Guilty by Chance

Guilty by Chance

Nidhi Singh

Nidhi studied English Literature at Delhi University. She has a number of published works in India to her credit, novels, as well as nonfiction work including essays on Bollywood, and commentaries on Sikh scriptures. Her short stories have appeared in Fabula Argentea, Romance Magazine, Under the Bed, and Nebula Rift. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.

There was no need for Sheena to burn, like this; no need, for the candle of life of one so young and beautiful, to be snuffed out, like this. And there was definitely no need, for Mikhail to be lighting up his kid sister’s funeral pyre, like this.

The holy Ganges, placid, and on course to be swallowed by the ocean, lapped at his unshod feet. But Mikhail felt he was being tossed around in a tiny boat without a life vest in a black raging storm with crackling thunder and hammering deluge. The incessant wail of mantras on the Burning Ghats didn’t ring; it vibrated, like a cosmic howl, churning up grief and ache. The stench of burning corpses swirled around him, and he could feel the heat of their dying embers cooking the eyeballs inside the skulls. It was as if he himself had been struck a crumbling blow of the Dom’s staff, dispatching his soul on its next flight to another mortal abode.

It was Mikhail’s mother’s reasonable wish that any member of her family be cremated only at Varanasi: the oldest city in the world, the richest kaleidoscope of Hindu tradition, where sacred coexisted peacefully with sacrilege.

A pious Hindu widow, she’d instructed him thus on her deathbed; “Cremation at the holy Ghats of Varanasi will assure us Moksha. Be sure to lay me down at Manikarnika Ghat: the one controlled by the Doms, and not at the Raja Harish Chandra Ghat.”

“What’s a Dom?”

“Doms are low caste untouchables, unsung undertakers, who eke out pelf from the funeral pyres of bodies brought in by the grievers. “

“Why the Doms, Ma?”

“There is an ancient legend, Son. Raja Harish Chandra, a man of absolute truth, in order to keep his word, had pledged himself unto Kalu Dom, the ancient Dom chief. Kalu Dom then bonded him as an unpaid apprentice for life. The Dom Ghats are consecrated; there lies great virtue in being cremated at the hands of a Dom. ”

The Dom assigned to Mikhail had explained the procedure to him; “We keep the sacred flame burning perennially at the hearth of Kalu Dom. No matchsticks may be used on these Ghats; I will give you the straw, lighted from this flame to light the pyre. The first five logs to burn the corpse will be provided by the Doms, and the rest by the relatives. Clear?”

Ironically the same straw was used to light the cooking hearth at the Dom homes; Mikhail had wondered how one could put up with the insanity that comes from living from daybreak to nightfall among burning corpses and feral curs.

“Here, Sahib, drive it in hard and deep.”

Mikhail awoke from his reverie, so fascinated was he by the orange-red flames rising from his sister’s pyre. The Dom was handing him his staff, to ram in Sheena’s skull hard so that her soul could escape her fleshly garb and find dwelling in another being. Mikhail shoved the staff awkwardly, managing no more than upsetting the arrangement of logs, and sending a brilliant shower of embers billowing up. The Dom, his eyes bloodshot, his arms scarred by fire, grumbled and grabbed his staff back, and with no pretenses of genteelness, expertly proceeded to crush in the blazing head.

Mikhail, alone, watched as the logs crackled and crushed the body under their crumbling weight, while the Dom poked, and added stubble and wood as needed, to ensure the body burnt completely.

His beautiful sister, Mikhail rued, would be reduced to bone-chips and ashes by morning.

 

* * *

 

“Choose her or me,” his wife Indrani would scream at him, often enough, to drive him nuts. “Sheena brings rotting shame to us; she may be your sister—she is no darling of mine.”

“What’s she done this time,” Mikhail would ask, throwing off his beret, with no hope of respite, or an early dinner.

“Look at what she wears! Look at her company! See what time she returns home!”

“She works in a call-center, baby. She will keep odd hours.”

“And drinking…smoking? And the kissing and whatnot that goes on in cars parked in front of our house—nearly every other night? We are becoming the laughing stock of this station, Mikhail, don’t you see? You have spoiled her completely—I know you are not going to shout at her and get her to behave!”

“Has your shouting done any good? Leave her be, she’s a kid, she’ll soon learn to make correct choices on her own. Our telling will not make a difference—it has to come from within.”

“That will never happen, Mikhail, because all she’s got within is debauchery. Beauty can’t take the weight of a brain—you, a man…” with one hand on her hips, the other waving under his nose, she spoke, as if she didn’t mean it, “…should know that!”

Indrani had then stormed into their bedroom, and dragged out her suitcases, all packed, bulging at the sides rather. “She quarreled with me again this morning before leaving for office– calling me ‘a continual dripping on a rainy day!’ I cannot put up with this daily bloodshed anymore– I am done! I’m going to mother’s,” she sobbed.

“Hey—it’s alright—there’s no need for desperate measures. Next time she’s on an off, let me speak into her.”

Mikhail had managed to stop her, or surely that night he would have become her third ‘ex-husband,’ but soon and sure enough, he buckled in front of the bewitching woman’s soft power—her tears, her artful lovemaking, and her constant nagging that robbed him of all sleep and quiet.

One day, in great despair, Mikhail had to tell his sister finally: “I’ll have to ask you to leave—you know how it is with Indrani. I am sorry, but I have to keep the peace in this house. And you are not going to change one bit—we both can see that.” He’d kept his gaze averted in shame; he was all she had in this world and he was turning her out.

Sheena, the reckless, the self-destructive, instead of giving a tiny excuse that her brother had been looking for to change his mind, simply wiped away an iffy tear and said coolly,” I understand Dada, don’t you worry one bit.”

“I’ll find you a nice PG Hostel for girls,” her brother had said in misery; “ I’ll take care of the rent as well. We’ll stay in the same town and meet often, and who knows, in time Indrani will take you back.”

“Dada, you talk as if it’s her house!” Sheena had nearly laughed. “ I’ll manage; I can take care of myself. And I’m sorry I’ve been such trouble.”

The following weekend she was packed, and gone out of their lives without any fuss. She called regularly initially, but soon he’d stopped hearing from her, after Indrani came to discover that Mikhail was footing her rent and had put an end to such utter balderdash.

And two days ago, a cop had called. “I am sorry, but your sister is dead,” he’d said matter-of-factly.

“What happened?” Mikhail had stood up, toppling his chair.

“ All we know is that she was living-in with some guy. They had a quarrel in a nightclub and he left her on her own at Two in the morning. She was drunk, and she took a lift from some strangers. We found her body in the Raigad forest, dumped under a culvert.”

“Was she…?”

“I’m afraid she was. They must have been beasts that did all that to her…I shouldn’t say any more on the phone. You must come by and identify the body and collect it for the last rites.”

“Do you know who she was staying with…have you caught the culprits yet?”

“Not as yet, but we shall. It’s a pity young woman are so trusting of guys they live-in with, and then those bastards ditch them with no sense of responsibility. And it’s a shame, we turn out our young girls from our homes—this is the inevitable end they meet,” the cop had said, hinting at what he thought of big brothers not taking care of their sisters in this sick city where men thought women no more than meat on the plate.

Mikhail had collected Sheena’s body and brought it to Varanasi for the last rites as per their mother’s wishes. Indrani had refused to come: “who’ll send the girls to school—they’re about to have their exams!”

“They’re in Kindergarten, dammit! And she’s their aunt!”

“Fine aunt she made—it’s best they don’t keep memories of a bad influence. And don’t you be faffing around out there long—taking boat rides on the river and sightseeing. You get back here on the double!”

If there was a way, Mikhail would have brought Sheena back—but he couldn’t wind the clock back now, could he?

I shall carry this heavy stone of guilt on my back all my life, he thought. And the weight might get lighter only if I could wring my hands around the throat of this man who’d deserted her.

 

* * *

 

A week later Wing Commander Mikhail Mukherjee found himself in the officers’ ward of the Indian Navy Hospital Ship (INHS) Ashwini, at Colaba. Suddenly, his heart had begun to skip beats; the medical specialist at MH Jamnagar felt it was bad for his flying. She advised him to get a cardio workup at INHS, where a Cardiologist was available.

In the Officers’ Ward he requested the ward nurse to let him have a room to himself. For an army nurse, she was really pretty. She had a pale, smooth skin; her high cheekbones, slit-eyes, and sweet nature told him she was from the highlands.

After unpacking he wandered into the balcony that hung out into Arabian Sea. It was a windy day, what with the white clouds flying, and the seabirds crying. There was the smell of dead plankton, and burning gasoline from trawlers that were returning home after fishing. A couple of white sails from the Sailing Club at Sassoon Docks bobbed on the sea, and the water was out on low tide. It was warm and sticky and he couldn’t stay out for very long. The sea breeze in Jamnagar was cooler and fresher; there weren’t many ships out there—just miles of salt farms stretching along the Kutch coastline.

A little later a trainee doctor came and checked his BP. They rolled in an ECG machine and took his ECG. “Do you drink or smoke,” he asked.

“Drink yes, occasionally, socially,” Mikhail replied.

“Enjoy drinks?”

“Who doesn’t?”

The intern endorsed ‘Alcoholic’ in his report and went off. Mikhail switched channels without really paying attention till it became 7 PM and then he walked downstairs to the dining hall.

It was already full. Bored patients—walking-wounded types like him—were already at the table checking each other’s maladies out.

A very old veteran, with legs thick as chicken wings, sat at the head of the table, interpreting the maladies, enjoying himself very much; lonely gaffers, abandoned by their families, eagerly got themselves admitted in the hospital for the attention, however unsavory, and the company, however morose, it might be.

“What are you in for,” the veteran asked as if Mikhail had entered a correctional facility.

“A heart workup—my ECG has a t-inversion in a couple of leads. What are you in for?”

“Nothing. And everything,” the old man, the master of ceremonies, said, stamping his walking stick on the ground in mirth. “If you look into my body you might find everything to be wrong, but then, it has always been so, so you might call it normal!”

Mikhail, like the others, turned to drumming the fork on the table in anticipation of a good stew. But the vet was not one to be ignored so easily; he continued; “All I have in the world is a kid, working in the Silicon Valley. He married a Chinese girl but the marriage didn’t last long. Made in China, I guess,” he guffawed loudly. “How about you, son—where do you come from?”

“Right now, from a funeral—my kid sister’s.”

“Kid sister! Was she sick?”

“She wasn’t—this country is. I wasn’t there when she needed me—I pray God will forgive me.”

“God never forgives!” the man stamped his staff. Mikhail expected little sparks of indignation to fly from it but nothing happened. “God keeps count—the good go to heaven and the bad to hell—never have the twain met.”

“What are you saying, that god is not forgiving, he is vengeful?”

“Haven’t you heard of ChitraGupt, the angel of the conscious and the subconscious who records actions, and the Righteous Judge of Dharma, who judges this record?”

“Yeah, something like that, but…”

“ChitraGupt keeps complete records of actions of human beings on the earth. Upon their death, ChitraGupt determines Svarga (Heaven) or Naraka (Hell) for the humans, depending on their actions on the earth. There!” He exclaimed triumphantly, and looked around the table for appreciation of his knowledge of the scriptures and lore. “The guilty will pay—god watches! They will pay in this life, or the next! There is no escaping his justice!”

“Who exactly is this ChitraGupt?”

“ChitraGupt, meaning ‘rich in confidences,’ or ‘hidden image,’ is a Hindu god. He is begotten of the person of Lord Brahma, the creator. Legend has it that Lord Dharmraj or Yam Raj, the god of death, would often get confused when dead souls came to him, and he would occasionally mark the wrong souls to either heaven or hell. Lord Brahma, to help him, sat in meditation for many thousands of years. Finally when he opened his eyes, a man appeared before him with writing material. As his image, Chitra, was first conceived in Brahma’s mind, and then made whole in clandestineness, or in gupta, he was named ChitraGupt. All your deeds are recorded minutely; don’t think any of your actions escape His notice—what is the incentive for the good if even the bad fellows went to heaven? So expect neither mercy, nor forgiveness!”

“What about good deeds, alms, prayers? What about atonement? What about a dip in the holy confluence and washing off your sins? You mean there is no midcourse correction possible—no hope at all,” Ranjeet, a naval engineer, a heart patient, asked.

The veteran leered down at him, shaking his head. “There is hope—who says there isn’t? But have you truly done all of the above, eh,” he asked, tapping the spoon on the hardwood table as if ticking the boxes. “Repent,” he shouted, shaking with the effort as if, of summoning the Lord’s wrath and heaping burning coals upon the table, “atone!”

The company laughed. There were only six men present in the hall: the vet; Mikhail; Ranjeet; Ramadhir, a Signals guy with shaking hands; Bhaironath, a gunner with ear trouble; and Sanjiv Khanna, a handsome paratrooper, here for his medical. The ward had a capacity of 50.

“Where are the rest,” Ramadhir asked the Mess Havildar.

“I have never seen such a low occupancy myself, sahib,” the Mess Havildar replied, pointing out a speck on the toaster to a mess boy to wipe. “This ward has started remodeling as per accreditation norms—so temporarily they are directing outstation officers to the army hospital at Pune. They stopped fresh admissions from today.”

“This company will do for me,” the veteran rambled, “for now.” Noone paid the bewildering old man any heed. There was quiet around the room as dinner was served; the mess boys filled up the casseroles with a gallimaufry of dishes: cheese cutlets, macaroni, baked beans, grilled chicken, and bread rolls.

“How does one kill time here,” Bhaironath asked, in between tucking in cheese and macaroni.

“By telling stories; I am an old man, I have many stories to tell,” the veteran said, much to the unease of the others; but out of sheer military habit, the men protested no more than clearing a throat or two. “ Each night I will narrate one story.”

With nothing to do in the rooms either, the men looked around the table and taciturnly decided to humor the old man—what the heck!

“Alright sir, bring on the first episode….”

 

* * *

 

“There were two brothers,” the old man began, “ whose parents had died. One day, the elder one receives a phone call from his father!—When someone passes away, for a long time we behave or think the person is still alive; we are so used to them. So the brother talks for a while, and only after he has replaced the receiver, does he realize his father is already dead. He is puzzled for a while, thinks he had probably snoozed off at the office desk, or maybe it was a prank.”

Maybe Mikhail was mistaken, but he noticed a distinct wave of pain that passed across Ranjeet’s face, which had become ashen. He looked ready to tumble his chair and dart out of the room, but somehow he controlled himself, because it seemed he wanted to hear the end of the story.

“But he became alarmed only when his younger brother called him later that day,” the vet continued, “ and said he too had received a call from the father, and he too, like the elder had conversed as if everything was normal.”

“How, or why on earth would someone from the dead call them like this,” Bhairon asked.

“Well, the brothers had neglected their poor parents, who had, as is usual with us Indians, sacrificed everything, including mortgaging their house for them. So when they were old and infirm, and too proud to ask for help, the brothers, not content with simple neglect, went ahead and did a complete dereliction of duty. They abandoned the schizophrenic father at a shady clinic, where instead of caring for him, they followed the short route of administering electric shocks to his brain, frying and killing him. The mother, unable to bear his loss, dejected and deserted, starved herself and followed her old man within three months.”

“That’s a lie!” Ranjeet suddenly jumped to his feet, and glowered at the old man, his face pale, and his hands all a-flutter. “Who told you this?”

“It’s just a story…a figment of my imagination…a salmagundi from my repertoire of human fables and foibles,” the old man replied, buttering his toast calmly.

Ranjeet’s jaw dropped, he was about to retort, but couldn’t. He pushed back his chair and stormed out of the room.

“What’s with him,” Bhairon remarked. “Well, how does the story end, sir?”

“I wouldn’t know!” the old man sighed, as if he was wearied. “It hasn’t ended yet!” He pounded his staff on the ground and rose shakily. ”Goodnight gentlemen, come another night, goes another tale.”

 

* * *

 

The next morning Mikhail woke to brouhaha; doctors and nurses were rushing about the corridors, their arms aloft; even the highland nurse, her trim ankles dragging a ball of worry, forgot to smile at him as he stood in the corridor asking what had happened. Giving up, Mikhail went back to sleep and decided to investigate during breakfast.

At the breakfast table he found Ranjeet missing. “Where is he,” Mikhail asked.

“His heart monitor short-circuited early this morning. Fried him totally: he’s gone,” replied Ramadhir.

Mikhail’s spoon missed the boiled egg it was addressing, sending it sailing from the eggcup to the floor where it burst open in a white and yellow smorgasbord.

 

* * *

 

It was a glum gathering that assembled in the dining hall that evening. No one missed Ranjeet, but no one had forgotten him either. After dinner the veteran tapped the table with a fork. “Are the gentlemen in mood for another story—before we turn in for the night?” he looked around with a mischievous smile, as if daring them. No one seemed keen to return to the empty ward as yet—it was a long way between now and the cozy embrace of sleep, if at all it returned that dark night.

Ramadhir shrugged. “What could it hurt? Bring it on Sir,” he said.

The veteran rubbed his hands to warm them and then rubbed them down his face. “ Ah,” thus comforted, he started. “There was a lady with three kids, a boy and two girls; the eldest, the boy, nine years old. Let’s say she lived at Rajkot. And her husband, a Sepoy, had gone on to do fairly well for himself, rising from the ranks to get an officer’s commission.

But instead of this promotion bringing happiness to the family, it brought them a bucketful of woes.”

“How come?”

“You see—an equal, or better when married to a lowly sepoy—the wife now was no longer good enough for an officer. Instead, she was a burden, a shame. His parents, with whom she lived while he was away at Field, wistful with the dowry their son could now command as a commissioned officer, began to harangue her for money. Naturally, so late after marriage, and coming from her poor farming background, she could not fulfill their wishes.”

“Is that even a story? It happens in all of India,” Ramadhir retorted, shifting in his seat. Already anxiety prone, he’d begun to scratch away at an army of ants that seemed to have suddenly invaded his shirt, which he unbuttoned and buttoned unselfconsciously.

“Not what happens next, my dear Sir,” the vet replied. “Nagging and fretting her constantly, the parents managed to put it into the head of the poor, illiterate girl that it was best for everyone that she should take herself and her brood and drown in the Aji River Dam.”

“That’s a damn lie!” the ant-infested man shouted, thumping his quivering fist on the table.

“Damned yes, lie no,” the vet replied coolly, mixing Maltova in his milk.

“Don’t tell me she did it,” Mikhail asked, his eyebrows shooting up.

“Almost,” said the vet. “ The power of suggestion can be so strong sometimes. She threw in the two girls in the Dam first. The boy, seeing he was next, had the sense to run away and inform the neighbors. The mother, unable to catch the boy, jumped in next.”

“And what was this husband doing all this while?”

“Well, he played along; he was greedy as well. His parents had arranged for another match with a handsome dowry, so as long as they got his previous family out of the way with no trouble to him, he felt it wouldn’t really hurt to advance in life—after all, he felt his destiny owed it to him now that he’d become an officer.”

“Why are you telling us this story—I mean what’s new? Is there some sort of message for us in it? What happened to this man –?”

“I wish I knew! We’ll find out soon enough though.” Balancing himself on his staff, the mysterious old man rose and tottered towards his room, muttering under his breath, and—they didn’t know he was shaking his head in reproach or it was just wobbling naturally on his thick shoulders.

 

* * *

 

“There is such an uproar each morning, I wonder why a medical facility cannot have a little peace and prayer at dawn,” Mikhail observed, having been woken up early again, not by the warbling of a wren, but by an apparent donnybrook that seemed to occasion again in the corridors without. “ I wonder who’s died now,” he added jokingly, while asking Bhairon to pass him the marmalade. This time he hadn’t even bothered to stir from the warmth of his blanket, because nobody ever told him anything anyway.

“Ramadhir.”

“Ramadhir—don’t crap me!”

“Yeah—his to-be brothers-in-law visited him last night after dinner probably, and took him out clubbing. Never to say no to a good offer, he probably overdosed on his prescription Oxycontin and washed it down with plenty of free beer. Docs say his respiratory system slowed as he came back and slept, till it stopped completely. The guy died in his sleep.”

“When you want to have too much of a good time and too soon, I guess this is what happens,” observed the vet, spreading scrambled egg on his buttered toast.

“Well guys, the last of my tests is due today, hopefully I should be off tomorrow, or day after latest,” Mikhail said, after a long silence; his EKG was normal, now they wanted to do his stress thallium. “ I really hope we never meet again—in a hospital like this.”

“Me too,” said Bhairon. They’d attached computers and scanners to his head but had found nothing to explain his increasing deafness, or the booming and buzzing that went on in his ears, or the voices that he heard all the time. They gave him some pills, and a hearing aid, and told him to stay calm, that’s all.

“My meds are done too and I’m fit; just a bit of paperwork left. Maybe we could leave together,” Sanjiv said, addressing Mikhail.

They all looked at the vet. “I’m nearly done here myself too,” the old man said, “ just a bit of business left. And since we’re all going to get busy for the day, I have another story to send you on your ways. What say,” he asked, looking around beaming.

“Can’t hurt, can it,” Bhairon said, rising. “ One for the road then. But not now: tonight maybe—for I really must get going. This damn aid just doesn’t seem to work!”

 

* * *

 

“ Alrighty then, here goes.” The old man, as per promise, after he’d piled his plate with rice and curd till his chin, began his story at dinner that night. Just Sanjiv and Mikhail were present; Bhairon was missing.

“It was two summers ago, when this man, returning from his fields, came upon brown, skinny limbs entangled behind the tall stalks of sugarcane that waved lazily in the hot breeze.

It wasn’t unusual for young people of the village to make out among the unharvested crops when they hadn’t yet eased themselves of their summer load, but the tinkle of laughter that came thence seemed familiar. He walked a short distance, but then turned back to the spot—something had made him distinctly uneasy. As he recognized the sound, his steps became hurried, and when with his sickle when he bore down on the waving golden sheaths, he caught his own daughter squirming under a naked village boy—of another caste. Another caste! He swung wildly, but the blade of his implement barely scraped the back of the urchin, as he scuttled out of reach. Grabbing his daughter by her hair, he dragged her through the furrowed earth, kicking and punching her in the stomach and head. Then, too ashamed to look at her naked body, he swore at her and ordered her to dress up and follow him home.”

The vet paused to wipe his beard on his sleeve, and munch on the rice dreamily, while his two companions waited.

“That night, “ he continued at last, “the man and his younger brother drank till the devil within burst forth. Then they dragged the girl into their room, locked themselves in, and began to strangle her.

Her screams brought the horrified mother rushing out from the kitchen stove, where she was dunking in cow-dung cakes, but no amount of her feeble banging would make the men open the door. She ran to other room where her son, a gunner on leave, also sat drinking, trying to shut out his sister’s cries.

‘Help her—please! Break down that door, my son, I beg of you—do it for your poor mother.’ She fell at his feet and grabbed his knees and wailed, but he wouldn’t listen—he shut his ears with his hands even as tears streamed down his cheeks.

‘Let it be done—‘ he screamed and shoved his mother away with his foot, ‘—and be done with!’

The ordeal was over in a few minutes, and then the three men took the dead girl and burnt her body the same night in the fields.”

There was silence for a while in the hall. “That’s it?” Sanjiv said. “Where’s the f—point here? Honor killings go on all the time in this country.” After a pause he added: “ Do we know any of the players from this story?”

The old man chewed the curd-rice at leisure, taking his time to answer. Then after a sip of the aqua he said, “as of this afternoon you knew the girl’s brother.”

“Whom do you mean,” Sanjiv asked, jabbing away at a truant garlic pickle on his plate. “…Are you referring to Bhairon by any chance…and what do you mean ‘as of this afternoon,’ eh?”

“As of this afternoon the girl’s brother, Bhaironath, died at the roadside in Bandra, run over by a speeding taxi, his cries for help falling on deaf ears of passersby, who didn’t like to get involved, which is the norm in this country. By the time the police arrived and brought him to a hospital, he’d died.”

“You evil man—how do you know all this?” Sanjiv banged his fork down and began to shout. “ How do you know so much about all of us? What is this vile ranting you are about all the time—why don’t you mind your own business—rather than spewing filth on this table where food is spread out before us!”

“It is my business,” the old man replied in a slow snarl.

“ I’m tired with all this work—goodnight gentlemen—or should I just say, officers.” He ground his staff down and rose unsteadily, pausing to gather his balance, and then shuffled out of the mess.

“Calm down,” Mikhail said. “He’s just a bag of bones and lies…he just wants attention.”

“It’s not that…he brings on the heebie-jeebies in me,” Sanjiv said. “ What’s his bloody name—what rank is he?” he turned to the Mess Havildar, who shook his head. “The ward nurse knows, sir,” he replied.

“Want to have a smoke before we turn in,” Sanjiv asked Mikhail, the only other diner remaining.

“Okay,” Mikhail replied. They slid out their chairs, nodded at the Mess Havildar, and walked to Sanjiv’s room on the top floor. They walked out into the balcony—the night was starlit and muggy. The tide was in and the waves were lapping on the black stone embankment; a fishing boat, from the nearby harbor, spread her sails to the moving breeze and started for the gray sea.

“What’s up man—why take it out on the poor ancient;” Mikhail asked, “ he must have enough trouble passing kidney stones.”

“Look chap—I’ll take you back over the last two nights, and you tell me whether I’m fuckin’ shittin’ or what. See, first night he talks of these parents getting neglected by the kids—the one about the dad getting fried by a psycho? And who gets all worked up—it’s Ranjeet—and how does he die—of neglect, the same night. And he gets fried in the same fashion by the heart monitor. Now is that a coincidence or what?”

“You’re taking it too far and wide man.”

“Next, he talks of this female jumping into the dam with her kids—obviously he was talking about Ramadhir because it upset him totally. And the guy was greedy wasn’t he, washing down Valium with free booze, while his parents were collecting dowry from his new in-laws?”

Mikhail laughed. “ Tell me more—the old man probably drives too slow and dabbles in a little organized crime on the side—but so what? ”

“And this night—how does this geezer know Bhairon is dead—we don’t know! He never struts around the corridors giving the glad eye to the ward nurse—but we do—and WE DON’T KNOW!”

“How do we know the two stories are connected—let us for a moment assume he chanced upon this news that Bhairon had died?”

“How did Bhairon die, Mikhail—the dying part! See—each of the characters in his stories dies just like the victim. Mark his words—he said Bhairon’s cries for help fell on deaf ears—Bhairon was going deaf, and he’d shut out his mom and sister’s cries for help! Don’t you get it?”

“What are you getting at,” Mikhail asked, himself a little shifty now.

“There is a devil lurking in there—I don’t believe this shit—but there is. He is telling a story every night, and one man is conking off—the so-called villain of the piece! And if you’d noticed—there’s no one else coming in the ward—can you believe it? Can it happen?’

“Yeah, it seems…strange.”

“There—thank you! Finally! Now what do you think is next?”

“What?”

“One night it will be my story, and then, it will be yours. And we’ll both be dead—and then this crazy old fucker—whatever pleasure he gets out of this—will walk out with a smirk on his crumbly face!”

“That really is far-fetched! Do you…by any chance, have any guilt…of anything? Are you afraid?”

Sanjiv shrugged—“guilty by chance, maybe. One makes mistakes here and there—when you are watching out for your backside…”

“Alrighty. You’re obviously taking this very seriously—what do you suggest we do—if as you say—we’re next?”

“Let’s go strangle the bastard!”

“Hey, don’t be crazy—let’s do one thing—let’s just go up to his room and have a chat with him. See, communication—upfront—can ease things. And then you take your call.”

“Okay,” Sanjiv stubbed out his cigarette on the balcony lattice and got up. The men walked over to the old man’s room. “It’s funny we don’t even know his name—and he knew all ours,” Mikhail observed.

They entered the room without knocking. The man was sleeping; his hands were crossed peacefully over his chest. “Hey, sir, mister!” Sanjiv shook the old man’s arm. He wouldn’t get up. “Hey, sir, we just want a minute…” the old man didn’t stir. Sanjiv felt his hands, and then put his ear to his chest.

“What’s up,” Mikhail asked.

“The guy is stone-cold. No beat…”

“Hang on.” Mikhail nudged Sanjiv aside and felt for a pulse on the man’s chilled wrist. “He’s gone—let’s go too.”

The two men snuck out of the room, and then making sure no one was in the corridor, scampered to Sanjiv’s room.

“Wow! That was a close call!” Mikhail said, keeping a hand over his heart. “I guess we’re in the clear now!”

“Yeah—someone finished his story alright!” Sanjiv grinned and offered a cigarette to an equally relieved Mikhail. They lit up, and silently watched the breaking beam of the lighthouse on a distant shore.

“Ah, life you owe me nothing, life, at long last we are at peace,” Mikhail said, blowing rings in the night sky. “What were you so afraid of by the way—what’s your story?”

“Well, now that you ask—there was this crazy bitch staying with me. An out and out wasted case: headstrong and reckless. One night we are in this nightclub at Thane and these guys on the next table keep eyeing her—she was a scorcher, I’ll give her that. But, as was usual with her—she belonged to nobody, she always said—she began to fool around with them. I told her to behave—but she wouldn’t listen to me.

So when a woman lets down her man, the man has to show who’s the boss!”

“What did you do?’

“The man-thing—I left the bitch at two in the morning on the roadside.

I do regret it though, for those guys from the next table probably picked her up—and the things they did to her with an iron rod—I can’t even begin to explain. Luckily, no one was able to trace her back to me—or my in-laws would have tonsure my head and pull out my teeth one by one by now!”

“If you had come forward to the police they would have been able to easily trace these guys from the club? The poor girl would have got justice!”

“Yeah…but you know how it is—one has to think of reputation also,” Sanjiv said, ruffling his head.

“What was her name?” Mikhail stubbed out his cigarette and rose. He looked very calm, and determined.

“Sheena Mukherjee.”

Mikhail unfastened a brick from the balustrade, and struck Sanjiv’s head with full force. As the man toppled over, Mikhail grabbed him under the shoulders and raised him. Then he threw his sister’s wrongdoer over the rails, six floors below. He never even looked over to see what’d become of the man. He walked back to his own room, and slipping off his shoes, lay on his bed.

He lay there a long time; sleep wasn’t coming to him and sleep wasn’t his intention either. ‘There, that’s done,’ he thought, ‘ I have avenged my baby girl. ‘

But wasn’t it your guilt as well,’ his conscience chided him?

‘There, that’s done’—is that so easily said? Are you in the clear? No sir, you are not. It was your turn next, wasn’t it—you know it very well now. Your story was coming up either tomorrow, or the day after. That man was ChitraGupt, or maybe Kalu Dom—who knows? He’s not dead, he’s simply putting destiny in your hands; his job is done. He has weighed, decided, judged your deeds, and you’re marked, marked for Naraka—you know it. God isn’t pleased with you—there’s no point in going back to your life now. It will be torment. You’ve incurred his wrath. Now, repent, atone; there might still be hope for you!

“Hope,” he muttered. He stood up and closed his eyes and said his prayers, the ones his mother had taught him on her lap, and then finished by saying, “ I am sorry Maa…I am sorry Sheena.”

Mikhail slid open the balcony door and climbed atop the railing. A thought occurred to him to scribble a final note for Indrani.

‘She doesn’t deserve the clarity,’ he decided. Let her wonder and ask for a lifetime why I did this. She’ll probably be happy to get the money and move on. The kids? Her girls from her previous marriage—she’d never let them become mine. They’ll be fine.

He spread his arms like an eagle’s wings, and flew.

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