She sat in the Starbucks café, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.
Being the lone customer at the half-open café, as she was trying to grapple with the unforeseen development, the creaking sound at the entrance unhinged her train of thought. As she espied a handsome youth ogling her, fervently hoping that he wouldn’t settle himself at the adjacent table, she instinctively covered the damning thing with the pallu of her chiffon sari. When a bearer, as though on cue, led him to the other end of the floor, she heaved a sigh of relief.
‘Oh, how I’ve got into this mess?’ she thought nervously. ‘Where would all this lead me to? Was it fair on her part to involve me in a hazardous activity? Why didn’t I drop the damned thing the moment she thrust it upon me, without a warning at that! What did I do instead? I did cover it up along with her hand gloves with my own scarf! What prompted me to connive with her to conceal the murder weapon? Was it her righteous cause or was it our lesbian love? Maybe both, and if not, instead of boarding the train to Lonavala, she would have been behind bars by now. How I allowed myself to be saddled with this incriminating thing that I might be caught along with! Besides, what if the law were to catch up with her, in spite of her ingenuous planning and meticulous execution? Won’t that land me in trouble as well? Better I check up the Indian Penal Code.’
She reached for her iPhone and browsed for the relevant section of the code that read: “201. Causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender.—Whoever, knowing or having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, causes any evidence of the commission of that offence to disappear, with the intention of screening the offend¬er from legal punishment, or with that intention gives any infor¬mation respecting the offence which he knows or believes to be false; if a capital offence.—shall, if the offence which he knows or believes to have been committed is punishable with death, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine; if punishable with imprisonment for life…..”. Going no farther, she muttered in despair, ‘Oh! Goddamn Sudha’.
She hailed the bearer to order another round of coffee, and began recapitulating their fateful association.
‘She first met Sudha aboard Sahyadri Express at Lonavala that she herself boarded at Pune. As they exchanged notes, it transpired that they both were on their way to Mumbai; even as she was keen on entering into the arena advertising, Sudha was bent upon exploring the avenues for social activism. By the time they alighted at the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus, they were so drawn to each other that they set out to set up together. Soon, she joined a male-dominated advertising agency and Sudha began lending her ‘service’ hand and ‘ideological’ head to Trishna, the lady-head of a non-government organization engaged in advocating clean energy. Though she herself was pragmatist to a tee and Sudha was an idealist to the core, their sincere natures wedded them to an unbound friendship.’
As the bearer brought her coffee, savouring the beverage, unmindful of the surroundings, she was immersed in her recap.
‘When Sudha was holidaying in Kashmir, struck by Cupid, she fell for one Captain Rawat, a commander of sorts, stationed in the valley to curb the militancy on the raise. Even as her sense of service jelled with Rawat’s patriotic fervour, her parents, owing to the risks involved in his calling, were averse to having an army officer for a son-in-law. When Sudha prevailed upon her parents, with no mean help from her, the spirited beau led his euphoric bride to the altar to tie the knot. After a month-long honeymoon down south, Sudha rejoined her in their modest apartment to resume her mundane work at Trishna’s outfit. Nevertheless, thanks to the intermittent unions with her man, which followed prolonged separations, Sudha remained in the seventh heaven. When she was all set to join Rawat in Jammu’s barracks, tragedy struck in the form of a fidayeen attack in which he was martyred, albeit after slaying five of the six intruders, all by himself.’
She recalled the somber ceremony at Rashtrapathi Bhavan, when the President, to posthumously honour Rawat for his exemplary valour, presented an Ashoka Chakra to Sudha. While Sudha adopted that as her new mangalsutra, vowing never to yield space to another in its place, thanks to their lesbianism, occasioned by the combination of circumstances, she too came to value it. Soon, wiping her moist eyes and controlling her emotions, she continued with the recapitulation.
‘The thought that Rawat had sacrificed his flowery life for his motherland made the nation dearer to Sudha, nourishing which became the mission of her life. So she lent her heart and soul to Trishna’s agenda, which made her the latter’s trusted lieutenant. What’s more, to the delight of the left-leaning and to chagrin the right-tilting, the elegant and articulate Sudha, who came to dominate electronic media’s stilted debates, became, as was said, a thorn in the flesh of the big-buck vultures. While Sudha gloated in the glare of the ensuing publicity, Trishna enlarged her overseas reach to rake in more Euros to expand her operations deep into the hinterland.’
By then, as most of the tables were occupied, thinking its better she moved out, she signaled the bearer to fetch the bill. As she reached for her handbag, to pull out the wallet, she was shocked to realize that she had been carrying the damned knife as an additional baggage. Having hurriedly stuffed the scarf and all into her handbag, as she waited for the bill, she looked around to see if she was attracting attention. Sensing that the guy had his eyes still fixed on her, she got a little scary; what if, by chance, he had seen us at the CST, and would resort to blackmailing me? Cursing Sudha all again, she wondered how to sneak out of the café without being stalked by him. As luck would have it, soon he made it to the loo, and thanking nature’s call that came to her rescue, she rushed out to hire a cab to continue her journey in the tracks of the time passed by.
‘As though to prove that ‘good things don’t last forever’, destiny brought Sudha face to face with the ugly face of Trishna’s hidden agenda. When she stumbled upon Trishna’s secret closet, skeletons in their scores tumbled out to her shock. Sensing that under the guise of environmentalism, Trishna was at undermining the country’s economic well-being, she couldn’t help but juxtapose Rawat’s supreme sacrifice to uphold that. First she thought of turning into a whistleblower but aware of the long list of ‘who is who’ among Trishna’s backers, on second thought, she saw the futility of it all. Besides, she reckoned that Trishna would ensure that she is bumped off without a whimper to put a lid on it. As Sudha revealed no more, she herself thought of it no more.’
Stepping out of the cab en route, to ease her nerves, she shopped for a fag, which she puffed away in Sudha’s trail.
‘Obsessed with the idea of seeing Trishna’s end, without anyone getting wise to it, she began plotting a perfect murder, the fad of many a murderer, made more difficult by cell-phone towers and CCTV cameras. However, equal to the challenge, she planned to the tee and killed Trishna with an antique knife with which Rawat, after exhausting his ammunition, slew the fifth fidayeen, for she felt that would be symbolic of his act. Though it was prudent to destroy the murder weapon, she wanted to hold onto it as long as she lived; but what if, by any outside chance, the police were to question her and search her premises as well? So, wanting her to whisk it away to safety, using someone’s cell-phone, she made that call asking her to make it to the CST with a spare handbag.’
How shocked she was hearing the chilling account of the killing and how scary it felt holding that blood-stained knife, held in those hand gloves, which, somehow, she managed to wrap in the scarf that she wore then.
‘Coinciding with her parents’ planned pilgrimage to Badrinath, Sudha wanted to pay her homage to Rawat’s soul with Trishna’s blood. Having obtained a week’s leave of absence to rest and recreate at Lonavala, two days back, she contrived to ensure one of her colleagues had seen her off at the CST. But for this cell-age that should have been a good enough alibi, and so, reaching Lonavala in three hours, she dropped her smart-phone at a street corner, and alerted Airtel to make it inoperative.
At the dead of night, last night, she sneaked out of her home with a pair of hand gloves and that knife, tucked under her reversible burka. Alighting at the CST before dawn, she walked her way to ‘Trishna’s Abode’; she avoided hiring a cab so as not to leave any trail for the police to track her down. Upon reaching the destination, she pressed the buzzer with glows on, and as the intended victim opened the door wide-eyed, she lost no time in slaying her with that knife. As Trishna lay dead, she left the place without raising an alarm, and wearing the burka by its reverse side on the way, she walked back to the CST, and having called her, waited there to entrust the incriminating stuff to her.’
Oh, how serene Sudha looked when they met and how animated she was in recounting the incident!
‘Handling the handbag that she gave her, Sudha said that after alighting the train at Lonavala, she could take a detour to exit the station before which she would transfer the burka into it for its suitable disposal thereafter, and that should bring the perfect murder to its legal closure.’
‘It could as well have been,’ she thought, and after reflecting for a while, she picked up her iPhone, to compose a message to Sudha for record, as anyway, her smart-phone was inoperative still.
‘Won’t my action amount to betrayal of trust?’ she thought pausing to press the ‘send’ button. ‘Could be, but law doesn’t have riders to it when it comes to complying with it. But had Sudha kept it all to herself, maybe for all that, she could have got away with it? Well, that is life in spite of law, and law regardless of love. But is it not ironical that she had acentuated mine own sense of duteousness, which would eventually undo her and me too thereby.’
Sending the message, ‘We both lose as law overwhelmed my love - Ramya’, she headed for Fort House Police Station.
Acknowledgement - Story based on the lead provided by Chetan Bhagat for the August 2015 ‘Write India’ short story initiative of Times of India