Manasi heaved her over-sized laptop bag onto her left shoulder and got out of the Uber cab. Entering her building she crossed the lobby and pressed the flickering “up” button of the elevator. As she heard the distant whir of the lift making its slow descent to the ground floor, Manasi Sengupta checked her watch. It was 10.50pm.
Keya opened the door within seconds of Manasi ringing the doorbell.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Keya said in her familiar tone of motherly admonition.
Manasi was too tired to respond, but Keya continued, “It’s nearly 11pm! What would your parents say if they knew?”
As she passed the dining table on her way to her bedroom Manasi saw how neatly everything had been laid for dinner. There was a vegetable curry, light chicken stew garnished with tiny sprigs of coriander and piping hot rice. Everything looked delectable in their gleaming bowls and casseroles.
No matter how cross she might be, Keya never neglected her duties.
Keya was no less than a member of the Sengupta family. The close knit family, comprising of Manasi, her elder brother Mihir and their doting parents, were originally from Ballygunge in Kolkata. But like most other well educated promising professionals of urban Kolkata, the children had moved away, and the family ties were now long distance.
Mihir, a brilliant graphics designer had relocated to Mumbai, while Manasi, armed with a postgraduate degree in Economics from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics, shifted to Bangalore.
Mr. Sengupta’s business commitments kept him shuttling between Delhi and his family house in Ballygunge, so Mrs. Sengupta divided her time between staying with her two children.
Keya came to live with the family as a cheeky young girl of three or four years of age. Her mother had only recently died of malaria. Keya’s mother Parul had worked as a nurse for Mrs. Sengupta’s aged mother for nearly 8 years.
Neither Keya, nor the Senguptas, had ever known who her father was. Parul had been reluctant to talk about him, and so no one ever pressed her for details. All they knew was that Parul had been a devoted helper and companion to her elderly employer and so Keya would be given a roof over her head, food and clothing till she became old enough to stand on her own two feet.
Keya was even sent to a nearby Corporation school. But after the 7th standard she stopped showing any inclination towards academics and begged to be allowed to discontinue her studies. She was happiest when engaged in housework. She had a natural flair for cooking, and was a strong and steady worker.
Manasi and Keya were about the same age, thus inevitably they had been lifelong friends and inseparable companions. As kids they had shared toys, clothes and feminine secrets. Keya had always been Manasi’s steadfast supporter in her stormy fights with Mihir. Likewise, Manasi was the first person Keya presented her latest kitchen experiments with.
Manasi, a quiet and meritorious student as a child, grew up to become a woman of fiery ambition. She ate slept and dreamt finance and was consequently indifferent to cooking and housework even for her own sustenance.
While a student at DSE, she didn’t have to bother about meals and laundry as such services were provided by her hostel, but when she rented a flat after landing her job, her mother knew that there was only one solution.
So Keya packed her belongings and joined her “Moni didi” in Bangalore, and the two lived alone in peaceful coexistence, with occasional month long visits paid by Mrs. Sengupta.
Manasi’s friends, who spent their weekends toiling over buckets of soapy water and waging battles in the kitchen, listened to tales of Keya’s culinary expertise and meticulous home management with bitter envy. Manasi knew that she was very fortunate and heaved a sigh of relief every time she thought about how a few years back Keya had nearly left them for good.
When Keya was about 18 years of age Mrs. Sengupta felt a prick of conscience. Keya was a healthy, vivacious girl, and not at all bad to look at. Mrs Sengupta felt it would be unfair towards her if she did not assist in finding her someone to raise her own family with.
Finally, they had narrowed down their choices to a young grocer’s assistant who lived in Baruipur, a few hours away from the main city of Kolkata. The match had been suggested by their driver Srikanto who lived in the same neighbourhood as the grocer boy Gourango.
Being liberal in their views, the Senguptas had even arranged for Keya and Gour to meet quite a few times before their marriage. Finally after two months of courtship Mr. Sengupta summoned them both to his study and asked them if they were happy with the idea of marrying each other. A discomfited but excited Gour had stuttered, grinned widely and then nodded his head in affirmation, while Keya, her head bowed down deeply in embarrassment gave a short nod.
But destiny had other plans for Keya. One day, two weeks before the marriage date, Srikanto requested to be allowed to talk with Mr. Sengupta in private. No one else heard the actual conversation but it resulted in the marriage being broken off.
Manasi later learned from her mother that Srikanto had discovered Gour was already married and had a wife and children in his native village near Purulia.
Keya cried profusely for three days continuously. On the fourth day she threw herself at Mrs. Sengupta’s feet.
“Mashimoni”, she wailed, her eyes blood-red, like that of some wild animal; her long hair rough and dishevelled. “Please don’t put me through such heart break again. I don’t want to get married. If something like this happens again, I will take my life.”
Mrs. Sengupta pulled Keya to her lap and lovingly caressed her head. The Senguptas never raised the subject again.
Keya did not utter a word of protest when she was asked to move to Bangalore to help out her Moni didi. Keya’s happiest hours were at night and on weekends, when the two young women would watch their favourite Hindi television serials or Bollywood ‘Masala’ movies. This had been their lifelong habit and they still enjoyed giggling over the handsome male protagonists and gasping over the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot, just like when they had been little girls.
When Manasi occasionally went out to meet old college friends and office colleagues or left for short weekend trips, she felt a twinge of guilt for leaving behind Keya all alone in a strange city. Keya would not show any overt signs of disappointment but she would just go quiet for a few days. So Manasi tried to avoid such plans unless they coincided with her mother’s visits.
It was the second day after ‘Bijoya Dashami’, the last day of the five day long Durga Pujas.
After several months the Sengupta family were once again gathered under one roof.
Both Manasi and Mihir had taken two weeks leave from their work for the Puja holidays. This time, there was another reason behind the family get-together. Manasi’s father had decided to look seriously into the matter of arranging a matrimonial alliance for his daughter.
While the siblings and their father sat in the living room, Mrs. Sengupta supervised Keya and Raghu, their caretaker-cum-domestic help, as they rushed in and out of the kitchen bringing in tray after tray of sweets and savoury snacks. There were ‘singara’s, some special ‘Bijoya sandesh’ and hot and crispy ‘jalebi’s and ‘gulab jamun’s.
Manasi had been instructed to sit still so her beautiful new chiffon sari with intricate zardozi embroidery, a Puja gift from her mother, would not get crumpled. She and Mihir were exchanging news and describing the various ‘pandals’ they had visited with their old friends over the Pujas. Mr. Sengupta sat with the newspapers, periodically checking his watch.
“You are so lucky that you don’t have to through all this, Mihir”, Manasi said ruefully. “You found the love of your life in Mumbai. I wish I had such a thriving social life as yours then I wouldn’t have to be subjected to such banal traditions.”
“You have only yourself to blame Baby sis. You should go out more, meet people, have fun, hop some clubs, try some pubs”, said Mihir, with a mischievous wink.
“That’s enough Mihir”, Mr. Sengupta’s grave voice was heard from behind the newspaper, “You need not make your sister a follower down your path of decadence. It’s a wonder how such a lovely girl like Dwitipriya agreed to marry you!”
Just then, their doorbell rang, cutting short the playful jibes of the bickering family. Mrs. Sengupta straightened her sari while Mr. Sengupta went to welcome the guests inside.
Mr and Mrs Banerjee, with their son Rohan, a budding entrepreneur of the hospitality industry, had come to meet Manasi and her family. Mr. Banerjee was an old colleague of Mr. Sengupta’s elder brother.
The Senguptas and the Bannerjees had a pleasant evening chatting about their families and their children. Rohan and Manasi talked a bit as well. Manasi found Rohan to be suitably well mannered and witty, and they even found that they shared some common interests like movies, exotic cuisine, extreme sports and travelling to remote places.
Two and a half hours later when the Senguptas bid goodbye to the Banerjees, the atmosphere in the house was palpably light and hopeful. Manasi and Rohan had exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch, while the parents had decided to let the young people to get to know each other at their own pace.
“Phew”, Mrs. Sengupta heaved a sigh of relief, “That seemed to have gone well.”
From the corner of her eye she noticed with a half smile that Manasi had already slipped away to her room. Her thumbs flew rapidly over the screen of her smartphone and she had a glowing expression on her face.
Around 2.15 pm the next day, the Senguptas’ doorbell rang again. Mrs. Sengupta walked out of her bedroom to answer the bell. It was the holiday season so none of their friends would abandon their afternoon siesta to call at that hour.
Her brows were furrowed. She was having a bad day. Manasi was acting petulant and was in a foul mood for some reason. Mother and daughter had squabbled over trivial issues all morning.
Mrs. Sengupta asked Mihir if he knew what was bothering his sister.
Her son dismissed the matter. “Oh, stop fussing Ma! Moni said something about Rohan not replying her texts. She’ll come around.”
But his mother wasn’t pacified and in a distracted frame of mind she opened the door to find two policemen. Looking at the uniforms she could make out that one was a higher official, possibly an Inspector or Sub-inspector and the other was a Constable.
“Yes? May I help you?” asked Mrs. Sengupta, trying to maintain her composure as an inexplicable cold shiver ran down her spine.
“I am Inspector Raha. Is Mr. Raktim Sengupta home?”
“He... yes he’s home. But why? Is there a problem?” By now Mrs. Sengupta could hardly string two words together. A thousand questions were speeding through her mind and she felt a strange premonition that something really bad had happened.
“It’s just a routine enquiry Madam. We need to ask your husband some questions. We have come to take him down to the Lalbazar Police Station.” The Inspector’s impassive face tried to betray no emotions while he parroted the words which he had clearly uttered innumerable times before.
Mr. Sengupta had now come out from his bedroom, hearing the voices at the door. He gently moved his wife aside and said, “Yes, of course, I’ll come with you. But what is it about? What has happened?’
The Inspector’s stony reserve thawed a bit. Mr. Sengupta clearly seemed like a man who could take anything in his stride. “A strange thing has happened, Sir.” Inspector Raha said, in a tone mingled with bafflement and worry. “Three people have died an unnatural death, all around the same time, early today morning at their house near Desapriya Park. They were a husband and wife and their son by the name of Banerjee. We think they have been poisoned.”
“Why is Moni didi late again today?”, Keya thought, clenching and unclenching her fingers as she sat by herself on the soft carpet in the small living-cum-dining room of Manasi’s apartment. “Doesn’t she realize that there are so many bad men out there preying on beautiful young girls like her?”
Keya continued muttering under her breath, “I have cooked her favourite today, ‘Palang Paneer’ and ‘Rumali roti’. Now I have to reheat it when she comes, or it will get cold. Maybe I will serve it cold to her. Why did she go to watch the new Hrithik Roshan movie yesterday with her colleagues? She was supposed to watch it with me.”
But the minute Manasi entered just before 11pm Keya’s anger evaporated. She rushed to help Moni didi take off her bag then waited patiently outside the bathroom while Manasi began to run her bath. Manasi poked out one hand through the edge of the door and handed over her clothes to Keya, who took them quickly with a practiced hand.
Keya caught a glimpse of an exposed shoulder and soft wet arms and a thrill of pleasure charged her skin breaking into ripples of goose bumps.
6 years ago.
Keya had saved a good chunk of money over the years from the ‘bakshish’ or tips she got from the family now and again. Two weeks before her marriage to that simpering fool Gour, she thrust a handful of notes in Srikanto. Pocketing the money Srikanto went to his employer and readily spouted the rehearsed lies.
Srikanto probably thought Keya had become too accustomed to living with the wealthy Senguptas to have any desire to change her circumstances.
Little did he know...
A few days before Keya, Manasi, and Mrs. Sengupta were supposed to be travelling back to Kolkata to spend the Puja holiday, Keya was setting the table for dinner. She could make out that Manasi and Mrs. Sengupta were engaged in a mock verbal sparring match in Manasi’s room. Sometimes they lapsed in English; Moni didi always spoke English when she was angry, so Keya couldn’t follow the conversation entirely. But she gathered a gist of it. They were planning to start looking for a groom for Moni di.
Keya pursed her lips and tried to ignore the sensation of hot fury coursing through her body like warm blood. She clenched her teeth and exhaled deeply.
“When we return to Kolkata”, Keya decided, “I’ll ask Mashimoni to let me cook my special ‘singara’s for my new ‘Jamai Babu’-to-be and his family. They always say that no one can make homemade ‘singara’s like I do.”
Slowly her almond shaped black eyes changed to two glistening pools of darkness.