Death of a Good-Time Girl
by Anjana Basu
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The headlines shrieked Death of a Model! in black and white over the local papers. A five-letter word with enough power packed into it to make readers wake up before they sipped their morning cups of tea. Glamour, sleaze and sin screaming in black. How nice, here it is again after the Jessica Lal death in Delhi and this time it’s local, everyone said, with a delicious shudder. Death was soon modified to murder, and the facts were more spectacular than the earlier Tamarind Tree shooting because this time a woman’s nude body had been discovered in her flat two days after her husband had reported her missing and a day after neighbours complained of a strange smell in the building.
Leena Sen: most people had her confused with a well-known newsreader who had also done a modelling stint in the past and were busy scurrying around claiming that they had known her intimately in school or college or somewhere, until they realised that the facts did not fit the person they knew.
When they were unconfused, they were busy gasping at the circumstances of her death. A rag had been rammed down her throat and someone had covered her nose and mouth until she choked. Then she had been propped naked against the kitchen wall and left there. How Did Sen Lose Her Clothes? the headlines went on to ask. There were no easy answers. Why, for example did she have a second flat where she lived apart from her husband and where she conducted her business? If she had a second flat, what sort of business did she conduct? How could any kind of business except the wrong kind cause you to lose your clothes?
No one wanted to speculate as to what that business might have been. When I knew Sen, I knew her under a different surname. She was briefly the receptionist at the ad agency where I worked ten years ago. A dark woman as thin as a knife with a frizz of black curls and a polite white smile. She was always impeccably folded into her sari. Even then they said she had a past. “If you hang around reception long enough, you’ll hear her clients calling her,” whispered my new colleagues. She had been a PA in a paint company and lost her job because of those ubiquitous clients. It was while she was in the ad agency that she did a little modelling, one of those things that every ad agency person gets to do--fill space in a photograph frame while the star model takes centre stage.
Then she was gone: to a better job,
she told us graciously when she was leaving. I saw her a couple of times
after that standing by the side of the road waiting to catch a taxi. People
I talked to said that she lived in the multi- storeyed opposite, the place
where her body was ultimately found. Not that I recognised her from the
headlines to begin with. The black-and-white photograph they flashed had
wild eyes and severely short hair that looked nothing like those frizzy
waves I had worked with. The General Manger who
A few, very few, said that it was
a hard way to die. She was found on the kitchen floor with an empty bottle
of whisky on the table and four empty glasses. Her husband, her second
husband, people hastened to clarify, was the financial director of a small
advertising agency. He claimed he had informed the police the moment he
realised that she was missing. They led separate lives, he told the press,
because his wife was busy with her own business, but they went out together.
They were, in fact, scheduled to dine
He had interviewed me for that same small ad agency, a shrewd unnecessarily hard-seeming man with a eye on the bottomline. My imagination struggled to throw him and her into the same bed. He was, after all, in his sixties and she ten years younger. Besides, which why on earth would a sharp executive marry a woman with that kind of business? Because he wanted a share of the profits, obviously, said the worldly wise.
The retired old men lining the verandah of the Calcutta Club, cradling their whisky tumblers, growled that he had been keeping Leena for years while he cheated on his first wife. The first wife belonged to their scheme of things: she was the daughter of a well-known cardiologist, a fellow club member. Sen had defrauded her of her money, dumped her and married Leena. What do you expect from someone like that? The thing was, no one had known what to expect. Sen was a respected Rotary Club member and had travelled to Singapore to receive an award from Rotary international. He sounded as solid as a leatherbound folio, even though he might not look it.
All over the city people were snatching at suspicions, the more spectacular, the better. Letters written from Tollygunge starlets had also been found on the kitchen table. Everyone knew about the casting-couch circle. It was suggested that Leena was running that in addition to her other activities, whatever those activities might have been.
Leena’s handbag was conspicuous in its absence from her flat. The police discovered the handbag at her husband’s place with her diary in it. In the absence of any suspects, everything seemed to point to the husband. They descended on the advertising agency where Sen worked and questioned the staff. Very few people were aware of Sen’s actual movements. He had a room secluded in one corner so that no one really observed him come and go, barring the receptionist. They were, however, all aware of Leena visiting the office in a slinky skirt and midriff-baring T-shirt and could state conclusively that she was a chain smoker, not that that constituted any kind of evidence.
Sen’s driver was questioned and apparently came out with spectacular pieces of evidence like the fact that he drove Sen to Leena’s place on the rainy night that she was murdered. The guard who checked visitors into the building said he had seen a silver grey car drive in but confessed that his vision had been blurred by the rain. He was certain, however, that Sen had come over that fatal evening and returned two days later to have his card sent up, because no one had answered the doorbell.
The police wanted to question the driver further, but Sen said that the first cross-examination had distressed the man to the point of collapse. Sen had therefore admitted him to a fairly well-known Calcutta hospital: the kind of hospital where no innocent man would have sent his driver. See, said the headline followers, it’s a bribe! Would an innocent man behave like that? My travel-agent aunt confided that Sen had bought two tickets for a trip to Europe but rung up a few days later to cancel the tickets, saying sadly that his wife did not wish to travel. Do you really think he killed her?
The police were running out of leads. The papers growled that the trail was growing cold and that it was the second unsolved murder in weeks. It was all part and parcel, they said, of the general inefficiency that plagued the state.
Twenty days after Leena Sen’s death, the police walked quietly into Sen’s advertising agency, asked him and the accountant to come downstairs and arrested him with the accountant as a witness. The next day he was on the front page of most papers, with a handkerchief covering his face as they took him to be charged in court. He’d murdered her because he was unhappy, they said, though all the evidence they had against him was circumstantial. Sen had been in the office all afternoon and early evening on the 29th of June: his MD had rung him up three times in the afternoon and spoken to him every time.
A friend to whom Leena had confided a long way back in her wild career pointed out that Leena’s brother had been feuding with her for a long time. He could quite easily have murdered her, she speculated, and perhaps had a better reason than Sen did. “Well,” said an office colleague to me, “perhaps she refused to give Sen a divorce, and he was tired of having his name dragged through the mud. Or perhaps he was so devoted to her that he couldn’t bear her infidelities any longer.” The police have no other leads. The brother’s name has not even been mentioned by the press, though Leena’s mother reportedly filed a case against her daughter for stealing jewels from her worth ten lakhs. In the meantime, the police insist that Sen and Leena shared ‘a sweet relationship that had turned sour.’
Does anyone really know? Sen is currently in jail while the police try to put a strong case together. The Rotary Club, who consider him one of their pillars, is reeling from the shock, and Calcutta society is still whispering about it and will continue to whisper, until a fresher bit of gossip comes along.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, The Black Tongue is under contract to IndiaInk. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)