The morning sun had risen from the horizon and the heat of the rays permeated through the open window of Maya’s bedroom. It was the middle of summer in the city of Mumbai, known for its tropical hot weather coupled with an ample dose of humidity. Maya jumped up from bed unable to bear the sunshine pouring into the room which was beginning to scorch her bare arms. It was 7.55 a.m. She was not wont to wake up so late during regular school days but the summer holidays had already begun about a couple of weeks back and there was, therefore, no compulsion from any quarter for her to wake up early. Maya was in her tenth standard and a bubbly girl all of fifteen years of age.
Breakfast was normally served in the Shirodkar household at sharp 9.00 a.m. Maya’s father had been in government service and after availing voluntary retirement was engaged in a business concerning security systems. He was a strict disciplinarian and expected his family to be consistent with certain norms that he had laid down; and one of these was the breakfast timing. So Maya went through her morning routine and got ready to go downstairs where the dining area was located. Her house was a villa with a ground and first floor, attic and then terrace. It was the last one in a row of villas and hence provided for a view of the main road.
Maya had one last look at herself in the full-length mirror before leaving her room. The mirror was so positioned that one could see, through the window, the road beyond and of course the clusters of shrubs and thickets abutting the road. Suddenly, she gave a shriek; for the reflection that she saw in the mirror terrified her. There, behind her partly covered by the undergrowth, stood a man holding a long dagger above his shoulder and pointed towards someone who was presumably lying on the ground. The glint of the steel blade in the bright morning sun was unmistakable. Before she knew what was happening, the man had pounced on whoever was on the ground and stabbed him repeatedly. Maya could see through a small opening in the thicket that the glint of the steel blade had given way to drops of blood dripping from it. A brief struggle for survival had in all probability been snuffed out. His job done, the man looked all around and, convinced that nobody had seen him, scurried away; but not before Maya had noticed his bearded face and a black mole on his left cheek below the eye.
She scampered down the stairs wild with shock, fear and excitement all rolled in one. Below in the dining area, her parents were already seated and seeing her ruffled behavior, her father asked her, “What’s wrong Maya? Why are you so keyed up?”
“Daddy,” spluttered Maya, her words simply not coming forth because of her heavy breathing.
“Calm down Maya. What’s the problem?” questioned her father once more.
“Daddy, I saw a man being stabbed repeatedly and presumably murdered behind the thicket in front of our house. This happened just about five minutes back, say around 8.54 a.m.”
“What are you saying? Are you sure?” queried her father.
“Yes, daddy, I’m pretty sure,” replied Maya.
Her mother was aghast and hadn’t uttered a word. Her father, now looking very grim, was quiet for a while. When he spoke it was in a terse voice. “Well, Maya, I’ll tell you what,” he said, “you haven’t seen anything and you do not know whether such a thing has occurred. Is that clear? I don’t want to be involved in a police case and called upon to testify in court, etc. We have enough of our troubles, as it were without having to court more into our fold. Now, come and have your breakfast.”
The finality with which her father spoke told Maya that he would not hear any more of it. The matter was closed and her father intended it to be so. The family had their breakfast in silence. Nobody spoke except give furtive glances at each other. Maya didn’t feel like eating much and so wound up in a jiffy and went to wash her hands. Just then the doorbell rang and she moved to open the door; but her father cautioned her to back off and he advanced to look through the peep-hole on the door. He saw the milk vendor outside, a lad of about twenty years of age, probably come to collect his monthly payment.
He opened the door and realized that the boy had indeed come for settlement of his bill. While Maya’s father retreated indoors to get the money, Maya told Vishwas, for that was his name, to meet her at the back of the house after five minutes. Vishwas agreed and Maya rushed up to her room to get a 100 rupee note. After Maya’s father had settled the bill for the monthly milk supply, Vishwas thanked him and proceeded to move towards the rear of the house as requested by Maya.
Maya stealthily slid into the portico at the back of the house and with her finger on her lips motioned to Vishwas to be silent. She went up to him and said in a sombre tone, “What I’m about to tell you will shock and agitate you, but be calm and don’t utter a word. Just listen to what I have to say.”
Vishwas was a picture of confusion, but he did not speak.
Maya continued, “A short while ago, a man has been stabbed and possibly killed behind the shrubs in front of our house. I want you to go to a public call office nearby and telephone the police to inform them of this crime. You may muffle your voice with a handkerchief and don’t divulge your name. Here, keep this money for the job.” So saying, she thrust the 100 rupee note into his hand. Vishwas, though a simpleton, understood the seriousness of the request and with a nod signifying his acquiescence, made his way down the lane.
Maya went inside and up to her room. There she lay on the bed waiting for the police to arrive, which she knew would not be a long wait, presuming that Vishwas would have done as per her bidding. Sure enough, in about half-an-hour the police arrived and having visited the crime scene took charge of the body, which incidentally looked like that of a middle-aged man. They cordoned off the place and posted an armed constable to stand guard at the site. Later on, in the evening, an inspector visited Maya’s home and met her father. He wanted to know if anyone in the house had seen the crime take place or the assailant. To both the inspector’s queries, Maya’s father’s reply was a rigid ‘no’. The inspector left immediately thereafter. Maya saw him depart and she had a feeling of emptiness at not having been of help.
The next day, the incident was reported in the newspaper that a certain Mohan had been murdered by an unidentified assailant. It mentioned the police had spread a dragnet to apprehend the culprit.
Days passed and Maya’s summer holidays came to an end. She was ready now for school and looked forward to meet her friends and exchange notes. There was no further news of the killing in the press and Maya also soon forgot about it.
Then, one day, there was a mention in the newspaper of an appeal by the next of kin of the dead man to any member of the public who had any knowledge of the crime to step forth and assist the police, who, incidentally, had reached a dead end. It seemed that the deceased was the only earning member and the family was in dire straits. Seeking retribution, they felt, would at least appease the soul of the departed man. Maya read the appeal and left for school deep in thought.
Incidentally, Maya’s school was close to the local police station and so, after much consideration, Maya strolled out during the lunch-break in the direction of the building housing the law enforcement agency.
As she entered the police station, the Assistant Commissioner noticed her and beckoned to her to come and meet him. Maya was a trifle scared and fidgeted with her frock. She felt perspiration in the hollow of her palm and her throat seemed to have become dry. She advanced with slow steps and stood outside the Assistant Commissioner’s office.
“Come in, young lady,” called out Vilas Borkar, the Assistant Commissioner.
Maya entered his office and sat down as per his bidding.
“What do you have to tell me?” asked Borkar in a polite tone.
“Sir, I have come to tell you of a murder that took place almost a month back,” replied Maya, her voice breaking in between with a streak of trepidation.
“Be not afraid, tell me about it,” urged Borkar.
So Maya revealed everything she knew and Borkar took down notes as she spoke.
After she was done, she said she had come forward to divulge the details having seen the appeal in the newspaper and requested Borkar that neither she nor her family should be harassed in any way, for which Borkar gave her his word. Borkar thanked her and Maya took leave of him and returned to the school.
During the ensuing week, police rounded up several people based on CCTV footage and then at an identification parade, Maya, shrouded in a hood, pointed out the culprit to the police, through a small aperture in the wall. The police then isolated the man and on intense grilling, the latter confessed to the crime. After all the evidence was collected, he was arraigned and convicted and the judge brought down his gavel sentencing the accused to imprisonment for life.
Later, at the dining table, Maya narrated the entire episode to her parents. They were flabbergasted and a trifle angry with her for having disobeyed the instructions that were conveyed to her by her father.
But Maya had only one thing to say to her father, “Daddy, God forbid, supposing you had been the victim, what do you think would have been mother’s condition? Wouldn’t she have yearned for a closure to the case? This is exactly how the family of the dead man felt; else, they would not have put out the appeal in the newspaper. I only did my bit to help them; just an instrument in God’s scheme of things.”