It was a sunny, June day. Amma’s one bedroom flat was feeling like a furnace in the sweltering heat. Her only respite was a squeaky old ceiling fan that her former landlord (now deceased) had installed when she moved in. She was sitting near the window, fanning herself with a newspaper, soggy where her fingers held it. She noticed a colony of ants crawling down the windowsill onto the wall. They were carrying the spilt, flat-rice she had fried for breakfast that morning. What a feast, she thought, looking at the ants.
The doorbell rang. She sighed, annoyed at the herald of the inconsiderate afternoon visitor and got up to open the door. It was the electricity guy.
“Amma, I’ve come for the payment. It’s been two months now. I cannot fool the boss any longer!” he entreated.
“Alright, alright, let me get it,” she said and walked into the house.
“How?” the guy yelled out.
“Amma, how did you manage this month?”
“Huh?” she grunted, looking at him blankly.
“How?” he asked, rubbing his index finger and thumb.
“Sewing,” she replied, handing the money to him. “The neighbour’s son tore his school shirt on the see-saw.”
“And Appa’s pension?”
“Who is going to run around for that trickle of a sum? My arthritis cannot!”
“Hmm, anyway take care, Amma. Hope someone tears something off next month too!” he said with a smile and left.
Amma closed the door and took her window seat again. She sat fanning herself for the whole afternoon and before she knew she had fallen asleep.
A harrumphing sound woke her up. She opened her eyes, startled to hear the voice so close to her. There was no one. The fan kept whirring and squeaking at intervals. The wall-clock showed it was 4 PM already. Convinced that it must have been someone downstairs, she got up from her armchair to make some tea.
Ten minutes later, when she tried to sit in her armchair with her tea, she heard the same sound. It seemed like someone clearing his throat. She stopped for a moment and looked out the window. The neighbourhood kids were playing but there was no elder nearby.
What was the sound? Was Abha on the flat above her, dragging the chairs again? That wily woman!
Amma looked at the ceiling, murmuring abuses at Abha. She sipped her tea and smiled. It was just perfect for an afternoon like this.
“Can I have one too?” This time, the voice was clear and absolutely near.
“What?” she said, dropping her teacup on the floor. “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
A white apparition, clad in dhoti and a kurta appeared in front of her. She was staring through it at her clock but she could very well see something (or rather someone) in front of her. Shaken yet motionless, she stood there, trying to grasp her situation. Was this an imagination? Was she going crazy?
“Too bad you dropped yours on the floor,” the voice said, “I was hoping to have a cup too. It smelled good from the kitchen.”
“What are you?” asked Amma, holding onto her chair, bent like she was going to swoon and needed support.
“Why I am your old landlord, Pothappa!” affirmed the voice.
“But…but…you are dead! I saw them taking your body away!” she said, her heart beating out of her chest.
“Yes, yes,” said the voice with a sigh, “I am. But I died too soon.”
“I said I died too soon. You’ve gotten old and deaf since my death, Mrs Avarez!” said the voice.
“No, I don’t understand.” As she kept holding onto her chair, the voice moved a little further and settled above her old, torn sofa. And as it would, there was a small depression on the seat of the sofa where the voice hung.
For a few minutes, there was complete silence. The sound of the neighbourhood kids playing and screaming about could be heard. Amma thought she even heard the evening tutor of the kids living below her open the compound gate. But she couldn’t utter a word.
“Why have you come?” she finally asked.
The voice sighed again. “It’s my son. He has ruined everything that I had built and worked for. Now, all I see are the weeping eyes of my poor wife and the drunkards coming in and out of my house. I cannot attain peace like this. Not in this life. I feel so helpless and lonely.”
Amma was scared but she also felt sorry for her poor landlord. “But why did you come here?” she asked.
“Because I see that you are lonely too. I notice you staring out of that window every day till afternoon when you take your nap and then make your tea and dinner and go to sleep by evening,” he said.
Amma finally heaved a sigh and fell back into her armchair, rocking it slowly.
Nobody spoke for some time. Amma broke the silence. “You know when my son was little, he was very naughty. He would hide and then startle me or mess up the bed or kitchen so I’d get mad at him. He was also a very fussy eater.” She paused for a moment and resumed, “My husband left for pilgrimage and never came back. My son was my only reason to live. And then…he grows up, gets a job abroad and leaves his mother for good. He comes once in seven or ten years and leaves me a few crisp notes to spend. When that gets over and the bills are overdue, I sew for a living. When I get money I pay my bills and when I don’t, they disconnect my power. But who is going to fight them? I have neither money nor health to get the minimum to live a decent life. So I manage with whatever I have.”
The voice coughed a little that sounded like a blob of sputum had clogged a wiry throat. After a considerable number of coughs, the voice said, “Daughters are often kinder, you know! They manage to come to your aid despite ruthless in-laws. But not all of them are like that. Mine fled with her lover at the first chance and never looked back. And my son quit the only job he ever got and spent all my hard earned money by robbing it off my wife. Now, he is under debt. People come home with threats and court summons but all he can do is, drink his life away.”
“Why do children abandon us like that?” Amma wondered. “Why do they think that their responsibilities have ended with their becoming adults?”
The voice coughed a little more. The window curtain moved to and fro, from the gentle breeze that blew in. Amma kept looking out. She noticed the mothers picking up their kids from the playground, chatting with each other as they did and moving into their homes. Such a short-lived delight that is…they’d know later, she thought.
Amma and Pothappa went silent for quite some time. It was six-thirty when Amma noticed the broken tea cup on the floor and realised that she had been chatting with a ghost all this while. There had been no sound, no cough. She looked at the sofa. The seat looked as torn as before but without any depression in it. Had the ghost left?
“Pothappa!” Amma asked in a hushed tone. “Pothappa!”
The realisation jolted her as much with fear as with a tinge of sadness.