Vinita Joshi pushed open the door of her father’s white mansion in south Delhi.
Inch by inch, her childhood abode revealed itself to her again. The sparkling two-tier crystal chandelier. The spiral staircase with red velvet stairs. The four marble pillars on each side. The life-size photographs of her grandparents.
On the wall opposite her hung a photograph that had not budged. A grinning Vinita was leaning over Rajinder, who sat in a leather armchair wearing a black suit. Back then, she used to sport a boy cut. Snapped before his hiking accident, the photo showed Rajinder scarless. His face was rigid, his eyes penetrating.
Even his picture seemed to admonish her.
A shattering sound broke the silence.
A man with but two tufts of white hair stood hunched, six feet to her left. A red piece of cloth was slung over his shoulder. Broken glass lay near his sandalled feet.
The man covered his mouth. His hands trembled. “Vinita Beti?” he staggered forward.
“Yes, Prem,” Vinita dropped her purse on a glass-top table. “I am here.”
Tears filled the man’s eyes. He put his hands together and gasped, “Vinita Beti, Rajinder Sahib said you would not come. He said you would never leave America.” A sniffle. “Now he has also left us.”
Vinita was silent.
Trusted executives deserted TeleCorp every month, with not so much as a thank you email. And here was Prem, after thirty- five years, still the Joshis’ Man Friday. With no immediate family to speak of, the Joshis were the only family he had.
Perhaps he too would leave, now that Rajinder was no more. Prem wiped his face with the red cloth.
“I don’t have much time, Prem. I need to see Dad’s room.” He nodded. “I will show you. I have left it as it was, Beti.” Vinita’s left hand landed on his shoulder. “Bring me a cup of strong coffee.” She smiled. “The way you always made it.” Vinita ascended the spiral staircase.
The stairs were unchanged. The sensation was different. To her left, the chandelier shimmered within touching distance of the topmost stair.
Along the hallway, Vinita passed by a picture of her late mother Sanjana at a corporate dinner with Rajinder.
Vinita opened the first door on her right.
A shiny black table stood five feet from Rajinder’s bed. On it sat a dusty spectacle case.
Vinita recognised the leather couch that used to occupy her room. She ran her fingers along the couchtop.
Can’t call it my own anymore. Shouldn’t call anything here my own anymore.
Her eyes fell on a glass chessboard on the table beside Rajinder’s bed. The tower-shaped rooks. The knights, resembling the head and neck of a horse. The kings, queens, bishops and pawns.
Even after all these years, chess had not been far from Rajinder. She lifted her gaze to a picture affixed to the wall.
Kedarnath and she were bowing to Rajinder, seeking his blessings, a decade ago. Those were simpler times. Happier times.
Vinita touched the picture.
Did Kedarnath still live in Delhi? Had he remarried?
She looked towards the window.
Sunlight bathed Rajinder’s sprawling lawn. The marble statues of warriors posed as sentinels on the cut grass. The water in the circular ceramic pond close to Prem’s cottage was clear. The marble figurine in the centre of the pond spewed water from its mouth.
As a girl, Vinita had often circled the lawn on her horse Hira. Rajinder always kept watch, but Hira was well-trained. Nothing had ever gone wrong.
Hira was long gone.
“Vinita Beti, your hair has turned grey,” she heard Prem behind her.
Vinita accepted the warm mug of coffee. “Well, I am not young anymore.”
Prem smiled. He seemed shorter than he had been nine years ago. “Vinita...”
“Why did you not come earlier?”
Vinita took in a breath of air. “What was left for me here, Prem?”
Vinita sipped her coffee sitting on the leather couch. Her first phone call on landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was from Rajinder’s doctor. He revealed that Rajinder had suffered penetrating chest injuries that led to pulmonary contusion when his taxi had collided with a truck on the highway.
At the first signs of improvement, Rajinder had demanded that the rest of his treatment be completed at home.
“Obstinate to the last,” Vinita muttered.
Against his better judgement, the doctor had allowed it. Apparently that hadn’t been enough for Rajinder, for he had called taxis on the three days that followed. No one knew where he had meant to go.
The first two times he had been caught by Prem. On the third day, it was the doctor. All the while, Rajinder had continued to cough up blood, until the morning Prem had found him motionless, with a final smudge of blood on his mouth and another on the bedsheet.
What would happen now to AveoGen? Was Rajinder’s Empire still led by men and women passionate about aviation science? Or was it plagued by politics and power struggles?
She would know soon, for she was going to meet the chief technical officer and the VP.
Vinita’s eyes fell on a cupboard by the front wall. She twisted its handle. Four black suit bags were lined up on hangers within. Vinita pictured Rajinder in a sharp black suit, with a grin on his face and yet another idea in his mind.
Why hadn’t he called her after the accident? The last time she had heard his voice was nine years ago, when they had yelled at each other. She would now live with that memory forever.
Her fingers found a ragged brown backpack below the hangers. The straps were stained with half a dozen drops of dark red.
Vinita unzipped the front. She felt cotton cloth inside. She pulled it out.
Red borders outlined the fabric. The interior of the cloth was an eight by eight arrangement of yellow squares. The first, fourth, fifth and eighth rows on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth columns were marked with crosses etched into the cloth.
Rajinder’s secretary’s words came back to her:
Why would your father leave in a taxi with a backpack and a chessboard when the company was falling apart?
Vinita sighed at the cloth. Chess. The game that had seduced Rajinder on his sixth birthday, when his uncle had presented him with a wooden set. The rest was history.
Vinita hated chess. Work presented enough examples of plotting and planning, with one difference.
No draws were permitted in her world.
Rajinder did try to teach her once, when she was seven. But apparently she had thrown away the pieces and wailed for her teddy bear. That was the one time he had scolded her. At least until then.
A Milton water bottle and a piece of paper lay inside the backpack. Seven lines of text were scribbled on the scrap in Rajinder’s right-slanted handwriting. “+” signs hung above some of the words.
Vinita’s eyes strained at the text:
Divasamekam antey hayaprishttena
Asti samatalakshetrah trishoolakarah
Asha me rajyasampada
Samachchana adyapi cha
Vinita read the text again and again.
“Asha” meant hope. “Paschim” could mean west. But what did the text mean in its entirety? And why was it in Rajinder’s backpack?
“Prem?” Vinita called out.
He appeared within seconds.
“What was Rajinder working on before the accident?” Prem opened his mouth but did not speak. He wiped his forehead with the red cloth.
“I need to know, Prem.”
“Vinita Beti,” he stuttered, “sahib was busy at night for the last five months. Always busy.”
“Busy with what?”
“All he said was that he wanted to go on a trip.”
“Trip to where?”
“I don’t know. The driver took leave, so I brought a taxi driver.” He lowered his eyes. “Sahib had the accident that day.”
“Prem,” Vinita frowned at the text, “find that taxi driver.”
She looked up. “What’s the matter?”
“He died when the taxi hit the truck.”
Excerpted with permission from Checkmate, Nihshanka Debroy, Westland.