She could feel her phone vibrating in her back pocket as she ran-walked to class, late by a few minutes, again.
Curious student eyes burned a hole in her back.
7:30 AM lectures were her Kryptonite. The 3-year old, still in bed, finger jammed firmly inside his mouth, her Superman.
“Hi class”, she said as she entered. A few of the kids looked up, most continued checking their phones.
She hated being late. Made it harder for her to lay down the law for the stragglers sure to soon follow.
Her phone was still trying to get her attention.
She was glad the phone was on silent. It felt too personal, to let her students hear her ringtone. She wondered for a second about the man she had called back last night.
His ringtone was some sort of Arabic prayer. Must be someone from the Hindi heartland. At least she was still using one of the default phone ringtones!
She glanced at the screen as she put it inside her handbag, carefully separated from the coins and loose change, in a padded section by itself where it could buzz without interrupting the class.
The lock screen was seething with notifications. That would have to wait. Organic chemistry came first.
After the class, she slowly led the gaggle of students surrounding her towards her office. She liked this part of being teacher the best. She secretly compared the size of her throngs to those of other teachers.
Raghav called it the “dick measuring contest of doctors of philosophy”.
It was only after the last student left did she get a chance to look at her phone again.
Facebook was lit up!
She opened the app and switched to the notifications screen.
Three more people had expressed interest in taking the high chair and kid’s tricycle.
One guy even wanted to pay for it and was willing to pick up it today!
SCORE!, she thought. She checked his profile.
He didn’t look like the kind of guy who would use Facebook but who could say these days.
Mukesh Ambani didn’t look like the prototypical richest man in Asia. He didn’t even look like he knew how to wear a suit and yet, here we were.
She replied, telling him he could come tomorrow to get the stuff. His response was immediate.
-Hi.Ghr Kahan aapka, sar? (what is your address, sir?). She grimaced. Everyone was a man until proven otherwise in this country
-Sar,naam sar (Sir, your name?)
-Jyoti (she said)
-Oh systar, apna number bolo (Sister, what’s your number?)
-9845098450 (she said)
-call karega (I’ll call you)
The call came when she was on her way home.
“Haan, hello didi haan,” the man said.
“Hello,” she hoped she sounded serious on the phone.
“Woh high chair ke liye…,” he trailed off. About that high chair.
“Kitna doge?” she asked. How much will you give?
“Woh aapki problem hai!” That’s your problem.
“Sister, main fraud nahin hun. Aapne mera PAN aur Aadhar dekha na?” I’m not a fraud, sister. You have seen my photo IDs.
Mere ko nahin maluum! Aap paise wapas bhejo abhi ke abhi!! I don’t know all that. I want my money back NOW!!
Her voice rose with the last sentence.
She hated how thin she sounded when she was angry. She wanted to reach through the phone and choke the guy.
“Sister, is time pukka ho jayega! Mera ladka galat kar diya. Aap bas app mein amount field mein yeh code dalo.” It’ll work this time. Just put this code in the amount field of the app.
Her office hours were going to start in a few minutes. How did this guy know to call when she was busiest?
She popped open the laptop with one hand while she folded a piece of chappati around the sabji with the other.
The banking app sat there waiting for her. Students were starting to mill around after the end of the last class of the day. Trupti has asked to meet – wanted to review their paper for the conference.
Trupti was a good kid. She saw herself in Trupti.
Cradling the phone, one eye on the clock, she put the code in.
“₹1258990 has been debited from your bank account xxx5053.”
“Haan didi, mere account se gaya hai paisa! Apna account dekho.” Yes, sister, that amount got debited from my account. Check your account.
She called her husband in a panic.
“Are you alone? Can you take me off speaker?” She knew him too well.
“Yeah, tell me,” he said, phone to ear.
“Listen, I’m in big trouble!”
“Why? What happened?” he asked.
“I’ve lost a lot of money.”
“A few thousand? What happened?”
“More. Our entire savings have been wiped out.” She was crying.
“Fuck. I’m coming to your office right now!”
The sun shone off the wings of flight to Jaipur, right into her eyes, blinding her for a brief second.
She was on her way to pay her “brother” a surprise visit.
It was a private joke between her and her husband, started seven years ago, the first Rakhi after The Incident. He had suggested sending the guy on the phone a Rakhi and asking for her money back as her Rakhi gift.
Their life had taken a U-turn after The Incident – their nickname for the scam.
Raghav had been still struggling to get his business off the ground at the time of the incident.
The sudden change of fortune forced him to shut down his business and get a job. A forty two year old in software with a long gap in his resume was never going to be a must-hire.
He’d started driving for Uber, obsessively watching videos on day trading between fares.
She had taken up tutoring and beautician gigs on Urban Company on top of her teaching job. The UC bag took up a big share of the tiny bedroom now.
The years had been tough and the strain on the marriage immense. She sometimes stayed up all night, just embracing her son, unable to sleep, fretting about the unfairness of it all.
For six years, they teetered along the edge of poverty. Her parents made excuses to help them out.
“Oh, this little thing? It is a Diwali gift for Adwit. Grandparents are supposed to spoil the next generation. Haan, listen, my fixed deposit matured last month. I have transferred it to Adwit’s name.”
To their credit, they never asked why Raghav was always out, driving, when they visited. Or wondered why there was a large UC bag in the bedroom. Or even why they had downsized to faraway Kandivali.
“Hey, I used to work with this guy at 91Springboard. He does background checks as a service,” Raghav said. “Maybe he knows a private investigator or two?”
“For what?” she replied, distracted by Adwit’s wiggling.
“I want to get them to go look for your brother.”
“You’re mad. Let it go,” she replied.
“We lost everything. We had to withdraw Adwit from Montessori. I had to quit my startup because of this asshole. I can’t forgive this guy. I don’t want to let it go,” his voice rose.
“How much will it cost?” she asked, ever mindful of how close they had come to living on the streets.
“My last few trades have worked well. I think we can afford this. And if nothing else works, we’ll really send the asshole a Rakhi this time.”
“Do what you want.”
“Raghav sir, Dinesh this side. Mil gaye Jitin bhai. He’s in Bharatpur. Chota mota Don hai. Invoice bhejta huun.” I’m sending you the invoice for locating Jitin. He’s a small time crook.
“Lo. Done. Those Urban Company guys have no idea what you can do with their chemicals,” Jyoti said. “Be very careful not to touch anything bare handed. This powder reacts with moisture to make cyanide. Don’t even let it touch your skin.”
Raghav carefully dipped the base of the Rakhi into the powder.
They could hear the din from Jitin bhai’s Rakhi Purnima festivities through the open window.
Jyoti dressed demurely in a sari, joined the line of women waiting to tie Jitin a Rakhi. It was local tradition, the Rakhi a small price women paid for protection from the pervasive culture of harassment and exploitation around them.
“Bhaiyya, mera chota ladka hai. Uspe haath pher do,” she said, as she tied him a Rakhi. Bless my son.
By evening, news had spread that Jitin bhai was no more. Cause of death, unknown.