Open 2022 Vasant Stories - Shevlin Sebastian


What goes around comes around
By Shevlin Sebastian


Steve Smith, 54, and his 50-year-old wife Virginia stay in an old-style bungalow. A few such bungalows still exist in Calcutta. Many of them have been torn down. In its place, high-rise buildings have sprung up.

The house is an inheritance for Steve. His father Paul worked in the railways and rose to a prominent position. Later, Paul bought the house from a Britisher who was departing India following Independence. Steve resisted the temptation to sell it. He was not strapped for money, anyway. Steve worked as a pilot at the port of Calcutta. His income was decent. His wife worked as a secretary to the managing director of a multinational firm. She earned well too.

Steve has kept the house in pristine condition. The rooms are large: there is a main hall, and on either side are bedrooms with attached bathrooms. From the hall, it leads to the dining room. Everywhere, there is wooden furniture. On the right is the kitchen. There is a garden at the back. Virginia grows potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages. There is a large shed on one side where Steve parks his car. The roof has red tiles.

Virginia and Steve are now experiencing empty nest syndrome. Both their children, Robert, 24, and Karen, 22, live and work in Melbourne. All Steve’s brothers and sisters are in Australia. They arranged for Steve’s children to come across.

Both Steve and Virginia are aware the Anglo-Indian community is dwindling. The second generation is marrying other Indians. There are not enough eligible men and women anymore. Steve knew there would come a time when they would have to move in their old age. It could be to Australia to be with their children. Or they might have to stay at an old age home.

But he would ensure he sold the house to an individual rather than a builder, so that the house could be preserved. A nation becomes impoverished when its inhabitants raze their historical buildings. All you get are these impersonal concrete buildings with no personality. While Virginia had a day job, Steve sometimes did the night shift. Ships could come in at any time of the day and night. It’s like the Suez Canal where ships plied through the canal 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
But Steve liked his job. He enjoyed being in the water. He liked the different moods of the sea — stormy, calm, angry, or moody.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, both had finished lunch and washed the dishes and placed them on a washing rack to dry. Steve smoked a pipe with quick puffs. He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Virginia was also in a T-shirt and shorts. They sat in low armchairs and watched a Netflix film. The living room, painted in a pale yellow, was cool because of the high ceilings. His friends stayed in concrete apartments and always complained of the heat. Their house remained cool thanks to the clever construction by British architects.

As Steve saw a murder on the screen, it triggered a memory.

This happened many years ago when Steve was in his late twenties. He had been a Catholic priest. On most Sundays, he would travel to a convent to say Mass. Steve was attracted to a nun, Sr. Jude. She was an Anglo-Indian like him. They began a discreet affair. They met in parishes, where priest friends of Steve would set aside a room. They would make love. Sr. Jude would tell the convent authorities she was planning to meet a relative in Bandel, 54 kms from Calcutta.
Indeed, she had an old Aunt Mabel who lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Mabel had poor sight and was deaf. She had a maid Rupali, who looked after her. Mabel was a spinster. She had been a teacher at the nearby Don Bosco School and had saved diligently. A nephew in America also sent $500 a month. So, she was in a comfortable position.

One early morning, when Steve had come to the convent, he could not resist kissing and hugging Sr. Jude. They were alone in the kitchen. A few minutes later, a novice nun, Mary, came into the kitchen and caught them red-handed. She put an arm across her mouth and stifled a cry of surprise. Steve and Sr. Jude realised Mary had caught them in an embarrassing position.

What followed was a scene from a fast-paced crime thriller. Sr. Jude said, “We have to silence her.”

“But how?” whispered Steve.

They thought for a few seconds. It seemed like several minutes to both of them.

Sr. Jude jerked her head forward and said, “I have an idea.”

Steve and Sr. Jude headed to her room, although the priest was not supposed to enter the nuns’ private quarters. She took out cotton and a bottle of chloroform. The other nuns were getting ready. Nobody was in the corridor. They proceeded to Mary’s room. Sr. Jude knocked softly. Mary opened the door. Both Steve and Sr. Jude barged in and pinned her to the ground while Steve pressed his hand over her mouth. Sr. Jude drenched the cotton in chloroform and placed it under Mary’s nose. She passed out within minutes. The nun put the remaining pad of cotton and the bottle in the pocket of her habit. She looked out of the corridor. Nobody was there. While Steve held the shoulders, Sr. Jude held the legs.

They took the body down the corridor, down the stairs, through the kitchen and to the back. There was a well some distance away. Since it was a winter’s morning, a week before Christmas, there was fog and mist. They seemed like ghostly figures. Both prayed that nobody was looking out of the window. They reached the edge of the well and laid Mary on the edge.

Steve held Sr. Mary’s legs and pushed the body downwards. He reached down as far as he could without losing his balance, so that the plop sound was not too loud. Then he loosened his grip. The body fell with a splash, but both were not sure whether the nuns in the convent could hear it. With bent heads and breaths coming out in short bursts of white vapour, they headed back.

Steve walked to the chapel. Sr. Jude hurried to her room. She emptied the chloroform liquid into the washbasin. Then she removed the ‘chloroform’ label and tore it up. She washed the bottle, inside and outside, at the tap. She also threw the remaining cotton into the wastepaper bucket.

Near the chapel, there was a toilet. Steve washed his hands with soap and splashed water on his face. He dried himself with a white towel placed on the rack. He returned to the chapel, wore the vestments and got ready for Mass. Ten minutes later, the nuns trooped in.

Nobody missed Mary.

After mass was over, Steve usually had breakfast, but this time he made his excuses and left. In his room at the parish, he found that his heart was still racing. It took him almost half an hour to relax. Two hours later, a maid, Shonali, had gone to the well to draw water to wash the breakfast plates and dishes. When she looked down, she saw the floating body of Mary and screamed.

The nuns came running. Shonali pointed at the well. They looked down and gasped. Mary had to be pulled up immediately. They called the police. The police brought a man who cleaned wells. Using a long ladder, he climbed down and reached the surface of the water. He checked the wrist and realised there was no movement.

He picked up Mary and put her on his back. He came up, leaning forward, using his left hand to hold her at the back and the right arm held on to the ladder. It was an incredible feat of strength.

The man laid the body on the ground.

“Sir,” the man said, looking up at a group of cops. “The girl has died.”

The police rushed her to the hospital. But it was too late. The doctors declared Mary dead on arrival. The police began an investigation. All the nuns had to appear before a detective, who sat at a small desk in the parlour. They answered the questions as best as they could.

Mary had joined the convent only four months ago. Nobody knew much about her. In the end, the officer concluded that she had committed suicide.

Mary’s parents were poor. They protested to the Mother Superior that Mary had sounded happy. They had only spoken to her on the phone a couple of days earlier. She had always wanted to be a nun. Now she was close to fulfilling her dream. The Mother Superior said, “Nobody can say for sure what was going on in Mary’s mind? The police said it was a case of suicide. We have to accept the findings.”

In the end, to calm down Mary’s parents, the convent gave them a sum of Rs 1 lakh through a crossed cheque.

The convent authorities sighed in relief. If it had been a murder, there would have been plenty of negative media coverage. Steve and Sr. Jude had a close shave. But the incident proved to be a shock. They stopped their affair. It was too dangerous now.

After a year, Steve opted out of the priesthood.

Because he loved the sea, he trained to be a river pilot and secured the job. He had been a river pilot for the past 24 years. He met Virginia at a New Year’s Eve ball, fell in love and got married. Sometimes, he thought of Mary. But he immediately stifled the thought. Sr. Jude travelled abroad on assignments. He had not seen her in years, and they did not remain in touch. This was a secret they would carry to their graves. Sometimes Steve thought, ‘Was it necessary to do what we did?’ But Sr Jude was one who had become so frightened of Mary leaking the affair to the superiors. She felt this would ruin her career. Steve had agreed too quickly to her plan, which snuffed out the life of a young woman.

In the end, Steve and Sr. Jude had committed a flawless murder. Steve returned to the present. The film continued.

His mood plummeted. A pleasant mood was now tinged with sadness and regret. He had never confided in anybody, not even when he went to church for confession. It would be too explosive a secret to recount. Steve was not sure whether the priest would keep the secret to himself or inform the police.

There was a rush of feet inside the room. Steve and Virginia turned to look at the door. Two men had barged in. They were wearing cloth masks, with slits for the eyes. They grabbed Steve, and before he could respond, one of them slit his neck. A shocked Virginia opened her mouth in shock, but no scream came out. They grabbed her and tied a handkerchief around her face. Then they pushed her to the floor, tied her hands and legs with thick twine.

The duo ransacked the entire house. They were looking for a pouch of diamonds.

In prison, their fellow inmate, Gavin Xavier, had told them about this pouch of diamonds. “Kill Steve first,” said Gavin. “He is strong and can fight back.”
The thieves could not locate the pouch. There was no safe. Inside the wooden almirah, there was hardly any money or gold, let alone diamonds. Time was running out. They returned to Virginia, removed the handkerchief, pressed a knife to her neck, and asked her about the diamonds.

This time, Virginia found her voice. “There are no diamonds,” she said in a firm voice. “Somebody has given you wrong information. Even if you kill me, you will not find any diamonds.”

The thieves looked at each other.

They realised Virginia was telling the truth.

“That bastard was telling lies to us,” one thief said to the other.

“We’ll kill him when he comes out,” said the other.

The thieves took Steve’s wallet, which was lying on a mantelpiece, and ran out of the house.

In the evening, Rachel, Virginia’s cousin, and her husband Fonseca dropped in for a visit. They immediately realised they had stepped into a tragedy.
Steve was long dead.

Virginia’s body shook with the shock of what happened.

Two days later, the post-mortem of Steve took place. Thereafter, with the help of her son, Robert, Virginia filed a First Information report at the local police station. Steve’s funeral took place at the Lower Circular Road cemetery. His siblings had flown down from Melbourne. The burial was a low-key affair. People kept quiet and shed tears.

The priest gave a eulogy about the upstanding qualities of Steve.

He went six feet under. Nobody knows what Sr. Jude thought about all this. It had appeared in all the newspapers and on TV. As for Mary, floating about somewhere in the universe, she might have enjoyed a quiet smile of satisfaction.

When we come to think about it, what goes around does come around.


A journalist for over three decades, Shevlin Sebastian from India has worked in major publications in Calcutta, Mumbai and Kochi. Shevlin, who lives in Kochi, has published over 4500 articles on subjects like history, spirituality, literature and sports. His blog, ‘Shevlin’s World’, has received more than 2 million hits. He has also published four books for children and a book on spirituality. Shevlin's short stories have been published in Singapore, Rome, Calcutta, Mumbai and on India's leading publishing website Juggernaut.


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