It was an unusual day. That dew-soaked
morning Arundhati was not alone. Leaving her house, she had seen
Mr Rawal, an officer of E-6 rank, Mr Tiwari (E-1) and Mr Mishra
(E-5) pass by in front of her house, shabbily clad, hair unkempt
and faces inwashed, tinged with sadness. They had cast furtive
sidelong glances at her house, their heads bowed.
Exactly at that moment Arundhati covered the distance between her
veranda and the tennis court in one leap. Walking briskly she overtook
the three, feigning total ignorance and pretending not to be surprised
to see them in such outfits at such an early hour. For Arundhati
had got wind of the matter. She knew there was no escape for her
until she reached the next turning and vanished from sight. Someone
might break the news at any moment and then how could she possibly
face such a situation!
Her desire to slip away from all social custom and convention like
a puff of air or a fistful of water—was that a sign of complexes
or of unsociability?
Once her quick steps had taken her beyond the colony she felt as
if someone had flung open the doors and windows of a closed room
and turned the morning into an experience of dewy freshness. Everyday
she had to cross the officers’ colony, and then staff quarters,
to reach the main road near the labourers’ colony to catch
Many in the officers’ colony did not approve of Arundhati’s
taking the road running through the staff and workers’ colony.
The hatred and discontent of the officers has led to the raising
of a wall across the rode between the staff quarters and the officers’ quarters.
The concentrated anger of the unruly children of the staff, however,
had caused the wall to be razed to the ground during the holi that
year. A new wall was built with redoubled vigour and vengeance
two or three day later. Arundhati named it the Berlin wall. At
one side people had cut a breach in somebody’s fence and
opened a pathway towards the officers’ colony. Arundhati
used that pathway everyday.
She had caught a glimpse of Mrs Rawal and Mrs Mishra through the
window as she primped infront of her dressing table just before
going out. Both seemed needlessly worried and restless – evidently
they were preparing to go somewhere. Arunshari woke Asitya up, “Hey,
get up ! Do you hear, perhaps MD’s mother passed away. I
don’t have time, I’m going. You should call on them
at least once. Rather than caring about propriety we should care
more about the fact. it would be quite tough for us to get on here
if we don’t go.”
Aditya’s eyes were instantly free from sleepiness. He realised
that Arundhati was making good her escape after passing the buck
onto him.” Why don’t you so one thing”, said
Aditya, “Just stop by their house on your way to work.”
Arundhati replied while putting the duplicate key, her hankie,
etc. in her purse, “No, I can’t go. I’m arready
late .I’ll be delayed still more if I go. What’s your
difficulty ? you don’t have to go to the office now. Besides,
you needn’t go to the office if you are going to the MD’s.”
She wondered if Aditya had gone; unless he had, the whole thing
would take on a different colour. If she were living on the other
side of the Berlin wall, she would probably not have cared about
all these niceties. They had moved to this side with Aditya’s
After the promotion Arundhati had been most eager to move to this
side. She harboured a deep grudge against her former colony. The
noise of the scantily-clad children outside as one came out of
the house, the crowd of women picking lice, the men calmly playing
cards clad in their underwears, the intimacy of betel-chewing men
barging into the house without rhyme or reason, all this was intolerable
for her. After the promotion she had pleaded with Aditya to leave
that colony, for fear her children would go astray mixing with
the uncivilized children there.
There was no vacancy, nor any possibility of one, on the officers’ colony
except for this house. Once a guest house, it had become more dilapidated
and uglier with each passing year. Besides, it was as if someone
had severed its connection to all the other houses. On the left
side of the completely secluded house was a moat-like drain, ten
to fifteen feet deep, while a hundred feet away on its right was
a tar road.
Some did not like their shifting to this side, apprehending problems
of adjustment with these people who were so full of complexes.
Others advised against shifting because, with no other house nearby,
no one would come to their rescue if their’s was broken into.
Still others imagined the house to be haunted. Despite all this
Arundhati had taken a fancy to it from the very day Aditya had
brought her by scooter to see it. He had told her, ‘Give
it a thought. You can shift if you like. But don’t blame
That was in autumn just after the rains. The house had just been
given a fresh bath when Arundhati reached there, riding pillion.
A red-coloured lonely house at the top of the hill. Each room was
like a hill. Three windows in the bedroom. There were shelves in
the kitchen for the gas oven, heater and other necessities. The
dining room was quite spacious. Arundhati felt a little unhappy
over not finding a basin stand. She instantly thought of installing
a new basin. There was a commode and a bath tub in the bathroom.
The bungalow was set in a garden of mango, neem, teak, rotha, guava
and berry. Perhaps there had been a flower garden once, but it
was now on ruins in the absence of a boundary wall. Only a few
bougainvillea creepers lay on the ground here and there. From the
veranda, beyond the slope at the foot of the hill, a lake could
be seen. Stretching your vision a little further you could catch
sight of a river.
One felt like decorating the veranda, the main attraction of the
house, with a few garden chairs. Uninhabited, it was littered with
cow dung and goat droppings.
Once Aditya had unlocked the house after picking his way through
cow dung, goat droppings and urine stains, Arundhati had exclaimed, “such
a big house ! One feels like getting list here.” She had
felt the same way on an earlier occasion, when Asitya had removed
her from her village and brought her to his work place for the
first time. Aditya had opened the lock after getting off the rickshaw.
It was like a mess with no boundary wall on front. The drawing
room literally bordered on the road. Arundhati had remarked as
she opened the door. “such a small house!” Aditya knew
it was difficult to please Arundhati, so he had preferred to remain
After entering the big house Arundhati had called out, cupping
her hands in front of her mouth, ”jhumu, jhumu,jhumu !“ the
echo was returned instantly. She had called out her son, Badsha’s
name. The four walls had called back, Badsha, Badsha.
Leaving her son and daughter to play with the echoes, she collected
tasar cocoons from the outstretched branches of the unknown, skyscraping
tree. Arundhati was not acquainted with these golden nests.
She had fallen in love with the house, despite the marks of water
seepage on the left wall on the bedroom and the unclean toilet.
She had said, “ Let’s move in on an auspicious day.”
It was indeed comforting, this move to the officers’ colony,
where there was no crowding of naked children and no rustic shouting
and swearing. Arundhati had said to Aditya, ”This probably
is the difference between this side of the Berlin wall and the
But everything has its own unique character .one is different from
the other. Arundhati was both surprised and charmed to see Mr Mishra
of UP,of E-6 rank, who lived on the other dide of the tar road,
playing with her children on her veranda the day after they shifted.
An officer of E- 6 rank had allowed her children to ride on his
back ! After all what was their locus standi?
They had just been
promoted to E-1 rank. Seeing her Mr Mishra said, “Hello!
sister–in–law. Is Sahu Saheb not at home ? “Arundhati
was pleased to hear this, though saheb didn’t go well with
Sahu. Aditya had been known as Sahu babu on the other side of the
Berlin wall. He had now become saheb after crossing the threshold
of status. Thar day Arundhati told Aditya, “Mishra Saheb
is very nice. He doesn’t have an iota of pride.“ Smiling,
Aditya replied, “It is difficult to know these people. Take
care how you relate to them.” Arundhati answered angrily, “you
are on the habit of finding fault with everything.”
Despite her disagreement with Aditya, she got to know life on this
side within a short time, and has her share of bitter experiences.
As they had come to the other side of the wall after promotion,
they were not accepted by the other officers already living there.
Arundhati couldn’t fit into their neat pecking order. Besides,
so many incidents, big and small, occurred in her life that she
felt suffocated even in open space.
One day Mrs Nauak, who happened to hail from the same district
as she, had paid a visit to her house. Arundhati hurriedly prepared
cauliflower pakoras. Picking up a pakora, Mrs Nayak said bluntly,
her nose raised, “Our children will not touch pakora without
Arundhati was in for a shock. How trivial sauce is! It was as if
someone has pricked her heart with a needle. See how easily she
was shown her place in the class divide, yet Arundhati had to swallow
her pride, although she was far more educated than Mrs Nayak.
One day Mrs Mishra started shouting at the top of her voice from
her garden at the sight of Arundhati, just back from leave, “See
how cauliflowers, radishes and carrots are disappearing from our
garden ? Why, we never knew what stealing was earlier. How dare
people do this ?” Arundhati would probably not have felt
bad even if Mrs Mishra had cried herself hoarse narrating the same
incident to her acquaintances of the road, but when she directly
accused Arundhati saying the same thing had never happened when
Mrs Behera lived next door, Arundhati was terribly hurt.
Though Aryndhari suffered the humiliation, she could not brimg
herself to say the people on the other side of the Berlin wall
were not thieves. She could not tell Mrs Mishra she had liced there
for five years and that her record was clean. She could not tell
her she had often seen her Personnel Officer neighbour’s
wife and her maid stealing vegetables from the garden.
Rather she had shrunk herself into a nutshell of civility after
all these incidents. She had told Aditya, “our house is an
island. We shall mix with the officers’ colony if we like.
If not with them, then with the senior staff. If we so like, we
can also associate with the people from the other side of the Berlin
wall.” Yet she never had rime to enjoy the natural scenery,
sitting on her beautiful veranda, except on Sunday evenings. Nor
did she have time to collect tasar cocoons from her beautiful cemented
courtyard or to peep into her neighbours’ green gardens.
However, after living on this side, Arundhati was sure at least
of one thing, that people living here were insecure. They had sold
their likes and dislikes long ago. They couldn’t even sing
or dance heartily.
It was as if everything was turn by remote control, and the remote
control was in the hands of one person, none other that the MD.
People competed with each other to curry favour with him.
Arundhati was under the impression she was free from all this.
For this reason she was not a member of the Ladies Club. For the
same reason she did not visit anyone. That she was not free, however,
was brought home to her one day when Mrs MD,on a morning walk,
had met her and asked, “how do you like this place ?” Arundhati
had been amazed and surprised to learn that she was known to Mrs
She had only made a brief reply, smiling, “Fine.”
Out house co,,ands a view of whatever takes place on your house.” Having
said this, she had smiled, and, with quick steps took the little
bridge over the moat-like drain and was gone.
Was it a winning smile ? Or was it something different? The strange
smile got entangled in her head like the loose end of a thread.
The trees formed a tight mesh around her house, but despite this
she too had come within the range of the MD’s remote control.
As a result a ban was imposed in Arundhati’s house on walking,
smiling, talking, quarrelling, disco dancing, climbing the iron
bar on the veranda lime a monkey, on lungi and vest, on naked feet,
on the bare-bodied servant and on the irrational assertion of masculinity
on the part of Aditya.
This isn’t your staff colony. Why do you howl and scream
like a savage?”
When will you learn not to eat outside? Who asked you to walk on
the ground with naked feet?”
Why mummy? Why can’t we dance and eat outside? You never
restricted us before?”
No my son, you shouldn’t act like that. There is a witch
around, she will notice you.”
What is a witch, mother?”
A witch is an evil woman. Anyway, what will you get out of this?
Only remember not to do what you are forbidden to.”
This had gradually thrown Arundhati into a situation of helpessness,
for news about what saree she wore, who visited her house, and,
whether they came by car or by Hero Honda, used to reach Mrs MD.
Mrs MD asked Arundhati as she gave her a lift in her jeep, “I
suppose you are being visited by your father.”
How did you know ?” asked Arundhati.
Mrs Mishra was telling me.”
Arundhati then understood through whose eyes Mrs MD looked at her
Perhaps that os why Arundhati felt a sense of guilt and fear of
having made good her escape despite knowing full well about the
death of Mrs MD’s mother–in-law. So she had returned
home very early that day. On reaching home she found an unusual
stillness everywhere. There was not even the buzzing of a single
fly in the colony,. The pervading gloom had reached its climax.
Arundhati had no idea how long MD’s mother had been unwell.
She had heard about it from Mrs Mishra only a week back. Mrs Mishra
had said, “Tell me what I should do. Today is papu’s
birthday. there’s no getting away from observing it. Do you
know what has happened in the meantime ? Do you know about MD’s
mother being admitted to the Cuttack hospital?”
IS that true?” asked Arundhati.
How come you are the last to know? Who do you thing is minding
his job? The civil executive engineer, Mr Rout, the accounts officer,
Mr Padhi, the personnel officer are all attending on her there.
The old lady is absolutely at her last stage. Will it be proper
to have a celebration under such circumstances? I am praying for
her to live one more day at least. Please say a prayer for me,” Mrs
Mishra had said this in a very worried tone.
Mishra Saheb’s family celebrated the birthday in their house
secretly with a few close friends. The old lady on this side of
the Berlin wall was nor yer dead, so gloom prevailed for the past
week. There was no sound of television, music or dance. There was
no evening walk in starched and ironed sarees, and no rummy at
Mrs Mishra had told her in the evening the night before,” Do
you know that the ambulance has been sent for? Ihave a feeling
the old lady is probably gone. The personnel officer came for the
ambulance; he probably went back around ten o’clock. If there
was nothing serious, why was the ambulance sent for? They might
return any moment. Get ready. We shall step out as soon as we hear
Arundhati was almost ready, dressed in a presentable saree. She
had also hurriedly cooked the evening meal of roti and curry. She
looked through the window again to see if Mrs Mishra was calling
No, no such thing happened before she went to sleep. Mrs Mishra
did not come to call her. But in the morning she knew from the
pale appearances of Rawal Saheb, Mishra Saheb and others that they
had returned in the night and the bad news had spread quickly.
Arunshati suddenly felt as if Mrs MD could see her through the
the wooded growth. She panicked. It might look bad; she should
call on them at least once.
Arundhati was setting off for the MD’s residence. Ot was
as if a sweet fragrance circulated everywhere. Mrs Mishra was drying
her wet hair. She called Arundhati over to her and said, “Perhaps
you are going to Mrd MD.”
Yes. Has the body been taken to the cemetery?”
Long ago. I have just had my bath. Still it is better you should
pay them a visit. yes. change your saree; wear a dull-coloured
saree, and, of course, slippers on your feet.”
Arundhati’s heart was pounding like mad as she approached
the gate to the MD’s residence. She found out from the watchman
that the Memsaheb was at home. While she was in a dilemma whether
to enter the hall from the veranda, the sweeper of the house came
out and enquired if she was looking for the Memsaheb. He had hardly
finished his speech when Mrs MD entered the hall with hurried feet.
She probably had a chore to attend to. The moment she saw Arundhati,
she welcomed her into the house.
Arundhati was unable to decide whether to sit down or to remain
standing. She had no idea what to say by way of consolation or
sympathy. Asking her to sit for a while and assuring Arundhati
that she wouldn’t be a moment, Mrs MD went inside. Two large
plates with salted pastry and sweets were placed on the centre
table in front of her. Arundhati had the feeling that the entire
existence of the house was reduced to those two plates.
Mrs MD came bacl after about five minutes. She had just had a bath.she
said, “Eating and sleeping have irregular for the last few
days. Besides we kept a vigil over the body for the whole of last
night. My mother-in-law was immensely fond of me. She breathed
her last only after drinking her last spoonful of water from my
hand.” Arundhati did not know why just at that very moment
she remembered somebody else’s version that while Mrs MD’s
mother-in-law was alive, she had been consigned to the servant’s
room.poinring her finger at the sweets, she asked Arundhati to
No, thank you.”
Then have some salted pastry.”
No, no.” Arundhati nodded her head in the negative.
At that moment Mrs Nayak entered, carrying something in a utensil.
Her eyes seemed swollen with excessive weeping. She did not even
look at Arundhati. “Did you light a clay lamp on a bed of
sand? A nail has to be hammered into the wall”, she said
looking at Mrs MD.
Arundhati stood up, thinking it would not be proper to stay unnecessarily
long. She said, “You must be rather busy now.
Oh Yes, I really am.”
I could have come in the morning, but I was totally in the dark
about it”, said Arundhati. She continued, “I leave
the house quite early in the morning .” Mrs MD smiled a little,
but her face then became stern
How come you didn’t know ! I thought I saw your husband here
when the body was being taken away for cremation.”
Arundhati was caught-her face flushed crimson with shame. She was
speechless. She returned home quietly. She felt as if a pair of
eyes were following her. Standing on her lovely veranda. She felt
as though a pair of eyes were watching her through the trees and
the leaves. She went in and shut the door. She had desired such
a solitary island. But then she wondered if there existed any such
island on this earth where another man had not set foot.