The Sylvia Book Store | Tathagata Banerjee
“Halloween is coming up Ms. Chaubey, won’t you be decorating this year?”
Anamika turned around to see who was questioning her. The soft voice came from the other side of the counter. She knew the kid. He came to the shop often. The lady smiled, “Ofcourse I will, Ravi. When have I not done that?”
Verma walked up to the counter and gently put his hand on the child’s shoulder, “Ravi, have you picked a book yet?”
Ravi was holding something on his hand, which now he carefully places on the counter top. A Percy Jackson book, Anamika saw. She ruffled his hair a little, “Good choice, young man!”
Verma was taking out his credit card, “Here you go. Thank you for being so patient with the kids.”
“They are the patient ones Verma Sahab”, the shopkeeper swiped the card, “Playing along with our mindless shenanigans while we adults keep on pretending that we’ve figured life out.”
The transaction was done. Anamika put the envelope inside the plastic bag with the book. This envelope was a speciality of her shop. There’s a printed paper inside it, with calligraphic design. It reads, “See you in the pages of another narrative. Best wishes from The Sylvia Book Store.”
After the two of them left, Anamika checked her watch. Almost 9:00. There’s still customers in the shop, looking around. Reading. That was a scene she enjoyed. People reading. The smell of new books. Even if people didn’t buy everytime they come, she did not mind. Anamika wrapped the shawl around her. Himachal Pradesh weather gets chilly in October, especially in the night. She would be here for half an hour minimum. A little bit of coffee was necessary.
Anamika picked up the phone, “Radheshyam Babu, would you please send a Mocha Latte here? Haha, thank you. You are a life saver.”
She gently put her phone back in the drawer. Another customer came up to the counter. Colonel Rastogi was 87, and lived alone. He was here every week, buying and then finishing a new book every seven days. Anamika looked at the book in his hand. ‘Great Expectations’. Charles Dickens. She laughed, “You are going through a Dicken spree, aren’t you? You bought ‘Bleak House’ last week.”
The Colonel smiled and was about to put the book on the counter, but Anamika took it from his hands, “Don’t put your hands up so high, Rastogi Ji. Your arthritis was giving you a lot of trouble last week.”
Anamika was packing the book, when Rajiv entered the shop. “Didi, coffee!” The young man put a cup at the side of the table. Radheshyam Babu had a café just opposite the bookshop. Anamika would bring in food and stuff from there every so often. Rajiv worked there. Giving the Colonel his package, Anamika thanked him for bringing in the coffee. She was taking out the moneybag, when Rajiv vehemently moved his head sideways, “Nope. That’s not gonna happen. You’re a regular customer and like, the nicest person ever, so this one’s on us. Radhe Sir knows.”
Anamika laughed, “You people are way too nice Rajiv. Thank you. And tell Radheshyam Babu I said thanks. The Harry Potter books have arrived, Ginny was asking for those last time he came here with his daughter. And the book you wanted of Holmes is arriving tomorrow -“
“Okay Didi”. Rajiv waved her hand and walked out of the shop. Anamika shouted from behind, “Wear a sweater Raju. You’ll catch a cold with only a t-shirt.”
The young man sheepishly grinned and nodded. The crowd outside was far less today than usual, she noticed. Reclining back in her chair, Anamika sipped her coffee. This – this was perfection.
She noticed him looking at this way before. Back then she thought he was checking out the books behind the counter. Sipping her beverage, now Anamika was certain that this guy was staring at her. The guy’s wearing a beanie cap and a scarf, so she could not even figure out how he looked like. Was this a stranger or a regular at the shop? Either way, this was weird. Anamika looked at him in the eye and asked with a steely voice, “Can I help you?”
The man walked up to the counter and untied his scarf around his neck, “Yes actually. Sorry but, do I know you? I feel like I have definitely seen you somewhere, just for the life of me can’t place where. I’m Aniruddha Basak, by the way. From Kolkata. Here for a holiday. Have we met somewhere?”
When she was eleven, she once got electric shock while using a faulty light switch. Till this day, she remembered, she looked down to the ground as the shockwave hit her. It felt like someone grabbed her legs. Some humongous dark monstrous hands that had come out of the shadows and grabbed her to drag her to hell. It was few seconds, but she still remembered it all those years later. As the stranger removed his scarf and his face was visible, Anamika felt the same way, like she felt after the electric shock.
The shopkeeper sipped her coffee and gently smiled, “Oh! Haha, no I think you have mixed up with someone. Yah, I’m very sure. No, no, I didn’t mind at all. That happens. Anyhow, are we buying something tonight? We have the complete works of Mario Puzo here. Rare collection, you won’t get it everywhere…”
The temperature dropped to 19°C yesterday night, Anamika was reading in the online newspaper. She was sitting in the balcony, as the morning sun was slowly coming up over the horizon. This had been a practice for almost nine years that she had spent here, in Himachal. Waking up at the dawn to see the sunrise.
The bookshop is not that far away from the house. Gupta Amma owned this place. When she was new here and was looking for an affordable place to rent, people suggested her to talk with Amma. A local business woman who owned a few houses in the city. Anamika did so. Over the years, she had become able to buy a house of her own. But Gupta Amma won’t let her leave the house. “You’re family now Annie, you’re gonna stay under this roof till am here. And lady, I have no plans to call it quits soon”, Amma Ji would tell her with a frown and a chuckle. Sunday nights, she would come over from her house a few blocks away to Anamika’s, just to chat with her. Ajay, Amma Ji’s son, was a civil engineering and a brilliant cook. He would drop by sometimes with a casserole in his hand. “Annie, made Biriyani today, here’s your share” ; or, “Annie, here’s the Mutton Do-Peyaza you like so much.” Anamika would laugh, “Ajay Bhaiya! You don’t have to do all this for me!” Ajay smiled back at her, “What did Ma tell ya? You’re family.”
Putting the tab down, Anamika looked at her watch. It was time to go to the morning jog. That was a routine every day, for these nine years. She would put her earphones on, and run for a while. Then come back home, freshen up, and open the shop. Like a clockwork. The Sylvia Book Store stayed open everyday. The bookshop had a regular and strong customer base. People would come and go always. She loved to see people loving books.
Anamika put on her headphones and started to run. Almost ten minutes later, as she took a turn to the other lane, a cold shiver went down her spine. Another man was walking her way, although without noticing her. Or atleast that’s how it seemed to her. She met this man yesterday, at the bookshop. Basak.
It felt like someone whispered in her ears, “Run. Run fast. You have done this before.” But her legs were not corresponding to her stream of thoughts. Anamika tried to move, but felt like even taking a step was impossible – let alone running. She looked up at the sky. Is it hot or cold now? The weather? How’s she sweating and simultaneously feeling like a dangerous fever is coming on with a bloodthirst?
The man saw her. Or least dropped the pretense of not noticing her before, she thought. Waving his hand, the man came up to her and awkwardly smiled, “Hi. Small world. Smaller cities.”
Anamika felt a hand on her throat. A hand that was choking her. “There’s no hand”, a part of her brain told her. But she could feel the grip tightening. Breathing was feeling like a humongous task. She knew this feeling. Knew how it felt to get your throat being choked by a merciless, relentless, reasonless, powerful hand. With all the power within herself, Anamika drowned out the screams and smiled normally – the exact actions that took place yesterday at the book store – “Mr. Basak! Morning!”
“You should have stayed inside the house today.”, A voice in her head – her voice – told her in a whispering tone, “You knew he was around. You knew nothing might not be normal again, like it had been for so long. You should have stayed inside today, you idiot.” Anamika closed her eyes for a second. The world seemed to spin in the darkness. She opened the eyes again. Basak was smiling, “I’m still very embarrassed about yesterday. Really felt like I’ve seen you somewhere. Sorry for bothering you.”
Anamika gently laughed, “That happens with a lot of people, Mr. Basak. It’s a common thing. Anyway, you’re staying here?”
Basak turned his head around and pointed to a building nearby, “Yeah. There. Agastya Hotel. The views are majestic from the window.”
Agastya Hotel. She knew the place like the palm of her hand. The 5-Star hotel had all kinds of services it provided to its residents, including a giant library. Almost all the books for the place was bought from Sylvia Book Store, when this place was established some five years ago. She had to go countless times there to oversee the arrangements and everything. She never had another stuff member for the bookshop, even when it was possible to hire employees and just stay at home, reading Sunil Gangopadhyay. She lived for the interactions over the counter, around the Stephen Hawking books, about the Satyajit Ray works. The bookshop was her own little story that she didn’t want to share with anyone.
“Do you know that place?” Basak asked her, seeing her staring at the building. Anamika nodded, “The hotel was a client. Avani Babu is from here, and a very sweet man. You’re in good hands.”
“The manager?” Basak asked, “I met him yesterday. Indeed, he was very friendly.”
Had he gotten this good in acting over these years, Anamika was thinking about the man standing infront of him. Basak had lost weight in this time. The hair had gone salt-and-pepper, with the whites predominantly taking over. Then again, a decade is a pretty long time. It’s a long time to change. It’s a long time to forget. Maybe, Anamika was telling herself, maybe it’s all a coincidence. Was it not possible that the guy was indeed on a trip here? Himachal is a lovely place, tourists come here all year round. Was it that far-fetched to think he just stumbled on to the bookshop? And even if her face seemed known to him for a fleeting moment, would he not have let the thought go over the past hours? People forget the voice of a person first when their memory of the individual starts to fade away, Anamika remembered reading that somewhere. How long does it take to erase a face? A complete incident?
He was a jogger, Basak was telling her.
They were casually running by the roadside. Basak told her he was out for a morning jog. Where’d he be going, Anamika asked him. To the Richardson Park, Basak said. Avani Babu suggested that place to him, said the early risers go their for walks, running, playing badminton and things like that.
Something tasted bitter in her mouth, Anamika felt. Richardson Park is where she’d jog to, every morning. She’d run circles there a few times. The kids would gather up infront of the housing complex nearby, waiting for the school bus. She’d wave her hands at them, they’d wave her back. A part of her felt like bailing out today. But wouldn’t that feel suspicious? If Basak has indeed forgotten about her, what’s the point of making any wrong move that might give away that something was, indeed, out of the ordinary?
She was going the same way, Anamika told the tourist in a matter-of-fact manner, and maybe they should go together then. Basak agreed and thanked her for the company.
He was a jogger, Basak was telling her, as they ran casually through the roads which lead to Richardson Park. “I live near Fort William, back in the city. There’s this huge ground close to my place – Maidan, it’s called, quite literally – where I’d go to run in the morning. The Victoria Memorial is visible from there. It looks majestic in the morning”, Basak turned his head slightly towards her while jogging, “Have you been to Kolkata ever, Ms. Chaubey?”
Kolkata. Xavier’s College’s rooms and corridors knew her more than anyone ever did. Panipuri – they call it Fuchka there – with the friends during Durga Puja. Anamika felt like she could see the city infront of her. She casually smiled, putting her headphones back in her pockets, “No, actually. But sure would like to go there someday.”
They reached Richardson Park. Basak smiled, “Well, thanks for the company. And the suggestions for the Agatha Christie books yesterday. Already started reading those. I travel alone whenever I get a little bit of time, and no travel is complete without good books, you know! I have a knack for mysteries. It’s a professional bad habit. Anyway, see you around Ma’am. Take care.”
“You too.” She waved her hands as Basak started to run towards the other side of park. Anamika kept staring at him for a long time, and then felt self-consciousness. Circling the park today won’t be possible. She’s feeling lightheaded. Anamika looked again at Basak. He was at an angle from which he’d not be able to see what she was up to. Anamika sat down on the nearby bench and sighed.
‘A professional bad habit’. She was thinking about Basak’s words. Ain’t that the truest words spoken. She was 6’1″, and even then Basak was a bit taller than her. Back in the days, he used to look really sharp in his police uniform. She remembered it was raining that day, when Basak and two constables knocked on her door, in Kolkata. Was he an O.C. or something? Anamika tried to think, but it all felt foggy. A decade is a very long time. But nevertheless, she remembered his face like a painting. Eidetic memory, she learned the term at an young age. The ability to remember an event vividly, like a picture. It was not a scientifically proven phenomena, she also read back then. Sitting in the park bench, Anamika chuckled on her own. That must be true. It’s just a good memory. She would have remembered Basak’s designation otherwise.
But she did remember him. When she left the city, she left behind enough reasons for Basak to remember her. While waiting for the train at Delhi, she saw his face on the newspaper that she just bought. The incident was making news across states then, she thought to herself back in that day. His face would keep popping up in the news for a long time, as if a bleak shadow was following her footsteps. Basak was like a hunting dog, relentlessly and extensively looking anywhere and everywhere for this woman who suddenly vanished in the thin air. For a year or so, the whole thing was on the news. People get bored easily. People get bored of old tragedies. System gets bored of old tragedies. The investigation might have had died down after that year long failed attempt to solve the mystery, Anamika thought back then.
The newspaper that she was reading while sitting in the Delhi railway station had two images side by side, with the headline, “Shocking Kolkata Double Homicide Shocks The Nation.”
Was anyone else reading the paper, Anamika looked around in the station that day. She wanted to make sure whether anyone had figured out that the second picture was hers?
She could see the day crystal clear infront of her eyes, as Anamika sat here quietly at the park bench.
Basak is here. And she keeps meeting him over and over again. He’s living close by. And he just casually hinted at his profession being related to criminal justice.
Anamika stood up, put her headphones on, and started to run back to her house. She would have to open the shop in time. The complete Shakespeare Collections would be arriving today, the supplier called yesterday. Mohit came to deliver the books everytime. His birthday was yesterday, she remembered. She would need to buy a big Cadbury for the young man who was always helpful to her Annie Di.
She remembered Basak. And Basak had spent a year trying to find her. Murder case files are never closed off, and can be reopened anytime. She knew that.
She remembered Basak. Question is, Anamika thought while running, did he remember Anamika?
The door of the bookshop usually remains open. Today it was shut tight, so that everyone who was entering or leaving the place had to slide the door everytime. The weather tonight seemed chiller than yesterday. Atleast closing off the space was creating a comparative warmth.
Anamika wrapped the shawl tightly around her. Susmita gifted this to her. Sushmita is a college professor who leaved nearby, and over the years the two of them had bonded over their common love for literature. This was a new year’s day gift from her, a surprise that caught her off-guard. She sent Susmita three books by Simone de Beauvoir the very next day, wrapped in gift paper. And that envelope, as usual, which read, “See you in the pages of another narrative. Best wishes from The Sylvia Book Store.”
She was looking around. Two people were inside the shop. It’s almost 9:30. The customers had been significantly lower today, maybe because of the weather. The couple came up to her counter and put the carrier on the top. Anamika smiled and started to process the books. G.B Shaw. Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf. These two had a good taste of books – she thought to herself while packing.
“Thank you”, they said after the transaction, “Happy Holidays.”
“You too”, Anamika waved as they stepped out on to the road, “May the Halloween season be spooky.”
In the brief moment that it took to close the door, a gust of wind rushed inside the bookshop, taking with them the last smithereens of the chuckles left behind by the customers. Well, Anamika thought to herself, atleast there was a reason for laughter today. This hellscape of a wretched, wretched day.
Anamika walked out of the shop. The chill could be felt inside one’s bones. A decade with this weather, but still this place managed to catch her by surprise over and over again. This, she was thinking as she took off the board from the shop’s outside that said ‘OPEN NOW’ in block letters, was home. She had found a home here. All her life she had been running. Running from hands that tried to drag her into hell. Anamika entered the bookshop and locked the door behind her. Her jaw stiffened. If Basak wants the confrontation, let him have it. This whole day, she kept thinking about this whole endeavour. Kept thinking about the life that was long dead. And it should stay that way. She’s not gonna run from the ghost of that life. She’s gonna exorcise it.
“What then?” The voice hissed in her head with a vengeance, “What then, huh?”
She was thinking the whole day about it. Maybe Basak’s here for travelling purpose indeed, and a precautionary step should not turn her life upside down. But it was her life. And people had told her about how her life should be lived too often. That she was no longer alive. As she should be.
Anamika kept the books in their places and walked out of the shop. Closing it down, she started walking. The road lights were not working today. The streets were dripping in darkness. The fog was making it difficult to see the road forward. A bike zoomed past her, catching her off-guard. Anamika composed herself fast. The chilly streets were almost empty now. Flickering lights coming in once in a while for residential places, tearing apart the blindness for a while. And then, like a homesick child, the atmosphere lept back into darkness. “Darkness visible”, she remembered the words from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Eve, she thought to herself. Oh, Eve. Sins of men had always found a way to take down the women of the world with them. Like a Satanic snake, the inequality and oppression of women had the world in a chokehold.
A faceless voice creeped out of the darkness and called her out like a paranormal presence. She was lost in her thoughts, the sudden pull to real world spent a chill down her spine. A gasp, which felt like a primordial scream that she had kept inside all her life, seemed to burst out into the world to set it on fire. Anamika quickly got a hold of herself. The weather was tremendously cold now, and the thick fog was hiding everything. The voice walked up a few steps towards her. Red beanie hat. Dark brown scarf with white stripes.
She knew the man, even though the fog covered his face. Basak. Inspector Aniruddha Basak.
“Very well, then”, she thought to herself.
Basak slowly came up to her. A crow shrieked somewhere nearby, and flew away. At this time of the night, a crow felt very out of place to her. A car went past her. She glanced for a while. None she knows. They won’t know who she is. There was a layer of fog now between her and Basak, and a nerve-wracking silence. He must be following her around, Anamika thought to herself. There’s no way he appeared at the right time at the right place, and recognized her in this blinding fog.
Anamika wrapped her shawl around herself to feel warmer. Basak knows who she is. He figured it out. “Very well, then”, she thought to herself.
Basak broke the silence, “The temperature dropped a lot today, hasn’t it?”
She could not see his face. Likely, he could not see hers too. Anamika replied in a normal voice, “Indeed, seems so surely.”
Basak cleared his voice, “You know Ms. Chaubey, I came here for a trip. A relaxing trip. No workload whatsoever. I was not pursuing a case or anything. The first day we talked, I just casually strolled into your shop. It’s all a coincidence – me living here. But you, Ms. Chaubey, did remind me of someone. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I finally realised who I’m thinking of. Humour me, but would you like to listen to the story of that person?”
“Sure”, Anamika smiled, “There seems to be a connection between you and me, Mr. Basak. We keep meeting. ‘More things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio’, you know? Maybe your story has some answers.”
The eye was getting adjusted with the darkness. Basak’s face was visible now to her. He smiled back, “You are one hell of a person, Ms. Chaubey. I’ve never seen someone like you.”
“I’ve been told that before”, she said while she searched her bag, “But let’s hear your sto- damn it! The keys!”
Basak seemed startled by the change of tone, “What happened?”
“My keys!” Anamika sounded irritated, “My damn keys are left in the bookshop. I won’t be able to enter my house without it. Sorry to cut the conversation short, Mr. Basak, but I’ve to go back to my shop now.”
Basak looked dumbfounded for a split second, “Wha- Ms. Chaubey, I seriously think we need to talk.”
“I can’t”, Anamika replied, “I’ve to go to the shop.”
“Would it be okay if I accompany you there?”, Basak asked with an urgency in his voice, “Maybe we can talk on the way? It’s a pressing matter, Ms. Chaubey. And I’m afraid it can’t wait.”
“If you insist”, she said reluctantly, “Let’s go then. We’re gonna freeze to death here.”
Anamika started walking. Basak followed her. “Got ya”, She said under her breath.
The night was cold, and silent like death. The shops were all closed, and the thick fog was devouring the little bit of light that was shining from anywhere. Anamika checked the watch. 10:05. Felt like midnight. She looked around. There was nobody who had seen them. Nobody who could.
Basak was walking by her side. He asked, “Ms. Chaubey, have you ever heard of someone called Debarati Ghosh?”
A gust of wind breezed through, ruffling her hair a little bit. Anamika sounded inquisitive, “Hah! No, actually. Should I?”
She was walking in a casual speed. There was no hurry. She felt calm. Like she felt a decade ago, one day back in Kolkata. Decisions are tough things. Once one has made it, all that is left is to follow the map. And she was doing exactly that.
Basak nodded, his face half invisible in the fog, “You should. Around a decade ago, back in Kolkata, I’ve come to know her. She was an ordinary house wife -“
‘Ordinary house wife’- the phrase stuck with Anamika. Ordinary, was it then? The women who toil every day and night in a system, which oppresses them, treats them as second class citizens? She was reading somewhere, Anamika remembered, that the International Labour Organisation estimated that 16 Billion hours are spend per year globally for unpaid care work. And most of that number consists of women. Women who were forgotten. Who were erased by the society. This misogynistic society. ‘Ordinary’. Funny word.
She was lost in her thought, and zoned out for a bit. Basak had to call out her name twice before she dropped off her train of thoughts. “I’m listening about your ordinary housewife’s story Mr. Basak”, Anamika pushed her hair back, “Keep going.”
Basak continued, “I was the officer in-charge of this police station back then. And one day, this woman – with no history of criminal records – vanished in thin air, with leaving two dead bodies behind. Her father. And her husband. Stabbed to death. The kitchen knife was left there, dripping in blood. Money from their bank accounts were all gone. Mrs. Ghosh had a joint account with both of them. She took out all the money. And she was gone. I’ve met her once before, and after the incident I’ve spent a year trying to hunt this murderer down. The investigation died down, and life moved on. I don’t even remember all the details clearly. Her face had gone blurry in my mind. Imagine my surprise, Ms. Chaubey, when I see a face very similar to that face – ten years later, in this place, running a bookshop. Life’s surprising, isn’t it?”
The bookshop was nearby, she could have been able to see it from here, if the fog was not covering up the view. Anamika moved her head slightly to look at her fellow walker, “There’s a term in literature, Mr. Basak. It describes the need to cut out your favourite details from a piece of literary work, because that sometimes makes the piece better. Do you know what it’s called?”
They were in front of the door. Basak moved his head sideways, “No!”
With the swift movement, the lock clicked open. Anamika pushed the door open, switched on the lights and looked back at Basak, “Killing your darlings.”
They entered the shop. Anamika was searching for the key. Basak stood there for a few seconds, silently. And then he spoke up, “Why do you think the woman murdered her family, Ms. Chaubey?”
The door was left open. The cold breeze was rushing inside, in a high speed. Anamika closed the door shut and looked through it to the outside. Darkness. Silence. Radheshyam Babu’s café had been closed off for the day around an hour ago. Rajiv came by to get his book orders earlier today, when he was going home.
The shopkeeper turned towards the detective, “Hypothetically? Let’s see. Since you say I and your murderer look alike, let me put myself in her shoes. Let me become her for a second. And then let’s think why did I kill my family? Can we play the game, Mr. Basak?”
She was still searching for her keys as she talked. Basak sat down on a chair infront of the shelves. Usually people sit and read here. He nodded, “Sure. Let’s play your game then.”
Anamika smiled, “Very well. If I would have been your Debarati Ghosh, then why would I – as you said, an ordinary housewife – kill two people all of a sudden? You see Mr. Basak, my father was a monster. He used to hit mom almost everyday. He banged my head on a table when I was seven. He was a man, Mr. Basak, and a man in this pathetic men’s world never had to learn about consequences. The patriarchy sustains people like him, and they sustain the system. It’s a monstrous equilibrium. I used to have a job before I got married. He kept all of my earnings under his control – I was forced to share a joint account with him. You know what sexist people are afraid of Mr. Basak? Potential. They know that everyone is equal in reality. And the prospect of actually qualified individuals overthrowing their reign of terror terrifies them. Education and money are those two things that give an individual a sense of agency. And men have tried to control those two things, tried to take it away from women. Till mom was alive, she managed to get me through college. After she died, dad was not gonna pay for my higher education. So I started looking for a job. I was a librarian. It was great. I would read the whole day. People would come to read books. I realised that a world existed beyond my world. Beyond this hellscape that I – and many, many women – were trapped inside. But there was no way out. This was life. Or so I thought. That feeling of being not worthy had been drilled into our psyche. That is how patriarchy wins.
So I was there, working hard and seeing my money being taken away by my father. He would still hit me every so often. He would tell me to know a woman’s place, and not talk back. And one day, all of a sudden, he wanted to get me married to this guy he chose for me. He decided how my life would look like, just because he could. I protested, but nothing was fruitful. I had to leave my job – so was the condition of the marriage. And just like that, I was married off to this man. This alcoholic raging madman who was far dangerous than my father ever was. He wanted more and more money as dowry, and would torture me for it. That, Mr. Basak, was life. And you could have saved me.”
The weather, it seemed, was growing crazy out there. It was raining, Anamika could hear the drops hitting the pavements with a thud, outside of the shop. She was leaning back in her chair behind the counter, and looking on at Basak, “You were the chief inspector of the police station of our locality. I was desperate to get away from this nightmare. Speaking about domestic abuse is a taboo here, because what would people say, right? Who are these faceless nameless people, Mr. Basak, and why can’t they save us when we are dying? And if they don’t, why do we have to care about there opinions? So I went to the police, to lodge a complaint against my husband. You were not there that day, but you came to our house a few days later. Two other inspectors with you. It was raining that day, just like now. You came and told me to compromise. That dragging the family name through mud would not be the right thing to do. That you will ‘talk’ with my husband, and we both should try to work out the issues. That was when I realised something, Mr. Basak. No one was coming to save me in this wretched world. I had to save myself. And I was not ready to let the criminals get away from justice.
So I waited. It takes time to slowly empty the money from the bank accounts. It was my money, Mr. Basak, and it was going to give me a new life. My life. A human being’s life. So I prepared myself. I planned my escape. Then I called my father home one day, when my husband was there also. I looked them in the eye, when I pushed the knife in their chests, Mr. Basak. They died knowing they lost. This world is too beautiful for patriarchs to exist, Basak Babu. An ordinary housewife afterall, as you said before.”
She stopped speaking, and started to look for her keys again. Basak sat there silently for a long time, and then he sighed, “And you hid in different places for a year, as we hunted you. And when the storm was gone, and the incident slowly faded in everyone’s memory, you came in Himachal to start a new life. A new beginning. Debarati Ghosh was as dead as his family. Anamika Chaubey was born.”
Anamika smiled slightly, “You people tried to catch me so hard, Mr. Basak. If only you would have tried an inch of it, trying to save me. An inch of it, trying to stand by the women of this society. The fighters. The survivors. An inch of it, trying to bring those monsters to justice – who get a Scott free pass because of their gender, because the world is a broken system.”
Basak stayed silent again. She got up, “Wait here. I’ve to check in the godown in the basement. Maybe I forgot the keys there.”
Basak stood up, “Ms. Chaubey, you know I can’t do that. Ten years is a long time. But I can’t let you escape. I don’t have a jurisdiction here, but I won’t let you get away this time. I’ve my train to home in a couple of hours. I’ve checked out of the hotel, and as you can see – I’ve my backpack with me. I’ll drop you off to the police, Ms. Chaubey, and then am going home.”
“It’s good to know which side of the battle you still belong to, Mr. Basak”, Anamika laughed, “Anyway, I’m not trying to escape. I need the keys to my home. You can do whatever you want.”
“I’m coming with you”, Basak said as he put down his bag and walked up to her. She nodded, “Very well, then.”
Anamika pulled the door inside of the shop, which opened up the spiral staircase that led to the basement. The newly arrived books are kept here usually, before those are put on in the shelves. She was clearing out the basement earlier today, as the new books were being moved to the shop’s front.
The basement was empty mainly. So Basak’s voice echoed when he spoke, “I’ve seen you in these past few days. Talked with the hotel manager. Everyone loves you here. You genuinely seem a good person. But that doesn’t absolve you from a double homicide. And, Ms. Chaubey, you have to understand. Yes, they were bad people, but a woman’s a mother. A daughter. A sister. She shouldn’t be an aggressive person.”
“A woman’s a human, Basak Babu. She shouldn’t be seen through her relations to other people. Other men. She’s her own narrative. Why’s this so tough to understand for people like you?” She walked closer to the inspector, “The world’s too beautiful for patriarchs like you to exist, Mr. Basak.”
Basak seemed unnerved for a second, and before he could do anything, Anamika opened her hands. A penknife, small enough to hide in her palms. The inspector was trying to say something, but before he could do that the shopkeeper jammed the knife in his throat, and slashed it.
Basak fell on the floor, his head hitting hard on the ground. “You didn’t even have a weapon, I noticed”, Anamika said calmly, “Even when knowing that I’ve killed before, you felt like you don’t need any protection – didn’t you? The inherent belief in people like you who think that we are inherently weak? You misogynists would have been funny, Mr. Basak, if you were not so ghastly.”
Anamika looked at the man in his eyes. Basak was bleeding profusely, and he was trying to breathe. She sat on her knees by his side, “There’s a phrase in The Bible, Mr. Basak. It’s a saying by God. He says that we mere humans shouldn’t try to bring justice to those who wronged us. He says it’s His duty to see that justice or vindication is delivered. “Revenge”, He says, “Will be Mine.” It’s not our job. We shouldn’t be vengeful. I’ve never been vengeful Basak Babu. But I believe that the Divine works through the humankind. Afterall, God works in mysterious ways.”
She leaned closer to the dying man, “Do you know the actual phrase, Mr. Basak? The one I’m talking about?”
Basak tried to say something, she was not sure if it was an attempt at answering the question, or anything else. Anamika jammed the knife straight into his chest, “Vindicta Mihi”.
“Happy Halloween, Ms. Chaubey!”
The kids were running around the shop. Ravi, Ginny and a lot of others. The parents were all gathered up also. The children loved the Halloween decoration she put on every year. The spooky music, jack-o’-lanterns, fake spiderwebs, Styrofoam Dracula toys – it was a lot of effort, that was worth it when she saw the smiles. The shop featured horror books in the front this day. Anamika was answering the kids and checking the register. As always, Stephen King’s books are dominating the market today.
“It’s a good plan, by the way”, Susmita was leaning over the counter to talk to her, “Making the bookstore two storied. When does the renovations begin?”
“Next month”, Anamika said, “I can’t put all the books here in the front, you know. Getting down to the basement repeatedly was exhausting. Plus the shop’s left unsupervised. And it was tricky for health purposes also – staying in the basement for so long – Doctor Moitra was telling me the other day. Completely shutting it off; and the books would be on the second floor now.”
“Keep progressing”, Susmita patted her on the back, “I’m always proud of you.”
Anamika smiled. Amma Ji came to the shop, she saw from the inside. Opening the door, she walked out and stood by her side. The shop’s name was decorated too. Amma Ji was looking on at that, “It’s such a lovely name, you know. I love how you named the shop after her. Sylvia Plath was once in a millennia icon. What was the line by her again, that you told me gave you goosebumps?”
Anamika looked around her. This was her life. Her own life. Happy, little life. She smiled as she answered Amma Ji,
“If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——”