Witness for the Defence

Mallika Varma strode out of the court premises in frustration. She was the defense lawyer representing the accused in the much-publicized ‘Hemangini Murder Case.’   Burgundy hair cropped short, tall, and lean of frame, Mallika cut a tomboyish figure. She was an up-and-coming lawyer, yet to make a name for herself. This case was going to make or break her.  The reporters besieged her with unanswerable questions like, “Do you think Prajwal is guilty of murdering Hemangini?" and “Do you think Prajwal will be acquitted?”. She got into the car and drove away hurriedly from the court premises. Had she missed something? The way things were standing, she sure was going to lose the case. She went over the details in her mind. *** Hemangini and Prajwal were an estranged couple. Hemangini had a low-level clerical job at an office, while Prajwal worked as a supervisor at a factory nearby. After separation, Hemangini had taken a small dilapidated house in a lower-middle-class, isolated neighborhood and lived there with their five-year-old daughter, Aishani. Prajwal had gone back to live with his dad.  The police had been alerted by some beggars who had a permanent tenement right across Hemangini’s house. They had reported that there were sounds of a big quarrel and loud cries from the house. Arif, the Inspector on duty, had walked into the house along with two police officers. When they entered, they had seen this disquieting scene.  Prajwal sat on the floor, cradling the body of his wife on his lap. His clothes were drenched in blood, staining his blue uniform an ox-blood red. Prajwal looked confounded. He could not answer any questions the police threw at him. Hemangini lay across Prajwal’s lap, blood seeping into the ground. There was a gaping wound on her neck, with blood congealing all around it. There were other stab wounds on the body. A sharp knife lay next to the body evidently pulled out of the wound. One hand lay across her stomach, a thin, twisted gold bangle adorning her bony wrist. The other bare hand lay stretched out, the splayed fingers grappling the floor. It was a gory tableau. But what alarmed Arif was the kid who sat facing her parents, her back propped against the wall. With dark luminous eyes heavy with unshed tears, a curly mess of hair framing her beautiful oval face, Aishani looked pretty and vulnerable at the same time.  He knew he was never going to forget the sight of her: the expression of terror in her glazed eyes, the way her limp body lay sprawled across the wall, and her pink rosebud mouth agape in mortal fear. He bent down, kneeling beside her,,.’ and tried gently shaking her to life. But neither did she become aware of him nor did she reply his questions. He slowly got up and began studying the dwelling. “House’ was too-good a term for the shabby, all-in-one hall. There was a wooden platform in the corner of the hall, which acted as the makeshift kitchen. It was apparent that Hemangini had been chopping meat with a sharp knife, and the same knife had been used to stab her. Some pieces of beef lay scattered near the platform. A rickety cot lay in a corner, with shabby sheets and two dirty pillows piled up on it in a cluster. On top of it sat a much-used teddy bear, with an eye missing. A dingy, discolored curtain covered a small window facing the street. A broken door, presumably leading into the bathroom, was half-closed. Arif opened it to check if someone was hiding in there. But after seeing it empty, Arif immediately closed it, unable to bear the stench.  He looked out of the door to see some reporters being held at bay by the policemen. *** The case immediately became famous because of the dramatic situation-  A gory murder and a suspect who is the husband! But what caught the public fancy was the young child who had watched her mom get murdered. That the kid looked so pure and alluring added to the pathos of the situation. Aishani became a hit instantly with the press. Many old photos of hers with her parents in happier times surfaced in the media. The case became famous as the ‘Hemangini murder case.’ #Justiceforaishani was the trending hashtag on all social media platforms. Psychologists and counselors spoke on TV channels about the effect of the murder on the kid’s psyche. *** Prajwal’s father had come to Mallika’s office asking her to represent his son in the murder case. He was a broken older man with the burden of the calamity weighing heavily on his shoulders. Mallika knew she was taking a huge risk in agreeing to represent Prajwal.  Because all evidence pointed to Prajwal having committed the murder, she wanted to meet him before deciding to represent him. Prajwal looked tired, spent, and lost. But there was a rare simplicity and dignity in his carriage that impressed Mallika favorably.  When she asked him some simple questions, his answers were thoughtful and reflective. Mallika could not associate him with the brutal, vicious murder. If he did murder her, she was sure; he would have chosen poison or some other non-messy option.  She thought this case would give her the fillip required for an ‘up-and-coming’ lawyer: That is, If she could somehow manage to get him an acquittal She immediately agreed to be his counsel. *** Mallika made herself comfortable on the rough chairs placed around the table in the prison meeting room. Prajwal seemed lost in thoughts.  She asked him, “Can you tell me about what had happened that day? Starting from why you visited your estranged wife?” Prajwal lost the faraway look and came to the present. When he spoke, his voice had a deep inflection to it. “I had wanted Hemangini to sign on the divorce papers. She had been refusing to do so for a long time. I was tired of the delays. I wanted the divorce to go through soon so that I could ask for Aishani’s custody and bring her home to live with me.” “Ok. Before you go into what had happened that day, I want to understand the reason why you wanted a divorce. Is there a third person involved? An affair or a romantic issue, that could help us find a cause for the murder?” There was a ghost of a smile in his expressions before he answered, “No, definitely nothing of that kind. The reason I was asking for a divorce was because of our personality differences. Even though I am from a poor background, my mom was an English teacher, and she had instilled a love for reading in me. There had been books, music, and quietude in my life before marriage. But Hemangini changed all that because she thought my hobbies were frivolous. The next bone of contention between us was that I am meticulous about tidiness. She was indifferent to neatness, whether it was keeping the house in order or observing personal cleanliness. While I am a laid-back and peace-loving person, she was bitter and quarrelsome. So much so that she would invent reasons to get angry and fight with me. It was still fine when it was only me. But she found a new outlet for her rages when our daughter was born. It was the last straw when she began beating up Aishani.” His voice had turned harsh and intense.  Prajwal took a second to compose himself and continued, “I wanted to get rid of all that negativity from my life and provide a happy and healthy environment in which my daughter could grow up.  That's why I wanted a divorce. But I know the very same reasons may sound as a motive for my killing her. But I assure you, I did not.“  Mallika gave him a moment to compose himself and then asked, "But why was Hemangini refusing to sign the papers?" "She would cite a multitude of reasons. Each one was more compelling than the other. But I believe the real reason was to keep me from having my way. She wanted me to be unhappy. She loved exasperating me.’ Mallika gave him a sympathetic smile and asked, “Now, tell me what happened on that day?” “I reached Hemangini's house, parked my two-wheeler outside, and went in with the divorce papers. When I compelled her to sign them, She refused, grabbed the papers and, threw them angrily on the floor. Aishani was sitting and playing by herself in a corner with her Teddy bear. She started crying loudly on hearing us fight. So, in frustration, I  went back to my factory. But just as I was reaching, I remembered that I had not picked up the divorce papers. I was afraid Hemangini might tear them up in her anger. So I immediately went back.” Prajwal took a sip of water and continued, “I parked in the same place and went in. The door lay open. I did not remember if I had closed it when I left. But the moment I entered, I saw the dreadful sight. Hemangini lay in the middle of the hall, a sharp knife sticking out of her neck. There had been other stab injuries all over her body." He shuddered slightly at the memory.  “I suddenly realized that Hemangini was not dead. She was looking at me beseechingly, trying to say something. Without another thought, I took her on my lap. The knife sticking out of her neck was making her uncomfortable. Unthinking of the consequences, I pulled it out. Hemangini's voice came out in a croak. The only thing I could make out was 'Aishani'. The rest of her words were drowning in the blood that was seeping out of her mouth." Prajwal seemed overwhelmed with emotions. He shut his eyes for a while and breathed evenly to make himself calmer. Mallika remained silent without interrupting.  "I watched her die. She soon stopped breathing, and her head lolled onto my lap. Aishani was sitting right opposite us. But she did not seem to understand what was happening. She was in a catatonic state. I continued sitting there with Hemangini on my lap, and Aishani sat there staring into the space. I have no recollection of what I thought about or how long it took for the police to come. ” Mallika cleared her throat and spoke, breaking the long silence. “About your alibi, I am sure we can ask your cellular phone’s service provider to prove that the mobile (and the moped, by inference) has traveled to your office and back to Hemangini’s house. That would give you an airtight alibi.”  Prajwal looked stricken. “ I had left my mobile at home on that day. I had kept it for charging and had forgotten to take it. That's why I could not ring the police up or call the ambulance.” Mallika thought for a second and said, “Maybe we can look at some CCTV cameras on the way that will show you riding your vehicle to the office and back.” He shook his head despondently. “No. There is a shortcut through back lanes, and I took that. I don't think there are any cameras on those bylanes.” She looked at him in frustration and asked, “Is there anyone who could give you an alibi? Some colleague who saw you near the office?” “Do you really think I have not thought about it? No one saw me that day. I did not even enter the compound of the factory. So no alibis there,” he said in frustration. Mallika was leaving the room. She suddenly stopped and asked,  “Did Hemangini have any enemies? You said she loved to pick up fights?” Abruptly, Prajwal’s face brightened. He said,  “Oh my god. How could I have forgotten Lalima! She was Hemangini’s best friend once upon a time. In fact, she lives in the same street. She was the one who found this house for her. But they had a bitter fallout some time back.” *** Mallika met the doctor who was treating Aishni. She categorically forbid Mallika from even talking to her ward. “No proofs of any kind of abuse. Neither sexual nor physical. There are some welt marks on her wrists. As if someone had tried to twist her arms or wanted to pull her. The shock seems to have disturbed her. She has begun to recognize people and talk. But there is no way you can speak to her about the murder. I don't think I can allow her to be put on the stand or get involved in the court proceedings. *** Mallika had tried calling Lalima many times. Either the phone would be switched off, or she would not answer.  Finally, one day, she picked up. Her voice sounded cautious as she asked “Who is this?” When Mallika identified herself, she became very quiet. But at the mention of Hemangini’s name, she went ballistic. “Don’t talk to me about her. I had been kind to her and helped her, when her husband threw her out. I found a house for her and helped her to settle down. But when I shared the news about my secret boyfriend with her, she called up my husband and gave my secret away. My husband threw me out of the house and now I have to stay at relatives mercy. I am happy someone murdered her. She deserved it.“ Mallika realised she was a potential suspect and needed to be followed. But Lalima never answered the phone again. *** At the court that morning, the prosecution team had put up their most crucial witness- The leader of the group of beggars. He was a one-eyed, vicious-looking man of about forty years.  Dressed in rags, his hair in disarray, he stood there aggressively, a shabby cloth sack hanging from his shoulders. He stood at the witness stand and spoke clearly. “My name is Vittal. I am the leader of this group. We were about five of us, sitting outside the huts in our tenement. We saw this guy come on a moped and park it outside the house. We began hearing the voices raised in a bitter quarrel from inside the house in about ten minutes. Almost immediately, the kid started wailing. In five minutes, all of a sudden, the sounds ceased, and there was dead silence. We got up and tried to see what was happening. But nothing was visible from outside. We discussed and decided to call the police.” To the question of whether the guy had left on the moped and then came back after an hour, Vittal vehemently denied. The prosection put up two more beggars on the stand. All of them more or less said the same thing about the events and the time frame. But all of them, uniformly, swore that neither the moped nor Prajwal had lever left the house at any time.  Mallika tried cross-examining them. But could not disprove their statements or get them to change their testimony in any way.  *** As she reached home, Mallika’s head was aching intolerably. The judge had convened the next hearing after a week. She felt she needed a change from her hectic schedule. She asked her assistant to book her a flight to her hometown. *** Mallika had finished checking in at the airport. She had a coffee at the food court and went into the washroom.  She rinsed her hands, took a tissue out of the holder, and dried them. She was so deep in her thoughts that she was startled when a young girl suddenly appeared next to her.  She looked to be around twenty-five. Very pretty with dark vibrant eyes, she seemed vaguely familiar. Mallika tried racking her brains to check if she could be a model or a film star.  Both their eyes met in the mirror. The girl stopped what she was doing and asked, “Arent you Mallika Verma? The defense lawyer in the Hemangini murder case?” Taken aback by the question, Mallika nodded. The young girl continued, “I know you don't have any evidence or witnesses to prove Prajwal’s innocence. But there was an eyewitness. The only thing is that the person is not ready to come forward. But I have a message for you. Please look into the sack the one-eyed beggar always carries. You can win the case with what you find inside.” In her excitement, Mallika stammered as she asked,  “But who, I mean how... “ The young girl had already left the washroom, as suddenly as she appeared. *** Mallika canceled all her plans and went straight to the police station. Soon, she and Arif were at the beggars’ tenement with a few policemen.  The one-eyed beggar tried running away when he saw them. But the policemen stationed around soon caught him and lugged him to the police station.  Arif and Mallika upended the sack on the table. Some knickknacks, coins, and a few wallets all fell in a clump. A thin gold bangle spiraled out of the hodgepodge. Arif retrieved it and rolled it in his hands thoughtfully. Then he suddenly clicked his finger. “This is tone of he pair of the bangle we found on Hemangini’s wrist.” After a brief time, receiving the third-degree treatment from Arif, Vittlal lost all his bravado.  The true story emerged soon. Hemangini had picked up a rancorous quarrel with the group of beggars. She had been acerbic in her words. As  a revenge, Vittal had planned to abduct Aishani, move to a new locality, and use the pretty baby to beg.  But Prajwal had arrived, upsetting their plans.  They had waited till he left. Vittal had gone in with two of the beggars stealthily and tried to snatch Aishani. But Hemangini had fallen on them like a tigress and fought them off. A few of the other beggars were keeping a watch at the street end. They noticed Prajwal returning and whistled to alert Vittal. With mounting pressure, Vittal had used the knife on the platform to stab her, finally thrusting it into her neck. One of her bangles had slipped out of Hemangini’s wrist and ended up in Vittal’s hands during the skirmish. He had unthinkingly put it into his sack. They had warned Aishani that they would kill her and her dad if she ever spoke to anyone about what had happened.  They barely had time to move to the opposite side before Prajwal reached and parked the vehicle.  Vittal was reluctant to throw away the bangle. But he was too wary of selling it too because the case had become too famous.  *** Prajwal was acquitted, and Mallika became a legend overnight. Her last-minute scoop, resulting in the arrest of the Vittal and his group, created a sensation that catapulted her into fame. *** It was more than a month before Mallika could take that aborted trip to her hometown. She was in the same washroom, at the airport, when she had the Deja Vu experience meeting the same pretty girl.  “I am happy you could get an acquittal for Prajwal.” “All thanks to your tip. But I am curious. Who are you?” The girl replied with a mysterious smile. “Haven’t you felt I am familiar? You have seen my face only on the media, though. Yes, I am Aishani. I have traveled back from the future.” She gave a deep sigh before continuing,  “Can you imagine what kind of life I would have undergone with my mom murdered, my grandfather too old, and my dad in prison? I had to shunt from orphanage to orphanage, my so-called ‘beauty’ always working against me.” She turned back to look at Mallika and spoke with a passion. “The thing is, I had been an eyewitness for the murder. I had seen my mom bearing down at the beggars, who were trying to abduct me. She fought them fiercely when the one-eyed beggar, Vittal, grabbed the knife from the platform and began stabbing her. I think he realized my dad was coming back. He suddenly plunged the knife into my mom’s neck. I saw the bangle slide down from my mom’s hand into  Vittal’s. I saw him stuffing it into his sack. While leaving, he put the fear of god into my heart.” “I guess you were too young to overcome your fears and give evidence.” “Yes. But as I grew older, I realized how my life could have been better if I had given the evidence and got my innocent dad out. So when I got a chance to travel back in time, I took it and tipped you off.” This time Aishani shimmered out of her vision as Mallika watched. *** It was next year. Mallika rang the bell at a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood. Aishani opened the door and yelled, looking behind her. “Dad, someone to meet you.” The TV was on, showing a music video of the latest hit song.  She clambered back into her chair, reduced the volume, and looked inquisitively at their visitor. Author’s note: You must be wondering about Lalima and her purpose in the story. Well, last time almost all of you guessed the suspense. So I added a character for just the purpose of misleading the readers. A red-herring and hence Lalima.  :) :)   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!