[Short story] Shelter
What was meant to be our balcony, was converted into an extension of the attached bedroom. Pillars were raised and connected with rows of large windows; compensation for the open balcony that died before it was born. The reason for this change of plan was the wide-open space at the back of our house filled with wild trees and shrubs and an abandoned, run-down hut. This was not on our property, and my parents apprehended that thieves and dacoits could hide there during the day and gain easy access to our first-floor balcony and into our house, at night. All they would need is a ladder or some rope. So potential robbery eliminated our chance of ever having a balcony. My poor mother kept referring to those windows as our balcony, though.
The place was once a garden—or so I was told—but years and years of neglect had turned it into a scene from horror films. The tallest tree bore jackfruits. There was a guava tree as well; the neighborhood children (and sometimes adults), used to steal guavas from this tree. Mostly, the place was filled with creepers and climbers. I could never tell where one tree ended, and another began. There, I witnessed all the shades of green. As the years rolled on and yet the owners expressed no interest, people from the vicinity started treating this place with the same neglect; they turned it into a dumpster. If you felt tired and didn’t want to take out the trash, you could just throw it out the window and into the so-called garden. The underlying growth in that place was so thick that trash once dropped was never seen again. With broken tiles as its roof, the hut was home to feral and pernicious animals; cockroaches, snakes, squirrels, rats, frogs, a bazillion insects—you name it. Once, a mongoose entered our bedroom through an open window. It was a little jungle amid an urban city.
One day, an incident occurred which changed the fate of this place. I was nine years old. It was 2 am; we were woken up with a shriek; sounds of commotion from the back of our house. We rushed to the windows and flashed a light. It was a gut-wrenching sight. A black form could be seen standing on the brick wall separating the garden from the adjacent houses. This figure was facing the window of a ground-floor room in our neighbor’s house. It was the light from this window that illuminated the form of this insanely dark person—the clothes, or whatever was wrapping his body, was blacker than the darkness he was standing in, and his skin was pitch black too. It seemed like a desperate attempt to blend in with the surroundings. But the sudden shriek of the neighbor’s boy, who must’ve discerned this strange form from his bedroom window, and subsequently turned on the lights, came as a shock to the thief. He stood still for a few moments and then jumped into our neighbor’s compound. Meanwhile, our neighbors who happened to be on the roof, relishing the summer night breeze—while their boy had gone to bed—had witnessed the whole scene from above. They rushed down the stairs and were in the backyard in moments. But the thief was a touch faster; by then he had climbed the shared wall and entered our compound. My sister rushed down the stairs, and I followed her in excitement. Mother was petrified and father was asleep—nobody bothered waking him up in this hullabaloo. The thief had already crossed our compound; he was grappling the locked main gate, in an attempt to mount to his escape, when our neighbors seized him from behind. Our neighbors were two burly, middle-aged brothers, while the thief, although very agile, was rather lean and feeble compared to them. Soon local people gathered in front of our house and the main gate was opened for the midnight show. The thief was thrashed with a bamboo stick while four people pinned down his limbs. His skin was painted black, but with each strike, the skin would tear open and I could see the white tissue. The thief was not handed over to the police since he pleaded for mercy; he had little children to feed and swore that he would never steal again. The merciless beating was unanimously decided to be sufficient punishment. A few weeks later, we heard of a robbery at an apartment complex nearby.
There were two consequences of this incident—firstly, my parents were beyond proud of their foresight; secondly, the owners of this abandoned garden-cum-dumpster were notified of this incident and implored to take measures regarding the condition of their land as it was posing a threat to the safety of the locality. Eventually, they cut some of the trees and trimmed the rest every other month. They cleared the path that led to the hut and repaired the hut as well. When I was twelve, the hut was rented out to a cobbler and his family—three children and a wife. They were a noisy bunch, which was in complete contrast to the deathly stillness this place was characterized with, for years. For the first time, there were cries of children where there used to be buzzing of insects. The birds still chirped, but the family chirped more. They used to light a lamp every evening, which used to surprise me initially since I was used to looking at impeccable darkness when I gazed out the window after sunset.
Fast forward six years, and I’m standing at the window, unable to tear away my eyes from the magnificence of this fire. It’s evening, and it’s completely dark out, except for that temporary fire created by the construction workers, which they cook their food with. They do this every evening, and I gawk at it awhile. I wonder if it is the same fire that was enclosed in the tenants’ lamp, which they used to light every evening. Does the fire recognize the significance of this place? Does it notice all this change like I do?
The cobbler and his family left a year ago when this land was sold to a constructor; he is now erecting a flat building on it. I witnessed all the trees being cut and their roots being burned by this same fire so that they don’t dare to rise again. Then the construction workers came in and started digging big, square holes of equal dimensions in the ground from which the pillars would be raised. The foundation was created and made strong and permanent with cement. There are so many floors now, where there was nothing but air before. The construction workers live on these floors—the ground floor is for lighting the fire and cooking the meals; they store all the necessary belongings on the first floor; the second floor is probably for sleeping; I have no idea what they use the higher floors for, or if they even use them at all. Since I live on the first floor and hardly get out of the room, my only view of the world is through these windows; the rest of the higher floors are out of my sight and hence, forever a mystery. My mother was particularly annoyed at the prospect of a flat building blocking the only open side of our house. “It’d take away all our sunlight”, she said. I smile demurely and wonder if the sunlight was ever ours, to begin with. She says that the workers live far away, so they can’t get back home every day and come to work the next morning. That’s why they live in this unfinished building at night while they work on it during the day. It has just been six months since all this construction work began, and the structure of the flat building is finished already. The walls are yet to be raised and there is so much detailing to be done before it is finished; it’ll take another year or so. After that, the workers would leave and the flat owners would arrive and call it their home.
First, there were animals and trees. They were here before I was even born. They were probably on the land our house is built on and on the land all around where our neighbors have built their homes today. When they left, the cobbler family came. They lived in harmony with the existing plants and animals and shared their home. They lived a simple life there. Then they left, and the workers came. They drove out the remaining plants and insects and constructed a home more suitable for humans. Soon these workers would leave and the flat owners would come feeling entitled to this piece of land. And their children would think of it as their birthright. Who knows, who will come after them. Who knows if I’ll be around to witness any of it as I’ve witnessed so far.
Maybe not. From what I have witnessed so far, I can tell that this will change too; as everything does. Time has a way of wiping the slate clean and starting all over again in a matter of a few moments, in the universal scale. And then there are small creatures like us, living and dying within those moments, thinking certain things are eternal.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Sreejani, She is a writer and a student of Comparative Literature based in Kolkata, trying her best to make the most out of life while writing about what moves her. She hopes that whatever she writes, can help one feel something, no matter where they are situated on the map of the world.