She stood at the door of the hotel suite and watched him leave. The red lace and silk night gown she had clumsily thrown on fell off her right shoulder as she leaned on the door frame, still holding with her left hand, the brass door-knob of the magnificent teak door. The tiny black beads around her neck quarreled with each other as the diamond pendant of the mangalsutra readjusted itself on her bosom.
Two little tears fell from her beautiful kohl-lined eyes, leaving blackish trails on the cheeks; tears that had lived in hiding for twenty long years; tears her eyes hadn’t planned today. One of them landed on a Swarovski studded bangle and lost itself in the glint of the adjoining stones. The other one fell on the wooden floor, leaving a momentary stain.
The grip of her left hand around the door knob tightened. She needed all the strength she could muster.
He, suave as ever, in his pinstriped grey suit, turned back to have one long look at her. He smiled as he ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair – a well-practiced charm that he knew made women go weak in their knees. There had been many women in his life. But now there would be no one else, he thought, as he looked at her. She was the most beautiful thing to have happened to him.
She smiled back and waved at him. He raised his hand in an attempt to wave back but something in her smile made him freeze for a moment. It wasn’t the smile of a woman in love. Nor were those tears, the tears of a woman parting from the love of her life. Despite the definite sadness, there was something vague in those eyes; a sudden awakening, a momentary gleam of cold metal that he had never seen before.
Vinay, who turned forty five last month, was almost fifteen years elder to his wife Kavita. They had been married for over five years now. She had insisted on delaying their honeymoon until she was confident that six year old Sneha had accepted her as her mother. That hadn’t taken long. Kavita had opened her arms and her heart and the little one had come running into them. That had been the beginning of a beautiful relationship. While the bungalow had once again filled with the laughter of his daughter, his business had unfortunately suffered a huge setback because of a few bad investments. And since then he had been caught up in business affairs and a lot of traveling. Now that things seemed to have settled down a little, Vinay had been able to make time for a month long vacation. And so, this vacation in Hawaii was technically their honeymoon.
But they had barely been in Hawaii for a week, when he received an urgent call from his Mumbai office. He had booked the tickets for the early morning flight to New York.
She had been quiet all morning. It was about an hour back when he had apologized for the urgent business trip. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, tying his shoe laces while she quietly brushed and prepared his coat for him. His mobile phone and handkerchief were neatly placed in the left pocket while the inhaler and the passport went into the right one. She knew exactly how he wanted his things arranged.
“I’ll be back in three days, honey. You know I have to go. Since we are in the US already, I might as well make the most of it and sign this deal. Till then, you guys enjoy. And yes, shop to your heart’s content.” He smiled, leaving his credit card by the pillow where Sneha was fast asleep. She nodded. Kavita hoped he would bend over and kiss Sneha good bye. But he picked up his cigarette case from under the pillow and tucked it in his trouser pockets. He then took his daily dose of multi-vitamins from her out-stretched palm and drained them down his throat with a glassful of orange juice.
“I am going to miss you.” He mentioned as he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer.
“I’ll miss you too.” She replied, her fingers playing with his hair and replacing a stray lock of grey that had fallen on his forehead. “But you must go. It’s time.”
Her voice had both – the quiver of nervousness and the chill of steel.
The clock in the hotel lobby chimed five AM. He looked at his wrist watch and turned his attention towards the meeting he was going to attend, dismissing any other thoughts that came to his mind. He blew a kiss in her direction and rushed towards the reception lobby where a cab driver was waiting for him.
The lights in the flight had been dimmed and the curtain separating the passenger arena from the kitchenette had been drawn. All passengers boarding the flight to New York had woken early and were in the process of settling down to sleep; most of them being tourists who looked tanned and well-holidayed. Some of them were still browsing over their holiday photographs on their digicams and exchanging funny anecdotes in whispers, while most others already wore the post-holiday blues on their faces and were looking forward to catching up on lost sleep. With the passengers well-fed and the breakfast trays cleared, even the stewardesses were out of sight.
He took a sip of water from the Evian bottle by his side and pushed the blue blanket away as it made him feel suffocated. A little while back he had felt a nip in the air and had drawn the blanket to his neck. Something was not right. He loosened his tie and sat up straight. All morning he had felt queasy. And now he was feeling out of breath. He reached out for the inhaler pump in his coat pocket. It had run out of Salbutamol.
“How could Kavita have missed it? She is always very particular about these things.” he thought to himself.
He tried to fight the panic growing inside him. It was a sure shot way to bring on an asthma attack in this situation. Sweat beads lined up on his forehead. He fumbled in his left coat pocket for his handkerchief. He had barely unfolded the handkerchief when an old looking black and white photograph fell on his lap. He picked it up.
It was a picture of a school prize distribution function. He immediately recognized himself. He was in the center of the photograph. The photograph was inscribed “18 June ‘84”. He must have been no more than twenty five, he thought. The cloth banner behind him had the name of the school – “St. Mary’s Girls Orphanage and Senior Secondary School”. Old memories came floating by on his mind screen like vagabond clouds. 1984. That was the year he had been awarded the “Young Businessman of the year” award by his club. Rightfully so, he thought. He had, after all converted his father’s little dhaba to a chain of premium Indian restaurants within a span of five years. By 1983, he had even ventured into the global market with his packaged-namkeen product division.
Here, in this photograph, he was the chief guest at the school’s annual function. A girl, around eleven years of age, in a knee length uniform skirt and coat was felicitating him with a garland of flowers while a lady in a pince-nez and what looked like a silk sari with a broad border, stood right behind them. Her hands were joined together in applause.
Suddenly, memories of that rainy night brought with them the sudden realization of a past deed, a deed long forgotten.
A sudden spasm in the chest brought him back to the present moment. He grappled with the blue switch on the arm of the chair to summon the air-hostess. The uneasiness was growing stronger. The sudden discovery of this photograph was unnerving. He lifted his spectacles to his forehead, and squinted, looking closely at the face of the girl. It looked familiar. Yet, he couldn’t place it.
He threw the photograph by his side. It fell on the morning’s copy of New York Times. Despite his struggle with the growing spasms, he couldn’t take the photograph out of his mind. He looked at it again and this time his eyes travelled to the date on the newspaper – 18th June 2004. And then, in a brief lightening moment, he made the connection. All blood drained from his face. The face of the girl in the photograph was no longer a stranger to his eyes. Everything fell in place. The deed wasn’t forgotten. Someone had remembered.
“….This is Captain Mark Boyle speaking. We have a medical emergency in business class. Do we have a doctor on board? I repeat, do we have a…”
The air-hostess who answered the call from seat A4, had met with the lifeless body of Vinay Modi.
She closed the door after she had lost sight of him going down the long dimly lit corridor of the Sun and Sand hotel. Once inside, she leaned against the door, resting her head on the door and slowly slid down until she was sitting in a little bundle on the floor. Her tears fell down in a steady stream as if quenching the fire that had simmered in her heart for twenty years. Her mind played the events of the night over and over again.
It was a hot night in the summer of ‘84. The rains had brought some respite to a majority of Ahmedabad’s population. But the rain gods, in their fury, had also drowned the screams of an eleven year old girl in a deserted classroom of her orphanage and school. She knew little about what was happening to her; except that it hurt her more than anything else had ever done. All that she remembered was the feel of the nails on the wooden desk digging into her back and the firm grip of those muscular hands around her arms. Those were the hands that had awarded the “Best Student of the year” trophy to her a few hours back. She had used every ounce of her being to struggle out of their grip and had fainted after she couldn’t take the pain any more. When she regained consciousness, she found herself in a pool of blood – violated, robbed and betrayed.
The matter was hushed up by the school authorities. They insisted, perhaps convincing themselves that it was for the girl’s own good. The girl had her entire life ahead of her. And even though the name of “Mr. Vinay Modi” never crossed anyone’s lips it burned her insides every time she saw a mention of the man in the papers.
While growing up, she had often wondered why she hadn’t died that night. There was, she thought, perhaps only one reason. And she had made it the mission of her life. One day she was going to rob him too.
Since the award ceremony early that year, the media had followed Vinay Modi’s career and life trajectory quite closely. He was, after all, a promising youth icon. In a remote corner of the city of Ahmedabad, a girl, who had been forced into early womanhood by an evil stroke of fate, also grew up following the man and his life closely.
Three hours had passed. A new day had dawned. The sun was stealing its way into the room through the gaps between the curtains. She got up and poured herself a glass of water. She looked at Sneha who looked like an angel in the morning light. She tucked the blanket over Sneha and gently planted a kiss on her forehead. She went to the washroom to wash her face and change into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. She looked at her watch and picked up her mobile phone to ensure that it wasn’t on silent mode. She was expecting a call any minute. She knew the poison must have taken effect by now. And given that the flight would be passing over the ocean, emergency landing would not be possible for the next two hours at least. A medical examination would give the verdict of a cardiac arrest. A post mortem, if at all one were done, would reveal no traces of the drug. She had known this when she had meticulously replaced the contents of the multi vitamin capsules with the drug.
At last the phone rang. She smiled; a film of tears building up in her eyes again. She picked up a bottle of sun screen and drew open the room’s curtains to reveal tall French windows overlooking a golden beach. She opened the windows and stepped out into the Hawaiian sunshine. The sun was in full glory and the sand felt warm and velvety under her feet. She planned to attend to any missed calls on her phone after a brief swim in the sea.