Kajal looked around spellbound. She didn’t know such houses existed in Mumbai. But, if KB’s aaji’s estate was huge, this took the cherry on the cake. The enormous bungalow in the central suburbs of Mumbai with an enviable lawn boasting of a variety of flora fauna made her go weak in the legs. Ex-ACP Pradhan indeed had made it big in the department, she thought.
As KB and Kajal waited after their entries at the gate, they waited outside the massive ornated door of the bungalow. The beautifully carved wooden door fascinated Kajal so much she could only stare at the skilled craftsmanship. There was some movement they could hear before the door was opened by a man, probably the Pradhans’ man servent. He gave them a once over. Kajal immediately disliked the way he glared at KB and then at her. There was a dangerous-looking scar on his forehead and his eyes… well, something about that man sent a shudder through her body. KB gripped her palm, probably realizing her tension.
The man moved, and they passed him into the vast foyer. The wall was decorated with several paintings, beautifully done in acrylic. There were some fabric paintings, too, framed and hung at strategic locations. It was signed UMA in capitals. Suddenly Kajal stared at a painting… she had seen that somewhere. Wait… there was an identical one at her home where she grew up till aai left. Exactly identical. Her eyes filled. Baba hadn’t allowed her to carry anything that belonged to aai as it would remind him of her.
The only difference was the painting was a mirror image of what was in her house. It was beautiful scenery, but there was a house on the left of the banyan tree, but the house was on the right in her home. But what was the painting doing here?
“This was a masterpiece created by my wife…Uma” A baritone sounded behind her, startling Kajal, and she turned around to face a man with a handlebar mustache and salt and pepper hair. He held out his hand even as KB shook hands with him and Kajal nodded. “…Welcome to my humble abode. I am retired ACP Ramanrao Pradhan. Please come in.” He gestured to them as they entered a massive drawing-room again filled with paintings, and a wall was devoted entirely to photographs of the Pradhans. There were no pictures of children and Kajal assumed they were issueless. They took a seat even as they were served tea and snacks. Kajal had the tastiest Bhakarwadi ever and she could see even KB relishing it.
“This is my Uma’s specialty. She is an amazing cook and an artist par excellence. She is a designer… loves to dabble in fabric.” The man rambled on and suddenly, he quietened, looking up.
Kajal followed his eyes and saw a petite woman, beautiful and the pictures didn’t do her justice. She was way too elegant and had an air of aristocracy about her. She walked in and sat next to him, looking fondly at Kajal.
“You look just like her…” Mrs. Pradhan spoke softly.
“I am sorry?” Kajal was surprised.
“Your mother…Rajani… You take after her. She was equally beautiful when she was your age.” She blinked back tears and Kajal only stared at her.
“Um… Mrs. Pradhan…”
“…Call me Uma…” She sniffled back tears and her husband patted her fair hands.
“Um… Uma aunty, did you know my mother?” Kajal asked.
The older woman nodded and used a neatly folded handkerchief to dab her eyes. “Rajani was my best friend… my soulmate. We were together from school till we graduated. I was there the day she eloped with Manohar. Her parents had filed a police complaint, but how could they do it against police itself…?” She chuckled, remembering. “…We lost touch and met again after years only to lose her again….” She became silent again.
Kajal and KB were stunned to silence as they heard it, and Ramanrao cleared his throat.
“So Kajal, what is it that you wanted to know?”
“Actually, sir…” Kajal tries to regain her composure. “… my mother went missing over a decade ago, and the case was later closed… So I just wanted to know if anything… I mean, is there anything you could throw light on…”
Ramanrao was lost in thought even as Uma sniffled again into the handkerchief.
“Kajal, I don’t know how to tell you this… but Rajani was a brave woman. She had elected to go undercover for the police department. But, it was way too taxing, physically and mentally and emotionally for her, especially… because…” he looked away.
“…What is it, Sir?” Kajal spoke even as KB held her hand.
“I am sorry, Kajal, but this young man here…” He pointed to KB. “…his father was the prime accused in a case. The one that your father was investigating. And he… he fell for Rajani… She was working in his Virar factory and gathering intel for us… she found Ranjit Batra had a built-in underground place where he housed some of the trafficked women. She brought it to our notice and even helped us with the evidence but unfortunately disappeared before she could get it to us. I tried my best to find her, but it was like she didn’t want to be found… I don’t know, but she was gone without a trace… within a couple of months, Ranjit committed suicide… and the case turned cold…”
He stood up and walked towards the French windows overlooking the beautiful garden. “I am sorry Kajal, that you had to hear this, and I am also sorry that you didn’t know the truth about your husband.”
That didn’t sound good at all to Kajal, who was reeling under the shock of hearing about her mother. KB had turned into a stone and he would have taken his hand away of she hadn’t gripped it in hers.
“Sir, with due respect, I am proud of my mother. I knew she wouldn’t do anything she was accused of, and despite everything, I thank you for revealing the truth about her… I am also glad she had her closest friend during the period of the tremendous stress she was going through… but having said that, I don’t… I repeat. I DON’T ever regret marrying my husband. Whatever happened was in the past, and it was his father who was involved. My husband was only a teenager and knew nothing about all the nefarious activities going on… he doesn’t deserve to be punished…” She stood up, dragging KB, who seemed to be on autopilot.
“Sir, Uma aunty, I thank both of you for your time and the memories. I hope my mother returns home someday….”
She walked away with KB in tow even as she heard Uma silently weep into her handkerchief. Her heart went out for the woman. But she was too upset, and despite everything, certain observations didn’t escape her eyes. She couldn’t wait to get back home and discuss it with KB.
But as they reached home, KB was in complete silent mode, only nodding to answer her queries. She was exasperated by the time they went to bed. She had so much to tell him, but he had drawn up a wall around him, and she found it difficult to penetrate.
However, he dozed off, and she decided to call it a night. She knew he was too hurt and decided to talk to him the next day morning. It took a while for her to toss and turn around in bed till she fell asleep. But somewhere in the middle of the night, she woke up and immediately knew KB wasn’t in the room. She walked out of the bedroom and knew without being told; KB was in the special chamber. She had earlier read a few articles on BDSM and had cringed at what she had seen.
She climbed up the stairs in silence with only the clock ticking, resonating with her heartbeats thudding in her chest.
She came to the door and tried to turn the knob, and to her surprise, it opened. She walked into the dimly lit chamber and the world beneath her feet slipped away as she saw KB hanging upside down completely bare facing the wall and there was a electrically powered whip that was hitting him on the back. Despite the darkness she could see the welts taking shape on his back.
What the hell… she rushed and shut down the power for the machine, and KB immediately held the ropes, pulling himself up. She saw tears running down from his bloodshot eyes, and there were some marks on his wrists as well.
KB tried to look away, but she held out her hands.
He hesitated, but in the next moment, he was in her arms, digging his head into her neck as he sobbed. She held him close and rubbed his sweaty back. Then, she moved back, holding his shoulders, and made him sit on the large poster bed. His forlorn look mixed with tears broke her heart.
She rushed to the attached bath and wet a towel before getting it out to him. She dabbed his face and shoulders even as he stared at her with downcast watery eyes.
“KB, does that sting? Your back?”
He nodded as he gripped the sides of the bed till his knuckles went white. She covered his hands and loosened them. “KB, is there a first aid box in here?”
He nodded and gestured towards a corner cupboard, and she rushed and got an antiseptic cream. Then, climbing up the bed behind him, she applied the cream even as he gasped. Her eyes teared up despite her self-control, and her fingers trembled as she applied the ointment.
She helped him put on his boxers. Then holding his dazed hands she looked at him and said softly. “Lets go Krish… out of here. Into our world. Come on”
He walked out with her closing the door behind them and she hoped he wouldn’t ever need it again.
Back in the bedroom, he lay on his side facing her.
“Krish, why are you punishing yourself?” she muttered softly, placing a palm on his cheek.
“I am… sorry for everything Kajal… my father…” tears flew again as he spoke in a hoarse voice.
“…Exactly… Krish… your ‘father’ and not you. Whatever your father may have done, my mom had entered the arrangement with open eyes. And though I am proud of her for what she did I can’t help but also feel dejected because she didn’t think of us before taking up something so dangerous. My baba was already involved in something deep and dangerous… she should have stayed with us… But all that is in the past, Krish, and we can’t do anything about it. You were a victim too… remember that…?” She was breaking down too, but still, she couldn’t give up. “…Krish you are my strength now… my elixir as we battle this. I could face my demons only because you were with me…and now we are close to finding things out… don’t give up on us Krish… please…”
He held her hand and pulled her close to him. She dug her head in his chest and he rubbed her back. “Kajal, there was something I had to tell you… what caused me to…go berserk…”
She moved up her head. “What is it, Krish?”
“There were photos on the wall, remember…?” he said, and she nodded as he continued. “…in all those photos, Ramanrao was dressed in full sleeves, even sweatshirts… but there was one where he was holding his dog, and the pup’s paw had dragged his sleeve a little above and … And I saw… the bent hand of the Swastika tattoo…”
Her heart was in her throat again… “…And …?” She could barely whisper.
“…And … it was the exact same tattoo my dad had, and so did that assailant in the hospital…”
Kajal was stunned. “Krish… I wanted to say; I found the man strange… he knew everything yet he was hiding so much… How could he not trace us knowing how close Uma aunty and my mom were? Things aren’t matching up… and the kind of lifestyle he has… that kind of property. Do you think it’s possible on a policeman’s salary? Something doesn’t ring right… and the name ‘chief’ in the ledger also translates to Pradhan, but I am yet to figure out what ‘spectral’ means….”
“Kajal, there is another thing that struck me later on the way here…”
“What is it, Krish?”
“That manservant… with that scar on his forehead? I remembered where I saw him… he was there in Mahabaleshwar on the cliff… he had come to push me… his face was covered, but I saw a part of his scar; when he wiped the water…I was too stoned, and finally… I concluded…”
“What was it, Krish…?”
“That feeling of being lightheaded…flying like a bird, in Mahabaleshwar was exactly like how I felt on the day of the accident… a decade ago. I have had drugs before, but nothing got into me the way that drug did… so that means…”
“Ramanrao Pradhan was the one who spiked your drinks, and he is after you…” Kajal sat up even as Krish joined her. She held his face and continued. “…Krish… that means, Ramanrao knew everything, and he was the….”
“…Mole in the department… of course because he was the mastermind….”