The Masked Criminal
The four women were seething in rage. Majhi had a showdown with Mrs Raha for provoking her and making her appear as the villain. She now realised her foolishness in falling a prey to their dirty scheme. She restricted her participation in the Whatsapp Group and distanced herself from Mrs Raha. The matter was no longer discussed in the group, but people were no fools. The four friends knew what discussions went on behind their backs and that did not make matters any better. So far they had criticised others and considered themselves above any criticism. But finding themselves on the receiving end made them none too happy. They held several meetings at different rendezvous and chalked out a plan to take their revenge on Rima.
Weeks passed by. Life for Rima was moving on at a normal pace. About a month later, she was stopped by Sarbari outside her chamber.
"Hi Rima, can I talk to you for a few minutes?"
Rima was surprised as she had met Sarbari only once in the New Year's Eve party a month back. She lived in the same complex and was one of the less talkative members of the Ladies Whatsapp group. Rima invited her to have coffee in a nearby coffee shop.
"Forgive my asking, but do you ever go through your Whatsapp messages, Rima?" asked Sarbari.
"Not regularly," replied Rima. "But why do you ask?"
"Have you seen the recent thread of messages in the Ladies Group?" asked Sarbari.
"No, I did not open that group since that disgusting incident," replied Rima. "I think it's high time I should leave that group."
"No you won't; not immediately at least," said Sarbari. "I guessed that you are not aware of the dirty politics going on against you in that group. Otherwise you should have retaliated."
"Against me?" Rima was surprised. "Now what can they have against me? I thought I've been forgotten me in that group."
"On the contrary, you are too much remembered there nowadays," replied Sarbari.
"Don't speak in riddles Sarbari. Tell me, what's the matter? I don't have time to go through hundreds of silly messages."
"After you go through the messages, I'm sure you won't find them silly. Well, it all started the day before yesterday. One of those four friends wrote that she has been receiving threatening phone calls from an unknown caller."
"You see for yourself. She is sure that this man wants to harm her. She is definite that some jealous woman from the Ladies Group is tied up with this man in some dark conspiracy against her."
"What utter nonsense!" cried Rima. "How can she be so sure about that without any valid evidence?"
"An abusive woman doesn't need any evidence to hurl allegations at others. She does it as per her own free will and is blindly supported by her stupid followers. She has threatened to go to the police."
"And pray who is that supposed conspirator in that group? Me, I suppose?" Rima asked sarcastically.
"She has not taken any names yet, but the indications are very clear.'
"What is their problem with me?" asked Rima. "Why are they after me like this?"
"Revenge and jealousy, I guess. I would request you to go through the messages and act accordingly."
"Okay, I will do that. Thanks a lot Sarbari for being such a good friend."
Rima was shocked as she went through the messages. The woman claimed that she had been receiving threatening phone calls from an unknown person for the past couple of days. The number in which she was receiving these calls was her personal number which she never shared with anyone except her close friends. This was the same number from which she did Whatsapp exclusively in the Ladies Group. Hence she was definite that someone from the Ladies Group had passed on her number to this unknown caller. Though she did not take any name, but her messages definitely pointed at Rima.
'It is not difficult to understand who the culprit is,' she had written. 'We have been members in this group for the past four years now, and such a thing has never happened before. It is only after the inclusion of certain new members that the elements of jealousy and vindictiveness have entered into this group. This is not to be tolerated. The culprit should be grabbed by the scruff of her neck and thrown out of the group.'
Her message was followed by countless hate mails from her followers demanding that the 'mean minded', 'envious' 'traitor' be exposed and thrown out of the group. The woman had also expressed her fear of getting harmed by the man and lamented why should a ‘harmless’, ‘innocent’ woman like her be treated like this. She shed a bucketful of crocodile tears and said that she felt like committing suicide. Her followers sympathised with her and advised her to complain to the police and get the ‘culprit’ arrested. Her latest messages said that the matter was now under police investigation. Mr Munshi, a renowned lawyer, would be fighting the case for her. It was now a matter of time for the ‘culprit’ to get arrested.
Rima sat speechless for quite some time. While almost every member in the group had reacted to the woman's post, she was the only one who had remained silent. Her apparent silence must have added fuel to the fire. The women must have concluded that she was guilty conscious.
Rima failed to understand why she, among all the others, was being targeted repeatedly? First it was the medical college incident and now this. How could that woman conclude that one of the group members was the culprit without any proof? Rima slowly read the messages again. It was very much apparent that the woman had targeted her right from the very beginning. But she had failed to provide any evidence supporting her allegations. Rima wondered if her supporters were as dull-witted as she was. None of them raised the question of evidence. They had completely believed her on the basis of her words alone. Rima felt these women derived perverse pleasure in lambasting others, not caring if the concerned person was truly guilty or not.
Another strange thing Rima noticed was that, the woman had refused to consult Mr Mitra, a top grade Crime Branch officer, who lived in the same complex.
'I should rather not involve any man from this complex,' she wrote. 'In spite of knowing everything they have decided to remain aloof. Some of them dared to make fun of the matter and termed it a fairytale. A real man should always believe in a woman's words, even if she speaks a lie. Otherwise he's not man enough."
Rima laughed at the last message and felt that the men at least were not dumbheads like their female counterparts.
Rima did not waste further time on these messages. She had a hectic day ahead. But unlike the other days her mind was not at peace. Aniket noticed the turmoil in his wife's face and asked her the reason behind this. Rima unburdened her mind to him and felt somewhat relieved. But Aniket did not take the matter very seriously.
"Rima, a bunch of lies can never be passed off as truth," he said. "These women are trying to malign you because you publicly proved them wrong and by doing so, put them in an embarrassing position. Remember, how these women spread rumours everywhere that you are not a qualified doctor? Well, by proving them wrong you earned their enmity. But I can't understand why you didn't leave that blasted group then only?"
"I should have done that," agreed Rima. "Then they wouldn't have got the chance to target me again."
"That was your wrong decision. Anyway, I suppose you cannot leave that group immediately under the present circumstances. But please don't pay any attention to their hate mails and allow them to affect you. Who are they? A bunch of brainless, middle aged women who are jealous of you. Just ignore them."
"Do you think she can make the police harass me in any way?" asked Rima.
"I don't think so," replied Aniket. "I get to hear many things from Anil."
"Anil? You mean your college friend who is now an IPS officer?"
"Yes. You see, people associated with amassing of felonious revenues cannot afford to get mixed up in a police case. At the most they can try to defame you. But the moment anyone broaches your name in public, we file a Defamation case against that person."
Rima thoughtfully nodded her head.
"You are better informed than I am. Now I understand the mystery behind her foreign trips, luxury cruises, expensive dresses, costly jewellery and the likes."
"No wonder," replied Aniket. "Money earned by crooked means cannot be stored. The best way is to get rid of it as soon as possible and avoid an enquiry or investigation."
Rima nodded again.
"You know, Sarbari said she heard about an escort service run behind her NGO. I was not surprised at all. The way she dresses...
"Anyway, leave it," said Aniket. "Let's have dinner."
Rima got busy laying the table.
"One thing I should warn you about, Rima," said Aniket. "These people turn dangerous if they're cornered. So be careful."
A chill ran up Rima's spine. This was not because she felt worried about her own safety. The safety of her children and husband meant much more to her. Suddenly she lost her appetite.
"Are you out of your mind?" he shouted at her. "You want to involve the police for a petty matter like this? Have you ever thought of the consequences?"
She sat on the couch, her face a mask of anger.
"Why are you behaving like a stupid coward?" she screamed. "You pay them money, don't you? So what makes you so damned scared of them?"
"Speak softly, you fool! Do you want the entire neighborhood to listen to our conversation?"
"Listen, I have told everyone that she did this out of jealousy. Now if I can't prove anything, they will think I'm a liar. No, I can never let that happen."
"So, what do you propose to do? Involve the police and jeopardize our own position?"
"How can that jeopardize our position? The police is under our payroll."
"How can you be so foolish? If the police is involved, the matter goes to the Court. The local police can't do anything if the case is taken up by the Crime Department. A good lawyer from their side can arrange for a thorough investigation and tear us apart. Can you imagine the consequences we'll have to face then? Even if they can't prove anything against us, they will definitely file a Defamation Case and demand an exorbitant sum. Will that be affordable either? Is going back to our poverty sticken days a good option?"
She did not reply. She knew what he said was true. Yet she wanted to have her revenge. It was obvious that he did not want her to pursue with the matter any further. Whatever she should do, had to be done by her own. She needed time to think and chalk out an alternative plan.
She did not go out after he left for work. She quietly lay down on her bed in the semi-dark room and recollected her past.
She belonged to a lower middle class family. Her father was a clerk and mother, a housewife. Their commonness and lack of ambition annoyed her. Two rented rooms on the ground floor of an old, dilapidated house in a dark alley of old Kolkata was what she called her home. The rooms were too small to accommodate the six members of her family. She dreamed that someday she would own a big house, an expensive car and lead a luxurious lifestyle. She could never imagine herself toiling like her mother from sunrise till midnight looking after her family and home.
She was not a bright student and knew that academics could never be the key to her success. Once she entered college, she chose her own path and got involved in a series of affairs. She used men at random and received expensive gifts and sometimes money in return for the favours she bestowed upon them. When her father came to know of her promiscuous ways, he quietly got her married. Her husband was not the key to the riches she was searching for. But he was much in love with her and she could easily influence him. Using her previous connections, she gathered enough capital to set up their own business. He worked hard, but after a few years she realized that a business based on honesty could never give solid returns. So she coaxed him to traverse the dark crooked lanes that led to the riches she could only dream of. Their lifestyle changed overnight. From a rented one-room flat they shifted to their 3BHK apartment in an elite housing complex in a posh locality. Alongside they purchased a second hand car. After a year they replaced it with a brand new BMW. She was now leading the life of her dreams. She recklessly spent money, gave herself airs and soon gathered a number of female followers. She arranged parties in her club and brought foreign perfumes for them from her overseas vacations. They were birds of the same feather and complimented each other. They provided each other the companionship and emotional support they badly needed and became fast friends.
Her political aspirations made her open an NGO. But soon she realised that a gold mine was waiting to be excavated behind that facade. Women of every age approached her for help. College students, high school girls, young housewives, frustrated dowagers, office clerks, receptionists... they all needed her help for some extra income. Many of the girls were pretty, smart and willing. Taking advantage of the situation, she started an escort service. She trained the girls herself and soon they were in hot demand. She maintained complete secrecy and greased whichever palms were necessary. Money started pouring in and her expenditure increased multiplefold. Through her Facebook posts, she boasted of the expensive garments she purchased from elite boutiques, gold and diamond jewellery and luxury trips abroad.
One of her school friends once invited her to attend an alumni get together. She thought it would be fun meeting her old school friends after such a long gap. They welcomed her and she found the ambience warm and friendly, but soon she realised that most of her batchmates were academically and intellectually far more superior and well placed than her. For the first time she realised that money alone was not enough to achieve dignity and class; and it did not make her feel happy. She felt like a stranger in that elite gathering of doctors, engineers, qualified accountants, masters and administrative officers and could hardly participate in their intellectual conversation. They were extremely polite to her and added her to their Whatsapp group, but she could hardly ever communicate there. She also had a gut feeling that they criticised her behind her back. It was true that many of them found her a show off and her dressing sense too loud and too revealing to be termed decent. The men found her vulgar and vague. She avoided their mini get togethers and after some time they ignored her altogether.
But she had the rare talent of collecting similar natured people from every gathering. She picked up a few of her female school friends, equally witless and ignorant like her. She chatted with them on Whatsapp, occasionally invited them to her kitty parties and got invited by them in return.
Such was her life till she met Rima.