In the summer of 1991, I was posted to Amaravati mandal as head-constable. In the year 1992, less than a week after Manmohan Singh announced his liberalization plan to make India the ‘back office of the world’, a rather interesting incident involving a prostitute brought me in touch for the first time with Krishna Shastri.
(Venkat Reddy leaned forward and held out the plate of snacks for his guest.)
I stayed in Amaravati until 1998, and in those seven years, I saw more of the priest than I should. You know, they say some places are possessed by the devil – a colleague of mine who served as sub-inspector still tells stories of a sleepy little village in East Godavari where otherworldly things happened almost every day – but Amaravati – no, it was possessed by humans. During my stint I saw the very worst of what man could inflict on another man, and let me tell you, no ghost or ghoul or long-dead soul ever outdoes what we do to each other.
The story I am telling you today happened right in the middle of the summer of 1995. I’d been sub-inspector for no longer than six months then, and none of the economic development of India had yet reached Amaravati. (Some say it hasn’t still, but that’s another story.) We’d been blessed that year by bountiful unseasonal rain in March, which meant we woke up every day to overcast skies and a pleasant nip in the air.
There was also that annoying power cut.
The hardest part of it was not knowing when it would go. If you knew that you would not have power from – say – seven in the morning to twelve noon, you would plan for it. It was still a pain, but it was a pain you could manage, you know? But this year, they were upgrading equipment (yes, that’s what they said) at the electricity board up the river in Guntur, and it would just trip at any moment. No warning, just poof! One moment your motor is pumping water, your grinder is churning out flour, your television is blaring – and the next, they’ve all fallen silent like dead rocks.
It was on a morning like this that I got a call on the office phone (we had two of them, a black one for regular complaints, and a white one for VIP calls from above; this time it was blackie that rang), and the constable at the local station at Nemalikollu asked if I would be able to swing that way.
‘Is it not something you can handle on your own?’ I asked. To tell you the truth I was reluctant to go out; even in those days the mandal police station had a kerosene generator, which meant the ceiling fans kept going all day.
The man at the other end – I forget his name now, but he was a nice sort of fellow, I remember that – hesitated a little. He said, ‘I can if you want me to, boss, but I’d prefer it if you came down.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Someone big. You’ve heard of Pankajamma?’
Nemalikollu was a smaller town then than it is now, maybe had a population of two thousand, and Pankajamma’s was one of the wealthier houses. She was by no means powerful, nor did she have fame, but she did own enough acres of land for people in the village to speak in whispers behind her back. They said she’d been a dancer in her youth by name Pankajam. She married the then headman, and by the time she’d borne him two sons, she had come to be called Pankajamma.
If she had passed on, then it needed me to be present. The sons would not have it if a mere constable took care of the proceedings.
With a sigh I got up and reached for my hat. Into the receiver I said, ‘I am on my way.’
* * *
On the way I picked up Krishna Shastri in Amaravati. I don’t know how I knew, but I got the feeling that something untoward could have happened in Nemalikollu. Perhaps it was the tone of hesitation in the constable’s voice. Perhaps it was my previous experience with incidents around that dreaded village. Perhaps I was just seeking company on the forty kilometre drive.
He did not take much convincing, did Krishna Shastri. Just a cursory murmur of how I was snatching him away from his duty to the Mother Goddess, then a call to his wife that he would be away for the day, and on he hopped.
We hardly spoke during the ride. The road to Nemalikollu had been newly laid that month – and before the end of the summer it was already ridden with pot-holes; back office to the world, indeed – so our drive was smooth. My TVS Champ did not squeak out of turn once, and it was still before ten o’ clock that we arrived at the yellow board bearing the name of the village.
We stopped at the general store by the highway and drank coconut water. Then we asked for directions to Pankajamma’s house, which the shopkeeper was only too eager to give us. Clearly the news has woken up the town. And you have no idea how these small settlements positively cackle in glee when a rich woman has had an unfortunate turn.
Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those things.
* * *
Pankajamma’s house was built on a single level, but it had a large, looming presence. It took me a while to realize it was the contrast between the black-painted doors and the milk-white walls that made the house stand out on that dull, grey morning. We’d spotted a heavy batch of rainclouds closer to the Eastern horizon when we started from Amaravati, and by now they formed an impregnable black dome straight overhead.
When we approached the front door, a light flashed in our eyes, and a voice said, ‘Are you the sub-inspector?’
I unbuttoned my holster and half-drew the revolver. In all my years of service, never have I ever flashed my official identity card. The gun works so much better.
The holder of the torch changed his tone. ‘Ah, welcome, S.I. gaaru. You chose a rather gloomy morning to visit us. And to make it worse, we haven’t had power all morning.’
We were invited into a surprisingly well-breathing living room. I noticed that the four walls featured large windows, and all of them were open. Four hurricane lanterns stood on tables at various points in the room, and the overall effect was straight out of an arty Bengali movie. All that was missing was a sari-clad woman with kohl in her eyes and honey in her voice.
‘This is your assistant, I presume?’ said the man holding the torch, as he eased himself into his chair and waved us to ours. In the dark I could not quite tell what he looked like, but his frame was lithe and strong, like an athlete’s, or like that of someone who had worked on a farm all his life. He sat with the fingertips of his hands touching one another. Long, wiry hands. A beak-like nose drew all your atention at first glance, but he had a rather imposing mouth, and yellow, slow eyes that sparked to life on occasion.
They were sparkling now as they appraised my friend, Krishna Shastri.
‘A friend more than an assistant,’ I replied. ‘He helps me when he can find the time.’
‘I doubt we will need help of any kind other than the strictly official,’ said the man. ‘By the way, my name is Ravi Kumar. I am known as Pankajamma’s elder son in these parts.’
‘Why do you say you don’t need help?’ asked Krishna Shastri, surprising Ravi Kumar into a smile.
‘It is rather clear that my mother has taken her life,’ said Ravi. ‘All three of us agree on this point, so we just need a quick clearance for a death certificate. No post-mortem or anything.’
‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘Has the doctor been in to see the body?’
‘He has. Verdict is that Mother popped a few more sleeping pills than necessary. No signs of struggle. It’s a popular way of taking one’s life, if I may say so.’
‘Where did your mother get access to sleeping pills?’
‘She has a box of them in her medicine chest. She has been under the weather for years now. Heart problems. Liver problems. Stomach problems. She was at that age, you know.’
‘Sixty five,’ said Ravi.
‘Hardly that old that a person gives up on hope,’ I said. ‘Do you know why your mother might have killed herself?’
Ravi shook his head. ‘There was no suicide note. But one can always guess. It has been my general feeling that Mother has been slipping for a few years. With each new condition and a new strip of tablets that she must consume, she felt like she was being a burden. She told me in as many words.’
‘When did she tell you this?’
‘Off and on,’ said Ravi, shrugging. ‘Over the years. Siddhartha will confirm that for you as well. She has been having these conversations with him too.’
‘Younger brother, yes,’ said Ravi. ‘He’s just stepped outside to check if there’s something wrong with the main board. Should be back any moment now.’ He looked back over his shoulder in the direction of what I guessed was the kitchen. ‘Durgayya Mama!’ called Ravi. ‘Do we have anything for our guests?’
A murmur and a scuffle came from the room, even as I made a faint noise of demurral.
Ravi turned back to us and settled back in his chair, at ease. ‘The third person I was referring to. Durgayya Mama has been with us for as long as we can remember. Terribly faithful to Mother, so this morning has put him under a fair bit of stress. Seeing her like that – though she looks like she is sleeping, to be honest with you. The doctor said the death was painless.’
‘Can we take a look at the body?’ I said.
‘Yeah, sure,’ said Ravi, and got up. He led us down a passage next to the common bathroom and stopped by a door. ‘This is Mother’s bedroom. Set aside from the rest of the house. She liked the silence.’
I nodded. The door was not locked, and swung open soundlessly at the merest push. Krishna Shastri followed immediately behind me, with Ravi making up the rear.
Our vision was arrested by the large square bed in the middle of the room, the tiny woman cocooned in two pristine white blankets on it, and the rocking chair standing, empty, next to her. Ravi had been right; she did look like someone in a deep sleep, and it took me two full seconds to notice that she was not breathing. I stole a glance up at Ravi as we stood looking down at his mother, in the hope of catching a stray expression, but the face was chillingly tranquil.
Krishna Shastri nudged at something with his foot. ‘What is this?’ he said.
I looked down; he was leaning over a long wooden pole with a metal hook attached to the end.
‘That is the stick that Mother uses to open the door,’ said Ravi, not aware that he was using the present tense rather than the past. ‘She occupies her bed most of the time.’ He nodded at the chair. ‘Or she’s on there. When one of us knocks on the door, she unbolts it with this stick.’
‘Was she in the habit of locking the door from the inside always?’ I asked.
‘Most times, yes,’ said Ravi.
‘And what about you?’ said Krishna Shastri, straightening himself into a standing position with a grunt. ‘Do you and your brother live here with your mother?’
It was not destined that Ravi should answer that question right then, because at that very moment, a faraway thud came to our ears, and the ceiling fan overhead began to turn, creakingly.
And a strange phosphorescent light filled the room, from somewhere behind us, casting shadows on the wall in front. All three of us turned at once, and I saw two things that had escaped my notice until then: one, there was a television and a cassette player in the room; two, both of them had turned themselves on, and the screen was now glowing bluely at us.
Krishna Shastri and I exchanged a quiet glance. Ravi stepped forward and turned the switch off at the plug.
* * *
‘Hello? Who do we have here?’ said a curly-haired young man who peeked into the room. I could tell by the similarity in features that this was Siddhartha, Pankajamma’s younger son, who was now looking askance at his brother.
‘The sub-inspector has come to look after the formalities,’ said Ravi. Then he looked at me. ‘Would you like to have a look at the doctor’s report, S.I. gaaru? I have it in the living room.’
‘I would like to linger here a little longer,’ said Krishna Shastri, and he looked at the television a strange way. ‘There is a video cassette in the player, isn’t there?’
‘There probably is,’ said Ravi. ‘Mother is in the habit of watching a movie before she goes to sleep.’
‘Even on the day she swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills?’
‘Why are you asking all these questions?’ asked the younger man, and as he stepped into the room, I saw that he had the hairiest yellow forearms I’d ever seen. He folded them in front of his chest and stood up to his full height, which was a good three inches taller than that of his older brother. ‘This was meant to be just a formality, wasn’t it?’
‘It still is, Brother,’ said Ravi, smiling, patting him on the arm. He turned to Krishna Shastri. ‘She probably thought she should watch a movie for the last time in her life. Can’t blame her.’
Krishna Shastri nodded. ‘I wonder if I can trouble you to get me the cassette in that player. Perhaps knowing what she saw last night will give us some clues as to what really happened.’
Ravi returned to the board and turned on the switch. Then he sat on his haunches and pressed ‘Eject’ on the cassette player. A black cassette slid out, the kind that we don’t see around anymore. He turned it over in his hand, and looked up at the glass cabinet behind the rocking chair. ‘I will need to see which movie this is,’ he said, ‘but I suspect you will get to know by just playing it.’ He handed it over to Krishna Shastri.
We began to leave the room now, and as we exited into the passage, one by one, the younger fellow said in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘Oh, by the way, we already know what really happened last night. No need to treat this as some murder investigation.’
* * *
About five minutes later, we were sitting back in the living room, and I’d studied the doctor’s report and given it to Krishna Shastri for a look. Everything did seem above board. All the medical facts pointed to suicide. But Krishna Shastri’s eye would travel every two seconds or so to the cassette sitting on the coffee table in front of us.
‘Tell us what happened yesterday,’ I said, pulling out my notebook and pen. ‘Purely routine. Need it for the case report. You will have your death certificate clearance by the evening, I promise.’
‘Thank you, S.I. gaaru,’ said Ravi. ‘The facts are quite straightforward. To answer your colleague’s question before, Siddhartha and I do not live here with Mother. We have our own lives in Vishakapatnam. I manage a film theatre there, and Siddhartha has a dubbing studio. We have always been a film-loving family.’
‘I see. Are you both married?’
Ravi nodded. ‘Married with two kids, that’s me. One son and one daughter. Siddhartha is expecting his first child this year. So we visit Mother every now and then, sometimes once a month, sometimes twice a year – it varies.’
‘Is there any special reason you’re here now?’ I asked.
Ravi seemed to think about it, and gave us a placating smile. ‘As a matter of fact, we came here because Mother announced last month that she was making a change to her will. She was going to donate her whole wealth to the school here in Nemalikollu.’
Siddhartha, who bristled a bit at that, said, ‘We like the school, we really do, but not as much as that.’
‘What Siddhartha wishes to say,’ said Ravi, still smiling, ‘is that we think the money could be put to better use. So we came here to talk things over.’
Krishna Shastri leaned forward and took the cassette in his hands. His plump fingers caressed the edges, and his thumb pressed on the button that exposed the tape. He held it to the light and pursed his lips.
Ravi and Siddhartha looked at him as though he were a madman.
I asked them, ‘And did you? Talk it over, I mean?’
‘We did,’ said Ravi. ‘Last night. From five to seven in the evening, we were up in the room, the three of us, talking it over. I don’t mind admitting, S.I. gaaru, that some heated words were said by all three of us. Both of us regret all the bad stuff we said, and I am sure Mother does too, wherever she is.’
‘What was the result of this discussion?’
‘She began to see reason, though I daresay these conversations take more than one sitting. She did agree to put the plans for the new will on hold, though, which was a good start for all of us.’ Ravi looked at his younger brother, and the latter nodded.
‘What happened after the conversation?’
Ravi said, ‘Nothing of note. Just the usual. We left Mother in her room, and as we came down the passage, we heard her lock her door. This was around seven in the evening. The bolt is a loud one, and the passage accentuates the sound a little bit. Until nine or so, we did our own thing, all three of us. I was sitting here in this chair, doing the crossword. Siddhartha was over in the corner with his headphones on. And Durgayya Mama was hovering, doing this and that.’
‘None of you went to your mother’s room?’
‘No,’ said Ravi. ‘Each one of us could see the other two, and all three of us can swear, I think, that we were all here.’
Something about the certain way in which he answered the question struck me. I tried to catch Krishna Shastri’s eye to see if he’d caught on to something, but he was still playing with the cassette. Open. Close. Open. Close. And he seemed to be talking to himself under his breath, because his lips kept moving.
‘Around the strike of nine,’ said Ravi, drawing my attention to him again, ‘we heard the bolt open down the passage. And Mother called out to Durgayya Mama. She wanted a glass of cold milk.’
‘Cold milk, did you say?’ said Krishna Shastri vacantly, still peering over the shiny black tape.
‘Yes,’ replied Ravi. ‘But it so happened that Durgayya Mama was making tea for us at the time. It was not until ten or so minutes later that he was ready to make Mother’s milk. By the time he took the glass to her door, I think it was around twenty past.
‘We saw Durgayya Mama disappear down the passageway, and when he knocks at the door, she just flies off her rocker. Yells at him. Says something nasty, something about Durgayya Mama being her servant and not ours, that her needs should take priority over everyone else’s and so on. And then she locks her door again. We all hear the bolt snap shut.’
‘Wow,’ said Krishna Shastri, and I could not quite make out whether he was responding to what Ravi was saying or if he spotted something on the cassette’s tape.
‘Yes,’ said Ravi, as if understanding my friend’s sentiment. ‘The evening’s discussion must have put her in a foul mood. You would understand why we stayed away from her for the rest of the night.’
‘And when did you discover her dead?’ I asked, referring to the times noted by the doctor in his report.
‘Around eight in the morning today,’ said Ravi. ‘Durgayya Mama came up here and found her door still locked, which is unusual. She is an early riser. He called for her, but she wouldn’t respond. He called us and we broke open the door together.’
‘All three of you, am I right?’ said Krishna Shastri.
‘Yes, sir, all three of us.’
All this while, Siddhartha, the younger fellow, had been getting testy. His fists kept clenching and unclenching, like someone under serious mental strain. Now I wouldn’t be too harsh on a boy who had just lost his mother, but there didn’t seem to be too much love lost between them and the old woman, so it felt like the boy was perhaps hiding something
Call it a policeman’s intuition.
‘I still don’t know why we’re sitting here talking about the past,’ he said now, furtive eyes lolling from his brother to me, and then back to his brother. ‘Just give us the clearance and leave us to mourn our mother in peace.’
Krishna Shastri took notice of him. His small beady eyes still flitted about on the cassette, which he had now let go and placed on the table. ‘Tell me something,’ he said, looking at Ravi, ‘you did not mention that you heard your mother watching the movie.’
Ravi looked at Siddhartha, and shook his head.
‘We heard nothing,’ he said. ‘Sometimes Mother liked to watch just the pictures. Without the sound. She said the sounds gave her a headache. To be honest, until we saw it this morning, we didn’t know that the television was on.’
‘Yes,’ said Siddhartha.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Was it not on when you broke into the room in the morning?’
‘No,’ said Ravi. ‘We didn’t have power all morning. It came back on after you came, when we were in the room together earlier, you, me and the S.I.’
‘Damn power cuts,’ said Siddhartha.
* * *
What Durgayya told us more or less corroborated the brothers’ story. We called him into Pankajamma’s room after the body had been taken away, and after we’d heard his account, asked him a few questions.
‘Did the old woman ever yell at you in that fashion all these years?’
‘Yes, sir. It was quite like her. She has always had a quick temper.’
‘Would you say your mistress is the kind of person to have killed herself in this fashion?’
This brought about a small spell of introspection. Then he said, ‘No, sir. But I suppose she was not in the best of health, and I know what it is like to have cracked bones and aching muscles. Sometimes you do look forward to the big sleep.’
Krishna Shastri, who was still cradling the cassette in his hands as if it were a baby, looked up at Durgayya. ‘You came down the passage to this very door at nine twenty last night, didn’t you?’
‘I did, sir, yes, carrying madam’s milk.’
‘And you stood here and knocked on the door, I imagine.’
‘Yes, that is right,’ said Durgayya. ‘I knocked on the door and waited.’
‘You did not try the door then, did you?’
‘No, sir,’ said Durgayya. ‘That would not be proper etiquette for a servant.’
‘Indeed. And then she yelled at you to leave.’
‘She asked me to leave her alone for the night, yes,’ said Durgayya.
‘And when did you hear her door turn in the lock?’
‘Just as I was walking back down the passage, sir. She says that she doesn’t get privilege in her own home, and until I learnt whom I should serve first, I should stay away from her room. And then she locks the door.’
‘And did you hear anything on the television?’ said Krishna Shastri.
Durgayya frowned at the question. ‘Not sure what you mean, sir.’
‘Never mind!’ said Krishna Shastri, smiling. ‘And thank you.’
When Durgayya reached the door, Krishna Shastri called after him. ‘Durgayya,’ he said.
‘When Pankajamma yelled at you to go away and leave her alone, did you feel there was something wrong with her voice?’
‘Wrong with her voice, sir?’
Krishna Shastri made a vague gesture with his hands. ‘I mean, were you aware that her voice was different in any way?’
‘Well, sir,’ said Durgayya, frowning again, ‘she was yelling, so there was a shrill note to her voice.’
‘Understandably,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Nothing else?’
Durgayya began to shake his head, but his hands fumbled, and he looked around himself. ‘Well, sir –’
‘I don’t know how to say this, but I felt as if – as if the lady was speaking from inside a well, sir.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Krishna Shastri.
‘Neither do I, sir, truth to tell,’ the old man admitted shame-facedly. ‘But it felt like she was speaking from a place of absolute stillness. A dead voice, I remember telling myself. Maybe she had already taken the pills by then, sir, and she was already half on her way.’
‘A dead voice,’ said Krishna Shastri, not to me or to Durgayya, but apparently to the room at large. ‘A dead voice, did you hear?’
‘What does that mean, Shastri gaaru?’ I asked, after Durgayya had made his exit.
Krishna Shastri waved the cassette in front of his face. ‘It means we have a movie to watch, Venkat Reddy,’ he said.
* * *
Of all the things that I thought I would see on the tape that Krishna Shastri had been handling all morning, I’d least expected to see nothing, and nothing is what stared at us when we hit ‘Play’.
We sat on a chair each, watching the blue screen for a good ten minutes, and then I said to him, ‘This is an empty tape.’
He nodded. ‘The question is: why was the woman watching it?’
‘Maybe it helped her sleep? Remember, she is the kind of woman who watches silent movies before she goes to bed. An empty tape is just one step further.’
Krishna Shastri kept staring at the television, his round smooth face bathed in the violet light. ‘You have to promise me something,’ he said.
‘After we leave this room, you have to get me out of here as soon as possible.’
‘Okay. I promise.’
‘I am not going to meet any of the people in the house again. I don’t want to even see them. Can that be arranged?’
I looked at the closed door. ‘Sure, it can be arranged,’ I said. ‘But what is this really about?’
‘Murder,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘This woman, Pankajam, did not kill herself. She was killed, and her two sons did her in because she was going to change the will and give all her wealth away.’
I was going to scoff at that, and I would have if those words had escaped the lips of anyone else. But by now I’d learnt to question Krishna Shastri at my own peril. Even if I thought he was going crazy, I kept quiet and listened.
Soon, he began to speak again.
‘Recall how we found ourselves here this morning,’ he said. ‘Recall how eager the brothers were to complete the formalities, as they said, and drive us out. I bet that right now, they’re sitting out there wondering what we’re doing. And the power cut – recall the power cut! How fortunate that it had to come back when we were in here!’
‘I confess I don’t see the significance of that,’ I said.
‘Of course you don’t, Venkat Reddy,’ said Krishna Shastri, without a hint of malice in his voice. ‘Because you don’t see that of all the things in this house, the one thing we were not supposed to find is this tape.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Because it is the one thing that was reliant on the power cut,’ replied the priest, ‘and therefore it is the one thing that they could not control. Did you not catch the younger brother’s desperation when he said “Damn these power cuts”?’
‘You’re not doing a great job explaining this to me.’
Krishna Shastri sighed, and I could tell from his twitching that he wanted to leave for Amaravati right that moment. He got that way as soon as he’d solved a case; he wanted to run far, far away from it.
‘I will tell you,’ he said resignedly. ‘The brothers administered the dose of the sleeping pills to the woman during the end of their meeting, at seven p.m. By what diabolical method they got her to take the pills, I don’t know, but a simple deception would do, I suppose. When they left the room, the woman was still alive but sinking, and the last act of her life would have been to lock the door with the help of her stick, here from her bed.
‘And after that, everything is carefully planned deception. Everything! Imagine. Just before they leave their mother’s room, they put this cassette into the player and start it. Around two hours later, with the woman long dead, something from the cassette calls out to Durgayya for milk. Followed by that is the sound of the bolt unlocking.’
A small detail, something Ravi said in passing, hits my mind. ‘Siddhartha owns a dubbing studio,’ I said.
Krishna Shastri nodded. ‘It wouldn’t have taken him too much effort to find an artist who would mimic his mother’s voice. And recording the bolt’s sound would have been child’s play for him on one of his previous trips here. That’s what’s so rotten about this, Venkat Reddy. They’ve planning this for months.
‘And it required pinpoint timing too. After the first call comes from the mother for Durgayya, he needs to be delayed, you see, for a good twenty minutes, so that he approaches the door at about the same time the second voice and bolt clip are recorded. In this clip the mother is sending away Durgayya, and she locks up the door for the final time that night. In reality, the door has always stayed locked from seven onwards. You will notice that Durgayya did not try the door when he came with the milk. If he had, he would have found it locked.’
‘But why?’ I asked, as the tape rolled on in front of my glazed eyes. ‘Why go to such lengths?’
‘Why,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘to convince Durgayya that their mother was alive at nine, of course, and to show that she was well within her senses to unlock and lock the door. Durgayya had to be first called, and then he had to be sent back the way he had come. And he had to be engaged on an errand after the first call so that the second admonishment becomes believable. Durgayya would then assume that his cantankerous mistress is having another of her angry spells. He would shrug and return to his quarters, and the deception is complete.
‘Even in the morning, they allow him to discover that the door is still locked. Their original plan, I’m sure, was to find the television and the cassette player running as they barge in. One of the brothers would then casually open the player, pull out the cassette, make an innocuous statement to the effect of “I wonder why Amma was watching this movie”, and remove the cassette from the scene of crime.’
I sat up, my interest suddenly piqued. ‘Only they couldn’t.’
‘Only they couldn’t,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘because there was a power cut, and they were not able to pull out the cassette. And as luck would have it, the power came back at the exact instant we were in the room. The cassette came into our hands.’
The tape was still rolling on, and I resisted the urge to forward it to the point where Krishna Shastri said the sounds would be recorded. A part of me wanted all this to be a figment of his fertile imagination, and yet another part knew – yes, knew – that he was right.
‘Was that the moment you felt there was something afoot?’ I asked.
‘That and the complete lack of emotion on the part of the brothers,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘It seemed to me that if you’re going to be cruel and kill your mother, you should at least pretend to mourn her. I thought they were too practical, too eager to move on and get the death certificate. It showed a certain lack of confidence in their ways, and when the cassette came to my hands, you should have seen how much the younger fellow fidgeted in his seat.’
‘What if we sit through this tape and it’s completely empty?’ I said.
For a moment he appeared shocked, as if I’d suggested an impossible event. But then he considered it and said slowly, ‘It would mean that I have an imaginative mind. Perhaps I should go write novels instead of coming on these trips with you.’
I did not tell him that I was just playing with him. For the next hour and a bit, while we combed the content of the tape, I let him stew in the juices of his self-doubt. A bit of humility never harmed anyone.
It was as he had said, of course. Right at the very end, around the two-hour mark, came the first call. It was a high-pitched, croaking yell of a dying woman.
‘Durgayya!’ it said. ‘Bring me my glass of milk. Now!’
Two seconds later, the sound of a sliding bolt came from the screen. Loud and clear. The sound felt so genuine that I turned to make sure there was no one at the door.
We knew when the next set of sounds would occur, so we forwarded the tape ahead twenty minutes. Sure enough, after three minutes of emptiness, we got the other sounds.
‘Leave me alone!’ said the voice. ‘I don’t get served by my own servant in my own house.’
And then, two seconds later, another sound of sliding bolt.
‘A dead voice,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Durgayya was not able to put a finger on it, but something about the voice told him that it did not come from a living, breathing human being at the other side of the door. And he was right.’
* * *
I did the needful after that. Got the sons to come to the police station to ‘give a statement’, after assuring them that it was all just a formality. Read the charges out to them as a surprise, and watched their eyes as I narrated the whole thing to them, as if I was there.
You don’t survive for very long as a cop if you cannot sniff out guilt in people’s eyes. I saw guilt in those eyes. Naked guilt.
Quite another matter that they never saw the inside of a jail, though. A good lawyer could wriggle you out of a case that rests on an empty video tape with a couple of audio clips recorded on it. They had not one but two good lawyers, and they got out easy. No sweat.
The younger one – Siddhartha – smiled at me on the way out at court. It was a smile of warning. A smile that said, ‘I will get you one day.’
He never did, of course. On the contrary, I got him, twelve years later. That story? I will tell you another time.