“Man stabbed to death in own house by unknown assailant”
I put down the newspaper and massage my forehead. The pounding in my head has subsided to a dull ache. I don’t feel any more like throwing up all over, till the last drop of liquid has been squeezed out of my body. I felt like that yesterday when the horror of it all was fresh in my mind. I had thought I would never feel normal again. But today, things have already taken on a distant tone. As if it is all happening to someone else, and I’m just a spectator. Except for the constant refrain in my head, “I could have stopped this.“
Ankit – Ankit Bansal – that is the name of the man who was stabbed. He was an executive at an Axis bank branch in a nearby sector, I’ve forgotten which, in Noida. Ankit was also my next door neighbor. He moved into flat number 428, about four years ago. He rang our bell, that of 427, and asked for some water. My wife, Anjana, asked him in for tea. I can’t say I took to him immediately. He was a little too handsome. Tall, well-muscled, crisply dressed. You know, just the kind girls fall for in college, ignoring you and making you feel completely inadequate. But after a couple of dinners together (our house), I realized he was a decent sort. Ankit was quite enthusiastic about his work and even asked me to open an account at his branch. I think he asked everyone on our floor. Some obliged, others politely declined. I was among the latter.
Ankit was gunning for the position of branch manager and kept long hours at the bank. He was unmarried so the long hours were not a problem. On weekends and holidays, he often went to Meerut to visit his parents. Between these visits, his long hours, and my own hectic life, there was not much overlapping time. Mostly, I just met him in the corridor or in the lift. So that’s about all I know about him. And oh yes, he drove a red Swift. Though I guess that’s not very relevant.
Yesterday, I didn’t see Ankit in the morning. At least I don’t think I did. I’ve been in a sort of daze these last few days. You see, Anjana left me a week ago and is refusing to come back. She says it is because I am too busy with my work and hardly pay any attention to her. But I think she’s just using that as an excuse. I think she’s having an affair with someone. Why else is she not coming back though I said I’ll cut down on my work? I even promised to talk to my boss to put me on less demanding projects but she’s just not budging.
Anyway, coming back to Ankit, I didn’t see him in the morning because I left earlier than usual. I went to Anjana’s parents’ house — that’s where she’s staying these days — to try and make her see reason. But she wasn’t there. Uncle said she’s gone to a friend’s house and didn’t want to see me. He was quite evasive too about the identity of this friend. I gave up and went to my office. But I was looking so unwell that my boss suggested I return home and take rest. The sleepless nights were showing and I guess the unshaven look didn’t help either. I took his advice and came home.
That’s where I was when the police came. They had to bang on my door to wake me up. I had taken a Combiflam for the pounding in my head and washed it down with half a bottle of cough syrup. Not a combination any doctor would advise but I really needed to sleep and the cough syrup was handy. I completely missed the bell, and it took me a while to register the banging on the door. I finally opened the door to face a highly excited Mrs Sharma from 425 and a stern looking cop who introduced himself as Sub-Inspector Aggarwal. After inquiring why it had taken me so long to open the door, the sub-inspector gave me a brief account of what had happened next door in 428. Mrs Sharma rounded it up with “And when you didn’t open the door despite all the banging, we thought you too….”
All the while, Sub-Inspector Aggarwal was watching me closely to gauge my reaction. But what with the drowsiness from the syrup and my earlier sleeplessness, he probably judged that I was a little slow on the uptake.
“Can I see the…the..body?”
“Sure,” said the sub-inspector, taking my ghoulish curiosity in his stride. He escorted me to 428. A constable posted at the door was making sure none of the hangers-on gained entry into the flat.
“Mrs Sharma has already identified the body,” said the sub-inspector, “but I’d like you to be an additional witness.” I followed him inside. “The crime scene investigation team hasn’t finished yet,” continued the sub-inspector, “so be careful and don’t touch anything.” I didn’t hear the rest of what he was saying. Ankit’s body was sprawled over the carpet just a few steps into the drawing room. There were deep gashes on the chest and stomach. Large blood splatters glistened on the carpet. The nauseating stench of drying blood hit me just then. My stomach heaved and I threw up. I heard someone cursing. A strong arm turned me around and propelled me towards the door. The arm, I realized it was that of the sub-inspector, continued to pull me towards my own door. Mrs Sharma, who had remained outside 428, was asking what had happened. I heard the sub-inspector muttering something about potential damage to evidence.
I held on to my door for support and tried to excuse myself, “I did try to stop. It’s probably because I haven’t eaten anything since morning.” Mrs Sharma tut-tutted.
I trudged into my house, followed closely by both Mrs Sharma, out of concern, and Sub-Inspector Aggarwal, out of disgust. As I stepped into the washroom adjoining my drawing room, I could hear Mrs Sharma bring the sub-inspector up-to-date about the recent incidents in my life in what was by her standards, a hushed tone. I splashed cold water on my face and cleaned myself up a bit. I stepped back into the drawing room and apologized to the sub-inspector. “It’s all right, Mr Arora,” said the sub-inspector in a markedly different tone from the one he had employed a few minutes before, “You should rest now. I’ll come back later for questioning.” He went away with Mrs Sharma.
About two hours later, the sub-inspector was back, this time without Mrs Sharma in tow. I was feeling a little better by then and offered him tea. Sub-Inspector Aggarwal questioned me in detail about my day’s activities but I could sense that his heart was not in it. He was just following procedure. He would make sure to check with my boss, my wife’s parents, and anyone who had seen me coming in but would be satisfied when everything tallied. For some reason, my throwing up had disarmed him. I wondered if his wife had also left him.
“Tell me Mr Arora, did you see anyone when you were returning to your flat?”
“No,” I said, “There was no one in the lift with me. And as I said, I wasn’t really paying attention.” Sub-Inspector Aggarwal nodded in understanding.
“Will you be able to find out who killed Ankit?” I asked in the ensuing lull. The sub-inspector smiled, “I’m sure we will.”
“Of course! The CCTV camera on our floor!” I exclaimed. “Have you seen who it was in the CCTV footage?”
“Not exactly,” said the sub-inspector. “The cable of the CCTV camera has been cut, possibly by the killer. And the footage just before that is not so clear as it’s a low-quality camera. And then, it only covers the stairs and part of the corridor,” he complained, “It doesn’t even cover the lift.”
“Oh,” I said, “We will definitely take that up with the RWA. But you must have been able to see something?”
“We can make out a woman. She came in at 9:30 am and left just before 11 by the stairs. You probably just missed her when you were coming up in the lift. She didn’t go to any of the other houses on this floor, so she must have been visiting Mr Ankit Bansal.”
“You mean if I had come back a few minutes earlier, I would have been face to face with the killer?”
“We can’t be sure she’s the killer. She definitely didn’t act suspiciously in any way. We are trying to find out who she was. If only the guards at the main gate of the society had made a note of each entry as they are supposed to, we would have solved this case by now.” The sub-inspector sighed in exasperation.
At this point, there was a commotion in the corridor and the sub-inspector left to investigate. I left my door open so that I could keep abreast of what was happening. I noticed that the doors of several other flats were open too. After a few minutes, I figured out that Ankit’s parents had arrived.
I wondered if I should go out and meet them, but decided against it. I didn’t know them. And what can you really say to someone whose son has just been murdered?
Another hour or so passed before I saw the sub-inspector leaving for the day. Ankit’s flat had been locked, his body had been sent for postmortem, and his parents had left. They were probably staying with some other relatives.
I called out to the sub-inspector as he was waiting for the lift and asked if there were any further developments. The sub-inspector shook his head.
“What about the woman? Were you able to trace her?” I asked.
“Oh, that was just Mr Ankit Bansal’s sister, Radha. Her parents identified her from the footage. We have already called and spoken to her. We need to investigate further but most probably that is a dead end.” The sub-inspector stepped into the lift and the lift door closed.
I remained frozen on my doorstep for a long, long time. It was Radha, Ankit’s sister. Not Anjana. Not Anjana.
I had lied to the sub-inspector. I had seen the woman going down the stairs. The lift door had opened just as she had started going down the stairs. Simultaneously, the door of Ankit’s flat had clicked shut. I’d caught a glimpse of her and thought it was Anjana. I was convinced it was Anjana. She was wearing that yellow silk suit that I’d bought her a few months back on our anniversary. She’d been saving it for a special occasion. Was meeting Ankit a special occasion?
I turned it over in my mind as I unlocked my door. I thought of the warm smiles that had passed between Anjana and Ankit every time we had met. Hadn’t Anjana always been a bit too enthusiastic about asking him over for tea or dinner? I stepped in and paused in the act of removing my motorcycle gloves. She had probably fallen for Ankit the first time he had come over. She must have been two-timing me all these years and I hadn’t suspected anything. Something came over me. I was filled with hatred for Ankit, his charming, lying face, his sculpted body. I wanted to obliterate him. I grabbed the sharpest knife from the kitchen drawer and walked out of my door. I pressed myself to the wall, sidled up sideways to the CCTV camera, and cut off its cable. I then walked to Ankit’s door and pressed the door bell, a smile pasted on my face and the knife clutched tightly inside the right-hand pocket of my leather jacket.
Ankit opened the door, the same deceiving smile on his face. “What a surprise to see you at this time of the day, bhaiyya, do come in.” I stepped in. He closed the door and turned. “Is everything alright?” he asked as I remained silent. I took a few more steps in. He followed, “I heard about Anjana.”
Anjana, not Anjana bhabhi, I noted. The time for games, it seemed, was over. I turned around, “You lying scum!” I plunged my knife straight into his chest. He had no time to react. Indeed, I didn’t give him time to react, as I pulled out the knife and plunged it into his stomach. Blood was spurting out of his wounds. As I pulled out my knife for the second time, he swayed and then fell backwards on the carpet. He lay there motionless. I stood watching over him for a moment or two, waiting for my rage to subside and my breathing to return to normal. His blood had splashed onto my jacket, but luckily not on anything else I was wearing. I carefully sidestepped the puddles of blood that had started to form around his body and walked out closing the door after me.
I returned to my flat, carefully washed the knife and returned it to the kitchen drawer. I wiped off the blood from my leather jacket and gloves with a damp tissue and put them out to dry. I flushed the soaked tissues down the toilet. Then, I took a Combiflam and followed it with half a bottle of cough syrup and lay down on my bed. When the police came, there was no need to pretend. I was genuinely sleepy and exhausted.
Yes, the horror of yesterday has receded. Even Anjana’s going away doesn’t seem so important any more. Nothing really matters, except this guilt that is refusing to fade away. If only I had not come in just then. If I had been just two minutes earlier, I would have seen the woman’s face and would not have mistaken her for Anjana. I wouldn’t have flown into a searing, jealous rage and killed Ankit. Those two minutes might have made all the difference.
bhaiya – Brother (Hindi)
bhabhi – Brother’s wife (Hindi)