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Turning the Key - Meera Sundararajan

It was fifteenth day after the “Janta Curfew” called in by the Prime Minister. The world around him seemed to have come to a standstill. The roads were empty and the houses were full. An eerie silence that seemed to have descended upon the city! The dogs had taken over the streets.

 Kannan drove his tricycle with the drinking water cans, around the deserted neighbourhood, trying to dodge the canines chasing him. The sun was scorching above his head. The month of April in this southern town by the sea was killing! But he was glad to be alive.  He was glad, that he had a job, and a small room with a roof inside a ramshackle building to sleep under!

 Water was thankfully seen as an essential service and so there was business. And when there was business, he was getting paid. His boss was not a bad sort. He had helped him out with getting supplies from the ration shop even though he did not hold a card. 
Kannan turned the tricycle around the corner and parked it outside the “Sunlight Terrace” apartments. The security asked him for the flat number where he was to deliver the can, before letting him inside. He carried the can towards the lift. He was looking forward to this visit. The lady of the house, was young and she was kind. She treated him like a human being. She often offered him water from her refrigerator. If it was tea time, she invited him indoors into the kitchen and offered him a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. She was the only one who ever did that. The others banged their doors shut on his face once they had collected their can and paid him. 

He rang the bell to Flat 6 A. He hoped she would open the door. The last couple of times he had come to deliver water, it was her husband who had answered the door.  He was a man of few words and when he spoke, he was brusque. 
He pressed the bell once again, wondering if there was something wrong with it. But he could hear the chimes inside and it was not possible that anyone could not be home under these circumstances!  He soon heard a soft shuffling of feet as the door opened slowly. 
What he saw in front of him shook him completely! The lady of the house, his favourite customer, stood in front of him with her face swollen and her hair dishevelled. She was having trouble walking. There was a red mark on her cheek.  
“What happened Akka ?” he asked her softly
 But before she could answer, her husband came out from one of the rooms. Kannan saw her freeze in fear. 
“Leave the water can there in the foyer. And yes, here is your money” said the man extending a hundred rupee note towards him. 

“I don’t have change with me sir” Kannan replied, trying to buy time so that he could speak to the lady while the man went inside to get change. 
“You can adjust the amount the next time you deliver” said the man shutting the door on his face
 He stood there in front of the door wondering what he should do. 
What he had seen just now was not something he did not understand. Infect it was something he had grown up seeing every day of his life, until the day his mother had poured kerosene and set herself alight. He had been seventeen at that time. A year later, unable to bear life with his alcoholic father, Kannan had left home for the city. 

He took the stairs downstairs, thinking all the way along, about how shocking it was to see this scene being played out once again – this time in a context that seemed absurd to him! This lady, unlike his mother, seemed well educated. She spoke English, wore good clothes and lived in a nice house. Her husband did not seem crude and he had not smelt alcohol on his breath. So why was this happening to her and why was she putting up with it? 

He got on his tricycle and pedalled on, looking upstairs furtively for an open window.  But the windows were all shut. He could hear the soft hum of air conditioners running. 
He did the rest of his deliveries mechanically, his mind, deeply disturbed by what he had seen. He wanted to do something about it but did not know what or how to. He had her phone number on his mobile. He decided he would send her a message asking her if she was okay.
“Akka are you alright?” he typed his message in Tamil using the English script. He waited for a few minutes, then an hour but there was no response from her. 
It was   late afternoon when his boss called him. He was very angry 
“Hey. Why are you troubling the lady in that Sunrise building by sending her messages? Do you want me to send you home?” he thundered. 
“No, Sir, I was just trying to ask about her welfare” he said wondering why she had complained about him. 
‘Her welfare!! Is she your family member? “he shouted “Listen, if I hear anything like this again, I will send you off immediately. I can’t lose my customers because of your stupid behaviour’ he said disconnecting. 

Kannan was both angry and hurt by her behaviour!! Was this how the rich behaved? He had only been trying to help. Well, he was not going to stick his neck out for anyone now!
He spends the rest of the day, unloading the fresh water cans that had come in and putting down details in the stock register. He was tiered by the time it was all over. He went to the tap behind the stock shed to have a quick wash before making his way to the “Amma Canteen” across the road for a meal. 
It was while he was putting his phone back into his pocket that he noticed two messages. It was from her number. Written in English, the message like his, was in Tamil
“Sorry about the complaint. My husband read your message and called your boss” she had written
 The second message “Thank you for your concern. At least someone cares for me”. He looked at the time the message had been delivered- it was about five minutes ago. He decided to risk sending her a reply
“Akka, do you need any help?” he typed waiting with bated breath for her response
After what seemed like ages his phone buzzed “I don’t think anyone can help me now” she had written 
“Don’t lose faith. I will try my best’ he typed. And then as an afterthought “Please delete all the messages from me”
She sent a smiley in response. 

Kannan walked towards the Amma Canteen  thinking hard. He had to do something. He decided to confide in Selvi Akka, she was the cook and part of the woman’s group that ran the canteen. 
The canteen like the city, was near empty. Selvi was behind the counter, packing parcels of food for delivery to customers. 
“Akka, I need your advice” he whispered.
“What happened?” she asked with a smile. Selvi was rather fond of this quiet boy. 
He went up to her told her what he had seen and what had happened thereafter. 
“So, can you help?” he asked
 “I don’t know. But I can try” she said taking the lady’s number from him. 

Kannan went back to his room with mixed feelings. He was relieved that someone might be able to help the lady but he was also worried that he might have stirred up more trouble for her. 
It nearly 8.00 PM when his phone rang again. A lady who introduced herself as Beena, was calling from an NGO.  She mentioned about Selvi Akka having given her his number. She wanted to know more details from him about the lady at “Sunrise Terrace”
He told her all that he had seen. His attempts at establishing contact with the lady, her husband’s complaint to his boss and the subsequent messages. He forwarded her messages to this Beena Madam.
The next day while on his usual delivery rounds, he found that the neighbourhood security men, were all abuzz with the news about how, a few women had come in a police jeep and taken away with them a lady from the “Sunrise Terrace” building. 

“I wonder if she was involved in some crime” muttered Subbu the vegetable vendor, pedalling on his vegetable cart behind Kannan. 
“She was a victim of a crime” said Kannan looking back. 
 “How do you know?” asked Subbu, in surprise
“I used to deliver water to their house” he said 
 “But what was the crime? “shouted Subbu after him
“The same crime that you commit against your wife every other day” yelled Kannan as he pedalled away furiously on the empty road leaving Subbu standing there open mouthed!  
For the first time in many days, Kannan felt happy! In the hopelessness around this lockdown, he had found a key for someone!

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