Who are you today?

Ever wondered at the multiple people we are in one day? The personas that we don- a parent, an employee, a spouse, a friend- slipping from one role to another, effortlessly, seamlessly. Some days.

Other days, the transition is perhaps not that effortless. When waking up and being just the one you is hard enough. When every step is a struggle, and those multiple personas seem more like a psychotherapist’s nightmare than the everyday juggling of roles that is commonplace enough to be barely noticeable.

In all of this, how often do we connect with who we really are? Are we happy, are we satisfied with our lot? Are the people around us adding to our lives, or leaching from it? Are we adding to theirs?

Do we take stock often enough?

I was listening to an interview on the radio the other day. The interviewee mentioned something that immediately struck a chord. He talked about allowing oneself to live multiple lives in one lifetime.

Let me elaborate:

One dream is not enough. Just as we can, and do, juggle those multiple personality changes, it is equally important to check in with your personal aspirations, and juggle those around as well. Take that road trip, do that drunken dance on the table, run that marathon in your bra, bungee jump off that bridge….what’s stopping you?

Let’s expand this further. Yes, you are a parent. Sometimes, allow yourself to be the child. Listen to the wisdom of babes. Take on board their uncomplicated views of life. Yes, you are an employee. Learn to switch off for a bit. Just that little bit of time out could recharge you enough to come back with a renewed sense of purpose. As a friend or as a spouse, stop taking those significant people for granted. Don’t allow others to take you for granted either.

So many to-do’s seems to add to that long list that already exists in your mind. This is not meant to be a stress list. This is meant to be a ‘let go and live a little’ list. Sure there will be missteps. Sure you’ll make mistakes. Blunders even. But won’t it be worth it?

If one day is not enough to contain the many people we can be, is one life time enough to contain all our dreams? Perhaps not. But how will we ever find out until we try?

So, who are you today? What is your dream? Wake up! Find out! It may be too late tomorrow.

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Love and Loss

I trace the network of lines on my stomach. A grid of loss. The lives this womb has held and squandered. Each time, unable to fulfil its biological vocation. Layers upon layers of hope and despair that show up on my face, in my hair, in my eyes… The first one came unbidden, unwanted, and was rid off just as quickly. Youth and drugs and unprotected mating. Then, years of trying and failing, and trying again. Too old to try now. Yet. An instinct to love, to cherish, to protect and to nourish finds no outlet. I swim in a morass of anguish and melancholy.

Till, like a sliver of sunshine, you enter my life.You are not of my womb. You are not of my culture. You are not of my colour. Yet. My life is coloured with the joy of your dimples and my heart overflows with the milk of love that my bosom could not offer.

You are you. And you are mine.

 

***

20160418_181601

Description of the work:

Untitled
Oil on canvas
30″ x 40″
2015
Copyright – Preeti Varma.

This painting is an original work of art by Preeti Varma who is a New York based visual artist. Preeti explores inter-disciplinary genres like painting, mixed-media, photography and installations in her art practice. To see more of her works, please visit her website at
http://www.Preetivarma.com

 

 

Life’s too short for cheap perfume

The heater shut out the exact moment her phone began to ring. For a moment she lay there, in the dark, heart thudding listening to its shrill tone cut through the remainder of her night. Then she reached for it.

“Hello?”

“Sahib….sahib….it’s me, Narinder.”

With an inward groan she sat up in bed, pulling her sliding duvet up to her chin.

“What is it?”

“We have been called to the Big Bangla. Something has happened.”

This chased away the last of her sleep.

The Big Bangla belonged to the Forestry Minister. In actual fact it was called Rhododendron House, but as most Indian tongues couldn’t get to grips with it, it was reduced to being called the Big House or the Big Bangla.

“Is it okay if I bring the jeep around?”

“Yes”, she sighed impatiently. “Give me ten minutes.”

Narinder was wrapped up warm, and the monkey cap he wore only revealed his startling blue eyes, crusted as they were with sleep and the remnants of cheap whiskey. The eyes did their usual run over her person, lingering on her non existent bosom that she vainly tried to hide under layers of wool. Impatiently she gestured for him to drive.

“So, what’s happened?”

“Don’t know Sahib. There was a call to the Thana. Police Constable Chauhan took the call. They wanted the highest ranking officer to come out. As Bade Sahib is out of station, you were the only one I could think of calling.”

She could visualise the reluctance that must have gone into placing that call. As the first female API in Shimla, she was used to being treated as a bit of fluff. It only made her more determined. Some said pugnacious, but that was their problem.

The lights were blazing in the Big Bangla. It could be spotted five miles away, placed as it was on a hill. The approach was treacherous at the best of times, but at four am, on icy roads, it was a hellish drive. She gripped her seat as Narinder peered ahead in the darkness, uttering muffled oaths every time the tyres slipped.

“What can be so urgent, that they couldn’t wait for a more decent hour?”, she wondered aloud.

“No one says no to the Minister, Sahib. You had better get used to it.”

She wondered if he knew of her history. Of why she had been posted here. Then she figured, probably not. It was just a comradely heads-up for her. She didn’t bother replying.

The gates loomed up quite suddenly, and Narinder had to brake hard, sending the jeep spinning slightly to the left.

“Kaun hai?”, the chowkidar came running out, his blanket covering his head, the stick banging threateningly against the bonnet.

“Police!”, cried out Narinder, suppressing the tremor in his voice.

The gates were opened once their identities were verified. The drive leading to the house was clear of all snow, and in the dark she could make out vague shapes of the caretaker’s house and tenements of the other servants the Minister employed.

The servants all stood together in a huddle outside the main entrance. From inside she could hear an occasional bellow.

“Saare chutiye hain! All bloody useless bastards!!” The cuss words kept getting more colourful, even as she took the steps two at a time.

“Ministerji?”, she addressed the back of the tall man who was pacing the floor. He turned to stare at her.

“Who are you? Where is Brijesh?”

“I am sorry but the DCP is away in Delhi. He is not expected back till the end of the month. I am ACI Soumitra Ghosh. Recently posted here sir. How can I help?”

“How…”, he spluttered. “You…? I need a man to handle this case. Not you. Send someone else!”

“At this hour of the morning, you get me, or no one at all. Now, what seems to be the problem?”

His mouth opened and closed for what seemed like a minute. She assessed him quickly in the meantime. Tall, florid, moustached, several rings on his fingers, hair colour that came out of a bottle, and very expensive Italian shoes. Hmmm.

Silently he turned and walked towards a hallway. She was expected to follow, and she did, with Narinder at her heel. She barely glanced at the various portraits that adorned the walls, instead trying to sneak a peek through the few open doorways, and the shadowy rooms beyond.

He entered a large bedroom.The room was charmingly understated, its muted pistachio and blush colour scheme indicating a woman’s tasteful touch. The bed was made, the curtains were drawn. The air was heavy with an exotic perfume mingled with a faint metallic odour. Then she spotted it. The leg that stuck out innocuously from under the bed.

He stood back watching her response. She walked slowly around to the other side of the bed. Her intake of breath was involuntary. The body lay at an unnatural angle. Half under the bed, half out. The throat had been viciously slit. There were puncture wounds all over the torso. Copious amounts of blood had soaked into the persian rug underneath.

“My wife.”

“When did you find her?”

“An hour ago, when I came home.”

“Has anything been touched in this room?”

“No…nothing. I called the station right away.”

She looked over to Narinder who stood gaping at the body. It was probably the first dead body he had seen in his career.

“Call Rao. Tell him to get here straight away.”

She looked at the impassive face of the Minister. “Can you think of anyone who could be responsible for this?”

He looked at her blankly. “I have many enemies. But Tabassum? No. Everyone loved her. Even the servants.”

“Your wife was Muslim?” She’d gathered as much from the name.

“Kashmiri. Yes, Kashmiri Muslim. But non practising.”

“Ministerji…I need to seal this room off till our Forensics man arrives. But first, I need to look around.”

“Be my guest”, he sat heavily in the chair near the door.

With a flick of her head she posted Narinder as a guard, and started her reconnaissance of the room. The windows were all locked, and the one door that led into the garden was barred with iron grills, allowing no entry or egress. She let the curtain drop noting the heavy damask material that had to be imported. Turning to the dresser she observed a variety of perfumes, mostly from the house of Guerlain. No makeup except for kajal. She looked at the photos on the dresser, and realised that this was a woman who had never needed the artifice of cosmetics. Her beauty was a natural, albeit other worldly one. An Indian Ingrid Bergman, with wide spaced grey eyes, wavy jet black hair, and a dewiness that only the very fortunate were blessed with. She also looked considerably younger than her husband.

“How old was your wife?”

“Forty two…no…forty three. She just turned forty three.”

The Minister was easily in his late fifties.

“Any children?”

“Three boys. All at boarding school. Look Mrs Ghosh….”

“Miss”

“What? Okay. Miss Ghosh. I am exhausted. It’s been a long day, and this…”, he waved his hands about, “this has been a shock. How much longer?”

She examined his face and saw no trace of any emotion. Perhaps as a seasoned politician he was used to hiding his feelings. But it was decidedly odd.

“I understand Ministerji”, she injected a dose of compassion in her voice. “And please call me Soumi” She wanted him on her side for now.

Pale morning light was starting to filter through the gaps in the curtains.

“I can finish up in here. My team will be arriving shortly. Please try and get some rest. I will be needing your help later, with some enquiries, and also to question your staff.”

“Yes, thank you Soumi”, he suddenly sounded weary. “Please…uhhh…let me know, when you…uhhh…remove her body. I want to be there.”

She ushered him out, and then turned to look at a silent Narinder.

“Post a guard outside his room, and call the Telephone Exchange. I want all phone calls monitored.”

“Sahib, how can we do that? If he finds out…”

“I don’t care. This is a murder investigation, and he is the prime suspect.”
***

Two weeks had flown by, and she was no closer to a resolution. The murder had become national headlines, with every newspaper screaming outrage and conspiracies. All sorts of theories had been bandied about, and if it wasn’t for the fact that her superior had broken his leg, and was currently immobile in Delhi, she would have been off the case. She had already been called incompetent, worthless, a bimbo and far worse by the Press, and by the Minister’s coterie. To add insult to injury, her mother had decided to visit.

“Maa, you could not have chosen a worse time!”

“What kind of a daughter does not welcome her mother to her house?”

“Oh Maa! Just look at you. You have three sweaters, a shawl, and four pairs of socks on, and you’re still shivering. Why are you here in December? You are not used to these temperatures. Why didn’t you come in May, like I’d said?”

“Soumi…you need to get married.”

“Huh?”

“I have seen a very good boy. I wanted to talk to you about him.”

“No! Maa, I am in the middle of a very serious case. I am not having this conversation again.”

With that, she grabbed her briefcase and stomped out of the house.

Walking up the steep hill, she mulled over the details of the case in her mind.

Rao had established the time of death as somewhere between 1am and 2am. There had been no forced entry.There were no signs of a struggle. The assailant must have been known to the victim.

The Minister’s alibi had been watertight. He had indeed been in a meeting with several other members of his department. The meeting had overrun, and alcohol and kebabs had been involved. This ruled him out, but only just.

The shell shocked servants had been unable to provide any answers. The chowkidar had only registered the tailor who had come to deliver Madam’s newly stitched blouses. That was at 5pm. But he had left three quarters of an hour later.

Nothing had been disrupted. Nothing had ostensibly been stolen either.

No obvious motive. Yet, the brutality of the attack, indicated a crime of passion.

Hmmm.

She sat down on a bench on the Mall Road. The early risers were about, mingling with the honeymooning couples. She watched as a young groom got his pretty wife to sit and pose on a horse, making sure she displayed her gaudy wedding jewellery, while he took the obligatory love struck photos. How long before this love soured? How long before she became another pudding faced, plump, baby factory, and he the wife beating, whiskey swilling lout? She gave it five years.

She turned to look at the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas. Their majestic beauty never failed to awe her. This – this was real. This had existed before, and it would exist much after their own silly little lives had come to an end.

“Sahib ji?”, a quiet nervous voice whispered next to her.

Startled she looked up at the slight young girl who stood by her, shuffling from one foot to another.

“Sahib ji, I wanted to talk to you about Madam. Tabassum madam.”

“Yes? What about her?”, she asked, impatient to be on her way. She had heard enough of Tabassum’s good deeds, of how wonderful she had been with the servants, how charitable with the poor, how generous with her time. How her beauty had been far more than just skin deep. There was just one problem with the picture. It didn’t factor in a motive for the grisly murder.

“I’m Gulabo. My father is the estate gardner. But we don’t live on the estate.”

Soumi stood up.

“Walk with me.”

Gulabo tried keeping pace with her strides.

“Tabassum madam was teaching me English. She said I was smart. That I shouldn’t have stopped school. But Baba didn’t want me to study any further. He said I was to be married in a few years, and too much education would give me unsuitable ideas.”

“Madam would come once a week. I looked forward to those lessons”, she said wistfully. “She would bring me presents sometimes. Little trinkets. Old salwar suits that I could alter to wear”

“Two weeks ago”, she hesitated.

Sensing a break, Soumi stopped and looked her square in the face.

“Yes? What happened two weeks ago?”

“Madam was late. I thought she wasn’t coming. When she did, she seemed very upset. Distracted. She kept losing track of what she was saying…. That same night….she was killed.” The girl started to sob.

“There, there”, Soumi patted her absently. So, something had happened. Something that had upset the perfect Tabassum. What could it be?

At the station, she summoned Narinder.

“I thought we were interviewing the tailor today. Is he back from his sister’s wedding?”

“Yes Sahib. He has been waiting for you. Shall I bring him in?”

Rajinder Prasad aka Raju had a nervous twitch and a squint. Soumi found it disconcerting, and chose to peruse her file instead.

“What time did you go to madam’s house?”

“Around 5pm Sahib”

“What had you made for her?”

“Some blouses Sahib. New design. Backless, with string.”

“Backless? Did Tabassum madam wear these sorts of blouses often?”

Raju’s twitch became more pronounced.

“No Sahib. She never…I mean…mostly her blouses were normal….But this time she brought photo. Some fillum star lady. Said she wanted same to same.”

“She asked you to copy the design?”

“Yes Sahib”

“Did she say where she would wear this to?”

“No Sahib. Madam did not talk about those things with me.”

“Okay. You can go”

The weapon had never been found. From the trajectory of the cut, Rao had deduced it to be a khukri- a Nepalese carved knife. This wasn’t a particularly outstanding piece of information, as plenty of Nepalese immigrants populated Shimla, working as porters, guards and in the apple orchards. The Minister had had no Nepalese servants however. What was even more of a worry was, that if the crime had indeed been committed by a Nepalese, then he (or she) could be well over the border in Nepal by now. The extradition treaty between India and Nepal was an old and tenuous one, and did not provide enough leverage to seek any kind of redressal, once the criminal had fled the country.
“I need to speak with the Minister again.”

“Is that wise? I mean…He was not happy about the Telephone exchange business.”

“My problem. Go get the jeep.”

Narinder was quiet the entire journey. She could sense that he was bristling at being outranked and ordered about. Yet a begrudging respect had started to creep into their exchanges. She decided to return the favour.

“What do you think Narinder? You have lived here all your life. You’ve known these people. Who could have done this? And why?”

“I don’t know these people Sahib. I know of them.”

“Yes…whatever… But no ideas? No guesses?”

He gave her a quick, assessing glance before turning his attention back to the road.

“One hears things. The Minister’s hands are not clean. He has held on to his post at all costs. Maybe he paid too high a price?”

A hush seemed to have descended on the Big Bangla. It had been the site of frenzied activity the last few weeks. From sniffer dogs to investigative teams, from mourners, to relatives to friends- people had trooped in and out with scant regard. Yet, today, it seemed to stand forlorn. As though its very heart had been ripped out. She shook her head to clear it of these fanciful meanderings.

The chowkidar let them in with barely a glance. As they turned on the drive, she once again observed the beauty of the grounds. This had been a sensuous woman who liked to surround herself with pulchritude. Everything in her life had a grace, a refinement, a charm and a delicacy. Who would want to annihilate that?

The Minister was in no mood to receive them.

“We will wait here”, Soumi said to the maid.

“Bring some chai”, Narinder commanded. She caught his eye and grinned.

They sat themselves down, prepared for a long wait.

“So you are the Bengali inspector”, a voice drawled from the doorway. She looked up, and her breath caught in her throat. The most beautiful specimen of masculinity stood in front of her. His frame was whippet thin but did not conceal the patrician musculature. He had his father’s height, but his mother’s grey eyes and dark, wavy hair. If he was aware of his effect on the opposite sex, it did not much bother him. He looked at her up and down. She stood up, suddenly feeling very small and helpless.

“Yes, I am API Ghosh” She wanted a formality there. A distance.

“I’m Ken. Kamran actually. But everyone calls me Ken. You can too.”

He leaned over, and picked a thread off her cardigan. She swallowed hard. Why was this eighteen year old having this effect on her? It was ridiculous. She cleared her throat. “How long will your father be? We have other things to do as well”

His eyes flashed. “Such as? A petty theft or a carjacking? What could be more important than my Ammi’s murder investigation?”

“Yes, what could indeed? Please ask your father to join us so that we may proceed with our enquiries.”

Two younger boys came running in, cheeks flushed, breathing hard from the exertion. They looked in their early teens, and although neither possessed the same breathtaking good lucks, they were a pair of healthy, robust lads messing about. The only thing that belied this was the purple tinge around their eyes. Tears and sleepless nights. The legacy of the living.

“We are on special leave. For the funeral”, Ken supplied the information carelessly. He sat opposite her, his gaze never leaving her face.

“Are you really as incompetent as they say?”

“That depends on who says it….”

“Sahib is a very good policewoman. You should not go by hearsay.” She was surprised at Narinder’s sudden support, and smiled at him.

“I see. Then, tell me API Ghosh- who killed my mother and why?”

“As you are aware…Ken…we are still investigating…There are things I need to know. Friends I need to interview. Your father has denied me access to her papers. Unless I have every piece of the puzzle, I can’t determine whether this was a random attack, or whether, as we suspect, a specific one.”

“My mother…Ammi…”, he looked at Narinder, who looked down. “She was a beautiful woman. A pure and pious soul. For the longest time, it was just her and I. The two of us, battling against the world. Till Raj came along, and swept her off her feet” He laughed sardonically.

Soumi digested this information silently. She felt like a fool. No one had bothered to inform her that this was Tabassum’s second marriage. How much more had been withheld from her?

“And your father….your biological one?”

“Gone…Dead….who cares? Never knew him.”

The Minister walked in, his face like thunder.

“Ken, take your brothers inside. I will deal with this.”

Ken unfolded himself languidly, and then with a quick wink escorted the boys out.

“You are snooping and prying again, Soumi! Instead of looking for the murderer, you keep trying to unearth God knows what in my household?! I am tired of this. I have been speaking to my contact in Delhi. They are sending a replacement. Better pull up your socks and start working hard. You are not going to last long.”

“I need to look through Tabassum’s personal effects.”

“No!”

“You cannot keep denying me access….”

“I cannot?”, he came right up to her. She could see the yellow in his eyes, smell his rancid breath, see the white roots of his jet black hair. “My dear girl, this is India. I can do what I like. You are a nobody. You cannot stop me.”

“What are you hiding Minister? If you really want her murder solved, you would let me. There might be a clue in there. A letter…something…anything…”

“And you think I haven’t looked? I have searched and hunted. There is nothing! Tabassum lived a transparent life. She had no secrets.”

“Everyone has secrets, Minister ji. You should know that.”
***

After a frustrating day, returning to her mother’s cooking brought some respite. Tea and buttered toast had lost its allure some months ago.

“You have gotten so thin Soumi”, her mother fussed around her. “Always rushing about. Not enough sleep. Not enough food. Where is the sense in this life?”

“I enjoy it Maa. It’s what I do. I am good at it too.” She remembered her old trainer’s words. That she had the instincts of a bloodhound. Her instincts were telling her that something didn’t add up.

“Tell me, Maa. Is anyone ever really good? I mean, completely, thoroughly good?”

Her mother laughed. “Soumi, I thought you’d given up reading fairy tales in kindergarten.”

She laughed alongside. Cynicism was a trait she had obviously inherited.
***

“Well, I only agreed to meet you because Ken called and insisted”, said the elegant Naureen, who sat sipping her coffee ever so daintily. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about Tabassum. All that you know. Even the most irrelevant detail.”

The diamonds in her ears glinted as she cocked her head to a side, and looked at Soumi speculatively.

“She would have liked you. She respected intelligent women. Gutsy women. Women who’d stepped into male domains” She sighed. “What a lot of people didn’t know about Tabassum was that she was a very bright woman herself. A topper in school and college. Desperate to do something with her qualifications. But her father married her off to that useless Farroukh. Then Kamran was born, and all her ambitions withered and died”

“What happened to Farroukh?”

“You don’t know?”, she seemed surprised.

“He was killed. By the insurgents. Kamran was only two. Tabassum left Srinagar and moved to Delhi with him. That’s where she met Raj.”

“Why does Ken hate his father?”

“Which one?”, she laughed. “Kamran has always been possessive about Tabassum. He was only a baby but some impressions of his biological father’s abuse must have survived in his subconscious. As for Raj, he doesn’t hate him. Just tolerates him. No man was ever good enough for her, not in Kamran’s opinion”

“Who do you think did this?”

“I don’t know. I am equally baffled. I have known Tabassum for over thirty years, and in all honesty, she was the loveliest person. Not a wicked bone in her body” A tear rolled down her face, and she wiped it discreetly with her lace edged handkerchief.

“Are there any other friends I should speak to? Anyone else who was close to her?”

“Most everyone is either in Chandigarh for the winter, or holidaying abroad. There is that Dolly, of course.”, Her little moue conveyed distaste and annoyance.

“Dolly?”

“Some upstart who’d attached herself to Tabassum this past year”

“Where can I find her?”

“Probably at some kitty party or another. She is one of those insufferably loquacious people, always surrounded by a gaggle. What Tabassum ever saw in her, I cannot begin to comprehend!”
***

“Sahib, you have till the end of this week. Then, the new inspector arrives to take over the case”

“Yes, Narinder, I am aware of that”, she spooned the lukewarm sambar into her mouth. “Where did you buy this crap from?”

“There is a new South Indian restaurant Sahib. I know one of the waiters.”

“This tastes nothing like idli, and the sambar is like water. Tell your friend the chef better get his act together, or I’ll be paying him a visit” she mock threatened. “And what of this Dolly Kalra? Have you located her yet?”

“Sahib, you think I do nothing but drink chai? She has a shop on the Mall. Kalra’s. They sell shawls and stoles. Some other woollen things too.”

“Narinder, I don’t need an inventory!”, she swallowed the last morsel of whatever was masquerading as food, “Let’s go pay her a visit”
KALRA’S: The board screamed in neon lettering. There was nothing subtle or nuanced here. Inside, the shop was brightly lit. The wares displayed in a surprisingly ordered manner. The cheaper shawls were hung up for inspection, and random touching. The more expensive were kept under the glass, to be displayed only upon request.

Dolly was hard to miss. Her yellow salwar suit clung to her curves, ample as they were. The neckline was plunging, and the scarf a mere accessory to the fact, slung over her shoulders not to camouflage but to emphasise. A portly man with hennaed hair and matching teeth sat behind the cash counter, rapidly counting the wad of Rupees he held.

“Hello ji. Namaste ji.” She came over to them, all dimples and smiles.

An hour later the smiles had all but disappeared. Her sodden handkerchief was a testament to her grief. Her dear dear friend had been so viciously killed.

“I never saw you at the funeral”, Soumi said, the histrionics wearing thin on her.

“Oh! I wanted to come. So much. But my husband said perhaps it was not a good time.”

“Why not?”, she glanced over to the hennaed Mr Dolly who sat like a stone Buddha watching them question his wife at the back of his store.

“Well, we are not…the same class. The other people did not like our friendship. Tabassum was like a sister to me. Others were jealous of this.”

“How did the two of you meet?” She could not imagine them crossing paths socially.

“Oh!”, she simpered, her dimples playing on her cheeks, “She came in one day to buy a shawl. She seemed lonely. We got chatting. And that was it.” She finished triumphantly, as though her winsome personality won her friends on a regular basis.

“How often did you meet?”

“Daily”

“Daily? When? What did you do?”

“We would meet for lunch. Go for walks. Go to the library. Just hang out.”

“Hang out?”, observed Soumi wryly.

***

“Bring her in”, she rasped to Narinder on the phone. Her throat felt like razor blades were scraping the inside of it. She looked at the pile of soggy, mucus soaked tissues near her bed, and looked away. Her mother came in, brandishing the thermometer like a sword.

“Not now, Maa”, she groaned, “I am in the middle of something.”

“I don’t care. Open your mouth.”

“Gaaahhhh. Aaaahhhh”

“Sahib? Sahib, are you okay?”

“Yes, Narinder”, she spluttered, spitting out the thermometer. “I am coming to the station in an hour. Get that Dolly in. I need to question her, without the husband around”

“You are going nowhere Miss. Not in your condition.”

“Oh Maa. It’s only a bit of fever. I need to go. I am this close to a breakthrough. I can feel it in my bones”

“Go then”, her mother said, quietly. “When did you ever listen to me? You were always your father’s daughter. And after him, I ceased to matter.”

“Maa…that is not true!”, she cried, “How can you even say that? Look….listen….let me go. I promise, when I return, we’ll have a serious talk about this Professor chap you want me to meet. Okay? There, that’s better. Love you Maa.”

She grabbed her coat and ran out before her mother’s mood changed again.

***
Dolly had dark circles under her eyes. She squirmed uncomfortably in the chair.

“I need to get back soon. My husband….”

“Someone will inform your husband you are here. Don’t worry.”

“Now, tell me more about this room you have on hire at Prospect Hill. I understand that you have paid upfront for it. For what…ummm…let’s see…another six months?”

“Yes..yes…I, uhhh, I go there to write.”

“Write? What do you write?”

“Some poetry. Urdu Shayyari. Tabassum was helping me. Her Urdu was so chaste.”

“Then I presume you have some of these writings with you?”

“No…I store them on my laptop.”

“A laptop? I didn’t realise you were so tech savvy?”

At this, she raised her chin and said proudly, “I did Computer Science at school”

“Very impressive. So, where is this laptop stashed?”

“It’s..uhhh…it crashed a week ago. I need to get it repaired.”

“Crashed? As in, all the programs crashed?”

“No…it..uhhh…slipped out of my hands. It fell. It’s broken”

“Oh, that’s unfortunate. As luck would have it, I know an excellent repair guy. Why don’t you let Narinder bring it back here. We can have it fixed and also look at some of those poems hmmm? Hard drives are amazingly resilient things. All sorts of data can be retrieved from them, despite any damage to the computer. But I’m sure you know that. You studied Computer Science, after all”

“Why are you questioning me like this? “, Dolly jumped up. “I have done nothing wrong!”

“Sit down”, the menace in her voice was unmistakable now. “Why don’t you stop lying to me at once, and tell me exactly what was going on in that room? Why, every afternoon, while your husband took his afternoon siesta, you and Tabassum would take yourselves off, for hours at a time? What did you do? Tell me!!”

Dolly started to shake uncontrollably. Narinder brought over a cup of sweetened chai. She could barely hold the cup in her trembling hands.

“At first, we just watched”, she whispered.

“Watched? Watched what?”

“Porn. Young men. With other women. With men. Then….”

“Then what….?”

“You have to understand. We were both young women married to old men. There was no sex in our lives. Our husbands….they were too busy to give us that….”

“Then what happened? Did you try it on one another?”

Narinder cleared his throat. “Sahib, shall I go?”

“No. Stay. I need this recorded.”

Two red spots burnt high on her cheeks. “We were not like that.”

“So, then?”

“She wanted men. She wanted me to get her men. Young men. No older than twenty she said. She was willing to pay for it.”

“So you became her procurer?”, A fit of coughing assailed her then. Narinder rushed to get her a glass of water. “What did you get in return? Her scraps? Did you share? Did you take it in turns?”

“You…you are making it sound so cheap…so sick….”

“Because, Dolly ji, it is! It is cheap and sick to buy services of boys young enough to be your sons!”

Dolly’s eyes filled with tears and she looked away.

“What happened on the day of the murder? Something happened. She was scared and worried.”

“There was one boy. We had used him before. We liked him. He started to get obsessive. Threatened to tell.”

“Did he know who you were? Who she was?”

“He must have figured it out. Perhaps seen a photo in the newspaper. I don’t know. He was blackmailing her.”

“Who was this boy? What was his name? How did you contact him?”
***
The site was easily accessible to anyone who knew how. Soumi wished she could unlearn this information. What she saw made her sick to the stomach. Boys as young as eight, posed provocatively, sexually, offering their bodies as commodities to be used and abused . Dolly had led them to the link that offered the services of boys ranging from fourteen to nineteen. Tabassum’s preference lay in this range. In vain they hunted for the boy called Rohan.

“Bring her back. I need her to look at these pictures again.”

“No…none of these….He must have taken himself off….I don’t know….He….No! Wait…wait…. go back….there’s something about this one…”

The face was in profile, shadowed, but his body shone, well oiled, the six pack taking centre stage.

“Make a booking”

“What? Me? I….?”

“Yes, you. Book him. Call him this afternoon.”

With the honey trap laid, they waited for him to arrive. When he did, Soumi’s heart plummeted. She looked over at Narinder, whose eyes were wide as saucers. The resemblance was uncanny. Was Ken Rohan? Or was Rohan a mere lookalike?

He sauntered through the lobby of the inn, briefly pausing to look at a magazine. Then he took the stairs to the room.

When they burst in ten minutes later, he was stepping out of his jeans.

“Police!”

Narinder had tackled him to the floor and managed to get a pair of handcuffs on him. Soumi was relieved to discover it was not Ken. His features were flatter. His eyes a murky brown. He was shorter and had the distinctive down turn to his eyes that the Nepalese did.

“It’s him”, Dolly shuddered. “He was blackmailing her.”

“So, what did you do with the murder weapon Rohan? Where did you hide it?”

“What…what are you talking about? I didn’t kill her. Why would I? She was my cash cow. My golden goose.” He laughed suddenly. “She was good in bed too.”

“Shut up!”, screamed Dolly. “You did it. I know you did it! After all she gave you. All she did for you…”

“Did for me? I was just a son substitute. Ken was the star of the show all along.”

At this Dolly fell silent.

“What do you mean?”, prodded Soumi. “How do you know Ken?”
***
He lounged on the sofa in front of her.

“Not so incompetent then API Ghosh”

“No”

“Who will believe you? You have no evidence. No murder weapon. Nothing except the salacious words of a gigolo.”

“A childhood friend of yours Ken.”

“Rohan dropped out of school years ago. Got mixed up in a bad crowd…drugs, petty crime. I lost touch with him.”

“Yes, you did. Till recently when he contacted you. Telling you how he was fucking your mother.” She leaned forward. “How did that make you feel Ken? A bit impotent? Full of rage? Here was another man, replacing you in her life. You wanted to be the only man, didn’t you? You wanted her for yourself. All of her. Always had.”

“Shut up bitch!” His spittle landed on her face. “You don’t know anything”

“I know enough to know that yours was an unnatural relationship. Perhaps the Minister sensed it? So he sent you away to boarding school. But it didn’t die, did it?”

She stood up and circled him.

“I have witnesses who saw you board the bus the morning after the murder. Your friends at school have told me how you disappeared for two days. We have retrieved the email Rohan sent you, along with the photo of him and Tabassum. Confess now, and I might be able to plead clemency for you.”

She watched him crumple on to the floor, his howl renting the air with its agony.

***

“They cancelled the replacement Sahib”, Narinder tucked into his dosa with relish.

“Well, there was hardly any point, was there?” The sambar had definitely improved in consistency if not in taste.

“Such a scandal! They found the khukri in his school locker.”

“Hmmm”. She stayed impassive.

“I hear they are treating him at some asylum. He has gone quite mad.”

“Narinder, tell the chef he needs to buy some spicy gun powder…the eating kind…” She looked at his perplexed face and laughed. “Never mind. Tell him to work on the sambar first.”

They walked back to the station in convivial silence, the mountains quiet spectators to their budding friendship.

***

To be continued….