The Day Dhani Died
by Nidhi Arora
“It looks all wrong.”
This is how a murder-dressed-as-suicide case begins in Marple’s head. But in Sharad’s case (that’s’ me, by the way), this is how it looked destined to end.
I did not know that it was a murder-dressed-as-suicide. I did not know whether it was a murder, suicide, or accident. I did not like crime capers. Or crime anything. But here I was, the absolute central figure of a death. Because that was the only certainty – there had been a death, and I was the central figure in the story of that death, simply because, I was, through some societal law, deemed to be the central figure in that life.
My wife was dead.
I was not the central figure in her life. Just like I have never been the central figure in my parents’ lives. Or in anyone else’s life. No, that’s not true. I was the central figure, even if briefly, in the life of Vatsala. But that was so long ago. And for such a short time. Never before, and never since, have I been the central figure. I have no experience in being a central figure. Why could they not choose someone more experienced?
But the police had chosen me. On the basis of statistics (because nothing else was handy). Most wives were murdered by their husbands. And of course, the hatred of my in-laws.
The hatred of my in-laws was the overarching theme of my family life.
It had started innocuously enough. The mother’s daily phone calls to the daughter after her marriage. Dad used to join in too. I found them so cute and so affectionate. My parents never found time to call me and talk for over half an hour every day.
Then one day, Dhani suggested that they look at a house in Ganga Colony to buy.
“To buy?” I asked incredulously, “But we don’t have that kind of money!”
“But we can always get a loan, na! Dad says that home loans are really cheap and this is a great way to build real estate assets early in life.”
I could not put a finger on why that made me feel uncomfortable. So, I discussed it with a friend, and thought a lot more.
Finally, I came to my bride of less than 2 months, took her hand in mine, and said, softly. “My sweetheart, we really should build assets together and secure our future. But what to invest in, where to buy, when to buy, and how to fund it, should be a decision made by you and me, not influenced by anyone else.”
I thought I had rehearsed it well. I thought it would help her see a joint future in which both of them were joint decision makers.
I was so wrong. So, so wrong.
That conversation started the downward spiral of my relationship with my wife, and the hatred of my in-laws. It wasn’t hatred at first, just irritation at my being this obstinate, unaware fellow. The hatred, I think, grew slowly, but steadily, fuelled by big and small incidents. Like the time that Dhani asked me to join them all for a family dinner at her parents’ place on a Friday night, to welcome another son-in-law from the extended family. I hadn’t wanted to go, but tagged along. And for an inexplicable reason, developed the mother of all migraines, spoiling the dinner for everyone else.
But all that was in the past. Compared to my problems today, those memories were laughable. Cute, even.
Today, I was being accused of murder.
The SI was the seniormost member of the team that came to the house. Usually, when someone dies in their sleep, people don’t call the police. But those are normal people. Not the parents-of-Dhani-who-hate-Sharad. When I returned from my business trip and found Dhani dead in her bed, I informed my parents first and her parents right after. I then sat down, eyes glazed, shocked.
I expected everyone to come together to grieve. But what happened next took me completely by surprise. Within 15 minutes, the police were at the door. They took charge of the situation immediately, and my father-in-law, shortly after. The SI asked me a lot of questions, checked my boarding card, asked me why I took the morning flight home, instead of the night one, as most people returning home do, and sent the body for postmortem. Losing Dhani was bad enough, but subjecting her body to post mortem, or losing my personal freedom… that was … beyond belief.
I was taken to the police station, where a more senior Inspector took charge. He was slightly softer. Offered me tea. I was in a daze. My father and brother were waiting outside the inspector’s cabin. A lawyer was on his way. No, no, no, this was all wrong. Dhani gone, handcuffs instead of shroud, me, a widower, or worse still, labelled a murderer.
“Why did you take the morning flight?”
“I had a dinner to attend. Morning flight was the only choice.”
The Inspector nodded.
“How do you think she died?”
“I have no idea! She is so young! How can she die?”
He nodded again.
“How come no one missed her all morning? No newspaper vala, no milkman, no morning maid? No one called at your house?”
I smiled, in spite of myself. “We don’t get newspaper at home, sir, and milk we buy when we need. Usually, she picks it up on her evening walk. There is no morning maid because Dhani is a late sleeper. She rarely wakes up before 11:30-12. Then, she calls up the maid and she comes to do the work.”
This time, he didn’t nod. His eyebrows arched, if ever so slightly.
“That’s certainly….different. Must have inconvenienced you a lot, your wife sleeping in late every morning?”
My surprise was genuine, “Why should it inconvenience me?”
“Well, you know, who will send you to office and all?”
“I am not a child, sir.” I said that, hopefully, without sounding rude.
But the Inspector judging my dead wife and treating me like an invalid in the same sentence, was just a little bit irritating.
“Hmmm. … The postmortem report will be here soon. But see, Mr. Sharad, it’s something we deal with everyday. The thing that works best, I can tell you from 20 years of experience, is if the person comes clean. The sooner the better. Your in-laws look like bullies. We want to help you. Your fil, unfortunately, has reach. So, the case will not remain with me for long. I can only help you in a short window, maybe as short as 2 hours. Tell me what happened, and I will bring your lawyer in, we will work out the loophole that will save you, and you can send a small token of gratitude to my house later.”
“You don’t understand. I wasn’t in town. And I have come clean. I opened the door with my key, opened the door to my bedroom, and figured out as soon as I touched her that she was gone. I felt giddy immediately and came out of the room. Then, I opened the windows because suddenly, the air was stuffy. Then, I called dad. That’s it.”
“Hmm. You know, I believe you. There is henpecked and there is in-laws pecked. You are the latter. Was your wife a sweet person? Or was she like her parents?”
“I loved her.” Was all I could say. And it was true.
“You are using the past tense already.” The inspector said meaningfully.
After that, there was no conversation.
My lawyer came and showed some papers to the police. I had no idea what was going on.
The two warring families were outside. I stepped out of the inspector’s cabin and was immediately surrounded by my family like a protective shield. They whisked me away even as my fil (ex-fil) started screaming profanities.
At home, we all sat. They heard me out. Then, we consulted with the lawyer. He had only one advice for me – get all your paperwork in order – your tickets, your hotel stay, who you were with, make sure the entire story is TRUE.
“But it is!” I protested again.
The police came back to our house. They entered the sealed room and started looking.
After a while, they came out with an object.
“Did you always use it in the room?”
“No. This was for use in the balcony. I told her to not bring it inside.”
“Why did you tell her to not bring it inside?”
“The coal burns and leaves tiny black soot particles all over. Besides, this is not safe for indoor use.”
“Did you wife share that view?”
I smiled mirthlessly. If Dhani were alive, that smile would have been sardonic. But she was dead, and my smile had no meaning anymore.
“My wife did not share any of my views.”
“Did you bring this inside?”
“No. I would never bring that inside.”
“Could she carry this herself, without help?”
“When it is not full, sure she can. The frame is not very heavy, as you can see for yourself.”
My in-laws were not permitted inside the building by the police, but they were waiting downstairs. The Inspector who had met me at the station was with the team that came. He invited them upstairs.
They came up, full of bridled fury that would remind one of a simmering volcano. We did not look at each other.
“Mrs and Mr. Bose, do you recognise this? Where did this come from?”
Mrs. Bose was the first to speak. “I gave this to my daughter as a gift. So fond of this she was. Was she murdered with this? How ghastly! I am sure you found the impact wound.”
The inspector raised a hand. She shut up.
Everyone was then signalled to sit down.
“Mrs. Bose, did you talk to your daughter last night?”
“Yes yes, like every night. We spoke for a long time!”
“What did you talk about?”
“The usual, her house, her life, and.. <here she paused> her usually absent husband.”
“Did you discuss this object?”
“Yes! She told me how warm and cosy it makes her feel and how this boy hates her even getting such simple pleasures of life. She wants to carry this with her wherever she sits and he won’t let her! Small particles of soot are more important to him than my daughter’s happiness!”
The inspector said nothing for a minute. He just looked down at his shoes, and then spoke – deliberately, confidently.
“Mrs. and Mr. Bose, Mr. Sharad, and… the entire family, all of you, I have something important to share.
The post-mortem report is out. The cause of death of Dhani Bose was carbon monoxide poisoning. We get at least 3 such reports each week in these 40-45 days of winters. The SI should have reported this as soon as he found it in the room, but I will not comment on why that did not happen. Once CO poisoning came out, I came personally to look for the cause.
We came over to look for a source of indoor fire burning, and found this coal heater. You have yourself admitted that your son in law was opposed to having this indoors. You and your daughter insisted on having it indoors. Yesterday, after you told her how her happiness mattered more than anything, she very likely took the heater to the bedroom, not thinking of the fact that there is no ventilation. More than 10 cases in our police station alone every year are because of the same stupidity – people using coal or wood heaters in a closed room.
We can rule the death as an accident, as it is. But seeing that you worked hard to implicate your son in law in a murder case, we will have to take the view that you contributed to her death by encouraging her to bring this indoors.”
No one spoke. For an interminably long period. The Inspector waited. The father in law got up, and walked out. The rest of the Bose family followed him.
The Inspector got up, placed a hand on my shoulder, and said, “All The Best. End this. Now.”
Dhani’s parents came to her cremation. We never met again.
This piece was written as part of the Writer’s Gym program open to those who have completed the Short Story Writing Workshop.