This story was written for the second round of the ongoing NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015 with the assigned prompts being:
Genre - Ghost Story
Subject - A statue
Character - A waitress.
A thump on the door startled Rima. She had just woken up and was dragging herself across the living room to the kitchen. She opened the door to realize that the thump had been the day’s newspaper, rolled-up, as the hawker threw it with precision towards the house while passing by on his bicycle. It was early in the morning in the Indian city of Lucknow. Even through the fog and dim light of dawn, Rima saw the headline.
‘CHIEF MINISTER ANNOUNCES RS. 700 CR MEMORIAL ON MG ROAD.’
Rima stomped back into the small living room with the paper and milk packets.
“Can you believe this, Amma?” She was fuming. “I lost my job over this! What a joke!”
She flung the paper onto the center table and stomped off into the kitchen. Her mother, Lakshmi, watched helplessly.
It had been three months that Rima had lost her job. She had been in shock the day she found out, barely able to speak when she came home. Lakshmi had been concerned, “Are you fine? Come, I’ll make you hot chai, you must be tired.”
“It’s closing, Amma.”
“What’s closing, child?”
“The restaurant. Koh-i-Noor.”
“What? Are you sure? That can’t be.”
“It is! They are demolishing everything on Mahatma Gandhi Road!”
“They can’t do that! That market has been there since before I was born!”
“It’s for a government project, Amma. Everything is going!”
Rima had cried herself to sleep that night. She had been angry over the next many days. “It must be some senseless government project that takes decades for completion! They cleared the whole market for it! Did they think about people like us?! What else can one expect from them?”
She had then hoped that it was all a mistake, that the demolition wouldn’t happen and everyone would get their jobs back. And when the newspapers had announced the start of the demolition, Lakshmi had watched as Rima went about her day mechanically, frequently staring into empty space. It was only after a photograph of the empty piece of land had appeared in the papers on the front page along with an obituary of the MG Road market that Rima had begun to gather herself.
One of those days the neighbouring Mrs. Tiwari had offered some sweet halwa brought from the temple, and a suggestion – that Rima continue Lakshmi’s work of tailoring from home. Rima had dusted the old sewing machine that day and reached out to Lakshmi’s old customers. That is what kept her busy and some money coming these days. But not enough, as they both had realized.
Presently, Lakshmi saw Rima switching on All India Radio and sitting down with the sewing machine to stitch blouses and salwar-kameez for ladies, and pretty cotton frocks for their daughters. The news came on after a while and they heard more details about the memorial project.
‘Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Smt. Jaya Devi, yesterday unveiled plans to build a memorial to social transformation in the capital, Lucknow. The memorial will include statues of social reformers and of Jaya Devi herself, as well as fifty statues of lions, the party’s election symbol. The memorial is estimated to cost 700 crore rupees. The proposed site on Mahatma Gandhi Road has already been cleared through a demolition drive that affected many old businesses and establishments.’
Rima continued stitching. Lakshmi had suffered the same drudgery for years after her husband had passed away, to make ends meet and educate Rima. Rima’s job had allowed Lakshmi to finally stop her work and tend to her own deteriorating health and increasing pain. Lakshmi hadn’t had much of an education. But Rima did and she was still doing the same work. Lakshmi couldn’t watch anymore. She decided to step out and visit the site of the memorial, a short walk away.
The last time Lakshmi had been to MG Road was when her husband was still alive. It was Diwali and they had wanted to buy earthen lamps, fruits and flowers, and show Rima the festivities and Diwali lights. At the end of the evening, they had eaten some chaat by the street, not far from Koh-i-Noor. They hadn’t been able to afford luxuries like restaurant meals, and Lakshmi had been happy to just see the restaurant from outside. Lakshmi remembered her initial hesitation in letting Rima work there when Rima had spoken of it.
“Amma, there was a job posting on the college notice board today.”
“Really? What job?”
“You know the restaurant Koh-i-Noor?”
“Of course, everyone does. Why did they post a job in a women’s college?”
“They are looking for Home Science graduates. They want to welcome women. Both in the kitchen and as waitresses.”
“And you want to work at that hotel? What will people say?”
“Amma, it’s such a respected and legendary place! And they want to hire women. This is not 1970!”
“You can work in a school or a bank.”
“I’ll have to study more or give exams for schools and banks. This is an immediate job and salary.”
“I don’t know. Do what you want.”
So that’s what Rima had done and got herself a job as a waitress at Koh-i-Noor. To make Lakshmi feel comfortable about her job and workplace, Rima had taken her for a modest dinner at Koh-i-Noor after being paid the first salary. Lakshmi had come back happy and proud after seeing the plush environs of the restaurant and the genteel crowd that dined there, as also meeting some others who worked at Koh-i-Noor.
Koh-i-Noor was gone now. With the market. There was left a bare piece of land waiting for stone statues instead of real people. The memorial had taken away more than Rima’s job; it had taken away the city’s memories.
Lakshmi had to do something. She just didn’t know what. For starters, she decided to visit the site every day.
The memorial soon began to generate a different kind of buzz.
‘MUD SLIDE AT THE MEMORIAL. NO CASUALTIES.’
‘SANDSTONE PILE TOPPLES AT THE MEMORIAL. 1 INJURED.’
‘MALFUNCTION AT MEMORIAL: CRANE STALLS.’
‘2 INJURED AT THE MEMORIAL. CAUSE UNCERTAIN.’
It became the talk of the nation as well as the neighbourhood, creeping into Mrs. Tiwari and Mrs. Sharma’s late afternoon courtyard chat.
“What is with all these accidents at the memorial?”
“Very bad. It must be the Vaastu, wrong direction or something. Some of the businesses on MG Road were suffering, no?”
“Could be. They should consult an astrologer and pacify the planets.”
“What a curse on the city I tell you!”
Lakshmi had been spotting what was a semblance of satisfaction on Rima’s face when she picked up the paper every morning now. She herself kept visiting the site day after day. It gave her a sense of doing something, anything for Rima.
The prime time news on the national TV channel Doordarshan was playing as usual when Rima was cooking dinner that night. The accident-rife memorial made the headlines there as well.
‘The Prime Minister, today, expressed concern over the continued accidents at the site of the upcoming memorial in Lucknow and directed the Uttar Pradesh government to look into the matter. Chief Minister Jaya Devi is expected to visit the site tomorrow and take stock of the situation.”
And sure enough Jaya Devi came along. In her cavalcade of cars. Lakshmi was there, as usual, even before a crowd built up to get a glimpse of Jaya Devi. Temporary barricades were quickly erected and Jaya Devi stepped out of her car. As she started to walk towards the site, Lakshmi screamed out, “Minister Madam, this memorial’s foundation is made of skeletons and hungry stomachs! Stop this project before more people die!”
Jaya Devi looked to see where the voice came from and knew it was Lakshmi’s from the calm and determined look on Lakshmi’s face. Guards were angrily directed towards Lakshmi but she disappeared in the crowd. Jaya Devi collected herself and proceeded to survey the memorial site.
Only one statue had been completed with difficulty thus far, not the expected three. The bespectacled visionary father of the Indian constitution stood at one end of the site, with his right index finger pointing towards the future. Jaya Devi spoke to the workers at the site first and then proceeded towards the statue. As she looked up at the 18-ft tall statue, she heard a loud sound and saw the extended index finger of the statue crack at the knuckle and crash to the ground. Jaya Devi had jumped aside just in time but shards of sandstone flew at her from the fallen fragment. Within moments, she was whisked away by her guards.
Lakshmi had been waiting across the road for the visit to be over. Her eyes met Jaya Devi’s just as Jaya Devi got into her car. In that moment, Lakshmi found herself wishing she had a third eye like God Shiva to burn Jaya Devi to the ground.
The headline changed the next day.
‘JAYA DEVI TO MEET PEOPLE DISPLACED BY MEMORIAL.’
“See, Amma? The government finally remembered us. What a change of heart!”
Lakshmi smiled ruefully as Rima walked into the kitchen to put the milk to boil. Whether it was her words or all those accidents that had made Jaya Devi take the initiative she didn’t know. But she saw a glimmer of hope for Rima now.
Jaya Devi had decided to visit people in their own homes and that had got people gossiping that it was to win support for herself in the next election. It wasn’t long before Rima heard a knock on her door and found Jaya Devi standing there, with the whole curious neighbourhood gathered outside the gate. Rima politely invited the minister inside, as a guest should be, and offered her a seat.
Jaya Devi was just about settling into a chair to talk to Rima when she suddenly stood bolt upright, staring at a photograph of Lakshmi on the wall, next to that of Rima’s father’s. She asked Rima whose photograph it was.
“My mother’s, Madam.”
“Where is she?”
“Madam, it should be clear where she is, there is a garland on her photograph!”
“I’m sorry I didn’t…”
“She is dead, thanks to you! She had bone tuberculosis and the salary from Koh-i-Noor was paying for her medicines…until you closed it down. Her blood-and-bones were sacrificed for your statues of stone!”
Rima broke down, crying. Jaya Devi was already baffled when she saw Lakshmi appear near the door, saying, “How many more accidents must I cause? How many more lives must be sacrificed before you stop? Isn’t mine enough?”
The sight of a pale Jaya Devi fleeing Rima’s house fed the neighbourhood grapevine for days. Meanwhile, the papers announced the very next day:
‘MEMORIAL SHELVED. COMMERCIAL COMPLEX TO BE BUILT INSTEAD.’
Rima took the newspaper and stood in front of Lakshmi’s photograph, just like she had all these days, but had nothing to say. She just laid it on the table under the photograph, wiped a brimming tear and walked off into the kitchen with the milk packets.
Radios and televisions, too, announced the change to the nation.
‘In a move welcomed by the Center, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Jaya Devi has announced that a Commercial Complex will be built on MG Road to resurrect the shops demolished for building the now-shelved memorial. The employees displaced earlier will have their jobs back on completion of the project. In the meantime, a supporting pension will be provided for all such employees from the funds allocated for the memorial. The Chief Minister was unavailable for comment on the change of plans.’
Lakshmi knew then that she had done all that she could for her little girl and that Rima had a future that held more promise and possibility than Lakshmi’s life had.
Lakshmi could finally go away in peace.
Image courtesy: http://commons.wikimedia.org/