Malini was devastated.
Her sister Shalini, whom she hero- worshipped, was lying helpless like a rag doll on the hospital bed. If this were not bad enough, Raja too seemed strange. She couldn’t come to terms with how much he had changed after the accident. He barely came to visit Shalini at the hospital. No matter what the emergency, he seemed to have a dozen excuses to wriggle out of taking care of his wife.
Malini still remembered how deliriously happy Shalini was ever since she had met Raja. She simply worshipped him. And he was equally smitten by her. They were the happiest couple Malini had ever seen. She looked forward with anticipation to the time when she too would find a love such as Raja… and be as happy as Shalini was.
She didn’t know what to make of this change in Raja. She felt lost and betrayed. When she had tried to talk to one of the estate’s trustees and her late father’s best friend to whom she too was very close, he told her not to worry. He told her that this was Raja’s way of dealing with his own pain and that she, Malini, must be sympathetic and supportive of Raja. The thought made her feel guilty and rebellious by turns.
She thought of the strange encounter she had had the week before as she was going home from the hospital late at night. In all of her life, she had never talked to a such a compelling man. Though a stranger and hence naturally discounted, the things he had said had unseated the little mental balance she had left. She was mistrustful and scared. She was alternately whimpering and aggressive…. trusting and suspicious. Her inner compass had totally gone on the blink… and she was ferocious like a mortally wounded blind animal. In her fear, she had turned on him. She launched a scathing verbal attack upon the man. He earned her grudging respect when he remained in control of his temper. Inspite of herself, Malini was impressed with the man’s soothing voice.
In the week since then, she had carefully checked out every aspect of that man’s story. She had to admit to herself- the man was 100% right.
Like an animal, her survival instincts were at their peak. She also knew that she would need to be brave… and take charge. She had to look after the sister who became the parent for her when their own parents died five years ago. She sat thinking through the night walking up and down restlessly. By morning she had come to only one conclusion. She needed to straighten things out with Raja. She needed him to be there for them… all three of them.
It was morning already. She decided to wake Raja up and to talk to him. When she went to Raja’s room, she found the door ajar and Raja lying fully-clothed, shoes and all, on top of the bed in an untidy pile. He looked so tired… so innocent. She stood looking down at him, loath to disturb his sleep. She shook his shoulder gently, the way she had see Shalini do. He stirred in his sleep restlessly. She shook him again. He half turned and groped for her hand. Still deep in sleep… probably mistaking her for his wife… he pulled her closer. She was off balance and fell on him. In the same movement he rolled over her and was kissing and caressing her. Before she could think, she was responding. It was nearly half and hour before they came to their senses… staring at each other… aghast.
But the deed was done… the impossible… the unacceptable. She ran away from him and locked herself in her room. She was overcome with guilt. An hour later she crept out her room to find him pacing in front of her door. She met his eyes squarely. Before she could speak he began talking.
He made a compelling case for the two of them. The upshot of it was that he managed to make her feel comfortable again. It was as if they had just stolen some chocolate from the school bag of a classmate. They even began giggling like naughty kids. You really can’t giggle and feel sinful simultaneously. Guilt cannot tolerate the sunniness of laughter. It evaporates, leaving no trace of itself behind.
Within weeks, Malini was utterly besotted with him. It was then that he told her the truth about Shalini’s near fatal accident; the accident that had her fighting for her life in the hospital for the past three months. That accident was his first attempt to kill her. He was fed up with having to account for his expenditure. Seven years ago, Raja might have been a down- at- heel young man of dubious ambitions and flimsy potential. Those days his idea of a wonderful night out might have been four vada- pavs from a road-side kiosk and half a bottle of some lethal and stinking local brew.
In the past seven years since Shalini had married him, his preferences had benevolently expanded to make room for more refined tastes. He gambled with the indolence of a rich heir, he acquired and discarded automobiles on the flimsiest whims. In one day he threw away as much money at the race tracks as would have kept him in 365 days of wonderful nights out with his entire posy of cronies. To see him throw tantrums at the dinner table, one would be left in no doubt at all that he was born with a silver spoon (of caviar) in his mouth; a mouth never insulted by the indignity of chewing a humble vada- paav.
He had turned from a young man with immense potential waiting for a break into one of the most worthless spongers mankind has ever produced. And your sponger hates having his outflow scrutinized. After all, the moolah was the whole point of the charade, wasn’t it?
Raja told Malini that he had fallen in love with her when she returned from Oxford a year ago. Her four years in Oxford had transformed her from a shy, mousy girl to a radiant, glowing vision. Her confidence added an irresistible sparkle to her stunning looks. Malini’s eyes turned liquid when he poured a burning tale of hopeless passion into her eager ears. He had her so mesmerized that when he told her of his first attempt, she didn’t turn a hair. In fact sympathized with him for the trauma of having to go through the failed attempt.
Their familiarity… their comfort with each other grew. They became intimately close. The bedroom frolics became frequent. They both knew things were coming to a head. This couldn’t go on forever. Not like this anyway. Shalini was not mending at all. The doctors had lost hope. Life has to go on, people have to live on. At least so they told each other.
They both didn’t know who actually mouthed the words, who pronounced the sentence. But it was said. Once a thought is given the garb of words, it becomes a breathing living entity, a physical presence.
Shalini had to be killed.
They considered many options. Finally they decided to inject an air bubble into Shalini’s IV tube. They got the syringe and went to the hospital. It was she who had volunteered to do it. He agreed readily, happily. When they reached the hospital’s basement parking, he switched the off the ignition and turned to look at her. He was taken aback by the expression on her face. She was looking possessed… pale… trembling… a wild look in her eyes. She seemed on the verge of insanity. Her hands trembled and her movements were jerky.
He couldn’t let her go in that state. It was too risky. She would have been caught instantly. For a moment he thought of aborting the attempt and to re-plan it some other night. Then he took the syringe from her gently and told her not to go… that he would go himself. She protested and argued… incoherently… wildly. At last he managed to quiet her down and stepped out of the car.
Within minutes, he was standing beside Shalini’s bed. She was sleeping, drugged. The lights were low, just a night light on. He tore open the syringe’s pillow pack, withdrew the plunger and took hold of the IV tube gently between forefinger and thumb. Carefully, he inserted the needle inside the tube, puncturing it.
He got the shock of his life when the room flooded with light.
The stranger, Raja’s childhood buddy, stood next to Malini, the police behind them.