Kavita De

A HANDFUL OF RICE: A short story

Mary wished goodnight to the nurses at her nursing home and walked upstairs to her house, giving them instructions to call her in case of an emergency. She looked at the clock and noticed that it was past dinner time. It had been a hectic day, as she had helped deliver two babies the same evening. She decided to skip dinner and have a glass of warm milk instead of dinner. She settled down to sip it and began reading her old diaries.

These few diaries had been her closest companions for years now. She had shared her happiness and pains with them. They helped in reviving the memories of old days and she could re-live the moments of her past.

God hadn’t been very kind to Mary D’Souza (Mary’s full name). HE had mercilessly brought her happy family to a tragic and painful end. The thought of that fateful night sent shivers down her spine. Mary was 6 months pregnant when her world was devastated with the news of her husband’s untimely death in an accident. Unable to bear the shock, she went into sudden labour. Delay in reaching the city hospital aggravated her state of shock and despair. God alone knows what went wrong, and why HE did this to her, but she had a pre-mature still born baby. She was left all alone in this huge world, to handle her trauma and grief by herself.

For months together, her life had nothing but tears, gloominess and melancholy. However she slowly and gradually began coming to terms with reality. Mary needed something to keep herself occupied to forget the painful memories. She wanted to have a purpose or an aim that would help her live life. She vowed to herself, that she wouldn’t allow any other mother to lose her child for lack of immediate medical care during childbirth. Thus began her journey towards a social cause. Mary moved to the city, enrolled herself for a nursing course and took up a job in a hospital. Once she gained good experience, the city life had no charm left for her and she came back to her own tiny village in North India. Here she started assisting the local ladies in maternity and post-natal care.

Mary became so well known for her job that ladies in the village preferred to take her help during child birth, rather than visiting the distant city hospital. Home deliveries assisted by Mary became the norm in her locality. For the villagers, she was more than any qualified gynecologist. Years passed by. Mary adopted a destitute nurse Sheena. Both had each other's company now to ward off their own loneliness. Sheena began assisting Mary with her work. Sheena was now her only family - a sister, daughter and a friend, all in one.

The clock struck 10pm and the sound broke Mary's trance. She quickly gulped down the milk,. Mary suddenly noticed the day and date in the calendar. “10th May”, she read the date aloud and almost jumped off her chair. She sometimes lost track of the dates due to overwork. She also attributed this forgetfulness to her having completed half a century on this earth.

Her mind wandered off to the past again. The same date, five years ago, at almost the same time, on a silent night, that stranger – the man who had changed her life! Memories of that night started unfolding one after the other. Memories so fresh till date, as if everything had happened just yesterday. That night too, after a tired and hectic day at work, she had slept off at around 10pm itself. Her calm sleep was disturbed by a loud knock at the door. The villagers waking her up at odd hours to deal with emergencies, had become recurring phenomena. She got up to check the time. The clock indicated 11.30p.m. “Hmm,” she sighed. “One more woman into labour !” “Knock, knock, knock,” the knocks grew faster and louder showing impatience of the visitor. “Who could it be at this time?” Mary thought in her mind. Sheena was fast asleep, as usual. Nobody could ever wake her up from her deep slumber, except for a loud call from Mary.

Mary opened the door. The visitor was a young man of around thirty years of age. He was wearing tattered clothes, had an unkempt beard and looked worried and anxious. “Kya hua?” Mary asked the man at the door. “Madamji, biwi ko bacchha hone wala hai. Bahut takleef main hai. Main aapko lene aaya hoon, mere saath ghar chaliye aur usko dekhiye,” rattled off the visitor in one single breath.

Mary asked him where he lived, to which he replied that he had come from another village which was very far away from her place. He had heard a lot about her noble work and could think of nobody else who would help him at an odd hour, hence had knocked her door. He had got his own Tonga, which was waiting outside for them. He said he would drop her back home too. Mary woke up Sheena and requested her to come along, as she was not very sure of going alone with this strange visitor at midnight. Sheena hated these late night visits which kept them awake till dawn, but she respected Mary a lot and so never complained. They both quickly got dressed and left home with the man.

Within minutes they crossed the boundaries of their village. The sound of the gallop and rattling of the wheels of the Tonga, broke the eerie silence of the night. They kept travelling through one field and then another, but the journey seemed never ending and the destination nowhere in sight. Sheena who was happily dozing on and off, only occasionally opened her eyes to enquire about the distance left to be covered. They must have already crossed 10-15 kilometers and Mary had begun feeling slightly uncomfortable about the situation. She kept looking around but the darkness of the night, made it very difficult to ascertain the location towards which they were heading. Suddenly the rattling sound increased and Mary noticed that the Tonga was crossing a small bridge over a stream. The water of the stream looked beautiful in the moonlight and glittered like diamonds. “Bus madam, paanch minute aur lagega. Hum pahunchne hee

waale hain.” This was the first sentence the man had uttered after leaving her house. Mary also had been very tired and had preffered remaining quiet throughout the journey. Striking a conversation with a stranger, in the darkness of the night while travelling through vast stretches of eerie landscape, was the last thing she wished to do. The Tonga crossed the bridge and finally stopped at a small hut, surrounded by acre and acres of land...but no sight of any human dwelling close by. “No wonder the poor man had to travel miles away to bring me to help his wife,” thought Mary.

Inside the dingy, dark hut with just one small lamp burning, there was a young lady, wriggling in pain. She had sharp, chiselled features and her beautiful face was glowing even in the tiny light of the lamp. Tiny droplets of sweat on her forehead seemed to give an evidence of her unbearable pain. Mary quickly asked the man to light a fire outside the hut and heat some water, while she got busy preparing herself for the delivery to happen. She asked Sheena to search for a clean cloth and to arrange all the things that would be needed. Mary took the hot water from him and asked him to wait outside. The man kept pacing up and down outside the hut, calling out after every 15 minutes to know if all was fine with his wife. The look in his eyes and his shaky troubled voice showed his concern and love for the to-be-mother. Her contractions had begun increasing at rapid intervals and she was clutching Sheena’s hand tightly, letting out occasional painful screams. Soon a shrill cry of a new born baby echoed amidst stillness of the the dry barren land. The lady had given birth to a tiny, frail, baby boy.

Mary put the tired, exhausted lady to sleep and called the man inside. The eager father was just waiting to get a glimpse of the newborn. He sat beside his tired wife and put her to sleep while cuddling his little treasure close to his heart. The man profusely thanked them both, his eyes full of gratitude for the two angels that God had sent to save his wife. From a tiny gunny bag in the corner of the hut, he got a handful of rice….gave some to Mary and the remaining to Sheena…this was the only fees he could afford! Mary had not expected even this from him. She often gave free treatment to the needy and the poor. The satisfaction she got in helping them was far more immense than any wealth in this world. She didn’t want to refuse this humble offering, so she gave the rice to Sheena, who tied together both their shares in a hand-kerchief. Mary patted his back and asked him to take good care of his wife for the next few days. “Chaliye Madamji, aapko ghar le chaloon,” said the man, guiding them back to his Tonga.

Both had gone off to sleep during the return journey. Tired and exhausted, when they reached home it was already 5.00 am. Within seconds both were in bed, snoring loudly in deep sleep. Sheena woke up late in the morning and made tea for both of them. She untied the hanky which she had left on the table last night. First she let out a wild shreak, and then began frantically calling Mary. When Mary came to see what had happened, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There lay a mound of glittering jewels on her table! “Where did this come from?” She asked Sheena. The poor girl was too shocked to be able to speak. When she calmed down, she told Mary that this was the rice she had tied in the hand-kerchief last night. Leaving them astonished, bewildered and in awe, the scattered jewels sat on the table, sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight. The ladies couldn’t make out whether this was a miracle or some kind of magic. Both were very sure that what they held in their hands the previous night, was nothing but rice.

Fear, anxiety, and suspicion – their minds were experiencing mixed emotions. Before going to the police station, Mary wanted to ascertain for herself, if she had unknowingly helped some undeserving human the previous night. She decided to take help of the Head Postmaster to get to the place, as he was the only person who would know the terrain or geography of the countryside. The only landmark she knew was the bridge with a stream running beneath it. She sent Sheena to urgently call the Postmaster Dinanath, who was a very kind person, ever ready to help. She warned Sheena against disclosing any information about the diamonds to him. Mary wanted to conduct this enquiry herself and was desperate to reach the address and ascertain the truth of the happenings. Dinanath came in really fast, and she began describing the events of the night to him.

As if the morning incident was not enough, there was further shock awaiting the ladies. The postman informed them that there was no water body like the one she described, anywhere close by. As far as the description of the bridge, he said he vaguely remembered having seen a bridge at a distance of around 20kms from their place. However, he wasn’t sure if it would be the same one, as there was no stream there. He also said that nobody had ever crossed that bridge. He felt it was pointless travelling to that place as that bridge was just a dead end to the city limits.

Mary however wanted to solve the mystery as soon as possible, to avoid losing peace of mind- her own and Sheena’s too. Sheena by now was thoroughly confused and looked blank and lost Mary, who was the last one on this earth to give up so easily on anybody or anything, hired a tempo and tagged along Sheena and Dinanath with her.

On the way, they just kept discussing the profile of the ‘stranger of the night’. Was he some thief, rogue, magician, angel? Who was he? Dinanath more or less remembered the place correctly and after a long travel, did manage to locate it. But, Alas! They couldn’t believe what they saw !

There indeed was no river or stream or even a small puddle of water anywhere ! Just stretches of dry, parched earth, thirsty for water probably for decades together! There stood a broken iron bridge in a mutilated shape, which started at one place, but had no ending. It ended somewhere abruptly in the middle, dangling in mid-air. The place had a deserted, eerie look, where even animals wouldn’t be able to survive. There was no trace of life anywhere.

With trembling feet and a shaky voice, unable to believe what they saw around, Mary tried to convince Deenanath "I am sure I saw the sparkling water of the stream last night.It looked so beautiful in the moonlight. I remember the sound of the tonga crossing the bridge." The postman gave her a concerned look and laughed "Yesterday was a new moon night ( amavasya). How did you see moonlight?".

"New moon night?" Sheena exclaimed in disbelief! "What is on the other side of the bridge? "Dead end hai madamji. Baut saal pehle wahan shamshan ghat hua karta thaa..That probably is the reason people avoid going to the other side"

He uttered these words and his face became pale with fright.....as if he had suddenly found answers to all their questions. "Ghar chalte hain madamji. This place seems too scary and mysterious now after your description of happenings of last night "

Their curiosity and search for the unknown, remained a question mark. Mary was dumbfounded, not knowing how to react to the situation. Though Dinanath didn’t say anything, he probably thought to himself that Mary was getting old and hence either day-dreaming or losing her memory. He was trying his best to ward away all scary thoughts by blaming it on Mary's old age and forgetfullness

The mystery remained unsolved for ever and the story was soon forgotten by all.

Mary had almost dozed off thinking about 10th May. She guzzled a glass of water, washed her face with cold water and lay down on the bed, but couldn’t get sleep. The same old questions began popping in her mind. “Had Christ come down to help her that day for her good deeds?", she asked herself. "Had she really met God that day, disguised as the stranger ? Or was it her own dead child who took birth from another womb ?"

The new moon night, the Tonga gliding down smoothly over the broken bridge on a dried river bed where she had actually admired the glittering water in the light of the moon, the lonely hut. Mary never believed in ghosts, though people said ghosts exist. “Was he………no, no, that’s not possible”. Mary smiled to herself negating her own thoughts.

Whoever he was! For her, he was an angel! He had changed her life for good. Mary now has a small clinic of her own to facilitate childbirth for the local women, where she has employed two nurses and has a visiting qualified doctor. - all with the blessed fortune given by the stranger. She also has her own small house just above the clinic, so she can be available for her patients 24X7. Mary has got Sheena married, who is happily settled with her husband, in another city.

Mary was again alone but now she had no time for loneliness. A HANDFUL OF RICE had changed her life forever. All thanks to the "strange visitor of that new moon night"


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