Story 32: Twice Over

‘What would you do,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘if a man enters a jeep alive and exits it dead?’

Seetaraamaiah looked up from the newspaper he had laid out on his thigh. ‘Is he the only man in the vehicle?’

‘There is one other man. The driver.’

The headman returned to his newspaper, shaking his head as though disappointed. ‘Easy. The driver did it.’

Krishna Shastri appeared at the entrance to the inner sanctum, his new yellow angavastram sticking to his upper body, silver-lined dhoti unmoving in the muggy evening air. He blew out the flame on his plate with a gesture of irritation, and as he stepped out into the open he exhaled in relief. His round face was dotted in beads of perspiration on the forehead and the tip of the nose.

‘I tell you, Seetaraamaiah,’ he said, giving the Sarpanch a cold stare, ‘unless you get a fan installed in that room, Mother Kali is going to get boiled alive. She already has enough of a temper without you making it worse.’

‘Come, Shastri gaaru.’ Seetaraamaiah patted the warm granite stone next to him, as if beckoning to the priest. ‘The S.I. is telling another story.’

‘Another of your promotion tales?’ asked Krishna Shastri, walking, penguin-like, over to where they sat, and began preparations to ease himself into a sitting position on the floor. The plate was laid at a safe distance. The angavastram came off. A series of grunts and groans proceeded from the mouth. The weight of his body came down on one plump hand first, then the other.

Venkat Reddy waited patiently for the manoeuvre to finish.

He did not remember Krishna Shastri being this heavy during the Padmavati incident. Yes, he was still rounder than most, but he’d had a quick twitch to his gait that carried him at good pace. Once or twice Venkat Reddy had found it difficult to keep up with him. But now the arms had become flabbier, the chin had acquired a little twin, the garments stretched about his generous torso, and every little activity brought out a mutter of deep effort.

‘You should get some exercise, Shastri gaaru,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘And eat carefully.’

‘Spend an hour inside that room,’ replied Krishna Shastri, ‘and that’s enough exercise to last a man a week.’

‘Well.’ Venkat Reddy shrugged and let it go. Venkat Reddy had learnt from long experience that nothing good ever came of commenting – never mind the intention – on another person’s weight.

‘Forget about Shastri gaaru’s exercise,’ Seetaraamaiah was saying, smoothing his jet black moustache with thumb and forefinger. A thoughtfully designed grey streak appeared in his hair, right above the forehead, and snaked its way to the back of the scalp. His fingers skirted the parting line, making sure that no stray hair was ruining the look. ‘Tell us about this man who died in a jeep. Are you saying the driver did not do it?’

‘I am saying the driver could not have done it,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘The vehicle was moving all along. And the man is clean. No record. No motive. Nothing. But for the circumstance, no one would have ever suspected him.’

Krishna Shastri broke open a piece of coconut and slapped it to his mouth. ‘And if the driver was really the killer, you would not be telling us the story.’

‘That is true as well,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘He is doing time for it, though.’

Seetaraamaiah set aside his newspaper and rubbed his hands. ‘Right, then, this is interesting. You’re assuring us that the driver is not the killer. Suppose you tell us what happened right from the beginning?

* * *

Venkat Reddy leaned back against the pillar, lifted his one knee, rested his arm on it, and began.

‘The driver’s name is Ashok. He drives the jeep from Lingapuram and Munugodu. A distance of thirty kilometres or so, as you know. On this day, he picks up Sundaram, a Lingapuram landlord, at 9:10 in the morning. Sundaram is alive at this time, says Ashok. The trip was a planned one, and the time was decided on the previous night. Sundaram comes a little inebriated, and has to be supported on one arm by Ranga, the owner of the general store at the bus stop.’

‘Is this normal for the man, to be drunk in the morning?’ asked Seetaraamaiah.

Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘He is known to be easy on the bottle. The people in the village say it’s not uncommon to see him slurring and swaying at sunrise, with a bottle in his hands. So anyway, Ranga helps Sundaram to the back of the jeep, where he sits and talks to Ashok for the first half of the trip. Then he falls asleep. Doesn’t snore. This is what Ashok says, of course.’

‘Is there any evidence that Sundaram was speaking to Ashok all the way?’

‘None, except Ashok’s word. But the jeep enters Munugodu at sharply around 9:40, which is a distance of thirty kilometres in thirty minutes.’

‘That’s quite fast, isn’t it?’

‘The road in those days was better,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Not much traffic either. In fact, the jeeps of those days used to have this speed controller. Owners installed these on their vehicles to keep their drivers from speeding too much. I checked the controller on this particular vehicle, and the maximum speed that Ashok could have gone at is sixty five kilometres an hour.’

‘And he did sixty,’ said Seetaraamaiah.

‘That’s right. Sixty on average, which is perhaps as fast as he could go. At 9:40, a bunch of people sitting outside the bus stop of Munugodu saw the jeep roll in. Ashok stops, asks the men for directions to their destination, and goes to the house. From the point of entry into Munugodu to the point of the final destination of the jeep, someone or the other in the village had their eyes on the vehicle, and they all confirm that the vehicle had not stopped.’

‘And when was the body discovered?’

Venkat Reddy paused and licked his lips.

‘The destination was the house of a doctor called Someshwar. He lived in Munugodu with his wife. He had a house back then on the main road, which gave him access both to the highway and the inner roads of the village. Sundaram and Someshwar have been good friends for a long time, and it seems that Sundaram wanted to visit Someshwar on this morning. As soon as the vehicle stopped at Someshwar’s house, Ashok honked, and the doctor, who had just finished brushing his teeth, came out and reacted with pleasant surprise at seeing them.’

Krishna Shastri twisted his waist around and groaned. He said, ‘Did the doctor confirm that Ashok was still at the wheel when he came out?’

‘The engine was still running,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Someshwar saw Ashok kill the engine, and he was still sitting behind the wheel when Someshwar went to the back of the vehicle to get Sundaram.’

‘And Sundaram was dead by then,’ said Krishna Shastri, loosening his sacred thread from the waistline of his dhoti and letting it dangle.

‘Yes. Someshwar first calls out Sundaram’s name. Then he shakes him. He gets no response. By now his medical instincts are aroused, and he asks Ashok, who is just getting out of his driver’s seat, for help. Ashok and Someshwar carry Sundaram out, and they see that there is a knife driven through the man’s chest.’


‘Just Sundaram’s,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘No one else’s.’

‘Who does the knife belong to?’

‘It’s Sundaram’s knife,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘They tell me in Lingapuram that the man is in the habit of carrying a knife in his pocket at all times. But he usually wields a button knife. This one was a hand knife. Not his usual choice of weapon. The doctor examined the corpse and said that death seemed to have occurred sometime in the last twenty minutes. At this, Ashok understood what was being implied and began to deny everything loudly.’

‘Well,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘denial doesn’t mean innocence. I am not as experienced as you are in these matters, Venkat Reddy, but I am yet to meet a man who confesses to a crime on the first time of asking.’ He cast a severe side-long glance at Seetaraamaiah, who withered under its weight.

‘I agree, it’s not,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘But there are some problems. First of all, there was simply no time for Ashok to commit the crime. In order to do this, he would have had to take the vehicle off the highway and park it in a remote location. Then he would have had to stab Sundaram in the chest, making sure that none of his fingerprints appear on the weapon. Then he would have had to get back on the road and make it to Munugodu in thirty minutes.’

Seetaraamaiah eased himself into the conversation with a polite clearing of the throat. ‘Well, let’s be logical here,’ he said. ‘If he were to do all that you said, it would take him no longer than five minutes, am I right?’

‘It would be a stretch to do all that in five minutes,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘But yes, at least that.’

‘Okay, let’s assume five minutes then. So in twenty five minutes, Ashok has to cover a distance of thirty kilometres. That’s around sixty five kilometres an hour, isn’t it?’

‘It’s actually seventy two,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘The maximum speed on the vehicle is seventy.’

‘What if he took less than five minutes to dispose of Sundaram?’ asked Krishna Shastri.

‘How many minutes would you give him?’ asked Venkat Reddy.

‘Let’s say two?’ said Seetaraamaiah.

‘At that rate, he covered thirty kilometres in twenty eight minutes, which gives us a speed of sixty four kilometres an hour.’

‘Aha!’ said the headman.

Venkat Reddy shook his head. ‘That won’t do, Seetaraamaiah gaaru. Driving for thirty minutes at an average of sixty four kilometres an hour means that he has no time for acceleration and deceleration. No time for slowing down at speed breakers, nothing! It’s like he picked up Sundaram and hit sixty four instantly, and then slowed down at Munugodu instantly to zero. That is the only way he could get two minutes in the middle of the journey to kill Sundaram.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘You’re right. That won’t do.’

‘Not to mention that having the presence of mind to perform all those activities I mentioned in two minutes – impossible. Not for a man like Ashok anyway.’

‘What do you mean not for a man like him?’

Venkat Reddy scratched his head and tried to picture Ashok again, after all these years. He found that he was unable to pinpoint the actual features of the man. He seemed to remember an untaught knave, who spoke with a stammer and walked with a limp on one leg. ‘Take it from me that he would not have had the intelligence to think of the fingerprints. Also, there is another small problem.’

Krishna Shastri had begun to play with the slack in his sacred thread. His thick, short fingers were tipped in turmeric.

‘We were unable to find the bottle of alcohol Sundaram was drinking that morning.’

‘Eh?’ said Seetaraamaiah.

‘Small issue?’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘You bet. But here’s what happened. Sundaram leaves his house in Lingapuram at 9 a.m. sharp. Both his wife and eight-year-old daughter attest to this. The walk from his house to the bus stop takes ten minutes. It’s about a kilometre. At 9:10, Ranga confirms that Sundaram arrived at the bus stop, and immediately climbed into the jeep. But by this time he was drunk and swaying. So he must have carried his bottle with him. However, we couldn’t find it on his person.’

Seetaraamaiah said, ‘Maybe he threw it away.’

‘We considered that,’ replied Venkat Reddy. ‘We went over the path leading from the bus stop to his house, but didn’t find it.’

‘Maybe he tossed it out of the jeep on the way,’ said Krishna Shastri.

‘Why would he do that?’ said Venkat Reddy.

‘Any number of reasons. Maybe he was frustrated that he’s run out of alcohol. Maybe he didn’t want to carry the extra weight. Maybe anything. But he could have, couldn’t he?’

Venkat Reddy palmed his cheek and rubbed it. ‘I suppose he could have done anything. Just like Ashok could have stopped the vehicle mid-way and stabbed the man. Not very likely, though. Sundaram is a bit of a bottle connoisseur, too, I’m told. I went to his house, saw a line of empty whiskey bottles lined up in the wall of their bedroom. I wouldn’t have thought of him as a bottle-tossing type.’

‘I see,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘What else did you learn from the wife?’

‘They were having trouble in the marriage. Her name is Leela. Much younger than he is, so I suppose you would expect that. She’s his second wife. Everyone in the village says that Sundaram was a suspicious and jealous man.’

Krishna Shastri eyed him in a peculiar way. ‘Any justification for the suspicion?’

‘Ah, well,’ said Venkat Reddy, shrugging. ‘She is a beautiful woman, I will give you that. But how can you tell? There are always rumours. I asked around and heard a number of stories, linking her to this man or that man.’

‘Out of curiosity,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘was Someshwar one of these men she is believed to have been linked with?’


‘Now!’ said Seetaraamaiah, slapping his thigh in protest. ‘How could you possibly know that?’

‘A promiscuous wife, a close friend of husband, a doctor who likely travels a lot between villages – I just put two and two together, my friend.’

‘Nothing by way of hard evidence, though,’ added Venkat Reddy hastily. ‘Just rumours.’

Krishna Shastri sat back and folded his arms. ‘Continue. What else did the wife tell you?’

‘Just what I told you, really. The husband left at 9 a.m. She saw the time on the wall clock as he left. She also glanced at her husband’s wristwatch. He said he was going to Munugodu on some work. She didn’t ask why. She just asked him if he will stay the night or if he will return for dinner. Sundaram said he might even be back for lunch.’

‘How interesting,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘I wonder.’ He looked out into the distance. ‘I wonder.’

‘She did not have much else to say besides that,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘They heard of the news around noon or so. Until then, mother and daughter were at home, together.’

‘And what did the daughter have to say?’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Did you question her at all?’

Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘She was quite distraught, as you might expect. She also confirmed that it was 9 a.m. when her father left. She saw the time on her wristwatch. She also took a glance at her father’s wristwatch. She had one of those blue and black electronic watches, with numbers on them. The actual time on her watch was 9:03, she said.’

‘Ah,’ said Krishna Shastri.

‘Is that an important fact?’ asked Seetaraamaiah.

‘It might be,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘What else?’

‘Nothing more.’ Venkat Reddy frowned in effort to recall if he was forgetting something. ‘Just the usual,’ he said. Then a flash of another detail came to his mind. ‘She did say something else.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Kids notice the smallest things. What is it that he said, Venkat Reddy?’

‘She said that she fell asleep during her bath that morning.’

Seetaraamaiah looked at Krishna Shastri in puzzlement. The priest was just frowning, and the beginnings of a small smile were playing on his lips. The beady eyes were lustrous, liquid. His fingers twitched and trembled in the old way, and his legs began to shake.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Seetaraamaiah.

‘I asked her the same thing,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘and she said that she liked taking long baths, and she would sometimes fall asleep in the bathroom. On this day, her mother woke her up by banging on the door and asking her to finish quickly. I don’t know why I remember this; perhaps because it’s such a silly, unexpected thing that it just sticks in the mind.’

‘Indeed,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Such a silly, unexpected thing. What did the mother make of her daughter’s silliness?’

‘She just brushed it off,’ replied Venkat Reddy. ‘The girl was used to doing that, she said. I asked her if they had asked Doctor Someshwar for advice on what to do for this behaviour, and she said yes, Doctor Someshwar was aware of it. He had said that the girl would outgrow the habit soon enough.’

‘And did Someshwar corroborate this when you questioned him?’ asked Krishna Shastri.

‘He did,’ said Venkat Reddy, idly adjusting the orientation of his hat, which rested on the floor next to him, to the east. ‘He had come home late the night before from a call in Nemalikollu. His wife confirmed that it was true.’

‘How does he travel between villages?’

‘He had a scooter. An LML Vespa. One of those blue-green models that used to be around a lot in those days. He would leave and enter the village at all odd times. He is a doctor after all, and misfortune never knocks on the door, it just barges in.’

‘When was the last time he went to Lingapuram?’ asked Krishna Shastri. ‘Do you know?’

‘That’s the thing with this,’ said Venkat Reddy, palming his close fist. ‘The doctor’s scooter is such a common sight around the village that no one really remembers when they saw him last. Some say it was the night before. Some say it was that morning. Others say he’d not been there for a week. He has a house in Lingapuram, and sometimes he stays the night. People tell me his parents used to live there, and he doesn’t want to sell the place.’

Krishna Shastri’s eyes became two small silver stars. ‘Servants?’

Venkat Reddy shook his head. ‘He lives alone. Only comes and stays on occasion, you see, so he employs the village boys for errands now and then. No one permanent.’

‘I see,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Sometimes, Venkat Reddy, your reach exceeds your grasp. On others it falls short.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Neither do I,’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘Please don’t speak in riddles, Shastri gaaru. Say it like it is!’

‘The correctness of an answer depends on the correctness of the question,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Now if I was in Venkat Reddy’s place, I would have asked Ashok a very specific question. I would have asked him whether, during his drive from Lingapuram to Munugodu, he was overtaken by a helmeted rider on an LML Vespa.’ The eyes became kind once again, as they came to rest on Venkat Reddy. ‘Well? Did you?’

‘No,’ said Venkat Reddy.

‘He might have said no, you understand,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘But since we never asked that question, we will never know for sure.’ His voice took on a mellow, meditative quality. ‘Since it has been a long time hence, perhaps I can assume that the question was asked, and the answer was yes. Can I?’

He looked first at Venkat Reddy, then at Seetaraamaiah. The latter deferred to the opinion of the sub-inspector.

‘Just for fun, let us do so,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘What have we got to lose? The night is still young, and the puzzle is still unsolved. Mother Kali will not like it if we leave from here with questions in the air.’ He bowed in the direction of the sanctum with joined hands. Then he turned back and popped another piece of coconut into his mouth.

‘I get the feeling that you started the story at the wrong place, Venkat Reddy,’ he said, in a tone of mild admonishment. ‘You started it at Munugodu, while I think the true story started in Lingapuram. When Sundaram left the house at 9 a.m. I find it instructive that both mother and daughter happened to glance at Sundaram’s wristwatch that morning. I find it too much of a coincidence that it happened without reason.’

‘But it could happen,’ said Venkat Reddy.

Krishna Shastri waved him off with relish. ‘Anything could happen, as you yourself said. I just don’t think it would have happened, this particular coincidence, unless the man wanted both the women in the house to see his watch. He wanted them to note that he was leaving the house at 9 a.m.’

‘Why?’ asked Seetaraamaiah.

‘He also wanted them to note the time on the wall clock and the time on his daughter’s wristwatch.’

‘But why?’ asked Seetaraamaiah again.

‘When a person draws your attention to something again and again,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘you could bet that it’s a lie. In this case, Seetaraamaiah, Sundaram wanted his wife and daughter to note the time as 9 a.m. because it was a lie. It was not 9 a.m.’

Seetaraamaiah and Venkat Reddy both began to speak at once. They both slunk back into silence at once.

‘You want to know why,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Because Sundaram must have come across some evidence that proves the truth of the affair between Leela and Someshwar. He has taken a decision to come clean with Someshwar that morning in Lingapuram, and for that reason he took a hand knife with him. I don’t think he intended to hurt Someshwar, merely to threaten him, otherwise he would have taken his button knife. But there was a possibility that something untoward might happen, he knew, so he went about constructing for himself an alibi.

‘When he left his house and waved goodbye to his wife and daughter, it was not 9 a.m. It was half an hour or so before that. I have no way of ascertaining exactly how much he adjusted the watches by, but let’s assume it’s thirty minutes. So he leaves the house at 8:30 in real time. And makes his way to Someshwar’s Lingapuram house.’

‘But Someshwar was not staying there that night,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘His wife has confirmed that.’

‘Wives have been known to walk into fire for the sake of their husbands, Venkat Reddy,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Lying to a policeman is a small matter. In any case, this is an assumption I make. Let us go with it and see if it explains everything or not. Sundaram goes to Someshwar’s house, and since Sundaram is trying to establish for himself an alibi, he takes care that no one sees him. If someone sees him and the witness happens to have an untampered watch on him, then his lie will break down. Maybe he takes an inner road. Maybe he takes other measures. I don’t know. No matter.

‘At Someshwar’s house, some kind of confrontation happens. But Sundaram’s desire is blunted, of that I am certain. In the next twenty minutes or so, Someshwar gives Sundaram something to drink, and convinces the intoxicated man that he should continue with his plan of going to Munugodu. Why? Maybe Someshwar comes out and confesses the whole affair to him. He says he is sorry, and that his wife, back in Munugodu, deserves to hear it from the lips of Sundaram. You can tell a drugged man a half-decent story and he will believe you.

‘Before he leaves, though, Someshwar makes sure that Sundaram’s wristwatch is corrected. Now that the whole affair was confessed about and his alibi was not needed, Sundaram must have seen the logic of the suggestion too.

‘So Sundaram exits Someshwar’s house, his watch showing the real time once again, and reaches the bus stop. By now it is 9:10. Sundaram tells Ranga to help him to the waiting vehicle, and Ashok drives off with him in the direction of Munugodu.

‘Now Someshwar, having received full knowledge of what Sundaram had originally intended to do, calls Leela and tells her to adjust the clocks ahead by half an hour. In other words, to bring them back to their correct states. Someshwar’s plan now is to use Sundaram’s alibi against himself. So he sets off to Munugodu on his scooter. The fact that he is a regular sight in Lingapuram and passes around unnoticed works to his advantage. But he still takes care not to be seen.

‘Once he is on the highway, though, he drives at full throttle. Unlike Ashok’s vehicle, his scooter is not bound by speed limits. He overtakes Ashok’s vehicle on the highway, and when he reaches Munugodu, has just enough time to enter his house through inner roads – you told us that his house is reachable from inside the village and the main road – shed his clothes, put on something that a man who had just woken up would wear, and await the arrival of Ashok.

‘He comes out in response to Ashok’s honk, and makes sure he reaches the back of the vehicle alone. He takes Sundaram’s knife – which he knows he is carrying – and stabs him under the pretext of shaking him awake –’

‘But!’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘There are no fingerprints on the knife. Not Someshwar’s anyway.’

Krishna Shastri shrugged. ‘Venkat Reddy has told us that Ashok is not educated enough to understand fingerprints. Maybe he did not notice that Someshwar was wearing gloves. Or maybe he slipped them on – those doctor’s gloves that go on and off so easily – when he went into the back. Being a doctor, he would know exactly where and how deep the incision needs to be to kill Sundaram. If I were you, Venkat Reddy, I would have had the wound analyzed too, to see how much surgical precision went into it.’

Venkat Reddy said, ‘I did. That is another reason why I knew it could not have been Ashok. The wound was too clean for a man like him to do it.’

Krishna Shastri nodded once, then shook his head once. ‘All the evil in the world comes from a man’s heart, Seetaraamaiah. All of it!’ His fists clenched and unclenched a couple of times, and his breath grew heavier. ‘Of all the things that alerted me, it was the testimony of the little girl. Do you remember what she said? She fell asleep in the shower.’

‘Yes?’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘I don’t see the significance.’

‘Still?’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘The girl did not fall asleep in the shower. No. Not this time, at least. Her mother convinced her that she did. That is the only way she could correct the clocks without her daughter noticing, do you see? As soon as the girl goes into the bathroom, the mother corrects the clock and her daughter’s wristwatch, puts them forward by half an hour, waits perhaps a few minutes, and then bangs on the door and tells the girl off for spending half an hour in the bathroom. The girl comes out, confused, and sees the time on the clock and her wristwatch. She thinks that her mother was right, that she had indeed gone to sleep without realizing it. If you do it convincingly enough, an eight-year-old will fall for a trick like that.’

Venkat Reddy felt a faint churn deep in his stomach. His mind filled with questions he should have asked but hadn’t. Yawning in front him, he saw a chasm of nothingness, where logic and linear thought stayed hidden, over which Krishna Shastri had leapt – creaking knees and all – with his imagination, until he told a story that seemed to explain everything.

At least in theory.

‘Motive?’ said Seetaraamaiah.

Krishna Shastri was looking at Venkat Reddy again, gently. ‘I think Venkat Reddy will tell us. What happened after this incident, Venkat Reddy?’

‘Nothing happened for six months or so,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘And then they all disappeared.’

‘Who?’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘Who disappeared?’

‘Both the doctor and the wives. They took the girl with them.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘There’s your motive. Was that when you first suspected that something was wrong?’

Venkat Reddy nodded sadly at his hat. ‘But I was still not able to tell how he did it.’

‘In two parts,’ said Krishna Shastri, holding up his fingers. ‘The first part was drugging Sundaram in Lingapuram and putting him on the jeep. The second part was receiving him in Munugodu and stabbing him to death while “discovering” his body. The link between the two is the scooter ride, and the false testimony of the wife.’

‘I am amazed,’ said Seetaraamaiah, staring at Krishna Shastri with incredulity.

‘Yes,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘I will perform a pooja tomorrow, first thing, in the name of Sundaram. His soul must rest in peace.’

‘I am amazed at you!’

Something like a blush appeared on Krishna Shastri’s face, visible even in the evening’s dying light. ‘I only thought of all this because of the way Venkat Reddy narrated the story. If I had encountered it as he did, no doubt I would have come to the same conclusion.’ He met Venkat Reddy’s eye, and tried to coax a smile out of the sub-inspector. ‘Come, sir, the narration and solving of a puzzle is not the same as the experiencing of it. The puzzle solver is twice removed from reality. I have none of the emotion, just the information. And you eliminated the prime suspect for us rather helpfully, and I knew that Sundaram had not killed himself, so it is no trouble at all if I concoct a different path in which events could have travelled.’

Krishna Shastri kept speaking, but Venkat Reddy tuned out. The churning of his stomach eased somewhat, but the chasm gaped at him still, and from the other side the fat Brahmin was mouthing his platitudes. He wanted to rage and rant, ask this man where he had been on that distant December day when Ashok was sentenced to prison, when a stammering lout had been ruled guilty of an impossible act. Had he had a wife and daughter of his own? Would he have had one, if Venkat Reddy had been more alert on the job?

‘Here, Venkat Reddy,’ said Krishna Shastri, his voice drenched in sorrowful pity. ‘Have some teertham. It will cleanse you from within.’