The outré choice


a perfume bottle

The somewhat pleasant air inside the house with cow-dung pasted walls provided some respite from the scorching heat outside. Sub-Inspector Param Yadav wiped the sweat off his brow and regarded the scene in front of him with grave eyes;
a man’s face with a convulsed expression sprawled on a writing desk beside a standing bottle of rat poison and a plate of unfinished food, a small woman sobbing in a strange sporadic fashion into a teenage boy’s shoulder and an elderly woman sitting in a rickety chair with a sour expression. The doctor checked the man’s pulse and confirmed what everyone already knew, “He’s dead.”
“It is apparent prima facie that he died from rat poison but we’ll know exactly after the post-mortem.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Param Yadav shook hands with the doctor as the dead man was being hauled onto a stretcher to be taken away.
“Baba left this,” said the boy to the Sub-Inspector. He looked a tad bit scared.
Param Yadav took the letter from him and read to himself:
 “Dear Sunita,
 I know I have caused you a lot of pain. You loved me despite my neglect and indifference towards you and Bittoo. My neglect plunged us into a hole of debt which, by the grace of God was cleared because of Doctor Saheb’s generous gift in return for my meager skills. By the time you read this letter, I’ll be gone far away. It is my deepest regret to leave you all behind to look after yourself but I cannot bear it anymore. Now that I know Doctor Saheb will take care of Bittoo’s education and of the household expenses in case of an emergency, I can go on peacefully knowing that all will be taken care of. I cannot explain to you the extent of my desperation. I never was a happy man. I want to be one. I am hence leaving, to a better place. A place where I’ll be happy. My happy place. Take care of Ma.
 Yours, Rama.”

 Param Yadav frowned perplexedly. A lot of things needed explaining. He looked at the deceased’s wife who was still sobbing. So he turned to the boy who looked shaken but fit to speak.
 “Young man, I need you to tell me what you think might’ve caused the suicide. And the letter needs explaining too.”
 “I’ll tell you everything Saheb,” spoke the elderly woman in a gruff voice. He nodded.
 “My husband left us this house, two acres of farm and a decent amount of money when he died. Ramakant had just married. Rama didn’t like farming that much and was more into writing pointless things about nature and the birds and other nonsense.” A bitter tone crept into her voice. “He would seldom take interest in the farms but we survived because we had money his father left us. And then the famine came. We lost everything. Our farm our animals, we had to sell it all. This house was was on mortgage and Rama being such a clumsy farmer, such a weakling, just couldn’t earn enough to pay off the debt. We were neck deep in debt and one day the doctors from the city came like they come every year for their work. One of them lived in our house. And he was an angel, Saheb. An angel! He saw Rama’s writing work and gave him an offer to write a book about his father.
‘You’re brilliant Rama Ji. Papa would be delighted to appoint you to write a book for him in Hindi,’ he had said. Rama went mad with joy and wrote and wrote. We got paid generously for the book and we paid off all the debts. In fact, Doctor Saheb’s father even promised to take care of Bittoo’s education and Rama’s treatment and…”

“Just a minute Maaji, what treatment?” She looked at her grandson for help.
"Baba had cancer. Second stage."
"Hmm. Do you think it unusual for your husband to commit suicide Sunitaji?" Sunita was alarmed at the mention.
 "I don't know Saheb. He was an unhappy man. He.." she started crying again.
 "I'd like to speak to each of you alone." Sunita snapped up to look at him. She looked terrified.
 "Just a routine inquiry Madam," he said soothingly, "We'll start with Maaji."
The other two left the room.
"Why did you dislike your son so much?" She wasn't, Param observed, alarmed at the direct question. "Because he was a weakling. He had absolutely no sense of hard work. Nothing like his father! Just sat about writing, wasting paper. Who earns anything by writing a bunch of nonsense anyway!"
 "Your son earned a huge amount due to his writing skills Maaji. He got you out of debt," he pointed out. She flushed.
 "He was the one who got us in," she said angrily.
 "Such hatred for a dead man."
"Selfish! Absolutely selfish. Left us all on our own." She was shaking now, her face red.
"What was he like for the past few days? Anything significant happened to upset him?"
 "Oh no. He was his usual sulking self. The only time I saw him happy was during the doctor's visit." "His writing at least did some good," she added with distaste.
 "When did you first read the letter?"
"When Bittoo read it to me. I can't read." He stroked his chin thoughtfully.
 He looked around the house and something caught his eye. Among the cheap, rundown things, he saw a small expensive perfume bottle on a half-broken shelf.
 "That is a gift. It was Doctor Saheb's and he let Rama keep it as a token of appreciation. Wretched little thing I say. Sunita once whiffed it and coughed and wheezed like a dog."
He took the bottle in his hands, took a whiff and nodded appreciatively.
 "I'll speak to Sunitaji now."
The old lady ambled away as Sunita entered. She was a small, mousy woman with otherwise attractive features. Her eyes were red from crying and her thick black hair disheveled. She looked just like a widow should; sad and pathetic.
 "Sit down Sunitaji and tell me about your husband."
 "He was an unhappy man. He didn't want to be a farmer. His joy was elsewhere."
Param sensed a slight change in her tone.

 "He didn't love me Saheb. Ours wasn't a happy marriage." He was struck by her honesty. He had misjudged her. She was not pathetic, she was brave.
 "That," she said, "is a gift. He loved the fragrance of sandalwood." He saw her looking at the perfume bottle he was absently fiddling with. A sad smile had crept up her face. In that moment she looked beautiful. How, he thought, could Ramakant not have loved her.
 "Sandalwood?" he asked.
 "Yes, sandalwood. He said it smelled heavenly. I smelled it once and never again. I'm allergic."
"Do you think he did it because he wasn't happy in the marriage?" He closely observed her while she answered.
 "I think not. He was ill Saheb. He knew he was going to die soon. He was a writer and had romantic ideals. He'd rather die a healthy man and with dignity than die on account of illness." Param nodded. It was a satisfactory answer.
 "Very well. I'll speak to your son now."
 "Saheb, my son just puts on a brave face. He might look aloof, but deep down he cared about his father." Her eyes held appeal. And then she left. Bittoo entered, his eyes wary.
"Sit down son. You're in school I suppose."
 "Yes, Sir."
 "Which class?"
 "Ninth class Sir."
 "Where do you go to school?"
 "Vidya Niketan. It's around four kilometers from here."
 "What was your father like?"
 "He was silent. He'd love to be shut up in the attic, writing about things for hours. Sometimes he'd be there all day and would have his meals inside. Hated being disturbed while he was writing. He had the habit of pacing about the attic a lot."
 "How do you know he paced about?"
 "Oh, that's simple. My room is adjacent the attic. I hear him walk around the whole time."
 "You have your own room?"
 "Actually a partition was put to make a room for me. Ma wanted me to study without distractions." His voice softened when he spoke about his mother.
"There's a writing table right here in the hall. Why did he write in the attic?"
 "He was a very private person."
 "Hmm. Will you show me the attic, young man?"
 "Sure. Come." He led Param along a worn staircase which creaked under their step. They came across two doors to the right. He opened one and they walked into the attic. It was big but space was cramped due to the excess amount of storage which mostly consisted of manure, pesticides, papers and an old cabinet. Beside the small window were a desk and a chair. A light bulb hung low from the ceiling over the desk.

 "Can I get the keys to the cabinet?"
 "Yes, Ma has them."
 His eyes strayed around the room, landing on the pesticides labeled 'Dangerous'. He then saw a connecting door and asked, "Is that the way to your room?"
The boy nodded. They entered and saw a bunch of books propped up neatly against the wall, a bag perched on a small desk, and a cot on the floor. This room was smaller. Param looked around once and then walked downstairs. Sunita and her mother-in-law stood up when he arrived in the hall.

 "I'm almost done Sunitaji. Just one thing. I need the keys to your husband's cabinet in the attic."
Her eyes widened in fear. She quickly rearranged her features and said in a wouldbe calm voice, "I think I've lost them Saheb. I'll find them for you when you come tomorrow."
"One more thing. Where did you and your husband sleep?"
 "We slept here in the hall and Maaji sleeps near the kitchen area."
 "Very well. I'll be off now. Your husband's body will be given to you after the postmortem."
 Param Yadav had a few errands to run before he got to the police station. By the time he reached there, it was twilight.
 "Any news Shukla?"
 "Yes, Sir. We got the results of the test you told us to conduct. We also managed to contact Dr.Kunal Rai, the one who stayed at Mishra's house during his rural service. His father Arjun Rai is a well known social activist in Mumbai. He wanted a book written about his social activities in Hindi and as we know, Mishra wrote it for him and..."
 "Got a lot of money in return. Arjun Rai also helps Mishra's son with the education and his cancer treatment. I know all this Shukla. Tell me what Kunal Rai said about Ramakant Mishra."
 "He was shell-shocked to hear about the suicide. Wouldn't believe it, sir. And he also said that his cancer was curable. They had agreed to pay for the expenses. He said Ramakant Mishra was a very happy and compassionate man and would never do such a thing."
 "Happy and compassionate did he say? Well, I had heard differently from his family. Selfish and unhappy they had called him. I don't like this at all Yadav."
 "I know sir but suicides do happen..."
 "It isn't suicide."
 "You mean.."
 "Yes. He was murdered."
"Why do you think so sir?"
 "I know so Shukla. Don't you see it? The letter. The moment I read it I knew it was murder."
 "What's wrong with the letter?"
 "Everything. He wrote it alright, but it wasn't a suicide note. It was written by a person who was leaving his family, not dying."
 "I don't understand."
 "He was running away. And this note was not destroyed by the murderer because it looked so much like a suicide note."
 "Is that the only reason?"
 "No, there are several more." "I know who did it, Shukla. But I don't know why they did it," he added. Shukla wasn't surprised.
 "I hope tomorrow is a good day sir."
 "I hope so too."

 Param tossed and turned but sleep didn't come. The things he came across were unsettling. He heard their stories. He gathered facts and made deductions about everything. But he wanted to forget about them for the night. All he wanted was a good sleep. He wanted to forget the story. So he poured himself some cheap whiskey and downed it in one go. The effect was almost instantaneous. He was beginning to forget. Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? The words fluttered and flew in the wind. And sweet sleep came.

The next day found Param at the Mishra house. He was accompanied by police constables and the Inspector. All three members of the household were called. He regarded them all with scrutiny. Sunita was composed, Bittoo was wary and 'the old hag' as Shukla called her, was sour-faced as usual.

Finally, he spoke," We have come here to make an arrest," and waited for the desired effect. All three of them gasped.
"This," he continued, "is a case of murder and I have enough evidence to prove it in the court. The murderer will have to face charges for the murder of Ramakant Mishra and will have to serve life imprisonment in the jail. I, therefore, give you the chance to speak up. Confess and you'll be given some remission."
Sunita burst into tears and rushed forward, "I did it. I'm sorry I couldn't live with him."
 "Arrest her," he ordered and just as the lady constable was about to do so, Bittoo spoke," Stop!" Param smiled.
 "She didn't do it. I killed him." Sunita's whole body shuddered with sobs. "No Bittoo. No please," she whimpered.
 "There is no use pretending Sunitaji. I knew it was him. His original plan was not to kill him with rat poison. A poison called Sarin present in insecticides was put into the bottle of your husband's favourite perfume. Bittoo knew that you were allergic to perfume and that his grandma would never touch the bottle. So two days back he put a bit of insecticide containing Sarin into the perfume hoping that Ramakant would inhale it. But he didn't use it. So he finally bought a bottle of rat poison, mixed it in Ramakant’s food and that did it. Plus he was lucky that Ramakant was writing a parting letter which later came to be used as a suicide letter."
 "How did you know about the perfume bottle?" Bittoo asked.
 "Sunitaji told me that his husband loved the sandalwood scent in the perfume. But earlier that day when I sniffed it, I smelt roses. They are two completely different scents. I later enquired in all the nearby shops if they kept any perfume and found only one such shop. But when I asked the shopkeeper if anyone from your family had been there to buy perfume, he denied. I had a hunch and stopped by a shop just outside Vidya Niketan. And he affirmed to have sold you a bottle of Rose Ittar. That's when I knew. You emptied the bottle, washed it and filled it with another perfume so no one else died." "How did you know he was leaving, Bittoo?"
 "He always wrote his letters or poems in the attic where no one disturbed him. He was sitting at the hall desk as you had pointed out yesterday."
 "Why?" Bittoo went up to his room and a moment later came out with a bunch of papers. Sunita gasped, "They were in your room?"
 "Yes, Ma the letters were in my room. You didn't have to lie to Saheb about the key."

He handed the letters to Param and said vehemently, "He didn't love my mother. He loved..he loved that doctor. Who stayed with us for three months. Three months! My mother stayed with him for fifteen years and loved him, adored him, stood by him even when Dadi didn't. I saw her one day, holding the letters in her hands and crying in the attic, through the crack in the door. I stole the key and read through the diary about how he would flee after he gave us enough money to survive. And that's when I decided to do it. But Ma saw me going into the kitchen and doing something with Baba's food. She thought nothing of it until the next day when she saw him dead."

 Sunita howled in pain. “Rama is gone and now you!” And Param felt something twist in his gut. A twelve-year-old boy was guilty of murdering his own father and a devoted wife and mother was dying inside. Ramakant's unconventional love for another man brought about his death and Bittoo's love for his mother brought about his misery. Love is indeed dangerous he thought to himself.

Hey guys,
I'm back after a long hiatus from writing. This is the story I originally wrote for the Write India competition held by Times of India. Today the top 10 winners were announced and I wasn't one of them. I sure was dejected but again, I am very happy that I get to share this story with you guys. This is my first attempt at a mystery short story and I really hope you guys like it. 
Lots of love,
Tanvi x

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