Directly I was pinned by dark inimical eyes from a photograph mounted on the opposite wall. In the pin drop silence my heart began a frantic drum roll.
“This is your worst idea ever,” my brain messaged with big words like “actions” and “consequences” sprouting like mushrooms hitting the panic buttons of my Central Nervous System.
For the first time in my life, I believe, my head and my heart were in total agreement.
The cell in my pocket chose that instant to ring. It was Abhishek.
But of course, “Hey Ab-man!” I kept my tone light-hearted.
“What’s the update? Are you in?”
It was a family trait to go straight for the jugular. Those boys had never learnt the fine art of small talk.
“I am in the pink, thank you for asking! I am at the brink of starting a brand-new career in larceny. A small step-”
“A little less drama, please,” he begged. “Remember unless you come back with a solid bargaining chip my life as we know it, is officially over!”
“Then what are you doing gabbing on the phone with me?”
“I just recalled how petrified you are of the dark-”
I cut off the call.
Some people could always be counted upon to say the wrong thing at the wrong times.
What I needed from a partner in crime was a booster shot of confidence right into my bloodstream. Freaking out I did well on my own.
By natural association my gaze shot back to the ornately framed picture on the wall. Yup that all-knowing gaze was stalking me. As if familiar with my charred black soul he knew I was up to no good.
I had worked out the details but there was something about those eyes that made me begin to question the “foolproof” nature of my plan.
Maybe it was our history?
Earlier that day I had driven the caretaker and his wife to the railway station.
It had been my masterstroke to send them off on an all-expense paid pilgrimage to Haridwar. For my plan to succeed I figured I needed all the blessings I could get but mostly I needed them gone for the weekend.
Switching off the electric mains? Check.
The idea was to disarm all security cameras on the property because I had no idea where or how many of those were installed on the house and grounds.
I had conveniently “borrowed” the house keys from Abhishek’s grandmother telling her a cock and bull story how I planned to ask a friend to redecorate and needed precise measurements.
It was a great alibi for being on the farmhouse when his parents were away visiting mine. Matter of fact I had gotten her so enthused I had been half-anxious she would volunteer to come along to supervise.
Looking at the king size rustic, four poster bed that dominated the room and the black Gothic wall paint adding to its dark atmosphere I decided it had been the apt tack to take. The place needed a woman’s touch.
My cell buzzed. Ab-man was at it again. I pressed the power button to switch it off.
Though it was my maiden house break I could do without a teleprompter.
I was systematic. I started with the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
After that I searched through his clothes in the wood cupboards thinking of the custom cabinetry that would use the space better with a walk-in closet, glass fronted sliding doors and motion sensitive LED lighting.
Other than indicating their owner was a man who did not shop brand names in clothes and that his organized mind did not like for his socks to be in the same drawer as his underwear I learned nothing incriminating.
The dressing table top displayed a comb stuck on a hairbrush. There was an assorted collection of shirt buttons.
Next I rifled through the office space where a mahogany desk was placed by a large window. Its drawers were unlocked. They held nothing valuable in them apart from pens, pencils and markers.
Inserted in a transparent file folder was a medical report from a doctor visit years ago. He had suffered a bout of viral.
I discarded brochures on farming implements and packets of seeds. Ditto with dried white jasmine flowers. Nor were the old check books of any interest.
Finally giving up I arose. I drew back heavy black drapes and admired the night sky. It was jet black. So, different from the hazy navy I saw in the city. A blanket of stars twinkled in different sizes and colors. The moon was yellowed, shaped like a scimitar.
I sighed and turning walked across the room to a chest of drawers that housed the entertainment system. The audio system was expensive.
His DVD and audio CD collections included everything from Self Help motivational stuff to action to horror movies. I could not find any pornographic material so that doused a last ray of hope.
The photo album drawer was full to bursting. I wondered if we could use his nude baby pictures as blackmail material or where his mom had dressed him as a girl in a frock with a hairband and all.
God, didn’t the guy have an Achilles heel?
Browsing through the albums I found many pictures of the farmhouse and the surrounding fields. He loved the place. He had photographed the clusters of pink roses that climbed all over the front wall of the house in springtime. The airplane water tank on its roof. Tube wells, ponds, tractors, harvesters, and fields that a farmer’s life centered around.
That’s why I had come to search for his vulnerabilities here.
His father wearing a white pajama kurta, dressing no different than the men who worked for him. Shankar uncle was a great leader of men.
Though a successful businessman and highly educated he had chosen to raise his sons in his ancestral village emulating the example set by his father unlike my grandfather who sold off the family holdings and relocated to the city.
It was my father’s greatest regret and I guess mine.
His mom was another favorite subject. Cooking in the kitchen her sari pallu tucked at the waist, a round bindi on her forehead, her long hair twisted in a bun at the nape of her neck. I could almost smell the bhindi she cooked in homemade ghee and my stomach grumbled.
She made everything from scratch be it potato chips or mango pickles and fruit preserves.
She loved to gossip and you could see in the pictures she was surrounded by smiling, chattering friends not to mention us Shiva, Abhishek, Puru, Ritika and me.
If not for Shankar uncle and Gayathri aunty who knew what course my life would have taken?
My mother a bored socialite and neglected wife of a workaholic doctor was going through a bout of severe depression.
My father was having a tough time trying to juggle work, meet his wife’s neurotic demands and raise two teenaged daughters.
A wave of uneasiness made me shut the album and shove it back into the drawer. I slammed it shut and the sound was unnaturally loud in the silent house.
I opened the drawers of the left side nightstand in a dejected frame of mind. There were some more checkbooks, spectacle cases, broken eye lens, and a drab looking photo album with more pictures stuck in the bottom most drawer.
The first picture was of Gayathri aunty teaching me to make papad. I had flour streaks all over my grumpy face. I looked so ridiculous I laughed.
There were so many pictures of me. I was sleeping head atop my math book, sprawled on a rug under the lemon tree with white lemon blossoms all over me, emerging after having taken a bath in the canal looking like a drowned rat. There was another with my face in close-up, my eyes closed, hair plastered to my scalp an expression of absolute bliss on my face.
I did not recall Shiva taking so many pictures of me. What were they doing in his bedside drawer?
I flipped through. No pictures of Ritika or Abhishek were included in this album. Just mine being my usual self, getting caught on the back foot. A thin white moustache on my upper lip after finishing a glass of milk. Chocolate icing smeared all over my face that should have been on the cake.
It felt totally weird.
I lunged across the bed to inspect the drawers of the nightstand on the right.
It held a tattered copy of the Hanuman Chalisa and the Geeta. No other books. No more photo albums.
On a hunch, I flipped through the pages and tucked in the Geeta was a picture. My hand shook. I held a picture of his mother standing with me, both of us dressed in saris, Gayathri aunty was braiding flowers in my hair. She looked radiant, I appeared abashed my head bent. Flowers…
I pulled the string of jasmine flowers out of his desk. It was too short to have been a garland. Had he kept it for sentimental reasons or were those souvenirs to remember how much I had provoked him?
Matter of fact I had been on the way to the farmhouse and my car stalled.
There was no warning. One minute I was happily driving, singing along on the top of my voice to the Top 20 hit songs on the FM radio, the next the car coughed, a discreet ladylike cough and stopped with a jerk.
I switched off the car waited a few minutes and tried again.
Nope, still nothing.
It was a hot summer afternoon. Not the kind where I could call a toll-free number for help and wait patiently under the shade of a roadside tree till assistance arrived.
I got out of the car already sweating like a pig.
I was going to visit my father’s best friend’s family and stay with them two months. They had massive land holdings in our ancestral village. My ambitious grandfather had sold his house there and relocated to the city when my dad was still a boy. But my father a prosperous doctor had grown nostalgic in his middle age and decided we, his daughters, my younger sister and I, needed to be immersed in the real culture of our village lest we became the anglophiles most of his peers’ children had become.
Since I wanted my first impression to be positive I had worn a churidar pajama. The fabric was a peach colored Cotton with “chikan” embroidery.
I was short at five feet two even by Indian standards and plump. I wore brand new white open toe heels to compensate but I was still feeling frumpy.
The kurta was sleeveless and the stiff material that had grown limp in the stifling heat chafed under my armpits. Its matching dupatta seemed to stretch for miles on end. Ideal for contemplating suicide with.
It was then I saw the red tractor at some distance drive up billowing clouds of dust. There were lush green crops growing with large leaves in rectangular fields with mud banks separating one field from the next. Small canals carrying water from a tube well crisscrossed their waters sparkling silver under the hot noon sun.
I pushed back my sunglasses to the bridge of my sweating nose and set forth with determination.
I had to work my way carefully for those dratted shoe heels kept digging in the soft earth. I swear I am not the cursing type but I was thinking up some choice words for the village and what its culture could do with itself.
“Hey!” I shouted waving my arms to get attention.
Not a leaf rustled.
I could have been by myself in a forest of wilderness.
The grass that had looked tall in the distance now dwarfed me completely.
But I had seen the tractor stop next to the hut like structure by the tube well. Determined I plodded on.
I was furious as I rounded the wall and saw the man. Only his head and shoulders were visible above the cemented walls of the pool. He had his back to me. I quickened my pace lest he vanish like a mirage or something.
I went down toppling. My heel sank in the soft wet earth. My right ankle twisted and I gave an involuntary yelp of pain.
I was sitting on damp mud. I tried to dig out my shoe from the slush. It came out with the heel hanging skewed attached yet, barely.
“Looks like the shoe is broken,” a matter of fact male voice observed in Punjabi.
“And looks like you have a talent for stating the obvious,” I muttered in English.
“What did she say?” Another male voice asked.
When I was searching, I couldn’t find one. Now they were emerging out of the water in tribes.
“What are you doing here?” The first voice asked in Punjabi.
Evidently nobody spoke English.
“Didn’t she read the sign that says private property?” The second guy only talked to the first guy.
Since I was a female he probably did not consider me an intellectual equal. I had heard Punjabi men especially provincials were all male chauvinists.
“Well it’s a moot point if she can read or not. The question here is can she walk or not?” The first guy had a dry sense of humor.
“I absolutely refuse to carry her,” a third male voice stated categorical. “Didn’t you hear her shouting? Milady here has a temper!”
I shoved my curls out of my eyes and turned to glare. All three bumpkins were still in the pool with their elbows resting for support on the cement wall.
So much for male chivalry.
“If you heard me shouting why didn’t you come to help?” I asked in Hindi.
I understood Punjabi but could not read the Gurmukhi script. That is why all the signs posted about were illegible to me.
I did speak Punjabi though. But the only person I spoke Punjabi with was my late grandmother.
“Because I just got in,” the guy on the left replied in Punjabi and his two friends guffawed at this warped logic.
Their faces and upper bodies were tanned from long hours in the sun. They badly needed haircuts. I noted all three were clean shaven with no facial hair. They didn’t seem much older than me.
“You have mud on your face,” the guy in the center was of course first cousin to Sherlock Holmes the great detective.
“Is she going to spend the entire day sitting there?” The guy on the right directed his remark to the guy in the center.
“Why? Would you like to read me the bill of rights?” I demanded wryly switching to English. But I took his counsel. Biting on my bottom lip to quell any involuntary shout of pain I struggled to my feet.
Standing I was their height.
It made me gain confidence.
“I need help.” I gestured in the direction where I believed the road to be. “My car won’t start.”
Usually this was all I had to say for guys to come running to render all kinds of aid.
I guess I looked appealing but I wasn’t vain about my physical appearance.
Both the guy on the right and the guy on the left turned with mutual accord to the guy in the center.
Evidently he was the anointed judge to decide my case.
Dark brown eyes, same color as the mud clinging to my clothes and hair, stared back impassive. He looked indifferent and unimpressed.
I wasn’t vain but neither did I think he had ever seen a girl to compare me with.
I had an extremely fair complexion and sharp features. Though I was Punjabi most people confused me for a Kashmiri girl. I had hazel eyes that changed color with light varying from shades of brown to green. I had layered, shoulder length hair that on sunny zero humidity days like these fell about my shoulders like a model’s salon styled hair in big, fat curls.
“Can you look?” I could speak softly when I chose and make my eyes look limpid, slightly pleading.
It was all water down the proverbial duck’s back.
“I have just gotten in the water and it is a sweltering hot day,” he focused on telling how it was. He was young. Maybe I appealed to men who were older.
“Gah! What do these illiterate uncouth villagers know of chivalry?” I vented my frustration in English.
“If you walk down the road,” he pointed in the direction I had come from, “our village is only four miles that way.”
“I have sprained my foot and my shoe is broken,” I think I spoke through clenched teeth resisting the urge to hit him with the same shoe.
“You could walk barefoot. The girls of our village walk double the distance.” He suggested.
“Carrying heavy pots of water on their head.” The guy on the right added.
“Every day.” The guy on the left inserted not to be outdone.
“Couldn’t you give me a lift to the village on your tractor?” I suggested, the sugar content of my voice adequate to give me diabetes.
“On Lalli?” He sounded horrified like I had suggested him to conduct an act of sacrilege.
“You call your tractor Lalli?” I wasn’t surprised. “What a scintillating imagination!” I spoke scathing.
“Is she abusing our Lalli in English?” The guy on the right wanted to know.
“Listen how about I pay you guys?”
“Pay us for what?” The fellow on the left asked intrigued by the idea.
“For your kindness.” I managed to speak through gritted teeth. I was so done with those three stooges.
“I have to get to Domeli and my car has broken down…”
“Who are you visiting in Domeli?” Sherlock Holmes asked a snappish note altering his voice.
“None of your- how do you know I am visiting someone?” I asked in turn. “I could be living there for all you know.”
A reluctant grin tugged the corner of his mouth. “Maybe because this is Domeli and trust me we would have met had you been living here.”
“Why?” Asked the guy on the right.
“Definitely.” Nodded the guy on the left.
I was simply relieved to have arrived at my destination. North or South of it seemed irrelevant.
“Then can you direct me to Mr. Shankar Dayal Sharma’s house?”
Again the flank looked to their captain for direction.
“I will pay you,” I reminded him tartly.
How much was a lot for a villager? I didn’t want to overpay. I deliberated between hundred and two hundred.
“Seven hundred.” He spoke.
“What? Are you out of your freaking mind?”
“Five hundred for repairing your car and add two hundred as labor charges.”
“What labor you Shylock?” I could not help the Shakespearean reference to the Jewish moneylender in Merchant of Venice who had demanded a pound of flesh. “I will only pay three hundred.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “I do not bargain. Either you pay seven hundred or you walk four miles to the village for help.”
“Okay,” I muttered.
I knew he was overcharging but I was covered in mud slush, hot and thirsty. My throat felt dry.
I wanted to get away from those three yokels and if I never saw them again in my life I would be okay with that.
He jumped out of the pool and I had front row view of long muscular legs and natty black swim shorts.
My face aflame I hastily turned presenting him my back. A burning sensation pierced the tips of my ears. Hell, it was embarrassing!
I was unprepared for the muscular arms that went about me swinging me up off the ground.
I thought- I don’t know what I thought but I screamed. “No! Put me down, you-uh! Village lout!”
Those eyes could be expressive when he chose.
They mirrored disgust a step away from open loathing.
“Scream once more and I will let you walk all the way to your car, twisted ankle or not.” His tones were clipped.
His dark gaze bore into mine as he ensured I got his message.
I had never in my life been this close to a man’s naked torso. Or noticed the width of broad shoulders.
His damp overlong hair fell in locks just touching the tips of bare shoulders. Beads of moisture still dripped running down the solid column of his neck.
His toned body radiated a cool that contrasted with my overheated one. He smelled clean and fresh like a mountain spring. He made me think about my parched throat. I badly craved a tall glass of mineral water filled with ice to its brim.
“Told you so,” the guy on the left sounded smug at being proved right.
“Women are the most contrary creatures God has created. They weigh a ton but the guy is supposed to pretend they are as light as a feather…”
I squirmed. I wasn’t the lightest human alive.
“Oh and they actually think they are doing the guy a favor by allowing him to carry them! Know what? Seven hundred is dirt cheap. Should have asked for a thousand…”
He set me down on the seat atop the most revered Lalli.
He had not even broken into a sweat. His arms were like forged out of iron from hours of hard labor in the sun.
“This will hurt.”
“Wha- you- aah!” I screamed afresh as taking my sprained ankle in hand he twisted it.
Involuntary tears spilled down my eyes.
“Give me these,” he tugged one shoe from my hand and the second off my foot. Before I could comprehend what was going on he jumped off the tractor and walked into the hut. Its door was open but the interior was all dark and since I lacked x-ray vision to look through walls I could only massage my poor sorely abused foot and wait.
Oh, I wanted to call him names but I desisted simply because he had looked so mean that time I called him a lout. Almost as if he understood its meaning.
Maybe a belated sense of decency had inspired him to go change his clothes. Seriously all he had on was a lungi, he had wrapped about his waist sarong style.
I looked away self-conscious when he emerged sometime later carrying a hefty can of some yellow colored liquid in one hand and my shoes in the other.
Country bumpkin, I thought uncharitable. ‘Maybe he has no other clothes,’ the uncomfortable thought struck.
He stowed the can at the back of the tractor then jumped up on the seat beside me. For a tall man, he moved with a lithe grace.
Gah! What a stench! Overpowering fumes made me want to hold my nose. I shifted my weight making space for him.
He dropped my shoes with both heels sawn off on my lap.
“I think this should solve your problem.” He had the temerity to say.
He had snapped the heel off my shoes!
“Why-you- jerk!” My voice rose in volume.
He didn’t need to know English to understand.
“I told you that it would hurt.”
I glared at him disbelieving.
Was that the argument he was going to present in his defense? He had got to be kidding me!
“But you never told me what? You should have said I am going to twist your twisted ankle and chop your brand-new shoes.
Do you have any idea what these cost me?” I dangled the shoes in front of his face.
“I didn’t twist that ankle. I set it.
Is it painful now?”
It wasn’t but that meant nothing. I still felt an overpowering urge to kick him on the shins.
As Lalli roared to life I thought I heard his financial advisors shout, “make her pay at least two thousand.”
He left me to hobble down Lalli. By the time I reached his side he had the car hood up and was poking about.
“So what is it? Is it the alternator?” I asked when he closed the hood back down.
I had no idea what an alternator was. I had read the term in a book and thought if he heard me speak about cars intelligently he would be wary of trying to swindle me of more money.
He tilted his head a little to the side as he pondered my question.
“No. It is as I thought. Your car has run out of gas.”
He was openly smirking.
The strong smell emanating from him was petrol. While I watched feeling sheepish he deftly unscrewed the cap on the petrol tank and filled it from the can he had brought along.
The can was empty when he put it back on the tractor.
He walked up to me right hand extended with the palm facing up.
“Oh you want the money.”
“Keys,” he corrected with a derisive quirk to his lips.
The engine roared to life. He got out of the car leaving the engine running with the key in the ignition. Thankfully he left the car door open. I did not want to smell petrol fumes.
I opened the passenger side door and reached for my purse.
I refused to meet his eyes as I counted out the money and handed it to him.
“Five hundred for the petrol and two hundred labor charges.” He detailed the expense account again for my benefit.
“And how do I get to Shri Shankar Dayal Sharma’s home?”
“Once you get to the village look for a white haveli with an airplane on the roof.”
I nodded turning to shut the car door.
A hand whipped to curl about my upper arm bringing me to an effective stop.
I gasped. His fingers dug in my soft flesh.
As he pulled me to him I could not help noticing how tall and powerfully built he was. Maybe I had underestimated my appeal-
His dark eyes snapped with fury.
“We might be simple folk but we appreciate courtesy. Next time you need help in this village try saying “please” and “thank you” before offering your money.”
Dumbstruck I watched him stride off. Lalli roared to life throbbing with power.
Without a nod of acknowledgment, he passed me by heading back the way he had come.