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|| No Key to This Mystery ||

 

Alighting from my office bus, I crossed the main road, and began to amble along the crossroad I took till the next crossing, where a turn to the left brought me home, past a few houses.

Nearing the crossing, I caught Joyend leaving his house. It was the first one on the left of the crossroad, just after the crossing. Coming towards my direction, he walked briskly, holding his face down. An elderly man stood at the gate of his house, staring after him. I recalled that Joyend’s parents were to arrive from Calcutta earlier that day. With Joyend still at a distance, I shouted, hailing him. He looked up, and I immediately noticed that his face was lost in gloom. To set it off, I claimed cheerily, “Seems your parents have arrived!” He nodded imperceptibly. Drawing up near me, he said in a grave undertone, “Something terrible has happened! My house has been burgled in the morning. I am going to the police station. Would you please come, and help me record my statement?”

The year was 1978. The place was a cluster of identical single-bedroom houses off the Double Road, built for war widows. I was residing on rent in one of them. Joyend, whom I had known for couple of years, had been living in a paying guest accommodation nearby. Then, a few months back, going to get married, he too had taken on rent a house in this cluster. His was, as I have said earlier, round the corner from mine.

As we walked down to the police station, Joyend remained silent for some time, and then began to talk. He spoke haltingly, as if still struggling to organize the events of the day into a coherent story. From what he told me on the way, and later at the police station, it was this.

A week earlier Joyend’s house help had stopped coming. Feeling nervous about the impending visit of his parents, Sandra had become frantic to find a replacement. A few days back, when Joyend had left for office, a young woman had come and pressed the door bell. In broken Hindi, She had asked if Sandra needed a help. Pressed with the need as much as she was, she had still hesitated because the woman was a total stranger. Then looking up, she had spotted the maid of the house across the road, at its balcony. These neighbours, a well-to-do elderly couple, were very fond of Sandra, and during their idle hours would call her to come over for a cup of coffee with them. So, Sandra knew the maid. Sandra had called out to her, and pointing to the woman at the door, asked if it would be alright to employ her. The maid had given the woman a look-over, and spoken to her briefly in the local language. Then the maid had nodded assent, and gone about her work. Sandra, thinking the better of it, had asked the woman, whose name was Shanti, to start working from the next day.

That evening, Sandra told Joyend that she had found a new help, whom the maid of the house across had seemed to know. Circumspect as he was, he cautioned Sandra to be watchful for some time, and not let the woman into the house when Sandra could not keep an eye on her.

The morning of the burglary, Sandra told Joyend that she still had to do some grocery shopping, and was thinking of taking Shanti along. Seeing Sandra so preoccupied, he told her to be careful with Shanti. After he had left, just when Sandra was about to get ready for going out, the doorbell rang. Shanti had come to work. Telling her to wait outside, Sandra showered and dressed. She came out of the house with some shopping bags, and told Shanti to come along with her to a nearby departmental store. Then, giving the shopping bags to Shanti, Sandra locked the door, and put the key-ring in her purse.

At the store it took quite a bit of time to pick up all the stuff in her list. The queue at the billing counter was long and slow. Sandra stood in the queue. Shanti followed her with the bags. Suddenly, pointing to a man outside, she told Sandra that was her husband, and he was calling her. Sandra nodded. Putting down the bags, Shanti went out to the man and spoke to him briefly. Then the man went away, and Shanti came back. She said that she had to go home and give lunch to her husband, as he had to leave soon for some urgent work. She promised to return after feeding him. Though disappointed, Sandra agreed. Shanti left.

It took some more time to complete billing. Then carrying the bags, Sandra trudged home, luckily just five minutes’ walk from the store. She found the padlock on the door would not open with its key. After trying for several minutes, she panicked and went over to the neighbours across the street. The old couple calmed her, and sent someone to try and open the door. But, his attempts to unlock too failed. The neighbours then advised Sandra to call up Joyend. He was already preparing to come home to receive his parents expected to arrive shortly after noon. He rushed back from office. He too tried to unlock the door without success, and decided to break open the door. The large padlock was too strong to break. So, there was no way but to break the door bolt. In the attempt, the loop of the door bolt for the lock broke off along with the lock. Entering the house, Joyend found the bedroom steel wardrobe open. The locker inside it too was open. All the jewelry and some cash kept in it had disappeared. No other article in the house was missing, or had been disturbed. The burglar, it seemed, had known where to find the most valuable stuff, and had not bothered about any other.

Joyend rushed to the police station, about ten minutes walk from his house, and lodged a complaint. A Sub-inspector came over and made notes. He asked Joyend to come to the station later, and record his statement with details of the stuff stolen. With the arrival of his parents, and the shock they received, Joyend finally found time to compile a list of the stolen jewelry to report to the police station, just as I returned home from the office.

On the way back from the police station, I tried to find out more from Joyend. But, he had little to offer beyond what I knew by then. The wardrobe had not been broken open. Normally, it was kept locked, with the key left hanging at the keyhole. Only when the couple went out for a long time, like going for a movie or a party, the key was removed and cached under the bed mattress. Evidently, the thief had a key to the door lock, and had used it to gain entry.

Reaching the crossing where I would turn left toward my house, Joyend asked me to come over to his place. In spite of all his distress, he wanted me to meet his parents. He introduced me to them. Already tired from their long train journey, they had had little rest after arriving. Shell shocked by the tragic event, they sat muted. Sandra appeared devastated, and exhausted from all the housework, as Shanti had not returned after giving lunch to her husband. The needle of suspicion pointed to her. Yet, I was burning with curiosity, sensing several missing links in the puzzling incident. Willingly, though hesitatingly, Sandra answered my questions. I asked her if Shanti had locked the door, or otherwise had possession of the key at any time. Sandra said she had herself locked the door, and put the key-ring in her purse. Shanti had just stood by. During shopping, Sandra had not parted with the purse, nor asked Shanti to even hold it for a moment. This ruled out Shanti taking out the key from the purse. ‘Had there then been a spare key, which could have been stolen and used for the theft?’ I wondered. I asked to see the door lock. Sandra pointed it out, lying on the dining table attached to the loop of the bolt. It was a well weathered common seven-lever padlock of Godrej make.

‘Why could not the padlock be opened with Sandra’s key?’ Both Joyend and Sandra shrugged their shoulders. All their attempts to open the padlock with Sandra’s key had failed. It made me doubt whether this padlock found on the door after the burglary was the original one. ‘Did the thief, while leaving, replace the original padlock to delay discovery of the burglary, and gain time to get away?’

I asked to see the key Sandra had carried. She brought over a key-ring with two brass keys. At once I felt that the keys looked somewhat thinner and smaller than expected. I inserted one key, and then the other, in the lock. Inside the padlock both were sort of loose. In a flash I saw what had been there to see, and blurted out, “Oh! These keys are obviously not for this lock! These are five-lever keys, whereas the lock is seven-lever! See!”

“Is that so?” Joyend exclaimed, and looked at me, thoroughly bewildered.

By this time something else, something faintly familiar about the keys had snared my subconscious attention. Without any apparent thought, I rapidly delved into my trouser pocket, and took out my own key-ring having two flat brass keys. The ring also had a steel key with a long round shank for the inner-latch, which I had fitted on my front door after losing one set of keys.

And, thereby hangs another tale …

Those days, living a bachelor’s life, I had an old Keralite woman, Kutty Amma, come in for cleaning. A trusted woman, she had been working for me for several years. She came to work when I would be at the office. So, I had spared her one set of keys. She kept it throughout the year, except when I went to visit my parents in Jamshedpur. Then, on the last day before I left for home, she left her set with my neighbour. I kept it with some friend till I returned. Thus, if I misplaced my keys during my trip, upon returning, I would not have to break the locks, or wait for Kutty Amma to come to work.

Soon after Joyend became my neighbour, he had gone home, got married, and returned with Sandra. She turned out to be a fine vivacious girl just out of her teens. She took an immediate liking for me, almost as one of the family, and entreated me often to join them for dinner. Let me admit, those days dinner used to be a bit of a problem for me. Three evenings a week, after office, I went to a place off Queen’s Road to attend a foreign language class that went on till 9 PM. Most of those evenings, after the class, I returned home on foot, passing through downtown and eating dinner at one of the restaurants on the way. Other evenings, I just took a bus home and cooked dinner. Rest of the evenings, willy-nilly, I dropped in at Joyend’s place for a chat, and ended up getting asked to dinner. No matter how much I tried, half-heartedly, to wriggle out of it, my feeble attempts never convinced the couple, and I got too easily persuaded by them.

After a few months of this bonhomie, it was autumn, the time for me to visit my parents. My train left in the afternoon. I attended office in the morning, came home, and packed the last few things in my bag. I just had to leave the spare set of house keys with Joyend. Checking with my neighbour, I learned that Kutty Amma had not left her keys with them. I had a third set of the keys on a key-ring somewhere. I fished it out, and went and knocked on Joyend’s door. Sandra was a bit surprised to see me at noon, when everyone would be at the office. With a brief explanation, I gave her my key-ring to keep till I returned, and bid goodbye.

When I returned from home, I did not see the couple for a few days. As Kutty Amma had her keys, she could come, work and leave. There was no immediate need to retrieve the keys I had left with Sandra.

After a week or so, I had dinner on the way from my evening class and dropped in at Joyend’s place.  Before leaving, I asked Sandra for the keys. Looking puzzled, she asked me what keys I was talking about. Though taken aback, I realized that several weeks had passed, and she might have forgotten about them. I tried gently to remind her, wishing that I had given the keys to Joyend. She admitted remembering I had gone to say good-bye before leaving for home. But, she was sure I had not given her any keys to keep. I said no more. Joyend rose to see me out. Coming out of the house, he asked me what the matter was. Obviously, he did not know about the keys. I narrated to him what had happened. He said Sandra must have put the keys away somewhere and forgotten, forgetful and disorderly as she was, being a new homemaker. He assured me he would try to find the keys. I felt awkward that he might bother Sandra. So, I told him not to press her too much. Poor girl obviously had completely forgotten about the keys. But, Joyend was resolute that the misplaced keys posed a security threat for my house. I left it at that.

A few weeks passed. Then one day Joyend told me that he had gone all over the house with a fine tooth comb, so to say. He had not been able to find the keys. Either I had been mistaken, as Sandra seemed to think, that I had given her the keys, or she had so hopelessly misplaced them that they could not be found.

A few months passed, and the three of us forgot the incident. Anyway, I had few valuables to worry about, and, for good measure, I had an inner-latch fitted on my front door.

Now, staring in utter disbelief at the keys Sandra had just given me, I compared the manufacturer’s serial numbers engraved on them with those on the keys I had taken out of my pocket. The numbers on the two keys on Sandra’s key-ring matched the numbers on the two keys on my key-ring!

I looked up. Joyend and Sandra were looking at me with intent questioning eyes. I said, “Sandra, these keys with which you were trying to open the door lock are my keys, the ones that I had left with you when I went home.”

Epilogue:

Within a few months of the above incident, I got married. My wife became a good friend of Sandra. Though I know she told my wife about the burglary, it was never again openly discussed. Shortly, Joyend moved to North India with a better job. Eventually, I heard they had migrated to the land of immigrants.

In 2007, on a visit to that far away land, I was able to establish contact with Joyend through some common acquaintance.  We spoke over telephone. He was thrilled, and implored that we visit them. But, the only plan of a rendezvous on our drive back home from the Big Apple failed, because our daughter, our chauffeur, had no GPS, and had not carried her mobile charger. So, while Joyend and Sandra waited at some park, we missed them by a wide margin, and lost our way for hours, to boot.

Thus, if there has ever been a dénouement to that story, it remains unknown to me.

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© mikupa / 04 July 2015

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