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The Guilt

Guilt, a noun, is defined as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. I carry a few of them all the while. Some within my head, some embedded in the heart. Some come back to haunt me from time to time and I think that they are the worst kinds. Like this one. The thing about these- the ones that return often- is that you can't now do anything about them. I am fond of plants. This love egged me on to buy a few pots and put them in the balcony of the rented house in Sector 19, Chandigarh.

To begin with I had only a couple- a money plant and a cactus. My landlady appreciated my green thumb and gifted me with another one with variegated leaves. Oh! how I loved to see the colours change on that one. When the sun shone bright, the otherwise light-green big leaves would start becoming white. There was another one with just leaves on its stem. I loved this one as well. This I bought home when a friend's neighbour was shifting base to Bombay and her husband would not allow them to pack the 20 odd plants that she had in her balcony. I could understand her grief but could not do much to help because of cramped space at my end. Also I could not take my eyes from this particular one, which had new leaves sprouting at the time I saw it. It was love at first sight. Their tenderness called out to me and I had to adopt it, if nothing else.

I happily bought it home and introduced it to the rest of the family, which had also come to house a beautiful and flourishing Tulsi, complete with a red chunni and bangles- the symbols of suhaag. The balcony was thriving. I was happy but the husband was a little miserable because of the overflowing greenery on the little balcony. In my enthusiasm I had not noticed that the flourishing, thriving greens had started to look shabby and were calling out for a trim. With the complex problem of finding out a maali, I approached my land lady.

A couple of days down the line, a handicapped man showed up. He did not have a hand. I wondered how he would manage but I was reassured about his prowess in the desired arena. I did not worry my head too much as I had about 8 grown-up plants that only needed weeding and trimming. He would come once in a week and was gone in next 10 minutes. A weekly remuneration had been fixed for him, which he took quietly and went away as quietly as he had come in. We fell into a pattern. He never asked for anything or said anything. If he came in at tea-time and I would offer him a cup and couple of biscuits he would take them, acknowledge me with a sideways tilt of his head, finish his job, drink the tea and leave his utensils washed. If I asked him whether he would like to add some more sugar or re-heat his drink, he would smile a bit but never answer me.

Then he stopped coming. I did not really notice it till a couple of weeks had gone by. The husband remarked on his absence, he had been taking such good care of the plants and had even added a couple of pots more to the balcony in an unobtrusive fashion. I asked the landlady who inquired in the neighbourhood but nothing could be found. Then in the same way he had stopped, he resumed his visits. This time I noticed he looked a bit off-colour. He looked weaker somehow. It was not a physical thing. He had a lean built but it was in his eyes. They looked weighed down. Had his forehead creased so much in the past few weeks that he had been absent or had it always been so? In the hum-drum of my own life I forgot these questions as soon as they had formed in my head. That afternoon had typical Chandigarh flavours- extremely hot, dusty and dry.

The maali rang the bell. He had become erratic in his appearances which I did not really mind but this one on a late afternoon when a nap was higher on my priority list, got me irritated. Anyhow, I let him in and went to the kitchen to make tea for both of us. After he had finished his work, I called out to him to sit inside and have his tea. I was leaving the room having switched on the fan and put the tea and biscuits on the table when I heard his sob. I turned to see him dissolving in tears. What happened uncle, I asked him. He cried some more. I asked him to sit down. Are you hurt, I asked. He gestured a no with his head. He struggled to regain his composure. I asked him again, "Uncle are you okay? What happened?" "I lost my daughter," he said. "She died of snake bite back in our village. I had been gone all this while to the village. After she had been gone, her grieving mother also left me," he answered, the question that my face must have posed because I had suddenly lost my ability to speak or think. "I had to sell off my land to make arrangements for their funeral. My landlord is threatening to throw me out of the room I share with other three fellows from my village for I have no money to pay the rent. Everywhere I look there is despair. I don't know what to do and where to go," he went on. The news of death has a paralysing effect on me. I become incapable of anything else and just weep. That was what was happening when my land lady came in.

She saw the door open and walked in to see us both crying unabashedly. She had a terrified look on her face and asked me what had happened. I recounted to her the misery that had visited the poor chap. I got up and went inside with the intent of helping the maali. She came in swiftly behind me. "What do you want to do with this much money?", she asked pointing at the five notes of hundred rupees clutched in my hand. "Why, give him, aunty, what else," I said a little exasperated. Hadn't I just now told her the whole story. She took away four notes of the currency from my hand. She told me, this is sufficient. Before I could say anything else, the maali called out to me to say that he was leaving. I tried to offer him the money. He did not take it. I insisted. He sobbed. Aunty intervened. Take it and be gone, she told him. He looked at me. For the first time. In the eye. He took the money from me and left the house.

I looked accusingly at the aunty. "If he was telling the truth why had he not shaved off his head? Isn't that required of a Hindu when death takes place in the family," she answered me back with a stare. "You are young emotional fool," she reprimanded me, "How could you have parted with such a big sum on account of a sentimental story?" She also left. I was left facing a tumult. A part of me said that I had been saved by aunty's intervention. But that was and till date is a very small part. A bigger part says that I should not have let aunty intervene. Even if he wasn't telling the truth all I would have lost is a mere Rs 500 but having given him just Rs 100 I had saved some bucks but bargained a dark spot on my conscience. I never saw him again around the neighbourhood. I did not try to find out if he had taken money from someone else or check his story.

But till date I see the entire episode take place in front of my eyes like it happened that hot afternoon. I see the cupboard from which I took out the money, I see aunty standing in her blue suit with a faded dupatta and I see myself standing in a red kaftaan. I hear him telling me about his loss. I wish I had given him the whole amount. It would not have been a high price to be free from the guilt of not having done enough.

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