Drums, trumpets, music accompanied by the incessant chatter of overwhelmed friends and well-wishers made Chhavi dizzy. The strong alcohol odour emanating from her newly-married partner raised waves of nausea in her. She excused herself to relieve it.
Food, drinks, fun, laughter, songs, and dance, was making a fool of the guests. Rao sahib, the man who would, now, always stand next to her for any occasion, death or birth, was rejoicing. She was indeed lucky, mother luck’s exclusive child.
Chhavi, the college-educated and now without any dowry, was marrying the village zamindar. So what if she was 25 and he, 55? So what if she could write and he could only erase his atrocious misdeeds? So what if she was a virgin and he, an abuser of virgins? Yet, when he had decided to marry her, she was the destiny’s chosen child. Had to be indebted for it!
Suddenly, it started to rain. A few of the guests rushed inside the mansion while others wallowed like water buffaloes in the little puddles around the mandap.
“Congratulations, Rao sahib! May this marriage bring you immense prosperity!” Only he could say that. Her he. His voice, she could resonate with, even from under the crescendo of this cacophonic music. Naitik was here to watch her gloat after betraying him. To capture the joy, she derived from declining his offer of, ‘Let’s run away!’. It was easy for her to elope with the love of her life and never return to Kanjala, the village of darkness.
Rao sahib belched on Naitik’s face, the fumes, nauseating.
“Oh, sorry! Nowadays, no one listens to you. Not even your extensions!” Again, a loud eructation from the confines of his beer belly landed on Naitik’s stoic face. “Don’t go without blessing your friend, Naitikbabu! Or else, she’ll have sleepless nights. Let that betrayal of sleep be in my name, not your memory!”
Naitik thanked the crude custom of veils. So, it spared him from spotting Chhavi’s crocodile tears. He could only see the burnt umber shade of henna glowing from her mehendi. The aroma of eucalyptus oil from the mehendi churned his stomach. He left the dais with a heavy heart.
After the extravaganza ended, Chhavi helped her drunken husband through the dingy corridors of the mansion. Forgotten and neglected, the landlord’s house was a menagerie of spiders, cockroaches and moths, scampering across the passages. The floor was slippery from the mulch brought in by the guests.
Suddenly, Rao sahib tripped on the slippery floor.
“Be careful.” Chhavi helped her husband to rise, and cleared the mud from his face. Her gentle touch roused his carnal desires. In the groins, he felt an organ. The fresh smell of henna and the smooth texture of eucalyptus oil instigated him. With an unsteady gait, he held her shivering hand and licked it like a child savouring lolly pop. He pulled her closer, and tried to lick the red lustre of her lips. She stood still.
“Sahib, she’s all yours but in the privacy of your room.”Kaka interrupted Rao’s flow of passion with his wisdom. Shivdarshan kaka was the mansion’s caretaker forever. At seventy-five, he had cared for Rao sahib, since he was an infant.
“I’ll help you settle in your bed. Enjoy this, kesar-badam milk and your new bride, equally!” Kaka, hunchbacked, helped the tottering sahib to the bedroom.
“Kaka, it’s been a long day and I want to use the facilities. Can you please guide me to the bathroom?”
“Yes, bitiya. Down this alley, on the right side is the washroom. Take care, bahu. This old haveli is unpredictable.” Kaka’s eyebrow quivered and lips spread in a fake smile. He turned as if he had done his duty to warn her and now it was up to her.
The ghastly mansion was far better than her ghost-like behaving husband.
It was around one am. As per the directions, she reached the hall. The landlord was a hunter in every sense of the word. The glaring faces of a bison and stags stared at her in annoyance as if entering the hall at this ungodly hour was an offence. She stared back at them with equal severity. A big fat lizard flitted passed between the horns of the stag. It had spotted a moth resting on the eye of the bison. The night was a predator’s paradise.
Chhavi was startled as a black feline with bilious yellow eyes, pounced on a squeaky rat. Every creature was hunting for its meal. Darkness offered opportunities. Soon, she was going to be a prey, much like the moth or the mouse. The thought made her gag, and she rushed into the courtyard for fresh air. The plumeria was in full bloom, and its scent relaxed her stretched nerves.
Something rustled in the garden. One more predator on the prowl.
“Let me return to safety, before I’m hunted here!” She retracted when a hand covered her mouth, dragging her into the darkness. Her scream was stifled by the hand catching hold of her. Chhavi’s terror-stricken eyes could recognise his.
“Chhavi, I’m urging you, let’s run away!” Naitik’s masked face pleaded with her yet his hand forced her into silence. “Your life will be a living hell.Before the dawn awakens, we’ll leave Kanjala behind.”
“Go back, Naitik.” Using all her might, she pushed his hand aside.
“I won’t run away from my fate. I’m a married woman now, remember that.”
The couple continued to argue until they heard footsteps, and a hunched shadow glided past them. Chhavi withdrew her hand from Naitik’s grip, and wobbled back without a glance.
Rao sahib lay asleep on the king-sized bed. On his protruding belly, with outstretched arms, he slept without moving. Eyes wide-open, mouth gasping with a bluish tinge on his lips.Sweat had formed beads on his forehead. His face was splotchy with reddish hives. Half-naked, he had slept in anticipation of the fruitful night.
“Rao sahib?” Chhavi called out.
“RAO SAHIB!” She raised her voice in the night’s eerie stillness. The open window brought in the noise of the cicadas. But nothing from the asleep man. Reluctantly, she touched him. “Ugh…cold, slippery like the monsoon frog!”
Finally, gathering her courage, she shook him.
And he fell down!
“Kaka….” her blood-curdling cry echoed in the mansion. The windows shuddered. The lizard fell off the wall and the cat slipped in a ditch. But the dead Rao sahib didn’t arise!
“All the mansions occupants should assemble in the hall. Inform the wedding guests not to leave Kanjala without our permission.” The crime branch officer displayed an authoritative air. The investigating team had arrived early morning as the local police was, too, intimated about the landlord’s death under mysterious conditions. Chhavi rocked on a mahogany chair like a pendulum, unable to decide which side of life she had landed on. Married or unmarried? Kaka wailed, crouched in a corner. He compensated for the void of a female mourner.
“Sir, a few empty beer bottles, Viagra pills, several empty envelopes, a glass of spilled milk, and an empty inhaler are found, apart from the usual stuff. No murder weapon or blood sprays anywhere.” The assistant informed his boss.
“Send the body for post mortem, and collect the milk for testing. Check for fingerprints on all the samples. Check everything.” The officer doled instructions.
“Mrs. Chhavi, we’d like to talk to you about last night’s events.”
Chhavi continued to rock, lost, till it was halted when the officer rested his hand on it, forcefully. “Chhavi Rao, we need your co-operation!” The chair couldn’t continue its rhythmic motion.
“How can I help you, officer? I’m wondering how fate has worked its way!”
“Madam, tell us what happened last night.”
“Last night, my life changed from being a carefree girl to a married woman. To relieve my father of his debts, I married Rao sahib. No one forced me, but I considered it to be my moral duty, and I agreed willingly.” Chhavi wiped a lone tear, shed for father or dead husband, none could tell.
She continued, “Last night like all Kanjala weddings, there was a party here. Only with us, the pomp was humongous, considering the status of the man getting married. At around one am, the party died down, and I helped him walk towards our room.”
“Why?” The officer interjected.
“He was heavily drunk and couldn’t walk without stumbling.”
“Then, you reached your room?”
“No, kaka offered to help as I wanted to visit the washroom. He told me it was beyond the hall, and he, with a glass of milk, continued to guide Rao sahib to his room.”
“Kesar-badammilk for the first night.” Chhavi lowered her head, embarrassed.
“I understand. Did you return to the room after using the bathroom?”
“Not immediately. Firstly, I didn’t locate the washroom. Secondly, I wanted some fresh air so I stayed in the courtyard for a while.”
“Do you think you were misled?”
“She’s a liar… a witch who killed my Rao sahib!” Kaka’s wails had turned into accusations.
“Relax, kaka. Tell us your side of the story.” The officer’s hard eyes landed on him.
“Sahib, this girl is blaming me for something I haven’t done. I gave her the right directions, but she strayed there to speak with her boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend? Tell me more.” Before Chhavi could open her pursed lips, the officer motioned her to be silent. She followed, anger flaring in her eyes.
“Sahib, Naitik, her lover, came here last night. I saw them. They were planning to elope. Maybe they are the ones who killed my sahib.”
“Killed? Kaka, how can you be so sure? We haven’t arrived at the cause of his death.”
“I’m very sure, sahib. She killed him. Otherwise, seth was a healthy man. Even today, he could father many generations! Apart from diabetes and few allergies, doctors never visited this haveli. I always took care to clean and wipe everything he touched. Nothing harmful could have entered his system, except this girl.”
“What was his inhaler doing in the room?” The officer’s smartness caught up with the murderer’s slyness.
Huzur, that was for an occasional bout of breathlessness. Rich people and their rich food requires rich air to be pumped into their lungs. That doesn’t mean he died for lack of air. Only, she could have killed him!”
“Officer, this man had a motive. He wanted to seek revenge for sahib raped his daughter. If I had to run away, I could have done it without killing him. None could have found out.” Unable to bear the false accusations, Chhavi cried bitterly.
“Raped? Hmm… another angle. We’ll find out. By tomorrow, we’ll have the post-mortem reports. Till then none of you leaves this mansion. Even the servants stay here for the night. Call her boyfriend, Naitik, I need to see him.”
In the evening, the officer strolled around the mansion to look for any discrepancies. While roaming amongst the plumerias, a servant tiptoed up to him.
“Huzur, I want to reveal something. But please don’t drag me into this mess.”
“Don’t worry! If you’re telling the truth, we won’t harm you.”
“Huzur, just a day back, Sahib and kaka had a tiff about some money that kaka owed sahib. I couldn’t overhear the details completely, but kaka threatened sahib that he’ll approach the police.”
“Interesting. Tell me, was your sahib undergoing any trial? Any fishy matter that would make enemies for him?”
“Rich people, huzur. There were hundreds of such matters, but sahib was too powerful, and no one could overpower him. Kaka took care of him ever since he was a baby so I found it unusual that kaka was threatening him about the money.”
“Good boy. Thank you, you have been very helpful.” The inspector’s eyes glinted, assimilating everything.
“Naitik, you were here the night Rao sahib died. May I know, why?” The officer drilled the forlorn lover.
“Officer, I loved Chhavi. In fact, we were deeply in love. Life for her would be like courting death, if she stayed, married Rao. I couldn’t permit that.”
“So you killed him?”
“No, officer. I didn’t intend to harm the old man. He’d have anyways died, sooner or later by the hands of fate. I just wanted my Chhavi back. I thought maybe she would change her mind, and would consider eloping with me. Love is a hopeful spring that dies at the hands of cold winter. I was foolishly hopeful. She pushed me aside, and returned to the vile Rao. Betraying, me again.”
A silence greeted this revelation. The inspector stared into nothingness, his mind whirring.
“Sir, the laboratory reports are here. As per them, three things hint at murder. One, presence of rat poison in the milk sample. Two, his blood samples show eosinophilia indicating he had consumed an allergen. And lastly, his lungs were hyper-inflated, and skin showed presence of hives.”The assistant read the reports in a breathless tone.
“Aha! So anyone of them could have killed Rao sahib!” The jubilant officer proclaimed as if the mystery had been solved.
“Apart from Rao sahib, kaka’s fingerprints were found on the glass, and empty inhaler. It’s crystal clear, sir, who the murderer is.” The assistant smiled widely at his still-frowning boss.
With the handcuffed kaka in tow, the inspector paused at the mansion’s threshold. He tilted his head, and his shrewd eyes examined Chhavi who smiled at him. Looking at his feet, he stepped across the threshold.
Drums, trumpets, loud music accompanied by the incessant chatter of overwhelmed friends and well-wishers made Chhavi dizzy. She spotted a familiar face advancing towards her.
“Ms. Chhavi.” This was her chance encounter with the officer, years after Rao sahib’s case was closed.
“You must have forgotten me, but not me.” His sharp gaze baited her silence.
The whole setup reminded Chhavi of her bizarre wedding.
“How can I forget a case where I wasn’t able to nab the real culprit? Maybe I didn’t want to punish those hennaed hands, immersed in peanut oil to kill her offender. Rao sahib was the offender who had raped her best friend, forcing her to commit suicide. You sought revenge with a careful study of Rao’ peanut allergy and kaka’s OCD, ensuring he wiped and destroyed your fingerprints from the inhaler and the poisoned milk glass. You almost committed the perfect crime. The father who sold his daughter to the greedy and dead zamindar is incarcerated. Incarcerated for a different crime, though. Double justice served, eh?”
Yet again, Chhavi just smiled, holding her silence.
Connect with Penmancy:
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!