[Once stolen, things are rarely recovered. But if they ever are, it’s a story worth telling. Cut-Glass actually happened to us in 1991 and I wrote it soon after. Even though a straight and simple narrative, I remember it took me a long time to shape and structure, and to pace it.
The story was never intended to be published. For a while I saw a film in it, then gave up for reasons of awkward length—and much else. For the present purpose, I have decided to publish it in two parts and have taken care to smudge the names to protect identities.
We are a family of four living in a small flat in Pune. Our parents and relations, both my wife’s as well as mine, live in Delhi and Haryana, and often visit us. Close relatives, of course, are never a problem but sometimes others land up too, and leave behind trails of interesting stories. Both my children are born and brought up in Pune and I therefore look upon these visits of people from back home as welcome inputs to their upbringing.
I returned home one evening from office to find a strange bag lying against a cushion in the drawing room. Indu told me it was a repeat visit of a cousin of hers, this time with his daughter. I had been away the last time this cousin had come and hadn’t therefore met him.
“But this time they are not staying with us,” Indu said, “only visiting.” Having secured her admission in a local engineering college on the earlier visit, Mahender had this time brought his daughter to join. And since now they were two of them, and with loads of her luggage, they had proceeded straight from the railway station to the bungalow of an army officer relative of theirs (also Indu’s) living in the army suburb of Dehu Road. It was from there that they had come to see us this evening, and awaiting me had now gone with my children to Kamla Nehru park near our house.
It was still a week to go before Sunita’s classes started and Mahender, who is an executive engineer with the Haryana PWD, had his office to attend. Since it was to be her first time away from parents and home, we asked Sunita to stay with us for a few days after her father left.
Sunita then stayed with us for about four or five days.
On Saturday as I went home for lunch, her shoulder bag stood ready and packed. After a quick bite I took her pillion to the city bus stop, enquired the bus number etc. and left her at the end of a longish queue.
Within minutes of my reaching office, Indu rang up. The operator told me she had called twice before.
“Listen, you dropped Sunita at the bus stop, didn’t you? Well, we’ll have to catch that girl before she leaves. She’s taken one of Soni’s cut-glass necklaces—she can’t find it and she’s crying.”
I had been to Czechoslovakia a couple of years back on official visit, and had brought some cut-glass necklaces from there. Those had been the cheapest available on the shop, but the shine they caused in the eyes of everyone here was to be seen to believe. Especially a large, double coil, black glass one had been the envy of all and that was the one gone now.
Indu opened the door even before my finger reached the buzzer. And sure enough in the name of searching, the house had been as if dug up. Sunita had seen the necklace with Sonia just the evening before and it was a coincidence that Sonia had decided to wear it the same evening for a friend’s birthday. Indu wanted me to lose no further time and follow the girl right up to Dehu Road, if necessary, where she had gone, and where she was to stay the next two nights before shifting to her hostel on Monday.
I tried to caution Indu on the sensitive nature of the issue but she wouldn’t listen. Moreover we had never been to Dehu Road and I wasn’t sure where I had noted down the address. They didn’t have a phone either.
Sonia jumped on a flash. “Where are my last year’s notebooks, Mummy?” she asked. “If my English composition is still there, Papa had written it all on one full page of it! I remember because I got a comment from Sister Mark for it!”
I dropped Indu at the same double-decker queue where I had earlier dropped Sunita, and went searching for a safe parking place for the scooter. The plan was that I would accompany Indu right up to their gate at Dehu Road and then quietly withdraw. That was to cut out on the inevitable fuss that would be made considering I relate to them as a son-in-law, plus the fact that the children couldn’t be left half-locked up as we had done now—we have this one additional iron-grille door and on occasions like the present one, we lock the children in and pass the keys to them.
It was already dark by the time the bus started.
“The car would have been so helpful now,” said Indu. “Chachi had been asking us over and this is how we finally go.”
Where we got down from the bus was hardly a regular stop—no lights, not even a shed. Wondering if we had made a mistake, I called after a couple of others—tough, factory worker types—who had got down with us and asked them directions.
Finally we came to a row of bungalows. There was also some evidence by now of the place being a residential area since some could be seen walking along the broken up road.
“So, that’s it,” I said handing the address to Indu. “Number nine should be further down. I’ll wait here until you wave. And watch out for a dog or something—.”
Just then we spotted two ladies taking a stroll, passing under a light, coming towards us—. Yes, it was them alright, Chachi and Sunita.
“Arre, how come so late!?” exclaimed Chachi. “And where are the children? Wonderful! But you should have brought the children also! I was telling Sunita it looks like Indu alright, but—.”
I am bad enough at instant improvisations, but Indu turned out to be worse—she just went blank. After some clumsiness, we all started to move towards their house. Sunita, as far as I could see, only kept filling gaps and giggled, saying nothing.
At the gate of the bungalow, I stopped and asked Chachi if I could first phone up the children from somewhere. “In fact I should be going back right away,” I said, “but even so, I’d just speak to them before I go.
“Poor things! You really should have—.”
I had to almost push Indu and Sunita into the gate, and pull Chachi towards wherever that blessed telephone was going to be. Then, on the way, I told her the purpose of our sudden visit.
“Oh my God! But that’s terrible! I see—! But, there have to be all kinds of things lying about in a house! There are no locks here either, does that mean—? What a shame!”
Indu was back quite early the next morning. She had met with only partial success, she said, as she entered and went for the toilet. I made her a cup of tea.
“No, I didn’t get the necklace, but look at these—.” She took out a fistful of other little earrings, hairclips and broaches from her handbag. “All your Soni’s doing!”
Sonia heard her name and came over wiping her eyes. It turned out she had ‘traded’ them with Sunita for just fifteen rupees. I asked her if by chance she had similarly traded the necklace too.
“But anyway, you’ve been a pain Soni,” said Indu collecting the cups. “Maybe it was my mistake to let you keep those necklaces, but your carelessness would tempt anyone to become a thief!”
She got up and went to the kitchen.
“Come to think of it,” I said when we were alone, “she is not very wrong, Soni.”
“I know Papa,” her eyes were moist. “Even Gyan keeps pinching my keys and stealing things from my cupboard. And he’s smaller than me.”
“Well, we’re not saying stealing from a careless person is alright.”
“No, I understand Papa.”
“Where did you say her college is?”
“Why, at Pimpri of course. Hadn’t I pointed out the place to you on the way to Dehu Road?” Indu was surprised I hadn’t heard her although I had responded by looking out through the window.
That certainly happens with me—even now I wasn’t reading the newspaper though I had been holding it in front of me. Indu was sitting cutting vegetables and the children were already off to school. It was Monday.
“She must be shifting to the hostel now,” said Indu after a while. “Chachi said she would give a ring the moment she gets it out of her but… Listen, why don’t you try speaking to her once?”
“In fact I’m thinking of doing just that,” I blurted. “There’s something about the way she behaved that night…. As soon as she saw us on that road—suddenly, but not immediately close by—I think it was already too much for the girl. I felt far too embarrassed, caught out, almost like a thief myself, but later realized that Chachi’s was the only genuine reaction of surprise there. I don’t know how an innocent Sunita should have behaved, but the way she did—.”
Indu couldn’t have been with me throughout my blabbering—she just isn’t the type—but she was happy with what she understood, namely that I had at last found some good reason to believe what she had all along known for sure.
“Just how long are they going to take to deliver that Maruti?” said Indu with some irritation.
We were again sitting in the same crowded double-decker, but this time for a closer destination, Pimpri. I had attended office and hurried back home to pick up Indu. The children had again been half-locked as before, and the evening tea was going to be taken with Sunita if all went well.
Earlier during lunch, I had tried to ring up Sunita at her hostel number left by Mahender—I didn’t want to give her a second surprise again this time. But it didn’t work out fully, so I had to leave a message for her.
We got down from the bus and took a rickshaw to save time. Oddly enough, the rickshaw left the highway, got into lanes and by lanes of what appeared to be a crowded residential colony, and sharply came to a stop. Well, that was the college.
The main building stood blocking the view immediately at the gate itself and looked uninviting and dull—almost abandoned. After a large, imposing board carrying the name of the college, the most prominent feature of the building once you entered was the marble plaque saying (in gold!) who inaugurated it and when. On the whole, the size and scale, and the dignity I had expected of an engineering college was simply missing in these premises and the place looked more like a teaching shop that it really was.
“Looks like they have a power failure here,” Indu said innocently.
At the far end of the same double-storied building was some commotion and we were told to take the same staircase. So, the girls’ hostel again was nothing like a separate building and indeed girls could be heard from where we stood asking about our ward. Sunita’s was one bed in a hall accommodating about twelve girls and there were two such halls facing each other on this landing.
“This is only a temporary arrangement for a week or so,” Sunita sought to explain. “The final year girls have their exams still going on—they are on an extended semester because of a strike or something.”
She kept asking us to sit down and went looking for a chair. Then she brought out a dubba from the cupboard and offered us biscuits and namkeen. We produced the chivra packet we had brought and in spite of refusals asked her to keep it.
“Where is your canteen or mess or whatever?” I asked Sunita. “I’d like to take a look around the facilities before it gets dark.”
In fact I was feeling a bit uneasy in that place with all the girls settling down for their first night there. Also, if we had to carry out the business we had come for, this was hardly the place for it.
“It’s just behind, in the other block,” said Sunita, laughing. “But we have only just seen it from a distance.”
“Why, too busy?”
“Yes, busy getting ragged!” said another girl, and they all laughed.
It turned out that they had all gone without lunch and were planning to have no dinner as well.
“Don’t be silly,” I said getting up. “Ask your friends also to come if they like, and we’ll all eat together.”
Only Sunita came with us and took us among the newly constructed blocks behind the main building. The dining hall was in the basement of the men’s hostel and in spite of good smells seemed as unappetizing as the rest of the place. Although it was dark by now, I was glad there was still some time before they began serving. Suddenly somehow I wanted to be done with my business and clear out as early as possible.
“Shall we sit here for a while?” I said.