The Crooked Picture
The sound of footsteps awakened Radhika. She sat up and looked around, but there was no one in the room. "Is that you, Rahul?" she whispered, looking over at her brother's bed. He had not stirred. She reached out and put on the light. Thirty minutes past four, the clock said.
Already she could hear the sound of traffic in the distance. Usually that never disturbed her. Why was she rising so early recently? What was disturbing her? Was it only the thought of having to move out of the house she was used to?
She stared right ahead of her at the framed family photographs on the wall. There! Again the photograph of Dada and his brother in their graduation robes was crooked!
All their lives, Radhika and Rahul and their parents had lived in the double-storeyed house at the crossroads of the main shopping area. It was such a central location that their grandfather had started a restaurant on the ground floor that had done very well and was still run
as a family business. But now the roads were being widened and the building was to be demolished. The family had been offered handsome compensation by the government for this prime land but Radhika had known no other home. What would it be like in some spanking new place?
Their father had had a worried air for a long time and Radhika wondered why. Then one evening, she overheard him saying to her mother, "What do you think? From out of the blue, my second or third cousins, that is, my father's elder brother's grandchildren, have come to know about
the compensation and have written to me asking for their share in it. They seem to think that this is an ancestral property, which belonged to the two brothers jointly."
"Did it?" asked Mrs. Shetty.
"My grandfather gave the elder son another piece of land in the heart of town. His children, my cousins, sold that and went abroad. My father was given this building and he left it to my sister and me. I just can't understand why these cousins are making a claim now."
"Show them your father's will," suggested Mrs. Shetty. "That should clear any doubts about whom the property belongs to."
"I wish it was that easy," said her husband. "They say that the building itself belonged jointly to both brothers, so what we need is not my father's will but my grandfather's and the title deeds, or else we could be forced to split the compensation and then we won't have enough money to take over that place we want to shift the restaurant to."
Radhika moved away from the doorway, wondering how she could help her parents. She had understood one thing from the conversation. If the missing papers were in this house, they would have to find them fast because they had been given sixty days' notice and then the building was to be razed to the ground.
As Radhika helped her mother pack and clear up the accumulated possessions of generations, she found many wonderful things in the cupboards, but there was no time to admire them. "Do you think the will could be hidden somewhere here?" asked Radhika.
"What do you know about that?" said her mother sharply.
"I heard Papa telling you that we have to find his grand-father's will..." Radhika paused, afraid that she would be scolded for eavesdropping.
"Yes, we have to," said her mother thoughtfully. "Well, we have looked among all the official papers and neither the will nor the title deeds are there. Even the bank locker had nothing."
"Do you think it could be in some secret place?" asked Radhika excitedly. "Maybe there is a hidden space behind one of the cupboards, or in the wall..."
Mrs. Shetty smiled and said nothing and Radhika decided that she would search the house from top to bottom in the short time they were left with. When nothing was found and three weeks had passed, Radhika began to fret. Where could Papa's Dada have kept the papers? If they were
not in any of the official places, they had to be somewhere he had thought safe but no one else knew about.' She gave it a great deal of thought but no answers came.
Somewhere around that time, Radhika began to get disturbed at night by the feeling that there was someone in the room-someone moving around and talking.
"Did you come into my room last night?" she asked her mother.
"I wanted to..." said Mrs. Shetty. "I was busy in the study..." Then she stopped. "That is strange. I heard the sound of somebody talking from your room and I wanted to check, but when it was not repeated, I didn't bother. I thought it may have come from outside."
The next night, Radhika heard a crash and she jumped up. When she put on the light, she saw that one of the pictures that hung on the wall opposite her bed had fallen and the glass had smashed. She collected the glass pieces in the morning and hung the picture again. But somehow, whenever she looked up, the picture was crooked.
Maybe without the weight of the glass it had become unstable, she told herself now. The light was still on and Radhika was debating whether she should go back to sleep or revise for her Mathematics test when suddenly, she felt something cool on her arm. Nothing moved but
the cloth of her nightdress, like someone had touched it in passing. Then, straight ahead, Dada's picture began to swing to and fro on the wall, almost like a pendulum. The other pictures remained still and there was no breeze to explain the movement.
Radhika's hair stood on end. "Who is it?" she whispered hoarsely. "What do you want?"
The movement stopped but the picture stayed crooked.
Radhika jumped up. She grabbed the picture and turned it over. 'Maybe the will is in here,' she thought excitedly.
She began to dismantle the frame.
By 5.30, it lay in segments on her bed, but there was nothing behind the photograph, nothing but old hardboard and some paper as padding. As best as she could, she reassembled it and hung it back on the wall.
"You are misleading me," she said accusingly. "Wills are always hidden in the backs of pictures or in secret drawers-where is the one I am searching for?"
She turned and was getting back into bed when there was a sound behind her. She spun around. The picture was at an angle, swinging as though someone was playing a game with it.
Radhika looked hard at the photograph wondering what was it trying to tell her. Then it struck her. "Ma," she
cried, running out of the room and forgetting how early it was, "Ma, wasn't Dada's brother much older than him?"
Mrs. Shetty sat up in bed groggily and looked at her daughter in amazement. "Why are you up so early? What are you talking about, Radhu?"
"Ma, I have figured it out," said Radhika excitedly, waving the photo frame in the air. "All this time, I thought that the photograph was of the two brothers. But just now I realized that both of them are in graduation robes. So one is Dada, but who is the other?" Again, she opened up the frame and both of them looked at the rear of the photograph. On it was written in faded black ink, "Nagesh and I, Graduation, 1945."
Mr. Shetty entered just then from his morning walk. "I remember Uncle Nagesh. He was my father's best friend. He went on to do Law after graduation, and used to advise Dada about the business and all the legal stuff."
"That is it!" cried Radhika. "That was what Dada had been trying to tell me! He wanted us to contact his friend Nagesh. Yes, I am sure!"
"But Uncle Nagesh died two months before Dada!" said Mr. Shetty. "He met with an accident."
"It can't be!" muttered Radhika. "Someone has been trying to tell me something about this picture, that is why it is always crooked."
Mr. Shetty listened as she told him about her search for the will but did not say anything. Radhika watched his serious face with a sinking heart. 'He does not believe a word I have said,' she thought.
But that afternoon, when Radhika came back from school, there was a surprise in store for her. A stranger was at the dining table talking seriously to her parents as
they ate their lunch. Papa looked up cheerfully. "This is Uncle Nagesh's son Advocate Prakash Rao," he said to Radhika. "He followed his father's footsteps and today, he has all the documents I need. They were in his office all the time."
Radhika could not stop herself. She jumped out of her chair and ran to hug her parents. "I knew it! I knew it!" she cried.
"But how did you know?" asked Prakash Rao. "What made you come to me?"
"Dada told me," Radhika whispered, and neither parent contradicted her.
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