The night had been, well, dark. It still was. There was a little more time for the sun to arrive at the hazy horizon. The only semblance of light in the middle-class housing colony seeped from the seams of a closed second-floor window. Inside, a beautiful middle-aged woman in a plain white saree was giving finishing touches to the make-up of a younger version of herself.
It was rare, even considered inauspicious: a widow dressing up a bride. But then, nobody else was there to do it for her daughter. For what it was worth, the adorning wasn’t for the wedding itself, so it was probably okay. Oddly, however, the obscenely expensive bridal jewelry didn’t seem to belong in a house like that. It was a cramped single-bedroom apartment, with just the bare essentials.
“He loves you so much,” the mother said, pride and content written all over her face. The young daughter stayed silent; her tender, divine face showed no response, divulging none of what was going on behind those exuberant black eyes. Not even when her mother applied a small spot of kohl on her chin: to ward off evil.
Glancing at the old timepiece that showed ten past five, the mother panicked, “Oh no! Your journey has to start before five thirty-three!” She was particular about following the ‘panjika,’ the astrological almanac that marked minutes of each day as lucky or otherwise.
As soon as the mother rushed out to check if the taxi had come, the daughter opened a table drawer and took out a small old framed photograph of a man. For the first time in hours, her face expressed something, though it was difficult to say whether it was sadness, vengeance, determination or a mix of all three.
“The cab is here!” The mother exclaimed as she rushed back, but stopped at once, seeing the photo. She grimaced. It was an involuntary reaction. It wasn’t unexpected. But before she could comment about it, the daughter packed it in her red hard-side suitcase and locked it up.
It was five twenty eight when the mother saw off her daughter who had by now covered all her bridal finery with a light woolen shawl. As soon as the taxi left the colony, a tall young man with a stubble emerged from the shadows behind the mother.
“Be careful, Bhaskar,” said the woman, having expected the fellow to be there just as she had asked him to. “She shouldn’t see you. Follow her all the way to Lakhnabad, till she reaches Chaudhari Bhavan.”
The instruction was explicit. Bhaskar nodded, put on his helmet and kickstarted his bike.
Chaudhari Bhavan beamed with all its cream-and-maroon-painted grandeur under the bright morning sky. Four storeys tall, it looked down, literally, if not also figuratively, upon the neighbouring bungalows in Hayaat Colony, the poshest neighbourhood in Lakhnabad city.
Hurriedly rushing in through the main gate with a bagful of freshly bought carrots, a scrawny sixty-two-year-old man secretly thanked the heavens for not having to go through the security guard’s pat-down. Although it was his extreme loyalty towards the Chaudharis that had earned him such privilege, he attributed even his thirty years of serving the family to the Goddess Durga’s blessings.
“Duggadas!!” He heard Nayanadevi yell his name, and at once broke into a run into the grand, opulent drawing hall and up the wide, aristrocratic marble stairs that led to the first floor. He could tell, from the tone of the call, that the grand old ‘Thakurma’ was in a bad mood that morning. Like most mornings.
When he reached the first floor, he saw Nayanadevi’s daughter-in-law – the petite middle-aged Madhumita – coming from the other end of the corridor. He waited as she tossed the key-bunch-attached end of her elegant off-white handloom saree over the shoulder, and promptly handed her the bag.
“Ahha…nice!” said Madhumita sweetly, admiring the fresh carrots. But even before she could turn with the bag or Duggadas could take another step towards Nayanadevi’s room, damn, the matriarch had stepped out.
One single second was enough to elicit sarcasm from the old woman. Putting on an intentionally fake pleading grin, she cooed, “Duggadas, when, or rather if, you get a little free time after serving Madhu Madam, could you be kind enough to get my clothes from the drycleaners?”
Madhumita just smiled with a defeated sigh. Over the decades, she had become quite immune to her mother-in-law’s disdainful attitude towards her.
As Duggadas rushed back down the stairs, Madhumita turned to head towards the east-end staircase for the kitchen. As she walked away, she could hear Nayanadevi muttering, “I hope the stupid drycleaners haven’t spoiled my clothes; otherwise I’ll have to select some other saree for the Delhi exhibition.”
Madhumita stopped at once. “Delhi?” And turned. “But Ma, I thought you said you were not going to inaugurate that exhibition…?”
“Oh I’m so sorry, Madhu, I forgot to ask for your permission before changing my mind!” The theatrics returned at once.
“No Ma, it’s just that Raktim is returning today, so I thought…”’
“So you thought I’d tell my Delhi friends to postpone their art exhibition because my busy grandson Raktim Chaudhari has benevolently decided to give me a darshan after one whole month?”
Without even waiting for Madhumita’s response, Nayanadevi went back into her room. Madhumita accepted defeat. She had planned an evening party to celebrate Raktim’s success, but her other children had shown no interest in it. While Pratim was still fast asleep after staggering into the house in the wee hours, Urvashi had skipped breakfast and gone off God knows where.
Even Juthika, her late husband’s single sister, had secretly sneaked out of the house just a little while ago. So that left just Madhumita to supervise the arrangements for Raktim’s welcome.
“Don’t look now,” came the familiar voice on the phone. “But you’re being followed.”
The driver didn’t register his female passenger’s irritated groan as she disconnected. As it is, all the jewelry under the shawl had been weighing her down for the past two hours or so. And now this.
Without making any abrupt movements, she angled and glanced at the rearview mirror. Even through the sea of morning office goers on two and four-wheelers, she was able to catch a glimpse of the distinctive peacock-blue helmet which she knew too well. Bhaskar, who else?
“Take the next left,” she instructed the driver. All it took was a couple of seconds for her to take stock.
The cabbie got confused. It was a right turn that would take them to Hayaat Colony – that too, four more signals down the road. He looked behind to discuss it, but even before he could utter a word, she nodded blankly, implying that she knew what she was asking him to do.
Bhaskar panicked as the taxi took the turn seconds before the signal turned red. Not one to give up, he deftly maneuvered his bike through the little gaps, scraping a car here, swearing at a biker there. The ‘safe distance’ that he had been maintaining from before sunrise had become a problem now. But he finally turned left, breaking the signal, and bravely pierced through the traffic shooting from his right. When he reached the service road, the taxi had gone quite farther ahead, so he shifted the gear to speed up.
The young woman was no less. Unlike her mother’s minion, she knew the roads and bylanes of Lakhnabad like the back of her hand. Consequently, a few more left-rights and close-dodges later, she managed to lose the guy on her tail.
When Bhaskar totally lost sight of the cab, he stopped his bike, lit a cigarette, and started preparing himself to face the punishment for having goofed up the job.
“You thought you could escape from me so easily?”
Saying this, Ananya seductively raised an eyebrow, and giggled in her luscious, husky voice. Her eyes were fixed on Raktim even as she poured champagne from an exquisite bottle into two glasses. He looked hot, clad in a black tuxedo suit, smiling at her. In his eyes, she could see the reflected glitter of the black silk gown that flowed on her curvy body. The dim-lit ambience was adding to the dreamlike moment.
“I know that you always get whatever you want, can possess anyone that you may desire,” she said stylishly handing a glass to him and clinked it with her own. “But don’t forget… that I am no ordinary girl, either. I rule the dreams of all men, however intelligent, rich or powerful they may be. But, ah, what’s the point? I have eyes only for you! Come on, reward my selfless love with your own, Raktim!”
Ananya was jolted by the yell. When the studio lights came on, all the unit hands came into full view, and she came back to reality.
The film’s director Gagan Deodhar a.k.a. GD, irately rushed to her saying, “Ananya, the hero’s name is Proshun, not Raktim!”
It was now, when Ananya glanced at the tuxedo-clad actor, that her dream about Raktim finally scattered into the four winds. She mumbled with a frown, “I need a break, GD!”
GD promptly announced a ten-minute break for all. When Ananya walked towards her vanity van, she saw Raktim’s sister Urvashi arriving. They enthusiastically rubbed cheek against cheek and air-kissed.
“Ananya di, if I give you some special news about Raktim da, will you recommend me to GD for his next film’s heroine role?” asked Urvashi, spelling out her agenda without wasting time.
“Hmm… Depends on the news!”
“Raktim da is returning today!”
Compared with the expensive, luxurious cars of Chaudhari Bhavan, this car was much smaller, older and clearly cheaper. Even then, the guard let the car in through the main gate without a check. In fact, he even saluted.
The car belonged to Anshuman, Raktim’s brother-in-law. Even before Anshuman could stop the car, Bipasha opened the rear-seat door and complained, “Huh! The air outside is better than this AC! I don’t understand why you cannot sell off this junk of a car!”
Before Anshuman could respond, their son Lucky beside him brightly said, “Because right now, Papa doesn’t have enough money to buy an expensive car!” Though Anshuman proudly ruffled his son’s hair, Bipasha muttered as she alighted, “Like Papa, like son! Not even a little sense of class!”
Anshuman just smiled dismissively and turned the car. After dropping Lucky to school, he had to also reach office on time.
When Bipasha entered the hall, Nayanadevi was reading the newspaper at the sofa.
“Ah, Bipasha? Come, my child!” Nayanadevi effused. “I so love it, this thing that you do, finding excuses to come over here every other day!”
“I don’t need excuses to come to my own house, and definitely no one’s permission!” Bipasha said, and at once called out for Duggadas. When he came, she asked him to tidy up Raktim’s room before he reached.
“I’ve got his room cleaned, Bipasha,” said Madhumita lovingly as she came there.
Bipasha let out a deep sigh, and without even looking at her, let alone speak, headed inwards.
Nayanadevi folded and tossed the newspaper aside. And getting up, she said, “Well, before the drama of welcoming Raktim the Great begins, I should leave for the airport!”
“What?!!!” Pratim’s scream seemed to shake up the whole mansion. He had stopped midway down the stairs, his trembling hands holding the cordless phone close to his ear.
“B-but h-how did this happen?”
Madhumita and Nayanadevi were now alert, curious what the matter was.
“Huh…B-but who are you? H-hello? Hello?!!!”
As the phone got disconnected at the other end, Pratim lifelessly staggered and sat down on the steps. The phone fell off his hand, but he was mindless of it.
Madhumita rushed to him and asked, “What happened, son? Who was it that called?”
“Huh?… Er… R-Raktim da and Mitter Babu were coming in a car… and th-they m-met with an ac-cident…”
Nayanadevi was jolted at once. As for Madhumita, life seemed to leave her body that very moment.
“You won’t understand a mother’s agony!”
When the taxi had gone out of his sight, Bhaskar had imagined that he would be punished badly. But here, all the lady did was cry.
“Oh, where would my daughter have disappeared to? God, please keep her safe!”
In Chaudhari Bhavan’s hall, along with Nayanadevi, Madhumita, Bipasha, Pratim and Urvashi, there was also Anshuman. As soon as he had got the news, he had rushed there straight from Lucky’s school. They were all standing scattered in the hall, their utter silence echoing the shock and uncertainty in the air.
For now, all they could do was wait and let the fact emerge on its own. Raktim loved fast cars, and despite Madhumita’s constant pleas, he would always prefer driving rather than take a flight on business trips. He didn’t even inform anyone about the road routes that he would take. As of now, both Raktim’s as well as his trusted personal assistant Mitter Babu’s mobiles were being announced as out of coverage area. The anonymous caller had called on the old, hardly-used land line without a caller i.d. facility, so it was difficult to find out where he’d called from, let alone figure who he was. However, from the earnest voice on the phone, Pratim seemed convinced, even if reluctantly, that it was just some concerned accident witness doing his duty of informing them, telling the truth.
Behind a curtain on one side, Duggadas was engrossed in a silent prayer to the Goddess Durga, for the news to turn out false. He couldn’t bear anything untoward happening to anyone in the Chaudhari family, least of all to Raktim, his most favourite in the house.
Outside, the security guard, too, was badly shaken by the news. He was so busy telling his wife about it on the phone, that he didn’t notice the taxi that entered the main gate. Even when he did see, something about the person who alighted – probably the face – mystified him too much to even ask anything.
It was Anshuman who first saw her as she entered the hall. She was covered in her light shawl and was carrying a suitcase. He had no clue as to who she was.
One by one, the others, too, turned and saw her. She could read the same question on all those faces.
In reply, she took off her shawl.
Her attire stunned them at once.
“My name is Aparajita,” she said, mustering courage.
There was not an iota of make-up on the natural clear complexion of her face now. Nor was there any hint of jewelry on any part of her body.
Also, the colour of the suitcase awfully contrasted that of her saree.
The suitcase was red like the blood of life… and the saree, lifeless, spotless white.
“I am Raktim’s widow.”