She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf. The cries of the wild night bustling with nocturnal junkies and pedestrians were deafened by the thick glass beside her. Her trembling hands settled the coffee mug on the saucer as her sight rested on the blood-curdling melange of her scarf and the bloodied knife. She knew it would be only a matter of time before they got to her; the neighbors had heard the scuffle and someone had seen her storm out of the building. Shaking with trepidation she felt the warmth of the hot beverage in her hands as she held it firmly at the sides with her palms, eyes closed and mind ready to battle the inevitable. Strangely, she wasn’t afraid. The worst was behind her.
Little Ammu was born in Pune but she remembered so little of the place. Her father was a military officer and they moved from cities to cities like birds flocking away in winter only to never come back. She was acclimated to the routine of letting go of one’s best friends and homes that she was once comfortable with and move on to new places, lifestyles and friends. Attachment was a rare commodity in the market where her life had set up shop. The only attachment she felt towards was her collection of magical worlds and enchantments, adventures that breathed life to the dead world, stories that made her cry and smile for people whom she never met; all confined in the pages of her numerous books, albeit sometimes it was hard. For instance, it was hard to smile at Scout’s silly remarks in To Kill a Mocking bird when her inebriated father was beating up her poor mother in the next room. She had to slide under her bed sheet and press her ears with her hands to read while holding the pages with her knees in case they flutter. But wind doesn’t blow under a bed sheet. Little Ammu knew that but she did it anyway. Even still, she would hear her mother’s bawl every time she took her hand off to turn the pages.
Inspector Sadasivan studied the young women in her late twenties, now sitting in the interrogation chamber, through the thick glass on the wall that separated the chamber from the observation room. She was stoic and temperament with no sense of guilt. Her hair was shabby and coiled in the air like the patients in an asylum. But his several years in the force had given him the ability to look beyond the skin of the accused that enabled him to differentiate the pretentious facade of a criminal and the innocent. There are no masks between him and the one sitting in front of him during an interrogation. But Sadasivan had it easy this time. There were no lies or cover ups. The accused had confessed to her crimes and had surrendered without a fight. They found her at the nearest Starbucks cafe waiting to be arrested with the murder weapon that she used to shiv her spouse. A phalanx of worried relatives and locals had gathered outside the building to get a good look at the husband killer after she gets arraigned.
Besides reading, Ammu loved to craft. The idea of creating something extra ordinary out of some everyday ordinary stuff excited her. She once made a figure with coconut palm leaves and called it Mr. Coco. Mr. Coco was a different kind of friend. He never left her side. From dawn to dusk, he ate, played and slept with her. He never complained about her inexorable palavers nor slapped her hand when she dug her fingers into her nose. He was kind and patient. With time he got old and his green rejuvenating body dried down to a brown hue. He began to wither and soon enough even the trustworthy and reliable Mr. Coco left her. Ammu learned a valuable lesson that day. Everyone leaves and nothing in life is permanent. So she decided to walk away from attachments and steered away from convivial gatherings where covenants of bonds among her peers were struck. Unlike her books, her life was strewn with pain, disappointments, domestic violence and loss; until she met Anita.
Anita walked into her life during the spring of her teenage life that led dreams to blossom and a fragrant bond teeming with possibilities for merrier times exfoliated from the shadows of her past. They both faced similar difficulties and shared similar interests. They talked about their favorite books and how the knights with valor ended the injustice of the tyrants with the flick of their sword. Ammu used to teach her crafting too. She taught Anita how to make a swan out of color papers but Anita’s clumsy hands made the effort futile. They both hoped, maybe one day, a knight in a shining armor would unshackle their chains and fill the void they both felt inside their heart and exonerate them. But with each passing day, without even realizing it, they were filling that void for each other, emerging from the chrysalis as a beautiful butterfly; complete and happy.
Inspector Sadasivan took the seat opposite the accused and placed the file on the table between them.
“There are a few formalities before we proceed. I hope you don’t mind answering a few questions before we take you to a secure facility where you will be detained until further notice from the court.” The woman sat silently on her steel chair, her dead eyes fixated on the corner of the room. “Why did you kill your husband?”
Sadasivan readied his pen and paper awaiting her reply.
“My husband raped me every day. I couldn’t take it anymore.” said the woman.
“So you killed him.” He completed the sentence for her. “Have you tried to register a complaint at the local police station?”
“Yes. Apparently a husband trying to have sex with his wife is not a crime.”
Sadasivan was not ignorant to the fact of how marital rape was treated with minimal significance. In a patriarchal society run by male chauvinists, a woman who denies her esurient husband the pleasures of regular coitus is the delinquent culpable to society’s wrath.
“You could have asked for a divorce,” said Sadasivan simply. “Get your parents on board and seek their support.”
“My father was the one who pushed me in to this relationship,” replied the woman to a nonplussed Inspector. “Even when I wasn’t happy, he pushed me to try harder with him. But I didn’t love him. I never did.”
And suddenly for the first time that night since she got arrested, her face cringed in its thought and a few tears rolled down her cheeks. Sadasivan didn’t require his long track record to assimilate that sudden outburst of emotion to conclude the obvious.
“There was someone else,” said Sadasivan. She nodded.
“My parents didn’t approve of our relationship. So they forced me to tie the knot with this man…this beast. We don’t choose who we fall in love with. We just do.” She broke down to tears blurting out the next few words the best way she could. “They didn’t understand. No one did.”
In a country with numerous states, religion, caste and sub caste, it was hard to find a person who met every criterion of a perfect partner and for the said partner to be of one’s own ethnicity.
“So he forced himself upon you?” asked Sadasivan.
“During such circumstances has he ever caused any physical injuries on you?”
“Did you talk to your parents about it?”
“My mom died when I was young. My father never understood why it was so difficult for me. He blamed me for not trying.” Her dead eyes wandered the table exhausted by the life she led.
“Ammu!” the Inspector called. She raised her head slowly and for the first time their eyes locked with each other. “You took a man’s life. No excuses can justify what you did.”
Ammu studied the Inspector for a while. Wiping away the tears from her eyes, she slowly put herself together and spoke calmly.
“We had a cattle farm in our grandfather’s house. After the cows give birth, my grandfather used to pull the calves away from their mother’s udder after a short while whenever they were being fed so that there will be more milk for the rest of us to drink and sell. One day he sold a calf to a bidder who paid him handsomely. In time, the bereft mother stopped giving milk and eventually she died. That’s what happens when you take your loved ones from you. After that every ray of sunlight that falls on your face becomes poison, killing you, bringing you closer to death, day after day. This whole world is an abattoir, butchering dreams and love every other day, so that we can live a life that we don’t want with people we don’t love. Every day that I lived with him, I was dying little by little. He was killing me. He was responsible for that. They were all responsible for my death.”
“Well, we don’t charge people for figurative murder,” said Sadasivan. “But manslaughter is something we take very seriously.”
“Would you like to know what you would have had in front of you right now if I was allowed to live my life with the person I love?”
“Do tell me.” The Inspector prodded.
“One less dead body.”
Her eyes were cold but not terrified. She had seen her share of atrocity and malice. Perhaps the afterthought of prison might not be scaring her but her past did. Ammu was then taken to the holdings cell. She was allowed to meet her family before she was detained. But no one came. Except for a willowy young girl whose hair was just as curled up as Ammu’s. The register book listed her name as Anita. Ammu’s response to a question he had asked before she was taken reverberated in his head.
“You will be locked up for years. What do you think you achieved by all this?”
“You don’t understand,” she said with a smile. “Now I’m free!”
The cuffs in Ammu’s hands were removed and after seeing her friend, an exultant Ammu ran towards her. In a moment of delight and ecstasy, and much to the shock of everyone in that room, Ammu kissed Anita full on her lips and she kissed her back.
And it dawned on him like a revelation. He realized that we don’t choose whom we love. We just do; regardless of faith, state or gender. As their lips parted and they both looked into each other’s eyes, Sadasivan noticed Anita slipping something into Ammu’s hands. Ammu’s eyes welled up in tears as she gazed lovingly at the beautiful swan crafted out of red color paper sitting gracefully in the palm of her hand. And a smile broke on her face amidst the tears, probably after a long time.