Eye Witness

Sudha Ramnath posted under Inverso Short Stories on 2022-12-18

That Evening. The train leaves the platform.  The long blast of the whistle sounds like a death knell- Final and irrevocable. Like my decision to leave the city for good! There is no way I can get back to Mumbai. Not unless I am willing to die. I have burnt my bridges.  The train gathers speed.   I see tiny, choc-a-bloc apartments buried beneath years of grime and filth that whiz past. The setting sun casts a reddish glow, adding a deceptive softness to the metropolis. I know how misleading that mellow look is! I have first-hand experience of what the city can do to you. But why blame the city? After all, it's just a collection of dwellings, connecting roads, with water pipes laid underneath and electricity wires crisscrossing the sky! It's the people! Always! They contaminate the place and cause untold miseries through their cunning ways. But then, who am I to judge anyone? I have violated moral codes, committed felonies, and broken the law. I am just one of the thousands fleeing the city after committing a crime. The law, I could easily evade. I am more worried about my freshly made enemy. He is relentless and dangerous. Escaping him is going to be a formidable task! Just running away from Mumbai is not going to be good enough! The train chugs through the suburbs. As darkness descends outside, the lights inside the coach are switched on, and the views through the windows disappear. Instead, my face is reflected by the glass.  I  see a wan pale face, marked by large sad eyes and full lips pulled down in an unhappy frown.  My hair is mussed and in disarray. But my beauty still shines through! It was precisely that, my looks, that had brought me to this city. I was a sixteen-year-old who dreamed passionately about making it into the film world. I had heard about the girls who would run away to the city of dreams to become heroines and end up in the gutter. But I thought I had my ace up my sleeve. Unlike the usual pretty faces on a good body, I was smart, intelligent, and well-read. AND was naive, I realize now! In all my innocence, I believed that my intellect would make all the difference between the girls who did not make it and me, who would be the next Queen of Bollywood.   My parents were simple middle-class people with a lot of moral values. That's why they refused to encourage my ambitions and clamped down on my Bollywood dreams. They wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor! They were willing to spend the money they did not have on my education.  But I decided that being a heroine in Bollywood was a good way of paying homage to my beauty than becoming an engineer or a doctor, which did not offer any premium to my stunning looks. So, ten years back, I had stolen a lakh rupees that my parents had kept ready to pay as an advance to a new flat, and ran away from home and boarded a train. *** The train stops at a small station. I look at the pretty face, reflecting on the window pane, and remember how I had come to this city ten years back on a similar train. Ten years of hard life have yet to make many changes to my looks on the outside. But inside? I am not the trusting, idealistic girl I was. I am hardened, callous, and brutal! Am I trying to justify my actions? Am I trying to prove to myself that it was not me but my circumstances that made me what I am? Do I still need to validate my actions to myself?  *** I lean back into my seat, close my eyes and try to look into my future. I see only bleakness. I have the fake ID papers with me that claim I am a totally different person and a nice large nest egg to tide me by for a few years. I know I will learn to change my identity and become a new individual. I may move cities. Maybe, somewhere, sometime, I could find love in my life. Perhaps I could get married, have kids, and have a semblance of normal life.  Only... only if my enemy doesn't find me first and kill me! *** That morning I am happy to be out of hiding. The PA’s office had kept me in a safe house for the last few months. Today my testimony will destroy a few lives. Maybe also save a few.  I am on the witness stand to give my deposition in the murder case of the MLA. He had been brutally stabbed and killed outside a temple next to Manish’s office.  A court clerk brings a religious book and asks me to swear on it.  I promise to speak ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ and prepare myself to lie through my teeth. I look up to see Manish on the opposite dock. He has lost some of his debonair looks. He looks haggard and exhausted. But I see a spark of the familiar love in his eyes before he lets the mask of nonchalance drop over his face. I feel sorry for him. The public prosecutor begins questioning me and lays my sordid story bare for the whole world to see. About how I had run away from a lower middle-class but loving family, stealing my dad’s entire life’s savings that were supposed to go towards buying a modest apartment. About my deep desire to become a heroine in Bollywood and how I ended up in the underbelly of Mumbai: Like millions of others before me! About how, when my single, blink-and-you-miss appearance in a movie did not bring me any more roles.  About how I became morally and financially bankrupt and ended up as the moll of the notorious mafia don, Manish. Then, I get off the stand, and the proceedings continue. Inquests and cross-examinations of so many other witnesses go on. Finally, the prosecutor boils down the case to whether it was Manish who stabbed the MLA or someone else. I get back on the stand, quell the tiny twinge of conscience, steady my fluttering heart and speak the complete untruth. My voice is oddly steady and detached when I claim to be the only eye-witness and how I had seen Manish plunge the sharp knife again and again into the MLA’s heart and kill him mercilessly. Manish looks astounded. He cannot seem to comprehend what I said. Both of us knew perfectly well that he and I were together in bed at that particular time, and he had nothing to do with the murder. There is pandemonium in the court. No one was expecting me to give evidence against Manish. Manish’s lawyer is up and yelling ‘Objection’ again and again. Newspaper reporters scramble out of the court hall to call up their editors. There is a strong buzz of animated conversations among the public watching the case. The judge is hammering the gavel, continuously asking for ‘silence in the court.’ But the prosecuting attorney is complacent and gives me a discreet thumbs up.  *** Manish’s lawyer tries his best to trip me up in the cross-examinations. But using all my intelligence and the prosecuting attorney’s help, I have made up a fictitious but airtight story that cannot be disproved.  I smile at the irony that truth never holds up as well as a purely concocted, well-thought-out false narrative.  After that, I am whisked off secretly to the PA’s office to avoid the press waiting for me like vultures. There I am made to sign so many papers. The PA hands over my false identity documents. I check them to make everything is in order. There is no guarantee to my life if I continue to be myself. Even if Manish is in jail, other powerful bosses can ensure I receive justified retribution for my double-cross. I am sure Manish, too, can wield some powers from behind bars and harm me for my betrayal.  Finally, I again reiterate to the PA that I had approached him out of my free will to  give false testimony to help him nail Manish and that he has to uphold his promise. I wait till I make sure that he has transferred twenty-five lakh rupees into the account of Gaurinath Shinde.  Finally, it's evening when he puts me in a taxi that drops me at VT.   *** A year back Manish and I are at the office that is going to disappear in a day or two. We have worked out a real-estate scam, and I have been playing the role of the receptionist, the face of the dubious company that is supposed to be in the construction business for a long time. We have ensnared many middle-class people with promises about a non-existing property that would be developed into an affordable apartment complex.  My pretty, innocent-looking face and smooth tongue have convinced many of them to invest in the fictitious firm.  Manish says, “I counted the money. We have made up to thirty crores. Not bad. I think we should close the office and do a disappearing act.”   I mull over it. “There were a few inquiries yesterday. Maybe we should keep it open till this weekend. We will be richer by a crore if even four or five suckers come in.” Manish replies, “No. Not a good idea. I already had a few calls from investors asking us to show them the site. They have begun to get antsy. This weekend they may land up here and insist we take them the land on which the houses will come up. I am sick and tired of talking to these idiots.” That was when the family entered the office: a lower-middle-class couple and their daughter. I see that they make a close-knit unit. Even though they look anxious, there is a serenity, a tranquility that exudes from them.  The man introduces himself. “I am Gaurinath Shinde. I have already paid the advance of twenty-five lakhs. I want to know when we can get possession of the flat. You see, I have sold my house in the chawl to invest in this apartment. The new owner wants to move in soon. If you give me an approximate idea of when the house will be ready, I can have an agreement with him about when I will vacate the house.” It is my job to smooth-talk them. But I keep looking at Gaurinath without replying. Manish takes charge immediately and pretends to be scrolling through the names on the system and answers glibly, “Mmmmm. Gau-ri-nath. Yes. I can see that you have paid the advance. Please come next week, and we can take you to the site and show you our progress. We can talk to the site engineer, and he can explain when we can deliver the apartment.” Gaurinath doesn’t move. He looks a bit tense. “I have heard rumors that this is a fly-by-night company. People are saying that there is no site, there is no construction, and there are no houses. There is talk that you plan to run away with all our money.” Manish looks at him expressionlessly. Gaurinath’s lips tremble, and his voice falters as he continues, “Please be kind to me and give my money back if that is the case. I won't tell anyone. You see, this money is hard-earned. I have worked hard as a school teacher to earn each paisa.” He works hard to control his tears. His wife quietly lays her hand on his shoulders in a comforting gesture. She continues, “Our daughter has got admission into a good engineering college. But she is a bright student, and has received a scholarship. So for another five years, we don't have to worry about her. That's why we sold our old house and invested in this apartment. But we have to think of her marriage soon. Our plan is to take a loan on this house for the wedding expenses. Please assure us that our money is safe. Our whole family will come to the streets if you cheat us.” She looks at me for an answer. Again I remain silent. Manish continues smoothly, “Of course, we are not cheaters. I think our competitors are spreading all these lies about us. You don't have to worry at all. The house will be ready for you to move in, in a year at the most. Here, look at this.”  He whips up a fabricated house plan. “This will be the hall and the kitchen. The two bedrooms are here.” Gaurinath seems to be a bit convinced. He wipes his eyes and looks at the bogus papers with interest. Manish looks at the daughter with a charming smile, “So, what do you plan to study at college?” The girl replies as Manish puts on all his charisma and smooth-talks the family. *** It's evening, and the sun is setting. There is a mild sea breeze wafting by. I have been sitting here, on the terrace, and thinking for more than an hour. I lean back on the parapet wall and draw my knees close to me. My tears have been streaming down my cheeks continuously.  This conscience is like the air inside a balloon. When there is pressure, it learns to adjust and accommodate by moving this way and that. But one single small prick of a needle and it hisses out of the balloon: like a furious blast. For my conscience, the Gaurinath family was the needle. I still don't know why exactly I am crying. Was it because the family reminded me of my gentle and loving parents, whom I had left in the lurch by stealing their hard-earned money and running away? I sometimes thought about them, wondering what had happened to them when they found that I had gone missing with the money. Did they cry? Did they go to the police station? I had never bothered to find out. Or was I crying for the loss of my innocence?  Maybe because I have turned into this evil person who is a swindler and a crook?  Or maybe my tears are about the Gaurinath family. About how they will become penniless soon and eventually be on the streets. Maybe that girl will not go to college but become another ‘me.’ End up in a loveless life with no tenderness, warmth, or love.  Or am I upset because the girl reminded me so much of myself. That could be how my life would have panned if I had not run away but stayed back. Loving parents who would be there for me, taking care of me. I may have married someone nice, who would have adored me and looked after me with affection! I could have had two lovely kids. A daughter who would look just like me... whom I would love and cherish... A sob escapes my lips.  All that I had carelessly, thoughtlessly left behind seem to be the most important things in life... My reverie is interrupted when Manish bursts into the terrace. He looks very excited. “Hey, I have been searching for you for a long time. Listen, I have just received news that the Panna gang plans to ‘off’ the MLA outside the temple next to our office. You know, this MLA who has been troubling us....... “  Manish goes on and on. He had not even realized that I had been crying. He has not noticed my anguish. That’s typical Manish for you. He will readily gift me a diamond necklace. But shut me up if I try to talk about feelings or emotions. I pretend to be interested in what he is saying. “.... we will be in the opposite part of the city so that no one can implicate me in the murder. After all, the MLA is my worst enemy.” He fidgets for a minute, and there is an uncomfortable inflection to his voice. “I had been meaning to talk to you about something else too. Do you remember Malla from Borivali?” I remember the creep with his bloodshot eyes and smelly breath. He has always been eyeing me with lust. “He wants you to work with him. You understand what I mean?” He has the grace to look down and not meet my eye. I retort. “What do you mean? I am not some possession that can be handed over from person to person.” Manish puts his hands up and barks, “It's not my decision. It is the boss who decides. Malla did some good work on the spurious medicine scam, and the boss wants to please him. Malla has specifically  asked for you.” My voice down, I plead, “Manish, we both have been so good to each other. Can't you tell the boss that you can't give me up?’ “Why can't you understand? The mafia doesn’t work like that. In fact, the boss already has another girl all ready and lined up for me.” I see my world shattering all around me. Even the insecure, unsettled life I am used to, is about to collapse all around me. A sudden wild idea forms in my sharp, agile brain. A difficult plan, but one that I should be able to pull off. If I am successful, It will liberate me and at the same time help me take a revenge. I turn on all my charm and ask him coquettishly, “Manish, can we have one last date? A final time together before we have to split. I want you all to myself. This five-star hotel that has come up next to our office? Let’s book a suite there and enjoy the whole day.” Manish is surprised by the change in my mood but glad I am not fighting him. He agrees happily. *** I make a few inquiries about my parents without telling anyone who they are. By evening I get some disturbing news.  My dad had committed suicide as soon as I had absconded, and my mom has passed away a couple of years later. My door back home, is closed forever.  I am thrown into an abyss of sorrow. My heart aches with untold grief, and my guilt chokes and torments me.  I understand how I have shattered a whole happy family.  The thought of the Gaurinath family surfaces, riding on the wave of my grief and guilt. Somehow, saving this family becomes the most important goal of my life.  *** It is the day the Panna gang will murder the MLA. Manish and I are at the five-star hotel next to the temple, where the MLA is going to be knocked off.  I have booked the room in Manish’s name. Unobtrusively, I have let a few of the staff see him. We hear the commotion outside as we are having our dinner that I ordered from the room service. He jokingly asks me about what would happen if the police accused him of committing the murder. I reply flippantly, “Don't worry. I will provide you with an alibi. That you were with me the whole night.” Manish and I share a bottle of champagne as we hear the police siren. *** The next day morning, Manish leaves first. Then I go down, call for a taxi and ask him to take me to the police station.    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!