Anita chewed the tip of her scarf as she flipped through the TV channels. Her brow creased as she tried to ignore her Mother’s orders from the kitchen. She unlocked her mobile and looked for any new messages. Why does not Varun call? I can at least escape from Maa’s taunts, she thought. Her Father sitting on the adjacent sofa stared at his wise yet pampered daughter. She looked at him and raised her eyebrows in resentment. He always told her that the angry look spoiled her face, but he knew he was wrong. He had a beautiful daughter, five feet four inches in height, fair complexion, bright and big eyes that glowed in happiness or in anger. She looked more cute and attractive when she was angry, when she curled her lips and controlled herself to stay silent. She was getting married in a month, yet she carried the childish stubbornness along.
‘Anita, listen to me one last time and do as I say. I do not have any more patience to argue with you. You are going to Madhu Aunt’s house and inviting them for the wedding. Stop acting like a stubborn child. Grow up. You are getting married in two weeks,’ Lakshmi shouted from the kitchen.
‘Maa! I have work; I am yet to invite many of my own friends before I leave for Bangalore tomorrow night. If you care so much for your friends, you invite them.’
‘Good! We will do the invites. We will do the marriage shopping and arrangements and what are you going to do?’ Lakshmi shouted as she flipped the Dosa on the tawa.
‘Get married, obviously,’ Anita replied giggling.
Lakshmi entered the hall furiously with a plate in her hand. ‘You are responsible for this, pampered your daughter. Remember, people will call her a spoilt child if she behaves this way after marriage. I will be blamed being a mother. No one will talk to you ‘ she said handing over the plate to Venkat Rao.
‘Go and invite Anita. What is the problem? Madhu Aunt’s house is not far from Harini’s house. You are anyway going there,’ Venkat Rao asked his daughter.
Anita shifted on the sofa uncomfortably and started thinking. What is the big deal about going to Madhu Aunt’s house? There is no need for me to be so uncomfortable about it, she thought. She remembered Madhu Aunt’s house. It had two adjacent houses surrounded by a low-rise compound wall, a garden inside the compound with many vegetables and flower plants, and a lot of empty land on all sides of the house. That is how houses were during her childhood. There was enough of free land and the houses were not cluttered as they are now. She had spent more than a year of her childhood there when her parents shifted to the smaller portion of the two houses for rent. She was ten-year-old then and was studying in the fifth standard. It has been more than thirteen years, what is wrong if I go there once? I do not need to hide my face from anyone. She convinced herself.
‘Ok Maa, I will go,’ she said.
‘Happy now!’ Venkat Rao laughed looking at his wife.
‘Take the big invitation card,’ Lakshmi said and walked into the kitchen still pretending anger.
As she showered, Anita wondered if she has to go alone or take Harini along. No, I will go there first and then visit Harini. Madhu Aunty is a chatterbox, what if she blabbers nonsense in Harini’s presence.
She put on one of her best churidars and dressed well. She remembered how when she was a child Manu, Madhu Aunt’s daughter, used to show off her costly dresses and accessories and pose in front of her making her jealous. Wonder if that showboat also would be there. No, Maa said that she had left for US to study MS last year. She would not have returned yet. I am sure now Madhu Aunt will take up an hour filling my ears about how intelligent and brainy her daughter is. What about her Son Teju? Dad mentioned sometime back that he was studying medicine, so he must be definitely out of town. That makes the meeting easy. Meet the Aunt, invite her, give the invitation, and then jump out of the house, she thought as she left.
She hired an Auto straight for Madhu Aunt’s house. She was travelling this road after years, yet she did not have confusion guiding the driver as she often visited Harini who stayed a few blocks away. However, she had a difficult time spotting the house once she entered the street. The area had now developed. There were no empty plots and barren lands, unlike her childhood days. There were houses and constructions, some even high-rise apartments for the small town she lived in. She spotted the house finally, the only way she could recognize it was by seeing the words ‘Shanti Nilayam’ inscribed on a granite slab on the compound wall. The house exterior walls and compound wall had gathered dust. The house looked old and seemed like was not repainted for years. She gazed at the surroundings after sending off the Auto. There stood a lavish villa, next to Madhu Aunt’s house, on what was once an empty plot of land. All the plots in the street were empty when she lived here, but this plot of land carried some memories.
Years back when she along with her parents moved into this house, the house was a new construction and they were the first tenants. She loved the house. It had a spacious living room, kitchen, and bedroom. The house was much bigger than the ones she lived in earlier. She soon made friends with Manu and Teju, Manu was a year younger to her and Teju was three years younger. Both of them looked alike their mother, Manu even had her Mother’s black curly hair.
Anita played with them in the garden and sometimes with the children who lived across the street. But they did not go to the next street often, their mothers would scold them especially if they went out after twilight. ‘There are snakes in those bushes and don’t you care about the stray dogs?’ Madhu Aunt would scold. So, their play was often limited to indoors on the various board games that Manu had.
Anita soon started disliking her playtime with Manu. ‘Carry that board carefully, count the carom coins once again, there should be two spare coins; you know how costly these coins are?’
‘Maa, buy me a carom board and I want snakes and ladders too. I want the kind of board that has ludo on one side and snakes and ladders on the other side.’
‘Why Anita, you are playing with Manu’s games right? Is that not enough?’ Maa would ask.
‘But, I want my own games. That Manu boasts too much. My mother bought this game, my mother bought this dress, and these shoes are very costly. I don’t like her.’
‘Ok, I will buy you one on Sunday,’ Maa replied but did not buy. Anita’s small brain soon understood that her parents could not afford to buy all the luxuries she wished. She never realized when her dissatisfaction grew into jealousy. Every time she saw the board game of Manu’s she felt like breaking it, but she could not, Manu was always watching. Every time she saw Manu in a new dress, she wanted to tear it or the least crumble it, but she could not, Manu was wearing it. Every time she saw a new pair of slippers at Madhu Aunt’s door, she wanted to throw them. Yes, she had a chance to do, she could do when no one is watching and then her eyes fell upon the empty plot next to the house, plot full of bushes, grass and some useless shrubs and might be snakes.
‘Who is it?’ a voice called out bringing Anita back to her senses. She forgot how long she had been standing at the gate lost in her memories. The memories were not some she was fond off, so she quickly brushed them aside and opened the gate.
‘Who are you?’ It was Madhu Aunty asking standing at the door. Madhu Aunty, Anita remembered, the woman with black curly hair, the woman who wore heavily starched, printed cotton sarees, the lady who applied loads of coconut oil to straighten Manu’s hair. She did not change much. A little of her hair was greying, small wrinkles had formed under her eyes and she looked much thinner. She does not remember me, Anita wondered. How should I remind her? Is telling my name and my Mother’s name enough? Anita thought.
‘Hey! I know you. You are Lakshmi’s daughter right? Anita?’
Anita nodded. Oh No! she remembers me! What else does she remember? Will she recall the entire past and embarrass me now? I hope there is no one else at home.
‘Why are you standing there dear? Come in.’ Aunt said opening the door completely.
Anita left her sandals outside the door remembering the many pairs of slippers that she had seen at the same spot years back. I should run away, why had I even agreed to come here, she thought as she walked in.
‘Come in dear! Why are you so shy?’
Anita forced a smile on her lips and walked in. ‘How are you Aunty? How is your health?’ she asked sitting on a chair.
‘I am fine Anita, tell me about you. You are getting married soon right? I met Lakshmi other day in market. She told me.’
Thank God, I can now come straight to matter and get it done.
‘Yes Aunty, the marriage is in next month. You must come,’ she said. She took out the big invitation from her handbag and gave to Aunty.
‘Varun, A Neurologist. Must be cool! I am very happy for you.’ Aunt said reading the card. ‘I will get some coffee for you.’ Aunty got up from the chair.
‘No Aunty, I have to go, to a friend’s house.’
‘It is okay Anita, just five minutes. We can talk. Come into kitchen. We can talk while I prepare coffee,’ Aunty said walking into the kitchen. I am struck, Anita thought as she walked into the kitchen.
‘Even Teju is studying Medicine. This is his final year, you know right? Manu is in US, doing her MS.’
I hope she does not start her boasting talks again, Anita thought. These were the kind of talks that lead her to the stupid acts of her life. She regrets remembering them even now.
Anita’s jealousy had crossed boundaries one fine day when Manu displayed her new sport shoes. ‘I have sports meet coming up next week in my school, you know. I do not like to use the same school shoes. It is boring. So, Dad bought these for me.’ Anita was irritated and decided to execute her plan.
Any time of the day, she would come out of the house and check for no one in the surroundings. She would then walk to Manu’s door, pick up any slipper that comes to hand, take it and throw it into the bushes in the empty plot. She would have thrown away more than five slippers this way in the next two weeks.
‘I am sure this is the work of stray dogs,’ Madhu Aunt would tell Uncle. ‘No one, especially the kids, have sense to keep the gates locked.’
‘Do you think it is work of some thief?’
‘What will a thief do with single slipper? Talk some sense.’ Aunt would scowl.
‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Uncle would quietly sit scratching his chin.
Days passed and a sense of satisfaction was creeping into Anita’s soul seeing Manu’s sad face. She had lost her shoes and two slippers already. Every time she looked at the single slipper with a sad face, Anita would feel happy.
One day Anita came back from school and waited for her Mother to return. Her Mother taught in a small primary school, she would come back home on time but sometimes would be delayed by few minutes. Anita sat waiting for her Mother when her eyes fell upon Manu’s new school shoes. She bought new ones already, Anita thought with a grudge. She left her school bag at the door, tiptoed to Manu’s door, picked up one of the shoes, walked to the edge of the compound wall, and threw it into the bushes. Her desperateness however trapped her this time. Madhu Aunty saw her throwing the shoe from the kitchen window.
‘Anita, what was that you have thrown out?’ Madhu Aunty asked in a grave voice. Anita did not understand that she was caught red-handed and guessed that she could cover up.
‘Nothing Aunty, It is just a waste paper,’ she mumbled.
‘I don’t think it is paper. It was black in colour,’ Aunty said glancing at her door. ‘Where is Manu’s shoe? There is only one.’
Aunty was glaring at Anita now. Anita tightly held her uniform in her fists wiping the sweat drops that formed on her palms.
‘I don’t know Aunty.’ Her voice was barely out of her throat. Manu and Teju came out of the house by now.
‘What happened Maa?’ Manu asked.
‘Nothing, you wait here,’ Aunt said wearing her slippers. She opened the gate and headed to the empty plot. Anita stood dumbfounded, as still as a statue watching Aunty as she entered the empty plot, crossed into the bushes searching for the shoe. In the next ten minutes, she fished out more than ten slippers and shoes from the bushes and walked into the house crossing them.
‘Maa, who threw all these?’ Manu asked. Madhu Aunty glared at Anita, Anita bent her head down in shame scratching the ground with her toenails.
‘Anita, did you throw my shoes and slippers?’ Manu asked this time. Anita did not utter a word.
‘Manu, Teju, Walk inside!’ Aunty commanded and took them in.
Anita went back silently and sat near her door trying to imagine what worst Aunty planned for her. When Lakshmi came home after five minutes, Anita gazed at her silently; she did not go and meet her cheerfully rewinding the day’s happenings at school.
‘What happened? Why are you so silent?’ Lakshmi asked.
‘Lakshmi, will you come in for a moment. I need to talk to you,’ Madhu Aunty called Lakshmi.
Lakshmi came out after ten minutes; Anita never knew what both the mothers discussed. She waited for one of them to scold her, but no one did. Lakshmi surely shared the happening with Venkat Rao in the night. Venkat Rao walked into the bedroom and sat next to Anita who was trying hard to control her tears.
‘You surely know what you have done is wrong,’ Venkat Rao asked her. Anita did not have any words. ‘I know why you did it, but it is not correct Anita. Never do it again.’ He left the room. Anita went to sleep silently, her pillow wet with tears.
She did not go to play with Manu and Teju from then on. They never called her either. She did not play with the neighbour kids either, she once saw Manu talking to them and was sure that they were gossiping about her. After few days, when her parents told her that they would be relocating to a new house, she was sure that the decision was a result of her doing. Though she regretted, the thought that she will never face Aunty and Manu also made her happy. Her parents did stay in touch with Aunty, they lived in a small town and coincidental meetings in markets and bazaars did happen. She never met them in her life after that, now here she was after years sitting in the same house regretting her past actions.
How silly I had behaved, she thought. However, back then in her childhood, she felt every action justified. She thought that it was Manu’s fault. Manu was a proud girl, always showing off her things, and I just taught her a lesson.
‘Manu also will be getting married after six months,’ Aunty said handing her the coffee cup.
‘Thanks Aunty,’ she said taking the cup silently. She did not ask anything about Manu. One question and I will lead her to a lengthy boasting talk. Aunty continued talking.
‘The guy is an engineer, a good boy, comes from a moderate family. If Uncle were alive, he would have surely arranged for someone better. After he passed away last year, life has become difficult without him. ‘
Anita acknowledged with a weak smile. ‘There are relatives and close friends ready to help. They have already helped in funding Manu and Teju’s studies. I cannot ask for more. You know, It is not good.’
Anita wondered where the conversation was going. She never expected this conversation with Madhu Aunty.
‘Your parents attended Uncle’s funeral, your Father met me twice later too. He is the one who came up with this proposal. Your Father is a very helpful man. I will always be grateful to your parents. I will surely come to your wedding,’ Aunty said with a smile.
Anita did not have words. While she hid her face in denial, her parents did not.
‘I am sorry Aunty,’ she said.
‘No, it is Ok, you know, fate is not in our hands. He was very healthy; no one thought he will leave us so suddenly.’
Anita wanted to explain that she was saying sorry for her mistakes. However, she understood that it did not make any sense. She realized that only she carried the regret for years because she was in denial. With a small sorry and helping hand, the elders had moved on long back. She sighed and released the weight of her regret too.
‘Aunty, you must come of the wedding. I know Manu cannot. You please try to bring Teju along. It has been a long since I have seen him,’ she said. ‘Bye Aunty.’
As she wore her slippers left at the door, she glanced at the side where once stood an empty plot. The plot was not empty; it did not have the bushes and waste plants. A new house stood in the space. Anita too erased the empty plot and its memories and filled the space with a new beginning.