3 December 2013

Missing numbers

Rukmini took a sharp intake of breadth and loudly exclaimed, "Ayyo!" She hastily opened the letter from the taxman. Since they weren't known to send out congratulatory letters of any sort, she was certain the news was not pleasant. Despite this knowledge, her heart leaped into her mouth as she read how much the bar owed the taxman. In the agitation that followed, her glasses tumbled on to the floor and she stepped on them.

As she ground the glass with her heel, her mind raced, "How could this be?"

Accounts was not Rukmini's strong point so she had a Mr Swaminathan who did all the numbers. He told her to sign here, here and here. She did. Swaminathan was a friend of Murugan and she has felt comfortable with him. There hadn't been an issue for over a decade. So, what was this all about?

She dialed Swaminathan. After many rings, a woman answered and said he wasn't available to come on the phone. She mumbled something about illness, and before Rukmini had a chance to plead for an audience, she cut the line. When she tried the number again, the mobile had been switched off.

After tossing and turning in bed that night Rukmini decided that she needed to take the bull by its horns: she decided to visit the Tax offices. It was a sunny day, armed with an umbrella, her most faded dharmavaram cotton saree, and a hairstyle that made her face appear vulnerable, Rukmini set out. After visiting each floor, three different Mr Nataraj's, three peons who felt obliged to send her down corridors with stinky bathrooms, Rukmini reached the office of the taxman who had signed her letter.

"Madam, as it says here, service tax has not been paid and the government would like to claim that. What is the problem, eh?" His tone was paternal and perplexed, like Rukmini was expecting to be appreciated for solving the difficult problem of what two plus two equals. After delivering his insight, the officer busied himself with peering intensely at the various files on his desk. Rukmini was flabbergasted, and after a moment, collected herself, saying "Yes Sir. The letter is plain. What needs clarification is how the Government reached this conclusion? I have copies here with all the previous years tax papers. Everything tallies." After browsing all the papers in the file in his hands, the gentleman cleared his throat, looked up, rather confused that she was still sitting in front of him, and intoned "Madam, there is an appeals process. Go to the third floor, they will help you."

Rukmini spent the day learning about various forms, what items were required in triplicate and mused that if one were to be given a choice on being reborn as an annoyance, the taxman must top the list, followed perhaps by a mosquito.

Swaminathan was still not reachable by phone, so she decided to finish her day by visiting him. His office was shut. Seeing her confused expression, the security guard of the office opposite informed her that Swaminathan's office had been closed for three months. Had he been ill for so long, wondered Rukmini? Must be something serious. So she decided to visit his home.

When she got there, she was surprised to find the metal gate, which served as the entrance, was bolted and locked. She started rattling the gate and shouted, "Mr Swaminathan! Mr Swaminathan!" Nothing stirred. In a fit,  Rukmini jumped over the gate, ruing that she had worn a saree. Then she rang the bell. Again and again, giving vent to her exasperation. She stopped when she felt the vibration of her mobile phone. An SMS from Swaminathan's number. Come to the back door.

"Be quiet" Swaminathan's wife, assumed Rukmini, hissed these words as she pulled her roughly by her hand into the house. All the curtains were drawn so it took a while for Rukmini to adjust her eyes to the darkness. The house felt warm and suffocating, likely because no window had been opened in a while. "My name is Rukmini. I am Swaminathan's client. Please calm down. I think I spoke to you yesterday, and you said he was sick. So, I wanted to make sure it was nothing serious." Rukmini tried to be calm and matter-of-fact, as she spoke. 

The woman introduced herself as Sudha, and motioned Rukmini to sit down "I don't know, ma. He has disappeared. One regular office day, he locked up as usual, but didn't come home. We have been married fifteen years and not once has that man not followed his routine. I waited for a few days and then filed a complaint with the police. That day, he had left his mobile at home, so I can't even use that to trace who he might have talked with. Soon after the police got involved, three thugs started visiting the house. They too wanted to know where he was. They said he owes them money, for gambling." Gambling? Somehow it was hard to imagine Swaminathan, his forehead bearing a red V, the mark for Vishnu, who didn't eat hotel food, didn't keep friends, drank only water boiled in his house, to have got into gambling. Sudha went on to share that because the thugs kept showing up at odd hours, she decided to shut herself in.

Rukmini convinced Sudha to come live with her to avoid the goons. She accompanied Sudha to the police station to find out what progress they had made. Swaminathan was neither a criminal, nor a politician, or a wealthy man, so his priority as a missing person was pretty low. The only thing that stood out was a single transaction, in Swaminathan's bank account; it was a deposit made a week before he disappeared. It had been made by a company registered in Mauritius and was worth about ten times as much as Swaminathan would earn in his lifetime. Sudha had no idea about the account or the money; Swaminathan had always taken care of the finances. When the police contacted the company, they got a lawyer who wouldn't give them any information, till he received orders from the proper channels. It was no surprise to Rukmini that the proper channels involved the Ministry of External Affairs, from whom the police expected a response in six months. 

Rukmini's head swirled - her life had become a movie plot. She got a tax notice, and her tax consultant has disappeared. Somehow the mafia was involved. What next? Was she going to get a death threat? Or a ransom note with Swaminathan's pinkie as incentive?

Sudha was a sad guest to host. She weeped copiously and whenever Rukmini met her, talked about what a good man Swaminathan was, and how cursed she was to be without a husband. Always the one for action, Rukmini shuddered at these meetings and tried to convince Sudha that she wasn't helpless, just a victim of circumstance. After a few weeks, Rukmini conceded failure; Sudha's refrain was that she wanted to go to her village. She needed money to do so, and the police had closed Swaminathan's account. Lawyers were contacted, and Rukmini arranged for Sudha to have access to the account to make a one-time withdrawal, till the police could complete paperwork to declare Swaminathan legally dead. As she waited outside the bank for Sudha to complete her transaction, she wondered what would become of her tax problem.

So caught up was Rukmini that she didn't realize that even after an hour, Sudha had not emerged from the bank. She rushed inside, irritated with herself for not being vigilant. The poor woman was so frightened of those goons! There was no Sudha in the bank however. Rukmini badgered the teller about Sudha, but she hadn't seen any woman of Sudha's description at her post. Just then, Rukmini spotted a conference of the cleaning ladies by the Ladies bathroom. They were holding up what looked like Sudha's saree. Rukmini was frightened. The cleaning lady couldn't understand Rukmini's fear; after all, what was the big deal? Someone had left a saree, neatly folded in the ladies' room. Mysterious, but not scary. Rukmini immediately went to the Manager, explained as best as she could, and had the police summoned. Meanwhile, they checked Swaminathan's account. The account had been closed, and all the money withdrawn as cash. The teller had verified the signature against records, and it had matched Swaminathan's.

Rukmini spent hours at the police station, explaining what she knew. Obviously, they didn't believe her. Luckily she had visited the police station with Sudha, so they were witnesses to some of what she experienced. Being interrogated as a suspect was exhausting, and she was glad when they finally let her go, because of a technicality that they couldn't grapple with. Rukmini was escorting a woman who as per records, had been dead for the last five years. Her family in the village had confirmed this.

Back home, Rukmini found a folder on a bed. It contained neatly filled forms, in triplicate, for the tax office. All she had to do was sign here, here and here.


  1. wow! my head is spinning... So Sudha and Swaminathan were in it together? Or she wasn't his wife, just merely an accomplice in his crime. And dear Rukmini, she never has a dull moment in her life, does she? Thanks for yet another intriguing short story M! I'm going to make myself a cup of tea and try to come up with a solution, Miss Marple style ;)

    Keep writing. You are good.


  2. Yo shoots. This story was crazy. I only had a beginning - which is Rukmini going to the tax office. And I kept trying to write a story around this; everything felt contrived, or really tame. This was the first time I didn't have an intuitive end and really had to think hard about it. So, I am glad that it still sounds fresh and intriguing.