The first letter arrived in a pink envelope. There was no return address. Ritika opened it neatly with her nail file:
Please accept my humble, respectable greetings. However I am not in position to say you who I am. But I know you. I see you taking walk at 5:30 sharp in the evening, except on Tuesday, when you attend classes at esteemed JG Gupta Coaching Centre. Information technology is progress of India. Madam, please do not get offensive, but I think you are the most beautiful member of the female species I have ever regarded with my eyes. I am now wishing to regard you with my hands.
But please madam, your ways of dress sense are not good. You may regret. Salwar kameez is appropriate dress for virgins like you. I myself composed a saying, “She who wears jeans is known as darling Rita. She who wears dupatta is a true Sita.” I have composed many other poetries and will send sometimes. It is time for meals so I will write more later.
Ritika blinked. The paper smelled of cheap aftershave and something vaguely oily. The kind of faint but nauseating whiff you get when you sit behind someone on a DTC bus. She flung the letter down. But even after spending the entire evening on the phone, conducting thorough third-degree interrogations, she could not come up with a suspect. All her friends told her that she might as well forget it: it must be a random prank. Two weeks later, however, she saw another pink square in the mailbox.
I am hoping you are not angry at my quietude. I had to rush at my ancestral village for private works. Madam, please don’t mind, but I also wish to rush at your private works. To make that matter come to fruits, I will have to visit you in near future. I will give you the surprise when I feel our relations are well settled. You must get to know me better before I come…good girls don’t talk to strangers, is it not? Ha ha.
But Ritika, if I may assume honour of taking your good name, you do talk to strangers, no? Girls from good homes should indulge not in such activities. I am of the kind hope that I will not have to give you reprimandations again. As dadaji says: “She who cuts off her nose should not have a face.” He is elder, so pay heeds.
She cast the letter aside as if it were a centipede, but not before being assailed by the whiff. She ran to the phone to call her boyfriend, Amit, even though he was in Chicago, where he worked as a software engineer.
When she finally managed to reach him, his voice was groggy. “What’s the matter with you yaar? You know I have to reach work early.”
She replied tearfully. “It’s scary enough just living alone, but do you know that I have a stalker who sends me letters about my private works?”
This was met with a bemused silence, so she read out both the letters to him.
“Don’t be silly Ritika!” He snapped. “It sounds like a prank. Just ignore it, or keep some mace in your bag when you go out.”
“Thanks for your advice,” she said in a huff and put the phone down. But later, when she thought about it, it seemed like a good idea. The next day she bought the mace with her best friend and neighbour, Tanushree, a student of English literature.
“What should I do? Is there any way of knowing who the man is? He seems to be everywhere I look.”
Tanushree put a sympathetic arm around Ritika’s shoulders,
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him and teach him a thing or two. What can he do against two big, strapping lasses like us? Keep doing what I tell you, and you’ll be fine. At this moment, I’m telling you to buy me an ice cream!”
They both laughed. There was no letter when she got home.
Still, she asked Tanushree to spend the night with her, but even with her strong friend’s arm around her waist, it took her more than an hour to finally drift off into an uneasy slumber.
Several weeks passed without incident. Ritika’s diploma exam came and went. She had just returned from a celebratory meal of chaat with her friends, when she saw the envelope, the lewd colour of a lascivious tongue.
My Dreamgirl Ritika,
Salutes to you. I am trusting your exam will earn you felicitation. I thought I should allow you to study without making your heart flutter. After all, it may be your final achievement. But now let us discuss bees and birds, no? The honeypot sometimes attracts flies too, no? No Okay okay. You might make estimate by now that I am angry today.
I was doing check of your e-mail inbox and I discovered you have a loverboy. Am I not enough for you? I advice you to bid him fare well for your own well fare ha ha. Hope you like my humorous sense of word play. The time is coming closer. I am hoping you are looking forward to it as much as I am.
Until then I am giving implorations in a poetry I composed recently: “Be plain in dress, and sober in speech.” This is also a self-composition:
Please do not eat too many spicy foods,
they are tasty, but they will give you gas.
They will spoil your sweet, sweet moods,
When the sour airs have to pass.
Hope you are appreciating verses and also ghazals.
We will enjoy them together.
Her hands shook slightly. Who could this man be? Ever since she’d received the first letter, she’d been vigilant, her gaze unsteady, skittish. The watchman, the dhobi, the teenagers who played cricket in the field across the road. Could it be one of them? But somehow, they didn’t seem to be likely candidates. It could be one of the Bihari boys who studied with her, but none of them seemed to pay much attention to her, none of them followed her stealthily to the bus stop. She knew because she turned around every few seconds to check if anyone was following her. She stopped venturing out for her walk in the evenings. Her neighbours asked her why she no longer joined them, but she never knew quite what to say in reply. She’d simply shake her head, “It’s not so safe out there. You should carry some mace if you go out after dark.”
Yet, despite her precautions, she felt him shadow her every step. She could almost smell his breath. His oil. Everyone noticed how on edge she was, but she shrank from revealing too much. Frankly, she tell whoever expressed their concern, “I don’t think I can trust anyone. Just give me some time.”
Besides, he knew her e-mail password. It complicated matters. “This guy sounds more hard-core than just some amorous neighbourhood psychotic,” said her boyfriend. “Why don’t you just go home for a while, spend some time with your family.” But that wasn’t an option right now. She had several job interviews to attend.
“Then at least lodge an FIR.”
Ritika agreed, but baulked at visiting the police station, which seemed to be filled with unsavoury characters, some in uniform. She was pushed into action two days later.
Good Evening, my Moon, my Star, You are twinkle in my eye. I am satisfied with your conduct. Have you been having thoughts of me? I am thinking thinking all day about the nectar of your youth that I will suck like a beetle. I will be the grasshopper that drinks the dew of morn.
Okay okay, I am being too much poet, but your inspirations are also too, too much good. I will encase you in my muscular arms soon. We will enjoy mellifluous tones of Jagjit Singh together, and then we will take transportation to heavens. First you, then me. After performing procedure with the blade of knife, I will be combining your blood with mine. It will be elixir of Gods and angels. We will do tandav nritya on a cloud following our demise to the tunes of Jagjit jee of course.
Anticipating our joining,
She picked up the phone and dialled 100. A gruff voice answered, “Yes.”
“I’ve been getting death threats.”
What did he mean, what kind? The kind where people threaten to kill you after having their way with you.
“Letters from a man. He says obscene things and then hints at wanting to kill me.”
“He hints?” The gruff voice sounded decidedly amused.
“No, it’s more than that.”
“Then go to the police station and lodge an FIR.”
She hung up.
The doorbell rang.
A young man stood outside. She clenched her fist.
“Yes?” She prayed she wasn’t his dreamgirl; a creature to have her private works assaulted or to be regarded with by his hands. She felt a hysterical giggle well up in her throat. Could he really be the one? She wished Tanushree were there with her.
He looked at her strangely. “I’m here to check your metre.” Wasn’t that how the Boston Strangler invited himself in? For a glass of iced tea and some ligature strangulation?
“There’s no need.”
“The president of your society asked me to.”
“I’ll see to it myself.”
She shut the door in his face, her heart pounding.
The next day the president of the society confirmed the man’s story. Ritika told him of the letters and, immediately concerned, he drove her to the police station himself. Her complaint was registered as a non-cognizable offence—not worthy of immediate enquiry in other words. They refused to grant her police protection. She felt relieved nonetheless. Then she saw the letter on the doormat.
Miss Ritika Madam,
Are you taking me for a foolish idiot? You do not see me but I see you. Who was your male guest yesterday? You must have made flirtations with him. It is not good for ladies to do such behaviours. As dadaji said: “She who blackens her face should not have a head.” And then you went to police station. I think I will have to pay visit early than I had planned.
Terrified, Ritika called Tanushree, who fortunately, lived right round the corner. She arrived about five minutes later to find a trembling Ritika. “This is getting really sick, OK. He’s talking about me not having a head.”
Tanushree, a circumspect young woman, tried to calm her friend down. “Don’t be so serious about this. But don’t you think his grammar is awfully good? His usage of language is all off, but he sure knows his comma.”
Ritika scowled. “Yeah well, stick a comma on top of my neck when you find me headless on the stairwell.”
“No, what I meant is that it doesn’t quite go with those mad quotes and about decapitation and proper dressing.”
“You’re the only idiot who would see silly things like that.”
“I’m just trying to tell you take it with a big fat pinch of salt. Don’t be scared.”
“Yeah, I can see your English degree really taught you how to be original.”
They both giggled at that and ordered a massive pizza that neither of them could afford.
The doorbell rang.
They stared at each other like frightened deer, and then smiled slyly.
Of course it was the pizza man.
They giggled some more.
Tanushree opened the door. It was July and the cap-wearing man, stripped of his dignity in a red and white T-shirt embellished with a double-chinned chef, asked for a glass of water.
“Yes, OK. Wait in the hallway.”
She walked to the kitchen.
Ritika stood cowering in a corner. “It isn’t the psycho is it?”
“Yes it is,” smiled Tanushree. “This time, I’m pretty sure.”
Ritika laughed nervously.
Tanushree opened the cabinet and took out all the paraphernalia she needed. She poured in some cold water, added a few cubes of ice, and padded pack to the hallway.
“Here you are.”
The man smiled, then gasped in surprise as the mace flew into his eyes.
He was about to stagger upright when the serrated knife plunged into his stomach.
Ritika came running out and shut the front door.
The man groaned and fell to his knees.
“It’s like in the movies,” said Ritika in wonderment.
“What did I tell you?” grinned Tanushree.
The man’s eyes began to glaze over, surprised and slowly drooping. His badge said his name was Ravi Bharadwaj.
“There’s less blood than I thought.”
“Your turn,” said Tanushree.
Ritika grasped the knife nervously. She stood behind the man and sliced the blade across his throat weakly.
He gurgled. But his eyes were still blinking.
She closed hers and sliced harder.
He slumped over.
They let him lie there till he stopped making that awful gurgling sound.
“I really wish they’d be quieter,” said Ritika.
Tanushree checked his vital signs gingerly, careful not to get too much blood on herself.
“I told you we could pull this off. Sob story all ready? I wish I’d made his grammar worse though.”
Ritika nodded. ‘This wasn’t so nice.”
“You have to try everything once.”
“What if we get caught?”
“We’ve worked it out for months now. Don’t be such a dithering little ninny. Everybody, the police, the president of the society, know you have a lunatic chasing you.”
They waited for another half an hour before they dialled 100.
The envelope was placed neatly on top of the pizza when the policemen arrived. Along with a fresh knife.
The two girls clung to each other. “Why didn’t you take us seriously?”
The policeman looked shocked.
“You did this?”
“We had no choice,” they wailed.
“He’d been sending me threatening letters. He told me he’d cut off my head,” said Ritika.
Tanushree added: “He just whipped out his knife and told us he was the one after Ritika. He didn’t know I was in the house so I managed to jump to the rescue.”
“We should be getting a medal for this, so stop treating us like criminals. We even lodged an FIR against this guy. Ask the president of the society.”
Ritika started crying. “I begged for police protection. I begged.”
He looked ashamed and nodded.
“We’ll get in some more people to take care of…this.”
“Fat lot of good that does us now,” spat Tanushree bitterly.
Ritika nodded her assent sadly. “Or him.”