Man, this Sun TV really knows its audience well.
Uncle Sridhar watched an effectively dumbed-down detective series on the channel with me by his side.
“I think the driver is the killer. Right, Hari?” he thought aloud, his mouth full of Pongal.
I had drifted off into a parallel universe where Priya was strangling me with Cleo’s leash. I shifted in my seat and stared at the television again. The driver on the TV seemed to be just about as nervous as I was. He sweated profusely as the police detective looked him in the eye and stammered as he spoke. All the makings of a culprit on Sun TV.
“Yes, he does look guilty to me.” I replied, perhaps stammering as well. It was as if the universe was sending up smoke signals to beckon me to drop arms and run. Maybe I could indeed ignore the plight of the cousin, and continue watching this ingenious detective on the idiot-box hunt down his prey. I breathed out a sigh and continued to work on the Pongal on my plate. The last wafts of the steaming hot Pongal had just about disappeared when my phone rang. It was Priya.
“Are you trying to chicken out of this?” she blasted through the cellphone.
I tuned into my version of an innocent voice. “Who said anything about chickening out of anything?”
“You think I don’t know you? I know you are simply sitting around looking for an excuse to not execute a simple task your dear sister has given you.”
“Nothing of the sort. Besides, my dear sister wants me to turn into a thief.”
“But a noble one. It is for a good cause. You may consider yourself to be the modern day Robinhood.”
I contemplated this. Something somewhere was not right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“You know, I don’t think all this is such a good idea.”
“I knew it! You are chickening out!”
“I am not! I am just doing what I feel is right.”
“You are so short-sighted. Clearly you don’t want your sister to be happy. And you know what unhappy sisters do?”
“They talk. They talk a lot. A lot of shit about their brothers who don’t care about them.”
“Oh god, not again.”
“You should have seen this coming. Now behold the wrath of … “
“Okay. Okay. Fine.”
“Fine, I’ll get the painting.”
“Oh what a lovely brother I have!”
“And you hurry the hell up. I have a feeling Gopal wants to get back home by lunchtime.”
“Yes, yes. I’m on my way.”
With a word of cheery farewell, she hung up the phone leaving me to curse my luck. Ten minutes later, key in hand, I stood outside the green house once more. This, from here, should be a cakewalk.
A cursory glace at the surroundings, a sharp click to unlock the front gate, a casual push to throw it open and a few well oiled strides later, I stood before the main door. This, from here, should be a cakewalk.
I flicked the key-chain out of my pocket once more, three keys hanging onto it for dear life. In turns, I stuck each of them into the lock on the main door. Each one failed spectacularly. I let the keys jiggle about as I waved my hands in frustration. This, from here, was anything but a cakewalk.
I pulled out my phone and called Priya’s number. No response. Great. I was on my own.
I had just begun examining the water spout’s capacity to withstand a bloke climbing up it, when I remembered – The kitchen window had a weak latch. A bit of brute strength and it would peter away. How marvelous of me to have thought of it. So tither I headed, whistling a tune to myself. My memory was sure enough. A few strong pushes at the window and the latch gave way. The window itself was not wide enough for an individual to enter through, but it was right next to the kitchen door. I stuck in my arm and unfastened the bolt that held the door shut. A second later, I was on the other side of the threshold, and softly shutting the door once again. That was indeed a cakewalk.
The living room was curtained up, and relatively dark even at that time of the day. I stood next to the dining table, arms folded, admiring the paintings on the wall. What a pity one of them had to be taken down. But which one?
Priya was right, there were far too many paintings here. If my counting skills hadn’t failed me, there were about thirty of them lining the four walls of the living room and the corridor that lay yonder. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed how many of them there were. I reached out and switched on a table lamp; the room was instantly filled with soft yellow light. I couldn’t risk opening the curtains or turning on the tubelights, they would make my presence obvious to the outside world.
I stared about around the room once more. There were paintings of deities, of fisherfolk, of vast fields of rice, of lazy hills and warm sunsets. There were too many of them. I needed one that would fetch a price. There was a painting above the central sofa, of the local deity that looked like it would be worth the fortune of a small house. But then, it was clearly a prized possession. Anyone would notice it missing. Any painting that would be worth its weight would surely be well advertised. I needed something valuable, but not prominent. I let out a desperate grunt. Catch 22.
I caught sight of the clock on the wall. If Gopal was indeed heading home for lunch, I would have to hurry up. I needed help with this. Perhaps Priya would have a suggestion or two. I dialed her number again. Only this time, Reva picked up the phone.
“Yes?” she asked, businesslike.
“Where is Priya?”
“She’s talking to a few prospective donors. What do you want?”
“Oh .. err.. nothing. Just ask her to call me back as soon as possible.”
“We are breaking for lunch now anyway. You’ll see her soon.”
“Oh!” There must have been a note of panic in my voice.
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh no no. I’ll see you guys soon. Bye.” I disconnected the phone before she could return the greeting. This was only getting worse. It wouldn’t take them more than ten minutes to get home, and I hadn’t even decided on what to steal yet.
There at last, appeared a candidate. The painting was right by the window, the curtain slightly overlapped its frame. It was about four feet tall but only about a foot and a half across. The dimensions must have made it too awkward to be placed elsewhere. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter. I stepped up for a closer examination of the painting. Even with my limited knowledge of the craft, I could conclude that it was an oil painting. Oil paintings of this size fetched more than a fair buck. This one depicted a performing dancer. She stood in delicate poise, hands gracefully forming a mudra. The eyes, the nimble feet and even the creases and the plaits of her costume had been etched with exquisite detail. Great credit to the artist. Too bad it had to be taken down.
Gingerly, I lifted the painting off the wall. A smashed painting would only be worth its weight in firewood. This one was indeed beautiful. I shot a casual glance at the section of the wall it had vacated. And there they were – two of the ugliest hooks one could possibly imagine.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I thought to myself. Even if one didn’t notice the painting missing, he would certainly notice these blasted hooks that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. They had to be taken down as well. With a word of frustration, I set the painting on the couch and pulled up a chair to get to the hooks.
Drat. They were the type that are twisted into the wall. They wouldn’t come off with a simple tug. And they had been screwed in tightly enough to make an utter nuisance of themselves. I jumped off the chair and ran into the kitchen to find a tool for my vested interests. Seconds thereafter, I emerged, tongs in hand. A few grunts, a sore hand, and the hooks left their gracious abode. I stood back, to admire my work. A pair of tiny holes were visible where the painting had once been. But luckily, they were not prominent enough. This was my best bet anyway.
I slipped the painting under my arm and the hooks into my pocket. I had just about turned away to leave when I heard voices outside the front door. I stood silent for a moment to listen.
“Gopal Anna!” said an unmistakable voice on the other side of the door. It was the defender of rights, Venkat, who seemed to have arrived on the site. “I noticed, your kitchen window is open.”
I facepalmed myself as noiselessly as I could.
“Oh is it?”, came Gopal’s reply. “Yes, that latch was a bit loose anyway. I think it broke off.”
“No no. You shouldn’t be so casual. There have been so many robberies off late.”
“In broad daylight? I’ve only been gone for a couple of hours.”
“You never know, maybe the thieves have become braver and smarter now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Wait Anna, let me escort you into the house. You will need security.”
“And you are planning to save me from what, exactly?”
“What if the thief jumps out and attacks you?”
I heard a heavy sigh, presumably Gopal’s. “Fine, come in with me.” As the key fiddled with the lock, I realized I was standing in the middle of the living room with a painting in hand. Not a great situation to be in. Instinctively, I opened the door of the nearest room and jumped in, painting in hand. I quietly shut the door just as the main door opened and I heard the others walk in.
“See?”, said Gopal voice. “No burglary. Must have been the wind that blew the window open.”
“You were unnecessarily getting us worried.” That sounded like Reva.
“Yes, yes. I guess I was wrong. I’ll get going then, you two have a nice day.” Saying thus, Venkat retreated back out of the door. I breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“Crazy guy.” said Gopal presumably when Venkat had disappeared out of earshot.
From what I could make out from the sounds over the next few minutes, Gopal and Reva dined at the table in the living room.
“You know,” came Gopals voice just when I thought I’d make myself comfortable on the bed and wait it out. “there is something different about the room.”
“Different?” asked Reva. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It feels like there is something amiss. You know, even the table lamp was switched on when we entered. I am pretty sure I had turned it off when we’d left.”
“Oh, you must have just forgotten. You were in a hurry in the morning.”
“Ya, you are right. That Venkat has put all these weird thoughts in my head.”
“Shall we go? I’ll just leave the flap open. Just so I have some peace of mind.”
This was bad. Gopal had realized something wrong. And Venkat had already spotted me trying to get into the house on the pretext of fetching a newspaper. If they figure out that the house is one painting short, even Venkat would put two and two together, surely? Priya and her stupid ideas.