Nandini tried her hardest to get close to Ashok and Ganesh, but wherever she went, everyone around her went silent. It was as if all of them had had their vocal chords ripped out of their throats simultaneously.
Everyone stared at her: half of them with disgust, the other half with pity. Their eyes burned holes in her soul. All of a sudden, she realized what a terrible, selfish person she had been.
Since the murder, all she had thought of was Madhav. Not once had she thought of Laxman Dhule.
Laxman Dhule: food connoisseur.
Laxman Dhule: sixteen-year-old student.
Laxman Dhule: body in a morgue.
He had been loved, too. Maybe not by anyone in this school, but someone out there loved him. He had his whole life ahead of him. Probably a career as a food critic, or even a restaurant owner.
She hadn’t even thought of the fact that his parents were abroad, and wouldn’t be able to fly in until tomorrow. They would have to sit in their home, thinking about their child. Their only child, with his throat slit, and his head in a puddle of his own blood
She forgot all about her investigation. The guilt drowned her, almost choking her. She pushed through the throng of people. Some made way out of pity. Some yelled, “Oi, watch it!”
All she ignored.
Blood rushed in her ears. Tears came to her eyes. A lump formed in her throat. Her knees wobbled, and wanted to give up. She clenched her fists and went to her spot in the football field: the only spot where she wouldn’t be disturbed.
Once she reached, her legs gave up, and she fell to her knees. The tears began to stream through, and her fists unclenched. She let her body fall to the floor. She began shaking violently with each sob. When she had finished crying, she let her eyes open.
She stared at the spot, remembering the first time they were here.
They’d been good friends for months, and they used to talk to each other a lot. Everyone kept teasing them together. Every time they were given any work together, the class would break into the chorus of “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaanaa Sanam.” A year into this friendship, Madhav asked Nandini, very casually, if she wanted to skip lunch and eat snacks in the football field.
She remembered eating sandwiches out of Madhav’s tiffin box. She remembered laughing at Madhav’s jokes. She couldn’t remember the jokes. Just laughing at them.
After the laughter, there was a moment where they looked into each other’s eyes. Then, Madhav began to lean in, and Nandini didn’t stop him.
She remembered how happy she had been that day. She remembered how happy her friends had been for her. She remembered the wink he gave Arnav when they were together. He thought she didn’t notice them, but she did. And she loved them.
Now, there were no winks. Laxman Dhule was dead, and Madhav was in the Juvenile Detention Centre.
She couldn’t be in this spot any more.
Nandini picked herself up and darted from there. She ran faster than she had ever run. She wasn’t really looking where she was going. The only notion in her head was out of here.
She ran straight into Arnav.
She fell over, Newton’s Third Law of motion dropping her on her ass. Arnav also went hurtling to the ground, and landed with a painful “Oof!”
Nandini got up, exasperated. “Arnav!”
“Yeah, hi.” Arnav said, dusting the dirt off his butt.
“Did you get anything out of Jayesh?”
“Nothing.” He said, examining his butt for any sign of lingering dust.
“Arnav, I—” her words were failing her. They refused to come out. She began crying again.
Without thinking, she fell into Arnav’s arms. Her tears began to fall onto his shirt.
Arnav didn’t say anything. Madhav would have known what to say. He would have told her that it was going to be fine, that she was going to get through it. She would have been happier if Madhav was here.
She stepped away from Arnav and sniffled.
“I’m sorry.” He said, finally.
“It’s not your fault.”
His gaze fell to the ground.
“Was it the same for you?” she asked him. “Did they all shut up wherever you went?”
“Except Jayesh, yeah. He started calling me murderer ka chamcha.”
“Yeah. Till now, I was Madhav ka chamcha. Now, I’m murderer ka chamcha.”
“That’s not right. You’re not his chamcha.”
“Tell that to them.”
Her mind drifted to Jayesh. Being the son of Santosh Sinha gave him a certain power over everyone at school. Wherever he went, the looming shadow of his father’s influence followed. He would get angry over the smallest things. He would beat children up and then blame them. His father always backed him. This made him short-tempered and hot-blooded.
That got Nandini thinking.
Laxman’s murderer had planned this very well. He made sure to do it when Madhav was the only other person in the room. The murderer forced Laxman’s face into the pillow as the blood flowed from his throat, so that he didn’t wake Madhav, or anyone else in the dorm. He made sure to wipe the prints off and put it back, not only exonerating himself, but putting Madhav directly in police crosshairs.
“You know what?” said Nandini, connecting dots. “I don’t think Jayesh could have done this.”
Arnav’s head snapped up. “What do you mean?”
“Jayesh is too impulsive to have done something so cold-blooded as this.”
She looked at him and nodded. Her mind was racing. Her heart was beating. Adrenaline flowed through her body, firing up all her crime-novel-reading experience. “If Jayesh is anything, he’s proud, and he’s got hot blood. He’ll go blind with rage before being cold enough to think through killing a guy.”
Her mind was racing faster than a cheetah hot on the tail of a frightened deer. Nothing could stop her now. She was circling Arnav, as he twirled on the spot, a bit confused. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“This murder was very well thought out. If Jayesh wanted to kill Laxman, he’d have been up-front about it. He’d have brought all his friends, and they’d all have beat him to a pulp in the washroom.”
Arnav opened his mouth and then closed it again.
“Jayesh didn’t do it!” She whirled around, and looked at Arnav with pride. She was pleased to find an expression of growing surprise on his face.
“You… you’re right…” he said. “That’s good thinking, Nandini.”
The guilt was still roaring in her ears, but she pushed it away. Yes, Laxman was important, but she’d made a promise. She was going to exonerate Madhav no matter what it took.
Her heart began to flutter. She felt the power returning to her legs.
“Go to Madhav’s room,” she told Arnav. “See if you can find anything that can prove that either of these guys was there. If you find anything, call the police.”
“Are you even listening to—”
Arnav’s hands shot up. “OK, OK, fine, I’ll go.”
With that, he darted off.
She couldn’t believe this. Their detective work was actually going somewhere! They’d eliminated one suspect already. Just one more to go, and they’d have their killer!
She still couldn’t shake her guilt. It loomed behind her like a stalker in a black hood.
She would not let her guilt take her. She would fight it.
She would find out who killed Laxman Dhule.
It was quite some time before she found Ashok and Ganesh again. She stayed a good distance away, keeping them in sight, but not staying too far. She followed them until the academic block before Ganesh grabbed Ashok by the arm and pulled him out of the crowd with great urgency.
Nandini waited for a while before following them into the deserted hallway.
“Where are you taking me?” Ashok said, as he was dragged away.
A few fervent turns and a flight of stair later, Nandini realized where they were going. There was a secret spot on the third floor of the block, where neither students nor teachers come. It was a building-in-progress. This was where a lot of couples went to kiss. Why were they going to the kissing booth?
Despite herself, she had to stifle a giggle. Were Ashok and Ganesh a couple now? Or were they always a couple?
Nandini hid behind a turn in the corridor, as they stopped in the middle of a big room. Bricks and powdered cement were littered all over the room.
She was far enough for her to be invisible, but not far enough for them to be inaudible. Then, she peeked around the corridor.
“Are you going to kiss me?” asked Ashok.
“Just shut up and listen.” Ganesh whipped his head from side to side. Nandini snapped hers back around the corridor, and glued it to the wall.
Although Ganesh was whispering, the absence of other people made it much easier for Nandini to hear the words that sent her soaring through the roof.
Her legs began to feel numb once again. Her heart began to speed up, and her lip began to tremble. She knew that all her effort had not been in vain. All her stalking and detective work had finally borne fruit. Ganesh’s words made Nandini the happiest girl alive.
“I don’t think Madhav killed Dhule.”
(TO BE CONTINUED…)