The Death of Meghana Rathore
The Death of Meghana Rathore13 mins 368 13 mins 368
Ripudaman Sinha was all set to take a well-deserved break from his rugged life as a star super-cop. He had planned a sabbatical starting the following week. He looked forward to spend his next six months in the tranquil of his villa in the hills of Kumaon – reading, writing and running to his heart’s content.
That morning, he was back from his exhausting run – his ninety minutes of ‘me-time’, which would stretch to two hours on weekends. He took off his sweaty t-shirt and hung it around his neck. It was relief. Mumbai was getting hotter by the day.
His six-feet frame bent over to undo his laces. Just then, the phone rang. He froze when he heard ACP Satya’s message from the other end. He hung up after a deep sigh followed by a short grunt of affirmation.
Bollywood numero uno, Meghana Rathore was dead.
He sighed again and shook his head. He knew that this death would bury his dream sabbatical – in which he was to read, write and run in the tranquil of Kumaon.
He had set aside half an hour that day, what would have been his last day before his sabbatical, for closing the file of Qamran Hamid’s death. A month back, the disgraced former India cricket captain, who was known more for his match fixing exploits and subsequent ban, than his eleven centuries for India, was found dead in his bath tub. The preliminary medical reports suggested that the death was due to heart attack. But then, Qamran was all of thirty-eight. He was a fit sportsman, who had no history of any heart ailment. Prima facie, there was no suspicion – no injuries or suspicious fingerprints. There were no signs of poisoning. There was nothing that left a trail – no clue to which Ripu’s team could latch on to lead them to enlightenment. The post mortem report also confirmed that there was nothing suspicious.
For Ripu, it was conclusive – a natural death due to heart attack. Till that morning.
Till that morning, when Meghana’s lifeless, naked body was found floating over the water and beneath the foam, in her bath tub. It was déjà vu – heart attack, no injuries, no suspicious fingerprints, no signs of poisoning.
Two months, two celebrities, two overnight mystery deaths, eerily similar to each other. Ripu had a task at hand.
“Sir, what information do you have about Meghana’s death?”
“Sir, is it a suicide or a murder?”
“Is it connected to Qamran’s death?”
Scores of boisterous reporters thronged the gates of the Blue Herald Apartments. Ripu’s bodyguards pushed and shoved at them, making way for him. Ripu stepped out of the building and took off his glares. His narrow eyes shone with purpose on his chiselled face. He looked dapper in his uniform. It fit him well. His broad shoulders and muscular arms did tell a story. It was not surprising that he was considered as one of the fittest cops in the country. Without a word, he stepped into his car and whizzed away.
“It has to be Neeraj.”
Madhu’s light eyes were still. They hardly blinked and merged into her ashen face.
Ripu’s investigation of Meghana’s death led him to speak to about two-dozen people. One of them was Madhu, a freelance make-up artist. She was well-respected amongst the film circles and the first choice for most of the top heroines.
Ripu sipped some tea and looked around the austere walls of his office. All the evidences pointed towards Neeraj Kumar, Meghana’s alleged boyfriend – one of the few who were alleged to be with her. The call records, the alleged tiff that they had that evening as per Meghana’s next door neighbour and the numerous fund transfers from Meghana’s account to his – all of these steered towards the murky, towards the amiss. The scores of their intimate, obscene videos on Neeraj’s and Meghana’s laptops and mobiles only reinforced the hypothesis.
“It, certainly, has to be Neeraj,” said Madhu.
Ripu creased his forehead and rubbed off a bead of sweat.
“How can you be so sure?”
He looked at Madhu. She lowered her eyes.
“I can be sure,” said Madhu. “Can’t I?” She smiled. “I’ve been with a star super cop for almost four hours in the last three days!”
Ripu scuffed at his salt and pepper hair and laughed. Their eyes met each other’s. There was a couple of seconds of silence. And then, Ripu laughed again, this time, in conjunction with Madhu’s giggles. It was their second meeting. They surprised themselves. The veneers of Ripu’s toughness and Madhu’s apathy peeled off, with each minute of their proximity to each other. The mundane environs of the Deputy Commissioner’s office were charged with their chemistry.
“But, seriously,” said Madhu. “Neeraj would often come on to the sets and throw tantrums for money.” Madhu switched back into her normal, stoic self. Her face glowed in the orange hues of the setting sun.
“He had also come to the sets that morning, on the day Meghana died. I saw her weeping later that day.”
“Your tea is getting cold,” said Ripu. He took a deep, long breath and nodded. Madhu took a sip. He looked at her and wondered what it was that made her interesting. She was good looking. Despite wearing no make-up, she looked more attractive than most forty-one-year-olds.
Or was it her intelligence? Or her grit, her poise, despite losing her husband fifteen years back in an accident – an incident that Ripu got to know during his first round of interrogation, a couple of days back. Or perhaps, it was their common love for Western classical music – a piece of information that he had discovered earlier that day.
The forty-six-year-old bachelor, who is not easily impressed, found Madhu to be impressive. He yearned to explore more of her.
“I was quite close to Meghana.” Madhu’s choked voice cut through Ripu’s momentary trance and brought him back to the present, back to business. “She, often, spoke to me about Neeraj harassing her.”
“Then why was she close to him?” said Ripu. “I can’t understand the leading lady of Bollywood dating a small time, failed businessman.”
Meghana shook her head.
“Exactly,” she said. “I asked her the same question. She evaded it. I think it’s an old story, perhaps an irreparable error. Perhaps, he’s been blackmailing her.”
“You have a point,” he said. “Everything points to Neeraj at the moment.”
Ripu walked over to the coffee maker. It was the end of his second questioning session with Madhu.
“No, not right after tea!” Madhu smiled, all set to leave.
“I’m an addict – won’t mind any number of coffees. Of late, I’m trying to control, though.”
He made a cup for himself and went over to the window. The sun had set and the sea was dark as it merged into the black night sky. The illuminated Marine Drive looked enchanting in the form of the Queen’s necklace. Ripu sipped at, what would be, or so he hoped, his last cup of coffee for the day.
“Good night, Ripu!”
“But, think of this,” said Ripu. He was still looking over the window. Madhu was taken aback. She expected nothing more than a “Good night” in response.
“Why would a blackmailer kill the duck laying golden eggs?”
“That’s for you to find out,” she said, after a pause and another smile. “Good night!”
Ripu watched her leave. His mind was a potpourri of muddled emotions. However, he wouldn’t allow his mind to drift for long. The case was as dark and murky as the blend of the sea and sky. He clenched his fist and knocked hard at the wooden window frame. This was so much of a tough nut to crack. His eyes moved on to an old brass wall hanger that he had received during one of his numerous felicitations. Etched on it, and faintly visible, were his favourite lines from Julius Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
He knew for sure that his legacy would be only as good as his last assignment – the current one. No one would remember the complex cases that he had solved in the past. A man of immense pride, he, therefore, dreaded at the thought of failure to solve this one.
It couldn’t be Neeraj, he thought. It wasn’t that straight forward. Or was it? The motive could have been wealth. Perhaps, some insurance policy or some other asset, details of which would unfold with the investigation. Or, perhaps, it could be a scuffle between the two, that resulted in her death by accident. The initial reports indicated signs of struggle. But, a semblance of struggle could also result out of a heart attack, which was concluded as the cause of the death.
A couple of weeks passed. Neeraj was arrested on the basis of circumstantial evidences and the statements of most of the two-dozen people that the police interrogated. However, his questioning did little to solve the case. He confessed to blackmailing Meghana and extorting money from her. But, despite using all the weapons in their armour, the police were unable to extract any motivation for Neeraj to kill Meghana.
“And, what’s with this murky similarity with Qamran’s death?”
ACP Satya didn’t have an answer. Ripu slowly flipped the pages of the two files, seeking that link – a shred of evidence, which he could use to solve the two cases. Satya had concluded in his mind that both were natural deaths due to heart attack, as was apparent. The similarity was a mere coincidence. He, therefore, didn’t contribute much other than sitting agape, wondering what the fuss was all about.
Later that evening, Ripu was in the midst of yet another meeting with Madhu at a coffee shop near her house. It was their fifth meeting in a fortnight – each, more intense than the one before.
Ripu sipped his cappuccino. His intense, blue eyes gleamed with a touch of wet. He looked into his cup, as if to find the next strand of conversation. Once in a while, he stole quick, furtive glances of Madhu. Her eyes lowered, she was a picture of poise, despite the turbulence within. Her wavy locks cascaded callously over her dimpled cheeks, down towards her shoulders. She looked attractive, even with the minimal makeup that she wore. A tinge of black from her eyeliner that strayed beneath her left eye, added to her careless beauty.
The coffee shop became fuller and noisier by the minute. Ripu sat agape. His shock insulated him from the throng and the din. Madhu was stoic and white. She lowered her wide, dry eyes, wondering whether she had disclosed more than she ought to.
“I’m sorry,” said Ripu.
Madhu nodded her head in acknowledgement. “It’s okay.”
To the universe, and consequently to Ripu till that day, she’d lost her husband, Shekhar, in an ‘accident’. The truth was reserved for her inner circle. Ripu broke into that inner circle that day. That truth, he didn’t want to hear – for more reasons than one.
The truth that Shekhar was killed that day, the 12th of September, a decade and a half back, in the Mumbai train serial blasts. The truth that confirmed his worst fears.
“I’d brought this for you,” said Ripu, handing an audio CD that read: ‘The Best of Beethoven’. “Hope you won’t mind…”
Madhu smiled for the first time that evening.
“Thanks!” she said, and took it from him. It marked the end of a solemn evening together. Unlike the previous two occasions, Madhu refused to be dropped home.
“I need to visit a friend,” she said.
Ripu watched her disappear into the darkness of the night, as he stepped into his car.
In twenty minutes, Madhu was at the apartment of Dr. Saikat Sen, a Professor of Pharmacology at the City Medical College Hospital. He sat on his wheelchair, sipping coffee. Her other accomplice, Ramesh Kumar, a dabbawala, was sunk into a couch, staring into oblivion.
“You should’ve done it,” said the doctor. “He knows too much. We’ll be in trouble soon.”
Madhu shook her head and returned the tiny paper pouch to him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t. I’ll not be able to do this.”
The doctor smirked. “I can’t believe that this is you,” he said.
“Why do you say so?” asked Madhu. “Ripu has not wronged any of us. He’s doing his job.”
The room was filled with a few seconds of silence.
“And you can’t say that I haven’t done my bit,” she continued. “Even now, my influence played a role in the needle of suspicion pointing towards Neeraj and his getting arrested.”
“Do you even know what you’re talking about?” said the doctor. For once, he raised his voice. Before long, he sounded more composed. “We’ve been tracking Ripu’s moves. Neeraj’s arrest is to mislead us…to force you to lower your guard.”
He took a deep, exasperating breath. “And I feel that he’s succeeded in that. Think. Why else would he meet you so often? Because he’s in love with you?” He chuckled. Madhu was not amused. She sat still. Her forehead was wrinkled and lips twisted to a side and curved downwards.
“He’ll close on us in no time,” he continued. “You needed to eliminate him, Madhu!”
Madhu looked down and shook her head in a silent protest.
The doctor smirked again. “Everything was shattered in a jiffy,” he said. His voice was low, almost a whisper. “My wife, my child, your husband, Ramesh’s father…how much pain they’d have felt during their last few breaths…”
A tear rolled down his cheek.
“Ask me…,” he said. “Unlike me, they’d have chosen death, rather than that excruciating trauma.”
Ramesh lowered his eyes, avoiding eye contact with the doctor. Madhu stared into nothingness.
“And, after fifteen long years, our great judicial system acquits two celebrities with influence, who were so central to the conspiracy – Qamran, the traitor who allowed his apartment to be one of the godowns for the ammunition. And Meghana, the great don’s then lover who had a wonderful time with him, giving him refuge at her bungalow, while he was planning the attack.”
He shook his head, opening the pouch that Madhu returned to him and sprinkling the powdery content into a six-inch-long bottle that contained more of that. It was a complex chloride that the doctor prepared, which would cause a heart attack in about eight hours to anyone who ingested more than five grams of it, and would leave no trace in the system after four hours of death.
It was the substance that Qamran’s new dabbawala, Ramesh Kumar, added to his dinner on the fateful day. And it was the same substance that was laced in Meghana’s lipstick during Madhu’s afternoon makeup session on the day Meghana died.
“They didn’t deserve to live,” said the doctor. He hung his head low, and shook it from left to right. “Providence brought us together. Let’s see what’s in store…”
The doctor wheeled back to his bedroom. Madhu and Ramesh dispersed to their respective homes.
Three days passed.
Ripu was back home from his morning run. He loved the nip in the Kumaon air – a welcome change from sultry Mumbai. He realised that he would need some more runs to be comfortable with the terrains. He pulled out the day’s newspaper that was shoved into the door latch. The headline read: “Meghana Case Closed”, along with a sub-heading: “A Case of Natural Death, Says Police”.
Ripu’s dry lips stretched into a wry smile as he entered his room. He kept the newspaper on his study table and took a file, thick with photographs, paper cuttings and documents, that was kept on it. He flipped through it one last time before locking it into the vault of his almirah. He wiped his wet face full of sweat, perhaps a drop or two of tears, as he looked at a large photograph on the opposite wall – that of his fiancée, one of the victims of the Mumbai train serial blasts fifteen years back.