Matangi turned on the tap of the wash basin in her toilet. As the water gushed out, she drew a deep breath and picked up the bar of Hamam soap, now reduced to a fourth of its size after a week of abuse. She scrubbed her hands for five minutes, staring as droplets of blood trickled down through her fingers and disappeared into the plughole, gurgling its way to anonymity. She grabbed a towel from the rack and buried her face into the fluffy cotton.
“Chanda hai tu, mera sooraj hai tu,” she hummed, making her way to the bedroom. She sidestepped the white saree with the blue border, as it lay in a rumpled mess on the floor. Dried patches of blood stuck to the fabric. Matangi made a mental note to dump it in a bag and take it to Gangu tai later in the week for washing.
She liked the spunky seventy-year-old woman. Gangu tai never batted an eyelid as she took the bloodstained sarees frequently for washing. With an impassive face, she went around, doing the chores expected of an ayah. But not many people knew that beneath her innocuous appearance, she possessed a sharp mind.
A mind as sharp as the dagger Matangi had plunged into the old man’s heart.
The events of the evening rewound before her eyes. A myriad of emotions had flickered across the swine’s face within a few minutes. His do-you-know-who-I-am smirk gave way to panic, as he saw the fiery woman take out the gleaming instrument from her faux leather bag. He wriggled in his chair, trying to untie the ropes around his wrists. His terror-stricken gaze paced from her hand to her eyes. She meant business. A meek wail escaped his throat, which was as effective as a goat’s guttural bleat before getting slaughtered at the altar of God.
Matangi didn’t leave the abandoned mill until Seth Hiralal’s egg-shaped head lolled to his side.
“Aai!” The little girl squealed with delight and sprinted towards Matangi. Soon, boys and girls of varying ages joined her, jostling with each other to wrap their tiny arms around the young woman’s knees. The boisterous cheers of the children filled the air, bringing a smile to Matangi’s lips. She ran her hands over the tousled mop of unoiled hair. Tears threatened to breach the dam of her almond-shaped eyes. They had seen thirty summers, each one harsher than the other. Yet the sight of her angels and their unconditional love towards her never failed to tug at her heartstrings.
“Aai needs to work, my dear children!” Matangi cooed. The inmates of the Ahilyabai Shishu Ashram dispersed quietly, as their founder strode towards the office.
“Your eyes are puffy. Did you sleep well?” Gangu tai gave Matangi a quizzical look.
“Yes, I did. God promise,” Matangi pinched her throat and patted Gangu tai’s shoulders. “Now, be a darling and get me a cup of chaha.”
The ayah shook her head. “Hmm, okay. By the way, did you read the newspaper?”
Matangi gave the old woman a wicked wink. “Is it about Mandakini and her wet saree? I am not interested.”
Gangu tai glowered at her. “Do you think at this age I read all this nonsense? No. It’s about Seth Hiralal. That fat, rich man.”
“Did he kick the bucket?”
“Read it,” Gangu tai retorted. “I will bring your chaha.”
Pausing at the threshold of the office, she turned around. “Give me the saree. I will wash it for you.”
Nodding, Matangi picked up the latest edition of Lokmat from the table. The smiling face of Seth Hiralal, sporting his trademark Nehru topi, greeted her.
Another brutal murder sends shockwaves across Bombay. Is it the work of a serial killer?
“I hope you rot in hell,” Matangi hissed at the photo. She flung the paper on the blue tiled floor.
“Here is your chaha,” Gangu tai paused, as she saw the Marathi daily sprawled on the floor. She placed the glass on the table and bent down to retrieve it.
“Deva!” She exclaimed, clutching her back. “This pain, I swear….”
“Careful, tai. How many times have I told you not to bend?” Matangi rushed towards the ayah and held her scrawny hand. “I could have picked up the paper myself.”
“I am fine,” the old woman murmured. “I am glad you still care for me. God knows what I will do if you discard me one day like this Lokmat.”
“Never!” Matangi hollered. “How dare you think like this, tai?”
Gangu tai grinned at her. “I was joking, my child. I know how much you love me and that Ajinkya.”
Matangi turned back and picked up the glass of tea, thankful that the old lady didn’t see her blush like a lovesick teenager. Only Ajinkya could do that to her.
Gangu tai left the room with a huge grin plastered on her wrinkled face. Heaving a sigh of relief, Matangi eased herself into the ergonomic chair. Her eyes fell on a big fat envelope. The sender had scribbled the word CONFIDENTIAL in a spidery handwriting.
Must be my next assignment. Using a paper knife, Matangi opened the envelope. A bundle of crisp hundred rupee notes tumbled out of it. The smell of freshly minted money!
Matangi gave the envelope a rigorous shake. A piece of paper fell on the desk. A map? She picked it up. A small circle marked in red ink caught her attention. Bringing the map closer to her face, she peered into it. Girangaon. How predictable!
Why does it always have to be a mill, she wondered, not for the first time. Shrugging her shoulders, she picked up the glossy paper peeping out from the envelope. Wonder who’s the unfortunate soul!
The photo slipped from her hand, as Matangi felt her legs turn to jelly. She rested her elbows on the table, exhaling deeply. How could she bring herself to murder the charismatic youth leader of a fledgeling political party? The love of her life – Ajinkya!
*** ONE YEAR AGO ***
Matangi picked up a copy of the Screen from the center table and began to leaf through the glossy pages.
Ahilyabai Shishu Ashram was witnessing a massive influx of orphans. While the orphanage ran on donations from patrons, money was still a problem. It was then a friend of Gangu tai who told them about a young ambitious politician Ajinkya Sathaye, founder of the Maharashtra Tarun Sena (MTS). He was known for his anti-corruption crusades, and a magnanimous heart. Despite her misgivings against the murky world of politics, Matangi decided to approach him for donation.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Matangi looked up. Clad in a simple white kurta-pyjama, Ajinkya brought his hands together.
“Namaskar! Welcome to my humble abode. I am Ajinkya Sathaye. How can I help you?”
Matangi got up and reciprocated the greeting. Ajinkya took his seat opposite her and gestured to her to sit down.
“My name is Matangi Pange. I am the founder of an orphanage. I have come here with a request. If only you could donate some generous amount to Ahilyabai Shishu Ashram….” her voice trailed off.
A smile lit up Ajinkya’s face. “It would be my utmost pleasure, madam. I know about your orphanage. You are doing a fabulous job in looking after these abandoned children.”
Matangi bowed her head. “I am an orphan myself. I know the feeling of loneliness. And so, I have dedicated my whole life to them.”
“I want to have a tour of your ashram, Matangi ji,” Ajinkya leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs.
“Of course. You have every right to visit the orphanage and inspect it before donating.”
“Actually, I am eager to meet your children. They must be so lucky to have a loving person like you.”
Matangi got up. “If you are free now, you can accompany me to the ashram.”
The next few hours passed by in a haze. Matangi felt her heart racing like P.T. Usha, when her hand accidentally brushed against Ajinkya while boarding his Ambassador. His eyes never strayed away from her face, as he listened to her struggles as a single woman running an orphanage.
Ajinkya’s visits to the ashram became more frequent. Matangi looked forward to those delightful afternoons in her office, sipping chaha and sharing a plate of vada pav, listening to his plans of helping the underprivileged.
Who had made the first move? All Matangi remembered was that it was her birthday. Ajinkya had brought a plain chocolate cake to her house. It was the first time she was celebrating it. Overwhelmed by emotions, she kissed Ajinkya on his cheek. She didn’t stop him when he pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. It didn’t feel wrong to her when he led her to the bedroom. When he finally slipped a ring onto her finger one night, she didn’t deem it fit to announce it from the rooftop. She trusted him.
*** THE PRESENT ***
How can I break his trust? She twirled his ring around her finger twice, before bringing her arms behind her nape. The throbbing in her temple refused to fade away.
“Here!” Gangu tai entered the office, holding a cup in her hand. “Drink this chaha.”
Forcing a smile, Matangi took the cup. “Thank you, tai.”
Gangu tai approached her table. “Is something bothering you, Matangi?”
The ayah didn’t wait to receive a reply. While Matangi sipped her chaha, Gangu tai began to massage her forehead. Not a word more was exchanged between the women, as the wall clock ticked away. When Matangi kept the cup on the table, Gangu tai’s eyes fell on Ajinkya’s photo and the bundle of cash. Is this what’s bothering her?
“Tai!” Matangi grabbed her hand.
“What’s the matter?” Gangu tai asked in a soft voice.
A tear trickled down Matangi’s cheek. “Aren’t you curious to know the reason behind my bloodstained sarees? You just do what you are told, tai.”
The old woman caressed her palm. “You think your tai is an illiterate woman. Come on, she knows how to put two and two together.”
“You think I am right?”
“Who am I to judge? I never doubted your love for orphaned children. I don’t want to know anything more.”
Matangi buried her face into the pleats of her cotton saree. “Oh, tai. What would I do without your support?”
“Now tell me what’s bothering you? And what is his photo doing on the table?”
Matangi let go of Gangu tai and asked her to sit down. “My next target.”
“There must be a mistake. He is a good man. He loves you. I can see that in his eyes.”
“Sir never makes a mistake. I need to find it out for myself. He has circled a place in red ink on the map. Later I saw there was another mark, this time using a blue pen, on a nearby area. On the reverse side of the map, he has scribbled something. Wait. Let me read it out for you.”
Matangi picked up the map.
“Shanti Niwas, 13.10.85, 8PM” Matangi paused to look at her desk calendar. “Saturday.”
“Are you planning to go there?” Gangu tai asked her.
Matangi nodded. “Don’t worry. I’m not alone. Kaka, I mean, sir’s driver, will be there.”
“It seems your ‘sir’ knows about your relationship with Ajinkya.”
Matangi shrugged her shoulders. “I didn’t tell him. But he might have known all along. Nothing can escape his eyes.” With that, she got up, picked up her bag and smiled at Gangu tai. I’m going home. I need to think. Thanks for the chaha.”
The bottle-green Premier Padmini braked to a halt a hundred meters away from Shanti Niwas. Matangi adjusted the dupatta pinned to her grey kameez. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door of the car.
The driver turned to her. “Do you see the two men walking down the street? One of them is our source. He is taking Ajinkya’s driver with him. You can go inside the building now.”
Matangi nodded. “What about them?”
“They will come later for the payment,” kaka replied, sighing.
Matangi shrugged her shoulders. “I am going inside the building.” With that, she walked towards Shanti Niwas. She paused outside the door for a brief second, and then gave it a slight nudge. The corridor was ill-lit, but that didn’t deter Matangi as she tiptoed to the room on the left side of the corridor.
Mumbling a silent prayer, she went down on her knees and peeped through the keyhole. A couple of seconds later, she staggered back, falling on her buttocks. She covered her mouth with her palms. The slightest noise could blow her cover. I must be careful.
Ajinkya lay sprawled on the four-poster bed, naked from the waist down. A little girl sat next to him, dazed. Her frock was disheveled, and a small patch of blood had stained the white sheets.
A lump formed in Matangi’s throat. A part of her wanted to storm into the room, stab Ajinkya, and rescue the poor girl. But she hadn’t signed up for this.
The influx of children into Ahilyabai Shishu Ashram intrigued her. At first, it was a trickle. Soon she realised that these were ‘deposited’ by a man who called himself ‘sir’. They were orphans and victims of child pornography and peodophilia. Her heart broke at the sight of the innocent children, who often woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and pleading for mercy. Matangi would have continued to tend to them with care, had it not been for the sudden arrival of ‘sir’ one evening.
“Would you be interested in joining hands with me, Matangi?” Those were his exact words.
Matangi came to know he was from the police, but was disillusioned with the law and the lackadaisical approach of his men dealing with such grave crimes. Moreover, the perpetrators were affluent people, who hobnobbed with the who’s who of the Bombay elite. Getting bail was like a stroll in the park for them. He had to exterminate these roaches.
“Why me?” Matangi asked him.
“I see a spark in you. Also, I know about your background. Didn’t you grow up in that orphanage in Thane? Remember Tamble? The sweeper?”
Memories of roving eyes and groping hands gushed in, and Matangi agreed to help him in his mission. Sir would send details of the victims, along with cash. At first, Matangi demurred. Money? But he assured her that the money could be put to good use. Like developing the orphanage. Matangi finally agreed. If her children could be happier with the soiled money, so be it. Soon she began to derive great joy in snuffing out the lives of these defiled swines. The pot-bellied moneylender Saklani. The friendly neighbourhood Salim chacha. The industrialist with the swankiest car in Bombay, Seth Hiralal.
No wonder Ajinkya Sathaye had shown a keen interest in her orphanage. He visited her on the pretext of checking out the girls. And maybe boys as well. One never knew!
Matangi got up and left the building. Wiping her eyes, she got into the car.
“Home,” she whispered in a hoarse voice, leaning back against the seat. The driver nodded.
Matangi turned on the shower. The water hit like pellets against her body. She rested her forehead against the wall, allowing her tears to trickle down her cheeks. On an impulse, she grabbed a new pack of Hamam, ripped apart the cover, and began to rub her body. It smelt of unkempt hair. Of dirty clothes. Of victims who had fallen to Ajinkya’s roving eyes.
She kept on scrubbing, until her body pleaded for mercy. Wrapping a towel around her, she stepped out of the toilet. She sidestepped the grey kameez on the floor. It was spotless, yet she could never bring herself to see it again, let alone wear it. As she slipped into a cotton nightie, her landline phone trilled. She picked it up at the second ring.
“Yes,” she murmured, drawing random designs on the table cloth.
“Did you go there?” Sir came to the point.
“And what have you decided?”
Matangi grabbed a bottle of water from the table. She took a couple of gulps and whispered into the receiver.
“I…” her voice trailed off.
*** THE END ***
Your MC returns from a break to find a map, some money and a photo of their fiance on their desk.
Chanda hai tu, mera sooraj hai tu – A song from the film ‘Aradhana’
Tai – Marathi word for aunty
Ayah – nurse / maid, usually employed to look after children
Aai – mother
Shishu – Child
Ashram – (Here) Orphanage
Chaha – Tea
Mandakini – A Bollywood actress
Lokmat – A Marathi newspaper
Topi – Cap
Deva – An exclamation of pain
Tarun – Young / Youth
Kurta – Pyjama – Ethnic wear of men
Namaskar – A form of greeting
Vada Pav – A typical Bombay snack, consisting of a deep fried potato dumpling stuffed inside a bun
Kaka – Uncle
Dupatta – A shawl like garment thrown back around the shoulders
Kameez – A loose collarless shirt
Lukas Meier - Unsplash
P.C - Lukas Meier from 'Unsplash'
Wow, that was a great read thrilling and saddening at the same time. But i want to know what she chose to do?
You are free to interpret your own ending 🙂
My goodness, what a thrilling story and the ending… just marvellous! Good luck to you and your team, Narayani.
Thank you, Chandra