Bitter Pill
by Srinjay Chakravarti

The late afternoon sun was deliciously warm and mellow, and Mrs Lahiri, sitting on the park bench on that cold December day, had almost dozed off. Her head was nodding and the cashmere sweater she was knitting lay on her lap, forgotten.

The sound of sudden raucous laughter, harsh and discordant, roused her from her incipient slumber. She blinked her eyes behind her pince-nez glasses and looked around. There was no one to be seen. She turned around and looked carefully again. She could hear voices from behind the screen of dense foliage. Someone was talking loudly.

She yawned and picked up her knitting again. Suddenly some of the words wafted to her ears and she sat up straight.

“That old fool of a woman, Mrs Chitra Lahiri,” came a deep male voice, “did you look at her face?! It was a picture!”

A young girl’s laughter tinkled in the air. “The idea of the soap lather coming out from my mouth—that was too brilliant. Just wicked! Where did you learn it?”

The young man laughed. “From a friend who was in the army. He had read about it in a book. It’s a trick some young men had used during a war to act out epileptic fits. That way they weren’t drafted into military service in their country.”

Mrs Lahiri was aghast. Not just the mention of her name, but that voice—particularly that young woman’s voice—seemed rather familiar.

She raised her heavy body with difficulty from the park bench—her knees were rather weak—and hobbled around the bushes to see who all were chatting there.

The young couple had come and had sat down behind her while she was feeling drowsy. They hadn’t noticed Mrs Lahiri, screened as she was by the bushes, creepers and a large peepal tree.

They looked up as Mrs Lahiri came into view and stared at her for an instant in horrified shock. They had been smoking, but dropped their half-burnt bidis on the grass and fled. Mrs Lahiri, too, was reeling with shock, now that her worst suspicions had been proved true. Wasn’t that her maid Sabita, who was supposed to be in hospital?

The realisation of what had happened suddenly hit her and she felt quite, quite sick. She felt giddy, her knees gave away, and she fell on the grass in a dead faint.

When she came to, someone was sprinkling water on her face. There was a hubbub of voices and several people had gathered around her. A few elderly gentlemen, who had been walking in the park, some children with their mothers and ayahs, and a few young idlers. These young men were much like the scoundrel she had just seen—thin, swarthy, with scruffy beards or stubble, clad in skin-tight jet black or shiny blue shirts and t-shirts and skinny “butter” denim jeans, in various shades of beige or muddy brown. She looked at them in trepidation, but they helped Mrs Lahiri to her feet kindly.

“Are you all right?” one of them asked solicitously. They helped her to a park bench, where she sat down, fanning her face. Despite the cold, she was sweating.

“Where do you live?” asked a middle-aged man. She replied, “Quite close by. Left turn from this park, then right down Rhododendron Avenue.”

“What happened?”

Mrs Lahiri started to describe her encounter, but then thought better of it. “Oh, it’s nothing, just a spell of giddiness.”

“Shall we take you home?” asked a gangly youth, unctuously. She blinked up at him and was about to refuse, but then she nodded weakly. Two of the young men helped her across the street and took her home. They asked her, “Do you live here alone?”

“Yes, ever since my husband passed away.”

“Is there no one at all at home?” they asked.

“No, both my daughters live abroad, one in Canada, the other in Australia. I had a maid who lived with me all the time, but—” She was about to say Sabita had been hospitalised, but stopped just in time. She felt the tears sting her eyes.

She stopped for breath, then rubbed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, I can’t even offer you a glass of water now,” she said to the young men.

“No, no. It’s perfectly all right,” they replied. “Please take care of yourself,” they said courteously. “We’ll come back tomorrow and ask after you.”

First a dubiety, and then a kernel of suspicion, started to harden in her mind. Mrs Lahiri looked at the youths in trepidation. Now why were they so interested in her well-being? She wondered….

The old lady’s thoughts must have flitted over her face, for the youths looked embarrassed and left quietly soon after.

Mrs Lahiri plopped down on the sofa in her living room. Things were moving too fast for her. Yesterday’s events flashed like a 35mm reel of an old film through her sluggish mind—scratched, disjointed and discoloured.

Last afternoon, after they had had lunch, Sabita had complained of stomach pain, probably caused by indigestion. It was the maid’s wont to ask Mrs Lahiri for medicines for minor ailments. And the old lady often gave her tablets and capsules from her own stock, whenever she could.

This time, however, events had taken a dramatic turn. Mrs Lahiri had taken out an antacid from the medicine cabinet. A few minutes later, her maid’s fiancé—what was his name now? she had clean forgotten—had come running. He often came to visit Sabita.

“Sabita is very ill! She is foaming at the mouth…”

Mrs Lahiri had at once rushed to the kitchen to find Sabita lying on the floor, hands clutched to her abdomen, writhing in agony. Foam had indeed been coming out of her mouth.

The pimply young man had exclaimed, “What’s happened to her? She fell ill right after taking the tablet you gave her. It’s all your bloody fault! You’ve given her the wrong medicine.”

Mrs Lahiri had not known what to say. She had stuttered, “I mean… not I, it isn’t my fault…the medicine… I mean…”

Sabita’s fiancé had snarled, “Shut up! I’m going to take her to the hospital at once. Perhaps we’ll be able to save her!”

Saying that, he had taken Sabita away and put her on a rickshaw.

Mrs Lahiri had stayed back at home, her heart beating a drumbeat in fear and anxiety, waiting for news. After some time—for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name—he had come back.

“I have admitted Sabita to Oriental Nursing Home.” It was a well-known, expensive nursing home nearby. “Her condition is critical. They have asked for a deposit of ten thousand rupees.”

Mrs Lahiri had stared at him, speechless.

“Where will I get so much money?” he had demanded. “It’s all your fault. You’ll have to pay the deposit.”

Mrs Lahiri had been shaking with fear by now, yet had protested feebly, “It’s not my fault, I never knew that—that—the medicine was wrong…”

The brash young fellow had said, “How dare you? If you don’t give the money for the hospital expenses, I’ll bring a thousand people from my bustee and burn down your house! You old witch—!”

Mrs Lahiri had been terrified. There was no one she could turn to right then. She lived in a secluded stretch of the upscale Rhododendron Avenue and most of the residents were elderly people like her. Next to her was a single-storey house that had been lying vacant for the past few months ever since the tenants had moved away. In the other house next to hers there lived an old couple and the gentleman was ailing. She had not liked to bother them. Opposite her house lived a middle-aged couple, both of whom were doctors, but they were both at hospital at that time of the day and their daughter was at school. Her only relative in the city was her nephew, who lived in another part of Calcutta, several kilometres away.

At that point of time she had been so frightened that she had not known what to do, she had not known whom to turn to. What if something happened to the girl? The very thought had filled Mrs Lahiri with dread.

As it was, she was not sure if she had given her maid the right medicine. She had thought it better not to argue with the young man and, with a trembling hand and tremulous eyes, had made out a bearer’s cheque for fifteen thousand—“to cover all hospital expenses and medicines,” as he had so rightly pointed out—on her savings bank account. Before he had left, the young man—what was his name now, she tried desperately to remember—had threatened her yet again: “If something happens to Sabita, I swear we’ll get even with you…”

There had been no news of Sabita, that day and the next day, too. Mrs Lahiri had feared the worst. Sabita’s fiancé had not come back at all.

The maid used to live with her. She had come to Mrs Lahiri’s home as an orphaned young girl from a remote village in Medinipur district. Sabita had been with her for some ten years now. Mrs Lahiri recalled how the malnourished Sabita had first come to her, frightened, innocent, and alarmingly thin, and under her ministrations, had blossomed into a dusky beauty, doe-eyed and lissom. Mrs Lahiri had done all she could have done for her, and not out of pity either…

Mrs Lahiri didn’t know much about the young man to whom Sabita had recently got engaged. He lived in a slum on the other side of the railway tracks nearby and did odd jobs for a living. But she didn’t have his address.

Mrs Lahiri went to the park only occasionally, but today she had gone out in the evening for some fresh air, having passed a sleepless night. When she saw Sabita and her fiancé, she realised how badly she had been duped. But was there much she could do about it? What information could she give the cops? She didn’t know their whereabouts or even the ruffian’s name.

A sudden thought struck her. She went to Sabita’s little room on top of the empty garage. She was thunderstruck, as they say. All her belongings were gone! Not even her comb or mirror was there, nor even a scrap of her clothing.

Mrs Lahiri came back to the living room on wobbly feet and collapsed into a divan. Her nephew Saikat came in just then.

“So it was all meticulously planned,” Saikat said heavily, after hearing her out. Saikat Bhaduri was her nephew, the only son of her late brother. She had called him up yesterday itself, but he had not been able to come over from Circus Avenue. He had promised to make it that evening, and there he was, as good as his word.

A thought struck him. He picked up the phone and called up Oriental Nursing Home. “Has any patient by the name of Sabita Mondol been admitted to your nursing home yesterday afternoon? Yes, could you please check? I’ll hold on.”

He listened, grim-faced, when the nurse on duty answered at last, then said, “Okay,” and hung up.

Mrs Lahiri knew the answer even before Saikat told her. As she sat on the sofa, talking to her nephew, she felt very weary indeed.

“It’s a pity you can’t recall that scoundrel’s name,” sighed Saikat. “That would’ve made the cops’ jobs a lot easier. Still, I’ll have a word with the officer-in-charge at the local police station. They might be able to trace Sabita somehow, though I fear it is too late—they must be miles away by now.”

Mrs Lahiri’s voice trembled. “And what would the police have done if they had managed to nab him?” she asked.

“Well, they’d have dumped him in the lockup and beaten him up black and blue, of course,” replied Saikat. “You would have got your money back, and both of them would have gone to jail.”

She shook her head, dispiritedly. “That’s no solution at all.”

“Then what to do?”

“I really don’t know… Ten years Sabita had spent in my home, I looked after her like my own daughter, and now this—this—betrayal…”

“I can’t bear the thought of her going to prison,” she went on, with a heavy sigh. “If they come to me and say sorry, and return my money, then I’ll certainly forgive them.”

“That seems hardly likely, does it? They have skedaddled—and I’m sure they won’t return to Calcutta, ever,” Saikat murmured.