That afternoon as Tejas was about to enter his house, he met Firoj coming out hurriedly.
Tejas was a strapping young man, with rugged good looks and studied commerce in City college; that day he had returned home early due to cancellation of his classes.
On seeing Firoj, instantly a sense of innate revulsion overwhelmed him.
Firoj was an imposing man … above six feet in his socks…. with a somewhat unforgiving face. He must have had seen about 45 summers but looked at least ten years younger. To add to his personality, he was always impeccably dressed and exuded charisma. Some of Tejas’s girl friends who had met Firoj at a party had said that this middle- aged man looked very alluring. But was he a bachelor? Nobody seemed to know.
With a perfunctory greeting, Firoj strode out without a second glance. Tejas stopped for a few moments with a frown on his face, then entered the house and closed the door. He was not sure why Firoj had come at this time of the day, although the small pink bag which Firoj was carrying seemed to say something. It belonged to his mother. Was he taking away something?
His mother, Reshma, came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. Her hair was stylishly open, though few streaks of white hairs were visible. She had a full makeup on and dressed prettily. Tejas glared at his mother with some distaste. Why should she look like this when she was at home and cooking? Surely it was due to Firoj!
He merely said, “Are you going to a party mother?”
Reshma was of medium stature. In her younger days she was pretty, but over the years, the life had taken its toll on her.
Tejas during his growing years had seen that there was a distinct change coming over her after sudden death of his father during the winter of year 2009. She was a young lady then.
After such tragedy, depression wasn’t unusual …. severe swing of moods was characteristic, but what he saw was that she was becoming fastidious on her personal grooming and appearance. It was bordering on garishness. Quite a contrast to her subtle natural make up and dressing, when his father was alive.
But during those days, Tejas had difficulty in understanding his mother’s emotional turmoil. He couldn’t stop his negative reactions.
Recently, though, Tejas had started to understand his mother but he often couldn’t check his emotions especially when Firoj was around.
That afternoon, she was saying, “Tejas… you are back early … what happened? No classes?” Her voice was so low that he had to strain to hear her. She seemed slightly off mood.
He said, “Mother…. I am not feeling too good… a headache… just want to lie down….”
As he was walking away towards his room, she came forward and touched his forehead.
“No fever…. rest will do you good. A cup of coffee?”
With an imperceptible shake of his head, he was about to enter his room when she said, “Firoj had come to offer me a job in his firm. I was thinking…. It is better to be engaged in something constructive than to waste my time at home… although you know that money is not any problem for us.”
Tejas knew that his father was an extremely wealthy man and after his death he and his mother were beneficiaries of all his money.
He paused for a few seconds and then walked into his room and slammed the door shut. It was abundantly clear that he didn’t approve of anything involving Firoj.
This was not the first time; Reshma knew about this for long. She suspected that he was annoyed because he thought that she was in a relationship with Firoj and the man was taking advantage of this. Perhaps for that reason she didn’t tell him about the cash she had given to Firoj when he had come that day.
As Reshma went back into the kitchen, her thoughts were continuing about her son. She knew that from the time Firoj, had become a regular visitor, Tejas had started behaving oddly.
Year before last, she distinctly remembered, he said, “Mother, why do you wear such heavy makeup… you seem like a painted doll …. and dress so nattily?” He didn’t utter anything about Firoj, but implication was not lost on her.
At that time, she knew that her reply didn’t satisfy him.
More than a year later, one day she had noticed that he was discretely ransacking through her makeup kit. When confronted, he gave an implausible reason that his girlfriend, Lavina, wanted a shade of lipstick which she couldn’t find on the market… so looking through her things….
From then onwards Reshma could perceive that many of her makeup items, like blusher, lipstick, Kajal, mascara, face powder, et all, went missing. Although it happened in isolation, indubitably, it was due to the childish actions of Tejas.
One day she had told her son, “What is this Tejas…. why do you mess with my makeup kit? This is very wrong.” And when he didn’t venture to offer any reply, she relented, “If you don’t want to tell me… what can I do… but don’t take away my personal things when they are new…. Do wait for me to use them … after which you can ask me… I will give to you whatever are left.”
Tejas had looked at her for some time, then smiled, “Mother one of my friends wants to open a small shop of cosmetics and wants some samples.”
She shook her head, “Don’t try to give me silly excuses. I understand that you don’t want me to use cosmetics… wear good clothes… to look good…. You don’t want any man to look at me….”
She stopped short of saying anything further.
Tejas by then had started realising that perhaps her make-up and fancy attires were a way of fighting her sadness and age by trying to appear beautiful… perhaps to regain her prettiness….
After that day, Reshma noticed that her cosmetics didn’t go missing and she was relieved to think that her son had overcome his idiosyncrasies about her appearance. It was also clear that he was making efforts to be in her good books.
Although Tejas was normal in his behaviour; a young man busy in his college, with friends, studies; his aversion to Firoj continued.
Reshma couldn’t tell her son that she liked Firoj’s companionship, but the relationship was still premature. It was also not possible for him to know that in her weak moments she had succumbed to his physical lust. Perhaps sooner than later she would have to think of marriage. Only irritant was that Firoj demanded large sums of money from her, time & again, and if she refused he would create a ruckus.
That day was Monday morning and Tejas was in Reshma’s room.
His mother walked into the room just as he was about to apply her new lipstick. She was startled. He was startled. “What are you doing with my lipstick? It’s new… I haven’t used it so far. Couldn’t you have waited?” He smiled and handed it back to her. “I forgot to tell you…I am playing Draupadi in our college production… rehearsals start this evening.”
It was the Saturday of the next week…. late evening … 8.16 p.m. to be precise. The play, “Mahabharata – a Relook” in Super – Auditorium had concluded about half an hour earlier; there was a standing ovation from the audience. As Tejas was acknowledging the applause he had noticed that Firoj occupying the front row of seats with his mother was signalling that he would be coming to the back stage.
After the curtains had come down, people started to move away inside the stage and in the backstage. The spot lights were switched off and the supporting lights were going off one by one. Gradually the lighted areas plunged into darkness. The green- room was still lit with two naked bulbs one hanging on top of a large mirror and table below and another towards the extreme right corner… an area covered by a cloth screen.
Tejas walked inside the green- room when two of his fellow performers strode out with a wave. He then looked around, and noticed that the remaining seven actors had already left. Then, Director, Prafull, came out from behind the cloth screen and with thumbs- up sign walked out.
Nobody seemed to be around.
Walking towards the mirror, Tejas regarded at his reflection. His makeup was still there. He had played a woman’s role, that of Draupadi… complete with wig, eye makeup and pink lipstick. He had changed out of his saree, taken off the wig and removed the glass bangles. Sitting down on the chair in front of the mirror, he waited…. in some way, he was feeling in his guts that Firoj would bring unwelcome news.
Silence and semi- darkness hung around the place after the razzle dazzle and euphoric atmosphere just about half an hour ago.
A little later he heard footsteps echoing on the wooden floor of the stage…. coming towards the makeup room. Tejas was looking intently at the mirror; the bulb lit above was making it difficult for him to see when Firoj would reach him.
As Firoj came into the lighted space, he looked back and got up.
“Hello! Any particular reason why you wanted to meet me now? Where is mother? “
Firoj’s appearance was grim.
“She has gone home. But I have something important to tell you, Tejas.”
Tejas stared at him intently for some moments.
Firoj said without any prelude, “I am badly in need of money… large amount… you have to give me that.”
Tejas frowned and said “Why? Do you think I am sitting on a pile?”
Firoj sneered, “Don’t give me that shit! After your father popped off, half of his money is now in your name! And that’s a large chunk.”
“So, what? It’s of no concern to you!”
“Yes… it is my concern and yours too…. if you want to keep your mother’s reputation intact.” Firoj gave a twisted smile.
There was an ominous silence.
Tejas stared at Firoj and then stepped forward threateningly, “What did you do with my mother? I know that you have already sponged her out of lot of wealth… now you are trying to squeeze money out from me? Forget it…not a paisa from me!”
Firoj retorted, “You will not open your trap to say this if you know the truth…”
He then fished out two photographs from his shirt pocket and thrust them into Tejas’s hand.
Tejas was momentarily taken aback then looked in dismay at the photos…they were semi-nude intimate postures of his mother with Firoj. His eyes became moist in frustration & in helplessness. He blurted out. “They are fake… it’s not true…!”
Firoj’s face became vicious,” Oh no…they are genuine enough … I have more… and I will post them in social media… tell the world… to stop me you will cough up the money to me … seventy-five lakhs…”
Then something snapped in Tejas’s mind. His supressed anger of many months erupted; he shot out his left arm and catching hold of Firoj’s collar in an iron grip, gritted, “You blackmailer … criminal…you will pay for this … you got these photos taken by some outsider while making love to my mother…. I will turn you to police… scoundrel!”
He slapped Firoj’s left cheek with his right open palm… hard.
Firoj’s reaction was immediate, he jerked away Tejas’s grip on his collar and stumbled back.
Catching his breath and rubbing his cheek, he said, “You bast…d Tejas…. you dare to go to police …. you are hitting me… I will teach you such a lesson that….”
Then, glancing around swiftly he found a hammer lying on the ground near a coil of rope and other items used for building the stage.
Before Tejas could react, Firoj jumped forward and picked up the hammer and swung it towards Tejas.
Tejas, a younger and stronger man, had quick reactions; he moved away and caught hold of Firoj’s right hand with the hammer. Amid the struggle, Firoj’s grip loosened and the hammer was snatched away by Tejas… he was already simmering with anger… the defensive attack came instantaneously.
As the hammer crashed on Firoj’s head, he collapsed on the ground like a felled log, his mouth opened to scream, but no sound came out except a horrible gurgle.
Then he went still. His body lay on the ground, face up, arms and legs spread in a grotesque manner. A thick stream of blood came out from the injury on the side of the head and started flowing slowly… very slowly on the floor.
Tejas stood motionless. Staring at what he had done; he gasped and then suddenly his legs felt weak; he sat down heavily on the ground and closed his eyes. His head was throbbing; he held his head with both hands and remained motionless for many minutes… his sense of nausea subsided… then he opened his eyes.
Firoj hadn’t moved… the blood stream had travelled further down on the floor… the whole scene was lit by the light of the naked bulb on top of the makeup mirror.
Tejas held his breath and then with shaking hands moved forward and put his finger tentatively under Firoj’s nostrils. There was no breath. He touched the side of his neck… there was no pulse… he took his wrist, but by then he was sure that Firoj was dead.
Tejas’s mind refused to think further. But soon he was thinking. What would be happening to him now? He had killed Firoj…. How could he prove that it was in self-defence?
As he was about to get up when he noticed that patches of pink colour were visible on the white shirt of Firoj…. near the front pocket …traces were there on the shirt sleeve and on his right cheek.
He bent forward and tentatively put his finger on the most visible patch… and on the cheek…. Then, with a jolt he realised that it was a lipstick mark… the same pink lipstick he had put on!
He went to the mirror and immediately realised that the lipstick of his mother on his lips had smudged and it was clear that during the struggle with Firoj its pink patches got onto the dead man’s shirt and cheek.
His first reaction was to remove all these marks, but as his thoughts became coherent he understood that it was not possible, especially on the white shirt…
Then what’s next?
It didn’t take long for him to realise that the mark of the lipstick was not going against him but was in his favour. It would show that some woman was involved in this struggle…. in this homicide… not a man. It would save him….
He stayed still for many seconds; then glanced around…. saw that the place was quiet, no one had come; that meant
nobody had heard anything.
Picking up the two photographs from the floor and his acting stuffs, especially the pink lipstick, he put them in his bag. Taking out his handkerchief he wiped the hammer and returned to the floor where it was lying.
After few seconds thought he fished out the set of glass bangles from his bag which he was using with his make- up, broke them and scattered around the dead body.
Further proof that a woman was involved in this killing?
Removing his facial paint, Tejas then silently walked out of the side gate which he knew was not manned by any security guard.
The whole night he couldn’t sleep; he tossed and turned on the bed with a severe headache.
In the morning as he didn’t come out of his room; his mother knocked and came in.
She said, “Last night while returning, my car had a puncture… managed to return with great difficulty.”
He didn’t look at her, “Mother… I am not well…. please leave me alone.”
On Monday morning, he felt better, and after a shower and a light breakfast went to his college.
Reshma too went to her office.
The murder of Firoj had been discovered by the night-watchman late Saturday night and police investigation had begun in the afternoon, the next day. They came to the College on Monday.
Winding up his first day of the investigation, Police Inspector, Ramlal Singh was asking questions to Tejas. He had already spoken to the Principal, the director, Prafull, and others.
“Any idea who could have done it? You told me that you had left the crime scene around 8.30 p.m. and as per the preliminary autopsy report, murder had taken place approximately between 9.00 p.m. to 10. 30 p.m. Did you see Firoj while you were leaving, and more importantly, did you see any other person at that time?
Tejas shook his head.
The Inspector frowned, “Let me be more specific. Was there any lady around that place at that time?”
With no help from Tejas, he went away.
A week had since passed when suddenly Tejas got a call from Salma, mother’s colleague in the office. “Tejas…. your mother has been taken away by the police as a suspect for the murder of Firoj. She was in the audience of your play along with him… you remember. They know about their relationship… they also seem to think that a woman is involved.”
Tejas sat brooding. Then he called the Inspector. He said that he had come across some facts which could lead their investigation onto another path.
Did the Police know about Firoj’s wife? He always gave the impression of being unmarried? Why? Did Firoj want to hide something about her… possibly her criminal record… for being an accomplice to blackmail?
Tejas had found out about the wife unexpectedly. He had noticed the picture of a woman indistinctly in the background of one of the two photographs thrust on him by Firoj before the murder. With this clue Tejas had managed to identify her… she was Rukmini, and was clearly present when intimate postures of his mother with Firoj were photographed. He, of course, couldn’t reveal these photos to the Police
He would nonetheless try that the Police should make Rukmini the suspect for killing her husband, Firoj due to his infidelity.
Then Tejas remembered that while returning home that fateful night from Super – Auditorium, his mother’s car had a flat tyre. Somebody would have seen her then… and would remember the time.
His mother was innocent…. not a suspect but a victim…. He would have to save her…. by any means!
He was on his way to the Police station.
Ironically, about two months later Tejas’s mother was on her way to the court to save her son from prosecution for murder. Tejas’s saving argument would be grave provocation and self-defence!