September 5, 2022: Delhi
The guard at the entrance to Gate No. 4 stood up and smartly saluted.
The left front glass window was lowered; a voice, soft and kindly, inquired, “Kaise hain, Daulatramji? Aapki beewi gaon se aa gayi kya?”
‘Ji…haan madam…kal hee aa gayi…sab theek hai..’
“Unko kehna mujhse milne. Kuch dawaiyan doongi”.
‘Priya Aunty aa gayi…chocolate wali aunty aa gayi’.: Priya Aunya has come…the aunty who brings us chocolates has come
‘Bhaiya…ok minute rokna’.
September 1, 2022: Delhi
The window rolled up, and the car, a chocolate brown Duster, drove out of Utopia, the heavily guarded tree lined residential complex that housed no less than a thousand flats split into four towers of two wings each.
As the vehicle left the turnaround and cruised into the main road, the lady behind the wheel sat back and smiled. The June early afternoon sun sneaked through the clouds leaving psychedelic dancing orbs on her face. It was a face that still retained its glow and beauty despite having endured 49 long summers.
At exactly a quarter past two, the Duster left behind the ever busy Ring Road to enter the dusty bylanes of Jangpura.
The driver expertly manoeuvred the vehicle to the corner of a dingy lane. Even before the car stopped and its lone occupant got out, a baker’s dozen of half naked children rushed towards it. They were screaming at the top of their serrated voices, ‘Priya Aunty aa gayi…chocolate wali aunty aa gayi’.
Miss Priya Sachdev smiled and walked towards them, arms outstretched. She had in her hand a big bag full of new clothes, shirts, half pants, soaps, powders, and chocolates of all shapes and sizes and flavours.
Five minutes later, she had emptied her bag of goodies, and was showered with kisses by every one of the joyous kids, who rewarded her with toothy smiles and near teary eyes filled with gratitude.
Priya then walked into a side lane gingerly sidestepping an open drain filled with stench and emanating the most pungent of odours, to arrive in front of a two story pucca building, and painted a soothing sky blue. And when she walked through its wrought iron gates and looked up at the neat row of rooms and halls and washrooms that aligned its freshly painted walls made alive with water colour paintings, she felt a surge of infinite happiness. Priya Sachdev broke into the broadest, gladdest of smiles, her heart filled with sheer joy and happiness.
And why not- at 49, the lady was living her dream.
Rich, healthy, and most importantly, insanely happy she was, seeing her baby birth and come alive in front of her own eyes.
Her baby meaning BAL SWARG, the 700 bedded home for orphans, a coven of love and care and belonging, a school-cum-playhouse-cum everything a child needed to live and grow; to develop into a loving, assured, strong and independent individual ready to take on life’s challenges.
Two hours later, when she drove out of Bal Swarg, Priya Sachdev was a woman invigorated, her heart overflowing with joy.
And as her vehicle speeded up on the still choc a bloc evening roads, she opened her windows, and let the cool wind in, her beautiful almond shaped visage turned towards the azure skies, her lovely jet black hair all loosened and making love to the clouds.
A quarter hour later, she’d left the highway, her car slowly arching its way towards a pathway leading to a newly constructed and painted a dazzling gold building.
She parked her car, and walked past the entrance to the eponymous RUBY’S GYM, absolutely oblivious of either the black Renault Kwid that had followed her like a leech right from the moment she exited her home to this very moment when she was stepping into Ruby’s for what would be a good two hours of push ups and bench presses followed by some cardio, and at times a short snappy session of zumba.
Unaware too was she of the lone person in the Kwid, the middle aged man clad in a jet black suit with matching dark glasses, and, always sipping a cup of cold coffee.
‘Sorry ma’am, we don’t have what you say. Would you like to try some other brand. After all they’re all the same’.
‘Nope…thanks. I would prefer to wait. Any idea when you could get it for me?’
Quick on the uptake, the girl proceeded to take down her address and contact details…’Ms. Priya Sachdev, Flat No. 907, Tower B, Utopia, Alkananda, South Delhi…
A minute later, when she stepped out of SEVEN DAYS MART, Priya held two plastic bags.
One held vegetables- potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, some chillies and a few drumsticks; the other, slightly smaller carried a few cans of beer, over a dozen protein bars, and a box of All Grain Nutri Choice cookies, her perennial weakness and daily indulgence.
Priya turned around.
“This dropped down.”
The man held out a protein bar.
‘Oh…I…I’m sorry…I didn’t notice…thanks.’
The man smiled as he handed over the packet to its rightful owner.
‘That’s a load you have. Do you mind if I help carry these to your vehicle?’
A tad embarrassed, Priya quickly recovered to mumble a feeble, ‘ Er…no…I can manage. Thanks…thanks a lot…I just stay…’
The man had turned around and was gone even before she could complete her sentence.
A nonplussed expression lining her face, Priya Sachdev stood there for a moment, watching the receding figure of the tall, well built man as he exited past the complex gate.
Then, she walked towards her vehicle, her mind back to wondering about the delectable preparation she intended to cook for dinner_ pork vindaloo and Goan fish curry and futi kadi.
September 7, 2022
Sai Temple, Defence Colony: Delhi
‘Ma’am, yeh rahi aapki thali…saari pooja samagri isme hain…pehle se hi maine saja ke rakhi hai…pandrah saal se aap aati jo hain yahan…’, said the elderly woman who sat under a tarpaulin outside the front gates of the temple.
It was barely eight in the morning and already the place was teeming with worshippers.
Priya Sachdev thanked the vendor and placed a Rs 500 rupee note on the old woman’s hand.
‘Rakh lo. Maalik ke taraf se’, she insisted as a hesitant smile creased the old lady’s heavily lined visage.
Around her, men, women, and children jostled and elbowed their way up the white marbled steps of the temple.
She too slowly climbed the steps carefully balancing in one hand the silver plate of offerings that included a neatly tied necklace of marigold flowers, some kumkum and a coconut.
It was then that she spotted him.
Attired in the same dark ensemble, thick handlebar moustache sitting intimidating on a face that looked more at ease in a wrestling ring, the man was climbing down the steps from the row opposite hers.
Wait! why is he here? Hadn’t she seen him outside the supermart too?.
And also, wasn’t he there at the park behind her apartment complex, the place she went every day for her morning session of brisk walking and some yoga?
Her mind began to play tricks.
Did she really see him at all these places?
Or, was she just hallucinating?
The answer came quick and pinching.
No, she wasn’t. She was sure.
In a span of a mere week, she had first bumped into, and then sighted the same guy on no less than eight occasions.
‘Ma’am, age badho…aarti ka wakt khatam ho jaya please’.
A voice, slightly strident, jolted her off her thoughts.
Brushing aside her thoughts, Priya raced ahead. And when she reached the head of the stairs, something made her step aside.
She looked down at the steps.
Voila! The man had disappeared.
Priya craned her head and her eyes did a quick 360 degree scan of the people around the temple premises.
Nope. She couldn’t see him at all.
He’d done a vanishing act.
Who was he? Who could he possible be? An apparition? A ghost? A mirage?
Or, just a stranger, albeit someone who she kept on sighting for no plausible reason whatsoever.
Priya hoped the answer was the last.
September 11, Delhi
Call it a woman’s instincts or what, but the moment she landed back at Delhi airport, Priya felt as if she were being followed. She felt this at the carousel while she waited for her suitcase, at the outer gate just when she exited, at just about anywhere.
Every time she would turn back and shoot a furtive glance all around.
All she saw were trolleys zigzagging their way past serpentine queues, children wandering and squealing about while their mums busily chatted away on their fancy phones, single men and women alighting and getting into waiting cabs and transit buses amidst the cacophony of sounds common at any gathering of homo sapiens.
A shoulder slouched, she think she saw the back of a head, a tallish figure, an all too familiar gait, a man, fiftyish, clad in an all black suit.
She craned her neck over; squinted her eyes to have a clearer look.
The figure turned incognito, melted into the crowd, an empty space marking where he stood just beside a brightly bedecked reception table above which a neon light flashed Bhalla Travels– All Day, All Night Car Services.
‘Ma’am, late ho raha hai!’
Priya Sachdev got into the cab.
Within minutes, the vehicle exited the airport vicinity, and picked up top speed, heading towards South Delhi.
It was barely six in the morning and a wintry chill had set in. Priya rolled down her window; the misty winds merrily caressing her skin, sending tingling waves of pleasure all over her spine.
The morning traffic was thin, and it another barely twenty more minutes before the driver guided the vehicle towards the lane that led to Alkananda, and her residence.
It was at that instant that her eyes caught the rear view mirror.
The black Renault Kwid was the giveaway.
This wasn’t happenstance, Priya gathered. Neither a coincidence. And definitely not a correlation.
How could the same man, the same car be sighted again and again in less than a week wherever she went: the grocer’s, the mill booth, the gym, the temple, the clinic…the list was near endless.
These were an incident too many to be dismissed as mere correlation.
It was definitely a causation.
Seated at the backseat, Priya, even from a distance, could make out the contours of the man.
It was the very same man, dressed all black, dark glasses, behind the wheel.
‘Enough!, she muttered under her breath.
She decided to confront the unknown stranger.
‘Bhaiya…ok minute rokna’.
As her vehicle stopped, she alighted and turned around.
To her utter surprise, the Kwid didn’t stop; instead, was moving towards her.
As Priya watched on incredulously, the car stopped.
The man in black stepped out and sanguinely walked towards her.
Priya braced herself.
‘What is it? Who are you? Why are you following me?’
A raised hand stopped the fusillade of words.
“Your game’s up, Ms Stella D ‘Mello”.
The words smashed into her skull; Priya felt as if she had been guillotined; her head severely decapitated, her five feet three sturdy frame a mass of shrivelling tissue.
She opened her mouth to say something; the words refused to do her bidding.
“An hour…Let’s meet at Flurry’s. And no smart tricks, Priya oops Stella. I have eyes on you 24/7′.
And he was gone.
Gone with the wind.
For a long time thereafter, Priya Sachdev stood there, a statue frozen in time.
Then, she got into the car and left.
Priya felt a cramp in her legs. Her feet turned wobbly. Flights did that to her. The early morning encounter with the stranger added to the discomfiture.
She stepped into her house, and poured herself a glass of cold milk.
She needed to clear her head.
She hauled herself into the sofa, her mind still in daze after the encounter with the stranger.
A good fifteen minutes had elapsed thereafter.
Yet, its memory sent cold waves of steely fear run down her spine.
What had he said?
‘Your game’s up, Miss Stella D Mello.’
Meaning: He knew.
Who was he? How did he know? And, most importantly, what now?
God knows for how long and hard she thought thereafter.
Finally, tired no end, she succumbed to sleep.
Waking up, she glanced at the wall clock.
Her head felt heavier than a hundred tonne truck.
Another encounter awaited, and to say that she wasn’t looking forward to it would be an euphemism.
Vijay Pandey was a creature of habit. Every hour, minute and second of his 62 years of existence so far had been timed.
The retired Senior Head Constable of Goa Police checked his watch.
Another five minutes to go.
His eyes scanned the street outside.
Cars, buses and other movables, both living and non-living, buzzed around.
Accompanied were the sights and sounds and smells typical of a busy Sunday in a large metro city.
His eyes zeroed in on the square building to the left, to the entrance of Flurry’s.
The glass frontage gave a clear view of the patrons inside.
None so far.
The wily cop had time.
A little waiting would do nobody no harm
At that instant, his phone rang.
The screen read, ‘Nair Hospital’.
He stabbed the keys.
The man on the other end didn’t waste his words.
“Mr. Pandey, this is Dr. Krishnendu Padhi. Your son’s condition has deteriorated. We have found a donor. He’s willing to fly down. Within the next 56 hours, the transplant has to happen. As I said earlier too, it’s a very costly operation.
No less than 5 crores including post operative care which can last upto 3 years. He has to be flown to America right away. Let me know, Mr Pandey. You have a day…no more to save your son’s life”.
Pandey stared at the blank screen.
The senior doctor’s words reverberated in his brain.
Pandey closed his eyes.
The past came alive.
A dark stormy night. On the Mumbai-Pune Highway. Rains lashed at the car windscreen.
It was too late.
‘I’m sorry…We couldn’t save your wife. Your son is alive…just about.
Arnav has lost both his hands and a leg. I’m afraid, he won’t be able to do anything, even lift a finger, for the rest of his life’.
…Mr. Pandey…there’s some hope…a doctor in the US…new development…claims he can set Arnav right…but it is very costly…in crores.
Also, we need donors…there’s a long waiting list…’
…Mr. Pandey…your son can get his life back…five crores plus expenses.’
Pandey opened his eyes; looked at his watch.
It was time.
SAME DAY, 11 AM, FLURRY’S
“How did you know? What do you want?”
Pandey smiled wryly.
He leaned forward and passed something.
It was a very old newspaper cutting.
Priya stared at the headlines.
“Notorious bank robber Alberto Dias shot dead in police encounter. GF Stella D’ Mello escapes with heist money Rs 25 crore.”
Priya was stoical to the core.
“How did you find me?”
Pandey spoke, albeit measuredly.
“I was a trainee then, 38 years ago. Was also part of the raising team. Had seen you jumping out of the window. Made it my life mission to find you. You’ve been on my mind since. Took voluntary. Got some leads…chased ghosts…finally tracked you. Your Goa trip was the clincher. You flew. Went to Calangute. Cried at Alberto’s cemetery. It was the proof I needed. I knew Priya Sachdev was Stella D’Mello. Four decades of labour…”
“Ok. So, are you arresting me?”
Pandey looked at the lady seated opposite him.
Pushing her late 50s, she had character written all over her still beautiful face.
That, and an icy determination.
It was the face of a very, very strong woman.
Pandey didn’t mince words.
“Listen, now there’s no hiding. I have all the proof. All the money trail.
You still have 15 crores after all your charities et al. I call the cops. You spend the rest of your life in jail. You lose money, your life, your freedom. Rot in jail for the rest of your life. Or, else…”
Priya aka Stella leaned forward.
“We cut a deal. You give me eight crores. I keep mum. You get to be Priya or Stella or Sheena or Shabnam or whatever you want to be. No one’s asking. No one’s looking. Whatever it is, it’s now or never”.
Priya stepped back, ran the proposal in her head.
In a month she would be 60. She’d had lived the past four decades in fear, always looking over her shoulder, always in mortal fear of the midnight knock.
After Alberto, after Goa, she had birthed a new life for herself.
Made her past disappear.
Carved her present.
Her future, now, lay in her own hands.
No. Alberto’s girl can’t ever be stupid.
Her charities in his name would continue.
She’d made up her mind.
She arched forward and extended her hand.
“It’s a deal.”
His thoughts were already on Arnav.
‘Can we coffee, please,?’.
“Yes”, smiled the cop.
“A lot can happen over coffee”.
Outside, the weather turned bright and shiny.
Kaise hain: how are you?
Aapki beewi gaon se aa gayi kya?”: has your wife returned from village
Ji…haan madam…kal hee aa gayi…sab theek hai..: Yes, she came yesterday…all is well
Unko kehna mujhse milne. Kuch dawaiyan doongi: tell her to meet me. I shall give her some medicines
Bal Swarg : Children’s Heaven
Pork vindaloo: It is a Goan speciality. It is hot, sour and spicy, almosy pickle-like, braise of fatty pork with lots of garlic, vinegar and red chillies
futi kadi: also known as phuti kadi, is a kokum kadi made with a combination of kokum and water. Kokum is afruit bearing tree
yeh rahi aapki thali: this is yours
saari pooja samagri isme hain: all the offerings for puja (prayers) are here
Rakh lo. Maalik ke taraf se: Keep it. It is from God
kumkum: a tropical fruit bearing tree
‘Ma’am, aage badhiye…aarti ka wakt khatam ho jayaga’ : Ma’am, move ahead. It is getting late for prayers
Ma’am, late ho raha hai: Ma’am, it’s getting late.
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