Krishna Shastri, head priest at the Kali temple of Amaravati, considered the row of seven sacred threads hanging by the clothes line in the backyard of his mud-brick house. A frosty morning sun bathed his bare back. He scratched himself behind the right shoulder; an unseasonal overnight shower had left all his threads dripping wet, and if they did not dry within the next hour, he might just be compelled to perform the morning rites at the temple bare-chested.
In the middle of his ruminations, Krishna Shastri thought he heard the sound of a dying motor somewhere near his front gate. A few quiet moments later, Annapurna called out to him.
‘Swami,’ she said, ‘that head-constable has come for you.’
Krishna Shastri’s mind fluttered a little. ‘Who?’ he asked, without turning back.
‘That head-constable,’ said Annapurna. ‘Who came when that woman died in the river.’
That woman. Krishna Shastri immediately knew who Annapurna meant. It had been two years since the death of Padmavati had come and gone, sweeping the village like a hurricane, and he had not heard one word from Venkat Reddy all this time, though they had promised – like all well-meaning acquaintances who were not quite friends – to stay in touch.
If something had driven the policeman all the way down from the gram panchayat headquarters at this hour – Krishna Shastri made a quick mental calculation and ascertained that Venkat Reddy must have left at the crack of dawn – then it could not be a social visit.
He felt each thread in turn and chose the driest one. Sliding it on, he looked over his shoulder and said to Annapurna, ‘Tell him I am coming.’
* * *
The head-constable was stouter and taller than Krishna Shastri remembered him, and now he carried a clean-shaven face set under closely cropped hair. The hat that sat on the stool next to him was not coloured in red and black stripes but in plain khakhi, and it bore the insignia of the Indian Police Service.
‘I got a promotion, Shastri gaaru,’ said Venkat Reddy, rising to his feet and joining his hands together. ‘I am a sub-inspector now.’
‘Ah, is that after the Padmavati incident?’
‘Because of it, I think. All thanks to you.’
Krishna Shastri picked up his glass of tea and emptied it in two large gulps. ‘Has someone else gotten themselves killed in the village?’
Venkat Reddy smiled. ‘Does that mean I cannot visit you unless there is a murder?’
‘It doesn’t mean that you cannot, no,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘It just means that you will not.’
‘You’re right.’ Venkat Reddy grimly looked down at his glass and began to twirl it. ‘But not here. Malladi. Have you heard of Bhaskar Rao, the landlord?’
‘Only by name. He is contesting the elections at the panchayat this year, isn’t he?’
‘Well,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘not anymore. He killed a man last night in cold blood. His brother registered an FIR this morning, just as I was about to finish my night shift.’
‘That shouldn’t matter. Show me a politician who doesn’t have a case to their name.’
Venkat Reddy kept staring at the twirling glass in his hand. ‘True, except it does matter here because Bhaskar Rao has confessed to the crime.’
Krishna Shastri took in the pause to consider Venkat Reddy’s words. Then he said, ‘Well then, I suppose he will not be contesting the elections. If it is all that cut and dried, why are you here?’
‘Because it is not,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘I don’t believe the man did it.’
‘And why not?’
‘Well, for one, he is one of the good men. I don’t believe in god, Shastri gaaru, not quite in the same way you do, but I do believe men are born with a certain amount of good in their hearts, and let me tell you, this man got more than his fair share.’ The policeman looked out at the front gate, where his dusty blue TVS Champ stood mounted on its stand. ‘He did me a few fair turns too, in the past.’
‘I see,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Anything else?’
‘No,’ said Venkat Reddy, finishing off his tea and placing it on the table. ‘No.’
Krishna Shastri sat forward in his chair, and locked his plump hands. ‘Venkat Reddy, I believe in god, I do. I believe in all forms of god, the ones we see and the ones we don’t. But I also believe that every man you meet – even the most pious, the most moral, the most good – is capable of killing. You said that every man is born with a certain amount of good in his heart. I see it differently. It is the bad in a man’s heart, the downright lousy, that I keep a lookout for. And it surfaces, every now and then. Nothing you can do about it.’
Venkat Reddy looked at Krishna Shastri. ‘Is that your way of saying that you won’t come?’
‘That’s my way of saying that I have better things to do than to humour your hunches.’
‘How about I tell you the story and let you decide?’
Krishna Shastri turned his wrist, looked at his watch. ‘My morning pooja begins in forty five minutes.’
‘I will take no more than twenty.’
Krishna Shastri looked through the two open doors, at his backyard, where the six sacred threads were still drying. What harm was there in listening to the man? Twenty minutes of gossip, that was all it was. Harmless, idle talk from the neighbouring village.
‘Fine,’ he said. He sank back in his chair and called out to his wife for a glass of water.
* * *
‘The facts of the case are quite simple,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘At least at first glance. Two men spend the night in the same room, locked from the inside. In the morning, one of them discovers that the other is dead. Nine times out of ten, you would say the survivor is the murderer. Yes?’
‘Ninety nine times out of hundred,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Who is the man that Bhaskar Rao spent the night with?’
‘Bhaskar Rao has been ailing for a while now,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Has had trouble sleeping, and there is a heart condition too, I hear. He takes a rather strong sleeping pill every night, and ever since he’s begun the course, they say he has been a little woozy.’
‘What do they mean, woozy?’
‘Woozy. He forgets things. Cracks the same joke again and again. That kind of thing. His servant, Govind, and Govind’s wife, Parvati, live in the same house. The fourth member of the house is Sudarshan, Bhaskar Rao’s younger brother.’
‘He’s the one who brought in the case against his brother?’
Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘Both the brothers came in together this morning. The elder one was quite contrite. He practically confessed.’
‘Practically, you say.’
‘Yes,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘That was what first alerted me to it. He kept saying that he must have killed Govind. Now, I’ve heard confessions, Shastri gaaru, the person says either I did it or I did not. No one ever says I must have done it. You know?’
‘Yes,’ said Krishna Shastri, sitting forward in his chair. ‘That is strange.’
‘The problem is, though,’ said Venkat Reddy in disgust, ‘he is right. He is the only one in the house who could have done it. The man Govind was all right at night, when he went into his master’s room and locked himself in. He carried his daily quarter of arrack with him. Parvati tells me that it was half-empty by the time he finished his dinner and left her.’
‘What killed him, in the end?’
‘Poison,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘The results are not in yet, but the doctor at the scene said it looked a lot like strychnine. Loss of motor control, then dizziness, convulsions, and finally, death by asphyxiation. Govind had a torrid time of it in the last few minutes of his life.’
‘You found the container where the poison came from?’
‘We did. Under Bhaskar Rao’s bed. Quite a lot of it in the house too, in all sorts of containers. They use it in pesticides, apparently.’
‘That’s right,’ said Krishna Shastri, and looked at his watch again. The sound of the first bell at the temple came to their ears. That meant that Ravi, his attendant priest, had begun proceedings already. If he had any hope of reaching on time, he must cut this interview short right now, and he must put on a new, yellow, thicker thread around his chest and set off on a run.
Seetaraamaiah would be there. He wouldn’t be happy if Krishna Shastri didn’t turn up.
Mother Kali would be there too, expecting him. She wouldn’t be too pleased either.
But problems like these did not appear every day. People like Venkat Reddy did not seek out his help every morning. Mother would understand, wouldn’t she? She would. Seetaraamaiah – well, he could think whatever he wished.
‘Annapurna,’ he called out.
‘Oye,’ she said from inside the kitchen.
‘Can you send Murari to the temple with a message that I have fallen sick? Tell them to finish the pooja without me.’
* * *
An hour later, Krishna Shastri found himself standing at the gate of a large, lemon-yellow-painted house in Malladi. The TVS Champ had a soft, spongy cushion, but the pillion ride on the bumpy road had left him sore. As they walked toward the front door, he found a surreptitious moment to rub himself on the buttocks with both hands.
A woman who looked older than she probably was opened the door. Her blackened eyes stirred with faint recognition when they fell on Venkat Reddy.
‘This is Krishna Shastri,’ said the policeman by way of introduction. ‘He has come to help us with the paperwork.’
She smiled, as though as she knew all about ‘helping with the paperwork.’
Venkat Reddy led him to the living room first (a large, airy rectangle with upholstered chairs set around a glass-top coffee table), then through one of the side doors into the main bedroom. He slid the latch shut behind them.
Krishna Shastri took a deep breath, and was aware of a faint pungency in the air.
Two straight-backed frail chairs had been propped up against the wall, clear of the armchair and bed that sat next to each other in the centre. In the left corner stood a hefty black metal safe, built into the wall and laced with fine dust at the top.
‘It happened here?’
‘Yes,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘As you can see, the windows are shut. I opened them in the morning to let in some air. And closed them just before I left to get you.’
Krishna Shastri walked over to the windows and tried the bolts. They were firmly in place.
‘Frosted glass too,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘You cannot see through it, either way.’
‘Where did you find the empty bottle of poison?’
‘Here.’ Venkat Reddy pointed to a spot under the bed, roughly equidistant between the four legs. ‘I did not find it, of course. The brothers did, this morning, and told me about it when I came.’
Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘Bhaskar Rao’s.’
A knock appeared on the door, a soft, tentative one. When Venkat Reddy said, ‘Come in,’ the head of a long-faced man with straight greying hair peeked in.
‘We might be better off talking in the living room, Inspector,’ he said. ‘This room still carries the fumes.’
* * *
Sudarshan Rao considered Krishna Shastri with pleasant suspicion when they stepped out into the hall. ‘A friend of yours, I fancy, sir?’ he said to Venkat Reddy, while signalling to Parvati to scurry away into the kitchen in search of refreshments.
She returned in a trice, before they’d had a chance to occupy their chairs, bearing a tray filled with three steel glasses brimming with water.
‘Have you had a chance to think about what I said this morning?’ he asked Venkat Reddy, after a suitable amount of time had passed. ‘We’d like things to stay quiet –’ He stopped short, and laughed as if just discovering something. ‘Boy, that sounds shady, as if I am giving you a bribe or something. But Parvati here will tell you too, sir. She doesn’t want a case against my brother. She is happy to go with a suicide verdict, if you are.’
Venkat Reddy said tightly, ‘We concern ourselves just with the facts. The verdict is left to the judge, if it comes to that.’
‘Certainly,’ said Sudarshan, with a smile. ‘Certainly.’
‘Now if you could go over what happened last night once more, just for the benefit of my friend here –’
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ said Sudarshan, eyeing Krishna Shastri. ‘My brother woke me up this morning in a state of great agitation. I asked him what it was, and he said that when he woke up, he found Govind sitting in his armchair by the bed. His unfinished bottle of arrack was standing on the floor next to him, and he was quite, quite dead.
‘We hurried down to the bedroom, and we found the room exactly as my brother said it was. He had left Parvati standing guard by her husband’s body. The windows were shut, bolted from the inside. There is no other opening to the room except through the door, which was locked on the inside the whole night. I saw my brother and Govind retire to the room yesterday, before I went up to my room.’
Krishna Shastri, who was listening all this while with the eyes of a ferret, said, ‘That bottle of poison under the bed –’
‘It’s not exactly a bottle,’ said Sudarshan, glancing once in Venkat Reddy’s direction, and flicking away a lock of hair that fell on his forehead. ‘It’s more like a tin can. We have tons of strychnine stored in sacks in the store room. Bhaskar must have gotten some of it. Or maybe Govind got some, intending to poison Bhaskar and make away with the jewels.’
Sudarshan cast a careful eye in the direction of the kitchen, where Parvati had disappeared. He lowered his voice. ‘I happen to know that Govind is not doing all that well financially. Lost a lot of money gambling, Parvati tells me.’
‘So you think it was Govind who planned to poison your brother?’
Sudarshan shrugged. ‘It is as the Inspector says. We can only look at the facts. Either my brother carried the poison into the room with the intention of killing Govind, or Govind did with the intention of killing my brother. I entertain both possibilities.’
‘Does your brother have a motive for killing Govind?’
‘No,’ said Sudarshan. Then, after a moment of thought, with more emphasis: ‘No. But my brother has been a little erratic in the recent past. He is on this medication that has put him on edge. Who knows what Govind must have said or done that has offended him?’
‘To the point of wanting to kill him?’
Sudarshan shrugged again. ‘I am just telling you what I know. Bhaskar doesn’t remember anything, of course, but I know for a fact that he didn’t take his tablet last night. So he shouldn’t have been sleeping as soundly as he said he was. If anything, he should have been wide awake because the tablet is what knocks him out.’
Krishna Shastri and Venkat Reddy exchanged glances.
Sudarshan leaned forward in his seat, reached into his pocket for something. He brought out a half-torn strip of tablets. A doctor’s prescription was tied around it by means of a green rubber band. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘The prescription was taken out twenty days ago, and we’re supposed to give him one tablet a day. This is a strip of thirty. If he had taken yesterday’s tablet, we should have ten left. But we have eleven.’
Krishna Shastri took the bundle from the man’s hands and turned it over. Then he slid off the rubber band and counted the tablets. Sudarshan was right; there were eleven tablets in the strip.
‘As for motive,’ Sudarshan was saying, ‘I am afraid you will have to ask my brother himself why he did it.’
* * *
After the younger brother had stepped out of the house (to walk around the fields once, he said), Venkat Reddy led Krishna Shastri back into the bedroom. He produced a set of keys and used them to open the safe.
‘See,’ said the policeman. ‘The jewels are still here.’
Krishna Shastri placed his hand on the open door. The inside of the safe was built in three shelves. The bottom two were empty. Right in the middle of the top shelf was a bundle of jewels in a gunny sack, tied at the mouth with a black-and-brown drawing rope. ‘Do they keep their jewels tied up like this, always?’
Venkat Reddy was about to say something, but Parvati’s arrival stymied him.
The woman came in trembling like a leaf. If Venkat Reddy had not hurried to her side and guided her to one of the sitting chairs by the wall, she would have crumbled to the ground in a dead faint. Her eyes were pinched red around the edges, and puffy bags of loose skin were beginning to form under them.
Yes, Sudarshan babu was right. She did not want a case against Bhaskar babu. Even Govind would have wanted her to withdraw all charges. It did look like Bhaskar babu killed her Govind, but why would he? Yes, Govind did have money troubles, but did not all men? Would he have killed Bhaskar babu for the jewels? No way. Both Govind and she had been loyal servants of the family for the longest time – almost thirty years now – so if Govind had wanted money, all he should have done was ask the master. He didn’t have to take such a step.
The drink that Govind carried inside the room last night – it was not poisoned. Govind had been drinking from it for a good two hours before he went to Bhaskar babu’s room. All she had heard the following morning was Bhaskar babu banging on the door of her room and yelling at her to come out. And then asking her to stand by the door, with her Govind sitting on the chair inside. Dead.
Tears filled her eyes as she recounted this part of her tale. Spasms racked her body, and she buried her eyes in her palms. Venkat Reddy allowed her to cry, watching Krishna Shastri take another long look at the bundled up jewels inside the safe.
‘Parvati,’ he said, in a voice that startled the old lady and made her look up. ‘Do you take out the house trash every morning?’
‘Sir, yes, sir,’ she said, and looked at Venkat Reddy, as if for refuge.
‘And where do you dump it?’
‘There is an empty plot down the street, sir. The municipality fellows come every Sunday and collect it from there.’
‘Ah!’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Today is just Tuesday. We’re in luck! Venkat Reddy, do you have a constable on the premises?’
Venkat Reddy looked up, frowning. ‘Yes?’
Krishna Shastri looked straight at Parvati while speaking. ‘I need him to go hunting in the dump for something. Will he?’
‘I am sure he will,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘As long as you tell him what he is trying to find.’
* * *
Bhaskar Rao looked nothing like his brother at first glance. He had a generous, heavyset body that refused to move without creaking at one joint or the other. He had a round face with a pink oval bulb for a nose, and eyes that sparkled with delight each time he spoke. He wore a kurta that was at least a couple of sizes too big for him, so as he descended the stairs and made for one of the chairs in the living room, he looked like a floating balloon with jeans-wearing legs sticking out of it.
‘This is an unfortunate incident,’ he said, smacking his lips. ‘Govind was like a brother to me. Will it make it any less damning, Inspector, if I admitted that I have no memory whatsoever of killing him?’
‘I doubt it,’ said Venkat Reddy tartly. ‘If you could just tell us the stuff that you do remember.’
‘Right. Very right. Last night, Sudarshan and I were here, in this very living room. He was sitting where you are now, in that big chair. And I was here. We were talking – and I don’t mind admitting to you that there was a bit of an argument.’
‘About what, sir, if I may ask?’ said Krishna Shastri.
Bhaskar Rao smiled ruefully. ‘What do brothers fight about, sir, besides money and parents? Our parents are long gone, bless them, so what does that leave?’
‘I thought you had enough money between yourselves.’
A dark shadow crept into the man’s features. ‘Not if you have a brother like mine, sir. I don’t wash my dirty linen in public, but it is hardly a secret in these parts. If there is a vice that Sudarshan does not enjoy, the devil has not yet invented it.’
‘He was telling us this morning how Govind has money problems too.’
For a big man, Bhaskar Rao had small hands. He waved one of them away now, in a gesture of impatience. ‘Govind’s money problems are nothing but mites. Sudarshan – well, if he could, Sudarshan would happily gobble up all the wealth we have in less than a year.’
Venkat Reddy cleared his throat. ‘You were telling us about last night.’
‘Yes, we were sitting here, Sudarshan and I. We were – er – talking in an excited fashion, shall we say. He wanted money, as usual. I said no, as usual. He tried negotiating, but in that irritatingly good-natured way of his, shrugged and gave up. I said good night and went with Govind into the room.’
‘Just a second, sir,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Before you retired last night, did you or did you not take your nightly pill?’
‘You know, that’s the thing – I just don’t remember. A part of me tells me that I did, because it has become such a routine thing for me now that I don’t know why I’d miss. But this morning, Sudarshan tells me that I didn’t, and he shows me the strip and the prescription, so perhaps he’s right. Perhaps I didn’t.’
‘You mean you don’t remember?’
Bhaskar Rao shook his head. ‘I don’t. You know how it is – you don’t remember the things you do every day, especially when you’re constantly talking to yourself inside your mind.’
‘In this case, you were talking to yourself about your younger brother.’
‘That’s right. Now of course, the medication does its bit in making me a little more absentminded than usual. So maybe it’s that. I don’t know. Anyway, we go into the bedroom, Govind and I. We talk about this and that. Govind is sipping on his drink, and he’s telling me in that slurring voice of his that I should go a little bit easier on Sudarshan. We do this for around fifteen minutes, and I nod off to sleep.’
He paused at that and looked away, as if waiting for some soft inner voice to whisper into his mind. Then he said, ‘I wake up in the morning, and the man is dead.’
‘You heard nothing?’ said Venkat Reddy.
‘Nothing. I woke up at six in the morning, as usual. And I ask Govind to get me my glass of milk, and he doesn’t stir. I sit up and tell him to turn on the light. Nothing. I do it myself and see that his eyes are open. And he’s not seeing me. He’s not seeing anything.’
‘Do you recall taking along with you the container of poison that was found under your bed?’
‘No. But I don’t recall poisoning Govind either. I – these medicines I’ve been taking – they have these side effects. I become more passionate in these blackout periods. And I don’t remember them at all. They’ve told me that it has happened a few times, which is why they wanted Govind to sleep with me in the same room, you know. Just in case the devil gets into me or something.’
He tried to smile, but Krishna Shastri could tell that he was embarrassed. He had been a strong man in his youth, one could tell. Such a fall toward senility could shame anyone.
A patter of metal boots on the steps outside interrupted whatever it was that Venkat Reddy had begun to say. The constable marched in and saluted them. Venkat Reddy went with him into the bedroom and closed the door behind them.
‘Do you think we could persuade the judge to return a case of temporary insanity?’ said Bhaskar Rao.
‘I don’t know, sir,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘But I am willing to bet your brother is doing his best to get you off.’
‘He is, he is,’ said Bhaskar Rao. ‘I must say, he has been awfully good ever since this happened. Gee, it has only been hours, hasn’t it? It feels like much longer.’ A thoughtful pause later, he said, ‘Maybe Govind was right. Maybe I ought to be less harsh with him.’
The bedroom door opened. The constable stepped out and said to Krishna Shastri, ‘The boss wants you inside, sir.’
Getting up, Krishna Shastri faced Bhaskar Rao. ‘One final question. Do you always keep the jewels in your safe bundled up in a sack?’
Bhaskar Rao looked up, in a combination of puzzlement and surprise. ‘I – haven’t the foggiest clue –’
Krishna Shastri smiled kindly at him. ‘Nor should you. Now if you will excuse me.’ He turned and went past the constable into the room.
* * *
Venkat Reddy sat on the chair that Parvati had occupied not more than a couple of hours ago. He was holding up something in front of his eyes, against the light of the window. When Krishna Shastri came in, he lowered the object and waved him over to the seat next to him.
‘The constable found this in the dump,’ he said, handing over the strip of tablets.
Krishna Shastri took it, and raised it to the light himself. It was a strip of thirty out of which ten slots were filled and the other twenty were hollowed out. ‘I didn’t know,’ he said in a whisper. ‘But I guessed it should be around somewhere.’
‘Care to explain?’
Krishna Shastri sighed. It was this part that made him queasy in the stomach. He looked around the room. He was filled with a sudden desire to leave for the cool comfort of his temple’s inner sanctum, to the soothing sound of brass bells, to the fragrant camphor, to the Mother’s loving eye. With an effort he restrained the muscles of his throat, and clenched his fists close.
He signalled to the constable to shut the door.
When it was just him and Venkat Reddy again in the room, he said, ‘From the beginning, Govind could have been killed by one of just three people: Bhaskar Rao, Sudarshan and Parvati. Of course, the fourth option is that he committed suicide, but that I discounted after coming here.’ He looked around him, at the bare, dour walls. ‘This looks like a house in which a murder was committed.
‘Now, out of the three possible suspects, we thought of Bhaskar Rao the most, because he is the one inside the locked room with the victim for the whole night. Two men go into a room at night and lock themselves in, you said. When one ends up dead in the morning, it follows that the other has killed him. Do you still believe that?’
‘Yes?’ said Venkat Reddy, eyes fixed on the frosted window glass in front of him.
‘The conclusion is true,’ said Krishna Shastri, the emptiness in his stomach deepening, ‘only if the implicit assumption is true: that the room stayed locked throughout the night. What if it didn’t?’
‘You’re saying Bhaskar Rao opened the door during the night for someone to come in and kill Govind?’
‘I am saying someone opened the door from the inside,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘And let someone in. The visitor – let’s call the person that – poisons Govind’s drink and goes out. Then someone locks the door from the inside.’
‘If Govind is dead, that someone who locks the door after the visitor leaves must be Bhaskar Rao. In that case, if he is not the actual murderer, he is at least a confederate.’
Krishna Shastri held up the strip of tablets. ‘You see this? Bhaskar Rao did take his tablet yesterday. In fact, he slept through the night without a care for the world.’
Venkat Reddy got out of his chair and began to pace the room, hands held together behind his back. ‘Govind opened the door? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘That is what I’m saying.’
‘We will get to the why later,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘First, let’s look at the how. After retiring to the bedroom with Bhaskar Rao, and after the master has gone to sleep, Govind unlocks the door from the inside, and allows his visitor in. This person distracts Govind for long enough to poison his drink, and then leaves the way he comes. Govind locks the door behind him, returns to his seat, and takes a few more sips from his drink. The poison begins to act.’ Krishna Shastri’s eyes locked with the legs of the armchair next to the bed. ‘He begins to feel dizzy, but he thinks it’s because of the drink. Then he begins to get convulsions, and by then it’s too late. He tries to wake up Bhaskar Rao, but the man has been drugged to sleep. And Govind’s voice has already become too feeble, with the combined effect of the poison and the alcohol.’
‘You tell it as if you were there.’
Krishna Shastri shook himself and smiled. ‘The first most important clue was the empty poison can. It was placed under the bed, almost in the middle, as if someone had bent down and placed it there with their arm extended. When you first showed me the spot, I told myself, why, that’s an inconvenient place to put it. But of course, there was a reason for it.’
Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘The visitor did not want Govind to find it.’
‘But he wanted us to find it, you see,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘So he had to hide it well, out of sight but in the room. Under the bed is a good bet. Picture this: while Govind is distracted with whatever he’s doing, the visitor poisons the remainder of the servant’s drink, and then bends down to place the can under the bed. This last action doesn’t take long; just a moment or so.’
Krishna Shastri’s rounded shoulders went up and down in an easy motion. ‘The visitor comes wearing gloves. He presses the sleeping brother’s fingers to the container before he bends down to place it under the bed.’
Venkat Reddy pursed his lips, then nodded. ‘Now can we go to the why?’
‘The other important clue in the room is that of the bundled up jewels. I asked Bhaskar Rao about it, and he reacted as if I had said the most outrageous thing in the world. Indeed, it is. Who keeps their jewels in a safe bundled up, as if one was preparing to haul them off into a cart and run at a moment’s notice? And this gave rise to another question: if the person did bundle up the jewels, why did he not run with them? Why did he leave them behind?
‘The only way to explain this is if the visitor was playing a double game with Govind. The plan, ostensibly, and as far as Govind knows, is to steal the jewels. Notice how we’ve been told that Govind and Parvati have been loyal servants to the family for the last thirty years. The family, Venkat Reddy, not any one member of the family. Now what do you do if one of the family members asks you to do something that the other disapproves? You find your loyalty divided, don’t you?
‘You mean Sudarshan,’ said Venkat Reddy.
Krishna Shastri nodded. ‘Recall how Govind has asked Bhaskar Rao to go easy on the younger brother. There are signs that Govind likes Sudarshan, even though – or maybe because – he is a man besotted with vices. And they both share money troubles, if nothing else.
‘So Sudarshan tells Govind that they will go for the jewels. There will be no danger whatsoever to the master. He will sleep through it all. The plan would have been to make it seem like a regular robbery of some sort, with Govind and Sudarshan sharing in the spoils. Sudarshan would knock on the door, Govind would open, and then Govind would hand over the jewels to Sudarshan, who would leave as he had come, and then they would tell their lies come morning. That was the plan anyway.
‘But here’s where Govind underestimated Sudarshan. Sudarshan was not content with the jewels. He wants the entire family wealth. So he hatches a plan of his own. This plan is more sinister – he would kill Govind and frame his brother for it.’
Venkat Reddy’s mouth twisted in distaste, and Krishna Shastri smiled up at him.
‘I notice that you’re seeing the depravity of it, Venkat Reddy,’ he said. ‘As per plan, Sudarshan enters the room. As per plan he asks Govind to open the safe, and begin bundling up the jewels. While Govind is engaged in doing that, Sudarshan drops the poison into Govind’s drink, presses the fingers of his sleeping brother to the can, and places it out of plain sight, under the bed. Then he gets up. Govind is still packing the jewels. He taps him on the shoulder, tells him that he has forgotten to get something. Finish bundling up the jewels and wait for my knock, he tells him.
‘He reminds Govind to lock the door on the inside. Then he goes to his room and waits for the morning. He must have impressed upon Govind in strong terms that he is not to come looking for Sudarshan, that he must wait for the knock.’
‘But what if Govind had not drunk another sip of his drink after Sudarshan left?’
Krishna Shastri said, ‘That was a fair risk. Sudarshan had to be entirely unlucky for that to happen. Govind was a man fond of drink. He drank from early evening late into the night on most days. And here, he was being asked to wait. What does a man who is fond of drink do when he is waiting for another man, especially when there is a half-full bottle by his side? Why, he drinks.’
‘And the strip?’
Krishna Shastri took a long breath. ‘The strip was where Sudarshan miscalculated. Either Bhaskar Rao had his tablet or he didn’t. If he had it, he would have slept through the night. If he didn’t, he would have stayed awake and remembered what happened. The fact that Sudarshan was trying to tell us that Bhaskar forgot to have his tablet, yet forgot what happened – well, it might be theoretically possible, but it felt that things were too perfect. And when he brought out the dated prescription with the strip, I just knew it was fake. The whole thing.’
‘You know,’ said Venkat Reddy, stretching his hand out for the strip. ‘That was the feeling I got in the morning. That things were too perfect. Not a hair out of place.’
‘The rest was just framing,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Over time, he has convinced his brother that he was doing and saying things that he could not remember. Some of this behaviour might be a genuine side effect of the drug, but I have no doubt that Sudarshan amplified its effect. So this morning, when he must have softly suggested that it was he who killed Govind, and followed it up with the impeccable logic of how two men went into a locked room and one died, Bhaskar Rao must have himself felt that the weight of evidence pointed at him.’
‘So he confessed.’
‘In that peculiar way of his, yes,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘He did not say I did it. He said I must have done it.’
In the dim silence of the room in which a man was killed less than twelve hours ago, neither priest nor sub-inspector spoke for a full minute.
‘What now?’ said Venkat Reddy at last.
‘Nothing,’ replied Krishna Shastri. ‘You heard the brothers. The lady doesn’t want a case. Your job is to present the facts. Let the judge decide, if it comes to that.’
‘Would you like to stick around?’
Krishna Shastri joined his hands and said, ‘No, sir! Please tell whoever asks that I have finished helping you with your paperwork, and that I have long returned to my real place.’
* * *
And so around noon, as Venkat Reddy was clicking a pair of handcuffs around the wrists of Sudarshan Rao in Malladi, Krishna Shastri was pillion-riding a dusty blue TVS Champ, driven by a constable, on the pothole-ridden road back to Amaravati. He could dissect evil and scrutinize it, but he lacked the courage to look it in the eye; he’d realized it with Padmavati’s death.
The vehicle turned the final bend, and the murmur of the Krishna filled his ears. That calmed his fraying nerves. He recited a short prayer under his breath, entreating the Mother to bring solace to all burning souls – to Parvati, riddled with grief for her dead husband; to Bhaskar, consumed with shame for his brother’s sin; to Venkat Reddy, driven by the desire to be just and fair; and to Sudarshan, to Sudershan most of all, who was as much the Goddess’s child as everyone else in the universe.