August, circa 1971, The Indian part of Hili, West Bengal
“I don’t know. I don’t trust him. I don’t like the look of the man…”
“Come on, Duli… The danger is not over yet. We crossed over, alright. But the devils have their eyes here too.”
“So what do we do? We just got here last week… My feet are full of callouses. Do we keep running all our lives?” The girl rued, her braids swaying with the motion of her head.
The boy sighed. His eyes roved over the people sleeping in the makeshift camp nearby… All refugees, like them… All related to the pair, not by blood, but by fate.
He lowered his voice, “We may have crossed over, but these are no-man’s lands… The Paks have their people here too. The Indian Government may not look out for us, here. The best thing for now would be to move to the mainland and blend in.”
The girl laughed, “Blend in? Can you even speak like them?”
“No. You know well what I’m talking about.”
“What about these people?”
“Not our concern. And besides, none of them have prices on their heads!” A strange glow lit up his eyes.
“Shh…” The girl pressed her fingers on his mouth, “How do you know… About the Paks having eyes in here?”
“I move about, I hear things…” He suddenly took the girl’s hands in his, “You trusted me when we fled home, didn’t you? Trust me once again.”
The honey eyes bored into the hazel ones, till they teared up. The girl nodded, in silence.
“Two years… Three, at the most. Then, I will find you, I promise,” the boy kissed the girl’s forehead.
August, 1983, A hotel lobby in the hills of Sonada
The rain was relentless, pouring through the afternoon since early morning. The gloom that pervaded outside was trying to seep into the warm innards of the hotel lobby, where a group of young people, were relishing their drinks and delicacies
The RD Burman classic playing on the records lent an old-world charm to the dimly lit foyer.
“Ah! The mountains in the rain… What else can you ask for?” Sameer took a swig from his mug, and draped his left arm around Saniya, his young wife, who snuggled close to him.
“We didn’t come here only to sit and drink in the hotels, did we?” She teased her husband, while drawing loops on his sweater with her fingers.
“Don’t blame him. How are we supposed to go out in this?” One of the men stuck up for Sameer.
“Too true!” Another grinned, as the men raised their glasses.
“Hmm… Of course. Birds of a feather flock together!” Saniya sighed, exasperated, looking at the other women for support.
One could say from the camaraderie that the three couples were family. But they had met, only the day before, in this very hotel. And after they had discovered they came from the same town, to enjoy the beauty of the mountains in the monsoon, they had decided to stick together for the rest of the tour.
“I hope there isn’t a landslide tomorrow…” one of the other women mumbled, her voice trailing, her hazel eyes lost in a dreamy haze.
“Relax, my love! Everything will be fine,” Her husband pushed close to her in a drunken stupor.
“Hmph! Always the skeptic!” The words tumbled out of Sameer’s tongue. He couldn’t help it. To his relief, none of the others seemed to notice. But the hazel eyes turned towards her, an inexplicable emotion writ large in the orbs.
Was it disdain?
Sameer did not know. But he would find out. Tonight.
August, 2013, Kolkata
11am. Ranjan felt tensed. He had never imagined he would agree to a blind date! Whatever made him agree with his friend! He was way too old for this. Should he leave?
He got up, nervously, “Sandhya?”
They shook hands. She was pretty. The girl smiled. It made Ranjan more nervous. What the heck was happening! He was a police officer for God’s sake!
Ranjan’s tongue refused to move.
“You spoke a lot through text,” the woman smiled again, “Nervous?”
“I understand, let’s have a drink…”
“My ex…We broke up a year ago. She’s marrying next month… Sent me an invite. I – I… don’t know what to do,” Ranjan blurted out after a drink.
“Aha! So blind date was your rebound buddy!” She smiled, broader. Ranjan lost his words again.
“Listen, go by all means… Move on! She has! Don’t we all forget too soon the things we thought we would never forget?”
Her voice seemed like velvet. Or was it the effect of whiskey? Her brown eyes seemed to know magic.
Ranjan’s phone rang, and broke the charm.
“Yes… Sorry!” Ranjan picked up the phone, “I’m on leave, you-”
“Sir! Sameer Sen’s dead!”
The call from the commissioner came as he was driving,”I know you are on leave today, but…”
“I’ve heard. I’m coming, Sir.”
“What do we have?” He dialled Subhash again.
“Murder. Shot in the head. Murder weapon not found…”
“Was there a break-in? Or a shootout?”
“Nada. Our men were there last night, as usual. They are still here. Chief has arrived too.”
The two-storey mansion stood like a lone mountain, with a garden on one side and acres of lush green lawn sprawling on the other sides. A seven-feet high boundary wall ran along the compound. The place was teeming with people, press and cops.
“Sir!” Subhash, his inspector, waved from the melee. As they made their way in, Subhash filled Ranjan on the details.
“The doctor says rigor mortis has set in fully, which puts the time of death to after 10 pm last night.”
“And no one heard the gunshot?”
“No. Apparently there was a function going on in the neighborhood at that time, with loudspeakers and everything…”
“Did you talk to everyone inside?”
“I was waiting for you, Sir.”
The commissioner of police was inside, sitting in the living room. So were a few officers. And a little farther off, the maids and butlers of the house sat huddled, the occasional sounds of sniffs and sobs escaping from the group.
Saniya Roy Sen, wife of the late industrialist, singer, and erstwhile darling of the silver screen, sat by the window, aloof from the group. Her vacant eyes stared at nothing in particular.
Ranjan crossed the hallway in two long strides and reached the constable who stood in a corner. “How did they get in?” He roared, almost landing his fist on the man, who was on duty last night.
“No one got in or out, sir.”
“Ranjan, later! The forensics will start now,” the commissioner got up from his seat, so did the other officers.
And all of them headed upstairs in silence. The silence, however, was stifling. It forbade of something sinister brewing in its depth. Ranjan desperately wished someone would scream at him, and tell him, how this wasn’t supposed to happen, how he was responsible for all these… how he had failed!
But no, none of them uttered a word. And the silence was somehow weighing him down more than words could.
“The ministry isn’t pleased,” the commissioner’s brisk words broke through Ranjan’s reverie, “We had promised our neighbors something, and we have failed to deliver.”
Yes, Ranjan recalled the special ops meeting two months back, right after Sameer Sen had sought asylum with the state. His latest publication, his autobiography, had earned him a fatwa from the HUJI terrorists of Bangladesh. Ranjan tried to focus on the case.
“Who saw him first?” He asked Subhash.
“Madam. Apparently, she wasn’t sleeping with Mr Sen last night. And when she found him in the morning, she went into hysteria. The butler called me around 10.30 am.”
Sameer Sen sat, regal on his armchair, his elbows propped against the armrests, his legs resting on a little stool in the front, the light of the sun creeping in through the slits of the Venetian blinds on the window and creating stripes of light and shade on his face. His head drooped on the side. He wore a long loose-fitted night robe. He could well have dozed off after enjoying his morning cuppa, except, he was dead. And when they tipped his head back, his brown, honey-coloured eyes stared in two different directions, shock registered in both of them. A grotesque red hole sat between them, splattered in bright red, mixed with the black of gunpowder. His mouth was agape, tongue hanging, as if in a grimace.
There were no signs of struggle.
However, his room was in shambles, as if its contents had been hurled upside down by a hurricane. Somebody had been looking for something.
“Is it possible that someone forced the window open, got in, did the job, and left the way he came in?” Subhash said.
“Check for fingerprints. We oughta find something in this mess. See if the window had been forced open. Also check the grounds,” the commissioner instructed in a single breath.
“If you are talking about footprints, there will be none. It has been raining since midnight,” the local OC pointed out.
One of the officers came into the room at this point, “Sir, the CCTVs show no intrusion last night. I have checked the footage of the last 5 days. Nothing unusual.”
The commissioner thought for a while, “Check for blind spots, and then check the ground anyway, maybe the walls…”
“Impossible. There’s a barbed electric fence all around the compound wall.”
“Sir, I have checked the grounds first thing in the morning,” Subhash replied, “It’s full of puddles.”
“The terrorists wouldn’t be sneaking up on him in the night to kill him, they would like to make a show of it,” Ranjan spoke, at last.
“Right. But the man hadn’t gone outside in the last one month,” Subhash countered, “And what do you expect, with our men keeping a watch outside…”
“Exactly. We kept a watch outside.”
“You think this is an inside job?”
“I think there’s a point in what Ranjan Sir says,” the forensic doctor, who was bent over the corpse, said, holding out a swab from the bullet wound, “There’s a hell lot of gunpowder around the wound, which can only mean he was shot from a really close range.”
An awkward silence befell the room.
Ranjan stood up, “I want to talk to the inmates of the house. Subhash, find an empty room downstairs and line everyone up. I will start with Mrs Sen first….”
“But… Alright, sir.”
“Ranjan,” the commissioner placed a hand on his shoulder, “I know you need no telling, but be a little considerate. The lady is a celebrity in her own right.”
“I know what to do, Sir.”
The commissioner took a long hard look at Ranjan, “All right. I’ll let Ranjan and his men take over from here. I’ve got to go report to the high command.”
“Do you want me to stay and help?” the local OC asked, watching the retreating back of the commissioner.
“Yes, I need your help. Go out and find the organizers of the function last night. I want to know what it was about, who were the artists and with whose permission they went on beyond 10 pm. Talk to them, and report to me.”
The officer turned red in the face, and mumbled a “yes” before leaving.
The water swept across his face, and he sputtered. The world before him darkened into a haze. Little snippets of an old story floated into his ears in the darkness…
Bilateral ties… Liberation war… It’s all your fault… I’m marrying, next month… Can we listen to the records, sir…
Ranjan woke up with a start.
Subhash was staring at him, “Can we listen to the records now, Sir?”
It took Ranjan a moment to gather his senses, as he took in the dingy little office, the lamp swaying above his head, the stack of files along the wall across… He had fallen asleep in his office, while reading a copy of Sameer Sen’s autobiography!
“Err… Yes, let’s do.”
Subhash sat across him with a bunch of paper and pulled out the recorder. He looked at the haggard face of his senior.
“I wish I didn’t have to call you that morning. You do need some rest.”
“I’m fine. I’ll rest after I’m done here,” Ranjan assured him, “Now, start.”
They listened to the recorded statements. And everyone echoed the other. They had their dinner at 8, there were no guests, Mr and Mrs Sen had a mild argument about something (this they gathered from the maids), and then they retired for the night by 9.30 in two separate rooms. The Janmashtami kirtan, where Saniya herself had been the chief guest in the afternoon, was on full swing at that time, and gave almost everyone a headache. No one heard the gunshot. Saniya woke up in the morning at 7. Sameer didn’t join her for tea. But she thought it was alright, for Sameer had this habit of working till late. By 10, she knocked on his door, which was open, and found him, shot dead. She screamed and fainted, and Raju, the butler rushed into the room. It was he who had called police. The butlers and maids both agreed that the couple would often have disagreements, but they would make up soon too, and they were quite a happy couple. They had no children.
“What did you get, Subhash?” Ranjan asked, trying to rub the weariness out of his eyes.
Subhash, who had been scribbling on paper so long, cleared his throat, “Sanatan Roy, the business tycoon, left the mansion at Ballygunge for his daughter and son-in-law, when they married. Sameer Sen took over his business and as an able heir, increased the turnover by leaps and bounds. The company grew under him, and forayed into other sectors. Sameer Sen started writing too. His last book, his own autobiography, was where he revealed that he had been a Muktiyoddha, a rebel in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1972, and that he once carried a bounty on his head for arson on a high level Islamic officer’s house in the-then East Pakistan. A few banned terrorist groups in Bangladesh promptly issue a fatwa against him. Posters with his name and picture pop up in India too, right on his compound walls! Sameer Sen fears for his life and approaches the state to seek protection. The state agrees, having received a similar request from the present Bangladesh Government, that holds Muktiyoddhas with high regard. Now, we deploy a bevy of men around his house. He stops going out for almost a month. And then someone comes into the house and shoots him in the head with a 9mm pistol.”
“Correction. You mean someone in the house shoots him.”
“We think it can’t be the terrorists, because they would like to make a show. The murder weapon is not discovered. The inmates do not hear the sound of the gunshot, neither do our men. Because there’s a kirtan going on, outside.”
“Good. What’s the motive ? Did anybody in the house have old accounts with Sen?”
“None that I know of. All the maids and butlers… Raju, Malti, Majid, Ruhul have been working for them and living in the mansion for at least a decade. This butler, Raju, has been there for 25 years! They all have homes in different districts of Bengal, and they all have clean records. If they had to settle an account, they could have done it, earlier. Saniya Roy Sen… She’s got a spotty record, this one. Gambling, hobnobbing with the underworld, affairs… She’s done it all, all swept under the carpet by her influential hands. But she would be inheriting everything anyway…Her bank balance at the moment is a few crores. We have searched her room and she’s clean. Why would she…. ? Oh God! What am I even thinking! “
“Subhash, I don’t blame you. The spouse always remains a suspect in cases like these. But why?”
“Did they get any prints?”
“No. No finger prints. And the window wasn’t forced.”
“Hmm… Well-planned. And you’re sure Sameer registered no will?”
“Nope. I checked with his lawyer. Though he admits he had called on him a few days back, asking for a meeting at his residence. Could it be…?”
“Hmmm… Now that the last rites are over, let’s go to the mansion tomorrow once again. Meanwhile, I’ll finish this book.”
The quest for the revenge seekers
“What else do you want to know?” Saniya fiddled with her pearl necklace, looking graceful even at 49.
“Did Sameer ever talk about a will?”
“No. What do you mean? Why would he?”
“I’m sorry… Well, did he tell you before, about the things he wrote in his book?”
“Well, some of it.”
“He dedicated it to his parents, and someone called Dulari… Do you know…”
Her face turned red, “Of course, what should I say.. We met her on a trip to Darjeeling some thirty years ago, right after our marriage. My husband… well, he had an affair with her… I came to know much later that they were childhood friends, both refugees from Bangladesh.”
“Were they in touch throughout?”
“I don’t think so. Once I got to know, I threatened to go public. It would have ruined his business prospects. That happened quite a while back.”
“I was reading his book. Your husband does mention in a chapter that he had betrayed his fellow rebels, though he wasn’t clear about what he had done. I was wondering…”
“You mean that woman…Oh God!”
“Not that wrench… Oh God!” she screamed, dramatically. And tears leaked on to her face, washing away her make-up.
“Calm down, ma’am.”
“Excuse me, I need the washroom,” she left for the attached toilet.
“Oh lord! Not the battery again!” Ranjan found an empty socket, plugged his charger and phone into it and waited for Saniya.
When she came out ten minutes later, her make-up was all touched up again, “I’m sorry. Where were we?”
“Listen ma’am, it could be her… But I don’t see how… And why wait all these years… And that too with all the police protection… I think it was someone else, who had not known Sameer’s identity so long, and just as he had revealed the same in his book, he came under their radar… the killer simply used the cover of the threats by terrorists do get the job done. While we looked for enemies outside, someone on the inside shot him dead. “
“You mean someone in our house, one of our men…”
Saniya who had clasped her head in her hands, thinking, suddenly let out a shriek, “Oh dear! Why didn’t I think of it…. Oh God!”
“What about him?”
“He was a refugee too!”
When Raju was brought in custody, he had a strange smile on his face.
“Why are you laughing, moron?”
“You’ve got the wrong man,” he grinned, and got the baton in return.
“Who is it then?”
“Hit me all you want, but that’s your job to find out.”
This went on for a while, and then Ranjan came into the station, “Subhash, find a charger, mine is done for, I think. And what do we have here?”
“The wrong man,” Raju said again.
“Oh really? Let’s see… Where did you keep the gun?”
“How come we don’t have your records?”
The roar from Ranjan startled Raju.
“Sameer Saab helped me get fake IDs after I crossed over.”
“Who sent you to kill him?”
“No one sir, Sameer Saab took me in on Dulari Didi’s request, why would I kill him?” His voice softened, and his eyes became full, suddenly, “Saab was afraid… The tiffs with madam had increased day by day… He didn’t like the company madam kept.”
“What betrayal was Sameer talking about in his book?” Ranjan completely ignored Raj’s words.
“I-I don’t know, sir. But I can tell you about someone who can clear your doubts…”
When Ranjan knocked on the door of the tumbledown one-storey house, he didn’t expect anyone to open it.
An old man opened it.
Ranjan held out his identity card. He had come alone today.
“Come in, come in. You are here about Sameer Sen, aren’t you?” The old man smiled, “I watched it on TV.”
When Ranjan nodded, the old man sighed, “Duli passed away, seven years ago. Now-”
“Who are you talking to, old man?”
And then, Ranjan saw her… Yes, the same face, pretty. Why he had been out on a date with her not a week ago! Her eyes had the same twinkle in them, only they weren’t brown. They were hazel… the little mole on her nose stood out, exactly like that of the man whose death he had been investigating…
The woman froze, her face reddened.
“You two go on, I’ll bring some tea.”
“You must be the daughter of Sameer and Dulari.”
She nodded, and smiled, “Sandhya Mitra… I was wearing contacts that day. We meet again, then, Ranjan.”
“Yes, she died of cancer, seven years back.”
“Oh don’t be, come let’s take a walk in the backyard. Its beautiful, I promise. And I will tell you about mom and Sameer.”
“I-I’m on duty. We have Raju in custody. He fessed up…”
“About what?” and she grinned, broadly. Her smile disarmed Ranjan’s aggression. The meeting wasn’t supposed to go like this.
“Come with me,” she said again.
Ranjan followed the woman. The muffled sound of the river grew louder as they came out of the house at the back. Yes, there was the river in distance. It was indeed, beautiful. The wind washed away the exhaustion of three nights of sleeplessness. The long train ride seemed to be worth it.
“That’s the Ichhamati… There on the other coast, is Bangladesh. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“My mother and Ajay were best friends,” she started suddenly, “Their parents fought in the liberation war of Bangladesh. And these two, teenagers back then, aided them. Of course, blood ran hot those days, and they did a few reckless gigs. Ajay earned a price on his head soon enough, after setting fire to a Pak office. It didn’t get easy after their parents got killed. They, along with some other rebels, ran for their life, and crossed over to India, in a hamlet by the border. But the Paks had people there too, and they had to run to save their lives, specially, Ajay. So, he tagged along with an Indian businessman, who had grown fond of him, and came to Calcutta, taking on the name of Sameer. He left Dulari with the others, assuring they were safe, and he would find her when he came out of hiding. However, words got around that he was staying in the refugee camps, and the next evening some goons set the camps on fire. Dulari and a few others escaped somehow, and found shelter in an elderly couple’s home, where she grew up in hiding. Sameer never came back, or maybe he did, and missed. But as fate would have it, they met again, ten years later, in a little hotel in Darjeeling, both married to different people. They had a tumultuous affair. My mother was a housewife here in Taki, while Sameer was a budding businessman, having married the daughter of the man he had run away with years ago. Sameer would often invite my mother to their mansion. It was then that at Dulari’s behest, he took in Raju, also a refugee, who had been living in misery in a camp. And there’s Raju’s father, he stayed back with us. Here, have some biscuits… ” she motioned at the tray the old man had carried into the backyard.
As he retreated, Sandhya continued, “Their affair, it endured everything… Dulari’s husband left her, when he came to know about it. Sameer then built her this house by the river, where he would come often and… “
She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ears and smiled, “I came to my mom in a few years. Sameer was happy… Really happy. More so because he and Saniya had no child, Saniya never wanted one. Always wanted a girl, he would say, or so my mother said. He would come more often, just to play with me. Around this time, Saniya began to suspect something. And she found out about Dulari. She made a fuss, threatening to make everything public. But Sameer could not be stopped. He didn’t care. For one, Saniya wouldn’t gain anything if she made anything public, because she was dependent on her husband. Her films were a flop, and she wasn’t making much. And she was a philanderer too, so there went her credibility. But he did not divorce her, because, well, Sameer Sen wasn’t any saint either. He was bound by a prenup of sorts… that barred him from getting any of the immovable property if he divorced Saniya. So we went on like that, two broken families, bound by a string.”
“How do you… “
“… know so much? My mom told me some of it, and the things she didn’t, I found in her diary,” she fished out a little diary from her pocket and gave it to Ranjan.
“Did Saniya know about you?”
“Not until five years ago,” she smiled, “When mom died, Sameer could not take it. He changed. He sent more money, but he hardly came home. I was a young girl, I mean I still am, and I needed my father the most at this time. Kaka took pity on me and sent news to Raju. Raju talked to Sameer, and he lost his temper. Said he had set things in order for me, and that I wasn’t supposed to worry about money. Point is, I didn’t want the money, I wanted my father back. So I went to his mansion, with Kaka. He wasn’t home back then, Saniya was. One look at me and she knew who I was. I have my mother’s eyes, you see… “
There was that melancholy in those hazel eyes that rendered Ranjan without words for a while. He didn’t want to believe she was involved.
“She shooed me away. I knew my little stint had angered Sameer, for he didn’t send us money for months. I seethed with anger too. How could a father dump his daughter like this? With time, I learnt to let go of him…”
“You think I got him killed?”
Ranjan could not answer that.
“Didn’t I tell you? We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were…” she sighed, “He came here for the last time, four months back. He had written some book, wanted to give me the first copy, said he’d apologised for his betrayal to me and my mom in it. I kicked him out, I…”
The tears choked her voice, but flowed freely themselves, from her eyes.
“Did you know he was making any will in your favour?”
“Listen, I didn’t get the man killed. I don’t think Raju killed him either. I don’t want his money. You better go back and look elsewhere officer, for I would like to see my father’s real killer nabbed.”
And, once again, Ranjan could not say anything else. They returned to the house, and before he left, Sandhya thrust a book in Ranjan’s hand. Sameer’s autobiography.
“Outrageous! How dare you! How dare you barge into the house of a lone woman!”
“Calm down, madam. We have women in our team! Calm down, don’t make a scene now.”
“I won’t go with you…”
“The press is outside, calm down ma’am. We are arresting you-”
“Why on earth you nincompoops?”
“-on charges of unlawful possession of firearms, and murder of your husband, Sameer Sen. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say-”
“You rascals ! You don’t know who I am…. You-”
The policewomen came and took her away. Subhash looked at Ranjan with admiration.
“How did you know the gun was here, Sir?” he fiddled with the fake electric socket on the wall.
Ranjan rolled his eyes, “Don’t ask. I was dumb enough to put my phone to charge there the other day. No wonder it didn’t work!”
“Brilliant. But why…?”
“Here,” Ranjan produced a paper from his pocket, “The original unregistered will of Sameer Sen, signed. It bequeaths all his property to Sandhya Mitra.”
“How did you get hold of it?”
“It was in the first copy of Sameer’s book that he had gifted his daughter. It fell from as I opened the book last night. This was what Mrs Sen had been looking for the day she killed her husband. She had black debts to pay… debts that exceeded her bank balance of crores. She wasn’t going to let it all pass to her step-daughter. And the kirtan had been organized on Saniya’s request. Why she had even performed there that evening! She had selected the other artists herself. Of course, the local OC helped me with the last two tidbits.”
“Marvellous. Outstanding work. What next?”
“A long vacation. And then, I have a wedding to attend,” Ranjan winked.
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