The next morning Ria left her home by 9.30 AM… she couldn’t sleep all night with the impending task heavy on her head… she booked an Uber to reach Golden palace… she didn’t want to tire herself today as she had to face trial before an adamant Vikram and later needed her wits in place when she met Gaurav… The feeling already setting off the butterflies in her stomach…
She reached Golden palace well in time and had to be reminded by the driver that she was at the destination… she had been lost in thought as to what she would speak to Gaurav. She had even been surfing the net on section 376 and 375… Keith had updated her on the same early morning. Apparently, the charges were being put under the two IPCs and in addition to that under some act regarding sexual harassment of women at workplace… What the hell Swara…? What have you done…? Ria shuddered at the punishments that Gaurav could face and realised how important her involvement would be… If only Gaurav would agree…. She would see to it that he did.
She stepped out of the cab and walked into the restaurant… there was barely anyone and she waited for Vikram ordering a cup of coffee… The TV in the corner was switched on and the news kept playing… Ria was surprised as to the kind of interest people had in crime… especially opinions for subjudice cases. Every two-bit politico and self-proclaimed social worker were demanding harshest punishment for Gaurav making her skin crawl with disgust… She wanted to yell form the roof tops that he was innocent at least for that night… Swara please don’t do this… She had often seen high profile cases being given a trial by the public and this was no different. She cringed at the words from random people on the streets who were asked for bytes… where they demanded death penalty for such a heinous crime… While she agreed the punishment was apt for such crimes, Gaurav didn’t deserve it… simply because he didn’t do it… Just then Vikram arrived panting and came to her table shaking her out of her reverie. Though she hated to be drawn away from the TV this was something she had to take care of.
“Hey… Ria… what’s up…?” He spoke as if nothing had transpired and drank water from a glass kept on the table.
“Well… Vikram, as discussed…”
“…No… don’t do this Ria…” Vikram looked hurt and she did feel bad for him but nothing would shake her resolve now.
“… Vikram…I am not here with a change of heart… I am just here to do this in person… Here…” She took out his ring from her purse and kept it before him on the table.
“…Why Ria…? Why are you doing this…? Everything was going well… I apologised for that night… I was just drunk and upset…”
“…That’s enough Vikram… I told you that was just one of the reasons… the bottom line is we don’t have anything in common… I am not what you want and can’t change myself… so are you…” Ria was flabbergasted. She had no mood for arguments especially when part of her attention was on the TV… as she strained to hear the news anchor.
“…and my life is a mess…” She realised Vikram had just spoken something when she as focussed on the news.
“…Er… excuse me…? Vikram sorry… I didn’t get you…”
“…What is it Ria…? You are so distracted. Ok… see… there is a lot at stake for me here ok…? I cant get out of this marriage…”
“What the hell Vikram…? I don’t care about you and your mess… Got it?… I want out and I am getting out irrespective of what your decision is…” she was at her wits end.
“…Ria please… I can’t…”
“…What is it Vikram… I know you don’t have feelings for me so cut the crap and tell me the truth…”
“…Actually, Ria I am in heavy debt… I used to gamble in stocks and just lost a lot of money… I am bankrupt and hoped when we got married, I could use my income to pay off my debts while you ran the household… I have to send money back to my parents as well… so… I even agreed when your parents put the condition for sharing your salary… Isn’t that great?”
Ria’s head was reeling… she had never seen a megalomaniac like him. Was he doing her a favor by ‘letting’ her use her money? She had never been happier at her decisions. “You know what Vikram…? Your messes are not my headache. What I do with my hard-earned money is my decision and not my parents and definitely not yours… so get your head out of the sand and come back to reality… I am done with your crap for good. If this is a ploy for getting out of repaying me… well congratulations I give it to you. Keep the money for all I care…. Keep the ring too since you need it… I am in a mood for charity. I am so done and am glad I made this decision…”
“…Is there someone else Ria…?” Vikram’s tone had changed.
“Look Vikram… what I do in my personal life is none of your business… So, buzz off… I have lost the little respect left for you… Nonetheless I wish you well and hope you come to your senses soon…” She checked the time it was 11.45 AM and Keith would be here soon. She paid for the coffee and gathering her purse and her wits left the place with a stunned Vikram staring at her retreating form.
True to his words Keith was there right on time and she got into the passenger seat. Keith raised an eye brow and she shook her head. She had told Keith one of these days about breaking off her engagement and he knew the reason she was here. Even Preeti didn’t know about it… They reached the Police station which was still swarmed by reporters. Ria who was confident so far was now scared to the core… she had only seen a police station on TV. But this was nothing she had envisioned…
“Ria…” Keith called her startling her. “…Don’t be scared. There is a back door from the other side where there are no reporters. Talk to Paranjape…Thin dark balding man. He is a constable known to me. I have told him you would be there…. I can’t leave the car and there is no parking… Just… please convince Gaurav Sir, OK…?”
Ria just nodded as she felt her clammy palms… She just hoped her panic-stricken form didn’t compromise the fragile prospects for Gaurav, if any. She walked in on wobbly legs hoping they didn’t give away before she reached inside. As Keith had rightly mentioned she met constable Paranjape who was kind enough to take her in shielded from the prying media and left her on the waiting seat. She was told to keep away her mobile phone and was frisked for weapons or whatever it was, by a lady constable. As she waited with bated breath for the next half an hour another tired looking burly man joined her on the seat. He looked at her and then looked around before asking. “Who the hell are you and what business do you have with Gaurav…?” He spoke in a whispered but firm voice. Dressed in a maroon coloured shirt his eyes on a strong square jaw looked innocent but voice sounded lethal, scaring Ria further. “I…I am Ria… Ria Narsimhan… I came to talk to Gaurav sir…” She barely whispered and wondered if he heard her.
He stared at her as if she had grown two horns. He gave her a side smile and held out his hand as she shook it. “I am Manek… Gaurav’s childhood friend and business partner. We still have about half an hour before they let us in… so why don’t you tell me what is it that you wanted to speak about?”
She had heard about Manek from Keith in passing… He apparently co-owned Karma. “…Um… Actually, Gaurav sir is innocent in this matter…”
Now that got her his complete attention.
“…Um… He couldn’t do this… on 29th July…”
“…Ria… actually the police have evidence… a lot of them… and they don’t look good… So what proof do you have…?”
“…I am myself the proof, sir…” she looked at her clasped hands.
“…Ria you need to be clearer…”
“…Sir…I mean… Gaurav sir couldn’t have done what he is accused of because he was with me that entire night…”
“WHAT…?” Manek spoke loudly startling her and drawing looks form the others around them. “…Ria do you know what you are talking about…? Gaurav says he doesn’t remember anything from that night… and now you are here… claiming…”
“…he is doing it to protect me… my reputation…” She didn’t mention Parijath…not knowing if Manek knew about it. She then told him how she had the accidental fall and how Gaurav saved her and took care of her. She didn’t mention anything about the visit to Parijath though.
Manek rubbed his face and shook his head. “God… you are a blessing Ria… If you agree to testify it will negate and help us tackle the people trying to frame him head on… But… I hope you know what you are getting into. The trial though it’s on fast track may take a while…. To even commence. There will be a lot of social pressure… um … do you think you can sustain all that…?”
Ria was silent as she thought about the possible repercussions… she wondered what her Appa would say… not that he was on talking terms anyway. What about her colleagues? Would they side with her? She realised her feelings for Gaurav and the resolve to side with the truth tilted her decision heavily on his side while all other factors felt pale in comparison. Gaurav hadn’t thought twice about saving her life or caring for her and now it was her turn. She didn’t care anymore about what anyone thought. “…Manek sir… I am in…” She saw him blink away tears as he nodded and soon it was time for them to meet Gaurav.
Ria and Manek were led into a tunnel like structure behind the police station. It was cordoned off part of the station and not visible from outside. Ria shuddered at the eerie feeling as they passed through a cul-de-sac, following the three constables who took them in. They reached a dimly lit place. There were empty cells on either side but here was a bulb lit in the last cell. Ria dreaded taking each step, not knowing what she would see. When they reached the cell, she gasped. Gaurav was hunched on a bunker with his head in his hands, his clothes were dirty and torn. The place smelt filthy just like the minds of those who had tried to incriminate Gaurav. The constable banged the cell bars with a stick indicating the start of their ten minutes. The constables moved out of the area leaving Ria with Manek.
As if sensing her presence Gaurav lifted his head up. Ria stilled as she saw his state. He stood on wobbly legs and moved towards the bars. The left side of his face was swollen and right forehead as bleeding. The entire area around that eye was blue. His lip was swollen in its right corner and presence of dried blood indicated he had been bleeding there as well. Ria couldn’t help herself and just kept crying holding her mouth. He had worn his trademark hospital attire his three-piece suit which was torn in places and filthy. She couldn’t bear to see him in that state. Manek patted her shoulder. “talk to him … I am right in the corner.” He moved away as Gaurav held the bars squinting at her.
“Ria… what are… you doing… here…?” He coughed and held the bars tightly as the bout subsided.
She couldn’t help herself and touched his hands. it was then she saw the burn marks on his wrists. He opened his palm and held her hand tightly as he hunched down touching the forehead to the bars. Ria was speechless… as she tightened her grip and cried silently. Why was he letting them torture him when he could just have given out her name…?
“Ria… leave… jail… not for you… leave…” he struggled to speak.
“… Sir… why don’t you tell them the truth…?” he left her hand and turned around his back towards her.
“…Just…leave…” he breathed hard as if wheezing.
“…No, I won’t… I promise you Parijath name won’t be involved. Just me… because that night only concerns me…I am going to testify… right now…”
Manek walked in right then. “…Talk to her Gaurav… I agree with her… Please don’t be a stubborn mule… We don’t sand much of a chance…”
“…Then let me be here…” Gaurav spoke loudly still with his back towards them and Ria wondered how much of energy he needed to use for that little statement.
It was time up and Manek gestured for her to leave the place. She was overwhelmed with emotion and that only strengthened her resolve to see this through. She knew she had a long battle to fight and hoped she could do this alone. More than a fight for justice it was a fight against injustice… Manek was already on the phone by the time they were seated in the car and she stared outside in oblivion.
“Ria…” Manek called out to her. “…I was talking to our lawyer… You getting into the fold totally changes the course of things… He is positive now. We will apply for bail now… the police wont be able to extend custody.. You have to sign an affidavit… you are the main witness and… uh… you will have to stay way from the public eye in order for us to protect you till the trial is over…”
What? “…Why …I mean don’t you trust me…?” she wailed
“…Its not about trust Ria… its about protecting you. We don’t know who we are up against. I am dead sure Swara is acting on someone’s behest… someone string and powerful, but till we find out you have to be kept safe. Is there somewhere you can stay…? I will take care of the rest of the expenses…”
“…Um… I have no where actually… what about my family…?”
“…that’s the reason you have to stay away Ria… For your sake and your family’s… Ok… I have Gaurav’s bachelor pad above Karma. Keith will give you company and double up as a security…. You can stay there as long as this goes on… starting today… you won’t be reporting for work directly…I will arrange for the paper work to be brought to you… At least for the time being…”
Ria saw Keith nod and she nodded in agreement as well. As they drove towards her house to collect her stuff, she was lost in thought wondering what more was in store for her…just hoping that she emerged from this unscathed.
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