Monday, May 29, 2017

The rotten menace

“Are you actually telling me that you guys marry your first cousins?” Alka burst out, incredulously, “you know it is like marrying your own brother,” she added. “Well, that’s the way it is in South. A girl marries her father’s sister’s son. Anant’s and my parents also want it that way”, Anusha replied hesitantly. “You mean it is a norm? Do you mean to say that if the brother and sister have a daughter and son respectively, they automatically are assigned to each other?” asked Alka, sounding astounded. Before Anusha could answer, Anju butted in, “Guys, give it a break. Each place has its own set of ancient customs. It is up to us to work the best fit out of all of them for the modern society. The veil, or the system where the woman is not supposed to go out of the house, is a norm in the North Indian societies; women are freer in the South and more respected. Female genocide is less prevalent. I do agree, consanguineous marriages do increase the chances of congenital disorders and hence are not to be encouraged,” she said. “Yuk! Imagine yourself with Anuj? Yuk,” retorted Alka, “Speaking of whom, where exactly are the boys?”

As if to put a stop to their discussion, the ‘boys’, Anuj and Anant just walked over. Anuj, Anant, Alka and Anju were classmates in school. Anuj and Anju were first cousins, but could easily pass off as twins, due to their close sibling like bond. Anant and Anju, who joined the same engineering college after graduating from school, had grown quite close to each other, after Anuj moved to Australia to pursue his graduation. Alka, who was pursuing her BA in psychology in the famous MH College, ended up becoming a holiday adjunct. Anju called her a poor little rich kid, as Alka had lost her mother as a child, and her father, who had remarried and now had a family of his own, showered her with plenty of money, but little love.

It was early June and Anuj had come home for summer; the four, along with Anant’s cousin, Anusha, who had come from a village in Tamil Nadu to pursue her BAMS, were at the mall, ‘chilling’.

“We did not get the tickets for the 2 PM show guys,” Anant announced, “so we instead picked up the tickets for the five PM show. Let us grab some lunch and roam around the mall instead. We probably can visit the house of horrors where Anusha worked for a short while”, he added. Before the girls could say anything, Anusha quickly paled and said, “Let us please not got there, that place is haunted. There have been deaths”. “Is that so? Then let us all go together and meet the ghosts”, said Anuj laughingly, before pointing out that it was almost 1:00 PM and they’d better move over to the food court.

At the escalator, Anusha stopped, hesitating. She somehow was still not comfortable riding them. Laughing at her discomfiture, Alka gave her a push from behind. An already wobbling Anusha fell awkwardly, hit her head and collapsed in a heap.
Anuj quickly rushed to her rescue. Thankfully, Anusha was not badly hurt except for a bruise on her forehead and some lacerations on her palms which she used to fend her fall. Her dress had gotten torn and her bead bracelet broke, with beads strewn all over. Anusha knelt down, and began gathering those beads, tears streaming down her face. Ignoring her protests, they quickly helped her to her feet, and took her to the MI room.
The doctor at the MI room who seemed to know Anusha well, did a quick check, dressed her wounds and prescribed her some pain medication. The nurse at the MI room was a friend of Anusha’s. She took Anusha and went off to the chemist’s shop to pick up the medicines. Anju dragged Alka with herself to the pick up a dress for Anusha, while the boys moved over to a shop aptly named ‘Crazy Costumes’,

Alka was unrepentant. “You don’t understand Anju”, she burst out, “Anusha is not all she seems. She is coy and all, but secretly has the ‘hots’ for Anant. Now that she knows Anant and you are a pair, she is throwing herself at Anuj. Have you seen that ridiculous red and black necklace and bracelet? They are made of seeds. See, I even picked up a couple!” She held out her hand. Ignoring the bright red and black seeds or beads, Anju said firmly, “I know about her feelings for Anant. Anant does not reciprocate them. He thinks of her as a sister. I am sure, given some time, she will get over them and move on. Her feelings and fashion sense, however do not justify your mean act at the escalator, Alka”.
The five of them met at the food court on the top floor, where both the movie theatre and the fabled ‘House of Horrors’ were located. Being connoisseurs of South Indian food, Anju and Anant went and stood in the line for the famous South Indian snack thali, while Anuj walked over to the pizza counter to order his pizza and Alka sashayed over to the dingy, dark health foods counter at the corner. Anusha excused herself and moved to the nearest washroom to change into the new attire that Anju picked up for her. Soon the five were busy gobbling a hearty shared lunch that comprised of pizza slices, dosas, idlis and salad.

Alka took a sip of her ‘health drink’, made a face and said, “It tastes ugh! I can’t have it. Can I share your cold coffee instead?” “Of course”, replied Anuj with a display of false magnanimity, “you can take a sip from each of our glasses Alka.  In any case, you never have more than a few sips of any drink”. Anusha who was sitting quietly till then, said very seriously, “how can people waste food and drink. Don’t they realize the hard work involved? The amount of resources it takes to grow all the ingredients? The amount of effort that went into the preparation of this juice?” Before Anju or Anant could make any pacifying statement, Alka caught the barb and snapped out, “In that case, why don’t you drink it. You definitely seem to be in the need of some energy”. Seeing Anusha’s hesitant and shocked glance, she grabbed the opportunity and went, “Yeah, now that it comes to you, where has all your idealism gone? Or is this poisonous drink meant for me? You behaved almost like you prepared it - the effort that went in, the resources it takes, and blah!” Alka’s mocking words and condescending tone snapped something inside Anusha; she picked up the glass and emptied the evil looking concoction in a single gulp. Anuj whistled aloud and said “Anusha one – Alka zero”!!

Alka stood there looking stumped for a few moments, before gathering her wits and retorting, “yeah, big deal. If she wants to consume her own poison, let her. After all, if I remember right, she did work in that health-foods counter for some time”. Let us now go to the ‘haunted’ ‘House of Horrors’. Let us see who has stronger guts. Anusha first dawdled, but agreed. The five of them walked over, picked up the tickets and ‘entered’ the ‘House’.

It seemed derelict, except for a pair of lovers, who were making out in a dark corner. They walked past the hooded figures, opening coffins, screaming skeletons, locomotive ‘zombies’, walking suit of armour, giggling and teasing each other and reached the exit;  at the exit, Anju turned around and noticed that Anuj was no longer there with them. After waiting for a couple of minutes for him to come out, Alka suggested that they went inside and brought him out. “He probably found a girl to fondle. We can’t wait forever while he is busy enjoying himself,” she added. Anusha excused herself, saying that she was feeling a bit unwell. She went on sat on the nearby bench, while the other three retraced their way back into the ‘house’. Just as the four of them were going past the ‘zombies’, one of them rushed over and grabbed Alka from behind.

Alka let out a loud scream, extracted herself out and ran out of the ‘house’ like a crazy maniac. The ‘zombie’, who actually was Anuj in disguise, quickly removed the mask and the overalls and ran along with the others towards exit, laughing. The sight that met them at the exit, was comical. Alka had crouched down there, shivering and rambling, in a state of delirium. She refused to be calmed by Anuj’s ministrations and insisted that she was in a great pain and wanted to go home to her mummy. Ignoring her protests, they literally dragged her to the movie theatre. At the entrance of the theatre, they realized that Anusha had not tagged along with them and they had forgotten all about her. Anuj who went back to bring Anusha along, found her slumped on the bench, choking and frothing from her mouth.

The four, with the help of the mall authorities, immediately called for an ambulance and rushed Anusha to the hospital. By the time they reached, Anusha’s condition was so bad, that she had to be rushed to the ICU, where the doctor quickly inserted the tube into her stomach through her mouth, administered activated charcoal, polyethylene glycol and did gastric lavage. He then quickly got the contents of her stomach analysed, ascertained the toxin and quickly administered the appropriate antitoxins.

Anusha’s condition stabilized, but she stayed unconscious and critical. When the doctor came out of the ICU, the four along with Anju’s father and Anant’s parents, who had reached the hospital by then, crowded around him. The details given by the doctors came as a shock to all. A concoction of belladonna fruits and leaves, along with finely ground rosary seeds and oleander kernel were found in Anusha’s stomach. “She thankfully consumed it after a heavy meal. Else, she would have been dead by now”, he added.

On hearing the words ‘rosary seeds’, Anju gave a start and looked at Alka – the bracelet that Anusha wore, was made of rosary seeds and it did have an oleander kernel as a charm. She immediately asked Alka where the seeds she had picked up were. When Alka looked a bit nonplussed and told her that she threw them away, while waiting for her health drink, Alka’s mind took a double-take. It was Alka who got the drink that possibly contained the poison.

Anant, who seemed to have caught on to the same idea, asked Alka dubiously, “Are you sure you threw those seeds away and did not get them included in the drink?” Alka paled on hearing Anant’s question. “Why would I do that? Why would I get something obnoxious included in my drink? Wait, a minute! Are you by any chance insinuating that I got the drink for Anusha and tried to kill her? Why should I do that? Why on earth would I want to kill that miserably crazy girl,” she wailed.

Anju’s father, Mr Mathur, an IG of Police, calmed everyone down. “I am sure it must have been an accident. Let us not go about accusing each other and spoil the situation further. Anuj, I suggest you take Alka and drop her back home,” he said, in a strong authoritative voice that brooked no argument. Anuj looked nonplussed, but complied immediately. 
After they left, he took Anju aside and asked her, if she could come with him to the Mall. “I want to get to the bottom of this matter as soon as possible. I do not want the happiness of you youngsters marred due to any misunderstandings”, he added.

At the mall, they quickly went through the CCTV footage. Alka’s claim that she threw the seeds turned out to be false. The footage clearly showed her handing over the seeds to the person at the health-food counter. 

On Anju's father's request, the mall management called that person down to the CCTV room and questioned him regarding the same. He looked surprised. “Yes, I found those red and black beads pretty. The lady was playing with them while waiting for the order to be delivered. She readily gave them to me, when I asked for them. I have them right here, in my pockets.” He then explained that he merely took the orders for the drinks and entered them into the system. The ‘drink maker’ reads the orders, on the large screen in the kitchen, makes the drinks and places them on the kitchen window, for him to simply collect and serve. “The drink maker and I hardly interact, sir, except when there is a delay. Even then, I just give a missed call to her. You see sir, she is expecting, and hence goes to the restroom quite often”, he clarified. He confirmed that he saw Alka for the first time, that day, and definitely did not know her from before.

Mr Mathur and Anju visited the counter, the kitchen and the workers’ restroom area. The kitchens and the restrooms were segregated from the general mall area, to ensure that the workers, cooks and the others could work and rest without being disturbed or disturbing the visitors or the shoppers. The area even had lockers, shower rooms and couches for the comfort of the workers. Mr Mathur noticed that the area did not have any CCTV cameras, advised the Mall management to get the same installed, took their leave and drove back to the hospital.

At the hospital, they learnt that Anusha had regained consciousness and had been moved to a private ward. Smiling in relief, Anju ran into the ward; Mr Mathur followed her, with a grave expression on his face. Inside the ward, he found Anant and his parents around Anusha’s bed. Their expressions indicated that they were unhappy about the whole affair. They clearly still suspected Alka. Ignoring their angry expressions, Mr Mathur went straight to Anant, and said, “Anant, it was not Alka who made that poisonous drink. It was someone else. You would be shocked if I tell you. The guy at the counter saw that person mixing the drink”. Before Anant could answer, Anusha gave a start. “That is not possible; he is lying! He was too busy chatting up with that female Alka”, she blurted out.

Anant’s expression muddled for a second, before comprehension and wrath took over. “How could you, Anusha? And Why?” he asked, his voice reduced to a shocked whisper. Anusha burst into tears, “Because that girl is a real menace. She is a bully. She hurt me and made fun of my love for you; she made fun of our traditions; that rotter deserves to die”, she bawled.

Before Anant could answer, his mother butted in. “Anusha, the girl is a bully, I agree; she did hurt you; I also dislike her for disrespecting our traditions; but by plotting her murder, you proved that you are the real rotten menace! I am ashamed of calling you my niece”, she said, her eyes flashing.

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