“What are you looking at, gramps?” Sameer asked the old man hunched over a table.
“Hi, champ. Do you know what these are?” He asked the boy.
“Umm… Old pictures, but these look new. Show me.” Sameer replied sitting on the floor beside his grandfather.
“Remember the old camera we found that day? It had a film roll in it. Hari got them developed and printed for me. They are not clear though.” He said.
Sameer stared trying to make sense of the photographs. Finally, he gave up. “Gramps, give these to me. I’ll scan them and see if we can make some decent images. Do you have any idea about what’s in them?”
The man shook his head. “I didn’t even know we still had the camera. Can you do it? Make these better?” He sounded hopeful.
“Sure. I could. Was it yours?” Sameer replied.
“No. It was Ravi’s. He was obsessed with the camera. I borrowed money from my brother to buy the camera for him.” He replied blinking his tears.
Sameer gently squeezed his arm. He knew that Ravi was his father’s elder brother who died young. Since he was a child, Sameer knew that talking about Ravi or Vasudha was forbidden. No one told him why.
“The pictures are ready, gramps. We can see them after dinner.” Sameer announced stuffing a piece of cucumber into his mouth.
“Sam, eat properly,” Maithili said in a stern voice.
“What pictures?” Hari asked.
Sameer grinned. “The ones from the old camera. I processed them for gramps. They should be interesting. Will you join us, dad?”
Hari nodded. He exchanged look with Maithili. They were concerned about how the old man’s health. He suffered from a heart stroke less than a year ago.
“So what exactly are these?” Sameer asked his father.
“It looks some forest to me. No, wait. These are Casuarinas near Manginapudi beach. It’s around 11 km from Machilipatnam. But…” Hari trailed off. Something was hovering on the edge of the memory, but he was unable to grasp it.
“That’s our native, right?” Sameer asked. He never visited the place though.
“Oh!” Ramaiah whispered staring at the screen in shock. He was smiling less than a minute ago when they saw the picture of a blooming flower.
“Papa!” Hari gasped.
“Gramps, what happened?” Sameer asked.
The old man shook his head in disbelief. Whatever he saw in the pictures shook him to the core.
“Maithili, bring the medicine,” Hari yelled. He and Sameer carefully eased Ramaiah onto the bed.
“I am fine,” Ramaiah whispered.
“I shouldn’t have gotten the film developed. I knew how much thinking about Ravi hurt you. I’m sorry, papa.” Hari said in a low voice.
“Sam shut down the laptop,” Maithili ordered.
“Don’t. I need to see. Please.” The old man requested.
“But papa…” Maithili began.
“It’s important. I am feeling better now.” Ramaiah insisted.
Together, they saw the pictures. Ramaiah looked stricken.
“Gramps?” Sameer asked.
“I committed a terrible crime. Vasudha, I am sorry! I should have listened to you!” Ramaiah cried holding Sameer’s hands. “Take me to Bandar*. Book tickets immediately.”
“Papa, what happened? Please tell us.” Hari pleaded. He was shocked to hear his father apologizing to his mother. Even her name was not to be uttered by anyone.
“I need to go. Oh God! What did I do?” Ramaiah wailed. Tears streamed down his eyes. He hiccupped as Sameer hugged him.
“Shh… We’ll go, gramps. I’ll come with you. I promise. Now please relax. Take this pill.” Sameer soothed the old man until he drifted to sleep.
“I’m not sure, but that looks like Suri uncle, papa’s elder brother. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him. He broke ties with papa after Ravi’s death. I wonder who that female is though. She looks quite young.” Hari told Maithili.
“Dad, is there anything I need to know. I am going to take gramps to Machilipatnam*.” Sameer spoke from the threshold of his parents’ room.
“Come.” Maithili gestured beside her. Sameer obeyed. He sat laying his head on her shoulder. She ruffled his hair with a smile. Sameer never allowed anyone to touch his hair, except her.
“Even I don’t know what happened. When Ravi died, ma was blamed for it. They said she killed him intentionally. Papa wanted police investigation, Suri uncle convinced him otherwise. He advised papa to leave maa. She cried. I still remember her begging them to trust her. Papa threw her clothes onto the road and threatened to kill himself if she did not leave. Less than two months later, we came to Hyderabad. From then, papa would tell people that my mother passed away. He refused to acknowledge her presence, until now.” Hari said. His eyes were unfocused, as though he was watching the scene unfold again.
“You never asked for your mother?” Sameer asked. He couldn’t imagine living without Maithili.
Hari shook his head. “I sure did. Papa would get angry. He would cry when he thought I was sleeping. I did not want to lose him as well.”
“What about those pictures, dad? Something has happened. It involves Suri grandpa.” Sameer asked absently playing with Maithili’s bangles.
“That’s what I am thinking. And it also involves Ravi. The camera belonged to him. So could he have taken those pictures? Do you want me to talk to papa?” Maithili asked. She was confident she could get the truth out of him.
“Give it a try. Meanwhile, I’ll try to find about maa. I hope…” Hari choked a little.
“Hari, please. You need to be strong for papa.” Maithili murmured placing her hand on his arm.
“Papa, give me one week. I’ll do all I can to find maa. I promise.” Hari said, anguish evident in his voice.
Ramaiah was adamant. “No, Hari. I have to confront Suri. I will make him tell me the truth. He acted as the head of the family for long enough. He ruined us.”
“Papa, please calm down,” Maithili said. Her tone was gentle.
“You don’t know, child. I feel terrible.” Ramaiah replied.
“Tell me, papa,” Maithili said.
“Gramps, no matter what we love you. Please tell us.” Sameer requested.
The three of them sat facing Ramaiah. “Ravi celebrated his twelfth birthday four months ago. I gifted him the camera as a surprise. He was elated. He took pictures of everything. It took me more than a week to notice that he was distracted. So was Vasudha. I asked her, but she did not tell me. She had no proof, she said. Then one day, Ravi fell sick. He complained of severe stomach ache. We called the local doctor. He said the symptoms were of poison. The next day, my child passed away.”
Hari placed his hand on Ramaiah’s knee urging him to continue. “Suri claimed Vasudha killed him. She protested. He showed a small packet of powder he retrieved from among her clothes. She shot back at him. Said, he was the culprit. She said she knew about his relationship with a young girl. Suri then hinted that she was having an affair with someone. He said Ravi caught them and so she killed him. I did not believe him first. He showed me a photograph. It was blurred, but he convinced me that it was Vasudha with another man. I was so distraught that I did not know what to believe. It’s my fault. I should have trusted my wife.”
“Yes, papa. You should have trusted her. But no matter how much we talk about it, we cannot change the past. Hari will immediately start searching for maa. We will find her.” Maithili said. She looked composed.
“I want to find her. It is my responsibility to right the wrong. Oh, God! Please forgive me. Hari I am going to go to Bandar immediately.” Ramaiah said.
“Gramps, remember? We both are going. I hired a car for us. It will be easier that way. We will need a vehicle at hand.” Sameer replied. He looked at his mother. She nodded.
“Maithili and I will join you both a day later. I think you should talk to Suri uncle first.” Hari added. He had to track his mother before his father did. He prayed he would be able to.
“Suri uncle lives alone in the ancestral house. Apparently, he fought with his wife a few years ago. She is in California with their sons and daughters. I spoke to Vikram.” Hari updated his family.
“Suri always wanted things to be in his control. We had to do as he told. After losing a son and leaving my wife, instead of trying to console me he gave me an ultimatum. I had to leave the house in less than three months. That was the reason I opted for a clerical post in a small company and shifted to Hyderabad.” Ramaiah said.
“Gramps, do you by any chance know who the girl in the photographs is?” Sameer asked. He was curious.
“I don’t know. I am not sure. The photo is forty years old. Suri has a lot to answer for.” Ramaiah replied.
Maithili could only imagine the trauma her mother in law endured. The woman lost her son, was accused of infidelity and murder, and her husband refused to trust her.
“Do you see that shop there? It was a small sweet shop back then. Vasudha loved the ladoos from there. They are the famous Bandar ladoos.” Ramaiah told his grandson. The memories rushed, choking him. He remembered how happy he and his wife were. They had to live on a tight budget, but that was never a problem.
“We will buy some later,” Sameer vowed. He looked around the village trying to imagine his grandfather among the residents.
They turned into a narrow street. The car stopped at an old house. It was almost in ruins. Sameer was surprised that a person lived there.
“Are you ready, gramps?” Sameer asked. He helped Ramaiah carefully step down from the car.
“Yes, champ. I should have done this long back.” Ramaiah replied. Taking a deep breath, he walked into the compound. The door was open. They went inside the empty house.
“Suri,” Ramaiah called.
There was no answer.
“Suri!” He yelled.
“Wait. I’m coming.” A faint voice said. They stood in the hall. Wearing nothing but a dirty dhoti a man with a stooped back limped towards them. He was thin as the stick he used to walk. Sameer began to count his ribs.
He peered at them from behind his spectacles. “Rama?” He said uncertainly.
“Yes, it’s me. We need to talk.” Ramaiah replied.
Frowning, Suri sat on a half-broken chair. Ramaiah sat on a better-looking chair. Sameer stood beside him.
“Why are you here? I told you I do not want to see your face again. Your wife brought disgrace to the entire family.” Suri spat at them.
“Suri, look at you. You are clearly on your deathbed. Why lie even now? I found what I should have found years ago. Look at these pictures. It’s you with a young girl. You were having an affair, not Vasudha.” Ramaiah accused.
“How dare you insult me? Get out. NOW.” Suri screeched wobbling on his feet.
Sameer waved the pictures in front of the old man’s face. “Ravi uncle took these pictures. You might want to tell the truth. Or you could confess to the police. The choice is yours.”
Suri stared at him and slumped into the chair. “I should have guessed. That brat was too clever. He not only took the photos but hid the camera as well. I searched, but never found it.”
“It was at the bottom of the old iron trunk. Is that why you killed him? Killed your brother’s son?” Ramaiah asked. He squared his shoulders in an attempt to accept the truth, at last.
“I had no choice. Vasudha was no better. When Ravi told her about this, she questioned me. She a female questioned me.” Suri said his voice raising. “She accused me of ruining the girl’s life. How could even say that? I am a respectable man. I toiled to feed my wife and kids.”
Ramaiah looked confused.
“Who is that girl?” Sameer demanded.
“She was a stupid girl with her head high in the clouds. She wanted money to go to Madras and become a heroine. She was blackmailing me. I gave her all the money I could. She only wanted more. I had no option but to kill her. People would think she ran away.” Suri replied vehemently.
“Why was she blackmailing you? What secrets does a postal clerk have?” Ramaiah asked. He was getting confused by the minute.
“Money orders. I stole the money. Remember the sick couple whose son was in Dubai? I used to write to him for money. The stupid girl once found out the reply I threw into the dustbin. She squeezed me dry.” Suri said.
“Why did you need extra money? I know we were poor, but we had enough.” Ramaiah said.
Suri laughed and then sobered. “From where did you think I gave you money for the camera? I told you it was cursed. See, it ruined my life.”
“Why kill Ravi uncle? Why accuse grandma?” Sameer asked. He wanted all answers.
“Because Ravi saw me dispose of the girl’s body. Vasudha began asking questions. I had to stop them. I couldn’t kill both. So I killed Ravi, easier that way. And Vasudha had to be taught a lesson. She had to know the pain of being falsely accused of infidelity. You were so easy to manipulate, you did not even recognize the photograph I showed you. It was you with her; the first photograph Ravi clicked using his camera.” Suri sneered.
Ramaiah stared at his brother. The man who took responsibility for the entire family after their father’s death turned out to be the cruellest man.
“She is my wife, Suri,” Ramaiah said.
“So what? You did not trust her, did you? Now you tell me she is your wife. You are no different from me.” Suri snapped.
“I don’t recognize you anymore. You will not hear from me again. Goodbye.” Ramaiah said and got up. Sameer followed him outside.
“Rama, I think you will want to meet Vasudha,” Suri said in a low voice.
Sameer nodded. “We are searching for her.”
“You won’t find her anywhere. She died more than twenty years ago. There was not a single day she smiled after you kicked her out. I got my revenge.” Suri said and banged the door shut on their faces. His eerie laughter made Sameer wince.
Ramaiah stood as if in shock. Then he collapsed.
“Gramps! Vicky! We need to take grandpa to the hospital. Hurry!” Sameer yelled as the driver came rushing towards them. Together they carried Ramaiah to the car. There was only one decent hospital in the village.
“Papa, please we can talk about it later.” Hari pleaded.
“Tell me now. I want to know.” Ramaiah demanded sitting on the hospital bed.
It was Maithili who spoke. “After you sent her away, she went to her parents’ house. They also kicked her out. She stayed in Manginapudi for the rest of her life. She lived in a tiny hut and worked as a housemaid. She died from pneumonia. No one knew anything about her, so her last rites also were not performed. Maa was brunt along with the stray corpses.”
Hari looked pained, but Maithili knew she had to tell the truth. One had to face the consequences of their deeds.
“Oh Vasudha! I can never forgive myself. I am sorry.” Ramaiah cried. He did not want to live.
“Papa, we will perform her last rites now. We will acknowledge her as ours.” Hari said. His heart bled at the pain in his father’s eyes, but he could not deny that Ramaiah was also responsible. He lost his brother and mother at the same time.
“Yes, we will do it. I know I have to spend the rest of my days with the knowledge that I drove her to death. It is a punishment I gladly accept.” Ramaiah said.
Two weeks later, they were back in Hyderabad. Ramaiah was recovering physically. He never attempted to learn the truth. It was too late to do anything by the time he stumbled across it. He was haunted with guilt forever.