I kick back my block-heeled sandals under the divan that doubles up as an extra bed when Baba or any other odd relative turns up to see how am I faring as a single working girl. I pull away the sweaty cotton saree that is sticking at my waist as I reach my cramped bedroom and throw it on a heap that has been building up since Monday.
I sit at my dining cum work table and sip ginger honey tea from the cup. I look out of my 5th-floor apartment window. It's 4.30 p.m. and I can see the playing area below swelling up with a steady stream of children. Older ones on their bicycles and the younger ones on their feet. A few toddlers are accompanied by their mummies. I sigh and shift my gaze up to the horizon. Not that I hate kids. But I have had my share of mingling with them for the day. I love the kids I teach but they have their good days and bad ones. And it drains my energy to walk them through their bad ones.
I take a nap. When I wake up it is already dark outside. I feel rested and ready.
I take a look in the mirror. I don’t quite like the man in it. But it will have to do, for today. I am already lagging behind my schedule. I grab an oversized hooded jacket, a pair of gloves, a helmet and climb down the stairs. I don’t want to risk taking the elevator. I might bump into a pesky neighbour.
I put on my helmet with a dark visor and speed out of the apartment gate. The guard doesn’t notice my apparel in dark but I guess he knows my scooter.
I park my scooter near the marketplace, adjust my wig and cover my neck with the hood. It is a little uncomfortable but better than being ogled at or being groped.
I walk on the busy road till I find a lamp post. The light is flickering. Perfect.
The couples walking by… some laughing, many quarrelling. A few with kids and a few without.
A few young men loitering around, a few walking with a purpose.
A few young women walking in groups of two or more, some with arms laden with purchases and others without.
I take out the Kati roll I had brought along and finish eating it while window shopping.
It is 10 p.m. Most of the shops have closed up.
This is the time I have been waiting for.
I pull up the hood of the jacket and start walking towards nowhere in particular.
I turn to a corner from where the aroma of kebabs mingled with muffled cacophony assail my senses.
Will today be my lucky day?
My heart starts racing as I approach the group of men consumed by some sort of street betting or gambling that seems to be on. They don’t pay me any attention.
I walk on. Yes, now it is within my sight. ‘Paradise Bar and Restaurant’.
I take a deep breath. Put my gloved fingers on the grimy door handle and pull it open. Surprisingly there is no bouncer at the door. Good for me. The less I talk, the easier it will be.
I choose a table at the far-end corner. I go through the short menu and order a whiskey on rocks and kebabs. I take out my tiny notepad and put it discreetly under the laminated menu card.
I look around. The dimly lit place is not very conducive to study its visitors, but this is my best chance and I have to make it work.
There is a group of college kids at one table, with boisterous talks interspersed with hoots of laughter, not of much use to me.
There is a lonely man, already on the way to Lala land. Looks like he is dreading going home. Again, not the person I am looking for.
Another table had a paunchy middle-aged man with a much younger woman. No, this is so cliched… it is of no use to me.
Where are the ones I am looking for? Two smalls are all I can handle before I can head home and don’t attract undue attention.
I wait for half an hour more. A few come in and a few leave, but none of them is the type I am looking for.
I can’t wait anymore. I feel disappointed. I pocket my unused notepad, pay for the drinks and head out feeling lightheaded and with a full bladder.
As I step onto the pavement, a bald man runs past me, turns back and gives a look that is filled with terror. I feel a tingle at the base of my neck. Before I can turn back and look at the object of his terror, I am knocked down.
I taste the blood mixed with dirt. I hear the footsteps falling away from me. Shots are fired…I feel the darkness of the street enter my eyes and fill my head.
I open my eyes. I am in this brightly lit room with antiseptic odours and beeping monitors. How did I land here? I look at my left hand. It has an intravenous tube hooked to it. I am at a hospital! How did I…
I look down at my hospital robe and see my plastered left leg suspended from a support.
I see the nurse peeping over me with a broad smile. She says,
“Good morning, Annapurna Das!”
“Where am I and why am I here?”
She replies warmly,
“You are in Ruby Hall Hospital; you have been here for 2 days. The doctor will tell you the rest.”
She checks my IV drip, smiles again and moves to the next patient. My eyelids are heavy and they shut down.
Bright hues of yellow, orange and blue splattered with dots of red. My eyes take in this view from the window before they are blurred by Baba at my bedside.
He is in tears as he holds my hand and sputters the words,
“Anna, my little baby… thank god!”
He rushes out calling “Nurse!”
The duty doctor comes to my bed, studies the chart and smiles at me. He must be in his thirties.
“Ms. Das, good to see you have rallied around. You will be up and about in no time at all. Dr. Ghosh, your treating physician should be here anytime now.”
I see that he has stubble and is a bit slouchy, but has kind eyes and a reassuring smile. If only I had my notepad with me.
“Doctor, what has happened to me?”
“You had a head injury and a fractured leg Ms. Das. Fortunately, there was no internal bleeding.”
“When will I be discharged?”
“Dr. Ghosh will be advising you on that. Take rest. Good night, Ms. Das.”
He walks away with the nurse, giving her instructions.
I see Baba materialise by my bedside. The veil of initial relief has fallen, now I see a shadow of disapproval on his face.
“What on earth were you doing roaming the street at 11 p.m., that too dressed as a man? Without your mobile? Thank God you had a crumpled substitution slip from your school in your pocket. Otherwise, I would have never come to know on time.”
I didn’t want anyone to track my movements Baba, that’s why I left my mobile at home. Will you please stop being so dramatic? I was carrying my driving license, wasn’t I?
Dr. Ghosh clears her throat before she calls out cheerfully,
“Ms. Das, I knew you are a fighter. Let me take a look at you.” She gives a will you calm down look to Baba. She is tall with short hair and dark circles around her eyes. Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. When my eyes are open, I am quick to observe people and things around me.
Dr. Ghosh checks my eyes, looks at the monitors I am plugged to and says,
“I am going to schedule a CT scan for tomorrow. If it comes out clean, we should be able to send you home soon. We will start the liquid diet from tomorrow morning.”
She begins to leave and then turns back to say,
“A police officer may visit you tomorrow. He has been asking to speak to you since the day you arrived at the hospital. I am afraid I will not be able to put him off any longer. Try to rest. Good night”
I take the cue and close my eyes before Baba can subject me to further interrogation.
Of course, I cannot sleep. I feel heaviness in my head, bitterness on my tongue supplemented with searing pain in my calf at regular intervals.
I was always drawn to the dark side, ever since I was a toddler. It seemed to fill my brain more readily than the light. But my parents and everyone else called me a ray of sunshine. Probably I am a born actor.
I give my sunniest smile to the bushy moustachioed man in uniform sitting in front of me. He does not look very fit for a cop but has sharp eyes and a surprisingly easy-going demeanour.
“Ms. Das, you are 24 years old. You are a native of Bishnupur. You shifted to Kolkata a year ago to teach English at St Mary’s School. You live alone in Green Wood Apartments. Am I correct?”
I escaped from a small town where I couldn’t do what I wanted to.
“Ms. Das, what were you doing on the by-lane of East Street on 31st of August at 11 p.m.?”
I had gone to look for a gangster.
“My scooter was not starting. I had left my mobile phone at home. I was looking for any place from where I could make a call to my friend.”
“At 11 p.m. and dressed like a man?”
That is when the gangsters are up and about their business, aren’t they?
“Yes, I had gone for a dress rehearsal for the play “Look Back in Anger” to be staged at the Townhall.”
“Till 11 p.m.?”
Not really, but that is what I can tell you.
“Not really, we went out for drinks after. Please don’t tell my father about this.”
The cop gives me a disapproving look. Well, I don’t expect anything less.
“And then you were left alone?”
I want to be left alone, how else am I going to observe my characters?
“Yes, we parted near the bike parking place.”
The cop takes out my notepad from his file.
“We found this notepad on your jacket. Is this yours?”
I know where you are going with this officer!
“No, it belongs to A. Davis. The kid who transferred to a different school last term. He had left it behind.”
He was a good kid. It was a good choice of name for me. Now I have to look for another.
“Now, can you tell me anything about the man who pushed you on the road?”
I think he was the person I was looking for, Officer. How I wish he was in that Bar sitting at one of the tables, where I could have watched him closely, made notes and created a character that was a true blood criminal.
“It was dark, officer. I could just see the back of a running man. He looked short and athletic.”
The cop looks disappointed. He sighs and says,
“Well, there was a murder on the East Street that day. I don’t suppose you would have looked up the newspaper in your condition. Dreaded gangster Chota Chetan was killed. We are looking for the leads that will help us nab the killer. If you remember any other details, give us a call. Get well soon!”
Oh officer, what I would not give to know more details of that running man. I am tired of penning short stories. Writing about the lovers, children and nature, being an Annapurna Das writing in English. I want to write a true-crime novel with real, true-to-life characters. Well, now that you have uncovered my new pen name I will have to think of an alternative- maybe A. Daniel or Antony D.
“Sure sir, thank you!”
I see the cop leave with the nurse. Dr. Ghosh says I will be discharged by Saturday. I hope I have a convincing story to tell Baba by then. I smile at his approaching form and close my eyes.