Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Mayuresh Kanvinde

The Strange Case of Mrs and Mr Gupta

It does not happen every day that a Sub-Inspector of the Mumbai Police faints while on duty. It would be a matter of shame, and it surely was for Sub-Inspector Mohite as he sat on the floor in the bedroom of Mr. Gupta’s Versova apartment, his back against the wall, having just gained consciousness, and not yet decided on his next set of actions.

In front of him, on the blood-drenched bed, lay Mr. Arnav Gupta, dead, a kitchen knife stabbed into his abdomen. The bedroom showed clear signs of a struggle. Not one object in the room was in its place. Bed sheets, pillows, clothes were scattered on the floor; curtain rods were broken as if been pulled down by force; a tall mirror behind a dressing table had a crack right around the place where a person’s face would appear; an expensive lampshade, beaten out of shape, lay in the middle of the floor, pieces of its broken lamp’s glass strewn across the floor; the only chair in the room lay upturned besides the bed. Every aspect of the room hinted towards the presence of another person in the room earlier who seemed to have been involved in a violent struggle with Mr. Gupta.

However, the direction of the stab in Mr. Gupta’s abdomen unmistakably indicated that the wounds were self-inflicted. So much so, that Mohite was convinced to the end of the case being nothing else but suicide. Yet, what puzzled him and led him to remain indecisive was the entire sequence of events that had enfolded during the day — his first day in charge of the Versova Police Station.

It was Monday morning. Sub-Inspector Mohite had just assumed charge of his Police Station, and had finished introductions with his subordinates. He sat proudly in his hard, slightly uncomfortable, wooden chair, thinking of how his hard work and perseverance had helped him to rise quickly up the ranks in his, as yet, successful career. He glanced down at the towering pile of unsolved cases on his desk, which, as per his orders, Head Constable, Jadhav, had made available to him, and was about to resume his long day’s work, when a very worried voice calling for ‘Inspector Sir’ fell on his ears.
He was surprised when he looked up, for the deep, masculine voice strikingly contrasted with its lean, feeble-looking owner standing in front of him. The man stood around 5 feet 6 inches tall, and was completely bald, save for a few strands of hair at the back of his head. The wrinkles on his long forehead vividly brought forth the trouble on his clean-shaven face. But, what seized Mohite’s attention were his extremely thin eyebrows; they seemed to have been plucked! Perhaps those were what gave him his feminine appearance.

The man seated himself hurriedly and introduced himself as Mr. Arnav Gupta. He wanted to file a missing person’s complaint for his wife, whom he had not seen since the previous night. She had apparently vanished from the house in the middle of the night. They had had a fight the previous night, which, according to Mr. Gupta, was not an uncommon occurrence between them nowadays. Later, they had slept in the same room, though not speaking to each other. But, when he had woken up early morning, she was, quite unusually, nowhere to be found in the house. Mohite tried to assure him that it was not an uncommon occurrence either for wives to temporarily leave their house for their parents’ place after a fight with their husbands; and that she would soon return of her own accord. But, Mr. Gupta confirmed that he had already enquired about his wife’s whereabouts, without any success, with his in-laws as well as all their friends and relatives.

Mohite was a bit apprehensive about filing a missing person case so soon. After all, it had not even been a day since the person went missing. But still, to assure Mr. Gupta, he asked Head Constable Jadhav to note all the information that Mr. Gupta had to provide and to file a complaint to that regard. He also asked Mr. Gupta to submit a photograph of his wife for reference.

Jadhav, however, was not content with the ‘wife leaving for her parents’ place after a fight’ scenario. He insisted that he had been in service for many years and knew of several other reasons why a wife could be missing. He, quite light-heartedly, mentioned a case of a well-to-do small-time businessman who had, a couple of years ago, filed a similar missing person’s case for his wife. After months of search, she was found in another city, having run away with her driver, with whom she used to spend most of her day while her husband used to be busy spending sixteen hours a day at work. 

Mohite knew that Jadhav, though playfully, was treading on dangerous grounds, and had already seen what was to come next. He spent the next few minutes calmly observing the entire scene unfold as Mr. Gupta, having completely lost his cool, reprimanded and abused Jadhav for being unprofessional and questioned his authority to speculate on someone else’s wife’s character. He verbally expressed his and his wife’s love for and integrity towards each other, and threatened to go to higher authorities to complain against Jadhav’s supposed atrocities. All this while Jadhav looked on helplessly, half cursing himself for not having restrained his speech on time and landing himself into a pickle, and half hoping that the new Sub-Inspector would interfere to quell the onslaught, and later on, would cast a blind eye on the entire embarrassing episode. Mohite did interfere; but it took a while before he could quiet Mr. Gupta down, initially with apologies, then with assurances and finally, because nothing else was working, with threats of booking him for disturbing the effective functioning of his police station. He, then, did reassure Mr. Gupta of putting in all his efforts to locate his wife, and letting him know as soon as she is found. However, Mohite had already dismissed any further thoughts of the case from his mind; he was pretty sure that Mr. Gupta’s wife would soon be found and without any police intervention.

By afternoon, the Sub-Inspector’s first day at his new police station proved to be extremely taxing, with too many unsolved cases to look into. The missing Mrs. Suman Gupta was the last thing on his mind until the commotion at Head Constable Jadhav’s desk made him lose his concentration. Jadhav was quite vocally arguing with a woman, telling her to go home. A hint of a smile appeared on Mohite’s lips when he heard Jadhav mention to her about Mr. Gupta’s search for her and the complaint he had filed. “I knew it all along”, thought Mohite. But, with what followed in the next couple of minutes, the smile on his face vanished as fast as it had appeared, taking along with it the slightest hint of humour that could have lingered. The lady quite abruptly broke down in front of everyone, saying she did not want to go home and certainly not to her husband. She accused her husband of being overly possessive of her, suspecting her of having extra-marital affairs and often beating her up. Crying, she rolled up the right sleeve of her full-sleeved Punjabi suite, exposing her forearm and holding it out for them to see. Mohite, Jadhav and the few constables on duty winced disgustingly.

Mrs. Gupta’s forearm bore a very severe burn around the wrist area. On close observation, Mohite realized that the burn was actually the engraving of a name seared into her flesh — a name no different than the first name of Mr. Gupta — ‘Arnav’. Mrs. Gupta was telling Jadhav in her feeble voice about the fight she had had with her husband the previous night, which according to her was not an uncommon occurrence nowadays. However, the previous night, Mr. Gupta had crossed all her sufferance limits by burning his name into her forearm, citing the reason that he wanted everyone, with whom she was supposedly having an affair, to know whom she belonged too. After narrating this horrific experience, Mrs. Gupta continued sobbing, but not one policeman in the entire police station, including the new Sub-Inspector Mohite who had saved Jadhav earlier from Mr. Gupta’s fierce attack, knew how to react to this sorrowful cry for help. They all just watched in utter disbelief.
The lady was without any doubt Mrs. Suman Gupta, something Jadhav had already confirmed, and Mohite had reconfirmed, from the photograph that Mr. Gupta had submitted. Mrs. Gupta appeared vaguely familiar to Mohite but he could not recall why. She was fair, had quite a pretty face, was almost as tall as her husband, and despite being a bit too thin, was still quite in shape. Her only imperfection would have been her extremely large forehead; but she more than compensated for it with her long, shining, dark hair, kept neatly braided behind her back. Mohite failed to comprehend why any husband would even argue with, leave aside beating up, such a lovely wife. But then comprehending others’ marital problems was not his job and he let go of further such thoughts. He instructed Jadhav to file a First Information Report on behalf of Mrs. Suman Gupta against her husband, Mr. Arnav Gupta. He also asked a constable on duty to accompany Mrs. Gupta to her home, and return only after ensuring her security. This time, Jadhav, for his own good and Mohite’s grateful relief, did not add to the day’s events by repeating anything similar to his morning feat. Yet, for the second time during the day, Mohite had a hunch that the day would not cease to be eventful.

Mohite’s hunches had never let him down before and they were not going to today. The next disconcerting visitor of the day arrived in the form of a phone call. It was almost nine o’clock in the evening when Mohite, assuming the day to have ended, was packing his things to go home for some rest. Head Constable Jadhav approached his desk with panic on his face. He had just received a distress call from Mrs. Gupta, crying out to him for help against her husband who had resumed her previous night’s ordeal. Mohite instructed Jadhav to resolve the matter himself, and for good, by paying a visit to the Guptas’ residence if needed, along with one of the constables. But, the experienced Jadhav continued to look on helplessly, his eyes hoping that his superior would accompany him. Assuming the matter to be trivial and not needing more than a few minutes’ attention — the dread of a policeman’s words in the minds of common people tends to resolve such petty issues quickly — Mohite relented to accompanying Jadhav and joined him in the patrol vehicle.
Within minutes they were standing outside the front door of the Guptas’ sixth floor apartment in Versova. The nameplate bore the title ‘Mr. and Mrs. Arnav Gupta’. Sounds of yelling and crying from inside the house could be clearly heard outside, the thick wooden front door proving inadequate to obstruct them. Mohite could easily discern the two voices alternately reaching his ear — Mr. Gupta’s deep, masculine voice, shouting and abusing his wife; and Mrs. Gupta’s feeble voice, crying for relief.

Jadhav rang the doorbell once, twice, a long thrice. Neither the door opened nor the fight depicted any signs of ending. Mohite and Jadhav were both growing restless. They were about to ask the neighbours for an alternate house-key, but were stopped short in their actions. A bloodcurdling scream had rung through the night air, rendering every other sound to silence. The fight inside the house had ended. It was Mrs. Gupta who had screamed. Nervous thoughts ran through Mohite’s mind. He kept reminding himself not to panic, but was losing his calm and hoping, against hope, that no lives be lost during the day’s events. Neither he nor Jadhav were prepared for such a drastic turn of events. This was supposed to be a petty issue to be resolved in a matter of minutes. They remained still, not knowing how to act, but knowing they had to soon. They decided to break down the door. Accordingly, the senior of the two, who was allowed to carry a service revolver, drew it out and shot a bullet through the door latch. The door yielded and the policemen entered, the Sub-Inspector in the lead.

There was no one in the living room. Mohite had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach; had they been too late? The room was in total disarray. The fight had apparently been on for too long and been too severe. He spotted the bedroom door ajar and made for it. He was not prepared for what he was about to witness in the next room. Mr. Gupta lay stretched out on the bed, eyes wide open in terror, a kitchen knife stabbed into his abdomen. The blood from his wound had surged on to the bed, dyeing it a dark crimson red. Mohite did not bother to check whether Mr. Gupta was alive. His eyes were screaming he was dead. But, what struck him odd was that there was no sign of Mrs. Gupta, neither in the bedroom nor in the attached bathroom. Meanwhile, Jadhav had checked the balcony and the kitchen without finding any traces of her. Mohite was exasperated. There was little doubt in his mind that the scream he had heard outside had emanated from a female voice — Mrs. Gupta’s. Yet, she was not in the house. And yet, she could not have left the house without using the front door; this was the sixth floor.

Mohite reached out to inspect Mr. Gupta’s dead body; his initial observations of the wound intrigued him to look more closely. His knowledge of forensics was limited, but that did not prevent him from drawing a conclusion; neither did it minimize his bewilderment at his discovery that the wound was self-inflicted; that Mr. Gupta had been stabbed by himself. It was extremely hard to comprehend that a person who was so much bent upon inflicting torture on his wife at one instant could have committed suicide the next instant. There had to be a different explanation. And yet, there was Mr. Gupta lying dead in front of him, having committed the dreadful crime of suicide.

The human mind, when thinking at a wild pace, often conjures up queer intuitions which seem to be totally unreasonable and inconsequential. Still, following such queer thoughts, more than often opens hidden doors which would otherwise have remained closed, though being in plain sight. Likewise, Sub-Inspector Mohite’s mind, too, urged him to look around the room again, to find something that was right in front of him and yet eluding him. He had seen something in the room which troubled him, something that would help solve this case. He let his probing eyes scan the room in every possible direction. A long, rectangular wooden box lying on the dressing table caught his eye. He reached out for it and opened it. It was quite an extensive makeup kit. No wonder Mrs. Gupta looked so beautiful, thought Mohite. He looked around again. Under a pile of clothes that lay strewn near the dressing table, something pitch black, as black as Mrs. Gupta’s dark hair, caught his sight.

He reached out and picked up the black object. It was a wig, with the hair at its end neatly twined into a braid. Mohite’s heart skipped a beat. It took him a full long minute to fully comprehend the true meaning of his finding, and another longer one for the realization to sink in. Now, it was all starting to fall in place; Mr. Gupta’s baldness, Mrs. Gupta’s large forehead and the wig; Mrs. Gupta’s extensive makeup kit, Mr. Gupta’s plucked eyebrows; both husband and wife being thin and of the same height. If only he could set aside his last remaining doubts. His mind strained as the stressfully long day’s events flashed before his eyes for the umpteenth time. He recalled Mrs. Gupta’s visit earlier during the day and of a sudden knew where to look for. His limbs quivered as he rushed towards Mr. Gupta’s body. With trembling hands, he lifted the cold right arm of the dead Mr. Gupta and began to unfold the sleeve of his full-sleeve shirt. He felt his vision grow blurry as his mind registered what it saw. On Mr. Gupta’s right forearm was an engraving he had seen before, burned right into his flesh, spelling out the name “Arnav”.

When he regained consciousness, Sub-Inspector Mohite felt a bit ashamed. He had fainted on duty on his very first day right in front of his Head Constable, while in charge of a police station under the jurisdiction of the reputed Mumbai Police. He thirstily gulped down the glass of water which Jadhav had offered him. He soon remembered why he had fainted; he had not been blacked out for more than a few minutes. He tried to put the puzzle pieces together. Mr. and Mrs. Gupta were not two different persons; rather they were merely two different personalities of the same person. Both acknowledged each other’s existence as his/her spouse, and occasionally clashed with each other. This night, amidst one of such clashes, Mr. Arnav Gupta had killed his wife, Mrs. Suman Gupta, with whom he shared not only his house but also his body, thereby causing his own death as well.
A conclusion had been reached; the case had been solved. But a final question still remained in Mohite’s mind, preventing him from taking a decision — how should this case be registered — as a suicide or a murder?

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