Suspense 2019, Short Stories -Adrija Chatterjee



The Portrait

By Adrija Chatterjee


Unsi did not know what troubled her more, the fact that Ajji had started hating Sandhvi ever since she found out Sandhvi fidgeting away with maa’s old dresses or the fact that Ajji would not even speak to her the way she always did. It was Unsi’s twenty-fifth birthday today and unlike most years Ajji was not even near her. Ajji and Daju were all the people Unsi had with her ever since Yajaseni and Paresh orphaned her over two decades back. Unsi never felt their absence for all the love her grandparents had cocooned her with. While they would ensure Unsi got the best in education and emotion, the one unspoken rule in place was the only exception where Unsi was expected to never err in.


Looking back Unsi felt, till her fifteen years, that one exception mattered little to her. The fact that she was not supposed to discuss or even question about her parents was something Daju had pleaded her with ever since she remembered. She did oblige without questions being asked. All that changed the day Unsi expressed her desire to study about the past history of their very own town of Raisinapur for a project that could fetch her a senior secondary prestigious scholarship.


She never tried to cross Ajji and Daju but when all she wanted was cooperation for her academic needs, for the first time she saw Ajji refuse her. Following which, she could feel people around her while she slept. People for whom her heart ached, people who were eager to tell her something.


Although it was her birthday, Unsi knew it would be utterly foolish to miss her counseling session with Dr. Rao. It made little sense to her to wait for Ajji to come up to her room, these days she would often lock herself up there. That Unsi developed psychiatric troubles at first shook Daju and Ajji up yet they would never make the effort to accompany her to counseling sessions for the last three years. It was in one of those occasions that Unsi chanced upon Sandhvi and the two hit almost instantaneously.


Sandhvi resembled Unsi in more than one manner and Unsi would often joke, “People would wonder where did I keep my twin for so long before!” Both of them loved to frequent the local forest reserve area towards the evening. Sandhvi first took her there at the end of their fifth meeting at Dr. Rao’s clinic. Since then, they would just walk up there late evenings and just idle around at a spot, which Sandhvi said was her favourite.


The counseling sessions with Dr. Rao were the best Unsi had in a long time. He would always be patient with her and always ready to indulge Unsi in her own dreams. He was Unsi’s sole support in her decision to take up Human Rights as her major and pursue it for her doctoral studies. For him, the bipolar disorder Unsi developed was partially Unsi’s deep desire to learn more about her family and the constant sense of guilt that overcame her for her aberrant behaviour towards that single restriction her grandparents had ever asked her for. It was something Unsi experienced ever since she turned eighteen and started pleading with Ajji to learn more about her parents. As years rolled by soon requests turned volatile and both being in no mood to digress, Unsi challenged Ajji in a fit of rage, “Come what may! You cannot keep my parents buried deep from me! They were mine!”


That sentence changed everything as Ajji distanced herself from Unsi slowly.


While narrating her past to Dr. Rao, he would often ask her what exactly made her seek her parents’ identity with that fervour, to which Unsi never had an answer. Yajaseni or Paresh never survived long for them to reside in her memories. She was just four on that fateful night that she heard Ajji’s hysteric bout of tears and peeped at Daju’s trauma-stricken face.


She would see Yajaseni and Paresh very little. Both of her parents had little time to offer her and not that she craved a lot. It was Ajji’s peppercorn urad dal temperings that she would remember ever since she woke from her infancy. Ajji would smell that to her and so would the meaning of love.


Yet, when Dr. Rao would ask her what exactly went wrong, Unsi would fumble about things she felt changing between Ajji and her. For example, the lore's that Daju taught her in childhood where she would be taught that betraying own clan was a greater sin than standing up for a just cause, Unsi would suddenly find it revolting with each school lesson learned. Her occasional remarks like, “Wish maa was here”- more often than not met with Ajji’s cold stare at her.


Things started turning strange with Unsi finding random objects that never belonged to either Ajji or her in their attic. The watershed came up when Unsi, on the day she was on a cleaning spree of her cupboards found a parchment, torn apart yet resembling something of a license. Ignoring such items in adolescent triviality was no longer Unsi’s cup of tea in her twenties. Upon a keener look thereafter, half torn words like chamber, grooves, and some numerics washed off yet ‘mm’ remaining around feebly, confounded her.


Her troubles started that evening when upon confronting Daju with that, he went ahead to say it was Paresh’s gun license and how he had sinned the entire family by keeping a gun around shaming his parents. Something in the manner that Daju put across conveyed Unsi of the distortion Daju was putting up. Later Ajji would storm her room and take away the pieces as if it was her own. Her decades of trust crumbling, would finally clutch themselves to this and push Unsi into self-inflicted isolation. She wanted to share all her feelings with people she’d love to trust for decades yet not only did they transform in a jiffy but also pushed her into a confounded abyss of sorts.


In her initial sessions with Dr. Rao, upon mentioning the parchment incident, he insisted that Unsi check the local police station for any gun license in the name of Paresh. Unsi had gone there, to find that two guns had been issued under their old house’s address, none of which belonged in the name of Paresh. When she informed Dr. Rao of the same, he only asked her to not mention it at her house. She remembered the date, 23rd of September it was. The day, while returning from the police station, she befriended Sandhvi near the clinic.

“Come home today!”- Unsi knew Sandhvi would not let her down.


“But your Ajji is again going to be furious! Last week when I found your mom’s old clothes in the attic she was terrible!”-


Sandhvi’s skepticism was valid. For without Bhola, none at Unsi’s house ever liked Sandhvi. Ajji, the first time she saw Sandhvi, for some strange reason would just refuse to look at her. Her septuagenarian wrinkles shaped themselves in both awe and a strange fear. Sandhvi too would ask her strange questions right from the first meet. Questions about Yajaseni, that made Ajji cringe to the point where Daju needed to intervene and request Unsi to ask Sandhvi to never proceed further.


Unsi could finally convince Sandhvi to come home. More so as she knew Unsi was too alone this time without Bhola around, Unsi’s Indie at home who had taken to Sandhvi more than anyone else in the house. He would be forever wagging his tail and wait patiently till Sandhvi would hand him his favourite biscuit. The first time Sandhvi brought that biscuit, Ajji was strangely perturbed, more so as she refused to give Unsi a reason.


Upon confronting Ajji on that, Ajji replied, “Of course you would never find Sandhvi at fault! Because all you care about are your parents who never bothered to raise you and I have refused to talk to you about them!”


Although Unsi failed to link up Ajji’s argument with any rational basis, yet she could not refute that deep down she attributed her growing disenchantment with Daju and Ajji to their imposition of not discussing Unsi’s parents lest it opened cankerous spots in their souls for having lost their only son and his wife.


Unsi never knew that Sandhvi had elaborate plans to surprise her on her birthday, but once she came back to her room, with a plate full of their favourite Quesadillas from the local Mexican joint, she found Sandhvi waiting inside smiling deeply. Before Unsi, lay a framed portrait, of a young couple and on the desk beside her books lay bundles of parchment, possibly from the Central Library of Raisinapur.


“Look at your parents Unsi! For it is indeed them”- Sandhvi had waited for this moment for long; to surprise Unsi, to see her feel at home. Unsi could not believe this. The papers were classified documents, with discussions on Raisinapur and how the tribal movement two decades back changed the fate of the land. Tribals led by Paresh Nahal and Yajaseni Paresh whose mysterious murders quashed the tribals’ plans of bringing the international NGO on board thus altering the fate of Raisinapur from a heavily forested tribal belt to the urbanized centre of today.


Unsi remembered Daju’s lore's on how betraying the clan was a greater sin than standing up for justice. She remembered how Bhola was never happy visiting the annual celebration at their old house and would forever be barking around. Unsi would also remember how Ajji pleaded with her to not opt for a post mortem when Bhola died mysteriously the night after having his usual dinner, the last morsel fed by Ajji directly. She also had refused to believe the report that stated toxicity of food caused by excess levels of cardiac medicines in the food given to the dog.


Unsi had to show this to Ajji… she would not be able to convince herself of an illusion of trust any further. She rushed downstairs shouting “Ajji! I did tell you that my parents cannot be buried forever.”


Two weeks had passed by since Sandhvi was murdered before Unsi. Her almost comatose state of cognition would refuse to believe the visuals that would still haunt her down. That day, when she dragged Ajji to her room, flung around the papers and refused to believe the curses Ajji hurled at Sandhvi, she could only see her impeccable wall of trust

falling apart faster than it ever stood. Something told her to gather the papers and keep her cellphone video on.


She possibly had heard such shrills before, when she dreamed of the people who wanted to tell her their stories. Now, in her hazy memory, perhaps drugged down by doctors in the hospital, she could barely stitch the pieces. A lady who came inside was gentle enough to caress her before she requested her for further details. She said they had her phone, which though broken, had the memory card intact for them to recover the last incomplete video where Ajji could clearly be seen strangling Unsi to her death. Unsi remembered little. “I could not do anything! Ajji would not listen and Daju wasn’t around. Ajji also destroyed the portrait of my parents”- was all she could recollect.


“But, there was no portrait! Really Unsi! We investigated the entire scene and although your Ajji admitted of an attempt to murder and mentioned about a portrait, we did not find a trace of it in your house. Given the real-time recording of the video and the call from your neighbour, there was no time to eliminate traces of destruction altogether”- Officer Kirti had never lost a single detail in the case. This was one of the simpler ones.


The girl was visiting a psychiatrist and it wasn’t hard for her to find the best one around. Dr. Rao validated Unsi’s ongoing treatment and mentioned to her about a gun license thing Unsi had found. She knew the woman was at fault from her own confession. Just that she would not understand why and how could Unsi claim that someone apart from her was attempted murder when clearly there was none in the house except for Unsi and her Ajji. She needed more details and she knew Dr. Rao was the best person to ask this. They decided to meet at the coffee shop, close to the clinic.


Ajji, could never believe this wild turn of fate. After all these years of meticulous planning, her and Daju's unrelenting struggle to establish themselves in the highest rungs of power, here did they go wrong for Unsi to turn rogue in this manner! Her lost thoughts were interrupted by Sandhvi who had finally come to meet her. "Surprised Maaji to see me here?!"- Sandhvi asked quizzically!


Ajji did not know what went on, she had clearly killed this woman the other day for the charges of which she is now confined to this jail, how come does this woman come back!


Another woman approached her, an officer, who Ajji knew was investigating the case.


"Please, look! She is alive! I haven't killed anyone! Just let me go. Ask my husband. He knows am not at fault this time"- Ajji's pleads were of little use. Kirti informed her that Daju too had been arrested following the unraveling of the crime he confessed of committing years back. Ajji would still not give up! After all, why did anyone not see, Sandhvi was Yajaseni!


How can they even arrest both of them for murdering ones who are still alive?! Kirti could not find anyone around no matter how hard Ajji would tell her to look at Sandhvi who was sitting right there, smiling deeply. Ajji's requests mattered little to Kirti, who ordered the other constables to shift her to some hospital. Ajji's hysteric pleads of "See Yajaseni is she, Sandhvi is Yajaseni! Can't you see!"- only conveyed of the delirium she passed into.


Kirti needed to visit the girl. Now that, Dr. Rao had informed her everything about Unsi and her grandparents confessing their crime, she owed an explanation of all her suspicions about her grandparents being true.


At first, Unsi would not believe, the two people she trusted her life with, were actually the reason she was left without her parents. Yet what she knew was driving her to a state of disbelief was the unflinching mask they could put up before Unsi to even demonise her parents for her. She would spend days in a partly vegetative state of existence, whenever she remembered Officer Kirti's narration. How Ajji and Daju managed to eliminate Paresh and Yajaseni who were aiding the ignorant tribal group of Raisinapur by means of knowledge and logistical support in their struggle against Daju's ambition of handing over their forest land under the pretext of development.


The eviction structurally planned under the facade of a government decision and in reality the brainchild of Daju and Ajji who would finally float their timber business and earn their highest level political tickets. How Ajji never allowed Yajaseni or Paresh to learn that they kept Unsi as their best alibi, to gain their trust and eventually make Unsi the face and future of their innocence in the entire matter.


Twenty-one years later Unsi thought, did her mother scream in disbelief when she found that it was her scariest blunder to think Ajji never possessed a gun and a round of bullets that would pierce her down?! Did Yajaseni see Ajji hunting her down the night she was returning from the city?! Did Paresh know his father made the best alibi by staying back with Unsi that night saving both of them from possible suspicion?! Did anyone of them know Ajji could keep the fateful gun hidden for decades and finally dispose of it off when nobody would remember Paresh and Yajaseni anymore...?!


All these questions would perhaps be answered had Sandhvi been there. But Unsi could not find Sandhvi and neither did the police find any trace of her. After prolonged counseling sessions, Dr. Rao concluded Sandhvi was indeed Unsi's alter ego with whom she felt best. Dr. Rao never met Sandhvi and when they were friends Unsi never bothered mentioning her to him. The day Ajji murdered Sandhvi before Unsi, police would insist that it was Unsi whom she attacked. Now with Ajji too in the hospital and medical arrest for acute cerebral stroke, Unsi would never get her truth - of whether even Ajji tried to kill Unsi or Sandhvi.


Unsi often goes back to the forest, sits near the tree Sandhvi told was her favourite. Sandhvi did show her the portrait that day and Unsi would never tell anyone, the portrait indeed resembled a photograph of her parents found by the police in their old house. How much the photograph was old, for Unsi there was no mistake that Sandhvi was Yajaseni's twin.


Adrija has an M.Phil degree. in Foreign Policy Studies. She is a passionate writer, loves to travel and explore, and a great cook. An avid reader, she hopes to contribute to the society through her writings being the voice of the oppressed


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