THE CHENNAI KILLINGS
The alarm went off for the fifth time that morning, oblivious to the snooze button being pushed recurrently. The silly thing incessantly sang “time to wake up” followed by an annoying series of beeps. Sandhya’s eyes fluttered open as she looked at the alarm grudgingly. She ignored the urge to scream at the damn thing for ruining her deep and precious sleep. The clock displayed 5.45 a.m., a dark hour for Sandhya who usually preferred to wake up around mid-morning. She groaned as her leg bumped against the wooden coffee table that had somehow found its way to the middle of the room as if it had spent the night lying in wait for her.
She stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror before picking her toothbrush and smearing it with an inch-long strip of mint toothpaste. As she brushed her teeth, she studied her face, craning her neck closer to the glass. There it was, a pink round bubble, seated on the bridge of her nose, glowing like a star.
A pimple! Sandhya frowned as white froth dribbled from the corners of her mouth. After gargling and rinsing her mouth with water, Sandhya inspected the zit meticulously to check if she could make it disappear. She pricked at it gently– ouch! This can’t be for real, she thought to herself as she recalled all the instructions that she had followed to reward herself with a blemish-free face.
Somebody from her friends’ list had shared a Facebook post that came with a list of suggestions – Drink your way towards a glowing face with two litres of water every day and load your plate with greens, fruits, and grains. As if that weren’t enough, Sandhya regularly treated her face to a wide range of creams and face packs that promised to transform her into a beauty queen. Yet, despite all that, a pimple had found its way onto her face! And not just anywhere but on the bridge of her nose so she couldn’t avoid seeing it.
Fighting the urge to uproot the bubble from her skin, she decided it was best to ignore it, in the hope that it would magically disappear. For now, she had to move on past the zit to other important things for the day. After a warm shower, she brushed her hair and tied it into a ponytail that swayed as she walked.
Sandhya sifted through her bursting wardrobe for ten minutes before settling for a pair of dark-blue churidar-kameez and a white kurta. From her sparkly ornamental jewellery collection, she picked her favourite blue-stoned jhumkis that dangled along in tandem with the swaying of her ponytail. She topped the whole ensemble with a pair of trendy high-heeled footwear that perfectly complemented her white kurta.
Today is my lucky day, thought Sandhya, as she flung her purse onto her right shoulder, letting it rest under her arm. Her bright pink purse was now bulging with compact powder, spare bindis, emergency earrings, a comb, clutch clips, a sanitary napkin, earphones, mobile, wallet, and her lunch box that contained the remnants of last night’s dinner. She hated leftovers. Back home, her mother made the family eat leftovers all the time. Amma had her reasons, which went something like, “People in Africa are starving without food. At least you are lucky to be able to eat three times a day.”
Sandhya had always wanted to ask Amma the question that often popped inside her head: how would it help a starving person in another continent if she ate or wasted her meal? But of course, she never dared to question Amma’s inane theories unless she embraced lengthy arguments and emotional speeches that usually ended with ‘aiyo rama, you-never-listen-to-me’. It was safer to quietly eat whatever was placed in front of her.
She lacked the skills that every Indian girl was expected to be schooled in, such as being an expert in the kitchen. She couldn’t cook anything beyond the traditional two-minute Maggi noodles. Not being a fan of cooking, she made herself content with leftovers, and she had to admit that nothing could beat Amma’s food even if was simple sambar-rice or her infamous moong-dal khichdi. I am already missing home, thought Sandhya as she glanced at her reflection in the mirror and realized that her bindi was missing. She rummaged through her purse until she discovered the little white paper with sparkling, round dot stickers. There it was, the accessory that was designed to make the traditional Indian woman appear complete.
“Perfect,” she said as she placed her gleaming silver bindi right above the bridge of her nose, between her eyebrows, with measured accuracy.
As she walked toward the bus-stop, Sandhya had a good feeling about the day that was unwinding ahead, except for the zit that marred an otherwise perfect day. Several people were out on the road going about their daily morning routine: a group of elderly women dressed in salwar-kameez and sneakers were heading out for their morning walk; milkmen passing by with large steel cans of milk tied to the rear of their bicycles, and teenage boys delivering the morning newspapers. An old woman was seated on the ground with a basket overflowing with jasmine garlands as she glanced around for prospective customers. Sandhya pitied a group of school students carrying hefty backpacks, their faces sullen and bored, upset that they were forced to be up early. She gave them a sympathetic smile as she passed by.
She glanced at her watch every few seconds, cursing under her breath at every bus that arrived jam-packed. Not a good day anymore, she thought to herself. After an agonizing wait of fifteen minutes, a less crowded bus came by. She was pleasantly surprised to reach the college in ten minutes which would have otherwise been a sweaty forty-minute ride through Chennai’s morning traffic. Great, so I am lucky again!
She descended the steps of the bus, humming the A.R. Rahman track ‘Mental Manadhil’ from the Tamil movie “O.K. Kanmani”. The song was trapped inside her head since she first heard it and it refused to disappear. She looked up at the huge white building from where she was doing her M.A. in English Literature. Although her first choice had been Loyola College or the Madras Christian College, she eventually had to settle for the famous Thomas Vincent because she belonged to the FC category (Forward Caste). Though her mother belonged to the south, her father was an immigrant from Gujarat which made it hard for them to compete with the locals. Besides, the caste system in education had always been a long-standing problem.
But Sandhya didn’t make a big deal out of it. She wanted to become a journalist or a novelist; she wasn’t very sure which one, yet. Choosing a course in English seemed like a good option as it would open doors for her in news channels, media, and writing fields. She was already at the end of her final year and it had been good so far, except for a few glitches that mostly arose from her personal life.
As she walked towards the entrance of the campus, she folded her earphones back inside her purse and straightened her hair by running her palm over her head. The traffic and the pollution had ruined her hair and had turned the deep black locks to an odd shade of brown. The scorching sun above her wasn’t helping either. As she turned around idly, she noticed someone coming into her peripheral vision. She smiled widely.
Her face brightened as the person neared her. She felt her heart flutter inside her chest, the way it always did when she saw him.
It was Ravi, the guy who could make her go weak in her knees in a matter of seconds.
Sandhya knew him. Yet there were things she didn’t know about him. Like the fact that round-neck t-shirts made him look like a teenager like it did right now. She had only seen him wearing full-sleeved collared shirts that were usually tucked neatly inside the waist of his jeans. She also had not known that he looked absolutely funny with his face clean-shaven. She missed seeing the slight stubble of hair that had peppered his cheeks where she often imagined kissing fondly.
Ravi was born and raised in Madurai, an old southern city, about 500 km away from Chennai. He belonged to a traditional South Indian Tamil family that consisted of his god-fearing mother who visited the temple three times a day as she was always terrified of missing her prayers; his round pot-bellied father worked with the railways as a ticket collector while his sister, Preethi, a quiet and a cheerful sixteen-year-old, was studying at a higher secondary school. Preethi was waiting to leave Madurai so she could explore the other side of the world. Ravi had moved to Chennai after being recruited as an associate Software Engineer at a campus placement into a major I.T. company called ‘GlobalThinc’ that operated from the Old Mahabalipuram Road, the I.T. corridor of the city.
Sandhya watched him closely as he stared back at her with his black eyes. It was as if she were engaged in a lockdown with him. Her eyes took in the sight of his face that was spotted with red pimples. Ravi had often mentioned that he had sensitive skin that was prone to acne. He was worried that it made him look like a dark, hairy beast. But Sandhya didn’t mind his dark south Indian complexion that sometimes turned darker when he was drenched in sweat after spending long hours in the Chennai sun.
Instead, Sandhya had grown to love his flaws despite the fact that her Hindi-speaking friends would have totally laughed at the thought of Ravi’s proximity with her. They preferred her to hang out with the North-Indian boys, who had a wheatish complexion without a hairy moustache on their upper lips. Which wasn’t the case in the South, where men prided themselves on their moustaches as a mark of strength, a sentiment that amused and intrigued Sandhya no end.
She had met Ravi two years ago at Chennai’s Besant Nagar beach when she was out with her friends, Shreya and Priya, enjoying the sunset on a calm Sunday evening. Shreya was a short, round woman, older than the rest of the girls, pursuing a psychology course at the Presidency College. She would be leaving the city by the end of the month as she planned to move to Kerala where she would join a hospital as a child psychiatrist to gain experience before moving to the United States.
The other girl, Priya, was a beautiful woman; at eighteen she had all the right contours on her body, sharpened and rounded to the right size at the right places. She was pursuing the same course as Sandhya, though she was a junior and had just joined college that summer. She was hoping to become a lecturer in English once she graduated. Sandhya hadn’t known much about her, except for the fact that she was attractive (a little too much) with long eyelashes and full lips. She had met her only when Priya had approached her with doubts regarding an English assignment—it was an essay about a famous writer and Priya was having a hard time selecting a writer. They soon bonded over books and authors, becoming close friends. Although Priya resided at the college hostel, on most weekends she would come over to the apartment which Sandhya and Shreya shared, so they could binge-watch movies.
Friday nights were supposed to be fun. Sandhya and Shreya would plan a night-out to the disco clubs at 10 Downing Street or Pasha in downtown Chennai to unwind for a stress-free time. Sometimes, Priya would join them if she didn’t have a curfew at the hostel. The alternate plan would be to watch a horror movie on the laptop with a bowl of popcorn propped on their pillows. But when one Friday evening turned out to be terrible with long assignments and extra coursework before their semester exams, the girls knew they needed something to slow them down. The beach seemed perfect.
The Besant Nagar beach, otherwise called Elliot’s beach, was a well-known tourist location. The famous Murugan’s idli shop, Barista coffee shop, Domino’s pizza, and the Beach Castle eateries were jam-packed with hungry customers. The sun was retiring for the day, altering the sky into shades of dark grey and black. From the distance, the waves from the sea seemed to be dancing to their own rhythm as they crashed into each other, before settling back into the water. The air felt warm and moist with chilly winds lining up the atmosphere.
People flocked around the beach, as they tried to make the most of the evening, chatting away with families and friends. Children paddled along the edge of the water, occasionally dipping their feet in the sea and playing silly water games while their parents struggled to keep them from going too far out.
Sandhya looked around. A few vendors were selling boiled peanuts, steamed masala corn, and ice cream to people who thoughtlessly threw wrappers and corn husks wherever they felt like, though trash cans were placed every few metres. Some customers bought out of pity, while others shooed them away, annoyed by their presence. Priya bought two packets of boiled peanuts from a small boy so he wouldn’t bother them again.
Sandhya stared at the sea, taking in the views while Priya continued to chatter beside her. “Did I mention that this is my favourite part of the city? I wish I had a boyfriend, so I could come here and kiss him…”
At some point, Sandhya kept up with the conversation by nodding every now and then, until her wandering eyes fell on a man who was staring at them. For a moment, their eyes met briefly and drifted apart as quickly as they met. Sandhya blinked her eyes from time to time, letting her eyelashes flutter like the wings of a butterfly.
“Why is that guy staring at us?” asked Priya.
“What guy?” said Sandhya.
Priya rolled her eyes, “Right, like I don’t know you. Let me assess him for you.”
Sandhya gave her an amused look but said nothing.
Priya continued to talk, “Alright, he looks a bit dark and slightly scary, but I think he has great eyes. I would suggest you try him for a month to see if it works out or not.”
Sandhya nudged her playfully in the arm. “Don’t be crazy. I am not eyeing him.”
“Oh yes, you are. I saw the way you looked at him. I know it all,” said Shreya, teasing her.
Sandhya had only laughed, as the guy seemed to watch the group more intensely. But this time, he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at Priya. And she knew what that look meant, the way boys look at girls when they are smitten by their beauty. But poor Priya was too naïve to notice this, as she brushed her long, black hair with her hand and simply laughed with her friends.
That was a long time ago. So much had happened since then that Sandhya had almost believed that she had lost Ravi. But seeing him this morning stirred something in her heart that had been lying dormant inside of her. She had to stop herself from getting too close and kissing him on the lips. No, that would be too much. That would happen in a western movie, not in a crowded Indian city.
“How are you, Ravi?” said Sandhya, as she gave him a warm smile, the kind that said that she had been waiting for him.
He smiled back. Not like the usual puppy-dog smile that said that he was at her service forever. Just a plain smile that could mean a thousand things. Ravi had always been good at that. Good at hiding things that were running through his head.
“I had to see you,” said Ravi, in his broken raspy voice.
Sandhya watched him scan her with his crooked stare. At first, she had been terrified with his squint. Later, she thought it was amusing and endearing to have eyes that were looking in two separate directions all the time. His proper eye made contact with her, but the other eye looked elsewhere as if she were out of focus. She imagined that if they made love, it wouldn’t matter if his eyes darted like a ping-pong ball going back and forth, as long as his hands and body made the right moves.
She remembered asking him once if he could see things clearly. He said he wasn’t blind, just cross-eyed, which was the result of an accident at the age of five that hadn’t been treated on time.
“For what?” said Sandhya, now wanting to hear the words so desperately. Had he finally realized that they both were meant for each other, that they were more than friends?
She had called him last night, to ask him how he was doing. It had been more than a year since they had spoken after what had happened. Still, she couldn’t get him off her mind. On the phone, he hadn’t reacted much although she knew that they both needed each other after all the tragic circumstances they had been through.
“The things that you said last night,” said Ravi, his lips quivered slightly.
“It’s okay. I am glad you’re here,” said Sandhya. She was late for class and this conversation could take a long time. There was so much she wanted to talk about but now wasn’t the time.
“Listen, why don’t we talk in the evening? I’ll call you once I leave class. We can catch up somewhere for a coffee or a bite,” said Sandhya, hoping that it would make him feel better. Meanwhile, she would give him the thing she had brought for him.
He wasn’t smiling anymore. Instead, his face remained passive, devoid of expression. Sandhya resisted the urge to reach out and touch him.
“I don’t want to talk,” said Ravi.
Sandhya looked at him confused, wondering where he was heading with this. “Okay, so what is it that you want?”
He continued to give her a cold stare until she grew visibly uncomfortable in his presence. Something wasn’t right.
“Are you okay?” she said as she took a step toward him to place a hand on his shoulder, but she never got a chance to cover the distance between them.
Sandhya felt something sharp sting her. It was only a few seconds later that she noticed a large knife slicing through her throat. The pain didn’t come right away. Rather, it was the sight of blood bubbling out of her that made her scream. When she turned, the knife was out of her body, but she could feel the cut as if somebody had just chopped her like a fruit. As if she were a red, juicy watermelon.
She saw him take a step closer and pierce the knife through her chest, targeting the area between her breasts. Sandhya screamed in pain as her body tilted with a slight slant. This time, he attacked her again, slashing her neck and face. By now, she was covered in the blood that splattered from her body.
Sandhya opened her mouth to scream but the only thing that came from her mouth was a low, mournful gurgle. Her eyes swelled with red blood as the weapon struck her body repeatedly. A screeching noise escaped her throat before she dropped to the ground. Her body shivered sporadically like a fluttering butterfly struggling to revive itself.