“Next time you do that to me, I’m going to complain to the superiors that you are harassing me” said Shanthanu.
“What that I’m sexually harassing you?” grimaced Sumathi still patting his thigh.
He knows he wouldn’t unless he wants to be butt of joke for years to come. Sumathi is a veteran in the department. Single and been so all her life. She started her career in the Police during her late teens and worked her way to her current position. With pressing needs of the job and family had deprived her of a married life. But then she never seems to regret it.
There is even a legacy about her in the department. In her younger days one officer had made a pass at her. He even forced her to give in to him and he absconded for a week once. When he later came back he was not cocky anymore, in fact the opposite. He would shiver at the mere mention of Sumathi’s name. He could not imagine being in the same room as Sumathi. Couple of years later he bribed his way out for a job in other department and other state.
Many had trained under her and become a good human being before a police officer. Most of the top echelons are her protégés and they prided about it. He knows that her patting the thigh was affectionate assurances than an act of sexual innuendo.
“Sexual harassment is about inappropriate touching with every intention of indulging in sexual intercourse. But that is not what I am going to complain about. It’s your insubordination. You are to teach me about investigation and how you deal with it. Explain the sequence of events leading to the crime, identifying the culprit and punishing him. Now you are closing a case and not explaining any of it. No discussion nothing…just strap the file closed…on your own” said Shanthanu showing his displeasure.
They were sitting in the jeep looking out at the building which is part of low income community, where the fire broke out. There were still people working at the crime scene. She turned and looked at him. Then smiling pinched his cheek.
“Choooo shweeeeet!!!” she said, “I like it when you are angry.”
He blushed and said “See you are putting it off again.”
She sighed looked out at the scene and started. “Anosh met and fell in love with Dharani two years his junior while they were in college. Their love had faced the eventual opposition from both the families due to their religious differences. So the love birds decided to take control of their life; eloped and married after Anosh found himself a job in a manufacturing company. It was a boom time so every extra hand was always welcome. They had dropped off their college and were pacing into family life on high gear with new found hope. At first their life was pink or green or purple or whatever is the color that means happy. They had a son named him Prem, probably their love. I ask myself this question what would have named if they had a daughter?”
“Prema…but that’s beside the point” said Shanthanu now visibly irritated.
He’s concentrating on her every word she thought. Sumathi continued, “After 8 years of their happy life recession struck them as a thunderbolt. The company in which Anosh was working was undergoing Organizational restructuring. They were going in for a Lean Manufacturing a funda devised by Human resources of the companies to tell you that you might be axed soon. Lean manufacturing as if the manufacturing was over eating and was going in for dietary changes. A zero figure maybe.”
She smiled and continued, “So the doomsday finally arrived and one morning Anosh was sent back home right at the company gate. They assured him that he will be getting his benefits through mail. So it did come in the form of a cheque for 1 lakh all inclusive and a sweet letter thanking him for all his services. The poor guy cried holding that letter in his hand. He went into depression. Though the letter appreciated his workmanship but it in a way made him an impotent. I hope you understand what I mean.”
Sumathi went on, “Slowly they reconciled with the situation and braced themselves. He started to lookout for a new job. He did not have a college degree to opt for a better job so was left to ones which gave meager payouts. There were not many jobs available as there were many on the streets just like them due to the hard times so the opportunities were far in between. The settlement received dried up, thus the poverty took grip of their life. They could not turn to their respective parents or siblings as they had abandoned them for their disgraceful marriage. They moved to this building about 4 years back. About this time Dharani too started to search for jobs and eventually ended up working at various houses as maid. Not so much of an income but enough to keep the fire in the kitchen going.” She stopped.
“So that eliminates the possibility of honour killing. Families don’t recognize their existence. Now go on” said Shanthanu.
Sumathi looked at him then went on. “The kid was moved to Government run school nearby from the better earlier one. Both Husband and wife used to at times spare their food for the kid. They loved him so much. But the depression you know is a very bad thing. Anosh took it upon himself blaming himself for all the misery that Dharani and his son were going through. There were times he would hurt himself. Sometimes abuse Dharani for entering into his life but never his son. He loved him so much that he could not even in his depressed state of mind think of hurting him.”
She stopped gave out a deep breath and shook her head in disgust. “Men do crazy things when everything about them goes wrong. One of them is taking to alcohol. May be to get into a deliberate sleep and wake up to see that the nightmare is gone. And when the status quo remains the same continue wishing it will change. They eventually find that it’s better to remain in the tranquility of drowsiness induced by drowning in the alcohol than, be awake to harsh reality of the surroundings. Anosh too went through this, took to drinking, was home most of the time and stopped looking out for jobs. Dharani on the other hand was putting herself to hardship trying to make the ends meet also enduring the abuse which now became frequent but secretly wishing that all would change. It all requires one chance; one twist of fate then everything would change to good.”
There was a solemn silence between them for a while. She turned towards Shanthanu. He too was feeling sorry for the mighty twist of fate that ruined the life of a sweet couple. Was it the love or the paradise that is lost; one never knows. If only one could take a peek at the future and correct the present.
“So she finally lost her patience and struck a match?” spoke Shanthanu breaking the silence.
She looked at him, “Why it is that you think there was a murder?”
“If it had been a fire then firemen would have been here and not us. What tilts the balance is a body burnt down to ashes. There was no report of him shouting when he while burnt. So He should have been tied and shout muffled with a gag which in turn means committing a crime” deducted Shanthanu.
“Clever deduction” She complimented, “That brings us to the events that happened today.” He nodded while she continued, “We need to look at the things that happened today to get to any conclusion.”
He turned completely towards her in his seat, pushing back and bending his left leg at knee so as to not miss a single syllable coming from her.
“This morning Dharani went on her job as usual before Anosh got off his drunken stupor. His son went to school. Later in the day she returned spent time washing and cooking while Anosh had opened his shop for the day. There were some miffs between them which pretty much were their routine. Afternoon, around 2 pm, Dharani again left for her duties asking Anosh to watch the door and care for their son when he comes back from school at 3 pm. The neighbors saw the boy come about his usual time and leave to the ground at 3:30 pm for playing, everything normal. But about 4 pm a foul smell clouded the neighborhood followed by smoke that alerted them and our mad rush here.”
“Yes, the Son, named Prem. Born 12 or 13 years back as I had told you earlier. Normal kid, good in his academics; none of the tragedy in the family had affected his studies. Observant, felt sorry for all the trouble his mother is going through helplessly. I could see a uncertainty lingering in him about his love towards his father because the past 4 years was very unpleasant. He is not sure whom to blame but silently praying that some supreme power would intervene and take the abusive father from their life so his mother could be happy.”
“So… the…son???” suddenly Shanthanu was not sure. She look at him again, watched him for a brief moment. Now he feared she is going to go into another spell of silence. She turned looked out and asked slowly, “Why do you think so?”
He was slow in response. He could understand there was something seriously disturbing Sumathi; He did not want to say things that would disturb her further. He wanted to still make his point.
“The wife left at 2 pm. Son came at 3 pm. Fire was seen at 4 pm. So the last person to see Anosh is the son. The Son has seen the bad side of the father. When his father opened his door in his drunken stupor he would have been very angry. May be his father would have gone back to sleep with his cigarette still on. All he had to do is spill the remaining drinks from the bottles on to him, leave him and go over to playground.”
She was still silent.
“So at some point the fire in the form of burning cigarette would catch up.” He said summing up.
“Then why dint he shout in pain. Obviously the burning flame would have made him sober.” She turned towards him and stared at him intently and asked “But none heard any scream, why?”
Now, Shanthanu was silent. He could see the dent in his theory. He could not decipher any clue.
“I saw you talking to both Dharani and her son Prem. What did they say?” he asked.
“First I talked to the boy. He had nothing much to say. He came in from school, his father was at the door, he went in changed himself from his school uniform which he had to wear again tomorrow so keep it clean and went down to play closing the door behind him while his father was lying down drunk. Dharani’s grief was beyond control. She had fell unconscious twice and had to be woken up. One thing she said amused me” She paused for affect “Anosh does not smoke.”
Now Shanthanu felt a jolt.
“Yes I felt the same too. That is when I talked to the boy again but with specifics that is when the truth came.” She paused took a deep breath then continued, “Between the door opening and door closing things happened which changed life of a small family forever. Anosh opened the door received his son while getting back to his earlier place tumbled and fell knocking himself on the bottle lying on the floor. The son freshened up changed his clothes came back into the room saw his father lying. On an impulse searched for a match in the kitchen, came back lit threw it on the alcohol lying there. Apparently, Anosh was drenched in the alcohol that had spilled on the floor during his fall. Prem then walked out of the house closing the door behind him.”
“Very sad….” Shanthanu said in a whisper. Gloom engulfed them.
“Why dint he shout for help…I mean Anosh?” asked Shanthanu
“Anosh while falling had hurt himself on his left temple which you know is a deathly blow”
“You mean Anosh was dead by the time fire was lit?” He said hastily.
She nodded, “though I would wait for the pathologist to confirm the same but I could see his left temple was not normal. So I deduced this.”
“So what are we going to do now” He asked.
“Nothing, wrap things here and walk away.”
“But don’t you think we should punish the boy for his brutality”
“No” She said firmly. “Punishment is for correcting the person so I advised his mother to love her son more now. Also asked her to tell him how his father had loved him. What they had dreamed for him before they were struck with poverty. If ever the son points out to her that she was abused by the same man whom she now describes as a sweet person she should defend her husband. I let her find excuses. Eventually, What I intended was” she took a deep breath and said “She lost a person she loved the most and I did not want her to lose another. Let us all call this a mishap but a good one where love prevails supreme.”
Shanthanu now understood the other side of Sumathi which is full of empathy and love for human being. Outward display of her flirtatious self was to shield this compassion she holds for a better world at large.
Outside the people were wrapping up and getting ready to leave as the darkness set in. Then tomorrow sun would rise as normal….a hope.