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Syndic Literary Journal


The House Next Door

By Baltimore Writer Nitin Jagdish

Introduction By The Author

Whenever she visited, my grandmother would recount Hindu myths to me.  Part of her motivation was to strengthen my ties to the Motherland.  My inability to speak the mother tongue, Kannada, and willingness to taste beef had shocked her into action.  Just as she had rehabilitated prostitutes and placed them in honest positions, so she would beat back America’s scheme to turn me into an American.

One can never break the pull of the land, though, and her hopes turned gamy.  These days, I speak Kannada like a precocious twenty-month-old and occasionally gnaw on a Reuben sandwich.  However, the myths she recounted put the fizz in my soul.  This is especially true of the one that follows.

Many centuries ago, a North Indian kingdom contracted famine.  Its king performed rites of extreme mortification to receive a boon from Shiva.  After five years, Shiva appeared and promised him one boon.  The king asked Shiva to become his groundskeeper.

His request disturbed a few right-thinking subjects, and soon the king was killed for his perceived sacrilege.  Furious, Shiva ordered the kingdom’s subjects to forget the gods and goddesses and give up their kingdom.  He warned them that he would punish any attempt to remember or return. 

The subjects founded a new kingdom in the South.  This kingdom also contracted famine.  A visiting swami who could not take the sound of children starving attempted to perform the mortification rites.  He had barely started when Shiva appeared and annihilated the kingdom and every one of its subjects.          

I have always taken comfort in that myth’s hardness, which adheres to my view of how a deity should behave.  Recently, I’ve wondered if the house next to my grandmother’s place in Bangalore nests on the site of the swami’s attempted prayer.  It would explain that house’s power to mark its inhabitants.  Its original owner tried to poison his father-in-law.  The next owner never spent a night inside.  He used the house as a rental property.  His first tenants, engineering students from Iran, were deported for their part in a riot in which two anti-Khomeini students were killed.  A few years later, a couple broke their lease after a cobra killed their son in the backyard.

Even Americans were susceptible.  I slept in that house during a particularly crowded weekend, gloating to my cousins that unlike them, I had my own room.  Later that summer, I spent time in a mental hospital after leaping face-first into traffic.                             

This story is not the story of my happy-go-lucky days, though.  This is the all- too-common story of a young girl whose soul was poked and bruised by society, and finally wormed through by a disturbance she probably never stopped praying was love.

Leela and I met during the summer she was twelve and I was ten.  Along with her mother Jyoti and younger sister Mala, was anchored at the servants’ shed found in a remote corner of my grandmother’s backyard.  Jyoti, whose teeth were permanently stained red from years of chewing paan, was my grandmother’s maid.  The girls did not work.  Seeing some promise, and hoping they would have better lives than their mother, my grandmother sent them to school, where Leela scored high marks.            

My cousins adored her.  After nibbling half of their samosas, they would bolt past the adults and hum around her, ready to play whatever game she had devised.  I kept away from those games and resented my cousins for preferring the company of a servant’s child, who could not speak English, to their American cousin who could teach them proper American games.                                    

I learned a little about Leela.  She liked the chocolates we brought from the States, but distrusted bubblegum.  Using a mechanical pencil made her more confident in her studies.  She planned to work in an office after completing school.  I was impressed, as I had no idea what I planned to do with my life.  I am on the far side of twenty, and I still have no idea.           

Reality ate through Leela’s dreams.  Distant relatives approached Jyoti with a marriage offer for Leela.  They knew a boy, Ashwin, from a good family who worked in construction.  Jyoti accepted the offer.  My grandmother pleaded with her to at least wait until Leela finished school, but Jyoti would not listen.  She had waited long enough and swore that Leela’s charms would dry up once she turned fifteen.            

And so she married.  Ashwin moved into the servant’s shed.  Relieved to see her daughter properly settled, Jyoti cast off with a laundry man who had caught her eye, bequeathing to her children all of the housekeeping duties.  Leela’s mechanical pencils went into the trash.

For reasons that remained a mystery to everyone but him and his foreman, Ashwin lost his job.  To pass the days between job-hunting, he drank.  Whenever Leela tried to cap his drinking, he beat her and fled to his brother’s.  She endured the slaps and apologies and bore him a daughter.  Jyoti, now thirty, returned briefly to care for her granddaughter and name her Sonali.  She had prayed for a grandson, and did not return when her second granddaughter, Radha, was born a year later; one disappointment was enough.

Ownership of the house next door changed hands after the cobra attack.  The new owner quickly forgot his purchase, and it grew weeds and trash.  Leela swore to the gossips that the house was haunted.  She could hear laughter strain through its walls.  A police investigation revealed that a local smuggling ring was using the house as a hideout.     

To discourage future squatters, the owner hired a caretaker, Santosh.  My grandmother’s cook said he was from Ooti while the driver had heard Mangalore.  We also heard that he was either one of the soldiers who stormed the Golden Temple back in 1984 or a former cop who took a bribe from the wrong businessman.              

I spied Santosh once.  As my mom would say, he was tall for an Indian.  He stood at the wall separating his lot from my grandmother’s, singing.  Because my Hindi was worse than my Kannada, I had no idea what he was singing, but my cousins identified it as an older film song.  He sang at Leela, who listened with eyes that watched the road as her heart waited.  When she thought nobody was looking, she passed Sonali to him.  She hopped the wall and followed Santosh into the house while Sonali giggled across the yard, collecting the dandelions she found among the old newspapers and bottles.          

My grandmother tried persuading Leela to quit Santosh.  She reminded her of family obligations.  She repeated fresh and disturbing rumors about him, and told her that the gossips would soon talk about her, too.     

Perhaps my grandmother would have prevailed if she had wagged a finger at Leela for neglecting her work.  Plates jeweled with food bits and finger smudged glasses became the norm.  Clothes would smell worse after she washed them.  Perhaps Leela would have righted herself if she had heard some of the jokes my cousins told at her expense. 

Leela became bigger than caution and drew closer to Santosh, spending nights in that house and taking Sonali with her.  Her soul pinched itself awake for those nights. The rest of the time she was, according to my cousins, a shambling travesty of her past hopes.                                                 

She was not worried when Ashwin finally confronted her.  She had a plan.  Playing matchmaker, she persuaded Mala and him that it would be best for everyone involved if they became a couple.  Mala agreed because she wanted to get Leela and Santosh away from the children.  Ashwin agreed because he knew Mala would give him whiskey money.  After that auspicious resolution, Leela and Santosh left Bangalore.  Sonali died from meningitis shortly afterwards.  

One morning, Leela answered Santosh’s prayers for a son by telling him that, on my grandmother’s advice, she had her tubes tied after Radha’s birth.  Furious, he ordered her out of their home.  My cousins insist he yanked Leela into the street by her hair and warned her that he would punish any attempt to contact him or return. 

She returned to the servant’s shed, hoping that Mala and Ashwin would shelter her.  They shunned her.  She had to learn about Sonali from my grandmother. 

Nobody heard from her until she giggled, wild-haired, across my cousin’s college campus to share some auspicious news with her.  She was pregnant with matching pairs of octuplets, all boys.  Santosh would certainly take her back.  My cousin realized the gossips were right – Leela had gone insane.  

I visited my grandmother recently.  The house next door hosted new dwellers.  They knocked down a few of its walls and added a room.  It remains to be seen, though, what the effect of this structural arithmetic will be.



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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