[Here is the concluding part of the story. We are at Sunita’s hostel to question her about the missing cut-glass necklace.]
…The dining hall was in the basement of the men’s hostel and in spite of good smells seemed as unappetizing as the rest of the place. Although it was dark by now, I was glad there was still some time before they began serving. Suddenly somehow I wanted to be done with my business and clear out as early as possible.
“Shall we sit here for a while?” I said.
This was an open space in the middle of various blocks and was perhaps the only place to have been landscaped somewhat. We sat upon a short scheme of L-shaped steps under a light.
“Well, this visit is at my instance, Suni,” I started after some hesitation. “And I might as well come straight to the point. Already there has been a lot of unpleasantness about that necklace, and personally I feel sorry that your beginning in Pune should start on such a sour note. Given my preference, I wasn’t for raking up the issue, but feeling your auntie’s restlessness over the last 2-3 days, I began to gradually think a little wider. And do you know what I realized?”
Sunita looked up, and so did Indu—even she did not know what I was going to say.
“I realized that this was the only ornament, so to speak, that I had brought for her in all our years together—.”
“Why, even this was a thousand rupees here, I checked,” said Indu.
“Yes, but still glass, isn’t it?” I smiled. “Anyway, enough fuss has been made about it already, and rather than let it linger and poison minds, I thought I’ll come and ask you for the last time—it’s late and again the children are locked up as before—tell me, did you take it?”
Sunita sat still, looking at the ground.
“Don’t worry, Indu told me in the bus we are quite prepared to forget about it, and I’ll apologize to your father—.”
Sunita looked up. “You mean, you still don’t know?” she asked softly.
“Naniji said she’ll ring you up—it’s been found, it’s with her.”
It was too sudden. And suddenly too good for both of us.
“Oh I see, no. Where was it?”
Sunita began to sob. “I don’t know just how it happened,” she said. “Such a thing has never happened with me in the past.” She hid her face against the knees to suppress the surge of emotion.
Both Indu and I felt touched. I eyed Indu to move closer and console her while I tried to help with words. “Well, it wasn’t a terrible crime you committed. You weren’t being greedy I understand, it was a fleeting temptation that you couldn’t resist. As I was telling Indu, had this necklace been made of pure gold, you wouldn’t even have thought of stealing it. But it was just glass, and cute perhaps.”
Sunita begged me not to tell her father. “He’ll kill me!” she kept saying.
“Don’t worry, he wouldn’t when I do the telling,” I said. “Anybody can fall to a temptation, and if you could overcome it, it simply means the temptation wasn’t big enough, that’s all.”
Then Sunita told us that she had written a crazy letter to her father and had even posted it the same morning.
“You put the blame on someone else in that, is it?”
“On Sonia and Gyan, I’m so sorry!”
In spite of myself, I couldn’t help laughing and did so real loud indeed.
The return journey was light and relaxed. We walked to the bus stop and waited patiently. Maruti was farthest from our mind.
Chachi had tried to call but we had by then left.
And we ate sizzlers for dinner that night in a Main Street joint.
“OK, I’m only just beginning to learn, and want no chattering at the back.” “Done Papa, done!” “Yes but we must pick up sweets from Chitle’s.”
This wasn’t our first drive, but the first long one involving a stretch of the busy Pune-Mumbai highway. But I must say I picked up fast and good, and by the time we joined the highway stream, I had in fact to keep reminding myself that I was still a learner and that I’d better behave accordingly.
Having seen the place both during night as well as day, Indu knew the point where we had to leave the highway and within a minute we were honking in front of the bungalow. An orderly ran to open the gate, Chacha and Chachi both came out to see, the dog began to bark. It was a perfect arrival, the kind we had thought our first one should have been.
“And now let me rid myself of the delicate charge at last,” said Chachi immediately after tea. She went in and soon came back with the necklace. “But I must say, they are really beautiful.”
“From Czechoslovakia, did you say?” said Chachaji holding it in his fingers. “The glass used for the cascading effect at Indira Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi also came from there. You know, the last stretch she walked—?”
“But how was this necklace finally found?” I asked Chachi.
“Oh, I thought she had told you that! Come on then, let me take you there.”
We followed Chachi through the rooms and emerged behind the bungalow. There were servant quarters on one side and a large area for the kitchen garden—not too well kept but fully utilized. In the distance were some guava trees under which Sonia and Gyan were playing with the dog. Seeing us all keenly interested in what Chachi was narrating, both came over and began to listen.
“Just the evening before I reached her at the hostel, Sunni was inside, and your Chachaji of course was away in Delhi. I was getting a little weeding done among these brinjals here. My own finger had been pricked by a thorn, so I was telling the maidservant how to do it—that woman is a little foolish so you really have to work on her.
“So I was telling her something bent over, you know, and then I noticed she wasn’t even looking at me. She had an open mouth and a fixed gaze, looking past me, somewhere high up.
“ ‘Bibiji, look!’ Look what, I said! ‘Is that the black necklace you all were looking for?’ Yes, yes, black it was but where is it, I said.
“Then I saw it, dangling from that top branch of the guava tree there.”
“Which one?” both Sonia and Gyan wanted to know.
Chachi, after some effort, managed to convey to the children the exact branch atop the larger of the two guava trees, and so curious was their expression and so wonder-filled their eyes when they finally said, “I see!”, that I could see that they were both seeing the necklace still dangling from the branch.
“But—how did it reach there?” asked Gyan, recovering.
“Didi threw it there obviously,” snapped Sonia.
“Yes, but why on the tree?”
“Tch, she wasn’t throwing it on the tree, silly,” Sonia explained. “She wanted to throw it just very far away, but it got stuck on the tree.”
“Oh wow,” said Gyan seeing the light. “And she couldn’t climb so high up—?”
“How can anyone go on those small branches? Even you can’t go and you are so chintoo.”
Thereafter Chachi went on to narrate how on being shown the necklace Sunita first sought to pass the blame on Indu (!) and then broke down crying. The rest of the time was spent in usual moralizing, which the children as well as I found quite boring, so they went back playing with the dog while I hid myself behind a newspaper.
While returning in the evening Indu began to boast that she in the main was responsible for getting the necklace back. “Papa was never for following her to Dehu Road,” she said. “Had I not insisted, your necklace was gone.”
“That’s true,” I granted. “But had the maidservant not seen it on the tree, even then it was gone.”
“That would have been great,” Gyan took off. “The birds would have made a hanging nest on it!”
“Or had she not been a fool—,” Sonia jumped another step. “Remember, Naniji said the maidservant was a bit of a fool. Now had she been clever—, well, the necklace was still gone!”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“And Mummy,” Sonia continued on the same steam, “what if I wouldn’t have remembered that the Dehu Road address was in my notebook?”
“And what if the notebook wouldn’t have been on the loft but already sold in raddi?” laughed Indu.
“And what if Sister Mark wouldn’t have scolded Soni,” even Gyan finally managed to join the fun. “Would you still remember it, Soni?”
“Certainly not! And Papa, do you know how I had decided to wear it that evening for Shweta’s birthday, my God!”
“No, how?” I said.
Sonia was real high now. “It’s incredible! Truly incredible! Please stop the car Papa.”
Sonia was excited, of course, but I proved I was a good enough driver not to instantly jam at the brakes. Instead, I checked both in the rear-view mirror as well as in front, and then properly raising my hand gradually came off the road and stopped.
“Yes, what is it Soni?” Indu doesn’t quite approve of Sonia’s ‘tantrums’.
“You know Papa,” Sonia continued addressing me wide-eyed, “I had completely lost interest in all my broaches, earrings, pins and all that. It was because Didi had admired the necklaces the evening before, that I began to like them again.”
“In particular, had I not seen that shine in her eyes—of pure envy—on seeing this necklace, I would never have thought of putting it on for the party—.”
“—and we still wouldn’t have got the necklace,” Gyan completed Sonia’s sentence.
Indu waited a couple of long moments switching between Sonia and me, then said, “If you are finished with your ‘nuanced’ nonsense, shall we begin to go? I want to reach home before it’s dark.”
We started again.
“So the question is Papa,” Sonia caught my eyes in the rear-view mirror, “isn’t it a miracle that thieves get caught at all?”
“It is,” I said. “It truly is.”
[We have since relocated in Gurgaon where we are forever running into relatives and members of our extended family. Last year in a marriage function, Indu brought a young lady to meet me. “Sunita! Don’t you recognize?”
She is such a beautiful young lady today, that clumsy Sunita! That baby fat is all gone; rather she now has a fatso child whom she called and presented to us.
We were together for good half an hour, laughing and joking. Naturally, we didn’t talk about the incident. But, for the life of me, I can’t recall what actually we talked about!]