Urged by his younger brother to speak, Gauran asked his brother about his handicap. Ajay seemed confused at first. So Gauran explained the sight of the older girl helping her little brother onto the swing and then not letting the swing go.
Ajay was silent for a long time and then replied that after their mother passed away, Gauran had begun to ‘see’ people and that he could not differentiate between those that existed in the real world and those that were merely, characters in his mind. Ajay told Gauran that a lot of people imagined other people in their minds, but with Gauran, they became very real.
Gauran walked away from there, confused, scared and unsure of himself. Weeks later he found himself in what appeared like a hospital bed. Of the thousand thoughts that he battled with, one was the feeling that his brother had snapped the only string that had held him together.