Mysterious Disappearances
Chapter 7

By Nirupama Akella

Police Are Called

 Lata walked down the narrow path through the canteen are, filled with chattering girls, and made her way to the college book shop. She purchased paint brushes and sketch pad for her Art module. The bald shop owner gave a discount and she chuckled feeling good about herself. She had attended all her lectures and now was free. She had her first swimming class after tea. She entered the hostel musing about the lunch menu, “lunch had been filling and delicious but, she knew very well that this would gradually change once the college term got underway, and yet one could hardly blame Mrs. Gopal -- it was difficult to conjure up delicious new dishes for over forty five hostel girls with huge appetites twice a day! But then, Mrs. Gopal was paid to do so -- and had probably been duly informed of this in her job description”

Lata sighed -- it probably was not her concern- she just wanted good nutritious food to be placed before her whenever she sat down for meals! What Mrs. Gopal did was simply not her problem! She had other serious worries like making sense out of the lecture notes on Rent -- get cracking on basic Statistical problems. She unlocked the room door. No one had come in yet even though the majority of classes were over! The hostel corridors were slowly getting bogged down by talking, laughing- complaining girls clad in all shades of hues and wearing all types of summer clothes. She thankfully escaped into her room and shut the door and immediately realized that her fourth room mate, Shiksha Malhotra had arrived in the morning. Her suitcase lay on the neatly made bed. Apparently, Shiksha had done some unpacking and then gone off to attend her classes! Lata dumped her notes on her table and changed into an old comfortable salwar. She went towards the shower rooms to wash her face, and once again returned to the sanctuary of her room, to collapse into bed until tea time.

Jyotsana softly entered the room and saw the sleeping figure of Lata Naidu sprawled out on her bed. She gently shut the door and went towards her own bed. “Being in junior college was no fun at all,” she gloomily reflected sitting on the bed removing her shoes. “And she had not liked her Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Chabra who had spoken to all them as if they were utter idiots! And Ms. Laul, the Mathematics teacher had straight away plunged into serious teaching, without even proper introductions -- she had hordes of work, mostly Maths sums to do! And her class on Computer Science had been a real disappointment -- Mr. Hari had not even shown them the computer lab but given them fat thick notes on the history of computers and a general introduction to computers.” Jyotsana flexed her fingers and continued to think, “her first day and already she had a fair idea that class XI was going to be tougher than preparing for Xth class public examinations in more than five subjects!” She lay back on her bed and watched the ceiling fan, remembering her old school in Bangalore! The door and Jyotsana grimaced -- everyone would be coming now as it was nearing time for tea! She had a class after tea -- her extra curricular activity -- Karate!

A brown haired girl was entering the room. Jyotsana stared at her having never seen her before. The girl on her part looked a bit taken aback at seeing her and then smiled at the sleeping figure of Lata Naidu. Jyotsana got a clear look as the girl moved sideways to the corner, which was probably her bed. She was striking, though in a subdued fashion. “What was this,” Jyotsana thought perplexed, “more and more she was getting the feeling that she had walked into a beauty pageant and not an academic college.”

 The girl drew the corner curtain, making the room dark and inviting and opened her suitcase. She turned to see Jyotsana watching her with avid interest, “Hello! You weren’t in when I came in this morning….actually nobody was in except the cleaning ladies! I’m Shiksha Malhotra -- I am sure the others must have told you about me already. Are you in First Year Junior College?’

Jyotsana nodded, tongue tied. Shiksha continued, now sorting out her clothes from the suitcase, “I thought so! You will come in for a bit of ragging. Parul loves ragging, why last year she ragged the Junior college girls so bad even though she herself was a fresher! I have been here since junior college! What major are you?”

“Science!”

“I am history with Mass Communication…” opening the cupboard, “I did some unpacking when I came in….but I came late and didn’t want to miss my first class. So just dumped my books and tit bits about!”

Jyotsana smiled as the door was again opened to admit Parul Desai without spectacles.

“What happened?” Shiksha asked turning away from the cupboard, “Did you break your glasses?”

            “I am wearing invisible spectacles Shiksha! Has your intelligence taken leave?”

            “Here it is,” thought Jyotsana, “another dose of hostel- talk! I wonder how Shiksha will react.”

            “I have to talk like that to you Parul for your understanding. My level of intelligence baffles you!” Skiksha said grinning. And then laughing said, “Well hello Ms. Desai! I trust you are well!”

Parul grinned, then yawned hugely, “Sometimes I wonder -- I did today all the time why in the world I didn’t just strangle Ms. Stevens and spare all Psychology Students of Mayfair College, her ghastly voice and attitude!”

“Is she so bad?” asked Shiksha

“A real pain!’”

Shiksha grinned as Parul put her papers on the table and stretched, “So, when did you come today? How is history?”

“Came around ten in the morning! History is very well thank you and…”

Jyotsana interrupted, “Just who is history? Have I met her?”

Parul burst into rollicking laughter as Shiksha giggled and said, “History is a

subject Jyotsana – my major…”

Parul said, “Sorry Jyotsana! I was not laughing at you. I guess our conversations

do puzzle outsiders. And Jyotsana is an outsider. Two more days and she will be one of us.”

Shiksha grinned and said, “So we were talking about history.. .this year I have to do two sub modules in Ancient India and a paper on  Contemporary History!”

            Jyotsana watched both of them thinking, “Where have I come?”

“World Wars -- that’s mighty interesting… Gosh! Its nearly time for tea…”

She looked att Lata who was still sleeping contently, “Never known such a heavy sleeper in my life…I am a light sleeper…..a pin drops and I wake,” shaking her vigorously, “hey get up! Tea time.”

Lata did get up, blinking hard, “Gosh! Have I been asleep?”

“No, you have been walking,” said Shiksha now shutting the cupboard and stowing her suitcase under the bed.

Parul continued with paternal pride, “so, have you met our freshie, Jyotsana Patel?’

Shiksha threw a pitying glance towards the small built girl as Parul chuckled loudly, and then went out to freshen up.

“I better wash my face again,” remarked Lata yawning, “Hi Shiksha! Great to see you! How was your holiday?”

“As usual!”

Lata grinned and went outside to freshen up as Jyotsana and Shiksha made their way downstairs towards the dining hall.

The hall was abuzz with chatter and laughter occasionally broken by the clatter of cups. Jyotsana filled her and Shiksha's cups and brought them to the near by table, where Shiksha was already engaged in deep conversation with Sonal Verma, a senior hostellite, apparently in the same class as Shiksha herself. Jyotsana was loudly hailed and between crunches of the coconut biscuit introduced herself to the new senior. Waving and saying something about “Mass Ragging”, Sonal moved away to another table. Shiksha sighed, taking a huge sip of her tea.

“What do you usually do in Mass Ragging?”

Shiksha looked into her eager upturned face, “Nothing much -- nothing to be scared of…usual stuff – teasing...making Freshers do all strange sorts of things…”

“Like?” Jyotsana prompted.

“Oh…” Shiksha mused sipping her tea, then very reluctantly parted with information, “Well, I had to a break dance number, different each time, every night in the common room for a week….then I had to lock one of the senior girls in the bathroom when she was taking a shower….then another girl and I had to walk around the hostel late in the night carrying a candle! It doesn’t seem scary now…but back then it was very frightening….there was a breeze and the candle kept going out….then one of the seniors kept on making these eerie sounds and someone dressed up as a ghost in all white with a veil and blood red nails and scared the hell out of us….”

“What happened?”

“Oh we ran screaming straight into Matron and spent the next week cleaning the tables….so freshie….whatever happens -- never scream in the night…specially after bedtime…” Shiksha grinned.

“Then” but Jyotsana was interrupted by the arrival of Parul and Lata, looking fresh and sprightly. Parul had changed into old faded jeans and an equally faded blue shirt.

She sat down opposite Shiksha and drew a hand across her hair, “Lata, Please get me my tea also…hey No! Lata you also sit down! Freshie will get us tea and biscuits!” she said grinning wickedly. Shiksha shot Lata an amused look as Jyotsana obediently got to her feet and accomplished the task efficiently.

“So, Girls!” Lata said sipping her hot tea, “how was your day?”

There were groans from everyone, as Parul replied dismally, “Nothing great! Did you know we all go through severe traumatic crises when growing up?”

“Really?” Lata queried, her mouth full of biscuit.

 Shiksha remarked in a perfect imitation of Ms Batiawala, “Please, remember your table manners. We are decent people and not savages!”

“Really?” repeated Lata grinning widely,.

Parul began laughing, “Yeah! Maybe Ms Batiawala should take up teaching societal conduct! As I was saying we all through life changing crises when growing up….like a change of environment can effect attitude, behavior permanently -- death of a family member, a friend or even an acquaintance can change a child's pattern of behavior…”

“That is highly interesting…” observed Shiksha.

“Could we talk about something else, Please!” Lata broke in handing Jyotsana her cup, “another cup of tea, please, Jyotsana….thank you!”

“Well, I have some news for you…” Shiksha began and as Jyotsana came back looked up and then began again in a lowered voice, “Shanta has disappeared…”

“Who?” Parul asked arching her brows. “You mean Shanta Ganshyam, our cleaning lady…the one with three kids?” she asked.

“Yeah….well, I saw Shalu today morning and she told me…” Shiksha paused nodding her head importantly.

“Go on, tell us more,” Lata cried excitedly.

“Well….Shalu was pretty incoherent...but what I gathered is that she disappeared inside the college…when she didn’t turn up yesterday….I guess nobody suspected but then maybe her family got wind of it, finally noticed her absence and now Shalu is hopping mad…….seems someone actually saw her enter the college yesterday morning….but she didn’t sign up…”

“Whew,” remarked Parul, her fingers on the rim of the cup, “this is pretty extraordinary! MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARENCE OF COLLEGE CLEANING WOMAN!”

“What do you suppose happened to her?” said Lata.

“Don’t know!” this was Shiksha.

“I vote this is a task for the freshie,” suggested Parul, with a twinkle in her eye. She got up saying, “So, freshie, gather your sleuthing skills about you, for you are on a fact finding mission -- what happened to our Shanta!”

Jyotsana inwardly groaned and got up slowly -- she had no idea what to do! Maybe she would talk to this Shalu! Then, what?

But Parul was speaking, “What you have to do is wear long black clothes, carry a magnifying glass and talk to people, look for tell tale signs!”

Lata applauded, “Very Impressive Parul but this won’t exactly be ragging!”

“Hey, I don’t want to get caught by Sister telling Freshers to jump into the pool at night or sing Hindi film songs into the hostel intercom!”

Lata giggled and added, “And at the end of this week, freshie, submit a typed report of 3 pages…maybe that is too less…”  she looked around and Shiksha joined in, “Three pages or four!”

The four girls washed their cups and left the hall still talking. Entering the hostel, Parul observed, “Yeah and make sure you do it, freshie or else you will wish….you had disappeared instead of Shanta!”

They all laughed and Shiksha added kindly, “It will be fun…just don’t bump into Mr. Das…..one look at your magnifying glass and he will be thrilled and drag you into the garden to study and inspect flowers!”

“I don’t even know who he is,” Jyotsana countered standing on the steps, and immediately regretted it as Parul remarked, “That is appalling, freshie! It is our duty, therefore to help you out -- your second assignment is to find out the names of all the staff including the security guards, by the end of this week…you can write them down and give it in with that report!”

Inspector Chauhan rubbed his elbow and yawned, “BAHADUR,” he yelled, “Get me tea now!”

Inspector Chauhan blinked rapidly -- a routine exercise he did after he got up from his daily afternoon nap. A podgy black haired man, with a slight grey in his sideburns and a small patch of shiny scalp in the middle of his otherwise thick thatch of black hair growth on the top of his head. He was a shallow looking man with enormous ultra black whiskers gracing the top of his fleshy lips, beady eyes and a suspicious looking thin nose. At forty, he was happily settled in his career -- having reached the peak of his career growth in police -- occupying the coveted position of Inspector at the Dehradun Station near the mall with two constables, a prim pence nez typist and, his loyal police guard by the name of Bahadur -- who played myriad roles outside official police duties to the Inspector, from that of personal attendant, counselor and friend. With two growing spoiled children in Dehradun’s expensive private school and a wife whose prime past time as long as he could remember, was scouring all the latest jewelry and fashion designs in the market. His family had expensive tastes, he modestly admitted to himself often, reclining in his arm chair in the drawing room of his furnished one storey house -- but he did not grudge then that -- paying for tennis and dance classes, computer classes, school trips and outings -- giving his wife presents of diamond brooches and bracelets. After all, all three of them deserved it. It was his duty to provide them with the best in life. It wasn’t as though his children were imbeciles. They were popular, happy go lucky, hard working children with the correct amount of study consciousness and ambition! His wife was not to be degraded also -- she was a loyal, hard working, good mother and wife, believing in independence and altruism -- she was a primary school teacher in the next door nursery school and an active member of the Dehradun Women Association.

Yes,” Inspector Chauhan smoothed his moustaches, smiling contently- “life had been good to him.”

 He had an excellent track record -- mainly because the hill station had a very low crime rate -- so that Inspector Chauhan’s official duties now days usually involved solving cases of missing pets! But that was not his fault -- his town was peaceful and that’s the way it would remain. He could not, in his widest dreams imagine that there could be cases of murder in his town. Of course in the early days, when he had first stepped into the role of an Inspector he had imagined himself busy solving crimes at a rapid rate like shelling peas from a pod. But then as he had become accustomed to the town, he had relaxed and finally understood that nothing of any consequence ever happened in Dehradun. He still solved cases, but they did not pertain to murder -- maybe the hacking of trees and disciplining stray dogs and road side beggars!

 His main interest now solely became focused on the welfare of his family and the students of the reputable Mayfair College. He knew about the college of course, everybody did -- not knowing about the magnificent college would have been a cardinal unforgivable sin! He spent his time behind his desk in the police station browsing through the names of the students -- that was fun because only the children of important and influential not to mention wealthy people came there to study. He was aware that the college had among its students the granddaughter of the Indian Chief Election Commissioner- the local MP’s daughter -- the daughter of the National Party Chief and the Party Whip. He was impressed and it was his ardent dream that soon his daughter would enroll as a student there. He sighed -- his wife had informed him yesterday that he was getting fat and should start exercising. “It was not his fault -- his diet was fine,” he thought watching a stack of papers on his desk, “he was content -- no challenge -- no mystery to stimulate him. The only challenge in months had been the unfortunate demise of some dratted cat under his police jeep!”

Bahadur -- an old faithful employee in Khaki shorts and shirt with cap, entered the small cool room and set down his tea with a tray of samosas. Inspector Chauhan nodded in satisfaction -- he never had to tell, Bahadur just knew that he liked to eat samosas with his afternoon tea. He noisily lifted the cup to his lips and was about to take his first sip, when the black telephone on his desk suddenly sprang to life and began to ring with startling vicious ferocity. Inspector Chauhan stared at it mesmerized -- he couldn’t believe that someone was actually phoning the police! Bahadur quickly moved forward and picked it up- ‘Dehradun Police Station,” he announced in his dead pan voice. Inspector Chauhan drew up a pad before him and soon the pad was getting filled in blue as, Bahadur listened and took notes. The Inspector finished his tea and slowly munched a samosa watching Bahadur, expressionless as always finally hang up.

“Sir, that was the Matron from Mayfair College…” Inspector Chauhan listened with bated breath – “their cleaning lady has disappeared -- Shanta Ganshyam…”

Inspector Chauhan brightened – “this was a new case and about time too! He was actually getting bored and lethargic- forgotten what active police service meant!” Aloud he said, “Tell Constable Pathak to go up and look into it…”

“Right Saab,” Bahadur saluted briskly and went out. Inspector Chauhan finished his samosa thinking – “at least this time it was a missing person!”


Mysterious Disappearances - Chapter 7 continued here...