The midnight clock chimed, its shrill vibrato reaching the crescendo in seconds before settling to a dwindling echo of its former self. Arjun Rawat smiled, lying on his giant double bed, the extra soft mattress denting surplus with every bit of movement, his libido augmented by the minute in anticipation of what was to come.
Kranti, the most talked-about call-girl had agreed to oblige him, not before charging him twice the usual rate. But money wasn’t a problem for the MLA-in-making. His late father had paved the way to an illustrious political career, and his business acumen was remarkable. Everything was smooth sailing with his clandestine rendezvous in this private lair away from the prying eyes of his constituency and his docile wife, Titli.
Not that Titli cared. The woman spent her days in her butterfly garden, boasting of an enviable collection of Papilionoidea. Her marvelous cooking had turned him a staunch bachelor into marriage material at 40. Of course, Titli wasn’t younger either, but age had been kind to her.
Though he was vigorously virile, Titli was a dead log in bed and he had long given up.
It was however, a win-win situation for his flamboyance. A family-man image was good for a politician, and the icing on the cake was, Titli turned a blind eye to his flings. He wouldn’t have remained monogamous even if she were a sex siren. In the five years of his marriage, he had barely been home, spending most nights eventfully in this coital paradise of sorts, his clout bringing him the best lays.
Kranti was the first woman he craved with a fervor like never before. Stories of her extraordinary skills in the sack and her lithe beauty preceded her. He had tried for months before she had consented through her agent, and he was glad it was tonight.
It was the anniversary of the most disconcerting night of his life. Twenty years on, the macabre event still haunted him. He had been too stoned to realize what he had done, until it was too late; his memories hazy to date. His influential father had packed him off to Canada for the next five years, allowing the embers to settle. The wads of notes his father had lobbed around had ensured no news of that night anywhere in the media.
He shook his head, not wanting to think of that anymore. It was all water under the bridge.
The knock on the bedroom door brought him out of his reverie, rousing his manhood reciprocating his ardor. The aged housekeeper was discharged from his duties for next two days and he had arranged for Kranti to enter the house using the hidden spare key.
The door to the bedroom creaked opened. Kranti sashayed in her shimmering ghagra gathering around her ankles as she took tentative steps, her trinkets jingling into the silence of the night while her lavallieres gathered into the dent formed by the blouse shaping her bosom provocatively. The semi-transparent chunni did nothing to hide her hourglass silhouette in the caliginous boundaries of the chamber. Hardened painfully, he yearned to touch her shapely seductive milky white contours.
The chunni had covered her face under the glowing circlet, and he couldn’t wait to release her of the multiple embellishments adorning her amatory frame before he could have his way. That would be fun, too, a far cry from his usual conquests who were drugged or never played hard to get.
Kranti progressed to the bed, settling on the chaise like a bride on her golden night. Her scent captivated him, compelling him to spill his seed right there without being touched. Her fragrance felt familiar…. Was it licorice? He was gifted with the olfactory gab but couldn’t place this one.
He hauled his voluptuous body towards Kranti, while she took off her adornments, excruciatingly slowly, dropping them into his palms as he chuckled. Before revealing her face, she pushed him back on the bed and climbed onto his middle-aged paunch, a perfect cushion for her keister!
She moved closer to his face, single-handedly holding his hands over his head. His erection now tearing into his boxers, he couldn’t wait for her to ride him… right then, he felt a prick on his neck. Was it her jewelry?
Before he could get his thoughts together in his desire-fudged mind, his throat constricted, and he gasped tearfully. He couldn’t flail his limbs that had already given up the fight.
Continuing to sit on his potbelly, she revealed her face even as his eyes widened in recognition. The endearing mole in the right corner of her thin upper lip, the pronounced dimple in her right cheek, miming the attention-seeking deviated septum shocked his depleting senses.
As he sank into eternal darkness, he had a fleetingly final penitent thought. How did he fail to recognize her?
A week later
Inspector Kanwaljeet Rana stood outside Rawat Niwas, screening the white sea of people gathered to pay their respects to the prodigal son who had shown lots of promise. Arjun Rawat’s untimely death had sent jitters in Maharashtra’s political circles, and everyone, including the Chief Minister, had come to offer his condolences to the bereaved widow after the funeral.
Rana walked into the mansion once the crowd thinned, and a manservant directed him to the drawing-room. Right from the exceptionally well-maintained lawns to the heavily designed front door with tiny brass bells, the house reeked of affluence. A large garlanded frame of Lord Ganesha adorned the patio, and the center of the foyer boasted of a bust of the late senior Rawat.
The police had stifled the fact that Arjun Rawat was murdered in the process of his surreptitious activity. Rana hated red tape and craved freedom to do his job without the bureaucratic sword hanging on his head.
He had been to the crime scene, which was wiped clean of any trace. The body was discovered two days after the murder, and there was no lingering scent of any sort. The perp was probably known to Rawat as there was no forced entry and no sign of struggle. Given the body’s grotesque state of undress, Rana was sure there was a woman involved. There could have been a partner, but at the time, nothing was conclusive. The post mortem conducted in a state of emergency confirmed anaphylaxis due to lethal infusion of Strychnine.
Rana entered the vast expanse of the drawing-room, checking out the rich, elegant interiors. The furniture sets spread across the room were primarily shades of brown, contrasting the bland off-white walls. He walked towards Mrs. Titli Rawat dressed in a crisp white saree flaunted by crying, extended relatives. An epitome of poise, she held herself well under the circumstances. He cleared his throat and introduced himself, requesting a private audience with her.
A few minutes later, they sat on the verandah facing a lucent garden filled with an assortment of manifold flowering foliage and colorful tiny butterflies all over. Some greenhouses were shaded well with instrument panels, and Rana was in awe of the woman reverently watching her creation.
“Mrs. Rawat, I am sorry to intrude at such a time, but I have a few questions.”
“It’s fine, Inspector, please go ahead.” She said softly in her velvety voice
“Uh… did you know why Mr. Rawat was in that place?”
“Inspector, my late husband had many properties besides this mansion. He was visiting each of them for maintenance from time to time.” She spoke prudently, blinking tears away and Rana wondered if she knew about her husband’s ‘engagements’.
“But Mrs. Rawat, Uh… your husband was not dressed and …” He rubbed his face.
“Inspector, I will not allow anyone to desecrate my husband’s image. He was a great man and provided me with every comfort in the world….” She sighed and continued pointing to the garden.
“…do you know Inspector? The butterflies are complete even in pieces….” She turned towards his again. “…Don’t finger out the pieces of his life. They would lead you nowhere.”
She walked away, reciting a verse.
“I was young and lonely
Battered, poor, and ugly.
I then got my wings
The coming-of-age markings
I am now a butterfly
Blinded by love, forced to comply….”
Rana only stared at her retreating form and shook his head. He would bald at a faster rate if this went on.
A couple of days later, Rana attended the Will-reading and saw a demure man with salt and pepper hair and golden-rimmed glasses speak with Titli in hushed tones. He was reportedly Rawat’s best friend and a partner in a many of his businesses, Debojeet Saha.
Just then, the lawyer walked in with his brigade and took his seat at the center.
Arjun Rawat had bequeathed his empire and the mansion to his wife and set aside charity funds. He also left a fortune for his extended family members who sat in stoic silence, and if upset, they didn’t reveal it. Rana had questioned all of them the earlier evening, but no one had any perspicuous motive, not to mention airtight alibis.
Inspector Rana somberly left the mansion that evening wondering how he could crack the case. There were no witnesses or traces of any person being there, not even a strand of hair or bit of skin, nothing at all.
As expected, this turned to be a cold case, and he was too bogged down by other cases needing imminent attention.
Three months later
Debojeet turned towards his side, watching Titli sleep peacefully her soft lips partly open, lips he had devoured to his heart’s content. He was full-mast thinking of the titillating night he just had with the woman of his dreams. He wondered how his buddy Arjun could waver, given the nymph at home. But the bitter truth lay, people never valued what they had.
He had been married for years, had two beautiful children, and his better half had been busy catering to his household. Too busy to see to his needs, and the additional sagging flab on her body did not hold appeal anymore. He knew it was iniquitous on his part, but ever since he had first laid his eyes on Titli two years ago, he had given her a chunk of his heart.
He would find reasons to visit Arjun just for a glimpse of the woman frequently. She was no looker, with her pale, lifeless skin, but he saw how her eyes lit up whenever she tended her garden. He would sneak a look at her curvy hips playing hide and seek through her saree as she went about the chores.
It had taken him months after Arjun passed, but Titli had finally given in. She was deprived too if her rollick in bed this past week was any indication. He had felt like a newly-married horny husband, not wanting to leave his new wife, whenever Titli stared at him with those doe-eyes wrinkling in the corners while she smiled.
Titli stirred and stretched, moving the covering on her body, revealing the most desirable bristols he loved to play with. She opened her lids partially and gave him a lazy look moving close to the confines of his embrace.
“Debo…?” She purred, her sultry voice sending shivers down his spine as he kissed her fragrant head. “…Did you transfer the amount to the NGO account? That was Arjun’s dream….”
“… yes, darling, I just did as you suggested. The books are well cooked, so there should be no problem even if there is a raid. Arjun’s name won’t be slandered. By the way…. Uh… there is something you should know….”
“What is it?” She drew on his toned chest with her nails, and he hoped he could retain his sanity till he finished his talk.
“I am divorcing Sarla….”
“Why? Don’t you think you will ruin your reputation and that of the companies?” Titli was annoyed, a frown marring her beautiful forehead.
“I am in love with you, Titli… I can’t stay away anymore.”
“But we can’t get-together, Debo. Arjun’s image will be hurt. Your political career will be nipped in the bud. So why can’t we have everything as it is…?” She pleaded, holding his face in her soft palms.
“…Debo, do you know what the butterflies teach us? Growth is never rushed; it’s natural. It’s a process from eggs to the larva to the pupa and finally emerging as the resplendent butterfly. So let your family remain in Pune as they are. Don’t shake the foundation on which you have laid the eggs, and destroy everything….”
Debo nodded pensively and hugged her.
He stayed back in the mansion the following day, going about his business from home while his eyes and heart followed Titli as she went about fostering her garden. He helped till a piece of land in the far corner of the garden and felt at peace and fulfillment. Wearing gloves and special glasses, they planted a new variety of plants he hadn’t seen before.
“Debo, these are the asclepias plants, also known as butterfly weed, and are integral to the survival of pollinators, especially the tiger butterflies that I aim to grow someday. But if you let certain varieties of asclepias do their own thing, you’ll have an entire garden or meadow full of these beauties. So, it’s imperative to curtail their spread else the other plants may choke.”
Later that night, on his way back to Pune, Debo contemplated Titli’s words on the butterfly weed. There was much depth in it, but something irked him; those words reminded him of the incident 20 years ago that changed his fate ending his acting career from taking off. Following his father’s dikkat he had to do his Business studies from the UK and later joined the family business, even marry Sarla at the behest of his old man.
As his vehicle meandered its way on the ghat along the Mumbai-Pune expressway, there was a boom as his car jerked and swerved. His driver tried to control the vehicle, but it was futile. His screams were lodged in his throat as he felt his car fly into the night sky….
Inspector Rana was confident he was nursing an embolism ready to burst, his head pounding in agony. He had been summoned by the Unit head and instructed to lead a team to investigate the death of Debojeet Saha, a wannabe MLA and a close friend of late Arjun Rawat, a couple of days earlier. The man’s car had flung over the road breaking the railing and landed in the not-so-deep ravine close to the Khandala ghat. The driver was grievously injured while Debojeet, thrown out of the vehicle, died on the spot.
Rana had spoken to a couple of eyewitnesses, and the CCTV footage of the speeding vehicle from the North end of the tunnel indicated it was probably a tyre burst. It was a clear case of accidental death, but something gnawed at him.
Rana had known of the dead man’s illicit relationship with his late friend’s widow. Was there a connection between the deaths? Was this a homicide as well?
The next day he waited in the butterfly garden as Titli emerged from an overgrowth, her face blotted with mud, only adding to her lure.
“What brings you again, Inspector?” She wiped her sweaty brows, her figure-hugging cotton kameez had turned different shades with sweat and the water from the garden hose. Her actions caused his blood to pump faster and dive south. He was a sworn bachelor, and at 50, he didn’t expect this teenager’s reaction to a woman, that too, someone who was clearly not interested in him.
“This is about Debojeet Saha. As you know, he died, and he was last seen leaving from this house.” He blurted curtly.
“So? Inspector, Debojeet was my late husband’s best friend. He was a partner in many businesses, and I couldn’t have managed it all without his help. I am devastated as it is. What is it that you want more? The police have already checked through all company records. Everything is crystal clear. Stop troubling his family and I.” She left, leaving him a mass of blubbering mess.
“I must unearth the truth, Mrs. Rawat….”
She sighed and pointed to a cluster of tiny butterflies over the marigold shrubbery, the delightful coloured feathers floating atop the sea of orange and yellow spreads.
“Do you know what the butterflies teach us? ‘Truths change with time.’” She turned and left the place, narrating the same verse as last time.
“I was young…
Rana walked out of the mansion, waiting to see his doctor.
Six months later
Senior Inspector Satyawan Sawant spread up his long legs on the table, and his hands itched to receive the offering for the day. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside his cabin as a well-dressed man strode into his sanctum littered with case files and cobwebs alike. The barely functioning rickety fan joined the kaput grandfather’s clock fixed to the wall for time eternity right next to the framed grainy photo of the father of the nation.
“Welcome, Mr. Batra looks like you have brought the sweat-box to lighten up our Diwali.” He drawled lazily, digging his ears with his little finger and then withdrawing it to check and discard the cerumen.
The man placed the box on the table, opened it slightly, and looked away, clearly unhappy. Sawant peered at the contents and laughed, the loud racket vibrating the stale air in the cabin.
“Come on, Mr. Batra this is a tiny kickback because we have your back. Otherwise, your quarries would have been non-functional by now, samajhla na*? By the way, I only insist you deliver the gift yourself, so your staff won’t know baba. The lesser the people know better it is. Don’t you think? Tar nigha tumhi aata*… till we meet again next month….”
Mr. Batra left in a huff, and a gauche voluptuous woman stuffed into the police garb made her way inside.
“Kay sir? Sprinkle some drops on me as well. I have a son due for college. Too expensive, you see…” she spoke gruffly as crimson spittle flew off her pan-stained mouth, red with continuous rumination of the leaf.
Sawant threw a couple of bundles of the crisp pink notes across the table, and she lifted them, flapping them on her calloused discoloured palms.
“Sir, only this much?” She frowned
“Rohini bas kar aata*…” Sawant straightened in his seat, unhappy to be shaken from his comfortable stance. “… I have given you more than you deserve in the last twenty years. There is no end to your greed.”
“Sir, I have given up a lot more than the pittance I receive from you … the ball that we set rolling twenty years ago still runs smoothly only because of me… because I dirty my hands.” She stood struggling to stuff the wads into the pockets of her pants, bursting at the seams.
“Fine, javu de*… what about the new consignment? If this goes well, we will make a lot this time, samajhla…?”
“Ho Sir, everything is ready. We just have to wait for midnight. I have instructed Rafiq on the change of place where the container will arrive. There won’t be any patrolling at the Naigaon stretch tonight. We can directly hand them over to the party and collect the payment. But sir, please… I want some more.”
“Arre baba… I told you this time party is big… go now. Get to work.” Sawant got back to scratching his ear as she nodded and left obstinately. The woman was getting out of hand now. He was tired of catering to her demands all these years. Tonight, she had to go; he had arranged it all.
He read the day’s forecast for his star sign. It mentioned a substantial money heist with a bit of trouble. Trouble was fine so far as he raked in the riches. He chuckled, thinking how everything had fallen into place as if the heavens had schemed it for him.
Later that night, the duo waited at the pier at Naigon docks as the container arrived. Sawant flashed his light inside to see the young girls tied and blindfolded huddled into the corner. They looked young and raw and, that’s how the parties liked them.
One of them had died in transit, making a perfect cover for him tonight. He looked at the men and nodded. One of them hit Rohini with the iron rod on the head, catching her unawares as she fell with a thud.
Sawant confirmed she wasn’t breathing anymore and placed the dead girl’s body next to Rohini. The girls had always communicated with Rohini as part of their Modus operandi in the business. Putting Rohini’s particular phone on her, he left a live but slightly crippled girl next to them both. Imperfect ones didn’t rake in anything only cost him money for their upkeep.
They left with the other girls while he placed an anonymous call to the control room.
Feeling light after years, he snickered as they passed the gullies of Mumbai, the dark side of the effervescent city never shown in documentaries.
After Arjun sir died, the other contacts dried too, and he worried about the income loss. He chuckled, thinking of the latest party. They had offered thrice the amount. He had already decided to leave the force with immediate effect and retire to his village in Satara, where his family lived. Having lived on eggshells for twenty years, tonight was the end.
He reached the bungalow glad that he had asked for the address from Rohini earlier in the day. Alighting from the vehicle, he instructed the two men to wait with the girls while he went in to check both the party and the money.
The entire bungalow plot was eerily unoccupied and embroiled in some legal mess in lieu of redevelopment. Many of the structures were demolished already, while this one stood in its dungeonous glory. Scared, he touched his holster. He had never held the roscoe, let alone fire one!
He sauntered inside the gate that hung from the lone hinge and stepped on the overgrowth as he carefully made his way to the door. He knocked, but there was no reply, and he pushed at it. Surprisingly it was open. With heart thudding, he crossed the threshold of the darkroom, and suddenly, the door shut with a bang. A pair of hands dragged him, tying his bulk to a chair.
“Who is this? What’s happening?” His voice cracked in fear.
It was then he saw her. Oh God, he had made she was dead.
“I am sorry. Please, please let me go….” Sawant saw her face right beneath the lone bulb in the room. Her dimple with that mole stood out as she gave him a lopsided grin.
“My father had pleaded before your sorry ass twenty years ago. It’s time you pay for your sins.” She chuckled, flashing out a gleaming machete.
His bladder gave up before him as he felt wetness pool near his feet. He now understood the true meaning of the forecast as she raised her hand.
Inspector Rana felt his days were numbered the day he was assigned Arjun Rawat’s murder case. The latest murder of a Senior Inspector had caused significant ripples in the force, especially when the man’s links with flesh trade and trafficking came to light. His subordinate Rohini was caught with evidence tying her directly with the criminal syndicate. Sawant’s contacts with Rawat till the latter demised brought the case now under Rana’s scanner.
Rana had been beating around the bush all this while, hence decided to go back in time. Nothing was connecting the deaths so far. It took him months post-Sawant’s gruesome murder to painstakingly get the past information of the dead. He was surprised to see, all the four dead shared history of sudden disappearance twenty years ago.
Sawant and Rohini went on abrupt sick-leave at the time, while Arjun and Debojeet had suddenly gone abroad. Titli, however, had everything well documented. She had a fairy-tale story from the orphanage to getting a job in Arjun’s hotel as a chef and eventually marrying him.
Though nothing joined the dots regarding the murders, Rana was glad that Sawant and Rohini got what they deserved, given the gravity of their crimes.
However, a vigilante wasn’t above the law.
Nine months later
Newly appointed Public Prosecutor in the Mumbai high court, Vilas Kadam, sat back in his chamber deep in thought. Inspector Rana sat before him, looking like a lost puppy, his bleary eyes on the pile of files on the table.
Vilas had been away in the Netherlands settling some family issues when he had heard about the passing of his old friends in a span of three months. He had arrived in Mumbai to take over the reins of the new posting when he had heard about Satyawan as well. Was it a mere coincidence, or had the incident from twenty years ago come back to haunt them?
He had immediately sent for Rana.
“Inspector, as a Public Prosecutor, it’s my duty to bring the culprit to justice before the court of law, and in this case, I am going to spare no one. Did you find anything beyond adding to the pile?”
“No, Mr. Prosecutor. I think you may throw light on the subject. I found, three of you were classmates in the popular Fergusson college in Pune.”
“Well, we were… but it isn’t related to this case. We all lost touch decades ago. So, get back and bring me, evidence Inspector….”
Rana left the room, and Vilas contemplated his next step. He had vowed never to meet his friends again two decades ago, but now he had to pay his respects to their widows.
The next evening, he was welcomed by the maid and directed into Arjun’s enormous drawing-room. As he sat drinking the fresh fruit juice offered, he was surprised to see the pristine walls devoid of family photos, except a couple from Arjun’s childhood. The lone maid gave him directions to an inner room as she left. He walked through a maze of rooms, wondering how on earth did Arjun manage to build such a structure in the heart of Mumbai. Not just the mansion but also the vastness of greenery piqued his interest.
His eyes fell on the butterflies colourfully fluttering around what looked like… holly cow, a butterfly garden? Unbelievable.
He rushed towards mentioned room, his heart beating faster, thrown down his memory lane. No… this wasn’t possible.
He finally reached what looked like a storeroom, and his eyes fell on her. She stood with her back towards him, but he could recognize her in his sleep.
She turned around, and it was as if a thunderbolt struck him. He rubbed his face, watching the oval face with the sharply deviated nasal septum. The imperfection only making her more perfect.
“Kashi, you are… alive?”
“So, you also thought, I was dead…? How did it feel, Vilas? Watching your girlfriend being abducted and violated brutally by your doped friends and left to die in that dark ditch? How did it feel asking that asshole police Inspector to destroy evidence and cover-up the case? Did you think I would succumb to a life of oblivion? Instead, I rose from the ashes and used the fact that they couldn’t remember my face that night, to my advantage; it took me twenty years, though….”
“I am sorry, Kashi… I tried to pull them away but they were too high. They were always curious since you weren’t from our friend circle or college. What happened that night was beyond my control…” he rubbed his face.
“That’s all you have, asshole? We were together mind-body-soul, for two years at the time. But, maybe it’s human nature; 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 sighed. “…But I couldn’t forget, I followed the 3,6, 9-months bet you guys placed about conquering girls in college, Vilas, and now it’s your turn….”
Vilas tried to move, but he couldn’t. He began to sweat and had sudden shooting pain in his chest. Oh God, that drink he just had….
Inspector Rana visited Titli once again, and stood facing the butterfly garden. It was a fortnight since the public prosecutor had disappeared, and his higher-ups had tightened the noose pressurizing him to close the case as soon as possible with a plausible explanation. Perhaps, their loyalties had now changed, and Rawats and Sahas didn’t bother them anymore!
Last week, Rana had obtained a search warrant for the mansion with Titli cooperating, but a five-hour-long delve had rendered nothing.
Titli walked-in from the garden and sat before their glasses of fresh grape juice.
“Mrs. Rawat, my instincts tell me it isn’t over yet… just one clue is all I need.”
“Inspector, the tartness of thy face sours ripe grapes….” She scrunched her nose at the glass and placed it back. “…Here is one more lesson from the butterflies… life runs faster than you think. Better times always come, though. Goodbye, Inspector.”
The Inspector had left an hour before, and as dusk set in, Kashi stared at the compost pit in the far corner of the garden. The freshly sprouted plants needed for the Tiger butterfly would soon be in abundance.
She had provided them the best fertilizer.
samajhla na?: did you understand?
Tar nigha tumhi aata: so, you may leave now.
bas kar aata: enough now.
javu de: let it go
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