Mrs. Shergill?”

A young couple is at the door. The husband smiles down at Simran. “I’m Tarun, and this is Rhea. We called earlier? We’ve come about the ad.”

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That much is obvious from the way the wife is already looking past her into the hallway. Her glance is focused and appraising. Simran steps back reluctantly and lets them enter the space their eyes have already invaded. She has to press back against the wall to let the wife pass. Maternity clothes, nowadays, are designed to worship the pregnant figure. Back in Simran’s time, a pregnancy would have been hidden in loose, flabby clothes. Not that she had an occasion to wear them herself.

“I hope this is not an inconvenient time,” the wife says.

Simran shrugs. The question is a little belated, isn’t it? Now that they’ve already come in? It isn’t as if they will turn and leave if the time is inconvenient.

They’re in the living room now. The wife begins a circuit of the room, pausing to examine this or that, knocking on the faux-wood paneling with her knuckles like a tax inspector on a surprise raid. Her brisk manner makes such little concession to her advanced pregnancy that Simran prays secretly that her water doesn’t break. Not on the rug, at any rate. The husband, meanwhile, goes over to the window and looks out. Simran follows his line of vision into the neighbor’s garden. The neighbors. What will they tell them about this house?

About Nikhil and Simran? God knows, even without recent events, they have had enough to gossip about over the years. A house tainted by scandal discounts its own market value.

But then, these two don’t look like the type who will bother with neighbors. They are the modern couple, the self-sufficient “family-unit” she reads about in the newspaper, the type who can never have neighbors, not even if they happen to live in a crowded apartment complex. They have only visual acquaintances through chance meetings in the elevator that never go beyond greetings. Next door could just as well be a different planet.

The wife is looking at a photograph now–it is Nikhil and Simran’s photograph taken during their honeymoon in Shimla. At the time, like the typical couple that emerges gasping for breath out of the endless ceremonies and rituals of an arranged marriage, they barely knew each other. There they are with the Christ Church crowning their heads, smiling innocently at the camera that Nikhil has foisted upon some passerby. Framed in the photograph, they are safely confined, as if they will never emerge from that moment to reveal, to each other and themselves, their real faces, the depths to which they are each capable of falling.

The woman turns, looking inclined to comment, but then decides against it. Perhaps she is intimidated by Simran’s white sari. For all she knows, Simran could have been widowed years ago. On the other hand, it could just as easily be last week, and she probably doesn’t want to get Simran started on her husband’s death. It would be inauspicious, wouldn’t it, to talk about death on their first visit to what could soon be their home?

The young of today are selective in their faith. They may not know a single religious chant, they may look down on rituals as backward, but when it comes to the important phases of their own lives, they are just as superstitious as the generations they think they have left behind.

They are done with the living room now, and are looking expectantly at her to take the lead and show them around the house. But she makes no move. Finally, they step tentatively towards the kitchen.

“May we…?”

Simran nods, but remains at the door. If they think that she will throw open cabinets and reveal all the clever little nooks for gadgets with a “Ta-Da!”—that she will do a little song-and-dance routine for them so that they can do her the privilege of buying her home, they’re sadly mistaken.

In any event, they give the kitchen only a cursory glance. Perhaps they have a cook. Very likely. They have left laptop bags at the front door. Both working. Independent. Far above the drudgery that they can hire menials to do. This woman will probably step into the kitchen only to hand over a new baby-food recipe that she has looked up on the Internet or seen in one of the countless parenting books with which she has doubtless equipped herself. How will a cook, and an unsupervised one at that, look after this kitchen? Simran’s kitchen. The one place where she had found temporary oblivion in the preparation of the elaborate meals that had nevertheless failed to serve as an effective counterpoise to the frigid silence at the dining table.

They are going up the stairs now. Simran follows them, keeping a short distance behind.
“Oooh! This is perfect!”

Simran flinches. They have discovered Prakriti’s room. When she enters, the woman is busy making plans. The room is to be painted lavender. Crib goes here, toy cupboard there, rocking chair in the corner, study

table by the window, bookshelves, a glass-door showcase for trophies … every little detail down to the location of height-giraffe which will provide the one solid measurement, meticulously noted down on every birthday, among all the myriad intangible ways in which the poor kid will doubtless have to measure up against peers.

She seems to have got it all figured out till the kid is twenty. But, Simran knows her type. The novelty of the baby will wear out soon enough, when it dawns on her that motherhood is not a long series of picture-perfect shots out of a Johnson’s baby ad, and the reality of the endless cycle of feeding and cleaning-up-after sinks in, and then, before you can say “Peek-a-boo!” a nanny will be installed, while she herself carries on with life as usual. But why has she taken such a dislike to this woman, this Reena, or whatever her name is? Who is she to judge her when she has barely known her for more than a few minutes. Perhaps it’s the way she is planning the future, as though life is nothing more than a Saturday night dinner-and-a-movie. How can she be so complacent, so smugly confident that everything will work out according to plan? After all, Simran too had once made similar plans on how this room should be arranged. And what had she ever got for her efforts but an empty space—a “guest-bedroom” in a house that could not afford to have guests over, given the poisonous atmosphere that festered within its walls.

Simran excuses herself and goes back downstairs leaving the (relieved?) couple to its charming little tour. She has no appetite left for the next room. The master bedroom. The room in which Prakriti had been conceived. This room is the venue of their greatest sins. But who was the greater sinner? Nikhil, who had coldly informed her, after an ultrasound done by a “family doctor” whom she had never heard of before, that there was a “problem?” Or Simran, still in awe of marriage and what she had been taught was “her place” in it, who in not putting up a strong enough fight had betrayed her own child? Either way, they had both paid the price.

The same room was witness to their increasingly desperate, loveless attempts to conceive a son, doomed at the very outset by what she had become convinced was Prakriti’s curse.

Simran’s periods had always been a little irregular. But now, month after month, her womb mourned its dead with clockwork regularity. And with every passing year, Nikhil became obsessed with their inability to conceive; he presented it, in turns, as the cause and the outcome of the reversals he faced at work. And the deeper his business fell into debt, the more he wanted a son to carry it forward. In the face of a faltering business and the continued absence of a male heir, he resorted to other ways to prove his manhood.

Simran did not play silent victim. Not anymore. She matched him blow for blow, resorting in the face of his physical aggression, to a more enduring arsenal of words—insults and taunts inflicted with bitter, brutal thrusts, their blades all the more lethal from having been honed on hard, undeniable truth.

And all those years later, after the initial grounds had long been invalidated—not only had they given up trying, but it had also become increasingly clear that there would not be much of a business left to carry forward, heir or no heir—they had continued to live in a state of siege, both making occasional half-hearted attempts to annex a moral high-ground that had long ceased to exist, but both really biding their time. In the end, it was she who had prevailed.

They are finished with the upper floor. She watches husband and wife with distaste as they come down the stairs. How easily they trample all over her carefully-preserved ruins, these vultures who have come to feast at the remains?

They have given up on her by now, and go out themselves to take a look at the garden and garage. With only her glare following them and not Simran herself, they help themselves to a more leisurely second circuit of the ground floor. She watches them nudge each other to nod towards some minor pro or con, she notes the way they whisper conspiratorially over some alteration they propose to make. Every gesture feels like a violation. Why can’t they hurry up and get done with it? They act as if they already own the house.

The house. This house is the closest she has to family now. All these years, it has taken sides too. Every nook that shielded her from his blows; every sharp corner that lent him a hand; the study, his safe haven; the kitchen, hers—this house was never a mute spectator, instead always taking an active part in whatever took place between its walls. It is the only place in the world that can still furnish those sudden, heartbreaking, precious little moments; little peeks into an alternate universe in which Prakriti is happy and healthy and alive. When Nikhil died, it was a measure of what they had turned themselves into that her first reaction had been to rue the fact that his suicide had rendered his life insurance policy null and void. The house would have to go.

After what seems like ages, the couple is ready to leave. They will get back to her once they decide, the husband assures her. But Simran can see that they already have. The husband holds the door for the wife as she eases into the car. They cast repeated backward glances at the house, assessing its looks from the street as if it were part of a supermodel line-up.

Simran watches the car till it turns the corner. She can imagine what they must be saying.

What a bitch! What was with her? She was acting like we were breaking and entering.
She doesn’t want to sell. It’s a distress sale, for sure.

Now, there’s a thought. That means she’s probably negotiable on the price. Make sure to drive a hard bargain.

Simran shuts and bolts the door. She draws the window blinds. Had there been a drawbridge, she would have raised it too, for what it was worth.

But she knows that they next time they come by, she will have no option but to open the door once again.

Judges’ Comments:

Chitra Divakaruni: The situation in this piece was intriguing. I liked how the backstory was revealed to us slowly as the tension built.

Bharti Kirchner: Story of an individual, yet it seems to have a universal quality.

Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad and is a writer of short fiction. She is a prizewinner in the Unisun Short Story Competition 2011 and the Katha Fiction Contest 2010. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies like Urban Shots, Crossroads, and Two is Company, and in various print and online literary journals and magazines.  

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