A short story
Upamanyu Chatterjee | 21 Dec, 2016
Morning sir!…Do you remember me?
Uh…Oh hello!…Kalpana of course! I wouldn’t’ve recognised you! How time flies! It’s been—
Eight years…yes…Found anything interesting?
Of course not. These end-of-season sales are really meant to display the junk that no
sucker’s bought for years… And you? You must be working? Job-hunting? Or doctoral studies
In Paris. Yes.
Oh. Did you know French in school?
Look, sir, if you’ve the time, of course —could we just slip around the corner and have a coffee or something at
this new place that’s come up where Empire Stores used to be? If you’re free, of course.
Tea for me. My stomach can’t take coffee anymore.
Across the table, they look at each other, glance away, do not speak.
In fact, I changed schools.
I’d heard of that. You weren’t the only one.
Yeah…We were all in the Ninth when it happened and after the Tenth Board Exams, my parents asked, Do you
want to continue or what. And I thought, what the hell, maybe a new beginning would help—Would you be very
offended, sir, if I smoke?
Probably. Do they even allow it here?
This is an ashtray, isn’t it.
It looks more like a mosquito-repellent-incense stand to me. You began smoking in Paris?
She shakes her head vigorously. ‘Though it’s the most beautiful city in the world for smokers…I’ve been smoking since school. In fact, Raveena and I were puffing away at our morning cigarettes that Friday when we got the news. It was about seven something I think and we sidled out from behind the auditorium and I heard —’
‘You’d better have your chewing gum fast. Shrek’s looking for you downstairs.’
The History teacher is large and physically overpowering, with a pomegranate of a nose atop a heart of gold.
She is in the quadrangle, watching—but clearly with her mind elsewhere—students enter the school and, in
groups of twos and threes, go up the stairs to class. ‘Has she come in? Have you heard from her yet?’
No, ma’m…Oh it’s seven thirty already! She’s late! She’ll be on her way.’
‘Would she be coming in at all? She wasn’t well.’ Shrek’s eyes avert Kalpana’s gaze and dart askance towards the gate and then left in the direction of the Book Store.
‘Wasn’t well?’ repeats Kalpana stupidly. ‘But she was fine yesterday, Ma’m. We were all together planning her birthday party.’
‘Yes…but then she went off to Simla, no, and there was that road accident just before Chandigarh.’
‘Road accident?’ Kalpana watches in a daze Shrek’s eyes behind her spectacles slowly film over and her features crumple up like a creamish kitchen sponge. Shit, it’s the stink of cigarette smoke on my breath, that’s why she’s crying. ‘Simla, Ma’am? When did she go off to Simla?’
‘You are her best friend.’ Shrek takes off her spectacles, holds them up against the morning light and, with a
patterned handkerchief that resembles an Anokhee napkin, begins to clean their lenses. Without her glasses, her eyes seem to brim more freely. ‘Never mind about Simla and Chandigarh. Go to class now, it’s almost time.’
Puzzled but not yet apprehensive, Kalpana, furiously chewing her gum, takes the south stairs. Methodical that she is, she goes over in her head the tasks that she has set herself for the day. One: try and avoid Chikna so that she does not have to return his iPod before the summer hols; two: pretend that she’s seen the last episode of Friends even though she had to miss it because of her wretched dance class; three: remember to give her Forever 21 miniskirt to Aarushi that very day to take home so that it escapes her mother’s eagle eye when she checks what unsuitable things her daughter plans to wear for that grand birthday bash next week; four: remember to tell her that spaced-out Shrek thought that without telling anyone, she’d dashed off to Simla the previous evening; five: download Dangerously In Love before the sleepover —
On the first-floor landing, criss-crossing it without pause, not so much walking in his agitation as hopping, furiously passing his mobile phone from right hand to left and back again, his features pale and befuddled, his mouth beneath the down on his upper lip an O of incomprehension, is Chikna. He falters in his pacing on seeing Kalpana, the phone clatters to the floor. ‘She’s dead. Oh my shit, she’s dead.’
The teacher orders a masala chai for himself. Kalpana changes her mind about the coffee and asks the waiter to make that two. She waits to see the latter’s back before lighting her cigarette and pushing the burnt matchstick into the mosquito- repellent-incense stand.
In the classroom and outside in the corridor, the girls are crying and the boys are determined not to. Chikna tries a thousand times to call her cell phone. The number you are trying to reach has been temporarily switched off, says the recording, slowly and clearly and speaking to the mentally retarded, over and over again, first in Hindi and then in English.
‘I never could pinpoint, sir, either then or now, exactly when and how someone said that day—or who it was who first came in with the news, except that it was early, within the first half-hour that Friday morning—perhaps it was D-Bottom—you remember our Class Teacher?—a lovely gentle soul—leaving the room suddenly and then returning after a bit but walking very slowly, uncertainly, as though afraid of losing her balance and then just pausing—framed in the doorway, looking at us but not saying anything—perhaps it wasn’t her—but anyway suddenly it was in the air and on everyone’s face—that not only was she dead, yes, but also that she’d been killed. Murdered the night before.’
Chikna’s phone is much in demand. The girls want to call home and speak to their mothers. D-Bottom silently and generously allows Aakangsha, Mehr and a couple of others the use of her mobile. The girls sob and snivel into the instrument. Those mothers who live nearby, understanding nothing beyond the fear in the whimpering of their daughters, get into their cars and rush to school. Others demand to speak to D-Bottom. There are moments when the Class Teacher has her own phone at one ear and Chikna’s at the other.
When the mothers turn up, they find schoolchildren wandering about in a daze, in groups of twos and threes, in the corridors and the quadrangle and on the stairs. The Principal— Black Chomchom to her students—grants permission for the children to go home. Some of the girls do not want to be alone in their boring houses on a hot day with nothing to do but think about a classmate’s murder. Aakangsha, Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana want to go to the victim’s house and see their best friend for the last time.
‘No, we shouldn’t do that now,’ murmurs Kalpana’s mother, looking as though she has just got out of bed. ‘That is not a good idea.’ She in fact has already been to the victim’s house and met the parents—her golfing friends—and seen the body.
The walls of the child’s room were a riot of blood. The girl, eight days short of fourteen, lay in her bed covered by a white, flannel blanket. Her skull had been crushed and then her throat slit. Her blood had soaked through her pillow and the mattress and dripped on to the floor. Her once-beautiful head of hair was partly covered by her favourite tote bag. Sharing her bed were Bart Simpson and her other pet toys. On a side table lay some money and her iPod, its headphones still attached; only her mobile phone had disappeared. That remained missing for five years till the police, in their leisurely way, finally found it in Bulandshahr, eighty kilometres east of Delhi.
Kalpana’s mother’s first thought, alongside the immediate and lasting, distancing, disorienting numbness, is of the sleepover that her daughter and some of the others have been planning for the weekend. That will not be necessary, she thinks, they will never be able to clean up this mess in time.
‘Maybe you could visit later,’ she says to the girls. ‘Because they’ll first have to take the body for a post-mortem—’ glancing in turn at the four uncertain faces ‘—to establish the cause of death.’
Aakangsha, Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana get into Kalpana’s mother’s car and drive to her house. Kalpana’s mother phones her boss and explains why she won’t be going in to work that day. The girls dump their satchels next to the shoe rack and stand about in the drawing room. Kalpana switches on the TV even though she is only allowed to touch it between seven and nine in the evening. The girls slowly sit down. The murder is already on every news channel.
Over and over again, the screen shows the exterior and interiors of their friend’s apartment. The camera catches acquaintances of the family, neighbourhood busybodies and TV folk wandering about and in and out of the flat while placid policemen, ready to be interviewed, stand by and watch. No area appears cordoned off and out of bounds. Everyone has opinions, everyone, under the benign and soporific eye of the police force, touches, tramples over and effaces clues. The anchormen breathlessly, in a dozen different ways, rehash the few facts that they know. Girl. Was to turn fourteen in eight days. Only daughter of affluent dentist parents. Murdered in her bed last night. Servant, male, missing.
‘Servant? ’ ask the girls of one another, stupidly. ‘Which servant? You mean that grandfatherly guy? …He’s disappeared?… Like, how?…’
The servant is from Agrakanchi in Nepal. His passport photograph, magnified several times, is suddenly all over TV. The channels whip the scanty information on him to death. He is just seven months old in his job of cook and factotum. He is remembered in the neighbourhood as being mild-mannered and, on the whole, unexceptionable. He has at least one wife and several grandchildren back home. He is of middle height, has a moustache and, in his photo, looks inoffensive and vaguely well-intentioned. He was last seen last night by the parents of the victim. This morning, after discovering the body of her child, the victim’s mother did phone the servant; someone picked up but did not speak, immediately disconnected instead. Who was that? And where is he?
Chikna phones. We want to light candles on her desk, all of us. You babes would want to come back for that, no?
Aakangsha, Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana want to stick together all day. Kalpana’s mother agrees to drop them back to school. ‘Take more candles from the kitchen with you, she says. In case there aren’t enough. Then I’ll come back and just be with the parents for a bit, okay?’
Chikna phones again. He is more incoherent than usual. The reason for his outrage is clearer once the girls reach school. They learn in the corridor outside the classroom that Principal Black Chomchom has conveyed to D-Bottom and the other teachers that the school will not have any memorial service for the dead girl until what exactly happened the night before is clear to all.
‘I mean, how weird is that?’ asks an indignant Chikna of the sky surrounding his outstretched arm and his mobile phone as he takes a selfie of himself and Malini against the parapet.
‘So does that mean,’ asks Kalpana of LifeSkills and D-Bottom, holding in her hands the two packets of a dozen each that they’ve brought from home, ‘no candles?’
‘Well, perhaps you all could light them now,’ gently suggests the Life-Skills Teacher, who is new and has to be mindful of hierarchy, glancing every now and then at D-Bottom to confirm that he has chosen his words correctly, ‘and that could be taken to mean that they were lit before you all got to know of the decision not to have for the present anything in remembrance.’
D-Bottom herself switches off the four fans. Kalpana doesn’t want to take out her matchbox; fortunately, LifeSkills has a lighter. Without the fans, it is swelteringly hot in the classroom but the students, some fifteen of them, don’t mind. One by one, they light candles and place them on their absent classmate’s desk. It’s a bit of a squeeze because the incline of the desk doesn’t accept any, only the flat, top portion does. They look nice, however, the candles, the smell of burning wax reminds some of the students of Deewali, they feel better. They are for the moment quite content to sit around in the heat and gaze at the burning desk and imagine, behind the flames, a figure, crouched over an exercise book, pen scratching away on a page, looking up on occasion, shyly flicking her hair off her forehead and smiling.
Of course it is Chikna’s phone that breaks the spell. Washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma, sings its ring tone. ‘Switch off your bloody phone,’ hisses Ujjwal. Chikna answers it, listens, then announces in a voice not quite his, ‘Oh my shit. They are taking the body away now for a post-mortem. They’ve bundled her up in some sheets to cart her off to some horrible filthy place where they’ll—’ his voice breaks ‘— cut her up to find out the cause of death.’
‘I still have, you know, sir,’ Kalpana pauses to pull on her cigarette with the urgency of an underwater swimmer who has come up for air, ‘her pink Mango teeshirt. That’s what I was thinking of in class that morning while watching those candles on her desk burn, that it looked like a birthday even though it was a deathday, that you give gifts on a birthday, so was it okay to retain gifts on a deathday. I never ever wore that pink teeshirt. Just kept it in the cupboard. In Paris and Amman and Nairobi. In any case whom to give it back to?’
In the afternoon of May 16, 2008, Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana, so scared that their calves flutter as they take the stairs, visit their late friend’s apartment. Aakangsha has backed out. She phones Kalpana at two forty-five and blubbers between sobs. ‘I just don’t feel up to it…I was never part of the Awesome Foursome…none of you ever let me be…and now that she’s gone, I don’t want to take her place…1 really just want to lie down and shut my eyes and not open them again.’
The neighbourhood, the TV-and-newspaper swarm and groups of ghoulish strangers continue, in that prodigious heat, to drift around and in and out of the apartment. Unable to be still, the parents, out of focus, bleached by shock, mobile phones at their ears, wander too from room to room, parrying questions, avoiding suggestions, circumventing thought. The policemen, still waiting to be interviewed, are fewer in number because the Prime Minister is due to visit that part of the world the next day and they and their dog squads have been detailed to go and sniff around elsewhere. Some of the women of the vicinal houses have moved in to sweep and swab and wipe out all residual traces of the crime.
The front door is wide, wide open. Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana sidle into the drawing room and, wanting to sit down, almost rush for the vacant, three-seater sofa; they position themselves on it carefully, as for a job interview. People, familiar and unknown, wander past them without pause. Whatever it is that the girls expected, it is not this. For she has come back from her filthy post-mortem and is lying down on the divan two metres away from them. From neck to toe, she is swathed in sheets that were once white but are now the colour of dirt. Her eyes are shut, her mouth half-open, her skin is the shade of a page of their government-subsidised Hindi textbook. It is the first corpse in their lives.
They are frozen on the sofa. Her parents, in their wandering about their apartment that feels so violated, so burdensome, finally spot the girls and grimace a smile of a sort of recognition. Wordlessly, they hug their dead daughter’s best friends; wordlessly, they all break into tears.
The cremation takes place at the end of that first day, in stifling heat, at the Noida crematorium. From the school, only D-Bottom and LifeSkills are present. Kalpana stands behind her mother in the shade of an amaltas tree and dully, in a disordered way, feeling uncomfortable about not owning up to possessing the pink Mango, wonders how it is possible that someone with whom she had such a catfight the previous day, whom she in tears had called a slut because all the boys liked her more, how she, now all lifeless and wrapped up like a loaf, is before Kalpana’s very eyes being slid into an oven.
The masala chai arrives, tepid water in a fancy cup, a tea bag, frothy milk in a jug. The cup is disconcertingly asymmetrical. The rim at its handle is two centimetres lower than that on its opposite side and the dip in its saucer—where it is meant to sit—is not at the centre but close to one edge. That is not what LifeSkills wants. He is a traditionalist; to him, a good masala chai is a heady brew that, stewed over the fire, tastes less of tea than of sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, and that is served in a cup that resembles, not Audrey Hepburn’s hat at Ascot, but a self-effacing, ordinary bloody cup.
About such matters, Kalpana turns out to have similar views. Further, she is the new Indian woman and not inclined to take things lying down. Summoning the waiter, she explains.
‘This tea bag thing I can make at home. Why should we come here and pay so much to dip dip dip in a cup that looks like the toilet bowl of my old doll’s house?’
The flustered waiter takes everything away and, hidden behind the counter and following the instructions conveyed by the wriggling eyebrows of his superior, ferociously dunks the tea bags in the frothy milk. The nuisance out of the way, the face that Kalpana turns to her ex-Life-Skills Teacher is angelic.
‘I was to leave that week for Paris to spend the summer vacation with my father who—about a month before, I think —had been posted at our embassy. I slept every night before my departure in my mother’s bed. The first few days, none of us slept alone. None of us, in fact, slept at all. Mehr—do you remember, sir, the others of the group, Mehr, Chanchal, Chikna, Aakangsha?—of course you do. Mehr in any case shared a room with her sister but she didn’t sleep a wink for weeks on end. And Chanchal—I remember—slept with her parents and it was her father’s snoring that helped at night to keep her mind off the murder.’
The next day is Saturday and the first of the long summer break. Kalpana wakes up late because she could doze off only at five in the morning. It is in fact her mother’s voice—high- pitched, distraught, emphatic—on the phone with someone, that, and her mother saying—‘Will you hold on? I’ll just shut the bedroom door’—and the door clicking shut—that series of unusual morning events that actually dredges the girl out of sleep. Dazed and trembling, with the fear of the previous day rising within her like nausea, she watches the shut bedroom door. What filters through it to the daughter are not the words that the mother is saying but the tremor in her enunciation.
Kalpana is aware that her dead friend’s parents are to leave that morning for Haridwar by car to immerse in the Ganga their daughter’s ashes. She learns soon enough that within a few kilometres of their departure, they are asked to return. Back home, the father goes up to find out why, the mother waits in the car with what remains of the daughter. The father learns that after an entire day in which they have ambled all over the flat, burping and standing at ease at corners to watch their superiors being interviewed by TV, the police constables have finally broken open the lock to the terraced roof of the apartment and found on it, rotting and swollen in the heat of May, a second corpse, that of the missing Nepali servant.
The father is asked to identify the body. The face of the corpse is bloated and horribly disfigured, and in any case, the father is in no condition to identify anything. He phones his wife in the car to ask what kind of teeshirt the servant had been wearing the evening before. ‘Did it have New York written on it?’ She can’t immediately remember and briefly wonders at the question.
Kalpana sits before the TV the entire day. Aakangsha and Chanchal are deposited by their parents at her house at different times during the forenoon. They join Kalpana before the box. The girls do not register much in the hysteria, just the essentials. Girl. Murdered. Servant, male, prime suspect, thought missing. Well, missing only from the apartment. Murdered on the roof; actually. A blow to the head and then the throat slit. One TV anchorman, short, fat, bespectacled, bearded, having shrieked nonstop for hours, has lost his voice but is not prevented thereby from drawing—mouthing— conclusions for his audience. Four inmates of this house of horrors, ladies and gentlemen, girl gone on the sixteenth, servant found today but most likely gone within minutes of girl. Same injuries to the head and neck, same manner of going. What conclusions are we to draw, ladies and gentlemen? Just what is going on here? Two down, two to go. Are the perpetrators still in the apartment?
‘My parents are packing me off to Bangalore day after tomorrow,’ murmurs Chanchal without taking her eyes off the screen, ‘to spend time with my cousins. I mean, what purpose would that serve?’
‘This servant guy,’ asks Aakangsha, only to have something to say, to hear her own voice, to test it for tremors, ‘has been bumped off because he saw or heard something, right?’ For the twentieth time, TV shows the body, shrouded in a printed bedsheet, being carried down the stairs to the waiting van. Everyone is either wearing a swineflu mask or holding a handkerchief to his nose. Aakangsha tries to remember when she last exchanged a word with the corpse. She can barely recall his features. The magnified passport photograph that fills the screen with the frequency of a word from the sponsor does not aid her memory in the least. He’d just been someone who on occasion opened a front door and then stood aside smiling as you walked past him to your friend’s room. ‘So what’s this bearded creep saying? What’s he trying to insinuate?’
‘I don’t want to know. Last evening, some other creep said that the post-mortem showed no sexual assault or rape.’ The words roll off Chanchal’s lips almost without a hiccup.
The police force might appear clueless and somnolent but they have been in truth as active as hounds. For, on the twenty second of the month, just six days after the murder, they hone in on and pick up Chikna.
He is fourteen. His real name is Aashirwaad. He is called Chikna because he is Kashmiri-white (and to be fair, rather pimply). He is popular, he is rich, generous and heedless. He has exchanged 688 text messages with the victim in the last three days of her life. Many of them have been expressions of love. On her last night, he has tried to call her eighty-nine times on her mobile and thirty-one times on the landline. His last attempt was at eighteen minutes after midnight. None of the calls was answered by the girl.
The walls of the child’s room were a riot of blood. The girl, eight days short of fourteen, lay in her bed covered by a white, flannel blanket. Her skull had been crushed and then her throat slit
‘If this is the new India, Kalpana, I must say I prefer the old one.’ LifeSkills watches with trepidation the waiter, still flustered, put down the recycled masala chai on the table. Sure enough, a little slops over into the saucer that he places before Kalpana. ‘I mean. when I was growing up, we didn’t have a phone at home till I was fifteen. No one, no one called after nine in the evening. It was unthinkable, simply not done. A phone ringing late at night meant urgent, bad news. And you kids call each other at midnight and whisper garbage into each other’s ears till three in the morning.’
‘Her phone was switched off that night. Some petty tiff with Chikna, who knows. That’s why he tried calling her four thousand times. And I think the same evening her parents gave her, a week in advance, her birthday present of a camera. So she was far too busy clicking away to listen to Chikna’s endearments. You know sir, this looks disgusting. I think I’ll have an espresso after all.’
The Code of Criminal Procedure and the country’s several Police Acts and Manuals all enjoin the police force to interrogate a minor with the permission—and in the presence—of his parents or a responsible adult. The police however believe that the law and its rules have been framed not for them to follow (that would be ridiculous) but to help them maintain law and order. Naturally. Towards that end, therefore, a white Maruti Gypsy jeep draws up outside Chikna’s apartment block at four in the afternoon. It being a Thursday, his father is away at work and his mother at Vasant Vihar at her yoga-massage session with her male personal trainer, from which she always returns home, exhausted and rejuvenated, just half an hour before her husband. Chikna is before the giant screen in his father’s den, dementedly zapping channels in a frenzied effort to solve the crime and bring his girl back from the dead.
He is very very scared suddenly to be summoned only to see three pot-bellied policemen in the immense drawing room of their apartment. So is the rogue of a servant deeply unhappy at that intrusion. He knows his place and it is as far away as can be from the law. Without a murmur from either him or Chikna, the cops take the boy. Had they asked him to jump from the apartment on the fourteenth floor into the rear of the jeep, he would have obeyed instantly, also without a murmur.
‘You send six hundred messages to your girl and then you phone her a hundred and twenty times in one evening. She doesn’t respond, so you slip in through the window, you horny and unstable little rat, and you knock her on the head with a cricket bat, is that it?’
It is the first of Chikna’s visits—in what is to be a long and distinguished career—to a police station. It has blue-washed walls and the stench of piss is so strong that he feels that he is being interrogated in a waterless lavatory. He is tongue-tied in part because he is being harangued in Hindi.
‘Hmmm U hate me…I noe ma fault m such a frekin slut…I noe,’ reads out the policeman with the smallest paunch—just a long papaya sleeping in his shirt and spilling over his belt. He looks up from the transcript and over his glasses, waiting for elucidation, stares at the boy in an avuncular manner. ‘Slut? She was a slut? She’s calling herself a slut?’ In the questions, only ‘slut’ is in English.
‘No. Slut doesn’t mean…Slut means…
A second pot-belly, younger than the others, returns from another room carrying a fat dictionary without covers. He sits down within hitting distance of the boy and begins flipping through its pages. He finds what he is looking for and holds the word down on the page with a fat forefinger.
‘Sleepovers…In these sleepovers, there were adults or not? Parents took part? Boys-girls or just girls-girls?…’ The constable leans forward and gently pushes back from Chikna’s forehead his matted hair. ‘Six hundred messages between you and her and how many between her and her other friends? Huh?…So the slut didn’t take your calls because she was with the servant and that’s how the father found them, is that it?’
The boy nods his head at everything. He is trembling and can’t trust himself to speak. He mustn’t start crying. This nightmare will end only if he doesn’t start crying.
A harried father and mother arrive at the police station at eight-fifteen in the evening to retrieve their son.
The police snoop and sniff around everywhere; it is their job after all. Their enquiries naturally lead them to root about amongst the chums and acquaintances of the dead servant in the network of Nepali domestics and hirelings in the neighbourhood. So on the nineteenth of the month, the force stagily swoops down on Aakangsha’s house—the family is at breakfast—to spirit away Ramavtar their young Nepali factotum. He leaves unfinished in the pan the eggs that he has broken for Aakangsha’s father’s double fried. The family is left both hungry and speechless.
‘What has he done? I’ve a right to know,’ plaintively objects Aakangsha’s father.
‘What has he done? What have you done, sir? Ask him yourself—’ here a hard thwack to the back of the servant’s head the violence and utter gratuitousness of which sends Aakangsha, feeling nauseous, scurrying to her room ‘— You’ve been breeding killer snakes in your kitchen, sir, that’s what you have done.’
Downstairs, at the back of the Maruti Gypsy police jeep, Ramavtar shares the narrow bench with Vishnu, his fellow compatriot from Jagriti Nagar in Kathmandu. Vishnu is the orderly and general attendant at the dental clinic run by the parents of the dead girl. Ramavtar is tongue-tied—very aware, very careful—of the suddenness of the seizure; in contrast, Vishnu— who has been assisting the police in their enquiries from the very first day, has been detained and interrogated since then without pause, without end, hopping from one police station to the next to stay a step ahead of activists and relatives hoping to provide him some food —Vishnu in the jeep is lolling in his seat and chatting up the khaki uniform facing him.
Three days is a long time for a Q and A. The police are clueless, grabbing at straws. Vishnu provides them several, a menu of leads. Mehr gets the details by fusing into the dining room furniture so as to better eavesdrop on a dinner conversation between her elder brother and their father.
‘That Vishnu rascal,’ announces Mehr’s father, scowling at the water jug, ‘less than a week ago, was scolded and humiliated in public, at the clinic, by his employer, for incompetence, for messing up a dental cast or something. How is his evidence to be trusted? The whole thing is deplorably shocking.’
So it is. Vishnu has let fall to the police—reveals Mehr’s brother to the dining table, he being a young police officer in far-away Vijaywada, home on leave for a long weekend and privy to the official grapevine—Vishnu has let fall during that three day interrogation, through indirection and insinuation, little known facts about the dentist father of the dead girl. That he is an adulterer and debauch, hints Vishnu, nodding, sniffing and smirking, who can’t keep his hands off women, that he’s been for the last one year having an affair with the mother of his daughter’s best friend, that knowledge of the liaison has—had— so disturbed the daughter—a lovely girl—that not knowing where to turn, she had sought—and found—comfort in the protective, grandfatherly arms of the servant. Why, he, Vishnu, knows all this because the servant is—was—really one of his best friends. And he has seen them—that Kalpana’s mother (whose husband has left her and gone abroad somewhere) driving up to the clinic in the afternoon and the dear dentist debauch shutting up shop early and chuckling and the two touching each other all the time—unnecessarily, on the shoulder or forearm—while driving off in the Hyundai Santro ostensibly, ostensibly, to pick their daughters up from school. I ask you, if the question hasn’t occurred to you already, sir, why didn’t he send his driver? Hunh? Why not the driver? And then one night you are drunk and you find your daughter in the arms of that servant. You say something obscene, she retorts right back, something snaps in your head. Hunh?
‘But you aren’t eating anything, bête,’ says Mehr’s father to her, frowning at her existence.
‘It’s the heat,’ grins the elder brother, ‘and all the Vijaywada laddus that I’ve brought her.’
‘And the milk cake. And the halwa,’ sings Mehr’s mother from the kitchen.
‘Daddy, could Dhan Singh just drive me over to Kalpana’s? Just half an hour. I need to discuss my summer project with her.’
‘Of course not, bête. Just look at the time!’
‘You’ve been on the phone all day,’ sings the mother from the kitchen, ‘and in any case, I thought the Awesome Foursome was meeting tomorrow—’ grumblings in an undertone here at the maid’s notion of cleanliness ‘—to induct a new member.’
The meeting on the morrow — a lovely five-hour loaf in Select City Mall including watching Singh is Kingg — has to be rescheduled because Aakangsha phones to say, in a small voice, that she might have to back out. ‘I don’t know, I am so depressed. The cops are here again.’
Aakangsha’s family was at lunch. The door bell rang, they said ‘ah!’ thinking that that was Ramavtar back from the cops. Instead, it was two cops without Ramavtar.
‘That servant of yours has the dead girl’s phone. He says you—’ ice-black police eyes turn here to Aakangsha ‘—gave it to her.’
Gulping doesn’t dissolve the lump in Aakangsha’s chest, so her mother has to speak for her. ‘Children share things all the time, you know that. Her friend gave my daughter her old phone when her parents bought her a new one. And then for her birthday last year, we bought Aakangsha a new Samsung Galaxy so she gave her old phone to Ramavtar. Who looked quite grateful.’ Aakangsha’s mother begins to simmer. ‘What’s he been saying? And what have you been thinking?’
The police do not let on, they look dissatisfied. They would like dates, description of circumstances, reasons and finally, after an hour and a half, a signed statement. Aakangsha provides one; beneath her signature, several squiggles within a circle three inches wide, her mother countersigns.
‘This is intolerable,’ shouts Aakangsha’s father to his wife after the police leave, ‘I’m going to complain!’
‘How dozens of parents complained,’ Kalpana sips her espresso, grimaces, it seems to scald her tongue, ‘to the Principal! Of course, sir, you remember. Because you made an Issue of it too. I’m so glad that my mother, appalled though she was by what she saw on TV—and she had particular reason to be— never joined the queue that rushed to Black Chomchom to demand, shrieking, What was the school going to do to protect the morals of its charges?’ She glances away, sees the waiter staring at the table, raises her cup to signal that she wants a second. She suddenly looks much older than twenty two.
‘Well, they—we—were all at sea too, the teachers,’ LifeSkills smiles faintly at the memory of having negotiated a tricky time without loss of face, ‘as bemused as all you students, yet unable to admit it even to ourselves. All I told Black Chomchom,’ he grins in a sort of embarrassment at using the nickname, ‘was that for the school not to mourn her death less clandestinely, more courageously—an open letter in protest to the police and the media ghouls, a candle in her name in a corner of the Hall—was to acquiesce in the sleaze.’ The waiter has sidled up to their table. He is empty-handed. His presence somehow warms LifeSkills to his theme. ‘She was just thirteen, I remember saying, and this is upper-middle-class, urban India. She was Anglophone, belonged to a happy, well-knit family, went to an expensive private school. She was outgoing, popular, well-adjusted. It is unimaginable that she was sleeping with the unremarkable, middle-aged servant of the house. And for her to do so, to go to bed with him while her parents are at home is way-beyond-impossible, is as likely as the earth one morning beginning to rotate from east to west. For the school not to make public where it stands on the issue, I told the Principal, is to make people wonder, is to incline them towards accepting the muck as truth.’ He pauses to lower his voice. ‘And you in particular, Madam, I said to her while she continued to stare at me stonily, have an extra special duty to perform; you have been to their house to commiserate, you share a special relationship with them because three decades ago, you even taught the father.’ He is flustered at the warmth that the memory of that difficult time can still generate after eight years, tries to smile, looks up at the waiter, mimes with open palms that he’d like to see once more the menu. Kalpana points down at her espresso and raises her eyebrows and an index finger to signal again that she would like a second.
On the twenty-third of May, exactly a week after the crime, they arrest the dentist father for the double murder of his daughter and the family servant. The media goes berserk. Case cracked, announces the Director General of Police at the press conference that he has summoned; to elaborate, he proclaims, practically verbatim, the plot that Vishnu the clinic attendant has been feeding his subordinates for a week. The wicked father, announces the Director General, has been having an affair with the mother of his daughter’s best friend, Kalpana by name. The daughter, deeply upset, and in some sort of retaliation, falls into the arms of the waiting servant. That fateful night, the father catches them at it and—bingo! A pure and simple honour killing; it is very prevalent in the country, you know, particularly in north India. ‘You kill a near and dear one who has misbehaved because she has stained the honour of the family. Very pure and simple.’ Throughout the press conference, the Director General, answering questions and explaining psychology, continues to refer to the murdered thirteen-year-old as characterless. He attracts more viewers on TV that day than the Indian Premier League cricket matches.
The arrest also takes place on TV. For Chanchal, holidaying in Indira Nagar, Bangalore, with her vacuous cousins—watching on the screen her friend’s father in handcuffs, wan, enervated, rambling and ranting against the wrong being inflicted on him, surrounded by policemen ready to be famous for a second on the box, fitfully screaming that he was being framed—the monstrosity of the injustice, the unreality of it, of the disgrace and dishonour, suddenly makes it difficult for her to breathe. Gasping, sensing that even her tears are dammed up, she begins to wail, ‘But he’d pick us up from school! And crack those jokes! He’d always stop at Mother Dairy for ice-cream for all three of us and say, what to do, Chanchal always wants some for dessert and it’s not polite buying for her alone!’ She needs to speak to her mother. She dials fumblingly. ‘Mummy! What are they doing! Mummy!’
Six hundred messages between you and her and how many between her and her other friends? Huh?…So the slut didn’t take your calls because she was with the servant and that’s how the father found them, is that it?
In Noida two thousand one hundred and twenty kilometres away, Mummy makes some consoling noises both on and off the phone. She is with Kalpana’s mother in her drawing room drinking tea and trying to calm down an extremely agitated woman. ‘How can that policeman do this? Slander my name just like that on TV? First they drag that poor dead girl through the gutter, then they arrest the wrong man, and now they throw muck on the friends of the family. As though the murder itself wasn’t enough.’
The Director General of Police is not the only reason why Kalpana’s mother is so upset.
‘My parents,’ grins Kalpana, gazing at her phone ringing, not answering it, putting it on Silent and placing it beside the mosquito-repellent-incense stand, ‘were furious but for different reasons.’ LifeSkills watches the orange silhouette of her caller blink on and off, on and off. ‘Those were exciting times. My mother wanted to take that Director General to court, sue him for slander, character assassination, whatever. My father in Paris was furious at the whole mess. “No one I personally know has ever gone to jail before,” he said, “and certainly not for murder. This simply does not happen to people like us. If it does, it means that they are not like us.” How my mother screamed at him. “A thirteen-year-old girl has been brutally murdered. Instead of solving the crime, they proceed to butcher her character. Wake up! It could’ve been our daughter!”’ Kalpana pauses, pushes her chin out at her phone. The orange silhouette, having given up hope, has ceased to blink. ‘That was the maid. Wanting to know whether I’d be back for lunch.’ She shrugs dispiritedly. ‘That’s all that we Indians ever think about. Food.’
For a couple of days, the TV and Press lot also scurry about Kalpana’s mother’s front door like rats disturbed by an earthquake. She steels herself every morning before stepping out to greet them. She is glad that Kalpana has left Delhi to be with her father. She herself is to join them on the twentieth of June and before leaving, would like to spend as much time as she can with her friend who has first lost a daughter and then a husband. She initially visits her every day and suddenly, it becomes every alternate day and then one in three. She can’t help it. Her visits make her feel tense and pietistic and more wretched than ever.
Her friend has locked up and abandoned the apartment where the murder took place and moved in with her parents. She has been benumbed, etiolated, by grief; naturally. She is, furthermore, so horribly busy all day, so exhausted, rushing from prison to courtroom to lawyer that even though everything, every thing—people, events, the stars—is against her, nothing can crush her further. Thus, when she meets Kalpana’s mother early in the morning or at times after dinner to discuss her day or commune silently over tea, she is calm and emotionless.
It is a sign of her mental health that her husband takes precedence over her daughter, the living over the dead. Her first duty is to get him out of prison on bail so that they can grieve for her, in tormented peace, together. The snippets of her life that she lets fall to Kalpana’s mother seem to scare her auditor much more than her.
‘Two young policemen, day before yesterday, took him from jail to Haridwar in a jeep. They wanted him, they said, to show them exactly what we did with the ashes, where else we went. He said that all the way, the younger policeman repeatedly told him, very conversationally, “We’re going to kill you” and “We want to beat you to death.” Then he would resume singing Hindi film songs of the sixties and early seventies. Shammi Kapoor, early Rajesh Khanna. And then in between stanzas, “I could so easily wring your chicken neck with these hands. You see these hands?”’
Spearheaded by the Director General’s press conference, the police and the media then get together to cut to ribbons the murdered girl’s character. As a first step, the cops leak to the Press all her personal emails, her text messages to her friends, her social media pages. The world soon learns that she is not talking to Mayank anymore because of what he said about the Awesome Foursome last Sunday. That Swati’s got her ears pierced only because Chanchal has and if Chanchal asked her to wear a nosering on her youknowwhat, of course that cretin would. That of course Malini is a horny and greedy little slut who is turned on by Chikna’s wallet and iPod and videocam and cellphone. That the reader of this mail would be kissed by the sexiest love of his life if he forwards it immediately to ten other people and be doomed to live forever with a stinking Malini-type toad if he doesn’t. That Shah Rukh in Om Shanti Om is so cute!!!! as to score a straight 9.5 on the Johnny Depp scale and anyone who disagrees is a moron with no taste. That yippee! She and Dad and Mom are off to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for three weeks in June and so hurry up with your shopping lists.
From such expressions of a young and impressionable slut’s mind, the newspapers try to infer what happened in that Noida apartment on the night of the sixteenth of May. The principal guide to their reconstruction of the crime is that it must be juicy, man. One Bombay tabloid, not less yellow than faeces, publishes a plot in which the parents of the dead girl are members of a wife-swapping orgy club. On that night in May, the participants and playmates of the club meet in the Noida apartment; the girl is locked up in her room while they have a ball in the nooks and niches of the rest of the flat. The television channels and other newspapers like the plot, they run it. En route, someone adds that the murdered servant was blackmailing the murdered girl. Unless you sleep with me, I shall tell the world what your parents are up to.
For eight years, it intrigues the entire country, just what the parents were up to. How could they, for instance, have slept through their child being murdered in the next room? Well, their air-conditioner was extremely noisy and the girl was suffering those days from severe laryngitis. She wouldn’t have been able to scream. Oh. But why confine her in her room at night? Well, so precious, so priceless was she to her parents that every night, after kissing and wishing her goodnight, they would turn the key on her in her bedroom. But that is so weird. Why lock your daughter in at night? What do you fear? What kind of parents imprison their only child in her bedroom but leave the servant free to roam around the flat all night? With his guests when he has them?
It is a sign of her mental health that her husband takes precedence over her daughter, the living over the dead. Her first duty is to get him out of prison on bail so that they can grieve for her, in tormented peace, together
‘They stayed, if I remember aright, in L Block and I, for the first few months, was a guest of my eldest sister in M. Identical flats, same size and layout. Do you remember them?’ LifeSkills cannot take his eyes away from the three-quarter-inch of ash at the end of Kalpana’s fourth cigarette that looms over her second espresso like a drone over Afghanistan. ‘Each flat has a central drawing-dining space into which open the three bedrooms and the servant’s room. The servant’s room is nearest the front door.’ With the cutlery, plates and cups on the table, he attempts to represent a model flat. The menu is for the moment abandoned.
‘When the murder happened; I—we, the entire country, I guess—became obsessed with trying to unravel the plot. Exactly what occurred that night and who was where when. You see, the police keep saying, four people in the flat, two dead, so the other two are the killers, we don’t have to look any further.’ He swivels a knife twenty degrees left to indicate an open door. ‘But the door of the servant’s room that gives on to the drawing-dining space is always open, is never bolted. And the servant, a few hours before his death, had guests that night. And the police and the Press know that better than you and me. Long after the parents had gone to bed, Vishnu and Ramavtar came calling, watched a Nepali hit parade on TV, almost finished a bottle of whisky, left behind three used glasses and a filthy toilet. And two corpses. Between the servant’s buddies getting drunk and the sleeping girl lie just the drawing-dining space and two doors; one open and the other—the fingers of his left hand nudge a fork awry—ostensibly locked. Ostensibly because the mother says that after she visited her daughter’s room round about eleven to see to the computer router—the girl was asleep by then—she can’t remember whether she locked the door. Or whether she left the key in.
‘Neither my sister nor I slept a wink the first few nights. Are her daughters in their room safe? Will their heads be bludgeoned by an intruder the instant we shut our eyes?’ With his mind elsewhere, occupied with choosing the apt phrase, he spears the limp, damp heap of teabag with the fork that represents the door to the girl’s room. ‘We grew up, you know, in Bombay. Its middle-class housing has no room for a resident servant.’ He is distracted by what he has said, by whether it was what he wanted to say. The fork remains embedded in the bag like a garden implement. Dark tea begins to ooze into the saucer. ‘And with girls in the house, my grandmother was quite clear. No—male—servants. For any domestic chore. We always had women who came and went.’
He smiles at Kalpana in a sort of grimace. The last thing that he wants to do is criticise but he must get the thought that has been gnawing him out of his system. ‘Here it should’ve been the other way round. The servant should’ve been out of bounds and the girl free in her own house. Our world is monstrous, that we are not allowed to forget. In a thousand cases, one doesn’t pay for one’s crimes, one prospers instead, one gets away with murder and mayhem. And then, in contrast, for one’s omissions, one does pay, but so hellishly, so disproportionately—not once but twice and still counting—one suffers first a punishment that is in itself a fiendish crime and then one suffers sustained, infernal injustice.’ Against which the victim’s mother, despite her depression, struggles without pause. It helps to see her husband from time to time. She visits him in jail, she sees him in court during the bail hearings. What he goes through in prison helps her fight the urge to kill herself.
‘Last Wednesday, when they were bringing him to court’— her friend’s voice is so low that Kalpana’s mother has to strain to hear; she misses the occasional word ‘—he found himself in the prison van with Vishnu and Ramavtar. He was taken aback, dead though he was, and for a moment didn’t know how to react. Those two appeared quite relaxed; they said nothing to him, made no sign of recognition. Just another criminal going to court. Then they handcuffed him with Vishnu.’ She glances up from the polished surface of the dining table to gaze at Kalpana’s mother’s face. Her parents sit as motionless as installations on the sofa in the drawing room area. ‘He began to struggle, to scream, to blubber and beg. “Why have you handcuffed me with him? He killed my daughter!” The policeman explained that they were short of handcuffs that day.’ With her index finger, she begins to draw wandering circles on the wood. ‘He quietened down once the van began to move. He could think of nothing beyond the feel of Vishnu’s skin against his. Vishnu himself sighed and shut his eyes and pretended to nap. When my husband looked up from his single handcuff, Ramavtar opposite him was signalling to him with his shackled hands, first pointing to himself, then shaking his index finger in a ‘no’ and then pointing at Vishnu, jabbing the air in his direction, all as if to say, “It wasn’t me. I did nothing. He did it all.”’
After a good fifty days in prison, the husband gets bail on July 11, 2008. His friends and acquaintances have all melted away, he has lost his job at Fortis but at least he is free to fight. The couple move to Hauz Khas, try and pick up the pieces. In the new apartment, they arrange one bedroom exactly the way their daughter’s had been, with her toys, books and favourite bedspread; enlarged photographs of her are on every wall. On the other side, over the succeeding months, the police, in their leisurely, wily way, continue to try and nail the dentist husband, send him back in. They have got their man; so bloody what if it’s the wrong man. They ignore the facts that point to other possible culprits; a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, they cook the evidence against whom they have. It is not easy but the police have always been tough. They quietly blackmail, terrorise and coerce experts and witnesses to change their opinions on the medical, forensic and circumstantial evidence. Then, because the case is convoluted and looks different with the seasons, they themselves change the murder weapon four times. They first believe it to be a hammer, then they agree with the medical men that it is likely to have been a khukri. In 2010, it becomes a golf club, a five iron; in 2013 however, they tell the trial court that it is a four iron.
Of course at the same time there are things that they do not want the trial court to hear and facts that they themselves have no wish to see. The used glasses found in the murdered servant’s room, for example, that point to guests after midnight, or his blood on a pillow case recovered from Vishnu’s room a few houses away. Oh, those are red herrings, scoff the police, arranged by the dentists and their defenders to muddy the waters. As for the views of obdurate witnesses like the housemaid who for five years refuses to change her opinion that the trio of parents and daughter formed an ideal family, happy and loving, that a liaison between the girl and the servant was simply unthinkable, well, the police must ensure that she does not appear in court. Tell her that she will, of course, send a police jeep to pick her up and all that, but inform the judge that she is not required to testify because the other side has won her over. The judge does not press for details. For eighteen months, he exhibits no curiosity to hear what could be said in defence of the dentists.
In May, 2008, the local police—naturally—were the first to be called in. They botched up. The case was handed over to a central investigating agency. Its team picked up some interesting scents, seemed to be closing in; the team was changed. The investigation, it appears, was not to conclude that the murderers are not the parents. And to establish that they killed their daughter, a picture is to be painted of her as a promiscuous and immoral slut. In this manner, the colours of the punishment become almost as grisly as the crime.
For the trio that remains of the Awesome Foursome— Chanchal, Mehr and Kalpana—the difference between the two, between crime and punishment, becomes a little fuzzy with the murder of the fourth member of the group. That image of the handcuffed father—Uncle to all his dead daughter’s friends—on parade before the TV cameras, screaming that the police have framed him because they are too lazy and incompetent to investigate in depth, becomes for the Awesome Trio a picture as enduring and almost as terrifying as that of their dead friend swathed in once-white sheets and laid out in her drawing room on a cauldron of an afternoon.
In this dramatic manner, the children that summer are introduced to a world gone horribly wrong—to real life, in fact, to murder, injustice, dishonour and the permanent loss of dignity, to the butchering of the innocent and the punishment of the damned. They are scared; the power, the weight of the obtuseness of that world bewilders them, the imbecility of its judgments they find appalling. ‘Whichever holes do these judges and magistrates emerge from?’ they ask themselves in wonder. ‘From an ass’s,’ they respond, too depressed to giggle.
It is no laughing matter. In December 2010, the investigating agency files a closure report in court, stating more or less that the parents did it but they don’t have enough evidence to nail them so could they please close? The report is so worded that it encourages the examining magistrate, a woman tough as nails when it comes to other people’s lives, to declare: Nothing doing. The father must stand trial. And—oh—his wife also because she was there too in the house, wasn’t she.
The first judgment thus ropes in the mother, till then free, as a participant in the murder of her daughter. The second judgment, delivered in November 2013, sentences both husband and wife to life imprisonment. The trial judge enjoys a reputation for being tough and for making up his mind fast. He is to retire at the end of that November. He makes up his mind well in time and proudly reveals—to a dogged journalist after retirement—that he had started to write his last judgment in October itself, long before the defence counsel began his final arguments, the flow of which he repeatedly interrupts but politely—with ‘How much longer, saab, are you going to take?’ and ‘Finish it off, saab, finish it off.’
The honourable judge himself finishes the couple off four days before he retires and goes off to start a new life as an advocate at the Allahabad High Court. Which is where the indomitable couple head for, too, to appear before a third judge for a suspension of the sentence of life imprisonment—for bail, in short, for those convicted so that they get a fair chance to prepare their appeal. He says, more or less, nothing doing, stay in jail, that’s where you belong, even though if you are let out, the two of you cannot repeat the crime because you do not have another daughter to murder. It is he who will hear their formal appeal as and when it comes up.
Fortunately, that is not likely to be tomorrow. Justice is— well—as sluggish in that part of the country as elsewhere. In 2014, for instance, the appeal cases being heard in Allahabad date from 1982. The parents can therefore, for a crime that they did not commit, expect to wait in Dasna jail till 2046 or so. Time enough for them to catch up on their reading. It is no use telling the world that their daughter, their only child, long-awaited, was infinitely precious to them. When in Gandhinagar, in February 2010, they as prime suspects undergo narco analysis, they reveal under the influence of sodium pentothal, that after what they have already lost, they have nothing more to fear. Yet they are sustained by their grit in the face of a horrible wrong. They fight on.
And to think that the father could have skipped the trial and the humiliation and gone straight to heaven! For, in January 2011, in the premises of the magistrate’s court at Ghaziabad, surrounded by the police and the media riffraff, he, en route to filing a petition against the closure report of the investigating agency, is attacked by a nut with a meat cleaver. The cleaver almost splits his head in two. The nut slips through the cordon of khaki pot bellies and brings the weapon down twice, metal on bone, before the police wake up and join the melee. They then stand by and wait to be interviewed. The Awesome Trio, like the rest of the world, watches the assault on TV, sees their dead friend’s father stumble, fall, blood spurt from his skull and cover his face like gravy.
The nut is a resident of the holy city of Benares. India abounds in them. In February of the previous year, he travelled a thousand kilometres to Chandigarh to attack with a pen knife a former police officer accused of molesting a woman called Name Withheld. For the dentist father in Ghaziabad, his crime being more heinous, he chooses a meat cleaver over a pen knife. He does the eight hundred kilometres to Delhi, buys the cleaver in Chandni Chowk and travels by public bus, weapon in lap, the forty kilometres to Ghaziabad not to kill but to teach, he says, society a lesson. Because they are going to different places—he briefly to jail and the dentist father to hospital—the police this time do not handcuff them together.
School reopened that first year 2008—on Thursday, July 3.
The rains are late as always and the weather close, muggy. The children neither notice nor care. What they cannot ignore in class however is that empty desk to Aakangsha’s right. They sit in alphabetical order and that vacant place, with wax droppings like tiny clouds all over the small table, is extremely unsettling, even eerie. For a day and a half, Aakangsha sits ramrod straight through Maths and Chemistry and Life Skills, her hands in her lap, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing, trembling, till at last D-Bottom notices and asks. Admin is then requested and during Second Recess, a couple of boys from Stores come in to take the extra desk away. Their presence galvanises the class and divides opinion. Some want the desk to stay as a symbol of the absence.
‘So that we don’t forget,’ elaborates Malini. Her wisdom sparks off a shower of abuse.
‘What was the point of lighting all those candles then?’ asks Kalpana. While others mull over a response, Chikna with his mobile takes a thousand photographs of the desk even as the boys from Stores carry it out of the classroom. The remaining twenty seven places are then hauled and dragged around so as to give each one of them three extra centimeters of elbow room.
It doesn’t help; eventually, it doesn’t matter. They all remember her; they all want to forget how she went. With the days, the memory of her mystifying and brutal departure sinks into the detritus of all that one lets fall, ignores and suppresses in the matter of getting on with living; and yet she bobs up a hundred times a day. She is missed when Peacock House, drawing up its hockey team for the Junior Inter House, realises that their ace centre-half is no more. She is present in her chart work on Addiction: What Are We To Do? that adorns the class Bulletin Board; D-Bottom proposes that instead of passing the charts on to the other classes—that being the practice—they retain them on their wall all year as a memento. Chikna circulates to all his near and dear ones the last mythical snaps of the two of them together that he has created on Photoshop. Kalpana asks her mother whether she can drop out of dance class because, you know, it just isn’t the same anymore. Kalpana’s mother asks Malini’s mother whether they can team up to take turns to ferry their children to and from school. And every time that Arora Madam the Hindi teacher takes roll call, she pronounces, after Aakangsha’s, the dead girl’s name, then biting her tongue, looks up, mumbles, ‘Oho, soaree, soaree,’ removes her spectacles and daubs her eyes with the same handkerchief that she often uses to wipe the blackboard with.
‘Have you read the book? Or seen the film?’
‘No-o.’ Kalpana looks uncertain. ‘I suppose I should.’ They are done with the café and are walking towards his car. He has offered to drop her to Mundi House so that she can catch her Metro back to Mayur Vihar. ‘But they aren’t about her, are they? They are about justice.’ She glances at him, quickly, as though to see if he could have taken, offence. ‘And she is fading every day, steadily, from our memories.’
‘We maintained scrapbooks—Aakangsha, Chanchal, Mehr and I. I still have mine. I sit down and go through it once a year on May 24, on her birthday.’ She stops, forcing, him to stop, she turns to face him squarely. ‘When I saw you this morning at the sale, I told myself suddenly, I want to go to Dasna jail and meet them, I want to tell them that I haven’t forgotten.’
‘Sure. I’ll go with you.’
‘My parents must not know.’ She doesn’t move, she will once more only when things are clear. ‘In the scrapbook, I find stuff about our protest marches with banners, our candlelight vigils at Jantar Mantar and the discharge from her private parts being dissected in the newspapers and on TV. That’s not her, that’s not how you’d want to remember her. And all the time she is fading. And I think, I must keep cool and take it all out of my head and put it down on paper.’
Well, the girl has. This is it.
(Author’s Note: Many thanks for their help to Vandana Luthra, Bhalachandra and Lata Chitnis, Anita Durrani, Vidushi Durrani, Masooma Jha and Neesha Barua. Most of all, thank you, Avirook Sen)