Bhama looked out of the window and saw he was still there, squatting under the mango tree opposite her house. He was decently dressed, though his mundu was dusty and crumpled. He wore a wristwatch and leather sandals. He had been there for two days. He didn’t look like a beggar. Yet, he sat there, hunger burning in his eyes.
She checked again in the afternoon. It was hot. Bhama fanned herself and muttered. The old man was now resting against the tree. There was a paper bag next to him, presumably food from some passerby returning from the temple. It was quiet outside. Only the parrots quarrelled with the crows in the mango tree. Most people were indoors, taking a nap. Bhama walked up to the gate. The man had tears in his eyes.
“Achachan, are you alright?” She leaned forward and addressed him. He nodded then turned his face away. “Would you like some water?”
He licked his cracked lips and whispered. “Thank you, molle. You are very kind.”
“Are you lost? Where do you live?” Bhama asked. She saw a jute bag hidden in the roots of the tree.
The man shook his head. “I had a house across the river. But now this is my home.” He patted the dusty ground he was sitting on.
“What are you saying, Achachan?” said Bhama. “Have you got no family?”
“Oh, I had a family last week. A son. A daughter-in-law. Four grandchildren.” He had a faraway look in his eyes.
“What happened to them?” Bhama didn’t want to know the answer. It was such a common story these days.
“They didn’t have room in the house for me.” He was shaking. He held up his frail hands. “I built that house with these hands. Educated my son. Got him married. After my wife died, I became a burden.”
“Did they throw you out, Achachan?” Bhama said, hands to her mouth.
The old man glared at her. “Throw me out? I left. I still have two feet that will listen to my command.”
Bhama lowered her gaze.
“Would you like to have a wash, Achachan? And have a drink of water?”
“Would you let me inside your house?” The old man asked, raising his eyebrow. “I’m a stranger.”
Bhama hesitated. It was true. She was alone at home. Her father-in-law didn’t count. He lay in bed all day, unable to move. She thought of her prayers in the temple. This was her chance.
“You’ve been living opposite my house for two days. You are tired and old. I cannot turn God away from my doorstep.”
The old man sneered. “My son treated me like a God in his childhood. This wretched man in front of you is no God. Just a sorry state of a man.”
Bhama looked down at her feet. She didn’t she want him inside her house, but neither could she ignore him. She led him in and showed him the wash stand in the courtyard. She found an old towel she kept for the servant. She also got a fresh shirt and mundu from her father-in-law’s cupboard. She set out a plate of rice and meen kuttan.
“God bless you, molle, you are kind,” the old man said. He ate little and refused the clothes. “I will not need these.”
“Your son is ungrateful,” Bhama said. “After all that you have done.”
The man shook his head. “They had no choice. I am very ill. I don’t have long to live. I did not want to be a burden on them. I want to travel to Kashi and die there.”
After he had eaten, he shuffled back to the tree. Bhama went in to lie down for a while. The summer heat had made her sluggish and she welcomed her afternoon nap. When she returned to the window, he was gone.
A groan from the outhouse brought her back to reality. “Bhama, molle.”
She gritted her teeth and turned away. But the voice became persistent. They had moved him out because she couldn’t stand the smell. She saw the servant-boy hurry with a bedpan.
For the hundredth time that day, Bhama prayed for deliverance.