Ashiana Exotica was a condominium of premium apartments, set in an upscale locality in Mumbai. Each one had a vast living room, a wide dining alcove, five spacious bedrooms, and a tiny room attached to the kitchen, that could be used as a storeroom or servant quarters.
This was a commercial venture to be let out to rich tenants.
All the five rooms of Apartment No. 9 were occupied. Room number 1 was rented to Kinjal, an aging actress past her prime. Romesh, who had lost most of his wealth in a stock market scandal, lived in room no. 2.
Kinjal and Romesh had been living there for more than 5 years. Most likely this was going to be their permanent residence. They hated each other with all the pent-up animosities that long-standing neighbors usually develop.
In the other three rooms, people kept moving in and out.
Room number 3 was currently on rent to Harshavardhan Dey, the twenty-four-year-old son of the famous sculptor from Kolkata, Vishunuvardhan Dey. Harsha was in Mumbai overseeing the sculpting of the idols to be placed at various strategic places in the estate of a wealthy patron.
Nikita, a twenty-three-year-old girl, the daughter of rich parents from Dubai had recently moved into room number 4. She worked as an intern at an advertising agency.
Room number 5 had been taken a few days back, by a short and squat lady. No one knew much about her, except that her name was Satyavati. She pretended not to notice the other flatmates. She went about as if none of them even existed. She rarely went out, and mostly, kept herself locked in the room. She usually spent an hour in the afternoon, sitting on the sofa in the living room, ignoring everyone else. Otherwise, she was always in her room. When Romesh had tried to strike up a conversation with her, she had curtly rebuffed him.
They had a cook, Hamza who made their breakfasts and dinners. He lived in the small room attached to the kitchen.
Amba Bai the maid came daily to clean up the premises, buy the required stuff for Hamza to cook and do the other chores.
Nikita ran, her legs pounding the roads rhythmically, her heartbeat keeping time with her steady gait. Mumbai rains had washed both, the roads and the air clean, and Marine drive smelt only of the sea.
It was good to leave the confines of the walls of home and feel the open road and the sea breeze.
She stopped at the roadside, her head bent down and her hands on her knees, and took deep breaths to steady her heart. Once her heartbeat came to normal, she found the nearest seat and sat down, letting the breeze dry her sweat. Her legs had stopped the pounding but her mind continued to race.
The last few weeks had been tough. Her friendly nature had to compete with the secrecy that her assignment demanded. She had developed a comfort with her housemates, much against her will. The cook Hamza, who made their meals, the maid, Amba Bai who cleaned for them, the neighbors who irritated them with their constant complaints- all became a happy regular pattern making her comfortable and complacent. Even though she had tried to be impervious to the friendly advances of the other housemates, a feeling of closeness had begun to creep in. She reminded herself gravely that she could not afford to get comfy with any of them.
Because her assignment was to kill one of them!
Nikita made herself repeat “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
She leaned back on the bench and replayed the mantra she had coined for herself, “I won’t forget why I am here. I will remind myself to keep away from these vulnerabilities of love and friendship. I am here to take revenge. I am here to kill. I am here to be the avenger.”
It was 7 AM and still dark in Kinjal’s west-facing bedroom.
She had just had a bath.
She sat at her dressing table, switched on the lights, and looked at herself in the mirror, critically. Age lines arced from the ends of her nose to the edge of her lips. Her once luminous shining eyes had lost their luster and grown world-weary. She did not even want to look further down to inspect her body.
With a long sigh, she began applying makeup to conceal the effects of aging. She had to meet an agent about a mother’s role in an upcoming movie. Not an author-backed central-character mother. But a minuscule one where the heroine would come running to hug the mother and the camera would pan onto the heroine’s face and the mother’s neck.
But she needed to pay the rent soon and was desperate to find some work.
She bent towards the mirror and applied the lipstick generously on her aging lips.
Like always, she reflected on her life. She wondered to herself that if she had not carried out that one deed of depravity, would life be any different now? Would she have gotten married, had kids, and be living a comfortable, middle-aged, middle-class life somewhere?
With a tired sigh, she recollected her life in the tiny village in Gujarat.
Kinjal had been a fifteen-year-old when her neighbor, Saroj had got engaged to this glamorous young man from Mumbai. She was to be married almost immediately. The groom’s party was staying in the village till the wedding. All the neighbors talked with awe about how the would-be groom, Manohar, worked for a film production house. There were whispers of admiration hinting that Manohar hobnobbed with Amitabh Bachan and Rajesh Khanna.
Kinjal was walking back home after working in their modest fields sown with groundnuts. She had heard all the gossip about Manohar and so many ‘what-if’ thoughts came upon her. She had been acclaimed to be beautiful and voluptuous for a fifteen-year-old. The way all the village boys looked at her, she knew that she was very attractive to men. What if she was the one Manohar was marrying? She would go to Mumbai with him. She would get to meet all the film stars. Maybe Manohar would help her realize her dreams? Would her fantasy of becoming a Bollywood heroine come true? She would lord it out in Mumbai, becoming the heartthrob of millions of fans.
Still dreaming, she had come across Manohar, smoking secretly behind a clump of trees. It was like Gods were granting her, her heart’s desire.
She had started an innocent chatter with him, introducing herself as Saroj’s best friend. But body language communicates itself more easily than verbal one and Manohar had read it loud and clear.
A couple of days later they had eloped, taking all of Kinjal’s mom’s jewelry with them. The whole village was aghast. Unable to bear the disgrace of the groom abandoning her for a prettier girl, Saroj had committed suicide. Bearing the brunt of the villagers’ wrath, Kinjal’s family had disappeared from the village. No one knew their whereabouts.
Within a few days of landing in Mumbai, Kinjal realized that Manohar had been lying about his Bollywood connections. He was just a light boy. Soon, he stole all the jewelry and absconded.
The guilt of Saroj’s death and her family’s anguish played on her psyche. Manohar’s betrayal and lack of money added to her distress. Kinjal had spent a very troubled year, making money using immoral and illegal means. But soon, she got out of her despondency, collected herself, and began the job of meeting agents for movie roles.
She did get a toe hold in the movie industry and managed to do quite a lot of noticeable roles, even though she never got to be the heroine. She worked for fifteen long years doing the smaller roles. She was the heroine’s friend, helping the hero win the heroine. She was the hero’s sister who got raped and killed giving the hero a motive to pursue the villain. She was the TV newsreader, announcing the news about the escape of a convict from the prison.
But as age took over she started getting fewer and fewer roles. There was stiff competition in the ‘mother’s role’ department. Younger girls were willing to do them and the casting agents too preferred youthful moms with a little grey in their hair.
She had been prudent with money. She could just manage to live her entire life, in this apartment share. But she was worried about old age. If she developed any major illness, the money she had may not cover any surgeries. So she was looking keenly for more jobs to build a nice nest egg.
Today she was going to meet an agent who had promised her a mother’s role in a big banner movie.
Her make-up done, she lit the lamp and prayed in front of the small God’s photo she had in her room.
Kinjal had turned devout and a good samaritan after her first and only misdeed.
Hamza had been a minor cook for the caterers who supplied meals to the shooting team. When he had asked her if she could help him find a steadier job, she had taken the trouble of bringing him to their apartment. She had convinced the others to let him live in the tiny storeroom connected to the kitchen and pay him a lesser salary in place of the accommodation.
Even from her meager income, she donated money to Amba Bai when her kid fell ill.
Kinjal knew that none of this could wash away the guilt caused by the cruelty of her actions. But these acts of kindness gave her some mental peace.
She opened the door of her room and put her head out to check if that tiresome Manohar was dawdling around, waiting to bore her with his unending talks. No Manohar in the vicinity. She quickly walked out of her room and saw that Nikita was tying up her shoes, ready for her run.
She paused to give a smile and greet her. But Nikita ignored her and pretended not to have noticed her.
Kinjal was surprised. Two days back they had had a nice conversation, sitting in the hall. She thought that the young girl was going to be a friend.
She philosophized to herself that these days the youngsters were very temperamental. Once she stepped out of the apartment gates she forgot all about Nikita.
Romesh stirred in his bed. He lay silent for a few seconds trying to listen if there were sounds in the apartment’s other rooms. No! Except for the clattering of the frying pans and skillets from the kitchen, there was total silence. This meant Hamza was busy making breakfast for him and all his other flatmates had left for their respective work. Nikita must have gone for her run.
With a drawn-out yawn, he got out of bed and went into the ensuite bathroom.
He parked himself on the sofa and desultorily went through the share market news on his mobile.
Hamza brought him a hot cup of tea, gestured towards the dining table where his breakfast was laid out, and left. He would be back by late evening to cook dinner for all of them.
Romesh sat back sipping his tea slowly and ruminating on his life.
Romesh had left his hometown, nearly thirty years back, after being beaten up by the girl’s family. He had professed love to the girl, got her pregnant, and then refused to marry her. He had lost count of the girls he had cheated. But this latest one was the daughter of the local minister and it ended more badly for Romesh than the girl.
He had landed in Mumbai with just his clothes on his back and a hundred rupees in his pocket. He had been drawn to the stock exchange and slowly learned to play the share market. He was street smart and was quick to learn all the underhand ways to grow rich. He made friends with other brokers and using their tips, made pretty good money. Enough to buy a house and think of marrying, even though he was already in his early forties. He loved to talk and it would be great to come home to a comely woman who would enjoy his banter.
But it was exactly this need of his to exercise the vocal cords that landed him in a soup. One night, in a drunken stupor, he had disclosed to a rival stockbroker, the name of the ‘insider’ who had been giving them tips. That was his undoing. The police, politicians, and SEBI got involved in the scandal. After that, no one would touch him with a barge pole. Though he somehow managed to get out of serving prison time, Romesh became a pariah and lost his livelihood.
He had to sell the swanky apartment, invest the money securely in a bank, and live on the monthly interest. He had found this flat rent accommodation that took care of a roof above and meals on time.
But with no money for booze and no friends to drink with, he did not have any opportunity to indulge in his passion for ‘talking’.
He heard the keys jangling and the saw door opening. Nikita had returned from her run.
He slowly got up and pretended to be going out so he could bump into her ‘accidentally’. When she was right in front of him, he did a double-take and said, “Hey Nikita, back from the run? Look how much you are sweating? Go wash and come. Can I get you some water?”
She lowered her eyes and walked away without replying. But he was a good face reader. He had seen something in her expression before the curtain fell over her eyes and she contrived that blank look. What was it? Vulnerability? Sorrow? Guilt?
He heard her slide the lock of her bedroom.
Why did she look vaguely familiar? Had he known her sometime before?
He desperately wanted to chat with someone. Maybe he would find someone in the lift who would have a word with him. Or maybe he would walk down to the stock broker’s office at the end of the road and share his knowledge about the market with the staff.
He was about to leave when the door again opened and Amba Bai entered.
Looked like It was an answer to his prayers. Because Amba Bai was a born chatterer. Soon he stood in the kitchen sharing gossip about the neighbors, the film industry, and the other tenants.
Amba Bai said conspiratorily, “This new lady in room number 5? I think she is a big kanjoos. Do you know she doesn’t eat the food cooked by Hamza? I heard she is giving less rent than all of you because she is not having her meals here.”
“How do you know?” asked Romesh.
“Hamza told me that he has been instructed not to cook for her. He is making food only for four.”
Romesh said in a contemplative voice “Wonder where she works. I hardly see her going out. If she is not working, where is the money coming for the high rent for this apartment?”
Amba Bai replied, “Maybe she is also the daughter of rich people from Dubai, like our Nikita.”
Romesh laughed out at the image of the bulky inane-looking Satyavati as a rich daughter.
“No. I don’t think she is a rich lady.”
Amba Bai said in a confident voice, “I think she is a jewel thief. She has strictly told me not to enter her room. Even for cleaning! Maybe she is hiding some stolen jewelry in there.”
Romesh went on another track, “If she is not eating food cooked in the house, what is she eating? She can’t be eating out because she never goes out.”
“Oh. I know that answer. There are many packets of bread and a bottle of jam. I am sure she eats bread for all her meals.”
Harsha scrutinized his satchel to make sure that the clay cutters and trimmers, molding, and texture tools were in place. He did not want his dad yelling at him, right in the morning.
He looked at the mirror just before leaving. A young man with brown wavy hair, neat features but with a sad pair of eyes looked back. Not so long back, the eyes had shone with vitality and vigor.
Just a couple of years back, Harsha had been leading a typical rich youngster’s life in Kolkata: Going to college, hanging out with friends at bars, and ogling at girls.
But fate intervened in the form of his dad’s new acquisition- a Jaguar XE. His dad had brought it home with much fanfare. They had all gone to the Kali temple for the puja.
The next day at college, he had bragged about the Jaguar to his friends. They had dared him to bring it out for a spin.
He had waited till his dad came home in the evening. He had carefully snuck the keys out, crept into the garage, and stealthily drove the Jaguar out.
As he was crossing the narrow street to enter the main road a kid came running out of a house. Unable to handle the big car, he had lost control. Panic-stricken, he had tried to apply the brakes. But the car came to rest only after mowing down not just the kid, but also a roadside Puchka seller and a dog.
He had languished in the police lockup for a few days before his dad, Vishnuvardhan sprung him out, using his clout and money. The trauma of the accident and the ordeal in the police station distressed Harsha. Almost every day he woke up to nightmares of the accident being replayed. The flashbacks of life at the police lockup haunted him.
Because the accident had happened near home, the neighbors also turned into tormentors. One morning the word ‘killers’ was found sprayed in red paint on their compound walls. On the anniversary of the accident, a public memorial for the kid, the dog, and the puchka seller was held, which culminated in an all-night candle vigil right in front of their house.
That’s when Vishnuvardhan got the contract to build a temple and some idols in the estate of a wealthy family in Mumbai.
Harsha had refused to go to college after the accident. Vishunuvardhan felt it was time to get Harsha out of the despondency by involving him in business. Anyway, Harsha had shown promise and had been dabbling in the art, even before the accident.
But Harsha refused to stay with their Mumbai relatives like Vishnuvardhan was doing. The rented flat gave him the privacy to still have the nightmares without worrying about the relatives getting to hear the sounds of his thrashing about on the bed and the moanings at night.
He smiled forcefully at his image in the mirror and saw that it came out as a grimace. Was this how his smile looked, these days?
His mind went to what had happened last week.
This pretty girl and he had traveled together in the lift together, without realizing that they were headed to the same apartment. When they were at the door, they had automatically smiled at each other at the coincidence.
When he looked at her he had felt the pull of attraction for the first time in a long while. He wanted to keep looking at her. He wanted to know more about her. He wanted to touch her cheeks exactly on the spot of her dimple.
He had waited to run into her again. After two days they had had breakfast at the same time. She had extended her hand and said ‘Nikita’ and he had held her hand briefly and replied with his name. He had covertly looked at her, loving the way her grey eyes sparkled with intelligence. He had seen the delicate curve of her pink lips as she sipped on the tea.
After that, he hadn’t met her. With a flutter in his heart, he hoped he would be able to meet her today. He was about to lock the door when Nikita sauntered in to open hers.
She had looked at him but pretended not to notice. She did not even return his nod. She curtly closed the door and locked it inside with an uncalled-for force.
As he traveled in the car that his dad had sent to fetch him, he thought about Nikita. He had recognized the same kind of sadness in her eyes that had been haunting his. She too must have had some bitter experiences in life. He hoped that both of them stayed at Ashiana Exotica long enough for him to know her better. Maybe they could help wipe out each other’s sorrow.
Hamza entered the kitchen stealthily. He did not want the others to guess what he was going to make. Eventually, they would come to know. But he wanted it to be a secret, till then.
First thing, he placed a bucket of water underneath the kitchen platform. He carefully mixed all the ingredients and sprinkled salt all over it. Finally, he packed them into boxes and placed them on the upper shelves to make sure they were well hidden. He did not want them to be found before he was ready to show them.
Satyavati knew that the other flatmates disliked her for her unfriendly attitude. But she was here with a purpose and making friends with random strangers was not the one.
She had this dull and imbecile look that made people complacent. She had particularly cultivated this guise to help her observe people. Because observation was one of the skills her job required.
AND was she good at it! She already knew that both the youngsters were on the brink of falling in love. Both had had some traumatic life experiences that were stopping them, but sooner or later they were going to be a pair.
She had recognized Kinjal from the old movies. It wasn’t going to be long before the actress realized that Romesh was the answer to all her prayers. It was cheaper to marry him, pool their money, and live together. That way Romesh will have someone to talk to and Kinjal would have security and stability in her old age.
Hamza, the cook was definitely into some nefarious activities and had something hidden in his room/storeroom. Amba Bai was a crook, funneling money from the amount she received to buy provisions and vegetables.
She needed just another day and her work here would be over. But before that, she needed to confirm something.
She listened keenly for a while. No sounds anywhere. She slowly got out of her room and sat on the sofa in the hall with her mobile in hand. While she pretended to be checking her WhatsApp messages, she looked keenly into each of the rooms. They all had built-in locks so she could not say if they were locked or not. After fifteen minutes, she was sure none of the rooms in the house was occupied. Also, Hamza and Amba Bai had left for the day.
She stood up noiselessly and started walking towards the room she was interested in.
It was already dark. Nikita had eaten her dinner with scarce attention to what was on her plate.
She had noticed Harsha wash his hands, dry them meticulously on the towel and sit at the table. She bent her eyes onto her plate and ignored him. She could sense that he was looking at her sadly.
Back in her room, she sat cross-legged on her cot with a pillow over her legs. Her back rested on the wall and tears dribbled out of her eyes.
She’d better forget Harsha and concentrate on the task. After all, she was in the final phase.
A few years back, she had seen her loved ones die. She was left desolate and disconsolate. She was all alone to fend for herself in this big bad world.
That’s when her ‘saviors’ had found her. She remembered all that grilling and drilling that had gone into making her fit for the task. They took charge of her, taught her to be self-reliant and independent, and made her focus on revenge. Trained her to use guns and knives and make bombs. Whenever she strayed off the course, they made her refocus on the one most important thing in her life. To eliminate the person who caused the deaths. To kill the person who was responsible for making her an orphan.
They had planned everything meticulously. They found her a room in the same apartment, they had created an identity for her, with parents in Dubai. All she had to do was to slip over and kill the person.
After all that training, how could she have gone and done this stupid thing, called falling in love? How could she betray her saviors?
She could not stop thinking of that guy with sad eyes, as she referred to Harsha in her mind.
How she wished she was free to lead a normal life, full of fun and laughter. Like all other youngsters.
Free to fall in love with Harsha. Free to go out for a coffee with him. Free to flirt with him. Free to feel the thrill of the first kiss.
She chided herself for being so vulnerable. She wiped her tears firmly and checked her mobile for the time. There were a couple of hours left. She decided to talk to her handler, took her phone out, and called him. She made sure that her voice did not betray the fact that she had been crying.
It was nearly midnight.
Nikita crept out of her room stealthily, dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt. She had preferred to use a knife over a gun. Even though it would be messy, it had the advantage of silence.
She already had duplicate keys made for the room locks. Using them, she silently slipped into the room.
He lay huddled and twisted under the sheets. His chest moved up and down rhythmically. Nikita hoped she could finish the job without any resistance from him.
Just like she was trained, she moved next to him furtively, placed herself strategically so that she could deliver the thrusts with all her might.
She heaved her knife up forcefully when the lights in the room came on suddenly and she felt someone hold her arms in a tight lock. Almost simultaneously, a piercing shrill whistle sounded from behind her.
The man under the bed leaped out of the sheets and tried to scramble. But the person holding her shoved her to the side and tackled him expertly and brought him down.
There were sounds of doors opening and a posse of policemen trooped in. A young inspector stepped forward confidently.
Satyavati pulled Hamza up and pushed him towards the inspector.
“Here. Meet Asif, the mastermind behind the Mumbai bomb blasts. I had caught up with him at a Bollywood studio, where he was pretending to be a cook working for the caterers. But he disappeared from there. Maybe he had realized that I had found him. Then, I tracked him to this apartment.”
The inspector immediately put the handcuffs on him and two of the constables took him out and put him in the jeep.
Satyavati continued, “When I took up a room here. I was worried if Hamza would recognize me. So, I made sure I kept myself hidden and avoided meeting him. But I had intel that he was planning another series of bomb blasts on August 15th during the Independence day celebrations. So I went and checked his rooms secretly. There were many home-made bombs stacked on the shelves, confirming my doubts”
She pointed them out to the inspector. They were resting innocently on the upper shelves of the storeroom.
“Please seize them and take them to the bomb disposal squad.”
“After I started living here I came across this young girl and realized that she was planning to kill Hamza/Asif. I understood that she belonged to this banned religious outfit. My plans got complicated. I wanted to make sure the misguided young girl did not end up in a prison.”
When the inspector moved towards Nikita, Satyavati stopped him. “Leave her alone. She hasn’t done anything illegal, except carrying a knife. I had sent you her phone details and asked you to track the number she had called a few hours back. You can lay your hands on the members of the outfit who are hell-bent on taking revenge for the earlier bomb-blasts, grabbing the law into their hands. This outfit had enlisted the youngsters who been orphaned in the brutal attacks and brainwashed them into doing their killing for the outfit.“
Satyavati looked around for Nikita and found her sitting on the sofa with a befuddled look.
She saw that all four of the flatmates were peering out cautiously. Harsha hesitatingly brought out a blanket and put it around Nikita’s shoulders. She had been shivering in after-shock.
Kinjal looked fetching in a soft silky nightdress and Romesh and she stood next to each other discussing the events of the night.
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