Monday, April 25, 2022

Morning thought in head

 सारे दिन के काम के बाद 

एक कविता पढ़ना 

जैसे 

गर्म तेल से निकली जलेबी 

चाशनी में पड़े 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

पुस्तक दिवस

पुस्तक दिवस पर 

पुस्तकें 

पूजी जाती हैं 

जैसे 

कंजकों पर 

कन्याएँ 

*********** 




Friday, April 22, 2022

Book Review: The Sunset Club by Khushwant Singh

 An easy, peasy 2 hour read with nothing deep to offer. His writing is, as usual, interesting and keeps one absorbed. There is the usual dose of the erotic, and the usual humour and wit. 


If you have read other novels by Khushwant Singh, this is pretty much similar. A good, one time read if you enjoy his style. 


Mausam/ Seasons

तुम्हारे आने जाने के 

मौसम नहीं होते 

तुम्हारे आने जाने से 

मौसम होते हैं 

वसंत हेमंत 

ग्रीष्म शिशिर 

आना जाना 


There aren't seasons 

of your comings and goings. 

There are seasons 

because of your 

comings and goings 

Spring Fall 

Summer Winter 

Coming Going. 



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Pebble in the Shoe - My First Detective Fiction Story


One

It was a dawn like any other. Inspector Subhash Talpade woke up before the sun, completed his ablutions (you can look that up), and then, as the sun came up, performed the Surya Namaskar, the salutary Yoga posture for the Sun God, best performed at dawn.

Then, he went in, checked his son’s school bag against his timetable, ensuring that all the right books and notebooks are in there. Putting the kettle on the stove, he woke up his family. As usual, the child was somnolent, the wife was reluctant, and the sister was glad to get her bed tea. Sonali, Inspector Talpade’s wife, washed up and got Chintu (his son) ready for school, while Geeta (Inspector Talpade’s sister) prepared breakfast for everyone.

 In precisely 25 minutes, Chintu left for school with his aunt, while Subhash and Sonali sat down to their morning cups of tea. This was their only personal time together before the day would tear them apart. An inspector’s day only begins with certainty. Its end is always uncertain. They cherished these 10 minutes.

 At 8:15 am, Inspector Talpade kicked his scooter, and rode off, reaching the thana (police station) by exactly 8: 55 am.

 He was currently managing 4 cases – 2 thefts, one missing person, and one alleged dowry death. He had no bandwidth to manage another case, so he made a mental note to turn over any new cases from today to the new Sub Inspector.

 Man proposes, God disposes. As soon as he sat down, the phone rang. A desk phone ringing only means a higher up is calling. In India, that is never good news. It means either that you are going to be admonished for a shoddy job on an existing case, or you are being given another case, jurisdiction be damned. There is no palming off these cases to the SI. Inspector Talpade sighed, then picked up the phone and said a firm, “Hello.” What he was thinking he had no idea, because the voice at the other end could not care less for his firmness.

 “Talpade, get to the Gwalpara PS immediately. There is a case there that needs you. You know that is my constituency, and I want this case solved fast. Some mota bakra is gone, and we think the wife has bumped him off. Call up Barve, he will give you the details and the location. Reach the location directly and take it from there. Barve will report to you.”

 Inspector Talpade put the phone down mechanically, called his SI, and delivered the message in a practised monotone – “I have been called to a case in another PS. MLA of area called. I have to go.”

 The SI was a practised man too. He immediately turned around and brought updates on all the 4 cases to Inspector Talpade. Inspector Talpade quickly made notes on the files, gave verbal instructions which the SI received with emphatic “Ho, sir” each time. All of this took 15 minutes.

 Then, Talpade got up and called Barve’s number. They were both inspectors of the same batch, and specialists in their own domain. Barve was the child kidnapping specialist. Any high-profile child kidnapping in Mumbai meant a call to Barve. Talpade was the murder specialist. He could take one look and tell, accurately, whether the death was gang murder, supari work (professionally committed murder), or amateur work (that usually meant someone from family and friends).

 “What’s up, Barve? You raised the temperature again, I hear? Bugger, you hate my evening dates with my wife, no?”

 But Barve did not respond in his usual casual tone. Even though the two men worked on very serious cases (or perhaps, BECAUSE they worked on serious cases), they usually joked about them.

 “ST, listen, this one breaks my heart, dost. This is not some fatso seth getting bumped off by the gang or something. The man looks like a bhala manush. Such innocent face. His parents are sitting in shock. His wife is still unconscious. We really need you here baap.” Barve responded.

 “Arre, but I was told it looks like the wife bumped him off.”

 “No chance. She did not even wait to see the details. I am told that she heard, came to the room, saw the dead body, and collapsed right there.”

 “Can also be guilty conscience, no?”

 “No. I have a sense about this. Forget what you have heard and come to the scene with a fresh mind, ok?”

 “OK.”

The call was disconnected.

 

When Talpade arrived, the house had a police cordon, but outside that ring, there was an assorted collection of humanity, which included motley staff from neighbouring houses, some journalists, and some completely unrelated bikers who had heard and were now coming in from the main road just to watch the fun. There were no neighbours.

 Talpade made a mental note as he entered the large bungalow and came up the steps from the front door. Barve was there.

 “Chal, let me show you.” Barve said and the two men made their way through the hall to the first floor. The kitchen was somewhat visible from one part of the hall, and there was another room on the left, but what more there was on the ground floor, Talpade could not gather.

 

On the first floor, right next to the stairs, was the lift. Next to the lift was the door that Barve and Talpade entered. The room was large, opulent, and impersonal. It had no pictures of any family member. Only one man’s large pictures, at least 4-5 of them, some from at least a decade ago, if the more recent pictures were any indication. The man was handsome and had innocence in his eyes. In the center of the bed was a body covered with a sheet. Barve took off a part of the sheet to show the face and neck region to Talpade. There were ligature marks on the neck, as expected. “Definitely hanging.” Said Talpade. Barve nodded and said, “But hanging while conscious or unconscious, that is the question.”

 Talpade raised a brow, then said, “Barve, you told me to come with a clean mind. I have. Now, put the facts, and only the facts in that mind. That will help both of us.”

 Barve nodded. “So, this morning, DG did not come down as usual for his morning health drink. He usually comes down between 7:30 and 8:00, then goes to the home gym for about 30 minutes before taking a shower.

When he did not come down even by 8:30, his mother came up to his room to call him for breakfast. She knocked, and there was no response. After about 5-6 minutes of knocking, she called the house manager. He has a master key. He opened the room with that key. They came in and found him hanging from the ceiling. There was a hook there, no fan, because DG hated fans. DG used that hook.”

 “What is everyone else’s morning routine, and where were they on this particular morning?”

 “The house has 5 people. DG’s parents, who live on the ground floor, DG, his wife, and child live on the first floor. Second floor has the gym, the plant nursery, some assorted rooms, and an open-air greenhouse cum garden. Third floor is the guest floor. 4 excellent bedrooms and a fully furnished kitchen. Usually closed. Above that is the terrace.

 DG’s father wakes up at about 6:30 am, goes for a walk in the front garden. By about 7:30, he comes for chai, and DG and he usually have chai together. Mom comes out of her room by about 8 am, goes straight to the kitchen and instructs the chef and other staff on matters of the house. DG’s wife sticks to the first floor. Her breakfast is telephoned down to the kitchen and sent up. She and her son eat at the table on the first floor, then she goes to drop her son. After coming back, she spends time with her garden, gets ready, and then leaves for some work or another. She picks up her son from school, and then spends the rest of the day with him. She is his constant chaperone and caretaker. Sometimes, the grandparents ask the child to come play with them. The child is then sent to the ground floor and comes up on his own.

 The child is 8 years old. He gets up, leaves for school by about 8, and comes back by about 2. From there, his routine is set by his hobby classes, sports coaching, and other things that rich kids must do.

 This morning, everyone followed their regular routine till that body was found. DG’s father was downstairs, waiting at the breakfast table. DG’s wife had just come back from dropping Ayan, the son. The staff was also doing their own stuff. Nothing was different.

 

Before you ask, there was no fight last night, or the last week. No one said anything to anyone. No strange phone calls. No one suspected anything. It was a bolt from the blue.”

“Hmm…” Talpade walked slowly around the room. He put on his gloves and examined the dupatta used by DG.

 

“What happened after they heard?”

 “DG’s mother ran to his father. Sapna came to his door, saw him, and just collapsed. No one expected that. DG’s father came up, saw the scene, and asked the house manager to bring a stair and a pair of scissors immediately. He then held his son’s feet and remained in that position until the house manager came back with the stair. They cut the dupatta and brought him down. Then, the House Manager called us.

 No one from the family had bothered to pick up Sapna. Two maids lifted her, brought her to her room with the help of the cook, and put her on the bed somehow. They checked for her breathing and then asked the cook to call for a doctor.

When they came to DG’s father, he said, ‘No need. She has killed my son. It is better if she dies in her unconscious state.’ “

 Talpade’s lips were set in a firm line.

 He examined the dupatta once more, checking the fraying where the scissors had cut it haphazardly, the crumpling marks where it wound tightly around the neck, and the edges.

 Then, he took off the rest of the sheet from one side and took a good look at the rest of the person. Barve was right. The face was discoloured, but still retained its inherent goodness. The body was neither flabby nor artificially buffed. Just a regular 40 something man. Too young to go.

 The crime scene team did its job efficiently and quickly – fingerprints, forensics, body for postmortem, sealing the room, all done. Only Talpade and Barve remained, and a SI whose job was to take down notes and record all statements.

 

“Have you taken initial statements?” Talpade asked.

“Very brief. Just what I told you. I was with the scene team only. They are ready for you now. But, ST, what do you think?”

Talpade took a deep breath, “This one is going to take a lot of time and effort. Some real sleuthing here.”

Barve nodded as they made their way to the family’s large living room.

 

The 3 of them took statements – first from the family members, and then from the staff members. No one had seen anything amiss, no fights or surprises within the last few days or even months. No business issues for DG. Nothing.

 Sapna had regained consciousness but was too weak to walk to the living room. A lady constable was sent from the nearest police station, and the four of them walked into Sapna’s room. The in laws wanted to be present when the statement was being taken, but Barve took care of that.

 Sapna was staring straight ahead. When they entered, there was a doctor and a nurse in the room. She looked at the four of them and said, “What time is it?”

“It is almost noon, madam. You have been unconscious a long time. Would you like some tea?”

“I have to go to pick up Ayan. I must leave latest by 1:15. Do tell the driver to get the car ready, please.”

“Do you want some tea, madam?”

“No. You are here to take a statement?” the voice was kindly, even if it was clear in its assertion.

“Yes. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. What happened to Duggu?”

“He was found hanging, mam. That’s all we know. Why did you faint?”

 She smiled, then spoke slowly, “It was not voluntary, sir, promise. My life is very simple. It revolves around only 3 things – Duggu, Ayan, and my plants. Nothing else matters. Duggu is not the ideal husband. But that’s ok. He is the love of my life. My Ayan is not a model child. But I love him very much. My plants don’t always sprout or grow as intended, but I care for them without thinking of how much they are going to grow or what they are going to produce. I think, that if your life depended on only three people, and one of those people died in front of your eyes, you would do a lot more than faint. If it wasn’t for Ayan, it might have been worse.”

 Something broke inside Talpade. He remembered the pillars of his life. And did not want to think beyond that.

 “Mam, I have to ask some difficult questions. Please don’t mind.”

 “No, I don’t mind. You want to know how our marriage was. It was ok. He was well to do, handsome, and aware of it. He had relationships outside – both serious and casual. He was a devout son and my in-laws hate me. He was an ok dad, spending time with Ayan sometimes over the weekend. He never grudged me or Ayan money. There was always enough to go around. We slept in separate bedrooms, as you can see. But under that, there was an underlying love that was very strong. You won’t believe me now, but if I was the one hanging from that rope, he probably would have fainted too. At least, I like to believe that.”

 “Mam, are you fully dependent on him for money? Are you the main inheritor of his money? Sorry, we have to investigate the financial angle.”

 “I am largely dependent on him for money. There is some money of my own, and my parents are well to do. I may not be able to live this well, but there will be enough to live respectably. I don’t know who inherits, but in business at least, his dad owns 50% of the company, his mom owns 25%, and I own only 5%. He owned the rest.”

 Talpade had to salute the lady’s equanimity. There was no drama on her face. Her tears came in sobs, but they were not for effect, of that he was certain.

 “Was this a suicide? What do you think?”

 “It has to be. Duggu usually kept his door locked at night. No one from the house would have gone to his room at night. All of us are early sleepers. The staff quarters are on the other side of the house – at least a 10-minute walk on the grounds. Most staff members leave by 11 pm or so and either mom or dad lock up after them. But why would he do this? We have seen everything as a family – business losses, deception, blackmail, the works.”

 “Blackmail? From whom?”

 “I am not sure. Duggu paid someone and said its for dad. More than that I don’t know. But houses like ours, as you already know, officer, have many secrets. The big trunks are to hide our money and our sins.” Her faint smile came back, followed by the sporadic sobs.

 “I must go pick up Ayan now. May I? I want to tell him about this myself.”

 “Of course,” both men said in unison.

 Talpade asked the senior couple if they could get a bite to eat. The cook had already made some things for lunch. Those were ready. He and the kitchen staff got to work immediately and by 1:40 a simple table was laid. 4 members of the police team and the 2 senior citizens sat down to eat.

 At about 2:05 pm, Ayan and Sapna came back. Ayan was talking excitedly to his mom, who was listening intently. Talpade stared at the scene, unable to believe that this woman had just lost her husband and consciousness. Ayan rushed straight to the first floor, then stopped short. “Maa…..” he screamed from there.

 The mother-in-law was the first to rise and run. But with a firm hand, Sapna held her arm and said, “I will go, not you.” I don’t think the old lady had ever seen this side of Sapna. The shock on her face was palpable. Barve and Talpade exchanged looks.

 “Why is there this tape outside papa’s door? What’s going on? Was there another theft in the house?.... “ the voice trailed off. We assumed that Sapna had taken Ayan to another room.

 “What theft is Ayan talking about?”

 “We had a theft on the first floor some 2 years ago. That time also the police had put the tape on the room”

 “Was it the same room?”

 “No, at that time we used to have a pooja room on the first floor. It had pure silver and gold idols, and a safe for cash. All of it was gone. Easily 10 lakhs in cash and about 5 lakhs in silver and gold jewellery.” The father-in-law replied, “Now the pooja room is on the ground floor, next to our bedroom.”

 

“I see.” Talpade said, “What are the security measures you have, sir?”

 The fil loved being the one in control. He answered almost eagerly, “There is an alarm system, as you can see. The external periphery monitoring is outsourced to a specialised agency, that monitors the outside wall 24*7 and is supposed to send a team as soon as there is perimeter intrusion. Then, there is the laser alarm around the main house. After the staff leaves at 11 pm or so, I lock the house and turn it on. Then, even our own guard cannot be within 10 feet of the house. He has to stay at the main gate and thereabouts. No member of the staff can come back. The laser blares a loud siren as soon as anyone or anything obstructs the laser beam. That alarm is turned off when I wake up. Each room has its own distress button that summons both the police and the private security agency within 5 minutes. There are, of course, state of the art locks and all, and our staff is very reliable.”

 “Then it has to be a suicide. We will wait for the postmortem of course, but it doesn’t appear that any foul play is possible”

 “How can you say that?” The fil was furious. “Can’t you see what is obvious? My daughter in law made this happen. There is no one else on the first floor. She put the child to bed and once he was asleep, called her boyfriend in and hanged my son.”

 This was why Talpade hated family dramas. 

 As if to save him, Ayan came down at this time. Without saying a word, he hugged his dadi and continued crying. Ayan’s grandmother pacified him, but made no effort to let him sit in her lap. Imperceptibly, a maid filled water in a glass tumbler and carried it to the first floor. Another maid brought water for Ayan and lovingly took him in her lap.

 Another maid put lunch out in a plate and brought it to Ayan, “Eat something, babu. You need to be strong for your mummy, no?” she said gently.

 The grandfather moved at this time and placed an affectionate hand on Ayan’s head. Ayan made no effort to move towards him and remained in the lap of the maid.

 “We will discuss this later.” Talpade nodded and gestured to the lady constable to come upstairs.

When they reached Sapna’s room, a maid was sitting with lunch and orange juice in a tray. Sapna was staring straight ahead. She had had a glass of water but hadn’t touched food. The maid also refused to leave her alone and go.

“Madam, you have not eaten anything all day. Please eat something.” Talpade said gently.

Sapna did not move, but her voice came, “My parents will be here soon. I ate breakfast. I am not hungry.”

“Didi, do you want to faint again? You have Ayan baba to think of.” The maid spoke up.

“My mother will take care of him, Bela. You don’t worry.” The maid, whose eyes were already red, started sobbing all over again. “Don’t kill yourself, didi. No one will grieve you. But even your own mother will not raise Ayan baba like you do. You have to fight.”

 Barve moved quickly and placed the tray of food in front of Sapna. “Madam, your maid is right. We deal with deaths every day. Then the court cases. We know what happens to children of mothers who die. You do not want that to happen to Ayan. Please eat and be ready to fight for what is yours. Now, think very carefully, is there ANY chance that this was not a suicide?”

“What time did he hang himself?” Sapna asked.

 “We won’t know until after the postmortem. Why is that important?”

 “Up to 6 30 am, even a bird cannot make it inside the house. You must have heard from dad about his hi-fi laser alarm.

The only way to reach this floor even after 6:30 am is mainly through the staircase and lift that you just saw.

There is a staircase from the kitchen and backyard that comes to the first floor and ends here, and there is a fire escape on the back side. The Fire escape is kept open at all times, but no one uses it. The staircase from the kitchen to the first floor reaches Duggus’ room. His mother got it made specially. So, how would someone come to his room, and how would they leave? Duggu’s room was locked from the inside, as usual.”

 “Does the kitchen entrance to his room also remain locked?”

 “Usually, yes.”

 “Where does the fire escape join this first floor?”

 “At the lobby. You must have seen that metallic structure just outside the glass door of the balcony. You can go and see it now.”

 Barve left to see it.

 This was a confounding case. Physically, it was impossible for someone to come from outside. Even if Sapna had asked a partner to come help with the hanging, how would the guy enter the house? The laser alarms were controlled by her fil… wait… what?

 If an intruder came in, that would only have possible with the connivance of the fil. Yet, it was clear from the fil’s conduct earlier in the morning that he did not wish his son dead. He controlled the family business and DG was only a work horse. Even if we think like the police, the in laws killing DG made no sense.

 Soon, Sapna’s parents reached the scene. DG’s parents were less than welcoming. Immediately, a battle of words started. “Why have you come now? To protect your murderess daughter?”

“The only misfortune of my daughter was that she married your philandering, spineless son who was a begar ka naukar for his parents his whole life. Call her murderess one more time if you dare, and you will live to repent it.” Said Sapna’s father, turning on the video recording on his mobile phone.

That seemed to shut DG senior up for the moment.

 

Without exchanging another word, Ayan’s nani took Ayan into her arms and carried him upstairs to the first floor.

As soon as she saw her parents, it was as if some dam broke inside Sapna. She started wailing and screaming. Ayan’s nana took him to another room, while her mother worked with the maids to console her daughter.

Downstairs, the constable noticed the mother-in-law make a face and sniggered at the universality of human emotions.

 It was now 3 pm.

 Talpade got a call from his own police station. In the dowry case, the SI had found evidence of the husband taking money transfers from the wife’s salary every month, and since the last month, there were no transfers. Talpade gave further instructions in the case, hoping to make an arrest by the following day, and got back to the case at hand.

 DG Sr. came up to Barve and asked if he may arrange for the last rites of his son, and when would police arrest the killers.

 Talpade was the one who spoke up. “Sir, let me put the facts to you straight. The postmortem will tell us when the death happened. But it’s very likely that it happened between 11:30 pm and 6:30 am. Your son’s door was locked from the inside and the master key is only in the House Manager’s drawer. We will be checking it for finger prints but unlikely that it will have any prints other than your House Manager and some family members.

 By your own admission, no one could have entered the house between 11:30 pm and 6:30 am. That means that the only person who could have allowed an outsider into the house, is your good self.

 Even if we take your theory that your dil got a partner to commit the crime, this person could not have entered the house without being caught. Assuming he got in, neither Sapna nor anyone else would have had the key to DG’s room. At this time, the only plausible explanation is suicide. If you disagree, pray, tell us, how do you think this crime took place?”

 “If I have to think of that, then what are you getting paid for? All I know is that my son would not have committed suicide. He was so happy last night! He was just not the suicide type. There is an issue here. Find it. Find the loophole.”

 DG’s mother seconded the idea that DG would not have committed suicide for any reason.

Talpade asked for a cup of tea. Tea was made and served to all of them. Sapna and her parents came to the living room and asked the question that Talpade had already answered – when may we perform the final rites.

 The postmortem was on fast track, but even then the report could not be got before 5 pm. At the very least.

 “I want to see the room again.” Talpade got up suddenly, halfway through his tea.

 The room was the same as before. This time, he opened the walk-in wardrobe of DG.

 It was impressive, to say the least. In all these high-profile cases, he was always stunned by how much money people seemed to have!

The room itself was floor to floor carpeted with lush, expensive carpets. Near the bed, there were 2 things that he had missed earlier – one, a pair of bathroom slippers. The kind that are slip-ons but cover one’s feet. The second was a pair of shorts. Night wear or intimate wear. 

 The rest of the room was clean. The shoes and the shorts were placed on the side of the bed facing the entrance from the kitchen, opposite to the main entrance to the room.

 Talpade didn’t know why those two items, earlier considered by the team as part of routine stuff found next to a person who has been sleeping, were important. Especially since there was nothing else out of place in the room. Not even the glass of water next to the bed. DG was wearing a T Shirt and loosely fitted track pants when he was brought down. So, why the shorts? The slip-on slippers were strange because it was summer and the walk-in wardrobe did have some slippers that were more airy for the feet. This was winter wear for feet. Why was it being used by DG today?

 With those clues, Talpade and Barve called it a day.

 ***********

Two

 In the evening, the MLA called him again. 

“What have you done about booking the wife?” the leader came straight to the point.

“Sir, the wife has parents too. So, we need to be very careful. Right now, the evidence is only pointing to suicide. Postmortem report tells us that he was alive and breathing when he got into that noose, so it was death by hanging only. He may have been drugged, I don’t know, but it would take a lot of strength for a woman to haul a man that big to the hook, then hang him. Even with drugging. I will have to build a case, sir. This will take time. If things move too soon, people will be on their guard.”

“OK” and the call was disconnected.

 

The next morning, Barve and Talpade finished their routine cases follow up and got back to the case at hand. “Why does the MLA want the wife to hang so badly, Barve?” Talpade came to the point.

 “The old man wants the daughter in law to hang yaar. I thought that much was obvious. They cannot stand their daughter in law. Can’t stand the fact that their son was a spineless fellow who committed suicide and want to strip his widow of everything.”

 “But then who will raise the only child? The oldies will not, that I am sure of.”

 “Kya pata baap! They must be thinking that they can buy childcare like they buy everything else. After all, what can a mother mean in a child’s life, nahi?”

 “Hmm. But this is not a murder. This is a suicide for sure. I also asked for toxicology analysis. No poison in lungs, stomach, or any part of body. He got into that noose of his own free will. He hanged himself. That much I know. But, why?”

 “Are you sure about this, Talpade? Suicide, pakka?” Barve asked.

 “I am sure that he got into that noose alive and well. I am sure that there were no drugs in his system, nor any poison. I am sure that he then hanged to his death. And I am sure that he was not the kind of man who would commit suicide. No matter what. He would have killed his tormentor before killing himself. And that is what I do not understand.”

 “Why do you say he would have killed his tormentor before killing himself?”

 “Remember we saw a face that was handsome yet innocent? Remember his wife said that under the apparently broken marriage was a strong bond that no one could see? Well, they were both right. The business is owned by his father. But for the last many years, DG has been using his credit card to buy a lot of jewellery. You know the surprising thing? Every single item of jewellery is invoiced in the name of his wife. They were gifts, but they were gifts that his parents could not take away from her. There are two pending orders with the jeweller, and there is a planned trip to Hawaii next week. His tickets and hotel are all booked on his credit card. Someone who wants to die does not book a ticket to Hawaii.

 What’s more, in his will, all his property and assets go to his son, to be held in trust till the child turns 18. The administrator of the trust is his wife. No one else. Sole administrator is his wife. So, he really did want to ensure that his wife and child were taken care of.

 He was a fighter dude. He would not have gone down easily against any opponent. Including his own father.”

 “Why did he have a will? He was so young.”

 “He has had a will from the day he turned 30. Nothing strange there. It has been changed from time to time. The lawyer tells me that the first will left everything to Sapna. Once Ayan was born, it was changed this way, and he started buying property and jewellery in the name of his wife.”

 “Why? That sounds like a man who was planning to die. Why?”

 “Nah. Don’t think too much. This I see in all rich cases. They are very good with paperwork. Guess that’s how they remain rich.”

 “But tell me something. The company’s lawyers are the same as family lawyers. Did the father never get to know what the son was doing?”

 “That is a point. Had the old man known, he would have raised hell. Who knows what DG did to keep them silent.”

 “So, financially, the wife is the only one who gains, but actually, she loses. Because with DG gone, her source of revenue is gone. Her 5% also they will make her divest to Ayan. This makes no sense. No one is better off because of the death. Yet, the family wants to insist that it’s a murder. No motive, no method, no opportunity, nothing. But they want a murder. What kind of madcaps are these? Usually, even if it’s a murder or suicide, the family tells us to hush things up and pass it off as natural or accidental death. Here it’s the opposite. Why? Why do they want Sapna to hang? I think that is important.”

 Talpade nodded. This case was getting curiouser and curiouser.

 When they reached the Gupta House that day (DG stood for Dhiraj Gupta, by the way), they asked to speak to DG’s mother. But Gupta Sr. blocked their way and asked aggressively, “When will I be able to perform the last rites of my son? How much longer will you keep him in that freezer of yours?”

 “Sir,” Barve responded respectfully, “You want us to do a thorough investigation. Your son’s body is the most important piece of evidence in this case. There is nothing else. We have already completed the postmortem and the toxicology report. We have now asked for a full forensic examination. This involves looking under the nails, microscopic examination of hair roots and skin, and other tests that are complex and time consuming. A special team is coming to perform this forensic analysis. Would you like us to not ask for this analysis, and hand over the body to you? Please speak to the higher-ups sir, and we will be glad to do that. We are only detectives. We are not the bosses.”

There was an instant change in the demeanour of Gupta Sr. “No, no, take all the time you want. Do all the tests you have to. We are in no hurry. But please see to it that whoever did this is punished. I want to know. I really want to know the truth.”

 Barve and Talpade were shocked. This was a different man. Within 24 hours, he had gone from being a strong patriarch who was convinced of his dil’s guilt, to being a really old man, whose weak point was the details of what happened to his son. He must still believe that Sapna was guilty, but he wasn’t shouting that from the rooftops anymore.

 DG’s mother came to see them in the large living room. A servant brought tea and kept it on the table. The two policemen expected the mother to be grieving deeply, but this was beyond belief. She looked like a ghost within a day.

 After some customary conversation, they came to the point, “Ma ji, if you don’t mind, can we ask you something directly?”

“Sure.”

“Why do you dislike your daughter in law so much?”

“I should not have. That was my mistake. Now Duggu is gone, and she is all we have. But we treated her so badly throughout. It was not nice.

When Duggu and Sapna were planning to get married, there were some misunderstandings. Because of that, our relations soured with her and her parents. That small issue just kept getting bigger in our heads until we just would not speak to her. Duggu also lost interest in her after 2-3 years of marriage. He would not go out with her. He would not spend too much time alone with her. So, we thought she is living on only because of Ayan, otherwise our son is not happy with her anymore.

So stupid it appears now. So…. Utterly … Stupid. I should have spoken to my son about having a happy married life. Instead, I used to be so happy when he ignored her and sat with us. I didn’t realise that my own son was also unhappy that way. I was so blind.”

 “Ma ji, you will be happy to know that Duggu did love his wife very much. He may have stopped spending time with her alone or taking her on holidays alone because of your reaction, but he loved her very much”

 Immediately, the old lady’s demeanour changed, “How do you know that?”

 “We cannot share the details Ma ji, but we are glad that you have decided to embrace your daughter in law. She is, as you said, the future. Tell us, was your son depressed in any way or upset about anything? A mother usually knows her child best.”

 “I know that you are treating it as a suicide. But I can tell you, Duggu was not the kind of child who would commit suicide. He was very full of life and very open about his problems. He would never choose suicide as an option. He was not depressed. I am sure of it. There was no moodiness. No strange behaviour. I am his mother. I would have known.”

 “Do you think he could be associated with some people who may not always use the right methods? Maybe some kind of police trouble or something?”

 “You are not understanding. Duggu would NOT run away from his problems, no matter what. He would solve them. He needed to get on top of every challenge. If he was involved in gangs, believe me, he would have died in a gang shootout on the road, taking that problem head on. Not like this at home. No gang kills like this. They don’t need to make a murder look like suicide.”

 Talpade knew that, of course. He was the murder specialist. Gangs always announced and advertised their murders. Never the other way round.

 In short, he was exactly where he had started. No clues. No motive. No method. No opportunity. But not a suicide.

Three

On Day three, there was a lot of new information. But no progress.

 Some of the servants confessed that DG did sleep with some members of the staff. There was no pattern to it. Sometimes, he fancied a girl for a few months. Sometimes, it was only once. But every time, the girl was paid well. Even if she was asked to leave the household, there was no bad feeling. All the girls got jobs in good places and were given a good severance pay.

 The Guptas were good employers in other ways too. Other than the maids who left because of DG, the rest of the staff had been with the household a long time. They all had health insurance, good quarters on the grounds, each room had AC and attached washrooms, and even their families in the village got goodies on Diwali. There were no complaints at all.

 The social circle of the Guptas was dominated by the extended family. Most of the family was, like them, in business, and equally well to do. But even poor relatives had only good things to say about them.

 Like in most posh colonies, the Guptas did not know their neighbours and the neighbours did not know them.

 The business associates, the top leadership of the company, professional friends, were all met and interviewed. There was nothing there to point to even the slightest clue. This was a normal family, living a normal life.

 On the forensic side, there was no residue beneath the nails. Nothing in the hair follicles or strands. Nothing was found on his person. The shorts had been worn only by DG. Only his DNA was on the shorts.

 The slippers had a tiny little pebble. The technician had said that the pebble had some blood on it, but he could not be sure if it was DG’s because DG did not have a cut on his foot. He would try and do what he could, but it was a slim thing to investigate.

Also, surprisingly, there were some soil particles on the underside of the slippers. Not visible to the naked eye, but they were in the grooves of the shoe. That was strange, because home slippers would usually be worn only indoors, which was carpeted. At most, DG may have worn them to the tiled areas of the house. In that case, they would have dust particulate matter, not soil particles. This was fresh soil particulate matter.

 That was the only piece of the puzzle in the case now. And this was not a Father Brown mystery. In real life, things like that don’t lead to solved murders.

 Talpade and Barve compared notes again.

 Suicide was still their best bet, except for the personality of the deceased.

 Suddenly, Barve said, “But it could have been an accident?”

 Talpade laughed out loud, “Like, Hello, let me try this noose around my neck and Hey, what an accident, I hanged! Have you EVER heard of anyone hanging by accident, dude?”

 “Actually, I have, though that particular situation does not apply here.”

 “Yes, it does not. For starters, there was no one in the locked room. Accidental hangings need the presence of at least one other person in the room. And in that case, we would not have found him dressed in a T Shirt and track pants.”

 “Yes, you’re right.” Barve conceded.

 On Day four, Talpade woke up, checked Chintu’s bag against his timetable. Did his Surya Namaskar, and at the right time, sat with his wife for tea. He rarely discussed work with his wife. But today, instinct told him to share the details with her.

She heard him out, and then asked a question.

“Oh!” a light bulb went on in his head.

 Sonali’s theory was sketchy, but it filled a major gap in their understanding. A gap that a woman was more likely to figure out than a man. It was, however, still just that – a question that was unanswered and a theory that had no proof.

 Talpade had his work cut out.

 By 7 pm that day, his work was eventually done. He and his team had been in and out of the Gupta household all day.

 

Even though the hour was late, Talpade and team entered the Gupta house once again and asked for the staff members to be present.

 “Sir,” Talpade began, “We discussed the security system of your household on the first day. But I forgot to ask you something then. Other than you, who else could have turned off any of these systems – the Perimeter Intrusion Detection (PID) system, the laser alarm system, and the personal distress buttons?”

 “No one else. There was one set of controls in Duggu’s room. He could use them, but he never did. No one else in the family could turn off or on the alarms. Only I.”

 “But Duggu could?”

 “Honestly, I don’t know if he even remembered that he had a console. It was hidden. He never used it. Even I didn’t remember until you asked me in this tone just now.”

 “Good. Now, if the PID system or the distress alarm system was turned off, external security agencies would be notified, right?”

 “Yes, of course. Both these are managed by different security agencies.”

 “But the laser system is turned off and on only by you, right?”

 “Yes.”

 “Suppose, that at 11:30, you turn on the laser system. At midnight, I turn it off. Will anyone come to know?”

 DG Sr. was thoughtful for a moment, then spoke slowly, as if he was just realising the importance of this, “No… I believe no one would. Both the consoles are hidden in our respective rooms. We just turn the switch on and off. The lasers are invisible.”

 “So, we have no way of knowing if, in fact, the lasers were on or off on any night. Is that correct?”

 “Yes, now when you put it like that, it’s an important point.” DG Sr. admitted.

 “Do you have any CCTV cameras inside the house?”

 “No sir, no CCTV inside the house or the main gate.”

 “OK. I will come back in some time. This might be a long night. If we are not coming back, we will call and let you know.” Talpade said and the entire troupe marched out.

Four

Back in the control room, Talpade, Barve, and a bunch of police officers played the tapes. 40 minutes ago, all of them had been wearing high-definition pinhole cameras at various angles. It was now time to go through the long tapes recorded by all 16 cameras while Talpade was talking to DG Sr.

 They found what they were looking for.

 Next, facial recognition of the central database was put to use.

 It was a hazy match, but it was a match.

 “Can you imagine, Barve, that 50 years ago, we would not have been able to solve this case at all?”

 

The police team made its way back to the Gupta house. The pinholes were back in action.

 They asked for a staff member called Radha. Radha stepped forward.

 

Barve was the one to speak. “I am going to tell you a story, Radha. There was once a girl called Siddi. She was 12 when she saw her sister being married to a man much older than her. Siddi’s sister died in childbirth 2 years later. Siddi was 14 at the time. As the next step, her parents tried to marry Siddi off to the same man.

Siddi ran away from home.

She came to Indore, where an NGO took her in. She was trained in vocational skills and also got a good job in a house. But 9 months later, her employer committed suicide by cutting his arms. Siddi had come to the police station 5 months before this incident. She had reported that her employer had made passes at her and then had abused her when she refused. The two incidents were not connected at the time. After her employer’s death, Siddi took care of his widow for almost 6 months and left her service only when the widow was well-settled.

Nothing was heard of Siddi for the next 3 years. She was not in our system as an offender, but as a citizen who had made a report. Then, as a witness in the suicide case.

3 years later, there was another suicide. In Guwahati – almost 2000 kms away. This time, the man had jumped to his death from his high rise flat. Siddi was not involved. But, she was one of the domestic staff members in the house. So, she was a witness. That’s all.

4 years later, we have this hanging in a posh colony in Mumbai. No one called Siddi works here. So, this cannot be connected to the other 2 suicides, can it?

Except, that police find a question that is unanswered. What they are thinking is hard, but for it to be possible, the laser system would have to be turned off by someone other than DG Sr. And no one knew that anyone other than DG Sr. can turn off the system. When DG Sr. admitted that even if someone turns off the laser system, there will be no record, there was a collective gasp of surprise among the family members and the staff. Only one face did not register surprise. The 16 pinhole cameras were to capture that one face. Because you already knew.

 Then we started looking for you. In 2009, all the police stations and their data was put up in a giant server. That is how Siddi’s name and Adhar Card were uploaded into the central system. Now, Siddi had changed her working name since Guwahati, but her Adhar card still showed her formal name and had the same number.”

 “Do you all even save witness data in your big computer?” Radha asked. She was perfectly calm.

 “Well, it’s a lot of data entry, so I am sorry to say, we don’t always do it. But now, I wish we did.” Barve responded.

 

“I don’t understand. What is going on here?” Sapna asked.

 “We will explain. This young lady, Radha, also known as Siddi, responded to DG’s attentions because she thought she would lose her job otherwise. But she did not like the idea one bit. She is a bit of a self-help person, our Siddi. When her parents and the police failed to protect her, she decided that the best punishment for men who prey upon domestic staff in their homes, is death, and she decided to administer that punishment herself. She is a vigilante, if I have to make a guess.”

 

“Yes sir, I am.” Radha spoke in perfect English this time. “All I wanted to do was to run away from lecherous men and earn a decent salary. I thought that domestic work is with all women, so I can live peacefully. But at the very first house, my hopes were dashed. I went to the police and realised that no one listens to a maid. That’s when I took matters in my own hands. I have no regret. I hope that some young girl hears this story and learns that even if no one can help you, you can help yourself. Just because you are poor does not mean that you are a prey.”

 “Why didn’t you just leave Radha? Why kill?” Sapna asked, her anguish barely concealed.

“Because madam, then he would have preyed upon someone else. I was going to get caught some day. It wasn’t about me. It was about protecting the girls who would come after me.”

 Sapna sat down. There was nothing more to say.

 

“How did you do it, Radha? How did you do this?” DG’s mother spoke this time.

 “It was simple madam. All the other maids that sir had in his room used to stay back in the house after 11 30. They would sleep in one of the rooms on the guest floor. I found the hidden console while dusting one day and told him that I needed to go to my room and then come back. No problem, he would turn off the laser system for me on those rare nights. But not every day. This is not something that he ever does. Only an exception for me. No one can know about this.

I pretended to be glad at being so special. Promised to tell no one.

I did a practice. That night, he turned off the laser for the time that I was here. It was turned on after I left the room and the 10-foot perimeter.

 

Then, on THAT night, I wore his slip-ons from my room to his. He turned off the laser. I came. We played that game where he showed me how things like this are done. After he was gone, I turned on the lasers. Then, I went down the kitchen staircase. That door of his room has a latch that can be closed from the outside but only opened from the inside. I waited in the pantry next to the kitchen. In the dark. At exactly 6:40, I entered the kitchen as if I had just walked from the quarter. Morning tea was my duty that week.

 Honest to God, at first, I tried to avoid sir. I also told him I am not interested. He got me a gold earring set, I said no. I liked him otherwise. He was a good boss. But this he would not stop. He could not even imagine that a maid would not find him attractive. This went on for 3-4 months. Then, I had to plan and take action.”

 

“You carried him into the noose? Alone?” this was DG Sr.

 “No, sir. He put his head in the noose. It’s always the same thing. The stupid village girl getting an education, until it is too late. Show me how they did this in that TV show. That’s all it takes. They have to show me! He took a dupatta, made the noose, stepped on the stool, put his neck inside it. And showed me how. That’s when I kicked the stool.”

 

“And you have lived with us, eaten our food, and consoled us, you, you….. devil, after snatching the light from our lives!? You had no right! He did not force himself upon you. He was so much more than your stupid pursuer. He was my child’s father! He was my husband!” Sapna was screaming on top of her lungs, but there was a lady constable nearby to ensure that no physical harm came to her.

 

“Those slip-on shoes – you wore them from the staff quarters to the house, right? That’s why they had soil in the grooves?” Talpade asked.

 “Yes, sir. I did not want to leave any footmarks of my own. There weren’t any.”

 “And the shorts?”

 “They were for a later performance that I was going to do for him.”

  “Is there anyone you want to call, Radha?” Barve asked.

 “No sir, I have no one in the world. If I have saved 10 girls, that is enough.” 

 

Radha was taken to the police car by the lady constable. Talpade turned to the Gupta family, “You were right to insist that this was not suicide. We would have made a mistake otherwise. I am sorry.”

 DG Sr. spoke, “No, son. We are sorry to have doubted you. Personally, I am sorry that I doubted my daughter in law. We have a lot of healing to do. Thank you for closing this case. Knowing is bad, but not knowing is the worst. I can sleep tonight.”

 

Back at the station, Barve and Talpade worked well into the night, filing paperwork and completing the formalities. When all was done, Barve turned to Talpade, “Bhai, you told me that you solved this case because of a question that Bhabhi asked you. I have to know. What did she ask?”

 Talpade’s eyes twinkled, “So, which maid was he sleeping with now, and where was she that night?”