Kheer (rice pudding)

“Why did she cook the kheer though?”

Inspector Das scratched his already thin chin fiercely as if to further taper it into a point. His dark complexion seemed clouded with darker clouds of soiled mood. Constable Chunni (short for Chunnilal) stood silently beside him. He knew better than to interrupt his superior. In this small village of Mahogany, there were seldom any brain wrecking cases. The last one was when they couldn’t find who had stolen and hidden the cow of the local zamindar (landlord).

Turned out, the animal had wandered off because the barn door wasn’t locked properly at night. She went on her own adventures to God knows where, and came back wandering and mooing leisurely even as Inspector Das and Chunni were trying to explain to the enraged zamindar that his beloved cow might have been sold to a slaughterhouse.

The owner had rushed to hug and kiss the animal. Then both, the zamindar with his mutterings of ‘useless fellows’, and the cow with her equally patronizing gaze at them, had vanished inside the gates.

True, they had both felt as useless as that goddamn barn gate, but then, what else was there to be done?

It was a quiet and lush place, the village of Mahogany. Green with trees and fields of produce, orchards owned by the zamindar, a river flowing and fertilizing the fields, small ponds dotting the landscape, it was serene. There was one school, one clinic, privately owned and run by an idealistic doctor who had wanted to provide his services to the residents of outskirt areas, a post office with one employee who was the postmaster and the postman both, and the police station with one constable and one inspector, namely himself and Inspector Das.

While the inspector had been transferred here, Chunni had been born and brought up in the village. He was a small man with a round face and round belly. The inspector was a few inches taller than him, but extremely thin, with tapering features. Unknown to them, they had been nicknamed ‘dus’ (the number 10) by the local boys. For when they walked together, the inspector in the front and the constable behind, they resembled the number 10. Credit; the appearance of one thin and one rounded figure.

Both their trances were broken by a slight intrusive cough at the door. The young schoolmaster stood there, smiling sheepishly. He wasn’t the only teacher in the anyhow small school, but whenever someone said schoolmaster, it was almost always him they were refraining to.

“Ah…master…” the Inspector’s thin moustache quivered, giving him the appearance of an extremely thin and sharp mouse.

“I just came by to check if you have heard from Meena?”

“Meena?”, the inspector scratched his chin again, concentrating to switch gears in his head.

“She hadn’t been coming to school for a few days now…”, master reminded him, pushing back his glasses which had slipped down his nose a few notches. Chunni squinted his eyes at him to try and see what the people in his village actually saw in this man.

Was he young? Yes. But Chunni wasn’t much older than him.

He was a bachelor. Irresponsible man! Shouldn’t he have been married by now and had a few children like Chunni?

He took care of his health…ran around the village every morning. Hmph…! Chunni was a policeman for goodness sake! But dare he walk around the village with the Inspector and this Master…while the Master would be hailed lovingly by the people and the Inspector addressed as Saheb, all they would do to poor Chunni was hail him as, ‘Oi Chunni!’

As if he had no respect! He puffed out his chest indignantly when the master looked at him humorously. As quickly as the puffing had commenced, did it recede.

“Oi Chunni!”, the Inspector poked at him with his stick. “What happened to Meena?”

“Sick”, Chunni replied in the small squeaky voice of his.

Master Manu sighed. “A simple note would have been enough.”

Inspector Das chuckled, his voice sounding like the creaking of a rusty iron door. “You seriously expect that, Master? She will come back! She is a bit careless, you know!”

Master nodded and got up, smiling in farewell. Chunni was relieved he was about to leave.

“Let me walk with you Master,” the inspector got up, fixing his uniform, “I have to take a look again at the old lady’s house.”

“Wasn’t the case simple?” Master Manu asked, waiting for the inspector to join him. Inwardly, Chunni agreed with the Master. It was such a simple case, yet, Das was bent on twisting it to something it was not. All because of that goddamn kheer!

“I know Master…I know…it seems so simple…still…I can’t seem to get the boiling pot of kheer out of my mind.”

“What about it?”

“Why did she put on that kheer to cook when she wanted to kill herself?”

Walking behind, Chunni rolled his eyes. His superior couldn’t see. So, that was alright.

The case was simple enough.

An old widowed lady had hung herself in the small barn where she kept the one skinny cow she had. She had used the small stool which she stored in the barn to climb up and attach the rope to the low bamboo frame. Her son-in-law, the postmaster had found her hanging and raised an alarm. It was his routine to stop by his mother-in-law’s house early morning before opening the post office. His wife was the only child. The old lady just had a thatched hut and that skinny animal. So no property dispute or issue. The postmaster, Sukhi, had been taking care of his mother-in-law’s financial needs for many years now. He had no motive to kill off his mother-in-law. Neither did the daughter, a rather dimwit woman. Neither did anyone else from the entire village. It was simple to Chunni.

Either the old lady must have lost her mind. Or simply didn’t want to live anymore and be a burden on anyone else. But Das was stuck on one single point.

“Why would she put on kheer to cook and then commit suicide??? It doesn’t make sense!”

The master and the inspector had walked ahead, leaving Chunni to close the station door and lock it. He did so and then jogged to join the two men, his belly leading him. By the time he reached them, the topic had changed.

“Oi Chunni!” the inspector called him, turning sideways to look at him, “what did you say about that girl Meena?”

Chunni huffed…his tongue lolling out with the effort of having had to run those 10 feet to them. And they said he wasn’t fit! Huh! The idiots!

“Door…knock…. Meena…sick…close…back…”, he tried to talk while also trying to catch his breath. Didn’t they know it was dangerous to talk after someone had exerted themselves so much?

The men walking before him stopped, the Master extracting a large bottle half-filled with water from his overhung bag. He extended the bottle to the now panting-like-a-rabid-dog Chunni. He snatched it and gulped it down. When he had calmed down a bit, the Inspector asked him again.

“Speak in a way we can understand, Chunni!”

“I knocked at her door this afternoon. She came out looking pale…eyes shot with red…hair uncombed…mouth…”

“Is it a woman or a demon you are describing?” Inspector Das asked again, this time, resuming his walk, the Master joining him.

Chunni puffed out his chest indignantly while nobody was looking at him.

“I am telling you what I saw…Sir…”, he added hurriedly as his superior turned to look at him, deflating his chest with one look of his twitchy, whisker-like moustache. He grunted for Chunni to continue.

“I asked her why she hasn’t been to the evening school for adults…and that Master and some of her classmates had been asking about her. She said that she had been sick for some days. She will rejoin once she feels better.”

The two men walking before him fell silent. Each thinking his own thoughts. Chunni oscillated between trying to think what both of them were busy with.

“Poor Meena…” the Master sighed, shaking his head, “…I remember, when I started the evening school for adults, she was the first one to enroll. She is really bright in studies. Such a young woman left widowed so soon. I hope she finds someone for herself or gets a better job than working as a household help for the zamindar.”

“I agree…I hope so too…” the Inspector nodded his head.

A short span of silence followed, punctuated by the throaty breathing from Chunni.

“What were you saying about the pot of kheer, Inspector?” the Master asked.

Again?

“I am not satisfied with the way this case looks Master. Why would she put on the kheer to cook and then hang herself? Kheer is a delicacy for people as poor as her. It doesn’t fit. It just doesn’t.”

“No property issues, I guess?”

“Considering the thatched hut she lived in and the skeletal cow she possessed, I can hardly expect someone to commit a murder for that!” The Inspector kicked his heel in frustration, causing a tiny pebble to bounce off the ground and launch itself at Chunni’s exposed shin. He gave a little whelp but thankfully neither noticed.

“The postmaster’s story checks out?” Chunni heard the Master ask, to which the inspector nodded his head.

“He had come to check on his mother-in-law as he used to do every morning. Didn’t find her inside, so went towards the little barn. There, he found her hanging. He raised an alarm, causing around 5-6 people to gather. Between them, they cut off the rope and lowered the body down. She was already dead by then, but he insists that the body wasn’t cold. The rest have confirmed. They then put her body inside the hut, where they found the pot boiling with kheer in it. I was then informed.”

“Hmm…”, the Master’s tone was thoughtful.

Please don’t make it complicated!

Chunni didn’t like staying this busy and engaged with the inspector. He liked to come, spend a leisurely day, and go back home to eat the hot khichuri with ghee. His mouth started salivating with the memory of that taste.

“What is the postmaster’s daily routine Inspector? Just asking…trying to be of use…” Chunni could hear the embarrassed smile in master’s voice.

Inspector Das sighed.

“Very well…what worse could happen anyway. The postmaster, as you know, is married to Rimi, the old lady’s daughter. I have met her for inquiry. She’s rather stupid. Wouldn’t even understand a straight question! Can you believe it? Anyhow…the postmaster usually goes to the old lady’s house at 7 in the morning. To ask after her and see if she needs anything. After spending a few minutes with her, he reaches the post office and opens it around 7:30. Then it remains for him to sort through the mail and deliver it. He goes around the village at about 10 in the morning, delivering and collecting mail. After that he goes home for lunch, around 12. Comes back to the post office and stays there until 5. Then goes home. Meets up with friends for chai on some evenings occasionally. The more regulars whom he delivers letters and parcels are, yourself, us at the police station, the zamindar, the family whose son lives in some big city, and Meena.”

The master gave a short laugh. “I think you must be mistaken Inspector. It couldn’t be Meena.”

A haughtiness crept into Das’s voice. “I assure you my dear master, that it was Meena he said. Said that his mother wrote to her every week without fail.”

Master stopped in his tracks, so did Inspector Das. A deep frown had formed on Master’s forehead, Chunni noticed. So did the curiously observing inspector.

“That’s odd…very odd indeed…”, the master mumbled more to himself than to them.

“Why?” Inspector Das prodded him. Chunni felt his curiosity rising as well.

The Master looked from one to the other, as if trying to decide the best way to spell it out. Finally, he said.

“Because…she herself told me that she had no living relations left. She’s alone in this world.”

Another mystery on top of that goddamn kheer one! More work to do? Chunni hated it!

Chunni groaned but forgot that it was loud causing his companions to turn and look at him. He belched loudly, trying to cover up. Inspector Das eyed him suspiciously, then refocused his attention the Master.

“Let’s pay Meena a visit.”

***

The woman who opened the door was even more disheveled than the last time Chunni had seen her. Her hair seemed to be in tangles and eyes redder than before. The fear in her face and the falter in her voice was unmistakable.

“Masterji…I…I told Chunni I am sick…I will be back…”

“Oi! Its Constable Chunni!” Chunni scolded her, causing her to take a step back. Inspector Das’s thin moustache started quivering in rage at him, so he focused his attention on the only things he could see when he looked down, the curve of his belly.

“Why did you lie Meena?” the Master asked her softly. Chunni looked at her, nostrils flaring.

How dare she lie to the police!

“L..lie…”, the terror in her eyes was clear. She tried to close the door, but Master held it firmly.

“I think we need to talk. Inside Meena. Now.” The authority in his voice was unmistakable. The young woman was now practically trembling and sobbing. They let themselves in. Something was quite wrong. They could all sense that much. A confession was on way.

“Bring me the letters Meena”, the Master told her gently, but firmly. Still shaking and crying, she extracted a plastic bag from under her tiny bed and held it out. Master Manu took them and sat on the floor. Slowly, he took out one and started to read it.

The Inspector started questioning the distraught woman. The only response her got was her crying noisily.

Are you in any danger?

Wailing.

Is somebody trying to harm you?

Noisily rubs her nose into her pallu (corner of the sari).

You can tell us…we will help you…

High pitched scream hit the ceiling.

Before Inspector Das could further question her, the Master quietly interrupted them

“I think you found a motive Inspector.”

“Motive?”

Inspector Das and Chunni looked at the master in confusion. Chunni cursed this day inwardly. Has another crime taken place? Would he now have to work overtime?

The Master’s words broke his self-pity.

“For the murder of the old lady.”

***

They nabbed the postmaster that very evening while his dimwit of a wife tried to wrestle Chunni to the ground.

God! Was she strong!

But Chunni would have easily handled her. He didn’t need that neighbor and that master to have restrained her as she yelled and kicked at him! Did he? He was just a little out of practice, that is all! Those bruises were nothing compared to what he used to undergo when he trained…the fools!

The real story took no time coming out.

Meena and the postmaster had been having an affair. The letters were their communication where they pretended it was written by Meena’s mother. Both of them wanted to get married, but the postmaster didn’t want to leave his wife. Being a government employee, he also didn’t want any smear on his name, for reasons known only to himself. 

Chunni thought that the bruises on his body answered why the postmaster didn’t want to leave that wrestler of a wife of his.

So he concocted a plan of getting her to seemingly commit suicide.

What would be the reason?

Being childless.

But wait! He needed to practice it first.

Who better guinea pig than that old lady he goes to visit every morning? Conveniently, she lives by herself.

He visits her, as always. Tells her that her cow had escaped, causing her to rush to the barn, where he already had the rope into a noose. The old lady struggled, but it was easy for him. She was tiny and frail. The footprints were run over by the witnesses he had then accumulated.

It also served his purpose that the only person who could question his wife’s death was now gone. To round it all off, being childless and suddenly shocked with the suicide of her mother, nobody would be suspicious of her misstep. The grieving widower would be then free to marry a woman of his choice.

The plan was genius.

Except for the kheer and the letters.

Meena didn’t know of his plan but suspected something. When she heard of the old lady’s suicide, she became sure that he was involved somehow, and fell sick with distress. Even if they hadn’t come looking for her in concern, she would have, sooner or later, spilled the beans. Chunni wasn’t sure if she would have been left alive till then.

“A man who commits one murder, can commit two, and then go on to commit as many needed to save his own neck.” The inspector concluded as Chunni smiled in relief.

Good for him!

Both the cases closed in the same day!

It was a good day. Now he could finally go home and enjoy his khichuri with ghee…maybe some aaloo bhaja as well…

He smacked his lips in delight.

Maybe later his wife could also make him some kheer

*****

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