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If the ant had not bitten Mrs. Mathur on the back of her ample thigh, perhaps none of this would have happened. But then, the ant did bite her viciously and thus started a whole chain of improbable events. The ample stretch of skin, delicately undulating behind her printed silk sari, grew more and more irritated as she itched and scratched and scratched and itched over a greater expanse till she grew thoroughly disgruntled with the world. Even at that point, if she had applied some antiseptic cream and calmed the angry red area, it is quite possible that she would have laughed off her anger and frustration and seen the world once more with her mellow brown eyes as a really nice place. But she did not, and the whole bucket of her dissatisfaction got upset and flowed angrily in the direction of her nehew Sudhir.
Sudhir. That odious young man. Twenty-three years old and never done a day's work in his life. And from the way he smiled audaciously at life and all the pretty young girls who fell all over him, and pushed his sunglasses like a movie star up aver his forehead and vroomed around on his motor-bike as if he owned the world, she knew as surely as if it had been predicted in his horoscope that he would never amount to anything. He was just waiting for her to die, this cheeky ne'er-do-well, so that he could inherit the fortune her late husband had left her. What plans he must be making, he and tht awful gold-digger, his latest girl friend. They must be waiting for her to go and leave him all that money. They probably had it all figured out, where they would go on their honeymoon. Did they go on honeymoons these days, these modeern young people? Looked like they were already having their honeymoon, it was just the marriage they were waiting for. Or perhaps not even that. Yes, yes, of course they would marry. That girl with her tight jeans, see-through shirt and laughing dark hair looked to smart to let such an eligible boy slip through her grabbng fingers. Well, thank God she was still thre, Mrs. Mathur, his only surviving reltive, not so hale, not so hearty but still alive. To keep the slippery Sudhir and his shady girlfriend from getting their greedy, lazy paws on her husband's hard-earned money.
Ouch! The sore spot itched like anything. Like nothing on earth. Earth? How long would she be on this earth?Ram, Ram, her last days were drawing near. The end was in sight. It was time to spend the rest of her days in prayer. Of course, she went to the temple very regularly. She took the prayer thali with her, bought the flowers, coconut, and oil from the little shop at the doorstep and offered it to the veermilion-covered god. Sudhir had come with her just once. She did not like his questions. Why, he asked, was the same oil that the priest poured on the god stealthily collected in a receptacle behind the statue and sneaked baack to the shop where she had bought it, to be sold to the next worshipper? Have faith, she told him. Don't ask questions. Wouldn't your god, he persisted, prefer to be bathed in fresh oil every time instead of recycled oil? Say what you my, he teased his aunt fondly. If I were a god, it would make all the difference in this world, or the next for that matter, to be bathed in fragrant, fresh oil. Also, said the persistent unbeliever, the god looks really bored. He's not really paying attention. Just like the saffron-robed priest who is mechanically reciting his mantras and pouring the oil and and cracking the coconut. He looks like he would like a different job. He looks burned out and fed up.
Sudhir was just intolerable. She would never bring him here again.So what was a poor old woman with a nephew like that and nobody else in this world to do? In this world? Why was she always thinking of this world when she was soon headed for the next? If there was only some way in which she could prevent Sudhir from getting his smooth-operator hands on her husband's fortune. The trouble was, he had such a convincing manner of saying things that, deny as she may, there were very few new thoughts and ideas in her head which h ad not been insinuated there or hammered home by her nephew. This charming son of her husband's brother had charismatically wangled and weaved his confident way around the both of them, even when her husband, god rest his soul, was alive. And that ant? Who waas this ant? And why had it chosen her out of all the biteable people in the world? Was it an incarnation perhaps of some old enemy from one of her past lives? A creditor, perhaps, whom she had not paid back and who had waited and waited to reincarnate and get his own baack.. on the back of her thigh?Ram, Ram, if there were only a way in which she could be sure of paying off all her karmic debts and creditors forever.
Raising her sari discreetly, and carefully looking aaround to check if anybody was watching her, she scratched the spot that itched. Then quqckly lowered her sari modestly. Wouldn't do to have her teen-aged boy servant peek at her. Of course, she was fifty-five and in poor health, but she still had a good body. True, her back ached a lot and the arthritis in her shoulder was nearly crippling. She was not long for this world. So what if she was somewhat plump?That would be a problem for her pall-bearers. She remembered how her loving husband had reassured her she was not plump at all, just comfortably built. "Brought up with happiness"is what he called it. Oh, how she missed him.
When she was born agin, re-incarnated, how wonderful it would be if she could tsake all this money with her. In all good marriages, you have the same husband for seven lives, as she and millions of other Hindu women believed. How happy her husband would be! Of course, she did not mean it literally. You don't bury jewels and cash with the corpse. In fact, she would not be buried at all, they would cremate her. As they should. How then, could she get all that money? Sudhir would surely take it all away.
All at once, clear as the crystal chandelier in her dining room, like a direct message from heaven, she knew what she must do.She must take the money with her when she went. She looked at the framed picture of her late husband, hanging on t he wall, with a fresh jasmine garland around his neck. Please, she said to her dead husband. I know you love and trust Sudhir and expect him to really take care of me. But trust me, this time. I'm a woman. I sense these things, even though I can't put my finger on it. I will be bringing all our money with me when I meet you in my next life. How? I'll find out how. It was all so simple really, as simple as grinding the areca nut to put in her mouth for freshness of breath. Who would tell her how? Who would show her the way? Who else but the man who always told her how. How t find tht lost ring. How to ward off the evil eye. How to ensure tht her husband had peace and happiness in his new incarnation. How to make the dreadful pain go away. The how-to man...her Guru.
The Guru lived in a small room a few yards away from the temple. She had never seen him wearing anything in any weather except th sacred thread around his neck and the loin-cloth around his....well, she blushed, whatever. His deep sonorous voice, ash-smeared forehead, and the infinite wisdom in those haunting dark eyes had given her so much comfort over the years. She had been coming to him ith her problems, small and big, and there was little about her he did not know.
He knew about Sudhir. And how Mrs. Mathur felt about him. And how Sudhir hated him. Auntieji, he would storm, that man is fleecing you. Gawd, in this day and sage, how can you fall for his stories? Five thousand rupees for funeral prayrs? What kind of prayers are those? Not for the prayers, but for the food and other pooja requirements. Well, Auntieji, her nephew said cynically, give me only a quarter of that and I can do a better job of it. She did not reply that but she knew. Her Guru had told her.There is one in your life who believes not...be wary of him. And she was. Very, very wary.
She told the Guru.The answer is simple, he advised her gently, while blowing into the hookah. The first step is to send Sudhir away. She did that. Of course, it wasn't easy. He wanted to know why, all of a sudden, she as so eager to send him off on a trip to Europe.He had always kept asking to go before, even pleaded and cajoled but had got nowhere, not to Europe, not even to nearby Goa where all his friends were going for a holiday. No money, no Europe, no nothing, she had always been adamant. But now she had no doubts, no doubts at all.
Even at the airport, where she had gone to see him off. She had been there too, the skimpy-skirted hussy, his girl-friend, smiling ingratiatingly at her. And look at the way he was still pleading. Auntieji, are you sure you will be okay? I can cancel this trip even now. He even managed to look sincere, with his worried frown and searchlight eyes.If she didn't know better, she could even have believed that this impetuous, hard-headed boy was really concerned for her, that he had a spark of genuine affection for her.But of course, she knew better.She wished he'd hurry up and go. She wanted to scratch so badly.Yes, that ubiquitous ant had taken yet another big, juicy bite out of her. And at the same spot too. She couldn't wait to go to the restroom, and scratch away at the confusion in her mind and body. Sudhir went. Mrs. Mathur scratched.
The following day, she emptied her bank account and her jewelry locker. The broker had a cash customer ready to buy her house. She gave him a date he could move in and collected the cash. The Guru had instructed her carefully. She was destined to have a fateful heaart attack on that day, he had seen it in her horoscope. Wednesday. A good day.An auspicious one. An appropriate day to die. And he would chant the appropriate mantras for her so that, in her next life, she would remember him.The Guru, savior of her sou. Keeper of all her wealth. Only till her next birth, of course.
At last she felt at peace. There was not a rupee left with her, she had turned everything to her Guru for safekeeping. There was not an uncomfortable thought left in her mind. Even the pall bearers were all arranged by him.They would all be at her funeral, all except Sudhir. Sudhir, her huband's nephew. With his disbelieving ways. His shameless hussy of a girl friend. Sudhir was far, far away, all the way in Europe.Who, and here she smiled with satisfaction, would not get even a naya paisa of his fortune.
She would get it all. The Guru had kept it very, very safe for her, tied up in a saffron cloth. Peace. Now, if only that ant would stay away.There it was again. Anther bite. Oh you creditor from my last birth, you , you ant....just wait. Just wait till tomorrow. It is Wednesday. In the meantime, I must swallow this herbal potion the Guru has given me. The best remedy for ant-bite ever, said he, has never been known to fail.Just make sure you have it at the right time and on the right day, he had instructed. According to your horoscope, he emphasized, Tuesday evening at ten is the most auspicious.