If you'd come by in the summers in those times you wouldnt found a room here - the Law College used to be close by you know. They had their exams in July, and kids from all over the state would come to give those exams. Most of them stayed here for a few months before the exams...to study in relative peace.
The place really hummed in the evenings then...the boys played cricket over there where those labourers live now, chana-jor-garam and peanut sellers would park just out the gate, friends would come and go, and the occasional family would visit to boost their boy's morale and pass on some home cooked food.
In the afternoon, of course, everyone holed up in their rooms with their dusty table fans running, and either slept or slogged. The road outside would be deserted, ruled by searing gusts of wind. So Joshi saeb, who took care of the bookings, would snooze at his desk undisturbed.
That was probably why Ankur was able to get the room in the first place. He came in that day, carrying this heavy trunk with both hands, looking as if he'd been walking a long way in the heat. The sound of the trunk dropping to the floor woke Josh saeb up. He straightened up and looked around, "Hunh...kaun...kya?"
He saw this scrawny teenage, about to ring the calliing bell on the desk. Ankur saw Joshi saeb was awake, and brought his hand back down. He said in a low voice, " Room milega kya?"
"No, all the rooms are full."
Ankur looked even more tired. "No place at all? Every boarding wala is booked, all around the L.C. I've been everywhere, talked to everyone...where else can I go now?" He sat down heavily on the trunk and passed a hand through his hair.
"But there isnt a single room available...they're all full for the whole month."
The boy didnt respond. he sat there silently, staring off into space. Joshi saeb felt irritated. "Bola na, there's no room...", he said, and stalked off to the toilet. He always tried to escape arguments.
When he came back the boy was still there, sitting on his trunk. he said," Could I sleep here, in the hall? I cant go anywhere...I have my blanket. If I try to sleep on the road the police wont let me."
Joshi saeb was fed up. He said," Follow me. No, leave that trunk there, first see what I have."
They went up the stairs to the top floor, and went along the hallway. Joshi saeb stopped at almost the other end, in front of an unlocked door. He pulled open the squeaky chatkhni, and motioned the boy to follow him in.
The room had probably not be used for years. It looked like a bathroom, with an antique tub along the further wall, and a broken basin next to it. A folded metal bed leaned against the wall on the left. The only light was from a small window, covered with a clouded pane of glass. Shadows of leaves moved on it and darkened the room intermittently.
"Idhar aao...help me open up the bed." The two of them pulled down the bed, balanced it on the long edge, and opened out the legs. They dragged it over the tub. "See, this place is all I have. There's no fan. I'll get Pakya to hang a bulb up so you can study. And I'll ask Jijabai to sweep up the room a bit. If this is all right with you, come on down and pay the rent."
The boy seemed a lot happier now. "Thank you" was all he said.
There’s no way to tell if Ankur actually worked harder at his entrance exam; all I can say is that he didn’t have any friends to visit him in the evening, he didn’t make any new ones, and he was in his room, studying perhaps, almost all the time. There was only the one time his aunt and uncle, who lived in the same city, came to visit him. Even that visit lasted barely ten minutes – Anukr came down to meet them when the watchman called for him, they talked in quiet tones, then they went back, leaving Ankur to his studies again.
By the time the last week of June approached most tenants would buckle down to their work. Bhel from the bhelwalas outside would often be dinner, and lights would be on till early morning. It being summer, sales of mosquito coils would increase and the smell of Tortoise and Rooster would float through the halls come evening, mingled with that of the agarbattis.
Ankur, already gaunt, started looking even paler and more tired. Every time I went to his room to clean it, he would be writing, filling up huge piles of rough paper, surrounded by books. His room didn’t have a chair, so he’d pulled up a spare, wobbly, table from another room and pulled it next to his bed. He’d sit on the unmade bed, with a little table fan on one end, studying in his pajamas.
And grab at mosquitos, of course. He preferred grabbing at them , trapping them with one hand, then half opening the hand and looking in to make sure they were crushed, before throwing them idly to the far end of the bed.
It was probably because I was lazy that I didn’t clean up the cobwebs in the room. I had dozens of rooms to clean, and anyway, all these kids would be gone in a month. There was less of a crowd during the rains. Even so, I was mildly surprised when I noticed the number of spiderwebs in the far corner of Ankur’s room, at the opposite end from the fan. There were many more there than in the roof or in the other corners.
I never knew if Ankur was aware of those spiderwebs. But I did realize the reason for them the next few times I saw him killing those mosquitos. Almost every time he killed one, he’d throw it in the corner, where it would land in the webs.
I know I sound silly talking about these insects and fans and coils and such. But it didn’t seem silly at all, then. Most of the rooms got real dirty when the students were there, and we took it for granted that we would be giving them a real good cleaning after the entrance exam. After I’d once noticed those spiderwebs, though, I looked at them more closely every time. They kept on getting more dense. The spiders on them – earlier I could hardly see them but by the end of June I could make them out easily, each with big bellies and some almost as wide across as the palm of my hand. But I never saw them move. Probably because of all the noise I made sweeping.
By the time the 25th of June came, preparations were at a fever pitch. Boys were buying bottles of soda to sprinkle in their eyes and keep awake somehow. Some of them walked through the corridors, book in hand, reciting out loud. It was everyone for himself, no friends, no chitchat.
The exam was at 7 in the morning. God knows why they kept it so early, but it meant everyone was out of the place by 5:30. I and Joshi Saeb were able to have a proper cup of tea without all of them wandering around.
They started coming back by eleven or so. Without exception, every one of them was drained. There would be movies and parties and celebrations soon, but not right after the exam. That day, everyone slept.
Ankur came even later, after everyone else. He plodded up the stairs without a word, went to his room, and locked himself in.
By late evening, there was some activity again in the building. Most of them would be leaving the next day. Many would be going back to small towns, hoping for a letter from the Law College two months from now. This was the last chance they’d have to enjoy the big city. Some went out in groups, asking to leave the gate open till they got back. Some others sat along the walls again, eating from the vendors. They talked in loud voices, laughed, sang. They organized themselves into groups and played antakshari. As night came they, too went off to better hotels, a little further away.
They started coming back late, many drunk, most of them with some souvenir or the other to take back home. They kept coming till two, three in the night. And lights still stayed on in many rooms – there was packing to be done, preparations to be made for the journey the next day. Many were leaving by the early morning train or bus.
That’s why I was late in doing the cleaning the next day. I waited for the crowd to thin out a bit. I started from the top floor as usual.
When I reached Ankur’s room, it was still locked from the inside. Neither Joshi saeb nor I had seen him around since the previous afternoon – we’d talked of him just that morning. I thought he was still asleep and was about to go on to the next room, when I thought it was quite a long time for him to be asleep – it was nearly a whole day now.
I knocked on the door. Then a bit louder when he didn’t respond.
That was perhaps the only time I can remember when I was scared and didn’t know why. But something told me there was some problem here, and I knocked on the door as hard as I could. I was hitting the door with both hands before I realized it, shouting out “Hey!” again and again. Then Joshi saeb, who’d heard me and come up to see, said, “Wait…” and he went to the end of the corridor and got back a big hammer. He looked as scared as I felt. I’m sure even he didn’t know the reason. A few students were collecting around, looking puzzled. He told them to get back, and swung that hammer as hard as he could, at the top of the door where the chatakhni was. The old wood broke easily, and we rushed in.
For a moment, I thought the shadows were falling on his face, making it black. But then I realized it wasn’t the shadows, it was… Did I say I’d never seen those spiders moving? Well, no, because that was the only time I did see them move. They scuttled down fast, off his face and back onto the webs just beyond the bed.
I had stopped, horrified. Even after I’d seen those creatures run off, Ankur’s face seemed to have something more on it. Now, somehow, I stepped closer and saw the huge wounds on his face. He looked unconscious, barely breathing.
There was a choked sound from one of the boys who had crowded into the room to see what had happened. Many of them stepped back quickly when they saw Ankur.
Joshi saeb was kneeling by the side of the bed. He was saying to himself,” I told him there wasn’t any room here…”
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