The Masked Criminal
Four middle aged women huddled on a sofa in an inconspicuous corner of a Ladies Club. All of them, Mrs Chaki, Mrs Raha, Mrs Chakladar and Mrs Mondal, belonged to the same echelon of the upper middle class of society. They often gathered in the club, chatting over drinks and snacks and showing off their new dresses and accessories which they bought from expensive boutiques. The evening started with the usual, "Don't you think its high time Mrs Bhatnagar should send her daughter to her husband?" by Mrs Chaki, a fair, short, substantial woman with a distinct paunch. The other three nodded their heads in agreement.
"Well, you see, it's wrong to keep your daughter too long with you after she's married," said she, stifling a yawn. "Who knows, her son in law might just find someone else. Titli Bhatnagar herself couldn't adjust with her husband and now she's hell bent on ruining the life of her daughter as well. How mean of her!"
The others nodded again.
It was now Mrs Raha's turn to contribute something to this 'intellectual' conversation.
"I doubt if Rima Ghosh is a qualified doctor."
"Why, why?" the other three got closer to her, bursting with curiosity and enthusiasm. Mrs Raha passed her fat fingers through her short hair, lifted an eyebrow and replied,
"Well, I have a friend who's a doctor. She said she never saw Rima in the Medical College. Did she ever study medicine at all? Or is she a vet?"
This was followed by a loud roar of laughter.
"But then how can she practice in her chambers?" asked Mrs Mondol. "Isn't that a criminal offence?"
"Of course it is," replied Mrs Chaki. "So she's a quack. That's the reason why she never joined any hospital."
"But in the prescription she gave me, it is mentioned that she's an MD," said Mrs Mondal.
"That's a lie of course. By the way, since when she has become such a favourite with you?" asked Mrs Chaki, feeling a bit jealous.
"She's not my favourite," protested Mrs Mondal, "I visited her just once when my doctor was out of town. I was down with viral fever and her chamber is in the same complex. So..."
"How did she treat you?" asked Mrs Raha.
"Okay I guess," replied Mrs Mondal. "The fever subsided within a day."
"Anybody can give medicines for a viral fever," said Mrs Raha.
"That's right," agreed Mrs Chaki. "Even the keeper of our local medicine shop knows what medicines are needed for these minor diseases."
"She must be having a flourishing private practice," said Mrs Chakladar. "Have you seen her house? It's palatial."
"Florishing my foot!" observed Mrs Chaki in a disgusted tone. "Whoever would want go to a quack like her? I wouldn't even take my dog to her!"
"But people do think high of her as a doctor" said Mrs Chakladar.
"Really? Don't worry, we will unmask her one of these days," said Mrs Raha.
"Did you hear, Mrs Maity is arranging for a costume jewellery exhibition again," said Mrs Mondal, changing the subject.
"That thief!" spat Mrs Chaki. "She charges exorbitant prices for her jewellery. She invited me a couple of times. I went there only once. You can hardly even call it a proper exhibition. Cheap collection of junk jewellery sold at an outrageous price. I didn't buy anything from there."
"Last year Mrs Bhargav bought a neckpiece and matching ear danglers from her exhibition for three thousand rupees," said Mrs Raha. "Imagine her shock when someone showed her that the same type of items were available in Amazon for just twelve hundred bucks!"
"That's open robbery!" exclaimed Mrs Chaklader.
"What else?" said Mrs Chaki. "Her husband is a worthless fellow without a job. Poor Mrs Maity has to look after all the expenses in her family."
"That's not our fault," said Mrs Mondal.
Suddenly Mrs Chaki remembered something.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you something. Last Saturday I met Mr Chatterjee in Quest Mall. He invited me to have coffee with him. I was not at all interested, but he was very persistent. Do you know what he did?"
"What did he do?" asked the others.
"He squeezed my thigh!"
"Oh really?" exclaimed Mrs Chakladar. "Which one he squeezed, left or right?"
"Don't joke!" Mrs Chaki blushed. "It was so embarrassing!"
"But I heard it was you who insisted on having coffee with him," said Mrs Raha.
"Who said that? It's a lie!" retorted Mrs Chaki.
"Then you requested him to take you out on a long drive and it was he who refused."
"I tell you it's a lie!" cried Mrs Chaki.
"You don't need to feel shy," laughed Mrs Mondal. "Mr Chatterjee is a handsome man."
The others joined in the laughter.
The vicious women went on lambasting others with perverse pleasure. Passing a day without maligning someone was punishment to them. In the dim light of the obscure corner, they looked like four ugly scarecrows.
It was New Year's Eve. The housing complex was decorated with strings of blue fairy lights and colourful streamers. Like every year, a pool side party was arranged to greet the New Year. Most of the residents attended the party, though some of them preferred other venues. Rima generally didn't attend these parties, as she liked to spend the New Year's Eve with her family. She had an apartment on the first floor of one of the buildings which she used as one of her chambers. But she did not live there. She could never adjust herself to flat culture. But this year one of the four friends, who was a member of the organising committee, had personally invited her to attend the party. Rima and she were schoolmates; hence it became all the more difficult for her to refuse.
Rima freshened up and changed into a pair of jeans and kurti after her last patient left at 9 pm. She passed the comb through her waist length hair and debated if she should go for a last minute shampoo. Then she shrugged her shoulders and thought, 'What does it matter? I'll hardly spend an hour there.' She gave herself a final glance in the mirror, locked up her flat and waited in front of the elevator.
She was warmly greeted by her host as she entered the party area.
"Welcome, welcome my dear Rima. It's so nice to see you here. Come and meet my friends."
She introduced her to the other three women and Rima nodded at each of them with a smile.
"Let's occupy a poolside table and chat," said Mrs Chaki. She snapped her fingers at a waiter and ordered soft drinks and snacks.
"Are you okay Mrs Chaki? Pepsi on New Year's Eve?" joked Mrs Mondal. The other two laughed.
"No way," giggled Mrs Chaki. "Look over there, the bar is almost ready. There's Whiskey, Rum, Vodka, Gin, Beer, Wine...we will swim in liquor tonight."
The women guffawed and pushed each other in mirth. Rima looked at her watch. It was quarter past nine. She must leave by ten.
"What's the matter dearie?" asked one of the women. "Why do you look at your watch? The party has just begun."
"I have to leave by ten," replied Rima.
"That's preposterous!" she cried. "You can't leave before midnight, before welcoming the New Year."
"Sorry dear," replied Rima. "Since I have to drive back alone, I can't afford to be too late. Moreover my family will be waiting for me."
"Awww! Can't believe this!" said another. "A doctor of your mettle and position should keep a driver."
Rima felt the hidden barb in the comment and felt disgusted. She smiled wryly and said, "Don't worry, maybe someday I will."
Almost an hour had passed. Rima did not take anything apart from soft drinks. She was perfectly aware of the traffic penalties of a drunken driver. As the evening advanced, all four women started drinking like fish. They consumed large pegs of liquor and soon became tipsy. They boasted about their riches and made obscene jokes at each other. Rima found some of these jokes to be quite offensive.
"Mrs Chaki, you look ghastly without your Botox effect!" bawled Mrs Raha. "Without Botox injections/ Your face is full of wrinkles! Ha ha ha!"
"Stop laughing like an idiot!" snorted Mrs Chaki. "You eat like a hog/ And look like a bloated frog. How's that?"
Mrs Raha, quite offended, retorted, "Okay, take this... In spite of all that massage/ Your boobs sag like cabbage! Ha ha ha ha!"
Mrs Chaki's face turned purple at this insult. But before she could reply, Mrs Chakladar suddenly let out a shrill hyena laugh, startling everyone around her.
"The cabbage one was funny!" Her body jerked with laughter.
Mrs Chaki narrowed her eyes and looked at Mrs Chakladar.
"Very funny eh, Mrs Pimple Boobs?"
"Hey ladies, let's go to the dance floor. The music's on!" cried Mrs Mondal, clapping and swaying her massive hips to the tune of 'Despacito'.
Rima had never been so bored in her life. It felt soon she was going to develop a terrible headache.
Mrs Raha banged her fat fist on the table and said, "Hey Doctor Ghosh! Do you know Dr Majhi from Medical College?"
Rima looked surprised. Leave alone college, she did not know anybody with that surname. She knitted her brows and said, "No, I can't say I do."
Mrs Raha smiled maliciously. "Thats strange! She was your batchmate in college."
Rima did not like the tone of her voice. She took a long breath and replied, "There were hundreds of students in our batch. It is not possible to remember each and every one of them."
"That is true," slurred Mrs Raha. "Even Majhi can't remember ever seeing you in Medical College. Strange, isn't it?"
Rima looked at her watch and rose. "I must leave now," she said.
Mrs Chaki protested, "What? So soon? You must stay at least till eleven."
"No dear," Rima politely declined. "I told you before, my children and husband will be waiting for me."
"Have dinner at least!" insisted Mrs Chaki.
"It was kind of you to ask, but I should prefer to have dinner with my family," replied Rima.
"You didn't drink anything apart from Pepsi here," slurred Mrs Raha. "But I'm sure you'll gulp down a couple of pegs with your darling hubby."
"Yes, maybe a can of Carlsberg," replied Rima. "I'm not a heavy drinker, neither a regular one. Anyway, it was nice meeting you all. Good bye."
Rima felt relieved as she hurriedly walked towards the parking lot. The evening had been a total waste.
One of the women giggled after Rima was gone. "I have added Doctor Goody Two Shoes into our WhatsApp group," she chuckled. "Majhi is also in the same group. Let's all have some fun now." The others clapped.
Soon Rima reached home and hugged her waiting children. She quickly changed her clothes and joined them in the drawing room. The delicious smell of fish fries was coming from the kitchen. Her husband Aniket was a typical family man. Instead of going to a bash, he preferred spending the New Year's Eve with his family in the privacy of his home. He had brought his children's favourite Chinese food from China Town while on his way back home. But he also wished to prepare something for them with his own hands. Hence he bought fish fillets from the market and was now making fish fries. The children were watching a crime thriller on the home theater.
Rima was quite engrossed in the movie when her mobile phone rang. She looked at the screen and saw that the call was from one of those women's numbers. It was half past eleven. What could she be wanting now? Unwillingly she answered the call.
"Hellooo! Is that you, Rima?" cooed a woman's voice.
"Yes?" Rima tried to keep the note of impatience out of her voice.
"Did I disturb you darling?"
"Not really. But why did you call?"
"I can't find my mobile. Have you seen it anywhere, by any chance?"
Rima did not know whether to laugh or feel angry.
"Yes, I think I did," she replied, trying to sound serious.
"You did? Thank God! I feel so relieved. I knew I could count on you. Please tell me where it is?"
"Right now it is in your hand." replied Rima, trying hard not to laugh. She wondered if the woman was literally swimming in liquor now.
"Yes, you are right!" she exclaimed in joy. "It indeed is in my hand!" She then started talking to the others around her."See, didn't I tell you? Rima is so clever! We four searched everywhere but couldn't find the mobile. Rima's not even here, yet how quickly she found it. You're a genius Rima, love you. Muaaah!"
Rima disconnected the call and burst into laughter. She narrated the hilarious incident to her family and they all had a hearty laugh over it.
The following morning started with a number of forwarded good morning messages from the members of the Ladies' Whatsapp group. Rima too typed a good morning message and went to the washroom. After a hectic day with her patients, she returned home late in the afternoon, feeling ravenously hungry. She relaxed on the sofa with a plate of green salad and a couple of sandwiches. Then she opened her mobile to check her messages. She was shocked to find more than a hundred Whatsapp messages waiting for her. Most of them were posted in the Ladies group. She started scrolling down the messages while munching her sandwich. Most were forwarded ones but a couple of personal messages caught her attention. Some Majhi had brazenly asked her which batch she belonged to in the Medical College. She failed to understand why these women should be so interested in her college days! She remembered Mrs Raha mentioning this Majhi woman the previous evening. Rima debated if it was necessary to reply her at all. Then she decided to ignore it and switched over to other messages.
That night Majhi asked again, 'Rima, would you mind telling me, which year you passed out from Medical College? I asked you the same question yesterday too, but you did not reply. Anyway, if you have any problem then you need not answer.' Rima felt she had to give a reply to this impertinent woman. She typed, 'Why are you so interested in me? I don't even know you.'
The reply came after five minutes.
'That is my question. You and I were batchmates, yet I cannot remember seeing you ever in Medical College.'
Rima enlarged Majhi's Whatsapp profile photo and closely examined it. She was a completely unknown face to her. She replied, 'So what? Neither did I see you there.'
'Really? I was into cultural activities and hence quite popular in the college. It's strange that you did not know me.' came Majhi's acid reply.
'There's nothing really strange to it,' replied Rima. 'I went to the college to get my medical degree, not get acquainted with cultural activists.'
'Why are you getting offended by a simple question? Why only me, none of my classmates can recall you. What have you got to say to that?'
'Nothing. I don't think I have anything to explain to anyone,' replied Rima heatedly.
'Relax baby! Cool down,' came her sneering reply. 'You were never seen in the college campus, never took part in any cultural activity, never appeared in any exam, yet you say that you got your degree from the Medical College, right?'
Rima felt herself burning with rage. This vile woman was directly calling her a liar in an open forum! Unknowingly her fingers started typing, 'Shut up, you loathsome creature! Who the hell are you to ask me this question?'
Before touching the 'Send' button she controlled herself. What was she doing? This despicable woman was trying to provoke her. It would be unwise to give her a chance to pick up a dirty quarrel. She erased the message and typed instead, 'Currently I am busy. But you will definitely get a reply from me shortly. Good bye.'
She closed the Whatsapp window and looked at her watch. It was almost four in the evening. She was indeed getting late.
The four women were having a gala time lambasting Rima. They dutifully rang up neighbours and common friends to narrate how Majhi had cornered Rima and practically forced her to flee from the group in order to save her face. Before the day was over, everybody came to know that Rima had never been to the Medical College and was not a qualified doctor. Some were shocked to learn the news and some waved it off as one of the countless gossips spread by the abusive Ladies group.
Rima's reply reached the Whatsapp group on the following morning. She sent a link to the Result Directory of Medical College where her name was clearly visible among the list of the successful students who passed out from that college in that particular year. Then she wrote, 'This link is especially meant for Madam Majhi. Her unjustified curiosity regarding the authenticity of my Medical College degree surpassed every level of indecency. My question is, if she was so sure of my being a quack, then why the hell didn't she go to the police instead of barking in a Whatsapp group? Or was it because she was doubtful of the authenticity of her allegations and was afraid that she might get involved in a Defamation Case? Anyway, I sincerely hope that this will satisfy her curiosity along with the curiosity of others and put an end to this distasteful discussion.'
There was a long, stupefied silence in the usually noisy group. In the evening Majhi meekly replied, 'You got me wrong, friend. I had no intention to malign you. I just wondered why I never saw you in the college, that's all.'
Rima saw the message but chose not to reply it. She knew that she had won. Her last post had been a tight slap on the faces of the jealous, frustrated, stupid bitches.
'These repugnant women can only criticise others,' she thought. 'They neither have the intelligence nor technical know how to check the college website before making such an allegation. Well, I suppose this teaches them a good lesson.'
Many of her friends who disliked this abusive group, called up to congratulate her. They repeatedly advised her not to leave the group immediately and observe the reaction of the other members. Rima was disappointed to notice that no one from that group came forward to support her or criticise Majhi for her vulgar curiosity. But she had no time to ponder over such trivialities and soon forgot about the matter.