The Setting Sun
The Setting Sun
THE SETTING SUN- Hope never dies
December evening of 2012 saw the Starbucks cafe in a bustle of activity. It was as if the whole of Delhi was having a gala time – businessmen signing off deals, clerks discussing about their difficult bosses, college fresher’s getting to know their seniors, couples enjoying a paradise away from the prying eyes of the world and of course loners like Niharika Singh, the adept journalist of ‘New Horizon’.
“Madam, do you want to order anything else?”
“Yes, a caramel pastry.”
It has been over half an hour; she was killing time eating all kinds of pastries. Just then her Blackberry beeped. There was a message from Kushraj.
GETTING THERE IN 15 MINS ☺
“Seriously Kush! It’s high time that you started behaving like a gentleman,” she exasperated and was annoyed beyond imagination. They had completed one year of their relationship and never had he failed in disappointing her when it came to his punctuality. Muttering silent curses she resumed eating her black forest pastry when she saw ‘her’. A lady, of not more than 30 years, had taken the vacant table and sat facing Niharika. Her mauve crop top stood in complete contrast to her wheatish complexion. Her pixie cut highlighted her oval shaped face. As the sun was half down its zenith, its last final rays fell on this lady’s face giving it a mesmerizing look. She sipped her coffee and looked out, through the French window, lost in deep thought and exuding a silent air of authority.
Just then a waiter walked up to her table and as she turned to talk to him, something fell from her couch. And then what Niharika saw, put her under a mind numbing shock.
IT WAS A KNIFE!
Not a butter knife but a big, sharp one meant for...
That lady had bent over to pick it up when her eyes fell on Niharika, staring at her. Their eyes met for a few seconds, Niharika’s questioning and hers unanswerable. That lady got up, tied her blue scarf around her neck and left the cafe in a lady-like haste. As Niharika got up to follow her, a waiter called out,
“Madam, here’s your caramel pastry.”
That woman left with thousand of unanswered questions but only one kept on revolving in Niharika’s mind. WHO WAS SHE?
“No, Kushraj I’m hundred percent sure that she is a murderer. Although she didn’t look like a married woman but who knows she must be on the lookout for the right opportunity to stab her husband!”
After that fateful scene, Niharika was busy concocting stories about the lady who was carrying the knife. Kushraj Malhotra, the chief editor of the leading newspaper daily in the capital- ‘New Horizon’, had always loved the powerful imagination and curiosity that his girl possessed. But today it was getting on his nerves although he mentally thanked that lady for having kept Niharika busy and making her forget that she had to scold him for his extraordinarily late arrival.
“Niharika this is the fifth theory that you’re telling me with the main plot just shifting from suicidal attempts to serial killing and what-not,” he chuckled.
“Kush you don’t get it. When I saw her picking up the knife she appeared so impervious. Her face was blank yet I saw fear and angst in those eyes like she was scared to death knowing that her secret was out. And then she left the cafe with a cheetah like speed. Everything just points towards one thing.”
“Niharika appearances are deceptive. You know that, right?” he asked rhetorically.
“Not when you can actually point out the events of that person’s nemesis,” she said firmly. “And thanks for coming so early,” she added in a caustic tone. Kushraj smiled. The case was dismissed for now.
Two weeks had passed since that day. Life had picked up normal pace for both Niharika and Kushraj. After repeated requests by Kushraj, Niharika had put her wild imagination to rest but she kept on getting a gnawing feeling that something was amiss. Her conscious thoughts transformed themselves into nightmares and she always found herself waking up in the middle of the night, sweaty with the gruesome scenes of the murders flashing before her eyes. She was sure that the woman was involved in some dubious activities but only the evidences and her identity was missing. Little did Niharika realize that even these things will come knocking at her door.
It was 16th of December when Niharika went splurging in Connaught Place. She was about to enter ‘Oxford’ bookstore when she heard a screeching of tires. A white Audi had stopped a few yards away from her. What surprised her more was that the same lady, whom Niharika saw at the Starbucks that day, quickly got into the passenger seat and the Audi drove away.
“HR 51 AZ 0041,” Niharika memorized the alpha-numeric code which was written on the car’s number plate.
HR 51 AZ 0041
I WANT THE OWNER’S NAME ASAP! OFFICIAL PURPOSES
She hit the send button. After fifteen minutes her screen flashed the reply which Daksh, the senior most employee of the car registration office in Delhi, had sent. Some friendships really help you at times, she mused.
“Mr. Rajeev Hooda,” she said slowly, “...seems like your little acts over.” And a mysterious smile spread over her face.
Niharika drove to her apartment in the posh locality of Greater Kailash, leaving all her shopping plans at bay. After having an interrogative dinner where she answered every question with ‘There’s seriously no problem, ma’ and a fake smile plastered on her face, she locked her bedroom door and sat down to work. Typing with lightning fast speed she goggled down everything about Mr. Rajeev Hooda- a diamond merchant and a denizen of Gurgaon. His family was of three- he, his wife and his 25 year old son but there was no mention of any daughter. After two long hours of back breaking research, she logged into her facebook account and searched for Rajeev Hooda. As she was scrolling down his timeline, her eyes fell on a picture tagged as ‘Diwali celebrations’. As she enlarged the shot, she gasped. It was that same woman standing beside him, smiling. As she took the cursor on her face, it read ‘Avantika Banerjee’ in the side menu.
Niharika, with a new-found energy, went to Avantika’s profile. How could she forget that impeccable face- the face of all her nightmares. After another hour of checking all nooks and corners of her profile, she noted the address of the Hooda mansion. That’s where I’ll get all my answers, she thought.
It was ten in the morning when Niharika came down for breakfast. Excited and nervous about her impending Gurgaon trip, she sat down to relish her mother’s aloo parantha when her blackberry rang. It was Kushraj calling.
“Hi, Kush!” she squealed
“No time for pleasantries, Niharika. We have to rush to Safdarjung City Hospital. A twenty year old girl was raped last night.”
“She’s such a social gimmick. Working for a women’s NGO which is funded by Rajeev Hooda, she must be distracting people from her clandestine activities,” Niharika said indignantly. She had narrated yesterday’s events to Kushraj and gave him all the information that she had collected.
“Just because you’ve found a good spot, she doesn’t become a social gimmick. Now relax. You’ve a sensitive case in hand which is more important because that’s your profession,” and she nodded feebly.
“Is the rapist arrested yet?”
“Yes, this morning he was found unconscious by some residents and the police was informed. He had bled profusely because of some sharp object that slashed his wrist.”
“That’s the information I have. The victim was admitted by some lady who happened to be present at the spot and she accused that man for rape. It was confirmed after those medical examinations.”
“Who was that lady?”
“That’s yet to be known.”
It was five in the evening when they reached the hospital. As soon as the Volkswagen stopped in the parking area, both of them rushed to the reception.
“Where’s Emergency Ward number-22?” asked a panting Kushraj.
The receptionist gave them the directions and as they were about to climb the flight of stairs, Niharika’s eyes fell on a woman who was filling a form. Niharika stopped dead in her tracks when she saw her face.
“Kush, you go. I’m coming.”
He nodded and left. Niharika slowly walked up to her, her head bursting with innumerable unanswered questions.
“I want to talk to you, Avantika,” she spoke confidently. Avantika looked up and Niharika noticed her brown eyes and a long nose which enhanced her facial features. Avantika smiled and rose up. She was an inch taller than her.
“Of course, you do. Sorry that I ran away twice but this time I won’t.”
Avantika swerved the car skilfully through the growing traffic in Safdarjung and within an hour they reached Starbucks. After parking the car, Avantika looked at Niharika in the eye and said, “Before you ask me anything, I need to know whether you’ll trust me or not.”
She took out a blue silken scarf from her handbag, which was tied at one end, and gave it to Niharika who felt something inside it.
As she untied the knot, a cry escaped her lips. In their lay a blood stained knife. THE SAME KNIFE!
“The blood,” Avantika whispered slowly though they were sitting inside the car, “...is of that rapist.”
Niharika felt nauseous and wanted to run away but her faculties defied her.
“But the rapist is alive; he was just slashed by some sharp object. A lady who was there...” She covered her mouth in unmixed horror as the realization dawned upon her.
“You’re right, Niharika. I was that lady,” Avantika said solemnly, “I was called by the staff at the NGO to discuss about an important issue had to leave for Delhi. I took Rajeev’s uncle car with me. It was around 11:30 pm when I was returning that the car broke down. The driver started working on it when I heard some muffled screams. There was no living soul in sight so I started walking towards the source. A few yards away from me, in an alley, I saw a giant of a man with his back towards me. He was laughing and talking sleazily to a girl whose dress was in tatters. When I saw her face all I saw was a living corpse. I took out the knife which I always kept in my handbag and went nearer to them.
“Stop! If you dare to touch her again I’ll not spare you” and I showed him the knife which he thought was a fake. “Oh! Double fun tonight,” and as he was about to grab me, I dodged him and slashed his left wrist. He screamed. The driver, who was already looking for me, came running to the spot and had a rod with him. I ordered him to bang it on the rapist’s head. We then carried the girl to the car and drove her to the hospital, where you eventually found me.” Avantika ended her narration with a wry smile. “Come, let’s go inside.”
Niharika followed her with guilt piercing her heart into million pieces. Since the very first day, she thought of Avantika as a murderer but actually, she was a savior. They ordered coffee and took a table beside the window. Niharika was feeling so remorseful that she couldn’t even meet her gaze with Avantika’s. Finally, when their coffees arrived Niharika looked up at her and a sudden reality struck her. She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.
“Why?” Niharika mumbled. Never in her career as a journalism had she been so wrong in judging someone.
Avantika cleared her throat and sighed as if someone had knocked the life out of her. Suddenly she looked older, “It all started three years back. I had everything a girl wanted- top-notch position in Silverman Finance, a loving family, a debonair fiancé, unmatched popularity and a heavy salary all at the age of twenty seven. But one night everything came crashing down. That night I was the living corpse like that girl but I had no savior of mine. My fiancé left, after all who would want a sexually assaulted woman as his wife. My aunt never allowed me to sit in the pujas, afraid that I’ll destroy its sanctity. At Silverman, people gave me those pity looks and at home aunt used to mock at me saying who would ever marry me,” and tears rolled down her eyes.
“And then Rajeev uncle gave me the idea of starting an NGO for women,” Avantika continued, “I had never stood up for anyone but since that day, I’ve stood up for so many women. In order to bring a change in the paradigms of the society, I’ll fail but won’t quit. Strength shouldn’t be shown when it’s easier to show. When we are working for the larger good, we’ll face obstacles and giving up is the easiest thing but having the courage to fight back is what matters. And whenever life knocks you down, you must get up and say, “This isn’t the end of the story.” And when I meet these oppressed women fighting back, all I see is courage.” Avantika got up, shoving her belongings in her handbag and said, “But Hope and never giving up is the most important lesson. I have recreated my ruined city. The scars are still there and so are their lessons,” she winked and left.
Niharika wiped off her tears and smiled. She looked at the setting sun. Avantika’s right, she mused. People don’t kill themselves when the sun sets, afraid that it would never rise. It’s Hope that keeps them going and Courage to fight back the storms of their life. They never give up on the thought that the sun will never rise and shove away the dark clouds. Everyone had learnt their own lessons in life and today, even she did.
“Niharika, I hope that the next time you don’t forget that appearances are truly deceptive.”