A Clean Break
A Clean Break21 mins 22.6K 21 mins 22.6K
A Clean Break
The shaded lamp hanging from the ceiling moved about slightly, and the shadows it threw on the grey stone walls of the small room danced slowly in the yellow light, making it seem like they were performing some ritual dance surrounding the people standing in the room.
The room was bare, there were two men standing and a young man sitting on a chair placed directly under the lamp. The two men were wearing police uniforms, and stood glaring at the young man, who looked worse for wear, for they had thrashed him around a bit.
“Did you know Mrs. Sarita Wagholikar?” One of them asked him. The questioner was the higher ranking of the two interrogators, made abundantly clear by his inspector’s uniform. The other interrogator, an ageing, balding constable standing nearer to the chair generally repeated everything the inspector said. He now promptly proceeded to slap the man in the chair, exhorting him to answer the question.
Vishal hesitated while answering because he was weighing his options. This process was made harder by the lashing he had suffered earlier, due to which his mind was clouded now with fear. The part not clouded by fear was filled with swirling clouds of confusion. He also sensed that there was another emotion, a pain over the loss suffered, which was at the moment pushed to the background. He had a faint feeling that it should be at the forefront. He was brought back into the present by the stinging slap.
“Yes… I knew her.” He decided that honesty was the best policy. The tone in which the inspector had asked the question suggested that he knew the truth and was testing Vishal.
The answer to this question was complicated, and Vishal felt he should not be entirely truthful. What he was unsure about was, how much did the police know? Considering the charges he was facing, the truth was the worst choice, but then lying to the police was a scary prospect. It was like shooting in the dark at moving targets, which seemed to be wearing night vision goggles, and frankly, seemed to be carrying superior firepower. He wanted to avoid another slap though, so he had to formulate his response promptly.
The constable slapped him again, and for good measure, grabbed his hair in his fist and jerked his head back, turning his eyes towards the bright light. The constable seemed to derive a perverse pleasure from these proceedings.
“Well, we know all about you two.” The inspector boomed, and threw what sounded like a small stack of paper on the floor. The constable jerked Vishal’s head ahead and forced him downwards off the chair. His knees banged on the floor, but Vishal disregarded the pain, concentrating instead on the photographs strewn on the floor.
How did the police end up with these photographs of him and Sarita? The photos seemed to have been surreptitiously taken while they were enjoying one of their frequent escapades, no doubt, but the existence of the photographs plunged him further into confusion.
This is how I would write the scene of Vishal’s interrogation, if I had to write it. I don’t think this is how it would take place actually, because unlike what the public thinks, police work is pretty unglamorous, most of it downright tedious. However, all good stories deserve embellishment, and I am in the profession of providing such embellishments. I am a writer by profession.
I do not know if the police showed Vishal those photographs (honestly, I don’t think they did) and I do not know how he would react if they were shown to him, because I have not had a chance to make acquaintance of this young rascal, but I am sure that our reactions would have been drastically different.
While he would have reacted with confusion over existence of the photographs, when Pradeep Malvankar of eagle detective agency showed them to me in his office, they merely confirmed my suspicions that Sarita was having an affair.
This eagle detective agency was a one man show, and when that one man is Pradeep malvankar, there is not much to show. The office was a minuscule room tucked away in a weather-beaten old building in a seedy neighborhood. The building seemed to be a stock-house for failing businesses. Even so, Malvankar’s business was well down the pecking order in its catalog and did not see much footfall. The state of the office told me that much.
Pradeep Malvankar was an old school friend, and therefore I had chosen him to perform this unpleasant task for me. He was a ferrety man, who wore dull shirts and trousers, melting into crowds, being one of them essentially and did not call any attention to himself, which was a big plus for his profession. It was the eyes that set him apart from sundry public. If you took time to look long and deep into them, you could see that this man had no scruples and would do anything for the right incentive.
I stared at the photos he had clicked for me. They pictured Sarita and a young man walking around deserted lanes, the chowpati, and marketplaces, and sometimes eating together in restaurants. The angles were all unflattering, owing to the need of the photographer to stay hidden. There were a few photographs of buildings and windows.
“They have these three meeting places. I have also got the copies of the scans of the registers I managed to get.” Malvankar explained. Did I hear a strain of malicious pleasure in his voice or was I just imagining things? Anyways, I was more interested in perusing the photographs and take a good look at the unfortunate specimen Sarita was hobnobbing with.
Sarita’s choices in men (including me) have always been disastrous and this was no different. As a matter of fact, her standard seemed to have fallen further. The man in the photographs was younger than her, perhaps an actor, who looked like a badly made Xerox of a fashion model. I say actor, because Sarita was active in the theatre scene, and it was most likely she met him there. He must not have been a good actor, I thought slyly. He was far too well built and pretty to be considered a serious actor.
Malvankar was observing me closely. “What are you going to do?” He asked.
“I don’t know.” I actually hadn’t got a clue. Now that my suspicions were confirmed, I did not know how to proceed. I just sat there, fiddling with the photographs.
Why had I invited Malavnkar back into my life like this and provided him with a front row sit to the show? There was no point in gathering evidence. What was I going to do? A thought struck my mind “Had some other man like Malvankar shown similar paraphernalia starring me to Sarita? Did she know? If I had suspected that Sarita was having an affair, what stopped her from getting the same suspicion?
If she had known, she wouldn’t sit back the way I was. She would act on the information. She would formulate a plan of action. We wouldn’t be together any more. This was typical of me, with my habit of starting stories without any idea where they were going, to hire a detective and after he had presented me with his finding, just sit blankly in the said detective’s office, staring at the incriminating evidence. Malvankar mistook my silence for a sign of great turmoil within my soul.
“I had warned you beforehand… I actively try and dissuade clients from digging into or gathering evidence of their partner’s adultery. Of course, I only do that after I’ve made enough to earn my keep for the month, but… The point is, it is easier to live with lingering doubts. Once your suspicions are confirmed, what are you going to do? We are not made for clean breaks. Most of us are not.”
Thank god for that. That right there is the bread and butter for us writers. If we were made for clean breaks, emotions never intertwining with each other and logic to make everything harder, what would we write about?
Look at Romeo and Juliet for instance. These two birds meet, fall in love and their families happen to be sworn enemies. Now, imagine that any party in this transaction is able to make a clean break " for example if Romeo and Juliet can simply severe association with their families, or the families simply abandon them, or forget about each other, would it still be an epic love story of star crossed lovers?
There are always some invisible threads that hold us back, no matter what. Otherwise, there was no reason for me and Sarita to stay together.
“Rakesh… What now?” Malvankar interrupted my thoughts.
Some harebrained scheme was forming in my mind. At the moment, it was too vague to mention, but it seemed to me that Malvankar had a role to play.
“I need time to think.”
“Take your own time. It’s not my lookout anyway. My job here is done.”
“Yeah… It seems so.”
“I’ll always be available for further help, if you need any. For instance, if you decide to file for a divorce and need me to appear in court… But that’s getting too far ahead "“
“Divorce? Hmmm… I am thinking about a clean break… Let’s see”. I glanced at the photos again. “What happens to the photos?”
“There are yours. If you want me to hold on to them, I can do that.”
“Please hold on to them for me. I will settle your bill pretty soon. Just don’t send me an invoice.” For good measure, I added “Do you know who’s paying your bill? Sarita!”
Under the circumstances, divorce was a logical choice. However, divorce proceedings tend to drag a lot. Also, I may be a stinker, for using Sarita’s money to spy upon her, but to use her own money to launch a divorce proceeding against her seemed to be too low a thing to do, even by my standards.
I had married into riches, Sarita being the only daughter of a big industrialist, and normally, for an out of work writer this would have been a plus. Not for me.
I had met Sarita in college, or rather; she had met me, because it was my college. I had written a play for the college drama circle, and she had been invited by some unfortunate actor in the play to the show. He obviously wanted to impress her. She was, at the time, quite an accomplished actor in the amateur theater circuit.
It was me who impressed her then, with my script, and more so, I suspect, with my demeanor and my way of looking at the world. I was adamant that I was going to be a writer, not a playwright, but a novel writer, and nothing else. I may dabble in short stories section, but it was novels that would earn me my bread, and fame that inadvertently follows success, I told her when we discussed the play after the curtains.
Then a steady stream of meetings followed, first few of them planned along with ancillary activities, like watching plays, attending literary discussions or art exhibitions. Later on, along with all these activities, we also met each other for the sake of meeting, and then we realized that maybe we had fallen in love.
A marriage followed, and then the publication of my first novel. Two plays written by me opened subsequently, and all was well for some time, until I could not write anymore.
The dreaded writer’s block hit, and hit me hard. I was not prepared for it. This was a first. I tried to carry on gamely. I thought this too shall pass, but it did not seem to want to pass out of my life.
I just could not exist like this, not doing anything productive. There is not much you can do about a writer’s block, other than to write through it, and that is a very painful process. All at the same time you want to and don’t want to sit and write, because you cannot write. If you indeed manage to put words on paper, they are pure excrement.
I tried everything. I even taught writing courses at colleges (an utter waste of time) or writing workshops (even worse), the logic being that by surrounding myself with young blood and new ideas, the dried-up well of ideas inside me would be replenished. For a month, I even stopped sitting down for writing sessions, which were a farce anyways, and spent that time reading.
Sarita did not like me conducting workshops, or teaching at college. She reminded me that I had said I would be a writer, and nothing else. She much preferred me sitting at home, either reading or banging my head against the blank page. There was no pressing need for me to get back to work, according to her. I couldn’t accept such an existence.
Did I say that the workshops were a total waste? Not completely true. It was in one of those workshops that I met Madhu. She was a budding writer, working as a journalist. It was refreshing to work with her, polishing and mentoring her craft.
I found love in Madhu. Now that Sarita had found the boy in the photographs, one hoped that a clean break was on cards. I started make preparations for the same.
Even though both of us had found solace elsewhere, Sarita was still was clinging on to the idea of us. We both did not converse a lot during those days, but all attempts at conversation were initiated by her. Maybe she thought that this was just a phase, and everything would be all right once my writer’s block disappeared. If it was so, what she was doing with the man in the photos was beyond me.
A few days after I was notified about the existence of the man by Malvankar, it was our anniversary. Not the marriage anniversary. This was apparently the day we had met many years back. We had celebrated this day ever since. I did not feel up for it now. Knowing Sarita, she was hoping that we go out for at least a dinner. I had been preparing for this day for quite some time and now, all I had to do was to pretend that I had forgotten all about it.
The morning was an instant success. Sarita had woken up before me as usual, and went about her business in the house. I woke up, having been sleeping on my side, with my back to Sarita. I rolled on to my back, and just lay there for some time, mulling things over.
When I went into the kitchen, the breakfast was laid on the table. It was the usual fare " tea, biscuits and newspaper. For a moment I thought whether Sarita had forgotten the anniversary.
I sat down, picked up the paper and buried myself into it. A few moments later, Sarita, who had been looking at me reading, asked me the date. This reassured me, because this was of course an attempt to gauge whether I remembered and consequently cared about the significance of the date.
I had to play it cool, and while there were waves of excitement rising inside me, I kept my tone normal and blandly told her the date. She did not pursue the matter further, but I noticed that she looked slightly crestfallen. The first skirmish was won.
A lot of time elapsed between this and the next attempt. It was a far more daring and therefore desperate attempt. It was affected while I was sitting for my daily writing session.
Sarita knew I did not like to be interrupted during writing sessions, more so now that I could not write. I did not want anyone to see me in this defeated condition.
I was sitting at my desk, fiddling with my pen. Sarita came in.
“Which of these earrings look better?”
I took a quick gander and turned back towards the blank paper. “They both look good to me. Everything looks good on you.”
Perhaps the earrings were meant to jog my memory, or make me realize that today was a special day. I completely ignored the whole thing. However, I mixed in a compliment, to keep the things from turning ugly. It was the truth. Everything did look good on her.
Sarita walked towards the door, stopped and turned.
“It is the 5th.”
“It indeed is. What about it?”
“The electricity bill has to be paid…”
“So pay it. You can even do it online. I think there’s enough in our account.”
“Yes, there is.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I haven’t had dealings with the bank recently. No cheques issued or received for last five months, haven’t you noticed that?”
“Why are you bringing that up? Have I ever-“
“Well, you brought it up-“
“Me? How so?”
I turned my attention towards the blank page again. Sarita left in a huff.
The afternoon tea used to be a ghastly affair if both of us were present in the house. We, or rather, Sarita always made it a point to have it together. Imagine two married persons, both in love with different parties, sharing an afternoon tea. Today, I looked forward to it. I hoped Sarita will bring up the anniversary. Not directly of course. She will do it in her roundabout way, making me read between the lines.
However, she kept silent during the whole tea ceremony. I feared I had played my part too well and had put sarita off the topic of anniversary celebrations. The mention of the bills riled me up and I reacted harshly. I should have shown some restraint. This could be a spanner in the works. I had to defuse the situation and lay the groundwork for the next step in my plot.
I let a few minutes pass, dressed up in cloths appropriate for an excursion in the city, slipped a small red jewelry box into my pockets and peered into our bedroom. Sarita was standing at the window, staring outside. On the bed, near her pillow, a neatly folded saari was kept. It must have been the saari she had planned wearing to the now non-existent anniversary dinner. I felt a little sorry for her then. Maybe our love was not completely dead.
She turned. I was looking at the saari. She saw me looking at the saari.
I looked at her, a little too quickly.
“Nothing… I’m going out now. Just wanted to inform you. A few students from one of the workshops want to discuss their work.”
She turned towards the window again. I took a few steps towards the door. Then I stopped and looked at the saari again.
“Oh… I remembered this suddenly… strange how our memory works-“
Sarita had turned after hearing me speak.
“-do you remember that story I had written?” I continued, shifting the look towards her. She deflated visibly. ”The one about the stranger and the wife… The wife is home alone, the husband having forgotten her birthday or something, and stranger knocks on the door. She lets him in… yada yada yada.”
“What about it?”
“Nothing… I just remembered it. For no reason at all. Strange how our memory works.”
“Yes. Really Strange.” Sarita said, and she meant it to sting.
“I hope the students surprise me.” I replied and winked at her before exiting.
I left the scene with obvious delight. Sarita was no fool. She was sure to add up two and two, reaching the inevitable but calamitous conclusion. The buoyant mood had dampened a little by the time I reached the hotel, because the next step was the most critical part of the plan, and the most hazardous part of the plan, and it was not me who had to perform it.
I had prepared extensively for the role with Malvankar. We had spent so much time in devising and rehearsing what he had to do. Still, you can do only so much at the nets. The pressures that you face on the actual match-day are very different.
It had been hard for me to work up the courage to include Malvankar in the plan, and that is when the time we had spent together in our school days came in handy. During those days, Malvankar had the makings of a perfect bully. He was larger than most of the boys in the class, and, not being too bright, faced absolutely no moral qualms while doing the most atrocious deeds. What he lacked was the will to do those deeds, and the ability to think them up. I became the wind in his sails and the compass that guided him, and together we became a menace in the school.
A career in crime during schooldays, however, does not guarantee that your past partner in crime will partake in your current exploits, especially if they are of a grave nature. However, having played the roles before, it was easier for us to settle into that pattern, and his financial woes put paid to whatever morals he had acquired during our time apart. What I asked of him was indeed extremely difficult. If the turned back, I wouldn’t say a word.
Madhu was sitting at our usual table. When I saw her, I tried to push all other thoughts out of my mind, but like squatters who dig in and fight tooth and nails when you try to eject them from a comfy arrangement which is to their liking, these thoughts refused to vacate the premises. They hovered around in the background, splitting my attention right down the middle.
I could see myself walk towards Madhu, greet her and sit down at the table. In my mind I could see Sarita. She had vacated her position at the window to take up another, having stationed herself in the living room, deep in thoughts. I could also see Malvankar getting ready to do his bit.
“What’s the matter?” Madhu asked me.”Wasn’t today supposed to be some special day for you and… her?”
Madhu never used Sarita’s name. Usually she actively avoided the subject. Sarita’s existence had become the bane of her life.
“A Special day? Hmmm…” I made a grave face. “We used to celebrate an anniversary on this day. This is the day we met.”
“So why aren’t you with her… you know, celebrating?”
I did not answer immediately.
“Is something wrong?”
I took another pause and looked her in the eye.
“I have just discovered that Sarita is having an affair.”
The words took some time to sink in.
“What? How… how?-“
“I had a suspicion, so I told a friend of mine… who is a private investigator, to follow her. He saw them. He clicked their pictures, found out about all their little love-nests-“
“So does this mean-“
“Yes. It means that I have solid grounds to ask for a divorce now.”
“I hope she does not know about us.”
“She doesn’t… The reason I am here today, with you,” I told her “Instead of Sarita, celebrating our anniversary, is because I have just informed her that I know all about her little secret.”
Madhu clapped her hands on her mouth.
“What did she say?”
“Oh… well. She told me it was nothing… accused me of ignoring her. The usual stuff, I suppose. Then she reassured me that she would break if all off and so on… I told her that she could bloody well do whatever she wanted to do. It is all over for me. Then I left… Would you like to see a magic trick?”
“Would you like to see a magic trick?” I repeated. She did not seem to follow,so
I added “I’ve been learning a few tricks recently. There is this one trick I am really fond of…”
I picked up the rose from the flower arrangement on the table. These flower arrangements on the tables were one of the many reasons why I loved coming to this hotel. She looked at me, Bewildered.
“I’m now going to make this rose disappear.”
The expressions on Madhu’s face told me that she clearly thought I was going mad. I continued undeterred.
“Now look closely.” And then, with a few flourishes of my hand, I made the rose disappear from my hand. I waited for the audience to applaud. Madhu stared at me in concern. I decided to press on with the trick.
“Will you check your purse?”
“I think the rose is in your purse.”
She was clearly pissed off, but to humor me, she dug into her purse. A few moments later, she came out with a shrill cry and a small red velvet box.
She duly opened it and peered at the ring glittering inside it.
“Will you marry me? After the divorce proceedings are over, of course. We will have to wait till then.”
As it turns out, we did not have to wait. I arrived home, and when Sarita did not open the door, opened it with my key and went in. I found her in the living room, lying in a pool of her own blood.
I left the crime scene untouched and called the police. They arrived promptly. I told them all, mentioning my discovery of Sarita’s cheating and the discussion we had before I went out in the afternoon. I turned in the photographs Malvankar had given me and strongly asserted that my suspicions firmly rested on the man in those photographs, given that Sarita had told me that she was going to put a stop to their affair.
The police acted swiftly and rounded him up. His name was Vishal. Apparently Sarita had called him on his cell-phone after I had left (an unexpected stroke of luck). They also gathered the CCTV footage from the front porch camera, which showed a man, who had covered his face, visiting the house sometime after I had left, and leaving the house in haste, a few minutes later. They could not have positively identified him as Vishal, but for a stupid bracelet he used to wear, which was captured in the CCTV footage, the photographs and on his person when he was arrested (me and Malvankar had spent a few rupees and one whole afternoon looking for the same kind of locket. The credit for the discovery goes to Malvankar, who observed the locket in those photographs and included it in our plan).
Now I’ll mourn Sarita for a few days, her murderer has been caught and will be duly punished by the court of law, and after sufficient time has passed, I’ll marry Madhu. A clean break if there ever was one. The only thing that remains unclear and I rather hope that Vishal could clear it up, is the reason why he left a red rose near Sarita’s dead body.
Yashodhan C. kelkar