The get-together was scheduled for four o’clock in the afternoon. There were three invitees and two hosts. The meeting place was a senior citizen’s home in Noida where the hosts, Chaturvedi and Roy Chaudhury resided. They were both widowers. Their children lived abroad and they both felt that the orderly life of collective living was preferable to coping with the many hassles of running a household.
Chaturvedi and Roy Chaudhury are in their seventies, late seventies in fact. Their guests Sen, Kapoor and Nair are also of the same age. They have known each other for decades, as colleagues or neighbours ; or, as in the case of Sen and Nair, both. Nair’s wife passed away a few years back and now he lives with his son’s family. He jokingly says he envies Chaturvedi & Roy Chaudhury their freedom. He is very attached to his grandson though, and his situation is not really bad.
This senior citizen’s home is very different from what people usually imagine such places to be. The very old and feeble inmates are housed in a separate wing where they can be properly looked after and taken care of. But the others who can look after themselves are allowed to do so. There are cafetaria, library, lounge, and some spare rooms that can be booked in advance for group activities and entertainment. Chaturvedi and Roy Chaudhury often utilized these facilities. They invited friends to spend the day with them. They played cards, viewed movies and talked about the old times.
Today Sen had brought a DVD. It was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” starring James Stuart and Kim Novak. Everybody enjoyed the intricate crime story as none of them had seen it before. The only Hitchcock movie they had seen so far was Psycho. There was another round of tea and then the guests left for their respective homes. Roy Chaudhury said he felt exhausted and would like to rest in his room. He did not come down for dinner.
When he did not come to the dining room next morning Chaturvedi got worried. The bearer told him Roy Chaudhury had his breakfast in his room. Roy Chaudhury’s room was on the first floor while Chaturvedi occupied a ground floor room. On reaching his room Chaturvedi found Roy Chaudhury sitting in his arm chair with a vacant look on his face. It seemed he had not slept a wink the previous night. When Chaturvedi advised him to visit the doctor next door Roy Chaudhury said it was not a health problem. After some prodding he came out with the whole story. Chaturvedi was flabbergasted.
Roy Chaudhury’s story as told to Chaturvedi :-
Roy Chaudhury’s full name was Basudeb Roy Chaudhury. His family and friends called him Basu. Those younger to him addressed him as Basuda. In his small home town in Bihar Basu had a long train of admiring followers.
Madhu was a little girl, dark and thin, with a big ungainly mole on her right cheek. She followed him with her little steps and adoring gaze wherever Basu went and this vexed Basu no end. His scoldings, taunts, and occasional punches and slaps were of no avail. Madhu wore her heart on her sleeve and it irrefutably belonged to Basu.
After high school Basu migrated to Benares and finally he became an engineer and joined the railways. His childhood days faded from his mind & he never ever thought of the little girl whose single-minded devotion so irritated him.
Several decades had passed. Basu was now a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a noticeable paunch. His middle-aged wife was still ravishingly beautiful and his children were doing well in their studies and other relevant activities.
He was visiting Delhi on some office job and as he had a few days at hand he decided to look up his sister who lived in Karolbag. It was a Sunday morning and Basu was wondering whether it was too early for a week-end visit. On the contrary he found his sister and her husband and their two daughters all dressed up and ready to go out. They were going to a funeral and were glad he arrived before they had locked the house & left.
Basu joined them in their cheerless journey. On the way he learnt it was the funeral of Madhu aka Madhabi, the little girl he knew in his school days. It seems Madhabi’s in -laws lived in Karolbag and ever since her marriage Madhabi was in Delhi. Their house was not far from Basu’s sister’s and the two women had maintained the bond of their shared childhood.
Basu was very surprised at the piercing pain the news of Madhabi’s death produced in him. His sister went on talking about it without the slightest inkling of Basu’s agony. It seems Madhabi’s family was going thru’ a bad time. There was a theft in their house recently and a lot of cash and jewellery was stolen. Then her husband was hospitalized with a heart problem. No sooner was he discharged from hospital Madhabi contracted dengue. She was in hospital for a week and had died last night.
On reaching the crematorium they found that the body has not arrived yet. Madhu’s husband Mr Pakrashi and a couple of neighbours were camping there since early morning. They had booked the electric crematorium for 10 0’ clock. If they are not ready by then they will miss their slot and have to wait till evening as the subsequent slots have already been booked. Mr Pakrashi had sent their old servant Bhola to accompany the body in the hospital hearse. Some of these hospitals are very accommodating. They go out of their way to provide services if the deceased’s next of kin are unable to fend for themselves. They would prepare the body and send it to the appointed crematorium in the hospital hearse. There would be additional charges of course but at such times the late patient’s family is grateful for whatever help they receive.
Though it is customary to start the funeral procession from home, in this case there was no point in that. Who would bathe the body & anoint it with sandelwood paste and clothe it in a new saree with all the fineries that was pleasing to the departed soul? Mr Pakrashi was himself a sick man, still on medication. Their son Tathagata, who was their only child, was mentally challenged.
Basu’s sister and her husband consulted the others and spoke with the crematorium people. It was decided to have the body consigned to fire and cremated in the traditional way. Just then a van stopped nearby and everybody shouted “It’s come! The body has come!” Basu asked his sister, “How do you know it is our body? It could be some other corpse!” His sister said, “That shawl covering the body is Madhu’s. Pakrashi had sent it with Bhola. Must tell them to remove it before they light the pyre tho’.”
But where is Bhola? The two men who had come in the van said Bhola had got down on the way saying he had some small errand to do. They had waited for him a good half hour before resuming their journey.
Nobody could have guessed Basu’s mental turmoil at that moment. He was consumed by an overwhelming desire to see Madhu again. A glimpse of her plain, homely face with that funny mole was a prize for which he could exchange all his earthly possessions, the entire achievement of his lifetime.
The crematorium priest was very professional and fast and soon the body was laid on pyre over a neat pile of wood. Basu reminded his sister about removing the shawl but she only gave him a faraway look. He moved a few steps closer to the pyre and positioned himself from where he could get a clear view of the face when the cover is finally removed.
Mr Pakrashi put a lighted twig in his son’s hand and guided the latter towards his dead mother. Somebody had taken the shawl away and the face was visible from under the dry twigs and branches that the small group of men and women had placed over the body.
Suddenly Basu’s whole body was electrified. He put his hand on his mouth to smother a scream. The body on the pyre was not Madhu, it just could not be her. This woman had sharp features, was fair complexioned and had no mole on her face. Basu waited for the outburst of shock and dismay from his companions, but none came. He looked around. It was a classic scene of bereavement: some wiping their tears, others looking grim and resigned. All eyes were focused on Pakrashi as he desperately tried to get the sobbing child light the mandatory fire. He finally succeeded and the flame quickly engulfed the whole pyre.
Bhola reached there when the cremation was over and the small gathering was about to disperse. He said he had left the hearse to ease himself at the roadside and the driver had driven away without him.
Basu left his sister’s house the same evening.
He was in Delhi for a few more days. He had some work in Jaipur also and after that he returned home. It was in Jaipur that something curious happened. While leaving Delhi Basu had packed his soft indoor slippers in sheets of a newspaper. While unwrapping them after reaching Jaipur he happened to glance at the crumpled paper in his hand. It was a full page police notification containing photographs of people dead and alive: missing persons and unclaimed bodies. One picture looked vaguely familiar. It was the body of a dark complexioned homely middle-aged woman with a protruding mole in her right cheek. It was found in a roadside drain in the outskirts of Delhi.
All these years Basu had not told anybody about these strange events nor had he been able to solve the riddle himself. Yesterday while watching “Vertigo” the sinister implication of the whole thing dawned on him for the first time. Everything fell into place. Just as in that movie, a killer must have switched the bodies of the two women. The murdered woman got cremated under the name of Madhabi. The body was reduced to ashes which was later immersed in the holy river, destroying the remotest trace of evidence.
Roy Choudhury remained closeted in his room for the next couple of days. On Sunday a stranger came to meet him. A young man with a tilak on his forehead and a small tuft at the back of his head. He told Roy Choudhury he was aware of his predicament. The stars were against him. But he knew how to placate the stars and bring back his peace of mind.
At any other time Roy Choudhury would have shooed the young man away. But today he was happy to have his ears. He told him in a few guarded words the source of his sorrow: someone very close to him was deprived of a proper funeral. The young man assured him that such lapses are not uncommon and there are ways to rectify them. At this point Chaturvedi joined Roy Choudhury and after some lively bargaining they arrived at a reasonable price for a funeral service. A room was booked in advance and a very proper and streamlined funeral ceremony was performed