What follows is an abridged version of a short story I wrote in the late 1980s in Manhattan. The plot came to me while I was temping for an investment banker at the World Trade Center; a decade or so later, the office in which I then worked was reduced to rubble by the infamous airplane strike.
In 1999, shortly before I left Manhattan for the Himalayas, I condensed this story down to 2000 words for a short story competition—which I happened to win. Soon after the prize was announced, someone (I believe he was a competitor) accused me of plagiarizing the plot from a story made popular by Alfred Hitchcock. I was shocked, having not read the story he referred to. Even if I had, The Zamindar’s Wife has a completely different setting and crew of characters—which should be proof enough of a writer’s originality. Unfortunately, I was stung enough to retaliate; I hope I would do better today.
The long version of The Zamindar’s House is naturally far more detailed and interesting. I intend to save it for a collection of short stories about Indian women who break the mold. The title of that future collection will be: Sacrifice to the Black Goddess.
Winner of the 1999 Sulekha Fall Challenge
The murder of her only son Vikram completed the destruction of Sundari’s once blazing spirit. One dreary year later, sole inhabitant of the mansion built two dusty miles from the village of Hastinapura by Ram Thakurdas, her husband’s great-grandfather, Sundari sank into a torpor so deep she felt like a fly struggling feebly within the viscous maw of a monstrous tropical flower.
As she rocked herself in the old swing chair on the veranda, sipping delicately spiced tea, she recalled her disturbing encounter with the young skinny social worker who’d puttered up the drive on his rusty scooter last month to visit her.
“I’m from the new Sevak office in Hastinapura. You’ve heard of us?” He’d perched anxiously on a worn maroon velvet couch in the front hall lined with flamboyant portraits of her husband and his ancestors. Her simple black cotton sari thinly bordered with gold seemed to reassure him.
She nodded. Sevak was a grass-roots social service organization founded by Maharashtra’s college-educated radicals.
“Hastinapura must rise from the dead!” he’d announced dramatically, startling her. “It’s a tragedy—generations of weavers with no money to operate. The government grant’s not enough, we need private donations.”
She gestured to the inquisitively hovering maidservant to bring tea and biscuits. “For what precisely?”
“Small-scale handloom industries.”
Sundari cringed; how to confess that, despite the faded grandeur of her home, all her husband had bequeathed her was the humiliation of having died in the act of laboring over a teenaged prostitute? That she’d survived only by selling pieces of jewelry she’d managed to hide from his avaricious eyes? “I have no money to spare. Perhaps when I die, I will leave Sevak my home,” she said, avoiding his eyes.
Her response shocked him. “Sevak offers you a chance to redeem yourself!” he cried excitedly, coming to his feet in a flurry of sudden movement. “You zamindars have bled India for centuries!”
Dazed, she noticed his baggy khaki pants and the bright splashes of turmeric on his shirt. The boy was cooking for himself. “Won’t you wait for tea?” she pleaded, but he was already gone.
As a radiant bride, she’d kept far from the low of spirit, afraid to catch their contagion. Now, she acknowledged wryly, she was one of them. Hastinapura’s heat must have put her to sleep for the distant cries of children on their way home from the village school jolted her out of the nightmare she’d been plagued with since Vikram’s murder.
Once again she heard the stranger’s high voice, Vikram’s frantic responses, that final gunshot. Then the police officer, informing her that Vikram belonged to a gang specializing in stealing gold biscuits. “The almost perfect crime, Mrs. Thakurdas,” he’d mocked, showing his contempt for the highborn son who had sunk so low. “Hoarding gold’s illegal to begin with, so their victims couldn’t complain. But your son made off with all the loot. Cheats don’t like being cheated.”
“Aren’t you going to catch his murderer?” she’d cried. “I can identify his voice!”
“Catch him?” The official had raised an eyebrow. “He’s probably fled India by now, with enough gold to fund a revolution. In any case, Mrs. Thakurdas,” he’d said more gently, touched by her misery, “we’d need more than a voice to go by.”
Sundari didn’t tell the policeman that, unnerved by her urgent hammering on Vikram’s door at the sound of raised voices, the murderer had fled, empty-handed. Let the gold lie where it was—perhaps the murderer would come back for it one day.
Now footsteps on the gravel drive startled her and she looked up to see her old gardener standing beneath the spreading tamarind tree.
“What brings you here, O Shivan?” she asked.
Shivan spat a stream of betel juice into the dry earth. “A city fellow drove into the village today, madam,” he lisped through half a mouthful of teeth. “Wanted to know if the zamindar’s house was for sale.”
“Really? What did he look like?”
Shivan puffed out his scrawny chest in imitation of the stranger. “Fat and rich, madam, driving a shiny car.”
“A real-estate chap,” Sundari surmised. “What did you say?”
“Me? Nothing. The hotelkeeper gave him directions here.” Shivan’s face took on a pleading expression. “I need money for the doctor,” he confessed. “My grandson ran after his car, these city folk usually throw the children some change. This bastard stopped, then, when the boy ran forward eagerly, reversed! My boy fell into the gully and cut his foot on some broken glass…”
“Give him a tetanus shot,” Sundari ordered, her jaw tightening. She opened the knot in her sari and extracted a ten rupee note which she placed in his gnarled hands.
In gratitude, Shivan touched the note to his forehead and bowed, then motioned toward her once glorious gardens. “See?” he pointed his walking stick at a clump of ivory-hued flowers. “Datura!” He made to uproot it, but Sundari stopped him. An English botanist, a guest of the late zamindar, had spotted the flower’s long white flaring blossom. “Angel’s Trumpet,” he’d informed her crisply, nudging the shaft of the bloom with a muddy black boot. “Causes hallucination, sometimes death.”
“Weed after the rains, when the earth is soft,” Sundari dismissed Shivan with an imperious wave. “And take the mangoes in the backyard to cheer up the boy.”
She moved curiously to where Shivan had pointed. His eyesight was still good—it was indeed the dreaded datura. In a haze, she bent down to uproot the plants. Then she returned to the swing to dream away the hours till nightfall. The roar of a car shook her out of her reverie. She opened her eyes in twilight to see a silver Studebaker roll to a stop before the house. A corpulent man eased his body out of the car. Beyond, village lights winked faintly.
“Namasthe,” he said, beaming at the gaunt old woman peering at him. “I am Dharilal— from Bombay.”
This must be the fellow Shivan had warned her about. “Come in,” she invited, noting the sweat beading his forehead. He followed her into the cavernous sitting room.
“Permit me to come to the point, madame,” he said, lowering his bulk into a divan as Sundari returned with the tea. He took a large gulp. “Your home impresses me.”
“How much?” she asked peremptorily. Considering its remoteness and state of disrepair, she’d been advised it would fetch a meager lakh of rupees.
Dharilal chuckled patronizingly. “An astute businesswoman in Hastinapura!” The dying sunlight caught the gold fillings on his teeth, blinding her momentarily. “First I must see the interior.”
“If you explain to me why an urbanite would want to move so far from Bombay.”
“Heart condition,” Dharilal confided mournfully, massaging his chest with bejewelled fingers. “City life is too strenuous. Already I’ve suffered two attacks.”
The man wheezed as he spoke; with all that fat, his heart certainly labored. “You shouldn’t be driving yourself about, Mr. Dharilal,” Sundari chided. “The ride from the city is exhausting, is it not?”
“It is indeed,” Dharilal agreed mournfully.
Sundari stood, beckoning him to follow. She led him through high-ceilinged rooms with ornate plaster carvings and narrow corridors, even letting him have a glimpse into her own bedroom with its four poster carved bed and bay windows with their sweeping views.
“Superb!” Dharilal announced. “Now the other wing!” She hesitated, so he added quickly—”I’d be willing to go high. Three lakhs…maybe more….”
Three lakhs? For a property worth less than a third of that? “Come then,” she invited, leading him into the west wing. But he was overtaking her, trying the door to Vikram’s old suite. He stood in the center of the room, eyes flicking over every part of it. “Mr. Dharilal,” she called, but he didn’t hear her. “Mr. Dharilal!” she repeated sharply. “Maintenance is prohibitive!”
“But worth it, Mrs. Thakurdas, most definitely worth it.” His cold eyes were still darting around the room. “May I bring a construction fellow in to make an estimate?”
Sundari smiled. “You must be hungry. Village fare’s not good for a heart patient. Let’s talk over dinner.”
Dharilal demurred weakly, but Sundari insisted, leading him past the many side chambers and into the spacious kitchen. She set steel containers with rotis, lentils, rice, a dish of fried mutton, green beans and a bowl of yoghurt on the table and watched as he ate, plying him with more and more until there was nothing left. Dharilal sank back, replete.
“Some paan, Mr. Dharilal?” Sundari inquired, bringing out her silver salver and cutting the water-softened arecanut with miniature shears.
“Only a fool would refuse,” he replied ingratiatingly.
Sundari was skilled at creating the heart-shaped, aromatic leaf-package used both as a breath freshener and digestive. Deftly, she packed the leaf with arecanut, adding rose petal jam, tiny silver balls and a pinch of white lime. Pinning the aromatic package together with a clove, she offered it to Dharilal.
“Have another,” Sundari invited, rolling a second. As he bit into it, she said abruptly. “Did you know my son was killed here?”
Dharilal hesitated, then nodded sympathetically. “People in the village spoke of it.”
“So, Mr. Dharilal,” Sundari leaned forward, riveting him with her eyes, “you’re here to locate your misbegotten gold, are you not?”
“Do not joke with me, madame!” Dharilal stuttered.
She laughed grimly. “Joke with a murderer? No, no, no, I prefer to talk about serious matters.”
Dharilal gaped at the old woman in growing disbelief.
“How do I know you killed Vikram?” Sundari continued softly. “Your voice, the fact that no villager would discuss my son’s death with a stranger, and most of all, your ridiculous offer. I was not a zamindar’s wife for nothing, you know.”
Dharilal struggled to rise, but Sundari’s glittering eyes pinned him to the chair. “And by the way,” she added, “you’ve just consumed enough datura to drop an elephant.”
“Datura?” Dharilal croaked. “You fed me poison?”
Sundari cackled at his incredulous expression. “What were you trying to do, fool? Dazzle a woman who never cared for money with money?”
“You’re mad!” Dharilal whispered hoarsely.
“Mad with grief, Mr. Dharilal, but not stupid, no.”
The old woman rose to her full height until she towered over him. “To hell with you, Dharilal!” she ordered sternly, eyes blazing, raising her arms like the wings of a savage bird of prey. “It is your proper place.”
Dharilal stared up at the woman he’d so terminally misjudged, his fleshy lips working in terror. Then his fingers clawed at his chest and his huge body collapsed, face forward, sending the empty vessels clattering on to the kitchen tiles.
Sundari’s own heart had almost ceased as she watched his struggle with death. Hands trembling, she unhooked the gold-edged face mirror that hung over the sink and held it over his open mouth. Its surface remained dry. She stared down at the corpse, then decisively moved away to pick up the telephone. “A realtor from Bombay suffered a fatal coronary at the Hastinapura zamindar’s house,” she informed the desk sergeant with quiet authority. “Tell the Inspector to send a vehicle for the body at once.”
She returned to the swing on the verandah, awaiting the police. Some would debate it, but on examining her conscience, she decided that her vow not to kill was intact—the paan had contained no datura. She’d gambled on Dharilal’s own guilt and fear doing him in, and had won. Karma, the law of cause and effect, was unerring: Those who killed, died horribly, in this lifetime or another.
In her mind’s eye, she recalled Dharilal’s hungry survey of her son’s bedroom. Now she was certain the gold was still hidden there. Vikram’s suitcase had been so heavy the maidservant had helped him with it; no thanks to Dharilal, her beloved son had never left home.
Tomorrow she would locate the gold, then inform the social worker that she would indeed finance the renascence of Hastinapura. A gust of wind pushed the swing gently forward and, as fireflies threaded luminous magic into rustling tamarind trees, Sundari visualized his troubled face exploding into joy.