The noose tightened around the neck. The lungs asphyxiated. The heart pounded wildly in the chest. The legs flailed. The hands groped for the noose, trying to loosen it. The eyeballs bulged out of their sockets. The tongue protruded out of the lips. Slowly, after an eternity, the flailing, the breathing all ceased.
The last exhaled breath dissolved in the boundless universe for eternity.
‘Help…help me, Sangeeta. Please…’ Arpita was pleading with her while Sangeeta watched helplessly.
‘Help…help…help…’ The inexorable chanting rose to an agonising crescendo.
“Aaah…” Sangeeta screamed and sat up in her bed, her nightgown damp with sweat and her heart pounding away in her chest.
“What…what happened, dear?” A worried Kishore shook her by the shoulders. “Nightmare, again?”
Sangeeta nodded and rested her head on her husband’s shoulder.
‘You are so beautiful,’ he said, playing with the curls prancing on her forehead.
‘Your smile is more charming than Mona Lisa’s.’
‘Liar…’ She continued to smile.
‘Oh, God! Let time stand still and let me enjoy this beauty for eternity.’
She threw her head back and laughed heartily.
They were in the seventh heaven of bliss.
Sangeeta and Kishore were at the dining table, sipping coffee. Their five-year old daughter, Shilpa, as usual, made heavy weather of drinking a glassful of milk and left for school.
“What’s happening to you, Geetu? You are very disturbed ever since…” He left the sentence unfinished.
Sangeeta twirled her finger around the handle of her coffee mug for a few moments.
“Arpita hanged herself from the ceiling fan two days ago. The scene still haunts me.” She shivered. “I dream of her every night. She screams for my help and I watch helplessly…”
An uneasy silence descended upon the atmosphere.
Kishore hugged his wife. “I understand how you must be feeling, darling, but there’s nothing that we can do.”
“She seemed so…so full of life…in love with life. I just cannot believe that she took her life. She never told me anything about her problems. Why did she take the extreme step? Was she depressed? I should have helped her…”
Sangeeta broke down.
“Geetu, you can’t do this to yourself. It will affect Shilpa and me, too. Get a hold of yourself.”
‘Do you hear it?’
‘The roar of the ocean.’ She held the conch shell close to his ear.
‘They say it is the sound of blood racing through your blood vessels.’
‘Silly, where is romance in that? It is the roar of the ocean.’
Sigh. ‘If you say so, darling.’
Sangeeta was mopping the lobby in front of their apartment. The front door of the adjacent apartment opened and Aman came out carrying his laptop case. She looked at him sadly and nodded. Aman acknowledged with a nod, locked the apartment and left.
Sangeeta called him from behind.
“Aman, one minute. Come in; have coffee…Please…”
Aman stopped on the stairs and turned around. Shortly, they were sipping hot filter coffee.
“Has Gaurav gone to school?”
Aman cleared his throat. “Gaurav is with my parents. He will be there till…” He paused. “…things settle.”
“And you? How are you, Aman?”
He smiled wryly, suppressing the tears that welled in his eyes.
“How did it happen at all, Aman?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand anything, Sangeeta.’
There was silence between them for several minutes.
“Thanks, Sangeeta, for being there for me; you and Kish. Otherwise…” His eyes welled.
He stood up, shook his head, and left the room quickly. Sangeeta wiped tears from her eyes and returned to her work.
‘Where were you all these days?’
‘Here. Around you. Always.’
‘Then, why didn’t you come to me earlier? Oh, what a waste of time!’
‘And now? This?’
‘You talk too much.’
‘What are you going to about it?’
‘Shut your lips with mine, like this.’
Sangeeta opened the door and found a Police Inspector standing outside. She looked inquiringly at him.
“Good afternoon, madam. I am Inspector, Balaji. I need to ask you some questions.” He displayed his official badge and ID.
“About what, Inspector?”
“Mrs. Arpita’s suicide case,” he said succinctly.
Sangeeta nodded. “Please come in.” She opened the door wide.
Sangeeta was lost in deep thought after Inspector Balaji left.
‘Do you know the highest form of expression of love for your lover?’
‘A beautiful gift, a dress, a trip to an exotic place or something?’
‘You fool! It is the physical relation between the two.’
‘I never thought of it like that!’
‘And the reward for it?’
‘You tell me.’
‘The progeny,’ said she dreamily.
“Kish, they are taking away Aman.” Sangeeta was panting.
“Will you interrogate me or will you go and see what’s happening?”
Kishore and Sangeeta rushed to Aman’s apartment.
They found Aman in handcuffs. Inspector Balaji was reading Aman his rights.
“What’s happening, Inspector?” Kishore asked.
“He is under arrest on charges of murdering his wife, Arpita.”
“What nonsense, Inspector. Why would he kill her? She committed suicide.”
“He strangled her and then tried to make it look like a suicide; hanged her from the ceiling fan with her own sari; finger marks are clearly visible. The autopsy report is out. Strangulation pressure didn’t kill her, hanging did.”
Sangeeta cried incredulously, “It can’t be.”
“No suicide note; no history of depression. It made me suspicious. Didn’t I tell you yesterday that there must a third person between them?”
“She was pregnant. They autopsy revealed it. Aman admitted that it cannot be his child.”
“It means…It means…” Sangeeta was flustered.
“Yes, madam. She seemed to be having an affair with someone and became pregnant. Aman came to know of it and, out of unbridled jealousy and anger, killed her.”
Aman looked dazed. “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She cannot be since I had undergone vasectomy. We decided to stop with one child. Arpita having an affair with someone! I just cannot believe it or that she’s pregnant. I didn’t kill her, Inspector believe me. Kish, Sangeeta, please tell him. I didn’t kill her.”
“Come on, Mr. Aman. Let’s go. Constable…” Inspector Balaji beckoned a Constable.
Amidst the protests of Kishore and Sangeeta, the police Gypsy whisked away Aman.
“Who was the other man, Inspector? Do you have any clue?”
Sangeeta was sitting in front of Inspector Balaji in the Police Station. She declined the offer of tea. He spoke after taking a couple of sips from the glass tumbler.
“We don’t know yet. We are investigating all her male friends. I can’t reveal any details. In her handbag, we found a money receipt from an expensive gift shop. We could not find the item mentioned in the receipt in their apartment. Aman didn’t know anything about it either.”
“What’s the item, if I may know, Inspector?”
He seemed to debate within himself for a couple of minutes.
He sighed and said, “A Gucci leather wallet for men.”
‘I am pregnant,’ she said smugly.
‘I am pregnant.’ She smiled.
‘How can that be? We took precautions!’
She laughed. ‘I didn’t. I stopped a few months ago.’
‘You crazy or what?’
‘I badly want your baby.’
‘But how will you explain it?’
‘Why explain? We’re going to get married, aren’t we?’
‘We both are already married, honey.’
‘Aren’t we going to get divorce from our spouses so that we can marry and be happy?’
‘Honey, listen to me. That is not possible. We have children, too.’
‘You do love me, don’t you?’
‘Of course, I love you, sweetheart.’
‘Darling, marriage is a serious matter, a different thing altogether. We love each other. We are having fun. We are enjoying life to the full. Why spoil all that?’
‘You bas*ard. You cheat. You are having fun with me! You son of a bi*ch.’
‘Come on, dear. That’s not fair. You are a grown woman, not an adolescent. Try to understand.’
‘Understand? Wait till I reveal it to your wife and my husband. I am ready to face consequences but I’ll take you down. You bas*ard.’
‘No, no, you won’t.’
‘Wait and watch.’
‘No, no, no. You can’t destroy my life; I won’t allow it.’
‘What’s this?’ Sangeeta wondered.
She was holding Kishore’s jeans in one hand and a small sheet of paper in the other.
Sangeeta replaced the telephone receiver on the cradle…
“Sit down and relax, Kish. I’ll bring you tea.”
“Thanks, darling, I need it. I am bushed.”
“Yeah, must have been a terrible day. Right?” She extended her hand.
“Right, sweetheart.” He handed her his wristwatch, wallet, and car keys and stretched his legs on a footstool.
Sangeeta returned with a teapot and three cups on a tray. She poured tea for Kishore and her.
“Three cups? Are we expecting someone, Geetu?”
The doorbell chimed. Sangeeta opened the door.
“Come in, Inspector Balaji.”
“Good evening, madam. Good evening, Mr. Kishore. Sorry, if I am intruding.”
“Not at all. Please be seated, Inspector. Will you have tea?”
Inspector Balaji sipped the tea poured out by Sangeeta.
“You called me, madam?” He placed the empty cup on the coffee table.
Kishore looked at Sangeeta quizzically.
Sangeeta nodded. “You told me you were looking for the man Arpita was having an affair with, didn’t you?”
Sangeeta sternly cut him short. “One minute, Kish.”
“Have you found him, Inspector?”
“We are still looking for him.”
“What if I give you two clues?”
Kishore interrupted his wife. “What are you doing, Geetu? You can’t interfere with a police investigation.”
“Sir, let her speak. Madam, any information you can give will be helpful in our investigation.”
“Thanks, Inspector. Here’s the first clue.”
She handed the Inspector a wallet.
“Geetu, that’s mine! What are you doing?” Kishore cried loudly.
“Hmmm…A leather wallet for men by Gucci!” The Inspector exclaimed.
“Does it match the description in the receipt you showed me, Inspector?”
Kishore was visibly agitated. “What receipt? What description? What are you talking about?”
“When and where did you buy this, Mr. Kishore?”
“I…I…I don’t remember,” Kishore said sheepishly.
“Or was it a gift from someone, Kish?”
“What are you talking about, Geetu. I don’t understand.”
“You will; soon.”
“Ahem…the second clue, madam?”
“This.” She handed him a small sheet of paper.
“Hmmm. A hotel receipt; from Puducherry; A/c room; occupied by two; Mr. And Mrs. Kishore. Madam, did you two visit Puducherry on the dates mentioned on the receipt?”
“No, Inspector, absolutely not. Did we, Kish?”
Kishore was dumbfounded and sat slumped in the sofa.
“Do you have anything to say, Mr. Kishore?”
Suddenly, with the litheness of a big cat, Kishore jumped up and ran out of the front door, only to bump into the burly Constable standing guard outside.
“You are under arrest for the murder of Mrs. Arpita. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”
“Wait, I didn’t kill Arpita. Yes, we were having an affair. That’s it. Aman did it and you arrested him.”
“Mr. Aman is being released even as I speak. No use lying any further, Mr. Kishore. We have found several fingerprints of a third person on Arpita’s dress, the ceiling fan, and the cots. I’m sure they’ll match yours. We have also found some skin, blood and tissue under her nails. The samples are being analysed for DNA. I am sure it will match yours. The DNA matching of the unborn foetus will prove that you are the father.” He paused. “Lift your shirt sleeves up, Mr. Kishore.”
“Wherefrom did you get these, Kish? You were hiding them under the full sleeve!”
There were four scratches, about a centimeter apart, on Kishore’s left forearm.
“Bitch…” Kishore cursed viciously.
“Come, Mr. Kishore, time to go.”
The Constable handcuffed Kishore and moved to take him away.
“One moment, Inspector.”
Inspector Balaji looked quizzically at Sangeeta.
She stood in front of her husband and looked straight into his eyes.
Kishore tried to open his mouth to reply. The apartment echoed with the slap that landed on his left cheek. The corner of his lips split and a droplet of blood trickled down.
“Inspector, please take him away. I can’t stand his sight. I hope he rots in hell.”
Inspector Balaji touched the peak of his cap as if thanking Sangeeta and departed.
Sangeeta shut the front door firmly.
“I am sorry, Sangeeta,” Aman said.
“Me, too, Aman, but it was not our fault.”
“What are your plans?”
“We are moving with my parents. I’ll file for divorce; revert to my maiden surname.”
“What about you, Aman?”
“I’ll temporarily move with Gaurav to my parents’ place and sell this apartment. I have a pending offer of a job in USA. I shall take it up and move to USA.”
“‘I’ or ‘We’, Aman?”
“Of course, ‘We’, Geetu.”
“The coast is completely clear for us now, isn’t it?”
“But we didn’t expect it like this, did we?”
“Oh! I love you so much, Aman.”
“I love you, too, Geetu.”
Shyam Sundar Bulusu