Search for Shanta
“Sahib,” said Bahadur. “This is a waste of time…”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Junior Constable had borne enough jeering, snobbish attitude and criticism for the past two days, when he had tentatively suggested to his superiors that he wanted to conduct a search within the College premises and be issued the needful warrant.
The Inspector and Senior Constable had openly laughed in his face- and he could still hear the echo of that fat Constable Gautam in his ears- “Kishen boy, what are you thinking? A search warrant to find what? Has something been stolen? NO! Some cleaning woman has gone missing and you want to search the college now -- eh…. What for?”
And he had sedately detailed all his findings only to be laughed at again and this time the Inspector spoke jovially, “It is a missing person -- no need to go overboard!”
And he had vainly kept his patience and hands in check which badly wanted to punch the round ball of Constable Gautam. “But Sir,” he had said, “ we have a witness who saw her enter the college premises through the back door on that Monday morning but she never showed up for work! Please, I think a search of the college buildings might give us a further clue to what exactly happened.”
“You are new here, Constable…” the Inspector had continued. And here the Senior Constable had interrupted in his sotto voice, “Junior Constable!”
And he had felt like smashing Constable Gautam’s face -- something which he had often felt like doing since his arrival!
“Yes, Junior Constable…” the Inspector had cheerfully agreed angering him more. The Inspector had continued, “You have such enthusiasm! I am reminded of myself when I was your age…”and he had fallen silent and looked pensive for a while. Kishen Pathak had respectfully held his tongue, all the time sneering at him, “that must have been a long time back, pal!!”
But the Inspector had then abruptly said again, “You will soon find out that such perseverance is wasted here -- nothing ever happens here! I mean something real important requiring immediate action. But you must have your fun -- I will issue…”
And he had been thinking, “Fun!! Does he think I am going to play cricket or what?” Aloud he had said, “A search warrant Sir, to search the Mayfair College premises.”
“Of Course…Of Course,” Inspector Chauhan had said. He had picked up his pen and called the chowkidaar.
“If that had not been enough of an ordeal,” thought Pathak, “talking to the Principal of Mayfair College, Sister Prudence, accompanied by the Matron, Sue Danely, had certainly been the limit. Both the ladies thought he had obviously gone out of his mind and had clearly told him so. In fact Sue Danely had been quite rude and abrupt and, he had felt like spanking both of them and throwing them across the gates. But such violent tendencies were not to be nurtured and encouraged, especially in police uniform and so, he had smiled and borne it all patiently.
They had harangued, resisted over cups of tea for nearly over two hours, and then reluctantly agreed- ‘but the girls must not see you! It will upset them…” this had been the sour faced Principal. And he had smiled more widely -- feeling like a clown. “So,” he had said, “what do you suggest Madam?”
“Maybe Saturday…” this had been Sue Danely. “You can check the main building and all the study areas in the morning and then in the afternoon, the remaining buildings…in that way you will be out of the girls’ way and they won’t even know you are here…..” she had ended.
Feeling very much like a truant ill-behaved toddler, he had consented and left dutifully with Bahadur close at heels. But he had felt happy. At last he was going to search the college buildings. He had a very strong suspicion that Shanta Ganshyam had indeed met her fate inside one of these buildings and since her cleaning areas included the first two floors of the hostel and the Old Wing. Kishen Pathak felt absolutely confident that a search of these buildings would reveal something important. But then, once back at the station, Bahadur had started complaining that he was not doing his share of the work on the report. And that had been awful -- Bahadur whining, sulking, nagging- and he had beat him up with a truncheon in his day dream!
And now, they were finally here looking very smart and searching the main building. And he had seen a few hostel girls in the corridor talking. He had remembered Sue Danely’s stern voice and then shrugged. “This was not his fault,” he had thought. “Anyway it was not that he was an alien emitting radioactive energy and was potentially dangerous.”
One small built girl had chummed up with his ancient chowkidaar and had been followed him everywhere. And then when she had finally left, Bahadur had begun acting as Devil’s Advocate again. Usually this was good but at this moment Kishen Pathak did not want to hear anything negative.
“Sahib, where are we going now?” Bahadur said as he ran alongside Constable Pathak, breathlessly.
“Somewhere!” said the Constable looking highly irritated and frustrated. Bahadur could sympathize with him for once. Their diligent search of the various study buildings had revealed nothing but scraps of paper and rubbish. Bahadur kept quiet and silently followed Constable Pathak out of the building down a narrow path covered with dry leaves to reach the Old Wing.
“Shanta was in charge of cleaning this…” mused Pathak aloud as they entered ducking their heads under the rope.
“What are we looking for Sahib?” Bahadur said straightening his pointed cap.
“I don’t know,” said Kishen Pathak slapping his sinewy hand on his thigh. “All I do know is she disappeared inside the college!”
“Yes, Saab,” said Bahdur.
Together they walked down the aisle, gazing in wonder and delight at the beautifully painted colourful pictures of the Virgin Mary and scenes from the holy bible. The pews were polished and shining causing Bahadur to remark, “Sister said that they come here sometimes to pray and sometimes to hold mass meetings.”
“Thank you so much for that input,” said Patthak looking at the slender chowkidaar. “I couldn’t have done without it...start looking about Bahadur.”
Bahadur moved to his right and began methodically looking on the tiled floor. Then after thinking for a while, he started tapping on the walls.
“What on earth are you doing hugging walls?” Kishen Pathak said looking at the chowkidaar.
Bahadur started and said, “Nothing, Sahib!”
“This is not some fiction novel, Bahadur and we, are not kid detectives,” said Pathak. “Get down to serious searching…today is our last chance….after this we write our report and close the file…”
“I understand, Saab,” and Bahadur this time kneeling on the floor and looking.
Junior Constable frowned as he thought, “Something wasn’t right! He had this funny strange feeling about this disappearance- maybe this disappearance was not just another “missing person case.” He sighed and joined the chowkidaar in his search.
The alarm rang piercingly in the still darkness of Room 5. A dark shadowy thin figure sleepily sat up on the bed near the door and yawned. Parul Desai had, enjoyed a hectic weekend filled with ragging activities. Then Sunday had been occupied by serious academic pursuits. These had involved writing her report on her visit to the slum area near the railway station for her social work lecture on Monday. And now it was Monday.
It was four in the morning to be precise and as usual Shiksha had set her alarm the previous night. But the amazing point was the shrill cries of the alarm rarely jolted Shiksha out of slumber and now it seemed even Jyotsana had attuned herself to its squeals. Parul sighed thinking, “last night’s supper as befitting Sunday suppers had been filling and delicious and she had fallen into a relaxing and blissful state of sleep as soon as her head had touched the pillow. But now this stupid alarm had to wake her up with its high pitched nervous wail.”
She sighed more loudly this time muttering to herself, “Shiksha is the limit.”
Gingerly she placed her feet onto the cold waxy marble floor and allowed the prickly cold shivers to run into every fiber of her body causing goose pimples, before sliding her slender feet into slippers. She hurriedly groped about in the dark, managed to discern the shape of Shiksha’s bedside table and switched off the alarm. The little clock at once soothed, quieted down dramatically and all she could hear was the ticking of the Grandfather clock downstairs. Parul glanced at the sleeping placid face of Shiksha Malhotra and gave a hard shake.
Shiksha sat up in bed with a little jump. “W….hy .....what ..happened? Who died?” she said rubbing her eyed.
“Idiot!” said Parul. “Didn’t you hear the alarm?”
Shiksha yawned and switched on her table lamp. ‘The alarm!” she said running a hand through her tousled hair. “Guess I was fast asleep… I shouldn’t have watched that movie on TV last night.”
“Well…who told you to see it then?” Parul whispered.
“My Brain,” Shiksha answered truthfully now reaching for her drawer, “You can go back to sleep now.”
“I can’t now,” said Parul yawning. “I just can’t go back to sleep after I have woken up.”
“Bad luck!” said Shiksha. “You should take lessons from Lata!” She took out her toothbrush and went out. Parul blinked sleepily rubbing her eyes and then gasped in surprise. She was standing directly in front of the Old Wing and could see a small light bobbing unsteadily, then become steady and still, in the lower part of the Church. She was simply amazed by her sighting. She had been under the impression, that the light had been a fabrication of Shiksha’s fertile imagination. “But now here it was,” she thought staring at the light. “Do I have my specs on?” she thought and turned back to search for her spectacles. “Maybe I am just seeing things,” she reasoned mentally. She found her spectacle case and hurridly put on her glasses.
Parul strained closer and consequently leaned out into the inky darkness with spectacles resting on her nose. She saw the torch light again shining in the lower part of the Church. “Probably from some window in a room in the basement…” she thought.
She was puzzled. She continued to think hand resting on her head. “The light did not seem to dimming by the moment, but it seemed to her that its owner had settled it down while conducting his or her business. Was it this light that poor Shanta Ganshyam had seen and gone down to investigate? Ooh!” Parul shivered and shrugged. “I am crazy. I am now imagining the impossible! How could Shanta have seen a light at four in the morning when she had not been in the college at that time? Parul grimaced and thought- “this light business is beginning to look scary- in fiction, the villain or the antagonist usually did evil bad things in candle or torch light in the shadow of darkness.” Then she shook her head -- come on, she firmly chided herself -- be rational! This is Mayfair College; no villain could possibly want anything here! Then she remembered Lata suggesting that it could be a ghost -- after all it was an old building! Parul frowned- she was going crazy. “I am reading too many novels about murder and ghosts,” she thought.
The door opened and Shiksha came in saying, “Then why don’t you study too?”
Parul put a finger to her lips and beckoned her closer. “Look!’ she whispered excitedly. Shiksha came nearer and stood next to her and saw in the direction of Parul’s tremulous finger.
“It’s that light I was telling you about!” Shiksha said slowly.
“It’s spooky! Have you told Matron about it?” Parul said.
“Sure,” said Shiksha. “She said the police would be searching, though I couldn’t get it! Searching for what?”
“Shanta…” the word escaped Parul’s lips and Shiksha stared incredulously at her, “Oh don’t be silly Parul!”
“Then why are they searching? What possible reason could they have? You know Shanta went missing within the college and they are searching the place…and we are seeing a small light from a basement window, which no one knows e exists at four in the morning. It is fishy!” concluded Parul.
“Lata and I, even Jyotsana was there….we didn’t see it on Saturday morning…” said Shiksha.
“That was a weekend…” Parul said taking out her toothbrush
“The searcher must be taking rest during weekends,” said Parul.
“Oh…that is absurd, Parul!…..Where do you get these fantastic ideas?” said Shiksha.
“Find out about Shanta’s activities that morning and you will see I am right…” Parul ended smugly.
“And whom should I talk to?” asked Shiksha. “The whole business came to light because she failed to show up for work…so whom should I talk to considering the fact that no one knew where she was the entire morning?”
“Think about it,” said Parul yawning hugely. “I better freshen up and start reading my Developmental Psychology notes.”
And she went out of the room leaving Shiksha to ponder over everything she had said. “Oh well……playing detective would have to wait…right now she had to read her notes on the Causes of World War I…” she thought sitting down in her chair.
Ten in the morning and Shiksha hurried up the hostel stairs to her room. She had forgotten her history notes. Unwittingly she ran into Shalu Brar who was squatting on the corridor floor of the first floor. She brightened when she saw a harassed looking Shiksha emerge in the corridor with a key in hand. She immediately got up and trundled towards her. Ever since the unfortunate disappearance of Shanta, Shalu had sorely felt the need of a confidante and friend. Shanta had been that and much more and now no one knew where she was. “The stupid police,” Shalu thought frowning to herself, “were mere fools!”
Shiksha spied the approaching figure ands escaped into her room but in vain. Shalu entered while her back was to it searching for her notes register, and comfortably settled herself in a corner.
“Lovely Morning…” said Shalu.
Shiksha sighed and collapsed onto her bed. She had her history lecture in twenty minutes which gave her ample time to listen to Shalu’s imaginary woes. “And maybe,” she thought, “she would finally follow in the footsteps of Hercule Pirot and rattle her ‘grey cells’ but since no one was at hand to slip into the part of Captain Hastings, she would have to do it herself.”
‘So, Shalu,” Shiksha said, “how is everything?’
Shalu Brar had been waiting for this opportunity to let loose her tongue and talk. She clicked her tongue and began, in her usual grating fashion, pausing occasionally to catch her breath, ‘Everything is Bad! Ah! Police are not doing anything…why she disappeared they still are not able to tell…where is she now? I ask but they say they are still searching! What do I tell her children? Guddi, that is the youngest one and a very sweet child, now she keeps asking where is Amma? What do I say?”
Shiksha interrupted, her interest piqued, “They are still here? What do they think?”
“Ah no! They have gone back to the village with their farther! They ask me….but what do I know?”
“But she came that morning, didn’t she?”
“Ah yes, that old beggar woman saw her…” Shalu paused frowning reflectively. “Actually I told the police but they did not listen to me….but her bucket and mop were never found…”
“Did she take them?” Shiksha asked.
Shalu stared at her and said, ‘Of course….she did not clean the hostel floors with her bare hands, did she? Also her bucket and other cleaning stuff were not in the store room…”
“How do you know she cleaned the hostel?” Shiksha said. On her part Shiksha felt completely at sea. “Cleaning or not,” she thought, “the hostel floor always looked the same to her!”
“I know because the floor was clean when I came here in the afternoon,” Shalu paused to mop her brow with her chunni. “Everything was so neat, shining….she was here cleaning and after that…..she disappeared…” Shalu ended sniffing.
“Then she must have gone to the Old Wing…” Shiksha loudly mused.
Shalu broke in indignantly, “I told the police that but they think I just talk nonsense…”
Shiksha shook her brown head and said, “No, no! They are searching all the college buildings now including the Old Wing…”
Shalu’s weather-beaten face became triumphant. “Then they will find her then,” she said. “Though I don’t know in what state…”
Shiksha shivered slightly, as Shalu continued seriously, “I tell you she is there…” She was now pointing from the window to the Old Church. Parul’s grave tones echoed in Shiksha’s head and she shrugged. “Playing a detective was not easy and she needed an assistant!” she thought. She glanced at her watch and yelped in surprise, “Time passes so fast! I must get going….I have a lecture.”
Shalu took the hint and left and Shiksha locked the door and left the hostel. She had to find Parul after class.
To be continued....