Rashi opened her eyes as the first rays of daylight entered the bedroom. She was about to pull herself out of the sheets, then hesitated. It was the weekend.
And not just any weekend. It was their last weekend in Toronto. Their next weekend would be in India.
As much as Rashi loved the thought of moving back to Mumbai, she knew she would miss the fun of snuggling under the blankets in the cold weather here. The thought made her want to enjoy a morning catnap all the more.
She turned to look at her husband. To her surprise, he was wide awake and staring at her.
“Vihaan, you’re awake so early today,” she drawled sleepily.
“Ah, yes. Watching you..,” he smiled.
She moved closer to him. “I love your impish smile.”
“And I love the way you huddle under those blankets…”
She tousled his hair.
Sleep was impossible after that.
For Rashi, the situation was happiness tinged with a bit of uncertainty. Vihaan had been working at a software firm in Toronto on a yearly contract, since the last ten years. This year, however, it had been evident that the loss making company would soon be pulling down its shutters. This meant that the contract would not be renewed.
The only option for the couple was to return home, to India. Rashi had been missing her homeland ever since her arranged marriage to Vihaan two years ago. She was more particularly worried about having and raising children in a foreign land. So it was obvious that she could now start a family, secure in the knowledge that her children could be raised to follow the Indian middle-class values she cherished so much.
Rashi knew that Vihaan, with his qualifications and experience, would soon bag a good job in Mumbai. She herself was no less qualified and was willing to hit the job market and supplement the family income. She visualised themselves as a small, happy family, living in their own cozy little 1 BHK flat in the suburban part of the city.
She was to find out soon enough that some dreams were meant to be short-lived.
Rashi and Vihaan were greeted at Mumbai airport by their parents. Later, at her in-laws’ house, Rashi had a battalion of extended family members and friends visiting them Rashi managed to smile through all the grilling and probing about why they were yet to have kids and the advice that sounded like an order, to “become three and then four”, soon enough.
Two weeks later, they had cleaned up their locked flat in the distant Mumbai suburb of Borivali and moved in. Rashi breathed a sigh of relief. Now the job hunting would begin.
Two months of interviews and circulating resumes through social media yielded no results. Vihaan was showing signs of frustration. Rashi managed the house on a shoe-string budget, without dipping too much into their savings. Vihaan had become used to a better lifestyle and missed the perks. Rashi was at the end of her tether, trying to encourage him to continue the struggle for a job.
One day, she was at the ATM, to withdraw money for buying the month’s groceries. She was surprised when the machine said that her daily limit had been exceeded. That was the shocked to find the balance in their joint account down by Rs.50,000/-. She called Vihaan in a panic.
“Vihaan, has someone hacked our account?”
“The balance is down by…”
“Rs.50,000/- Hey, I issued a cheque for an airconditioner. In fact, it just arrived and I wanted to surprise you…”
“But, Vihaan, do we need such luxuries now? I’m barely able to manage the household expenses..”
“Oh come on dear, you know the weather here is too hot for me. And we will find jobs soon.”
Vihaan’s tone was so endearing that Rashi’s anger soon melted. She knew Vihaan was right about his lifestyle.
And then came the next blow.
It initially started as an ordinary bout of diarrhoea, which refused to yield to home remedies and over-the-counter medicines. Soon, Vihaan started complaining of a constant stomach ache, nausea and dizziness. He also had a chronic cough. The doctor prescribed more tests and after making a significant hole in the couple’s pockets, gave his diagnosis.
“Pollution. The only way out is to shift to the interiors, where the air is good,” he declared, “no amount of medicines will cure him now.”
Rashi was shattered. The only silver lining in the cloud was an email that beeped on her phone just then. She had landed a job.
The next few days passed by in a flurry, as Rashi joined a multinational company as a software executive. Vihaan was supportive of her and agreed to look after the house in her absence.
Every spare moment was spent by the two of them in checking mails for responses to ads placed by them on various websites for a house in the outskirts of the city. They had decided that the mofussil areas just beyond the extended suburbs of Mumbai were the best place to hunt for a house.
“Hey, how about this one?” Vihaan asked one Sunday afternoon, pointing at an ad with a picture of beautiful row houses.
“Lovely, but they are yet to begin construction.”
“Okay, this one then?”
“Vihaan, don’t you get fascinated by the beauty of these ads! This one is for bungalow plots in the middle of a village. ”
“Ah, okay then…”
“Hey, wait, you have given me an idea..”
“This may not be bad, after all. Let us see if anyone wants to sell an already constructed bungalow on such a plot. I can get a housing loan.”
Vihaan suddenly lapsed into a coughing fit. They were getting worse by the day. Rashi had to act fast.
She got a breakthrough the next day.
She had just finished lunch at her office and was checking her Whatsapp messages before leaving the canteen, when she spotted a message from an unknown business account number.
Curiosity made her open it. It was an ad for an online estate agency.
Rashi’s heart jumped with joy. Her instincts told her that this ad was meant for her only.
She returned to her table and called the number. A female voice answered.
“Hello, is this Happy Home Estate Agency?”
“Yes. Riya here.”
“Oh, hi. I’m looking for a budget house in a non-polluted area on the outskirts of the city. Where is your office?”
“I have no office, Ma’am. I operate online, entirely. I meet the clients at site.”
“Are you the..”
“Yes, I’m the proprietor.”
“Oh, okay. But how can I trust you if you are entirely online?”
“First get the house and be satisfied with it, then pay me, Ma’am.”
Riya sensed the hesitation in Rashi’s voice. “Shall we meet over a coffee, Ma’am? Then you decide.”
Later that evening, Rashi waited for Riya at a café near her office, as decided.
She was stunned to see Riya. She was in her late twenties or early thirties, with straight long black hair that cascaded down upto her hips. Her black eyes and high cheek bones, coupled with a shapely figure, made her look like a model walking the ramp and not like a woman approaching another in a suburban café.
Riya came over and smiled warmly, extending her hand. Rashi shook it firmly. She noticed that Riya’s smile had an enchanting charm that could convince anyone to do exactly what she wanted them to. She decided at once to be careful and not get taken in.
But the charm worked its way and soon, Rashi was looking over photographs of ready bungalows in the midst of the rural area around the city.
The next day, Rashi left office early and joined Riya in her car, to see one such bungalow.
It took them two hours to reach there. Rashi was impressed by the look of the little gray-and-white painted structure in front of her. The bungalow stood alone like a lighthouse in the middle of the sea, surrounded by hundreds of small vacant plots of land, demarcated from each other by wire fences.
“Ma’am, the owner wants to sell this flat as he is moving abroad.”
“Okay, but does he not want a house here too?”
“He had a lot of houses. But his wife suddenly expired while they were spending a weekend here. He does not want those memories, so….”
Rashi suddenly felt sick. She somehow did not want to look up this bungalow anymore, not after hearing about this tragedy.
“Riya Ma’am, I do not want this bungalow. The incident is making me sick.”
Riya smiled, unfazed. “No problem, Ma’am, we can look up another place.”
The next Sunday, Rashi and Riya visited another village, where a huge part of the land had been converted to non agriculture land and sold as bungalow plots. A few little bungalows dotted the area.
Riya took Rashi to a house painted in bright blue. The colour was garish, yet Rashi decided to give it a try.
They entered the house. Rashi saw that the owners had very tastefully decorated and furnished the living room, right from the floor tiles, the TV unit and the sofa set to the designs on the ceiling.
Rashi was so enamoured that she had soon wandered into one of the inner rooms. Suddenly, a pungent odour hit her nose.
She felt a certain familiarity about the smell, but it took her a good five minutes to realise why it was so.
She remembered it as the smell of burning wood at the cremation ground, where she had been to, several times, whenever someone close to her had passed.
Her instincts again told her that she should not go ahead with the sale deal on this house.
It was then that she realised that Riya was not around.
“Ma’am!!” The faint sound of Riya’s voice calling her, reached her ears.
She followed the sound and came into the living room, to find Riya sitting on the sofa.
“You were away for so long, Rashi Ma’am, that I thought you must be lost.”
“Lost, yes, I mean, what is that smell?”
“What smell? I don’t smell anything.”
“I do. Something like burning wood.”
“No, there is no such smell here.”
Suddenly, Rashi said, “Let’s go.” She believed firmly in her instincts, which were presently telling her not to stay in this house a moment longer.
The next weekend, it was yet another house. This one was tastefully painted, both inside and outside and instantly appealed to Rashi. She hoped fervently in her mind and heart that her house hunting should end here. She was exhausted after having spent the last three Sundays outside the house, without resting at home.
This time, Rashi ensured to stay close to Riya every moment they were in the house. She hoped fervently that the elements would decide that this was the right house for her.
Riya too, decided to stay close to Rashi so that she wouldn’t be alarmed at finding herself alone.
The house was not furnished. There was a huge living room on the ground floor that could have passed off for a mini auditorium and a small kitchen attached to it. On the first floor, there were three bedrooms. There was a wooden cupboard embedded into the wall in each of the bedrooms. Rashi opened one of them.
A voodoo doll stared back at her.
Two months passed by, at the end of which Rashi could rattle off names of bungalow complexes and villages as if she were an estate agent herself. In all these days, she had not thought of approaching any other estate agent as she felt comfortable travelling with Riya.
One evening, after dinner, Vihaan went out for a little walk, as usual. Of late, it was getting increasingly difficult for him to move around even within the house, but the paan shop across the street had captured his charm. Rashi still could not understand how a thoroughly westernised Vihaan could get into the habit of having a daily post-dinner paan. She was thoroughly amused by it.
That night, Vihaan was sitting sullenly on the bed, when Rashi entered the bedroom.
“What happened, love?”
“Nothing, just that you are searching high and low since so long and we are yet to find any house that we like.”
“I know, dear. I feel guilty that time is running out. Don’t worry, we will get one soon. I say, can you accompany me once? Your presence might prove lucky to me.”
“Darling, you know I cannot accompany you to such distances, due to my health. You finalise the house. Then I will come and see. You liked it means I will also like it. For you know me like the bottom of your hand.” Rashi couldn’t agree more on this. She steeled herself for what she had planned for the next day.
The next morning, as soon as she reached office, Rashi called up Riya.
“Riya, I need to talk.”
“Look, my husband has 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.”
Riya stayed silent. Rashi continued.
“All the houses I have seen were the ones shown by you. This is because I was comfortable with you, as a woman with another. But somehow, all the houses you showed me had something – a putrid smell, a voodoo doll, a death, a suicide, a murder.. Don’t you have normal houses in your list?”
“Oh, okay Ma’am, I’m sorry…”
“This Sunday will be the last house you show me. If I see something weird there too, I’m afraid I will have to go hunting for a new estate agent first.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I promise you that this time, you will like the house that I show you.”
And so it happened that the next Sunday, they reached a village on the outskirts of the farflung western suburb of Virar.
It was a small and very ordinary looking, stand-alone house, built not on a bungalow plot, but by a rich farmer’s son. He lived and worked in the city and his aged parents had moved in with him. He had intended the house as a weekend getaway retreat on his ancestral land.
“Then why does he want to sell it now?”
“Because his business is running into losses.”
“Okay, so what’s spooky in here?”
“Come on, Ma’am, every place need not have problems. Please see for yourself.”
Rashi was impressed by the huge house. It had four rooms and a big-sized kitchen on the ground floor and a terrace with a single room on the first floor.
Finally, Rashi’s instincts told her that the house was just right for her family. She had fallen in love with it.
The next day, Rashi took leave from office. The two women met the owner and fixed the deal at a price of Rs.40.00 lakhs. Rashi was amazed at her luck. Such a low cost house in such a pristine place! She finally decided that Vihaan should be shown the house too.
“Er, one thing, Ma’am.”
Rashi hoped that the deal would not fall off.
“Don’t worry, Ma’am, it’s just that I am going home tomorrow. To Pune. My sister’s wedding has been fixed. I’ll be back in a fortnight.”
Rashi stared blankly.
“Don’t worry. I shall prepare the papers and then leave. I’ll coordinate the procedures over the phone. Thank God for technology, I would say.”
Rashi breathed a sigh of relief.
Within the next 10 days, the formalities were completed. Rashi and Vihaan had signed the papers. Rashi got her home loan sanctioned and the deal amount was paid. And the couple had shifted in.
Rashi couldn’t be happier. At last, her darling Vihaan’s health would improve. Then he would find a job. And they could start a family. She wasn’t bothered by the inconveniences of such a faraway house. She had to travel in a packed jeep to the nearest state transport bus stand, then take an overcrowded, dirty bus to the railway station, then yet another packed local train to reach her office. Her travel time to and from work increased from half an hour to four hours per day. But the thought of Vihaan’s health put all these problems into the back of her head.
Two months passed. Vihaan’s health did not improve.
Rashi consulted their doctor again. “Give some time. It won’t happen overnight.”
Another month passed by. Vihaan slowly started showing signs of improvement. Rashi thanked God profusely for the development.
And then the next blow came.
“Rashi,” called out Vihaan from the bathroom one day, just before his bath, “Come here if you are free.”
Rashi came running, hoping that everything was all right. She stared amused at the sight of Vihaan, who was seated on the bathroom floor and was tapping one of the tiles.
“See, Rashi, this floor is hollow.”
“Bad construction. See, this next tile is also hollow.” Vihaan tapped on it too.
Within the next five minutes, they had discovered that the entire bathroom floor was hollow.
Prudence and curiosity got the better of them and they called in a repairman.
The man arrived with a couple of assistants and together, they dug up the bathroom floor. The tiles came off easily. All five of them stared in horror at the sight that greeted them.
Inside was a huge space, in which rested six skeletons.
The police were called in. The news spread like wildfire in the village and nearby villages too.
“Were you two not aware of the history of this house?” asked the police Inspector.
“Yes Sir, this was built by the son of a rich farmer as a weekend retreat.”
“The rich farmer’s son was also suspected to be a serial rapist and killer who used to lure girls to this house while alone on weekends, rape and kill them. He could not be caught because there was no evidence against him. You have unearthed crucial evidence to arrest him. Congratulations!”
Vihaan was enjoying the adulation from the crowd around him for achieving such a breakthrough, although incidental.
No one noticed the expression of anger, disgust and shock on Rashi’s face.
The police sealed the house for further investigation. Rashi and Vihaan had to return to their Borivali flat the same night, carrying just their essential belongings. The first thing that Rashi did after reaching the flat was to call Riya’s number.
A male voice answered.
“Good evening, this is Happy Home Estate Agency. How may I help you?”
“Hello. May I speak to Riya please?”
“Riya who, Madam?”
“The person this number belongs to.”
“This number belongs to Mihika Singh, Madam.”
“Oh, okay, Riya must have transferred the number…”
“No, Madam, this number has always belonged to Mihika Madam.”
Rashi suddenly remembered that the Truecaller app on her phone always showed the number as “Singh” and nothing else. She had never asked Riya’s name, nor had she received any visiting card. Even the agency commission on purchase of the house was paid into the account of Happy Home Estate Agency. She was thoroughly puzzled.
Being the fighter that she was, Rashi’s instincts immediately told her that Riya wasn’t innocent. She persisted.
“May I speak to Mihika, please?”
Rashi recognised the female voice on the line. She quietly asked, “Why did you cheat me?”
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know anything. Why did you sell me a house that had skeletons buried in the bathroom?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I want to meet you, now.”
“At my house.”
Rashi hung up.
“What happened, Rashi?”
“The estate agent. Seems her name is Mihika Singh and not Riya…”
The startled question surprised Rashi. “Yes. Why are you so shocked?”
“Wait a moment.” Vihaan picked up his mobile and fervently started searching for something.
Five minutes later, an impatient Rashi heard him mutter, “Damn, she’s blocked me.”
“Who blocked what?”
“Never mind. Please find her on facebook and show me the face.”
Though puzzled, Rashi did as told.
She was even more perplexed when Vihaan recognised the face that appeared on the screen. In fact, he was so excited and angry that he was jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes, it’s her. She is responsible for this!”
Rashi tried hard to calm him down.
It took half an hour and two glasses of cold water before Vihaan calmed down and sank into the sofa, ready to narrate the tale.
“Whore she is! Plain old whore! Have you seen those model looks? And the designer dresses she wears?”
Rashi recollected how all of Riya, no, Mihika’s outfits were figure-hugging and also showed a bit of cleavage.
“Can you please tell me what happened?”
“She was working in my software company in Toronto. We were in the same team.”
Rashi’s eyes opened wide.
“Always trying to appear attractive to the men in the office. Being a foreign country, this was not criticised or looked upon as unacceptable. In fact, all the girls in my office were beautiful and trying to date or even sleep with the single young men around them. This is normal there.
“But Mihika, she was different. She was the hottest of them all. And also the brainiest. Enough to make the other girls jealous of her.
“And one day, she snared me in her net. I fell for her like nine pins.
“I know, Rashi, that you are surprised. I never told you about my past.”
“Never mind. We’ll think about that later. Now tell me everything.”
Vihaan did not miss the icy tone in Rashi’s voice. But he continued.
“We used to go out for coffee and dinner almost every day. And as I said, we were also in the same team. Our relationship started affecting our performance at work. People started tattling. And, fearing for our jobs, we finally got ourselves into different teams.
“Shortly after that, Mihika started getting distant from me. She slowly started making excuses for not going out with me. Finally, one day I confronted her.
“She accused me of using her to further my own objectives. After all, she had been the one to be moved out to a different team. This had shaken her up.
“But I stood firm in my stand that it was her fault.
“Then one fine day, she just disappeared. People said she had quit her job and returned to India. I didn’t care. This was two years ago. I just called my parents and told them to look for a bride for me. Settling down was the best way to settle my hormones.”
Vihaan was interrupted by the doorbell ringing.
Rashi opened the door to see Mihika standing there.
Rashi let Mihika in and closed the door behind her. She wasted no time.
“Why did you do this to us? Just to fulfill some dark wish of yours to torture my husband?”
Mihika retorted, “What dark wish? Do you know what he did to me?”
Rashi was silent.
“Then listen to me. Vihaan ruined my life, do you know that?”
“Don’t you blame me you whore!” Vihaan sprang up from the sofa.
“Don’t you dare call me that!”
Rashi started feeling as if one of the daily soaps on television was being played out in front of her and that she was the long suffering heroine. But this was reality, so she stood between the two of them and screamed, “Stop!”
There was a sudden silence in the room. Rashi made them sit and then turned to Mihika. “Talk. And Vihaan, let me hear what she has to say. Please don’t interrupt.”
The icy tone was getting familiar to Vihaan, who promptly nodded his head.
“Rashi, I repeat, this man ruined my life. Let me tell you how.
He must have told you that he and I were in the same team in the software company at Toronto.
“I’m aware that I’m beautiful and I’m not ashamed to flaunt it. And there in that country, it is a normal thing.
“But it was Vihaan who decided to chase me. I already had a boyfriend. Vihaan created a misunderstanding between us, so that he could have me all to himself. I came to know this much later.
“He felled me with his charm. We used to have a great time. Almost every night. At his apartment.”
She waited for Rashi’s reaction. There was none. She continued.
“The first time he invited me, I was hesitant. Obviously, I did not want any trouble in future. But he convinced me that nothing would go wrong. My raging hormones triumphed.
“And this went on. For months. The other girls and guys were envious of us, because we were the cutest and smartest couple in town. Till someone took the jealousy to another level.
“That person informed our boss. The end result – I got transferred to another group. I didn’t take it kindly. Even though we were in a relationship, we had never let it interfere in our professional life. And now I was in the middle of an assignment that could help my career ad I had been transferred. It was unfair.
“I couldn’t confront my boss. I knew it wouldn’t work. I swallowed the insult and carried on. Now our colleagues tittered even more behind our backs.
“And then his parents fixed his marriage with you.”
Rashi continued to listen, stone-faced. Vihaan was looking at the floor.
“And this coward,” Mihika pointed to Vivaan, “immediately called off our relationship. Typical Indian male. Wanted to have fun with the outgoing one, but will settle down with a homely virgin.”
Mihika wiped a tear. “Can I have a glass of water, please?”
Rashi brought her a glass. She gulped it down and continued.
“A fortnight later, I discovered I was pregnant. I confronted the coward. It was then that he called me a whore and blamed me for taking our relationship to the physical level. He stormed out, leaving me in tears.
“I had no option but to return home to my parents. I didn’t want the baby. Fate, for once, decided in my favour and I had a miscarriage.
“In the meantime, a nosey relative had come to know of things. He ensured to make it sufficiently public so that no one would marry me. Every potential suitor somehow came to know of my past. And then, he would come to us with his parents, who would insult us and leave. In one particular case, the parents chose to scream at us from the building compound. The whole neighbourhood gathered to watch.
“My father did not survive this shock. My mother followed ten days later. Overnight, I was orphaned and socially ostracised.
“I was existing like a zombie, when I got news that the Toronto company was going bankrupt. I knew this meant that Vihaan would return. I then determined that I would destroy him. And planned accordingly.”
Mihika looked into Rashi’s eyes and said, “Your doctor is a fool. Vihaan was suffering the effect of arsenic poisoning. Slow poisoning.”
She waited for her words to sink in. Finally, Rashi spoke.
“How did I reach your house so soon? I live nearby. I was keeping a watch on the two of you. And then, I discovered that silly habit of his, that daily paan.
“I bribed the paanwalla.”
“He fell sick. I was lucky your doctor did not have enough brains to find out.
“And then, you decided to find a house in the countryside. I was by then running an estate agency. All that I had to do was obtain a separate sim card and send you a message to entice you. You are so gullible, Rashi. You fell for it easily. I had simply to scuttle your chances of ever finding a new house.”
“So you arranged all the spooky events?”
“Yes. And again, what a fool you are, Rashi. The serial murders took place when you were not in the country. The news also managed to remain localised. So you never knew, you poor darling.”
“But Mihika, what did you achieve by failing to kill Vihaan? You could have destroyed my life too, another woman’s life.”
Mihika got up. Her eyes flared. “What do you mean? I would have saved you, you idiot. This creep is only after your money1”
“Don’t you say that about my darling husband! You are jealous..”
“Oh yeah? Just check, how financially independent are you?”
Rashi thought for a moment. All her accounts and investments were in joint names. Vihaan would spend out of their joint account as he pleased, but he never touched his own account and investments out of his income. Besides, Rashi was the only child of well-to-do parents. Was Mihika right?
“Whenever we went out, I would end up paying many a time. I was too deep in love to suspect anything,” added Mihika.
Rashi was now confused. Whom should she believe? A husband with a sordid past, or a woman who had exploited them? She looked at Vihaan.
“You’re lying,” responded Vihaan, looking at Mihika.
Mihika laughed derisively. Vihaan sprang up from his seat at her.
The next moment, he fell down, clutching his chest.
“So the poison did not go waste, after all,” said Mihika, laughing, as Vihaan collapsed, never to rise again.
“Rashi,” said Mihika, “you may hate me for this. I may go to jail. I don’t care. You will just realise some day that I have set you free.”
Rashi’s instincts told her yet again, that she was right.
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