22 May, 2012

Open & Shut Case : ( Part 2 ) The Case

The locality was clearly Bengali, almost a ghetto, of the early migrants into the fast growing parts of suburban Bombay. A strong aroma of turmeric & mustard oil had steeped into everything around. Cats were fat in this locality where fresh-water fish bones, heads, tails and entrails are constants of the refuse bins. The only mice were the men who worked at clerical day jobs quietly and morphed into tigers on their way back home.

Nobody who had seen the house ever forgot it. It was that kind of a building. Houses too have character and if one were to describe this one, it was darkly mischievous. Exactly like the family that stayed here; a large family of many people but few personalities. This was the residence of the Chakraborty’s.

Justice Chakraborty, the man who built this original structure had been a renowned high court judge in British Bombay. He sired three daughters & two sons; Gangadevi, Jamuna devi, Nirmalendu, Sarasboti devi  & Prabhatchandra. His honor’s dash & fire had found its way in only one of his children though, the elder son, Nirmalendu. The judge had typically serious expectations from this son to succeed him in the legal field and the son equally typically had distinctly different ideas. Nirmalendu was brilliant in schooling and had secured admission into the Jesuit run Wilson College. Here he saw his first enacted stage play & Nirmalendu chanced upon his life's vocation & mission. Explosive arguments were the natural fall out of this choice. But the son was made of the same mettle and he persisted. He was hard working too , dropped out of college , went professional early & soon became the most successful drama artiste the stage had ever seen. The judge however untouched by his son’s achievement, refused to attend a single play and died a man unbroken but shamed. The sisters were all married into respectable families and moved on to different cities. Prabhat, the second son had followed his father’s footsteps into law but he never did find the trail blazed by his illustrious father. He had a small seedy local legal practice that attended to minor matters of drafting documents and notarizing them. Years passed and both the sons got married and the number of people in the household increased. There had been servants during the judge’s time too, who had separate quarters inside the house but now a few more were needed.
Nirmalendu was now the head of the family & had added a section to this house, expanding both the family and servant quarters. He also got it painted like the Badi’s of old Calcutta; where the walls are painted a turmeric yellow that grows darker & dirty with age while the windows and door frames painted a dark green remain as glossy as ever. There was a large window that looked out into the street above the main door that opened into the courtyard. This window had thick vertical bars and would be permanently open all day. The two windows on the top floor were forever closed and this is what gave the impression that the house was maliciously grinning with closed eyes. The house was always loud noisy, full of people, there was lots of laughter but very little joy could be traced in the sounds that emanated.

The courtyard of Nirmalda’s badi (house) has an old tall jamun tree around which a broad brick lined enclosure was built up such that visitors who were really not very close could sit themselves comfortably and the privacy of the house remained undisturbed. Shayamoli , Nirmalda’s elegant beautiful wife and the mistress of this house sternly also kept it that way. Left to Nirmalda the world would have been totally chaotic. Nirmalda had held court here with many others who would sit around on the platform or on the floor on most evenings. This now happened more frequently in this year since he had given up the stage. There would be good natured arguments and long winded discussions  on subjects varying from the arts, to the sorry state of Bengal, to as esoteric as to why tea tastes better double boiled when served in an earthen ware pot than when had from in an enamel  cup. She restricted the chaos to the platform yet never ever joined in herself. One could notice disapproval in her eyes sometimes at the loud arguments. Nirmal da was the king and his voice was the loudest. When he had downed his third double of VAT 69 he literally took centre stage and rattled off the poems of Gurudev Tagore to Byron and Shakespeare with equal fluency.

Two days hence would be the festival of Divali. I was just about to hand over the night charge to Inspector Sane at 7.15 am when the call came. Dwarakababu, from the Chakraborty residence reported a serious accident. Three of us had gone to the scene my senior inspector Rahul Sane, constable driver Moreshwar Patil and me, Sub-Inspector Mahadev Ramakant Pinge. Sane took over, asked for Dwarkababu. He turned out to be the servant in the household, and enquired as to what had happened here? He just silently led us up the staircase to the last room on the first floor corridor. Sane opened up the door, took everything at a glance, asked me to stay here and secure the room. He turned to Dwarkababu to ask who the person inside was? Nirmal da, came the answer. He started writing down the names of those who were in the house as of the last night and insisted on meeting all of them. I stepped forward and stood at the doorway and looked inside.

The pool of congealed blood behind the chair told a story all its own. His head leaned back over the back of the chair behind the desk. The neck stretched out as if he had been asked to play the role of a murdered man and like the many other things that he was known for to do well in his life, this too was executed with perfection. The scene had completely taken over with an absolute finality. Nirmalda was dead.

I wondered at the curious choice of words that occurred for the scene before me; it was as if the mind had colluded with the senses mischievously to pick these particular ones from all the words existing. If the truth be told I also nurtured a hope that something fishy would exist in the matter. This was my first view of an unnatural death up-close; hence I tried to keep the excitement at bay.

The scene seemed all the more peculiar because the room looked so neat and orderly. No disturbance whatsoever defined any other presence in the room but for the man who lay there quite dead. Between Nirmalda’s feet lay a roll of paper. I drew it out using a pencil and gently spread it open on the desk with the pencil and another pen preserving the possible evidence that could be later taken from it. The department had been informed and they were sending the forensic team here. Till then I waited outside.  

I recalled the words in the note…“I do not blame anybody for the course of action taken. Rather than live the life of a drunken has-been star I take this way out”...the words were firm and clear but the handwriting was scraggly. The note was not signed. This seemed like a fairly open and shut case. Sane used to say he did not like suicides especially high profile ones as they created tremendous paperwork and strained the already tenuous impression of the police with the affected family, but procedures had to be followed.

The forensic team arrived with the photographer. First in was the doctor who looked for the pulse of the victim, confirmed death & stood to one side. The photographer took over under the guidance of the forensic pathologist. I quietly handed the letter as evidence to the forensic team who glared at me for disturbing evidence. He bagged it with a pair of forceps.

I came out into the courtyard and joined Inspector Sane who was smoking in the courtyard; I had shown him the letter earlier. Silently I shook my head only to find the inspector staring at me with rapt interest. This is not good he said but you are wise to keep quiet. Do not be surprised by what happens next said he ominously crushing the cigarette butt quite fiercely under his feet.

Shyamoli the wife, Prabhat the younger brother, his wife Sunayna, their children Suman and Apu, Sunaynas brother Tapan, Dwaraka babu the servant, Dwaraka babu’s wife Bijoli were present from the family. Taraknath Sinha the son of Justice Chakraborty’s best friend Pashupatinath Sinha had also visited and left. The family had had finished dinner by 9.45pm and Nirmal da had retired to his study. Shyamoli di had prepared the coffee that he enjoyed post dinner and had kept it in his room. Tarak babu had stayed chatting with Nirmal da for a while and had left at 10.15 pm. The main door was locked. Death had occurred by a gunshot wound but no one had heard the sound of a shot as the neighbouring kids had started bursting crackers even before Divali.

The next day’s newspapers were full of articles about Nimalda and his illustrious career. It was painted like a typical rags-to-riches story. It also added instances on how Nirmal da was thrown out of the house by his father the strict judge, which had not been true. How he had started out as a helper in the theater company doing odd jobs and was discovered in the backroom by the director when he had been mouthing the lines of the lead role with a far better conviction than the actor who had the part, which was true; the first lead role and the success that followed and remained with him for more than a decade and a half, his romancing many a lady and then falling for the much younger co-actor Shyamoli Guhathakurta and their fairy tale marriage. The story unfolded in pictures of happiness with the birth of their child and then a tragedy with the accidental death of his son who fell down the stairs of their own house while he was playing Hamlet at the Tapan Theater at Kalighat, in Calcutta. There were rumors of his hitting the bottle after that and the roles dwindling. Cinema also became more popular and how it was anathema to him after the purity of the stage. I came to know more about Nirmal da after reading this. Some newspapers had not been very kind and hinted at his many dalliances with his leading ladies and some even went to the extent of hinting at how this had pushed Shyamoli into the arms of his brother who stayed in their house. I was quite irritated reading this that for some people nothing was sacred in the pursuit of news. However could not dismiss this view offhand as my first impression had been that it was indeed a peculiar household.

Days passed and the crowds had dwindled in front of Nirmal da’s house. It was on the fourth day from the tragedy that we got the complete forensic report. Inspector Sane had clearly told me that we shall only talk after all the evidence is in. It is always better that way especially in family suicides. Till then we can talk to the family and the people in the house.

Dr. Godghate our forensic expert had himself made the report. The report clearly said death occurred due to the gunshot wound with the bullet passing from the inside of the mouth to the back of the skull where he lay. The fingerprints on the gun belonged to the victim only and no other prints were found on the gun. But there were a few peculiarities that also were highlighted. The victim was right handed while the bullet had passed at an angle from the left to the right. Prior to the victim “supposedly” having shot himself he had imbibed a large quantity of arsenic de hydride commonly found in rat poisons and this was found in the coffee cup on his table and through his blood stream. Had he not shot himself he would have died anyway. The poison was the reason why so much blood had flown. There was also an attempt made to strangle the victim with a tie rope of the curtain, the pieces of which had been found at the victim’s feet. The handwriting on the suicide note was not of the victim but of Shyamoli  his wife as was verified from the various samples of writing found from the house. On reading the report I now knew what Sane had meant when he said do not be surprised. Now the darker side of what the newspapers hinted at had started to become clearer.

What do you think now Pinge? Is it an “Open & Shut Case”?

Why would a man try to commit a suicide in 3 different ways? I asked and Sane jumped on it and said because it may not be a suicide at all.

Sane was assigned the case along with me and the commissioner wanted an early closure of this because of the high profile nature of the personality involved. It was discovered that Taraknath babu was the family lawyer and earlier Nirmalda had created a will that had assigned his wealth in equal portions to his family members, there were some bequests to the servants but it was only a month back that he had modified the will and changed it to favor Shyamoli in toto, the minor bequests were unchanged but Prabhat and his family were totally excluded. On enquiry it was found that in one of the gathering of his cronies Nirmalda and Prabhat having downed a few extra fingers of the amber had had an argument. It was some silly matter that escalated and the frustration of the normally quiet Prabhat had given through and serious words got exchanged. Nirmalda took severe exception to his brother’s words and despite the two women trying to cool them off it was after that he had called Tarak babu and changed his will.

On further enquiry Prabhat was remorseful of that incident. Nirmalda had again in a fit of spite referred to it over dinner yesterday in front of Tarak babu and Prabhat had angrily left dinner mid-way and gone up to his room. Shyamoli tried to mollify things but Nirmal da got incensed and he censured her too for defending that wimp who could not stick around to fight his own battle. Prabhat was not seen till the morning except by his wife. Sunayna had slept taking a pill because of the headache that came on because of the showdown. She had woken up groggily only after the police had come into the house. Shyamoli had slept alone as Nirmal da often would read until late and frankly after his boorish behavior she was not keen on seeing him soon. Sane had also done the inquiry and had found that the rumors of closeness between Prabhat & Shyamoli had a grain of truth. Nirmal da at the height of his career would tour often and was not a saint. Prabhat was not married then and living with a beautiful woman in a house there had been several moments of weaknesses for both of them. After he got married it had stopped but even if the fire is extinguished the stench remains. So it happened with Prabhat & Shyamoli. Prabhat's modest earnings kept him bound to this house. Sunayna too had left home more than once due to reasons unknown but had been persuaded to return.

Now the case was solidly prepared Shyamoli and Prabhat were arrested for the premeditated murder of Nirmalendu Chakraborty. They were separately arrested for planning the crime, executing it and tampering with evidence to point it towards suicide. Shyamoli was charged with the poisoning of her husband and writing the letter while Prabhat for attempting to strangle an asleep Nirmal da and failing that shooting him with his own gun and planting it in his own hand. Both claimed innocence but were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Both Sane and I got promoted after this case.

Years later I met Dwarakababu in the market and he said that he too had left their employ. The house had been doomed right from the start. Apparently after their release from the prison after their term the house had been put up for sale and it fetched a handsome value that was split between Shyamoli and Prabhat and they had left town never to be heard of again.

The case was sordid and often I had wondered that crimes of such kind are largely motivated by Mammon (lust for money or power) or Passion( Love, Hate)  this one clearly fell under the revenge motive and had been properly & quite thoroughly handled from the word go. I had been disturbed by the claim of innocence by both the perpetrators initially though but this had been my first case. With every new case that came my way I realized that very few accused actually admitted guilt and gradually it faded from my memory too…until now


Chitragupta looked at me and said now do you remember? I nodded. The case had flashed before my eyes & I had lived it again.

He told me that there were some right questions asked by you but not pursued. I was puzzled. You mean this case was not solved perfectly? I was keen to know where the loopholes that we had not plugged were. Chitragupta said there were many things that you diagnosed correctly. After so many years of service you are now an experienced cop what is the first question that comes to your mind when you see an unnatural death? How did the victim die, I said. He nodded and asked, what's the second? Who gains from this?Correct said he. 

So can we revisit the evidence? I was puzzled and not able to figure out what Chitragputa was driving at. I interrupted his flow and insisted on knowing what the correct question that I had asked was? He smiled and the whole narrative flashed on the wall like a power point presentation and halted at “why would a man try to commit suicide in 3 different ways?”. Holy cow...You mean it was actually a suicide? But how... the motive was clearly proven as revenge and it was a premeditated crime. Chitragupta said yes, but only from the opposite end. Do you remember your first impression of the room. Yes , it was a scene. Exactly…the victim had staged his own death. Nirmal da had been cuckolded inside his own house by his brother whom he rated as next to nothing. There can be nothing more humiliating for an achiever who is recognized in his world as a top dog. For more than a year he had planned his exit like the trained actor that he was. He intentionally picked up a fight with Shyamoli. He practiced her writing and deliberately kept the note short , cryptic and unsigned. The note was the stroke of genius that drew attention to it being a murder. He drank the rat poison from his coffee to implicate her completely. Posion is a woman’s weapon. The tie rod he strangled across his neck and broke it such that the weals stayed. This tied in Prabhat. The gun was to ensure he died. I was stunned as the lettering across the ledger disappeared…

Not for nothing was he a great artiste…he always opened his acts with an impact and shut them in style. Chitragupta naughtily said it can still be called an “Open & Shut Case” you know….

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