(i) A traditional custom or idea adhered to although shown to be unreasonable.
(ii) A person who obstinately adheres to old customs or ideas in spite of evidence that they are wrong or unreasonable.
It was Missy’s room. Now Dolly’s. But Missy’s room always.
And now, as always, she has come back to haunt it. Her room.
With the door to her room wide open, little Missy peeps in, standing in the doorway. Seeing that the coast is clear, she paces to her bed.
Flat on her bed, she lets out a relieving sigh, rolling around in pleasure, going under the sheets and lying snugly.
She realizes that someone is using the facilities. Her restroom. Dolly, you insensitive witch!
Missy rises up from bed swiftly, her person still inside the sheets. She struggles to get out of the sheets, panicking, letting out forceful grunts from time to time.
Man steps out of the restroom; freezes in the doorway, on spotting the peeved little creature trapped under the sheets. He moves towards Missy slowly, leans closer to her. ‘My wallet is below the pillow by your side. Please don’t hurt anyone.’
Missy stops struggling, her body going stiff. Still under the sheets, her body language suggests she has taken offence. ‘I am not a thief!’
‘Oh forgive me! Goodness, this is embarrassing. I am terribly sorry.’
‘You are too polite,’ Missy says, buried in her cotton armour ‘The last time I met a polite person in this house was when His Eminence Cardinal Telesphore Toppo came to visit the convent. Everyone was polite that day. Do you know His Eminence Cardinal Telesphore Toppo?’
Man shakes his head in the negative, shrugging his shoulders. He immediately realizes his mistake. ‘Oh, I just shrugged.’
‘You just what?’
‘I shrugged my shoulders to say I don’t know—’
‘Did Dolly put you up here?’
‘Yes, she is too kind.’
‘She is kinder to strangers.’
‘What’s wrong in that?’
‘Relax mister. Are you one of her relatives? She thinks it’s reassuring she has a lorry full of relatives tucked away in nooks and crannies of the city.’
‘No,’ Man says, ‘I used to treat her granddaughter.’
Missy’s whole body cringes immediately. Man doesn’t notice this.
‘So unfortunate,’ Man continues. ‘May she rest in peace.’ He crosses himself and turns to Missy. ‘And who might you be?’
‘I used to be in this neighborhood.’
‘Why? What’s wrong with this neighborhood?’
Missy points her hand inside the sheets to the window to her right. ‘Do you know there used to be a man named Punniyakodi, down the street?’
‘A year ago, he fell into a ditch behind his house. He cried for help, nobody came to his rescue.’
‘I hope he is alright.’
‘He somehow got out of the ditch all by himself after seven hours. First thing he did when he got out, he packed up his bags and left this place.’
‘I am so sorry.’
‘No one’s sorry about it in this neighborhood. Dolly is the only one with a heart here. Did you know that His Eminence Cardinal Telesphore Toppo was one of the voters to elect the Holy Father?’
Man shakes his head in the negative. Then the obvious comes to mind. ‘I am sorry, I just shook my head no.’
‘Who is Telescope—I mean the Cardinal?’
‘It’s ok if you can’t say it right. When I met him, I was thirteen. Dolly made me write his name a hundred times before I got to meet him. He was in this very room for three hours. Dolly made him something appropriate, I don’t know what it is. It was yellow and creamy.’
Man and Missy stand their ground in silence.
‘I am not getting out of the sheets,’ Missy says finally.
‘I don’t expect you to—of course… you know, I do wish I could make things easier, by which I mean… you know what? There is a room downstairs, I’ll take that one.’
‘Don’t do that,’ Missy says hastily.
‘But I want you to leave.’
‘But you just said—’
‘No. I want you to leave. Leave as in leave the house.’
Man stands in silence, looking at Missy curiously. ‘Dolly doesn’t know you are up here, does she?’
‘You are the dullest doctor I’ve ever met. Of course she doesn’t know I am here.’
Man is rooted to his spot, confused and puzzled.
‘Look,’ Missy continues, ‘if you ask Dolly you’d prefer the room downstairs, Dolly would ask you why and you’d have to make something up. And you are lousy when it comes to lying, I can tell. I can really tell. And she’d find out. If you are generous enough to leave though, you’d want to leave through the front door. Again Dolly would ask you why and she’d find out.’
Man, with his arms akimbo, unmindful of the awkward silence on his part, waits to hear more from Missy.
‘This is the part,’ Missy says, ‘where you ask me if there’s another way out other than the front door.’
‘So you are not a thief, and Dolly doesn’t know you are here?’
‘Old man, this is going to take all day. Yes, I am not a thief. Yes, Dolly doesn’t know I am here. No, you can’t ask to move to the room downstairs. No, you can’t leave the house through the front door, so there is only one way out...’
‘Through the balcony.’
‘You are such a dear old man. Like my grandfather.’
Man smiles involuntarily.
‘I am warming up to you, aren’t I?’ Missy says, in a warm charming voice. ‘I have that effect on people. Alright, off you go now. Through the balcony.’
‘But I could die.’
‘Don’t be dramatic. You can grab on to one of the branches of the chestnut tree on your way down. It’s easy.’
‘So you got up here by climbing the tree?’
‘No, I came in through the front door.’
‘The front door? You mean Dolly invited you in? You said Dolly doesn’t know you are up here.’
‘Dolly would rather become a Buddhist than invite me in! No. I actually come and visit her from time to time. More like stand at her doorway. She opens the door, looks at me, turns away, not saying a word.’
Man after careful consideration asks: ‘Who are you, little girl?’
‘That’s too personal, you haven’t warmed up to me yet. So, off you go.’
‘So, you stand at her front door, and she leaves it open for you?’
‘Yes,’ Missy says, pointing her hand beneath the sheets to the door on her right, ‘Balcony is that way.’
‘If she leaves it open for you, does it not mean she is inviting you in?’
‘No. Grab the biggest branch on your way down.’
‘Actually,’ Man says, sounding helpless, ‘it’s quite impossible for me to grab the branches of the tree.’
‘I mean I can jump, but I can’t grab on the branch.’
‘I am handicapped. I have no arms.’
‘What!’ Missy exclaims, coming out of the sheets. She sees Man smiling and waving at her with an apologetic smile on his face.
Missy accepts defeat with an acknowledging smile. ‘Not too bad for a dull doctor. I should go now.’
‘I don’t need your sympathy. Say, can I borrow a hundred from you?’
‘Ok. Only if you tell me—’
Missy starts to walk out of the room. But Man grabs her by the elbow.
‘Let me go!’ Missy says.
‘Promise me you won’t jump off the balcony.’
‘I am not going to kill myself. I have done this a thousand times. Stand on the edge. Take a leap. Grab the main branch, not the twigs. That’s how I got away before Dolly could walk up the stairs to see if I had snuck up to the room.’
‘What if you miss the tree branch? You won’t be lucky all the time.’
‘It’s not about luck, mister.’
‘I don’t care. I am not going to stop you if you want to leave. But only through the front door.’
‘No! Dolly will find out.’
‘What are you so afraid of?’
‘Then Dolly lock this room. I won’t be able to come and go as I please.’
‘Don’t you have a home? Who are you?’
‘You and your stupid questions. I used to study in the convent where Dolly is the librarian. She felt I was her responsibility because my parents left me in her care before dying in a car accident. She thought it was God’s wish that I be with her.’
Man crosses his hand over his chest, regarding Missy with the kind of sympathy one’d reserve for people they couldn’t relate with.
‘And it did seem like it was God’s wish that I be with her at first,’ Missy continues. ‘She taught me everything. Science, astronomy literature, scripture. Such a scholar when it comes to scripture. She taught me Latin. I would have had a wonderful life… such a different life…’ Missy falters here, looking around, feeling insecure. ‘I have to go.’
‘No.’ Man grabs hold of Missy’s elbow again.
And this time, Missy, putting on a coquettish smile, runs her fingers up Man’s wrist and whispers seductively. ‘Pretty please!’
Man cringes, letting go of her elbow immediately. ‘What are you doing!’
‘Whatever it takes, Mister. Just don’t tell Dolly you found me here.’
Man backs away from Missy, his back hitting the wall behind him, his body slowly sinking to the floor, looking at Missy, horrified, completely embarrassed. He then starts weeping.
Missy looks at him, annoyed. ‘Oh, gee! What do we have here!’
‘Leave,’ Man says to her, looking away.
Missy looks at Man, completely indifferent to his helpless self-pitying charade. Taking his wallet, she starts to walk out of the room. Man looks up, seeing her walking away with his wallet.‘Wait, wait, leave the wallet. Take the money, leave the wallet.’
‘Why?’ Missy opens the wallet, takes the money. She spots the photo in the wallet, looks up at Man with raised eyebrows. ‘Let me guess? Your daughter?’
Man, weeping silently, gets up, approaches Missy, take his wallet, goes to his bed, sets it beside his pillow.
‘Of course! You thought she was a bad egg, didn’t you! Is that why you can’t look at me. Do you see your girl in me? Do I have her eyes, her smile? Her cheeks, her ears? What is it? Guilt doesn’t help, mister. Didn’t help me. All I ever wanted was a life for myself! My own life. But to Dolly and to the world, I was just a little girl. No one was ready to give me the life I wanted. So I tried to make one for myself.’ Here she pauses, taking a seat on the bed. ‘He came to the convent to volunteer. A tall and handsome man. Smelled wonderful. I found out later it was to cover-up the reek from his vile soul, but I didn’t want to see that when I met him: he was my ticket out. So one night, I took the money we collected for the children’s library and left with him. It took me a few years to realize that I was not a little girl anymore and that he never loved me and that my soul would forever reek of his scent. All alone in the city, I saw myself turn into this disgusting goop that men wanted to nibble and yet get to call me disgusting to my face.’
Man weeps even harder. Missy scoffs.
‘And when I came back to Dolly, two years ago, helpless, people clicked their tongues at me and moved away in disgust. Like you did. But Dolly forgave me. She took me in again, fed me again, asked her dying granddaughter to share this beautiful room with me. I was about to start a new life…’ Missy falters here, turning pensive. ‘And then… it happened again. All over again. Another man, another scent. And this time, I robbed Dolly’s money she saved for little Anu’s surgery.’ Here she takes a few seconds to consider what she is about to declare and then continues: ‘Her only granddaughter is gone forever because of another man, another scent.’
Man looks up at her incredulously. Missy meets his eyes and he immediately lowers it. A malevolent smile spreads on her face. ‘And you know what? With the scent of the second man, I shadowed Dolly’s doorway again. Imagine the ignominy!’
Missy gets up from bed and starts pacing the room.
‘Quod ore mumpsimus, Domine, as Dolly pointed out when I came back, even more broken, even more hopeless. And I told her, no Dolly, I am neither stubborn nor is it a force of habit: I do it again and again because it’s an affliction of the soul, please, I need help. But she didn’t believe me. Of course she didn’t. Even I didn’t believe what I said. All she ever had to say was: Quod ore mumpsimus, Domine. And with those words, she banished me from her life entirely.’
Missy sits on the floor, like her knees have given up.
‘And I did what all lost souls in their infinite wisdom would do. I lived in sin, breathed out lies and conspiracies, expelled bellows of angst from my putrid lungs. I spread diseases, destroyed families, exploited acts of kindness and compassion, aided and abetted the eradication of innocence. Misshapen monsters and demons all around the metropolis sang my reputation. I stuffed my mattresses with the millions of curses hurled at my person for too long that I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, finding out I have sunk too low and had drowned in them; spending most of my nights, struggling to put a figure on the hours and hours of sleep I lost thinking if I could sink any lower. I became Missy.’ Here her throat catches a sob and holds on to it tight. ‘I became Missy. But the little girl who had some hope for Missy possessed my person from time to time; and I found myself standing on Dolly’s doorway from time to time, asking for her forgiveness. But all Dolly ever does is open the door, look down at me and turn away, without a word. She always leaves the door open. Even when she is entertaining guests or the other orphan girls from the convent for Christmas, even when she is praying alone. She opens the door, looks at me, turns away and goes back inside, leaving the door open. Like she is trying to tell me, Look, Missy, look! Look at the life you could have had. It will never be yours. Never be yours.’
Missy pauses here, smiling ironically.
‘The little girl shall always return heartbroken, but Missy doesn’t. Missy doesn’t feel pain or shame. Missy doesn’t seek permission to gnaw her way into someone’s life, let alone their house. If Dolly wants to hurt Missy by keeping the door open, not inviting the little girl in, then Missy will sneak up to the little girl’s room and haunt it for the rest of her life. This has been her routine every time the little girl comes to visit Dolly. Missy has been here for too many nights too long that she practically lives here. And she will, till the end of ti—’
Missy and Man hear the sound of advancing footsteps. She jumps up, panicking, rushing out of the room. Man gets up hurriedly, wiping his tears. In a few seconds, gracious old Dolly walks into the room.
‘Good evening, doctor. Dinner is served.’
Dolly studies Man for a quick few seconds.
‘Oh,’ Man says hastily, rubbing his ruddy eyes harshly. ‘It’s nothing. Something got in my eyes.’
Dolly looks at the bed and the sheets: she could tell that a storm had passed through this room. A painful smile spreads helplessly on her face.
One look at that smile and Man understands.
‘You leave the door open for her to sneak up here!’ Man sees that painful smile turning earnest by the second. ‘You know she has been sneaking up here and staying the nights all this time? It’s because you want her to?’
Dolly nods in acknowledgement.
‘You can neither invite Missy in nor turn the little girl away. Neither forgive her nor stop loving her.’To which Dolly says: ‘Quod ore mumpsimus, Domine.’
A firm believer that he could really connect with himself and the world around him with the characters he creates, Ananda Kumar lives his dreams through his writing despite being a practicing dentist in his hometown, Chennai. His stories draw breath from the lives of the people he wishes to be a part of. His first book, Vanakkam Cosmos, an anthology of novellas came out in 2017.