I pulled the shawl closer and gently smiled at the eager faces of my grand children. They all loved a good story and this one was their favourite. Even though they had heard it a hundred times before, each of them looked up with intense anticipation, just as they had the first time. It was no Bollywood potboiler but I had a good fan following amongst them. I started, “It happened a long time ago, in the summer of 1966. I was around 35 years old. Marriage to you grandfather seemed quite the trial so I had gone away. Far away. On a small hill at least 50 kilometres away from the closest town, where some literary club was holding a Writer’s Retreat. That is where it all started with the death of Mr. Thambi.
There were nine of us along with Mr. Thambi for the Writer’s Retreat. We had taken 45 minutes in a car over dirt road to reach the resort. Nestled in wilderness were the six cottages that were to house us for the next 5 days. Strangers in a strange place, thrown in close proximity, without any outside influence. Our mentor, Sanjay, had assured us that this was going to get our creative juices flowing just like torrential rain that was pouring outside There was constant pitter-patter since our arrival. Coming from the heat of the plains, no one seemed to mind it and the rivulets and streams flowing down the mountainside, in a mad rush to get somewhere, acted as our inspiration for the weeklong writing exercise.
We needed the inspiration, especially me. I was no writer, not back then. Not like the others. Sanjay was a famous writer turned publisher, mentoring upcoming talent. His passion was evident as he heaved uphill, collecting us from our rooms to get us into the Lounge for our sessions. Neha was another mentor for us, a well-known editor with a leading magazine. She was our gentle shepherd, guiding us back to the flock, when we…well, lost the plot, so to say! Chetan was like the teacher’s pet. With his slimy smile and eager to impress alacrity, he soon had all of us in enemy camp against him. He would readily agree with everything Neha said and made us all follow suit. Neha did not seem to mind the attention and after the first day or so, they were forever seen together. The three girls from Delhi seemed to forge an instant connection, or so it seemed. Meera, Jasmine (“please call me Jas”), and Seema. Coming from the uber chic Saket, they stuck together discussing literature and their published writings. All very high and mighty, I thought. Sid hung around them. He looked like a lost puppy, eager for someone to take him under their fold and smother him. He had all the markings of someone perpetually lost. There was me – the loner looking for life’s great purpose and thinking this was it. I had no claim to writing and was at best a pretender. Heck! I was even trying to hang around someone, anyone, who would let me into their group. Except Mr.Thambi. The balding old man, with his loud floral shirt and complains of aching knees seemed out of place amidst us 30-somethings. He gave no introduction other than mumbling his name and lamenting the state of his bones. Beyond that we could not get a word out of him. He attended all the writing sessions and surprisingly, narrated good stories. But as to his background, personal and professional, we remained clueless and, at least some of us were, wary and distrustful.
Thus we proceeded. Things fell into routine even here, so far away from civilization. The staff at the resort worked in the background, keeping us satisfied with endless cups of hot tea and cool fresh fruit juices accompanied by delicious homely meals. We spent most of the day in groups, writing on the topic-of-the-day, closing the day with narrations and feedbacks. In between, we would try and get to know each other. Chetan was always forceful while Sid would whimper incoherently. Jas paid attention to him and others just dismissed him. I tried to strike up conversation and failed. Mr. Thambi sat in a corner immersed in his assignment or book. If someone spoke with him he jumped and always stuttered in his responses, which got some of Chetan’s attention. As sessions progressed, we started to struggle with characters and story lines. By day four, the rain gradually ceased and our creativity abandoned us.
The air hung heavy in the valley. The cool breeze was replaced with a silent nothingness. The birds that had chirped merrily every morning and evening, settled quietly on their trees, protesting the growing humidity. Every movement was a Herculean task. Sweat dripped at the slightest effort and steps weighed heavy to cover short distances.
It was the last day. I lay staring at the blades of the ceiling fan turning like the wheels of time, wasting away. When the electricity died out, I grumbled into reluctant action. I thought I would go to the lounge and complete the assignment for the day – a murder mystery. We had protested at the topic. “There is no market for murder mysteries”, “ romance always sells”, “but that is not my interest”, “why a murder mystery? Let’s write a political thriller instead”. Our protests went unheard, of course. Post collective groans we had resigned ourselves to cooking up a delicious murder though no bright ideas had come by to anyone yet. I thought I might as well put my pen to paper on this and set out.
I trudged uphill, still half asleep and out of breath and entered the dark lounge. It took some time adjusting my eyes to the faint light. And then I saw it. The thick, sticky mess was contrasted on the white rug near the fireplace. Blood! The long hair masked most of the face of the body lying sprawled. The pink dupatta was rudely strewn on the hard floor. I caught a movement to my side and looked up. Mr. Thambi was there, looking down. He stared at the body, unblinking. His hands were at his sides, the fists clasping and unclasping. I had seen him do that before – when we were asked to stand up and narrate a story each. I had taken it as a sign of nervousness. The sudden sharp cackle of a magpie bird in the pine thicket close by startled him to my presence.
“Look! Look!” he said, stumbling back against the stonewall, looking for something to hold on to, to steady himself. He was shaking all over.
“Who is this? Mr. Thambi, what have you done?” I asked. It was an unfamiliar face, whatever little of it I could see, not one of us, the writers.
“Me? Nothing. I was just passing by outside when I heard some noise and then…then this!”
His crisp white cotton shirt was now drenched. He took off his glasses and wiped a hairy arm across his face.
“I cannot look at blood”, he said. “It makes me all dizzy. Please, can I have some water?”
“Mr. Thambi, do you know this woman? Who is she? Have you done this? I need to inform the others. Don’t touch anything here and please don’t leave this room, Sir. I will call the rest…and the police. “
I am not sure he heard me. He nodded absent-mindedly. I turned back as I walked away. I paused to steady myself. I looked at the body. Who was she? And what had Mr. Thambi done? Had he, had he killed her? No! But he had been so guarded and secretive all along. What did we know about him anyway? No one had trusted Mr. Thambi from the first day. This however was something unthinkable. What had he done, I wondered again. He was just standing there, staring at the body, holding onto his left hand, trying to steady himself I presumed. I rushed out unable to bear this any longer. I had to get the others and have someone take charge.
The resort was spread out. I peered around trees and knocked on all the cottages. I cursed the mountains and the rains. I cursed the girl and I cursed Thambi. I cursed my luck for having landed me here. I cursed my aimless life. Then, I caught sight of Neha, sitting under a tree up the small hillock with Chetan latching onto her every whisper.
I waved my hand and called out, “ Neha! Quick! Help! Call the others. A girl!” I gasped.
She looked up at me. “What do you mean a girl? We have names you know. Here, have some water.” holding out a chilled bottle.
“N…o! In…the…lounge…a body”. I finished my climb and dropped on the grass next to Chetan. Catching my breath I said, “there is someone in the lounge. Mr. Thambi, he is there. I saw him. We need to call the police, I think, and the others. She is dead! There was (gulp) blood. Where is everyone?”
Before Neha could say anything, Chetan jumped into action. “A body? WHAT! What are you saying? And Mr. Thambi! I knew he was up to no good. Did you see him? SEEEMAA! JASSS! Come here! Anyone else with you? Get them all. Quick! Let’s go to the telephone. Will the police come quickly? How far is the station? ”
He sped of in the direction of the lounge. Neha called after him to stop but he didn’t have time for words now. It was almost as if he wanted to grab this opportunity for our assignment of the afternoon. She asked me to run after Chetan and wait with Mr. Thambi. She would come up with the others she said.
I rushed behind Chetan, trying vainly to catch up with him. He rushed out of the lounge just as I came close. “Are you seeing things? There is nothing here. No body. Just some mess on the rug. And where is this Thambi chap?” he said, shouting his disappointment at me.
I went inside. Truly there was no one there. But I had seen it all. The body had been there not too long back. I looked for marks on the floor. Maybe Mr. Thambi had dragged the body away and run off. “Chetan, look outside, see if you can find anything. The girl, she was wearing a pink salwar kameez. Surely the body is somewhere here. It cannot just disappear.” Chetan agreed and went outside.
In a few minutes, Neha and the others came. No one could find Sanjay. A doubt slowly crept into my mind. Why was Sanjay missing? Only he knew the people from the village, he owned this place after all. Maybe a village girl had come for an illicit rendezvous that had now gone all wrong for her Maybe he was “taking care” of her now. I spoke out my thoughts aloud to the others.
Neha gaped. “No! This is all madness,” she said.
Meera, the leader of the Delhi brigade, disagreed. It all fits she said.
Jas added sardonically, “Now we can all write the same murder mystery!”
Seema nudged her to shut up “where is Chetan? Maybe he knows where Sanjay is”
Sid bustled upon the scene with Sanjay. Deep in conversation, Sanjay beamed when he saw all of us together. “Oh good, you are all here. I agree things have been dull today so to get you all going, I have staged your crime scene. I was giving Sid here a sneak peak into it just now”
He looked around the room looking annoyed now. “Where is Babli? The cook you know. I see the blood so she was here, I guess. She is so careless. I told her not to move, not to breathe even! She really should be here”
We all must have looked dreadful. Sanjay opened his mouth to admonish the absent Babli some more, when Chetan rushed in. “Thambi! Thambi! He is…dead!”
I stumbled back. What the hell was happening? I brushed Chetan aside and ran towards the pines to look for Mr. Thambi. I could hear Sanjay behind me, hastening to catch up. As he came abreast he told me that Mr. Thambi was a heart patient who was recuperating here after a nasty divorce and did not want anyone to know. That explained his silence and nervousness on seeing the body.
In the pine thicket downhill, I spotted the white shirt. Babli was there, crying and howling. When we reached her, she told us that she had moved a bit when a bug ran across her arm and in the process had startled Mr. Thambi. He had bolted out of the lounge as she had moved and when she had gone behind him, he had sped away faster. His heart must have given out then and he fell face forward. It wasn’t her fault. It was reflex movement. Put me back in the kitchen, she pleaded, “I am no heroine sarji.”
“We must inform the police”, said Sanjay, looking at the motionless corpse of Thambi. What a twist of fate! “Babli, you go and make everyone some tea. No one touch the body out here. Let us all go back into the lounge and wait.”
Dumbstruck Chetan and I headed back together. We joined the others waiting clueless and narrated the unfortunate truth. Even Jas was shocked this time. Sanjay walked in a minute after us and quietly sat down. We waited for police to arrive. Huddled together wondering what will happen next. The judicial process in our country has never been the easiest and images of long bureaucratic processes ahead clouded my mind. I wished your grandfather was there to make this all better. No one spoke. We just waited.
After a long wait, we heard footsteps outside. Coming closer from afar, we all looked towards the door, hoping to see the police to put an end to our misery and suspense. Mr. Thambi walked in. Grinning. He looked mighty pleased with himself. He sat down across from all of us. He looked at the rug near the fireplace, and then looked at Sanjay and both of them guffawed with laughter.
I could not fathom what this was all about. They were both acting like mad men. I turned to look at the others. No one found this funny. Finally Jas screamed, “Shut up! What is the meaning of this?”
In between chuckles, Sanjay managed to tell us, “You were all so unimpressed by murder mystery assignment so Mr. Thambi and I decided to show you how exciting it can be. Mr. Thambi is a famous mystery writer who goes by the pen name Shaakal. He is your third mentor. He has observed you over the last few days and has made some notes for you. Before your assignment today, here are a few Lessons learned. Always keep the plot a secret. Even the actors should not know the whole story. Keep everyone guessing and making presumptions. Suspense is the key and it should constantly build up. Show enough physical evidence so that no one looks for other details. You saw blood and imagined death. No one checked the body for breath or other signs of life. You all just followed a lead. Add enough key players in your story and a great setting. Now can you write a murder mystery?”
This was all a long time ago, my sweets. That day I wrote my first murder mystery as an assignment for a writers’ camp, trying to learn how to write. Since then, there has been no looking back. Thanks to the inspiration and a real life lesson, I have been a serial killer since.” I smiled looking at the beaming faces of my grand children and the collection of my published murder stories behind them. Of all the stories written, this was still their favorite murder story and they will always be my favorite fans.