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Mohan pedalled the rickety bicycle harder. It was almost six and he still had a dozen homes to deliver the milk to. The pleasant early morning breeze wouldn’t last much longer. With the Sun climbing up steadily, it would be unbearably hot, pretty soon. Babu, the newspaper guy hurtled past Mohan on his moped yelling, “You’re late today!”, and deftly flung a wad of rolled up newspaper into the veranda of a house, some twenty feet away. Swearing aloud, Mohan leaned forward in his seat and pedalled faster, the milk containers on either side of the bike, clanging noisily.

Two jobs during the day and four hours of sleep at night, was what it took him, to support an ailing mother, a recently widowed sister and her two babies.

He would usually be done delivering the milk by seven. A measly breakfast later, he’d board a bus that would take him into town. A ten minute walk from the bus stand, he’d reach the supermarket where he worked. Mohan was usually the first to arrive. He liked being alone in the supermarket to do his job at leisure. The shop was all white and yellow with fluorescent lights. He loved the brightly lit, broad aisles with their neatly arranged rows of every conceivable thing one could think of. So would anybody who came from a hamlet where the only shop was a ramshackle shed.

His day at the supermarket began at eight. He would be done sweeping and mopping the place within the hour. Then, while the shop shutters were still down, he’d indulge in a little ritual. He’d wander about the aisles, pushing a shopping cart and pretend to be a rich customer. He’d pick up a bag of chips here, a bottle of ketchup there, a deo spray from the Men’s section or a jumbo pack of condoms from the little cabinet by the billing counter, unperturbed by the fact that he hadn’t any wife to go home to. He’d continue to pile stuff up until the cart was full and then, put them carefully back where they belonged, before the shop opened for business.

That little act of pretence, briefly kept reality at bay and made his sorry life somewhat bearable.

This particular day was like every other day at the supermarket. The festive season had brought in a steady stream of shoppers. Mohan had been on his toes all day, running errands, refilling the shelves, fetching and carrying stuff, until his feet ached. But he wasn’t complaining. It was a great spot to hone his people-watching skills. It was fascinating to watch the crowd, as they pushed their rapidly-filling carts around, tempted by smooth-talking sales assistants into spending more. He often wondered how their private lives were.

Mohan was mighty relieved when the clock above the billing counter showed nine, closing time.

“Juice spill in row number 3!” yelled someone. Mohan hurried to clean it up. The other employees had begun to leave.

The store manager, Iqbal called after him. “Mohan, I’m leaving now. Don’t forget to take the trash out before you lock up. There’s stock coming in tomorrow, so don’t be late.” Mohan nodded dutifully, mop and bucket, still in his hand.

The trash had to be tackled next. Picking up two hefty trash bags, he headed out, smiling at the security guard Balram at the shop entrance. “Balram anna, are you hungry? There’s a bunch of bananas in one of these bags, want some?” he joked.

The pot-bellied guard raised his lathi and pretended to whack Mohan on the head. “Son of a pig, you wait, one of these days, I’m going to whip your sorry ass!”  He shoved a piece of paan into his mouth and chuckled good-naturedly. “So, how is your mother?”

“Still the same, anna. They say take her to a private hospital. As if, I could…” He sighed.

Balram chewed on his paan, nodding solemnly. There was little else that he could do.

“The bags look heavy, need help?” he asked. Mohan declined the offer. With great effort, he slung one bag over his right shoulder, picked up the other one with his left  hand and made his way down to the next street, where the corporation dumpster was. He trudged along the sidewalk, weaving his way through the evening crowd, whose energy seemed to have dissipated with the scorching heat of the summer day. They plodded along with weary faces, shoulders sagging under the invisible burdens they carried. It was nine thirty, not too late by the standards of the town. A few shops still remained open.

It was a quiet street, lined with trees and imposing houses on either side, separated by well-maintained gardens. A car or two stood outside each of the houses. Scattered pools of light from the streetlamps made the road glow a fiery orange. The reeking dumpster stood at the very end of the street, sullying it with its ugliness and stench. Mohan heaved the bag off his shoulder and tossed it in. The other bag, he placed on the ground. After a minute of looking this way and that, he untied it. An inquisitive stray sniffed at the bag. Mohan shooed it away. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he plunged his hand inside the bag and brought out a parcel wrapped in dirty brown paper. Wiping the muck off it, he walked over to a Gulmohur tree, standing a few feet away. It was a massive tree that had fought valiantly against the elements and stood tall over the years. The branches leaned all the way across the fence, into the backyard of a house that lay beyond it. The ground beneath it was a soft carpet of orange-red flowers.

With a swift move, Mohan dropped the parcel into a little hollow, high up in the tree trunk, well-hidden in its foliage. This was his little hidey-hole, from where he conducted his other ‘business’ of selling stolen stuff sourced through shady deals. Premium cigarettes, watches, perfumes – anything that could be traded or sold. A fortnight ago, when his sister’s baby had been down with pneumonia, he’d even managed to source some porn CDs, sold them to college kids and paid the hospital bills. Mohan never considered himself to be a ‘thief’. The things he did were just practical ways for him to survive. His measly income was hardly enough to pay rent, leaving him with no choice. He had no qualms about stealing from the supermarket, the very place he worked, but was careful enough to pick small but pricey stuff that wouldn’t be missed easily. Occasionally, he pinched a bag of sugar or some cooking oil to take back home. Sure, it was an awful thing to do. The guilt was there, all right, but what good could it ever do? Guilt couldn’t feed his family, could it?

But smuggling stuff out of the store was hard work. The guard Balram, was no fool. He had the eyes of a hawk. The store employees had to undergo a thorough check by him, before they were allowed to leave. It was almost impossible to pull a fast one with him around. Almost.

On a sluggish day at the supermarket, a few months back, it suddenly struck Mohan – The trash.  Balram seldom checked the trash being taken out. And that had triggered an idea. He had morphed into a model employee overnight. He began coming in early and leaving late. He did all the odd jobs that the others refused. Scrubbed the shelves. Mopped the stairways. Took out the trash, with his hoard tucked inside, of course. And he’d had a decent run, so far. He’d even managed to get into the good books of the store Manager with his earnestness.

With the parcel safely inside the tree hollow, Mohan hurried back to the supermarket. He would come back for it, on his way home.

Balram sat hunched on his stool, ears glued to a radio. The clang of the shutters as Mohan brought them down, startled him. He took the keys from Mohan and gave him a quick pat-down. Having no reason whatsoever to mistrust him, Balram gave his bag a cursory look, humming along to the song that played on the radio. To him, the boy was just a wide-eyed kid from the village – sincere, and uncorrupted.

“Run along now. Get some sleep.” He said.

***

Mohan was back under the Gulmohur to pick up his stash. Leaning against its rough bark, he lit a cigarette and watched a roadside eatery nearby. Despite the lateness of the hour, the place was bustling. The air was heavy with the smell of frying oil. His stomach rumbled. He wondered if he should wait until there were fewer people around to take the parcel out. He ran his fingers over the gnarled bark, feeling the rough, jagged crevices on it. It reminded him of the peeling paint on the walls of the one room shack he called home.

A middle aged couple walked past him, a kid wedged between them. The man gave him a piercing look. He averted his eyes and puffed on his cigarette. An auto passed by, the driver slowing down enough to ask, “Going somewhere?” Mohan shook his head, irritated. The auto moved on.

A couple of minutes passed. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it under his feet. ‘To hell with it!’ he muttered. He was sick of waiting. He swiftly slid his hands into the hollow, wincing in pain, as a craggy piece of bark dug into his skin and reached for the parcel. Beads of sweat popped on his brow. Where was the darned parcel? He raised himself on his toes, extended his arm further and tried again. No parcel.  Someone had raided his lair. His heart hammered within his chest. The hunger he’d felt sometime before was replaced by a feeling of nausea. Had someone found out his secret? Was this a trap? He cautiously looked around. He almost considered fleeing the place, but that would have looked suspicious. He backed off from the tree and slowly began to walk away.

“Looking for this?” A voice called.

Mohan stopped short. She was standing in the little garden beyond the fence. The one with the handsome blue house in the background. She watched him keenly, half-smiling, her soft fingers curled tight around a brown parcel. His parcel.

“ Umm..no. That isn’t mine.” He mumbled, trying to walk away.

The smile died off her face. Her eyes took on a hard look. She had the kind of eyes that one didn’t see too often. They were green, cat-like and gleamed under the streetlight.

“Then what exactly are you doing here, sneaking around?”

“I’m..I’m just resting.”

Silence.

“I saw you drop the parcel in that tree hollow some time back. So, what’s in it? Something you stole? Is it drugs?” Her eyes widened in horror. Before he could reply, she had ripped the paper off the parcel, unravelling its contents – two sorry looking boxes of baby food .Her jaw dropped.

She quickly composed herself. “But I was right. You are a thief.”

“Madam, please. It is not what you think! You see, I have a – ”

She held up a shapely brown finger and cut him short. “Let me guess. Hmm.. No father, sick mother, pregnant wife, hungry kids..it is one or all of these reasons, right?” She gave a derisive snort. “Haven’t I seen you in that supermarket next street? Do you work there?”

Mohan nodded, running his fingers through his hair nervously.

She shot him a scornful look. “Quick, tell me your name. I’m coming over to meet your owner tomorrow, with these.” She held up the boxes of baby food.

“Please Madam. I’ll lose my job. My-my family will starve. Please, I-I can put all these back, first thing tomorrow, I promise.”

She shook her head, looking grim. “I have to report this. I’ll let your boss decide whether to bring the police in.”

He stood there before her, a broken young man of twenty something, and sobbed. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but she remained unmoved, her face devoid of emotion. “Let me ask you something. How do you sleep at night?”

And at that question, something within him snapped. When he looked up, he wasn’t crying. His eyes smouldered. The words poured out, hot and fast. “You know what, I sleep quite fine. It is people like you who should be feeling guilty, for every over-privileged breath you take. Sitting in your air-conditioned houses, driving your fancy cars, looking down at people like us with self-righteous pity, never wanting to help.”

His outburst had the desired effect. “Wh-what? How dare you ..?” She sputtered, going all red in the face. “You can’t talk your way out of this!  A theft is a theft, whatever purpose it serves. And stealing from one’s employers is-is.. like biting the hand that feeds you!”

“I agree. I steal to serve my own purposes. But there are far worser thieves out there. Banks, politicians, Insurance companies, hospitals – don’t they all rob people, one way or the other? Yet, lowly people like me are the bad guys.”

“That doesn’t justify your actions! I’m sure you wouldn’t have seen the insides of a school, but didn’t your parents ever teach you any values?”

He stared at her squarely in the eye as he shot back, “Morals and values mean just as much to me as our struggles mean to rich people like you.”

“ I didn’t realise thieves could preach.” She spat indignantly.

Mohan gave her a mirthless smile. How proud she looked, standing there, hands on her hip, eyeing him with those haughty eyes! He had an overwhelming urge to grab her by her slender neck and crush her lips against his. He dropped his gaze trying to shake off his unsavoury thoughts. “I was 16 when I woke up one morning to find my father lying dead in a pool of his own vomit. Sixteen when I became a man. What was I supposed to do? Apply for a personal loan to feed my sister’s kids or pay the hospital bills for my mother?”

“Hmmm.. not a bad story. But not sad enough for the police to not lock you up!”

“Don’t really care anymore.” He began to walk away.

He’d hardly taken a few steps when her words stopped him in his tracks.“You have a cigarette?”

He turned to stare at her open-mouthed.  “Wha-what? Yes. But why-”

“Give me one.” her voice was smooth, all traces of harshness gone.

He fumbled in the pockets of his grimy jeans and brought one out, all the while staring at her incredulously. Leaning over the fence he handed it over. “Do all women from respectable households smoke in the sly?”

She took the cigarette with a tired smile. “Perhaps they do. I wouldn’t know. I don’t go out much.”

Mohan struck a match and held it out for her. She blew a plume of white smoke and exhaled deeply. He realised this wasn’t her first time.

“I think I was too hard on you. As you say, it is a harsh world out there.” She said.

“All the money your husband makes don’t make it any better for you? How sad..” he shot back, sarcastically.

She blew another plume of smoke, more slowly this time. “It isn’t a crime to be rich.”

“But it sure is criminal to be poor.”

“Money just creates newer problems, just that they are very different from the ones you had when you had none.” She sighed.

They smoked in silence. It wasn’t all that disagreeable. The eatery at the street corner was shutting its doors. The street wore a deserted look. Mohan wondered how late it really was. He looked up to see thick clouds blotting out the Moon. Perhaps it would rain later.

“Come back again tomorrow.” She said suddenly.

He didn’t reply.

“I could do with the cigarette. Marlboro. And next time, buy them, don’t steal them!”

“But-my stuff..” he began.

“You’ll get them tomorrow when you turn up with the cigarettes.”

Mohan couldn’t believe the turn of events. Why was this mysterious woman letting him off so easy? There had to be some catch. He tried pushing his luck a bit further. “So you won’t report me?”

She fixed him with a glare that made him blanch. “Don’t tempt me to…What was your name, again?”

“Mohan”

“Real name, I hope.” She muttered, disappearing into the darkness.

***

Mohan had spent an uneasy morning at the supermarket. His stomach lurched every time someone called out his name. He half-expected the girl to barge in any moment, with the stolen stuff and get him fired.

He spent the morning asking around about the family that lived in the big blue house down the street. The house belonged to a Peter Savio, an Anglo-Indian businessman from Goa. He’d recently moved in with his young wife. “The husband is often away and the wife mostly keeps indoors. No kids.” said Amina, one of the assistants at the supermarket.

“How do you know so much?” he asked.

“My mother is a cook in the house next to it.”  She sounded a little miffed at his apparent mistrust.

“Did you know that she worked in a garment company before he married her?”

Mohan could guess the rest of the story. Young damsel rescued from the clutches of poverty by rich businessman. Leading a lonely, miserable life. So that was why  she sought him out. He then chided himself .What did a dirt-poor wretch like him know about the lives of rich men’s wives? He tried his best to get on with his work, secretly longing for the evening to come. He patted the pack of Marlboro in his pocket, the smile on his lips, a clear indication of the pleasure, the thought of meeting her again, gave him.

They met again under the creaking boughs of the gulmohur – he on one side of the jagged fence, she on the other. She wore a light blue cotton salwar kameez, her jet black hair pulled back and tied into a low pony tail. No makeup. Nothing fancy whatsoever. It surprised him immensely. She leaned across the fence, blowing thick smoke rings, her dusky skin almost luminous, in the moonlight. Their whispered conversations for most part consisted of long pauses interspersed with random observations about life in general. Yet it was one of the most pleasurable ones he’d ever had.

They met again the next evening. And the evening after that. It became a nightly ritual. He sometimes longed to reach out and touch her as she spoke. Would she melt like a snowflake at his searing touch? Or smite him down with her smouldering eyes? He couldn’t risk finding out. For now, he was content with the little things. Like the feel of her skin against his, as she took the cigarette from him. Or the smiles that sometimes lingered even after all conversations had ended.

***

On a rainy Thursday morning, Mohan was summoned to the Manager’s room. Iqbal’s head was buried in the stock registers. Mohan sensed a growing uneasiness in the pit of his stomach.

“Mohan, can you drive a van?” Iqbal asked without looking up.

“Y-yes, Sir.”

“Good. Shivakumar is down with measles. Until he gets back, I want you to handle home deliveries.”

“But Sir, I haven’t done a single home delivery before this.”

“Just drive to the correct address. Ring the bell. Carry the damn groceries in, Collect the cash and leave. What is the big deal?”

Mohan’s weak protests were drowned out by the volley of instructions that followed. “There are three deliveries for this morning. Ask Mani to help you load the bags.”

***

Mohan didn’t believe in coincidences. He believed in fate. Stupid,dumb,blind fate. Coincidences never made any sense to him. And yet, that very afternoon, he wasn’t quite sure which one of them had conspired to make him stand outside the door of No 33, Vivekananda Street. He’d never seen the house in broad daylight. Although he knew the backyard of the house like his own hand, the actual house, as such, was unfamiliar to him. He clutched the bags of groceries tighter and steadied his nerves, before pressing the doorbell. He would be walking into her house in the next few minutes.

He stiffened as he heard the jiggling of the door knob and thought of something witty to say. The door was opened by a heavily pregnant woman. The rush of adrenaline that had him tingling with anticipation subsided as quickly as it had come.

“Home delivery, Madam. Are you Annie Savio?”

The woman nodded. “Yes, yes. You can leave the bags by the sofa.”

He handed the bill over, his mind on overdrive, trying to connect the dots and wondering how the woman standing in front of him could possibly be Mrs. Savio.

“Wait here. I’ll fetch the cash. Maria! Maria, can you take these groceries inside?” she called out and disappeared into one of the rooms.

“Yes Ma’am!” called out a voice from inside.

Mohan’s heart leapt. He knew that voice! The very next second, she rushed into the room, out of breath – his mysterious princess of the night.

Her eyes registered shock at the sight of Mohandas. She quickly looked away and bent down to pick up the bags.

Mohan watched her retreating back as she carried the bags inside, his face still stuck in that incredulous expression,  mind still scrambling to make sense of it all, when Mrs Savio spoke, a concerned look on her face. “Are you okay? Want some water? I can ask Maria to get you some.”

“Maria, who?” he couldn’t resist asking.

Mrs.Savio looked at him warily. “Maria, my maid…”

He hastily thanked her and made it outside the house. Walking back to the van, in the scorching afternoon heat, the wad of cash in his hand, it hit him. That the world was full of people like him and her – living a lie. Wearing a mask.

He slunk around to the rear of the house to their usual spot under the gulmohur tree. She was there, seated on a slab of stone, gently rocking back and forth.

“So the name is Maria..” he began.

She raised her red-rimmed eyes and held his gaze him defiantly, daring him to judge her. He didn’t. He brought out the last of the Marlboro cigarettes and held it out.

“So now you know that I’m no better than you. Honestly, I’m relieved. Pretending to be rich is more annoying than being poor.” She said glumly and wiped her nose with a grimy hand, leaving a trail of soot on her left cheek.

Mohan reached out to light her cigarette, and gently wiped the grime off her cheek. She didn’t flinch at his touch. “There is a nice movie playing at the Grande Royal. Want to watch it with me?”

***

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