“No madam, no. We're at your location, see?”
Mrs. Binti Kaur stepped out of the taxi, closing the door behind her with more force than decorum and automobile service centres deemed advisable. Those who knew her could have warned the driver of her inability to take no for an answer, which is why those who knew her would have winced at how brazenly he had hurled two of them at her. Had they found out he had done so after disregarding her arguments, they would have wasted no time in reciting prayers on his behalf.
Today, however, the man would get to escape with his life.
Mrs Binti had started from home with a smile, and if matters progressed smoothly, she was all set to return with another on her face. Dispensing forgiveness along the way seemed harmless under such promising circumstances.
Under the harsh sun, Mrs Binti staggered down the by-lane, her kitten heels failing her many a time in potholes. Up ahead, she spotted a white cat resting on the roof of a neighbouring house. His eyes- one amber and the other a bright blue- bewitched her for a second, stopping her in her tracks, but Mrs Binti managed to compose herself in time.
A fondness for furry creatures had never contributed much to her reputation.
She turned up her nose at the animal and made her way towards the black gate on the left, too busy with her thoughts to notice his angry tail.
“I shan’t be home this afternoon.” Her sister Rani had declared on the phone, "Chutney will be, though. Our television died last week, so you can imagine how bored she must be at present. Things might get ugly, Binnie."
Mrs Binti had gulped at this revelation. From the day she had crawled across the bedroom floor, reaping tears and claps for doing the bare minimum expected of a toddler, Chutney Kaur Baruah had been the bane of her existence. At the ripe old age of five, she had proudly presented Mrs Binti with paper boats made from her beloved crochet magazines. Ever since, she had refused to look back. To call the girl a handful didn't begin to cover it. The toughest in the family needed both hands and feet to manage Chutney, not to forget a clear head and a strong stomach.
Things had supposedly changed, however, after she had left home to study in Tezpur.
"Our Chutney's become an angel!" A cousin of Mrs Binti's had told her in February, "She barely moved from the sofa on my birthday."
Mrs Binti had been quick to dismiss his testimony. It was hard to believe Chutney could change, not when her own mother had time and again insisted otherwise. In spite of her reservations, she now prepared herself to face her niece.
All Good things demanded a heavy price.
To gather courage, Mrs Binti leaned against the balcony railing for a full view of Lima Kalita's house. Ripe, juicy mangoes dangled from the trees standing tall in her backyard.
The thing in question did look mighty good.
Lima and Mrs Binti had been friends back in their schooldays. Friends, if like Mrs Binti, one lacked discipline with such designations. In reality they had chatted once or twice about homework while in third grade. That had been that until five years ago, when Rani and her family had moved into the house opposite Lima’s and the latter had welcomed them into the neighborhood with a carton of her mangoes. Soon after Rani had served some slices to her elder sister, Mrs Binti had decided It was time to revive a certain long forgotten friendship. How rare it is to be reunited with a soul sister, she had chirped squeezing Lima Kalita’s hand. An extra carton bearing her name had conveniently arrived next year at Rani's house.
The mangoes had since turned into an annual tradition. As far as Mrs Binti was concerned, they were the best Assam had to offer. Perfectly soft and sweet, with the taste of past summers lingering in their flesh.
She took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.
“Auntie Binnie!" Chutney greeted her with open arms, "So sorry to make you wait. I was at the terrace, strolling. Let me take you up there. We can sit and talk. You'll love the breeze."
Mrs Binti found herself gasping for breath. It had to be all those stairs she had climbed.
With trembling fingers, she pushed a bar of chocolate towards her niece.
“You remember my favourite!" Chutney gushed, "How I had bawled for this at the New Jalpaiguri Junction. I'd made you climb down to get it and you had ended up missing the train. Oh Aunty Binnie, you really shouldn't have!”
Mrs Binti giggled nervously, unable to figure out the whereabouts of her voice.
“Do sit.” Said Chutney, bringing her a chair. “I’ll run downstairs and get you some lemonade."
In her absence, Mrs Binti sprung into action. She looked under the chair, picked at the fabric, grabbed its arms and gave it a good shake.
The thing remained in one piece.
As she continued to observe it from a distance, she was startled by the sound of high-pitched laughter, a laughter featuring routinely in her worst nightmares.
“It’s safe, see?" Grinned Chutney, handing her the lemonade and plopping down on the chair.
“Your mistrust is rather flattering, but I assure you I am not that Chutney anymore. I am seventeen now, Auntie Binnie. With so much acne and as many assignments, I have no time for childish pranks."
Mrs Binti reluctantly settled down with her glass.
Could the rumours be true? Could her cousin be trusted after all?
The questions began swimming in her mind. When a spell of silence forced her to speak, she went for the subject that appealed most to her interest and taste buds.
“Any sign of Auntie Lima today?"
Chutney shook her head from the edge of the terrace.
“Oh but there she is now!” She exclaimed soon after, "She's talking to Auntie Sumi. There's a big basket…”
Mrs Binti nearly flew out of her chair. In a second she was standing right beside Chutney.
“Doesn’t Lima come to your mother first with the mangoes?"
“Without fail.” Confirmed Chutney, “But I am sure she must...have a reason. Look look! Auntie Lima is heading back home now.”
Mrs Binti’s face fell to the floor. She was able to push it back in place only when Lima Kalita reappeared in the by-lane carrying two huge cartons in her arms. After she walked past Rani's gate to open the one next door, it unfortunately fell again. This time much lower.
"She passed us right by!" Mrs Binti gasped.
"Urmm..I am sure she must…"
"Young lady!" Mrs Binti snapped at her niece, "Are you keeping something from me?"
"Never in a million years! "Chutney swore, "Although there was this one time when..."
"Never mind Auntie Binnie." She bit her lip, "The thing is too silly."
"Whatever it is" Announced Mrs Binti, "You'll tell me right away. I have not suffered years of your prattling to humour a sudden fancy for silence.."
"Auntie Lima was chatting with Maa on the porch last Sunday." She began, "Whenever she comes by, she restricts herself to stories about her allegedly "wonderful" children. Those put me to sleep, so I like to stay up in my room during her visits. That Sunday though, when I had come downstairs for a cola, I ended up overhearing something strange. Auntie Lima was telling Maa about a dream she had had the night before. It had kept her up until dawn, apparently...
In the dream, she had come over to our house to drop off the mango cartons and found it completely empty. There was no one in sight, except for a little beagle wagging its tail inside the living room. Auntie Lima, finding it cute, stepped forward to pet it. That's when it spoke to her, Auntie Binnie. In this guttural voice, making her jump..."
"Adorable aren't I?" The beagle exclaimed.
Auntie Lima was terrified, naturally. The cartons fell from her hands and she ran for the door.
"I understand your distress" The beagle called out, "But do please gather yourself. And those poor mangoes."
"You're dreaming." It told her, "That much is probably clear by now. It wasn't supposed to be, but I failed to keep my damn mouth shut. Now that we're past it though, I might as well guide you through everything properly."
The best Auntie could do was blink in answer to the beagle.
"Excuse my language", It said licking its paws, "Let me begin at the beginning, introduce myself. I'm..."
"A Puppy?" Ventured Auntie Lima.
"Trust a woman to judge a book by its cover." It sneered, "Do you see me rolling over and jumping around? The tail was merely a device to lure you."
"Who are you then?" Auntie Lima asked.
"Some call me Ugh. Some go with Argh. Then there's another bunch exclusively using Pfft and Tch Tch, but between you and me, I must confess I don't much prefer them."
"A tad hard to pronounce the last two." Nodded Auntie Lima.
"A tad yes, but that is my trade. I am, after all, the God of minor inconveniences."
"I am afraid I've never..."
"Heard of me? Oh I know. You lot are too busy stuffing yourselves to your throats with the chief deities, the ones with shiny weapons and fancy names. No wonder Headquarters keeps passing me over. So sorry Ugh, you must step away from Project X. Better luck next time, Project Y needs someone with more charisma. It is enough to suck my spirits dry, but I keep on going, for I do enjoy what I can do with my own powers."
The beagle circled Auntie Lima on its stubby legs.
"You'll be glad to know that they've picked you as my latest. By next week, I'll meet you in real life in this very avatar. The moment you lock eyes with me, I'll tie myself to your soul, after which I will become no different than your shadow. What would follow won't be exceedingly harrowing. Just a tad, as per my domain.".
"It's Ugh, my dear. Try a stronger G, with a bit more rage. Once we're tied together, I'll start sending you regular reminders of my presence. You would grab items on sale and spend hours in the billing queue just to be told it is a membership only offer. You would rush home after reaching your friend's house only to come back and see that you had remembered to unplug the iron. You would never find that missing pair of scissors, those lost keys, that new scrunchie..."
"I don't see where this is going." Groaned Mrs Binti.
"I told you so Auntie Binnie." Said Chutney, "It is utter nonsense. This kind of dream would have played out differently for skeptics like us, but the beagle got under Auntie Lima's skin. To her, the things it had so casually listed didn't sound like much fun in the long run.
"This doesn't sound like much fun." She told him.
"Not for you it doesn't." Snorted the beagle,
"No need to fret though. As of now, this is only a dream. You can make it stay that way. All you have to do is skip this whole thing. These cartons of mangoes, this particular visit to the. .."
The beagle stopped mid-sentence. After some violent coughing, it threw up a ball of paper, straightened it out and solemnly declared,
"What rubbish!" Screamed Mrs Binti.
"Exactly." Said Chutney, "Complete rubbish, a pile of it actually. I wonder what Auntie Lima has been reading to bed these days. There's a little more at the end, but I'll only proceed if you're interested, Auntie Binnie."
Mrs Binti sighed, giving her the nod to continue.
"What the beagle had just suggested wasn't to Auntie Lima's liking. Not at all..."
"Skip the visit? But it's tradition!" She cried out.
"Your neighbourly instincts are too strong." It frowned, "I can propose another way. It won't help you get rid of me, but it will certainly rid you of the inconveniences."
The beagle stood up on its rear legs and began to walk up and down the carpet.
"Every summer hence, you must cut up mangoes for your family during mealtimes. For your friends too, whenever they come to visit. You can cook whatever you want with them, but you mustn't ever eat any yourself. If you can do that, life will go on as normal. I'll still be around. At times you might hear a low growl in the house, or some dignified barking in the dead of night, but I'll cause you no trouble."
Auntie Lima couldn't abide, unfortunately.
""I can't put up with that." She coldly informed the beagle, "I didn't plant a dozen trees in my backyard for nothing."
"Fair enough." Said the beagle. "Option one it is. I must take your leave then, and prepare for my next project. This warning thing, I've got to keep it more vague next time. I wonder who they'll pick for me...the very first encounter with the human has always been my favourite bit. Back in the day, we used to have many avatars to choose from for that moment. My go to one was this lovely cow with zebra stripes. All that is gone now, sadly. Headquarters and their budget cuts. I guess I can go as a cat next time. I'll turn things up a notch, appear as one with different coloured eyes..."
Mrs Binti suddenly turned a sickly shade of green.
"All okay Auntie Binnie?" Chutney's voice reached her from afar.
"I have to head home." She wheezed, "I think I forgot to unplug the iron..."
Chutney kept offering to call her a taxi, but Mrs Binti was in no mood to wait. In the blink of an eye, she vanished down the by-lane.
"It's the strangest thing! " Rani exclaimed that night at dinner, "Why would she refuse to take Lima's carton? You did take her up to the storeroom, didn't you?".
Chutney looked up from her plate at her mother.
"I wouldn't mention it to her if I were you. Poor Auntie Binnie, she had such a terrible dream last night..."
For three whole weeks, Mrs Binti Kaur jumped at the meows and purrs of every stray cat she couldn't see. Things finally cleared up on an overcast July morning, when a long phone call with Lima Kalita left her sobbing and screaming into her pillow.
The following month on the morning of her birthday, an enormous package addressed to Chutney arrived unexpectedly at the Baruah's doorstep. It was a brand new television, a forty two inch LED flat screen.
"Love Auntie Binnie." The card stuck on top read.