The armchair-cum-wheelchair had lost its stuffing, and I was sinking in it. Just like my life; if it weren’t for Jehaan, my partner in all but crime, I’d have sunk into the abyss of depression. Our friendship tethered me. The unyielding spasms in my lower back were enough to drive me off the wall, but I persevered for Jehaan.
A weak light filtered through the windows in my room. The curtains were a sickly grey; the fabric most likely gleaned from Adam’s loincloth. They may have been cheerier, once, but years of neglect had transformed them. Through them, I gazed longingly at the swaying trees while the dewdrops on them shone like stars. Sigh. Monsoons are magical. Walking in the rain satisfies the soul.
The reception area of Pragya Nivas, ‘THE’ place to be for the city’s affluent aged, boasted of tall windows overlooking the verdant Thane forest. It was its only redeeming quality. I spent many mornings watching the sun report for duty and this cloudy morning, I tried to cheat my chronic pain by drowning it in a hot-water bottle. The grandfather clock chimed when the woman sashayed in interrupted my nap.
The gold-digger is here.
I play the unasked and unofficial role of an armchair detective by keeping track of the comings and goings here. I snuggled deeper into my customized wheelchair, gearing myself for the upcoming drama. The world’s a stage.
Ms. Catwalk aka Dena pranced to her mother, cantankerous Khushi Bakshi’s room. We saw her don a smile only when Dena visited; even the six hairy moles on Khushi’s hanging jowls gleamed with joy. Each strand of hair, erect! I wondered if they poked Dena when she hugged her mother. This visit, though, was an unscheduled one as the resident doctor estimated Khushi had hours to live. Dena arrived to bid goodbye to her mother as the dutiful daughter she was… not. When the doctor signed the death certificate, Dena clutched the precious document to her bosom. Under my ever-watchful eyes, I glimpsed a fleeting smile beneath the veil of tears. A book falling from my blanket-covered lap alerted her and she schooled her expressions again.
I predict we won’t see her again now that she’s got her hands on Khushi’s money, I thought, patting my bun that was as white as the whitest bedpans.
I had never been more wrong in my sixty-one years of existence. We saw Dena again, and how.
In a month, Dena returned, furious as a lioness separated from her cubs; she roared at the hapless receptionist, Kruti. I, in my sentinel position, witnessed her tongue lashing. No one paid any attention, as I was such a harmless fixture, and I eavesdropped shamelessly.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? It’s impossible!” her eyes bulged out, her face turning a dangerous red.
“Ma’am, I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day care for Mrs. Bakshi. Let me call Mr. Dhananjay,” Kruti, floundered; calling the manager on his extension.
Dena stood glowering, impatiently tapping her foot.
The top is simmering
.Dhananjay appeared, speaking smoothly. “Ms. Bakshi, let’s continue this conversation in my office.”
No! How will I overhear, nincompoop?
Dena was in no mood to be appeased. “No! If you cheat openly, let everyone hear it,” she screamed.
Ooh! Wrong time for Jehaan to be sick. She’s missing all the fun!
“Ma’am…,” the repulsive louse re-tried.
“Don’t ma’am me, Dhananjay. You’ve cheated me out of my inheritance. You influenced mummy in signing a codicil using your doctors as corroborating witnesses to perpetuate the sham and transferred her wealth to the hospice. I’m left penniless! But I won’t stay silent. Oh, no! I’m contesting this will. Be prepared,” saying that she twirled around and left in a huff.
Dhananjay winked at Kruti and swaggered off, leaving me confused. Khushi bequeathed her money to Pragya Nivas and not to Dena. Huh? Weird.
Sneaking out at night with treasures hidden in my wheelchair, I rolled into Jehaan’s room. Ever since her cancer metastasized, she had been bedridden. Jehaan and I had been together since we were five! Studying at the same school, the same college, and working for the same newspaper! Jehaan and I got married in the same month, popping out our kids together… literally; we were in adjacent beds in the delivery room. Jehaan was the more sensible one amongst us, the rational one, while I was the impulsive idiot. The children were busy with their lives, so we moved to Pragya Nivas.
Jehaan was sleeping; she looked so small against all the tubes and machines. But she got to pee lying down, so bah. I woke her up and handed her the forbidden masala soda bottle. Over subdued, but satisfying, burps, I narrated the Khushi incident. Jehaan’s pencil-drawn brows met with her hairline.
“Poor Dena.” Did I mention Jehaan had the soul of a compassionate saint?
“Yeah, but she’s not the type to stay quiet, especially with the fortune!”
“Have you made your will, Suchi?”
“I have nothing except this glorious bat-mobile.” I patted the padded handle of my wheelie. “Have you?”
“Oh, yes. I divided everything equally between my kids. And something for you, too!”
A feather could’ve knocked me off. “Jehoo, you promised! No more gifts after this knight-rider!”
Jehaan placed her hand over mine. Her hand was cool and felt papery. Fragile. My heart skipped a beat, pain piercing its corners.
“A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities.” She grasped my hand. “I don’t have a lot of time left. I know you struggled with finances, especially after Dev’s untimely death. Suchi, I know money doesn’t mean much to you, but this is my gift to you. Something for yourself.”
I shook my head. “You can fight this cancer, Jehoo. You have in the past! We haven’t even started our bucket list. The bar we…”
“Suchi, no time, no? Mamma used to say, dikri, if you leave things too late, you may be too late! I should have listened to her. But you can do it. For us.”
A tread of footsteps startled the pair of us, and I hastily grabbed the bottles and stuffed them under my blanket. Ah, these wretched nurses can make even the seventy-year-olds act like secretive teens!
“Suchi and Jehaan! Still talking, eh?” interrupted Nurse Rosakutty. “Suchi, go!”
“Keep me posted,” Jehaan whispered as I rolled out. In the privacy of my room, I contemplated life without Jehaan. Will the abyss absorb me wholly?
The next morning, I hoped for a rerun of the Dena episode, but annoyingly, peace reigned. I saddled up to Kruti, hunting for gossip nuggets.
“Why was the gold-digger hounding you?”
Kruti looked around to see if the coast was clear. “Khushi signed her property over to the institute. She changed her will and Dr. Vish and your mortal enemy, Nurse Mercy, were the witness.”
Nurse Mercy and I had a… history. And I prayed to the gods above that the hunky Dr. Vish and I would share a history, too. So far, the gods were holding back.
“Why did she change her will?” I whispered.
Kruti shrugged. “No one knew about it until it was read.” A phone interrupted our conversation.
Interesting. The wheelchair whizzed, under my able guidance, to Jehaan’s empty room. Ah! She’s at the chemotherapy session. I parked myself by her bed; my thoughts flowing like a stream burbling over pebbles. I knew Jehaan’s days were numbered and so was our time together. Enjoy with her. After a long wait, interns wheeled Jehaan in. Eyes closed and her mouth was pinched, her bald head appeared even more shriveled; the hairless face, pale. I watched as they easily picked and placed her on the bed. Her eyes opened and through the pain, she smiled at me.
And all was well with the world.
Sipping my masala soda, I ruminated over my life. After Dev died, I exchanged the reporting stunts with a desk job for my children. I still missed the thrill of investigating a case. Sigh. The soda went down smoothly; not only did it taste awesome, but it drowned the taste of acid reflux. Oh, reflux was a horrible affliction; it left such an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth.
Being old sucked.
Jehaan was dissolving into the ether. Watching her reminded me of a quote, ‘We cannot hold mortality’s strong hand.’. Try as I might, I couldn’t infuse life into Jehaan but I was forced to watch as it ebbed out of her. Drop by drop.
When I entered her room, Jehaan was barely conscious. I tapped her lightly and her eyes fluttered open and slowly focused on me.
“Suchi,” she murmured.
“Suchi… I think I’ve signed…”
Her eyes drooped. I caressed her cheek, smiling at her sleeping visage. Jehaan, the holder of my sanity. Suddenly, Jehaan’s breathing got laboured with her body going into seizures. The doctors rushed in, pushing me aside before attending to her. I watched from the corner, a lost relic, as they fought to keep her alive; their medical lingo circling me. Everything slowed as if moving in molasses. I gazed around, helpless. The earsplitting siren slowed to a buzz, then stopped. The silence felt discordant, dissolving around me. Dissolving me. The rain outside hammered against the windows, making them shudder. Beating its chest, lamenting.
Jehaan was no more. Her heart had failed, shattering mine. I didn’t even say bye.
I was all alone. Once again.
Days bled into weeks. I existed in a haze; my will to live was lost. The soda bottles lying on the table lost their fizz, growing flat. My bat-mobile rusted in a corner. Its wheels, silent, like me. The back pain I held at bay with the sheer willpower, completely overpowered me. It was agonizing but welcome; it took my mind away from a Jehaan-less life. The hospice appeared drearier, the musty smell reeking of death. Of loss. Its grey walls reflecting my state of mind. I stayed in bed, barely eating.
If she’d been alive, Jehaan would’ve spouted, ‘Death lies on her like an untimely frost.’ But she was gone… and no one would quote the Bard to me. I’d give anything to hear her wax poetry once again. Just one more time, god. Please, god.
I was brooding when Nurse Mercy invaded my room. “You’ve been summoned.”
Closing my eyes, I turned away. Quiet, please!
“Did you hear me, Suchi? They’re reading Jehaan’s will.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“You don’t have a choice. The executor won’t proceed till you are present. The young Mr. Wadia is waiting outside for you.”
Danyal is here? I haven’t met them since the funeral. I shook my head. I’m a lousy aunt. I rose gingerly, my knees buckling; making it to my wheelchair as Danyal entered.
“This is rubbish!” Danyal’s mouth was agape as his sister, Navaz’s features mirrored the shock.
“I’m sorry, dikra. I verified Jehaan’s signature. The will entitles Navaz and you to a minor sum, Suchi too but the bulk goes to the trust,” the executor said.
I slumped in the chair, the legalese like Greek to me. I didn’t care about the money, it couldn’t return Jehoo to me, what was its use? Watching the kids’ gobsmacked faces, I felt a faint stirring. A sense of déjà vu. I cocked my head, trying to remember. Dena! She experienced something similar. A lost inheritance.
“When did Jehaan sign the codicil?” My voice snapped them out of their reverie.
“A few days before she died.”
“But she wasn’t eligible to sign it, let alone draft it. They drugged her to the hilt as her doses were high,” I said.
“Well, a doctor and a nurse from the hospice witnessed it so it’s legit.”
While they discussed contesting rules, my mind whirred. I was emerging from a fog. In two cases, both rich ladies who before their deaths, were in drugged states, bequeathed their estates to the hospice. I remembered Jehaan whispering about a signature but she collapsed before elaborating. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.
Back at the hospice, the loss hit me afresh, but I didn’t falter. I was chasing a faint scent and owed it to Jehaan to dig to the bottom. The biggest advantage of being old, especially an older woman, is that society doesn’t notice you or your nosiness. That night, I sat thinking on my bed, deciding on the plan of action, and the potential sources. Earlier, I had seen Dhananjay and Vish arguing, but they shut the office door as I passed by. The first place to investigate. My rusty journalist skills kicked in, and I relished the feeling. It dispelled some of my grief, channeling it into purpose.
The next morning, I put my plan into action. Taking advantage of the busy lounge, I slipped into Dhananjay’s office, and stuffed the strike plate in the doorjamb with crumbled papers, preventing the door from locking. Job done, I returned to my room. I oiled the hinges of the bat-mobile so nothing squeaked. And waited for darkness.
Investigation night is upon me. Nary a sound, I wheeled myself into the Dhananjay’s office. Everyone was asleep, including Rosakutty. The paper padding had prevented the lock from clasping and the door opened as I pushed it. Silently, I made my way to the file cabinet, searching for and finding the bank statements. With a torch’s aid, I perused them. The malarkey the numbers illuminated was shocking! In the last five years, Pragya Nivas had been the beneficiary in seven cases. Less than twice a year. Not enough to attract attention.
I moved on to the other cabinet, marveling at the lack of security. I located the wills and realized Dr. Vish and Nurse Mercy were witnesses for all of them. Co-incidence? Nah! My pulse raced, adrenalin, surging. In my diary, I noted the patient’s names: the last two were Khushi and Jehaan, while the others were unknown. Not pushing my luck, I retrieved the balled-up paper and left. A pattern emerged, but I needed proof to make Danyal’s case stronger. How?
I spent the morning in bed, gearing up for the nighttime sojourns. The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak. Old age confers no boons. When your once-fit body reacted sluggishly to your commands, frustration sets in. I’ve to push myself.
This time in Dhananjay’s office, I concentrated on locating the patients’ medical files. I realized they were being administered high morphine doses, rendering them as malleable putty in conniving hands. Bingo! Did they sign the papers while drugged? How do I safeguard these files without arousing suspicion? I needed external help. Being nosy helps. I know most of the staffs’ secrets. Who can help me?
An idea germinated, a radicle shot out.
Dhananjay, the manager, was an abhorrent man, a slimy salesman. He appeared friendly on the surface, but his heart was black as coal –with no scope of yielding a diamond. In his office, I stumbled upon papers that revealed Dhananjay was the mastermind. The one who chose the sickly patients and drugged them, getting his grubby hands on their money. He flirted shamelessly with Kruti, passing love notes to her while making goo-goo eyes. Yuck! Kruti was smitten with him and I knew Dhananjay had promised marriage to her but… he was already married! Something she didn’t know, and I was going to tell her. She had to be on Team Suchi so I could successfully unveil the nefarious scheme.
Water logging forced most staff to take a holiday, except Kruti who stayed next door. Good. Smiling at her, I slowly broached the topic before brandishing a picture of an unctuous Dhananjay with his wife and three kids! After copious usage of tissues, Kruti was humming with the need for revenge. I handed her the papers hidden in my Feluda book. When she was at lunch, I called a friend who still wore his journalist stripes and narrated everything to him. He was hooked, promising to meet Kruti after work today, despite the downpour. Journalists, when on a chase, didn’t let minor things like storms get in the way of a story. We were weird that way.
All ends were neatly tied, but I needed to confront Dr. Vish, so I requested to see him. I was exhausted, my energy sapped. The mission, done and dusted and out of my hands, brought with it a sense of closure. Piggybacking it was renewed grief. A sorrow so serrated, its striations, deep. I barely had the energy to do this one last bit.
When Dr. Vish entered, I was sipping a soda. “How are you, Suchi?”
I stayed silent, staring into his bottomless eyes, where evil lurked. He crept closer as I shrank back against the bed.
“Cat got your tongue?” He hovered over me.
“You’re cheating people out of their inheritance.”
“Suchi… Suchi, you’ve experienced a delusional episode. Nothing criminal is happening.”
“I saw the files and the numbers don’t lie.”
“The patients bequeathed the money and we need it for old parasitic jellyfish-like you! Nothing comes for free. We saw you on the CCTV, snooping around in Dhananjay’s office and taking the files. Not so smart, eh?” A crazed look contrasting his handsome features.
His laughter was maniacal. Edgy. He withdrew an injection, pausing. “What did you do with the photocopies, Suchi? Where are they?”
A half-smile creased my lips. “I must hold my tongue.”
Vish harrumphed. “Always with the quotes. Anyhow. Now sleep, my fair child…”
Struggling against his powerful arms, I felt the needle pierce me. The last thing I heard was… “Dhananjay for god’s sake, lock the file cabinets.” Heh. Losers.
Braving the rain and side-stepping puddles, Kruti reached the station where Suchi’s friend waited for her. Perusing the documents, he carefully placed them inside a plastic cover. Safe. Justice will be served; he had promised Suchi.
All’s well that ends well.
Quotes from William Shakespeare’s plays:
A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities. – Julius Caesar.
We cannot hold mortality’s strong hand. – King John.
Death lies on her like an untimely frost. – Romeo and Juliet.
Like Greek to me. – Julius Caesar.
Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. – Hamlet.
I must hold my tongue. – Hamlet.
All’s well that ends well. – First Folio.
Feluda: A fictional character in ‘Adventures of Feluda’ by Satyajit Ray.
Suchi: One of the word’s meanings is detective in Sanskrit.