A short story set at a tiny lodge at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi

8 pm – Time to step out of her room and be a watchman for the next 2 hours. She pulled out an old shawl from the closet, randomly picked a book from the many strewn on her unmade bed, turned off the light and latched the door. She walked down the rickety old stairs without any hurry, humming a German song about a piano to herself. After crossing the first flight of stairs, there was a small window with green frames from where you could see an ethereal vision of the river illuminated under the soft light of the tall streetlamps. It was the kind of view that a photographer would kill for – calmly beautiful, never shifting, interlaced with so much history and mystique; it was the Ganges of Varanasi after all – older than tradition, older even than legend, as Mark Twain had so eloquently put it years ago. She stopped there at the window and gazed down, more out of habit than a desire to witness the view. ‘From here, the river looks like one of those trompe l’oeil paintings, a clever illusion, a visual deception crafted to fool a person to believe that it’s beauty is real’ she thought to herself, and kept on standing there as if rooted to the spot unwillingly by the sheer beauty of the view below her.

But that wasn’t the case at all.

She wasn’t enamored or rendered immobile by the sight of the river. She was standing there to kill a couple of minutes. She was standing there to delay her arrival at the gate. She could see the old watchman partially from where she was standing. He was sitting on his worn out red plastic chair, bending down, his thin Bata slippers adorning his craggy feet, his stick gripped firmly between his feet while his chin rested shakily on the top of his stick. And he was sitting there waiting for her to turn up. She stood there silently, spying on him, waiting for him to lose his patience, waiting for him to start his frantic rhythm of tap tap tap tappity tap tap on the rocks with his stick. Any minute now, any minute now, she whispered to herself. As if on cue, the tap tapping started and she stood there quietly, following the urgent rhythm softly with her feet without missing a single beat. She liked doing that, being a vicarious participant to that urgent emotion raging through his veins, an emotion that she was dictating at that moment. It made her feel happy and alive. She suspected that the sly old man was fully aware of this little game that she played with him every evening, unwilling participant though he might be. On several occasions, she had seen him trying really hard to stop himself from starting his tap tapping, even going to the extent of placing his stick aside and sitting there as if he didn’t have a care in the world, as if he wasn’t counting every second waiting for her to turn up. But this was a test of wills, and she always won, mainly because the old man’s frail body had long lost its grip on his nerves. The stick always ended up moving faithfully up and down to the same old rhythm of his impatience every evening; later if not sooner, which was usually the case. It was inevitable. Her feet continued to follow his lead faithfully, the tapping growing steadily louder and faster and she could sense that the final crescendo was about to be reached. She could feel it forming in the air; tangible. Then it came, that final tap; it didn’t sound any different and wasn’t even significantly louder than the one before it, but it was the final tap and that was all that mattered at the moment. The moment of the second and final defeat of the night. He had lasted four minutes and twenty seconds that evening. Then he started coughing loudly and clearing his throat, admitting defeat, but it was a cough which seemed to say ‘That’s enough for one evening, now come out from there before I invoke the Devil himself to curse you and every member of your family.’ It was a cough with the veil of a threat and many colorful words behind it, and who was she to ignore that? It was her cue to step out and appear in front of him as if she had just left her room a minute ago.

She walked up to him and they smiled at each other briefly, smiled pleasantly at each other as if the silent battle had not taken place only a moment ago. They were shameless pretenders, both of them. Like every other evening he greeted her with, ‘Where is that friend of yours? You have lost her again?’ It wasn’t a taunt, rhetorical questions rather, but she always answered anyway, ‘I don’t know, why don’t you ask her when she comes back?’ Both of them already knew that room-mate had left for ‘that erotic place’ (i.e. Khajuraho) with a divinity student about two weeks ago, and would not return for at least another month. The question was just his way of saying hello and she had a vague understanding too that it was an effort on his part to remind her that they knew a person in common; a sort of a reminder of the common link, if you may. She did not mind. Any form of greeting is as good as the other. They are just words after all. She offered him a cigarette and they smoked together silently. He was in a hurry to leave and smoked quickly, dragging audibly and blowing out huge puffs at a regular interval. Then he was done and stood up from the chair.

He stood up and slowly handed over the stick to her. He was always so solemn and ceremonious about that part of the evening, nodding to her several times whenever he had to hand over his precious stick to her. ‘Keep it safe and don’t play around with it like you did last week. Don’t try any tricks with it again understand? Do you know what will happen to my life if I lose this stick?’ She had used the stick the previous week to fend off a man who was proposing ‘love matters’ to her when he spotted her sitting alone at the gate. She had had no choice but to wave the stick threateningly at him, which eventually led to a fierce tug of war, she on one side and slick local romeo on the other, both of them pulling the stick with all their might in opposite directions. She was fast losing the battle, her feet sliding on the gravel and she was panicking too. This is not good, she was thinking. Her hands were about to give way when she heard watchman’s shuffling feet approaching them from the steps leading to the gate. She thought she would die of relief, but she did not indicate any of that to her opponent for fear of some sort of a sudden movement on his part. Watchman was distraught when he spotted them and let out a loud tortured yelp. The sound surprised romeo to let go of his hold on the stick. Watchman came running, took the stick from her and started beating the perpetrator, shouting ‘trying to steal my stick were you? Thought you were going to get away with it huh?’ all the while. The man fled quickly and was never seen again. Watchman was inconsolable for days afterwards, and spoke only in curt monosyllables to her, as if the entire incident had been her fault. And now, he was doing it again, laying the guilt trip on her. ‘You’d think he was passing me the damned Olympic Torch’ she thought, but chose not to say anything. She took the precious stick and sat herself down on his old red plastic chair, fiercely stubbing her finished cigarette on the wall behind her. Then he turned to leave and went up the steps without turning back. Her gaze followed his back as he kept walking away, and after about a minute he disappeared, swallowed smoothly by a narrow by-lane that would take him to wherever he was heading.

He would be gone for two hours and during his absence, she was the watchman, responsible for the safety of all the tenants in the building. And while she was carrying out this very noble duty, she usually got lost reading a book, or writing something on her diary to pass the time. Nobody bothered her much usually, and that suited her fine; she wasn’t that interested in random people trying to impose their presence in her life anyway. Watchman usually came back on time, and the wonderful truth of the matter was that when he returned from heaven only knows where, he wasn’t watchman anymore; he had transformed into a ninja during those two hours, a ninja that would put all the Kotaros and Hanzos of the world to shame. She never asked where he went and he never offered the information. He was usually three sheets to the wind by the time he got back, an extremely breezy smile plastered on his face. But that wasn’t the point really. The point was that there was this aura of belligerent self-assurance about him during those hours, a haughty disdain that would slay anyone who dared cross him or say anything unpleasant to him; a tolerant ninja he wasn’t, understandably. Some days he would come back with fresh bruises on his face and body, some days he wouldn’t have his shirt on anymore, lose all his money and so on. But they never discussed it. 

Both of them understood that there was a price to be paid if one wanted to be a watchman by day and a ninja by night.

Photo and Story by Ruati Chhangte. This is a work of fiction. All Rights Reserved.

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