A Green Death
Rebecca stood on the balcony of her apartment and listened to the raucous crows. They hopped along the road pecking the cracks in the tarmac scrounging for popcorn, coconut shells and banana peels left over from the evening’s street vendors. Three-wheeler rickshaws, known as “tuk tuks,” chugged along the road. A bus driver honked loudly and incessantly. The shoreline of Bandstand, a posh Mumbai suburb was coming to life.
On the newly finished sidewalk the first few walkers appeared. Men in small groups wearing white long shirts, known as “kurtas,” strode purposefully along the busy road waving their hands. Rebecca could hear their raised voices debating the latest political issues.
“What to do that George Bush is always supporting Pakistan?!” a tall man with a shaggy beard shouted angrily. “Is he not realizing that it’s we who are a democracy?”
His shorter companion had to take almost two steps to his one to keep up with him. “And they have all those terrorists. It makes no sense.”
A splash of color momentarily blocked Rebecca’s view of the men. She stared enviously at woman in a purple and yellow sari jogging by in white sneakers. The bright silky fabric flew behind her.
Perched on a rock a man sat cross-legged staring at the hazy ocean. His open hands rested on his knees, palms facing upwards - thumbs touching forefingers. His back rose and fell rhythmically as he chanted: “ooooom shanti” peace, again and again and again.
Another man in white underwear stood up on the rocky shoreline and soaped himself all over. The white foam contrasted against his sinewy, ebony body. His black hair vanished under the suds. Then he picked up a bucket, filled it with murky seawater and rinsed himself off. A few yards away a group of men stood banging clothes against the rocks. Rinsed them off, and beat them again. Soon the rocks were covered with shirts, saris, towels and sheets. They would dry soon in the heavy heat.
All around Rebecca were modern air-conditioned apartments that faced the rising sun. From their gracious living rooms the sea stretched for miles - right to England, on the other side of the world, where the sky is grey and the sea blows out a salty freshness. Their windows were closed to keep out the whiff of urine blowing across the road from the public toilets next to the local slum, where cardboard boxes were crammed together, held upright by black plastic sheeting. Banana peels, soggy newspaper and grimy plastic bags lay scattered on the rocks nearby. Women stood in line to fill their buckets from the one water faucet. Then they heaved them onto their heads and ambled back to their shacks. Hips swaggered. Anklets glinted in the sun. Glamor and sensuality hovered all around – the swaying saris, jingling bangles. To Rebecca, this was all so new, strange and exotic. And harsh.
Three girls walked out from one of the plastic covered shacks giggling and chatting, wearing spotless pressed school uniforms. They stepped carefully through the heaps of decomposing corn and empty cans buzzing with flies. Their buckled satchels sat firmly on their backs. Neatly braided hair tied up with red ribbons bobbed up and down in between the cars and bikes as they walked to school. It was impossible for Rebecca not to stare at their shiny black shoes and clean white socks. Full of laughter and joy, it seemed they had learnt to deal with adversity and extreme poverty. In that oppressive pre-monsoon morning, embracing pure sensory overload, there was so much for her to learn from them. It was the perfect place to come to terms with grief after her husband Peter’s illness and untimely death.
Rebecca turned away from the busy scene below and shut the verandah door. She sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy her breakfast. She sliced a succulent mango into big chunks. Then she chopped it into cubes and began to eat the fleshy fruit. Mango juice dribbled down her chin – but Peter wasn’t there to lick it off. A year had passed after he died, yet she remained grief-stricken. Would she ever be able to stop feeling so sad? What did she have to do to “get on with it?” And what was the “it?” Many friends and clients thought she was courageous to give up a top job in London, to work there in Mumbai for a large Indian company. But she didn’t see it that way. Deep down she knew she was running away from a world of shadows and pain. From the memories — golden and dark. She hoped that if she immersed herself in a drastic change of scenery she might feel joy again, even if Peter was no longer with her. For her this was an adventure in self-discovery.
Rebecca sighed. She wobbled to the bathroom in her new 4-inch heel gold sandals and stared in the mirror. She almost didn’t recognize the face that stared back at her. Her orange kurta and large drop earrings had replaced formal western-style black shirt and pearl stud earrings. It had taken fortitude to fold away her drab London business suits and wear purple, yellow, red and sapphire - all the colors her mother had told her didn’t suit her sallow complexion. She’d been determined to try to fit in with her new colleagues and not stand out like a sore thumb. Perhaps this was the start of her search for a new version of herself.
Rebecca brushed her highlighted hair, which she’d let grow to her shoulders, and clipped it back. Then she gently pulled the shiny curls forward to nestle just above her neckline. She rolled her lips together to spread the magenta lipstick and smiled. Thick black eyeliner and mascara surrounded her soulful brown eyes. She loved the change in image even if she wasn’t quite comfortable with the new look. She was meeting the Chairman in a few hours and wanted to look her very best.
Stories about the Chairman’s impatience with managers who didn’t have all the facts readily available, were whispered in every corridor. Not only the revenue numbers, but also staffing ratios, waste through pilfering, and the number of footfalls coming through the door. Rebecca was well prepared for the meeting. All the relevant information she had was up to date. She felt invigorated by the sense of drama.
The Chairman, Mr. Chopra, was revered by the management team. He was a Brahmin, a demi-god. People bent down to kiss his hand in welcome — some even kissed his shoes. Rebecca had never paid such homage to anyone, and felt uneasy at the thought. Would it be a requirement to keep her job?
It was 8.30 in the morning and her driver, Vijay, was late. He had still not called her to let her know he was downstairs. That was not like him. She shuddered at the thought of being late for her meeting. The drive to the office could take up to two hours even though it was only ten miles away.
For the past eight months Vijay had been so dependable. Many of her colleagues complained about their drivers’ unreliability and changed them frequently. But not Vijay.
“Me,” he’d told her when she hired him. “I’m not like the other drivers. No hanky-panky. I’m promising.”
Nothing was too much effort. He always appeared well before the agreed time, immaculate in a crisp white shirt and black trousers. He’d been her patient Hindi teacher as well as driver while they travelled together — she in the back seat — for hours in a grinding daily commute through the gridlocked city. He’d even offered to go and buy her fruit and vegetables in the local market and carry them up two flights of stairs to her apartment.
But lately, Vijay seemed distracted. He complained about his lazy son-in-law who was always trying to borrow money. Rebecca dialed Vijay’s mobile. He didn’t pick up. That was not like him. A few minutes later she pressed the call button again. Still no reply. And then the doorbell rang. She jumped. She wasn’t expecting visitors, so she didn’t open the door. And then the impertinent knocking began.
“Merrim, Merrim – open quick.” It was Vijay shouting hysterically. “You have to help me please.”
Vijay rushed into the living room of the tiny one bedroom apartment. He was shaking. “It’s my son in law — he has knocked someone over when we were driving here.”
Rebecca sat down on the arm of her sofa chair. The usually calm Vijay shuffled from one leg to the other. She leaned over the table and handed him a bottle of water. He unscrewed the cap and took a gulp.
“What are you saying?” Rebecca insisted. She felt the perspiration trickling down her back. “Where is he now? We need to call an ambulance and the police.”
“No, no, Merrim, you cannot tell anyone. If Amit goes to jail who will look after my daughter and the two grandchildren? It will be terrible for the whole family — a disgrace. Even I will lose my job.”
He wiped his brow. Tears filled his eyes. Rebecca’s hands began to shake. What should she do? How could she let down this poor man by not helping him? But an injured or dead person — that was beyond her. She closed her eyes and saw herself languishing in an Indian jail if she colluded with him. She could feel the black bars closing in. She needed to get through this. Where was Peter now? Why had he left her so alone?
Vijay straightened up. “It is an auspicious day today. Hanuman, you know the monkey god, it’s his birthday. He will look after us, but only if you help me. Please Merrim. My mother – you know she is very old. This will kill her.”
Rebecca unzipped her purse and took out a Kleenex. Involuntarily she started twisting it around her left thumb.
“I’m sorry Vijay,” Rebecca said sternly. “We need to call the police.“
Vijay’s tone changed. An unimaginable dark side of his personality shook her to the core.
“Merrim – you see, you have to do this. The boy is already in the ‘dickey’ – he is dead.” He pointed his index finger right at her face.
Rebecca had recently learned that in Indian English a ‘dickey’ was the equivalent of the trunk of a car.
“You see,” he whispered, “if you don’t help me, both my son-in-law and I will tell the police it was you who pushed him down the stairs. You who killed him. You who gave us money to keep quiet. They will believe us. They will not be trusting a foreigner.”
He’s right, Rebecca thought despairingly. He does have the upper hand. I’m the outsider.
Was this the very same trustworthy man she’d come to know? Her face flushed. She’d no clue what to do. In London, she would have gone straight to the police. But in India, who would listen to her? Who would accept her side of the story? Slowly Rebecca stood up and walked to the kitchen sink. She splashed water over her face and then remembered her mascara. She grabbed another Kleenex and tried to rub the black marks off her cheeks. She stared at the somber stains. Pursing her lips she hurled the tissue in the bin.
When Peter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rebecca had felt helpless. There was no treatment, nothing they could do. He’d become a victim of the asbestos threads that were nibbling away at the lining of his lungs. Yet together with Peter’s indomitable resistance, she’d managed to help delay his fate. Then she’d shifted into the driving seat and taken control, even though it hadn’t been easy. They’d traveled to Paris, Morocco, and New York. Even ten days before he died, they had attended a gala performance of the Bolshoi ballet in Covent Gardens.
But there, on her own in her Mumbai apartment, it was all so different. She stared at a paperback, The White Tiger, lying on the kitchen table. In the story, the protagonist, a driver like Vijay, had crushed the skull of his employer and stolen a bag containing a large amount of money. Was it possible that Vijay would kill her, too? She closed her eyes and saw her limp body lying in the gutter in the road below. She could almost feel the black crows picking at her eyes. She rubbed her eyelids. This was not the adventure she’d been looking for. Should she call his bluff and fake it? Or would he blackmail her? All these thoughts taunted her. She grasped the back of a chair to stop her knees buckling. She felt her chest rising. What would Peter think of her? What would he have done? Flustered, she knew she had to be strong. Somehow she had to take control, but how?
“Let’s go,” Rebecca tried to take command, but her voice quivered. She picked up her laptop and purse and rushed to the bathroom to grab a large towel. She shoved Vijay out into the corridor. She slammed the door behind them both, pushed the key into the Yale lock and turned it twice. The double bolt clicked. For some irrational reason it made her feel a little safer.
To any onlooker it looked like a completely normal day. Vijay held the car door open for her. But Rebecca shook as she plopped onto the back seat. She felt as if she were sitting right on top of the boy. She could almost feel his skinny body digging in under her butt cheeks. Was he wearing sneakers or sandals? What was the color of his shirt? Was he really dead? Would his face be turning grey and blotchy like Peter’s did just after he died?
Vijay eased the car out of the parking area past a crowd of school children who chattered excitedly as their teacher guided them to a grassy area for the preschool exercise. People continued walking and chatting as if nothing were happening. The streets were always crowded. Where would you hide a body under all of these eyes? Vijay stared ahead grimly. His tense fingers gripped the steering wheel.
“Remember, my meeting with the Chairman is at the Taj Hotel at midday, and it’s two hours to get there, Vijay,” Rebecca reprimanded him, “What did you have in mind?”
Her turned around and glared at her.
“Yes Merrim. I’m knowing that. But we need to move the boy before that. Remember, the security people at the hotel will want to check inside the dickey.” He coughed. “I’m thinking we stop at the big drain near the Sasson Docks on the port road. There is not so much traffic and people walking there. Then we put the body inside the big pipe.”
Beads of perspiration gathered on Rebecca’s forehead. He seemed to have planned out every detail. Had he done this sort of thing before? She thought of all the horrific rapes and abuse of women that had been in the press lately. Would he present a danger to her, too? Even if she changed her driver, she’d never feel safe again. Her mother from heaven had told her she was mad to go to India. That it was a stupid thing to do. She’d chosen to ignore her advice. This time Rebecca had to admit, she was right.
The car bounced along the gravel road swerving to miss the potholes. Large, grimy warehouses sat passively on the left side, near the sea. Rebecca was sure she could hear the body thumping in the hollow of the empty trunk. She looked in the rear-view mirror to double check that they weren’t being followed. The road behind was empty. All she saw was the face of an accomplice to homicide or even murder. A face she didn’t know.
The drive took forever. On a normal day, Rebecca would read the Times of India and then work on her Hindi vocabulary. All she could do now was to reflect on how her life was about to end. The false image she’d seen in the bathroom mirror was a smokescreen. She felt oddly exhilarated. On the one hand, she worried she would never be able to live with what she was about to do. On the other, she was drawn to this new dark side of her personality. What would Peter think?
The car drew to a sudden halt and Vijay reversed off the road. It was all about to happen here, now. It was a scene straight from the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, filthy, foul, and tortuous right to the end. She thought she’d heard screeching police sirens. Instead it was the persistent honking of a large truck filled with gas cylinders from one of the warehouses.
A cloud of brown dust shrouded the car. Rebecca could feel her heart thumping. Vijay got out of the car and opened the trunk. Her stomach felt queasy. She opened her car door and started to retch. Yellow liquid spewed out of her mouth and soaked into the dry ground leaving a patch of lumpy scum on the surface. Finally, she understood what it felt to be sick to your stomach. Yes, she had thrown up before but that had been because of an upset stomach. This was the first time she’d vomited because she was overwrought. It felt so much worse. The retching seemed to echo right through her. She had to get this over with. She grabbed a bottle of water and rinsed out her mouth.
Vijay nodded. His eyes were red. She leaned over the ditch to see green slime in the pipe sluggishly oozing towards the port. There was no need to speak. They wrapped the white towel around the body and then in unison, Rebecca grabbing the ankles and Vijay the head they heaved the body up and onto the ground. She couldn’t have touched the head — the face, the ears, the neck. They rolled the body down the ditch and into the pipe. The sludge oozed into the towel. Within seconds it was tie dyed in green. Rebecca straightened up. Her head was spinning. She’d become a criminal. Hating herself, she dusted her hands as if to wipe off the horrific deed.
What had happened to the person who was desperate to convince herself that she could be happy again--Rebecca closed her eyes and bent over. “May your soul go to heaven and may God forgive me, for I have sinned,” she whispered drawing in a deep breath. She cursed Peter. She longed for him to stand behind her and wrap his arms around her shaking body. She desperately needed to feel his warm breath in her hair. But he was silent. She walked back to the car and stumbled over a piece of black iron piping lying on the road. She stared at the chipped scarlet nail polish on the big toe of her right foot. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve. Even her kurta stank of sour vomit. She needed to try to get rid of that smell. She put her hand in her purse to find a Kleenex to wipe the offending stains off the front of her garment and felt it close on her cell phone. Yes, maybe there was a way out of the mess.
“Tell me Vijay,” Rebecca began as the car jerked to a start. “How did you get into this mess?” Then she pressed the record button on her phone. She rolled up the window, took out her mascara and began to stroke her eyelashes.