The Witness – Rajeswari Menon

Author      : Rajeswari Menon
Company : Travancore Analytics
Email        :

                                                                         The Witness

He quietly padded over to the window, moved the faded, moth-eaten curtain a bit, just a little bit, and peeped out. Across the road, in the shadows of the lamp post, silently waited the watcher. He closed the curtain quickly, wondered if he had been spotted and stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray. The ash tray was overflowing. And to think that at one time he had actually quit the cancer stick! God! Now was not the time to worry about cancer. Right now dying of cancer almost seemed like a better way to go. No! He did not deserve to die! He passed his hand over his overwrought brow. He kept the barrel of his gun on his forehead. The feel of the cold metal was in fact quite soothing. The gun – it was his new best friend. Heck! He was tired. Sick and tired of hiding like a hunted animal. Being scared of shadows, living in the shadows, almost becoming one himself. His throat was parched. He grabbed the bottle of water only to realize that it was empty. Where was the lousy waiter with the water? He knew that it was pointless to call up room service. Room service would swear that h would get a bottle of water in five minutes. They had been doing so for the past hour or so. Appalling service to match the decor, he mused. What had happened to his carefully planned life? He sat down on the faded, stained couch and mulled over the events that had led up to this point in his life.

Twelve years ago, they’d all been so full of themselves, all three of them, imagining themselves to be the chosen ones. In some ways they were, they had been chosen, in fact picked right out of campus and placed as trainees in one of the leading software companies of India. It didn’t hurt at all that the company was an excellent paymaster. He had known Arjun, or rather, known about Arjun even while at college. Arjun was the college superstar. Blessed with matinee idol looks and effortless charm, Arjun swaggered around campus with lordly disdain. He himself had been on the other end of the spectrum. To him college was the only way to get out of the dreary middle class existence that had been born into. He knew that he had to get placed and to that end, he had his head buried in his books most of the time. His dreams came true and he was selected and placed during the very first round of campus selectin. He was pleasantly surprised when Arjun approached him during the orientation and asked, “Vivek? Hey, didn’t we go to the same college?” ‘Yes, yes we did”, he replied, flustered but at the same time pleased that he had been noticed. He too could not resist Arjun’s easy charm and they became buddies. Niti, pretty little Niti, she had been a trainee too. They had both tried to woo her unashamedly. She had sportingly rebuffed both their advances but soon became their friend.

Life was good. For the first time in his life, Vivek had friends to hang out with and money to burn, and burn money, they did, all three of them. Every evening after work was a party, as the three friends went clubbing, painting the city crimson, visiting one hotspot after the other. They were young, rich and successful, leading a charmed life. But it wasn’t too long before, that wanton monster, the green-eyed fiend of envy began to claw at Vivek’s insides. It started when he started catching those clandestine smiles, meant only for each other’s eyes, passing between his two friends. Somehow he felt betrayed, cheated even. Then, Arjun was one of the few selected from among them to become Project Manager. Vivek felt cheated again. He felt he’d worked harder than Arjun. The green-eyed fiend would have had his victory then, had it not been for the fact that he could not resist the pull of friendship. His friends, they were all he had, and he’d never had any friends in his life. So he kept quiet, while seething inside and continued to hang out with his friends.

It was on one such fateful evening, they’d met the guy who was to change their lives forever. Or rather, the guy had barged into them, trying to hit on Niti. He appeared drunk and high, so they’d ignored him at first. But then the guy relinquished all levels of sobriety and decency and tried to get physical all the time abusing Niti in coarse language. Arjun saw red, and it took Arjun all of three minutes to dispatch and deposit the trouble maker outside the nightclub. Vivek tagged along of course. When they returned, Niti looked at Arjun with stars in her eyes.  Those stars resurrected Vivek’s personal fiend, and the green-eyed one was back to life, roaring his pleasure. Vivek got drunker than usual that evening, and after seeing Niti off in a cab, Arjun good naturedly offered to drop Vivek home, “You are in no shape to be alone, buddy”, he grinned, “Wait here, while I find a cab for you.” The cold night air helped to clear Vivek’s head a bit and he had just started feeling guilty for grudging his best friends their happiness when he heard Arjun call out, “Viv, hey Viv, come over here man! Oh my God! Of all the goddamn things! Crap! Get over here man!”

He went over to where Arjun was crouched between two cars. He saw a second form prostrate on the ground next to Arjun. Even in his befuddled state he knew that the man on the ground, the guy Arjun had forcibly evicted from the club, was quite dead. The rather large knife that still stuck out of the guy’s ribcage helped him reach the conclusion rather easily. “What shall we do?” Arjun was asking him. “Call for help or just leave quietly?”

As he looked at his friend crouched over the body, his path became very, very clear to him. “I know exactly what to do”, he reassured his friend and started hollering at the top of his voice. The security guard and the bouncers reached first, before Arjun even realized that things did not look good for him. Vivek just had to look shocked and point his finger at his friend. He did not even have to utter a word. The green eyed- fiend’s thirst was slaked at last, by the puzzled and hurt look in Arjun’s eyes as he was handcuffed and carted away in a by the policemen.

It turned out that “the guy” was not just any guy. He was, in fact, the son of a very well-heeled and well-connected politician. The bereaved father ensured a speedy trial and conviction of his son’s murderer. Vivek had been the star witness. The man who had put honesty over friendship, a true hero. “It was him,”Vivek testified on the witness stand his voice quavering with the emotion of having to testify against his buddy. “I saw him” he said before completely breaking down on the stand. Arjun had continued to look at him with those hurt eyes throughout the trial. Niti was shocked and disbelieving. Vivek was there for her then, helping her, holding her, her shoulder to cry on. But before things could progress further, she decided she wanted a change, a clean break form anything that reminded her of Arjun and so she quit and moved to anohter city. Eventually she stopped returning his calls, changed her number but did not let him know.  Slowly but steadily they drifted apart and soon she was no more a part of his life.

Goddamn it! That seemed like another lifetime! He lit up another cigarette and sprawled back onto the couch. Twelve years had passed since that night! God! So like Arjun, that sanctimonious jerk, to get released for good behaviour. Ever since a mutual acquaintance tipped him off that Arjun was getting out of prison and had evinced a keen interest in catching up with his old buddy turned Judas, he’d been on the run. He looked around the grungy, dilapidated hotel room. A far cry from the elegant, Michelin ranked surroundings he had gotten used to. As if on cue a rat scurried across the room. That nearly pushed him over the edge. He took his gun and placed it at his temple. No! Never! He’d not give in; he’d not go down without a fight. He removed the revolver from his temple and tucked it in his belt.  Let Arjun come, he was ready to face him. He did not intend to make his former friend’s job any easier.  He switched off all the lights and waited quiet, patient with almost a sense of anticipation.
The night grew quieter and silent. He felt his senses become more aware of their surroundings. Each groan of the wind, each chirp of a cricket was to him magnified and amplified. In the midst of all that, came the footsteps, slow, deliberate, and definite. The knock on the door seemed almost to split his ear drums. He moved across the room quietly, almost gliding. He took the safety off his gun, opened the door and squeezed the trigger five times. Five shots rang out before he saw the surprised face of the scruffy, old waiter in front of him. A bottle of water rolled out of the old man’s hands as he collapsed, almost soundlessly. Numb with shock, Vivek looked across the road. Arjun came out of the shadows near the lamp post with what looked like a grin on his face.
Even as they carted him away towards the Police jeep, he could not help but look at his old friend turned enemy with puzzled eyes. Arjun came towards him through the crowd and whispered “Time to return a favour, buddy. Look for me in the witness stand”.