Nandita Sharma bit into her saffron coloured pastry, letting out a contended sigh. It was not often she had a day off from her college duties coinciding with that of Gayatri Raghav, the Chemistry lab assistant. Both of them were sitting at Sangam restaurant, having a light afternoon snack, after having been to see the latest blockbuster Hindi movie. Sitting at the corner table, next to the red
Velvet curtains, with soft music emanating from somewhere, Gayatri watched the occupants of the other table, sipping her tea slowly- the movie had been quite dramatic and fun to watch -- beautiful picturesque scenery -- attractive young men and women living in luxurious surroundings. She had felt a twinge of envy!
“Delicious isn’t it?” Nandita asked smiling dreamily.
“The pastry?” queried Gayatri, a lock of dark hair falling on her brow. “It is, but then this restaurant is famous for its delicious snacks. Did you like the movie?”
“It was fun,” Nandita said rubbing her eyes. “Did you see the clothes, the heroine wore -- lovely and real expensive! I’d love to have a wardrobe like that.”
“Wish we could do this more often,” Gayatri commented. “But I never seem to get any free time, away from the lab -- away from college!”
“You should get out more often -- all day long, stuck in that lab with chattering girls!” said Nandita.
“I plan to leave soon -- go back to studies -- do my masters -- get properly qualified -- this lab assistant’s job is just a filler…” she paused. Leaning forward she said, “I did not want to straight away do my post graduation after college.”
“I know the feeling,” remarked Nandita wiping the crumbs with a napkin.”Sister is real upset these days -- Shanta having run off has caused quite a stir…”
“Is that what you think happened? You mean she’s run off?” Gayatri's liquid eyes widened.
“Don’t know -- but seems plausible, doesn’t it?” replied Nandita.
“Shalu says that she disappeared inside the college,” Gayatri poured herself another cup of tea from the decanter on the table.
Nandita sighed saying, “Well... I am not going to play detective. I’ll leave that job to the police!”
“Have you spoken to them?” Gayatri frowned. She was trying to remember, “Now what are their names? They spoke to me a couple of days back -- lets see….Hmm…Constable Pathak and that Chowkidaar, Bahadur!”
“Sure,” said Nandita. “But I didn’t have much to tell them! What about you?”
“Told them the little I knew,” said Gayatri flexing her fingers. “That Constable seems to think that we are all lying.”
Nandita sat up straight and asked, “You mean he thinks someone did something to her?”
“Well…Shalu seems to think so…and now the police want to search the premises,” said Gayatri sipping her tea.
Nandita’s ears perked, “That’s news to me!”
“Matron was talking about it last night,” said Gayatri.
“What are they looking for?” asked Nandita.
“God knows….but Shalu thinks it might be her…body,” replied Gayatri nodding.
“Oh” Nandita snapped exasperated. “Shalu has certainly been gifted with a vivid imagination! So, Madam Shalu Brar thinks that someone killed Shanta inside the college?”
“Oh, don’t say that,” Gayatri shuddered setting her cup down on the table.
“Why not? The police are certainly thinking in that direction. But seriously do you think it is possible?”
Gayatri toyed with her piece of the pastry for a while then slowly answered, “I don’t know! And now, lets change the subject! I have hearing about this for the past one week and its driving me nuts!”
“What do you want to talk about?” Nandit asked placing her cup on the table.
“How about the movie?” suggested the lab assistant.
“Such luxury -- such splendor!” Nandita sighed.
“Felt exactly like that -- wished that some genie would lay the riches of the world at my feet…” said Gayatri.
“Don’t have to think about savings anymore!” said Nandita Sharma.
“Exactly!’ Gayatri thumped the table hard. The passing waiter and the occupants of the near by tables looked her way.
Nandita grinned and said, “Relax Gayatri! Look, I think that is the construction supervisor who came to the college.”
They both stared at the back of a blue shirted young upright man apparently smoking, wearing richly colored trousers and with an obvious air of the very wealthy.
“How much does he earn., I wonder…” Nandita’s voice trailed away as they stared in fascination.
They finished their tea and Gayatri observed thoughtfully, “ABC Constructions- that was the name of the company….now what was the supervisor’s name…” She frowned reflectively, “It will come back to me…I never forget a name…”
“Well…I never forget a face or the physique of a person -- there he has turned,” Nandita was saying. The young man had recognized her and was now approaching their table grinning.
Gayatri was murmuring to herself, “Rakesh….no, Ravi Ghoyal…..no, Rajeev...that’s it -- Rajeev Ghosh. He and his workmen left early, in the afternoon the same day Shanta disappeared… I wonder if the police know this…”
Nandita was talking with Mr. Ghosh. She noted that his blue silk shirt smelled suspiciously of the high class -- and he was waving his cigarette -- a brand associated with the rich in Dehradun society and a pair of bright shiny keys dangling from his trouser pocket.
“They were probably car keys,” mused Gayatri. She also had been observing the construction supervisor. She was listening attentively as her companion conducted small talk to the perfection. Gayatri learned that Rajeev Ghosh had quit his monotonous job at the ABC Constructions and was now a self employed businessman. He had won a lottery of an enormous sum the previous week. It had finally opened up new vistas for him. He had bought his own Apartment -- new premises for his own construction and trading company -- “Gamat Traders & Construction”-- bought the latest car model and was now truly enjoying himself. They said good byes and he moved off, waving.
Nandita sighed and said, “Why in the world don’t I ever win a lottery?” God knows I buy all lottery tickets. His life has really changed because of that lottery money- quit the job- has his own company -- got a house with servants -- a car! Whew!”
Rajeev Ghosh had reached the doorway. He turned back waving, and as he did so, Nandita drew in a sharp breath, “So that’s what who it was that day? I wonder what he was doing outside the Old Church at such an odd hour?”
Gayatri raised her brows quizzically and her companion explained briefly, “I told I have an excellent memory for shapes and faces. Well guess what….I saw his figure that Monday afternoon when Shanta disappeared, leaving the Old Church…he was wearing some dark suit…at that time I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me…..but now I am not so sure…I did see someone that afternoon and it was him!” Then she paused and said a little hesitantly, “Do you think I should tell the police?”
“Do you think it is important?” this was Gayatri screwing her eyes.
“Maybe I should tell Matron -- provided I remember!” said Nandita.
“Why do think he was there?” Gayatri asked.
“Do you think it has something to do with Shanta?” Gayatri asked.
Gayatri shrugged languidly saying, “Well…I think you should tell! It might be important. Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“I have a mind like a sieve,” said Nandita. “I keep thinking that I ought to but I keep forgetting!”
“You should keep a diary and write down everything you planned to do that day -- everything you saw which you think is important…” said Gayatri.
“I did keep a diary in school but then gave it up….I used to forget where I had kept the diary…”
Gayatri giggled and said, “Well…..enough of this macabre talk now…. speaking of lotteries, they all say they won a lottery. You never find anyone saying that his father died without a will making him the sole heir to all his wealth.”
Nandita laughed throatily, “Well.. he is certainly lucky…..why only last week I saw him in his work clothes as a construction supervisor, that Monday when Shanta vanished…he looked so glum in the morning as if life was hopeless….and now he has everything he has ever dreamed of…”
“Yeah, everything…” Gayatri said. “'We better get going!”
Nandita shot a look at her watch and nodded. They paid their bill and walked onto the sun drenched pavement and headed for the bus stop.
“I was wondering if you knew…” began Nandita as they trooped down the pavement.
Gayatri raised her eyebrows and Nandita continued, “I mean, you have been here longer than me and I was wondering whether you knew.” She paused as they came to the bus stop and took position under the tin shade. Nandita continued, “Where does Sister get all this cash to afford so many things?”
“Oh, the original renovation plan which Matron and I drew up did not include the construction of a new auditorium but then Sister included it in the last minute…”
“Oh, you mean the glass building…” said Gayatri.
“Yeah, the college does not need a new auditorium but Sister said we did and even Matron was puzzled. She said we could not afford it with the hike in staff salaries but Sister said the opposite. She said that the college would always get the best and the auditorium is built of very expensive material…”