‘I was being stalked.
Who was he?
Was he following me?
Rudra appeared genuine and he left the clinic gracefully.
Why would he do so?’
‘Then, who if not him?
An admirer? A psychologically unstable patient? A serial killer?
Should I tell di and dadababu about it? No, they’ll be worried.’
Mrinalini was quiet for a long time. Her eyes were focused on her plate on the dining table. Ritusmita and Debojit exchanged glances while waiting for Mrinalini to speak. Debojit blinked to ask Ritusmita to be patient. Ritusmita nodded to agree.
Debojit was a pillar of strength to the Sengupta family and had ensured that they stayed strong and didn’t shatter even during the toughest of times. He was taller than Ritusmita at nearly five feet and eleven inches, had an oval face with matted brows and fine lines of ageing around his eyes, the only feature that spoke of his age, at forty-five. Otherwise, he was well built and physically well-maintained. His calm, mature face had the innocence of a child but a nerve of steel.
Ritusmita cleared her throat to get Mrinalini’s attention. She had waited the whole day to know more about Rudra Raghuvanshi and his appointment with Mrinalini. Like a lioness, Ritusmita fiercely guarded and protected her clan from every danger. Not just family, this privilege was extended to close friends and loved ones as well. Ritusmita was the wall of support people craved to have beside them. But her love and concern came with a price – a pile of questions, doubts, and advice about everything.
Mrinalini rotated her spoon in the pool of prawn rice and curry in her plate and pressed her lips. Ritusmita said, “Pihu, we are waiting.”
Mrinalini replied, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that I’ve been quiet all this while.”
“Was Rudra difficult? Tell me if he misbehaved,” Debojit asked her.
“No, dada.” Mrinalini was quick to defend Rudra, well aware of the negative assumptions her family harboured against him. “He didn’t misbehave. He was not even difficult. Though, we didn’t talk much today.”
“Why?” Ritusmita asked.
“The session was cancelled because he was late. For a 4:30 pm appointment, he arrived at 7:00. So, I sent him back and rescheduled his appointment for 6:00 am tomorrow.”
“Pihu, I’m getting bad vibes about it since yesterday. I’m scared. We don’t want you to talk to him or meet him or have anything to do with him. Not now. Not any time in the future.”
“Di, I’ll be fine.” Mrinalini smiled to relieve Ritusmita.
Ritusmita put her hand over Mrinalini’s and said, “Listen, Pihu, I was worried even when he booked an appointment with you. I didn’t stop you as you wanted to go ahead and talk to him. But it is not worth it. Rudra is a dangerous man. We can’t trust him.”
Mrinalini held Ritusmita’s hand. “Trust me, di. I won’t let him harm me.”
Debojit echoed with Ritusmita. “Mrinu, I think Ritu is right. You don’t need to meet him. We want you safe first.”
“Yeah, I understand…but,” Mrinalini’s words trailed off when Debojit spoke about her safety. She weighed the merits of telling them about the stalker. She was deeply shaken, but, unfortunately, she was not even sure whether someone was really stalking her, or it was one of her hallucinations.
She had never discussed with them about the presence of shadows she felt around her. About the sounds which were almost a part of her life now. From New York to Cremona, they followed her everywhere – inside her washroom, behind the curtains of her room, outside the window, under her bed, in the garden, in the car, around her cabin in the clinic – they were everywhere. They troubled her. They scared her. They confused her.
Someone following her was a new experience today, though. She decided to involve Ritusmita and Debojit only if it threatened to get out of hand. However, for initial precautions, she would have to stop walking alone at night and take the car to work from now onwards.
Ritusmita’s voice distracted her. “What are you thinking, baccha? There is no way I’m letting you talk to that guy anymore.”
“Honestly, even I don’t want him to come tomorrow,” Mrinalini accepted truthfully, shifting her gaze from Ritusmita to Debojit. “But…”
“But?” Ritusmita asked.
Mrinalini replied in a confused whisper, “I don’t know why, but I feel that he will come.”
“Tell him to get lost if he does.”
“How can I do that? I’ve scheduled an appointment for him.”
Debojit asked her, “Have you ever thought about ‘why’ he wants to talk to you?”
Mrinalini shrugged. “I can’t say. Do you think he knows me?”
Ritusmita twisted her hand in a questioning gesture, and replied, “Of course! How many Indians do you think live in Cremona to assume that he doesn’t know you?”
Mrinalini had thought about that. There were very few Indian families in this part of Cremona. Moreover, ‘Sengupta’ was not a usual surname here.
Debojit added, “So, basically, when ‘you,’ being a doctor, do ground research about all your patients, why do you think he hasn’t researched about you? He is a celebrity and has a lot at stake to lose if he deals with the wrong people. Why won’t he try to find out about his doctor? Particularly, a psychiatrist with whom he is about to share pages from his life.”
Ritusmita nodded and said, “Exactly. If he really needed counselling, there are hundreds of other doctors in the country. Why you? A Sengupta? He knows that you are Madhumita’s sister. You were away for the last twelve years, but he must have kept a tab on you. He knows that you have come back. I doubt that somehow, he also knows that we are getting the case reopened against him, and you are the witness.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know that yet?” Mrinalini speculated, trying to give a fair benefit of the doubt to Rudra.
Ritusmita nodded to agree, forking a piece of prawn. “I hope he doesn’t. We’ve kept it confidential. Nancy’s death looked like an accident, but it turned out to be cold-blooded murder. This time, we can’t take chances. Rudra should never know that you are also the eyewitness.”
Mrinalini took a deep breath and meekly replied, stammering, “But I saw only his hoodie…at the stairs towards the terrace… I didn’t see him…he was not even on the terrace.”
“You and Nancy, both were there. You saw only the hoodie, but Nancy saw Rudra. She volunteered to speak against Rudra in the court but lost her life. I’m so worried about you. I shouldn’t have allowed you to meet him.”
“Going by your logic, he should have killed me long back. Why now?” Mrinalini said, almost absentmindedly.
“Because everyone thought that Nancy’s death was an accident. You went to NYC, and the chapter was closed until a few months back when we found that Nancy was murdered. Her brother is devastated and wants to reopen Madhu’s case. He needs our help. I would have never called you back and risked your life if it was only about us.”
Debojit said thoughtfully, “One thing is clear. He knows you, for sure. He may not know why you are back from the US. Or that the case is being reopened against him. But he certainly knows that you went to the same school as him, and you are Madhumita’s sister.”
Mrinalini lowered her eyes, sadly, and sighed as she spoke, “But Madhu di never acknowledged me in school. She never talked to me. In fact, she wanted me to stay away from her.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you were sisters. She was in the same class as Rudra Raghuvanshi, and they were friends. We don’t really know if they were more than friends, but it appears that they were.”
Every speculation of Madhumita and Rudra being in a relationship hurt like a deep stab right through Mrinalini’s chest. It had been twelve years, Madhumita was no more, Rudra had had at least three girlfriends and several casual dates during this time.
The unease, the pain didn’t lessen. A gush of blood to her temples resulted in a tearing headache whenever she recalled how Madhumita despised her, knew that she was a crazy fan of Rudra, and proudly gloated about how one day, after the Physics practical class, Rudra had approached her to be friends with him.
Debojit’s voice distracted Mrinalini. “Rudra can never forget Madhu. The unexplained circumstances in which she died were linked to Rudra. Even if he didn’t know you in school, someone must have told him later that Madhu had a younger sister. He must have noticed the similarity in names when he sought the appointment. ‘Madhumita Sengupta.’ ‘Mrinalini Sengupta.’ The same surname. The familiar names. He and his team are not fools to overlook that.”
“So, why is he pretending as if he doesn’t remember me? It also means that he was never going to tell me about any of his secrets.”
Ritusmita stood up to get a refill of water in the jug, stressing over her point. “That’s what I want to say. He will never tell you the truth. He wants to whitewash his image before you so that he is forgiven. He will meet you with his bogus stories to fool you. Maybe he wants to know what we are up to.”
Mrinalini gulped the sizeable blob of saliva held in her throat for a long time. It was painful. A heavy knot in her chest tightened around her heart, making it a struggle against itself to beat. She didn’t expect this from Rudra. To behave so lowly, was clearly an inappropriate behaviour from an iconic personality. That he was trying to cheat her or make a fool of her was not fine. Role models aren’t allowed to behave lousily.
‘He assumed that I am an idiot. Indeed I am.’ Mrinalini could almost hear her brain grilling her heart for trusting him. What Ritusmita and Debojit had noticed had never occurred to her gullible mind. Or, maybe it did, and she had ignored it.
“At best, he is playing with you,” Debojit suggested.
Mrinalini winced at the suggestion. It was difficult to imagine Rudra as malicious or mean. In fact, she hated Nancy for deducing the conclusion that Rudra could kill Madhumita. She had felt suffocated, for she couldn’t strongly oppose Nancy, Ritusmita,and Debojit at that time, but she prayed for Rudra’s acquittal. Her heart had given him a clean slate much before the judiciary set him free.
‘What did he want now? Revenge? Is he that evil?’
Her heart was back to counting his positive attributes – Rudra was talented; he did charity; he gave his precious time to underprivileged children and deprived unsheltered animals; he was a calm guy, he was adorable; he loved his family; he loved his fans; he was soft-spoken, sophisticated, charming…
‘A perfect human being? Or a perfectly crafted image?’
She used to chant defences in his favour. If an artist was exceptionally talented, and he struck a chord with millions of fans, then he had to be a good human being first. She had always believed that your ‘heart showed in your art.’ If a person was genuine, honest, compassionate, and a good human being, only then it would reflect in his music or his work, on his face, in his interviews and interactions with random unknown people.
The general perception about Rudra, around the globe, was essentially positive. A section of the media spread stories about him, mainly about his affairs, his careless attitude towards work, punctuality issues, and care-a-damn behaviour. But none of them called him out for being ruthless or angry or vile.
Rudra Raghuvanshi was loved and worshipped like God by daft fanatics. Including her. He was a hero. ‘How could a hero go wrong?’
‘Or maybe he did?’
For the first time, Mrinalini realized how she had been repeating Rudra’s achievements and qualities, over and over again. Was it to convince herself? She wondered if she had been blinded by the mask he wore. Was she one of those idiots who were quick to ignore any negative news about their favourite stars and defended them without any logic?
Not that it was anybody’s fault. A loving heart always finds a way to guide the brain towards the path of least contradiction. A faithful mind will argue and win a debate that it ‘wants’ to win.
You only know what you want to know. You believe in what you want to believe. And most of all, you only see what you already hope to see. Humans are desperate to live in a bubble that gives them maximum warmth.
What mind doesn’t want to know, the eyes don’t perceive and the heart doesn’t understand.
The Raghuvanshi family was dining, as well.
Over a huge, magnificent, antique dining table made of teakwood, carved to perfection, lay a feast with a lavish spread of Italian, Indian, and continental delicacies, specially arranged for Rudra, served in finest of fine porcelain, in white and gold.
Rudra devoted all of his attention to the food. His eyes followed his hands when he served himself a second helping of mushroom risotto and cheesy Potatoes Au Gratin, and continued to eat. Rachna Raghuvanshi shrugged when Rudra threw a casual glance towards his mother.
“What?” he asked.
“How was the meeting?” Rachna asked.
“Which meeting?” He rolled his tongue in his mouth carelessly, tossing pepper and extra cheese over the risotto.
Even on usual days, Rachna had no patience for him, and this was a particularly stressful day for her. Her son had neither bothered to call her nor informed her about his meeting with Dr. Mrinalini Sengupta. She knew about Rudra’s aversion for questions regarding his whereabouts.
But this was different…
Read more in my debut novel – The Masquerade
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