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The Neighbour

The girl heard them come towards the house. She was scared. She knew that her old grandfather could not protect her...

Author: Sigrun Srivastava > Illustrations by Subir Roy

Last Updated On: Thursday, April 05, 2007

 

The mob came down the road; it came- a group of infuriated men - roaring; dancing; kicking; at everything in their way. The men cried, "Get them all! The cowards have to pay with their blood." Many of them were drunk. They did not know what they were doing.

The girl heard them come towards the house. She was scared. She knew that her old grandfather could not protect her. Nobody could help them, she thought, nobody but god. She closed her eyes and began to pray, but the words of the familiar prayer would not come to her mind.

"Grandfather", she whispered, "Grandfather?"
The old man turned towards her. In the darkness of the room she could not see his face and groped for his hand. The old man took her little hand and pressed it reassuringly. Then he pulled her towards him and put his frail arms protectively around her small shoulders.

"Do not worry, bitia-rani," he whispered, "God is with us. Whatever happens, it is his will."

The girl felt a tight knot of rise in her throat. Tears sprang into her eyes. She wiped them off with the back of her hand and cried out," It is not fair, Grandfather, it is just not fair. Why do they come for us? We have done them no harm. We are not responsible for what happened at the other end of the town. Why do they harm us? We are their neighbors, their friends."

The old man sighed," These men out in the street tonight are neither our neighbors nor our friends. They are ruthless, misled fanatics driven by frustration and by personal grievances against society or the government, or a community. They start this rioting, looting and killing. Today it is us, tomorrow someone else."

But Grandfather, they… they…."

The old man pulled the girl's face against his shoulders. "Tshhhh," he said gently," do not worry. Maybe they will pass us."

With pounding heart the listened in to the night. She could hear the mob draw closer and closer; they come advancing towards their house. It was a small, simple cement construction, sandwiched between drab, identical building on either side. There was a tiny patch of grass between the dilapidated wooden gate and the front door. A row of pink and yellow gladioli, all neatly tied to sticks, stretched along the boundary wall. Tutu, their neighbor's eighteen-year-old son, had given her the flower bulbs and taught her about gardening and growing flowers. The girl liked Tutu. She admired him. How she wished he was here now. Tutu would help them, he certainly would. He would not let them die.

"Grandfather," whispered," Let us call Tutu. He…"

"Tshhhh, bitia-rani, tshhh," answered the old man.

The girl fell silent. She buried her face in her hands and in broken whispers she began to pray, "Let them pass, dear God, let them pass. If you help me now, promise never to lie, never to fight. I will be good, I promise, I will. But please, help us now. Let them pass."

But the mob did not pass. It stopped in front of the old man's house. A man kicked the gate open and rushed towards the entrance. There were thirty of them ,armed with lathis, axes and iron bars. They hammered at the door and bawled, "Open up, you dirty cowards. Open up in fright. "Grandfather, Grandfather," she pleaded, "please do something. They are coming. They are breaking the door in."

"Hide, bitia-rani, hide, "urged the old man and hobbled to his feet painfully. "Hide somewhere, anywhere… under the bed, behind the door. Oh God, oh God, where do we hide?" In panic and desperation he stared around the familiar room, not knowing which way to turn.

"Grandfather, Grandfather," called out the girl softly, "come here behind the almirah. Come quickly or they will find us."

"Bitia-rani," cried the helpless old man as he blindly groped his way through the dark.

The girl was by his side in a flash. Taking him by the hand she guided him towards the almirah. She pushed him into the gap between the almirah and the wall and then she squeezed herself in facing the door. Her heart beat loudly and painfully in her chest. "Dear God," she prayed once more, "help me, please." Behind her she heard her grandfather's rapid breathing. He coughed, a harsh dry racking sound.

"Grandfather," the girl begged, "don't cough now , please. They will find us."

"Yes, yes," answered the old man, trying his best to control the sudden urge to cough, "yes."

An outburst of frenzied uproar from the crowd at the entrance sent fresh shivers of fear down the girl's spine. She held her breath and listened to the blows of iron bars that pounded against the wood, again and again. And then the door gave way and crashed against the wall. The small house seemed to tremble as the mob poured headlong in to the drawing room, overturning chairs, breaking glasses hitting mindlessly at everything within their reach. The man were yelling, "Get the cowards! Get them."

And above all these voices rang out one, loud and clear and laden with hatred, "come out, you traitors, come out, before we come and get you."

The girl's heart missed a beat. She gulped and sidled closer towards her grandfather. It could not be true! It could not. This voice she knew, knew it only too well. The same voice had told her only the other day, "Why, look at your dahlias, my little princess, they are bigger than mine. Next week some of our snapdragon seedlings will be ready. You can have some if you like." The voice had been kind and warm and the hand that patted her hair had a gentle touch. But now that very same voice was full of brutality. It was Tutu's voice, Tutu, their neighbor's son-Tutu, her friend. So her grandfather was right, oh, so right! Neighbors had turned into foes and they were here to kill them.

Fear seized the girl, fear and despair. She knew she was lost.

There was nobody who would help, nobody she could turn to now. And pressing her hands to her face the girl began to pray. For the first time that night, the prayer welled up from deep inside her and the words almost forced themselves over her lips.

"Search the rooms," thundered the same voice. "They must be at home. They are hiding, the skunks, but we will find them."

The voice came closer, came towards the bedroom. The door was kicked open and silhouetted against the drawing room light stood a tall young man-Tutu, the neighbor's son. He switched on the torch. Its beam searched through the dark room. It crept over the floor and under the bed, it zigzagged over the wall towards the window, glided down the curtains and traveled on. The young man took a step forward, then another. He did not speak a ward, but the girl could hear his heavy breathing, as he advanced closer and closer.

Behind her, the girl felt her grandfather fighting off another coughing fit. "Not now, Grandfather," she prayed, "not now."

The old man pressed his hand over his mouth in an attempt to choke off the rasping sound. But in vain. The young man heard him. He spun around and focused the beam on the old man's face. Blinded by the sudden light, the old man shielded his face with his arms, coughing pitifully all the while. Shrinking away from the intruder, the girl stared unbelievingly at him.

"Tutu," she whispered, "Tutu." Hot angry tears sprang into her eyes and before she knew what she was doing she was out of the hiding place and had hurled herself at the young man, hammering at his chest with her small fists.

"Leave my grandfather! Leave him alone," she sobbed.

With a swift movement of his arm the young man caught the struggling girl, clamped a tight hand over her mouth. Then he kicked at the furniture, overturned the cot and smashed the lamp.

Drawn by the noise and turmoil two man appeared in the doorway.

"What is happening?" one of them roared. "Have you got them?"

The girl held her breath, going limp in the young man's arms. With his back to the door, Tutu shouted over his shoulder, "Nobody here! Get upstairs, quick, they might be upstairs, the cowards," and he kicked the steel trunk with full force towards the door.

The two man jumped back as the trunk hurled towards them, turned and rushed up the stairs.

The moment they were gone the young man released the pressure around the girl's shoulder and whispered, "Listen to me with care, princess. You must get out of here as fast as you can. Climb through the window and get into the service lane through the rear door. Fast, girl, get going. My mother is waiting for you. Our back door is open."

"Tutu, oh, Tutu," cried the girl, "Tutu, but…you…you… What will happen to Grandfather?"

"I will take care of him, go now, girl, run!" the young man urged her and lifted her over the window-sill. "Run four your life."

With a soft thud the girl landed safely on the ground and was over at the back door in a second. She opened the door and stepped into the service lane. Behind her she could hear the mob rampage through the room. She stopped in her tracks. Grandfather. What would happen to Grandfather? She could not leave him, could she? But Tutu's words hammered inside her head: "Run, girl, run for your life."

The girl ran on; she tripped over rubbish and discarded kitchen waste. But on she ran till she reached the narrow beam of light that fell into the lane through a doorway. With trembling hands she opened the door and sobbing with exhaustion, she fell into the arms of a waiting woman. The woman drew the trembling girl close and whispered into the girl's hair, "Thank God, you are alive. We were so worried about you and your grandfather. Is he coming with Tutu?"

"I don't know," whispered the girl, "I don't know." And she began to cry.

The woman rocked her gently in her arms and said, "It is all right, it is all right. It is all over now. Let us wait for them here."

The girl did not know how long they waited, how long they listened into the night, to the sound of smashing glass, breaking wood and raucous voices filled with hatred and aggression. And then the noise died, and the mob moved on and the night was quite again.

The girl looked searchingly at the woman's face. Why had Tutu not come? Where was her grandfather?

The woman turned her face away and walked slowly towards the door. She was about to bolt it when she stopped and listened. They could hear footsteps and low whispers. There were people coming. The girl tensed. Was it them? Was it Tutu and her grandfather? She held her breath but then rushed towards the door, pulled it open and peered into the dark back lane. She could make out two figures not very far away, one leading the other. And then their low voices reached her ears.

"We are almost there, Grandfather, we have made it. I know you have lost almost everything, but you are alive."

"We are all alive, my dear boy, thanks to you," returned the old man, "you, the girl and me." And then he called into the night, "Are you there, bitia-rani?"

 

Grand father, Girl