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The Side Entrance

Tripurari Sharma

Representational image | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The eleven O’ clock meeting had been shifted by half an hour giving me ample time to reach well prepared for the presentation. Then for lunch, I was going to see Rita, a college friend, who had a boutique and enjoyed discussing design. And then…

As the car came to a stop at the red light, a message flashed from Pamela asking if I would write a piece for her magazine on popular motifs in North Indian textiles.

‘Of course,’ I quickly typed back, biting into my morning toast and taking a sip of tea from my flask. Then with a jolt, as the light changed, I moved ahead, spilling the tea on my saree.

‘Just the omen before a meeting’, I muttered and shrugged it off.

‘Thanks’, Pamela’s message flashed back, ‘Can you give it within a month?’

It was quite possible, I thought, considering I gave an article no more than two days — I would park the car in a corner and scribble something. But this subject was close to my heart…

As a child in Panipat, I saw a peacock come alive on a weaver’s loom. I was mesmerised by the process that brought forth a peacock on cloth. It stayed with me. I embroidered one on a Matty cloth and kept it safely. Peacock… swan… mango leaf… fish… champa… marigold… endless images floated before me. Motifs resounding around us are like the replaying of film songs on a car system. To talk about a song is easy, but to write about the connections and layers it evokes within, is another matter. You have to discover those threads, trace their trajectories and then find the right words.

The article kept me mentally preoccupied; it would get formulated in patches — suddenly between signing files, returning to my cabin after reprimanding a junior colleague, scraping an omelette from the nonstick pan, and placing it in a tiffin box. I could explore more if I gave it time and had a space where the time could be mine.

I yearned to be in a library — a place where I could sit comfortably, open my notebook and feel the flow of uninterrupted thoughts. But many tracks intertwined — job, home, friends, the newspaper, wise conversations, the car ahead, and a billion distracting signboards, vying for attention.

Turning toward Jor Bagh, I went past the exotic cake shop where we placed orders for children’s birthdays, the flower nursery known for rare plants, and the gift shop for all occasions.

As I stopped at a red light, admiring the spacious houses on either side, a small ‘To Let’ sign on the side entrance of a large bungalow caught my attention. It was on brown cardboard handwritten in indigo. It seemed old and faded like a forgotten memento. This was the first time my eye had chanced upon it. There was a huge iron gate at the main entrance and next to it on the wall, the majestic letters ‘Joshi Mansion’ were set in marble. I saw the sign again the next day I saw it every day for many days.

The sign’s shabbiness was also incongruous with the grandeur of the house. Once I also moved the car in reverse gear and checked — it belonged to the house alright. Maybe it was for an attic on the first floor, not deserving much attention.

The sign kept teasing me, even when not in sight. Perhaps because I wanted to ink something on paper; something born of solitude, as real writers do. The location was ideal, midway between my office and home. A little room all to myself where I could stop, breathe and have a personal moment. Maybe I could skip the office and read all day, write deep into the sunset and let the stars gently rouse me from my solace. A beautiful sensation of joy and peace crept within as I fancied the room to mark the beginning of a distinctly new phase. It had no name, but several elements. Space, freedom, personal connect, expression, writers studio… Even the notion of such an actuality filled me with a thrill. Our residence was fairly large but it was designed for a family to sit, eat, cook, sleep and entertain guests.

Every morning, I would glance sideways at the sign and see that the room was available, daydreaming about it. Then I decided to take a step further, to step into the mansion and enquire more. But each time I would slow down near the Joshi mansion, hesitate and drive away. To be honest, the iron gate intimidated me. I imagined a pushed button inside sliding it open and a grating sound greeting me.

Then one day, just as I was nearing the house, the gate opened on its own accord and a huge car with a gentleman sitting upright in the backseat went past. Maybe that was Mr Joshi — on his day out.

I parked my car at the side of the house and entered through the now open gate. Three steps led to the porch. A neat woman in a moss green saree was bending over a rubber plant, trimming off the extra leaves with gardening scissors. It was only when she sat down to pick the fallen leaves that she caught sight of my shadow and said, ‘Yes…?’

‘I’m Avantika’, I introduced myself, ‘I work at the handloom cooperative’.

She stood up gracefully, without support, acquiring the form of a shapely tree. Her hair was dyed black, parted in the middle, and tightly tied. She nodded for me to continue.

‘I noticed that you have a to-let sign on your side entrance.’

‘Oh that,’ she smiled evasively, ‘You talk to my husband about it. He has just left for a university council meeting.’

‘Yes, I saw the car go by.’

‘He will be back by lunchtime. You can come at 4.30 and discuss this with him.’

‘Can I come at 5?’,  I replied, ‘My office closes then.’

‘That is his teatime. Then he goes to the library.’

‘I will of course try, I said, ‘although 4:30 is an awkward time to leave office.’

She merely nodded again — this time in assent.

‘Could I see the room now, so I will be better placed to discuss the matter?’, I asked.

‘You can see it in the evening’,  she said politely, ‘It is a small room.’

‘Even so… a room…,’ I paused tentatively and looked at her.

She seemed to understand. But was also reluctant. Perhaps she was not used to strangers entering the house in her husband’s absence.

‘Maybe a glimpse — just a moment, Mrs Joshi, if you could …’, I extended my request.

It seemed to have no effect. So I turned to go.

Then as I reached the gate, she said, ‘You can come from the side entrance. There is a staircase that goes to the room. I’ll bring the key.’

I went along the outer wall to the side entrance. Some twenty steps led to a locked room. There was also an entrance from the house that met the steps. Mrs Joshi came in from there, more relaxed as her agile footsteps led me up to the room. She opened the door and stood to the side, allowing me to enter.

It was a tiny room, with broad windows facing the street. I could not help but notice the light come in.

‘You can put curtains’, Mrs Joshi made a helpful suggestion.

‘Yes, I could of course. Pleated folds of golden jute.’

There was a small washroom, but no kitchen.

‘We didn’t plan for a family, she was apologetic, ‘just once in a while, the occasional relatives stayed here.’

‘No. Not a family, we have government accommodation’, I assured her.

‘And for an electric kettle that switches there in the wall is enough.’

‘But an office won’t do either, She was explaining the limited options.

‘No, not an office,’ I tried to explain, ‘I have a cabin there.’

‘Then why do you want this room?’, She enquired.

‘Well, you know, I write, Mrs Joshi’, I tried to explain, ‘and then there are some designs I need to look at, so it’s to be a sort of ‘my’ space — not family, not office.’

‘I see, said Mrs Joshi, her eyes measuring the space and voice sounding distant.

Maybe I had confused her. But at least a negotiation had begun with the lady of the house. She would pass this on to Mr Joshi and I could follow it up in the meeting with him.

I thanked her and moved to the steps. She did not follow me but remained in the room. Probably checking out a few things before closing the door.

I waited for a few minutes for her at the lower end of the steps. Then I left. To cover a day’s work at the office and a possible return to the Joshi mansion.

And sure enough, flushed with unabated excitement I was back at the house by 4:30. An elderly gentleman, Mr Joshi, entered from the inner door. He was meticulously dressed and his agile gait matched his wife’s, though his overall temperament was boisterous.

‘Well Madam, how is the handloom cooperative?’, he asked as he signalled me to be seated on the sofa. It was a gesture of a cordial effusive bureaucrat I was so familiar with.

‘I hope well, sir,’ I replied.

‘My friend Bhatnagar does not think so, he chuckled, ‘do you happen to know him?’

‘Of course,’ I beamed. ‘He sits in the next cabin.’

If he was checking my credentials this ought to settle it, I thought.

‘So Madam, what can I do for you ?’, he moved the conversation forward.

‘Well, it’s about the to-let room…’

‘Yes, my wife mentioned it’, he nodded to let me know that he had taken note of it.

‘But seriously, when would you have the time to use the room?’, he asked, ‘I mean between your office and home, as I understand you have both.’

‘Between them — as you said,’ I answered cheerfully, ‘weekends and evenings and some afternoons…’

‘That’s quite unlikely,’ he commented, ‘considering you and your husband have other engagements, young friends and so on…’

Well, the point was to avoid some of that. But it would sound rude. So I skipped this one.

‘Let’s try it for six months and if it doesn’t seem to be working right, we can call it off,’ I suggested.

He was pensive for a moment. Then he said, ‘You know, we don’t allow guests.’

Why did he say that? What was he thinking? ‘Guests? No, not at all sir!’, I blurted out.

He was listening, Expecting more. So I went on, ‘It is to be away from them — from work and daily chores, to have some time to read or write or just a space to think. Like earlier, big homes had libraries — my grandfather had one, largely to be by himself.’

‘A space for oneself,’ he mused thoughtfully, ‘Yes, every creative mind wants one such space. And it is quite a struggle. You know, people go to the Art Centre or a café or library, but for me ultimately, it is the back seat of my car which is this space. I can relax there, even though of course, the chauffeur is with me.’

‘I am the driver of my car’, I mentioned.

‘But I am sure, your husband keeps a chauffeur,’  he retorted sharply.

‘Yes, he does,’ I admitted.

‘Wise men generally do,’ he made a cryptic remark, ‘It’s the one time they can let go of the wheel.’

‘While women try wheeling it about,’ I laughed at the irony.

‘But it is a nuisance,’ he continued with his view, ‘You cannot relax then.’

‘Exactly sir!’ I came back to my case, ‘That is why I have come for the room.’

‘Next time you come, bring your husband too. It is my invitation,’ he said amicably.

Of course, I could ask him, I thought, and he would come too, I was sure. But why… this was a room I was looking for, something I wanted to negotiate for myself… It was my deal!

I tried to push it further. ‘The rent, sir….?’ I asked.

‘Knowing where you are placed, it’s no issue, we’ll resolve it. Let the time come.’

And with a smile, he stood up. It was time for me to leave. The meeting was over. I could hear the soft clink and clatter of tea cups in the distance. Mrs Joshi was on time as per the evening schedule.

‘Your tea time, sir,’ I said, picking up my bag.

‘Why don’t you join us for a cup of tea?’ His tone was polite and the manner was formal.

‘I have mine from a flask in the car and I always keep it full!’ I said cheekily.

He burst out laughing, turning into the house.

And I moved to my car that was parked outside.

His hearty laughter rankled in my ears for some time. Maybe he missed the sarcasm or read it too well.

Months passed. I could not go back. Something had dissipated within and the idea seemed to have soured. Rudimentary routine matters took over. Initially, my husband had to leave the city for an official meeting and that took up a week. Then the handloom cooperative had an exhibition and then some relatives came to Delhi for straightening out some matters with Shastri Bhawan. All in all, rumbling and grumbling, life rolled on, cluttering the pathways.

It was during the exhibition installation that the mention of the house flashed up. A bit accidentally, I mean for me, though Bhatnagar who broached the subject seemed well prepared and was perhaps waiting for the right timing. After the inauguration as we all heaved with relief into our teacups, Mr Bhatnagar, who was sitting across the table leaned towards me and said in a low voice, ‘Madam, I believe you are looking for a room somewhere…’

‘Yes, I was.’ I politely replied, ‘For my cousin from Brussels who was doing a book on Indian Textiles. But she preferred staying at our house,’ I quickly made up a story.

‘If ever a room is required,  he continued, ‘just drop a hint and it can be arranged. My mother-in-law has a house in Vasant Vihar and many rooms to spare. Close to your house as well.’

‘Yes. Many rooms. Near my house. Certainly worth considering. Maybe next time.’ I filled the pauses with sips of tea. So Mr Joshi had passed on the word to Mr Bhatnagar. The gossip had set moving.

I continued to drive past Jor Bagh but avoided looking in the direction of the Joshi Mansion. I kept my eyes on the road ahead and my hands firmly on the wheel. The view of vehicles, trees and the crossing lights in all the mirrors of the cars obliterated the ‘To Let’ sign and my journey became more focused and unidirectional. The preoccupation with the world led to enhanced responsibilities and to some extent professional satisfaction.

However, during the summer, an electrical breakdown clamped down the activity in the office one day, and I left much before the closing time. The afternoon sun made the streets appear wide and empty while bleaching the colour off the buildings, trees and roads, giving the daily path an odd unsettling ambience of the unfamiliar. It was then that my wayward gaze floundered on the Joshi mansion. Even though it took a while to re-establish the house as the one etched in my mind, the side entrance caught my attention. Not because it was as had been retained by the carbon copy of memory, but quite the opposite.

The windows of the upstairs room had curtains. Not of the golden jute texture that I had envisaged, but a velvety, chrysanthemum blended with shy coral. Someone was up there! The room was no longer empty, it was finally occupied. For months it lay abandoned and then dressed-up windows filled it with their hue! Who could have taken this room — the one I had so desired once? How did it look now, I wondered. Curiosity provoked me to act, and with a long afternoon ahead, I gave in to the impulse.

I parked my car and moved swiftly to the side entrance, which I remembered well. The staircase was the same. It had not been touched by fresh paint nor adorned by pictures or flower pots.  Step by step, I climbed up. The door was bolted from inside. There was no nameplate.

I stood there for a minute, unsure whether to knock or just sense the presence and leave.

Maybe a sound would give an indication. But it seemed to be quiet within. No feet moving about, no hands opening or closing cupboards, no conversation on phone. The inside was gripped with stillness, concentrated energy buzzing softly. A hum… or was it a lullaby? The rocking of a baby? So a family had moved in.. or maybe a mother and child.. a maidservant for Mrs Joshi, who could be in the room and help in household chores. The lullaby stopped and I felt someone turn. Maybe towards the door. Perhaps my breathing sent forth some vibration.

I knocked. Softly. So that the stillness may not quiver. The knock, resounding the stillness, the sound of the stillness.  I felt a hush set in, an alert straightening of muscles. It was in my body too. Like the alert stillness in the spine of a cat on the prowl, defensive and inquisitive.

I sensed a waiting, a wait to confirm the knock and readiness in the feet… Could be a preparation to greet or to withdraw….A moment imbued in stealth. I let it pass, and another ten counts, in blankness. Then I knocked again. The second knock was cautious and evenly paced. Not more intrusive than the act itself perhaps. Somewhat more persuasive. Yet its reverberation, if any, seemed to peter out close to the door itself, leaving the occupant unmoved. Not a footfall could be heard nor a scratch from any piece of furniture.

The concentrated silence grew thick with every moment that heaved in my wrist. I had, in haste, placed my hand too close to the door. And yet the wood bore no dent. My move was to withdraw, letting my hand slide down on the vertical surface as I shifted my eye to the end of the staircase.

Sunlight trapped the lower steps in its bright rectangle, while the higher dark steps seemed to hang in another zone elsewhere. As my glance diverted its axis, someone inside picked that up. With feline steps, a presence approached the door. I could hear a rhythmical flow of soft breathing close to mine, maybe gauging the intruder, apprehensive of the stranger. I paused. The regular beat on the other side of the door seemed to blend with the pace I tried to hold. My wrist shifted a knuckle to the door; a single knock, almost a whisper of haunted anticipation. Beseeching a slight glimpse, even through an inquisitively open half door. But it was not to be. I gave up the elusive shade of the higher corner and moved towards the rectangle of light.

For some reason, I did not rush down but pressed my toes gingerly on each step. Somewhat self-conscious, as if being watched. I could sense it. From behind the wooden door, a pair of eyes was noticing my every step. Maybe through a crack or the hinge joint or an invisible slit. A watchful eye was following me. I almost stumbled. And then stopped. A sensation of light touched my back. I glanced sideways. The highest two steps were chalked in a strip of light. Through the windows, the filtering sun had filled the room and that light touched the steps. The door had opened! A figure stood in the doorway. A woman in floating contours of brightness and shade, some of the light and some of her draping lined with shimmering tinsel.

‘Oh it is you,’ she said. ‘I thought as much.’ It was Mrs Joshi, clad differently.

I stood between two blocks of light. In an elusive square.’

Come in, if you please.’  She invited me to the room.

I followed her gesture and came back to the door, now open. But I did not step in. It was her space, personal, precious.

‘These days I use the room,’ she said in a merry tone. ‘Of course, it’s your idea — a room for a moment. I  took it from you.’

I smiled. ‘A room is a room. A space to be in.’

‘I realised it slowly. Once I started coming in. First just do the room. Then to read a book, listen to music, then other things…’

We stood in the doorway, either side of the frame, looking into each other’s eyes. Easily, in a simple, straightforward way. She flowed, plump and blooming in a loose Kurta with brocade and peach motifs lined with maroon.

‘You look different,’ I said politely.

‘Oh it’s the dress,’ she laughed. ‘It came in my dowry. I was just a village lass when I got married… Mr Joshi was in a government job and so…’

Her eyes moved into the room and returned to her dress. The marriage had meant brocade. She touched the golden motifs with nostalgia and delight.

‘They are pretty,’ I mumbled.

She did not answer. It did not matter, for they were crystals of a time she remembered and recognised as herself. They were meant not to adorn, but to touch the cells of her body, the cells layered beneath the skin, the cells that had craved and even tried to forget the nature of that craving, the aching to connect with something that was once a desire, a familiar notion to extend oneself. The numbness dwindled and she was in blossom. With moist eyes. The waiting had taken a lifetime.

‘Come on in,’ she invited me again, into her world. I peeped in but could not step in. A chair, a stool covered by a Phulkari sheet — replete with flowers and leaves, a few slim books in Punjabi, a tape recorder, balls of wool scattered about, an embroidered hand fan, clay saucer and glass, a pack of cards. The belongings of a woman in her sacred grove.

‘All from my maiden days,’ she explained shyly.

‘I thought there was some humming, like a lullaby,’ I mentioned in passing.

‘Oh, I sing now and then. When a village strain comes by. Not too often though.’ Apprehending that I may ask her to repeat the refrain, she hastily added, ‘And only for myself.’

She began picking up and rolling a ball of wool. I watched in silence as the elements were tucked away. Out of bounds for questions.

And yet I asked offhand, “when do you take out time for the room?”

‘Oh there’s time and time, one must take it — that’s all.’

She laughed and tossed the wool in a basket kept under the stool covered by the Phulkari. She drew out the basket and held it in one hand as she put in the cards and other trinkets as well.

‘Mr. Joshi goes to work and I climb up the stairs to my room.’ She said with a mischievous grin.

‘But when he’s away you have the whole house to yourself!’

I had no business to say this, but standing outside the room, I felt I had been cast as the perpetual outsider.

‘Yes, the house,’ Mrs Joshi stopped filling her basket and stood still. Then she looked towards me and added pensively, ‘But the house, you know, it pulls and pulls — in every direction, each nook and corner, it drags you into itself, everything demands your attention, where is the space for yourself? How can it be as it is here?’

And with a movement of her arms, she flung the wool on the floor, letting the threads tangle. Building patterns on their own. Then she disentangled and rolled them again. She seemed deft at it — a ritual of unwinding. Seeing her thus engaged in a personal preoccupation,  I turned to leave.

The sunlight had mellowed into a pale scarlet, the rectangle had turned into a thin slant at the edge.

It was still sultry outside, but the afternoon starkness melted into the silver-grey evening sky. And through it flashed the orange glare of the setting sun — fiery and yet its trappings were pastel in shades of peach and pink. The transparent metal of my car, bathed in amethyst, sparkled like a gem on the side street. It was my chariot to anywhere, elsewhere and maybe nowhere. My hands were on the steering wheel, a familiar groove held with habituated ease. And I drove on, thinking of Mrs Joshi.

The traffic snare was yet to come and the sleepy roads widened into the horizon. It stretched endlessly into the golden arc cradled by the flaming clouds in a sky powdered by feathery white. The summer sunset, so full in its glory, impassioned in its every step, so gentle and yet so sure, its mingling hues, raining gold on the trees, the leaves, the fluttering birds, and rims of balconies. The glass panes of buildings blazed up in shimmering circles of light, echoing the splendour of this choreography. It reflected in the mirrors of the car that surrounded me. The sliding sun was not melancholy, it was a spectacle celebrating its presence.  Inviting, pulling, enthralling. But not letting go of its mystery. Even so, as is well known, the interplay of elements arouses the latent well of energies.

I took a turn, and the horizon switched sides. Suddenly I was in the middle of traffic. The sun had set for the day, but the sky had lapped up its light and its brimming hues flashed in maddening streaks of altering angles teasing into twilight. It followed me — an elastic roof above the city lights.

A red orb ahead compelled me to pull the brake. The car stopped. My hands rested away from the wheel. I paused. In quietness, I could hear the rhythm of my heart. In my wrist, alive in my knuckles. A knocking within, a knock to an inner core within. From within to within — a space. But one must wait for it to open. Each time one learns to practice waiting.

The light ahead turned orange and then green. The car moved and with it, my attention shifted gear. I focused on the road.

Mrs Joshi had found a room to meet herself, and I had this car all to myself, with steering in my hand and a flask of tea, gone cold.

The writer acknowledges Kabir Sharma for his critical inputs.

Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner Tripurari Sharma has worked with street theatre and performers of folk theatre in different parts of the country. She was also a faculty member of the National School of Drama, Delhi. She has written several plays in Hindustani including ‘Bahu’, ‘Kath ki gadi’ and ‘Aadha Chand’. This is her first short story in English.