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Black and Grey
The night my grandmother died was stormy in more ways than one. For the first time in all my thirteen years of existence, I witnessed the arrival of each and every wing of my father’s side of the family. With nine of her siblings and all six of her childen grandmother’s bed, the stage inside was set for a thunderstorm. It started with a slight breeze outside, and a few infrequent rumbles of thunder. Within minutes, sparring members of the family were shooting daggers at each other across my grandmother’s frail body. It wasn’t long before the accusations started and lightening split the inky sky in two. Raised voices were drowned by the increasingly loud thunder and when the tears started, the tin roof vibrated with the intensity of the sudden rainfall.
An uneasy peace was maintained over the next few days. The funeral and prayer meetings all passed in a blur. I hadn’t known my grandmother very well, and my grandfather had passed away before I had been born. We used to visit her around once every couple of years and to a young boy like me these visits meant more of kicking a football around or watching the ancient television she owned, than actually enjoying the company of my grandmother.
The trouble started some fifteen days after the funeral. We should have realized something was wrong when the cook, Harilal, left without a trace the day after her death, but we didn’t. Blinded by grief, perhaps. It was only the day that her will was examined that we realized. My grandmother’s moderate life-savings in the bank had dwindled to an outrageously low figure. On further inspection, my father and uncles discovered the huge chunks of money that had been paid every few months to an unknown account in a bank that refused to divulge names. The police were called in. Faced with a warrant, the bank spilled all. “He went by the name of Harilal,” said the clerk and proceeded to describe my grandmother’s cook. The relatives cursed and blamed each other for employing someone like that ‘filthy bastard’ two and a half years ago. Cold wars and not-so-cold wars were in full swing again.
I was too young to be told the technicalities, but from what information I gleaned from overheard conversations, I managed to figure out that charges could not be pressed. There was no proof that he had threatened my grandmother for the money, and anyway, he was nowhere to be found. Like my grandmother, he seemed to have disappeared off the very face of the planet.
Gradually, the relatives started leaving and the fights reduced with every departure. There were still a few people in the house and my mother employed a temporary cook till everyone left. There was no domestic help and I was given the unpleasant chore of cleaning out Harilal’s quarters for the new cook for the simple reason that neither my father nor my uncles were particularly inclined to go within ten feet of that ‘lying piece of scum’s’ place.
His quarters consisted of a small room and an attached bathroom, the latter of which was absolutely bare. He had taken everything from there, but the main room was in a horrible mess, indicating that he had left in a hurry. Holding my nose between my thumb and index finger, I made a face and picked up three smelly shirts that I threw outside into the large cardboard box provided for that purpose. A pair of equally stinky shoes followed. He had taken the rest of his clothes with him. His bedcover and bed sheets soon found their way into the cardboard box too, along with a rotten old pack of cigarettes that I decided against trying out. The rest of his worldly possessions, as well, were dispensed of in this unceremonious way.
Just when I thought the room was finally empty, I perceived a flash of bright green under the bed. It turned out to be the corner of a pile of magazines that refused to respond to my repeated pulling and stayed fixed where they were. Anxious to get over and done with it, I gave the bed a hard push and moved it to free the magazines. There was a little box behind them that had been preventing them from being dragged out.
It was a small ornately carved wooden box that smelled faintly of sandalwood, and was extremely out of place under the bed in the servant’s quarter. It had a small latch that was not locked. I opened it. It housed a bunch of yellowing papers. Taking them into the sunlight, I examined them closely. A quick look confirmed that they were love letters, and were dated 1949. They were definitely not Harilal’s.
I started reading the first one and realized, with a slight start, that they were addressed to my grandmother. I skimmed through it, trying not to let my curiosity overcome inherent decency. It was four pages long and was written in a long, slanty sort of handwriting that I took to belong to the grandfather I had never met. But once I reached the end of the letter, every hair on my body sprung to attention and I felt an eerie prickling down my spine. The letter had not been signed by my grandfather, but I recognized the name all the same. It was his brother’s.
My brain worked overtime. Unconnected words floated in and out of my mind at warp speed. Harilal...blackmail...scandal...blackmail...blackmail. It all fit. He had found those letters somewhere, somehow. And he blackmailed her. My grandmother. My helpless, old grandmother. I felt a sudden surge of hatred for the man.
My grandmother and her brother-in-law. It was a scandal beyond scandal. A secret she had had to protect at any cost. She gave away more than three-fourths of her savings to keep her modesty intact. He had taken advantage of her. Of her vulnerability.
With great deliberation, I picked up a matchstick from the box I had found next to Harilal’s cigarettes and I lit it. My hand was shaking so I had to try striking it three times before it caught fire. I held up the glowing matchstick and gently placed it on the pile of letters. They burned slowly, the fire eating away at the decades-old words. I found a strange sort of satisfaction at the way the paper curled up before turning into a charred mass of black and grey.