The room bore the pungent odour of sweat and urine. The vessel containing dal lay on the floor. The hovel’s solitary light bulb flickered intermittently. Only the soft moans of a woman possibly in pain and the whimpering of a child were heard.

 **********

Tukaram woke up, on the cot, disoriented. His wife, sporting a humongous bruise on her forehead, was busy roasting chappatis.

‘Ey, you curse,’ Tukaram called out to her. No reply.

‘You filth, Malti, get me my bottle!’ he ordered. She did not comply.

On sticky, urine-covered feet, he stood up and lunged at her. She didn’t hear him approach and his hand went right through her when he tried to hit her. She continued with her work and laid out the chappati for Usha, their 5 year old daughter.

Tukaram rubbed his eyes. He reached out to touch Usha. The girl usually flinched whenever her father approached her. Nothing of the sort happened. Usha smiled at her mother and began having her breakfast.

Tukaram ambled towards the cot and sat himself down. What had happened? Was it a dream?

Had he died the previous night? What had that bitch Malti given him to drink?  Why weren’t they responding to him? They were acting like they could not even see him!

He felt the bottle calling out to him. But this time he resisted the urge. He pinched himself hard. He concluded he was very much alive. It wasn’t a dream. He wasn’t dead!

‘Your baba seems to have gone out today. I wonder where?’ he heard Malti tell Usha. ‘Never mind, let us get to work.’ So saying, she held the child’s hand and left the house.

Tukaram was dumbfounded. His family thought he had stepped out when he was right there, on their cot, in their barely 100 square foot home.

He resolved to get to the bottom of this. He followed Malti, albeit on unsure feet. Malti worked from dawn till dusk as a maid. She toiled all day in order to run the home. Tukaram was an alcoholic. Besides beating her mercilessly and snatching away her earnings, he contributed nothing towards the running of the household.

Malti was met with concern right on the doorstep of her first workplace. ‘Malti, what happened? He hit you again? Come here Usha,’ beckoned Malti’s mistress to the little girl.

Tukaram was puzzled. Malti was being treated with respect. Why?

He followed her to six consecutive houses. Malti worked tirelessly, apparently forgetting about the worries back home and the beating she had received the previous night. He tried tapping her shoulder plenty of times and pulling Usha’s tattered frock. It was of no use. It was settled. He was invisible!

On the way home he felt the urge to visit the country liquor joint. The smell of the brew beckoned him. He followed his nose like a wolf followed its prey. He stopped short at the entrance. He remembered he was invisible. He could raid the entire shop. He stretched out an eager hand to touch the bottle with the golden liquid. His hand moved right through the bottle. Strangely, he didn’t feel any remorse for the liquor that he could not have. He continued on home.

The humble abode smelt of delicious roti and sabji. He found Malti had bathed and looked fresh and clean after a hard days work. Now she was ready to slog to feed her own family.

A pang of guilt assailed Tukaram. He suppressed it.

‘Wherever has your Baba disappeared to? He has been away all day!’ Malti said out loud to Usha. Usha was happily playing with some marbles.

Aai, sing me the song that I love,’ said Usha. Malti complied and lovingly fed her child. She placed a plate of food for Tukaram and saw to it that Usha fell asleep. Then she stepped out of the home, worriedly asking the neighbours if they had seen Tukaram.

Malti was frantic. She looked everywhere.

‘Here I am,’ called out Tukaram. 

He tried standing in front of her anticipating that she might feel him. Nothing. She glided right through him!

‘Malti, do not set foot in that place!,’ he called out to her.

She had reluctantly entered the country liquor joint.

‘Ey chikni, show us some love,’ two inebriated scoundrels called out to Malti. 

Tukaram felt the vomit rise in his throat. 

‘Has Tukaram come by here?’ she enquired of the owner of the joint.

When she heard that Tukaram had not set foot in the bar, she made her way to the local police station. 

Tukaram gazed in disgust at the treatment meted out to her. The wife of a local annoying, trouble-making alcoholic had come to report that her vagabond husband was missing.

‘Be happy. He has gone away. Good riddance!,’ was the advice.

A visibly fatigued Malti found her way home. She hugged her sleeping child and wailed through the night.

Tukaram was a defeated man. He did not enter the hovel. He fell down in a nearby gutter. He was in pain, but not of the physical kind.

The next morning, he found his neighbour shaking him awake. He was reeking of gutter water but was glad that someone could finally see him. He hugged the startled neighbour. 

Entering the home he saw that Usha was asleep. Malti might be blocks away, standing in line at the community water tap, he thought. 

He wrote a quick  note: ‘Malti, I now know what I have put you through. I am going to enrol myself in the Government Rehabilitation Centre in the city. The treatment may take six months or more. You are strong. You will handle the home. I promise I will come back a new man. A man worthy of you!’

Glossary

Dal- dish made with lentils or split pulses

Roti and sabji- Indian flatbread and vegetable

Baba, Aai – Father, Mother in Marathi.

Chappatis- Indian flatbread

Ey chikni- ( slang) Attractive woman.

***

When was the last time you read some modern sea stories—stories of ships and the seafarers who man them? Tales of adventure, love, romance, piracy, intrigue... and human nature? Well, look no further.

These are twelve stories of the sea, but not necessarily for seafarers alone. They are for anybody and everybody who likes to read fiction. And a ripping good yarn, as sailors used to say once upon a time.

Written by a sea captain who has spent his entire adult life at sea, more than forty years on the waves and still counting, these are stories set in the 70s, 80s up till the present day.

Will you come aboard now? The voyage is about to begin.

Link to buy this book: https://www.amazon.in/Driftwood-Beetashok-Chatterjee/dp/9385854771 and also at selected bookstores all over India.


Author:Beetashok Chatterjee, ex-Claws Club member at ArtoonsInn.

***

The story you've read is an entry for UniK-5, #Invisible, a room8 Writing event by ArtoonsInn.
Check the event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/unik-5-writing-event-artoonsinn/

Photo By: Almos Bechtold

Thanks for reading.

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