Rekha took the key from the receptionist and proceeded to the lift. Her furrowed brow hinted at a discomfort that had crept into her heart. But try as she might, she couldn’t shake off the sinister feeling that the burly man with a mole on the bridge of his nose was trailing her and Harish.
The lift stopped on the third floor. Adjusting the dupatta, Rekha got out, turned left, and walked towards the end of the corridor. Occasionally, she paused and turned back. Not a soul was in sight. Allowing herself a sheepish smile, she unlocked the door to room 309 and threw herself on the bed.
Humming a song, she rolled over. All this must be the effect of watching too many films. Otherwise, why would someone follow them? They were just a newly-married couple from Begusarai, honeymooning in Patna. Who could gain from robbing them? They weren’t Ambanis or Adanis.
The doorbell rang, startling her. She got up and peeped through the eyehole.
“Ufffff!” she mumbled, opening the door. “You nearly scared me. Weren’t you supposed to be in the bar?”
Harish rushed inside and wrapped his arms around his wife. “You thought I was a thief?” With a broad smile plastered on his face, he added, “I decided to come back. Without you, it’s no fun. You could have gone to the temple later.”
“I can’t leave Patna without a darshan of Bajrangbali.”
Harish shook his head. “Arey, Rekha, meri jaan! We are on a honeymoon. God is not running away from us.”
A faint smile parted Rekha’s lips. “Ok, mere babu shona! After dinner, we will go to the bar and have a beer. Promise! Now help me in packing. I don’t want to wake up early tomorrow.”
Harish looked at his watch, lifted the VIP trolley from the floor, and placed it on the bed. “We have an hour to kill before dinner. Chalo, let’s do it.”
Thirty minutes later, Harish got up, stretched like a cat, and strode towards the bathroom, grinning. “I will pack your God later.”
Rekha arched her eyebrow. “The one we bought from that tourist shop?”
“You. Not we. That shop had so many figurines for sale. I liked that fridge magnet a lot. But you? You had to buy that Ganesh murti. Do we have any shortage of idols in our pooja room?”
“Who stopped you from buying anything? I liked that murti. Something drew me to it like a magnet. Did you see the jewels adorning the crown? They looked so real.”
With that, Rekha took out a wet wipe and, after cleansing her face, applied a coat of lipstick. It would be their last dinner in Patna before the drudgery of domesticity enveloped her in Begusarai.
The teal Grand i10 left the outskirts of Patna and cruised along NH 31. Rekha looked in the rear-view mirror and wondered if she should tell Harish about it. But what if he began to fidget on the highway? No, she couldn’t afford to scare him. She had to bide her time. The black Scorpio was following them. There was no doubt about it.
A nagging thought wormed its way into her heart. Could it be…? No, she broke up with him a long time back. And why should he stalk her? No. No. She prayed that just for this one time, her instincts proved her wrong.
Harish stopped in front of a tea stall. Rekha took the earthen cup and took a sip.
“What happened, Rekha? You look pale,” Harish asked in a concerned voice.
“I don’t know if I sound silly. But the black Scorpio has been following us ever since we left the hotel.”
Instinctively, Harish turned around, much to Rekha’s chagrin.
“Arey, don’t look back like an idiot,” she muttered through gritted teeth.
Embarrassed, Harish went back to sipping his tea. “Sorry.”
Rekha inched closer towards him. “I hid something from you. A man has been following us in Patna too.”
Harish took a step back in surprise. “What? And you’re telling me now!”
Rekha gulped. “I thought I was overreacting. But now I’m convinced.”
“But kyon? We don’t have any treasure with us. Neither are we criminals.”
Rekha shrugged her shoulders. Harish finished his tea, threw the earthen cup into the bin, and paid the vendor. “Let’s stick to the highway. Our chaser, if he is one, won’t be able to do much in broad daylight.”
“We still have a long way to reach Begusarai. What if ..?
“Let’s see.” With that, Harish got into the car. Rekha followed suit. The Scorpio now maintained a distance of about five hundred metres from their hatchback. When Harish accelerated, the SUV driver did the same. A pall of fear descended upon the inhabitants of the i10.
Rekha tried hard not to jog her memory. She didn’t want to know if the driver and her stalker were the same.
Harish looked at the Google Maps on the screen. “Rekha. We are reaching Bakhtiyarpur. I’ll stop at the police station. We can’t take any more risks.”
An excruciating twenty minutes later, their car stopped before the thana. With hesitating steps, the couple got down and entered the police station. The driver of the Scorpio parked his vehicle under the pipal tree and peered out from the window. He had a mole on the bridge of his nose.
Rekha sat on the bench, painfully aware of the police officer’s gaze. Inspector S. Kumar had listened to Harish’s complaint with disdain. Stifling a yawn, the burlesque policeman put his arm around her husband’s shoulder and took him outside.
“Madam, you sit here. We’ll be back.”
What could Rekha do in such a situation? Praying to Bajrangbali for Harish’s safety, she waited.
The clock struck twelve. Where was Harish? Rekha was about to get up when the inspector strode in.
“Did you have anything for lunch?”
“N..No. Thank you, sir. Where is my husband?”
“Don’t worry. He is safe as of now. Just cooperate with us, and you will be fine.”
Rekha’s eyes widened. “What do you mean? We are not criminals.”
Inspector Kumar twirled his handlebar moustache. “You are carrying diamonds worth lakhs of rupees.”
“What? Impossible! We are not smugglers!”
“You forgot that Ganesh murti,” Kumar winked at her.
Rekha paused. The mist in her mind began to clear up. The man with a mole on the bridge of his nose was after the murti. But still, lots of questions were unanswered.
Sensing her doubts, Kumar continued. “The idol had diamonds worth a fortune. The shopkeeper was supposed to sell it to an acquaintance, but on that fateful day, he was away on an errand. His foolish assistant unknowingly sold it to you.” The inspector stopped for dramatic effect and spat out, “For a pittance.”
Quivering, Rekha folded her hands in front of Kumar. “Sir, I swear we are innocent. You want the murti, right? Please take it. I had no idea that it was valuable.”
“Is it that easy?” the inspector asked with a smirk.
The realisation hit Rekha. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Sir, we won’t breathe a word to anyone. Please spare us.”
Kumar threw back his head and guffawed. “The poor assistant.”
Rekha staggered back. “You mean….?”
Kumar shrugged his shoulders. “What else? Now you also know the secret.”
Rekha sat down on the bench again, resigned to her fate. “Where is Harish?”
The inspector said nothing but went back to his desk. “Hand over the murti to me now.” Before he could utter an obscene slur, the phone trilled. He picked it up.
Tumultuous thoughts swirled inside Rekha’s mind, threatening to suck her courage into a vortex. Judging by how Inspector Kumar stood on alert, occasionally interspersing the dialogues with a velvety-sounding sir, Rekha guessed he might be talking with his superior. She had to act now to save herself from the clutches of the police-mafia nexus. She picked up her mobile from her handbag, hesitated for a nanosecond, and dialled Raju Sah.
*** Two years ago in Begusarai ***
The gentle breeze fanned the young man’s face as he stood on the bank of the lake. Dressed in a white kurta and a pair of navy-blue jeans, he was throwing pebbles on the water, watching as they bounced off the surface, creating a circular pattern of ripples.
He perked up his ears at the sound of shuffling footsteps. Without moving from his position, he addressed the person, “You’re late.”
Rekha didn’t smile. “I lied to my mother that I was going to my friend’s place to study.” She went near Raju and intertwined her fingers in his. Not a word was spoken between the two as they watched the sunset.
“Raju. I’ve some bad news,” Rekha finally broke the silence.
“Don’t tell me your father has selected a boy for you.”
Rekha shook her head. “No. Babuji will not marry me off unless I graduate. But he will not agree to our marriage.”
“But we are from the same caste. Where is the problem?”
“You. Who asked you to join politics? You could have taken up the job of a school teacher. You were the ideal candidate.”
Raju sighed. “I was not interested, Rekha. There is a great scope in politics for youngsters. We have had enough of the oldies clinging to their precious chairs.”
“I cannot marry a politician, Raju. I’m sorry. I have scant respect for them.”
Raju squeezed her hand tightly but said nothing. Taking the hint, Rekha leaned her head on his shoulder. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, they shared a final kiss.
*** The present day in Bakhtiyarpur ***
Rekha buried her face in her hands. Inspector Kumar kept the phone down and approached her. “Where’s the murti, girl? And how dare you make a phone call without informing me?”
Just then, the man with a mole on the bridge of his nose entered the police station. “Boss is waiting for the diamonds.”
The inspector glared at him. “Do you think I’m whiling away my time here? I had a call with the SP now. He doesn’t want the word to spread. Can’t you be patient?”
Chastened, the man took his seat on a bench opposite Rekha. Inspector Kumar took a deep breath and addressed the young woman again. “Look here. I am a busy man. Hand it over to me now.”
Rekha looked up. “It’s in the trolley.”
Inspector Kumar swore under his breath. “Of course! Come, I’ll escort you to your car.”
No sooner had Rekha got up when the phone rang again. Invoking the womenfolk in juicy cuss words, Kumar rushed to his desk. He gestured to Rekha and the man not to nudge.
“Hello!” he barked into the receiver. His face underwent a massive transformation in a moment. His gruff voice became as sweet as rabri, and a smile parted his betel-stained lips. If the caller were to have appeared before Kumar, the inspector would have grovelled at his feet. The sudden change in his demeanour didn’t surprise Rekha at all.
She knew who the caller was.
The man with a mole on the bridge on his nose left the police station, sulking. Inspector Kumar gaped at Rekha. “Wow! I never knew you were so smart.”
Rekha said nothing. The inspector went out. After ten minutes, he returned with Harish.
Rekha stood like a statue as a joyous-looking Harish hugged her, much to the chagrin of Kumar. “Hey, we are free. We can go home now.”
Inspector Kumar caught hold of Harish by the scruff of his neck and dragged him towards the lockup. “Chalo, in you go.” He pushed the young man inside and locked the cell.
A shell-shocked Harish screamed. “Inspector Saheb. You must be mistaken. I’m innocent.”
Kumar barked at the quivering man. “Shut up, you fool. You are a smuggler. You stole diamonds worth lakhs of rupees from a well-known shop in Patna and were planning to sell them to a foreigner. We all know the truth.”
“What are you saying, sir?” Harish then looked at Rekha and whimpered, “Why are you silent? Speak up. Say something.”
Rekha’s face was impassive. “You shouldn’t have taken the diamonds. I warned you not to do so at the shop. I so badly wanted that fridge magnet.”
Harish gripped the bars of the lockup tightly. “Are you insane, Rekha? I never wanted that murti in the first place. And what’s with the diamonds? What’s going on?”
When no reply was forthcoming, Harish turned to Inspector Kumar. “Sir, please trust me. I have no idea what Rekha is talking about. When you took me outside and asked me to wait in the park, I thought you were shielding me. I didn’t even suspect you when you entered the station again.”
Harish’s rants fell on deaf ears. Rekha took a pen and signed on a piece of paper. Kumar scribbled something and nodded.
“Thank you, sir,” mumbled Rekha and exited the thana. A white Thar stood outside. The driver waved at her. Acknowledging him, Rekha got into the vehicle.
Rekha leaned back against the seat of the Thar as it hurtled along NH 31. The conversation with Raju Sah returned to haunt her. When she pleaded with the rising star of the opposition party in the Bihar assembly to save her and Harish, Raju interrupted his ex-lover.
“I will help you, meri jaan. What are exes for? But I need a promise from you. Ditch that guy and come back to me.”
The driver braked the Thar as a flock of sheep blocked the path. He muttered an apology to Rekha.
“It’s ok, bhaiya. This sight is common in Bihar.” She managed a faint smile.
What was so surprising about Raju extracting his pound of flesh? After all, she had rejected him. And now, when the sword of Damocles hung over her head, she had no other option but to choose her cards wisely. Raju had made it clear he wouldn’t protect Harish. Rekha knew she would be unable to defend her husband. She was up against well-connected bigwigs.
Something told her that the scam related to tourist shops was not just restricted to a few corrupt people. Seeing how Inspector Kumar dealt with it in a nonchalant manner, it must have spread its tentacles across the state. But she could prove nothing.
Raju offered to help Rekha only because the guilty men belonged to the ruling party. Knowing well that the arrest would ensure coverage for the next assembly elections, he came up with an offer Rekha couldn’t refuse.
“Listen carefully. I know about this scam. Testify that your husband is the thief. My lawyers will do the rest and pin the blame on some random minister.”
“But what will happen to Harish? What about me?”
“Forget him. Come back to Begusarai. Join my party. It needs an image makeover. He he he! You will be hailed as an honest woman.”
Rekha laughed. “By revolting against my husband?”
“No. We will change the narrative. Harish tricked you into marrying him. But as soon as you found out he was not honest, you chose the truth over your husband. Don’t think much about it. I will send a white Thar that belongs to my friend in Bakhtiyarpur. Hop into it. I’ll prepare a story by then.”
Rekha began to laugh. Hadn’t she once told Raju in his face that she had scant respect for politicians? She clutched her aching sides, surprised at her volte-face. Soon, violent sobs raked her body, and she wiped her eyes with her dupatta.
“You swine! You turned me into a politician,” Rekha screamed, hitting the seat with balled-up fists. Unmindful of the commotion, the Thar continued its journey to Begusarai on NH 31.
Dupatta – A type of scarf draped over the chest
Darshan – To see a deity in a temple
Bajrangali – Lord Hanuman
Arey – Hey
Meri Jaan / Mere Babu Shona – Terms of endearment
Chalo – Let’s get going
Kyon – Why
Thana – Police station
Murti – Idol
Pooja – Prayer
Babuji – Father
Rabri – Sweetened dish
Saheb – Sir
Bhaiyaa – Elder brother
P.C – Screenshot of Google Maps from my mobile