Mr. Mitra woke up at 5: 30 a.m. that morning, only because he was in the habit of waking up early. The street outside was coming to life. The first bus coughed its way out of the bus station. The crazy vagrant had also woken up. “Who robbed me in the night of all my money?”, he screamed. Mr. Mitra hurried to close the window and turn on the air conditioner. This had become a habit. His wife preferred to sleep in a cool room. As for him, he couldn’t stand the cold. So as soon as she fell asleep, he would turn off the air conditioner and open a window. He turned on the air conditioner the moment he woke up. She had absolutely no notion of this deceit. Or if she did, she never revealed it. She always conformed to the niceties of her upper class background. However, beneath a behaviour dripping with gentility, he was often conscious of his own gaucherie.
He looked at the bed. He had expected to see her curled up under the covers. She was nowhere there. After last evening’s entertainment, she must have slept in the living room or on the veranda. When she had a headache, she often slept on the veranda. She loved sleeping in the moonlight. I have often told her that it was the poet in her that drove her to sleep in the moonlight. Others are afraid of the moonlight. I have heard it even brings on madness.
He went into the drawing room in search of his wife. The room was in a mess. Glasses from the previous night still stood on the table.
Flies in search of a drink lay dead in the dregs. Cigarette stubs littered the floor. With ashtrays around, why did they ruin the floor? Poets, newshounds, utterly uncouth tribes – it was his wife who worshipped them and invited them for food and drink, who deserved punishment. Just how much money did she spend on these entertainments? No point in objecting either. After all, it was money she made. It was her magnanimity that let him and his only son, Ramesh, live in the house in splendour. At times, he would be tempted to leave all this and go back to Dhaka. The village he had lived in, was still there. His house too was still there. Perhaps, some Muslim family was living there now.
As he picked up the cigarette stubs and deposited them in the ashtray, he called out to the kitchen, “Hey, I would like some tea.” The servant maid peeped out of the kitchen, and smiled. Nippa! Born and bred in the village of Madhupur. A beauty! Thirty five years old. Made him weak with unholy passion every now and then. He was bound to get an opportunity to ravish her. When his wife would be at some lecture, when his son would be watching some movie, when the cook would be away visiting his wife, he will close every door and window and crush this plump girl tightly in his arms. She will then suffer the sweet punishment for smiling at him all the time.
He looked all around – where was his wife? The bed on the veranda was empty too.
“Nippa, where is your mistress?” he asked.
“Isn’t she asleep in bed?” she asked. “I have not seen her this morning. Have you not seen her either, master?”
He only shook his head. That very moment the servant let out a loud scream and fell to the floor. He too saw what she had seen. Behind the large sofa lay the mistress of the house. Blood stains over her white sari; a dagger in her chest. He could not summon the courage even to look at her face; but he lifted her left arm and felt her pulse. No pulse beat in that cold arm.
The servant maid lay in a faint. What should he do next?, he asked himself. Inform the police? Wake up his son? Ramesh would not mourn this death. It was two years since there had been any empathy between
his son and his wife. Ever since Ramesh fell in love with Roderick’s daughter, Lisa, who worked as a hair-dresser in a beauty salon, a cold war had raged between them. If ever Ramesh intended marrying Lisa and bringing her home, he had better pack up his belongings and leave the house is what his step mother had told him. This home that she had worked hard to create was not meant to house low class women, she said.
“Had you been my real mother, you would not have said that”, said Ramesh.
Ramesh’s mother died when he was ten years old. Then, with his son, Mitra had taken up residence in a house beside that of the poet Anasuya Devi. In the beginning, it was the child to whom she was attracted. She would give him sweets, take him to the movies, to a circus…, so the relationship progressed. It ended in their marriage. To begin with, it had been Mitra’s good fortune. Otherwise, he might still have been a struggling medical representative. Now he was a wealthy man. No need to work for a living.
The servant maid came to from her faint, crying “Ayoh! Ayoh! Who could have done this dastardly deed? May lightening strike his head!”
Mitra woke up from his thoughts and bent forward to examine his wife’s dead body. Her eyes were open. But there was no fear on that face. One hand still lay on the floor. A large silver ring with an Aurangazeb coin mounted on it, glistened from a finger.
“Let me call Ramesh”, he said. As soon as he entered his son’s room, it occurred to him that he should have informed the police. He was forgetting regulations entirely.
“Ramesh, wake up! There has been a murder”, he told him.
Without displaying any anxiety, Ramesh said: “I will get dressed and come. Give me five minutes.”
Mitra went back to his wife’s dead body. The maid was still breast
-beating and crying. “You can stop your crying for a while”, he muttered. “You may start again when the police comes.”
He recalled that sometime past midnight he had woken up to hear her in conversation from the drawing room. When did the conversation end? When did the last guest leave? Was the last guest the murderer? Several such questions battered his mind. The murderer had not taken the diamond rings in her ears, or the gold chain round her neck. He was not a thief, for certain. So what did he get by killing her? Did she have enemies? Was it the newspaper editor who has falsely sued her, and has been badgering her for the better part of the past year? Even the minister had advised him to withdraw his suit. Did he kill her to avoid that withdrawal and loss of face? Or, could it be the handiwork of Ramesh’s girl’s brothers? They were idlers who eked out an occasional meagre income from any sort of mischief, or smuggling. Then they could be seen in silk shirts, humming along the pathways. At other times, they would be out in grubby clothes in front of their house, making rude remarks at passersby. At one time, one of them phoned Anasuya to tell her: “It is Ramesh who has robbed my young sister of her virginity. He must marry her immediately. I know it is you who are standing in the way. Beware! I will secure her future even if it means killing you.” Could he be the murderer?
“Who did this?”, asked Ramesh. There was not a trace of sadness on his face. Mitra even suspected a smile lurking around his lips.
“What’s the point in asking me? I was asleep”, said Mitra. “I did not know a thing.”
“You may tell all that to the police”, said Ramesh and he phoned the police.
Bewildered, Mitra broke out in a sweat. “Are you suspecting me?”, he asked his son. “Do you consider me that evil? And that too, when I have always been immensely devoted to her.”
“Father, you were devoted to money too”, said Ramesh.
“You devil”, Mitra screamed. “How could you summon the guts to accuse me so? When Anasuya claimed that association with that girl had totally altered you, I hadn’t bothered to believe it. I see the truth of it now.”
“No benefit comprehending truths”, said Ramesh.
“Meaning?”, snapped Mitra.
“You’ll get it right away”, said Ramesh with a smile, “Let the police come.”
The servant maid broke into loud sobs.
The time was 8.30 a.m. But none had bothered to give a cup of tea or coffee to old Rodericks who had woken up four hours earlier and had come out to sit on the front veranda. Everybody in the house had enough of chores to attend to. Lisa had to bathe, get dressed and catch the 9 o’clock electric train to town. Before her bath, she had to wash yesterday’s set of clothes and underwear with soap water and rinse them. After ten o’clock, there would not be a drop of water in any tap. Lisa hangs out her wash and steps into the bathroom at exactly 8 o’clock. It is 8.30 when she comes out. Then her facial make up takes another quarter of an hour. She packs a sandwich and fried fish into a plastic box for lunch, and puts it into her black bag. By then, it is time to set out to the station. The station is but a furlong away from the house. Lisa wore high-heeled shoes, so there was no question of running in haste. “I am so thirsty”, said Rodericks. If anybody heard it, it was of no concern.
The elder son was still snoring in his bed. His vest made of netty material was torn here and there. Rodericks looked at the hairy stomach and cursed, “swine.”
His second son Cyril came out of the kitchen with a mug of tea.
The tea was steaming. The old man drooled. “Give me some tea, son”, he said.
Cyril burst out laughing. He sat on the parapet and blew on the tea as he began to drink it.
“I served sister-in-law hand and foot to earn this hot tea”, he said.
I give it to no father, nor the Lord God.”
“Son, ask Maria when she is going to give me tea”, said Rodricks. “It would sooth my cough a little if I drank tea.”
“What good would it do to my sister-in-law to soothe your cough?”,
asked Cyril. Then, broke into laughter savouring the implications of his own question. The old man moved towards the kitchen feeling his way along the wall. There was a naked glowing bulb hanging from the ceiling. Maria had two platters of chapattis out; one buttered, the other dry. At the sight of the old man Maria covered the buttered platter entirely with a towel.
“Oh, why do you come into the kitchen, father?” she asked. “Wouldn’t I bring you anything you wanted?” The old man squatted on the floor and laughed: “Anyway, now that I am here, give me some tea and four buttered chapattis. We too, other than your husband, crave good food.”
“Oh father, what thoughts you must harbour to say so”, said Maria, “I never practice partiality.”
“Maria chit, remember one thing”, the old man said wagging his finger, “There is only one person here who earns any money. That is my daughter Lissy. Every month she brings in four hundred rupees to this house. Out of which she gives you three hundred – for the purpose of feeding us.”
“Enough, enough. I know all that”, said Maria. “I don’t need to be reminded of any of it. I am not one to eat away in secret. Take it. Eat it all.”
She set both platters before the old man. Then she poured out tea in a glass for him. The old man did not spare a glance right or left, but ate them all. When the platters were empty, he got up and headed again to the veranda.
Maria burst into tears and went to her husband in his bed. “Kill me off.” She said. “I can’t take it anymore – to hear such abuse and live here like a slave.”
Her husband opened his eyes. But he said nothing. Disgust with it all was writ large on his face.
Maria sobbed loudly.
“What’s the matter sister-in-law, what causes such misery?” asked Lisa. She had finished her bath and had emerged drying her hair with a towel. Though her complexion was dark, she was beautifully
proportioned. “Father has eaten up all the food in the kitchen”, wailed Maria. “Now what do I give you, Lisa? What do I give this good for nothing man?”
Cyril caught her words coming into the room. “Has father reduced us to starvation?” he asked. “Altogether a miserable skeleton, but give him the whole world on a platter, and he will eat it.”
The old man heard it. He was incensed.
“I ate only what she gave me. I am not in the habit of stealing to eat”, he said.
“Couldn’t we hurry up and get out of this poverty stricken existence Lisa?” Cyril pleaded. “When is your wedding ever to be? If need be, I am willing to murder for you”, laughed Cyril.
“Laughing!” said Lisa. “It is such talk from you brother, that has made my situation worse. Now Ramesh’s step mother says that this marriage will never take place. They are civilized, wealthy people. Couldn’t you have shown some moderation in dealing with them, brother?”
“Go on – your civilized people!” Cyril said. “No Catholic will ever come forward to marry you. Your reputation has become that bad. And what of the Hindu you have humoured by presenting him with your all? He has no desire to marry you either. You have ruined your life, Lisa.”
“Please do not talk to me on this subject any more”, said Lisa. “My life is mine. If there is no marriage, so what. I am happy with seeing him now and then.”
When the police van arrived, the old man on the veranda got up with a start. The others were apprehensive.
“Police?” Cyril asked. “It is five years since we brewed liquor.”
Inspector Ramachandran said, “We have not come to search for illicit liquor. There has been an atrocious murder at a home you know, in town. We have come out in search of information.”
“Who got murdered?”, asked Cyril.
“The poet named Anasuya Devi”, the Inspector said.
That night, Inspector Ramachandran could not sleep. He put up Anasuya Devi’s picture against a book on his table. Smiling lips. But crying eyes. Much like a day of sun and rain, all at once. Even as a student, he had worshiped that poet. He used to sing her couplets of love in solitude. Who could have summoned the will to kill her, to plunge a knife into her tender, delicate body? Even the husband, who declared that she had no enemies at all, was himself the unfortunate woman’s enemy. It was only her fame that the man loved. The inspector had come to understand a great deal through his investigation. The man Anasuya Devi had married and installed king of her household, Mr. Mitra, was a womanizer. Maid servants and vegetable vendors alike fell prey to his lust. If Anasuya Devi died, he became the heir to all her wealth. Her death was decidedly to his advantage. But, he did not believe that Mitra had the nerve to kill. He did not believe that any deep emotion could have a place in that small heart.
Then, who is the enemy? Roderick’s sons? Drunken bums who pass out by the roadside or in parks? They’d never have the brains to kill. Nor do they have the patience to hold on to any specific plan of murder.
The editor who has been annoying Anasuya Devi with a fake copyright case? That he had been reluctant to withdraw the suit was the hearsay. It would be a loss of face. All known personalities in literature and politics had been on Anasuya Devi’s side. Conferences and consultations took place in several locations. He must have felt that Anasuya Devi had to be wiped away from the face of the earth before he could face anybody. He could have paid for the murder.
Or the murderer could be the man who wrote that letter in her waste basket, Madhavan Pillai: if you don’t let me see you, I will make your old secret public. Remember that I still have that letter. Those were the lines. The inspector had tracked down the address to a yellow building in Kandyville. Rows of rooms, where many families lived.
“Are you Madhavan Pillai?”, the Inspector asked.
The old man, reading the Mathrubhumi newspaper on his bed in Room No.3, turned his way. After some intimidation, Pillai came out with the truth. Twenty five years ago, he had worked in Bombay. Those were days when ration card inspections took one to several homes. He
was such an inspector. One afternoon he visited a wealthy home in Churchgate. There was only a fifteen year old girl at home. “There’s nobody else at home now. If you come later, you may see the card”, said she. Pressured by some uncontrollable passion, he closed and locked the door and raped her. She was not even able to cry out. When he finally left her, she was sobbing on the floor. As he closed the door, she asked: “Who are you?”
“My name is Madhavan Pillai. Are you going to inform the police?”, he asked. Those days, he was brash enough to face anything. The girl got up, came over and kissed him: “No, I will not tell anybody about this.” About four months later, I received a letter. Her letter. It was then that I learnt that her name was Anasuya. I had not imagined that she was a Bengali, or that she was her parents’ only daughter.
“You must marry me. I am pregnant. You know you are responsible for that. Please come and see me immediately.”
When I received the letter, I could have gone to her. I could have married her. But, afraid of her parents, what happened was that I left the city immediately and went back to my hometown. After that I wandered
– starved – became an invalid – an old man, abandoned by all. It is at that stage that I noticed an abscess on my tongue. Suspecting cancer, the doctor suggested that I go to Bombay immediately. I may manage to survive with treatment at the Tata Memorial Hospital. My sister’s son Shashi held office at a private company in Bombay. I wrote to him and asked for money – that is how I got here.”
He continued: “That is when I came to know that Anasuya Devi was living in luxury here. I wanted to see her. After all, I had nothing to lose. Maybe something to gain…”
“Do you still have her letter?” asked the Inspector.
Madhavan Pillai nodded his head. “That is my sole life’s savings”, he said laughing. “If it was wrong of me to write to her, you may punish me. I can live in prison – on government expense, for some time. Did she send you to arrest me? This cancer-ridden old man?”
“Anasuya Devi did not send me. She will not”, said the Inspector. “She is dead. Last night, somebody stabbed and killed her. I am out to find who.”
“Not I”, said Madhavan Pillai. “I would never kill her. I may be good for nothing. But I am not a murderer.”
“I know that”, said the Inspector. “Where was your nephew last night?”
“He was asleep here”, said Pillai. “He does not even know her address. You must not suspect him. He is innocent. In coming to stay with him, I have brought him trouble. I should have stayed and died in Kerala.”
The Inspector got up. “I must leave now. See you later”, he said.
Inspector Ramachandran was seated in the hallway outside the office of Surendra Mehta, lecturer in English at the Girls’ College.
A girl came up to him and said, “I have a lot of information about that murder case.” The inspector said nothing. Anybody could see that she was of the hysterical brand. Thin, dried up body. Scorching eyes. “I am Mary. Surendra Mehta’s pupil. I know all his secrets”, said she. The Inspector said: “I have come to talk to Mehta. Not to his pupils.”
“He will come after his meal. Until then you may ask me your questions”, she said.
“Surendra Mehta was a worshiper of Anasuya Devi”, said Mary. He not only wrote her love letters, but also visited her. The night of the murder he attended her dinner, all dressed up. When she saw him take a taxi, Mary had asked him where he was going. He said it was to the dinner at Anasuya Devi’s place. His attire was spectacular. Black suit, black shirt, black handkerchief. She had even remarked that it looked as though he was going to condole in somebody’s death. Surendra Mehta did not say anything. Mehta had convinced himself that she was intensely jealous of Anasuya Devi. Why would she be jealous of that middle-aged woman? Tales about Anasuya Devi, unbearable even to listen to, were current in the city. Her private life was deplorable. She had no sense of virtuous living.
As Mary was talking, Surendra Mehta arrived. He motioned the Inspector into his office, and after closing the door, said: “Walls too have ears.”
“Did you go to Anasuya Devi’s dinner last night?” the Inspector
“Yes, I was there from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.” Mehta said, his hands
trembling for no apparent reason.
“And your relationship to her?”, the Inspector asked.
“I worshiped her”, Surendra Mehta said. “In all my life, I have not loved another so. She was a sad soul. A lonely soul. I had pressed her several times to leave this city and come away with me to Gujarat. Her life might have been saved then. Everybody here was an enemy of hers in secret. Even her husband. I would have made her happy. Given her a sense of security. But she laughed me away. She teased, calling me a foolish boy. In age as well, I am her junior. I am only thirty five. She must have been about forty. But she was one who had the glow of a rising sun. Nobody who had seen her once could ever forget her.”
“Do you remember all the guests who were present there last night?”, asked the Inspector.
“Oh no, no” said Mehta. “I saw several new faces. At her parties, there always were strangers. Writers and artists visiting the town would never leave without enjoying her hospitality.”
“Did you see any change in Anasuya Devi’s behaviour?”, asked the Inspector. “None at all. She seemed happy. She moved around engaging in light-hearted banter with the guests. She was in a white sari, with a string of white flowers in her hair – like the goddess Saraswati . .
. Never will I see that sight again.” Mehta’s hand covered his face as he began to cry.
“Did she have any lovers?”
“Never”, said Mehta. “She lived the life of a saint. Married, but a virgin. She had confided all that frankly to me. She could have been free of the marriage. There was no need for her to continue life with that beast. But she respected her family’s reputation. She could not bring herself to taint that.”
The inspector stood up. “See you later. You have given me a true picture of her”, he said.
“I am the only one who knew her true self. She never opened up to anybody else.”
“Were you her lover?”, the Inspector asked.
“No. Had she lived a little longer, I would have been…” Mehta said. “She had promised to come with me to Khandala this Saturday. In that resort town I would have conquered her with my love…”
“What a pity! That good fortune was not to be yours”, said the Inspector. “Did anybody else know about this plan? In particular, the girl I met outside this office?”
“Once I caught her reading my diary. I pulled her up sharply. But she is a crazy girl. Comes into my office through the window.”
“I gathered that she was madly in love with you”, said the Inspector.
“Ha! That ugly wench? I wouldn’t ever dream of making her my wife”, said Mehta with distaste.
“Love from the ugly ones is dangerous. You have got to remember that”, said the Inspector.
An ironmonger in Nagpad recognized the dagger. “This was made for our Akkaram. Don’t you know Akkaram? The one who repairs damaged pipes. The one with balding hair. Yes, that one. He’s fierce. Everybody is afraid of him. I have heard that he would kill anybody for you for Rs.500/-”
As if waiting for the police, Akkaram was sitting on his doorstep. His eyes were blood shot. “Are you the one who committed the murder at Churchgate last night?” asked the Inspector.
“You are brave, Sahib”, said Akkaram revealing his worn out teeth, “to have the courage to come alone and unarmed to see me. I am the most famous assassin in Maharashtra. Moreover, the guilt of my murder is always borne by another. The law never finds evidence enough to convict me.”
“You talk bravely Akkaram”, said the Inspector sitting on the doorstep and lighting a cigarette. He lit another and gave it to the man beside him. The two sat still and smoked in rapt silence.
In the end, Akkaram said: “To tell the truth Sahib, this time I was a bit puzzled. Because my killing fee of rupees two thousand was given to me ahead of time. Usually, I am given half at the time of contract and the other half after the killing. The one who ordered the killing of this woman gave me rupees two thousand in the beginning itself. I said it would be well if I was given half at the end, but she insisted on my accepting the full fee.”
“Who was it?”, asked the Inspector with a racing heartbeat.
“I cannot say”, said Akkaram, “the person was in the kind of dark silk burqua that muslim women wear.”
“Was it a woman who arranged this?”, asked the Inspector.
“Yes, I saw only her hand. She had worn a silver ring set with an old coin on her middle finger… She said a middle-aged woman in a white sari with a string of flowers in her hair was to be killed. It was after all the guests had left that I killed her. She was the mistress of the house. She showed absolutely no fear. I even wondered if she hadn’t laughed. For the first time in my life I felt remorse. When I took leave of her dead body and turned… she was an inherently cultured gentlewoman, Sahib. The dignified charm of her face made me cry. In that moment, I remembered my mother’s face – my mother who left me when I was eight years old. My hands trembled. I touched the feet of the dead woman and begged forgiveness. I cursed the woman who had paid me to kill her. Could be some prostitute. Could be somebody with an eye to the wealth of the husband… Usually, as a proof of the killing, I would take some piece of jewellery from the corpse. But I hesitated to so much as touch this lady’s jewellery. There was a coin embossed ring on her finger. A replica of the other woman’s ring. I could have taken that. But whom would I show the proof of my killing. The killer woman had already paid me in full. So I did not take the ring. It would even have fitted my ring finger well. But I don’t like silver. My craze is for gold.”
“Come Akkaram”, said the Inspector. “Come with me to the police station. You have done your duty. Now, let me do mine.”
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Avasaanathe Atidhi”.
Madhavikkuttyude Kritikal Sampoornam. Kottayam : DC, 2003). Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.