This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
The park was abuzz with the usual early morning activity – jogging, walking, surya namaskarams, aerobics, yoga, laughing club and simple chatting and gossiping. Several elderly people were just sitting and enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun.
“Where is Murthy? He is never late,” Ashok Jain inquired.
“Maybe his constipation is troubling…ha, ha, ha…” Siddhartha Nadkarni quipped.
“Raja Rao hasn’t come either!”
“There he is. You are unnecessarily worked up,” Nadkarni gently chided Jain, “not good for your BP.”
“As though you are fit,” Jain retorted sarcastically.
“I learnt to take it easy after my bypass. I am okay.”
Raja Rao was gasping and panting and was unable to speak.
“Take it easy Rao. Sit and relax for a minute. Why were you rushing so fast? Are you wearing the knee grips?”
Rao dumped himself beside his friends on the cement seat and waited for his breathing to become normal, at least near-normal. As usual, he was holding the daily newspaper. He offered it to his friends. Jain and Nadkarni looked at him quizzically. Rao silently prodded them to read.
It was a popular local newspaper. Unusually, it was open on an inner page. Nadkarni looked at Rao and browsed through the page.
His eyes stopped at a small news item.
‘Chennai: A couple committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of their seventh-floor apartment in Chennai. In what looks like a suicide pact, Krishna Murthy (80) and Kamalam (75) jumped from the balcony of their apartment on the seventh floor late in the evening yesterday. Both died on the spot. The police have sent the bodies to Government General Hospital for autopsy. The police are investigating into the matter. Mr. and Mrs. Krishna Murthy are survived by a son, daughter-in-law and a grandson.’
Nadkarni silently handed the newspaper to Jain and looked at Rao incredulously.
“Is it our Murthy?” He whispered the question.
“He was okay when we met here yesterday in the evening!”
“What the…” Jain cried disbelievingly.
The three friends gaped at each other.
The quartet of friends – Krishna Murthy, Ashok Jain, Siddhartha Nadkarni and Raja Rao – retired as Senior Accounts officers in A.G’s office, within a span of a few months. They served long and well. They acquired their own houses, settled their children and were leading happy, retired lives.
Or so it seemed…
“Good evening. I am Inspector Cheran. I want to speak to you in connection with the demise of your friend Murthy and his wife.”
The three friends looked up at the Inspector. They were seated on the lush green lawns of the park.
“Good evening, Inspector. Why don’t you sit?” Jain patted the grass beside him.
Inspector Cheran looked around but found no vacant cement benches. He smiled, spread a large hand kerchief on the grass and squatted on it.
“How did you know we were here?” Nadkarni was curious.
“I went to Mr. Rao’s house. His wife informed that you would be here.”
There were a few moments of silence.
“I know how you three must be feeling, what with your bosom friend and his wife ending their lives as they did. It’s sad. I’m sorry for your loss. But I have a duty to inquire into the matter and ascertain if there is any…foul play.”
“We understand, Inspector. Go ahead; ask your questions.”
Inspector Cheran found forlornness and sadness writ large on the faces of Murthy’s friends.
He cleared his throat…
“…anything at all, which can throw some light on the mental state of the couple. What could have driven them to this extreme step?”
The three friends looked at each other.
“Instead of wasting Inspector’s time I’ll speak for all of us. Please, correct me if I go wrong on any facts,” Jain said.
His friends nodded a ‘yes’.
Inspector Cheran pulled out a pocket-size spiral scribbling pad and a gel pen and looked at Jain intently.
“The four of us worked in AG’s office and retired within months of each other, about two decades ago. We built our houses in the same area, got our children married and settled. We are all living with our sons and grandchildren. We have married away our daughters and they are all fine. Krishna, I mean Murthy, had only one child, a son. They, Murthy and Kamalam, begot the son, Sanjay – they fondly called him Sanju – late, only after some minor corrective surgery to Kamalam. They showered on him all their attention and unbounded love. There was nothing that he asked for and didn’t get,” Jain chuckled wryly and continued, “Sanju grew into a fine young man, intelligent and bright but a little selfish. He did well in studies and landed in an excellent job. In due course, his parents got him married to a girl of his choice, Archana. There was some tension on that count for a few months but, ultimately, Murthy and Kamalam yielded.”
Inspector Cheran interrupted, “Tension? Was she from another caste, another religion?”
“No, no. She was from their caste but it was a love marriage, which Murthy’s didn’t approve. Finally, they yielded and the marriage took place.”
Jain paused to take a gulp of water from his water bottle. He wiped his lips and continued.
“Things weren’t smooth between Archana and Sanju’s parents.”
“From the beginning.”
“Yes. Initially, Murthy didn’t confide in us. He concealed the problem from us. One day, we found him deeply depressed. On probing again and again, he poured out his heart to us.”
“What kind of problems?”
“Almost like what they show in movies; ill-treatment, in every aspect of home-life; taunting; scolding; abuses.”
“Can you elaborate; be more specific?”
“It is painful, Inspector. Still, I’ll give you some examples. Archana discontinued engaging a maidservant. Kamalam had to do the entire domestic chores – cooking, cleaning utensils, washing and ironing clothes, dusting, sweeping and mopping the house – everything, while Archana would relax or go visiting friends or attend parties. The plight of Murthy wasn’t better. All the outside work was his duty – dropping and picking up Rahul, the grandson, from school, shopping for groceries and vegetables, bringing items from Ration Shop, morning milk – all such jobs. The old couple did it all willingly and ungrudgingly. But the ill-treatment…” his voice trembled, “No TV or any entertainment for them. They were not permitted to sit in the drawing room. Their food usually was the leftovers. The only saving grace was Murthy was permitted to visit the park in the mornings and evenings; because it did not cost anything. ”
“Didn’t they speak about it to their son?”
“They tried but in vain. Sanju was completely under the thumb of Archana. As soon as he returned from office, she would weep loudly and create big scenes and Sanju would burst out on his parents. After a while, they stopped complaining altogether, since it was futile.”
“Didn’t you people intervene and try to help your friend?”
Jain looked at Nadkarni. “He tried. Tell him Siddu.”
Nadkarni spoke slowly. “When we felt it went too far, I tried to speak to Sanju.”
“I was asked not to interfere in his family matters. We three were forbidden from entering their house.”
There was a long pause.
“Why didn’t Mr. Murthy ask his son to leave and live separately? After all, it was Mr. Murthy’s apartment, wasn’t it?”
Nadkarni sighed. “Murthy had, long ago, transferred the property in his son’s name.”
“They could have moved out and lived separately, in a rented house.”
“In this high cost of living? With his pension? You must be joking, Inspector. That was why we built our houses; for our lives post-retirement.” He paused. “Look, Sanju and Archana knew the weak points of Murthy and Kamalam. They knew that the old couple had no other choice. Old-age home, rented house, everything was ruled out. So, you have it, Inspector.”
“But, now, after all these years, what could have driven them to this drastic step?”
“Inspector, it didn’t happen overnight. It was building up over several years.”
“Still, something must have acted as the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back?”
Nadkarni fell silent.
Rao said, “I’ll answer that, Inspector.”
Nadkarni and Jain shook their heads sadly.
“Go on, sir.”
“Krishna and Kamalam were asked to leave.”
“Sanju and Archana asked them to move to an orphanage for old people.”
“Archana’s nephew – elder sister’s son – got a job in Chennai. Archana wanted the room for him – the third bedroom – that they were occupying. They didn’t know what to do; nor could we help them, since we ourselves are dependent on our children. They had nowhere to go, you see…”
Nadkarni added, “But we didn’t expect that they would take such a step, Inspector.”
Ashok Jain, Siddhartha Nadkarni and Raja Rao wiped tears from their eyes. Inspector Cheran averted his gaze in an attempt to hide his own tears.
Inspector Cheran looked at his watch and said, “Thank you, sirs. You have been of great help.”
In the fading light of the evening Inspector Cheran could see the wry smiles of the trio.
“I have learnt a lot today; not just about the case but about life, in general,” he paused for a few moments and continued, “and how to be a good and responsible son. Thanks.”
Saying those few words, Inspector Cheran put on his cap and walked out of the park to his Gypsy.
PROLOGUE AS EPILOGUE
Ignoring the breathlessness, disregarding the pain in the joints and consumed by implacable humiliation they climbed the wooden bench.
They held hands in undying support to each other.
“This is our emancipation, my love,” Krishna Murthy said.
“Yes, my love, emancipation. Let’s step out together into our eternal freedom,” Kamalam responded.
They stepped out into the void…
By Shyam Sundar Bulusu
Author’s remarks: All the characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
My silent tear for the many more Murthy’s out there, suffering silently. Life is ‘battling against the odds’, ‘standing up and being counted’, ‘struggling against injustice’ and ‘swimming in rough waters against the current’. Life is definitely not ‘giving up’. Life is definitely not ‘suicide’.