A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
- Walter Winchell
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It doesn’t exactly happen as you would expect it to. There is no screaming or shouting, there is only shock.
She took her keys out to unlock the door as usual but was surprised when the keys didn’t turn in further. She knew she had locked the door when she stepped out in the evening. That’s when the first tremor of fear struck.
She slowly turned the door handle and stepped inside the flat, the lights were off as expected. There was no light anywhere in the house; she was expecting light to stream beneath her father’s bedroom door. But there was no light even there. That’s when the second tremor of fear struck.
The lights were placed just beside the main door and she fumbled in the dark to find the switch. With a flick of the lights, the entire room blazed into her vision. That’s when she saw him. She didn’t scream, she didn’t shout, she just stood there transfixed. She saw the pool of blood under his face and the vacant expression of his eyes. Nothing passed through her mind, she didn’t have any flashes of memory, and there was nothing she thought at that moment.
All she could see was the red blood, shining against the white marble flooring. She always liked the cool temperature of the marble, especially in the burning summers of Hyderabad. She remembered laying down on that marble flooring with a book in her hand, spending those glorious summer afternoons as only a child can.
She was getting out of her shock of seeing the limp body when she heard the whimpering.
The blaring loudspeakers were announcing the burning of Ravana in a few minutes. The organizers were urging the spectators to step away and maintain decorum to enjoy the event. Rachana was waiting outside the ground but could see the lit up playground which transformed every year for Dussehra, the Hindu festival of victory of good over evil.
The effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghnad were burned on the day of Vijayadashmi to symbolically vanquish evil. It was always a major event in the neighborhood and one of the rare such spectacles in Hyderabad.
She remembered how exciting the festival of Dussehra used to be; she used to get a full ten day vacation from school to celebrate the festival. It was a far cry from today when she never even got a holiday from work for the festival. But today was different, she was on a holiday. It was the tenth day of her mother’s death; you had to observe 13 days of rituals after a Hindu’s death to help the soul find its way to heaven.
Rachana hadn’t met Srikanth since the day her mother died; she remembered the scene her father had created on seeing him at home. Now she was looking forward to see him, it was the longest she had not seen him in the past three years.
His phone kept ringing but he didn’t pick up. She hated this habit of his, he never picked the phone at the first try. But she decided against calling him again and chose to concentrate on the effigies. The effigies had been getting more creative over the years. She remembered how cheerful her mother used to be on festival days and that cheer used to get on her nerves!
Every festival started at 6:00 AM when she woken up to take a shower and get dressed before heading out to the market with her father. She never liked to make those marigold garlands to hang them at the entrance of their flat but every year she was coaxed into doing it. She was their only child and they didn’t have anybody else to bully!
She remembered the elaborate lunches and their visit to grandparents in the evening. It was pretty standard, they first visited the Ram temple to take blessings and then to grandparents for their blessings. She remembered how stuffy her stomach felt after eating sweets throughout the day. Diwali and Dussehra meant an endless supply of sweets and snacks from family and friends. After the grandparents visit, her parents used to bring her to the immolation ceremony of Ravana.
Rachana knew Dussehra would never be the same ever again. As Ravana was put on fire, the hungry fire consumed the effigy even as it shot off fireworks in the sky. It was truly a spectacle! She looked at her watch wondering why it took Srikanth so long to get there; after all he only lived 15 minutes away.
There is no standard procedure on how to behave when your mother dies. Rachana had no one to lean on, she had to be her father’s strength but he was being so difficult she wasn’t sure what was expected of her. Her mother was the glue that bound the family together; she kept the sanity in the relationship between her father and her.
Just ten days ago her mother had left for the market all by herself following an argument at home. Rachana had woken up at 8 as was usual after a long day at work; she had taken permission to log in later at work because she wanted to have the Dussehra lunch at home.
“This girl is getting out of hand! She needs to learn some manners, how will she survive after marriage? She is already 25 and look at her, getting up so late on a festival!” Her father was screaming from the puja room. Rachana never liked his conservative temperament. Since she had started working, he was becoming very difficult and had issues with everything she did. From her late hours at work to the way she spent her weekends with her friends, he found a problem with everything she did.
“Let her be! She had told us already it is appraisal time at work and she needs to put in the hours to get a promotion this year. I am managing everything na!” Her mother was supportive of her as always. She always wanted Rachana to perform well at her academics and pursue a career which she never could.
Her mother also took offence like her father at the way she spent time on weekends but she trusted her to do the right thing.
“Always support her! What will we tell Srikanth’s family when they come complaining about her behavior?” Her father loved bringing in Srikanth and his family into every conversation since their marriage was fixed. Thankfully, they both agreed on Srikanth as a choice of husband. She had met Srikanth at work and had immediately fallen for him. It was sheer luck that he was from the same caste as they later found out, this was a major issue for her parents and they would never have agreed for the marriage otherwise. She and Srikanth were to get married a few months later in February.
“I am telling you it’s alright. I will teach her everything before she goes away. And anyway they will both be shifting to the USA after the wedding. Who cares what happens there!”
Rachana still lying down in her bedroom was listening to this same argument they had been having almost every other day. She was ready to storm out from the bedroom when her mother popped in her bedroom.
“Listen, I am going to the market to get the stuff for the lunch and puja. Will be back in half hour”
“Amma, wait! Let me take you, just give me ten minutes let me get ready”
“No, I will be back soon! There is upma on the table, please have it before it gets cold”
Rachana resigned to the fact that her mother wasn’t going to listen to any of it. Her father made some argumentative noises but that was it. He wasn’t going with her.
“Okay bye! Keep an eye on the cooker; switch it off after three whistles. I will be back in half hour to cook the sambar!”
She never returned. That was the last Rachana saw of her mother, her smiling mother who always rooted for her. She never came back home, she didn’t look at her mother’s smiling face for one last time. Her father never let her see her mother’s disfigured body. Her body was too battered to even be identified; they said the bus dragged her body for a while under the wheels before coming to a stop.
As she was looking at his body, she hoped she had never even seen his body. There was a huge crowd outside the flat now. There was police inside the home, and the white uniformed men were grabbing his limp body leaving a splattering of blood on the floor. She didn’t need to see his body; she just didn’t want to lose somebody else so soon.
She still didn’t scream or shout, but she sensed everything happening around her. She saw the reality of everything happening around her. She looked up to the Policeman who was questioning her and she replied to him, “I wish I had been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered. But, I am telling you it wasn’t a murder, it was an accident!”
She had first noticed her father in the room when she heard him whimpering. He sat opposite the wall with his head in his hands. She immediately ran up to him and shook him, “What happened? Nana, what happened to Srikanth?”
He kept whimpering, after a lot of coaxing, his words came out in a feeble voice “I couldn’t let him take you away too. I couldn’t let you go. He was going to take you away. You can’t leave me alone. You can’t!”
“Nana, please tell me what happened! What did you do?!”
“I didn’t do anything. He came home; I was just talking to him. I swear, I am sorry Rachana, I didn’t do anything!” He was pleading with her, she had never seen her father plead ever. She never even heard him say please to her ever, and here he was begging for her mercy. That’s when she smelt the alcohol on him.
She knew he had an alcohol problem but she didn’t think it was this bad. He had been drinking every day since the 2nd day of her mother’s death. He used to drink regularly, especially after his retirement. He always found a reason to drink, and it had gotten worse.
“Nana, you are drunk! Did you kill him? Did you push him purposefully? What happened please tell me!”
“Rachana, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t want to kill him. I swear. I am sorry. I really am sorry” He was sobbing by now. It was breaking her heart to see him like that, but she couldn’t feel anything. She needed to know what happened. She figured out that Srikanth had come home instead of meeting her directly at the event, but she didn’t know why he was lying in a pool of blood.
“I am so sorry. Srikanth started talking to me about your wedding, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t have him take you also away from me. I just couldn’t. I am sorry I didn’t know what I was doing. I told him he couldn’t marry you anymore and he started to tell me how I was wrong and was just upset. He said I was drunk! I was not drunk! How dare he say that to me!” Rachana could see her father searching for reasons again, to justify his drunkenness, to justify his anger. She knew he was upset since her mother died, she was too but they both had separate ways of dealing with grief.
She knew she could always rely on Srikanth for support but she didn’t know how her father could cope.
And obviously he wasn’t coping too well.
“I am sorry Rachana, I am really sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him. Is he dead? Maybe he is not dead!” Her father was grabbing at her shoulders, shaking her , hoping the reality would change if he denied it enough.
“No nana, he is dead! He is gone! Why did you do this?”
“I didn’t kill him Rachana, I really didn’t kill him! I just pushed him and he slipped on the table. His head struck the corner of the table and he didn’t get up after that. I went to pull him up but he never got up. I really told you we shouldn’t get that table, it has very sharp corners.”
It was one of those smart low coffee tables which had stools snuck under it. It was a trendy design and she had ordered it off an online furniture website. Her father had hated the concept of buying for furniture online and didn’t understand this huge piece of furniture in the house with no real value. He preferred his old teak coffee table. He said he couldn’t sit comfortably on the stools, they had no backrest!
She looked at Srikanth’s body again; she could see the blood stain the table corner where his head hit it.
She regretted the day she bought the table. She regretted calling Srikanth to meet her. She regretted leaving her father alone when he was so vulnerable. She regretted not waking up early to take her mother to the market.
Regret was all she felt, till her last breath.