by Shruti Tiwari
The first time I saw him after five years was on the porch of his house, talking to the police. He wore the same white shirt and khaki pants he wore on the day he left for the big city. It seemed that no time has passed. Everything was as it was five years ago- his bowlegs, specks of food on his clothing, and his emancipated form. Except that the white strands on his head and moustache accompanied by fine lines on his face were a stark reminder of how wrong I was. He too got lost in the storm of time.
I approached him as I saw the police officers drive away.
“Did they find out what happened?”, I asked.
He looked at me with widened eyes unable to comprehend my sudden appearance and it struck me that enquiring about the death of someone’s sister was probably not the appropriate way of greeting someone you are seeing after five years.
Before I could say anything to rectify the situation, he threw his arms around me and started bawling. Soon there was a wet spot on the front of my shirt. He consciously drew back a few minutes later and wiped his snot on his palm.
“Alas, no. They are calling it a suicide and are talking about closing the case. But I know my sister.”, he said clutching the front of my shirt. “YOU knew my sister. She would never do such a thing, would she?”, he asked me desperately as if I was the judge, jury, and executioner.
I wanted to answer him but I was starkly aware of his hands on my shirt which were covered with snot a few minutes ago.
“Of course, she won’t, brother.”, I agreed. “Our families have been neighbours for fifty years. I have grown up playing with you both. I can’t fathom for a minute that she would kill herself. She is…was such a cheerful girl.”, I soothed him while feebly attempting to dislodge his hands.
After he was a few feet apart leaning against the iron door of the house, I continued “But how are they so sure? They haven’t even investigated properly for a week.”
“What’s there to investigate, they say. There was no sign of forced entry and everything was in its place. Just my baby sister lying there…”, he sobbed. “But I know it, I KNOW IT in my bones that she didn’t take the poison willingly. Someone did this to her.”, he spat.
I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for him. Believe me, I did feel it. I covered the distance between us and put my arm around his shoulders. “Look, they still haven’t closed the case. I know the police in this godforsaken town. All they know is how to extort money, sit on their asses all day smoking cigarettes, and grow their paunches.”
His forehead furrowed but he didn’t contradict me. I took that as a sign to continue. Maybe I could convince him, I thought “What we need is resources. A good lawyer for starters. If we could get some media coverage too, that would be great. We just need enough evidence to convince them to keep the case open.”
“All of this sounds so expensive brother.”, he lamented. “I hardly make enough to keep a roof over my head. I…”
“You’re my brother and not just in word.”, I said. I looked him in the eye as I continued so that he would know that I mean it. “Your sister was my family too. I would leave no stone unturned to get her the justice she deserves.”, I assured him.
He was looking ahead stoically not even acknowledging what I said.
“Are you listening to me, brother?”, I said. “I have some jewellery of my late wife I could sell. It will fetch us some decent amount to keep us afloat.”, I offered feebly.
That broke him out of his trance and he looked at me ghastly. “NO! I cannot allow that.” His eyes welled up again. “That jewellery is your wife’s last memory. I remember how she would adorn herself every morning before coming out to the garden to give water to the Tulsi plant.”, he said. “Enough has been lost of my childhood. I would not let the good memories be tainted now.”
He got a determined look on his face as he wiped his tears with the back of his hand. He got up and went inside the house. I gathered that I probably overwhelmed him and was thinking about whether I should follow him or go back to my house. Probably, he was as poor as he looked. Even if the townsfolk thought differently.
Just as I was about to leave, he emerged from the shadows holding a mahogany antique box with intricate carvings on it. I had an inkling of what was inside it but held my tongue out of modesty. “This is our ancestral jewellery. Even during the worst of times, I never touched them. These were supposed to be my sister’s when she got married.” He lovingly caressed the box which held the remaining legacy of his family. “I was looking forward to seeing her in our great grandmother’s jewellery and the red wedding attire…but I saw her in a white shroud.”
This time he didn’t burst into tears but his voice had a resigned tone.
“I never shouldered the responsibilities of a big brother. She sacrificed her education so that I could study further. Lived on the meagre money I sent her every month and never complained once. I was saving up to give her new clothes on rakhi…”
Once again, I was at a loss for words. However, this time he did not regain his composure on his own. He looked utterly dejected. I realised it was up to me this time to break the silence.
“Brother, you don’t have to do this. She is not coming back.” I kept my hands over his where they were holding the box. It was very heavy. I pushed it towards him and continued hesitantly “Maybe this was a suicide. You know some people are weak…”
“HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?” he snapped. I was taken aback by the outburst. In all the years I had known him, I had never seen him lose his temper. He was always calm and collected. Perhaps I went a bit far.
He seemed to realise that yelling at the only person who believed him when he said that his sister was murdered was not a good idea. The whole town thought of him as a grief-stricken lunatic. There were even conspiracy theories floating around that he murdered his sister and all this hullabaloo was an attempt to divert the attention of everyone.
“Look, I know that you have my best interests in your heart but I couldn’t give my sister much. I want to get her justice at least.”, he sighed.
“Oh! That poor girl.” I wiped my fingers under my eyes. It was a sweaty day. What wouldn’t I do for an air conditioner right now?
“You remind me of her, you know? She was also emotional like you and looked out for everyone.”, he said. “Brother! I cannot find the words to thank you”, he choked. “But I promise that I will spend the rest of my life looking for them. I will forever be in your debt.”
He placed the box in my hands. I had to sit down on the steps to balance the weight of it comfortably on my lap. I opened it and in it was everything that the townspeople gossiped about: thick golden bracelets, emerald necklaces, anklets made with strings of gems, and diamond rings scattered like shiny toffee wrappers.
The siblings were orphaned at an early age. Their lifestyle always made me think that their parents had not left them much but, some elders of the town always said that they have a golden egg and the dearth of comforts in their life was a façade to gain sympathy.
I was dumbfounded. The owner of this box could ensure the financial security of their generations to come and here it was wasting away in their house. I wondered why they never deposited these in the bank. Why keep them at home where anyone could steal and run away with them?
“You are the only one I can trust with these, brother.”, he said breaking my train of thoughts. “Please find a suitable jeweller nearby who can give us the maximum price for them. I would do it myself but I have been in the city for a long time. I am no longer familiar with the ways of this town.”, he said with downcasted eyes. “Moreover, they already think I am a lunatic. They don’t even look at me…just turn their heads and change their path whenever I cross them.”, he murmured.
I felt a lump in my throat but I swallowed it. “Don’t worry. I give you my word that these invaluable assets will be put to their best use.”
He sat beside me on the steps and rested his head on my shoulders breathing a bit easier like the burden from his shoulders had lessened somehow. “Thank you. You’re a good brother.”, he sighed.
That night I packed whatever little household I had along with the box entrusted to me that morning and left the town never to return.
1. Rakhi: a talisman, or amulet, which sisters of all ages tie around the wrists of their brothers, symbolically protecting them, receiving a gift in return, and traditionally investing the brothers with a share of the responsibility of their potential care.
About the Author:
Shruti Tiwari lives in Delhi and has a Master in English Language and Literature from the University of Delhi. She is currently working as a freelance content writer and editor for various platforms. Her previous publications include a feature in The UNIverse Journal and Raisina Reports.
For my Amma and Papaji