By Vineetha Mokkil
“Mrs Kapoor…” The cop shouts, then lowers her gaze as if to apologise for her harsh tone. She has been questioning me for the past fifteen minutes. It is turning out to be a contorted dance because she is trying to get her job done without antagonising me, balancing the officiousness of her manner with a smile, watering down questions with polite riders, doing her best to give the impression that the interrogation is just a chat between a cop and a well-known industrialist’s wife who happened to be a kleptomaniac caught in the act at an upmarket mall. The mall’s chief of security – a six-footer with a childish lisp, which clashed with his grim tone – had handed me over to the cops. A rickety police van ferried me from the mall to the station and left me in my interrogator’s custody.
She questions me in a tentative tone. Fidgets in her seat and avoids making eye contact when she asks me about ‘the incident.’ Her discomfort is palpable. Given a choice, she would go out and comb the manic streets of Delhi for terrorists or car jackers, instead of being cooped up in a dingy room with me. This heart to heart – a chore her colleagues and seniors dodged — has been thrust upon her. Watching her squirm, I wonder how old she is. Probably in her early twenties and at least a good ten years younger than me. The age factor shouldn’t unnerve her, considering she is the cop and I am the guilty party. Why should a shoplifter who brazenly waltzed out of a mall with a Louis Vuitton bag costing twice as much as a rookie cop’s salary make her nervous? She could easily gloat over my guilt. Flaunt it in my face. Instead, she skirts around it and keeps stealing glances at her cell phone as if she is the one desperately looking for a way out of this mess.
“Expecting a call?” I ask.
“Hm…”she says, without taking her eyes off the phone’s fluorescent screen as if she is willing it to ring now, this very minute.
“From your boss? Boyfriend?” I lean back in my chair and take in the badly lit interior, the air conditioner plodding on with a malevolent hiss, the walls plastered with mugshots of runaways and an assortment of criminals. The interrogation room seems to be also a rogues’ gallery of sorts. The Delhi police was making the best of its cramped office space.
“Not from my boyfriend,” my interrogator says, her eyes still glued to the phone.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I say, waving at her from across the table. “Not if it bothers you.”
“Actually, Mrs Kapoor” she clears her throat awkwardly. “I’m expecting a call from my boss. He is a good friend of your father-in-law’s. He’ll want you out of here before the press starts hounding you about the…the incident”
Of course, the chief of police is a friend of my husband’s family. How could he not be? The Kapoors are famous for their generosity to the city’s police officers and politicians. Most of them are on the family’s payroll.
“Your father-in-law must have heard the news,” the cops says in a deadpan tone. “Either him…or your husband…will ring up the chief any minute.”
“No, not my husband,” I correct her.
“Why the hell not?” Her eyebrows shoot up like question marks. She has light, pebble gray eyes. They are opaque. Not easy to read. My mother used to call gray-eyed people sly creatures. “Never trust a person with cat’s eyes” – Ma warned anyone who was willing to listen to her. Ma had many such theories. She was generous with advice. Very good at doling it out, but not a success at following it. She ignored Baba’s advice and made impulsive investments in the stock market. Nobody thought we would be bankrupt a year after he died. All the money he’d left us was gone. There were no savings left. Nothing to fall back on. We sold the house and moved into a one-bedroom dump. The pay cheques the TV station made out in my name for anchoring news shows became our only source of sustenance. I dished out sensational stories to cable television watchers in the country every day. The station executives were good at blurring the lines between news and entertainment.
“I’m sure your husband will be here soon,” the cop sniggers. “Any minute now.” She fishes out a pack of gum from her pocket and tears it open. Her jaws work furiously on the gum. I see she is diverting her frustration on it instead of confronting me.
“My husband, Naren, won’t be coming,” I explain. “He’s not in town. He’s gone to buy an island. In the Caribbean.”
“A what?” She stops chewing the gum and leans across the table to get a good look at my face.
“An island. He’s buying an island…a piece of land surrounded by the sea.”
“I know what an island is,” she snaps. “Your husband’s out island shopping?” Her tone oozes sarcasm. Every bone in her body is aching to point out the irony. Rich bitch, she thinks. Rotten trophy wife shoplifts while the husband divvies up the Caribbean.
I wait for her to spit the words out. But she says nothing. Why is she holding back? Because insulting the Kapoor bahu is not the best career move to make? My father-in-law and her boss are golf buddies. They meet on Sundays for brunch and a round of golf. Her boss must talk about the game when he marches into office on Monday mornings. May be he likes to brag about his handicap. Or crow over the points he scores on the turf.
“Naren will get back in a week after he finds an island,” I say. “He’s planning on building a villa there. A holiday home. We have one in Bangkok and another in Mauritius. He also picked up a villa in Cape Cod last summer. He says that one’s the best buy so far…I haven’t seen it. Not yet.”
The cop drums her fingers against the table. I can’t tell what she is thinking. Her stare could freeze the whole national capital in a second. Her face is a mask set in stone.
“The house in Mauritius has an amazing view. It’s perched on a cliff next to the sea. The waves almost roll up to the porch. Almost…” I keep talking to her like I have just discovered the pleasure of human conversation. The words won’t stop coming. I haven’t had a chat this long with anyone in weeks. My days are spent on handing out instructions to an army of maids and cooks and gardeners. I tell them what to cook or pull them up for not mowing the lawn or polishing the silver. I fire maids for breaking crystal vases and hire interior decorators to give the house a makeover. I tick people off. Set them ultimatums. Threaten them with dire consequences if they shirk work. But none of our exchanges qualified as conversations. No, they didn’t.
“So you owe an island in every ocean,” the cop says, staring at me like I am an exotic specimen splayed under a microscope. “Sounds fucking perfect!” She gets to her feet abruptly, as if sitting still in the face of such absurdity is beyond human endurance. There is a ring of desperation in her tone. She knows this farce is a waste of time. The law will bend like a reed in the wind and I will be whisked away to the Kapoor mansion any minute. The charges filed against me are going to magically disappear. I will be declared not guilty and sent back home like a special guest, no matter what report she writes up. I understand why she is pacing up and down the room like a caged animal. I feel the need to apologize to her. But the right words are hard to find. “My husband and I first met at a TV station,” I hand her this piece of information like an inadequate peace offering. “Naren walked into my office for an interview. We fell in love as we were taping the show.”
“Love at first sight?” She fumbles with the words like she is struggling with a foreign language. A tinge of pity creeps into her tone when she pegs me as the sort of fool who drowns in the quicksand of love without a second thought.
“Yes. It was love at first sight for us,” I smile.
“Naren proposed to me in three months. We met in April and he asked me to marry him when the monsoon drenched the city. Things happened so fast. Falling in love felt like a dream. I walked on air all summer…”
“Three months?” she stops pacing and turns around to face me. “Are you joking?”
I nod my head.
“Three fucking months!” She chokes on the number. “That’s nothing… that’s too soon. You can’t even begin to get to know a person that quickly.”
“My mother used to say it only takes a second,” I mumble. “Love strikes like lightning… You know it when you feel it in your heart”
“Bakwaas,” she says, banging on the table to make her point. “Your mother was wrong. Why make up your mind in a second? Love is not supposed to be a lightning flash. Anyway, lightning strikes you dead.”
“You have a point”
“So how long did the two of you wait before getting married?”
“Four months,” I say sheepishly. “Naren was in a hurry. So was my mother. She was sick, very sick. It felt like she was hanging on to life only to see my wedding day”
The cop stares at me for a while. “What did you want?” she chooses her words tactfully when she opens her mouth. “You wanted a quick wedding? Or would you have liked to wait?”
I don’t have an answer for her. When Naren proposed to me, he had assumed that I would quit my job because women who married into the Kapoor family didn’t hold day jobs. The daughters-in-law settled down in the family mansion and threw parties. They impressed the city’s celebrities and power mongers with their hospitality. The Kapoor bahus stayed in town and entertained their guests. When they were bored, they went shopping or vacationed at exotic destinations. They kept their husbands happy and groomed their children to inherit the Kapoor fortune. The script was written, the stage set. All they had to do was slip into their allotted roles. It wasn’t that simple for me. I had tried to convince Naren that I could run the household and go out to work. Why should juggling the two be a problem? I lost the argument because Naren refused to step into the ring and fight it out with me. He heard me out patiently from the sidelines, always gracious, always unflappable, indulging me like he would humor a child. I tired of the tug of war and let go. It didn’t help that Ma was very sick. The cancer had spread and the doctors were losing hope. They had no miracle cure to offer. No magic wand to wave as Ma slipped in and out of consciousness, her senses blunted by pain.
“What did you prefer?” The cop taps me on the shoulder and makes me jump. “Long courtship or quick wedding?”
“Don’t know,” I say, feeling the sting of tears in my eyes. “Can’t remember.”
We retreat into our own silences. The noisy air-conditioner has wound down. The room is so quiet I can hear the sound of the cop’s breathing — the steady inhalation and exhalation, the rhythm of another life.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Nayantara,” she says, her face softening into a smile. “Nayantara Sood.”
“I’m Priya,” I say, before I realise she is holding a file with my name and date of birth and address printed on it. I don’t know what other details the file lists.
“It’s nice to meet you Priya,” she says, reaching out across the table to shake my hand. I see her struggle. It must be hard for her to pretend for a moment that she has no inkling I have a history of walking into stores and pilfering bags and stoles and necklaces and perfumes I can afford to pay for. But she pulls it off. We shake hands as if we are strangers. A giant wave of sadness sweeps me under and I rest my head against the table and start to wail like a baby. Sobs well up from somewhere deep inside me. I mourn every loss, every misstep. I miss the person I used to be. I miss her terribly. The ring tone of Nayantara’s phone is louder than the ugly noise of my grief. I watch her hold the phone to her ear. After the first hello, her part of the conversation is limited to ‘yes sir’ and ‘will do, sir.’ It’s a terse call. It gets over in a heartbeat.
She drops her phone into her pocket and takes a look at me. “Time for you to leave,” she says dryly.
My sobs are an embarrassment. I bury my face in my shirtsleeve and tears seep through and leave a damp stain on the fabric.
“Have you thought about going back to hosting news shows?” Nayantara asks in a matter of fact tone. “My colleagues and I are tv news junkies,” she says. “If you are on air, let us know…we’ll watch out for your shows.”
“That was me in another lifetime,” I say. “That was years ago.” I brush off her suggestion but the possibility lingers in the air like a mirage. A part of me wants to reach out and grab it. A part of me suddenly rises from the dead. The sum total of my fears is flimsier than the weight of my hopes. I feel dizzy with excitement. Blood rushes to my head and I grip the table to steady myself.
“You are still the same person,” Nayantara says without a trace of condescension. “Wish you luck”
Her confidence is touching. I want to believe her even if my heart flutters in my chest like a panicky bird.
“Go,” she orders, pointing at the door and the bustling streets beyond. “No one’s stopping you.”
I thank her and she cuts me short with a wave. She has work to do. Cases to get back to. Calls to attend.
I step out into the bright haze of noon after we say goodbye. The street is a molten river of tar. The sky glints like a diamond overhead. I try to remember the last time I wasn’t driven up to the gates of the Kapoor bungalow in a chauffeured car. It’s been weeks, months, years. It’s been a lifetime since I walked down these streets on my own. The pavement is not an easy place to navigate. A huge crowd hems me in. The air crackles with noise, chaos, feverish haste. I freeze, then take a deep breath and march on. My heart misses a beat when the street leading to the Kapoor mansion looms ahead. The gulmohars lining the street cast long shadows. A dry, dusty wind brushes past me as I stare at the tree-lined avenue like a tourist. It only takes me a minute to turn around and take a different route. I don’t know where I’m headed or how far I’ll go. But I know I have to keep walking till I find my own road.
Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the Asia Writes Project and “Why We Don’t Talk’ — an anthology of contemporary Indian fiction. A collection of her short stories will be published by Harper Collins in December 2013. Her first novel is in the pipeline.