Bibha and Nirmal subscribed to an English newspaper, and besides, she hardly ever glanced at anything except the photographs and headlines. So she had no idea about this piece of news. In the afternoon Manashi, the housewife next door, had a big laugh as she said from her balcony, ‘Oh my god, you haven’t read it yet? Never mind, I’ll give you our newspaper. Someone with the same name as yours has been murdered. And such a coincidence! A housewife in North Calcutta, under the jurisdiction of Shyampukur Police Station, one son, aged about forty. I was shocked. Actually it was my husband who had read it first, then he made me read it too. Go check next door whether she’s alive or been murdered, he told me. I ran to the window to discover your husband coming out of the toilet while you were in the yard, scolding Balai about something. How we laughed!’
Bibha felt a stab of curiosity. ‘Let me see the newspaper,’ she said.
Manashi offered her the newspaper, saying, ‘My husband isn’t done with it yet.’
‘I’ll give it back in a minute.’
A triple-decker heading in fairly large letters announced: ‘Housewife Bibha Das murdered. Assailant leaves money, jewellery untouched. Servant absconding.’
It was minor news at best. But it had been stretched to provide a thrill to readers. In fact, Bibha did feel her skin prickle and her heart skip a beat.
Her 17-year-old son, who was studying for his final examinations, was in school. Bibha Das was alone at home in the afternoon. Somebody – or some people – strangled her to death, leaving her body in the kitchen. The dead woman’s body bore no injuries. The keys to the wardrobe were beneath her pillow, but the wardrobe hadn’t been opened. Neither the money nor the jewellery had been touched. Her son came home from school to discover the front door wide open. Entering, he called out for the servant. Going upstairs, he found his mother lying face down in kitchen. Her blouse was missing. Her sari was raised above her knees. The police could not be certain whether she had been murdered after being raped. The servant was twenty-four years old, he had been employed there for two years. He was absconding.
‘They didn’t mention where it took place,’ Bibha said when returning the newspaper. ‘Must be somewhere close by.’
‘Shyampukur is our police station too. It should be easy enough to find out.’ Manashi even informed Bibha that she would enquire.
Bibha’s husband Nirmal telephoned a little later. ‘There’s news of a murder in the papers today.’
‘Manashi from next door showed it to me a minute ago.’
‘Downstairs, must be asleep.’
‘Lock the door at the top of the stairs.’
‘I was also thinking of doing that.’
‘Some of the people in office know your name. Sukumar came by to check. Apparently he was worried sick after reading the papers this morning. No one home in the afternoon besides a full-bodied male servant, he said, and Mrs Das is pretty, too.’
‘Oh no, Balai is a decent boy. He’s been with us three years, after all.’
‘There was something in the papers today…’ Soumitra said as soon as he came home from school.
‘I read it.’
‘What horrible things they write. Apparently her blouse had been removed. I had an argument with a couple of friends. Many women take their blouses off on these sultry afternoons. They wouldn’t believe me… Forget it.’
‘Why do you have to argue over such things?’
‘Why do they write about them in the papers then? Some of my classmates have seen you. They’re the ones who claim to be concerned.’
‘About your being alone at home all afternoon… I’m hungry.’
When he returned from office in the evening, Nirmal said without any preamble, ‘You’d better lock the house and go next door or something every afternoon. Staying all alone at home doesn’t seem wise. This kind of murder is becoming commonplace in Calcutta these days. Apparently the majority of the victims are beautiful women.’
‘You’re scaring me, the way you’re talking.’ Bibha tried to sound coy, but could not. She really was afraid.
‘Boudi, boudi,’ Balai was calling Bibha from downstairs. As she turned towards the stairs, Nirmal said, ‘Do we have Balai’s village address?’
‘I certainly don’t.’
‘Get it, get it right now.’
The next day Manashi came up to Bibha on her own to hand her the newspaper, saying, ‘Just imagine! How terrible, at this age, and with a son too, an affair with the servant!’
The headline was just as large as the previous day: Bibha Das had an illicit relationship with the servant.
‘Those who know you will think of you straightaway when they read this… so many resemblances, after all. The girl in the house behind ours, she’s a schoolteacher, she was telling me.’
‘What was she telling you?’ Bibha’s limbs grew numb. What horrible things people were saying!
‘Nothing awful. She was just saying the headline made her think of you at once. The two Bibha Dases have a lot more in common than just their names.’
‘A lot more? What do you mean?’
‘She was probably referring to the similarities in age, in your homes, one son, a young servant – things like that. My husband said the same thing too. The news gives you a nasty and dirty feeling, doesn’t it?’
‘I’ll take the newspaper back from you later after you’ve read the whole thing.’
What have I got myself into. Bibha sat down heavily on her bed, newspaper in hand. This witch of a Bibha Das had let her down badly. Manashi and the house at the back effectively meant the entire neighbourhood. They must be gossiping about her in every house right now. If only she had had two or three or four children instead of just the one. It was all thanks to Nirmal’s poor advice – one’s enough, that way we can bring him up properly.
Bibha paced up and down impatiently. Everyone who knew her would immediately think of her when they saw the name. And how strange, she was in fact home alone every afternoon, and Balai was young too. The very term illicit relationship was terrifying!
The telephone rang. Bibha ran to answer it. You didn’t feel lonely when you were talking to someone.
‘Is that Bibha? This is your aunt, how are you? How’s Nimu?’
‘I’m very well, auntie. We’re all very well.’
‘I read something in the papers that scared the life out of me. Have you read it?’
‘Something about a murder?’
‘Yes, not just a murder though, there’s much more to it.’
‘There’s nothing like that going on here aunty, you mustn’t think…’
‘Didn’t I see a servant at your house? Is he still there?’
‘Oh no. Balai was sacked long ago. Nearly six months… no, almost a year. We have a maid now.’
‘Very wise of you. You can never trust these young servants. Doesn’t Soumitra take his Higher Secondary exam this year?’
‘I haven’t seen you in a long time, I must visit soon.’
Bibha shuddered as she replaced the receiver. The aunt was bound to see Balai if she came. Bibha sat down on the bed, holding her head in her hand. She felt sick all over.
The phone rang again. Bibha ran.
‘This is Nirmal. Have you locked the door?’
‘I’d asked you to get Balai’s address in the village.’
‘I’ll get it now.’
‘Not now, not now. He’s alone downstairs now… I wish you wouldn’t forget these important things!’ Nirmal’s voice was acidic with annoyance.
Bibha lost her temper suddenly. ‘What kind of horrible fate will befall me if I go downstairs?’ she shot back testily. ‘Balai is a very nice young man.’
‘Bibha Das also used to think that her murderer was a very nice young man.’
The slamming of the receiver rang in Bibha’s ears. She stood with her eyes closed, swaying. Taking a step or two to grab at the side of the bed, she stared helplessly at the headline in the newspaper.
When he came back from school, Soumitra said as usual, ‘I’m hungry,’ without coming up to his mother. Looking out blankly through the window, Bibha said, ‘Tell Balai downstairs to give you your food… never mind, I’ll get it myself.’
‘No,’ Soumitra practically screamed. ‘You don’t have to go downstairs, I’ll go.’
Bibha’s lips began to tremble. She went out into the balcony to stare at the road. Let the neighbours and the people on the street see her. She had not been murdered, she was not having an affair either. ‘You can see, I’m here all by myself,’ she muttered.
Back from office, instead of coming upstairs as he did every day, Nirmal began to talk to Balai. About to go downstairs, Bibha paused on the staircase when she heard their voices.
‘What have I done wrong dada for you to ask me to leave? Where will I get a job now? Give me the rest of the month at least.’
‘Absolutely not, you have to leave the house tomorrow. Didn’t I tell you I have a problem about you? Why should you be in trouble, I said I’d give you the full month’s salary, didn’t I?’
As soon as she heard Nirmal’s footsteps approach the stairs Bibha retreated.
Bibha was sitting in the balcony. Two maids were passing on their way to work. It was time for water to be supplied to taps. ‘Wait a minute,’ Bibha cried out to them from the first floor.
After a brief pause, they continued on their way.
‘Don’t go away. Do you want to work for us? Don’t run away.’
The maids didn’t stop. But one of them said to the other, ‘They’ve had five maids in six months, no one’s lasted more than a fortnight. She’s gone mad, that woman.’