I was done with my pile for a day. It was 10pm already and I knocked on the Chopra's door with great difficulty. I was carrying 111 pieces of clothing. As usual, they grandson Bunty opened the door and yelled, 'Dhobi hai.' Mrs.Chopra came to the door to collect the clothes. She counted them all and paid me 300 rupees. I searched for change and managed only 20 rupees. She told me to keep the change.
As I turned to leave, she called out for me. She went inside the house and for a while I could not see what she was doing. I wasn't allowed to enter anyone's house. My job was to collect clothes outside the door and return the same ironed there itself. The Chopras had been living here for over 12 years. They moved here when Mr.Chopra got the senior manager post with the electricity board. He had worked in Chennai before he shifted here. He retired about a year back. Mrs.Chopra came back with a few bags and gave them to me. She said they were used by her grandchildren in school the previous year and they didn't need them anymore. I took it from her and thanked her and left. As I was walking downstairs, I heard Mrs.Chopra yell at Bunty for spilling water from the water can.
I walked down 5 floors and reached the gate of the building. I moved to the side to allow a nice black car enter the building. The car stopped for a moment and the driver lowered the window on the back side of the car. It was Natalia Madam. She was the fashion designer who lived on the 8th floor. She lived alone, but she had many people guests. Today she was with a new guest. He was dressed in subtle jeans and t-shirt. From his looks I guessed his age to be 28-32. But what do I know; film stars look young even when they are sixty. Natalia Madam called out for me and asked me to collect clothes and leave.
I went back to the stairs and started climbing. I heard her again. Natalia madam always called me 'bhaiya.' I had seen her with many men in the past. They were either friends, or boyfriends. I had never seen her with any woman except when her mom visited her once a year. She had been a resident of the building for over 20 years. She started her career as an assistant designer and now she was one of the top designers in the town. Her house was her workplace plus studio. She called out for me and asked me to take the elevator with her. I was not allowed to use the elevator of the building. But whenever she saw me climbing stairs she would ask me to take the elevator with her. She treated me like just another friend and never forgot to tip me. Every Diwali she would give my daughters a gift - either clothes or money. She even once visited me in my house or hut rather when I fell ill and didn't work for a week.
I joined Natalia madam and her friend in the elevator. In the light of the elevator, I could see his face even clearly. He was the model who was in many billboards above our huts in my slum. I could see how clean his face was with no spots. I looked down to avoid staring. We reached the 8th floor and I waited to close the doors. Natalia madam had one of the best looking houses in the building. She lived on the penthouse which was equal to 2 normal apartments put together.
Her apartment was different. There was no picture of God anywhere. There wasn’t any pet. Years ago she had a dog for about 3 months and when he went missing she was so shattered she didn’t buy/adopt any pet. Natalia madam came back with 3 big bags of clothes for me. She called out for me as I was still standing outside. She had no problem with me entering her home. I went in and her friend handed me the 3 bags. He then explained that one bag was for my children. I opened to see clothes inside and smiled at him and thanked Natalia madam and left.
I smiled as I walked downstairs. Lakshmi and Ponni would be very happy to see new clothes I thought. I walked downstairs and walked to the security cabin. I realized I hadn’t given back change for madam’s clothes last time. She had generously given me Rs.200 for a bill of Rs.145. I ran upstairs hoping to reach before she could lock the door. When I reached her floor I saw the elevator beeping. I closed it to make it stop and watched it go downstairs immediately. I walked to madam’s door. The door was open to my relief. I still rang the bell and called out for madam. There was no answer for 2 minutes.
I rang the bell again and waited. It was almost 5 minutes then. I was wondering why she wasn’t coming to the door. I rang the bell again and waited thinking this would be the last time. In the eerie silence, I heard a muffled voice. I tried to locate this voice near the elevator till madam answered the door. I couldn’t figure out what the voice was. I came back to madam’s door and took one step in to check. Something told me I heard it louder. I walked in confidently and called out for madam. This time the answer was a little louder. Something was wrong. There was no way madam could not go without answering the bell so long. Maybe she was bathing, but her door was open. Where was he? Why was he not answering the door? I decided not to enter then. What if he was there? What if he didn’t like it that I entered? I walked back to behind the door. I decided to return the change the next day and walked towards the stairs.
As I walked down the stairs I saw drops of blood. They were leaving a trail of course – downstairs. I for sure knew they weren’t there when I came upstairs. My heart was beating faster now. I touched one drop to check if it was blood. Well, it was. I walked down two flights of stairs to see where it leads to. The blood trail led to the elevator area on the 6th floor. The elevator’s button had blood stains on it.
The voice, the elevator door, the blood. I ran back upstairs and straight into madams flat. I ran into her bedroom and found her in a pool of blood. She was bleeding from her stomach and it looked like she was stabbed. The room looked like there was a tornado inside. Vases broken, papers thrown around, curtains on the floor, mirror broken. My mind was racing. I couldn’t decide what to do. She was the muffled voice, she was the answer to my calls. Where was he? I knew I evidently remembered his face. If I didn’t the watchman would. Now all I needed was to carry madam to the car park and then call for ambulance.
I ran to the building intercom. I dialed for security and informed them. In less than 3 minutes, the security guards were helping me carry madam to the elevator. Someone had informed the police and called for the ambulance. We reached the ground floor and got madam out of the elevator. Before we could reach the gate the ambulance arrived. Two men dressed in white carried madam and set her on the stretcher. For a minute the whole scene was white. Residents from the building were assembling to see what had happened. The police as usual arrived last. A team of 5 men ran towards the ambulance and spoke to the nurses. I looked for someone from the building to go to the hospital along with madam.
I walked to the secretary and asked him to send someone. He refused to go along or send anyone till he knew she would survive. No one was ready to accompany madam to the hospital. When the ambulance was just about to leave I jumped inside. Along with me, madam’s driver Sukri also jumped in. He held madam’s feet and cried. I was in tears. I was scared for madam.
The ambulance was really fast. The 6 minutes it took for us to reach the hospital were the longest 6 minutes of my life. Madam’s face flashed in front of my eyes. With all this, I realized that I hadn’t really thought of informing madam’s mother. I asked Sukri if he had her number. Sukri had all contacts that madam possibly had on her phone. He immediately called her mother and informed her. While he spoke, he mentioned that madam had met with an accident and was being rushed to the hospital.
We reached the hospital and the nurses and the emergency team hurried to get madam out of the ambulance. A few doctors came by and asked me how long it had been since all this happened. To me it had been like eternity. But it was just 20 minutes before that I was standing outside her door and ringing the bell. They asked me if I knew her blood group – Sukri answered immediately saying B+. The doctors checked her eyes and asked if she was a drug addict. Sukri answered with a no and said she was on high medication for a skin disease. They asked if any immediate family was around for paper work. Sukri offered to sign papers as a friend. He signed so many papers and said he will get her insurance papers from her office. Till then I had no idea madam had an office. To me her house was her workplace and studio.
By then they had wheeled madam into the emergency area. I waited outside not knowing if I could leave. After a short while the police arrived at the hospital. One of them came right up to me and asked me what had happened. I narrated the whole story to them and told them that madam was with a man and how he was missing. I was so angry. So scared. And then I started crying. I cried to the police. I told them how she had just given me a bag of clothes for my children. The policeman with the bigger moustache stopped me from crying and said madam will be fine.
I was asked to sign a few papers. They had drafted in 3 pages what I had said and I was asked to sign it. The police then sent one of them to the doctor and then asked me to accompany him to the building. I got into their van and sat. I tried to rest my head thinking and praying that madam will be fine. As I entered our building I saw the crowds flocked around in groups talking. I got out for the van walked with the police upstairs. As we came to the 8th floor I could see crowds outside madam’s apartment. There were people with cameras and notepads. They took me straight inside the house and I saw men with brushes wiping tables and chairs with white powder. When I narrated the story to the police I told them about the missing man form madam’s apartment. When I entered the bedroom I saw a group of men suited up on their mobile phones. I showed the police where I had found her. I took them to the stairs and showed them the trail of blood and where it ended. I explained how I had found the trail and returned to the house.
The senior officer asked me where I lived. I told them and then he asked another officer to give my house security. I didn’t know what was happening. I softly asked him why that was required. He said in a kind soft tone ‘Brother, you are the witness to this incident. If I lose you then we won’t be able to punish the culprit.’ I didn’t know what I had to do. After sometime they sat me down and walked around me. I was clueless.
It was late. The building lights were all on. One policeman accompanied me to my home. He walked with me. He offered me a cigarette. I refused it and walked with him. I walked home with a heavy head. I didn’t want to go home and see the worried look on my wife’s face. I was carrying the very bag madam gave me. I reached home and told my wife everything. She sobbed with her face in her hands. I asked the policeman if I could go to the hospital. He said it would be ok.
I took Munni along. I stood outside the hospital gate and prayed for a minute. As we entered, Sukri came running from the car parking. Sukri was carrying a suitcase. I caught up to his running and asked him how madam was. Sukri reached the cash counter. As we waited in the line, he said madam had lost a lot of blood. They were going to operate her early in the morning. She had survived the worst part of the incident. She needed to be operated and she needed a few stitches. Sukri told me to count some money. I lost count after Rs.10, 000. I counted Rs.10, 000s separately and gave it to Sukri ten times. He smiled and paid it at the counter. I went back to where my wife was standing. She was walking towards me saying ‘Madam is going to have an operation in the morning and then she will be alright’. I wondered at how she always knew where to find information and how quickly her sources worked. I smiled at her and asked her if we could go to the temple to pray for madam.
We walked to the public bathroom. I washed myself and changed my banian. We walked to the temple in the hospital campus. Sukri came with us. We prayed and took the prashad to the room where madam was kept. We weren’t able to see madam. Sukri was looking more peaceful now. He kept getting calls on his mobile. He was talking non-stop. He looked peaceful and hopeful now. He was waiting with us when he asked me what happened. I then realized he had no idea what happened. I narrated the story to him once again.
We fell asleep on the hospital corridors and woke around half an hour before madam’s operation. We washed up and prayed once more. Sukri and I walked around the hospital corridors for hours. After a while we bought us some food. I sent Munni home to take care of the kids. She took some food and left. We sat on the corridor outside the operation room. After a long time the doctors came out. Sukri ran to the doctor and asked him. I stood behind him and heard the doctor say she will survive. We breathed out and thanked the doctor. Sukri fell on his legs and started crying. I wiped my eyes and asked when we could see madam. He said something about being transferred to another room and left. Sukri saw how confused I looked and said we could see her the next morning.
I said a silent prayer that she be fine. I prayed for her happiness. I prayed life was never lonely for her ever again. I prayed her sins be forgiven in the blood she lost. I prayed she be blessed with a family. As I prayed I thanked God.
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