I came into Piyush’s room to find him sitting there with a look of the cat who just ate the canary. My eyes narrowed, something was certainly up. And then I froze.
His room was stinking. No, that was putting it mildly.
“Did you kill something in here?” I croaked, gagging slightly.
Piyush’s grin widened. And there was no mistaking that he had finally done the deed.
I gave an exasperated sigh. “Well, at least dispose of the body, idiot!” I exclaimed. “By all that’s dear and good in the world, the body’s gonna do no good lying in this room!”
Piyush shook his head, still declining to speak.
I sat down in his chair, confused. Why was Piyush refusing to throw away the body? Why was he content to let that smell stay in his room? Why was he being so obstinate about it?
The uninformed reader, by now, will be wondering about the events which led to this murder, if it can be called one. The events I tell you of are spectacular, and the astute reader may forgive me when I say that parts of it will not be accurate, seeing that the finer details slip my memory now.
The tale I narrate is nigh on one and a half years old, back when were were but freshers freshly arrived in the campus. It was a time when the hostels had no gates and the terror of Ram and Chandan’s gang was all too real. We barely knew each other, the friendships of today which are taken for granted were just being minted. The various nicknames which the student body had adopted for each other were in their first stages of evolution, namely crawling out of the sea. People still regularly attended classes and believed that the key to a better life was hidden somewhere in getting marks. The only bit which remains unchanged from then is that everyone knew that Saumitra was perverted to the point of lunacy.
But that is a story for another day, back to the matter at hand.
One fine day, when all was right with the world and classes had ended, I called Piyush for snacks. I came into his room to find him very agitated, running to and fro in his room as if trying to find something desperately.
“What are you trying to find, my dear fellow?” I asked, ever so politely. He was a new friend, I could at least try to show that his state of agitation made a difference to me.
“If you’d believe it,” he began, peering under the bed, “I have a room mate.”
I raised my eyebrows. We all have single rooms, and the only person who’d slept in his room besides he himself had been I. He had an extra mattress, and I would camp on his floor. We would talk till late into the night and then finally drift off.
“I’m flattered, old boy, but you needn’t grace me with the title of ‘room mate’,” I said delicately, discreetly trying to edge out of the room. “People will wonder and speculate.”
Now it’s a different matter that that happened nonetheless, at that time it really did matter. Getting a girl when you’re labelled gay is kinda hard. Of course, at that time the myth that there are no girls in an engineering college had not yet sunk in. It was just one of those definitions you had without really appreciating the depth and candour with which it was written. We really were optimistic about our chances.
Piyush looked at me strangely for a second. Then realisation dawned upon his face and he waved me away irritably, going back to his search.
“Not you, idiot,” quoth he, “someone else.”
That of course, gave me pause. He had someone who was willing to sleep with him in his room? Oh God, something felt off about this entire business.
He continued, oblivious to my thought processes. “It’s a grey mouse.”
My thoughts, which, for the past minute had been going at ninety, suddenly and catastrophically derailed with all the force of an Indian Railways train in a Naxalite infested area.
“A mouse,” I cried. “A mouse?”
“Yes, a mouse,” he said impatiently, now searching under the cupboard. “The bloody thing’s been coming and going, coming and going. I have no idea where it lives, and if it continues running about, I’m not sure any of my clothes would be wearable.”
I turned my gaze to a pair of jeans artfully ripped at the knees and chose not to comment. The mouse, I reflected, was a serious problem indeed. More for me than for him, since it was I who slept on the floor. What if, perchance, I should awake in the middle on the night to find it staring straight at me like a self-proclaimed Ratatouille? Would I be obliged to give it a chance to cook and prove itself to me? What if it dropped into the food? I shuddered. Steely resolve glinted in my eyes as I decided to help him in his noble quest. Two pairs of eyes became six as my eyes and spectacles joined him in searching for our mutual and fearsome adversary, who we decided to honour by calling, the mouse.
It took us the best of five minutes to find where the bugger was disappearing off to. All credit to Piyush, he knew his room better than I did. We discovered the bloody thing’s hole close to the cupboard, perfectly situated to ruin his wardrobe. If I had been a conspiracy theorist, I would have believed that the mouse was a conspiracy hatched by all those who’re fashion conscious to discredit him.
Anyway back to the hole. The object of interest, as it turned out, was too small for us to put insert a hand in. Eugh. Not that either of us had a wish to do that, no. The mouse was too resourceful and cunning opponent. What if he bit the hand? What if it grew infected?
I looked at Piyush. He looked back at me.
“Snacks,” we echoed simultaneously, and retreated, living to fight another day.
It was a hot topic of discussion that night. We all sat down in Nandu’s room, as was our habit in those days, to have a small tête-à-tête. Piyush explained his problem with all the seriousness he could muster for that occasion. A silence that followed was befitting, considering the gravity of the situation.
It lasted all of five seconds before Bahl blurted out the obvious, “You tried a mousetrap?”
Nandu’s hand began a track which would lead it to hit against his forehead. I averted my eyes, but the resounding smack could not be blocked out by my ears.
“I don’t have one,” protested Piyush, waving his hands about helplessly.
“Get one from Basant,” replied Nandu, condescension creeping into his voice. Basant was our hostel chowkidar.
It was sound advice, and Piyush saw fit to implement it.
I came to his room the next day. “Any luck?” I asked.
“None whatsoever,” came the gloomy reply.
“Maybe it has to do with the fact that you need to put some bait in the trap, perchance?” I pointed out, rather sarcastically, I might add.
He levelled me with a flat stare. “I did put bait into it, idiot,” he replied. “It’s gone!”
I was sceptical. “And where is the mouse, then? I see nothing in the cage.”
“This mousetrap is dysfunctional,” he grumbled.
I rolled my eyes. “Clearly,” I replied, “you dreamt up the part where you put bait into that contraption. And what was the bait anyway? Mess food? No self-respecting creature would come close to that gunk! Only us feckless humans with no self-respect allow ourselves to be sold to bad food and company!”
“It was a roti (Indian bread)!” he replied defensively. “They’re used to attract mice all the time!”
I let it pass. If the hard mass they served us in the mess was roti, then I was na na na na na na na! Batman!
I sighed. “Clearly, good fellow,” I continued, taking off my glasses and wiping off an imaginary dust particle, “Your mousetrap is not working.”
“Do you have a better plan?” he demanded.
I must confess I had none. However, pride and dignity often come before the truth, and I held my ground superbly. “Of course!”
“Let’s hear it then,” said he with finality. He crossed his arms across his chest and looked at me expectantly.
I slowly formed a smile. In reality, this was no more than a cover for my mind to process raw data at a high clock speed and churn out bullshit he would not think to suspect. It took me all of two seconds.
“Buy some Hit,” I suggested.
A thoughtful look appeared on his face. “Well,” he replied slowly, “that might just work.”
I went out of his room, my jaw almost slack at such stupidity. Honestly. Did he really believe that? It was meant to be used on insects and cockroaches, not on mammals! Damn, man, I told myself. You’re good at this. Fooling him was almost as simple as two plus two.
And that was the last time before today I had seen him, a thoughtful look on his face while considering a completely idiotic idea. And so, to have found him grinning so stupidly so soon after that incident rang alarm bells in my head.
“Did the Hit work?” I asked. Before he could answer, I waved him down. “I don’t believe it,”I continued, disbelief spreading through me. If it had worked, then it was high time that someone report its level of toxicity to the government. My father will hear of this, thought I, feeling a lot like Malfoy.
“Yes, and no,” replied Piyush smugly.
I stared at him. It was at that moment that I was convinced that the man sitting in front of me was the biggest buffoon on this planet.
“Yes and no,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Does Schroedinger own that mouse?” I cried out. “Check whether the mouse is dead or alive after the application of Hit, and the scumbag answers both! Idiot! Don’t drag quantum mechanics into worldly matters, it makes calculations too complicated!”
“No,” he replied, stretching out the end of the word in his trademark fashion. “The mouse is dead, all right, but not only because of the Hit.”
“What else did you use?” I asked, feigning curiosity. In truth, I just wanted to be as far away from the smell as possible, but Piyush being a new friend and all, it was hard to deny him company in his hour of victory.
“I saw the mouse run in,” he narrated with all the emotion of one narrating the Iliad. “I knew just what I had to do. I had a ball of cotton with me. I soaked it in Hit, and then threw it into the hole the bloody bugger had made for itself.” He paused.
“And then?” I asked impatiently.
“I saw a couple of people pass by. They’d been repairing the leak in the toilet.”
A sense of horror dawned upon me. “You didn’t,” I breathed, shock and awe accidentally leaking into my voice.
“I did,” he replied, almost crowing with delight.
“You had them pump sewage into that hole?” I asked disbelievingly.
In hindsight, that question sounds plain stupid. But listen, the smell in his room was worse than that of dead rat. The only other explanation was that he was rotting faeces for some twisted experiment I hadn’t been informed about.
His palm connected with his forehead. “No!” He got up from his lotus position on the bed and proceeded to point out where the hole was.
Only, there was no hole. The tile had been covered with what looked like fresh cement. I sucked in a breath.
And immediately coughed it out, sputtering and cursing. But there was no denying the work of a master. I could almost imagine the mouse in there, desperately squeaking to be let out, then its weakness after getting no food, and then finally, the blissful release of death.
I looked up to see Piyush still grinning at me, his smile wider than a peeled banana. He probably had no idea that that mouse would forever be labelled his Anarkali.
But no one would ever call Piyush Akbar. Ever.