You have some brandy, Officer?
My hands shake when I don’t have my daily swig. It’s just one of those things you pick up in my line of work. I was a bit naive when I first got the call-up. Promised my mother I’d never drink or smoke or touch a woman. A bit Gandhi-like. Only difference is I did all three before my first week was out. But then Gandhi never served out at the border, did he? The life of a soldier is cold and lonely, Officer, and these small pleasures of life become your oxygen.
Just a tiny bit of lemon soda, please. Thank you. You have a cigarette? Ah, large Gold Flake. Wonderful.
This hand-shaking business used to scare my wife. You’re an alcoholic, she used to say. Stay the same and you will not live to see sixty, she said. But here I am. I may look like this but I am strong as an ox. I daresay you wouldn’t fancy your chances against me if I didn’t have these things around my wrists. Don’t let the tremors fool you. I’ve had them for the last thirty-five years. I had them when I was Captain. I had them when I was Major. I had them when I was Colonel. I had them when I was Brigadier. I have them now. Doesn’t change a thing.
Yes, that’s my name all right; yes, two K’s. And that’s my wife. Soumya. No children. My wife has this condition. They didn’t tell us about it before the wedding. Claimed they didn’t know it. And you know how it is with servicemen. We trust too easily. We’re easily deceived. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love her. You can ask her how I’ve looked after her all these years. Never said no whenever she asked for money. A big house, chef, car, club memberships; whatever a woman could ask for, I gave it to her. I did my duty as a husband. Never shirked it. But she would never take them. She would always keep them for a while and give them back. It’s the guilt, Officer. She knows how she’s deceived me. It doesn’t allow her a moment’s happiness, I tell you.
What’s that? No, no, we didn’t live together. I moved to a new house as soon as I found out. One thing we’re taught, Officer, is to never take betrayal lying down.
My son? Yes, I have a son – well, had a son now, I suppose. Handsome enough fellow, but not manly, you know. Took after his mother a little bit. His mother was a nurse at Care. I had a bit of a chest bump around the time I moved out. Nothing serious, just a bit of sweating, a little panting, and I believe I may have conked off for a bit. They said it was a heart attack but I don’t believe them. These doctors are always lying their pants off, you see, because they know that you have no way of catching them out. I was the fittest of my regiment, Officer, and no doctor was ever going to convince me I had a heart attack. Indigestion, it must have been.
But anyway, they took me to Care and I met Meenakshi there. She nursed me back from whatever it was, and by the time I was ready to leave, she was ready to come with me. You can always tell with a woman, can’t you, Officer? I am by no definition a romantic man, but even I could see right from the start there was something between us. You smile. You must know what I mean.
One more cigarette, please? My bloody hands just don’t stop.
Meenakshi was different to Soumya, and I mean that in a good way. She was just a nurse, and yet she knew how to handle herself. She had never been in army circles before she met me, but she came completely programmed, so to speak. She knew exactly what to do and what not to do. She fell into place immediately with my colleagues and my servants and my superiors. She was a born organiser, Officer. She hosted excellent parties. Stayed on amicable terms with everyone. Made for herself quite a reputation at the clubs, I daresay. Soon they started calling me Mister Meenakshi.
Soumya was a bit different. She was – well, she was different. Born to a Colonel, but absolutely ignorant in the ways of the world. Doesn’t drink. Rarely socializes. Knows nothing of politics or defence. Prefers to read a book at home to going to a club or a party. Cooks herself. Drives herself. There is something – what’s the word – sub-civilized about her, Officer. And I mean that with absolutely no disrespect. She’s what she is. I cannot reform her. I’ve tried, you believe me.
Sorry, what’s that? The alcohol’s dulling my ears. Yes, yes, Mahesh was our son. Mine and Meenakshi’s, yes.
He was a good boy, Mahesh. Silent. Brooding. When he was about two I suggested we look for a nanny for him. Meenakshi was taking too much on. Her life was crazy mad as it was, Officer, and she simply did not have the time to look after a baby. She didn’t complain, though, but I was her partner. I could see how much she was struggling. ‘We have enough money to afford an army of servants, Meena’, I told her. And we did. This was when Soumya entered our life again, Officer, and all this – all this mess – is her doing.
Another quarter, please? My hands – thank you.
It was my idea, I admit. But it was theoretically sound. Soumya lived about a kilometre or so away, so she would be on immediate call. She lived a quiet, slow life, so she would have all the time in the world to look after Mahesh. Mahesh was my son, so by being a surrogate mother to him, she would have the opportunity to atone for the wrong she had done to me. In addition to all that, she’s the kind of woman who likes being around kids. Even back then she used to volunteer at the orphanage.
I offered her a princely sum to look after Mahesh. Princely! But she refused my money. Just like she had refused to take my house and my chef and my car. All that – all that false pride, I tell you. It’s disgusting. She shamelessly lives off her father’s wealth, but she wouldn’t touch a dime of mine. She will call it pride, Officer. But it’s not. It’s guilt. After what she had done to me, she cannot allow herself to accept any of my offerings.
But she came. She came to look after Mahesh. And how I wish we’d all dropped dead before the day she came. It would have saved us all this – all of this! Mark my words, a woman such as that would ruin every household she puts her foot in. May the gods damn her to hell forever!
Calm down? Calm down? Would you calm down if she did to you what she did to me? Would you?
But I suppose you’re right. No point snapping at you, is there? You’re young, Officer. You’re not married, are you? It doesn’t matter even if you are. Let me give you some advice. Beware of the quiet, calm, strong type of woman. The loudmouth blows her top off for a while, says some hurtful things, and gets back to normal. Poof. No harm done. But with the quiet ones, they hold it in, you see. They sit back and calculate and plot and plan. They remember every word you say, everything you do, every expression, every incident. They lie in wait for a chance, and when they get it, boy do they grab it. They’re like slow poison.
That’s what she was. Arsenic. And just like Arsenic you only know she’s there after she’s got you. Nice and slow. And even then – yes, yes, I will continue.
Things were good when she first came. She took a house next to ours and made herself available on most days. Freed up Meenakshi quite a bit. For the first time after Mahesh’s birth we actually got time to ourselves, Meenakshi and I. We started going to the movies again. Clubs. Socializing. You know. Things were back to normal again, and Meenakshi looked like she was growing younger each day.
The two ladies got along very well. It was noble of Meenakshi for treating Soumya like she did. She knew Soumya and I had a history, and not once in the last twenty years did she treat her as anything but an equal. They were never friends, you understand, but they were civil. There were one or two words spoken on both sides on a couple of occasions, but that was it. Not bad for twenty years, wouldn’t you say?
The biggest effect Soumya had on our household was with regards to Mahesh. I noticed it after he started school. I got to know that he was spending most of his free time at school by himself. He stayed away from sports. He was not an exceptional student. He was ‘socially challenged’, as one of the teachers put it.
I couldn’t have it that way, could I, Officer? The son of a Brigadier becoming a librarian? I wanted to snap him out of it. After all he was five. Kids that age are pliable. They take in what you give them without questions. I got him off the reading classes. Got him into running. Swimming. Skating. He protested, but that was to be expected. It was only a matter of getting used to the new schedule and he would be fine.
But the problem was, Soumya never let him. Every now and then I’d see her holding him to her bosom and rocking him during the night, whispering a story into his ear. She would complain to me about blisters on his feet, about his recurrent asthmatic attacks, about his unhappiness, about everything! And she would do all this in front of the boy, while he is listening! If I’ve learnt anything about children, Officer, it is this. Once they know someone among the adults is on their side, they get drawn towards them. I’ve always believed in being united in a decision with a child. But Soumya – well….
I think Mahesh may have had a fracture when he was seven. He was playing football. Fractured his forearm – what’s that? Was it wrist? It may have been. Yes, you may be right. Fractured his wrist. Got a missive from his school that he was not ‘suitable’ for sports. They had him taken out of all the sports teams. He went into piano and poetry and singing from then on.
One more please. Make it a large one. My hands have never had it so bad.
I wasn’t too worried, you see, Officer. Surely, I thought, this was a phase. Soon enough, the army genes would kick in and steer him right, I thought. But for that to happen I had to get rid of Soumya. Talked to Meenakshi about it. By now she had begun to like her too, you see. And after all, Soumya was doing a good job looking after Mahesh. She didn’t see what I saw. She didn’t see the slow poison that Soumya was injecting him with. She tried to talk me out of it, but I stayed firm. Called Soumya into the room and dismissed her right then.
But now came the unexpected turn. He was all of seven years, Officer, but would you believe the ruckus he created! He would not eat, he would not drink, he would smash things against the wall, and he willed himself – believe me, he willed himself to fall sick. Nothing would work. Medicines, doctors, not even Meenakshi’s love. Now and then he would murmur in half-sleep: ‘Soumya Masi.’
Meenakshi didn’t know how to care for him, which was understandable. And that drove her to bed too. The sudden physical and emotional stress became too much for her.
That was when I realized how tightly Soumya had her fingers wound around Mahesh – and around all of us! What else could I do but to call her back? She came back a week later. Things went back to normal. Meenakshi went back to her club and her life; I joined her. Mahesh returned to Soumya and her world of books and music and poems.
I would not give up on my son just yet, Officer. When he hit puberty and went through a growth spurt, I tried to get him into basketball. He went for a week – more out of respect for me than anything else – and opted out at the first opportunity. I bought him a gym membership around the same time. He went for three days and stopped, complaining of severe pains. I tried to enrol him into an army school, but his marks weren’t good enough.
And all this time he moved further and further down the other path. He wrote poems. He read Shakespeare. He played the mouth organ. At fifteen, Officer, he was this thin, gangly, socially awkward teenager Soumya must have been at that age. All his friends – all my colleagues’ sons – were in sports teams, in debate competitions, in athletics. And here was Mahesh, milling about the place with a stoop in his posture with a book under his arm and muttering to himself. And I couldn’t do a thing about it.
I thought there was hope for him yet. I told him to write the entrance for Civil Services. Told him I’d make him an army officer. I was a Brigadier of some reputation, you see, and I knew my letter in his portfolio would do wonders for his chances. Even if he had just scraped the exam, Officer, he would have started work as Captain. But you know what he did? He refused. He chose an Arts degree instead. Wanted to be a writer, he said.
Soumya was right there, goading him on. Said nothing to me, of course, but always flitting about him, whispering things into his ear – you know, that sort of thing. To make things worse, Meenakshi didn’t see it either. She supported Mahesh too. Said Soumya had a point. She is an innocent sort of girl, Officer. Simple, you know. Trusts way too readily, just like me.
But there is a silver lining in all clouds, or so I thought then. No matter what degree Mahesh chose, he would have to go away from home and study at a hostel. I sent him away to Delhi University. I’m not proud of the fact, but I did rejoice at the prospect of him staying away from Soumya for a while. If we could not separate her from him by design, it was happening by circumstance.
But I underestimated her, Sir. Funny how often they teach you never to underestimate your opponent and yet you go ahead time and again and do just that. I underestimated the hold she had on him. I underestimated the amount of love he had on her. But Officer, let me tell you something, she has nothing – absolutely nothing – for him. It gives her a kind of sadistic pleasure to see him treat her like a queen while we –
Hmm? Yes, yes, I am mindful of the time. Just give me another of those excellent Gold Flakes. Bloody hands don’t stop. Thank you.
You know, Officer, he never called us from Delhi. We would sit waiting to hear from him day after day, week after week, and one phone call or note would arrive from him – purely functional. ‘Hello, how are you’ sort of thing. Did it purely as a deference to duty, if you will. That didn’t bother me much, you know. He is that sort of a boy. Doesn’t talk much. Not very emotional. So I consoled myself and Meenakshi. But you know what? He wrote letters to her. Every week. Long, loving letters. Filled with the smallest details of his hostel life. He told her everything, Officer.
How do I know? I read the letters, of course. Etiquette be damned, Officer, when a worm creeps into your body and lets it rot from the inside out. Imagine the trauma Meenakshi had to go through when she knew that her only son loved his nanny more than he loved her. I was not concerned about me, Sir. But I could not bear to see Meenakshi’s suffering. She is a goddess in one word, Sir. And to see Mahesh treat her like this – with no gratitude or loyalty towards his mother – I have it in me to bear a great many things in my fellow men, Officer, but disloyalty and ingratitude push me over. Every single time.
Yes, Officer, I am coming to what happened on the day.
I was away for the day at the Club. Meenakshi was sick, so she stayed home. Soumya was attending to her. Mahesh had come back the day before on vacation. I was playing poker at my usual table. Had pocket threes. Was just about to call on a bet when my phone rang.
I don’t remember who it was. They said there was a fire. I don’t remember how I got to the house from the club, Officer. But when I got there a policemen was standing by. ‘I am sorry Brigadier,’ he said. ‘Accident. Looks like the gas was turned on. One casualty.’
I didn’t ask him who it was. Mahesh was on his knees by a body a few feet away. His body was shaking. He was sobbing. Now and then he would groan in agony. I – I guessed who it was. If he was crying that much, it must be Soumya, I thought. Went over and placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and clutched it. ‘I could not save them both,’ he cried. ‘I could only save one.’
‘It’s okay, son,’ I said. Even at that stage, I could not understand the reason behind the love he had for that woman. She was just his nanny. He tried his best to save her, but he couldn’t. Why was he torturing himself so much over her? ‘It’s okay,’ I told him.
The policeman came up to me and asked if I was ready to identify the body. I nodded. Mahesh moves away, and the cop crouches to remove the cloth covering the face. The face is covered with burns, Officer. Completely burnt. But I recognize her. It sort-of slowly sinks in, you see. It’s – it’s not Soumya. Then I look up and see – and see her – a few hundred yards away. She is wrapped in a blanket. A couple of constables are tending to her. She – she looks at me.
Mahesh is still sobbing loudly, his face covered with his hands. I look down at him first, then at Meenakshi’s charred face, then at the policeman’s steel-tipped staff.
I don’t recall what happened after that, Officer. But when – when I came to – I was in these things – and the three policemen were holding me – Mahesh was on his back – looking up at the sky – his head – crushed – in multiple places – the lathi beside him – my hands – they’re shaking – bloody hands – bloody – I look up at her – she is with her back to the outer wall of the house – blanket opened – clothes half-burnt – she looks at me – her eyes are so tranquil – so peaceful – so strong – so calm.