Seth Ji was a humble and polite man. His immense material wealth did not define him as much as his generosity did.
The dome of the temple embraced the warmth of the rising sun in the cold month of December. Myriad colours of life welcomed the sunshine with birds chirping, bells ringing, and worshippers treading their way to the temple. The shops stacked in a line outside the temple resembled the compartments of a train, and added to its spiritual vibrancy. The shopkeepers dusted their tables and cupboards as they displayed the incense stands, fragrant incense, small boxes of vermilion, bangles, red veils, coconuts, and other items offered to the goddess. The priest, clad in a white dhoti and a brown shawl wrapped over his shoulders, circled the camphor around the idol of the goddess, as he chanted mantras.
Seth Ji, a pious man known for his social service and generosity, visited the temple daily along with his wife, Sarla Devi, to offer morning prayers. They would stand with folded hands, hypnotized by the holy chants escaping the lips of the priest. After reciting the mantras, the priest would distribute prasad to the devotees.
Today, as always, Seth Ji came with his wife to the temple, as was his routine. He had brought some things for the temple.
“We have brought some water-vessels and mats for the temple, Pundit Ji,” said Seth Ji to the priest.
“Oh! Seth Ji, you are so generous in your offerings to the temple. God bless you and your family,” replied the priest, offering prasad to him.
Seth Ji was a humble and polite man. His immense material wealth did not define him as much as his generosity did. The yearning for social service ran in his genes; even his daughter, Diya, who was now married and stayed in another city, had devoted her life for the upliftment of destitute girls and women. Whenever she came to meet her parents, she never failed to visit Anmol Ghar, the orphanage that her father had started for poor orphan girls. Seth Ji and Sarla Devi visited Anmol Ghar every day after their visit to the temple. They would enquire about the well being of the girls from the staff appointed to look after their needs.
“How is Shama now?” enquired Seth Ji.
“Last night she had high fever. I have given her medicine. She is recovering now, Seth Ji,” replied Dulari, the nurse.
“Take good care of her,” said Seth Ji to Dulari, as they moved into the infirmary.
Sarla Devi sat close to Shama on the bed, lightly stroking her head. Unknowingly, Sarla’s hand brushed against Shama’s chest as she turned back to fill a glass of water for Shama. Shama squirmed in pain.
“What happened, dear Shama?” questioned Sarla, as tears rolled down Shama’s cheeks.
“It’s the fever, Sarla Ji, and her deteriorating health that make her infirm. We are attending to her health properly. She refused to take food, but we are constantly giving her something healthy to eat every few hours,” said Dulari.
“Is there any other problem?” asked Seth Ji from Shanta, the counsellor.
“No, Sir, it is the fever that makes her such,” said Shanta.
“Let me know if there is any other problem or anything you cannot handle. Speak to her once again,” instructed Seth Ji.
“Sure Sir, I will speak to her again and inform you,” replied Shanta.
Shama held Sarla’s hand all the while Sarla sat near her. The girls had more affinity towards Sarla than towards Seth Ji. Maybe, it was maternal affection that drew them closer to her. Every morning, when Seth Ji and Sarla came, all the girls gathered around Sarla, greeting her as she showered her maternal love on them. Out of the twenty-five girls who lived in Anmol Ghar, seventeen-year-old Shama was the oldest.
“Take care, my dear Shama. You will soon get well. God bless you,” said Sarla, as she got up to leave.
“Give her proper medication and food. Tell Seth Ji if you need to call the doctor,” said Sarla to Dulari.
“Yes, Sarla Ji, I will take proper care of her, and will let Seth Ji know if any help is needed,” assured Dulari.
Seth Ji and Sarla Devi bid them adieu for the day, as all the girls resumed their classes and other duties.
Ten-year-old Chamki had become a part of Anmol Ghar two days ago. Her parents had met with a fatal accident at the construction site at which they worked. She hopped from one place to the other ignoring the words of the caretaker, Leela.
“Do not go around skipping and jumping everywhere. You have to follow rules here. When you are told to be in the hall, be there. If you are instructed to be in the park, go there. When you are told to sleep, sleep,” commanded Leela, in a stern voice.
Chamki sulked, sitting in the corner of the room.
“You see Chamki, it takes time to adjust to a new place. It has been two years now that I have been here. When I came here, I was ten years old; today I turned twelve,” said Saira, comforting Chamki.
“Saira didi, I do not like Leela aunty. She is very bad,” said Chamki, angrily.
“Lower your voice and keep quiet. You cannot react like this over here. You will be punished for not obeying. Did you not see Shama didi?”
“I know, she has fever and is unwell,” replied Chamki, confidently.
“Keep your voice low, Chamki. You will get me punished too. I will tell you something, but don’t tell anyone. Shama didi has been punished for disobeying, and it has been three days that she has not been given any food to eat,” said Saira, in a hushed voice.
“Why Saira didi?” questioned Chamki.
“She refused to eat the special food that they give to some girls at night. Anybody who speaks too much and disobeys is punished,” cautioned Saira.
At night, all the girls came to take their dinner plates. They were given dinner at 8 o’clock every day, and instructed to sleep by 9 o’clock.
Chamki stood in line with Saira, waiting for her dinner plate.
“Wow! Chamki didi. Your white kurta with blue flowers looks so lovely,” complimented Chamki.
“Thank you, dear Chamki. Today is my birthday so Sarla aunty gave it to me as a gift,” said Saira smiling.
There was no sound to be heard, no sound at all for a minute except the sound of the running tap water and then suddenly shrieks....
Chamki noticed the special plate of richly laid food and salad lying on the table separately.
“Saira didi…Who will get this magical plate of food today?” asked Chamki.
“I don’t know Chamki. I do not even want it. I wish you too should never get it. Though, it looks delicious, whoever eats this food feels sleepy and becomes unwell…There is some kind of magic in it I think….Black magic…,” whispered Saira.
All the girls carried their dinner plates to the hall. Chamki, too, held the plate with her little hands, and waited for Saira to bring hers.
“Saira…Here you are. Happy birthday, Saira. You have turned twelve today and you shall have this delicious special food as your birthday gift,” said the cook, Rati Lal, stroking Saira’s hair.
“Rati uncle, I do not want to eat this,” said Saira, curling her lip.
Rati Lal stared at Saira with burning anger. The fierce look in his eyes was enough to induce Saira to take the plate offered to her. She was made to sit separately, right under his nose as was the custom to be followed by the girl who got special food for dinner.
The cook instructed Chamki to go and join the other girls with her food. Saira reluctantly ate the food, taking a sip of water to gulp down every single bite she took. Chamki was the last to finish her dinner, and when she came into the kitchen to wash her plate, she saw that the magic had begun to work and Saira’s eyes were half closed, with her eyelids refusing to open even if she tried. The cook shouted at Chamki to go to the hall and sleep.
Leela, the caretaker came in to take Saira with her to another room.
“Will Saira didi not sleep with me today?” questioned Chamki.
“You little fledgling, mind your own work! How many times have I told you to just follow instructions without questioning? Saira is not feeling well so Dulari ji will take care of her. You go and sleep or I shall seal your lips someday,” shouted Leela angrily.
Chamki went in with the other girls to sleep. She tossed and turned on her mattress as varied thoughts wove a mesh in her mind, and she mumbled to herself, “What happened to Saira didi? Did the special magic plate of food really make her unwell? Will she sleep with me tomorrow?” Missing Saira, she fell asleep.
The next morning, in the early hours when all the girls were fast asleep, Chamki could hear gurgling sounds from her stomach and she felt an urgency to relieve. She silently slid out of the dormitory to go to the toilet adjacent to it. Before she got in, she saw Saira coming through the corridor. Saira staggered as she walked with nothing to drape her except the white kurta with blue flowers, which now also had red flowers with thorns etched onto it. Seeing Saira, Chamki forgot all about her urgency and went to hug her, but Saira walked on, or rather, dragged herself oblivious to everything around her. She locked herself in the toilet and stumbled onto the floor… Chamki could hear the sound of water flowing, and knocking on the door, she whispered, “Saira didi, open the door. What happened didi? Saira didi…”
There was no sound to be heard, no sound at all for a minute except the sound of the running tap water and then suddenly shrieks…..deafening shrieks could be heard that made everybody shiver.
Leela called the security guard who pushed open the door, which Saira had locked from inside and was refusing to open. Chamki was slapped by Leela for coming out of the dormitory, and all girls including Chamki were instructed to sleep. Saira was taken to the infirmary to share the bed with Shama. She was given medicine that put her to sleep. Later that morning, Chamki secretly peeped into the infirmary, twice. Saira did not scream now; she did not come out of the room, but just slept. The nurse told them that she needed rest to get well again. Chamki was relieved that Saira didi was getting some rest and she would get well soon. Throughout the day Saira’s image of walking in the corridor in the flimsy stained kurta replayed in Chamki’s mind incessantly.
Sarla’s health was not good, and that day Seth Ji and Sarla Devi did not visit Anmol Ghar in the morning. It was in the afternoon that Seth Ji came along with his daughter, Diya who had come to visit her ailing mother. The girls had told Chamki that Diya didi was very loving and kind.
Chamki introduced herself by saying, “Hello Diya didi. I am Chamki and I have come here recently.”
Diya lovingly hugged her and said, “You are at the right place, little bird. If you have any problem you can tell me or Seth Ji.”
Seth Ji too gave a peck on the little girl’s cheek, and moved in to talk to the staff and enquire about the daily workings of Anmol Ghar.
The girls talked to Diya about their classes or other general things, but never uttered a word about the hardships they faced or the special magical food which made them unwell.
Chamki recalled the words of Saira that speaking too much or disobeying called for punishment, but it was some inexplicable feeling in Chamki that did not allow her to keep quiet, and she hugged Diya, whispering something into her ear.
Whatever the little bird said caused a rattling in Diya’s mind. Diya inspected the premises of the orphanage and met the two ailing girls, Shama and Saira.
“What happened to these two girls?” questioned Diya.
“Just general illness, Ma’am. These girls keep frolicking around without woollens, even in this cold weather. I have given them medicines and they will soon be well. It is the medicine that makes them drowsy, but it’s good that at least they are taking rest,” replied Dulari, promptly.
Diya smelt something fishy, though she did not let others get a hint of what was going on in her mind. She thought that she would look into the matter herself first, without causing anxiety to her old parents, as her mother, Sarla Devi, was unwell, and the naïve father was already immersed in tending to his wife and the hefty business.
After bidding the girls farewell, Seth Ji went for a business meeting while Diya walked towards home.
“I will not let this edifice of humanity built with love by my parents crumble down. I will not let anybody ruin the lives of these innocent souls,” she mumbled to her herself, as she walked.
She reached home and enquired about her mother’s health. She gave medicine to her mother, and put her to sleep. Thereafter, she secretly left for the orphanage. On the way, she called up her husband, DSP Rathore. She shared her suspicion with him and together they planned everything. They knew that things needed to be done in complete secrecy without anybody getting even a whiff of it, and they had to be quick about it as innocent lives were at stake.
She was told by her husband that he would be there in around three hours. On the way to the orphanage, Diya bought some eatables.
Diya reached the orphanage and said, “Leela Ji, I may be leaving tomorrow, so I got sweets and chocolates for these little girls. I have got some fresh vegetables too. Tell Rati Lal Ji to cook them for the children for today’s dinner.”
Leela took away the eatables to be kept in the kitchen, while Diya closed the door of the hall and talked to the girls, trying to elicit the truth. She wished it was just mad suspicion and everything was just right.
The girls did not speak.
What did their silence convey? Either things were really bad or everything was just fine. Diya’s mind was filled with vacillating thoughts.
She bid the girls and the staff goodbye, but as soon as she left the premises of the orphanage, she walked around its boundary, and crept in through the back, where the fence was a little broken. She took steady and quick steps to a storeroom, which was built at a little distance from the main orphanage building. The storeroom had a small window through which she could see the workings in the Anmol Ghar.
It was dinner time and the girls carried their plates from the kitchen to the hall. Diya could see that there was one girl who sat separately in the kitchen to have food, though she could not see her face clearly. As all the other girls retired to sleep, this girl was dragged to a separate room which was adjacent to the kitchen and was clearly visible to Diya. She sent a text message to her husband to be quick, as things really seemed to be dubious.
DSP Rathore, along with his two assistants, secretly entered the orphanage premises through the broken fence.
All the four were now in the storeroom, and kept an eagle-eyed watch on the going on in the orphanage. All the lights were put out, except a small flickering light, like that of a lamp, that partially lit the room adjacent to the kitchen.
“Don’t worry; soon we will catch hold of the culprits.”
“I should call my father,” murmured Diya.
“We need to find out what’s going on here, before we tell your parents. We cannot give them stress in this old age. We shall let them know after we nab the bad eggs. God is with us,” said Diya’s husband.
Then suddenly the curtains of the room in which the girl lay were drawn. They could see the shadow of a man unfastening his shirt.
“We can no longer wait over here. We need to go in,” said Diya, showing urgency.
They got out of the storeroom, caught hold of the security guard, and told him to keep shut. On seeing three policemen surrounding him, he nodded, and sat down.
In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, they were in the orphanage. No sound could be heard except the ticking of a clock. The room was bolted from inside by a metallic fob chain, and through the little chink, they could barely see the back of the man who had undressed himself and was taking off the clothes from the girl’s body as he kissed her.
Diya could no longer hold her repulsion as the girl lay unaware on the bed in a semi-conscious state. Together they pushed open the door.
DSP Rathore nabbed the monster; Diya slapped him as the assistant switched on the lights. And then…….there he was….
“P…………P…..Pa….. Pa……. Paaaapa……,” cried Diya, as she grew pale and her body shivered.
Her husband’s eyes seemed as if he had never blinked in his life, as his grip loosened. He too let out an almost inaudible sound, “It’s you……. Pa………Pa…….”
Words refused to come out of Diya’s mouth. Stammering and stuttering she said, “Succcchhh a beassttt… cannn…nev….neverrr be some….someone’s….fa… faaaa….ther…Hanggg….him…Takeeee him away……”
There was complete pandemonium in the orphanage as DSP Rathore and his assistants arrested the devil in disguise, along with the staff members who were his accomplices. As they dragged them out of the orphanage, one girl spat on Seth Ji’s face, and the others mouthed obscenities.
Diya looked on, silently.
“I will not let this temple be tainted by the work of some dirty hands...”
Megha Katoria is pursuing her doctorate in English Literature from H.P. University, India. Formerly, she worked as an Assistant Professor and as an Assistant Editor. She enjoys writing, painting, sketching, and all activities that involve creativity. An avid reader and writer, she has contributed to journals, magazines, and newspapers like The Criterion, Galaxy, Dialogue, Ruminations, Research Chronicler, Gen-Next Times, etc. Her research-led article ‘Ismat Chughtai: An Interrogating Dangerous Voice’ also appeared in Dangerous Women Project of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), University of Edinburgh.