A short story
Copyright © 2016 by R Venkatraman
This is purely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book may not be resold or given away without the written permission of the author. No part of this book may be reproduced, copied or distributed in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.
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It was with relief that Dr Govind stepped aside to make way for the small group of tonsured Germans clad in white dhotis and pale saffron kurtas. A couple of them had buttonholed him on the flight and thrown a barrage of questions about India and spirituality; questions he was hard pressed to answer. After all, he had emigrated before his questioners were even born.
This visit to Jaipur, he was looking forward to. Except for the conference tomorrow and the day after, the entire two week visit was for catching up with the extended family – something he had come to value after living in the west for decades. He smiled as he thought of Rajan, his cousin’s son, who would be waiting outside the arrival lounge. It was only in India that a distant relative would come to receive you at the airport.
‘Govind Uncle!’ Rajan grinned as he embraced the older man and took charge of his suitcase. ‘Wonderful to see you! Welcome!’
‘It’s very kind of you to come to the airport, Rajan,’ Govind said. ‘I’m sorry to pull you away from work, but I’m coming here after so long that –’
‘You wouldn’t know your way around,’ Rajan interrupted. ‘I have more leave that I can use, Uncle. Several unused days lapse every year and I can’t encash them either. This gave me a welcome excuse to take chutti.’
Govind realised guiltily that he had forgotten where Rajan worked. He was a junior executive in some public sector company, he seemed to recall. Though he and his wife, Roopa, weren’t particularly well off, they were always willing to help physically.
‘How is Roopa?’ he asked as he climbed into Rajan’s aged Hyundai Santro.
‘She’s fine. Happily busy at this time of the year.’
Rajan nodded. ‘She is quite creative, and therefore in great demand among her friends. She’s probably helping a friend with her skit right now. You’ll meet her at lunch.’ Rajan glanced at the car clock and continued, ‘I hope that’s okay, Uncle? You had said that you wanted to go to the hotel first. So I told her that we won’t get home before 12:30.’
‘Oh, that’s fine. Absolutely fine. It’ll probably be past eleven by the time we reach the hotel. I’ll check in and take a quick shower. Also need to pick up some fruits for Devika on the way home. How is the old dame, by the way? It’s been ages since I saw her.’
Devika Prasad was Rajan’s mami – his mother’s brother’s wife –whom Rajan lived with and looked after.
‘Not too good.’ Rajan replied. His face had grown serious. ‘She’s pushing eighty now and has more ailments than she can handle.’
‘She’s a tough one. None of my have patients have successfully fought off two rounds of cancer and lived to tell the tale.’
‘It’s taken its toll, Uncle. She is so frail. Her doctor doesn’t think she has much time left – six months, he says. That’s one of the reasons I’m delighted at your visit. She’ll get to see you.’ His face suddenly brightened. ‘Say! Would you like to talk to her?’
‘Sure! Why not?’
‘Let’s surprise her. She’ll be delighted!’ Rajan fiddled with his mobile, and the ringing of a phone came through the car’s music system. ‘Bluetooth,’ Rajan explained. ‘It helps me make and receive calls without taking my hands off the steering wheel.’
‘Hello?’ A low tremulous voice said and coughed.
‘Hi Mami!’ Rajan said. ‘How is your cough?’
‘It’s there, beta, and the throat aches. But I’m drinking warm water every half hour to soothe it. Has Govind’s flight landed?’
Rajan grinned at Govind and nodded.
‘Good morning Devika!’ Govind said. ‘I’ve landed and am in the car. How are you?’
‘Govi!’ Devika’s voice seemed to break with emotion, and she coughed again. ‘Govi, I’m so glad you are here. I’m sorry I couldn’t come to the airport to receive you.’
‘No, no! Why should you come to receive me? I’m fifteen years your junior.’
‘You are coming after such a long time. You are coming straight home, aren’t you?’
‘Well … not exactly. I need to check into the hotel first and –’
‘A hotel? When I am here?’ Her voice grew hoarse with annoyance. ‘We have two spare rooms. Rajan, I told you he should stay here. Didn’t you –’
She broke into a coughing fit.
‘I did, Mami, but –’
‘Don’t blame him, Devika,’ Govind cut in. ‘He insisted but I declined. I’ll stay with you from the day after tomorrow –’
‘Why? Is it an auspicious day?’
Govind let loose a hearty laugh.
‘It is not every day that a sixty five year old doctor is admonished,’ he said. ‘Don’t be offended, Devika. My colleagues are staying at the hotel, and I need to stay with them during the conference. It’s only for two nights, you know. I’ll stay with you after that.’
‘And Mami, he’s having lunch with us today.’
‘Oh yes, I forgot. I hope Roopa remembered. She’s gone for some Navaratri skit practice.’
‘Yes, she remembered,’ Rajan laughed. ‘She’ll make fresh rotis when she returns. I’ll pick her up on the way home.’
The chime of the doorbell sounded.
‘Someone at the door,’ Devika said. ‘Okay, Govi, I’ll see you at lunch.’
‘Hard as nails, the old dame is,’ Govind chuckled as Rajan hung up. ‘And very much of the old school. I hope she doesn’t haul you over coals for not making me stay with you,’
They continued chatting as Rajan drove into the city. Suddenly, Govind swivelled in his seat as the car passed a garishly decorated gate resplendent with ochre banners and gold-trimmed triangular flags. The group of tonsured Germans from the flight were getting off an Innova.
‘Hey!’ he exclaimed. ‘What’s this place?’
‘Ashram of Baba Devang, an up-and-coming godman.’
‘Godman or conman?’
Rajan shrugged. ‘Who is to say? One hears all kinds of stories – from capers to miracles; from how he cures cripples to how he milks the gullible. He has more devotees than detractors.’
‘A modern day Krishna who cures cripples, eh? He must know more about medicine that I do. The Germans on the flight were singing his praises and were not in the least bit impressed that I didn’t know of such a great man in my own country.’
‘Well, foreigners and wealthy oldies are his speciality, they say. He conducts séances for widows and widowers where one can speak to the spirits of their departed spouses. He apparently also helps them attain mukti – salvation. He even makes house calls if you can afford it. We know of a jeweller’s widow he visits.’
Govind laughed out aloud and continued guffawing as Rajan looked on amusedly.
‘Buy your way to salvation?’ Govind chuckled, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. ‘The wealthier you are the faster you can attain mukti. Not unlike the fast track channel in immigration.’
‘Don’t laugh, Uncle. Many widows and widowers in our colony swear by him.’
‘But not Devika, I bet. She won’t let grass grow under her feet, bless her.’
Rajan grinned. ‘Not for want not trying on the Baba’s part, though. His bhakts have been after her. Here we are. That’s your hotel.’
He pointed to a large building further down the road.
‘Great! I am walking distance from the Baba. Perhaps I should enlighten myself one of these evenings. Say Rajan, come up and relax in my room once I check in. Have a coffee or something while I freshen up.’
An hour and a half later, Govind, Roopa and Rajan stepped out of the lift on the sixth floor of their apartment building. Rajan unlocked the door and took a few steps into the hall as he ushered Govind in. Half way down the hall, he froze and stared openmouthedly through an open bedroom door. Behind him, Roopa let out a stifled scream and staggered.
On a writing desk in the large bedroom lay a slumped figure, sitting on a chair with the torso fallen forward on the table, onto a brownish red stain that had spread across half the desk. The face was turned away but there was no doubt to the identity of the corpse.
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Dr Govind returns to Jaipur after twenty years ... to a murder. A cosy mystery of 7,500 words.