‘My husband had been very ill and the doctor was insistent that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country. If he was to get strong again. So, I was feverishly house-hunting. Of course, I had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding with all of them. Quite serendipitously, I happened to get what I was looking for, an ideal farm house, a relatively small sized one though a little far deep into the village, secluded from civilisation. It so happened that whilst house hunting I had mentioned in passing my problem to an elderly man who identified himself as the sarpanch. We had exchanged numbers. Within a day, after I had lost all hope, I received a call out of the blue. It was the same sarpanch. He identified himself as one Shrikant Rao Patil. He said he has a place that’s ideal for us and then he proceeded to give elaborate directions on how to reach it. His concluding words were ‘The owner is a lone widower with no encumbrances. He is an infrequent visitor and mostly lives abroad. You can directly go and stay there. Just pay some reasonable amount to the caretaker when you leave.’
Though initially hesitant, I decided to take up the offer as I was at my wit’s end what with my husband’s condition playing heavily on my mind.
And so it was that we moved to Patil Farm House at around six in the evening last Sunday. For the next two days, I immersed myself in wholly taking care of Varun, preparing meals of his choice, feeding him, going out on long walks within the precincts of the farm house. Two whole evenings we spent sitting on a bench overlooking a lake that flowed right through the middle of the greeny expanse, talking, listening, holding hands, reminiscing old times, our love affair, trip to Kashmir, Kanyakumari, his fascination for check shirts and the colour black et al.
It was on the morn of Wednesday, at around 5.30 that I woke up all of a sudden. Call it premonition or what, but my heart turned heavy, my mind extremely agitated. I woke up in that state of extreme anxiety and stepped into Varun’s room. And when I neared his bed, I saw that he was fast asleep. Or, so I thought. Something made me turn him around. His eyes were closed. His face had turned ashen. I could see that there was no life. I put my right ear to his chest. I could not detect any heart beat. Horrified, I frantically felt his wrist. There was no pulse. In my crazed confused state I did everything possible_ pumped his chest, pressed my mouth to his, shouted, screamed. I was a mad woman whose world had collapsed and didn’t know how to deal with it.
Hearing my cries, the caretaker came running in.
I somehow managed to convey that I needed to go to the hospital, or at least get a doctor.
It took another 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
And another fifteen minutes for the vehicle to reach Kedarwadi Government Rural Hospital
And an hour later, as I stood outside the Emergency Room, a doctor came out and walked up to me.
His words still ring in my ears.
‘And when he uttered ‘I’m sorry, we couldn’t save your husband. It was a fatal heart attack’, I felt my world turn all black.’
Detective Alphonso Chacko, Senior Inspector and Head of Special Branch (Crime) Maharashtra Police narrowed his eyes and looked at the woman who sat opposite him.
His eyes registered her face for eternity.
Tall, sturdy, around forty, thick auburn hair that sat royally on a high cheek boned defiant face, large black button eyes and full lips with a faint dab of red lipstick still visible.
A clean square jaw and an ample bosom added the much needed heft to an around 58 kilo all meat frame!
The ace cop felt a stir between his loins. He knew this was not your regular docile middle class housewife.
She was a fiercely independent, city bred woman with a mind that listened to none but its owner and a body with enough oomph to set the Ganges on fire!
The words almost slipped out of his lips.
Barely 24 hours had elapsed after the death of her husband, and this woman, the wife of the deceased, had given the ace cop enough reasons to conclude that this was no ordinary death but a well planned murder.
And the murderer was none other than Mrs Sangeeta Deshpande, the lady whose long ‘narration’ he had just heard and faithfully recorded.
But was it this easy: an open and shut murder case with the murderer right there in front of him?
Or, was there more to it than meets the eye.
The ace detective knew better.
But for now he needed to grab some fresh air.
Chacko excused himself from the main hall and stepped out of the doorway.
A cool westerly breeze flew past as the shone hid behind the Shayadri Hills that were a brown blanket barely visible through the leafy branches of tall mango trees.
As Chacko lit his seventh cigarette of the afternoon, his lungs filled with smoke, the nicotine quickly and faithfully making love to his brain, and considerably calming him down.
He checked his watch
Another two hours before sun down.
He had to get some things done.
Had to work the phone, pass on necessary instructions, speak to a few specialists, especially a senior cardiologist he knew of.
Ask a few favours.
Get the ball rolling!
At that instant, just when his mind was getting into action mode, his phone rang.
The True Caller identity read: Advocate Mohan Gaitondkar.
A look of annoyance swept over the cop’s visage.
He pressed the receive button.
“Hello Mr Chacko. I have to convey a message from Ms. Shobha Chacko.”
The slight sarcasm in the voice was not lost on Chacko.
“Yes, what is it?”
The voice on the other end was business like.
“I’m here to convey a message from my client Mrs Chacko, your wife. She wants to communicate that she no longer wants to live with you. The divorce papers shall be delivered to you immediately. You are expected to sign it and return the same to my registered office ASAP.”
The call ended as abruptly as it had begun.
The senior cop stared into the black screen even as a sharp pain shot through his chest.
Chacko cursed a wee bit too loudly before furiously blowing concentric rings into the autumnal air.
It took a good fifteen minutes and three more cigarettes for Chacko to extricate himself from his private hell.
And then he made the call.
It was to his deputy.
A certain Mohit Jhadhav.
A slip of a 22 year old, a newbie, just out of Police Training School, and inducted into Crime Branch to serve a six month mentorship programme under the ‘Great Chacko Sir!’
“Listen Jadhav, come over to Pimpri right away. I will hand over a tape. Go through every single word in it. Verify, check thoroughly all that is stated…the littlest of details…nothing should be missed. If possible, I need you to go to all the physical locations that she has mentioned. Speak to people, talk, listen, cross check, verify…and get back to me…I need a full report on my table ASAP. You get it?”
The voice from the other end was docile, albeit a little too eager.
‘Yes…yes…sir. It shall be done…every single thing…SIR’.
Chacko inhaled his poison once more…Charminar Cut..his brand, unchanged since the age of 15.
The cat and mouse game had begun.
It was now just a matter of time.
With nothing much to do, the ace cop decided to take a walk around the farm house.
In his almost three decade long police career, Detective Chacko had never seen the inside of a farm house. How would he, he reminded himself. A lifetime spent on the mean streets of Mumbai chasing phantoms, gunning down criminals, rushing to crime sites, playing snakes and ladders with men and women of disrepute, creatures who were a slur to society had hardened him to a level wherein now he feared whether he had any humane qualities himself. Bereft of laughter and joy, and the pleasures of simple living and the comfort of home and hearth, the still sturdy built like an oak ruggedly handsome cop wondered the futility of his existence.
Life for him, more so these past few years, was a pendulum that swung between pain and suffering.
A slight breeze wafted in from beyond the hills. Momentarily stymied by the sudden nip in the air, Chacko enveloped his arms around himself as he circled past a small pond on which floated a couple of silvery white swans.
All around the azure waters stood ramrod straight tall trees with branches, half bent, and green and yellow leaves that dared to touch the soft earth under.
Looking at Nature’s wondrous play, Chacko felt something akin to deja vu.
Something…an incident, long forgotten, hit him with the intensity of a low intensity bomb.
A memory…dated…an evening…a moment…eons ago.
As he looked at the row of beautifully laid out symmetrical benches by the lake side, wooden and painted, the memories came floating by…in sepia toned images.
There they were, holding hands, he and Shobha…the two gazing into the other’s eyes, whispering sweet nothings…occasionally turning away to watch wondrously at Nature’s beauteous bounty.
Chacko felt a stab in his chest.
His feet stumbled on a hard rock.
His reverie broken; he was back to terra firma.
His phone buzzed.
The name on the screen brought a smirk to his face: Advocate Mohan Gaitondkar.
He was really back to terra firma.
At 22, Rohit Jhadhav had seen enough struggles to last a lifetime. A father who left him when he was barely two years old, a mother who knew nothing else but to run around from one tall skyscraper to another, serving no less than a baker’s dozen of flats. Cleaning, washing, wiping, swiping, sweeping, ironing, cooking for fat cat endowed upper caste Mumbai families who not just led ostentatious lifestyles but also had sky high expectations from their maids.
She must be good at this, good at that, come on time, stay back beyond time, do this, do that, do all that they could do but didn’t feel like doing…the list of their demands were endless.
And the pittance they paid was doled out as though they were doing a great favour.
Add to this misery, a daily battle with sexual predators, loan sharks, fight for water, proper sewage, food on the table et al…young Rohit had seen it all, seen and internalised all the pains, the struggles, the sacrifices his mother bore just to ensure her only child didn’t end up uneducated and poor, begging for two square meals on the mean streets of Mumbai.
Thus it was how little Rohit was raised. Aa hand to mouth existence. By the time he’s entered the fifteenth year of his life, he was doing three odd jobs hawking newspapers early mornings; waiting tables at a beer bar during the day; and working as night security guard. And in between all this, he was attending government school and later college, where attendance was a non-issue.
The day the young man cleared the All Maharashtra Police Entrance Test, his mother’s joy knew no bounds. That was also when Rohit announced that henceforth she need not work anymore.
A tear dropped from the poor woman’s eyes, the luckless lady who had suffered slurs all her life, who had suffered enough humiliation at the hands of an increasingly insensitive society.
Plus, the young man also made a solemn promise to none but himself.
His mantra in life would be: Service before Self.
His life goal: To end up wearing three stars.
And for that he’d continue to do what he does best, what he’d been doing all these years, which is to constantly upgrade himself, to keep on garnering knowledge till he attained elephantine capabilities, skills sets and expertise that would help him crack one of the most competitive examinations of the country.
A test that once cleared, would adorn his name with the moniker of IPS.
IPS Rohit Jhadhav.
The White Ambassador car crossed Thane Check naka. Seated in the back seat, Trainee Constable Rohit Jhadhav braced sat upright and ran through all that happened in the past three hours.
As instructed by his boss Chacko, he had arrived at the Pimpri farm house. The caretaker had directed him to the woods. He had spotted Chacko’s near six feet frame from afar, and had walked upto the lake facing corner bench where his boss was seated.
Ten minutes later, and as instructed he was out of the massive gates of the farm house. In his left trouser pocket was a small tape that his fingers involuntarily pressed every now and then. In a small leather bag he carried a 10 ×10 portable recorder.
All through the near two hour journey back, Jhadhav must have listened no less than a dozen times the entire contents of the 26-minute long tape.
Ans as he did so, he also made copious notes on a single lined pocket sized book.
Now nearing his destination, he glanced through the final result: an exhaustive list of all that he could decipher from Mrs Deshpande’s recorded session with his boss Chacko.
As the car cruised through the Wester Express Highway and headed towards Andheri, he re-read one final time what he had learnt, and what are the things he needed to find out_
1. Visit Mrs Deshpande’s Andheri residence
2. Check with her doctor- confirm the nature of her late husband’s illness
3. Visit all real estate brokers in a 5-mile radius
– see if any, or how many were contacted by Mrs Deshpande? If so, when? And what was the nature of the query
4. Check whether Mrs Deshpande had applied for a leave. If so, was it a casual, earned, or emergency leave? If not, had she informed her office about her non-availability? Or, did she submit her resignation before leaving with her ailing husband for the farm house?
5. Find whether a certain Shrikant Rao Patil is a sarpanch and if so, when and under what circumstances was he contacted by Mrs Deshpande
The sound of hard tyres of gleaming asphalt pulled Jhadhav away from his notes.
He looked outside through the car window.
He was outside the gate of Sarvodaya Housing Society, near SV Road, Opposite Hotel Turning Point, Andheri (East).
It was time for him to get into action.
The shadows began to grow longer. A cackle of ducks swam by, their wobbly feet disturbing the tranquil waters, making and unmasking the littlest of concentric circles. Chacko caught his reflection in the waters. His tall frame looked half bent, his face, though barely discernible, looked a mish mash of dismembered flesh and bones. Had he lost weight? Was he turning ill?
The hypochondriac in him thought so. He raised his hands as if to summarily dismiss such depressive thoughts. Above him, the shadows began to grow longer. Chacko got up from the bench. It was time to head back. Pressing matters awaited him.
He retraced his steps. The walk back towards the farm house was a wee bit long. Or so, it seemed. Too many thoughts, mostly discordant, criss crossed through the highly decorated sleuth’s mind. His mind traced back the time that had elapsed. He checked his watch. It was close to seven. A good 12 hours before he had got a call from Pimpri General Hospital. The caller, after identifying himself as one Dr Chaitanya Wadekar, had said that a man, in his early sixties, had been brought dead to Pimpri Pune Medical Hospital. As per Dr Wadekar, the woman who had come along had identified himself as his wife. He suspected heart attack, but still something in the woman’s behaviour-her slightly evasive replies, his near emotionless countenance seeded some doubt in him. It was then he decided to inform the police after noting in his medical report, ‘suspected heart attack. Death seems natural, though not so unsure.’.
Chacko had then quickly made a few calls, found out the deceased was a well known cricket coach, having mentored quite a few cricketing stalwarts, a couple of them currently donning the national colours. He was a widower with no children. That he was considerably well off, owned a couple of high end flats in posh Bandra( W). Besides, he also learnt the deceased owned a car showroom in Andheri, and was a partner in a well known chain of sports shoes with multi-city footprints.
And the most vital information Chacko had gathered was the dead man had re-married barely eight months ago.
It was this same woman, who had arrived in a private car at the hospital in the wee early morning hours of Monday morning with the now dead sixty two year old Narayan Deshpande.
Chacko had then dashed to the farm house, and faithfully conducted a recorded interview of the said woman.
Something was amiss, that the ace detective knew for sure.
The lady, though outwardly calm and composed, seemed secretive; her answers evasive.
To Chacko, her account of the sequence of events seemed suspicious. After he had heard her explanation, and after he had spent over a couple of hours mulling over it, delineating threadbare every single word she had uttered, every single information she had chosen to say, Chacko had come to the definitive conclusion that there was more to it than meets the eye.
The woman’s statements needed to be verified, her claims needed to be checked.
Chacko had almost arrived past the clearing and was hardly fifty yards away from the farm house main entrance when he heard a screeching sound.
He turned back just in time to see a car, the very same silver Dzire racing past and out of the gate. From where he stood, Chacko could make out who was at the front wheel_ none other than Mrs Sandhya Deshpande. His caught his face in the rear view mirror.
Her jaws were set, there was an icy determination in her eyes, and he also could detect a trace of triumph in those enormous black button steely eyes.
His harried mind wondered aloud.
Why had she left?
It’s her life. She is not a murder accused. There are no charges against her. It isn’t even determined yet whether a crime has occurred or not? Her husband’s death could, for all purposes be a natural one. At best she’s a suspect.
But even a suspect has her rights, right?
She has every right to leave to wherever she wishes to, especially and more so, now that she had recorded her statement.
Something clicked in the interim in Chacko’s police brain.
He quickly extricated his phone and dialled a number.
It was to one Dr Prathamesh Talwalkar, one of the most renowned medical specialists of the country. Chacko had sought his help in a few earlier cases; their friendship blooming therafter, chess and vodka being the common binding factor.
The call was brief, it’s gist thus: Is it possible to simulate a heart attack. If so, how is it possible? Can a person be murdered and there be no trace of the same, either in the post mortem, or viscera report, or any other histopathological or serological reports?
Is so, how it possible? What means are available for such a death to be stage managed?
Dr Talwalkar had heard him out, and then stated that there indeed ways in which a murder can be committed and shown as a heart attack. He had heard of a few instances in the West where such a thing had happened. And that he would take a look at it and see how best he can assist in this matter.
After his call with Dr Talwalkar, Chacko made one more call.
This time it was to a senior colleague in the Road Transport Department.
He then passed on the car registration number, gave a brief description of Mrs Sandhya.
The lady was to be followed from a distance, her movements closely watched. Chacko’s final instructions were: Remember, she is not to be left out of sight at any cost. Officially, she is a prime suspect in a suspected murder case”.
After he had made the two calls, Chacko saw no business in remaining at the farm house.
He stepped into his police jeep and turned on the ignition.
As the car hit the muddy pathway that led out of the back of beyond village and a good half an hour later after it had hit the Mumbai-Pune Highway, the ace cop reached for a cigarette from the dashboard.
As he single handedly lit the stick and inhaled deeply the nicotine, his feet pressed deep into the accelerator. The 56 year old sleuth felt an adrenaline rush through his veins, invigorating his stocky frame with an inexplicable vigour.
He knew the chase had become.
And Chacko liked nothing better than going after a criminal, and that too a lady blessed with a most devious brain.
Chacko hated mobiles. Not phones per se, but its intrusive nature.
The last thing he wanted was anything to do with his wife.
Or, soon to be ex-wife.
Bang in the middle of a complex ‘murder’ case, he had no time to think about Shobha, about the importance of family life, or the utter futility of an institution long past its expiry date.
For Chacko, a man wedded to catching criminals, marriage and home and wife meant an oasis, a safe haven from the daily madness that he inhabited.
Alas! if wishes were horses…
After almost three decades if Shobha wanted a divorce, so be it!
The whys and wherefores_ for Chacko, an obstinate Taurean himself, was all water under the bridge. Least of all his concerns.
“Send the bloody papers. I’ll sign it right away,” he barked over the phone to Advocate Gaitondkar.
The next moment, the call came.
Not from the advocate, though.
It was his understudy, Rohit Jhadhav.
The next ten minutes, the ace cop listened in complete silence.
Only thereafter, did he reply.
It was a terse “Good job, Jhadhav”.
And when he ended the call, his rugged face broke into the slightest of smiles.
The catcher was closing in on his catch.
A couple of more calls, and Detective Chacko would be ready for his next date with Mrs Sandhya Deshpande.
Crime Branch Office,
Fort, Greater Mumbai,
The beacon flashing papery white police jeep screeched to a halt.
Three women, two of them cops, emerged from the backseat.The woman in the middle, dressed in a shimmering all black salwar kurla ensemble was led to a second floor corner office.
The name plate on the outside read: Alphonso Chacko, IPS, Crime Branch Inspector (Maharashtra).
Once inside, Sandhya Deshpande, looked resignedly at the ace sleuth. It was only their second meeting in six hours.
It was the look Chacko had seen on countless offenders_one of sheer incredulity. A look which screamed_ how could he? I had covered all my tracks; how could I ever get caught?’
As if reading her mind, and without mincing any words, Chacko stated, “I formally charge you with the murder of your husband Varun Deshpande”.
And as he said so, his eyes monitored Mrs Sandhya.
Colour drained out of her face. She wilted like a flower. Gone was the haughty persona, the conceit, the cocksure demeanour of a super intelligent omnipotent figurine she had been portraying all along.
Instead, what sat in front of Chacko was a fast shrivelling figure of a loser; of someone who knew she had lost this battle of wits, the intricate web of lies, the rich tapestry of make believes she had so expertly woven had all come out…the under belly of crass reality all exposed and in the open, warts and all.
Seeing her so defeated, utterly vanquished, Chacko not unsurprisingly didn’t feel any elation.
Instead, he felt defeated himself.
He had braced for a fight, had thought a gutsy lady such as she would protest, refute, harangue, cry, wail, shout, even lash out, vehemently deny any role in the murder.
Chacko, nevertheless proceeded to present his final summation of the case.
He slipped his right hand under the table; switched on the tape recorder.
“Your version of events that led to the death of your husband and my version are slightly different. I shall present my understanding of what happened. I suggest you listen to it completely, every single thing. I have documentary proof of every thing including call recordings, witness submissions, road toll tax receipts, doctor’s bills et al to validate all that I submit.
At the end, I shall give you the opportunity to dispute or challenge any submission that I have made. On the contrary if you chose to remain silent, I shall take it as admission of guilt and you shall be immediately arrested and charged with the murder of your husband. Is that ok?”
Mrs Sandhya nodded in affirmation
Chacko cleared his throat.
“This is what happened. True, your husband was a diabetic, also had high blood pressure, and was asthmatic as well. All reasons enough for you to take him to a quieter place, a secluded village far away from all pollution. But here comes the divergence. You didn’t go house hunting, didn’t call up any broker, didn’t speak or meet any sarpanch by the name of Shrikant Rao Patil. You came straight to Patil Farm House. It is owned by your distant cousin, now settled in Canada. You have the Power of Attorney. The octogenarian caretaker is half blind, deaf and dumb, and was someone you appointed albeit indirectly through someone. That someone is someone known to you and now also known to me. You drove with your husband and your car passed through three check nakas_timings, video grabs all duly recorded.
You checked in at seven in the evening and at 11 the same night you left the main door open. A black Thar reg no. MH2308 drove in. Before that you ensured the caretaker would sleep soundly as you had spiked his water bottle.
A man stepped out, and then the two slipped through the back door. Once inside, the two of you sneaked into Varun’s room. Prior to this, you had ensured that the dal you had served him with rice was mixed with sedatives.
When you two saw Varun was in a deep slumber, your friend stepped forward and turned him around. He loosened his pyjamas and gave him an injection. It was Etomidate. Within less than 90 seconds, Varun suffered a fatal heart attack.
Your friend then slipped out, and walked the 200 yards out of the dust laden road and got into his jeep that he had parked on the gravel path under the shed of a peepal tree. Luckily, for us, it hadn’t rained that night; the Forensics team were able to pick three clear tyre prints.They were a perfect match. We were able to retrace the return journey of the Thar back to Mumbai, to Goregaon (W).”
At this point, Chacko stopped and pressed a bell on his table.
Instantly, the door opened, and in stepped in Rohit Jhadhav. He was flanked on the left by a young man, around 32 year old, half bald, average height, a quizzical expression framing his picked marked full bearded face.
“Ah, come in, Mr Avinash Dhabholkar. He is the Non- medical Director of Life Line Hospital, a hospital you have been frequenting for the past two years, ever since you were afflicted with a severe form of migraine. I am sure the two of you are acquainted, aren’t you?”, asked Chacko looking at Mrs Sandhya, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
Mrs Sandhya’s sheepish lowering of the eyes said it all.
The game was up; the suspects all lined up, their silence proclaiming their guilt.
All Chacko could do was allow the due process of law to take over.
He pressed the intercom, rammed in instructions, and then stepped out of his office even as Mrs Sandhya and her lover and partner in crime were taken away.
Once outside, Chacko lit a cigarette and blew concentric rings into the cold nightly air.
The cop looked up at the star lit sky. A melange of emotions_ relief, sadness, and elation_ all whirled in his mindscape.
The last 48 hours had indeed been excruciating.
He was months away from his retirement.
He had nothing to look forward to.
His family life was in tatters. Ever since Raghav, their only child had flown away to the States, deciding to settle there permanently with his American wife, and sworn off all ties with him, he had spiralled down a bottomless pit of despondency.
A month later, the wife too decided to sever all links with him.
The marriage had developed cracks long ago_ his crazy work schedules, months spent chasing criminals had ultimately taken its toll.
An hour back he had returned the divorce papers, his signature on them, the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
The air turned colder.
Chacko lit yet another cigarette.
In the distance, the city lights dimmed.
His deputy Rohit Jhadhav sidled up.
The ace cop looked at him, smiled, his arm went up and patted his back.
The young man had done all the spade work.
The kid reminded him of his younger self.
He stood there, waited till the last embers of his Charminar Cut died out.
Then, with slow steps, made the long walk back home.
No, not home.
Just a house with four walls.
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